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Chapter 7

THE INDIAN OCEAN.

Leaving Aden, and rounding the great promontory of Cape Guardafui, we turned south along the coast of Africa. Off the cape were strange, oily cross rips and currents on the surface of the sea; the flying-fish rose in flocks before our bows; high mountains of peaks and flat table tops thrust their summits into clouds; and along the coast the breakers spouted like whales. For the first time, too, we began to experience what our preconceptions had imagined as tropical heat. Heretofore we had been hot enough, in all conscience, but the air had felt as though wafted from an opened furnace door--dry and scorching. Now, although the temperature was lower,[2] the humidity was greater. A swooning languor was abroad over the spellbound ocean, a relaxing mist of enchantment.

My glasses were constantly clouding over with a fine coating of water drops; exposed metal rusted overnight; the folds in garments accumulated mildew in an astonishingly brief period of time. There was never even the suggestion of chill in this dampness. It clung and enveloped like a grateful garment; and seemed only to lack sweet perfume.

At this time, by good fortune, it happened that the moon came full. We had enjoyed its waxing during our voyage down the Red Sea; but now it had reached its greatest phase, and hung over the slumbering tropic ocean like a lantern. The lazy sea stirred beneath it, and the ship glided on, its lights fairly subdued by the splendour of the waters. Under the awnings the ship's company lounged in lazy attitudes or promenaded slowly, talking low voiced, cigars glowing in the splendid dusk. Overside, in the furrow of the disturbed waters, the phosphorescence flashed perpetually beneath the shadow of the ship.

The days passed by languidly and all alike. On the chart outside the smoking-room door the procession of tiny German flags on pins marched steadily, an inch at a time, towards the south. Otherwise we might as well have imagined ourselves midgets afloat in a pond and getting nowhere.

Somewhere north of the equator--before Father Neptune in ancient style had come aboard and ducked the lot of us--we were treated to the spectacle of how the German "sheep" reacts under a joke. Each nation has its type of fool; and all, for the joyousness of mankind, differ. On the bulletin board one evening appeared a notice to the effect that the following morning a limited number of sportsmen would be permitted ashore for the day. Each was advised to bring his own lunch, rifle, and drinks. The reason alleged was that the ship must round a certain cape across which the sportsmen could march afoot in sufficient time to permit them a little shooting.

Now aboard ship were a dozen English, four Americans, and thirty or forty Germans. The Americans and English looked upon that bulletin, smiled gently, and went to order another round of lemon squashes. It was a meek, mild, little joke enough; but surely the bulletin board was as far as it could possibly go. Next morning, however, we observed a half-dozen of our German friends in khaki and sun helmet, very busy with lunch boxes, bottles of beer, rifles, and the like. They said they were going ashore as per bulletin. We looked at each other and hied us to the upper deck. There we found one of the boats slung overside, with our old friend the quartermaster ostentatiously stowing kegs of water, boxes, and the like.

"When," we inquired gently, "does the expedition start?"

"At ten o'clock," said he.

It was now within fifteen minutes of that hour.

We were at the time fully ten miles off shore, and forging ahead full speed parallel with the coast.

We pointed out this fact to the quartermaster, but found, to our sorrow, that the poor old man had suddenly gone deaf! We therefore refrained from asking several other questions that had occurred to us--such as, why the cape was not shown on the map.

"Somebody," said one of the Americans, a cowboy going out second class on the look for new cattle country, "is a goat. It sure looks to me like it was these yere steamboat people. They can't expect to rope nothing on such a raw deal as this!"

To which the English assented, though in different idiom.

But now up the companion ladder struggled eight serious-minded individuals herded by the second mate. They were armed to the teeth, and thoroughly equipped with things I had seen in German catalogues, but in whose existence I had never believed. A half-dozen sailors eagerly helped them with their multitudinous effects. Not a thought gave they to the fact that we were ten miles off the coast, that we gave no indication of slackening speed, that it would take the rest of the day to row ashore, that there was no cape for us to round, that if there were--oh! all the other hundred improbabilities peculiar to the situation. Under direction of the mate they deposited their impedimenta beneath a tarpaulin, and took their places in solemn rows amidships across the thwarts of the boat slung overside. The importance of the occasion sat upon them heavily; they were going ashore--in Africa--to Slay Wild Beasts. They looked upon themselves as of bolder, sterner stuff than the rest of us.

When the procession first appeared, our cowboy's face for a single instant had flamed with amazed incredulity. Then a mask of expressionless stolidity fell across his features, which in no line thereafter varied one iota.

"What are they going to do with them?" murmured one of the Englishmen, at a loss.

"I reckon," said the cowboy, "that they look on this as the easiest way to drown them all to onct."

Then from behind one of the other boats suddenly appeared a huge German sailor with a hose. The devoted imbeciles in the shore boat were drenched as by a cloud-burst. Back and forth and up and down the heavy stream played, while every other human being about the ship shrieked with joy. Did the victims rise up in a body and capture that hose nozzle and turn the stream to sweep the decks? Did they duck for shelter? Did they at least know enough to scatter and run? They did none of these things; but sat there in meek little rows like mannikins until the boat was half full of water and everything awash. Then, when the sailor shut off the stream, they continued to sit there until the mate came to order them out. Why? I cannot tell you. Perhaps that is the German idea of how to take a joke. Perhaps they were afraid worse things might be consequent on resistance. Perhaps they still hoped to go ashore. One of the Englishmen asked just that question.

"What," he demanded disgustedly, "what is the matter with the beggars?"

Our cowboy may have had the correct solution. He stretched his long legs and jumped down from the rail.

"Nothing stirring above the ears," said he.

It is customary in books of travel to describe this part of the journey somewhat as follows: "Skirting the low and uninteresting shores of Africa we at length reached," etc. Low and uninteresting shores! Through the glasses we made out distant mountains far beyond nearer hills. The latter were green-covered with dense forests whence rose mysterious smokes. Along the shore we saw an occasional cocoanut plantation to the water's edge and native huts and villages of thatch. Canoes of strange models lay drawn up on shelving beaches; queer fish-pounds of brush reached out considerable distances from the coast. The white surf pounded on a yellow beach.

All about these things was the jungle, hemming in the plantations and villages, bordering the lagoons, creeping down until it fairly overhung the yellow beaches; as though, conqueror through all the country beyond, it were half-inclined to dispute dominion with old Ocean himself. It looked from the distance like a thick, soft coverlet thrown down over the country; following--or, rather, suggesting--the inequalities. Through the glasses we were occasionally able to peep under the edge of this coverlet, and see where the fringe of the jungle drew back in a little pocket, or to catch the sheen of mysterious dark rivers slipping to the sea. Up these dark rivers, by way of the entrances of these tiny pockets, the imagination then could lead on into the dimness beneath the sunlit upper surfaces.

Towards the close of one afternoon we changed our course slightly, and swung in on a long slant towards the coast. We did it casually; too casually for so very important an action, for now at last we were about to touch the mysterious continent. Then we saw clearer the fine, big groves of palm and the luxuriance of the tropical vegetation. Against the greenery, bold and white, shone the buildings of Mombasa; and after a little while we saw an inland glitter that represented her narrow, deep bay, the stern of a wreck against the low, green cliffs, and strange, fat-trunked squat trees without leaves. Straight past all this we glided at half speed, then turned sharp to the right to enter a long wide expanse like a river, with green banks, twenty feet or so in height, grown thickly with the tall cocoanut palms. These gave way at times into broad, low lagoons, at the end of which were small beaches and boats, and native huts among more cocoanut groves. Through our glasses we could see the black men watching us, quite motionless, squatted on their heels.

It was like suddenly entering another world, this gliding from the open sea straight into the heart of a green land. The ceaseless wash of waves we had left outside with the ocean; our engines had fallen silent. Across the hushed waters came to us strange chantings and the beating of a tom-tom, an occasional shrill shout from the unknown jungle. The sun was just set, and the tops of the palms caught the last rays; all below was dense green shadow. Across the surface of the water glided dug-out canoes of shapes strange to us. We passed ancient ruins almost completely dismantled, their stones half smothered in green rank growth. The wide river-like bay stretched on before us as far as the waning light permitted us to see; finally losing itself in the heart of mystery.

Steadily and confidently our ship steamed forward, until at last, when we seemed to be afloat in a land-locked lake, we dropped anchor and came to rest.

Darkness fell utterly before the usual quarantine regulations had been carried through. Active and efficient agents had already taken charge of our affairs, so we had only to wait idly by the rail until summoned. Then we jostled our way down the long gangway, passed and repassed by natives carrying baggage or returning for more baggage, stepped briskly aboard a very bobby little craft, clambered over a huge pile of baggage, and stowed ourselves as best we could. A figure in a long white robe sat astern, tiller ropes in hand; two half-naked blacks far up towards the prow manipulated a pair of tremendous sweeps. With a vast heaving, jabbering, and shouting, our boat disengaged itself from the swarm of other craft. We floated around the stern of our ship, and were immediately suspended in blackness dotted with the stars and their reflections, and with various twinkling scattered lights. To one of these we steered, and presently touched at a stone quay with steps. At last we set foot on the land to which so long we had journeyed and towards which our expectations had grown so great. We experienced "the pleasure that touches the souls of men landing on strange shores."

FOOTNOTES:

[2] 82-88 degrees in daytime, and 75-83 degrees at night.


Stewart Edward White

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