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

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These introductions over, William Emery put himself at the disposal of the new arrivals, for in his position of astronomer at the Cape, he was inferior in rank to Colonel Everest, a delegate of the English Government, and, with Matthew Strux, joint president of the commission. He knew, as well, that he was a distinguished man of science, famous for his reductions of the nebulae and his calculations of the occupations of the stars. He was a cold, methodical man, of about fifty years of age, every hour of his life being portioned out with mathematical accuracy. Nothing unforeseen ever happened to him, and his punctuality in every thing was like that of the stars in passing the meridian, and it might be said that all his doings were regulated by the chronometer. William Emery knew all this, and had therefore never doubted that the commission would arrive on the appointed day.

During this time he was waiting for the Colonel to tell him the object of this mission to South Africa; but as he was still silent on the point, Emery thought it better not to ask any questions, as very likely the hour fixed in the Colonel's mind for the subject had not yet come.

Emery also knew by repute the wealthy Sir John Murray, who (almost a rival to Sir James Ross and Lord Elgin) was, although without office, an honour to England by his scientific labours. His pecuniary sacrifices to science were likewise considerable, for he had devoted £20,000 to the establishment of a giant reflector, a match for the telescope at Parson Town, by whose means the elements of a number of double stars had just been determined. He was a man of about forty years of age, with an aristocratic bearing, but whose character it was impossible to discover through his imperturbable exterior.

As to the three Russians, Strux, Palander, and Zorn, their names were also well known to William Emery, although he was not personally acquainted with them. Nicholas Palander and Michael Zorn paid a certain amount of deference to Matthew Strux, as was due to his position, if it had not been to his merit.

The only remark that Emery made was that they were in equal numbers, three English and three Russians; and the crew of the “Queen and Czar” (for that was the name of the steamboat) consisted of ten men, five English and five Russians.

“Mr. Emery,” said Colonel Everest, when the introductions were over, “we are now as well acquainted as if we had travelled together from London to Cape Voltas. Besides, your labours have already earned you a just renown, and on that account I hold you in high esteem. It was at my request that the English Government appointed you to assist in our operations in South Africa.”

William Emery bowed in acknowledgment, and thought that he was now going to hear the object of the scientific commission to the southern hemisphere; but still Colonel Everest did not explain it.

“Mr. Emery,” he went on, “are your preparations complete?”

“Quite, Colonel,” replied the astronomer. “According to the directions in Mr. Airy's letter, I left Cape Town a month ago, and went to the station at Lattakoo, and there I collected all the materials for an expedition into the interior of Africa, provisions, waggons, horses, and bushmen. There is an escort of 100 armed men waiting for you at Lattakoo, and they will be under the command of a clever and celebrated hunter, whom I now beg to present to you, the bushman Mokoum.”

“The bushman Mokoum!” cried the Colonel (if his usual cold tone could justify such a verb), “the bushman Mokoum! I know his name perfectly well.”

“It is the name of a clever, brave African,” added Sir John Murray, turning to the hunter, who was not at all discomposed by the grand airs of the Europeans.

“The hunter Mokoum,” said William Emery, as he introduced his companion,

“Your name is well known in the United Kingdom, bushman,” replied Colonel Everest. “You were the friend of Anderson and the guide of David Livingstone, whose friend I have the honour of being. I thank you in the name of England, and I congratulate Mr. Emery on having chosen you as the chief of our caravan. Such a hunter as you must be a connoisseur of fire-arms, and as we have a very fair supply, I shall beg you to take your choice of the one which will suit you the best; we know that it will be in good hands.”

A smile of satisfaction played round the bushman's lips, for although he was no doubt gratified by the recognition of his services in England, yet the Colonel's offer touched him the most: he then returned thanks in polite terms, and stepped aside, while Emery and the Europeans continued their conversation.

The young astronomer went through all the details of the expedition he had prepared, and the Colonel seemed delighted. He was anxious to reach Lattakoo as quickly as possible, as the caravan ought to start at the beginning of March, after the rainy season.

“Will you be kind enough to decide how you will get to the town, Colonel Everest?” said William Emery.

“By the Orange River, and one of its affluents, the Kuruman, which flows close to Lattakoo.”

“True,” replied the astronomer, “but however well your vessel may travel, it cannot possibly ascend the cataract of Morgheda!”

“We will go round the cataract, Mr. Emery,” replied the Colonel, “and by making a land journey of a few miles, we can re-embark above the falls; and from there to Lattakoo, if I am not mistaken, the rivers are navigable for a vessel that does not draw much water.”

“No doubt, Colonel,” answered William Emery, “but this steamboat is too heavy...”

“Mr. Emery,” interrupted the Colonel, “this vessel is a masterpiece from Leard and Co's manufactory in Liverpool. It takes to pieces, and is put together again with the greatest ease, a key and a few bolts being all that is required by men used to the work. You brought a waggon to the falls, did you not?”

“Yes, Colonel,” answered Emery, “our encampment is not a mile away.”

“Well, I must beg the bushman to have the waggon brought to the landing-place, and it will then be loaded with the portions of the vessel and its machinery, which also takes to pieces; and we shall then get up to the spot where the Orange becomes navigable.”

Colonel Everest's orders were obeyed. The bushman disappeared quickly in the underwood, promising to be back in less than an hour, and while he was gone, the steamboat was rapidly unloaded. The cargo was not very considerable; it consisted of some cases of philosophical instruments; a fair collection of guns of Purdey Moore's manufacture, of Edinburgh; some kegs of brandy; some canisters of preserved meat; cases of ammunition; portmanteaus reduced to the smallest size; tent-cloths and all their utensils, looking as if they had come out of a travelling-bazaar; a carefully packed gutta-percha canoe, which took up no more room than a well-folded counterpane; some materials for encamping, &c., &c.; and lastly, a fanshaped mitrailleuse, a machine not then brought to perfection, but formidable enough to terrify any enemy who might come across their path.

All these were placed on the bank; and the engine, of 8-horse power, was divided into three parts: the boiler and its tubes; the mechanism, which was parted from the boiler by a turn of a key; and the screw attached to the false stern-post. When these had been successively carried away, the inside of the vessel was left free.

Besides the space reserved for the machinery and the stores, it was divided into a fore-cabin for the use of the crew, and an aft-cabin, occupied by Colonel Everest and his companions. In the twinkling of an eye the partitions vanished, all the chests and bedsteads were lifted out, and now the vessel was reduced to a mere shell, thirty-five feet long, and composed of three parts, like the “Mâ-Robert,” the steam-vessel used by Dr. Livingstone in his first voyage up the Zambesi. It was made of galvanized steel, so that it was light, and at the same time resisting. The bolts, which fastened the plates over a framework of the same metal, kept them firm, and also prevented the possibility of a leakage.

William Emery was truly astounded at the simplicity of the work and the rapidity with which it was executed.

The waggon, under the guidance of Mokoum and the two Bochjesmen, had only arrived an hour when they were ready to load it. This waggon, rather a primitive vehicle, was mounted on four massive wheels, each couple being about twenty feet apart; it was a regular American “car” in length. This clumsy machine, with its creaking axles projecting a good foot beyond the wheels, was drawn by six tame buffaloes, two and two, who were extremely sensitive to the long goad carried by their driver. It required nothing less than such beasts as these to move the vehicle when heavily laden, for in spite of the adroitness of the “leader,” it stuck in the mire more than once.

The crew of the “Queen and Czar” now proceeded to load the waggon so as to balance it well every where. The dexterity of sailors is proverbial, and the lading of the vehicle was like play to the brave men. They laid the larger pieces of the boat on the strongest part of the waggon, immediately over the axles of the wheels, so that the cases, chests, barrels, and the lighter and more fragile packages easily found room between them. As to the travellers themselves, a four miles' walk was nothing to them.

By three o'clock the loading was finished, and Colonel Everest gave the signal for starting. He and his companions, with William Emery as guide, took the lead, while the bushman, the crew, and the drivers of the waggon followed more slowly.

They performed the journey without fatigue, for the slopes that led to the upper course of the Orange made their road easy, by making it longer, and this was a happy thing for the heavily-laden waggon, as it would thus reach its goal more surely, if more slowly.

The different members of the commission clambered lightly up the side of the hill, and the conversation became general, but there was still no mention of the object of the expedition. The Europeans were admiring the splendid scenes that were opened to their view, for this grand nature, so beautiful in its wildness, charmed them as it had charmed the young astronomer, and their voyage had not yet surfeited them with the natural beauties of this African region, though they admired every thing with a quiet admiration, and, English-like, would not do any thing that might seem “improper.” However, the cataract drew forth some graceful applause, and although they clapped perhaps with only the tips of their fingers, yet it was enough to show that “nil admirari” was not quite their motto.

Besides, William Emery thought it his duty to do the honours of South Africa to his guests; for he was at home, and like certain over-enthusiastic citizens, he did not spare a detail of his African park.

Towards half-past four they had passed the cataract of Morgheda, and being now on level ground, the upper part of the river lay before them as far as their eye could reach, and they encamped on the bank to await the arrival of the waggon.

It appeared at the top of the hill about five o'clock, having accomplished the journey in safety, and Colonel Everest ordered it to be unloaded immediately, announcing that they were to start at day-break the next morning.

All the night was passed in different occupations. The shell of the vessel was put together again in less than an hour; then the machinery of the screw was put into its place; the metal partitions were fixed between the cabins; the store-rooms were refurnished, and the different packages neatly arranged on board, and every thing done so quickly that it told a great deal in favour of the crew of the “Queen and Czar.” These Englishmen and Russians were picked men, clever and well disciplined, and thoroughly to be depended on.

The next day, the 1st of February, the boat was ready to receive its passengers at daybreak. Already there was a volume of black smoke pouring from the funnel, and the engineer, to put the machinery in motion, was causing jets of white steam to fly across the smoke. The machine being at high pressure, without a condenser, the steam escaped at every stroke of the piston, according to the system applied to locomotives; and as to the boiler, with its ingeniously contrived tubes, presenting a large surface to the furnace, it only required half an hour to furnish a sufficient quantity of steam. They had laid in a good stock of ebony and guiacum, which were plentiful in the neighbourhood, and they were now lighting the great fire with this valuable wood.

At six o'clock Colonel Everest gave the signal for starting, and passengers and crew went on board the “Queen and Czar.” The hunter, who was acquainted with the course of the river, followed, leaving the two Bochjesmen to take the waggon back to Lattakoo.

Just as the vessel was slipping its cable. Colonel Everest turned to the astronomer, and said,—

“By-the-bye, Mr. Emery, you know why we have come here?”

“I have not the least idea, Colonel.”

“It is very simple, Mr. Emery: we have come to measure an arc of meridian in South Africa.”