CHAPTER IV. FIRST NIGHT'S MARCH.
THE country was park-like, but much parched by the dry weather. The ground was sandy, but firm, and interspersed with numerous villages, all of which were surrounded with a strong fence of euphorbia. The country was well wooded, being free from bush or jungle, but numerous trees, all evergreens, were scattered over the landscape. No natives were to be seen, but the sound of their drums and singing in chorus was heard in the far distance. Whenever it is moonlight the nights are passed in singing and dancing, beating drums, blowing horns, and the population of whole villages thus congregate together.
After a silent march of two hours we saw watch-fires blazing in the distance, and upon nearer approach we perceived the trader's party bivouacked. Their custom is to march only two or three hours on the first day of departure, to allow stragglers who may have lagged behind in Gondokoro to rejoin the party before morning.
We were roughly challenged by their sentries as we passed, and were instantly told "not to remain in their neighbourhood." Accordingly we passed on for about half a mile in advance, and bivouacked on some rising ground above a slight hollow in which we found water. All were busy collecting firewood and cutting grass for the donkeys and horses who were picketed near the fires. The camels were hobbled, and turned to graze upon the branches of a large mimosa. We were not hungry; the constant anxiety had entirely destroyed all appetite. A cup of strong black coffee was the greatest luxury, and not requiring a tent in the clear still night, we were soon asleep on our simple angareps. Before daylight on the following morning the drum beat; the lazy soldiers, after stretching and yawning, began to load the animals, and we started at six o'clock. In these climates the rising of the sun is always dreaded. For about an hour before sunrise the air is deliciously cool and invigorating, but the sun is regarded as the common enemy. There is, nevertheless, a difficulty in starting before sunrise-the animals cannot be properly loaded in the darkness, and the operation being tedious, the cool hour of morning is always lost. The morning was clear, and the mountain of Belignan, within three or four miles, was a fine object to direct our course. I could distinctly see some enormous trees at the foot of the mountain near a village, and I hastened forward, as I hoped to procure a guide who would also act as interpreter, many of the natives in the vicinity of Gondokoro having learnt a little Arabic from the traders. We cantered on ahead of the party, regardless of the assurance of our unwilling men that the natives were not to be trusted, and we soon arrived beneath the shade of a cluster of most superb trees. The village was within a quarter of a mile, situated at the very base of the abrupt mountain; the natives seeing us alone had no fear, and soon thronged around us.
The chief understood a few words of Arabic, and I offered a large payment of copper bracelets and beads for a guide. After much discussion and bargaining, a bad-looking fellow offered to guide us to Ellyria, but no farther. This was about twenty-eight or thirty miles distant, and it was of vital importance that we should pass through that tribe before the trader's party should raise them against us. I had great hopes of outmarching them, as they would be delayed in Belignan by ivory transactions with the chief. While negotiations were pending with the guide, the trader's party appeared in the distance, and avoiding us, they halted on the opposite side of the village. I now tried conciliatory measures, and I sent my vakeel to their headman Ibrahim to talk with him confidentially, and to try to obtain an interpreter in return for a large present.
My vakeel was in an awkward position - he was afraid of me; also mortally afraid of the government in Khartoum; and frightened out of his life at his own men, whose conspiracy to desert he was well aware of. With the cunning of an Arab he started on his mission, accompanied by several of the men, including the arch-mutineer Bellaal. He shortly returned, saying, "that it was perfectly impossible to proceed to the interior; that Ibrahim's party were outrageous at my having followed on their route; that he would neither give an interpreter, nor allow any of the natives to serve me; and that he would give orders to the great chief of Ellyria to prevent me from passing through his country." At that time the Turks were engaged in business transactions with the natives; it therefore was all important that I should start immediately, and by a forced march arrive at Ellyria, and get through the pass, before they should communicate with the chief. I had no doubt that, by paying black mail, I should be able to clear Ellyria, provided I was in advance of the Turks, but should they outmarch me there would be no hope; a fight and defeat would be the climax. I accordingly gave orders for an IMMEDIATE start. "Load the camels, my brothers!" I exclaimed, to the sullen ruffians around me; but not a man stirred except Richarn and a fellow named Sali, who began to show signs of improvement. Seeing that the men intended to disobey, I immediately set to work myself loading the animals, requesting my men not to trouble themselves, and begging them to lie down and smoke their pipes while I did the work. A few rose from the ground ashamed, and assisted to load the camels, while the others declared the impossibility of camels travelling by the road we were about to take, as the Turks had informed them that not even the donkeys could march through the thick jungles between Belignan and Ellyria.
"All right, my brothers!" I replied; "then we'll march as far as the donkeys can go, and leave both them and the baggage on the road when they can go no farther; but I GO FORWARD."