A Deserted Village
Lost.—Querlaouen says we are bewitched.—Monkeys and parrots.—A deserted village.—Strange scene before an idol.—Bringing in the wounded.—An invocation.
We soon after left the left bank of the Ovenga and crossed over to the other side, but not before having carefully stored under shelter the billets of ebony-wood we had taken so much pains to cut, and which I wanted to take home with me.
The country where we now were was very wild, and seemed entirely uninhabited. At any rate, we did not know of any people or village for miles round.
After wandering for many, many days through the forest, we came suddenly on a path. Immediately Querlaouen, Gambo, Malaouen, and I held a great council, and, in order not to be heard in case some one might pass, we went back half a mile farther from the path in the forest. Then we seated ourselves, and began to speak in a low voice.
Querlaouen spoke first, and said that he did not know the country, and could not tell what we had better do, except that every one should have his gun ready, and his powder and bullets handy, his eyes wide open, and his ears ready to catch even the sound of a falling leaf or the footsteps of a gazelle.
Gambo said Querlaouen was right.
Then Malaouen rose and said: "For days we have been in these woods, and we have seen no living being, no path; we have fed on wild honey, on berries, nuts, and fruits, and to-day we have at last come upon a path. We know that the path has been made by some people or other. It is true we know that we are in the Ashankolo Mountains; that the tribe of Bakalai, living there, are a fighting people; but," he said, "he thought it was better to go back and follow the path until we came to the place where the people lived."
Querlaouen got up and said: "We have been lost in this forest, and, though we look all round us, there is not a tree we recognize; the little streams we pass we know not. The ant-hills we have seen are not the same as those in our own country. The large stones are not of the shape of the stones we are accustomed to look upon. We must have been bewitched before we left the village."
This suggestion of friend Querlaouen was received by a cheer from my two other fellows, I being the only one that did not believe in what he said.
"For," continued he, "this has never happened to us before. Yes, somebody wants to bewitch us."
While he thus talked, his gentle and amiable face assumed a fierce expression, and the other two said "Yes, somebody wants to bewitch us; but he had better look out, for surely he will die."
At last I said, "Let us get back to the path, and follow it; perhaps we will meet some strange adventure."
Just as we rose to move on we heard the chatter of monkeys, and we made for the spot whence the sound proceeded, in the hope that we might kill one or two. Carefully we went through the jungle, the prospect of killing a monkey filling our hearts with joy; for we could already, in anticipation, see a bright fire blazing, and some part of a monkey boiling in the little iron pot we carried with us; for myself, I imagined a nice piece roasting on a bright charcoal fire.
At last we came to the foot of a very high tree, and, raising our heads, we could see several monkeys. The tree was so tremendously high that the monkeys hardly appeared larger than squirrels. How could our small shot reach the top of that tree, which was covered with red berries, upon which the monkeys were quietly feeding? Although we could not reach them, they were not to be left in undisturbed possession, for a large flock of gray parrots, with red tails, flew round and round the tree, screeching angry defiance at the monkeys, who had at first been hidden by the thick leaves. The monkeys screamed back fierce menaces, running out on the slender branches in vain endeavor to catch their feathered opponents, who would fly off, only to return with still more angry cries. Both parrots and monkeys being out of reach of our guns, we were obliged to leave them to settle the right of possession to the rich red fruit.
How weary we were when we struck the path again! and, having first passed a field of plantain-trees, we at last arrived at a village.
Not a living creature was to be seen in it. Not even a goat, a fowl, or a dog, although we found several fires smouldering, from which the smoke still ascended. We proceeded carefully, for we did not know what kind of people inhabited this village. But I said, "Boys, let us go straight through the place."
So we went on until we came to an ouandja (a building), where, in a dark corner of a room, stood a huge image of an idol. Oh! how ugly it was. It represented a woman with a wide-open mouth, through which protruded a long, sharp-pointed iron tongue.
At the foot of the idol we found the skulls of all kinds of animals, elephants, leopards, hyenas, monkeys, and squirrels—even of crocodiles; and skins of snakes, intermingled with bunches of dry, queer-looking leaves, the ashes of burnt bones, and the shells of huge land turtles.
How horribly strange the big idol looked in the corner! It made me shudder.
The village was deserted, darkness was coming on, and the question now was, What were we going to do? Should we sleep in that forlorn-looking village or not? If we staid there the villagers might return when we were asleep.
For some time we regarded each other in silence; then I said, "Boys, I think we had better sleep in the forest, away from the path, but not far from the village." Gambo, Malaouen, and Querlaouen shouted with one voice, "That is so. Let us sleep in the forest, for this village seems to us full of aniemba (witchcraft)."
So we returned to the jungle, and collected large leaves to be used for roofing a hut which was quickly built with limbs from dead trees that lay scattered about, yielding also a plentiful supply of wood for a rousing fire. When every thing was ready, I pulled my match-box from my bag and lighted our fire.
Night came, and all life seemed to go to rest. Now and then I could hear the cry of some wild night animal, which had left his lair in search of prey, and was calling for its mate.
Before midnight we were aroused by the muttering of distant thunder; a tornado was coming. The trees began to shake violently, the wind became terrific; soon we heard the branches of trees breaking; then the trees themselves began to fall, and with such a crash as to alarm us greatly. Suddenly, not far from our hut, one of the big giant trees of the forest came down with a fearful noise, and crushing in its mighty fall dozens of other trees, one of them adjoining our camp. We got up in the twinkle of an eye, frightened out of our wits, for we fancied the whole forest was going to tumble down. The monkeys chattered; a terrific roar from a gorilla resounded through the forest, mingling with the howls of hyenas. Snakes, no doubt, were crawling about. Immediately after the falling of the great tree near us we heard a novel and tremendous noise in the jungle, coming from a herd of elephants fleeing in dismay, and breaking down every thing in their path.
"Goodness gracious!" I shouted, in English, "what does all this mean? Are we going to be buried alive in the forest?" The words were scarcely out of my mouth when there came a blinding flash of lightning, instantaneously followed by a peal of thunder like a volley from a hundred cannon, that seemed to shake the very earth to its foundation; and then the rain fell in torrents, and soon deluged the ground. Happily, we knew what we were about when we built our fires, for we had started them on the top of large logs of wood, so arranged that it would have required more than a foot of water on the ground before it could reach the fires and extinguish them. Then our leaves were so broad and nicely arranged that they entirely protected us from the storm, and our shelter was perfected by the branches of the great tree which, in falling, had apparently threatened our destruction.
The terrible hubbub lasted some hours, the continued lightning and thunder preventing sleep; but toward 4 o'clock in the morning the storm ceased, and all again became quiet; only the dripping of the water from the leaves could be heard; then we went to sleep, but not before having arranged our fires in such a manner that we could go to rest in comparative safety.
In the early morning, before dawn, and while we were only half awake, I thought I heard the sound of a human voice. Listen! We all listened attentively, and Gambo laid down with his ears to the ground, and then he declared that he distinctly heard voices in the direction of the village. There was no doubt—the people had returned.
"Let us go," said I, "and find out what kind of neighbors these are. We have our guns and plenty of ammunition, so we need not fear them; but let us act with caution."
This was agreed to. So, leaving our camp, we quietly crept near the village, until we gained a spot from whence we could see all that was going on. Men with lighted torches were entering the village, and four of them bore what, to all appearances, was a dead body, which they deposited before the huge idol, now moved out into the open street. The gleam of the torches revealed to us that this prostrate body had been pierced by many spears, part of which still remained in it.
Every man was armed to the teeth, but not a woman was visible. The scene was strange and wild. Not a word was uttered after the body of the wounded man had been laid on the ground. How strange and wild the men looked by the lurid glare of their torches! Their bodies were painted and covered with fetiches. Just back of the huts stood the tall trees, whose branches moved to and fro in the wind. I could hear its whispers as it passed through the foliage of the trees. The stars were shining beautifully, and a few fleecy white clouds were floating above our heads. I wish you could have seen us as we lay flat on the ground. Our eyes must have been bright indeed as we looked on the wild scene; and this I know, that our hearts were beating strongly as we lay close together. If, perchance, one of us had been seized with a fit of sneezing, or a fit of coughing, it might have been the end of us, for the savages would have been alarmed, and, believing us to be enemies, would at once have attacked us; so we had started on a rather risky business. I had never thought of it before; it was always so with me at that time. I thought of the danger after I was in it.
Soon another batch of men made their appearance, carrying another wounded man, who appeared almost dead, and they laid him by the side of the other, and then the women came in, carrying their babies and leading their children.
There stood the huge idol looking grimly at the scene. How ugly it seemed, with its copper eyes and wide-open mouth, which showed two rows of sharp-pointed teeth! In one of its hands it held a sharp-pointed knife, and in the other it held a bearded spear. It had a necklace of leopards' teeth, and its hideous head was decorated with birds' feathers. One side of its face was painted yellow, the other white; the forehead was painted red, and a black stripe did duty for eyebrows. I could not make out whether it represented a male or a female.
By its side stood the people, as silent as the idol itself.
At last a man came in front of the idol, and at once, by the language he spoke in, we knew him to be a Bakalai.
"Mbuiti," he said, addressing the idol, "we have been to war, and now have returned. There lie before thee two of our number; look at them. You see the spear-wounds that have gone into their bodies. They can not talk. When they were strong they went to the jungle and shot game, and when they had killed it they always brought some to give thee; many times they have brought to thee antelopes, wild boars, and other wild beasts. They have brought thee sugar-cane, ground-nuts, plantains, and bananas; they have given thee palm wine to drink. Oh, Mbuiti, do thou heal them!" And all the people shouted "Do make them well." How queer their voiced resounded in the forest!
Suddenly all the torches were extinguished, and the village was again in darkness. Not a voice was heard; complete silence followed. They were evidently afraid of an attack, and retired quietly to their huts.
I was very glad that we had managed to see all this without having been discovered; we did not think it safe, however, to move away before giving the villagers time to fall asleep, and then we realized new causes for apprehension. It was not a very pleasant or safe thing to be out in this jungle in the early morning before it was light. We might tread on a snake, or lay hold of one folded among the lower branches of the trees on which we laid our hands; or a wandering leopard might be prowling round; and, as there certainly were gorillas in the neighborhood, we might come on a tree which a female gorilla with a baby had climbed into for the night, and then we should have the old fellow upon us showing fight. I confess I did not care to fight gorillas in the dark. Again, a party of Bashikouay might be encountered, when nothing would be left for us but flight.
After our breakfast of nuts and berries, the question naturally arose. Shall we go back to the strange village? "Certainly not," at once said Querlaouen; "we do not know what kind of Bakalai they are."
When my turn to speak came, I said, "Boys, why not go and learn from these people the causes which led to their affray, and at the same time learn exactly in what part of the forest we are?"
For about a minute we were all silent. My three savages were thinking about my proposal; then Malaouen said, "Chaillie, we had better not go. Who knows? it may be that the wounded men we saw the people bringing into the village were found speared in the path, and, if so, we might be suspected of being the men who speared them. Then," said he, "what a palaver we should get in! and there would be no other way for us to get out of our troubles except by fighting. You know that the Bakalai here fight well." We all gave our assent to Malaouen's wise talk, for I must tell you, boys, my three men had good common sense, and many a time have I listened to their counsels. "Besides, we have a good deal of hunting to do," said Malaouen, "and we had better attend to it."
"Yes," we all said, with one voice. "Let us attend to our hunting. Let us have a jolly good time in the woods, and kill as many gorillas, elephants, leopards, antelopes, wild boars, and other wild beasts as we can." It being settled we should not go back to the village, we all got up, looked at our guns carefully, and plunged into the woods once more.
If you could have seen us, you would have said, What wild kind of chaps these four fellows are! Indeed we did look wild. We did not mind it; our hearts were bound together, we were such great friends. I am sure many of you who read these pages would have been our friends also, if you had been there.