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The Adventures of Louis de Rougemont By Louis de Rougemont Characters: 31821

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Easier travel-The girls improve-How the blacks received them-A large hut-A dainty dish-What might have been-The girls decorate their home-Bruno as a performer-"A teacher of swimming"-How we fought depression-Castles in the air-A strange concert-Trapping wild-cats-The girls' terror of solitude-Fervent prayer-A goose-skin football-How I made drums.

At length we came to a stately stream that flowed in a NNE. direction to Cambridge Gulf. This, I believe, is the Ord River. Here we constructed a catamaran, and were able to travel easily and luxuriously upon it, always spending the night ashore. This catamaran was exceptionally large, and long enough to admit of our standing upright on it with perfect safety. After crossing the King Leopold Ranges we struck a level country, covered with rich, tall grass, and well though not thickly wooded. The rough granite ranges, by the way, we found rich in alluvial and reef tin. Gradually the girls grew stronger and brighter. At this time they were, as you know, clad in their strange "sack" garments of bird-skins; but even before we reached the Ord River these began to shrink to such an extent that the wearers were eventually wrapped as in a vice, and were scarcely able to walk. Yamba then made some make-shift garments out of opossum skins.

As the girls' spirits rose higher and higher I was assailed by other misgivings. I do not know quite how the idea arose, but somehow they imagined that their protector's home was a more or less civilised settlement, with regular houses, furnished with pianos and other appurtenances of civilised life! So great was their exuberance that I could not find it in my heart to tell them that they were merely going among my own friendly natives, whose admiration and affection for myself only differentiated them from the other cannibal blacks of unknown Australia.

When first I saw these poor girls, in the glow of the firelight, and in their rude shelter of boughs, they looked like old women, so haggard and emaciated were they; but now, as the spacious catamaran glided down the stately Ord, they gradually resumed their youthful looks, and were very comely indeed. The awful look of intolerable anguish that haunted their faces had gone, and they laughed and chatted with perfect freedom. They were like birds just set at liberty. They loved Bruno from the very first; and he loved them. He showed his love, too, in a very practical manner, by going hunting on his own account and bringing home little ducks to his new mistresses. Quite of his own accord, also, he would go through his whole repertoire of tumbling tricks; and whenever the girls returned to camp from their little wanderings, with bare legs bleeding from the prickles, Bruno would lick their wounds and manifest every token of sympathy and affection.

Of course, after leaving the native encampment, it was several weeks before we made the Ord River, and then we glided down that fine stream for many days, spearing fish in the little creeks, and generally amusing ourselves, time being no object. I have, by the way, seen enormous shoals of fish in this river-mainly mullet-which can only be compared to the vast swarms of salmon seen in the rivers of British Columbia.

We came across many isolated hills on our way to the river, and these delayed us very considerably, because we had to go round them. Here, again, there was an abundance of food, but the girls did not take very kindly to the various meats, greatly preferring the roots which Yamba collected. We came upon fields of wild rice, which, apart from any other consideration, lent great beauty to the landscape, covering the country with a pinkish-white blossom. We forced ourselves to get used to the rice, although it was very insipid without either salt or sugar.

Sometimes, during our down-river journey, we were obliged to camp for days and nights without making any progress. This, however, was only after the river became tidal and swept up against us.

When at length we would put off again in a homeward direction, I sang many little chansons to my fair companions. The one that pleased them most, having regard to our position, commenced-

"Filez, filez, mon beau navire,

Car la bonheur m'attend la bas."

Whenever the girls appeared to be brooding over the terrible misfortunes they had undergone, I would tell them my own story, which deeply affected them. They would often weep with tender sympathy over the series of catastrophes that had befallen me. They sang to me, too-chiefly hymns, however-such as "Rock of Ages," "Nearer, my God, to Thee," "There is a Happy Land," and many others. We were constantly meeting new tribes of natives, and for the most part were very well received. Bruno, however, always evinced an unconquerable aversion for the blacks. He was ever kind to the children, though mostly in disgrace with the men-until they knew him.

When at length we reached my own home in Cambridge Gulf, the natives gave us a welcome so warm that in some measure at least it mitigated the girls' disappointment at the absence of civilisation.

You see my people were delighted when they saw me bringing home, as they thought, two white wives; "for now," they said, "the great white chief will certainly remain among us for ever." There were no wars going on just then, and so the whole tribe gave themselves up to festivities.

The blacks were also delighted to see the girls, though of course they did not condescend to greet them, they being mere women, and therefore beneath direct notice.

I ought to mention here, that long before we reached my home we were constantly provided with escorts of natives from the various tribes we met. These people walked along the high banks or disported themselves in the water like amphibians, greatly to the delight of the girls. We found the banks of the Ord very thickly populated, and frequently camped at night with different parties of natives. Among these we actually came across some I had fought against many months previously.

As we neared my home, some of our escort sent up smoke-signals to announce our approach-the old and wonderful "Morse code" of long puffs, short puffs, spiral puffs, and the rest; the variations being produced by damping down the fire or fires with green boughs. Yamba also sent up signals. The result was that crowds of my own people came out in their catamarans to meet us. My reception, in fact, was like that accorded a successful Roman General. Needless to say, there was a series of huge corroborees held in our honour. The first thing I was told was that my hut had been burnt down in my absence (fires are of quite common occurrence); and so, for the first few days after our arrival, the girls were housed in a temporary grass shelter, pending the construction of a substantial hut built of logs. Now, as logs were very unusual building material, a word of explanation is necessary.

The girls never conquered their fear of the blacks-even my blacks; and therefore, in order that they might feel secure from night attack (a purely fanciful idea, of course), I resolved to build a hut which should be thoroughly spear-proof. Bark was also used extensively, and there was a thatch of grass. When finished, our new residence consisted of three fair-sized rooms-one for the girls to sleep in, one for Yamba and myself, and a third as a general "living room,"-though, of course, we lived mainly en plain air. I also arranged a kind of veranda in front of the door, and here we frequently sat in the evening, singing, chatting about distant friends; the times that were, and the times that were to be.

Let the truth be told. When these poor young ladies came to my hut their faces expressed their bitter disappointment, and we all wept together the greater part of the night. Afterwards they said how sorry they were thus to have given way; and they begged me not to think them ungrateful. However, they soon resigned themselves to the inevitable, buoyed up by the inexhaustible optimism of youth; and they settled down to live as comfortably as possible among the blacks until some fortuitous occurrence should enable us all to leave these weird and remote regions. The girls were in constant terror of being left alone-of being stolen, in fact. They had been told how the natives got wives by stealing them; and they would wake up in the dead of the night screaming in the most heart-rending manner, with a vague, nameless terror. Knowing that the ordinary food must be repulsive to my new and delightful companions, I went back to a certain island, where, during my journey from the little sand-spit to the main, I had hidden a quantity of corn beneath a cairn.

This corn I now brought back to my Gulf home, and planted for the use of the girls. They always ate the corn green in the cob, with a kind of vegetable "milk" that exudes from one of the palm-trees. When they became a little more reconciled to their new surroundings, they took a great interest in their home, and would watch me for hours as I tried to fashion rude tables and chairs and other articles of furniture. Yamba acted as cook and waitress, but after a time the work was more than she could cope with unaided. You see, she had to find the food as well as cook it. The girls, who were, of course, looked upon as my wives by the tribe (this was their greatest protection), knew nothing about root-hunting, and therefore they did not attempt to accompany Yamba on her daily expeditions. I was in something of a dilemma. If I engaged other native women to help Yamba, they also would be recognised as my wives. Finally, I decided there was nothing left for me but to acquire five more helpmates, who were of the greatest assistance to Yamba.

Of course, the constant topic of conversation was our ultimate escape overland; and to this end we made little expeditions to test the girls' powers of endurance. I suggested, during one of our conversations, that we should either make for Port Essington, or else go overland in search of Port Darwin; but the girls were averse to this, owing to their terror of the natives.

Little did I dream, however, that at a place called Cossack, on the coast of the North-West Division of Western Australia, there was a settlement of pearl-fishers; so that, had I only known it, civilisation-more or less-was comparatively near. Cossack, it appears, was the pearling rendezvous on the western side of the continent, much as Somerset was on the north-east, at the extremity of the Cape York Peninsula.

My tongue or pen can never tell what those young ladies were to me in my terrible exile. They would recite passages from Sir Walter Scott's works-the "Tales of a Grandfather" I remember in particular; and so excellent was their memory that they were also able to give me many beautiful passages from Byron and Shakespeare. I had always had a great admiration for Shakespeare, and the girls and myself would frequently act little scenes from "The Tempest," as being the most appropriate to our circumstances. The girls' favourite play, however, was Pericles, "Prince of Tyre." I took the part of the King, and when I called for my robes Yamba would bring some indescribable garments of emu skin, with a gravity that was comical in the extreme. I, on my part, recited passages from the French classics-particularly the Fables of La Fontaine, in French; which language the girls knew fairly well.

And we had other amusements. I made some fiddles out of that peculiar Australian wood which splits into thin strips. The strings of the bow we made out of my own hair; whilst those for the instrument itself were obtained from the dried intestines of the native wild-cat.

We lined the hut with the bark of the paper-tree, which had the appearance of a reddish-brown drapery.

The native women made us mats out of the wild flax; and the girls themselves decorated their room daily with beautiful flowers, chiefly lilies. They also busied themselves in making garments of various kinds from opossum skins. They even made some sort of costume for me, but I could not wear it on account of the irritation it caused.

The natives would go miles to get fruit for the girls-wild figs, and a kind of nut about the size of a walnut, which, when ripe, was filled with a delicious substance looking and tasting like raspberry jam. There was also a queer kind of apple which grew upon creepers in the sand, and of which we ate only the outer part raw, cooking the large kernel which is found inside. I do not know the scientific name of any of these things.

I often asked the girls whether they had altogether despaired in the clutches of the cannibal chief; and they told me that although they often attempted to take their own lives, yet they had intervals of bright hope-so strong is the optimism of youth. My apparition, they told me, seemed like a dream to them.

The natives, of course, were constantly moving their camp from place to place, leaving us alone for weeks at a time; but we kept pretty stationary, and were visited by other friendly tribes, whom we entertained (in accordance with my consistent policy) with songs, plays, recitations, and acrobatic performances.

In these latter Bruno took a great part, and nothing delighted the blacks more than to see him put his nose on the ground and go head over heels time after time with great gravity and persistency. But the effect of Bruno's many tricks faded into the veriest insignificance beside that produced by his bark. You must understand that the native dogs do not bark at all, but simply give vent to a melancholy howl, not unlike that of the hyena, I believe. Bruno's bark, be it said, has even turned the tide of battle, for he was always in the wars in the most literal sense of the phrase. These things, combined with his great abilities as a hunter, often prompted the blacks to put in a demand that Bruno should be made over to them altogether. Now, this request was both awkward and inconvenient to answer; but I got out of it by telling them-since they believed in a curious kind of metempsychosis-that Bruno was my brother, whose soul and being he possessed! His bark, I pretended, was a perfectly intelligible language, and this they believed the more readily when they saw me speak to the dog and ask him to do various things, such as fetching and carrying; tumbling, walking on his hind-legs, &c. &c. But even this argument did not suffice to overcome the covetousness of some tribes, and I was then obliged to assure them confidentially that he was a relative of the Sun, and therefore if I parted with him he would bring all manner of most dreadful curses down upon his new owner or owners. Whenever we went rambling I had to keep Bruno as near me as possible, because we sometimes came across natives whose first impulse, not knowing that he was a dog, was to spear him. Without doubt the many cross-breeds between Bruno and the native dogs will yet be found by Australian explorers.

Our hut was about three-quarters of a mile away from the sea, and in the morning the very first thing the girls and I did was to go down to the beach arm-in-arm and have a delicious swim.

They very soon became expert swimmers, by the way, under my tuition. Frequently I would go out spearing and netting fish, my principal captures being mullet. We nearly always had fish of some sort for breakfast, including shell-fish; and we would send the women long distances for wild honey. Water was the only liquid we drank at breakfast, and with it Yamba served a very appetising dish of lily-buds and roots. We used to steam the wild rice-which I found growing almost everywhere, but never more than two feet high-in primitive ovens, which were merely adapted ants' nests. The material that formed these nests, we utilised as flooring for our house. We occasi

onally received quantities of wild figs from the inland natives in exchange for shell and other ornaments which they did not possess. I also discovered a cereal very like barley, which I ground up and made into cakes. The girls never attempted to cook anything, there being no civilised appliances of any kind. Food was never boiled.

From all this you would gather that we were as happy as civilised beings could possibly be under the circumstances. Nevertheless-and my heart aches as I recall those times-we had periodical fits of despondency, which filled us with acute and intolerable agony.

These periods came with curious regularity almost once a week. At such times I at once instituted sports, such as swimming matches, races on the beach, swings, and acrobatic performances on the horizontal bars. Also Shakespearian plays, songs (the girls taught me most of Moore's melodies), and recitations both grave and gay. The fits of despondency were usually most severe when we had been watching the everlasting sea for hours, and had perhaps at last caught sight of a distant sail without being able to attract the attention of those on board. The girls, too, suffered from fits of nervous apprehension lest I should go away from them for any length of time. They never had complete confidence even in my friendly natives. Naturally we were inseparable, we three. We went for long rambles together, and daily inspected our quaint little corn-garden. At first my charming companions evinced the most embarrassing gratitude for what I had done, but I earnestly begged of them never even to mention the word to me. The little I had done, I told them, was my bare and obvious duty, and was no more than any other man worthy of the name, would have done.

In our more hopeful moments we would speak of the future, and these poor girls would dwell upon the thrill of excitement that would go all through the civilised world, when their story and mine should first be made known to the public.

For they felt certain their adventures were quite unique in the annals of civilisation, and they loved to think they would have an opportunity of "lionising" me when we should return to Europe. They would not hear me when I protested that such a course would, from my point of view, be extremely unpleasant and undignified-even painful.

Every day we kept a good look-out for passing ships; and from twenty to forty catamarans were always stationed on the beach in readiness to take us out to sea should there be any hope of a rescue. As my knowledge of English was at this time not very perfect, the girls took it upon themselves to improve me, and I made rapid progress under their vivacious tuition. They would promptly correct me in the pronunciation of certain vowels when I read aloud from the only book I possessed-the Anglo-French Testament I have already mentioned. They were, by the way, exceedingly interested in the records of my daily life, sensations, &c., which I had written in blood in the margins of my little Bible whilst on the island in Timor Sea. About this time I tried to make some ink, having quill pens in plenty from the bodies of the wild geese; but the experiment was a failure.

Both girls, as I have already hinted, had wonderful memories, and could recite numberless passages which they had learnt at school. Blanche, the elder girl, would give her sister and myself lessons in elocution; and I should like to say a word to teachers and children on the enormous utility of committing something to memory-whether poems, songs, or passages from historical or classical works. It is, of course, very unlikely that any one who reads these lines will be cast away as we were, but still one never knows what the future has in store; and I have known pioneers and prospectors who have ventured into the remoter wilds, and emerged therefrom years after, to give striking testimony as to the usefulness of being able to sing or recite in a loud voice.

Sometimes we would have an improvised concert, each of us singing whatever best suited the voice; or we would all join together in a rollicking glee. One day, I remember, I started off with-

"à notre heureux séjour,"

but almost immediately I realised how ridiculously inappropriate the words were. Still, I struggled on through the first verse, but to my amazement, before I could start the second, the girls joined in with "God Save the Queen," which has exactly the same air. The incident is one that should appeal to all British people, including even her Most Gracious Majesty herself. As the girls' voices rose, half sobbingly, in the old familiar air, beloved of every English-speaking person, tears fairly ran down their fair but sad young faces, and I could not help being struck with the pathos of the scene.

But all things considered, these were really happy days for all of us, at any rate in comparison with those we had previously experienced. We had by this time quite an orchestra of reed flutes and the fiddles aforesaid, whose strings were of gut procured from the native wild-cat-a very little fellow, by the way, about the size of a fair-sized rat; I found him everywhere. These cats were great thieves, and only roamed about at night. I trapped them in great numbers by means of an ingenious native arrangement of pointed sticks of wood, which, while providing an easy entrance, yet confronted the outgoing cat with a formidable chevaux-de-frise. The bait I used was meat in an almost putrid condition.

I could not handle the prisoners in the morning, because they scratched and bit quite savagely; I therefore forked them out with a spear. As regards their own prey, they waged perpetual warfare against the native rats. The skin of these cats was beautifully soft, and altogether they were quite leopards in miniature. Best of all, they made excellent eating, the more so in that their flesh was almost the only meat dish that had not the eternal flavour of the eucalyptus leaf, which all our other "joints" possessed. The girls never knew that they were eating cats, to say nothing about rats. In order to save their feelings, I told them that both "dishes" were squirrels!

My hair at this time was even longer than the girls' own, so it is no wonder that it provided bows for the fiddles. My companions took great delight in dressing my absurdly long tresses, using combs which I had made out of porcupines' quills.

Our contentment was a great source of joy to Yamba, who was now fully convinced that I would settle down among her people for ever.

The blacks were strangely affected by our singing. Any kind of civilised music or singing was to them anathema. What they liked best was the harsh uproar made by pieces of wood beaten together, or the weird jabbering and chanting that accompanied a big feast. Our singing they likened to the howling of the dingoes! They were sincere, hardly complimentary.

Elsewhere I have alluded to the horror the girls had of being left alone. Whenever I went off with the men on a hunting expedition I left them in charge of my other women-folk, who were thoroughly capable of looking after them. I also persuaded the natives to keep some distance away from our dwelling, particularly when they were about to hold a cannibal feast, so that the girls were never shocked by such a fearful sight. Certainly they had known of cannibalism in their old camp, but I told them that my own people were a superior race of natives, who were not addicted to this loathsome practice.

Although we had long since lost count of the days, we always set aside one day in every seven and recognised it as Sunday, when we held a kind of service in our spacious hut. Besides the girls, Yamba, and myself, only our own women-folk were admitted, because I was careful never to attempt to proselytise any of the natives, or wean them from their ancient beliefs. The girls were religious in the very best sense of the term, and they knew the Old and New Testaments almost by heart. They read the Lessons, and I confess they taught me a good deal about religion which I had not known previously. Blanche would read aloud the most touching and beautiful passages from the Bible; and even as I write I can recall her pale, earnest face, with its pathetic expression and her low, musical voice, as she dwelt upon passages likely to console and strengthen us in our terrible position. The quiet little discussions we had together on theological subjects settled, once and for all, many questions that had previously vexed me a great deal.

Both girls were devoted adherents of the Church of England, and could repeat most of the Church services entirely from memory. They wanted to do a little missionary work among the blacks, but I gently told them I thought this inadvisable, as any rupture in our friendly relations with the natives would have been quite fatal-if not to our lives, at least to our chances of reaching civilisation. Moreover, my people were not by any means without a kind of religion of their own. They believed in the omnipotence of a Great Spirit in whose hands their destinies rested; and him they worshipped with much the same adoration which Christians give to God. The fundamental difference was that the sentiment animating them was not love, but fear: propitiation rather than adoration.

We sang the usual old hymns at our Sunday services, and I soon learned to sing them myself. On my part, I taught the girls such simple hymns as the one commencing "Une nacelle en silence," which I had learnt at Sunday-school in Switzerland. It is interesting to note that this was Bruno's favourite air. Poor Bruno! he took more or less kindly to all songs-except the Swiss j?dellings, which he simply detested. When I started one of these plaintive ditties Bruno would first protest by barking his loudest, and if I persisted, he would simply go away in disgust to some place where he could not hear the hated sounds. On Sunday evening we generally held a prayer-service in the hut, and at such times offered up most fervent supplications for delivery.

Often I have seen these poor girls lifting up their whole souls in prayer, quite oblivious for the moment of their surroundings, until recalled to a sense of their awful positions by the crash of an unusually large wave on the rocks.

The girls knew no more of Australian geography than I did; and when I mention that I merely had a vague idea that the great cities of the continent-Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, and Melbourne-all lay in a southerly direction, you may imagine how dense was my ignorance of the great island. I am now the strongest possible advocate of a sound geographical training in schools.

On ordinary days we indulged in a variety of games, the principal one being a form of "rounders." I made a ball out of opossum skin, stuffed with the light soft bark of the paper-tree, and stitched with gut. We used a yam-stick to strike it with. My native women attendants often joined in the fun, and our antics provided a vast amount of amusement for the rest of the tribe. The girls taught me cricket, and in due time I tried to induce the blacks to play the British national game, but with little success. We made the necessary bats and stumps out of hard acacia, which I cut down with my tomahawk. The natives themselves, however, made bats much better than mine, simply by whittling flat their waddies; and they soon became expert batsmen. But unfortunately they failed to see why they should run after the ball, especially when they had knocked it a very great distance away. Running about in this manner, they said, was only fit work for women, and was quite beneath their dignity. Yamba and I fielded, but soon found ourselves unequal to the task, owing to the enormous distances we had to travel in search of the ball. Therefore we soon abandoned the cricket, and took up football, which was very much more successful.

We had a nice large football made of soft goose-skin stuffed with the paper bark; and in considering our game you must always bear in mind that boots or footgear of any kind were quite unknown. The great drawback of football, from the native point of view, was that it entailed so much exertion, which could be otherwise expended in a far more profitable and practical manner. They argued that if they put the exertion requisite for a game of football into a hunt for food, they would have enough meat to last them for many days. It was, of course, utterly impossible to bring them round to my view of sports and games. With regard to the abandoned cricket, they delighted in hitting the ball and in catching it-oh! they were wonderfully expert at this-but as to running after the ball, this was quite impossible.

About this time the girls showed me the steps of an Irish jig, which I quickly picked up and soon became quite an adept, much to the delight of the natives, who never tired of watching my gyrations. I kept them in a constant state of wonderment, so that even my very hair-now about three feet long-commanded their respect and admiration!

Sometimes I would waltz with the younger girl, whilst her sister whistled an old familiar air. When I danced, the blacks would squat in a huge circle around me; those in the front rank keeping time by beating drums that I had made and presented to them. The bodies of the drums were made from sections of trees which I found already hollowed out by the ants. These wonderful little insects would bore through and through the core of the trunk, leaving only the outer shell, which soon became light and dry. I then scraped out with my tomahawk any of the rough inner part that remained, and stretched over the ends of each section a pair of the thinnest wallaby skins I could find; these skins were held taut by sinews from the tail of a kangaroo. I tried emu-skins for the drum-heads, but found they were no good, as they soon became perforated when I scraped them.

Never a day passed but we eagerly scanned the glistening sea in the hope of sighting a passing sail. One vessel actually came right into our bay from the north, but she suddenly turned right back on the course she had come. She was a cutter-rigged vessel, painted a greyish-white, and of about fifty tons burden. She was probably a Government vessel-possibly the Claud Hamilton, a South Australian revenue boat stationed at Port Darwin-as she flew the British ensign at the mast-head; whereas a pearler would have flown it at the peak. The moment we caught sight of that ship I am afraid we lost our heads. We screamed aloud with excitement, and ran like mad people up and down the beach, waving branches and yelling like maniacs. I even waved wildly my long, luxuriant hair. Unfortunately, the wind was against us, blowing from the WSW. We were assisted in our frantic demonstration by quite a crowd of natives with branches; and I think it possible that, even if we had been seen, the people on the ship would have mistaken our efforts for a more hostile demonstration.

When it was too late, and the ship almost out of sight, I suddenly realised that I had made another fatal mistake in having the blacks with me. Had I and the two girls been alone on the beach I feel sure the officers of the ship would have detected our white skins through their glasses. But, indeed, we may well have escaped notice altogether.

There was a terrible scene when the supposed Government vessel turned back on her course and passed swiftly out of sight. The girls threw themselves face downwards on the beach, and wept wildly and hysterically in the very depths of violent despair. I can never hope to tell you what a bitter and agonising experience it was-the abrupt change from delirious excitement at seeing a ship steering right into our bay, to the despairing shock of beholding it turn away from us even quicker than it came.

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