Meeting with Old Friends
On the African coast.—Meeting with old friends.—Changes in four years.—The Captain's misgivings.
On the 5th of August we sailed from London. I will not weary you with a narrative of the voyage. The days passed pleasantly on board the Mentor. By the end of the month of August we were not far from the Tropic of Cancer. September glided away calmly, and on the 7th of October Captain Vardon said that the following day we should come in sight of land.
Accordingly, the next morning I heard from the main-top the cry of "Land! land!" Two hours afterward from the deck I could discern the low lands of the Commi country. Nearer and nearer the coast we came, until we could see the white surf breaking with terrific force on the shore, and hear the booming sound of the angry waves as they dashed against the breakers. The country was so monotonous in its outlines that we could not make out exactly where we were; we only knew that we were south of Cape Lopez, and not very far from it. I thought it strange that I could not recognize the mouth of the Fernand Vaz or Commi River.
No canoes could ride through the surf, so no natives could come on board. In the evening we stood off the land and shortened sail, and afterward we cast anchor.
The next morning we sailed again in a southerly direction, and at last we saw a canoe pass through the breakers; it came alongside, and the negroes in it shouted in English, "Put down the anchor! Plenty of ivory, plenty of every thing; load the ship in a fort-night."
We had passed the Fernand Vaz, having sailed too far south. The mouth of the river itself is very difficult to discover. Perhaps you may recollect my having formerly described it as discernible only by the white surf combing over its bar, by large flocks of fish-eating birds hovering in the air above it, and by a long, white sandy point forming the extremity of the land on the left bank.
As we approached the river, two canoes left the shore and made for the vessel. In the first, as it neared us, I recognized my friend Adjouatonga, a chief belonging to the clan Adjiéna, whose villages occupied the mouth of the river. He climbed up the vessel's side, and went to shake hands with the captain, and then advanced toward me to do the same. I had not said a word, but upon my raising my hat, which had been pulled down so as partly to conceal my face, and turning round upon him, he stepped back in astonishment, and, recognizing me at once, cried out in his own language, "Are you Chally, or his spirit? Have you come from the dead for we have heard you were dead. Tell me quickly, for I do not know whether I am to believe my own eyes. Perhaps I am getting a kendé" (an idiot, a fool). And I said, "Adjouatonga, I am Chally, your friend!" The good fellow embraced me in a transport of joy, but he hugged me so tight and so long that I wished his friendship had been less enthusiastic. Four years, had nearly gone by since I had left the Commi country.
As the second canoe came nearer, I ordered Adjouatonga not to say a word. My heart leaped for joy, for in it were my own people from the dear, good old African Washington of mine. Sholomba, the nephew of King Ranpano, was there, and my boy Macondai; all my former canoe-men, Kombé, Ratenou, Oshimbo, were in that canoe. I longed for them to come on board. I could hardly restrain myself; but I felt that I must appear as if I did not know them, and see whether they would recognize me.
In a moment they were on deck, and a wild shout of joy came from them, "Our white man has come back! Chally! Chally!" and they all rushed toward me. Good fellows! in their savage natures they loved me, and they remembered the friend who had never wronged them. I was seized and almost pulled to pieces, for they all wanted to hug me at the same time. Captain Vardon looked with perfect amazement at the scene of greeting. They seemed to be crazy with joy to see me again.
Then followed a long and confused account of what had taken place since my departure, all talking at the same time.
When we had come back to our senses, the next subject to be considered was how I was to get ashore. Of course I wished to go by the mouth of the river, but Sholomba assured me it could not be done. The mouth of the Fernand Vaz had changed much for the worse, and it would be less dangerous to run a canoe through the surf to the beach than to attempt to cross the bar of the river. It was now the beginning of the rainy season, when the winds are less violent than in the dry season, but the surf had not subsided from the agitation of the heavy south winds of the dry season.
The anchor was cast, and I left the Mentor in Adjouatonga's canoe, which was a better one than the other.
All was excitement in the canoe, and the men sang. Adjouatonga, looking more and more anxious as we approached the rollers, rested outside for a while, and then, at the proper moment, skillfully directed the frail canoe over the crest of a huge wave, which bore us with lightning speed to the beach, where I was caught up by the natives that were waiting for us, and carried safely to dry land. Tremendous huzzas were given.
Once more I stood on African soil.
The people recognized me, and I was hurried along, amidst a crowd of several hundred savages, all dancing and shouting with frantic joy, across the sandy tongue of land to the banks of the Commi, my own Commi River, where canoes were waiting to take us to Washington and to old King Ranpano.
Time had wrought great changes in the land of my former explorations. The mouth of the river had altered so much that I could hardly recognize it. The long, sandy, reed-covered pits, which projected three miles from the southern point of the river's mouth, and which had been the scene of many hunting adventures with ducks, cranes, and sea-gulls, had disappeared, and the sea had washed the sand away, and taken the greater part of it to the northern side of the village of Elinde, whose chief, Sangala, had given me so much trouble in former times. The spot where Sangala's village had stood had become untenanted and the people had removed. Many a dear little island, where I used to hide to shoot birds, had also been submerged or washed away, and I no longer saw the flocks of sea-fowl which formerly frequented the locality.
I felt sad indeed; a pang of sorrow shot through me. It was like a dream; the scene of my former hunting had vanished, and nothing but the record of what I had written about the land was left. I can not express to you the lonely feeling that came over me. Though every thing was changed, the former picture of the landscape was before me. I remembered every island, every little outlet, the herd of hippopotami, the "Caroline" inside the bar quietly at anchor.
Oh, I would have given any thing if I could have seen the country as it was when I left it! I had been so happy, I spent so many pleasant days there, I had so loved to roam on that sandy point, and to lie on its sand! Now it was nothing but a dream; it had been swept away.
The canoes in the river being ready, I embarked in one, followed by all the others, the people singing, "Our ntangani (white man) has come back. Oh, how we love our white man! Oh, how our white man loves us! for he has come back to us. Yes, we never stole from our white man; our white man remembers that, and he comes back to us, for he is not afraid of us."
Paddling up the stream, many, many sights I recognized; many mangrove-trees I remembered; the old banks of the river were familiar to me. I looked eagerly at every thing around.
Halloo! what do I see yonder? a herd of hippopotami motionless in the water, and looking for all the world like old logs stuck in the mud. Familiar species of cranes stalked about here and there, the pelican swam majestically, the kingfishers were watching for their prey, with white cranes and ducks not far from them.
Thus we glided along up the river. My heart was full; I did not speak a word. Soon we came in front of my old settlement of Washington, of which I gave you a picture in my Apingi Kingdom.
Nothing but ruins! The houses had all tumbled down; a few bamboos and rotting poles alone remained to show me where my big house stood. The four trees between which my house had been built were still there; the gum copal tree was in front: The little village for my men was not to be seen; desolation had taken possession of the place. One single house was still standing. The men stopped their singing; their faces became sad. A feeling that some misfortune had happened seized me.
I got up and shouted, looking the men steadily in the face, "Where is Rikimongani, my friend, he whom I intrusted with the settlement of Washington?" "Dead, dead," said they. "The people were jealous that you loved him so well, and they did not want him to see you again, and they bewitched him; he fell ill, and died."
"Rikimongani dead!" I exclaimed. I took off my hat as we passed the place and said, "Oh, how sorry I am, Rikimongani! What shall I do with the fine old coat I have for you? what shall I do with the nice cane and the fine hat I have brought for you? Oh, dear Rikimongani, I have many presents for you. Rikimongani, did you know how much I loved you?"
"See," shouted the men, "how much he loved Rikimongani!"
"Oh, yes," said the canoe-men, "he always talked of you, and said he was sure you would come back, though we all said that you would not, and that you would forget us. Rikimongani used to say, 'One day we shall see a white sail, and Chally will be on board, and he will land and come to see us again.' In the evenings he would talk of you to us boys."
Tears filled my eyes. Then Sholomba whispered to Me, "When the wizards who were accused of having bewitched Rikimongani were about to drink the mboundou, they said, 'Chally has killed Rikimongani, for he will never come back here, and he loves Rikimongani so much that he has killed him, so that he might have his spirit always with him.' And," said Sholomba, "many believed them, but many did not."
"We must not land here," said Sholomba. "Chally, you must never build here; the people are afraid of the place; nobody will dare to come here, for people die always in this place. Several times villages had been built, and the people had to leave this spot. Witchcraft is here."
I felt that I had come back to a wild life, full of superstitions and legends.
We paddled till we came two miles above my place of Washington, which had brought back so many reminiscences to me. Though I would have liked to build again there, I could not think of it on account of the superstitious dread of the natives for the spot.
When we stopped, Sholomba and Djombouai had reached their little village. Ranpano was away from home, on the Ogobai River. So I resolved to build a new settlement close to their village.
Messengers were sent to King Ranpano to tell him to come, and the news spread over the country that Chally had come back, and the people from all the villages and the country round came trooping by land and water to see their old friend, and to hear about the stores of good things he had brought with him. They came pouring in day after day, camping in the woods, on the prairie, every where. They would endure hunger rather than go home. Many, many an old face I saw; many a kind-hearted woman came and told me how glad she was to see me; many boys and girls who had grown up said they wanted to work for me; many people brought me presents of food.
How pleased I was! Oh yes, I had tried to do right with these savages, and they knew it, and they loved me for it. I knew that not one of them thought unkindly of me.
The day after my landing I dispatched Sholomba with a canoe filled with paddlers up the river. Those among you who have followed me in my former adventures must guess where I sent that canoe.
To the village of King Quengueza, that dear old chief. I wanted to see his face. I had brought great numbers of presents for him, to show him that in the white man's country I had thought of him. I had brought presents for many of his people, his nephews, sons, and nieces. His old faithful slaves were not forgotten—good old Etia among them; and his head slave Mombon.
So one canoe had gone for friend Ranpano, and another for good old Quengueza.
Canoes strong enough to go through the surf were coming from all the villages. Huts were given to me in which to store my goods, and now we had reached the point of bringing them ashore.
It was necessary for me to go on board the Mentor, and arrange the mode of disembarkation of my extensive outfit and stock of goods. As the mouth of the river had become unsafe on account of the breaking-up of the sandy pit, and was now an uninterrupted line of breakers, we resolved to land every thing on the beach through the surf, and then carry them across to the river, and put them in other canoes, which were to carry them to my new settlement.
So on the 14th I went to the schooner, and slept on board that night. Captain Vardon was somewhat anxious; he had never been on this wild and unfrequented part of the coast, so far from any civilized settlements, and when he saw me he was delighted, and said that he began to think that the natives had murdered me. He had kept an armed guard on the watch all the time, for, said he, such a country looked exactly like one where the natives could pounce upon the unsuspecting vessel, murder the crew, and rob the ship. I assured him that there was no danger; that I could do what I wished with the Commi people, as he would be able to see for himself and that, though many of the boxes would have to be opened, and the goods deposited loose in the canoes, not a single thing would be stolen.
Knowing the negroes of the Coast (for he had been a trader), he seemed somewhat incredulous at my statement.