Gateway to the Classics: The Country of the Dwarfs by Paul du Chaillu
The Country of the Dwarfs by  Paul du Chaillu

Ravages of the Plague

Burial of Olenda.—A desolated valley.—Suspicions aroused.—Robbery.—Paul in perplexing circumstances.—Freeing a man from the stocks.—Ravages of the plague.

The day of Olenda's burial had come, but there were hardly people enough left to bury him—such had been the devastations of the plague. Not far from the village stood in the prairie a little grove of trees, beneath whose shade the chiefs of the Ademba clan, to which Olenda belonged; were always buried; but it had been long since an interment had taken place there, for Olenda had outlived his brothers a score of years. All the people who could came to the funeral of their chief.

Olenda looked as if he were asleep. They had dressed him in the big coat I had given him, and came to ask me if I would give to my friend Olenda the umbrella I had. It was the only one I had, but I could not well refuse, and I said, "Take it."

They bore Olenda's body to the grove of trees with many manifestations of deep sorrow, shouting, "He will not talk of us any more; he will not speak to us any more. Oh, Olenda, why have you left us? Is it because we are all dying?" I followed the body to the grave, and I saw that they seated him on his big coat, and put over his head the umbrella I had given them for him. By his side was placed a chest containing the presents I had brought for him, and also plates, jugs, cooking utensils, his favorite pipe, and some tobacco; a fire was kindled, which was to be kept up from day to day for a long time, and food and water was brought, which was also to be daily replenished for an indefinite period.

Before dying, Olenda had told his people that he was not to leave them entirely; he would come back from time to time to see how they were getting on; so, for a few days after his death, the people would swear that they saw Olenda in the middle of the night walking in the village, and that he had repeated to them that he had not left them entirely.

The once beautiful Ashira, at the sight of which I had fallen into ecstasies, had now become the valley of death. Crazy men and women, made crazy only by the plague, wandered about till they died on the roadside. Every body was afraid of his neighbor; they had found out, at last, that the disease was contagious, and when one got it he was left to himself, and the poor creature would die of starvation: his wife, his father, his mother, his sister, his brother, if any such relatives had been left to him by the plague, would fly away from him as from the curse of God.

My Commi men did not come back; I wondered why, and began to feel very anxious about them. What had become of them? What a blunder I had made in letting these men go ahead of me! I would have given the world to see them again with me, for I did not know what those far-away people would do to them.

Strange rumors came from the Otando country: the news was that the people did not want me to come, as I carried with me the eviva  (plague) wherever I went.

Several weeks passed away; no tidings of my men, no tidings of Arangui, or of the Ashiras who had gone with them. The plague was now diminishing in virulence for want of victims, for, except Macondai and myself every body had been attacked with it, and those who did not succumb had recovered or were fast recovering. In the beginning, every body attacked was sure to die.

I began to feel suspicious, for three Otando men had come to me and told me they had important intelligence to communicate, but could not give it just then, and had promised to come back after two days. Three days had passed away, and I heard one night somebody talking in a hut; I listened outside, and was rewarded by finding that the Ashiras had frightened away the three Otando men, who had gone back to Mayolo.

At length three of my Commi men suddenly made their appearance from Mayolo by themselves. I was thunder struck; the Ashiras of the village were frightened. What did all this mean?

Rebouka, Mouitchi, and Rapelina were the good fellows. Though it had taken four days to come from the Otando country, they had found their way back. They were armed to the teeth, and looked like terrible warriors. Igala; tired of waiting for me, had sent them back to see what was the matter.

I now learned that the Ashiras had returned long ago, and, though weeks had passed away, I had seen none of them. I heard also that several of the loads had never reached Mayolo; that the porters had gone back to their plantations with them; that Arangui was at the bottom of all the thieving; and that Igala, with all his threats, could not make the porters sleep together near him at night. Then, to cap the whole thing, they told me that Arangui had seized one of the Otando men that had come to see me, and that this was the reason why the other two had fled.

"What is to be done?" said I to myself. "I must be crafty and cunning, and as wise as a serpent." It would never have done to get in a rage.

I told my men to keep quiet, and not to say a word about the robbery. I did not want to frighten them—I wanted more porters.

It did, indeed, require a great amount of self-control for me to keep cool when I was quite certain that all the men of the village knew that I had been plundered by their own people, and that probably most of them had been sharers of the plunder. Even Ondonga, who now was chief of the village and a cousin of Arangui, knew all about it. It is wonderful how savages can keep secrets: not a child, not a woman, not a man in the country had breathed to me the slightest word on the subject.

That night I kept revolving in my mind how I must act to get out of the scrape. I said to myself, "I must become a hypocrite, and fight cunning with cunning, in order to win."

The next morning I said to my men, "Tell the Ashiras that you have not said a word to me about the robbery, for you were afraid that I might kill some of them if I knew it; and tell Ondonga, Mintcho, and their people that you know they are too great friends of mine and of Quengueza to have had any thing to do with the plunder. Tell them that you were obliged to tell me about Arangui and the seizure of the man in order to give an excuse for your coming." I then dismissed them with saying, "Boys, mind and do just as I have told you."

To Ondonga, patting him on the shoulder, though I felt like, blowing out his brains, I said, "Ondonga, I know that you are my friend; I know that the Olenda people are good people. I know at you never knew of the return of Arangui; if you had known it you would have surely told me."

Ondonga swore that it was so; he would have told me at once.

I shouted so that every body could hear me, "Of course, Ondonga; I know that you would have told me, for you have a heart, and would not tell a lie. Why did friend Arangui do such a thing as to seize that Otando man—Arangui, whom I loved so much? The only thing Arangui can do is to give up the man. Must he not give up the man, Ashiras?" I cried.

"Yes!" exclaimed the people; "Arangui must give up the man."

I knew very well that no Ashira man would dare to go into the Otando country after having put in nchogo an Otando man, for they would all be seized, and then who should carry my baggage?

Mintcho and Ondonga said to me, "We will go at once to Arangui's plantation to see if he is there." "He must have been hiding from us," said Mintcho, with a laugh. "Hypocrite," said I to myself, "what a lying rascal you are!"

They went to Arangui's plantation, and on their return, as soon as they saw me, they shouted, "That is so; Arangui is back: Arangui is a noka  (rogue, liar), and none of us knew it."

"Ondonga, my friend," I whispered, "a necklace of beads shall be on your neck to-night" (and I felt very much like putting a rope round his neck and choking him). "Now tell me to palaver."

Ondonga said, "Two dry and two rainy seasons ago, the Otando people seized a relative of Arangui because Arangui owed them two slaves and had not brought the goods, and the man is still kept in nchogo (the native stocks). Arangui wanted his relative back, and by keeping that man he thought they would send back his relative."


Prisoner in nchogo.

I knew that, according to African fashion, this palaver would last several years. That would never do for me, for I must be off.

My men said that what Ondonga had said was true; they had heard so in the Otando country; so I sent Mintcho back, and said to him, "Tell friend Arangui that he must give up the man. If I had not to take care of my people I would go and see him. Tell him that he must do that for his friend Chally. Did not Arangui take Quengueza and myself from Obindji's place to come here?"

The two rascals Mintcho and Ondonga went again, and several days elapsed before Arangui let the man go. He did not do it until he was taken ill with the plague; then he became frightened, and thought I was going to kill him, so he immediately gave up the man, and Ondonga and Mintcho brought him in triumph to me. Poor fellow! his legs were dreadfully lacerated.

The plague was in its last stage. Arangui had been the only one who had not taken it before. The Otando man had not had it, and I was afraid he would catch it. If he were to die of it in the country of the Ashiras, not one of them would dare to go into that of the Otandos, and that would be the end of my trip; so it was necessary that I should hurry my departure. If it had not been for the rascality of Arangui I would have been in the Otando country two months ago. The thought of this made my blood boil, and I felt very much like hanging Arangui to the nearest tree.

It was the first time that I had been robbed in Africa, and that by Olenda's people. I knew they would not have done it if their old chief had been alive.

What a sea of trouble poor Paul du Chaillu had to contend with! Indeed, these were days of trial; but I had to face them, and I faced them manfully, though several times I was on the verge of despair.

By some means news of the death of Olenda had reached Quengueza, and I was astonished one day to receive a messenger from him with word that, as Olenda had left no people to carry me and my goods to the next country, he was coming to take me to another Ashira clan that had people. This frightened Ondonga, and he tried hard to get porters for me.

Terrible tidings now came from Goumbi: all the Goumbi people that had come with Quengueza to the Ashira country had died of the plague; nearly all the nephews of Quengueza were dead; Obindji had died, and every Bakalai chief. In some of the Bakalai villages not a human being had been left. Death had come over the land. But Quengueza had been spared; the plague had not touched him, though his head slave, good old Mombon, was no more.

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