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

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The escort under the bushman's command was composed of 100 men, all Bochjesmen—an industrious, good-tempered people, capable of enduring great physical fatigue. In former times, before the arrival of the missionaries, these Bochjesmen were a lying, inhospitable race, thinking of nothing but murder and pillage, and ever taking advantage of an enemy's sleep to massacre him. To a great extent the missionaries have modified these barbarous habits, but the natives are still more or less farm-pillagers and cattle-lifters.

Ten waggons, like the vehicle which Mokoum had taken to the Morgheda Falls, formed the bulk of the expedition. Two of these were like moving houses, fitted up as they were with a certain amount of comfort, and served as an encampment for the Europeans; so that Colonel Everest and his companions were followed about by a wooden habitation with dry flooring, and well tilted with waterproof cloth, and furnished with beds and toilet furniture Thus, on arriving at each place of encampment, the tent was always ready pitched.

Of these waggons, one was appropriated to Colonel Everest and his countrymen, Sir John Murray and William Emery: the other was used by the Russians, Matthew Strux, Nicholas Palander, and Michael Zorn. Two more, arranged in the same way, belonged, one to the five Englishmen and the other to the five Russians who composed the crew of the “Queen and Czar.”

The hull and machinery of the steamboat, taken to pieces and laid on one of the waggons, followed the travellers, in case the Commission might come across some of the numerous lakes which are found in the interior of the continent.

The remaining waggons carried the tools, provisions, baggage, arms, and ammunition, as well as the instruments required for the proposed triangular survey. The provisions of the Bochjesmen consisted principally of antelope, buffalo, or elephant meat, preserved in long strips, being dried in the sun or by a slow fire: thus economizing the use of salt, here very scarce. In the place of bread, the Bochjesmen depended on the earth-nuts of the arachis, the bulbs of various species of mesembryanthemums, and other native productions. Animal food would be provided by the hunters of the party, who, adroitly employing their bows and lances, would scour the plains and revictual the caravan.

Six native oxen, long-legged, high-shouldered, and with great horns, were attached to each waggon with harness of buffalo hide. Thus the primitive vehicles moved slowly though surely on their massive wheels, ready alike for heights or valleys.

For the travellers to ride there were provided small black or grey Spanish horses, good-tempered, brave animals, imported from South America, and much esteemed at the Cape. Among the troops of quadrupeds were also half-a-dozen tame quaggas, a kind of ass with plump bodies and slender legs, who make a noise like the barking of a dog. They were to be used in the smaller expeditions necessary to the geodetic operations, and were adapted to carry the instruments where the waggons could not venture.

The only exception to the others was the bushman, who rode a splendid zebra with remarkable grace and dexterity. This animal (the beauty of whose coat with its brown stripes especially excited the admiration of the connoisseur Sir John Murray) was naturally defiant and suspicious, and would not have borne any other rider than Mokoum, who had broken it in for his own use.

Some dogs of a half-savage breed, sometimes wrongly called “hyena-hunters,” ran by the side of the waggons, their shape and long ears reminding one of the European brach-hound.

Such was the caravan which was about to bury itself in the deserts. The oxen advanced calmly under the guidance of their drivers, ever and again pricking them in the flank with their “jambox;” and it was strange to see the troop winding along the hills in marching order.

After leaving Lattakoo, whither was the expedition going?

Colonel Everest had said, “Straight on;” and indeed he and Matthew Strux could not yet follow a fixed course. What they wanted, before commencing their trigonometrical operations, was a vast level plain, on which to establish the base of the first of the triangles, which, like a network, were to cover for several degrees the southern part of Africa.

The Colonel explained to the bushman what he wanted, and with the calmness of one to whom scientific language is familiar, talked to him of triangles, adjacent angles, bases, meridians, zenith distances, and the like. Mokoum let him go on for a few moments, then interrupted him with an impatient movement, saying, “Colonel, I don't know any thing about your angles, bases, and meridians. I don't understand even in the least what you are going to do in the desert: but that is your business. You are asking for a large level plain; oh well, I can find you that.”

And at his orders, the caravan, having just ascended the Lattakoo hills, turned down again towards the south-west. This took them rather more to the south of the village, towards the plain watered by the Kuruman, and here the bushman expected to find a suitable place for the Colonel's plans.

From that day, he always took the head of the caravan. Sir John Murray, well mounted, never left him, and from time to time the report of a gun made his colleagues aware that he was making acquaintance with the African game. The Colonel, quite absorbed in contemplating the difficulties of the expedition, let his horse carry him on. Matthew Strux, sometimes on horseback, sometimes in the waggon, according to the nature of the ground, seldom opened his lips. Nicholas Palander, as bad a rider as could be, was generally on foot; at other times he shut himself up in his vehicle, and there lost himself in the profoundest mathematical abstractions.

Although William Emery and Michael Zorn occupied separate waggons at night, they were always together when the caravan was on the march. Every day and every incident of the journey bound them in a closer friendship. From one stage to another they rode, talked, and argued together. Sometimes they fell behind the train, and sometimes rode on several miles ahead of it, when the plain extended as far as they could see. They were free here and lost amidst the wildness of nature. How they forgot figures and problems, calculations and observations, and chatted of every thing but science! They were no longer astronomers contemplating the starry firmament, but were more like two youths escaped from school, revelling in the dense forests and boundless plains. They laughed like ordinary mortals. Both of them had excellent dispositions, open, amiable, and devoted, forming a strange contrast to Colonel Everest and Matthew Strux, who were formal, not to say stiff. These two chiefs were often the subject of their conversation, and Emery learnt a good deal about them from his friend.

“Yes,” said Michael Zorn, that day, “I watched them well on board the `Augusta,' and I profess I think they are jealous of each other. And if Colonel Everest appears to be at the head of things, Matthew Strux is not less than his equal: the Russian Government has clearly established his position. One chief is as imperious as the other; and besides, I tell you again, there is the worst of all jealousy between them, the jealousy of the learned.”

“And that for which there is the least occasion,” answered Emery, “because in discoveries every thing has its value, and each one derives equal benefit. But, my dear Zorn, if, as I believe, your observations are correct, it is unfortunate for our expedition: in such a work there ought to be a perfect understanding.”

“No doubt,” replied Zorn, “and I fear that that understanding does not exist. Think of our confusion, if every detail, the choice of a base, the method of calculating, the position of the stations, the verification of the figures, opens a fresh discussion every time! Unless I am much mistaken I forbode a vast deal of quibbling when we come to compare our registers, and the observations we shall have made to the minutest fraction.”

“You frighten me,” said Emery. “It would be sorrowful to carry an enterprise of this kind so far, and then to fail for want of concord. Let us hope that your fears may not be realized.”

“I hope they may not,” answered the young Russian; “but I say again, I assisted at certain scientific discussions on the voyage, which showed me that both Colonel Everest and his rival are undeniably obstinate, and that at heart there is a miserable jealousy between them,”

“But these two gentlemen are never apart,” observed Emery. “You never find one without the other; they are as inseparable as ourselves.”

“True,” replied Zorn, “they are never apart all day long, but then they never exchange ten words: they only keep watch on each other. If one doesn't manage to annihilate the other, we shall indeed work under deplorable conditions.”

“And for yourself,” asked William, hesitatingly, “which of the two would you wish—”

“My dear William,” replied Zorn with much frankness, “I shall loyally accept him as chief who can command respect as such. This is a question of science, and I have no prejudice in the matter. Matthew Strux and the Colonel are both remarkable and worthy men: England and Russia should profit equally from their labours; therefore it matters little whether the work is directed by an Englishman or a Russian. Are you not of my opinion?”

“Quite,” answered Emery; “therefore do not let us be distracted by absurd prejudices, and let us as far as possible use our efforts for the common good. Perhaps it will be possible to ward off the blows of the two adversaries; and besides there is your fellow countryman, Nicholas Palander—”

“He!” laughed Zorn, “he will neither see, hear, nor comprehend any thing! He would make calculations to any extent; but he is neither Russian, Prussian, English, or Chinese; he is not even an inhabitant of this sublunary sphere; he is Nicholas Palander, that's all.”

“I cannot say the same for my countryman. Sir John Murray,” said Emery. “He is a thorough Englishman, and a most determined hunter, and he would sooner follow the traces of an elephant and giraffe than give himself any trouble about a scientific argument. We must therefore depend upon ourselves, Zorn, to neutralize the antipathy between our chiefs. Whatever happens, we must hold together.”

“Ay, whatever happens,” replied Zorn, holding out his hand to his friend.

The bushman still continued to guide the caravan down towards the south-west. At midday, on the 4th of March, it reached the base of the long wooded hills which extend from Lattakoo. Mokoum was not mistaken; he had led the expedition towards the plain, but it was still undulated, and therefore unfitted for an attempt at triangulation. The march continued uninterrupted, and Mokoum rode at the head of the riders and waggons, while Sir John Murray, Emery, and Zorn pushed on in advance.

Towards the end of the day, they all arrived at a station occupied by one of the wandering “boers,” or farmers, who are induced by the richness of the pasture-land to make temporary abodes in various parts of the country.

The colonist, a Dutchman, and head of a large family, received the Colonel and his companions most hospitably, and would take no remuneration in return. He was one of those brave, industrious men, whose slender capital, intelligently employed in the breeding of oxen, cows, and goats, soon produces a fortune. When the pasturage is exhausted, the farmer, like a patriarch of old, seeks for new springs and fertile prairies, pitching his camp afresh where the conditions seem favourable.

The farmer opportunely told Colonel Everest of a wide plain, fifteen miles away, which would be found quite flat.

The caravan started next morning at daybreak. The only incident that broke the monotony of the long morning march, was Sir John Murray's taking a shot, at a distance of more than 1000 yards, at a gnu, a curious animal about five feet high, with the muzzle of an ox, a long white tail, and pointed horns. It fell with a heavy groan, much to the astonishment of the bushman, who was surprised at seeing the animal struck at such a distance. The gnu generally affords a considerable quantity of excellent meat, and was accordingly in high esteem among the hunters of the caravan.

The site indicated by the farmer was reached about midday. It was a boundless prairie stretching to the north without the slightest undulation. No better spot for measuring a base could be imagined, and the bushman, after a short investigation, returned to Colonel Everest with the announcement that they had reached the place they were seeking.