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

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For the next three days, the 28th, 29th, and 30th of January, Mokoum and William Emery never left the place of rendezvous. While the bushman, carried away by his hunting instincts, pursued the game and deer in the wooded district lying near the cataract, the young astronomer watched the river. The sight of this grand, wild nature enchanted him, and filled his soul with new emotions. Accustomed as he was to bend over his figures and catalogues day and night, hardly ever leaving the eye-piece of his telescope, watching the passage of stars across the meridian and their occupations, he delighted in the open-air life in the almost impenetrable woods which covered the slope of the hills, and on the lonely peaks that were sprinkled by the spray from the Morgheda as with a damp dust. It was joy to him to take in the poetry of these vast solitudes, and to refresh his mind, so wearied with his mathematical speculations; and so he beguiled the tediousness of his waiting, and became a new man, both in mind and body. Thus did the novelty of his situation explain his unvarying patience, which the bushman could not share in the least; so there were continually on the part of Mokoum the same recriminations, and on the part of Emery the same quiet answers, which, however, did not quiet the nervous hunter in the smallest degree.

And now the 31st of January had come, the last day fixed in Airy's letter. If the expected party did not then arrive, Emery would be in a very embarrassing position; the delay might be indefinitely prolonged. How long, then, ought he to wait?

“Mr. William,” said the hunter, “why shouldn't we go to meet these strangers? We cannot miss them; there is only one road, that by the river, and if they are coming up, as your bit of paper says they are, we are sure to meet them.”

“That is a capital idea of yours, Mokoum,” replied the astronomer: “we will go on and look out below the falls. We can get back to the encampment by the side valleys in the south. But tell me, my good bushman, you know nearly the whole course of the river, do you not?”

“Yes, sir,” answered the hunter, “I have ascended it twice from Cape Voltas to its juncture with the Hart on the frontier of the Transvaal Republic.”

“And it is navigable all the way, except at the Falls of Morgheda?”

“Just so, sir,” replied the bushman. “But I should add that at the end of the dry season the Orange has not much water till within five or six miles of its mouth; there is then a bar, where the swell from the west breaks very violently.”

“That doesn't matter,” answered the astronomer, “because at the time that our friends want to land it will be all right. There is nothing then to keep them back, so they will come.”

The bushman said nothing, but shouldering his gun, and whistling to Top, he led the way down the narrow path which met the river again 400 feet lower.

It was then nine o'clock in the morning, and the two explorers (for such they might truly be called) followed the river by its left bank. Their way did not offer the smooth and easy surface of an embankment or towing-path, for the river-banks were covered with brushwood, and quite hidden in a bower of every variety of plants; and the festoons of the “cynauchum filiform,” mentioned by Burchell, hanging from tree to tree, formed quite a network of verdure in their path; the bushman's knife, however, did not long remain inactive, and he cut down the obstructive branches without mercy. William Emery drank in the fragrant air, here especially impregnated with the camphor-like odour of the countless blooms of the diosma. Happily there were sometimes more open places along the bank devoid of vegetation, where the river flowed quietly, and abounded in fish, and these enabled the hunter and his companion to make better progress westward, so that by eleven o'clock they had gone about four miles.

The wind being in the west, the roar of the cataract could not be heard at that distance, but on the other hand, all sounds below the falls were very distinct.

William Emery and the hunter, as they stood, could see straight down the river for three or four miles. Chalk cliffs, 200 feet high, overhung and shut in its bed on either side.

“Let us stop and rest here,” said the astronomer; “I haven't your hunter's legs, Mokoum, and am more used to the starry paths of the heavens than to those on terra firma; so let us have a rest; we can see three or four miles down the river from here, and if the steamer should turn that last bend we are sure to see it.”

The young astronomer seated himself against a giant euphorbia, forty feet high, and in that position looked down the river, while the hunter, little used to sitting, continued to walk along the bank, and Top roused up clouds of wild birds, to which, however, his master gave no heed.

They had been here about half an hour, when William Emery noticed that Mokoum, who was standing about 100 feet below him, gave signs of a closer attention. Was it likely that he had seen the long-expected boat?

The astronomer, leaving his mossy couch, started for the spot where the hunter stood, and came up to him in a very few moments.

“Do you see any thing, Mokoum?” he asked.

“I ”see” nothing, Mr. William,” answered the bushman, “but it seems to me that there is an unusual murmur down the river, different to the natural sounds that are so familiar to my ears.”

And then, telling his companion to be quiet, he lay down with his ear on the ground, and listened attentively.

In a few minutes he got up, and shaking his head, said,—

“I was mistaken; the noise I thought I heard was nothing but the breeze among the leaves or the murmur of the water over the stones at the edge; and yet—”

The hunter listened again, but again heard nothing.

“Mokoum,” then said Mr. William Emery, “if the noise you thought you heard is caused by the machinery of a steamboat, you would hear better by stooping to the level of the river; water always conducts sound more clearly and quickly than air.”

“You are right, Mr. William,” answered Mokoum, “for more than once I have found out the passage of a hippopotamus across the river in that way.”

The bushman went nimbly down the bank, clinging to the creepers and tufts of grass on his way. When he got to the level of the river, he went in to his knees, and stooping down, laid his ear close to the water.

“Yes!” he exclaimed, in a few minutes, “I was not mistaken; there is a sound, some miles down, as if the waters were being violently beaten; it is a continual monotonous splashing which is introduced into the current.”

“Is it like a screw?” asked the astronomer.

“Perhaps it is, Mr. Emery; they are not far off.”

William Emery did not hesitate to believe his companion's assertion, for he knew that the hunter was endowed with great delicacy of sense, whether he used his eyes, nose, or ears. Mokoum climbed up the bank again, and they determined to wait in that place, as they could easily see down the river from there.

Half an hour passed, which to Emery, in spite of his calmness, appeared interminable. Ever so many times he fancied he saw the dim outline of a boat gliding along the water, but he was always mistaken. At last an exclamation from the bushman made his heart leap.

“Smoke!” cried Mokoum.

Looking in the direction indicated by the bushman, Emery could just see a light streak rolling round the bend of the river: there was no longer any doubt.

The vessel advanced rapidly, and he could soon make out the funnel pouring forth a torrent of black smoke mingling with white steam. They had evidently made up their fires to increase their speed, so as to reach the appointed place on the exact day. The vessel was still about seven miles from the Falls of Morgheda.

It was then twelve o'clock, and as it was not a good place for landing, the astronomer determined to return to the foot of the cataract: he told his plan to the hunter, who only answered by turning back along the path he had just cleared along the left bank of the stream. Emery followed, and, turning round for the last time at a bend in the river, saw the British flag floating from the stern of the vessel.

The return to the falls was soon effected, and in an hour's time the bushman and the astronomer halted a quarter of a mile below the cataract; for there the shore, hollowed into a semicircle, formed a little creek, and as the water was deep right up to the bank, the steamboat could easily land its passengers.

The vessel could not be far off now, and it had certainly gained on the two pedestrians, although they had walked so fast; it was not yet in sight, for the lofty trees which hung quite over the river-banks into the water, and the slope of the banks themselves, did not allow of an extensive view. But although they could not hear the sound made by the steam, the shrill whistle of the machinery broke in distinctly on the monotonous roar of the cataract; and as this whistling continued, it was evident that it was a signal from the boat to announce its arrival near the falls.

The hunter replied by letting off his gun, the report being repeated with a crash by the echoes of the shore.

At last the vessel was in sight, and William Emery and his companion were seen by those on board.

At a sign from the astronomer the vessel turned, and glided quietly alongside the bank; a rope was thrown ashore, which the bushman seized and twisted round the broken stump of a tree, and immediately a tall man sprang lightly on to the bank, and went towards the astronomer, whilst his companions landed in their turn.

William Emery also advanced to meet the stranger, saying inquiringly,

“Colonel Everest?”

“Mr. William Emery?” answered the Colonel.

The astronomer bowed and shook hands.

“Gentlemen,” then said Colonel Everest, “let me introduce you to Mr. William Emery, of the Cape Town Observatory, who has kindly come as far as the Morgheda Falls to meet us.”

Four of the passengers who stood near Colonel Everest bowed to the young astronomer, who did the same; and then the Colonel, with his British self-possession, introduced them officially, saying,—

“Mr. Emery, Sir John Murray, of the county of Devon, your fellow-countryman; Mr. Matthew Strux, of the Poulkowa Observatory; Mr. Nicholas Palander, of the Helsingfors Observatory; and Mr. Michael Zorn, of the Kiew Observatory, three scientific gentlemen who represent the Russian government in our international commission.”