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Chapter 15 – Where A Manticore May Lead

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

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To what plank of safety will not an unfortunate being cling? Will not
the eyes of the condemned seek to seize any ray of hope, no matter how
vague?

So it had been with Mrs. Weldon. One can understand what she must have
felt when she learned, from Alvez himself, that Dr. Livingstone had
just died in a little Bangoneolo village.

It seemed to her that she was more isolated than ever; that a sort of
bond that attached her to the traveler, and with him to the civilized
world, had just been broken.

The plank of safety sank under her hand, the ray of hope went out
before her eyes. Tom and his companions had left Kazounde for the lake
region. Not the least news of Hercules. Mrs. Weldon was not sure of
any one. She must then fall back on Negoro’s proposition, while trying
to amend it and secure a definite result from it.

June 14th, the day fixed by him, Negoro presented himself at Mrs.
Weldon’s hut.

The Portuguese was, as always, so he said, perfectly practical.
However, he abated nothing from the amount of the ransom, which his
prisoner did not even discuss. But Mrs. Weldon also showed herself
very practical in saying to him:

"If you wish to make an agreement, do not render it impossible by
unacceptable conditions. The exchange of our liberty for the sum you
exact may take place, without my husband coming into a country where
you see what can be done with a white man! Now, I do not wish him to
come here at any price!"

After some hesitation Negoro yielded, and Mrs. Weldon finished
with the concession that James Weldon should not venture as far as
Kazounde. A ship would land him at Mossamedes, a little port to the
south of Angola, ordinarily frequented by slave-ships, and well-known
by Negoro. It was there that the Portuguese would conduct James W.
Weldon; and at a certain time Alvez’s agent would bring thither Mrs.
Weldon, Jack, and Cousin Benedict. The ransom would be given to those
agents on the giving up of the prisoners, and Negoro, who would play
the part of a perfectly honest man with James Weldon, would disappear
on the ship’s arrival.

Mrs. Weldon had gained a very important point. She spared her husband
the dangers of a voyage to Kazounde, the risk of being kept there,
after paying the exacted ransom, and the perils of the return. As to
the six hundred miles that separated Kazounde from Mossamedes, by
going over them as she had traveled on leaving the Coanza, Mrs. Weldon
would only have a little fatigue to fear. Besides, it would be to
Alvez’s interest – for he was in the affair – for the prisoners to
arrive safe and sound.

The conditions being thus settled, Mrs. Weldon wrote to her husband,
leaving to Negoro the care of passing himself off as a devoted
servant, who had escaped from the natives. Negoro took the letter,
which did not allow James Weldon to hesitate about following him as
far as Mossamedes, and, the next day, escorted by twenty blacks, he
traveled toward the north.

Why did he take that direction? Was it, then, Negoro’s intention to
embark on one of the vessels which frequent the mouths of the Congo,
and thus avoid the Portuguese stations, as well as the penitentiaries
in which he had been an involuntary guest? It was probable. At least,
that was the reason he gave Alvez.

After his departure, Mrs. Weldon must try to arrange her existence
in such a manner as to pass the time of her sojourn at Kazounde as
happily as possible. Under the most favorable circumstances, it would
last three or four months. Negoro’s going and returning would require
at least that time.

Mrs. Weldon’s intention was, not to leave the factory. Her child,
Cousin Benedict, and she, were comparatively safe there. Halima’s good
care softened the severity of this sequestration a little. Besides,
it was probable that the trader would not permit her to leave the
establishment. The great premium that the prisoner’s ransom would
procure him, made it well worth while to guard her carefully.

It was even fortunate that Alvez was not obliged to leave Kazounde to
visit his two other factories of Bihe and Cassange. Coimbra was going
to take his place in the expedition on new razzias or raids. There
was no motive for regretting the presence of that drunkard. Above all,
Negoro, before setting out, had given Alvez the most urgent commands
in regard to Mrs. Weldon. It was necessary to watch her closely. They
did not know what had become of Hercules. If he had not perished in
that dreadful province of Kazounde, perhaps he would attempt to get
near the prisoner and snatch her from Alvez’s hands. The trader
perfectly understood a situation which ciphered itself out by a good
number of dollars. He would answer for Mrs. Weldon as for his own
body.

So the monotonous life of the prisoner during the first days after her
arrival at the factory, was continued. What passed in this enclosure
reproduced very exactly the various acts of native existence outside.
Alvez lived like the other natives of Kazounde. The women of the
establishment worked as they would have done in the town, for the
greater comfort of their husbands or their masters. Their occupations
included preparing rice with heavy blows of the pestle in wooden
mortars, to perfect decortication; cleansing and winnowing maize, and
all the manipulations necessary to draw from it a granulous substance
which serves to compose that potage called "mtyelle" in the country;
the harvesting of the sorgho, a kind of large millet, the ripening
of which had just been solemnly celebrated at this time; the
extraction of that fragrant oil from the "mpafon" drupes, kinds
of olives, the essence of which forms a perfume sought for by the
natives; spinning of the cotton, the fibers of which are twisted by
means of a spindle a foot and a half long, to which the spinners
impart a rapid rotation; the fabrication of bark stuffs with the
mallet; the extraction from the tapioca roots, and the preparation of
the earth for the different products of the country, cassava, flour
that they make from the manioc beans, of which the pods, fifteen
inches long, named "mositsanes," grow on trees twenty feet high;
arachides intended to make oil, perennial peas of a bright blue,
known under the name of "tchilobes," the flowers of which relieve the
slightly insipid taste of the milk of sorgho; native coffee, sugar
canes, the juice of which is reduced to a syrup; onions, Indian pears,
sesamum, cucumbers, the seeds of which are roasted like chestnuts; the
preparation of fermented drinks, the "malofori," made with bananas,
the "pombe" and other liquors; the care of the domestic animals, of
those cows that only allow themselves to be milked in the presence of
their little one or of a stuffed calf; of those heifers of small race,
with short horns, some of which have a hump; of those goats which, in
the country where their flesh serves for food, are an important object
of exchange, one might say current money like the slave; finally, the
feeding of the birds, swine, sheep, oxen, and so forth.

This long enumeration shows what rude labors fall on the feeble sex in
those savage regions of the African continent.

During this time the men smoke tobacco or hemp, chase the elephant or
the buffalo, and hire themselves to the traders for the raids. The
harvest of maize or of slaves is always a harvest that takes place in
fixed seasons.

Of those various occupations, Mrs. Weldon only saw in Alvez’s factory
the part laid on the women. Sometimes she stopped, looking at them,
while the slaves, it must be said, only replied to her by ugly
grimaces. A race instinct led these unfortunates to hate a white
woman, and they had no commiseration for her in their hearts. Halima
alone was an exception, and Mrs. Weldon, having learned certain words
of the native language, was soon able to exchange a few sentences with
the young slave.

Little Jack often accompanied his mother when she walked in the
inclosure; but he wished very much to go outside. There was, however,
in an enormous baobab, marabout nests, formed of a few sticks, and
"souimangas" nests, birds with scarlet breasts and throats, which
resemble those of the tissirms; then "widows," that strip the thatch
for the benefit of their family; "calaos," whose song was agreeable,
bright gray parrots with red tails, which, in the Manyema, are
called "rouss," and give their name to the chiefs of the tribes;
insectivorous "drougos," similar to gray linnets, with large, red
beaks. Here and there also fluttered hundreds of butterflies of
different species, especially in the neighborhood of the brooks that
crossed the factory; but that was rather Cousin Benedict’s affair than
little Jack’s, and the latter regretted greatly not being taller,
so as to look over the walls. Alas! where was his poor friend, Dick
Sand – he who had brought him so high up in the "Pilgrim’s" masts? How
he would have followed him on the branches of those trees, whose tops
rose to more than a hundred feet! What good times they would have had
together!

Cousin Benedict always found himself very well where he was,
provided insects were not lacking. Happily, he had discovered in the
factory – and he studied as much as he could without magnifying glass
or spectacles – a small bee which forms its cells among the worm-holes
of the wood, and a "sphex" that lays its eggs in cells that are not
its own, as the cuckoo in the nests of other birds. Mosquitoes were
not lacking either, on the banks of the rivulets, and they tattooed
him with bites to the extent of making him unrecognizable. And when
Mrs. Weldon reproached him with letting himself be thus devoured by
those venomous insects: "It is their instinct, Cousin Weldon," he
replied to her, scratching himself till the blood came; "it is their
instinct, and we must not have a grudge against them!"

At last, one day – it was the 17th of June – Cousin Benedict was on the
point of being the happiest of entomologists. But this adventure,
which had unexpected consequences, needs to be related with some
minuteness.

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning. An overpowering heat had
obliged the inhabitants of the factory to keep in their huts, and one
would not even meet a single native in the streets of Kazounde.

Mrs. Weldon was dozing near little Jack, who was sleeping soundly.
Cousin Benedict, himself, suffering from the influence of this
tropical temperature, had given up his favorite hunts, which was a
great sacrifice for him, for, in those rays of the midday sun, he
heard the rustle of a whole world of insects. He was sheltered, then,
at the end of his hut, and there, sleep began to take possession of
him in this involuntary siesta.

Suddenly, as his eyes half closed, he heard a humming; this is one
of those insupportable buzzings of insects, some of which can give
fifteen or sixteen thousand beats of their wings in a second.

"A hexapode!" exclaimed Cousin Benedict, awakened at once, and passing
from the horizontal to the vertical position.

There was no doubt that it was a hexapode that was buzzing in his hut.
But, if Cousin Benedict was very near-sighted, he had at least very
acute hearing, so acute even that he could recognize one insect from
another by the intensity of its buzz, and it seemed to him that this
one was unknown, though it could only be produced by a giant of the
species.

"What is this hexapode?" Cousin Benedict asked himself.

Behold him, seeking to perceive the insect, which was very difficult
to his eyes without glasses, but trying above all to recognize it by
the buzzing of its wings.

His instinct as an entomologist warned him that he had something to
accomplish, and that the insect, so providentially entered into his
hut, ought not to be the first comer.

Cousin Benedict no longer moved. He listened. A few rays of light
reached him. His eyes then discovered a large black point that flew
about, but did not pass near enough for him to recognize it. He held
his breath, and if he felt himself stung in some part of the face or
hands, he was determined not to make a single movement that might put
his hexapode to flight. At last the buzzing insect, after turning
around him for a long time, came to rest on his head. Cousin
Benedict’s mouth widened for an instant, as if to give a smile – and
what a smile! He felt the light animal running on his hair. An
irresistible desire to put his hand there seized him for a moment; but
he resisted it, and did well.

"No, no!" thought he, "I would miss it, or what would be worse, I
would injure it. Let it come more within my reach. See it walking! It
descends. I feel its dear little feet running on my skull! This must
be a hexapode of great height. My God! only grant that it may descend
on the end of my nose, and there, by squinting a little, I might
perhaps see it, and determine to what order, genus, species, or
variety it belongs."

So thought Cousin Benedict. But it was a long distance from his skull,
which was rather pointed, to the end of his nose, which was very long.
How many other roads the capricious insect might take, beside his
ears, beside his forehead – roads that would take it to a distance from
the savant’s eyes – without counting that at any moment it might retake
its flight, leave the hut, and lose itself in those solar rays where,
doubtless, its life was passed, and in the midst of the buzzing of its
congeners that would attract it outside!

Cousin Benedict said all that to himself. Never, in all his life as
an entomologist, had he passed more touching minutes. An African
hexapode, of a new species, or, at least, of a new variety, or even of
a new sub-variety, was there on his head, and he could not recognize
it except it deigned to walk at least an inch from his eyes.

However, Cousin Benedict’s prayer must be heard. The insect, after
having traveled over the half-bald head, as on the summit of some wild
bush, began to descend Cousin Benedict’s forehead, and the latter
might at last conceive the hope that it would venture to the top of
his nose. Once arrived at that top, why would it not descend to the
base?

"In its place, I – I would descend," thought the worthy savant.

What is truer than that, in Cousin Benedict’s place, any other would
have struck his forehead violently, so as to crush the enticing
insect, or at least to put it to flight. To feel six feet moving on
his skin, without speaking of the fear of being bitten, and not make a
gesture, one will agree that it was the height of heroism. The Spartan
allowing his breast to be devoured by a fox; the Roman holding burning
coals between his fingers, were not more masters of themselves than
Cousin Benedict, who was undoubtedly descended from those two heroes.

After twenty little circuits, the insect arrived at the top of the
nose. Then there was a moment’s hesitation that made all Cousin
Benedict’s blood rush to his heart. Would the hexapode ascend again
beyond the line of the eyes, or would it descend below?

It descended. Cousin Benedict felt its caterpillar feet coming toward
the base of his nose. The insect turned neither to the right nor to
the left. It rested between its two buzzing wings, on the slightly
hooked edge of that learned nose, so well formed to carry spectacles.
It cleared the little furrow produced by the incessant use of that
optical instrument, so much missed by the poor cousin, and it stopped
just at the extremity of his nasal appendage.

It was the best place this haxapode could choose. At that distance,
Cousin Benedict’s two eyes, by making their visual rays converge,
could, like two lens, dart their double look on the insect.

"Almighty God!" exclaimed Cousin Benedict, who could not repress a
cry, "the tuberculous manticore."

Now, he must not cry it out, he must only think it. But was it not too
much to ask from the most enthusiastic of entomologists?

To have on the end of his nose a tuberculous manticore, with large
elytrums – an insect of the cicendeletes tribe – a very rare specimen
in collections – one that seems peculiar to those southern parts of
Africa, and yet not utter a cry of admiration; that is beyond human
strength.

Unfortunately the manticore heard this cry, which was almost
immediately followed by a sneeze, that shook the appendage on which it
rested. Cousin Benedict wished to take possession of it, extended his
hand, shut it violently, and only succeeded in seizing the end of his
own nose.

"Malediction!" exclaimed he. But then he showed a remarkable coolness.

He knew that the tuberculous manticore only flutters about, so to
say, that it walks rather than flies. He then knelt, and succeeded in
perceiving, at less than ten inches from his eyes, the black point
that was gliding rapidly in a ray of light.

Evidently it was better to study it in this independent attitude. Only
he must not lose sight of it.

"To seize the manticore would be to risk crushing it," Cousin
Benedict said to himself. "No; I shall follow it! I shall admire it! I
have time enough to take it!"

Was Cousin Benedict wrong? However that may be, see him now on all
fours, his nose to the ground like a dog that smells a scent, and
following seven or eight inches behind the superb hexapode. One moment
after he was outside his hut, under the midday sun, and a few minutes
later at the foot of the palisade that shut in Alvez’s establishment.

At this place was the manticore going to clear the enclosure with a
bound, and put a wall between its adorer and itself? No, that was not
in its nature, and Cousin Benedict knew it well. So he was always
there, crawling like a snake, too far off to recognize the insect
entomologically – besides, that was done – but near enough to perceive
that large, moving point traveling over the ground.

The manticore, arrived near the palisade, had met the large entrance
of a mole-hill that opened at the foot of the enclosure. There,
without hesitating, it entered this subterranean gallery, for it is in
the habit of seeking those obscure passages. Cousin Benedict believed
that he was going to lose sight of it. But, to his great surprise, the
passage was at least two feet high, and the mole-hill formed a gallery
where his long, thin body could enter. Besides, he put the ardor of a
ferret into his pursuit, and did not even perceive that in "earthing"
himself thus, he was passing outside the palisade.

In fact, the mole-hill established a natural communication between the
inside and the outside. In half a minute Cousin Benedict was outside
of the factory. That did not trouble him. He was absorbed in
admiration of the elegant insect that was leading him on. But the
latter, doubtless, had enough of this long walk. Its elytrums turned
aside, its wings spread out. Cousin Benedict felt the danger, and,
with his curved hand, he was going to make a provisional prison for
the manticore, when – f-r-r-r-r! – it flew away!

What despair! But the manticore could not go far. Cousin Benedict
rose; he looked, he darted forward, his two hands stretched out and
open. The insect flew above his head, and he only perceived a large
black point, without appreciable form to him.

Would the manticore come to the ground again to rest, after having
traced a few capricious circles around Cousin Benedict’s bald head?
All the probabilities were in favor of its doing so.

Unfortunately for the unhappy savant, this part of Alvez’s
establishment, which was situated at the northern extremity of the
town, bordered on a vast forest, which covered the territory of
Kazounde for a space of several square miles. If the manticore
gained the cover of the trees, and if there, it should flutter from
branch to branch, he must renounce all hope of making it figure in
that famous tin box, in which it would be the most precious jewel.

Alas! that was what happened. The manticore had rested again on
the ground. Cousin Benedict, having the unexpected hope of seeing it
again, threw himself on the ground at once. But the manticore no
longer walked: it proceeded by little jumps.

Cousin Benedict, exhausted, his knees and hands bleeding, jumped also.
His two arms, his hands open, were extended to the right, to the left,
according as the black point bounded here or there. It might be said
that he was drawing his body over that burning soil, as a swimmer does
on the surface of the water.

Useless trouble! His two hands always closed on nothing. The insect
escaped him while playing with him, and soon, arrived under the fresh
branches, it arose, after throwing into Cousin Benedict’s ear, which
it touched lightly, the most intense but also the most ironical
buzzing of its coleopter wings.

"Malediction!" exclaimed Cousin Benedict, a second time. "It escapes
me. Ungrateful hexapode! Thou to whom I reserved a place of honor in
my collection! Well, no, I shall not give thee up! I shall follow thee
till I reach thee!"

He forgot, this discomfited cousin, that his nearsighted eyes would
not enable him to perceive the manticore among the foliage. But he
was no longer master of himself. Vexation, anger, made him a fool. It
was himself, and only himself, that he must blame for his loss. If he
had taken possession of the insect at first, instead of following it
"in its independent ways," nothing of all that would have happened,
and he would possess that admirable specimen of African manticores,
the name of which is that of a fabulous animal, having a man’s head
and a lion’s body.

Cousin Benedict had lost his head. He little thought that the most
unforeseen of circumstances had just restored him to liberty. He did
not dream that the ant-hill, into which he had just entered, had opened
to him an escape, and that he had just left Alvez’s establishment.
The forest was there, and under the trees was his manticore, flying
away! At any price, he wanted to see it again.

See him, then, running across the thick forest, no longer conscious
even of what he was doing, always imagining he saw the precious
insect, beating the air with his long arms like a gigantic
field-spider. Where he was going, how he would return, and if he
should return, he did not even ask himself, and for a good mile
he made his way thus, at the risk of being met by some native, or
attacked by some beast.

Suddenly, as he passed near a thicket, a gigantic being sprang out and
threw himself on him. Then, as Cousin Benedict would have done with
the manticore, that being seized him with one hand by the nape of
the neck, with the other by the lower part of the back, and before he
had time to know what was happening, he was carried across the forest.

Truly, Cousin Benedict had that day lost a fine occasion of being able
to proclaim himself the happiest entomologist of the five parts of the
world.

 

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