CHAPTER XI. THE FORD.
Two months had elapsed since the last drop of rain had closed the wet season. It was 15th November, and the river had fallen to so low an ebb that the stream was reduced to a breadth of about eighty yards of bright and clear water, rushing in places with great rapidity through the centre of its broad and stony bed, while in sudden bends of the channel it widened into still, and exceedingly deep pools. We were encamped exactly upon the verge of a perpendicular cliff, from which there was a rugged path to the dry channel some thirty feet below, which shelved rapidly towards the centre occupied by the stream. In this spot were powerful rapids, above which to our left was a ford, at this time about waist-deep, upon a bed of rock that divided the lower rapids from a broad and silent pool above: across this ford the women of the village daily passed to collect their faggots of wood from the bushes on the opposite side. I had shot a crocodile, and a marabou stork, and I was carefully plucking the plume of beautiful feathers from the tail of the bird, surrounded by a number of Arabs, when I observed a throng of women, each laden with a bundle of wood, crossing the ford in single file from the opposite bank. Among them were two young girls of about fifteen, and I remarked that these, instead of marching in a line with the women, were wading hand-in-hand in dangerous proximity to the head of the rapids. A few seconds later, I noticed that they were inclining their bodies up stream, and were evidently struggling with the current. Hardly had I pointed out the danger to the men around me, when the girls clung to each other, and striving against their fate they tottered down the stream towards the rapids, which rushed with such violence that the waves were about two feet high. With praiseworthy speed the Arabs started to their feet, and dashed down the deep descent towards the river, but before they had reached half way, the girls uttered a shriek, lost their footing, and in another instant they threw their arms wildly above their heads, and were hurried away in the foam of the rapids. One disappeared immediately; the other was visible, as her long black hair floated on the surface; she also sank. Presently, about twenty yards below the spot, a pair of naked arms protruded high above the surface, with ivory bracelets upon the wrists, and twice the hands clapped together as though imploring help; again she disappeared. The water was by this time full of men, who had rushed to the rescue; but they had foolishly jumped in at the spot where they had first seen the girls, who were of course by this time carried far away by the torrent. Once more, farther down the river, the hands and bracelets appeared; again they wildly clapped together, and in the clear water we could plainly see the dark hair beneath. Still, she sank again; but almost immediately she rose head and shoulders above the surface, and thrice she again clapped her hands for aid.
This was her last effort; she disappeared. By the time several men had wisely run along the bank below the tail of the rapids, and having formed a line across a very narrow portion of the stream, one of them suddenly clutched an object beneath the water and in another moment he held the body of the girl in his arms. Of course she was dead? or a fit subject for the Royal Humane Society? - So I supposed; when to our intense astonishment, she no sooner was brought to the shore than she gave herself a shake, threw back her long hair, wrung out and arranged her dripping rahat, and walked leisurely back to the ford, which she crossed with the assistance of the Arab who had saved her.
What she was composed of I cannot say; whether she was the offspring of a cross between mermaid and hippopotamus, or hatched from the egg of a crocodile, I know not, but a more wonderfully amphibious being I have rarely seen.
During this painful scene, in which one girl had been entirely lost, the mother of her who was saved had rushed to meet her child as she landed from the ford; but instead of clasping her to her heart, as we had expected, she gave her a maternal welcome by beating her most unmercifully with her fists, bestowing such lusty blows upon her back that we could distinctly hear them at a distance of fifty yards; this punishment, we were given to understand, served her perfectly right, for having been foolish enough to venture near the rapids. The melancholy death-howl was now raised by all the women in the village, while the men explored the river in search of the missing body. On the following morning the sheik appeared at my tent, with a number of Arabs who had been unsuccessful, and he begged me, if possible, to suggest some means for the discovery of the girl, as her remains should be properly interred.