CHAPTER XI. The bull-elephant - Daring Hamrans - The elephant helpless - Visited by a minstrel - A determined musician - The nest of the outlaws - The Atbara River

Having explored the Settite into the gorge of the mountain chain of Abyssinia, we turned due south from our camp at Deladilla, and at a distance of twelve miles reached the river Royan. Our course now was directed up this stream, and at the junction of the Hor Mai Gubba, or Habbuk River, some of my Arabs, observing fresh tracks of horses on the sand, went in search of the aggageers of Taher Sherrif's party, whom they had expected to meet at this point. Soon after, they returned with the aggageers, whose camp was but a quarter of a mile distant. I agreed to have a hunt for elephants the next day with Taher Sherrif, and before the following sunrise we had started up the course of the Royan for a favorite resort of elephants.

We had ridden about thirty miles, and were beginning to despair, when suddenly we turned a sharp angle in the watercourse, and Taher Sherrif, who was leading, immediately reined in his horse and backed him toward the party. I followed his example, and we were at once concealed by the sharp bend of the river. He now whispered that a bull-elephant was drinking from a hole it had scooped in the sand, not far around the corner. Without the slightest confusion the hunters at once fell quietly into their respective places, Taher Sherrif leading, while I followed closely in the line, with my Tokrooris bringing up the rear; we were a party of seven horses.

Upon turning the corner we at once perceived the elephant, that was still drinking. It was a fine bull. The enormous ears were thrown forward, as the head was lowered in the act of drawing up the water through the trunk. These shaded the eyes, and with the wind favorable we advanced noiselessly upon the sand to within twenty yards before we were perceived. The elephant then threw up its head, and with the ears flapping forward it raised its trunk for an instant, and then slowly but easily ascended the steep bank and retreated. The aggageers now halted for about a minute to confer together, and then followed in their original order up the crumbled bank. We were now on most unfavorable ground; the fire that had cleared the country we had hitherto traversed had been stopped by the bed of the torrent. We were thus plunged at once into withered grass above our heads, unless we stood in the stirrups. The ground was strewn with fragments of rock, and altogether it was ill-adapted for riding.

However, Taher Sherrif broke into a trot, followed by the entire party, as the elephant was not in sight. We ascended a hill, and when near the summit we perceived the elephant about eighty yards ahead. It was looking behind during its retreat, by swinging its huge head from side to side, and upon seeing us approach it turned suddenly round and halted.

"Be ready, and take care of the rocks!" said Taher Sherrif, as I rode forward by his side. Hardly had he uttered these words of caution when the bull gave a vicious jerk with its head, and with a shrill scream charged down upon us with the greatest fury. Away we all went, helter-skelter, through the dry grass, which whistled in my ears, over the hidden rocks, at full gallop, with the elephant tearing after us for about a hundred and eighty yards at a tremendous pace. Tetel was a sure-footed horse, and being unshod he never slipped upon the stones. Thus, as we all scattered in different directions, the elephant became confused and relinquished the chase. It had been very near me at one time, and in such ground I was not sorry when it gave up the hunt. We now quickly united and again followed the elephant, that had once more retreated. Advancing at a canter, we shortly came in view. Upon seeing the horses the bull deliberately entered a stronghold composed of rocky and uneven ground, in the clefts of which grew thinly a few leafless trees of the thickness of a man's leg. It then turned boldly toward us, and stood determinedly at bay.

Now came the tug of war! Taher Sherrif came close to me, and said, "You had better shoot the elephant, as we shall have great difficulty in this rocky ground." This I declined, as I wished the fight ended as it had been commenced, with the sword; and I proposed that he should endeavor to drive the animal to more favorable ground. "Never mind," replied Taher, "Inshallah (please God) he shall not beat us." He now advised me to keep as close to him as possible and to look sharp for a charge.

The elephant stood facing us like a statue; it did not move a muscle beyond a quick and restless action of the eyes, that were watching all sides. Taher Sherrif and his youngest brother, Ibrahim, now separated, and each took opposite sides of the elephant, and then joined each other about twenty yards behind it. I accompanied them, until Taher advised me to keep about the same distance upon the left flank. My Tokrooris kept apart from the scene, as they were not required. In front of the elephant were two aggageers, one of whom was the renowned Roder Sherrif, with the withered arm. All being ready for action, Roder now rode slowly toward the head of the cunning old bull, who was quietly awaiting an opportunity to make certain of some one who might give him a good chance.

Roder Sherrif rode a bay mare that, having been thoroughly trained to these encounters, was perfect at her work. Slowly and coolly she advanced toward her wary antagonist until within about eight or nine yards of the elephant's head. The creature never moved, and the mise en scene was beautiful. Not a word was spoken, and we kept our places amid utter stillness, which was at length broken by a snort from the mare, who gazed intently at the elephant, as though watching for the moment of attack.

One more pace forward, and Roder sat coolly upon his mare, with his eyes fixed upon those of the elephant. For an instant I saw the white of the eye nearest to me. "Look out, Roder, he's coming!" I exclaimed. With a shrill scream the elephant dashed upon him like an avalanche.

Round went the mare as though upon a pivot, and away, over rocks and stones, flying like a gazelle, with the monkey-like form of little Roder Sherrif leaning forward, and looking over his left shoulder as the elephant rushed after him.

For a moment I thought he must be caught. Had the mare stumbled, all were lost; but she gained in the race after a few quick, bounding strides, and Roder, still looking behind him, kept his distance so close to the elephant that its outstretched trunk was within a few feet of the mare's tail.

Taher Sherrif and his brother Ibrahim swept down like falcons in the rear. In full speed they dexterously avoided the trees until they arrived upon open ground, when they dashed up close to the hind-quarters of the furious elephant, which, maddened with the excitement, heeded nothing but Roder and his mare, that were almost within its grasp. When close to the tail of the elephant Taher Sherrif's sword flashed from its sheath, as grasping his trusty blade he leaped nimbly to the ground, while Ibrahim caught the reins of his horse. Two or three bounds on foot, with the sword clutched in both hands, and he was close behind the elephant. A bright glance shone like lightning as the sun struck upon the descending steel; this was followed by a dull crack, as the sword cut through skin and sinews, and settled deep in the bone, about twelve inches above the foot. At the next stride the elephant halted dead short in the midst of its tremendous charge. Taher had jumped quickly on one side, and had vaulted into the saddle with his naked sword in hand. At the same moment Roder, who had led the chase, turned sharp round, and again faced the elephant as before. Stooping quickly from the saddle, he picked up from the ground a handful of dirt, which he threw into the face of the vicious-looking animal, that once more attempted to rush upon him. It was impossible! The foot was dislocated, and turned up in front like an old shoe. In an instant Taher was once more on foot, and the sharp sword slashed the remaining leg.

The great bull-elephant could not move! The first cut with the sword had utterly disabled it; the second was its deathblow. The arteries of the leg were divided, and the blood spouted in jets from the wounds. I wished to terminate its misery by a bullet behind the ear, but Taher Sherrif begged me not to fire, as the elephant would quickly bleed to death without pain, and an unnecessary shot might attract the Base, who would steal the flesh and ivory during our absence. We were obliged to return immediately to our far distant camp, and the hunters resolved to accompany their camels to the spot on the following day. We turned our horses' heads, and rode directly toward home, which we did not reach until nearly midnight, having ridden upward of sixty miles during the day.

The hunting of Taher Sherrif and his brothers was superlatively beautiful; with an immense amount of dash there was a cool, sportsman-like manner in their mode of attack that far excelled the impetuous and reckless onset of Abou Do. It was difficult to decide which to admire the more, the coolness and courage of him who led the elephant, or the extraordinary skill and activity of the aggahr who dealt the fatal blow.

After hunting and exploring for some days in this neighborhood, I determined to follow the bed of the Royan to its junction with the Settite. We started at daybreak, and after a long march along the sandy bed, hemmed in by high banks or by precipitous cliffs of sandstone, we arrived at the junction.

Having explored the entire country and enjoyed myself thoroughly, I was now determined to pay our promised visit to Mek Nimmur. Since our departure from the Egyptian territory his country had been invaded by a large force, according to orders sent from the Governor- General of the Soudan. Mek Nimmur as usual retreated to the mountains, but Mai Gubba and a number of his villages were utterly destroyed by the Egyptians. He would under these circumstances be doubly suspicious of strangers.

We were fortunate, however, in unexpectedly meeting a party of Mek Nimmur's followers on a foray, who consented to guide us to his encampment. Accordingly on March 20th, we found ourselves in a rich and park-like valley occupied by his people, and the day following was spent in receiving visits from the head men. Messengers soon after arrived from Mek Nimmur inviting us to pay him a visit at his residence.

As we were conversing with Mek Nimmur's messengers through the medium of Taher Noor, who knew their language, our attention was attracted by the arrival of a tremendous swell, who at a distance I thought must be Mek Nimmur himself. A snow-white mule carried an equally snow-white person, whose tight white pantaloons looked as though he had forgotten his trousers and had mounted in his drawers. He carried a large umbrella to shade his complexion; a pair of handsome silver-mounted pistols were arranged upon his saddle, and a silver-hilted curved sword, of the peculiar Abyssinian form, hung by his side. This grand personage was followed by an attendant, also mounted upon a mule, while several men on foot accompanied them, one of whom carried his lance and shield. Upon near approach he immediately dismounted and advanced toward us, bowing in a most foppish manner, while his attendant followed him on foot with an enormous violin, which he immediately handed to him. This fiddle was very peculiar in shape, being a square, with an exceedingly long neck extending from one corner. Upon this was stretched a solitary string, and the bow was very short and much bent. This was an Abyssinian Paganini. He was a professional minstrel of the highest grade, who had been sent by Mek Nimmur to welcome us on our arrival.

These musicians are very similar to the minstrels of ancient times. They attend at public rejoicings, and at births, deaths, and marriages of great personages, upon which occasions they extemporize their songs according to circumstances. My hunting in the Base country formed his theme, and for at least an hour he sang of my deeds in an extremely loud and disagreeable voice, while he accompanied himself upon his fiddle, which he held downward like a violoncello. During the whole of his song he continued in movement, marching with a sliding step to the front, and gliding to the right and left in a manner that, though intended to be graceful, was extremely comic. The substance of this minstrelsy was explained to me by Taher Noor, who listened eagerly to the words, which he translated with evident satisfaction. Of course, like all minstrels, he was an absurd flatterer, and, having gathered a few facts for his theme, he wandered slightly from the truth in his poetical description of my deeds.

He sang of me as though I had been Richard Coeur de Lion, and recounted, before an admiring throng of listeners, how I had wandered with a young wife from my own distant country to fight the terrible Base; how I had slain them in a single combat, and bow elephants and lions were struck down like lambs and kids by my hands. That during my absence in the hunt my wife had been carried off by the Base; that I had, on my return to my pillaged camp, galloped off in chase, and, overtaking the enemy, hundreds had fallen by my rifle and sword, and I had liberated and recovered the lady, who now had arrived safe with her lord in the country of the great Mek Nimmur, etc., etc.

This was all very pretty, no doubt, and as true as most poetical and musical descriptions; but I felt certain that there must be something to pay for this flattering entertainment. If you are considered to be a great man, a PRESENT is invariably expected in proportion to your importance. I suggested to Taher Noor that I must give him a couple of dollars. "What!" said Taher Noor, "a couple of dollars? Impossible! a musician of his standing is accustomed to receive thirty and forty dollars from great people for so beautiful and honorable a song."

This was somewhat startling. I began to reflect upon the price of a box at Her Majesty's Theatre in London; but there I was not the hero of the opera. This minstrel combined the whole affair in a most simple manner. He was Verdi, Costa, and orchestra all in one. He was a thorough Macaulay as historian, therefore I had to pay the composer as well as the fiddler. I compromised the matter, and gave him a few dollars, as I understood that he was Mek Nimmur's private minstrel; but I never parted with my dear Maria Theresa (* The Austrian dollar, that is the only large current coin in that country.) with so much regret as upon that occasion, and I begged him not to incommode himself by paying us another visit, or, should he be obliged to do so, I trusted he would not think it necessary to bring his violin.

The minstrel retired in the same order that he had arrived, and I watched his retreating figure with unpleasant reflections, that were suggested by doubts as to whether I had paid him too little or too much. Taher Noor thought that he was underpaid; my own opinion was that I had brought a curse upon myself equal to a succession of London organ-grinders, as I fully expected that other minstrels, upon hearing of the Austrian dollars, would pay us a visit and sing of my great deeds.

In the afternoon we were sitting beneath the shade of our tamarind tree, when we thought we could perceive our musical friend returning. As he drew near, we were convinced that it was the identical minstrel, who had most probably been sent with a message from Mek Nimmur. There he was, in snow-white raiment, on the snow-white mule, with the mounted attendant and the violin as before. He dismounted upon arrival opposite the camp, and approached with his usual foppish bow; but we looked on in astonishment: it was not our Paganini, it was ANOTHER MINSTREL! who was determined to sing an ode in our praise. I felt that this was an indirect appeal to Maria Theresa, and I at once declared against music. I begged him not to sing; "my wife had a headache - I disliked the fiddle - could He play anything else instead?" and I expressed a variety of polite excuses, but to no purpose; he insisted upon singing. If I disliked the fiddle, he would sing without an accompaniment, but he could not think of insulting so great a man as myself by returning without an ode to commemorate our arrival.

I was determined that he should NOT sing; he was determined that he WOULD, therefore I desired him to leave my camp. This he agreed to do, provided I would allow him to cross the stream and sing to my Tokrooris in my praise, beneath a neighboring tree about fifty yards distant. He remounted his mule with his violin, to ford the muddy stream, and descended the steep bank, followed by his attendant on foot, who drove the unwilling mule. Upon arrival at the brink of the dirty brook, that was about three feet deep, the mule positively refused to enter the water, and stood firm with its fore feet sunk deep in the mud. The attendant attempted to push it on behind, and at the same time gave it a sharp blow with his sheathed sword. This changed the scene to the "opera comique." In one instant the mule gave so vigorous and unexpected a kick into the bowels of the attendant that he fell upon his back, heels, uppermost, while at the same moment the minstrel, in his snow-white garments, was precipitated head fore-most into the muddy brook, and, for the moment disappearing, the violin alone could be seen floating on the surface. A second later, a wretched-looking object, covered with slime and filth, emerged from the slongh; this was Paganini the second! who, after securing his fiddle, that had stranded on a mud-bank, scrambled up the steel slope, amid the roars of laughter of my people and of ourselves, while the perverse mule, having turned harmony into discord, kicked up its heels and galloped off, braying an ode in praise of liberty, as the "Lay of the Last Minstrel." The discomfited fiddler was wiped down by my Tokrooris, who occasionally burst into renewed fits of laughter during the operation. The mule was caught, and the minstrel remounted, and returned home completely out of tune.

On the following morning at sunrise I mounted my horse, and, accompanied by Taher Noor and Bacheet, I rode to pay my respects to Mek Nimmur. Our route lay parallel to the stream, and after a ride of about two miles through a fine park-like country, bounded by the Abyssinian Alps about fifteen miles distant, I observed a crowd of people round a large tamarind tree, near which were standing a number of horses, mules, and dromedaries. This was the spot upon which I was to meet Mek Nimmur. Upon my approach the crowd opened, and, having dismounted, I was introduced by Taher Noor to the great chief. He was a man of about fifty, and exceedingly dirty in appearance. He sat upon an angarep, surrounded by his people; lying on either side upon his seat were two brace of pistols, and within a few yards stood his horse ready saddled. He was prepared for fight or flight, as were also his ruffianly looking followers, who were composed of Abyssinians and Jaleens. After a long and satisfactory conversation I retired. Immediately on my arrival at camp I despatched Wat Gamma with a pair of beautiful double-barrelled pistols, which I begged Mek Nimmur to accept. On March 27th we said good-by and started for the Bahr Salaam.

The next few days we spent in exploring the Salaam and Angrab rivers. They are interesting examples of the destructive effect of water, that has during the course of ages cut through and hollowed out, in the solid rock, a succession of the most horrible precipices and caverns, in which the maddened torrents, rushing from the lofty chain of mountains, boil along until they meet the Atbara and assist to flood the Nile. No one could explore these tremendous torrents, the Settite, Royan, Angrab, Salaam, and Atbara, without at once comprehending their effect upon the waters of the Nile. The magnificent chain of mountains from which they flow is not a simple line of abrupt sides, but the precipitous slopes are the walls of a vast plateau, that receives a prodigious rainfall in June, July, August, and until the middle of September, the entire drainage of which is carried away by the above-named channels to inundate Lower Egypt.

I thoroughly explored the beautiful country of the Salaam and Angrab, and on the 14th of April we pushed on for Gallabat, the frontier market-town of Abyssinia.

We arrived at our old friend, the Atbara River, at the sharp angle as it issues from the mountains. At this place it was in its infancy. The noble Atbara, whose course we had tracked for hundreds of weary miles, and whose tributaries we had so carefully examined, was here a second-class mountain torrent, about equal to the Royan, and not to be named in comparison with the Salaam or Angrab. The power of the Atbara depended entirely upon the western drainage of the Abyssinian Alps; of itself it was insignificant until aided by the great arteries of the mountain-chain. The junction of the Salaam at once changed its character, and the Settite or Taccazzy completed its importance as the great river of Abyssinia, that has washed down the fertile soil of those regions to create the Delta of Lower Egypt, and to perpetuate that Delta by annual deposits, that ARE NOW FORMING A NEW EGYPT BENEATH THE WATERS OF THE MEDITERRANEAN. We had seen the Atbara a bed of glaring sand - a mere continuation of the burning desert that surrounded its course - fringed by a belt of withered trees, like a monument sacred to the memory of a dead river. We had seen the sudden rush of waters when, in the still night, the mysterious stream had invaded the dry bed and swept all before it like an awakened giant; we knew at that moment "the rains were falling in Abyssinia," although the sky above us was without a cloud. We had subsequently witnessed that tremendous rainfall, and seen the Atbara at its grandest flood. We had traced each river and crossed each tiny stream that fed the mighty Atbara from the mountain-chain, and we now, after our long journey, forded the Atbara in its infancy, hardly knee-deep, over its rocky bed of about sixty yards' width, and camped in the little village of Toganai, on the rising ground upon the opposite side. It was evening, and we sat upon an angarep among the lovely hills that surrounded us, and looked down upon the Atbara for the last time, as the sun sank behind the rugged mountain of Ras el Feel (the elephant's head). Once more I thought of that wonderful river Nile, that could flow forever through the exhausting deserts of sand, while the Atbara, during the summer months, shrank to a dry skeleton, although the powerful affluents, the Salaam and the Settite, never ceased to flow; every drop of their waters was evaporated by the air and absorbed by the desert sand in the bed of the Atbara, two hundred miles above its junction with the Nile!

The Atbara exploration was completed, and I looked forward to the fresh enterprise of exploring new rivers and lower latitudes, that should unravel the mystery of the Nile!