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

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After the separation the English astronomers continued their labours with the same care and precision as hitherto. Three had now to do the work of six, and consequently the survey advanced more slowly, and was attended with more fatigue; but they were not the men to spare themselves; the desire that the Russians should not surpass them in any way sustained them in their task, to which they gave all their time and thoughts. Emery had to indulge in fewer reveries, and Sir John could not so often spare his time for hunting. A new programme was drawn up, assigning to each astronomer his proper share of the labour. Sir John and the Colonel undertook all observations both in the sky and in the field; while Emery replaced Palander as calculator. All questions were decided in common, and there was no longer any fear that disagreement should arise. Mokoum was still the guide and hunter to the caravan. The English sailors, who formed half the crew of the “Queen and Czar,” had, of course, followed their countrymen; and although the Russians were in possession of the steam-vessel, the India-rubber boat, which was large enough for ordinary purposes, was the property of the English. The provision-waggons were divided, thus impartially ensuring the revictualling of each caravan. The natives likewise had to be severed into two equal troops, not without some natural signs of displeasure on their part; far from their own pasturages and water-courses, in a region inhabited by wandering tribes hostile to the tribes of the south, they could scarcely be reconciled to the prospect of separation. But at length, by the help of the bushman and the pioneer, who told them that the two detachments would be comparatively a short distance apart, they consented to the arrangement.

On leaving Kolobeng the English caravan re-entered the burnt forest and arrived at the cromlech which had served for their last station. Operations were resumed, and a large triangle carried the observers at once ten or twelve miles to the west of the old meridian.

Six days later the auxiliary series of triangles was finished, and Colonel Everest and his colleagues, after consulting the maps, chose the new arc one degree west of the other, being 23° east of the meridian of Greenwich. They were not more than sixty miles from the Russians, but this distance put any collision between the two parties out of the question, as it was improbable that their triangles would cross.

All through September the weather was fine and clear. The country was fertile and varied, but scantily populated. The forests, which were few, being broken by wide, open tracts, and with occasional mounds occurring in the prairies, made the district extremely favourable for the observations. The region was well provided with natural productions. The sweet scent of many of the flowers attracted swarms of scarabæi, and more especially a kind of bee as nearly as possible like the European, depositing in clefts of rocks and holes of trees a white liquid honey with a delicious flavour. Occasionally at night large animals ventured near the camp; there were giraffes, varieties of antelopes, hyenas, rhinoceroses, and elephants. But Sir John would not be distracted, he resolutely discarded his rifle for his telescope.

Under these circumstances, Mokoum and some of the natives became purveyors to the caravan, and Sir John had some difficulty in restraining his excitement when he heard the report of their guns. The bushman shot three prairie-buffaloes, the Bokolokolos of the Bechuanas, formidable animals, with glossy black skins, short strong legs, fierce eyes, and small heads crowned with thick black horns. They were a welcome addition to the fresh venison which formed the ordinary fare.

The natives prepared the buffalo-meat as the Indians of the north do their pemmican. The Europeans watched their proceedings with interest, though at first with some repugnance. The flesh, after being cut into thin slices and dried in the sun, was wrapped in a tanned skin, and beaten with flails till it was reduced to a powder. It was then pressed tightly into leathern sacks, and moistened with boiling tallowy suet collected from the animal itself. To this they added some marrow and berries, whose saccharine matter modified the nitrous elements of the meat. This compound, after being mixed and beaten, formed, when cold, a cake as hard as a stone. Mokoum, who considered his pemmican a national delicacy, begged the astronomers to taste the preparation. At first they found it extremely unpalatable, but, becoming accustomed to the flavour, they soon learnt to partake of it with great relish. Highly nourishing, and not at all likely to be tainted, containing, moreover, its nutritive elements closely compacted, this pemmican was exactly suited to meet the wants of a caravan travelling in an unknown country. The bushman soon had several hundred pounds in reserve, and they were thus secure from any immediate want.

Days and nights passed away in observations. Emery was always thinking of his friend, and deploring the fate which had so suddenly severed the bond of their friendship. He had no one to sympathize with his admiration of the wild characteristics of the scenery, and, with something of Palander's enthusiasm, found refuge in his calculations. Colonel Everest was cold and calm as ever exhibiting no interest in any thing beyond his professional pursuits. As for Sir John, he suppressed his murmurs, but sighed over the loss of his freedom. Fortune, however, sometimes made amends; for although he had no leisure for hunting, the wild beasts occasionally took the initiative, and came near, interrupting his observations. He then considered defence legitimate, and rejoiced to be able to make the duties of the astronomer and of the hunter to be compatible.

One day he had a serious rencontre with an old rhinoceros, which cost him “rather dear.” For some time the animal had been prowling about the flanks of the caravan. By the blackness of his skin Mokoum had recognized the “chucuroo” (such is the native for this animal) as a dangerous beast, and one which, more agile than the white species, often attacks man and beast without any provocation.

On this day Sir John and Mokoum had set off to reconnoitre a hill six miles away, on which the Colonel wished to establish an indicating-post. With a certain foreboding. Sir John had brought his rifle with conical shot instead of his ordinary gun; for although the rhinoceros had not been seen for two days, yet he did not consider it advisable to traverse unarmed an unknown country. Mokoum and his companions had already unsuccessfully chased the beast, which probably now had abandoned its designs. There was no reason to regret the precaution. The adventurers had reached the summit of the hill, when at the base, close to a thicket, of no large extent, appeared the chucuroo. He was a formidable animal; his small eyes sparkled, and his horns, planted firmly one over the other on his bony nose, furnished a most powerful weapon of attack.

The bushman caught sight of him first, as he crouched about half a mile distant in a grove of lentisk.

“Sir John,” he cried, “fortune favours you: here is your chucuroo!”

“The rhinoceros!” exclaimed Sir John, with kindling eyes, for he had never before been so near the animal.

“Yes; a magnificent beast, and he seems inclined to cut off our retreat,” said the bushman. “Why he should attack us, I can hardly say; his tribe is not carnivorous: but any way, there he is, and we must hunt him out.”

“Is it possible for him to get up here to us?” asked Sir John.

“No; his legs are too short and thick, but he will wait.”

“Well, let him wait,” said Sir John; “and when we have examined this station, we will try and get him out”

They then proceeded with their reconnoitring, and chose a spot on which to erect the indicating-post. They also noticed other eminences to the north-west which would be of use in constructing a subsequent triangle.

Their work ended, Sir John turned to the bushman, saying, “When you like, Mokoum.”

“I am at your orders, Sir John: the rhinoceros is still waiting.”

“Well, let us go down, a ball from my rifle will soon settle matters.”

“A ball!” cried Mokoum; “you don't know a rhinoceros. He won't fall with one ball, however well it may be aimed.”

“Nonsense!” began Sir John, “that is because people don't use conical shot.”

“Conical or round,” rejoined the bushman, “the first will not bring down such an animal as that.”

“Well,” said Sir John, carried away by his self-confidence, “as you have your doubts, I will show you what our European weapons can do.”

And he loaded his rifle, to be ready to take aim as soon as he should be at a convenient distance.

“One moment, Sir John,” said the bushman, rather piqued, “will you bet with me?”

“Certainly,” said Sir John.

“I am only a poor man,” continued Mokoum, “but I will willingly bet you half-a-crown against your first ball.”

“Done!” replied Sir John instantly. “Half-a-crown to you if the rhinoceros doesn't fall to my first shot.”

The hunters descended the steep slope, and were soon posted within range of the rhinoceros. The beast was perfectly motionless, and on that account presented an easy aim.

Sir John thought his chance so good, that at the last moment he turned to Mokoum and said,—

“Do you keep to your bargain?”

“Yes,” replied the bushman.

The rhinoceros still being as motionless as a target, Sir John could aim wherever he thought the blow would be mortal. He chose the muzzle, and, his pride being roused, he aimed with the utmost care, and fired. The ball failed in reaching the flesh; it had merely shattered to fragments the extremity of one of the horns. The animal did not appear to experience the slightest shock.

“That counts nothing,” said the bushman, “you didn't touch the flesh.”

“Yes, it counts,” replied Sir John, rather vexed; “I have lost my wager. But come now, double or quits?”

“As you please, Sir John, but you will lose.”

“We shall see.”

The rifle was carefully re-loaded, and Sir John, taking rather a random aim, fired a second time; but meeting the horny skin of the haunch, the ball, notwithstanding its force, fell to the ground. The rhinoceros moved a few steps.

“A crown to me,” said Mokoum,

“Will you stake it again?” asked Sir John, “double or quits.”

“By all means,” said Mokoum.

This time Sir John, who had begun to get angry, regained his composure, and aimed at the animal's forehead. The ball rebounded, as if it had struck a metal plate.

“Half-a-sovereign,” said the bushman calmly.

“Yes, and another,” cried Sir John, exasperated.

The shot penetrated the skin, and the rhinoceros made a tremendous bound; but instead of falling, he rushed furiously upon the bushes, which he tore and crushed violently.

“I think he still moves,” said the bushman quietly.

Sir John was beside himself; his composure again deserted him, and he risked the sovereign he owed the bushman on a fifth ball. He continued to lose again and again, but persisted in doubling the stake at every shot. At length the animal, pierced to the heart, fell, impotent to rise to its feet.

Sir John uttered a loud hurrah; he had killed his rhinoceros. He had forgotten his disappointment, but he did not forget his bets. It was startling to find that the perpetually redoubled stakes had mounted at the ninth shot to 32l.[1] Sir John congratulated himself on his escape from such a debt of honour; but in his enthusiasm he presented Mokoum with several gold pieces which the bushman received with his usual equanimity.

1^  l is an alternative symbol for £ (British pound), not to be confused with /- (shilling). Frewer has considerably rewritten Verne's work in this bet sequence, starting with the wager of half-a-crown (a crown is 5 shillings, or ¼ pound) on the first shot, and doubling to 32l on the ninth shot, concluding by giving Mokoum “several gold pieces”.

Verne's original begins with

Une livre, à vous, si ce rhinocéros ne tombe pas sous ma première balle!

(one pound, to you, if the rhinoceros is not killed by the first ball). The sequence ends with the

neuvième coup de son rifle

(ninth shot of his rifle);

Ses paris, son désappointement, il oublia tout, pour ne se souvenir que d'une chose: il avait tué son rhinocéros

(his bets, his disappointment, he forgot all, to remember only one thing: he had killed his rhinoceros) and

elle ne lui avait pas moins coûté de trente-six livres

(it had cost him not less than thirty-six pounds). This indicates that the doubling of bets had rather broken down by the end, and there is no mention of giving Mokoum “several gold pieces”.