The Adventures of Three Englishmen and Three Russians in Southern Africa/Chapter XXI

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The Adventures of Three Englishmen and Three Russians in Southern Africa by Jules Verne
Chapter XXI
Meridiana: The Adventures of Three Englishmen and Three Russians in South Africa.

CHAPTER XXI.
SUSPENSE.
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It was now the ninth day since Zorn and Emery had started on their expedition. Their colleagues, detained on the summit of Mount Scorzef, began to give way to the fear that they had fallen into some irretrievable misfortune. They were all well aware that the young astronomers would omit nothing that lay in their power to ensure the success of their enterprise, and they dreaded lest their courageous spirit should have exposed them to danger, or betrayed them into the hands of the wandering tribes. They waited always impatiently for the moment when the sun sank behind the horizon, that they might begin their nightly watch, and then all their hopes seemed concentrated on the field of their telescope.

All through the 3rd of March, wandering up and down the slopes, hardly exchanging a word, they suffered as they had never suffered before; not even the heat and fatigues of the desert, nor the tortures of thirst, had equalled the pain that arose from their apprehensions. The last morsel of the ant-eater had been devoured, and nothing now remained but the insufficient nourishment afforded by the ants.

Night came, dark and calm, and extremely favourable to their operations; but although the Colonel and Strux watched alternately with the utmost perseverance, no light appeared, and the sun's rays soon rendered any longer observations futile.

There was still nothing immediate to fear from the Makololos; they seemed resolved to reduce the besieged by famine, and it seemed hardly likely that they would desist from their project. The unhappy Europeans were tortured afresh with hunger, and could only diminish their sufferings by devouring the bulbs of the gladioli that sprang up between the rocks.

Yet they were hardly prisoners; their detention was voluntary. At any moment the steamboat would have carried them to a fertile land, where game and fruit abounded. Several times they discussed the propriety of sending Mokoum to the northern shore to hunt for the little garrison; but this manœuvre might be discovered by the natives; and there would be a risk to the steam-vessel, and consequently to the whole party, in the event of finding other hostile tribes to the north of the lake: accordingly the proposal was rejected, and it was decided that they must abide in company, and that all or none must depart. To leave Mount Scorzef before the observations were complete was an idea that was not entertained for a moment; the astronomers were determined to wait patiently until the faintest hope of success should be extinguished.

“We are no worse off,” remarked the Colonel in the course of the day to his assembled companions, “than Arago, Biot, and Rodriguez were when they were measuring the arc from Dunkirk to Ivica: they were uniting the Spanish coast and the island by a triangle of which the sides were more than eighty miles long. Rodriguez was installed on an isolated peak, and kept up lighted lamps at night, while the French astronomers lived in tents a hundred miles away in the desert of Las Palmas. For sixty nights Arago and Biot watched for the signal, and, discouraged at last, were about to renounce their labour, when, on the sixty-first night, appeared a light, which it was impossible to confound with a star. Surely, gentlemen, if those French astronomers could watch for sixty-one nights in the interests of science, we English and Russians must not give up at the end of nine.”

The Colonel's companions most heartily approved the sentiment; but they could have said that Arago and Biot did not endure the tortures of hunger during their long vigil.

In the course of the day Mokoum perceived an unusual agitation in the Makololo camp. He thought at first that they were about to raise the siege, but, after some contemplation, he discovered that their intentions were evidently hostile, and that they would probably assault the mountain in the course of the night. All the women and children, under the protection of a few men, left the encampment, and turned eastward to the shores of the lake. It was probable that the natives were about to make a last attack on the fortress before retiring finally to Maketo. The bushman communicated his opinion to the Europeans. They resolved to keep a closer watch all night, and to have their guns in readiness. The enclosure of the fort was broken in several places, and as the number of the natives was now largely increased they would find no difficulty in forcing their way through the gaps. Colonel Everest therefore thought it prudent to have the steamboat in readiness for a retreat. The engineer received orders to light the fire, but not until sunset, lest the smoke should reveal the presence of the vessel to the natives; and to keep up the steam, in order to start at the first signal. The evening repast was composed of white ants and gladiolus bulbs—a meagre supper for men about to fight with several hundred savages; but they were resolute, and staunchly awaited the engagement which appeared imminent.

Towards six o'clock, when night was coming on with its tropical celerity, the engineer descended the mountain, and proceeded to light the fire of the steamboat. It was still the Colonel's intention not to effect an escape until the last extremity: moreover, he was firm in his determination to abide until the night was advanced, that he might give himself the last chance of observing the signal from Mount Volquiria. The sailors were placed at the foot of the rampart, with orders to defend the breaches to the last. All arms were ready, and the mitrailleuse, armed with the heaviest ammunition that they had in store, spread its formidable mouth across the embrasure.

For several hours the Colonel and Strux, posted in the narrow donjon, kept a constant watch on the peak of Volquiria. The horizon was dark, while the finest of the southern constellations were resplendent in the zenith. There was no wind, and not a sound broke the imposing stillness of nature. The bushman, however, posted on a projection of rock, heard sounds which gradually became more distinct. He was not mistaken; the Makololos were at length commencing their assault on the mountain.

Until ten o'clock the assailants did not move; their fires were extinguished, and camp and plain were alike wrapped in obscurity. Suddenly Mokoum saw shadows moving up the mountain, till the besiegers seemed but a few hundred feet from the plateau on which stood the fort.

“Now then, quick and ready!” cried Mokoum.

The garrison immediately advanced to the south side of the fort, and opened a running fire on the assailants. The Makololos answered by a war-cry, and, in spite of the firing, continued to advance. In the light caused by the flash of the guns, the Europeans perceived such swarms of natives that resistance seemed impossible. But still they trusted that their well-directed balls were doing considerable execution, and they discerned that not a few of the natives were rolling down the sides of the mountam. Hitherto, however, nothing arrested them: with savage cries they continued to press on in compacted order, without even waiting to hurl a single dart. Colonel Everest put himself at the head of his little troop, who seconded him admirably, not excepting Palander, who probably was handling a gun for almost the first time. Sir John, now on one rock now on another, sometimes kneeling sometimes lying, did wonders, and his gun, heated with the rapidity of the repeated loading, began to burn his hands. Mokoum, as ever, was patient, bold, and undaunted in his confidence.

But the valour and precision of the besieged could avail nothing against the torrent of numbers. Where one native fell, he was replaced by twenty more, and, after a somewhat prolonged opposition, Colonel Everest felt that he must be overpowered. Not only did the natives swarm up the south slope of the mountain, but they made an ascent also by the side slopes. They did not hesitate to use the dead bodies of the fallen as stepping-stones, and they even lifted them up, and sheltered themselves behind them, as they mounted. The scene revealed by the flash of the fire-arms was appalling, and the Europeans saw enough to make them fully aware that they could expect no quarter, and that they were being assaulted by barbarians as savage as tigers.

At half-past ten the foremost natives had reached the plateau. The besieged, who were still uninjured (the natives not yet having employed their arrows and assagais), were thoroughly conscious they were impotent to carry on a combat hand to hand. The Colonel, in a calm, clear voice that could be heard above the tumult, gave the order to retire. With a last discharge the little band withdrew behind the walls. Loud cries greeted their retreat, and the natives immediately made a nearer approach in their attempt to scale the central breach.

A strange and unlooked for reception awaited them. Suddenly at first, and subsequently repeated at intervals but of a few minutes, there was a growling reverberation as of rolling thunder. The sinister sound was the report of the exploding mitrailleuse, which Sir John had been prepared to employ, and now worked with all his energy. Its twenty-five muzzles spread over a wide range, and the balls, continually supplied by a self-adjusting arrangement, fell like hail among the assailants. The natives, swept down at each discharge, responded at first with a howl and then with a harmless shower of arrows.

“She plays well,” said the bushman, approaching Sir John, “When you have played your tune, let me play mine.”

But there was no need for Sir John to be relieved; the mitrailleuse was soon silent. The Makololos were struck with consternation, and had sought shelter from the torrent of grape-shot, having retired under the flanks of the fort, leaving the plateau strewn with numbers of their dead.

In this instant of respite the Colonel and Strux regained the donjon, and there, collecting themselves to a composure as complete as if they were under the dome of an observatory, they kept a constant eye upon their telescope, and scanned the peak of Volquiria. When, after a short period of rest, the yells of the Makololos made them aware that the combat was renewed, they only persevered in their determination, and resolved that they would alternately remain to guard their invaluable instrument.

The combat, in truth, had been renewed. The range of the mitrailleuse was inadequate to reach all the natives, who, uttering their cries of mortal vengeance, rallied again, and swarmed up every opening. The besieged, protected by their fire-arms, defended the breaches foot by foot; they had only received a few scratches from the points of the assagais, and were able to continue the fight for half an hour with unabated ardour.

Towards half-past eleven, while the Colonel was in the thick of the fray, in the middle of an angry fusillade, Matthew Strux appeared at his side. His eye was wild and radiant: an arrow had just pierced his hat and quivered above his head.

“The signal! the signal!” he cried.

The Colonel was incredulous, but ascertaining the correctness of the welcome announcement, discharged his rifle for the last time, and with an exuberant shout of rejoicing, rushed towards the donjon, followed by his intrepid colleague. There, kneeling down, he placed his eye to the telescope, and perceived with the utmost delight the signal, so long delayed and yet so patiently expected.

It was truly a marvellous sight to see these two astronomers work during the tumult of the conflict. The natives had by their numbers forced the enclosure, and Sir John and the bushman were contending for every step. The Europeans fought with their balls and hatchets, while the Makololos responded with their arrows and assagais.

Meanwhile the Colonel and Strux intently continued their observations, and Palander, equally composed, noted down their oft-repeated readings. More than once an arrow grazed their head, and broke against the inner wall of the donjon. But their eye was ever fixed on the signal, and reading the indications of the vernier, they incessantly verified each other's calculations.

“Only once more,” said Strux, sliding the telescope along the graduated scale. An instant later, and it would have been too late for any observations, but the direction of the light was calculated to the minutest fraction of a second; and at that very instant an enormous stone, hurled by a native, sent the register flying from Palander's hands, and smashed the repeating-circle.

They must now fly in order to save the result which they had obtained at the cost of such continuous labour. The natives had already penetrated the casemate, and might at any moment appear in the donjon. The Colonel and his colleagues caught up their guns, and Palander his precious register, and all escaped through one of the breaches. Their companions, some slightly wounded, were ready to cover their retreat, but just as they were about to descend the north side of the mountain, Strux remembered that they had failed to kindle the signal. In fact, for the completion of the survey, it was necessary that the two astronomers on Mount Volquiria should in their turn observe the summit of Mount Scorzef, and were doubtless anxiously expecting the answering light.

The Colonel recognized the imperative necessity for yet one more effort, and whilst his companions, with almost superhuman energy, repulsed the natives, he re-entered the donjon. This donjon was formed of an intricate framework of dry wood, which would readily ignite by the application of a flame. The Colonel set it alight with the powder from the priming of his gun, and, rushing out, rejoined his companions. In a few moments, rolling their mitrailleuse before them, the Europeans, under a shower of arrows and various missiles, were descending the mountain, and, in their turn, driving back the natives with a deadly fire, reached the steamboat. The engineer, according to orders, had kept up the steam. The mooring was loosened, the screw set in motion, and the “Queen and Czar” advanced rapidly over the dark waters. They were shortly far enough out to see the summit of the mountain. The donjon was blazing like a beacon, and its light would be easily discerned from the peak of Volquiria. A resounding cheer of triumph from English and Russians greeted the bonfire they had left behind.

Emery and Zorn would have no cause for complaint; they had exhibited the twinkling of a star, and had been answered by the glowing of a sun.