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Chapter 4 – The Bad Roads Of Angola

Jules VerneNov 04, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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At this moment little Jack awoke, and put his arms around his mother’s
neck. His eyes looked better. The fever had not returned.

"You are better, my darling," said Mrs. Weldon, pressing the sick
child to her heart.

"Yes, mama," replied Jack, "but I am a little thirsty."

They could only give the child some fresh water, of which he drank
with pleasure.

"And my friend Dick?" he said.

"Here I am, Jack," replied Dick Sand, coming to take the young child’s
hand.

"And my friend Hercules?"

"Hercules is here, Mr. Jack," replied the giant, bringing nearer his
good face.

"And the horse?" demanded little Jack.

"The horse? Gone, Mr. Jack," replied Hercules. "I will carry you. Will
you find that I trot too hard?"

"No," replied little Jack; "but then I shall no longer have any bridle
to hold."

"Oh! you will put a bit in my mouth, if you wish," said Hercules,
opening his large mouth, "and you may pull back so long as that will
give you pleasure."

"You know very well that I shall not pull back."

"Good! You would be wrong! I have a hard mouth."

"But Mr. Harris’s farm?" the little boy asked again.

"We shall soon arrive there, my Jack," replied Mrs. Weldon. "Yes,
soon!"

"Will we set out again?" then said Dick Sand, in order to cut short
this conversation.

"Yes, Dick, let us go," replied Mrs. Weldon.

The camp was broken up, and the march continued again in the same
order. It was necessary to pass through the underwood, so as not to
leave the course of the rivulet. There had been some paths there,
formerly, but those paths were dead, according to the native
expression – that is, brambles and brushwood had usurped them. In these
painful conditions they might spend three hours in making one mile.
The blacks worked without relaxation. Hercules, after putting little
Jack back in Nan’s arms, took his part of the work; and what a part!
He gave stout "heaves," making his ax turn round, and a hole was made
before them, as if he had been a devouring fire.

Fortunately, this fatiguing work would not last. This first mile
cleared, they saw a large hole, opened through the underwood, which
ended obliquely at the rivulet and followed its bank. It was a passage
made by elephants, and those animals, doubtless by hundreds, were in
the habit of traversing this part of the forest. Great holes, made by
the feet of the enormous pachyderms, riddled a soil softened during
the rainy season. Its spongy nature also prepared it for those large
imprints.

It soon appeared that this passage did not serve for those gigantic
animals alone. Human beings had more than once taken this route, but
as flocks, brutally led to the slaughter-house, would have followed
it. Here and there bones of dead bodies strewed the ground; remains
of skeletons, half gnawed by animals, some of which still bore the
slave’s fetters.

There are, in Central Africa, long roads thus marked out by human
débris. Hundreds of miles are traversed by caravans, and how many
unhappy wretches fall by the way, under the agents’ whips, killed by
fatigue or privations, decimated by sickness! How many more massacred
by the traders themselves, when food fails! Yes, when they can no
longer feed them, they kill them with the gun, with the sword, with
the knife! These massacres are not rare.

So, then, caravans of slaves had followed this road. For a mile Dick
Sand and his companions struck against these scattered bones at each
step, putting to flight enormous fern-owls. Those owls rose at their
approach, with a heavy flight, and turned round in the air.

Mrs. Weldon looked without seeing. Dick Sand trembled lest she should
question him, for he hoped to lead her back to the coast without
telling her that Harris’s treachery had led them astray in an African
province. Fortunately, Mrs. Weldon did not explain to herself what
she had under her eyes. She had desired to take her child again, and
little Jack, asleep, absorbed all her care. Nan walked near her, and
neither of them asked the young novice the terrible questions he
dreaded.

Old Tom went along with his eyes down. He understood only too well why
this opening was strewn with human bones.

His companions looked to the right, to the left, with an air of
surprise, as if they were crossing an interminable cemetery, the
tombs of which had been overthrown by a cataclysm; but they passed in
silence.

Meanwhile, the bed of the rivulet became deeper and wider at the same
time. Its current was less impetuous. Dick Sand hoped that it would
soon become navigable, or that it would before long reach a more
important river, tributary to the Atlantic.

Cost what it might, the young novice was determined to follow this
stream of water. Neither did he hesitate to abandon this opening;
because, as ending by an oblique line, it led away from the rivulet.

The little party a second time ventured through the dense underwood.
They marched, ax in hand, through leaves and bushes inextricably
interlaced.

But if this vegetation obstructed the ground, they were no longer in
the thick forest that bordered the coast. Trees became rare. Large
sheaves of bamboo alone rose above the grass, and so high that even
Hercules was not a head over them. The passage of the little party was
only revealed by the movement of these stalks.

Toward three o’clock in the afternoon of that day, the nature of the
ground totally changed. Here were long plains, which must have been
entirely inundated in the rainy season. The earth, now more swampy,
was carpeted by thick mosses, beneath charming ferns. Should it be
diversified by any steep ascents, they would see brown hematites
appear, the last deposits of some rich vein of mineral.

Dick Sand then recalled – and very fortunately – what he had read in
"Livingstone’s Travels." More than once the daring doctor had nearly
rested in these marshes, so treacherous under foot.

"Listen to me, my friends," said he, going ahead. "Try the ground
before stepping on it."

"In fact," replied Tom, "they say that these grounds have been
softened by the rain; but, however, it has not rained during these
last days."

"No," replied Bat; "but the storm is not far off."

"The greater reason," replied Dick Sand, "why we should hurry and get
clear of this swamp before it commences. Hercules, take little Jack
in your arms. Bat, Austin, keep near Mrs. Weldon, so as to be able to
help her if necessary. You, Mr. Benedict – Why, what are you doing,
Mr. Benedict?"

"I am falling!" innocently replied Cousin Benedict, who had just
disappeared as if a trap had been suddenly opened beneath his feet.

In fact, the poor man had ventured on a sort of quagmire, and had
disappeared half-way in the sticky mud. They stretched out their
hands, and he rose, covered with slime, but quite satisfied at not
having injured his precious entomologist’s box. Acteon went beside
him, and made it his duty to preserve the unlucky, near-sighted man
from any new disasters.

Besides, Cousin Benedict had made rather a bad choice of the quagmire
for his plunge. When they drew him out of the sticky earth a large
quantity of bubbles rose to the surface, and, in bursting, they
emitted some gases of a suffocating odor. Livingstone, who had been
sunk up to his chest in this slime, compared these grounds to a
collection of enormous sponges, made of black, porous earth, from
which numerous streams of water spouted when they were stepped upon.
These places were always very dangerous.

For the space of half a mile Dick Sand and his companions must march
over this spongy soil. It even became so bad that Mrs. Weldon was
obliged to stop, for she sank deep in the mire. Hercules, Bat, and
Austin, wishing to spare her the unpleasantness more than the fatigue
of a passage across this marshy plain, made a litter of bamboos, on
which she consented to sit. Her little Jack was placed in her arms,
and they endeavored to cross that pestilential marsh in the quickest
manner.

The difficulties were great. Acteon held Cousin Benedict firmly. Tom
aided Nan, who, without him, would have disappeared several times in
some crevice. The three other blacks carried the litter. At the head,
Dick Sand sounded the earth. The choice of the place to step on was
not made without trouble. They marched from preference on the edges,
which were covered by a thick and tough grass. Often the support
failed, and they sank to the knees in the slime.

At last, about five o’clock in the evening, the marsh being cleared,
the soil regained sufficient firmness, thanks to its clayey nature;
but they felt it damp underneath. Very evidently these lands lay below
the neighboring rivers, and the water ran through their pores.

At that time the heat had become overwhelming. It would even have
been unbearable, if thick storm clouds had not interposed between the
burning rays and the ground. Distant lightnings began to rend the sky
and low rollings of thunder grumbled in the depths of the heavens. A
formidable storm was going to burst forth.

Now, these cataclysms are terrible in Africa: rain in torrents,
squalls of wind which the strongest trees cannot resist, clap after
clap of thunder, such is the contest of the elements in that latitude.

Dick Sand knew it well, and he became very uneasy. They could not pass
the night without shelter. The plain was likely to be inundated, and
it did not present a single elevation on which it was possible to seek
refuge.

But refuge, where would they seek it in this low desert, without a
tree, without a bush? The bowels of the earth even would not give it.
Two feet below the surface they would find water.

However, toward the north a series of low hills seemed to limit the
marshy plain. It was as the border of this depression of land. A few
trees were profiled there on a more distant, clearer belt, left by the
clouds on the line of the horizon.

There, if shelter were still lacking, the little band would at least
no longer risk being caught in a possible inundation. There perhaps
was salvation for all.

"Forward, my friends, forward!" repeated Dick Sand. "Three miles more
and we shall be safer than in these bottom-lands."

"Hurry! hurry!" cried Hercules.

The brave black would have wished to take that whole world in big arms
and carry it alone.

Those words inspired those courageous men, and in spite of the fatigue
of a day’s march, they advanced more quickly than they had done at the
commencement from the halting-place.

When the storm burst forth the end to be attained was still more than
two miles off. Now – a fact which was the more to be feared – the rain
did not accompany the first lightnings exchanged between the ground
and the electrical clouds. Darkness then became almost complete,
though the sun had not disappeared below the horizon. But the dome of
vapors gradually lowered, as if it threatened to fall in – a falling in
which must result in a torrent of rain. Lightnings, red or blue, split
it in a thousand places, and enveloped the plain in an inextricable
network of fire.

Twenty times Dick and his companions ran the risk of being struck by
lightning. On this plateau, deprived of trees, they formed the only
projecting points which could attract the electrical discharges. Jack,
awakened by the noise of the thunder, hid himself in Hercules’ arms.
He was very much afraid, poor little boy, but he did not wish to let
his mother see it, for fear of afflicting her more. Hercules, while
taking great steps, consoled him as well as he could.

"Do not be afraid, little Jack," he repeated. "If the thunder comes
near us, I will break it in two with a single hand. I am stronger than
it!"

And, truly, the giant’s strength reassured Jack a little.

Meanwhile the rain must soon fall, and then it would in torrents,
poured out by those clouds in condensing. What would become of Mrs.
Weldon and her companions, if they did not find a shelter?

Dick Sand stopped a moment near old Tom.

"What must be done?" said he.

"Continue our march, Mr. Dick," replied Tom. "We cannot remain on this
plain, that the rain is going to transform into a marsh!"

"No, Tom, no! But a shelter! Where? What? If it were only a hut – "

Dick Sand had suddenly broken off his sentence. A more vivid flash of
lightning had just illuminated the whole plain.

"What have I seen there, a quarter of a mile off?" exclaimed Dick
Sand.

"Yes, I also, I have seen – " replied old Tom, shaking his head.

"A camp, is it not?"

"Yes, Mr. Dick, it must be a camp, but a camp of natives!"

A new flash enabled them to observe this camp more closely. It
occupied a part of the immense plain.

There, in fact, rose a hundred conical tents, symmetrically arranged,
and measuring from twelve to fifteen feet in height. Not a soldier
showed himself, however. Were they then shut up under their tents, so
as to let the storm pass, or was the camp abandoned?

In the first case, whatever Heaven should threaten, Dick Sand must
flee in the quickest manner. In the second, there was, perhaps, the
shelter he asked.

"I shall find out," he said to himself; then, addressing old Tom:
"Stay here. Let no one follow me. I shall go to reconnoiter that
camp."

"Let one of us accompany you, Mr. Dick."

"No, Tom, I shall go alone. I can approach without being seen. Stay
here."

The little troop, that followed Tom and Dick Sand, halted. The young
novice left at once and disappeared in the darkness, which was
profound when the lightning did not tear the sky.

Some large drops of rain already began to fall.

"What is the matter?" asked Mrs. Weldon, approaching the old black.

"We have perceived a camp, Mrs. Weldon," replied Tom; "a camp – or,
perhaps, a village, and our captain wished to reconnoiter it before
leading us to it."

Mrs. Weldon was satisfied with this reply. Three minutes after, Dick
Sand was returning.

"Come! come!" he cried, in a voice which expressed his entire
satisfaction.

"The camp is abandoned?" asked Tom.

"It is not a camp," replied the young novice; "it is not a village.
They are ant-hills!"

"Ant-hills!" exclaimed Cousin Benedict, whom that word aroused.

"Yes, Mr. Benedict, but ant-hills twelve feet high, at least, and in
which we shall endeavor to hide ourselves."

"But then," replied Cousin Benedict, "those would be ant-hills of the
warlike termite or of the devouring termite. Only those ingenious
insects raise such monuments, which the greatest architects would not
disown."

"Whether they be termites or not, Mr. Benedict," replied Dick Sand,
"we must dislodge them and take their place."

"They will devour us. They will be defending their rights."

"Forward! Forward!"

"But, wait now!" said Cousin Benedict again. "I thought those
ant-hills only existed in Africa."

"Forward!" exclaimed Dick Sand, for the last time, with a sort of
violence. He was so much afraid that Mrs. Weldon might hear the last
word pronounced by the entomologist.

They followed Dick Sand with all haste. A furious wind had sprung up.
Large drops crackled on the ground. In a few moments the squalls of
wind would become unbearable. Soon one of those cones which stood on
the plain was reached. No matter how threatening the termites might
be, the human beings must not hesitate. If they could not drive the
insects away, they must share their abode.

At the bottom of this cone, made with a kind of reddish clay, there
was a very narrow hole. Hercules enlarged it with his cutlass in a few
moments, so as to give a passage even to a man like himself.

To Cousin Benedict’s extreme surprise, not one of the thousands of
termites that ought to occupy the ant-hill showed itself. Was, then,
the cone abandoned?

The hole enlarged, Dick and his companions glided into it. Hercules
disappeared the last, just as the rain fell with such rage that it
seemed to extinguish the lightnings.

But those wind squalls were no longer to be feared. A happy chance had
furnished this little troop with a solid shelter, better than a tent,
better than a native’s hut.

It was one of those termite cones that, according to Lieutenant
Cameron’s comparison, are more astonishing than the pyramids of Egypt,
raised by the hands of men, because they have been built by such small
insects.

"It is," said he, "as if a nation had built Mount Everest, the highest
mountain of the Himalaya chain."

 

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