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

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Not without anxiety had the astronomers witnessed the departure of their young colleagues: they could not tell what dangers awaited them in that unknown country. Mokoum tried to reassure them by praising the courage of the pioneer, and besides, he said, the Makololos were too much occupied around Mount Scorzef to beat the country to the north of Lake Ngami. He instinctively felt that the Colonel and his party were in a more dangerous position than the two young astronomers.

The sailors and Mokoum kept watch in turns through the night. But “the reptiles,” as the bushman termed the Makololos, did not venture another attack. They seemed to be waiting for reinforcements, in order to invade the mountain from all sides, and overcome by their numbers the resistance of the besieged.

The hunter was not mistaken in his conjectures; and when daylight appeared Colonel Everest perceived a sensible increase in the number of the natives. Their camp, carefully arranged round the base of the mountain, shut off escape on every side except that towards the lake. This side could not be invested, so that unless unforeseen circumstances occurred, retreat to the water was always practicable. But the Europeans had no thought of escaping: they occupied a post of honour, and were all agreed that it must not be abandoned. No allusion was ever made to the war between England and Russia, and both parties strove together to accomplish their scientific labour.

The interval of waiting for the signal on Mount Volquiria was employed in completing the measurement of the preceding triangle and in finding the exact latitude of Mount Scorzcf by means of the altitudes of the stars.

Mokoum was called upon to say what would be the shortest possible space of time that must elapse before Emery and Zorn could reach Mount Volquiria. He replied that as the journey was to be performed on foot, and the country was continually crossed by rivers, he did not think that they could arrive in less than five days at least. They therefore adopted a maximum of six days, and portioned out their supplies to serve for that period. Their reserve was very limited, consisting only of a few pounds of biscuit, preserved meat, and pemmican, and had already been diminished by the portion furnished to the pioneer's little troop. Colonel Everest and his companions, anxiously anticipating the sixth day, decided that the daily ration must be reduced to a third of their previous allowance. The thirteen men would doubtless suffer much from this small amount of nourishment, but there was an unflinching determination to bear up bravely.

“Besides,” said Sir John, “we have room enough to hunt.”

Mokoum shook his head doubtfully: he thought that game would be rare on the mountain. However, his gun need not be idle, and leaving the astronomers to examine and correct their registers, he set off with Sir John.

The Makololos were quietly encamped, and apparently patient in their intention of reducing the besieged by famine. The two hunters reconnoitred the mountain. The fort occupied a space of ground measuring not more than a quarter of a mile in its widest part. The soil was covered with flints and grass, dotted here and there with low shrubs, and bright with gladioli. Red heaths, silvery-leaved protese, and ericæ with wavy fronds, formed the flora of the mountain, and beneath the angles formed by the projections of rock sprung up thorny bushes ten feet high, with bunches of a sweet-smelling white flower. The bushman was ignorant of its name, but it was doubtless the Arduina bispinosa, which bears fruit like the barberry.

After an hour's search Sir John had seen no trace of game. Some little birds with dark wings and red beaks flew out of the bushes, but at the first shot they disappeared, no more to return. It was evident that the garrison must not depend on the products of the chase for sustenance.

“We can fish in the lake,” said Sir John, standing and contemplating the fine extent of water.

“To fish without net or line,” replied the bushman, “is as difficult as to lay hands on birds on the wing. But we will not despair; chance has hitherto favoured us.”

“Chance! nay, not chance, but Providence,” said Sir John. “That does not forsake us; it has brought us to the Russians, and will no doubt carry us on to our goal.”

“And will Providence feed us, Sir John?” asked the bushman.

“No doubt, Mokoum,” said Sir John encouragingly; and the bushman thought to himself that no blind trust in Providence should prevent him from using his own best exertions.

The 25th brought no change in the relative positions of besiegers and besieged. The Makololos, having brought in the plundered waggons, remained in their camp. Herds and flocks were grazing in the pasturages at the foot of the mountain, and some women and children, who had joined the tribe, went about and pursued their ordinary occupations. From time to time, some chief, recognizable by the richness of the skins which he wore, ascended the slope of the mountain and tried to examine the approaches to the summit; but the report of a rifle always took him speedily back to the plain. The Makololos then raised their war-cry, brandished their assagais, and all became quiet.

The following day the natives made a more serious attempt, and about fifty of them at once scaled three sides of the mountain. The whole garrison turned out to the foot of the enclosure, and the European arms caused considerable ravage among the Makololos. Five or six were killed, and the rest abandoned their project, but it was quite evident that if several hundred were to assault the mountain simultaneously, the besieged would find it difficult to face them on all sides. Sir John now thought of the mitrailleuse, which was the principal weapon of the “Queen and Czar,” and proposed that it should be brought up to defend the front of the fortress. It was a difficult task to hoist the machine up the rocks, which in some parts were almost perpendicular; but the sailors showed themselves so agile and daring, that in the course of the day the mitrailleuse was installed in the embrasure of the embattled enclosure. Thence, its twenty-five muzzles, arranged in the shape of a fan, would cover the front of the fort, and the natives would thus early make acquaintance with the engine of death which in after-years was to effect such devastation amongst the civilized armies of the European continent.

The dry air and clear sky had enabled the astronomers each night to pursue their observations. They had found the latitude of Mount Scorzef to be 19°{37}, which result confirmed their opinion that they were less than half a degree from the northern extremity of their meridian, and that consequently the next triangle would complete the series.

The night passed without any fresh alarm. If circumstances had favoured the pioneer, he and his companions would reach Mount Volquiria the following day, so that the astronomers kept unflagging watch through the next night for the appearance of the light. Strux and the Colonel had already pointed the telescope to the peak, so that it was continuously embraced in the field of the object-glass, otherwise it would have been difficult to discern on a dark night; as it was, the light would doubtless be perceived immediately on its appearance.

All day Sir John beat fruitlessly the bushes and long grass. He could not unearth a single animal that was fit to eat. The very birds, disturbed from their retreats, had gone to the underwood on the shore for shelter. Sir John was extremely vexed, inasmuch as he was not hunting merely for personal gratification, but to supply the necessities of the party. Perhaps he himself suffered from hunger more than his three colleagues, whose attention was more riveted by their application to science. The sailors and Mokoum suffered equally with Sir John. One more day and their scanty reserve would be at an end, and if the pioneer's expedition were delayed, they would soon be exposed to a severe extremity of hunger.

The dark, calm night was passed in watching; but the horizon remained wrapped in shade, and no light appeared in the object-glass of the telescope. The minimum of time, however, allowed to the expedition had hardly expired, and they felt that they were bound to exhibit patience for a while.

The next day the garrison ate their last morsel of meat and biscuit; but their courage did not fail, and, though they should be obliged to feed on what herbs they could gather, they were resolved to hold out.

The succeeding night passed without any result. More than once the astronomers believed that they had seen the light, but it was always proved to be a star in the misty horizon.

On the 1st of March they were compelled absolutely to fast. Having been for some time accustomed to meagre and inadequate nourishment, they passed the first day without much acute suffering, but on the morrow they began to experience the pangs of craving. Sir John and Mokoum, haggard-eyed, and sensitive to the gnawings of hunger, wandered over the top of the mountain; but no game whatever was to be seen. They began to think that, as the Colonel had said, they should literally have to feed on grass. If they only had the stomachs of ruminants, thought poor Sir John, as he eyed the abundant pasturage, they would be able to hold out; but still no game, still not even a bird! He gazed intently over the lake, in which the sailors had fished in vain; and it was impossible to get near the wary aquatic birds that skimmed the tranquil waters.

At last, worn out with fatigue, Sir John and his companion lay down on the grass at the foot of a mound of earth some five or six feet high. Here they fell, not precisely into a sleep, but into a heavy torpor, which for a while benumbed their sufferings. How long this drowsiness would have lasted neither of them could have said; but in about an hour Sir John was aroused by a disagreeable pricking. He tried to slumber again, but the pricking continued, and at last impatiently he opened his eyes.

He was entirely covered, face, hands, and clothes, with swarms of white ants. He started to his feet, and his sudden movement aroused the bushman, who was covered in the same way. But to Sir John's great surprise, the bushman, instead of shaking off the insects, carried them by handfuls to his mouth, and devoured them greedily. Sir John's first sensation was disgust at his voracity.

“Come, eat, do as I do!” said the bushman; “it is the rice of the Bochjesmen.”

And that was, in truth, the native term for these insects. The Bochjesmen feed on both the black and white species, but they consider the white to be of superior quality. The only drawback is, that they must be swallowed in large quantities to satisfy any longing for food. The Africans generally mix them with the gum of the mimosa, thus rendering them capable of affording a less unsubstantial meal; but as the mimosa did not grow on Mount Scorzef, the bushman had to content himself with his rice au naturel.

Sir John, in spite of his repugnance, resolved to imitate him. The insects poured forth by thousands from their enormous ant-hill, which was none other than the mound of earth by which the weary sufferers had reclined. Sir John took them by handfuls, and carried them to his lips; he did not dislike the flavour, which was a grateful acid; and gradually he felt his hunger moderated.

Mokoum did not forget his companions in misfortune. He ran to the fort, and brought out the garrison. The sailors were without difficulty induced to attack the singular food, and although the astronomers hesitated a moment, yet, encouraged by Sir John's example, and half dead with inanition, they soon at least assuaged the intenseness of their hunger by devouring considerable quantities of these ants.

But an unexpected incident procured for the starving men a more solid meal. In order to lay in a provision of the insects, Mokoum resolved to destroy one side of the enormous ant-hill. It consisted of a central conical mound, with smaller cones arranged at intervals round its base. The hunter had already made several blows with his hatchet, when a singular grunting sound from the centre attracted his attention: he paused in his work of destruction, and listened, while his companions watched him in silence. He struck a few more blows, and the groan was repeated more audibly than before. The bushman rubbed his hands, whilst his eyes evidently sparkled. Once more attacking the ant-hill, he opened a cavity about a foot wide. The ants were escaping on every side; but of them he took no heed, leaving the sailors to collect them in sacks. All at once a strange animal appeared at the mouth of the hole. It was a quadruped with a long snout, small mouth, and flexible tongue, which protruded to a great length; its ears were straight, its legs short, and its tail long and pointed. Long grey bristles with a reddish tinge covered its lank body, and its feet were armed with enormous claws. Mokoum killed it at once with a sharp blow on the snout. “There is our supper,” he said. “It has been some time coming, but it will not taste the worse for that. Now for a fire, and a ramrod for a spit, and we will feast as we have never feasted in our lives.”

The bushman speedily began to skin the animal, which was a species of octeropus or ant-eater, very common in South Africa, and known to the Dutch at the Cape under the name of “earth-pig.” Swarms of ants are devoured by this creature, which catches them by means of its long glutinous tongue.

The meal was soon cooked; perhaps it would have been better for a few more turns of the spit, but the hungry men were impatient. The firm, wholesome flesh was declared to be excellent, although slightly impregnated with the acid of the ants.

After the repast the Europeans felt re-invigorated, and animated with more steadfast purpose to persevere; and in truth there was need of encouragement. All through the following night no light appeared on Mount Volquiria.