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The Adventures of Louis de Rougemont By Louis de Rougemont Characters: 29381

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Mosquitoes and leeches-I explain pictures-An awkward admission-My great portrait-The stomach as a deity-The portrait a success-A colossal statue of "H. R. H."-Fish without eyes-A sad reflection-A strange illusion-A grave danger-I sink a well-"Universal provider"-A significant phenomenon-Bruno as accomplice-I find Bruno dead.

I must say I was not very much troubled with mosquitoes in my mountain home, and as I had endured dreadful torments from these insects whilst at Port Essington and other swampy places, I had good reason to congratulate myself. Whilst crossing some low country on one occasion I was attacked by these wretched pests, whose bite penetrated even the clay covering that protected my skin. Even the blacks suffered terribly, particularly about the eyes. I, however, had taken the precaution to protect my eyes by means of leaves and twigs. At Port Essington the mosquitoes were remarkably large, and of a greyish colour. They flew about literally in clouds, and it was practically impossible to keep clear of them.

The natives treated the bites with an ointment made from a kind of penny-royal herb and powdered charcoal. Talking about pests, in some parts the ants were even more terrible than the mosquitoes, and I have known one variety-a reddish-brown monster, an inch long-to swarm over and actually kill children by stinging them. Another pest was the leech. It was rather dangerous to bathe in some of the lagoons on account of the leeches that infested the waters. Often in crossing a swamp I would feel a slight tickling sensation about the legs, and on looking down would find my nether limbs simply coated with these loathsome creatures. The remarkable thing was, that whilst the blacks readily knew when leeches attacked them, I would be ignorant for quite a long time, until I had grown positively faint from loss of blood. Furthermore, the blacks seemed to think nothing of their attacks, but would simply crush them on their persons in the most nonchalant manner. Sometimes they scorch them off their bodies by means of a lighted stick-a kind office which Yamba performed for me. The blacks had very few real cures for ailments, and such as they had were distinctly curious. One cure for rheumatism was to roll in the black, odourless mud at the edge of a lagoon, and then bask in the blazing sun until the mud became quite caked upon the person.

The question may be asked whether I ever tried to tell my cannibals about the outside world. My answer is, that I only told them just so much as I thought their childish imaginations would grasp. Had I told them more, I would simply have puzzled them, and what they do not understand they are apt to suspect.

Thus, when I showed them pictures of horse-races and sheep farms in the copy of the Sydney Town and Country Journal which I had picked up, I was obliged to tell them that horses were used only in warfare, whilst sheep were used only as food. Had I spoken about horses as beasts of burden, and told them what was done with the wool of the sheep, they would have been quite unable to grasp my meaning, and so I should have done myself more harm than good. They had ideas of their own about astronomy; the fundamental "fact" being that the earth was perfectly flat, the sky being propped up by poles placed at the edges, and kept upright by the spirits of the departed-who, so the medicine-man said, were constantly being sent offerings of food and drink. The Milky Way was a kind of Paradise of souls; whilst the sun was the centre of the whole creation.

I had often puzzled my brain for some method whereby I could convey to these savages some idea of the magnitude of the British Empire. I always had the British Empire in my mind, not only because my sympathies inclined that way, but also because I knew that the first friends to receive me on my return to civilisation must necessarily be British. Over and over again did I tell the childish savages grouped around me what a mighty ruler was the Sovereign of the British Empire, which covered the whole world. Also how that Sovereign had sent me as a special ambassador, to describe to them the greatness of the nation of which they formed part. Thus you will observe I never let my blacks suspect I was a mere unfortunate, cast into their midst by a series of strange chances. I mentioned the whole world because nothing less than this would have done. Had I endeavoured to distinguish between the British Empire and, say, the German, I should have again got beyond my hearers' depth, so to speak, and involved myself in difficulties.

Half instinctively, but without motive, I refrained from mentioning that the ruler of the British Empire was a woman, but this admission dropped from me accidentally one day, and then-what a falling off was there! I instantly recognised the mistake I had made from the contemptuous glances of my blacks. And although I hastened to say that she was a mighty chieftainess, upon whose dominions the sun never set; and that she was actually the direct ruler of the blacks themselves, they repudiated her with scorn, and contemned me for singing the praises of a mere woman. I had to let this unfortunate matter drop for a time, but the subject was ever present in my mind, and I wondered how I could retrieve my position (and her Majesty's) without eating my words. At length one day Yamba and I came across a curious rugged limestone region, which was full of caves. Whilst exploring these we came upon a huge, flat, precipitous surface of rock, and then-how or why, I know not-the idea suddenly occurred to me to draw a gigantic portrait of her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria! At this period, I should mention, I was a recognised chief, and periodically-once every new moon-I gave a kind of reception to my people, and also to the neighbouring tribes. At this interesting function I would always contrive to have some new wonder to unfold. My visitors never outstayed their welcome, and I always managed to have an abundance of food for them.

Well, I came upon the cave region a few weeks after my unfortunate blunder about the Queen; and I determined to have my great portrait ready for the next reception day. Taking some blocks of stone of handy size, I first wetted the surface of the rock and then commenced to rub it, until I had a pretty smooth face to work upon. This took some time, but whilst I was doing it Yamba got ready the necessary charcoal sticks and pigments such as the blacks decorate themselves with at corroborees. I had a slight knowledge of drawing, and climbing up on some projecting stones I commenced to draw in bold, sweeping outline, what I venture to describe as the most extraordinary portrait of Queen Victoria on record. The figure, which was in profile, was perhaps seven feet or eight feet high, and of more than equally extravagant proportions in other respects. Of course, the figure had to be represented entirely without clothing, otherwise the blacks would simply have been puzzled. Now to describe the portrait as much in detail as I dare. The crown was composed of rare feathers such as only a redoubtable and cunning hunter could obtain; and it included feathers of the lyre-bird and emu. The sceptre was a stupendous gnarled waddy or club, such as could be used with fearful execution amongst one's enemies. The nose was very large, because this among the blacks indicates great endurance; whilst the biceps were abnormally developed. In fact, I gave her Majesty as much muscle as would serve for half-a-dozen professional pugilists or "strong men." The stomach was much distended, and when I state this fact I am sure it will excite much curiosity as to the reason why.

Well, as the stomach is practically the greatest deity these savages know, and as food is often very hard to obtain, they argue that a person with a very full stomach must necessarily be a daring and skilful hunter, otherwise he would not be able to get much food to put into it.

This extraordinary portrait was finally daubed and decorated with brilliant pigments and glaring splashes of yellow, red, and blue. I also used a kind of vivid red dye obtained from the sap of a certain creeper which was bruised between heavy stones. I spent perhaps a week or a fortnight on this drawing (I could not give all day to it, of course); and the only persons who knew of its existence were my own children and women-folk. After the completion of the great portrait, I went away, and waited impatiently for my next reception day. When the wonder-loving blacks were again before me I told them that I had a remarkable picture of the great British Queen to show them, and then, full of anticipation and childish delight, they trooped after me to the spot where I had drawn the great picture on the rocks. It is no exaggeration to say that the crowd of cannibals stood and squatted in front of my handiwork simply speechless with amazement. Eventually they burst out into cries of wonderment, making curious guttural sounds with their lips, and smacking their thighs in token of their appreciation. I pointed out every detail-the immense size of the great Queen, and the various emblems of her power; and at last, stepping back from the rock, I sang "God save the Queen," the beautiful national hymn of Great Britain, which I had learned from the two ill-fated girls, and which, you will remember, has the same air as that of a Swiss song.

The general effect not merely removed any bad impression that might have been created with regard to my damaging admission about the sex of the great ruler; it more than re-established me in my old position, and I followed up my success by assuring them that her Majesty included in her retinue of servants a greater number of persons than was represented in the whole tribe before me. Furthermore, I assured them that whilst the mountain home I had built was very large (judged by their standard), the house of Queen Victoria was big enough to hold a whole nation of blacks.

In order to give you some idea of the nervous horror I had of losing prestige, I may tell you that, far from being satisfied with what I had done to vindicate the great Sovereign whose special ambassador I was supposed to be, I soon decided to give yet another demonstration which should impress even those who were inclined to cavil-if any such existed. I pointed out that whilst the Queen, great and powerful and beloved ruler though she was, could not lead her warriors into battle in person, yet she was represented in war time by her eldest son, who was a most redoubtable warrior and spear-thrower, and acted on behalf of his illustrious mother on all occasions when she could not appear. But as mention of the Prince of Wales called for a demonstration of his personality also, I determined to make another experiment in portraiture,-this time in the direction of sculpture. I think it was having come across a very damp country, abounding in plastic clay, that put this idea into my head. First of all, then, I cut down a stout young sapling, which, propped up in the ground, served as the mainstay of my statue; and from it I fastened projecting branches for the arms and legs.

Round this framework I built up my figure with blocks of clay; and at length, after, perhaps, three or four weeks' industrious modelling, I completed a statue of his Royal Highness which measured about seven feet six inches in height. The body and limbs were of abnormal development, much on the lines of my representation of his august mother. Fuller details would be interesting, but hardly edifying. This statue I "unveiled" at another of my monthly receptions, and, judged by its effect, it was even a greater success than the colossal portrait of the Queen. A monster corroboree was held alongside the Prince of Wales's statue, but, unfortunately, he went to pieces in a day or two, when the fierce sun beat down upon the clay, and cracked it. This gradual disintegration of the great ruler's deputy vastly amused the blacks, and I eventually had to hasten the Prince's end, lest their mirth should compromise my dignity.

You will hardly be surprised when I tell you that the blacks looked to me for everything. I was judge, wonder-worker, and arbitrator. Often they would pick up one of my possessions, and, whilst not exactly coveting it, they would ask for one like it.

Take, for example, the reed flutes which, when played by me, were such a source of joy to the blacks and their children. Well, I was soon called upon to make flutes for the natives, which I did out of long reeds; but these instruments only had two holes in them at first, as the blacks could not play them when other holes were added. The great drawback to these flutes was that the reed dried very quickly and became useless for musical purposes; so I was kept pretty busy, more especially as I did not want to create jealousy by refusing some and gratifying others.

Although the immediate country in which I established my home was fertile and extremely rich in tropical vegetation, the adjoining ranges were in striking contrast to it; many districts being rugged and slaty and painfully difficult to traverse on foot. There were, however, many interesting natural curiosities which beguiled the time in travelling.

Once I came across a certain kind of spider, whose web was so strong and thick that it only broke under considerable pressure from the finger. The spider itself was fully two inches or three inches long, and had formidable claws. Inland fishing, too, I found extremely interesting. Of course, the inland blacks have a very different method of fishing from that adopted by the coast tribes. Often the inland people would build a fire on the banks of the lagoon, and throw something into the water to attract the fish to the surface. When the fish rose they would promptly be speared. Some of them weighed as much as ten pounds, and proved excellent eating. The blacks themselves never inquired how the fish came into these inland holes; it was enough for them to know they were there and were good eating. The usual fish-hooks were of bone; and although I experimented with hooks of gold and copper I found them practically useless, and, in the long run, reverted to articles of native manufacture. In a certain limestone country, which I struck in the course of my wanderings, I discovered some extraordinary caves with water-holes, in which blind fish existed. They certainly had indications of eyes, but these were hidden beneath a kind of permanent skin covering. In any case they would have had no use for eyes, because the water-holes were situated

in the most profound darkness. In other caves I discovered quantities of extraordinary animal-bones, probably of prehistoric origin.

If I have omitted to mention Bruno in connection with every incident related in these pages, it must not be supposed that my faithful companion did not play an important part in my daily life.

He was always with me; but it must be remembered that he was now growing old, and the natives around me were by no means so keen to possess him as the tribes of Carpentaria had been in the days gone by.

All kinds of extraordinary incidents befell me whilst on the "walk-about." Many a time have I been deceived by mirage. One most complete deception befell me one day whilst Yamba and I were tramping over a stretch of low, sandy country. Suddenly I fancied I descried the boundless ocean in the distance, and with my usual impetuosity rushed frantically forward in the firm belief that at last we had reached the coast. Yamba explained that it was only a mirage, but I would not stay to listen, and must have gone miles before I gave up in disgust and returned to my patient wife. This brings me to another and perhaps still more extraordinary illusion. One day whilst Yamba and I were passing through one of those eternal regions of sand-hills and spinifex which are the despair of the Australian explorer, I suddenly saw in the distance what I was certain was a flock of sheep. There they were apparently-scores of them, browsing calmly in a depression in a fertile patch where most probably water existed.

In an instant the old desire to return to civilisation, which I had thought buried long ago, reasserted itself, and I dashed forward at full speed yelling back to Yamba, "Sheep, sheep-where sheep are, men are. Civilisation at last!" When at length I had got near enough for the creatures to notice me, you may imagine my disgust and disappointment when quite a little forest of tall heads went high into the air, and a flock of emus raced off across the country at full speed. These huge birds had had their heads down feeding, and not unnaturally, in the distance, I had mistaken them for sheep.

I think every one is aware that prolonged droughts are of very common occurrence in Central Australia, and are mainly responsible for the migratory habits of the aborigines-particularly those of the remote deserts in the interior. The most terrible drought I myself experienced whilst in my mountain home was one that extended over three years, when even the lagoon in front of my dwelling, which I had thought practically inexhaustible, dried up, with the most appalling results. Just think-never a drop of rain falling for over three long years, with a scorching sun darting down its rays almost every day! During this terrible period the only moisture the parched earth received was in the form of the heavy dews that descended in the night. Even these, however, only benefited the vegetation where any continued to exist, and did not contribute in the slightest degree to the natural water supply so necessary for the sustenance of human and animal life. The results were terrible to witness. Kangaroos and snakes; emus and cockatoos; lizards and rats-all lay about either dead or dying; and in the case of animals who had survived, they seemed no longer to fear their natural enemy, man.

Day by day as I saw my lagoon grow gradually smaller, I felt that unless I took some steps to ensure a more permanent supply, my people must inevitably perish, and I with them. Naturally enough, they looked to me to do something for them, and provide some relief from the effects of the most terrible drought which even they had ever experienced. Almost daily discouraging reports were brought to me regarding the drying up of all the better-known water-holes all round the country, and I was at length obliged to invite all and sundry to use my own all but exhausted lagoon. At length things became so threatening that I decided to sink a well. Choosing a likely spot near the foot of a precipitous hill, I set to work with only Yamba as my assistant. Confidently anticipating the best results, I erected a crude kind of windlass, and fitted it with a green-hide rope and a bucket made by scooping out a section of a tree. My digging implements consisted solely of a home-made wooden spade and a stone pick. Yamba manipulated the windlass, lowering and raising the bucket and disposing of the gravel which I sent to the surface, with the dexterity of a practised navvy. What with the heat, the scarcity of water, and the fact that not one of the natives could be relied upon to do an hour's work, it was a terribly slow and wearying business; but Yamba and I stuck to it doggedly day after day.

At the end of a week I had sunk a narrow shaft to a depth of twelve or fourteen feet, and then to my infinite satisfaction saw every indication that water was to be found a little lower down. In the course of the following week I hit upon a spring, and then I felt amply rewarded for all the trouble I had taken. Even when the lagoon was perfectly dry, and only its parched sandy bed to be seen, the supply from our little well continued undiminished; and it proved more than enough for our wants during the whole of the drought. I even ventured to provide the distressed birds and animals with some means of quenching their insupportable thirst. A few yards from the well I constructed a large wooden trough, which I kept filled with water; and each day it was visited by the most extraordinary flocks of birds of every size and variety of plumage-from emus down to what looked like humming-birds. Huge snakes, ten and fifteen feet long, bustled the kangaroos away from the life-giving trough; and occasionally the crowd would be so excessive that some of the poor creatures would have to wait hours before their thirst was satisfied,-and even die on the outer fringe of the waiting throng. I remember that even at the time the scene struck me as an amazing and unprecedented one, for there was I doing my best to regulate the traffic, so to speak, sending away the birds and animals and reptiles whose wants had been satisfied, and bringing skins full of water to those who had fallen down from exhaustion, and were in a fair way to die. As a rule, the creatures took no notice whatever of me, but seemed to realise in some instinctive way that I was their benefactor. Of course I had to cover over the top of the well itself, otherwise it would have been simply swamped with the carcasses of eager animals and birds.

But, it may be asked, why did I take the trouble to supply everything that walked and flew and crawled with water when water was so precious? A moment's thought will furnish the answer. If I suffered all the animals, birds, and reptiles to die, I myself would be without food, and then my last state would be considerably worse than the first.

I think the snakes were the most ungrateful creatures of all. Sometimes they would deliberately coil themselves up in the trough itself, and so prevent the birds from approaching. I always knew when something of this kind had happened, because of the frightful screeching and general uproar set up by the indignant birds-that is to say, such as had the power to screech left. I would hurry to the spot and drag out the cause of the trouble with a forked stick. I never killed him, because there were already enough of his kind dead on every side. The very trees and grass died; and in this originated another almost equally terrible peril-the bush fires, of which more hereafter. Talking about snakes, one day I had a narrow escape from one of these ungrateful reptiles. A number of baby snakes had swarmed into the trough, and I was in the very act of angrily removing them when I heard a shout of horror from Yamba. I swung round, instinctively leaping sideways as I did so, and there, rearing itself high in the air, was an enormous snake, fully twenty feet long. Yamba, without a moment's hesitation, aimed a tremendous blow at it and smashed its head.

The drought was productive of all kinds of curious and remarkable incidents. The emus came in great flocks to the drinking-trough, and some of them were so far gone that they fell dead only a few yards from the fount of life. I picked up a great number of these huge birds, and made their skins into useful bed coverings, rugs, and even articles of clothing. When this terrible visitation was at its height Yamba made a curious suggestion to me. Addressing me gravely one night she said, "You have often told me of the Great Spirit whom your people worship; He can do all things and grant all prayers. Can you not appeal to Him now to send us water?" It was a little bit awkward for me, but as I had often chatted to my wife about the Deity, and told her of His omnipotence and His great goodness to mankind, I was more or less obliged to adopt this suggestion. Accordingly she and I knelt down together one night in our dwelling, and offered up an earnest prayer to God that He would send water to the afflicted country. Next morning that which seemed to me a miracle had been wrought. Incredible though it may appear, all the creeks, which until the previous night had been mere dry watercourses for an untold number of months, were rippling and running with the much-needed water, and we were saved all further anxiety, at any rate for the time. There may be, however, some scientific explanation of this extraordinary occurrence.

No sooner had we recovered from the delight caused by this phenomenally sudden change than the rain came-such rain! and the tremendous tropical downpour lasted for several weeks. The country soon reverted to something like its normal appearance.

The bush fires were extinguished, and even my lagoon came into existence again.

Talking about bush fires, we often saw them raging madly and sublimely in the mountains. They would burn for weeks at a stretch, and devastate hundreds of miles of country. For ourselves, we always prepared for such emergencies by "ringing" our dwelling-that is to say, laying bare a certain stretch of country in a perfect circle around us. Often we were almost choked by the intense heat which the wind occasionally wafted to us, and which, combined with the blazing sun and scarcity of water, rendered life positively intolerable.

I now wish to say a few words about Bruno-a few last sorrowful words-because at this period he was growing feeble, and, indeed, had never been the same since the death of Gibson. Still, I was constantly making use of his sagacity to impress the blacks. My usual custom was to hide some article (such as my tomahawk), near the house in Bruno's presence, and then start off on a tramp accompanied by the blacks.

After we had gone a few miles I would suddenly call a halt, and pretend to my companions that I had forgotten something. Then I would order Bruno to go back and fetch it, with many mysterious whisperings. The dear, sagacious brute always understood what I wanted him to do, and in the course of perhaps an hour or two he would come and lay the article at my feet, and accept the flattering adulation of my black companions with the utmost calmness and indifference. Bruno never forgot what was required of him when we encountered a new tribe of blacks. He would always look to me for his cue, and when he saw me commence my acrobatic feats, he too would go through his little repertoire, barking and tumbling and rolling about with wonderful energy.

His quaint little ways had so endeared him to me that I could not bear to think of anything happening to him. On one occasion, when going through a burning, sandy desert, both he and I suffered terribly from the hot, loose sand which poured between our toes and caused us great suffering. Poor Bruno protested in the only way he could, which was by stopping from time to time and giving vent to the most mournful howls. Besides, I could tell from the gingerly way he put his feet down that the burning sand would soon make it impossible for him to go any farther. I therefore made him a set of moccasins out of kangaroo skin, and tied them on his feet. These he always wore afterwards when traversing similar deserts, and eventually he became so accustomed to them that as soon as we reached the sand he would come to me and put up his paws appealingly to have his "boots" put on!

But now age began to tell upon him; he was getting stiff in his limbs, and seldom accompanied me on hunting expeditions. He seemed only to want to sleep and drowse away the day. He had been a splendid kangaroo hunter, and took quite an extraordinary amount of pleasure in this pursuit. He would run down the biggest kangaroo and "bail him up" unerringly under a tree; and whenever the doomed animal tried to get away Bruno would immediately go for his tail, and compel him to stand at bay once more until I came up to give the coup de grace. Of course, Bruno received a nasty kick sometimes and occasionally a bite from a snake, poisonous and otherwise. He was not a young dog when I had him first; and I had now made up my mind that he could not live much longer. He paid but little attention in these days to either Yamba or myself, and in this condition he lingered on for a year or more.

One morning I went into the second hut-which we still called Gibson's, by the way, although he had never lived there-when to my dismay and horror (notwithstanding that I was prepared for the event), I beheld my poor Bruno laid out stiff and stark on the little skin rug that Gibson had originally made for him. I do not think I knew how much I loved him until he was gone. As I stood there, with the tears coursing down my cheeks, all the strange events of my wondrous career seemed to rise before my mind-events in which poor dead Bruno always took an active part. He was with me on the wreck; he was with me on the island; he was with me in all my wanderings and through all my sufferings and triumphs. He got me out of many a scrape, and his curious little eccentricities, likes, and dislikes afforded me never-ending delight. But now he was gone the way of all flesh; and although I had expected this blow for many months, I do not think this mitigated my poignant grief. Yamba, too, was terribly grieved at his death, for she had become most devotedly attached to him and he to her. I rolled the body of the faithful creature in a kind of preservative earth and then in an outer covering of bark. This done I laid him on a shelf in one of the caves where the wild dogs could not get at him, and where the body of Gibson, similarly treated, had also been placed.

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