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The Adventures of Louis de Rougemont By Louis de Rougemont Characters: 28567

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The girls in sun-bonnets-I advise the blacks-Fatal excitement-Last moments-The catastrophe-I cannot realise it-A fearful contrast-"Only a withered flower"-Bruno's grief-Steering by the ant-hills-Avoiding the forests-Myriads of rats-The flowing of the tide-Rats and the native children-Clouds of locusts-Fish from the clouds.

The weeks gradually grew into months, and still we were apparently no nearer civilisation than ever. Again and again we made expeditions to see whether it were possible for the girls to reach Port Darwin overland; but, unfortunately, I had painted for them in such vivid colours the tortures of thirst which I had undergone on my journey towards Cape York, that they were always afraid to leave what was now their home to go forth unprovided into the unknown. Sometimes a fit of depression so acute would come over them, that they would shut themselves up in their room and not show themselves for a whole day.

We had a very plentiful supply of food, but one thing the girls missed very much was milk,-which of course, was an unheard-of luxury in these regions. We had a fairly good substitute, however, in a certain creamy and bitter-tasting juice which we obtained from a palm-tree. This "milk," when we got used to it, we found excellent when used with the green corn. The corn-patch was carefully fenced in from kangaroos, and otherwise taken care of; and I may here remark that I made forks and plates of wood for my fair companions, and also built them a proper elevated bed, with fragrant eucalyptus leaves and grass for bedding. For the cold nights there was a covering of skin rugs, with an overall quilt made from the wild flax.

The girls made themselves sun-bonnets out of palm-leaves; while their most fashionable costume was composed of the skins of birds and marsupials, cunningly stitched together by Yamba. During the cold winter months of July and August we camped at a more sheltered spot, a little to the north, where there was a range of mountains, whose principal peak was shaped like a sugar-loaf.

I frequently accompanied the warriors on their fighting expeditions, but did not use my stilts, mainly because we never again met so powerful an enemy as we had battled with on that memorable occasion. My people were often victorious, but once or twice we got beaten by reason of the other side having drawn first blood. My natives took their reverses with a very good grace, and were never very depressed or inclined to view me with less favour because of their want of success. We were always the best of friends, and I even ventured gradually to wean them from cannibalism.

I knew they ate human flesh, not because they felt hungry, but because they hoped to acquire the additional valour of the warrior they were eating. I therefore diplomatically pointed out to them that, in the first place, all kinds of dreadful diseases which the dead man might have had would certainly be communicated to them, and in this I was providentially borne out by a strange epidemic. The second consideration I mentioned was that by making anklets, bracelets, and other ornaments out of the dead braves' hair, they could acquire for themselves in a much more efficacious manner the valour and other estimable qualities of the departed warrior.

Whilst I was on this subject I also advised them strongly and impressively never wantonly to attack white men, but rather to make friendly advances towards them. I often wonder now whether explorers who follow in my track will notice the absence of cannibalism and the friendly overtures of the natives.

Two half painful, half merry years, passed by. We had seen several ships passing out at sea, and on more than one occasion Yamba and I, taught by previous lessons, had jumped into our canoe and pulled for many miles in the direction of the sail, leaving the girls watching us eagerly from the shore. But it was always useless, and we were compelled to return without having accomplished our purpose; we merely inflicted additional pain on ourselves.

I now come to what is possibly the most painful episode of my career, and one which I find it impossible to discuss, or write about, without very real pain. Even at this distance of time I cannot recall that tragic day without bitter tears coming into my eyes, and being afflicted with a gnawing remorse which can never completely die in my heart. Do not, I beg of you, in considering my actions, ask me why I did not do this, or that, or the other. In terrible crises I believe we become almost mechanical, and are not responsible for what we do. I have often thought that, apart from our own volition, each set of nerves and fibres in our being has a will of its own.

Well, one gloriously fine day we sighted a ship going very slowly across the gulf, several miles away. Would to God we had never seen her! We were thrown, as usual, into a perfect frenzy of wild excitement, and the girls dashed here and there like people possessed. Of course, I determined to intercept the vessel if possible, and the girls at once expressed their intention of coming with me. I attempted earnestly to dissuade them from this, but they wept pitifully and implored me to let them come. They were filled with an ungovernable longing to get away-the same longing, perhaps, that animates a caged bird who, although well fed and kindly treated, soars away without a moment's hesitation when an opportunity occurs. Quite against my better judgment, I let them come. Every second was precious and every argument futile. While Yamba was getting ready the canoe I rushed from one group of natives to the other, coaxing, promising, imploring. I pointed out to them that they could propel their catamarans faster than I could paddle my canoe; and I promised them that if I reached the ship I would send them presents from the white man's land of tomahawks and knives; gaily coloured cloths and gorgeous jewellery. But they were only too ready to help me without any of these inducements; and in an incredibly short time at least twenty catamarans, each containing one or two men, put off from the shore in my wake and made directly towards the ship, whilst I struck off at a tangent so as to head her off. I now see that without doubt we must have presented a very formidable appearance to the people on the vessel as we paddled over the sunlit seas, racing one another, yelling, and gesticulating like madmen. Of course, the people on board quite naturally thought they were being attacked by a savage flotilla. But in the excitement of the moment I never gave this a thought. Had I only left my faithful natives behind all might have been well. Yamba and I kept the canoe well ahead, and we reached the neighbourhood of the ship first.

As we approached, the excitement of the girls was painful to witness. They could scarcely contain themselves for joy; and as I forcibly prevented them from standing up in the frail canoe, they contented themselves with frantically waving their hands and screaming themselves hoarse.

Nearing the vessel I was surprised to see the top-sail being hoisted, but, strange to say, the crew kept well out of sight. This was easy to do, considering the spread of canvas. She was not a Malay vessel, being decidedly of European rig. She was only a small craft, of perhaps ten or fifteen tons, with one mast carrying a main-sail and stay-sail, in addition to the top-sail that had been hoisted as we approached. To us, however, she was a "ship." We were now about one hundred and fifty yards away, and I suddenly leapt to my feet and coo-eed several times. Still no one showed himself, and not a soul was visible on board. My own joyful excitement speedily turned to heart-sickness, alarm, and even terror. By this time the flotilla of catamarans was close behind me; and just as I was about to sit down and take to my paddle again, so as to advance still closer to the vessel, the loud report of a gun was heard; and then-well, what followed next is exceedingly difficult for me to describe accurately. Whether I was wounded by the shot, or whether the girls suddenly stood up, causing me to lose my balance and fall on the side of the canoe and cut my thigh, I do not know.

At any rate, I crashed heavily overboard in spite of Yamba's desperate attempt to save me. The next moment I had forgotten all about the ship, and was only conscious of Yamba swimming close by my side, and occasionally gripping my long hair when she thought I was going under. We righted the canoe and climbed in as quickly as we could. I think I was dazed and incapable of any coherent thought. As I collapsed in the bottom of the canoe, I suddenly realised that Yamba and I were alone; and sitting up, I gasped, "The girls, the girls! Where are they? Oh, where are they? We must save them!"

Alas! they had sunk beneath the smiling waves, and they never rose again. True, they were expert swimmers, but I suppose the terrible excitement, followed by the sudden shock, was too much for them, and as they sank for the first time they probably clung to each other in the embrace of death. God knows best. Perhaps it was better that He should take my loved ones from me than that they should be dragged through the terrible years that followed.

But for a long time I utterly refused to believe that my darlings were lost-they were truly as sisters to me; and Yamba and I and the natives dived for them time after time, searching the sea in every direction. But at length, seeing that I was exhausted, Yamba forcibly detained me, and told me that I myself would inevitably drown if I went into the water again. The wound in my thigh (I am uncertain to this day whether it was the result of the gun-shot or mere collision with the rough gunwale of the canoe) was bleeding freely; and as it was also pointed out to me that there was a very strong and swift current at this spot, I allowed myself to be taken away without any further opposition.

I simply could not realise my bereavement. It seemed too terrible and stunning to think, that when God had provided me with these two charming companions, who were all in all to me every moment of my existence, as a consolation for the horrors I had gone through-it seemed impossible, I say, that they should be snatched from me just at the very moment when salvation seemed within our reach. Every detail of the incident passed before my mental vision, but I could not grasp it-I could not seem to think it real. I can never explain it. These poor girls were more to me than loving sisters. They turned the black night of my desolate existence into sunshine, and they were perpetually devising some sweet little surprise-some little thing which would please me and add additional brightness to our daily lives. This dreadful thing happened many years ago, but to this day, and to the day of my death, I feel sure I shall suffer agonies of grief and remorse (I blame myself for not having forbidden them to go in the canoe) for this terrible catastrophe.

After we returned to the land, I haunted the sea-shore for hours, hoping to see the bodies rise to the surface; but I watched in vain. When at length the full magnitude of the disaster dawned upon me, despair-the utter abandonment of despair-filled my soul for the first time. Never again would my sweet companions cheer my solitary moments. Never again would I see their loved forms, or hear their low, musical voices. Never again would we play together like children on the sand. Never again would we build aerial castles about the bright and happy future that was in store for us, looking back from the bourne of civilisation on our fantastic adventures. Never again should we compare our lot with that of Robinson Crusoe or the Swiss Family Robinson.

My bright dream had passed away, and with a sudden revulsion of feeling I realised that the people around me were repulsive cannibals, among whom I was apparently doomed to pass the remainder of my hideous days-a fate infinitely more terrible than that of joining my darlings beneath the restless waves, that beat for ever on that lonely shore. I was a long time before I could even bring myself to be thankful for Yamba's escape, which was no doubt dreadfully ungrateful of me. I can only ask your pity and sympathy in my terrible affliction. What made my sorrow and remorse the more poignant, was the reflection that if I had retained one atom of my self-possession I would never have dreamed of approaching the little European vessel at the head of a whole flotilla of catamarans, filled with yelling and gesticulating savages. As to the people on board the vessel, I exonerated them then, and I exonerate them now, from all blame. Had you or I been on board, we should probably have done exactly the same thing under the circumstances.

Clearly the only reasonable plan of action was to have gone alone; but then, at critical times, even the wisest among us is apt to lose his head. God knows I paid dearly enough for my lack of judgment on this melancholy occasion.

My wound was not at all serious, and, thanks to Yamba's care, it quickly healed, and I was able to get about once more.

But I ought to tell you that when we returned I could not bear to go into our hut, where every little bunch of withered flowers, every garment of skin, and every implement, proclaimed aloud the stunning loss I had sustained. No, I went back direct to the camp of the natives, and remained among them until the moment came for my departure. I think it was in the soft, still nights that I felt it most. I wept till I was as weak as a baby. Oh the torments of remorse I endured-the fierce resentment against an all-wise Providence! "Alone! alone! alone!" I would shriek in an agony of wretchedness; "Gone! gone! gone! Oh, come back to me, come back to me, I cannot live here now."

And I soon realised that it was impossible for me to remain there any longer. There was much weeping and lamentation among the native women, but I guessed it was not so much on account of the poor girls, as out of sympathy for the loss the great white chief had sustained. I think Yamba went among them, and pointed out the magnitude of the disaster; otherwise they would have failed to grasp it

. What was the loss of a woman or two to them? I felt, I say, that I could not settle down in my hut again, and I was consumed with an intense longing to go away into the wilderness and there hide my grief. In making an attempt to reach civilisation, I thought this time of going due south, so that perhaps I might ultimately reach Sydney, or Melbourne, or Adelaide. I argued thus casually to myself, little dreaming of the vast distances-mountain ranges and waterless deserts-that separated me from these great cities. For all I knew, I might have come upon them in a few weeks! All I was certain of was that they lay somewhere to the south. Time was no object to me, and I might as well be walking in the direction of civilisation as remaining in idle misery in my bay home, brooding over the disaster that had clouded my life and made it infinitely more intolerable than it was before the girls came.

Yamba instantly agreed to accompany me, and a few weeks after the loss of the girls we started out once more on our wanderings, accompanied by my ever faithful dog.

Bruno also missed his young mistresses. He would moan and cry pitifully, and run aimlessly up and down the beach looking out to sea. Ah! had I only taken Bruno on that fatal day, he would not have let my dear ones drown!

As I have said, I remained only a few weeks in my bay home, and then departed. The blacks, too, left the spot, for they never stay where the shadow of death lies, fearing the unpleasant attentions of the spirits of the deceased. The parting between me and my people was a most affecting one, the women fairly howling in lamentations, which could be heard a great distance away. They had shown such genuine sympathy with me in my misfortune that our friendship had very materially increased; but in spite of this good feeling, I knew I could never be happy among them again.

So we started off into the unknown, with no more provision or equipment than if we were going for a stroll of a mile or so. Yamba carried her yam-stick and basket, and I had my usual weapons-tomahawk and stiletto in my belt, and bow and arrows in my hand. I never dreamed when we started that to strike due south would take us into the unexplored heart of the continent. Day after day, however, we walked steadily on our course, steering in a very curious manner. We were guided by the ant-hills, which are always built facing the east, whilst the top inclines towards the north; and we knew that the scratches made on trees by the opossums were invariably on the north side.

We often steered by the habits of insects, wasps' nests, and other curious auguries, fixing our position at night by the stars and in the daytime by our own shadows. Yamba always went in front and I followed. The bush teemed with fruits and roots. After leaving our own camp in the Cambridge Gulf region we struck a fine elevated land, excellently well watered; and later on we followed the Victoria River in a south-easterly direction through part of the Northern Territories of South Australia. We at length struck a peculiar country covered with coarse grass ten feet or twelve feet high-not unlike the sugar-cane which I afterwards saw, but much more dense.

It was, of course, impossible for us to pursue our course due south, owing to the forests and ranges which we encountered; we had, as a matter of fact, to follow native and kangaroo tracks wherever they took us-east, west, and even north occasionally, generally to water-holes. The progress of the natives is simply from one water supply to another. But as far as possible we pursued our way south. You will understand that this kind of travelling was very different from that which we experienced on the Victoria River-which, by the way, traversed a very fine country. As we ascended it we passed many isolated hills of perhaps a few hundred feet, and nowhere did I see any scrub or spinifex.

After leaving the Victoria we came upon a more elevated plateau covered with rather fine but short grass; the trees were scarcer here, but finer and bigger. There was plenty of water in the native wells and in the hollows, although we frequently had to remove a few stones to get at it. There were plenty of kangaroos and emus about, as well as turkeys; these latter provided us with an unwonted dish, to say nothing of their delicious eggs.

Another reason for our coming round out of our course when we came to forests was because but little food was found in them. Kangaroos and other animals were seldom or never found there: they abounded usually in the more scrubby country. Our progress was very leisurely, and, as we met tribe after tribe, we ingratiated ourselves with them and camped at their wells. Occasionally we came upon curious rivers and lagoons that ran into the earth and disappeared in the most mysterious way, only to reappear some distance farther on. Of course, I may be mistaken in this, but such at any rate was my impression.

One day as we were marching steadily along, Yamba startled me by calling out excitedly, "Up a tree,-quick! Up a tree!" And so saying she scampered up the nearest tree herself. Now, by this time I had become so accustomed to acting upon her advice unquestioningly, that without waiting to hear any more I made a dash for the nearest likely tree and climbed into it as fast as I could. Had she called out to me, "Leap into the river," I should have done so without asking a question. When I was safely in the branches, however, I called out to her (her tree was only a few yards away), "What is the matter?" She did not reply, but pointed to a vast stretch of undulating country over which we had just come; it was fairly well wooded. It lingers in my mind as a region in which one was able to see a fairly long way in every direction-a very unusual feature in the land of "Never Never"!

I looked, but at first could see nothing. Presently, however, it seemed to me that the whole country in the far distance was covered with a black mantle, which appeared to be made up of living creatures.

Steadily and rapidly this great mysterious wave swept along towards us; and seeing that I was both puzzled and alarmed, Yamba gave me to understand that we should presently be surrounded by myriads of rats, stretching away in every direction like a living sea. The phenomenon was evidently known to Yamba, and she went on to explain that these creatures were migrating from the lowlands to the mountains, knowing by instinct that the season of the great floods was at hand. That weird and extraordinary sight will live in my memory for ever. I question whether a spectacle so fantastic and awe-inspiring was ever dealt with, even in the pages of quasi-scientific fiction. It was impossible for me to observe in what order the rats were advancing, on account of the great stretch of country which they covered. Soon, however, their shrill squeals were distinctly heard, and a few minutes later the edge of that strange tide struck our tree and swept past us with a force impossible to realise. No living thing was spared. Snakes, lizards-ay, even the biggest kangaroos-succumbed after an ineffectual struggle. The rats actually ate those of their fellows who seemed to hesitate or stumble. The curious thing was that the great army never seemed to stand still. It appeared to me that each rat simply took a bite at whatever prey came his way, and then passed on with the rest.

I am unable to say how long the rats were in passing-it might have been an hour. Yamba told me that there would have been no help for us had we been overtaken on foot by these migratory rodents. It is my opinion that no creature in Nature, from the elephant downwards, could have lived in that sea of rats. I could not see the ground between them, so closely were they packed. The only creatures that escaped them were birds. The incessant squealing and the patter of their little feet made an extraordinary sound, comparable only to the sighing of the wind or the beat of a great rain-storm. I ought to mention, though, that I was unable accurately to determine the sound made by the advancing rats owing to my partial deafness, which you will remember was caused by the great wave which dashed me on to the deck of the Veielland, just before landing on the sand-spit in the Sea of Timor. I often found this deafness a very serious drawback, especially when hunting. I was sometimes at a loss to hear the "coo-ee" or call of my natives. Fortunate men! they did not even understand what deafness meant. Lunacy also was unknown among them, and such a thing as suicide no native can possibly grasp or understand. In all my wanderings I only met one idiot or demented person. He had been struck by a falling tree, and was worshipped as a demi-god!

When the rats had passed by, we watched them enter a large creek and swim across, after which they disappeared in the direction of some ranges which were not very far away. They never seemed to break their ranks; even when swimming, one beheld the same level brownish mass on the surface of the water. Yamba told me that this migration of rats was not at all uncommon, but that the creatures rarely moved about in such vast armies as the one that had just passed.

I also learned that isolated parties of migrating rats were responsible for the horrible deaths of many native children, who had, perhaps, been left behind in camp by their parents, who had gone in search of water.

Up to this time we had always found food plentiful. On our southward journey a particularly pleasant and convenient article of diet turned up (or fell down) in the form of the maru, as it is called, which collects on the leaves of trees during the night. Both in its appearance and manner of coming, this curious substance may be likened to the manna that fell in the wilderness for the benefit of the Israelites. This maru is a whitish substance, not unlike raw cotton in appearance. The natives make bread of it; it is rather tasteless, but is very nutritious, and only obtained at certain times-for example, it never falls at the time of full moon, and is peculiar to certain districts.

During this great southward journey many strange things happened, and we saw a host of curious sights. I only wish I could trust my memory to place these in their proper chronological order.

We had several visitations of locusts; and on one occasion, some months after leaving home, they settled upon the country around us so thickly as actually to make a living bridge across a large creek. On several occasions I have had to dig through a living crust of these insects, six or eight inches thick, in order to reach water at a water-hole. These locusts are of a yellowish-brown colour (many are grey), and they range in length from two to four inches.

As they rise in the air they make a strange cracking, snapping sound; and they were often present in such myriads as actually to hide the face of the sun. I found them excellent eating when grilled on red-hot stones.

Yamba, of course, did all the cooking, making a fire with her ever-ready fire-stick, which no native woman is ever without; and while she looked after the supply of roots and opossum meat, I generally provided the snakes, emus, and kangaroos. Our shelter at night consisted merely of a small gunyah made of boughs, and we left the fire burning in front of this when we turned in.

When we had been fully three months out, a very extraordinary thing happened, which to many people would be incredible were it not recognised as a well-known Australian phenomenon. We had reached a very dry and open grass country, where there was not a tree to be seen for miles and miles. Suddenly, as Yamba and I were squatting on the ground enjoying a meal, we saw a strange black cloud looming on the horizon, and hailed its advent with the very greatest delight, inasmuch as it presaged rain-which is always so vitally important a visitation in the "Never Never." We waited in anticipation until the cloud was right over our heads. Then the deluge commenced, and to my unbounded amazement I found that with the rain live fish as big as whitebait were falling from the clouds! When this wonderful rain-storm had passed, large pools of water were left on the surface of the ground, and most of these were fairly alive with fish. This surface-water, however, evaporated in the course of a few days, and then, as the blazing sun beat down upon the fish-covered country, we found the region growing quite intolerable on account of the awful stench.

Talking of storms, I have seen it stated that the Australian natives are in a state of high glee whenever they hear thunder. This is perfectly true, but I have never seen any explanation of this joy. It is simple enough. The natives know that thunder presages rain, which is always a blessing of great price in that thirsty country.

I think this was the first time I had actually seen it rain fish. But I had often been surprised, to find water-holes, and even the pools in grassy plains, literally alive with fish a few days after a storm. And they grew with astounding rapidity, provided the water did not evaporate. This was in the vicinity of my Cambridge Gulf home.

We remained in the neighbourhood for some time, living on a most welcome fish diet. Very frequently in our wanderings we were provided with another dainty in the shape of a worm, which, when broiled over charcoal, had the flavour of a walnut.

These worms we found in the grass trees, which grow to a height of ten to twenty feet, and have bare trunks surmounted by what looks at a distance like a big bunch of drooping bulrushes. The worms were of a whitish colour, and were always found in the interior of a well-matured or decaying stem; so that all we had to do was to push the tree over with our feet and help ourselves.

In the course of our wanderings we usually went from tribe to tribe, staying a little time with some, and with others merely exchanging greetings. With some tribes we would perhaps travel a little way south, and only part with them when they were about to strike northwards; and as their course was simply from water-hole to water-hole, as I have told you, it was always pretty erratic.

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