Chapter 19. "S. V."
With a vigorous plow of the oar, Hercules had pushed toward the left bank. Besides, the current was not more rapid in that place, and the bed of the river kept its normal declivity to the falls. As has been said, it was the sudden sinking of the ground, and the attraction was only felt three or four hundred feet above the cataract.
On the left bank were large and very thick trees. No light penetrated their impenetrable curtain. It was not without terror that Dick Sand looked at this territory, inhabited by the cannibals of the Lower Congo, which he must now cross, because the boat could no longer follow the stream. He could not dream of carrying it below the falls. It was a terrible blow for these poor people, on the eve perhaps of reaching the Portuguese villages at its mouth. They were well aided, however. Would not Heaven come to their assistance?
The boat soon reached the left bank of the river. As it drew near, Dingo gave strange marks of impatience and grief at the same time.
Dick Sand, who was watching the animal--for all was danger--asked himself if some beast or some native was not concealed in the high papyrus of the bank. But he soon saw that the animal was not agitated by a sentiment of anger.
"One would say that Dingo was crying!" exclaimed little Jack, clasping Dingo in his two arms.
Dingo escaped from him, and, springing into the water, when the boat was only twenty feet from the bank, reached the shore and disappeared among the bushes.
Neither Mrs. Weldon, nor Dick Sand, nor Hercules, knew what to think.
They landed a few moments after in the middle of a foam green with hairweed and other aquatic plants. Some kingfishers, giving a sharp whistle, and some little herons, white as snow, immediately flew away. Hercules fastened the boat firmly to a mangrove stump, and all climbed up the steep bank overhung by large trees.
There was no path in this forest. However, faint traces on the ground indicated that this place had been recently visited by natives or animals.
Dick Sand, with loaded gun, and Hercules, with his hatchet in his hand, had not gone ten steps before they found Dingo again. The dog, nose to the ground, was following a scent, barking all the time. A first inexplicable presentiment had drawn the animal to this part of the shore, a second led it into the depths of the wood. That was clearly visible to all.
"Attention!" said Dick Sand. "Mrs. Weldon, Mr. Benedict, Jack, do not leave us! Attention, Hercules!"
At this moment Dingo raised its head, and, by little bounds, invited them to follow.
A moment after Mrs. Weldon and her companions rejoined it at the foot of an old sycamore, lost in the thickest part of the wood.
There was a dilapidated hut, with disjoined boards, before which Dingo was barking lamentably.
"Who can be there?" exclaimed Dick Sand.
He entered the hut.
Mrs. Weldon and the others followed him.
The ground was scattered with bones, already bleached under the discoloring action of the atmosphere.
"A man died in that hut!" said Mrs. Weldon.
"And Dingo knew that man!" replied Dick Sand. "It was, it must have been, his master! Ah, see!"
Dick Sand pointed to the naked trunk of the sycamore at the end of the hut.
There appeared two large red letters, already almost effaced, but which could be still distinguished.
Dingo had rested its right paw on the tree, and it seemed to indicate them.
"S. V.!" exclaimed Dick Sand. "Those letters which Dingo knew among all others! Those initials that it carries on its collar!"
He did not finish, and stooping, he picked up a little copper box, all oxydized, which lay in a corner of the hut.
That box was opened, and a morsel of paper fell from it, on which Dick Sand read these few words:
"Assassinated--robbed by my guide, Negoro--3d December, 1871--here--120 miles from the coast--Dingo!--with me!
The note told everything. Samuel Vernon set out with his dog, Dingo, to explore the center of Africa, guided by Negoro. The money which he carried had excited the wretch's cupidity, and he resolved to take possession of it. The French traveler, arrived at this point of the Congo's banks, had established his camp in this hut. There he was mortally wounded, robbed, abandoned. The murder accomplished, no doubt Negoro took to flight, and it was then that he fell into the hands of the Portuguese. Recognized as one of the trader Alvez's agents, conducted to Saint Paul de Loanda, he was condemned to finish his days in one of the penitentiaries of the colony. We know that he succeeded in escaping, in reaching New Zealand, and how he embarked on the "Pilgrim" to the misfortune of those who had taken passage on it. But what happened after the crime? Nothing but what was easy to understand! The unfortunate Vernon, before dying, had evidently had time to write the note which, with the date and the motive of the assassination, gave the name of the assassin. This note he had shut up in that box where, doubtless, the stolen money was, and, in a last effort, his bloody finger had traced like an epitaph the initials of his name. Before those two red letters, Dingo must have remained for many days! He had learned to know them! He could no longer forget them! Then, returned to the coast, the dog had been picked up by the captain of the "Waldeck," and finally, on board the "Pilgrim," found itself again with Negoro. During this time, the bones of the traveler were whitening in the depths of this lost forest of Central Africa, and he no longer lived except in the remembrance of his dog.
Yes, such must have been the way the events had happened. As Dick Sand and Hercules prepared to give a Christian burial to the remains of Samuel Yernon, Dingo, this time giving a howl of rage, dashed out of the hut.
Almost at once horrible cries were heard at a short distance. Evidently a man was struggling with the powerful animal.
Hercules did what Dingo had done. In his turn he sprang out of the hut, and Dick Sand, Mrs. Weldon, Jack, Benedict, following his steps, saw him throw himself on a man, who fell to the ground, held at the neck by the dog's formidable teeth.
It was Negoro.
In going to the mouth of the Zaire, so as to embark for America, this rascal, leaving his escort behind, had come to the very place where he had assassinated the traveler who had trusted himself to him.
But there was a reason for it, and all understood it when they perceived some handfuls of French gold which glittered in a recently-dug hole at the foot of a tree. So it was evident that after the murder, and before falling into the hands of the Portuguese, Negoro had hidden the product of his crime, with the intention of returning some day to get it. He was going to take possession of this gold when Dingo scented him and sprang at his throat. The wretch, surprised, had drawn his cutlass and struck the dog at the moment when Hercules threw himself on him, crying:
"Ah, villain! I am going to strangle you at last!"
There was nothing more to do. The Portuguese gave no sign of life, struck, it maybe said, by divine justice, and on the very spot where the crime had been committed. But the faithful dog had received a mortal blow, and dragging itself to the hut, it came to die there--where Samuel Vernon had died.
Hercules buried deep the traveler's remains, and Dingo, lamented by all, was put in the same grave as its master.
Negoro was no more, but the natives who accompanied him from Kazounde could not be far away. On not seeing him return, they would certainly seek him along the river. This was a very serious danger.
Dick Sand and Mrs. Weldon took counsel as to what they should do, and do without losing an instant.
One fact acquired was that this stream was the Congo, which the natives call Kwango, or Ikoutouya Kongo, and which is the Zaire under one longitude, the Loualaba under another. It was indeed that great artery of Central Africa, to which the heroic Stanley has given the glorious name of "Livingstone," but which the geographers should perhaps replace by his own.
But, if there was no longer any doubt that this was the Congo, the French traveler's note indicated that its mouth was still one hundred and twenty miles from this point, and, unfortunately, at this place it was no longer navigable. High falls--very likely the falls of Ntamo--forbid the descent of any boat. Thus it was necessary to follow one or the other bank, at least to a point below the cataracts, either one or two miles, when they could make a raft, and trust themselves again to the current.
"It remains, then," said Dick Sand, in conclusion, "to decide if we shall descend the left bank, where we are, or the right bank of the river. Both, Mrs. Weldon, appear dangerous to me, and the natives are formidable. However, it seems as if we risk more on this bank, because we have the fear of meeting Negoro's escort."
"Let us pass over to the other bank," replied Mrs. Weldon.
"Is it practicable?" observed Dick Sand. "The road to the Congo's mouths is rather on the left bank, as Negoro was following it. Never mind. We must not hesitate. But before crossing the river with you, Mrs. Weldon, I must know if we can descend it below the falls."
That was prudent, and Dick Sand wished to put his project into execution on the instant.
The river at this place was not more than three or four hundred feet wide, and to cross it was easy for the young novice, accustomed to handling the oar. Mrs. Weldon, Jack, and Cousin Benedict would remain under Hercules's care till his return.
These arrangements made, Dick Sand was going to set out, when Mrs. Weldon said to him:
"You do not fear being carried away by the falls, Dick?"
"No, Mrs. Weldon. I shall cross four hundred feet above."
"But on the other bank--"
"I shall not land if I see the least danger."
"Take your gun."
"Yes, but do not be uneasy about me."
"Perhaps it would be better for us not to separate, Dick," added Mrs. Weldon, as if urged by some presentiment.
"No--let me go alone," replied Dick Sand. "I must act for the security of all. Before one hour I shall be back. Watch well, Hercules."
On this reply the boat, unfastened, carried Dick Sand to the other side of the Zaire.
Mrs. Weldon and Hercules, lying in the papyrus thickets, followed him with their eyes.
Dick Sand soon reached the middle of the stream. The current, without being very strong, was a little accentuated there by the attraction of the falls. Four hundred feet below, the imposing roaring of the waters filled the space, and some spray, carried by the western wind, reached the young novice. He shuddered at the thought that the boat, if it had been less carefully watched during the last night, would have been lost over those cataracts, that would only have restored dead bodies. But that was no longer to be feared, and, at that moment, the oar skilfully handled sufficed to maintain it in a direction a little oblique to the current.
A quarter of an hour after, Dick Sand had reached the opposite shore, and was preparing to spring on the bank.
At that moment cries were heard, and ten natives rushed on the mass of plants that still hid the boat.
They were the cannibals from the lake village. For eight days they had followed the right bank of the river. Under that thatch, which was torn by the stakes of their village, they had discovered the fugitives, that is to say, a sure prey for them, because the barrier of the falls would sooner or later oblige those unfortunate ones to land on one or the other side of the river.
Dick Sand saw that he was lost, but he asked himself if the sacrifice of his life might not save his companions. Master of himself, standing in the front of the boat, his gun pointed, he held the cannibals in check.
Meanwhile, they snatched away the thatch, under which they expected to find other victims. When they saw that the young novice alone had fallen into their hands, they betrayed their disappointment by frightful cries. A boy of fifteen among ten!
But, then, one of those natives stood up, his arm stretched toward the left bank, and pointed to Mrs. Weldon and her companions, who, having seen all and not knowing what to do, had just climbed up the bank!
Dick Sand, not even dreaming of himself, waited for an inspiration from Heaven that might save them.
The boat was going to be pushed out into the stream. The cannibals were going to cross the river. They did not budge before the gun aimed at them, knowing the effect of fire-arms. But one of them had seized the oar; he managed it like a man who knew how to use it, and the boat crossed the river obliquely. Soon it was not more than a hundred feet from the left bank.
"Flee!" cried Dick Sand to Mrs. Weldon. "Flee!"
Neither Mrs. Weldon nor Hercules stirred. One would say that their feet were fastened to the ground.
Flee! Besides, what good would it do? In less than an hour they would fall into the hands of the cannibals!
Dick Sand understood it. But, then, that supreme inspiration which he asked from Heaven was sent him. He saw the possibility of saving all those whom he loved by making the sacrifice of his own life! He did not hesitate to do it.
"May God protect them!" murmured he, "and in His infinite goodness may He have pity on me!"
At the same instant Dick Sand pointed his gun at the native who was steering the boat, and the oar, broken by a ball, flew into fragments.
The cannibals gave a cry of terror.
In fact, the boat, no longer directed by the oar, went with the stream. The current bore it along with increasing swiftness, and, in a few moments, it was only a hundred feet from the falls.
Mrs. Weldon and Hercules understood all. Dick Sand attempted to save them by precipitating the cannibals, with himself, into the abyss. Little Jack and his mother, kneeling on the bank, sent him a last farewell. Hercules's powerless hand was stretched out to him.
At that moment the natives, wishing to gain the left bank by swimming, threw themselves out of the boat, which they capsized.
Dick Sand had lost none of his coolness in the presence of the death which menaced him. A last thought then came to him. It was that this boat, even because it was floating keel upward, might serve to save him.
In fact, two dangers were to be feared when Dick Sand should be going over the cataract: asphyxia by the water, and asphyxia by the air. Now, this overturned hull was like a box, in which he might, perhaps, keep his head out of the water, at the same time that he would be sheltered from the exterior air, which would certainly have stifled him in the rapidity of his fall. In these conditions, it seems that a man would have some chance of escaping the double asphyxia, even in descending the cataracts of a Niagara.
Dick Sand saw all that like lightning. By a last instinct he clung to the seat which united the two sides of the boat, and, his head out of the water, under the capsized hull, he felt the irresistible current carrying him away, and the almost perpendicular fall taking place.
The boat sank into the abyss hollowed out by the waters at the foot of the cataract, and, after plunging deep, returned to the surface of the river.
Dick Sand, a good swimmer, understood that his safety now depended on the vigor of his arms.
A quarter of an hour after he reached the left bank, and there found Mrs. Weldon, little Jack, and Cousin Benedict, whom Hercules had led there in all haste.
But already the cannibals had disappeared in the tumult of the waters. They, whom the capsized boat had not protected, had ceased to live even before reaching the last depths of the abyss, and their bodies were going to be torn to pieces on those sharp rocks on which the under-current of the stream dashed itself.