George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life
скачать книгу бесплатно
As a matter of course, Henty (a businesslike and thorough seaman, who knew what he was about in the management of a sailing boat) must have set his teeth hard; but war-correspondent-like, he was ready to make the best of things, and after running his eye over the little steamer in the moonlight, he cheered himself with the thought that, as they went on, the weight of the coal would gradually grow less, and the launch become lighter in the water.
It was past the time for starting, so the anchor was soon drawn up, the little engine commenced to pant and rattle away merrily, while the lights upon the shore began to grow faint, for, in spite of being heavily laden, the steam launch showed herself worthy of her name, rising easily over the long heavy Atlantic swell. To Henty’s great satisfaction it seemed to be time to enjoy a calm and thoughtful pipe, for it was at once apparent that unless the wind freshened and made the sea get up, and this was only probable in the event of a hurricane, there was no cause for any uneasiness as to the safety of the little yacht.
In about half an hour they had settled down, for Henty was thoroughly at home on board the smallest of craft, and loved to see things ship-shape. Thick mats were spread over the blocks of coal, rugs were unrolled, and preparations were made for indulgence in the ever-welcome cup of tea.
The crew, all told, were only six in number. Stanley, the skipper; an English lad, who acted as his amanuensis and general help; the engineer, two black boys, who acted as servants and assistant stokers; and Henty himself. The last mentioned immediately began to talk business, and was for the time being the most important man on board, for it was not in him to be aboard a vessel of any kind without being ready to consider where their bearings lay and what effect the local currents would have upon their course.
Things were a little haphazard on board a vessel made only for steering by the shore, for the most part at the mouth of a river, so they had only a pocket compass. Quite nautically, Henty says that he knew that their course was slightly to north of east; but all the same it seemed extremely doubtful whether they ought to steer by such bearings, for they had no means of knowing how far the iron of the engine would affect the compass; “and besides, as there was a strong set of the current on the shore,” he continues, “we agreed to steer by the land.”
He goes on philosophically to say that steering by the land is simple enough by daylight, but at night, situated as they were, it was no easy matter, for though the moon was up, the customary African haze hung on the water and rendered the outline of the coast so indistinct that it was difficult in the extreme to judge the exact distance. Sometimes, too, the land lay so low that they could see little besides the white line of the surf, with here and there the head of a palm-tree. Once or twice, feeling that it was necessary to go cautiously, steam was turned off, and they stopped a few minutes to oil heated bearings or to tighten a nut; and then in the stillness of the night the loud roar of the surf seemed startlingly near.
Then on again and on, not knowing what was to be their fate, for there was always the possibility that they might be carried by a current too near one of the breakers and then be caught up, borne along at a tremendous rate, till, striking upon the sand, the little vessel would be rolled over and over, prior to being cast ashore a complete wreck.
In this way they steamed through the dull half-transparent haze, a feeling of ignorance and helplessness troubling the man to whom the navigation was most strange.
They took it in turns to steer, and the one who was off duty was supposed to take a nap; but Henty says quietly, “I do not think there was much sleep on board the Dauntless, and there was a general satisfaction when the morning broke.”
The general idea of a reader is that the West Coast of Africa is a land where the surf rushes in over the cast-up sand to where the dull olive-green of the weird-looking mangrove fringes the shore.But between Cape Coast Castle and Accra, although the seashore lies flat for a few miles inland, it, for the most part, impressed Henty as a beautiful undulating country, with the hills rising occasionally from the very edge of the sea and attaining at times a thousand feet in height, the highest eminence in the neighbourhood being double that elevation.
And yet, he says, this beautiful hilly portion of the coast is as unhealthy as, if not worse than, the low shores with their mango swamps. This evil repute is said to apply most strongly to parts where the land is rich in gold, and it deters the adventurous who are disposed to exploit the precious metal. There is no doubt about its presence, and abundance might be had, but gold is too dear at the cost of life; and though it might be considered that the native black would prove immune if employed at gold-digging, it has been demonstrated again and again that the fever – the malaria – that is set free as soon as the earth is disturbed, is just as fatal to the black as to the white. The latter, with a smattering of science, attributes it to the disturbance of the soil and the setting at liberty of the germs of disease buried therein, and points to the fact that where new plantations of coffee, cinchona, or india-rubber are being made almost anywhere in the Malay Peninsula, the effects are, at the first cultivation of the soil, precisely the same, though in time, when the ground has been stirred again and again, it becomes healthy.
The West Coast black, however, has a very different theory, which he will freely impart, but with an almost awestricken whisper. Death comes to anyone who digs for gold, because it is fetish. It is of no use to laugh at his superstition. He knows that this is the case, and if any careless, contemptuous personage ridicules his superstition, he is angered; if a more rational explanation is propounded, he pities the enquirer’s ignorance. It is fetish, and fatal. Fatal enough, but unfortunately the horrible fetish belief is utilised in connection with poison and the destruction of an enemy. Hence the power of the Obeah man, the impostor-like native priest, witch-doctor, or medicine man. This fetish idea lingers still in the West Indies, where it has been handed down by the early unfortunate slaves from the West Coast, who formed the trade of the old plantation times.
This by the way. There were no further troubles about the steering in the bright morning sunshine, and Henty spent his time probably dreaming of future stories and mentally describing the beauty of the plains and hills. Birds abounded as they drew near to Accra, and they caught sight of little African antelopes dashing across the plains. For in this neighbourhood horses, mules, and oxen can live; and, in fact, the town itself is one of the most healthy along the coast, while, strange anomaly, it is one of the filthiest.
Upon reaching Accra in safety the engineer discovered that the intense saltness of the water had encrusted up the gauge, rendering it necessary to blow out the boiler, allow it to cool, and fill it again before proceeding. So the Dauntless was moored to a hawser from the stern of one of the ships at anchor. While leaving the engineer to put all right, the two correspondents prepared to go ashore and see what the town was like. Henty found time to note the tremendously rampant population of pigs, which, with the help of dogs and fowls, were the scavengers of the place. He makes no allusion, however, to the quality of the pork, but goes on to discourse upon the intense love of the women of the place for beads. These ranged from the tiny opaque scraps of all colours used by children for their dolls, to cylinders of variegated hues, yellow being the favourite, which were sometimes as long as the joint of one’s thumb and as thick round. The women wear these round the wrist, round the neck, and round the loins, while the occupation of threading the lesser beads is one of their greatest pleasures.
At seven the next morning they started back, congratulating themselves that they had met with no serious accident. But they were not fated to escape scot free, for on their return journey it was found that the rudder was gradually losing its power, proving at last to be broken, and when at length Addah was reached, and the Dauntless made fast to the stern of one of the vessels, they had to whistle for nearly half an hour before any effort was made to send out a surf-boat. When at last one was on the way, they began to understand the reluctance of the boatmen to make the trip, for over and over again, as the boatmen strove to cross the breakers, their vessel was thrown almost perpendicularly into the air, so that only a foot or so of the end of the keel touched the water. To quote Henty’s own words: —
“As we watched she still struggled on, though she was so long in getting through the hurtling foam that we began to fear that the men would give it up as being impracticable; but at last they got outside the surf, to lie upon their oars, utterly exhausted and waiting to recover from their exertions, when they rowed out to where we lay and took us on board.
“Nothing could have been better than the way in which they managed the landing. They hung upon their oars as we watched them breathlessly, and then, keen-eyed and watchful as they waited their time, they caught the exact moment when one of the breakers was, as it were, balancing itself as if waiting to pounce upon the surf-boat and its occupants.
“It was a race between man and nature, and man won, for the black boatmen seized the exact time, and then went at it with racing speed. Their steersman was one of the finest specimens of the negro I have ever seen. Nothing could be finer than his attitude as he stood upon the seat in the stern, one hand resting upon the long steering-oar, while in the other he held his cap.
“For some time he stood half-turned round, gazing keenly seaward, while the boat lay at rest just outside the line of breakers. Then all at once he waved his hat and gave a wild shout, which was answered by his crew, and every man plunged his oar into the water, rowing desperately, while their helmsman cheered them on with his frantic shouts.
“How they pulled! And it seemed in vain, as if we had started too late, for a gigantic wave was rolling in behind us, looking as if it were about to curl over, break into the stern, and sweep us from end to end.
“But the boatmen knew what they were about. They rose upon the wave just as it was turning over, and in an instant they were sweeping along a cataract of white foam with the speed of an arrow. The next wave was smaller, but it carried them onward, and before a third that had been pursuing them hard could reach the boat, they were run up on the dripping sand.
“Just then a dozen men rushed out to meet them. The occupants of the boat threw themselves anyhow upon their shoulders, and directly after they were high and dry upon the sands.”
Chapter Twenty Eight.