A Shekiani Village
An African creek.—A leopard among the chickens.—A night watch for leopards.
Now I had just left the Island of Nengue Ngozo, and if your eyes could have reached that part of the world, you might have seen me still in the same little canoe, made of the trunk of a single tree, armed to the teeth, making for the Ikoi Creek, which was not far distant. (This creek is also marked on my large map published in my work called "Explorations in Equatorial Africa.")
The canoe was going swiftly through the water, the wind was good, and soon after our departure we entered the creek. I felt anxious, for the Bakalai and Shekiani villages were at war with each other—a wild and treacherous set they are—and either tribe might have taken my canoe for that of their enemy, and so pounced upon us in great numbers and killed us all before we could let them know that we were strangers belonging to the Mpongwe tribe, their friends. I was watching continually to see if there were not some canoes in ambush. After a while the creek became narrower, the breeze ceased, the sail had to be furled along the mast, the men took to the paddles, and our canoe glided onward upon the waters of the Ikoi.
The sight was dismal enough: both banks were flanked with swampy forests of mangrove; the tide was low, and a prodigious number of oysters were seen on the roots of the mangrove-trees. As we came near them I took an axe and cut some of the roots, which were literally covered with oysters. We lit a fire at the bottom of the canoe and roasted these oysters, and they were excellent. I assure you it was quite a treat.
Feeling better after our meal, we paddled on again. The mangrove-trees became more scarce, and at last we came in sight of a village of Shekianis.
As soon as they saw us they met in great numbers on the top of the hill where the village stood, and I could hear their wild shouts of war. As we approached nearer their excitement increased; the war-drums beat, and I could see them brandishing their spears. My men sang songs in the Mpongwe language to show that we were not their enemies.
In the mean time I did not feel comfortable at all, and really thought that we might have a fight. I knew these Shekiani people to be funny fellows: if we had gone back, a dozen canoes armed with men would have been after us, for they would have immediately thought we were their enemies. So we pushed on, and at last came opposite the village. Here we had to stop to speak to them, and finally they entreated us to pass the night among them, the chief himself coming to beg us to stay.
As it was nearly night, I concluded that it would be better to sleep in a village than in the woods, for there we might have been attacked unawares, the people not knowing who we were.
These Shekianis crowded round to see me, and at every move I made they all sent up wild shouts of astonishment.
They were all armed to the teeth, and had the air of men continually on the lookout for a fight.
Night soon came, and I went into the hut that had been given to me, but could not sleep, for all the villagers were awake, and the drums were beating from one end of the village to the other. Songs of war were sung by the men, women, and children around their Mbuiti (an enormous wooden idol, which was in the midst of the village). Besides, I thought the village might be surprised during the night by the warlike and treacherous Bakalais. So I need not tell you that all my guns were loaded and all the guns of my men likewise.
I did not like this kind of travelling at all.
These men were all painted with colored chalk, red and yellow being the favorite colors; they were covered with fetiches, which they believed would protect them from the deadly weapons of their enemies; and by the dim light of their fires and torches they appeared to me more like devils than men. The village was also strongly fenced with long poles.
At last the morning twilight made its appearance, and after giving a present to the King, we got ready and by sunrise were on our way.
We soon came to a Bakalai village, and there I made my head-quarters. The country abounded in birds; wild boars were also said to be abundant, and leopards were rather common. This was just the country in which I expected to discover new species of birds and to enjoy some grand hunting.
The house I lived in was at the extreme end of the village, and the villagers were very kind to me.
One night I heard a great cackling of my fowls, who perched on a tree near my hut, and soon after I heard them flying away in every direction. I jumped from my couch and opened my door, thinking some one was trying to steal some of them. The moon was in its last quarter, so it was not dark as I stepped into the yard, when lo! I was struck with terror to find myself face to face with a tremendous leopard! How big he looked! I was so astonished that for the space of thirty seconds—which seemed to me to be minutes—or perhaps more, I did not stir a step. I looked at the leopard, which certainly was not more than six yards from me, and the leopard, which probably was quite as much astonished at my sudden apparition, looked at me. I must have appeared to him like a ghost. I seemed to be spellbound. So did the leopard.
Suddenly I came to my senses, and having no weapon with me I made a rush for the door, shut myself inside, seized my rifle, then opened the door in the quietest possible way. Now I felt strong with my gun in hand and so looked out for Mr. Leopard but the great beast had gone. I fancy he was as much frightened as I was.
Such a sudden meeting in the night had never happened to me before, and has never happened to me since; and I hope never will happen to me again. In the morning, when I awoke, the enormous foot-prints of the beast reminded me that it was not a dream.
The next day I bought a goat and tied it by the neck to a tree, just on the border of the forest clearing. Not far from the tree where the goat was tied there was another tree, a huge one, so I concluded to lay in wait there for the leopard, and at night, every preparation having been made before dark, I brought back the goat to the village.
About ten o'clock, with a torch in one hand and leading the goat with the other, I tied the animal in the most secure manner, and so that the leopard would have trouble to carry it off at once. I went and seated myself on the ground, my back protected by the trunk of the huge tree I have just spoken to you of, and facing the goat. I am sure I was not more than six yards from it. I extinguished the torch so that it was pitch dark. At first I could not see a yard off, but at last my eyes got accustomed to the darkness, and I could see the goat plainly. The night was clear and the stars shone most beautifully above my head. But how strange every thing looked around me! A chill ran through me as I gazed around: every thing seemed so mournful; I alone in such a place; while now and then the cry of the solitary owl broke the deadness of the awful silence.
The goat in the mean time was continually bleating, for the little creature had an instinctive dread of being alone in such a place. I was glad he cried, for I knew it would make the leopard come if the animal could only hear him.
One hour passed away: no leopard! Two hours: no leopard! Three hours: nothing! I began to feel tired, for I was seated on the bare ground. Once or twice I thought I heard snakes crawling, but it was no doubt a fancy.
I do not know, but I think I must have fallen asleep, for on a sudden, looking for the goat, I saw that it was not there. I rubbed my eyes, for I really was not sure of them, but I was not mistaken; no goat was to be seen! I got up, and my wonder was great when at the place where the goat had been I found blood. I could not believe my senses. I lighted the torch and looked at my watch: it was four o'clock in the morning: and then I saw distinctly the foot-prints of the leopard. There was no mistake about it; the leopard had come, killed and carried away the goat, and during that time I was fast asleep!
Just think of it! I must have slept almost two hours, and I thanked my stars that the leopard had taken the goat instead of myself! It would have been a dreadful feeling if I had been awakened as I was carried away in the jaws of the leopard, his teeth deep into my body, as the thing might well have happened. I wondered why it had not, and promised myself to be more careful in the future. Then I remembered how tired I felt before I went to sleep.
If the goat had not been carried away I should certainly have thought that I never had fallen asleep.
As I learned more about leopards I found they do not generally leave their lairs before one o'clock, unless pressed by hunger.
Sorrow soon afterward came in that village—a woman was killed on the roadside by some unknown enemy: the villagers retaliated and went and laid in ambush and killed some one belonging to another village; the whole country had been involved in war for some time, and as it was unsafe to walk anywhere, I concluded to leave the poor deluded people who had been very kind to me. So, after packing my collections of specimens of Natural History, I bade them a friendly farewell.