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

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Noble words were those just uttered by the Colonel. In the face of the Makololos it was no time for hesitation or discussion, and English and Russians, forgetting their national quarrel, were now re-united for mutual defence more firmly than ever. Emery and Zorn had warmly greeted each other, and the others had sealed their new alliance with a grasp of the hand.

The first care of the English was to quench their thirst. Water, drawn from the lake, was plentiful in the Russian camp. Then, as soon as the Makololos were quiet enough to afford some respite, the astronomers, sheltered by a sort of casemate forming part of a deserted fortress, talked of all that had happened since their separation at Kolobeng.

It appeared that the same reason had brought the Russians so far to the left of their meridian as had caused the English to turn to the right of theirs. Mount Scorzef, halfway between the two arcs, was the only height in that district which would serve as a station on the banks of Lake Ngami. Each of the meridians crossed the lake, whose opposite shores it was necessary to unite trigonometrically by a large triangle. Naturally, therefore, the two rival expeditions met on the only mountain which could serve their purpose.

Matthew Strux then gave some details of his operations. After leaving Kolobeng, the Russian party had continued without irregularity. The old meridian, which had fallen by lot to the Russians, fell across a fertile and slightly undulated country, which offered every facility for the formation of the triangles. Like the English, they had suffered from the heat, but they had experienced no hardship from the want of water. Streams were abundant, and kept up a wholesome moisture. The horses and oxen had roamed over an immense pasturage, across verdant prairies broken by forests and underwood. The wild animals by night had been safely kept at a distance by sentinels and fires, nor had any natives been seen except those stationary in the villages in which Dr. Livingstone had always found a hospitable reception. All through the journey the Bochjesmen of the caravan had given no cause for complaint, nor was it until the previous day, when the Makololos to the number of 200 or 300 had appeared on the plain, that they had shown themselves faithless, and deserted. For thirty-six hours the expedition had now occupied the little fortress. The Makololos had attacked them in the evening, after plundering the waggons left at the foot of the hill. The instruments fortunately, having been carried into the fort, were secure. The steamboat had also escaped the ravages of the natives; it had been immediately put together by the sailors, and was now at anchor in a little creek of Lake Ngami, behind the enormous rocks that formed the base of the mountain. Mount Scorzef sloped with sudden abruptness down to the lake, and there was no danger of an attack from that side.

Such was Matthew Strux's account. Colonel Everest, in his turn, related the incidents of his march, the fatigues and difficulties, and the revolt of the Bochjesmen, and it was found by comparison that the Russians had had a less harassing journey than their rivals.

The night of the 21st passed quietly. The bushman and sailors kept watch under the walls of the fort; the Makololos on their part did not renew any attack, but the bivouac-fires at the foot of the mountain proved that they had not relinquished their project.

At daybreak the Europeans left their casemate for the purpose of reconnoitring the plain. The early morning light illumined the vast extent of country as far as the horizon. Towards the south lay the desert, with its burnt brown grass and barren aspect. Close under the mountain was the circular camp, containing a swarm of 400 to 500 natives. The fires were still alight, and some pieces of venison broiling on the hot embers. The encampment was something more than temporary; the Makololos were evidently determined not to abandon their prey. Either vengeance or an instinctive thirst for blood appeared to be prompting them, since all the valuables of both caravans, the waggons, horses, oxen, and provisions, had fallen into their power; or perhaps it might be that they coveted the fire-arms which the Europeans carried, and of which they made such terrible use.

The united English and Russians held a long consultation with the bushman, and it was felt that they could not relax their watch until they should arrive at a definite decision. This decision must depend on a variety of circumstances, and first of all it was necessary to understand exactly the position of Mount Scorzef.

The mountain overlooked to the south, east, and west the vast desert which the astronomers, having traversed it, knew extended southwards to the karroo. In the west could be discerned the faint outlines of the hills bordering the fertile country of the Makololos, one of whose capitals, Maketo, lies about a hundred miles north-west of Lake Ngami.

To the north the mountain commanded a country which was a great contrast to the arid steppes of the south. There were water, trees, and pasturage. For a hundred miles east and west lay the wide Eake Ngami, while from north to south its length was not more than 30 to 40 miles. Beyond appeared a gentle, undulated country, enriched with forests and watered by the affluents of the Zambesi, and shut in to the extreme north by a low chain of mountains. This wide oasis was caused by the great artery, the Zambesi, which is to South Africa what the Danube is to Europe, or the Amazon to South America.

The side of the mountain towards the lake, steep as it was, was not so steep but that the sailors could accomplish an ascent and descent by a narrow way which passed from point to point. They thus contrived to reach the spot where the “Queen and Czar” lay hid, and, obtaining a supply of water, enabled the little garrison to hold out in the deserted fort as long as their provisions lasted.

The astronomers wondered why this little fort had been placed on the top of the mountain. Mokoum, who had visited the country as Livingstone's guide, explained that formerly the neighbourhood of Lake Ngami was frequented by traders in ivory and ebony. The ivory was furnished by the elephants and rhinoceroses; but the ebony trade was but too often another name for that traffic in human beings which is still carried on by the slave-traders in the region of the Zambesi. A great number of prisoners are made in the wars and pillages in the interior of the country, and these prisoners are sold as slaves. Mount Scorzef had been a centre of encampment for the ivory-traders, and it was there that they had been accustomed to rest before descending the Zambesi. They had fortified their position, to protect themselves and their slaves from depredations, since it was not an uncommon occurrence for the prisoners to be recaptured for fresh sale by the very men who had recently sold them. The route of the traders was now changed; they no longer passed the shores of the lake, and the little fort was falling into ruins. All that remained was an enclosure in the form of the sector of a circle, from the centre of which rose a small casemated redoubt, pierced with loop-holes, and surmounted by a small wooden turret.

But notwithstanding the condition of ruin into which it had fallen, the fortress offered the Europeans a welcome retreat. Behind the thick sandstone walls, and armed with their rapidly-loading guns, they were confident that they could keep back an army of Makololos, and, unless their provisions and ammunition failed, they would be able to complete their observations.

At present they had plenty of ammunition; the coffer in which it was contained had been placed on the same waggon which carried the steamboat, and had therefore escaped the rapacity of the natives.

The great difficulty would be the possible failure of provisions. The Colonel and Strux made a careful inspection of the store, and found that there was only enough to last the eighteen men for two days. After a short breakfast, the astronomers and the bushman, leaving the sailors still to keep watch round the walls, assembled in the redoubt to discuss their situation.

“I cannot understand,” said Mokoum, “why you are so uneasy. You say that we have only provisions for two days; but why stay here? Let us leave to-morrow, or even to-day. The Makololos need not hinder us; they could not cross the lake, and in the steamboat we may reach the northern shore in a few hours.”

The astronomers looked at each other; the idea, natural as it was, had not struck them before. Sir John was the first to speak.

“But we have not yet completed the measurement of our meridian.”

“Will the Makololos have any regard for your meridian?” asked the hunter.

“Very likely not,” answered Sir John; “but we have a regard for it, and will not leave our undertaking incomplete. I am sure my colleagues agree with me.”

“Yes,” said the Colonel, speaking for all; “as long as one of us survives, and is able to put his eye to his telescope, the survey shall go on. If necessary, we will take our observations with our instrument in one hand and our gun in the other, even to the last extremity.”

The energetic philosophers shouted out their resolution to proceed at every hazard.

When it was thus decided that the survey should at all risks be continued, the question arose as to the choice of the next station,

“Although there will be a difficulty,” said Strux, “in joining Mount Scorzef trigonometrically to a station to the north of the lake, it is not impracticable. I have fixed on a peak in the extreme north-east, so that the side of the triangle will cross the lake obliquely.”

“Well,” said the Colonel, “if the peak exists, I do not see any difficulty.”

“The only difficulty,” replied Strux, “consists in the distance.”

“What is the distance?”

“Over a hundred miles, and a lighted signal must be carried to the top of the peak.”

“Assuredly that can be done,” said the Colonel.

“And all that time, how are we to defend ourselves against the Makololos?” asked the bushman.

“We will manage that too.”

Mokoum said that he would obey the Colonel's orders, and the conversation ended. The whole party left the casemate, and Strux pointed out the peak he had chosen. It was the conical peak of Volquiria, 300 feet high,[1] and just visible in the horizon. Notwithstanding the distance, a powerful reflector could thence be discerned by means of a magnifying telescope, and the curvature of the earth's surface, which Strux had taken into account, would not be any obstacle. The real difficulty was how the lamp should be hoisted to the top of the mountain. The angle made at Mount Scorzef with Mount Volquiria and the preceding station would probably complete the measurement of the meridian, so that the operation was all important, Zorn and Emery offered to take this journey of a hundred miles in an unknown country, and, accompanied by the pioneer, prepared to start.

One of the canoes of birch-bark, which are manufactured by the natives with great dexterity, would be sufficient to carry them over the lake. Mokoum and the pioneer descended to the shore, where were growing some dwarf birches, and in a very short time had accomplished their task, and prepared the canoe.

At eight o'clock in the evening the newly-constructed craft was loaded with instruments, the apparatus for the reverberator, provisions, arms, and ammunition. It was arranged that the astronomers should meet again in a small creek known to both Mokoum and the pioneer; it was also agreed that as soon as the reverberator on Mount Volquiria should be perceived, Colonel Everest should light a signal on Mount Scorzef, so that Emery and Zorn, in their turn, might take the direction.

The young men took leave of their colleagues, and descended the mountain in the obscurity of night, having been preceded by the pioneer and two sailors, one English and one Russian. The mooring was loosened, and the frail boat turned quietly across the lake.

1^  “300 feet high” is an addition of the translator. Verne's words were:

C'était le pic du Volquiria, sorte de cône que la distance rendait à peine visible. Il s'élevait à une grande hauteur, ...

“It was the peak of Volquiria, a sort of cone which the distance rendered hardly visible. It rose to a great height, ...”