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The Adventures of Louis de Rougemont By Louis de Rougemont Characters: 29668

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


A teacher of English-Myself as a black-fellow-I rest content-An unknown terror-Manufacture of gunpowder-A curious find-The fiery raft-In the lair of snakes-A dangerous enemy-An exciting scene-A queer sport-Respect for the victor-A vain hope-Sore disappointment-Yamba in danger-A strange duel-My opponent greets me.

My two children were a source of great delight to me at this time,-although of course they were half-castes, the colour of their skin being very little different from that of their mother. The whiteness of their hands and finger-nails, however, clearly indicated their origin. They were not christened in the Christian way, neither were they brought up exactly in the same way as the native children.

I taught them English. I loved them very dearly, and used to make for them a variety of gold ornaments, such as bangles and armlets. They did not participate in all the rough games of the black children, yet they were very popular, having winning manners, and being very quick to learn. I often told them about my life in other parts of the world; but whenever I spoke of civilisation, I classed all the nations of the universe together, and referred to them as "my home," or "my country." I did not attempt to distinguish between France and Switzerland, England and America. Curiously enough, the subject that interested them most was the animal kingdom, and when I told them that I hoped some day to take them away with me to see my great country and the animals it contained, they were immensely delighted. Particularly they wanted to see the horse, the lion, and the elephant. Taking a yam-stick as pointer, I would often draw roughly in the sand almost every animal in Nature. But even when these rough designs were made for my admiring audience, I found it extremely difficult to convey an idea of the part in the economy of Nature which each creature played. I would tell them, however, that the horse was used for fighting purposes and for travel; that the cow yielded food and drink, and that the dogs drew sledges. It was absolutely necessary to dwell only on the utilitarian side of things. Beasts of burden would be incomprehensible. Both of my children were very proud of my position among and influence over the blacks.

And really I looked like a black-fellow myself at this time-not so much on account of exposure, as because my body was constantly coated with the charcoal and grease which serves as a protection from the weather and from insects. My children, you may be interested to learn, never grasped the fact that my exile was other than quite voluntary on my part.

The children of the blacks continued to interest me as much as ever (I was always fond of children); and I never grew tired of watching them at their quaint little games. I think they all loved me as much as I did them, and I was glad to see that their lives were one long dream of happiness. They had no school to attend, no work to perform, and no punishment to suffer. There are no children like the children of the bush for perfect contentment. They seldom or never quarrelled, and were all day long playing happily about the camp, practising throwing their reed spears; climbing the trees after the honey-pods, and indulging in a thousand and one merry pranks. Often and often I looked at those robust little rascals, and compared them sadly with my own children, who were delicate almost from birth, and who caused me so much anxiety and heartache.

When the combination of circumstances, which is now well known to my readers, caused me to settle in my mountain home, two or three hundred miles to the north of Gibson's Desert, I had no idea that I should remain there for many years.

But strangely enough, as year after year slipped by, the desire to return to civilisation seemed to leave me, and I grew quite content with my lot. Gradually I began to feel that if civilisation-represented, say, by a large caravan-were to come to me, and its leader was willing not merely to take me away, but my wife and children also, then indeed I would consent to go; but for no other consideration could I be induced to leave those who were now so near and dear to me. I may as well mention here that I had many chances of returning alone to civilisation, but never availed myself of them. As I spent the greater part of twenty years in my mountain home, it stands to reason that it is this part of my career which I consult for curious and remarkable incidents.

One day a great darkness suddenly came over the face of Nature. The sombre gloom was relieved only by a strange lurid glare, which hung on the distant horizon far away across that weird land. The air was soon filled with fine ashes, which descended in such quantities as to cover all vegetation, and completely hide exposed water-holes and lagoons. Even at the time I attributed the phenomenon to volcanic disturbance, and I have since found that it was most likely due to an eruption of the volcano of Krakatoa. This visitation occasioned very great consternation among the superstitious blacks, who concluded that the spirits had been angered by some of their own misdeeds, and were manifesting their wrath in this unpleasant way. I did not attempt to enlighten them as to its true cause, but gave them to understand vaguely that I had something to do with it. I also told them that the great spirit, whose representative I was, was burning up the land.

Another phenomenon that caused much mystification and terror was an eclipse of the sun. Never have I seen my blacks in such a state of excitement and terror as when that intense darkness came suddenly over the world at midday. They came crowding instinctively to me, and I stood silent among the cowering creatures, not thinking it politic for a moment to break the strange and appalling stillness that prevailed on every hand-and which extended even to the animal world. The trembling blacks were convinced that night had suddenly descended upon them, but they had no explanation whatever to offer. They seemed quite unfamiliar with the phenomenon, and it was apparently not one of those many things which their forefathers wove superstitious stories around, to hand down to their children. As the great darkness continued, the natives retired to rest, without even holding the usual evening chant. I did not attempt to explain the real reason of the phenomenon, but as I had no particular end to serve, I did not tell them that it was due to my power.

Never once, you see, did I lose an opportunity of impressing the savages among whom I dwelt. On several occasions, having all the ingredients at my disposal, I attempted to make gunpowder, but truth to tell, my experiments were not attended with very great success. I had charcoal, saltpetre, and sulphur ready to my hand,-all obtainable from natural sources close by; but the result of all my efforts (and I tried mixing the ingredients in every conceivable way) was a very coarse kind of powder with practically no explosive force, but which would go off with an absurd "puff."

Now I was very anxious to make an explosive powder, not merely because it would assist me in impressing the blacks, but also because I proposed carrying out certain blasting operations in order to obtain minerals and stones which I thought would be useful. The net result was that although I could not manufacture any potent explosive, yet I did succeed in arousing the intense curiosity of the blacks. My powder burnt without noise, and the natives could never quite make out where the flame came from.

As there seemed to be a never-ending eagerness on the part of the blacks to witness the wonders of the white man, I even tried my hand at making ice-a commodity which is, of course, absolutely unknown in Central Australia. The idea came to me one day when I found myself in a very cool cave, in which there was a well of surprisingly cold water. Accordingly, I filled some opossum skins with the refreshing fluid, placed them in the coolest part of the cave, and then covered them with saltpetre, of which there was an abundance. When I tell you that the experiment was quite fruitless, you will readily understand that I did not always succeed in my r?le of wonder-worker. But whenever I was defeated, it only had the effect of making me set my wits to work to devise something still more wonderful-something which I was certain would be an assured success.

Whilst taking, a stroll in the region of my mountain home one day, my eyes-which were by this time almost as highly trained as those of the blacks themselves-suddenly fastened upon a thin stream of some greenish fluid which was apparently oozing out of the rocky ground. Closer investigation proved that this was not water. I collected a quantity of it in a kangaroo skin, but this took a considerable time, because the liquid oozed very slowly.

I would not have taken this trouble were it not that I was pretty certain I had discovered a spring of crude petroleum. Immediately, and by a kind of instinct, it occurred to me that I might make use of this oil as yet another means of impressing the blacks with my magical powers. I told no one of my discovery-not even Yamba. First of all I constructed a sort of raft from the branches of trees, thoroughly saturating each branch with the oil. I also placed a shallow skin reservoir of oil on the upper end of the raft, and concealed it with twigs and leaves. This done, I launched my interesting craft on the waters of the lagoon, having so far carried out all my preparations in the strictest secrecy. When everything was ready I sent out invitations by mail-men, smoke signals, and message sticks to tribes both far and near, to come and see me set fire to the water! In parentheses, I may remark, that with regard to smoke-signals, white smoke only is allowed to ascend in wreaths and curls; while black smoke is sent up in one great volume. As by this time my fame was pretty well established, the wonder-loving children of Nature lost no time in responding to the summons; and at length, when the mystic glow of a Central Australian evening had settled over the scene, a great gathering established itself on the shores of the lagoon. On such occasions, however, I always saw to it that my audience were not too near. But anyhow there was little chance of failure, because the blacks had long since grown to believe in me blindly and implicitly.

With much ceremony I set fire to the raft, hoisted a little bark sail upon it, and pushed it off. It lay very low in the water, and as the amazed onlookers saw it gliding across the placid waters of the lagoon enveloped in smoke and flames, they did actually believe that I had set fire to the water itself-particularly when the blazing oil was seen in lurid patches on the placid surface. They remained watching till the fire died down, when they retired to their own homes, more convinced than ever that the white man among them was indeed a great and powerful spirit.

But, human nature being fundamentally the same all the world over, it was natural enough-and, indeed, the wonder is how I escaped so long-that one or other of the tribal medicine-men should get jealous of my power and seek to overthrow me. Now, the medicine-man belonging to the tribe in my mountain home presently found himself (or fancied himself) under a cloud,-the reason, of course, being that my display of wonders far transcended anything which he himself could do. So my rival commenced an insidious campaign against me, trying to explain away every wonderful thing that I did, and assuring the blacks that if I were a spirit at all it was certainly a spirit of evil. He never once lost an opportunity of throwing discredit and ridicule upon me and my powers; and at length I discerned symptoms in the tribe which rendered it imperatively necessary that I should take immediate and drastic steps to overthrow my enemy, who, by the way, had commenced trying to duplicate every one of my tricks or feats. I gave the matter some little thought, and one day, whilst out on one of my solitary rambles, I came across a curious natural feature of the landscape, which suggested to me a novel and, I venture to say, remarkable solution of a very serious situation.

I suddenly found myself on the brink of a peculiar basin-like depression, which, from its obvious dampness and profusion of bush and cover, I at once recognised as the ideal abode of innumerable snakes. I marked the spot in my mind, and returned home, pondering the details of the dramatic victory I hoped to win. Day by day I returned to this depression and caught numerous black and carpet snakes. From each of these dangerous and poisonous reptiles I removed the poison fangs only; and then, after scoring it with a cross by means of my stiletto, I let it go, knowing that it would never leave a spot so ideal-from a snake's point of view. I operated on a great number of the deadly reptiles in this way, but, of course there remained many who were not so treated; whilst several of my queer patients died outright under the operation. Needless to say, I might have met my own death in this extraordinary business had I not been assisted by my devoted wife. When we had finished our work, there was absolutely nothing in the appearance of the place to indicate that it was any different from its state when I first cast my eyes upon it.

Then, all being ready, I chose a specially dramatic moment at a corroboree to challenge my rival in a war song, this challenge being substantially as follows: "You tell the people that you are as great as I-the all-powerful white spirit-man. Well, now, I offer you a formal challenge to perform the feat which I shall perform on a certain day and at a certain spot." The day was the very next day, and the spot, the scene of my strange surgical operations upon the snakes. The effect of my challenge was magical.

The jealous medicine-man, boldly and openly challenged before the whole tribe, had no time to make up an evasive reply, and he accepted then and there. Urgent messages were despatched, by the fun-loving blacks, to all the tribes, so that we were pretty sure of a large and attentive audience. It was about midday when the ridge round the depression was crowded with expectant blacks, every one of whom dearly loved a contest, or competition, of whatever kind. I lost no time-for in love or war shilly-shallying is unknown among the blacks-but boldly leaped down into the hollow armed only with a reed whistle, which I had made for myself solely with the view of enticing the snakes from their holes. I cast a triumphant glance at my impassive rival, who, up to this moment, had not the faintest idea what the proposed ordeal was. I commenced to play as lively a tune as the

limited number of notes in the whistle would allow, and before I had been playing many minutes the snakes came gliding out, swinging their heads backwards and forwards and from side to side as though they were under a spell. Selecting a huge black snake, who bore unobtrusively my safety mark, I pounced down upon him and presented my bare arm. After teasing the reptile two or three times I allowed him to strike his teeth deep into my flesh, and immediately the blood began to run. I also permitted several other fangless snakes to bite me until my arms and legs, breast and back, were covered with blood. Personally, I did not feel much the worse, as the bites were mere punctures, and I knew the selected reptiles to be quite innocuous. Several "unmarked" snakes, however, manifested an eager desire to join in the fun, and I had some difficulty in escaping their deadly attentions. I had to wave them aside with a stick.

All this time the blacks above me were yelling with excitement, and I am under the impression that several were lamenting my madness, whilst others were turning angrily upon my rival, and accusing him of having brought about my death. At a favourable moment I rushed up the ridge of the hollow and stood before the horrified medicine-man, who, in response to my triumphant demand to go and do likewise, returned a feeble and tremulous negative. Even he, I think, was now sincerely convinced that I possessed superhuman powers; but it would have been awkward had he come along when I was laboriously and surreptitiously extracting the poison fangs from the snakes, and placing my "hall mark" upon them.

His refusal cost him his prestige, and he was forthwith driven from the tribe as a fraud, whilst my fame rose higher than ever. The blacks now wished me to take over the office of medicine-man, but I declined to do so, and nominated instead a youth I had trained for the position. It may be necessary here to remark that the blacks, under no circumstances, kill a medicine-man. My defeated rival was a man of very considerable power, and I knew quite well that if I did not get the best of him he would have me driven out of the tribe and perhaps speared.

Mention of the snake incident reminds me of a very peculiar and interesting sport which the blacks indulge in. I refer to fights between snakes and iguanas. These combats certainly afford very fine sport. The two creatures are always at mortal enmity with one another, but as a rule the iguana commences the attack, no matter how much bigger the snake may be than himself; or whether it is poisonous or not. I have seen iguanas attack black snakes from six feet to ten feet in length, whilst they themselves rarely measured more than three or four feet. As a rule the iguana makes a snapping bite at the snake a few inches below its head, and the latter instantly retaliates by striking its enemy with its poisonous fangs. Then an extraordinary thing happens. The iguana will let go his hold and straightway make for a kind of fern, which he eats in considerable quantities, the object of this being to counteract the effects of the poison. When he thinks he has had enough of the antidote he rushes back to the scene of the encounter and resumes the attack; the snake always waits there for him. Again and again the snake bites the iguana, and as often the latter has recourse to the counteracting influences of the antidote. The fight may last for upwards of an hour, but eventually the iguana conquers. The final struggle is most exciting. The iguana seizes hold of the snake five or six inches below the head, and this time refuses to let go his hold, no matter how much the snake may struggle and enwrap him in its coils. Over and over roll the combatants, but the grip of the iguana is relentless; and the struggles of the snake grow weaker, until at length he is stretched out dead. Then the triumphant iguana steals slowly away.

The spectators would never dream of killing him,-partly on account of their admiration for his prowess, but more particularly because his flesh is tainted with poison from the repeated snake bites. These curious fights generally take place near water-holes.

I have also seen remarkable combats between snakes of various species and sizes. A small snake will always respond to the challenge of a much larger one, this challenge taking the form of rearing up and hissing. The little snake will then advance slowly towards its opponent and attempt to strike, but, as a rule, the big one crushes it before it can do any harm. I had often heard of the joke about two snakes of equal size trying to swallow one another, and was, therefore, the more interested when I came across this identical situation in real life. One day, right in my track, lay two very large snakes which had evidently been engaged in a very serious encounter; and the victor had commenced swallowing his exhausted adversary. He had disposed of some three or four feet of that adversary's length when I arrived on the scene, and was evidently resting before taking in the rest. I easily made prisoners of both.

Not long after this incident a delusive hope was held out to me that I might be able to return to civilisation. News was brought one day that the tracks of some strange and hitherto unknown animals had been found to the north, and, accompanied by Yamba, I went off to inspect them. I found that they were camel tracks-for the second time; and as Yamba informed me that, from the appearance of the trail, there was no one with them, I concluded that in all probability the creatures were wild, having long ago belonged to some exploring party which had come to grief.

"Here at length," I thought, "is the means of returning to civilisation. If I can only reach these creatures-and why should I not with so much assistance at my disposal?-I will break them in, and then strike south across the deserts with my wife and family." I returned to the camp, and taking with me a party of the most intelligent tribesmen, set off after the wild camels. When we had been several days continuously tracking we came up with the beasts. There were four of them altogether, and right wild and vicious-looking brutes they were. They marched close together in a band, and never parted company. The moment I and my men tried to separate and head them off, the leader would swoop down upon us with open mouth, and the result of this appalling apparition was that my black assistants fled precipitately. Alone I followed the camels for several days in the hope of being able ultimately to drive them into some ravine, where I thought I might possibly bring them into a state of subjection by systematic starvation. But it was a vain effort on my part. They kept in the track of water-holes, and wandered on from one to the other at considerable speed.

At length I abandoned hope altogether, though not without a feeling of sore disappointment, as I watched the curious, ungainly creatures disappearing over the ridge of a sand-hill. Of course I took good care not to tell any of the natives the real reason of my desire to possess a camel,-though I did try to explain to them some of the uses to which people in other parts of the world put these wonderful animals.

I never lost an opportunity of leaving records wherever I could. As I have said before, I was constantly blazing trees and even making drawings upon them; and I would have left records in cairns had I been able to make any writing material. Talking about this, I was for a long time possessed with the desire to make myself a kind of paper, and I frequently experimented with the fibres of a certain kind of tree. This material I reduced to a pulp, and then endeavoured to roll into sheets. Here again, however, I had to confess failure. I found the ordinary sheets of bark much more suitable for my purpose.

Pens I had in thousands from the quills of the wild swan and goose; and I made ink from the juice of a certain dark-coloured berry, mixed with soot, which I collected on the bottom of my gold cooking-kettle. I also thought it advisable to make myself plates from which to eat my food-not because of any fastidiousness on my part, but from that ever-present desire to impress the blacks, which was now my strongest instinct. In the course of my ramblings in the northern regions I came across quantities of silver-lead, which I smelted with the object of obtaining lead to beat out into plates. I also went some hundreds of miles for the sake of getting copper, and found great quantities of ores of different kinds in the Kimberley district.

A very strange experience befell Yamba not long after I had settled down among the blacks in my mountain home; and it serves to illustrate the strictness with which the laws against poaching are observed. The incident I am about to relate concerned me very nearly, and might have cost me my life as well as my wife. Well, it happened that Yamba and I were one day returning from one of the many "walkabouts" which we were constantly undertaking alone and with natives, and which sometimes extended over several weeks and even months. We had pitched our camp for the afternoon, and Yamba went off, as usual, in search of roots and game for the evening meal. She had been gone some little time when I suddenly heard her well-known "coo-eey" and knowing that she must be in trouble of some kind, I immediately grasped my weapons and went off to her rescue, guiding myself by her tracks.

A quarter of a mile away I came upon a scene that filled me with amazement. There was Yamba-surely the most devoted wife a man, civilised or savage, ever had-struggling in the midst of quite a crowd of blacks, who were yelling and trying forcibly to drag her away. At once I saw what had happened. Yamba had been hunting for roots over the boundary of territory belonging to a tribe with whom we had not yet made friends; and as she had plainly been guilty of the great crime of trespass, she was, according to inviolable native law, confiscated by those who had detected her. I rushed up to the blacks and began to remonstrate with them in their own tongue, but they were both truculent and obstinate, and refused to release my now weeping and terrified Yamba. At last we effected a compromise,-I agreeing to accompany the party, with their captive, back to their encampment, and there have the matter settled by the chief. Fortunately we had not many miles to march, but, as I anticipated, the chief took the side of his own warriors, and promptly declared that he would appropriate Yamba for himself. I explained to him, but in vain, that my wife's trespass was committed all unknowingly, and that had I known his tribe were encamped in the district, I would have come immediately and stayed with them a few nights.

As showing what a remarkable person I was, I went through part of my acrobatic repertoire; and even my poor eager Bruno, who evidently scented trouble, began on his own account to give a hurried and imperfect show. He stood on his head and tumbled backwards and forwards in a lamentably loose and unscientific manner, barking and yelling all the time.

I do not know whether the wily chief had made up his mind to see more of us or not; but at any rate he looked at me very fiercely as though determined to carry his point, and then replied that there was but one law-which was that Yamba should be confiscated for poaching, whether the crime was intentional on her part or not. So emphatically was this said that I began to think I had really lost my faithful companion for ever. As this awful thought grew upon me, and I pondered over the terrible past, I made up my mind that if necessary I would lose my own life in her defence, and to this end I adopted a very haughty attitude, which caused the chief suddenly to discover a kind of by-law to the effect that in such cases as this one the nearest relative of the prisoner might win her back by fighting for her. This, of course, was what I wanted, above all things-particularly as the old chief had not as yet seen me use my wonderful weapons. And as I felt certain he would choose throwing spears, I knew that victory was mine. He selected, with a critical eye, three well-made spears, whilst I chose three arrows, which I purposely brandished aloft, so as to give my opponent the impression that they were actually small spears, and were to be thrown, as such, javelin-fashion. The old chief and his blacks laughed heartily and pityingly at this exhibition, and ridiculed the idea that I could do any damage with such toy weapons.

The demeanour of the chief himself was eloquent of the good-humoured contempt in which he held me as an antagonist; and a distance of twenty paces having been measured out, we took our places and prepared for the dramatic encounter, upon which depended something more precious to me than even my own life. Although outwardly cool and even haughty, I was really in a state of most terrible anxiety. I fixed my eyes intently upon the spare but sinewy chief, and without moving a muscle allowed him to throw his spears first. The formidable weapons came whizzing through the air with extraordinary rapidity one after the other; but long experience of the weapon and my own nimbleness enabled me to avoid them. But no sooner had I stepped back into position for the third time than, with lightning dexterity, I unslung my bow and let fly an arrow at my antagonist which I had purposely made heavier than usual by weighting it with fully an ounce of gold. Naturally he failed to see the little feathered shaft approach, and it pierced him right in the fleshy part of the left thigh-exactly where I intended. The chief leaped from the ground more in surprise than pain, as though suddenly possessed by an evil spirit. His warriors, too, were vastly impressed. As blood was drawn in this way, honour and the law were alike supposed to be satisfied, so Yamba was immediately restored to me, trembling and half afraid to credit her own joyful senses.

My readers will, perhaps, wonder why these cannibal savages did not go back on their bargain and refuse to give her up, even after I had vanquished their chief in fair fight; but the honourable course they adopted is attributable solely to their own innate sense of fair-play, and their admiration for superior prowess and skill.

Why, when the chief had recovered from his astonishment he came up to me, and greeted me warmly, without even taking the trouble to remove my arrow from his bleeding thigh! We became the very best of friends; and Yamba and I stayed with him for some days as his guests. When at length we were obliged to leave, he gave me quite an imposing escort, as though I were a powerful friendly chief who had done him a great service!

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