Kéraban the Inflexible (Part 1)/Chapter 7

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Ten o'clock came. Kéraban, Van Mitten, and Bruno, after a light supper which consisted of some of the stores in the hampers, walked about smoking for nearly half an hour, pacing up and down a narrow path which was firm enough to sustain them.

"Now," said Van Mitten, "I think, friend Kéraban, that there is no objection to our going to sleep in the carriage until the fresh horses come."

"I see no objection whatever," replied Kéraban, after a pause. This reply was somewhat extraordinary for a man who was always making objections.

"I do not think we have anything to fear in the middle of such an extensive plain," said the Dutchman.

"I think not."

“There is no attack likely to be made upon us?"


"Except, perhaps, the attacks of mosquitos," said Bruno, who had just succeeded in administering to himself a hard slap on the face, intended as a death-blow to half-a-dozen of those insects.

As a matter of fact, the worries of these insects became very trying. Attracted, perhaps, by the light of the carriage lamps, the mosquitos came singing in myriads around them.

"Hum," said Van Mitten, "there is one thing needful, and that is a mosquito-net."

"These are not mosquitos," said Kéraban, as he scratched the back of his neck, "they are gnats."

"I'll be hanged if I can tell the difference, then," remarked Van Mitten, who did not wish to enter upon an entomological discussion.

"It is a very curious thing," remarked Kéraban, "that only the female insect attacks man."

"I think I can understand that," remarked Bruno, rubbing himself.

"I believe we should do well to get into the chaise," said Van Mitten; "we shall be devoured if we remain here."

"The countries of the Lower Danube are particularly plagued with these gnats, and one ought to sprinkle one's bed and clothing with powder of pyrites."

"Of which we have not a grain," remarked Van Mitten.

"Precisely," answered Kéraban. "But who could have foreseen that we should have been stranded in the marshes of the Dobroutcha?"

"No one, friend Kéraban."

"I have heard it stated," continued Kéraban, “that a colony of Crimean Tartars, to whom the government had made a concession in this delta, was obliged to be broken up in consequence of the attacks of these gnats."

"After our own experience, the tale does not seem improbable," replied Van Mitten.

"Let us get into the carriage again," said Kéraban.

"We have remained out too long already," said his friend, as the mosquitos came buzzing round in myriads, beating their tiny wings thousands of times in a second.

Just as Kéraban and his friend were about to enter the chaise, the former said,—

"As we have nothing to fear, had not Bruno better remain outside and wait the return of the postillion?"

"He will not object," said Van Mitten.

"I will not object because it is my duty to obey," replied Bruno. "But I shall be eaten alive."

"No," replied Kéraban. "I am informed that these gnats never bite twice in the same place; so that Bruno will soon be free from their attacks."

"Yes, when I have been bitten in a million places," said Bruno.

"That is what I mean," retorted Kéraban.

"But may I not, at any rate, keep watch in the 'dicky'?" asked Bruno.

"Certainly, so long as you do not go to sleep there."

"And how is it possible for me to sleep in the middle of this swarm of mosquitos?"

"Gnats," replied Kéraban; "merely gnats. Don't forget that, Bruno."

So saying, Kéraban and Van Mitten shut themselves up in the carriage, while Bruno climbed into the "dicky," to keep watch over his master, or masters; for since Kéraban and Van Mitten had met, Bruno could certainly count upon two masters.

Bruno, having carefully closed the carriage doors, went to see how the horses fared. The poor brutes, quite exhausted, lay prone upon the ground, breathing loudly, and mingling their hot breath with the fogs of the swamps.

"Old Nick himself will not drag them from this quagmire," muttered Bruno. "Seigneur Kéraban must have had some fine ideas concerning this route; but after all that is his business."

Then the valet ascended to his perch, and let down the glasses, through which he could see the luminous bars projected by the carriage lamps through the mist.

What better could Bruno do to keep himself awake and his eyes open than endeavour to review all the circumstances which had carried him in the train of the inflexible Kéraban, the most pig-headed of all Turks?

So he (Bruno), a native of ancient Batavia, a "loafer" in the streets and on the quays of Rotterdam, a fisherman of very slight pretence, a lounger by the canals which intersected his native town, had been carried away to the opposite end of Europe. He had made an enormous stride from Holland to Turkey. Scarcely disembarked in Constantinople, when fate dragged him to the steppes of the lower Danube. And there he was, perched up in the carriage, in the "dicky" of a post-chaise in the midst of the marshes of the Dobroutcha, lost in the darkness of night, and fixed in the ground as firmly as the Gothic tower of Zuidekirk. And all this because he had undertaken to obey his master, who, without any necessity, had yielded to Kéraban!

"Oh,for the strangeness of human experience!" muttered Bruno. "Here I am, in a fair way to make the tour of the Black Sea—if we ever do make it—all to save ten paras, which I would willingly have paid out of my own pocket! Ah! this headstrong fellow will ruin me: I have already lost two pounds weight, and in four days! How much shall I have lost in four weeks? Oh, hang these insects!"

Though Bruno had carefully closed the "cabriolet," some dozens of gnats had found their way in, and were feasting on him. So he rubbed, and slapped, and scratched, but so that Kéraban should not hear him.

An hour passed; then another. Perhaps Bruno might have slept, had not the mosquitos prevented any repose. But sleep under the circumstances was impossible.

It was nearly midnight when a brilliant idea occurred to Bruno: he would smoke, and so overcome the persistent attacks of the gnats with the puffs of tobacco. How did it happen he had not thought of it before? If the insects could live in such an atmosphere as he designed to create, they must be very hard to kill—these mosquitos of the Danube.

So he drew his porcelain pipe—a sister of that which had been taken from him in Constantinople—and began to discharge thick volumes of tobacco smoke upon his enemies. The swarm hummed louder than ever, but soon dispersed and sought refuge in obscure corners of the cabriolet.

Bruno congratulated himself upon his manœuvre. The battery which he had unmasked had routed his opponents, they had fled in disorder, but as he did not wish to make any prisoners—indeed, quite the contrary—he opened the glass and let the half-stupefied insects escape, knowing that the tobacco would effectually keep the others at bay.

So, having gained the victory, Bruno paused to look around him over the field. The night was very dark, and strong gusts of wind came tearing over the flats. Had not the carriage been so firmly embedded in the ground, it might have been overturned. But there was no fear of that.

Bruno stared northwards, endeavouring to distinguish some gleam of light which would indicate the approach of the postillion and Nizib with the horses. But the darkness was profound beyond the small space illumined by the carriage lamps. Nevertheless, while straining his eyes into the darkness, Bruno fancied he perceived, about sixty yards from his perch, some brilliant points of light, which moved about rapidly, and appeared sometimes on the ground, and sometimes about two or three feet above it.

The valet at first thought that the spots were the effects of "will-o'-the-wisp" or ignis fatuus, caused by the escape of gases from the marshy ground. But even if his reason led him into error, the horses would not have been conscious of the phenomenon, and they began to evince symptoms of uneasiness, and snorted loudly.

"Ah! what can this be?" said Bruno to himself. "Some new complication, no doubt. Perhaps they may be wolves yonder!" This surmise was in no way extravagant; for these hungry animals are very numerous in the delta of the Danube, and they had on this occasion no doubt been attracted by the smell of the horses.

"Diable!" muttered Bruno. "These are worse foes than mosquitos, or the gnats of our pig-headed friend. Tobacco will be no safeguard this time!"

Meanwhile the horses displayed great uneasiness which it was impossible not to understand. They attempted to struggle through the slough, and tried to rear, shaking the carriage violently at every attempt. The luminous points which had been observed were approaching. A kind of growling was audible, carried down by the wind to the travellers' ears.

"I think," said Bruno to himself, "that it is about time to rouse my master and Seigneur Kéraban."

The incident was sufficiently serious. Bruno slid down from his perch, let down the steps of the carriage, opened the door, and, having entered, closed it behind him. The two friends were sleeping soundly.

"Monsieur!" said Bruno, putting his hand on Van Mitten's shoulder, "Master!"

"Go to the Devil!" was the Dutchman's reply, as, half asleep, he regarded his servitor.

"There is no use sending people to the Devil when he is so close by," muttered Bruno.

"Who are you?" inquired Van Mitten.

"I? Your servant!"

"Ah, Bruno, is it you? After all you did right to wake me. I was dreaming that Madam Van Mitten—"

"You were seeking a quarrel," replied Bruno; "well, there is food for one now."

"What is the matter, then?"

"Will you please wake Seigneur Kéraban?"

"Must I wake him?"

"Yes, we have not too much time."

So Van Mitten, without another word, though still but half awake, shook his companion vigorously.

None can sleep more soundly than a Turk, when the Turk has a good digestion and an easy conscience. This was the case with Kéraban, and many attempts were made to rouse him.

Kéraban, without opening his eyes, grumbled and growled like a man who was by no means disposed to stir. Had he been as headstrong in his sleeping as when waking, they would have been obliged to let him alone.

Nevertheless, the persistence of Van Mitten and Bruno was such that Seigneur Kéraban was awakened. He extended his arms, opened his eyes, and in a thick, sleepy tone said, "Have the postillion and Nizib arrived with the relays?"

"Not yet," answered Van Mitten.

"Why did you wake me, then?"

"Because if the horses have not come," said Bruno, "some other animals of a very suspicious appearance are surrounding the carriage and preparing to attack us."

"What animals do you mean?"

"Look!" said Bruno briefly.

Kéraban let down the glass and leant out of the window.

"Allah protect us!" he exclaimed. "There is a pack of wild boars."

He was right. The assailants were wild boars, which are very numerous in the Danubian territory which confines the estuary. The attacks of these animals are greatly dreaded, and they may be well classed amongst the wild beasts.

"What are we going to do?" asked the Dutchman.

"Remain quiet if they do not attack us," replied Kéraban. "We will defend ourselves if they do."

"Why should they attack us?" asked Van Mitten. "Wild boars, so far as I am aware, are not carnivorous animals."

"Quite so," replied Kéraban, "but if we do not run the risk of being eaten, we have the chance of being ripped up by their tusks."

"That's about it," said Bruno calmly.

"Therefore, let us make ready for any emergency," remarked Kéraban.

The travellers accordingly got their weapons ready. Van Mitten and Bruno had each a revolver carrying six shots; and a good supply of cartridges handy. The old Turk—a declared enemy of every modern invention—only carried two pistols of Ottoman make, with Damascus barrels, the butts ornamented with precious stones, but more suitable for ornament than defence. Van Mitten, Kéraban and Bruno had to content themselves with these arms, and determined to use them only when certain of success.

Meanwhile the wild boars, about twenty in number, were continually approaching and surrounding the carriage. By the light of the lamps, which had no doubt attracted them, the travellers could perceive the animals tossing up the earth with their tusks in their excitement. They were enormous specimens, almost as large as donkeys, of prodigious strength, and each quite capable of decimating, if not destroying, a whole pack of hounds. The situation of the travellers in the carriage would be by no means a pleasant one if they were attacked on both sides before daybreak.

The horses quite understood the position; and as the boars approached, the poor beasts plunged so that they seemed likely to break away from the traces altogether.

Just then some shots were heard. Van Mitten and Bruno had each fired twice at the boars which came to the attack. The animals, more or less seriously wounded, uttered terrible cries and gruntings as they rolled upon the ground. But the rest, rendered more furious, precipitated themselves upon the carriage, and attacked it with their tusks. The panels were pierced in many places, and it became pretty clear that ere long they would be completely "stove in."

"Fire! fire!" exclaimed Kéraban, as he discharged his pistols. They generally missed fire once in every four times, which was quite in accordance with precedent. The revolvers of Bruno and Van Mitten, however, did good execution, and accounted for a number of the assailants, some of which were boldly attacking the horses.

The latter had no means of repelling the assailants save by kicking. If they had been free, they would have scampered over the plain, and then it would have been merely a question of speed between them and the boars. As it was, the horses did all in their power to break their traces and escape. But the harness was stout cord and refused to part. It was therefore a question whether the forepart of the carriage would give way, or the whole vehicle be pulled out of the mire.

Kéraban and his companions were quite alive to the situation. What they most feared was that the carriage would capsize. Under those circumstances, the boars which the bullets had not kept off would dart upon them. So they seemed quite at the mercy of the furious pack. Nevertheless the coolness of the three men never abandoned them, and they continued to fire upon the assailants.

At length a tremendous pull shook the chaise. They thought the front part had given way.

"All the better," said Kéraban. "The horses will gallop away across the plain, and the wild boars will pursue them; so we shall be left undisturbed."

But the forepart of the chaise resisted with a strength that did credit to its English builder. So, as it would not part, the whole chaise moved, and the shock became extremely violent; so much so, indeed, that the carriage was pulled from its oozy bed, and the horses, mad with terror, rushed at headlong speed across the marshy plain through the thick darkness of the night.

But the wild boars had by no means abandoned the party. They ran beside the carriage, and kept worrying the horses while they attacked the chaise, which could not distance them.

Seigneur Kéraban, Van Mitten, and Bruno were very soon thrown to the bottom of the carriage.

"Either we shall be overturned—" cried Van Mitten.

"Or we shall not," interrupted Kéraban.

"It would be better to seize the reins," said Bruno judiciously as, lowering the front windows of the chaise, he sought to grasp the "ribbons;" but the horses had in their struggle broken them, and the valet was obliged to abandon his attempts, and to allow the animals to continue their headlong course across the swampy ground. There were no means of stopping them, and if any had presented themselves, the boars would also have halted. So the three men had to depend upon their weapons.

Of the travellers, thrown against each other or into the corners of the carriage at every jolt of the conveyance, the one resigned as a true Mussulman ought to be, the others as phlegmatic as Dutchmen, never exchanged a remark.

Thus an hour passed away, and the chaise still was dragged along at the same furious pace; but the wild boars did not abandon the chase.

"Van Mitten, my friend," said Kéraban at length, "I can tell you how a traveller, under similar circumstances to these, when pursued by a pack of wolves in Russia, was saved by the sublime devotion of his servant."

"How was that?" inquired Van Mitten.

"In a very simple way," replied Kéraban. "The servant took an affectionate. farewell of his master; then, recommending himself to Heaven, he threw himself out of the carriage; and while the wolves stopped to devour him, his master managed to distance them and was saved!"

"It is very unfortunate that Nizib is away just now," remarked Bruno dryly.

After this little speech the travellers relapsed into silence, and calmly waited events.

Night was now closing in, and still the horses did not abate their desperate speed, so the wild boars could not gain upon them to make a serious attack. If no accident occurred,—if the wheels did not come off, or if a shock more than usually severe did not overturn the chaise,—the occupants considered they had a chance of safety, even failing the devotion of which Bruno appeared incapable. Meanwhile the horses, directed by instinct, kept safely to the portion of the steppe which they had been accustomed to traverse. They proceeded in a direct line towards the post where relays were to be obtained.

Thus it happened that at daylight the travellers were not far from the much-needed assistance.

The pack of wild boars continued their course for about half an hour longer, and then by degrees fell away, but the horses did not slacken speed for a moment, nor did they halt until they fell, completely foundered, about a hundred paces from the post-house.

Kéraban and his companions were safe, and they all returned thanks to the Supreme Being, the God alike of the Christian and the Mussulman, for their preservation.

Just as the carriage came to a stop, Nizib and the postillion, who had not dared to trust themselves upon the steppe in the dark, were setting out with fresh horses. These were immediately harnessed in place of those which had been so knocked up. For this Kéraban had to pay a large sum; then, without an hour's rest, the chaise, which had been overhauled and attended to, continued the journey, and took the road to Kilia, a small town situated on the Danube.

The travellers reached Kilia without further adventure upon the evening of the 25th of August. There they alighted at the principal hotel and had twelve hours' repose, which in a great measure compensated them for the fatigue they had undergone. Next day they started at daybreak, and soon reached the Russian frontier.

There they encountered new difficulties. The formalities of the customs' officers exasperated Kéraban, who, fortunately or unfortunately, knew enough of their language to make himself understood, and for a time his obstinacy threatened to prevent the continuation of the journey.

At length, however, Van Mitten succeeded in calming him, and Kéraban consented to submit to the exigences of the service and to have his baggage examined. He paid the duties demanded, and consoled himself by repeating the sage remark that "All governments were alike, and he did not estimate any of them at the value of a melon-rind!"

The Roumanian frontier was crossed, and the chaise traversed that portion of Bessarabia which forms the littoral of the Black Sea towards the north-west. Then the travellers were not more than twenty leagues from Odessa.