Two years hence Joseph Thomson's reputation will be a decade old, though he is at present only thirty years of age. When you meet him for the first time you conclude that he must be the explorer's son. His identity, however, can always be proved by simply mentioning Africa in his presence. Then he draws himself up, and his eyes glisten, and he is thinking how glorious it would be to be in the Masai country again, living on meat so diseased that it crumbled in the hand like short-bread.
Gatelaw-bridge Quarry, in Dumfriesshire, is famous for Old Mortality and Thomson, the latter (when he is at the head of a caravan) being as hardheaded as if he had been cut out of it. He went to school at Thornhill, where he spent great part of his time in reading novels, and then he matriculated at Edinburgh University, where he began to accumulate medals. Geology and kindred studies were his favorites there. One day he heard that Keith Johnston, then on the point of starting for Africa, wanted a lieutenant. Thomson was at that time equally in need of a Keith Johnston, and everybody who knew him saw that the opening and he were made for each other. Keith Johnston and Thomson went out together, and Johnston died in the jungle. This made a man in an hour of a stripling. Most youths in Thomson's position at that turning-point of his career would have thought it judicious to turn back, and in geographical circles it would have been considered highly creditable had he brought his caravan to the coast intact. Thomson, however, pushed on, and did everything that his dead leader had hoped to do. From that time his career has been followed by every one interested in African exploration, and by his countrymen with some pride in addition. When an expedition was organized for the relief of Emin Pacha, there was for a time some probability of Thomson's having the command.
He and Stanley differed as to the routes that should be taken, and subsequent events have proved that Thomson's was the proper one.
Thomson came over from Paris at that time to consult with the authorities, and took up his residence in the most overgrown hotel in London. His friends here organized an expedition for his relief. They wandered up and down the endless stairs looking for him, till, had they not wanted to make themselves a name, they would have beaten a retreat. He also wandered about looking for them, and at last they met. The leader of the party, restraining his emotion, lifted his hat, and said, "Mr. Thomson, I presume?" This is how I found Thomson.
The explorer had been for some months in Paris at that time, and France did him the honor of translating his "Through Masailand" into French. In this book there is a picture of a buffalo tossing Thomson in the air. This was after he had put several bullets into it, and in the sketch he is represented some ten feet from the ground, with his gun flying one way and his cap another. "It was just as if I were distributing largess to the natives," the traveller says now, though this idea does not seem to have struck him at the time. He showed the sketch to a Parisian lady, who looked at it long and earnestly. "Ah, M. Thomson," she said at length, "but how could you pose like that?"
Like a good many other travellers, including Mr. Du Chaillu, who says he is a dear boy, Thomson does not smoke. Stanley, however, smokes very strong cigars, as those who have been in his sumptuous chambers in Bond Street can testify. All the three happen to be bachelors, though; because, one of them says, after returning from years of lonely travel, a man has such a delight in female society that to pick and choose would be invidious. Yet they have had their chance. An African race once tried to bribe Mr. Du Chaillu with a kingdom and over eight hundred wives—"the biggest offer," he admits, "I ever had in one day."
Among the lesser annoyances to which Thomson was subjected in Africa was the presence of rats in the night-time, which he had to brush away like flies. Until he was asked whether there was not danger in this, it never seems to have struck him that it was more than annoying. Yet though he and the two other travellers mentioned (doubtless they are not alone in this) have put up cheerfully with almost every hardship known to man, this does not make them indifferent to the comforts of civilization when they return home. Du Chaillu was looking very comfortable in a house-boat the other day, where his hosts thought they were "roughing it"—with a male attendant; and in Stanley's easy-chairs you sink to dream. The last time I saw Thomson in his rooms in London he was on his knees, gazing in silent rapture at a china saucer with a valuable crack in it.
If you ask Thomson what was the most dangerous expedition he ever embarked on, he will probably reply, "Crossing Piccadilly." The finest thing that can be said of him is that during these four expeditions he never once fired a shot at a native. Other explorers have had to do so to save their lives. There were often occasions when Thomson could have done it, to save his life to all appearance, too. The result of his method of progressing is that where he has gone—and he has been in parts of Africa never before trod by the white man—he really has "opened up the country" for those who care to follow him. Civilization by bullet has only closed it elsewhere. Yet though there is an abundance of Scotch caution about him, he is naturally an impulsive man, more inclined personally to march straight on than to reach his destination by a safer if more circuitous route. Where only his own life is concerned, he gives you the impression of one who might be rash; but his prudence at the head of a caravan is at the bottom of the faith that is placed in him. According to a story that got into the papers years ago, M. de Brazza once quarrelled with Thomson in Africa, and all but struck him. Thomson was praised for keeping his temper. The story was a fabrication, but I fear that if M. de Brazza had behaved like this, Thomson would not have remembered to be diplomatic till some time afterward. A truer tale might be told of an umbrella, gorgeous and wonderful to behold, that De Brazza took to Africa to impress the natives with, and which Thomson subsequently presented to a dusky monarch.
The explorer has never shot a lion, though he has tracked a good many of them. Once he thought he had one. It was reclining in a little grove, and Thomson felt that it was his at last. With a trusty native he crept forward till he could obtain a good shot, and then fired. In breathless suspense he waited for its spring, and then when it did not spring he saw that he had shot it through the heart. However, it turned out only to be a large stone.
The young Scotchman sometimes thinks of the tremendous effect it would have had on the natives had he been the possessor of a complete set of artificial teeth. This is because he has one artificial tooth. Happening to take it out one day, an awe filled all who saw him, and from that hour he was esteemed a medicine man. Another excellent way of impressing Africa with the grandeur of Britain was to take a photograph. When the natives saw the camera aimed at them, they fell to the ground vanquished.
When Thomson was recently in this country, he occasionally took a walk of twenty or thirty miles to give him an appetite for dinner. This he calls a stroll. One day he strolled from Thornhill to Edinburgh, had dinner, and then went to the Exhibition. In appearance he is tall and strongly knit rather than heavily built, and if you see him more than once in the same week you discover that he has still an interest in neck-ties. Perhaps his most remarkable feat consisted in taking a bottle of brandy into the heart of Africa, and bringing it back intact.