CHAPTER XXII. Prisoners on the island - Left to starve - Months of helplessness - We rejoin the Turks - The real Kamrasi - In the presence of royalty.
We were prisoners on the island of Patooan as we could not procure porters at any price to remove our effects. We had lost all our riding oxen within a few days. They had succumbed to the flies, and the only animal alive was already half dead; this was the little bull that had always carried the boy Saat. It was the 8th of April, and within a few days the boats upon which we depended for our return to civilization would assuredly quit Gondokoro. I offered the natives all the beads that I had (about 50 lbs.) and the whole of my baggage, if they would carry us to Shooa directly from this spot. We were in perfect despair, as we were both completely worn out with fever and fatigue, and certain death seemed to stare us in the face should we remain in this unhealthy spot. Worse than death was the idea of losing the boats and becoming prisoners for another year in this dreadful land, which must inevitably happen should we not hurry directly to Gondokoro without delay. The natives with their usual cunning at length offered to convey us to Shooa, provided that I paid them the beads in advance. The boats were prepared to ferry us across the river; but I fortunately discovered through the woman Bacheeta their treacherous intention of placing us on the uninhabited wilderness on the north side, and leaving us to die of hunger. They had conspired together to land us, but to return immediately with the boats after having thus got rid of the incubus of their guests.
We were in a great dilemma. Had we been in good health, I would have forsaken everything but the guns and ammunition, and have marched directly to Gondokoro on foot; but this was utterly impossible. Neither my wife nor I could walk a quarter of a mile without fainting. There was no guide, and the country was now overgrown with impenetrable grass and tangled vegetation eight feet high. We were in the midst of the rainy season - not a day passed without a few hours of deluge. Altogether it was a most heart-breaking position. Added to the distress of mind at being thus thwarted, there was also a great scarcity of provision. Many of my men were weak, the whole party having suffered much from fever; in fact, we were completely helpless.
Our guide, Rabonga, who had accompanied us from M'rooli, had absconded, and we were left to shift for ourselves. I was determined not to remain on the island, as I suspected that the boats might be taken away, and that we should be kept prisoners; I therefore ordered my men to take the canoes, and to ferry us to the main land, from whence we had come. The headman, upon hearing this order, offered to carry us to a village, and then to await orders from Kamrasi as to whether we were to be forwarded to Shooa or not. The district in which the island of Patooan was situated was called Shooa Moru, although having no connection with the Shooa in the Madi country to which we were bound.
We were ferried across to the main shore, and my wife and I, in our respective angareps, were carried by the natives for about three miles. Arriving at a deserted village, half of which was in ashes, having been burned and plundered by the enemy, we were deposited on the ground in front of an old hut in the pouring rain, and were informed that we should remain there that night, but that on the following morning we should proceed to our destination.
Not trusting the natives, I ordered my men to disarm them, and to retain their spears and shields as security for their appearance on the following day. This effected, we were carried into a filthy hut about six inches deep in mud, as the roof was much out of repair, and the heavy rain had flooded it daily for some weeks. I had a canal cut through the muddy floor, and in misery and low spirits we took possession.
On the following morning not a native was present! We had been entirely deserted; although I held the spears and shields, every man had absconded. There were neither inhabitants nor provisions. The whole country was a wilderness of rank grass that hemmed us in on all sides. Not an animal, nor even a bird, was to be seen; it was a miserable, damp, lifeless country. We were on elevated ground, and the valley of the Somerset was about two miles to our north, the river roaring sullenly in its obstructed passage, its course marked by the double belt of huge dark trees that grew upon its banks.
My men naturally felt outraged and proposed that we should return to Patooan, seize the canoes, and take provisions by force, as we had been disgracefully deceived. The natives had merely deposited us here to get us out of the way, and in this spot we might starve. Of course I would not countenance the proposal of seizing provisions, but I directed my men to search among the ruined villages for buried corn, in company with the woman Bacheeta, who, being a native of this country, would be up to the ways of the people, and might assist in the discovery.
After some hours passed in rambling over the black ashes of several villages that had been burned, they discovered a hollow place, by sounding the earth with a stick, and, upon digging, arrived at a granary of the seed known as "tullaboon;" this was a great prize, as, although mouldy and bitter, it would keep us from starving. The women of the party were soon hard at work grinding, as many of the necessary stones had been found among the ruins.
Fortunately there were three varieties of plants growing wild in great profusion, that, when boiled, were a good substitute for spinach; thus we were rich in vegetables, although without a morsel of fat or animal food. Our dinner consisted daily of a mess of black porridge of bitter mouldy flour that no English pig would condescend to notice, and a large dish of spinach. "Better a dinner of herbs where love is," etc. often occurred to me; but I am not sure that I was quite of that opinion after a fortnight's grazing upon spinach.