The "Leopard of the Air"
A formidable bird.—They people are afraid of it.—A baby carried off by the guanionien.—A monkey also seized.—I discover a guanionien nest.—I watch for the eagles.
Several weeks have passed away since the story of Akenda Mbani was told to us, and we have since been wandering through the forest in the midst of the intricate hunting-paths which Querlaouen knew so well. At night we would all meet and recount the adventures of the day, and eat the game which some of us had been fortunate enough to kill. In case we had killed no game, then we had our elephant meat to fall back upon.
How silent the forest was! Not a human being besides ourselves was to be seen. A leaf falling, a bird singing, a wild guinea-fowl calling for its mate, the footsteps of a gazelle, the chatter of a monkey, the hum of a bee, the rippling of the water of some beautiful little stream as it meandered through the forest, were the only noises that ever disturbed the stillness of this grand solitude.
Now and then we could hear the wind whispering strangely as it passed gently amid the branches of the tall trees hanging over our heads.
We must have looked strange indeed as we wandered through that great forest, where God alone could see us. How strange every thing seemed to me! I was in an other world, and novel objects every where met my eyes.
One morning I hear a strange cry high up in the air. I look, and what do I see?—what do I see yonder up in the sky? An eagle. But what kind of an eagle? for it appears to me so much larger than any eagle I have ever met with before. And as I asked this, my men exclaimed, "It is a guanionien; the leopard of the air; the bird that feeds on gazelles, goats, and monkeys; the bird that is the most difficult of any to find and to kill." "Yes," said Querlaouen; "in my younger days I remember that my wife and myself were on our plantation, with some of our slaves, and one day we heard the cries of a baby, and saw a child carried up into the sky by one of these guanioniens. The baby had been laid on the ground, and the guanionien, whose eyes never miss any thing, and which had not been noticed soaring above our heads, pounced on its prey, and then laughed at us as he rose and flew to a distant part of the forest." Then Querlaouen showed me a fetich partly made of two huge claws of this bird. What tremendous things those talons were! how deep they could go into the flesh!
Then came wonderful stories of the very great strength of the bird.
The people were afraid of them, and were compelled to be very careful of their babies. These grand eagles do not feed on fowls; they are too small game for them. Monkeys are what they like best; they can watch them as they float over the top of the trees of the forest; but sometimes the monkeys get the better of them.
"People had better not try to get hold of the guanionien's young if they want to keep their sight," said Gambo; "for, as sure as we live, the old bird will pounce upon the man that touches its young."
For a long time I had heard the people talking of the guanionien, but had never yet had a glimpse of one.
Now, looking up again, I saw several of them. How high they were! At times they would appear to be quite still in the air; at other times they would soar. They were so high that I do not see how they could possibly see the trees; every thing must have been in a haze to them; monkeys, of course, could not be seen. They were, no doubt, amusing themselves, and I wonder if they tried to see how near they could go to the sun. Some at times flew so high that I lost sight of them.
Oh, how I longed to kill a guanionien; but I never was able to do it. Once I examined one, but it was dead, and had been killed by spears as it had come down and seized a goat. The natives had kept it for me; but when I returned to the village it was quite spoiled and decomposed, the feathers having dropped out.
Several times I was on the point of killing one, but never was in time.
My men went hunting that morning, while I remained alone in the camp, for I felt tired, and wanted to write up my journal, and to describe all the things I had seen or heard during the past few days.
In the afternoon I thought I would ramble round. I took a double-barreled smooth-bore gun, and loaded one side with a bullet in case I should see large game; the other barrel I loaded with shot No. 2. Then I carefully plunged into the woods till I reached the banks of a little stream, and there I heard the cry of the mondi (Colobus Satanus), which is one of the largest monkeys of these forests. From their shrill cries, I thought there must be at least half a dozen together. I was indeed glad that I had one barrel loaded with big shot. If the mondis were not too far off, I would be able to get a fair shot, and kill one.
I advanced very cautiously until I got quite near to them. I could then see their big bodies, long tails, and long, jet-black, shining hair. What handsome beasts they were! what a nice-looking muff their skins would make! I thought.
Just as I was considering which of them I would fire at, I saw some big thing, like a large shadow, suddenly come down upon the tree. Then I heard the flapping of heavy wings, and also the death-cry of a poor mondi. Then I saw a huge bird, with a breast spotted somewhat like a leopard, raise itself slowly into the air, carrying the monkey in its powerful finger-like talons. The claws of one leg were fast in the upper part of the neck of the monkey; so deep were they in the flesh that they were completely buried, and a few drops of blood fell upon the leaves below. The other leg had its claws quite deep into the back of the monkey. The left leg was kept higher than the right, and I could see that the great strength of the bird was used at that time to keep the neck, and also the back of the victim, from moving. The bird rose higher and higher, the monkey's tail swayed to and fro, and then both disappeared. It was a guanionien. Its prey was, no doubt, taken to some big tree where it could be devoured.
The natives say that the first thing the guanionien does is to take out the eyes of the monkeys they catch. But there must be a fearful struggle, for these mondis are powerful beasts, and do not die at the eagle's will. There must be a great trial of strength; for if the monkey is not seized at an exact place on the neck, he can turn his head, and he then inflicts a fearful bite on the breast of the eagle, or on his neck or leg, which disables his most terrible enemy, and then both, falling, meet their death.
I looked on without firing. The monkeys seemed paralyzed with fear when the eagle came down upon them, and did not move until after the bird of prey had taken one of their number, and then decamped. When I looked for them they had fled for parts unknown to me in the forest. I was looking so intently at the eagle and its prey that for a while I had forgotten the mondis. I do not wonder at it, for monkeys I could see often, but it is only once in a great while that such a scene as I witnessed could be seen by a man. It was grand; and I wondered not that the natives called the guanionien the leopard of the air. As I write these lines, though several years have passed away, I see still before me that big, powerful bird carrying its prey to some unknown part of the forest.
Long after the time I have been speaking to you about, I was hunting in the forest, when I came to a spot where I saw on the ground more than a hundred skulls of various animals, and of monkeys of all sizes, from those of baby monkeys to those of large mandrills; and there were two or three skulls of young chimpanzees. What a ghastly sight it was! Some of these skulls seemed almost fresh; they were skulls of all the species of monkeys found in the forest.
What could all this mean? I quickly perceived that these skulls were all scattered round a huge tree which rose higher than any of the trees surrounding it. Raising my eyes toward the top, I saw a huge nest made of branches of trees. I looked and looked in vain. I could not even hear the cries of any young birds. They had gone; they must have left their nest, and I wondered if they would come back at night with the old folks; so I concluded that I would lie in wait.
I waited in vain. The sun set, and no guanionien; darkness came, and no guanionien. Then I took a box of matches from my hunting-bag, and set fire to a large pile of wood which I had made ready, and then I cooked a few plantains I had with me.
I was all alone; I had taken no one with me. How quiet and silent every thing was around me that night! Now and then I could hear the dew that had collected on the leaves above come down drop after drop. I could see a bright star through the thick foliage of the trees. I could hear the music of the musquitoes round me; for I think there is something musical about the buzzing of a musquito, though there is nothing pleasant about its bite. I could see now and then a beautiful and bright fire-fly, which seemed to be like a light flitting through the jungle from place to place, sometimes remaining still and giving a stream of light all round as it rested on some big leaves for a while, then moving farther on.
Now and then I could hear the mournful cry of the owl, and at times I fancied I could hear the footstep of wild beasts walking in the silence of night.
I did not sleep at all that night; I did not wish to do so; and, as I was seated by the fire, I thought of the strange life I had led for some time past—how strange every thing was from what I had been accustomed to see at home. There was not a tree in the forest that we had in ours, and the face of a white man had not been seen by me for a very long time.
The night passed slowly, but at last the cries of the partridges reminded me that daylight was not far off. When the twilight came, it was of very short duration; the birds began to sing, the insects to move about, the monkeys to chatter, but the hyena, the leopard, and other night-animals had retired long before the sunlight into their dens.
Then I got up and roasted a plantain, which I ate; forthwith I shouldered my gun and started back for the village by a hunting-path that I knew.
Coming to the banks of a stream, where the water was as pure and limpid as crystal, I seated myself by the charming rivulet, thinking I would refresh myself by taking a bath, when lo! what do I see? a large snake swimming in the water. Its body was black, and its belly yellow, with black stripes. I immediately got up and fired at the disgusting creature, which I killed; and that water, which appeared to me a few minutes before so nice, was, to my eyes, no longer so.