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The Adventures of Louis de Rougemont By Louis de Rougemont Characters: 32400

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


I make a perambulator-Meeting with whites-A dreadful habit-The miracle of Moses-Preparing a demonstration-An expectant audience-Yamba growing feeble-One tie snapped-Yamba's pathetic efforts-Vain hopes-Yamba dying-Nearing the end-My sole desire-A mass of gold-I seek trousers and shirt-An interesting greeting-A startling question-Towards Mount Margaret-The French Consul-I reach London.

I always felt instinctively that any attempt at missionary enterprise on my part would be dangerous, and might besides afford jealous medicine-men and other possible enemies an excellent opportunity of undermining my influence.

Sometimes, however, when all the tribe was gathered together, I would bring up the subject of cannibalism, and tell them that the Great Spirit they feared so much had left with me a written message forbidding all feasting off the bodies of human beings. The "written message" I referred to on these occasions was my old Bible. Of course the blacks failed to understand its purport as a book, having no written language of their own; but my manner and words served to impress them.

My natives seemed ever to manifest the keenest interest in the accounts I gave them of the wonderful resources of civilisation; but experience showed that I must adapt my descriptions to the intellect of my hearers. For example, I used to tell them that in the great cities ("camps" I called them) there was never any real darkness if men chose, because there were other lights at command which could be turned off and on at will. The most effective analogy in this respect was the twinkling of the stars in the heavens; but my hearers were greatly amazed to think that such lights could be under the command of man.

The blacks had long since put me down as a great spirit come to visit them, and they even located by common consent a certain star in the heavens which they decided was at one time my home, and to which I should eventually return. Every time I made a false step, I had to devise some new "miracle" by way of counterblast.

On one occasion I actually made a perambulator for the conveyance of children! It was the very first time that these primitive savages had seen the principle of the wheel applied to locomotion, and it passed their comprehension altogether. With childish delight and an uproar that baffles all description, both men and women almost fought with one another for the honour of pushing the crude little conveyance about. The perambulator was made out of logs, and was a four-wheeled vehicle; the rims of the wheels being cut from a hollow tree. My blacks were also much amazed at the great size of my mountain home; but their wonderment increased greatly when I explained to them that some of the buildings in the great "camps" of the white man were as large as the hills, and much more numerous.

Elsewhere I have spoken of the extraordinary system of telegraphy that exists among the blacks. Well, in the early eighties news began to reach me that numbers of white men had appeared in the north; and in one of my many long tramps I one day came upon a party of white men engaged in prospecting. I speak of this remarkable meeting thus abruptly because their tent met my gaze in the most abrupt manner possible. It is ever so in the Australian bush.

I found that this party was by no means an isolated one, and I actually stayed in various camps for a few days, before returning to my mountain home. I need hardly remark that the white men were far more astonished to see me than I was at meeting them. Of course I could have joined them and gone back to civilisation, but this I would not do without my native wife and family. It was in the Kimberley district that I met these parties of prospectors; and I may here remark that I had for some time been aware of the existence of this auriferous region. I learned afterwards that the Kimberley was geographically the nearest point I might have made for in order to reach civilisation.

When I settled down again in my mountain home I soon fell into my old way of living, which was practically identical with that of the blacks, save that I did not always accompany them when they shifted camp. Parties of natives were constantly calling upon me, and would stay perhaps three or four days at a time. I encouraged these visits, and invariably prepared some entertainment for my guests,-even going to the extent of providing them with wives, according to native custom. But, you will ask, where did I get wives to hand round in this convenient fashion? A very interesting question this, and one which requires a somewhat lengthy answer. Now, the blacks do not look upon the advent of a female child with any favour; on the contrary, they frequently get rid of it at once in order to save themselves the trouble of taking it with them when on the walk-about.

As I was always very fond of children, I decided to try and put a stop to this dreadful habit of child-murder, so I made it known far and wide that parents could pass their girl-babies on to me, and I would rear and look after them. The result of this widely-advertised offer was that I soon had quite an orphan asylum established-an institution which was valuable to me in many ways. Quite apart from the satisfaction I derived from knowing I had saved these children from a terrible death, I was looked upon as a kind of prospective father-in-law on a gigantic scale, and young men came from all parts to treat with me for wives.

As I have said before, my regular reception days were held at the new moon.

My visitors, as well as my own people, gradually grew to have quite a reverence for the Bible; but I am afraid it was not on account of the sacredness of the book, but rather owing to the wonderful things it contained, and which were interpreted by me in such a way as would appeal directly to the primitive minds of these people.

Oftentimes I made mistakes. For instance, what seemed to interest them enormously was the story of how Moses struck the rock and obtained a miraculous supply of water. Anything in the way of fresh water procured in the desert interested them keenly. Only, unfortunately, they floored me by asking me to accomplish a similar miracle!

Another Bible story which brought me some discomfiture was about Balaam and his ass. Now, when I decided to tell the story of Balaam, I knew from experience that if I mentioned an "ass," that animal would require all kinds of tedious explanation, which would probably result in needless mystification and consequent suspicion; so I boldly plunged into the story of Balaam and his kangaroo! But what staggered the blacks altogether was that Balaam's kangaroo should be able to speak. Now, it seems that a talking animal is the greatest possible joke known to the blacks, and so my narrative was greeted with uproarious mirth; and my "impossible" story even spread from tribe to tribe. I found it was no use telling the blacks anything they could not readily comprehend.

One day I told them about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire and brimstone, and this again landed me in disaster, for I was promptly asked how could any one, Great Spirit or other, burn up the stones of which the houses were composed? And, of course, each instance of this kind would be pounced upon by a tribal medicine-man or some other jealous enemy, and used to discredit me. A few days after telling the Sodom and Gomorrah story, I was on a walk-about with Yamba in my mountain region, when I suddenly discovered that shale existed in very considerable quantities, and I thereupon conceived the idea of demonstrating to the blacks that, not only was the Bible narrative a true one, but that it was quite possible to ignite stone; and I would even show them how it was done!

Aided by Yamba and other members of my family, I constructed an immense shaft-like cairn, mainly composed of loose pieces of shale intermixed with sandstone. I put in the sandstone and other stones, partly in order that the blacks might not notice the uniform construction of the cairn; and partly also because I knew that when the ordinary stones were heated, they would probably burst or explode with a loud sound, and so terrify the superstitious onlookers. The cairn was about fifteen feet high, with an opening at the summit and other small openings at the sides in order to ensure a good draught. At the base I left an opening sufficiently large for me to crawl through. Then I placed inside a quantity of inflammable material-such as wood and dry bark;-and as all these preparations went forward in a very leisurely manner, my monthly reception was quite due when everything was ready. Wishing to have an exceptionally large gathering, I sent out invitations to all the surrounding tribes to come and see my wonderful performance at which I would "set fire to the rocks and stones."

A perfectly enormous crowd assembled at the time appointed, for my previous achievements had led the black-fellows to suppose I had some marvellous manifestation in store for them. Never can I forget the keenness with which that great assembly anticipated the entertainment in store for them. And remember, they were growing pretty blasé by this time, having witnessed so many miracles.

In the twilight of the evening, when the murmur of the multitude was hushed, I crawled cautiously into the cairn (I should have been buried alive had it collapsed), and at once commenced operations with the flint and steel and tinder which I had taken care to leave there. In another minute I had set fire to the wood and dry material that filled the bottom of the shaft. When I was satisfied that it was thoroughly alight, I discreetly withdrew and joined the wondering crowd, which I had forbidden to approach too close. Dense clouds of smoke were now rolling from the apertures of the great cairn, and in a short time the shaft was a fierce and raging furnace, with the ordinary stones red hot and occasionally bursting with loud explosions, which threw showers of glowing slag high into the air.

The blacks were almost paralysed with fear, and many of them threw themselves prostrate on the ground, ignoring the hail of stones that fell upon their naked bodies. I stalked about majestically among them, exulting in my power and the success of my manifestation. The big cairn burnt for many days more fiercely than even a stack of coal would do; and I never ceased to wonder that the blacks themselves had not long ago found out the inflammable nature of the "stone."

By this time Yamba could speak English tolerably well, but we did not invariably use that language.

Gradually and half unconsciously I fell into the habit of speaking the native tongue, until I suddenly found that the practice was obtaining such a firm hold upon me that I was forgetting French altogether; whilst it was only with difficulty that I could form grammatical sentences in English. I soon came to the conclusion, therefore, that it was necessary for me to hold much more converse in English than I had hitherto done; and from the moment that this curious "scare" suggested itself to my mind, Yamba and I and our children spoke nothing but English when we were by ourselves in the evening. I cultivated my knowledge of English in preference to any other language, because I knew that if ever we should reach civilisation, English and not French would be the language spoken. It may be interesting also to mention that one of the first indications I had that I was losing my English was an inability to think in that language.

In general appearance I was now absolutely like a black, and wore only an apron of emu skin as a protection against the scrub I encountered when on the walk-about. In the ordinary way I never had any marks upon me with the exception of these scratches. Of course, on festive occasions, I was gaily painted and decorated, and no doubt I would have been initiated into manhood, and borne the tribal and other marks, were it not for the fact that I was a man when I came among the blacks.

It is obviously impossible for me to record minutely the happenings of every day, mainly because only the salient incidents stand out in my mind. Besides, I have already dealt with the daily routine, and have probably repeated myself in minor details.

A constant source of grief to me was the weakly condition of my two children, who I knew could never attain mature age. And knowing they were doomed, I think I loved them all the more.

Yet so incomprehensible is human nature that I often found myself speculating on what I should do after they-and Yamba-were gone; because by this time my faithful helpmate was growing ominously feeble. You must remember that when I first met her on the desert island she was an oldish woman, judged by the native standard; that is to say, she was about thirty.

The death-bed of my boy is a scene I can never forget. He called me to him, and said he was very glad he was dying, because he felt he would never have been strong enough to fight his way through life, and endure daily what the other black boys endured. Therefore, he argued wistfully, and half inquiringly, he would only be a burden to me. He was a very affectionate and considerate little fellow, with an intelligence far beyond that of the ordinary aboriginal child. He spoke in English, because I had taught both him and his sister that language. At the last I learned-for the first time-that it was always worrying him, and almost breaking his little heart, that he could never compete with the black boys in their games of strength and skill; and no doubt he would have become an outcast were it not that he was my son.

Almost his last whispered words to me were that he would be able to assist me more in the Spirit-land than ever he could hope to do in the flesh. He was perfectly conscious to the last, and as I knelt down by his couch of fragrant eucalyptus leaves, and stooped low to catch his whispered message, he told me he seemed to be entering a beautiful new country, where the birds always sang and the flowers bloomed for ever. Spirit voices kept calling him, he said, and he felt himself being irresistibly drawn away from me.

Upon my own feelings I do not wish to dwell. All I will say is I kissed my boy on the eyes and mouth, and then, with a soft "Good-bye, they have come for me," he closed his eyes for ever.

I felt it was to be. A few days afterwards the little girl, my remaining child, was taken ill, and so feeble was she, that she soon joined her brother in the better land. I seemed to be overwhelmed with misfortunes, but the greatest of all was yet to come. I have hinted that Yamba was beginning to show signs of infirmity through advancing years. I could not help noticing, with a vague feeling of helpless horror and sickening foreboding, that she had lost her high spirits and keen perception-to say nothing about the elasticity of her tread and her wonderful physical endurance generally. She was no longer able to accompany me on the long and interesting tramps which we had now taken together for so many years. Her skin began to wither and wrinkle, and she gradually took on the appearance of a very old woman. The result of this was I began to have fits of frightful depression and acute misery. I stayed at home a good deal now, partly because I knew the country thoroughly and no longer cared to explore, and partly also because I missed the companionship and invaluable assistance of my devoted wife. I constantly buoyed myself up with the hope that Yamba was only ailing temporarily, and that her enfeebled condition had been brought on mainly by the misfortunes that had befallen us of late. But she grew more and more feeble, and both she and I knew that the end was not far off. Never once, however, did we allude to such a catastrophe; and whenever I fixed my eyes earnestly upon her in the vain hope of discerning some more favourable symptom, she would pretend not to notice me.

I would sometimes take her for a long walk, which was really much beyond her strength, solely in order that we might delude ourselves with vain ho

pes. And she, poor creature, would tax herself far beyond her strength in order to afford me a happiness which the real state of things did not justify.

For instance, she would run and leap and jump in order to show that she was as young as ever; but after these strange and pathetic demonstrations she would endeavour to conceal her great exhaustion.

Very soon my poor Yamba was obliged to remain at home altogether; and as she grew more and more infirm, she plucked up courage to tell me that she knew she was going to die, and was rather glad than otherwise, because then I would be able to return to civilisation-that goal for which I had yearned through so many years. She pointed out to me that it would not be so difficult now, as I had already been brought into contact with parties of white men; and, besides, we had long ago had news brought to us about the construction of the Trans-Continental Telegraph Line from Adelaide to Port Darwin. No sooner had she spoken of death than I broke down again altogether. The thought that she should be taken from me was so cruel that its contemplation was quite insupportable, and I threw myself down beside her in a perfect agony of grief and dread.

I told her I did not mind how long I remained among the blacks so long as she was with me; and I tried to persuade her, with all the eloquence I could muster, that, far from dying, she would return to civilisation with me, so that I might spread abroad to the whole world the story of her devotion and her virtues. As she continued merely to smile pityingly, I changed my tone and dwelt upon the past. I went through the whole story of my life, from the time she was cast upon the desert island in the Sea of Timor, and at the recital of all the hardships and dangers, joys and troubles, which we had passed through together, she broke down also, and we wept long and bitterly in one another's arms.

By this time she had become a convert to Christianity, but this was entirely a matter of her own seeking. She had such implicit belief in my wisdom and knowledge, that she begged me to tell her all about my religion in order that she might adopt it as her own. Like most converts, she was filled with fiery zeal and enthusiasm, and tried to soften the approaching terror by telling me she was quite happy at the thought of going, because she would be able to look after me even more than in the past. "How different it would have been with me," she used to say, "had I remained with my old tribe. I should still be under the belief that when I died my highest state would be to be turned into an animal; but now I know that a glorious future awaits us, and that in due time you will join me in heaven."

Yamba did not suffer any physical pain, nor was she actually confined to her bed until four days before her death. As the various tribes knew the love and admiration I had for her, the fact that she lay dying spread rapidly, and crowds of natives flocked to my mountain home.

Widespread sympathy was expressed for me; and all kinds of tender consideration were evinced by these savages. All day long an incessant stream of women-folk kept coming to the hut and inquiring after my dying wife.

It seemed to be Yamba's sole anxiety that I should be well equipped for the journey back to civilisation. She would rehearse with me for hours the various methods adopted by the black-fellows to find water; and she reminded me that my course at first was to be in a southerly direction until I came to a region where the trees were blazed, and then I was to follow the track that led westward. She had elicited this information for me from the blacks with remarkable acuteness.

These last days seemed to pass very quickly, and one night the dying woman had a serious relapse. Hitherto she had always addressed me as "Master," but now that she stood in the Valley of the Shadow she would throw her arms about my neck and whisper softly, "Good-bye, my husband. Good-bye, I am going-going-going. I will wait for you-there."

For myself I could not seem to realise it. Sometimes I would rise up with the sole intention of finding out whether this frightful thing was or was not a ghastly dream. Then my memory would go back over the long years, and every little instance of unselfishness and devotion would rise before my mind. As I looked at the prostrate and attenuated form that lay silent on the couch of eucalyptus leaves, I felt that life was merely the acutest agony, and that I must immediately seek oblivion in some form or the other, or lose my reason. It seemed, I say, impossible that Yamba could cease to be. It seemed the cruellest and most preposterous thing that she could be taken from me.

Frantically I put my arms around her and actually tried to lift her on to her feet, begging of her to show how robust she was as in the days of yore. I whispered into her ears all the memories of the past, and the poor creature would endeavour to respond with a series of feeble efforts, after which she sank back suddenly and breathed a last pitiful sigh.

Language is utterly futile to describe my horror-my distraction. I felt as I imagined a man would feel after amputation of all his members, leaving only the quivering and bleeding trunk. I felt that life held no more joy, no more hope; and gladly would I have welcomed death itself as a happy release from the wretchedness of living. In my delirium of grief I often besought the repulsive savages about me to spear me where I stood.

Upon this subject I can dwell no more, because of what followed I have only the vaguest recollection.

For days I seemed to live in a kind of dream, and was not even sure that the people I met day by day were real beings. As to my awful loss, I am sure I did not realise it. What I did realise, however, was the necessity for immediate action. Like a dream to me also is the memory of the sincere grief of my blacks and their well-meant endeavours to console me. The women kept up a mournful howl, which nearly drove me crazy, and only strengthened my resolve to get away from that frightful place. So dazed did I become, that the blacks concluded some strange spirit must have entered into me.

They seemed to take it for granted that I left all arrangements for the funeral to them; the sole idea that possessed me being to complete my arrangements for the great journey I had before me. I told the natives frankly of my intention, and immediately forty of them volunteered to accompany me on my travels as far as I chose to permit them to come. I readily accepted the kindly offer, partly because I knew that alone I should have gone mad; and partly also because I instinctively realised that with such a bodyguard I would have nothing to fear either from human foes or the tortures of thirst.

I left everything. I cut off my long hair with my stiletto and distributed it among the natives to be made into bracelets, necklaces, and other souvenirs; and then I departed with little ceremony from the place where I had spent so many years of weird and strange exile. Most of my belongings I gave away, and I think I turned my back upon my mountain home with little or no regret. My dress consisted solely of the usual covering of emu skin; whilst attached to a belt round my waist were my tomahawk and stiletto. My bow and arrows were slung over my shoulder. Day after day we marched steadily on, precisely as though we were on a walk-about. The conditions of the country were constantly changing, and I came across many evidences of its natural richness in minerals-more particularly gold.

One day as we were all resting near the base of a rock, which was a kind of huge outcrop from the plain, I began idly to chip the stone with my tomahawk. Suddenly the edge glanced aside, revealing a bright, shining, yellow metal. I sprang to my feet in astonishment, and realised in a moment that this great mass of rock was auriferous to an enormous degree, and there was one gigantic nugget, spread out tentacle-wise in it, which if removed would, I am sure, be as much as a couple of men could carry.

Week after week passed by, and still we continued our southward march. In time, of course, my companions returned to their own country; but so leisurely had our progress been that I had ample time thoroughly to ingratiate myself with other tribes,-so that, as usual, I went from tribe to tribe practically armed only with my own knowledge of the savages and my invaluable repertoire of tricks. In the course of months I came upon the blazed or marked trees, and then struck due west.

Very few incidents worth recording befell me, and I kept steadily on my way for eight or nine months. At last-at last-I came upon unmistakable signs of the proximity of "civilisation"; for strewn along the track we were now following were such things as rusty meat-tins; old papers; discarded and very much ant-eaten clothing; tent-pegs; and numerous other evidences of pioneer life. One day, about noon, I espied an encampment of tents 500 or 600 yards ahead of me, and I promptly brought my men to a halt whilst I went forward a little to reconnoitre. Curiously enough, the sight of these tents did not cause me any great emotion. You see, I had met prospectors before in the Kimberley region, and besides, I had been looking for these tents so long from the time I first came across the evidences of civilisation aforesaid, that my only surprise was I had not reached them before. Walking about were Europeans in the usual dress of the Australian prospector. Suddenly a strange feeling of shyness and hesitancy came over me. Almost stark naked and darkened as I was-a veritable savage, in fact-I realised I could not go and introduce myself to these men without proper clothing. I knew the value of caution in approaching so-called civilised men, having had bitter experience with the Giles expedition. Returning to my blacks, I told them that at last I had come up with my own people, but did not want to join them for some little time yet. Then I selected a couple of my companions, and explained to them that I wanted some white man's clothing.

I instructed them to creep quietly into the camp, take a pair of trousers and shirt that were hanging outside one of the tents, and bring back these articles to me. They undertook the commission with evident delight, but when they returned in the course of a few minutes they brought only the shirt with them; the trousers, it seemed having been removed no doubt by the owner, a few minutes before they arrived. My blacks were intensely amused when I donned the shirt; and considering that this was practically the only article of wearing apparel I possessed, I have no doubt I did cut a very ludicrous figure. Then came another difficulty. I reflected I could not possibly go and show myself among these white men wearing one of their own shirts. Finally I decided to bid farewell then and there to my escort, and continue my march alone until I reached another encampment.

In the course of another day or so I reached a second camp. Into this I decided to venture and explain who I was. Before taking this step, however, I rubbed off all the clayey coating on my skin, trimmed my hair and beard to a respectable length by means of a firestick, and threw away my bow, which was now my only remaining weapon; then I marched boldly into the camp. Some five or six bronzed prospectors were seated at supper round the fire in front of the tent as I approached; and when they caught sight of me they stared, astounded for the moment, and then burst into laughter, under the impression that I was one of their own black servants playing some joke upon them. When I was but a few yards away, however, I called out in English-

"Halloa, boys! have you room for me?"

They were too much taken aback to reply immediately, and then one of them said-

"Oh yes; come and sit down."

As I seated myself among them they asked-

"Have you been out prospecting?"

"Yes," I said quietly, "and I have been away a very long time."

"And where did you leave your mates?" was the next question.

"I had no mates," I told them. "I undertook my wanderings practically alone."

They looked at one another, winked, and smiled incredulously at this. Then one of them asked me if I had found any gold.

I said, "Oh yes, plenty of gold," and then the next query-a most natural one-was, "Well, why have you not brought some of the stuff back with you? How far have you travelled?"

I told them I had been tramping through the heart of the Continent for eight or nine months, and that I had no means of carrying nuggets and quartz about with me. But this explanation only served to renew their merriment, which reached its climax when, in an unguarded moment, I put a question which I had been burning to ask-

"What year is this?"

"This is Bellamy's 'Looking Backward' with a vengeance," cried one of the prospectors-a sally that was heartily appreciated by the whole of the company, with the exception of myself. I began to think that if this was the reception civilisation had for me, it were better for me to have remained among my faithful savages.

But in a few minutes the men's demeanour changed, and it was obvious that they looked upon me as a harmless lunatic just emerged from the bush. I was assured that this conclusion was correct when I saw the diggers looking at one another significantly and tapping their foreheads. I resolved to tell them nothing further about myself, well knowing that the more I told them the more convinced they would be that I was a wandering lunatic. I learned that these men were a party of decent young fellows from Coolgardie. They offered me a meal of tea and damper, and pressed me to stay the night with them, but I declined their hospitality. I gratefully accepted a pair of trousers, but declined the offer of a pair of boots, feeling certain that I could not yet bear these on my feet. My rough benefactors told me that I should find many other camps to the south and west; so I wandered off into the bush again and spent the night alone.

My next move was in the direction of Mount Margaret; and along the road which I traversed I came across an interesting variety of picks, shovels, and other mining tools, which had evidently been discarded by disappointed prospectors. I decided not to enter this town but to go round it; then I continued my tramp alone towards Coolgardie and thence to Southern Cross.

After working for some time in the last-named town (my impressions of "civilisation" would make another whole book), I made my way to Perth, the capital of Western Australia. In Perth I was advised that it would be better for me to go to Melbourne, as I would stand a much better chance there of getting a ship on which I might work my passage to Europe. Accordingly I proceeded to Melbourne as soon as I could, and the only noteworthy incident there was my humorous interview with the French Consul. I addressed that dignified functionary in execrable French, telling him that I was a French subject and wanted to be sent back to Europe. I bungled a great deal, and when my French failed I helped myself out with English. The Consul waited patiently till I had finished, stroking his beard the while, and looking at me in the most suspicious manner.

"You claim this because you are a Frenchman?" he said.

"That is so," I replied, involuntarily relapsing into English once more.

"Well," he said coldly, as he turned away, "the next time you say you are a Frenchman you had better not use any English at all, because you speak that language better than I do."

I tried to argue the point with him, and told him I had been shipwrecked, but when I went on to explain how long ago that shipwreck was, he smiled in spite of himself, and I came away. From Melbourne I went to Sydney, and from Sydney to Brisbane.

About May 1897, I found myself in Wellington, New Zealand, where I was advised I stood an excellent chance of getting a ship to take me to England. I sailed in the New Zealand Shipping Company's Waikato, and landed in London in March 1898.

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