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The Adventures of Louis de Rougemont By Louis de Rougemont Characters: 28836

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Lost in the desert-Gibson's dying advice-Giles meets Gibson-A fountain in the desert-A terrible fix-Giles regains his camp-Gibson's effects-Mysterious tracks-A treasured possession-A perfect paradise-Grape vines a failure-A trained cockatoo-An extraordinary festival-My theory of the "ghosts."

After the funeral his wife followed out the usual native conventions. She covered herself with pipeclay for about one month. She also mourned and howled for the prescribed three days, and gashed her head with stone knives, until the blood poured down her face. Gibson's body was not buried in the earth, but embalmed with clay and leaves, and laid on a rock-shelf in a cave.

The general belief was that Gibson had merely gone back to the Spirit Land from whence he had come, and that, as he was a great and good man, he would return to earth in the form of a bird-perhaps an ibis, which was very high indeed. I must say I never attached very much importance to what he said, even in his sane moments, because he was obviously a man of low intelligence and no culture. If I remember rightly, he told me that the expedition to which he was attached left Adelaide with the object of going overland to Fremantle. It was thoroughly well equipped, and for a long time everything went well with the party. One day, whilst some of them were off exploring on their own account, he lost himself.

He rather thought that the sun must have affected his brain even then, because he didn't try to find his companions that night, but went to sleep quite contentedly under a tree. He realised the horror of his position keenly enough the next morning, however, and rode mile after mile without halting for food or water, in the hope of quickly regaining his friends at the chief camp. But night stole down upon him once more, and he was still a lonely wanderer, half delirious with thirst; the supply he had carried with him had long since given out.

Next morning, when he roused himself, he found that his horse had wandered away and got lost. After this he had only a vague recollection of what happened. Prompted by some strange, unaccountable impulse, he set out on a hopeless search for water, and went walking on and on until all recollection faded away, and he remembered no more. How long he had been lost when I found him he could not say, because he knew absolutely nothing whatever about his rescue. So far as I remember, he was a typical specimen of the Australian pioneer-a man of fine physique, with a full beard and a frank, but unintelligent, countenance. He was perhaps five feet nine inches in height, and about thirty years of age. When I told him the story of my adventures he was full of earnest sympathy for me, and told me that if ever I intended leaving those regions for civilisation again, my best plan would be to steer more south-east, as it was in that direction that Adelaide lay.

He also informed me that the great trans-Continental telegraph wire was being constructed from north to south. This he advised me to strike and follow to civilisation.

I may be permitted a little digression here to give a few extracts from Giles's book, "Australia Twice Traversed" (Sampson Low & Company), for this contains the version of the leader of the expedition himself as to the circumstances under which Gibson was lost. In all, it seems, Giles made five exploring expeditions into and through Central South Australia and Western Australia from 1872 to 1876. Speaking of his second expedition, Mr. Giles says: "I had informed my friend, Baron Von Mueller, by wire from the Charlotte Waters Telegraph station, of the failure and break-up of my first expedition, and he set to work and obtained new funds for me to continue my labours. I reached Adelaide late in January 1873, and got my party together. We left early in March of 1873, and journeyed leisurely up-country to Beltana, then past the Finnis Springs to the Gregory. We then journeyed up to the Peake, where we were welcomed by Messrs. Bagot at the Cattle Station, and Mr. Blood of the Telegraph Department. Here we fixed up all our packs, sold Bagot the waggon, and bought horses and other things. We now had twenty pack-horses and four riding-horses."

We next come to the introduction of Gibson. "Here a short young man accosted me, and asked me if I didn't remember him. He said he was 'Alf.' I thought I knew his face, but I thought it was at the Peake that I had seen him; but he said, 'Oh, no! Don't you remember Alf, with Bagot's sheep at the north-west bend of the Murray? My name's Alf Gibson, and I want to go out with you.' I said, 'Well, can you shoe? Can you ride? Can you starve? Can you go without water? And how would you like to be speared by the blacks?' He said he could do everything I had mentioned, and he wasn't afraid of the blacks. He was not a man I would have picked out of a mob, but men were scarce, and he seemed so anxious to come, so I agreed to take him.

"Thus, the expedition consisted of four persons-myself (Ernest Giles), Mr. William Henry Tietkins, Alf Gibson, and James Andrews; with twenty-four horses and two little dogs. On Monday, 4th August, we finally left the encampment."

Now here is the passage in which Mr. Giles describes his dramatic parting with Gibson. It will be found in the chapter marked "20th April to 21st May 1874": "Gibson and I departed for the West. I rode the 'Fair Maid of Perth.' I gave Gibson the big ambling horse, 'Badger,' and we packed the big cob with a pair of water-bags that contained twenty gallons. As we rode away, I was telling Gibson about various exploring expeditions and their fate, and he said, 'How is it that, in all these exploring expeditions, a lot of people go and die?' He said, 'I shouldn't like to die in this part of the country, anyhow.'

"We presently had a meal of smoked horse. It was late when we encamped, and the horses were much in want of water,-especially the big cob, who kept coming up to the camp all night and trying to get at our water-bags. We had one small water-bag hung in a tree.

"I didn't think of that until my mare came straight up to it and took it in her teeth, forcing out the cork, and sending the water up, which we were both dying to drink, in a beautiful jet. Gibson was now very sorry he had exchanged 'Badger' for the cob, as he found the latter very dull and heavy to get along. There had been a hot wind from the north all day, and the following morning (the 23rd of April), there was a most strange dampness in the air, and I had a vague feeling, such as must have been felt by augurs and seers of old, who trembled as they told events to come; for this was the last day on which I ever saw Gibson.

"As Gibson came along after me, he called out that his horse was going to die. The hills to the west were twenty-five to thirty miles away, and I had to give up trying to reach them. How I longed for a camel! Gibson's horse was now so bad as to place both of us in a great dilemma. We turned back in our tracks, when the cob refused to carry his rider any farther, and tried to lie down. We drove him another mile on foot, and down he fell to die. My mare, the 'Fair Maid of Perth,' was only too willing to return, but she had now to carry Gibson's saddle and things, and away we went, walking and riding in turns of one half-hour each.

"When we got back to about thirty miles from a place which I had named 'The Kegs,' I shouted to Gibson, who was riding, to stop until I walked up to him. By this time we had hardly a pint of water left between us.

"We here finished the supply, and I then said, as I could not speak before, 'Look here, Gibson, you see we are in a most terrible fix, with only one horse. Only one can ride, and one must remain behind. I shall remain; and now listen to me. If the mare does not get water soon, she will die; therefore, ride right on; get to the Kegs, if possible, to-night, and give her water. Now that the cob is dead, there'll be all the more water for her. Early to-morrow you will sight the Rawlinson, at twenty-five miles from the Kegs. Stick to the tracks and never leave them. Leave as much water in one keg for me as you can afford, after watering the mare and filling up your own bags; and, remember, I depend upon you to bring me relief.'

"Gibson said if he had a compass he thought he could go better by night. I knew he didn't understand anything about compasses, as I had often tried to explain them to him. The one I had was a Gregory's Patent, of a totally different construction from ordinary instruments of the kind, and I was loth to part with it, as it was the only one I had. However, as he was so anxious for it, I gave it to him, and away he went. I sent one final shout after him to stick to the tracks, and he said, 'All right' and the mare carried him out of sight almost instantly.

"Gibson had left me with a little over two gallons of water, which I could have drunk in half-an-hour. All the food I had was eleven sticks of dirty, sandy, smoked horse, averaging about an ounce and a half each.

"On the first of May, as I afterwards found out, at one o'clock in the morning, I staggered into the camp, and awoke Mr. Tietkins at daylight. He glared at me as if I had been one risen from the dead. I asked him if he had seen Gibson. It was nine days since I last saw him. The next thing was to find Gibson's remains. It was the 6th of May when we got back to where he had left the right line. As long as he had remained on the other horses' tracks it was practicable enough to follow him, but the wretched man had left them and gone away in a far more southerly direction, having the most difficult sand-hills to cross at right angles. We found he had burnt a patch of spinifex where he had left the other horses' tracks.

"Whether he had made any mistake in steering by the compass or not it is impossible to say; but instead of going east, as he should have done, he actually went south, or very near it.

"I was sorry to think that the unfortunate man's last sensible moments must have been embittered by the thought that, as he had lost himself in the capacity of messenger for my relief, I, too, must necessarily fall a victim to his mishap.

"I called this terrible region, lying between the Rawlinson Range and the next permanent water that may eventually be found to the north, 'Gibson's Desert,'-after this first white victim to its horrors.

"In looking over Gibson's few effects, Mr. Tietkins and I found an old pocket-book, a drinking-song, and a certificate of his marriage. He had never told us he was married."

And now to resume my own narrative. You will remember that I had settled down for a considerable time on the shores of the lagoon, where I had made everything around me as comfortable as possible. Yamba had no difficulty whatever in keeping us well supplied with roots and vegetables; and as kangaroos, opossums, snakes, and rats abounded, we had an ample supply of meat, and the lagoon could always be relied upon to provide us with excellent fish. The country itself was beautiful in the extreme, with stately mountains, broad, fertile valleys, extensive forests,-and, above all, plenty of water. The general mode of living among the natives was much the same as that prevailing among the blacks in my own home at Cambridge Gulf,-although these latter were a vastly superior race in point of physique, war weapons, and general intelligence. The people I now found myself among were of somewhat small stature, with very low foreheads, protruding chins, high cheek-bones, and large mouths. Their most noteworthy characteristic was their extreme childishness, which was especially displayed on those occasions when I gave an acrobatic performance. My skill with the bow and arrow was, as usual, a never-ending source of astonishment. I was, in fact, credited with such remarkable powers that all my ingenuity had sometimes to be brought into play to accomplish, or to pretend to accomplish, the things expected of me. I knew that I must never fail in anything I undertook.

In the interior the natives never seemed to grow very plump, but had a more or less spare, not to say emaciated, appearance compared with the tribes near the coast. For one thing, food is not so easily obtainable, nor is it so nourishing. Moreover, the natives had to go very long distances to procure it.

Besides the low, receding forehead and protruding chin I have already hinted at as characteristic of the inland tribes, I also noticed that these people had abnormally large feet. Also, the beards of the men were not nearly so full or luxuriant as those of the blacks at Cambridge Gulf. The average height of the lagoon tribe was little more than five feet. For myself, I am about five feet seven and a half inches in height, and therefore I stalked about among them like a giant.

Now that Gibson was dead I decided to move my home farther north, and eventually settled down with my family (two children-a boy and a girl-had been born to me during my residence on the shores of the lagoon) in a beautiful mountainous and tropical region 200 or 300 miles to the north. It was my intention only to have made a temporary stay here, but other ties came, and my little ones were by no means strong enough to undertake any such formidable journey as I had in contemplation. I also made the fatal mistake of trying to bring my offspring up differently from the other savage children. But I must relate here an incident that happened on our journey north. Yamba came to me one day positively quivering with excitement and terror, and said she had found some strange tracks, apparently of some enormous beast-a monster so fearful as to be quite beyond her knowledge.

She took me to the spot and pointed out the mysterious tracks, which I saw at once were those of camels. I do not know why I decided to follow them, because they must have been some months old. Probably, I reflected, I might be able to pick up something on the tracks which would be of use to me. At any rate, we did follow the tracks for several days-perhaps a fortnight-and found on the way many old meat-tins, which afterwards came in useful as water vessels. One day, however, I pounced upon an illustrated newspaper-a copy of the Sydney Town and Country Journal, bearing some date, I think in 1875 or 1876. It was a complete copy with

the outer cover. I remember it contained some pictures of horse-racing-I believe at Paramatta; but the "Long Lost Relative" column interested me most, for the very moment I found the paper I sat down in the bush and began to read this part with great eagerness. I could read English fairly well by this time, and as Yamba was also tolerably familiar with the language, I read the paper aloud to her. I cannot say she altogether understood what she heard, but she saw that I was intensely interested and delighted, and so she was quite content to stay there and listen. You will observe that in all cases, the very fact that I was pleased was enough for Yamba, who never once wavered in her fidelity and affection. Altogether we spent some weeks following up these tracks, but, of course, never came up with the caravan of camels, which must have been some months ahead of us. Yamba at length appeared to be a good deal wearied at my persistency in following up the tracks in this way; but after all, was it not merely killing time?-a mild sort of sensation which served to break the eternal monotony that sometimes threatened to crush me.

How I treasured that soiled copy of the Town and Country-as it is familiarly called in Sydney! I read and re-read it, and then read it all over again until I think I could have repeated every line of it by heart, even to the advertisements. Among the latter, by the way, was one inserted apparently by an anxious mother seeking information concerning a long-lost son; and this pathetic paragraph set me wondering about my own mother. "Well," I thought, "she at least has no need to advertise, and I have the satisfaction of knowing that she must by this time be quite reconciled to my loss, and have given me up as dead long ago." Strangely enough, this thought quite reconciled me to my exile. In fact, I thanked Providence that my disappearance had been so complete and so prolonged as to leave not the slightest cause for doubt or hope on the part of any of my relatives. Had I for a moment imagined that my mother was still cherishing hopes of seeing me again some day, and that she was undergoing agonies of mental suspense and worry on my behalf, I think I would have risked everything to reach her. But I knew quite well that she must have heard of the loss of the Veielland, and long ago resigned herself to the certainty of my death. I can never hope to describe the curious delight with which I perused my precious newspaper. I showed the pictures in it to my children and the natives, and they were more than delighted,-especially with the pictures of horses in the race at Paramatta. In the course of time the sheets of paper began to get torn, and then I made a pretty durable cover out of kangaroo hide. Thus the whole of my library consisted of my Anglo-French Testament, and the copy of the Town and Country Journal.

But I have purposely kept until the end the most important thing in connection with this strangely-found periodical. The very first eager and feverish reading gave me an extraordinary shock, which actually threatened my reason! In a prominent place in the journal I came across the following passage: "The Deputies of Alsace and Lorraine have refused to vote in the German Reichstag."

Now, knowing nothing whatever of the sanguinary war of 1870, or of the alterations in the map of Europe which it entailed, this passage filled me with startled amazement. I read it over and over again, getting more bewildered each time. "The Deputies of Alsace and Lorraine have refused to vote in the German Reichstag!" "But-good heavens!" I almost screamed to myself, "what were the Alsace and Lorraine Deputies doing in the German Parliament at all?" I turned the matter over and over in my mind, and at last, finding that I was getting worked up into a state of dangerous excitement, I threw the paper from me and walked away. I thought over the matter again, and so utterly incomprehensible did it appear to me that I thought I must be mistaken-that my eyes must have deceived me. Accordingly I ran back and picked the paper up a second time, and there, sure enough, was the same passage. In vain did I seek for any sane explanation, and at last I somehow got it into my head that the appearance of the printed characters must be due to a kind of mental obliquity, and that I must be rapidly going mad! Even Yamba could not sympathise with me, because the matter was one which I never could have made her understand. I tried to put this strange puzzle out of my head, but again and again the accursed and torturing passage would ring in my ears until I nearly went crazy. But I presently put the thing firmly from me, and resolved to think no more about it.

It is not an exaggeration to describe my mountain home in the centre of the continent as a perfect paradise. The grasses and ferns there grew to a prodigious height, and there were magnificent forests of white gum and eucalyptus. Down in the valley I built a spacious house-the largest the natives had ever seen. It was perhaps twenty feet long, sixteen feet to eighteen feet wide, and about ten feet high. The interior was decorated with ferns, war implements, the skins of various animals, and last-but by no means least-the "sword" of the great sawfish I had killed in the haunted lagoon. This house contained no fireplace, because all the cooking was done in the open air. The walls were built of rough logs, the crevices being filled in with earth taken from ant-hills. I have just said that I built the house. This is, perhaps, not strictly correct. It was Yamba and the other women-folk who actually carried out the work, under my supervision. Here it is necessary to explain that I did not dare to do much manual labour, because it would have been considered undignified on my part. I really did not want the house; but, strangely enough, I felt much more comfortable when it was built and furnished, because, after all, it was a source of infinite satisfaction to me to feel that I had a home I could call my own. I had grown very weary of living like an animal in the bush, and lying down to sleep at night on the bare ground. It was this same consideration of "home" that induced me to build a little hut for poor Gibson.

The floor of my house was two or three feet above the ground in order to escape the ravages of the rats. There was only one storey, of course, and the whole was divided into two rooms-one as a kind of sitting-room and the other as a bedroom. The former I fitted out with home-made tables and chairs (I had become pretty expert from my experience with the girls); and each day fresh eucalyptus leaves were strewed about, partly for cleanliness, and partly because the odour kept away the mosquitoes. I also built another house about two days' tramp up the mountains, and to this we usually resorted in the very hot weather.

Now here I have a curious confession to make. As the months glided into years, and I reviewed the whole of my strange life since the days when I went pearling with Jensen, the thought began gradually to steal into my mind, "Why not wait until civilisation comes to you-as it must do in time? Why weary yourself any more with incessant struggles to get back to the world-especially when you are so comfortable here?" Gradually, then, I settled down and was made absolute chief over a tribe of perhaps five hundred souls. Besides this, my fame spread abroad into the surrounding country, and at every new moon I held a sort of informal reception, which was attended by deputations of tribesmen for hundreds of miles around. My own tribe already possessed a chieftain of their own but my position was one of even greater influence than his. Moreover, I was appointed to it without having to undergo the painful ceremonies that initiation entails. My immunity in this respect was of course owing to my supposed great powers, and the belief that I was a returned spirit. I was always present at tribal and war councils, and also had some authority over other tribes.

I adopted every device I could think of to make my dwelling home-like, and I even journeyed many miles in a NNE. direction, to procure cuttings of grape vines I had seen; but I must say that this at any rate was labour in vain, because I never improved upon the quality of the wild grapes, which had a sharp, acid flavour, that affected the throat somewhat unpleasantly until one got used to them.

When I speak of my "mountain home," it must not be supposed that I remained in one place. As a matter of fact, in accordance with my usual practice, I took long excursions in different directions extending over weeks and even months at a time. On these occasions I always took with me a kind of nut, which, when eaten, endowed one with remarkable powers of vitality and endurance. Since my return to civilisation I have heard of the Kola nut, but cannot say whether the substance used by the Australian aboriginal is the same or not. I remember we generally roasted ours, and ate it as we tramped along. In the course of my numerous journeys abroad I blazed or marked a great number of trees; my usual mark being an oval, in or underneath which I generally carved the letter "L." I seldom met with hostile natives in this region, but when I did my mysterious bow and arrows generally sufficed to impress them. By the way, I never introduced the bow as a weapon among the blacks, and they, on their part, never tried to imitate me. They are a conservative race, and are perfectly satisfied with their own time-honoured weapons.

Wild geese and ducks were plentiful in those regions, and there was an infinite variety of game. From this you will gather that our daily fare was both ample and luxurious.

And we had pets; I remember I once caught a live cockatoo, and trained him to help me in my hunting expeditions. I taught him a few English phrases, such as "Good-morning," and "How are you?"; and he would perch himself on a tree and attract great numbers of his kind around him by his incessant chattering. I would then knock over as many as I wanted by means of my bow and arrows. At this time, indeed, I had quite a menagerie of animals, including a tame kangaroo. Naturally enough, I had ample leisure to study the ethnology of my people. I soon made the discovery that my blacks were intensely spiritualistic; and once a year they held a festival which, when described, will, I am afraid, tax the credulity of my readers. The festival I refer to was held "when the sun was born again,"-i.e., soon after the shortest day of the year, which would be sometime in June. On these occasions the adult warriors from far and near assembled at a certain spot, and after a course of festivities, sat down to an extraordinary séance conducted by women-very old, wizened witches-who apparently possessed occult powers, and were held in great veneration. These witches are usually maintained at the expense of the tribe. The office, however, does not necessarily descend from mother to daughter, it being only women credited with supernatural powers who can claim the position.

After the great corroboree the people would squat on the ground, the old men and warriors in front, the women behind, and the children behind them. The whole congregation was arranged in the form of a crescent, in the centre of which a large fire would be set burning. Some of the warriors would then start chanting, and their monotonous sing-song would presently be taken up by the rest of the gathering, to the accompaniment of much swaying of heads and beating of hands and thighs. The young warriors then went out into the open and commenced to dance.

I may as well describe in detail the first of these extraordinary festivals which I witnessed. The men chanted and danced themselves into a perfect frenzy, which was still further increased by the appearance of three or four witches who suddenly rose up before the fire. They were very old and haggard-looking creatures, with skins like shrivelled parchment; they had scanty, dishevelled hair, and piercing, beady eyes. They were not ornamented in any way, and seemed more like skeletons from a tomb than human beings. After they had gyrated wildly round the fire for a short time, the chant suddenly ceased, and the witches fell prostrate upon the ground, calling out as they did so the names of some departed chiefs. A deathly silence then fell on the assembled gathering, and all eyes were turned towards the wreaths of smoke that were ascending into the evening sky. The witches presently renewed their plaintive cries and exhortations, and at length I was amazed to see strange shadowy forms shaping themselves in the smoke. At first they were not very distinct, but gradually they assumed the form of human beings, and then the blacks readily recognised them as one or other of their long-departed chiefs-estimable men always and great fighters. The baser sort never put in an appearance.

Now the first two or three times I saw this weird and fantastic ceremony, I thought the apparitions were the result of mere trickery.

But when I saw them year after year, I came to the conclusion that they must be placed in the category of those things which are beyond the ken of our philosophy. I might say that no one was allowed to approach sufficiently close to touch the "ghosts,"-if such they can be termed; and probably even if permission had been granted, the blacks would have been in too great a state of terror to have availed themselves of it.

Each of these séances lasted twenty minutes or half-an-hour, and were mainly conducted in silence. While the apparitions were visible, the witches remained prostrate, and the people looked on quite spellbound. Gradually the phantoms would melt away again in the smoke, and vanish from sight, after which the assembly would disperse in silence. By next morning all the invited blacks would have gone off to their respective homes. The witches, as I afterwards learnt, lived alone in caves; and that they possessed wonderful powers of prophecy was evidenced in my own case, because they told me when I came among them that I would still be many years with their people, but I would eventually return to my own kind. The warriors, too, invariably consulted these oracles before departing on hunting or fighting expeditions, and religiously followed their advice.

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