Going to unknown regions.—Quengueza sends his son as a hostage.—I take him along with me.—Reception by the King.—Our speeches.—Quengueza afraid of a witch.—An incantation scene.
Time passed on. It was several years since I left the United States, but nevertheless I determined to set out for the head waters of the Fernand-Vaz, and for countries undiscovered as yet by white men.
Quengueza had sent to me his eldest son, named Kombé (the sun), with a present of ebony wood, and his youngest son, a boy of ten, called Akounga; and he said I must come, and leave Akounga in Ranpano's hands as a hostage for my safety. "You see," he sent word, "that I am not afraid of you. You may trust me."
I had to take my big boat, because no canoe would hold all the goods, powder and shot, guns, provisions, and medicines I took along. It was to be a very, very long journey. I was the first white man to venture up in this direction, and I was anxious to get as far as possible.
We were fifteen in all in my boat. Another canoe, with fifteen more men, followed us. Quengueza's little boy was with us too. I would never have thought of such a thing as keeping the poor little fellow away from his mother and father. I took also the brave little Macondai, whom I had at first determined to leave behind, as being too small to stand the fatigues of such a journey. The little fellow entreated so much to be taken that I at last consented. He behaved like a man. Macondai grew fast as years went by, and I wish you could have seen him fighting by my side in Ashango land.
At last, after much fatigue and hard pulling, we reached the village of Goumbi, the residence of King Quengueza. Here I was received in the most triumphant manner. I could not make myself heard for the shouts and firing of guns. The whole population of Goumbi crowded down to the shore to see me, and I was led up in procession to an immense covered space, capable of holding at least a thousand people, and surrounded by seats. I found there strangers from various parts of the interior, who gazed at me, and especially at my hair, with the greatest wonder.
A large high seat was appointed for me, and another close to it was for Quengueza, who presently arrived with a face beaming with joy. He shook hands with me, and then seated himself.
There was a dead silence in the vast crowd before us. Quengueza was an old, white-wooled negro, very tall, spare, and of a severe countenance, betokening great energy and courage, qualities for which he was celebrated all over their country. When younger he was the dread of all, but now that he had become the chief of his clan, and was getting old, he had grown milder, and become peaceful, to the great joy of the surrounding villages. He was a very remarkable man for his opportunities. He made haste to tell me that he was in mourning for his eldest brother, who had died two years before, and left him chief of their clan, the Abouya.
Quengueza had on a finely-knit black cap, and a grass body-cloth, which was black also; both the cap and cloth were of Ashira make, and were really beautiful. He had no shirt; that article is not allowed to mourners; but he wore an American coat which was too small for him.
After the king had done welcoming me, I called his little son, Akounga. When he had come forward, I said to the king in a loud voice, that the people might hear, "You sent your son to me to keep, so that I might feel safe to come to you. I am not afraid. I like you, and can trust you; therefore I have brought your little son back to you. I do not want him as a hostage for my safety. Let him remain by the side of his mother."
At this there was tremendous shouting, and the people seemed overjoyed.
The king rose to reply. There was immediately a dead silence, for Quengueza was greatly reverenced by his people. The king said, "This is my ntangani (white man); he has come from a far country to see me. I went down to beg him to come up to me. Now he has come. Let no one do harm to his people; for him I need not speak. Give food to his people. Treat them well. Do not steal any thing. If you do not do as I say, a big palaver will come upon you!" This last sentence he uttered in a tremendous voice.
Then he addressed himself to the Ashira and Bakalai, who were present, saying, "Beware! Do not steal my white man, for if you should make the attempt, I will sell you all."
Then loads of plantains and sugar-canes, together with a hundred fowls, and several goats, were presented to me by the king, and this closed the ceremony.
The longer I stayed with Quengueza, the more I loved him; I was only sorry that he was so curiously superstitious. For a year he had not passed down the street which led most directly to the water, but had gone always by a roundabout way, because, when he came to the throne, this street was pronounced bewitched by a secret enemy of his, and he was persuaded that if he passed by it he would surely die. This superstitious notion had originated in a dream of the king's, which had been interpreted in that way.
Several times efforts had been made by distinguished doctors to drive away the aniemba (witch) which there lay in wait; but the king, though he believed in sorcery, did not have much faith in the exorcisers or doctors. He thought that perhaps the aniemba had not gone, and that it was better to be on the safe side, which was not to go on the road at all. But his subjects felt very much troubled about this matter, for they wanted their king to pass through their street sometimes.
Once more a last attempt was made to drive off the aniemba, or witch. A famous doctor from the far-off Bakalai country had been brought down to perform this act. His name was Aquailai.
In the evening the people gathered in great numbers under the immense hangar, or covered space in which I had been received, and there lit fires, around which they sat. The space thus covered was one hundred and fifty feet long by forty wide, and was roofed with palm branches and leaves.
About ten o'clock, when it was pitch dark, the doctor commenced operations by singing some boastful songs, recounting his power over witches. Immediately all the people gathered into their houses, and with such great haste that two women, failing to get home, and afraid to go farther through the streets, took refuge in my house. Then all the fires in the houses were carefully extinguished, those under the hangar having been already put out; and in about an hour more there was not a light of any kind in the whole town except mine. They had only asked of me that I should shut my door. The most pitchy darkness and the most complete silence reigned every where. No voice could be heard, even in a whisper, among the several thousands of people gathered in the gloom.
At last the silence was broken by the doctor, who, standing in the center of the town, began some loud babbling, of which I could not make out the meaning. From time to time the people answered him in chorus. This went on for an hour, and was really one of the strangest scenes I ever took part in. I could see nothing but the faces of the two women in my house, who were badly frightened, poor things, as, in fact, all the people were. The hollow voice of the witch-doctor resounded curiously through the silence; and when the answer of many mingled voices came through the darkness, the ceremony really assumed the air of a poet's incantation scene.
At last, just at midnight by my watch, I heard the doctor approach. He had bells girded about him, which he jingled as he walked. He went to every family in the town successively, and asked if to them belonged the aniemba (witch) that obstructed the king's highway. Of course, all answered no. Then he began to run up and down the bewitched street, calling out loudly for the witch to go off. Presently he came back and announced that he could no longer see the aniemba, which had doubtless gone never to come back. At this all the people rushed out of their houses and shouted, "Go away! go away! and never come back to hurt our king!"
Then fires were lit, and all sat down to eat. This done, all the fires were once more extinguished, and the people sung wild songs until four o'clock. Then the fires were lit again.
At sunrise the whole population gathered to accompany their king down the dreaded street to the water. Quengueza, I know, was brave as a hunter and as a warrior. He was also very intelligent about many things regarding which his people were very stupid; but the poor old king was now horribly afraid. He was assured that the aniemba was gone, but he evidently thought that he was walking to almost certain death. He hesitated; but at last he determined to face his fate, and walked manfully down to the river and back, amid the plaudits of his loyal subjects. So ended the ceremony; but Quengueza never went again on that road; his dread of it still remained.