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Chapter 31

THE LOST SAFARI.

We were possessed of a map of sorts, consisting mostly of wide blank spaces, with an occasional tentative mountain, or the probable course of streams marked thereon. The only landmark that interested us was a single round peak situated south of our river and at a point just before we should cross the railroad at Tsavo Station. There came a day when, from the top of a hill where we had climbed for the sake of the outlook, we thought we recognized that peak. It was about five miles away as the crow flies.

Then we returned to camp and made the fatal mistake of starting to figure. We ought to cover the distance, even with the inevitable twists and turns, in a day; the tri-weekly train passed through Tsavo the following night; if we could catch that we would save a two days' wait for the next train. You follow the thought. We arose very early the next morning to get a good start on our forced march.

There is no use in spinning out a sad tale. We passed what we thought must be our landmark hill just eleven times. The map showed only one butte; as a matter of fact there were dozens. At each disappointment we had to reconstruct our theories. It is the nature of man to do this hopefully--Tsavo Station must be just around the next bend. We marched six hours without pause; then began to save ourselves a little. By all the gods of logical reasoning we proved Tsavo just beyond a certain fringe of woods. When we arrived we found that there the river broke through a range of hills by way of a deep gorge. It was a change from the everlasting scrub, with its tumbling waters, its awful cliffs, its luxuriant tropical growths; but it was so much the more difficult to make our way through. Beyond the gorge we found any amount of hills, kopjes, buttes, sugar loaves, etc., each isolated from its fellows, each perfectly competent to serve as the map's single landmark.

We should have camped, but we were very anxious to catch that train; and we were convinced that now, after all that work, Tsavo could not be far away. It would be ridiculous and mortifying to find we had camped almost within sight of our destination!

The heat was very bad and the force of the sun terrific. It seemed to possess actual physical weight, and to press us down from above. We filled our canteens many times at the swift-running stream, and emptied them as often. By two o'clock F. was getting a little wobbly from the sun. We talked of stopping, when an unexpected thunder shower rolled out from behind the mountains, and speedily overcast the entire heavens. This shadow relieved the stress. F., much revived, insisted that we proceed. So we marched and passed many more hills.

In the meantime it began to rain, after the whole-hearted tropical fashion. In two minutes we were drenched to the skin. I kept my matches and notebook dry by placing them in the crown of my cork helmet. After the intense heat this tepid downpour seemed to us delicious.

And then, quite unexpectedly, of course, we came around a bend to make out through the sheets of rain the steel girders of the famous Tsavo bridge.[15]

We clambered up a steep, slippery bank to the right-of-way, along which we proceeded half a mile to the station. This consisted of two or three native huts, a house for the East Indian in charge, and the station building itself. The latter was a small frame structure with a narrow floorless veranda. There was no platform. Drawing close on all sides was the interminable thorn scrub. Later, when the veil of rain had been drawn aside, we found that Tsavo, perched on a hillside, looked abroad over a wide prospect. For the moment all we saw was a dark, dismal, dripping station, wherein was no sign of life.

We were beginning to get chilly, and we wanted very much some tea, fire, a chance to dry, pending the arrival of our safari. We jerked open the door and peered into the inky interior.

"Babu!" yelled F., "Babu!"

From an inner back room came the faint answer in most precise English,--

"I can-not come; I am pray-ing."

There followed the sharp, quick tinkle of a little bell--the Indian manner of calling upon the Lord's attention.

We both knew better than to hustle the institutions of the East; so we waited with what patience we had, listening to the intermittent tinkling of the little bell. At the end of fully fifteen minutes the devotee appeared. He proved to be a mild, deprecating little man, very eager to help, but without resources. He was a Hindu, and lived mainly on tea and rice. The rice was all out, but he expected more on the night train. There was no trading store here. He was the only inhabitant. After a few more answers he disappeared, to return carrying two pieces of letter paper on which were tea and a little coarse native sugar. These, with a half-dozen very small potatoes, were all he had to offer.

It did not look very encouraging. We had absolutely nothing in which to boil water. Of course we could not borrow of our host; caste stood in the way there. If we were even to touch one of his utensils, that utensil was for him defiled for ever. Nevertheless, as we had eaten nothing since four o'clock that morning, and had put a hard day's work behind us, we made an effort. After a short search we captured a savage possessed of a surfuria, or native cooking pot. Memba Sasa scrubbed this with sand. First we made tea in it, and drank turn about, from its wide edge. This warmed us up somewhat. Then we dumped in our few potatoes and a single guinea fowl that F. had decapitated earlier in the day. We ate; and passed the pot over to Memba Sasa.

So far, so good; but we were still very wet, and the uncomfortable thought would obtrude itself that the safari might not get in that day. It behoved us at least to dry what we had on. I hunted up Memba Sasa, whom I found in a native hut. A fire blazed in the middle of the floor. I stooped low to enter, and squatted on my heels with the natives. Slowly I steamed off the surface moisture. We had rather a good time chatting and laughing. After a while I looked out. It had stopped raining. Therefore I emerged and set some of the men collecting firewood. Shortly I had a fine little blaze going under the veranda roof of the station. F. and I hung out our breeches to dry, and spread the tails of our shirts over the heat. F. was actually the human chimney, for the smoke was pouring in clouds from the breast and collar of his shirt. We were fine figures for the public platform of a railway station!

We had just about dried off and had reassumed our thin and scanty garments, when the babu emerged. We stared in drop-jawed astonishment. He had muffled his head and mouth in a most brilliant scarf, as if for zero weather; although dressed otherwise in the usual pongee. Under one arm he carried a folded clumsy cotton umbrella; around his waist he had belted a huge knife; in his other hand he carried his battle-axe. I mean just that--his battle-axe. We had seen such things on tapestries or in museums, but did not dream that they still existed out of captivity. This was an Oriental looking battle-axe with a handle three feet long, a spike on top, a spike out behind, and a half-moon blade in front. The babu had with a little of his signal paint done the whole thing, blade and all, to a brilliant window-shutter green.

As soon as we had recovered our breath, we asked him very politely the reason for these stupendous preparations. It seemed that it was his habit to take a daily stroll just before sunset, "for the sake of the health," as he told us in his accurate English.

"The bush is full of bad men," he explained, "who would like to kill me; but when they see this axe and this knife they say to each other, 'There walks a very bad man. We dare not kill him.'"

He marched very solemnly a quarter-mile up the track and back, always in plain view. Promptly on his return he dived into his little back room where the periodic tinkling of his praying bell for some time marked his gratitude for having escaped the "bad men."

The bell ceased. Several times he came to the door, eyed us timidly, and bolted back into the darkness. Finally he approached to within ten feet, twisted his hands and giggled in a most deprecating fashion.

"What is the use of this killing game?" he gabbled as rapidly as he could. "Man should not destroy what man cannot first create." After which he giggled again and fled.

His conscience, evidently, had driven him to this defiance of our high mightinesses against his sense of politeness and his fears.

About this time my boy Mohammed and the cook drifted in. They reported that they had left the safari not far back. Our hopes of supper and blankets rose. They declined, however, with the gathering darkness, and were replaced by wrath against the faithless ones. Memba Sasa, in spite of his long day, took a gun and disappeared in the darkness. He did not get back until nine o'clock, when he suddenly appeared in the doorway to lean the gun in the corner, and to announce, "Hapana safari."

We stretched ourselves on a bench and a table--the floor was impossible--and took what sleep we could. In the small hours the train thundered through, the train we had hoped to catch!

FOOTNOTES:

[15] This is the point at which construction was stopped by man-eating lions. See Patterson's "The Man-eaters of Tsavo."


Stewart Edward White

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