|Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History|
Hunting of the Soko
Lying on my back one terribly hot day under the great tamarind that shades the temple of Saravan, in Borneo, I began to think naturally of iced drinks, and from them my mind wandered to icebergs, and from icebergs to Polar bears.
Polar bears! At the recollection of these animals I sat bolt upright, for though I had shot over nearly all the world, and accumulated a perfect museum of trophies, I had never till this moment thought of Greenland, nor of Polar bears! Before this I had begun to think I had exhausted Nature. From the false elk of Ceylon to the true one of Canada, the rhinoceros of Assam to the coyote of Patagonia, the panther of Central India to the jaguars of the Amazon, I had seen everything in its own home, and shot it there. And for birds, I had hunted a so-called moa at Little Farm in New Zealand, the bustard in the Mahratta country, dropped geese into nearly every river of America, Europe, and Asia, and flushed almost all the glorious tribe of game birds, from the capercailzie of Norway to the quail of Sicily. My museum, however, wanted yet another skin the Polar bear! I cannot say the prospect pleased me. I would much rather have sent my compliments to the Polar bear and asked it to come comfortably into some warm climate to be shot; but regretting was useless, so I gave the order of the day the North Pole.
In London, however, I heard of Stanley's successful search for Livingstone, and then it was that the sense of my utter nothingness came over me. All Africa was unshot! It is true I had once gone from Bombay to Zanzibar, Dr. Kirke helping me on my way, and, thanks to Mackinnon's agents (who were busy prospecting a road into the interior) had bagged my hippopotamus, and enjoyed many a pleasant stalk after the fine antelope of the Bagomoyo plains. But the Dark Continent itself, with its cloud-like herds of hartebest and springbok, its droves of wind-footed gnu, its zebras, ostriches and lions, was still a virgin ground for me. But more than all these more than ostrich, gnu, or zebra, more than hippopotamus or lion was that mystery of the primeval forest, the Soko. What was the Soko? Certainly not the gorilla, nor the chimpanzee, nor yet the ourang-outang. Was it a new boast altogether, this man-like thing, that shakes the forest at the sources of the Congo with its awful voice that desolates the villages of the jungle tribes of Uregga, carries off the women captive, and meets their cannibal lords in fair fight? With Soko on the brain it may be easily imagined that the Polar bear was forgotten, and I lost no time in altering my arrangements to suit my altered plans. My snow-shoes were countermanded and solar helmets laid in: fur gloves and socks were exchanged for leather gaiters and canvas suits.
In a month I was ready, and in another two months had started from Zanzibar with a following of eighteen men. During my voyage I had carefully read the travels of Grant, Speke, Burton, Livingstone, Cameron, Schweinfurth, and Stanley, and in all had been struck by the losses suffered from fatigue on the march. With large expeditions it was of course necessary for most to go on foot, but with my pygmy cortège I could afford to let them ride. Good strong donkeys were cheap at Zanzibar, and I bought a baker's dozen of them, reserving three of the best for myself, and allotting ten among my men, to relieve them either of their burdens or the fatigue of walking, according to any fair arrangements fair to the donkeys and to themselves they chose to make among themselves. The result was no sickness, little fatigue, and constant good spirits. My goods consisted of my own personal effects, all on one donkey; my medicine-chest, etc., on another; fifteen men-loads of beads, wire, and cloth, for making friends with the natives and purchasing provisions; and three loads of ammunition. I was lucky in the time of my start, for Mirambo, "the terror of Africa," who had been scouring the centre of the continent for the past year, had just concluded peace with the Arabs, his enemies, and had moreover ordered every one also to keep the peace. The result to me was that each village was as harmless as the next.
Gaily enough, then, we strolled along, enjoying occasionally excellent sport, and wondering as we went where all the horrors and perils of African travel had gone. We had, it is true, our experience of them afterwards; but the ground has now become so stale, that I will pass over the interval of our journey from Zanzibar to Ujiji and thence to the river, and ask you to imagine us setting out for the forests that lie about the sources of the Livingstone in the district of Uregga, the Soko's home.
Nearly every traveller before me had spoken of the Soko, the man-beast of these primeval forests. Livingstone had a large store of legends and anecdotes about them, their intelligent cruelty and their fierce, though frugivorous, habits. Stanley constantly heard them. In one place he saw a Soko's platform in a tree, and in several villages found the skin, the teeth, and the skulls in possession of the people.
Wherever we went I was eager in my inquiries, but day after day slipped by, and still I neither heard the Soko alive nor saw any portion of one dead. But even without encountering the great simia, our journey in these nightshade forests was sufficiently eventful, for great panther-like creatures, very pale-skinned, prowled about in the glimmering shades; and from the trees we sometimes saw hanging pythons of tremendous girth. But the reptile and insect world was chiefly in the ascendant here, and it was against such small persecutors as puff-adders, centipedes, poisonous spiders, and ants, that we had to guard ourselves. Travelling, however, owing to the dense shade, was not the misery that we had found it in the sun-smitten plains of Uturu, or the hideous ocean of scrub-jungle that stretches from Suna to Mgongo-Zembo. The trees, nearly all of three or four species of bombax, mvule, and aldrendon, were of stupendous size and impossible altitude, but growing so close together their crowns were tightly interwoven overhead, and sometimes not a hundred yards in a whole day's march was open to the sky. Moreover, in the hot-house air under this canopy had sprung up with incredible luxuriance every species of tree-fern, rattan and creeping palm known, I should think, to the tropics, and amongst themselves in a stratum, often thirty feet below the upper roof of tree-foliage, had closely intermeshed their fronds and tendrils, so that we marched often in an oven atmosphere, but protected alike from the killing sun and flooding rain by double awnings of impenetrable leafage. The ground itself was bare of vegetation, except where, here and there, monster fungi clustered, like a condemned invoice of umbrellas and parasols, round some fallen giant of the forest, or where, in a screen of blossom, wonderful air-plants filled up great spaces from tree-trunk to tree-trunk.
At intervals we crossed rivulets of crystal water, icy cold, finding their way as best they might from hollow to hollow over the centuries' layers of fallen leaves, and along their courses grew in rich profusion masses of a broad-leafed sedge, that afforded the panther safe covert and easy couch; and sometimes, on approaching one of these rills, we would see a ghostly herd of deer flit away through the twilight shade. And thus it happened that one evening I was lying on my rug half asleep, with the pleasant deep-sea gloom about me and a deathly stillness reigning over this world of trees, and wondering whether that was or was not a monkey perched high up among the palm fronds, when out from the sedges by a runnel there paced before me a panther of unusual size. From his gait I saw that it had a victim in view, and turning my head was horrified to see that it was one of my own men, who was busy about something at the foot of a tree.
I jumped up with a shout, and the panther, startled by the sudden sound, plunged back in three great leaps into the sedges from which it had emerged. All my men jumped to their feet, and one of them, in his terror at the proximity of the beast of prey, turned and fled away into the depth of the forest. I watched his retreating figure as far as the eye could follow it in that light, and laughing at his panic, went over to where my ass was tied, intending to stroll down for a shot at the panther. And while I was idly getting ready, the sound of excited conversation among my men attracted me, and I asked them what was the matter. There was a laugh, and then one of them, the most sensible, English-minded African I ever met, stepped forward.
"We do not know, master," said he, "which of us it was that ran away just now. We are all here."
The full significance of his words did not strike me at first, and I laughed too. "Oh, count yourselves," I said, "and you will soon find out."
"But we have counted, master," replied the man, "and all eighteen are here."
His meaning began to dawn on me. I felt a queer feeling creep over me.
"All here!" I ejaculated. "Muster the men."
And mustered they were and to my astonishment, and even horror, I found the man was speaking the truth. Every man of my force was in his place.
Then who was the man that had run away, when all the party started up from their sleep? A ghost? I looked round into the deepening gloom. All my men were standing together, looking rather frightened. Around us stretched the eternal forest. A ghost! And then on a sudden the thought flashed across me I had seen the Soko.
I had seen the Soko! and seeing it had mistaken it for a human being! And while I was still loading my cartridge-belt, Shumari, my gun-boy, had crept up to my side, with my express in one hand and heavy elephant rifle in the other; but on his face there was a strange, concerned expression, and in the tone of his voice an uneasy tremor, with which something in my own feelings sympathized.
"Is the master going to hunt the wild man?" asked the lad.
"The Soko? Yes, I want its skin," I replied.
"But the wild man cried out, 'Ai! ma-ma' ['Oh! mother, mother '] as it ran away, and "
"Here is the wild man's stick," broke in Mabruki, the Zanzibari; and as he spoke he held out towards me a long staff, seven feet in length. All the blood in my body ran cold at the sight of it. It was a mere length of rattan, without ferule or knot, but at the upper end the bark had been torn down from joint to joint in parallel strips, to give the holder a firmer grip than one could have had on smooth cane, and just below the second joint the stumps of the corresponding shoots on two sides had been left sticking out for the hand to rest on.
How can I describe the throng of hideous thoughts that whirled through my brain on the instant that I recognized these efforts of reason in the animal that I was now going to hunt to the death? But swift as were my thoughts, Mabruki had thought them out before me, and had come to a conclusion. "The mshenshi mtato [pagan ape] had stolen this stick from some village," said he; "see," and he pointed to the smoothed offshoots, "they have stained them with the mvule juice."
The instant relief I felt at this happy solution of the dreadful mystery was expressed by me in a shout of joy; so sudden and so real that, without knowing why, my men shouted too, and with such a will that the monkeys that had been gravely pondering over our preparations for the evening meal were startled out of their self-respect and off their perches, and plunged precipitately into a tangle of lianes. My spirits had returned, and with as light a heart as ever I had, I ambled off in the direction the Soko had taken.
But soon the voices of the camp had died away behind me, and there had grown up between me and it the wall of mist that in this sunless forest region makes every mile as secret from the next as if you were in the highest ether surely, the most secret of all places or in the lowest sea. And over the soft, rich vegetable mould the ass's feet went noiseless as an owl's wing upon the air; and, except for the rhythmical jingling of his ass's harness, Shumari's presence might never have been suspected. And then in this cathedral solitude with cloistered tree-trunks reaching away at every point of view into long vistas closed in gray mist; overhead, hanging like tattered tapestry, great lengths and rags of moss-growths, strange textures of fungus and parasite, hanging plumb down in endless points, all as motionless as possible; without a breath of life stirring about me bird, beast, or insect the same horrid thoughts took possession of me again, and I began to recall the gestures of the wild thing which, when I startled the panther, had fled away into the forest depths.
It had stood upright amongst the upright men, and turning to run had stooped, but only so much as a man might do when running with all his speed. In the gait there was a one-sided swing, just as some great man-ape gorilla or chimpanzee might have when, as travellers tell us, they help themselves along on the knuckles of the long fore-arm, the body swaying down to the side on which the hand touches the ground at each stride. In one hand was a small branch of some leafy shrub, far I distinctly remembered having seen it as it began to run. The speed must have been great, for it was very soon out of sight; but there was no appearance of rapidity in the movement, like the wolf's slow-looking gallop, that no horse can overtake, and that soon tires out the fleetest hound. As it began to run it had made a jabbering sound, an inarticulate expression of simple human fear I had thought it to be; but now, pondering over it, I began to wonder that I could have mistaken that swiftly retreating figure for human.
It is true that I did not want to think of it as human, and perhaps my wishes may have colored my retrospect; at any rate, whatever the process, I found myself, after a while, laughing at myself for having turned sick at heart when the suspicion came across me that perhaps the Soko of the forests of Uregga, the feast-day dish of the jungle tribes, might be a human being. The long, lolloping gait, the jabbering, should alone have dispelled the terror. It is true that my men heard it say, "Oh, ma-ma!" as it started up to run by them. But in half the languages of the world, mama is a synonym for "mother," and it follows, therefore, that it is not a word at all, but simply the phonetic rendering of the first bleating, babbling articulation of babyhood, an animal noise uttered as articulately by young sheep and young goats as by young men and women. The staff, too, was of the common type in these districts, and had been picked up, no doubt, by the Soko in some twilight prowling round a grain store, or perhaps gained in fair fight from some villager whom it had surprised, solitary and defenceless. And then my thoughts ran on to all I had read or heard of the Soko, of its societies for mutual defence or food-supply, and the comparative amiability of such communities, of the solitary outlawed Soko, the vindictive, lawless bandit of the trees, who wanders about round the habitations of men, lying in wait for the women and the children, robbing the granaries and orchards, and stealing, for the simple larceny's sake, household chattels, of the use of which it is ignorant. Shumari, a hunter born and bred, was full of Soko lore; the skin, he said, was covered, except on the throat, hands, and feet, with a short, harsh hair of a dark color, and tipped in the older individuals with gray; these also had long growths of hair on the head, their cheeks and lips. It had no tail.
"Standing up," said he, "it is as tall as I am [he was only five feet one inch], and its eyes are together in the front of its face, so that it looks at you straight. It eats sitting up, and when tired leans its back against a tree, putting its hands behind its head. Three men of my village came upon one asleep in this way one day, and so quietly that before it awoke two of them had speared it. It started up and threw back its head to give a loud cry of pain, and then leaning its elbow against the tree, it bent its head down upon its arms, and so died, leaning against the tree, with one arm supporting the head and the other pressed to its heart. There was a Soko village there, for they saw all their platforms in the trees, and the ground was heaped up in places with snail-shells and fruit-skins. But they did not see any more Sokos.... Another day I myself was out hunting with a party, and we found a dead Soko. I had thrown my spear at a tree-cat, and going to pick it up, saw close by a large heap of myombo leaves. I turned some up with my spear, and found a dead Soko underneath.... When a Soko catches a man it holds him, and makes faces at him, and jabbers; sometimes it lets him go without doing him any harm, but generally it bites off all his fingers one by one, spitting them out as it bites them off, and his nose and ears and toes as well, and ends up by strangling him with its fingers or beating him to death with a branch. Women and children are never seen again, so I suppose the Sokos eat them. They have no spears or knives, and they do not use anything that men use, except that they walk with sticks, knocking down fruit with them, and that they drink water out of their hands. Their front teeth are very sharp, and at each side is one longer and sharper than the rest."
And so he went on chattering to me as we ambled through the dim shade in a stupid pursuit of an invisible thing. The stupidity of it dawned upon me at last, and I stopped, and without explaining the change to my companion, turned and rode homewards.
The twilight shadows of the day were now deepening into night, and we hurried on. The fireflies began to flicker along the sedge-grown rills and, high up among the leaf coronets of the elais palm, were clustering in a mazy dance. Passing a tangle of lianes, I heard an owl or some night bird hoot gently from the foliage, and as we went along the fowl seemed to keep pace with us, for the ventriloquist sound was always with us, fast though we rode; and first from one side and then from the other we heard the low-voiced complaining following. And the "eeriness" of the company grew upon me. There was no sound of wings or rustling of leaves; but for mile after mile the low hoot, hoot, of the thing that was following, sounded so close at hand that I kept on looking round. Shumari, like all savages they approach animals very nearly in this was intensely susceptible to the superstitious and uncanny, and long before the ghostliness of the persistent voice occurred to me, I had noticed that Shumari was keeping as close to me as possible. But at last, whether it was from constantly turning my head over my shoulder to see what was coming after us, or whether I was unconsciously infected by his nervousness, I got as fidgety as he, and, for the sake of human company, opened conversation.
"What bird makes that noise?" I asked.
Shumari did not reply, and I repeated the question.
And then in a voice, so absurd from its assumption of boldness that I laughed outright, he said,
"No bird, master. It is a muzimu [spirit] that is following us. Let us go quicker."
Here was a position! We had all the evening been hunting nothing, and now we were being hunted by nothing! The memory of Shumari's voice made me laugh again, and just then catching sight of the twinkling camp fires in the far distance, I laughed at myself too. And, on a sudden, just as my laugh ceased, there came from the rattan brake past which we were riding a sound that was, and yet was not, the echo of my laugh. It sounded something like my laugh, but it was repeated twice, and the creature I rode, ass though it was, turned its head towards the brake. Shumari meanwhile had seen the camp fires, and his terror overpowering discipline, he gave one howl of horror and fled, his ass, seeing the fires too, falling into the humor with all his will, and carrying off his rider at full speed. My ass wanted to follow, but I pulled him up, and to make further trial of the hidden jester, shouted out in Swahili, "Who is there?"
The answer was as sudden as horrifying. For an instant the brake swayed to and fro, and then there came a crashing of branches as of some great beast forcing his way through them, and on a sudden, close behind me, burst out the Soko!
Shumari had carried off my guns, and, except for the short knife in my belt, I was defenceless. And there before me in the flesh stood the creature I had gone out to hunt, but which for ever so many miles must have been hunting us. I had no leisure for moralizing or even for examination of the creature before me. It seemed about Shumari's height, but was immensely broad at the shoulders, and in one hand it carried a fragment of a bough. Had it been simply man against man, I would have stood my ground but was it? The dim light prevented my noting any details, and I had no inclination or time to scrutinize the features of the thing that now approached me. I saw the white teeth flashing, heard a deep-chested stuttering, inarticulate with rage, and flinging myself from the ass, which was trembling and rooted to the spot with fear, I ran as I had never run before in the direction of the camp.
The Soko must have stopped to attack the ass, for I heard a scuffle behind me as I started, but very soon the ass came tearing past me, and looking round I saw the Soko in pursuit. The heavy branch fortunately encumbered its progress, but it gained upon me. Close behind me I heard the thing jabbering and panting, and for an instant thought of standing at bay. I was running my hardest, but it seemed, just as in a nightmare, as if horror had partly paralyzed my limbs, and I were only creeping along. The horror of such pursuit was, I felt, culminating in sickness, and I thought I should swoon and fall. But just then I became aware of approaching lights, the camp fires seemed to be running to me. The Soko, however, was fast overtaking me, and I struggled on, but it was of no use, and my feet tripping against the projecting root of an old mvule, I fell on my knees; but, rising again, I staggered against the tree, drew my knife, and waited for the attack. In an instant the Soko was up with me, and, dropping its bough, reached out its arms to seize me. I lunged at it with my knife, but the length of its arms baffled me, for before the point of my knife could find its body, the Soko's hands had grasped my shoulders, and with such astonishing force that it seemed as if my arms were being displaced in their sockets. The next moment a third hand seized hold of my, leg below the knee, and I was instantly jerked on to the ground. The fall partially stunned me, and then I felt a rough-haired body fall heavily upon me, and, groping their way to my throat, long fingers feeling about me. I struggled with the creature, but against its strength my hands were nerveless. The fingers had now found my throat; I felt the grasp tightening, and gave myself up to death. But on a sudden there was a confusion of voices a flashing of bright lights before my eyes, and the weight was all at once raised from off me. In another minute I had recovered my consciousness, and found that my men, the gallant Mabruki at their head, had charged to my rescue with burning brands, and arrived only just in time to save my life.
And the Soko?
As I lay there, my faithful followers round me with their brands still flickering, the voice of the Soko came to us, but from which direction it was impossible to say, soft and mysterious as before, the same hoot, hoot, that had puzzled us on our homeward route.
My narrow escape from a horrible though somewhat absurd death was celebrated by my men with extravagant demonstrations of indignation against the Soko that had hunted me, and many respectful reproaches for my temerity. For myself, I was more eager than ever to capture or kill the formidable thing that had outwitted and outmatched me; and so having had my arms well rubbed with oil, I gave the order for a general muster next morning for a grand Soko hunt.
Now, close by our camp grew a great tree, from which hung down liane strands of every rope-thickness, and all round its roots had grown op a dense hedge of strong-spined cane. One of my men, sent up the tree to cut us off some of these natural ropes, reported that all round the tree, that is, between its trunk and the cane-hedge, there was a clear space, so that though, looking at it from the outside, it seemed as if the canes grew right up to the tree trunk, looking at it from above, there was seen to be really an open pathway, so to speak, surrounding the tree, broad enough for three men to walk abreast. I had often heard of similar cases of vegetable aversions, where, from some secret cause of plant prejudice, two shrubs, though growing together, exercise this mutual repulsion, and never actually combine in growth. Meanwhile, however, the phenomenon was interesting to me for other reasons, for I saw at once what a convenient receptacle this natural well would make for the baggage we had to leave behind.
Leaving our effects therefore inside this brake, which we did by slinging the bales one after the other over an overhanging bough, and so dropping them into the open pathway, and removing from the neighborhood every trace of our recent encampment, we started westward with four days' provisions, ready cooked, on our backs. The method of march was in line, each man about a hundred yards from the next, and every second man on an ass, the riders carrying the usual ivory horns, without which no travellers in the Uregga forests ever move from home, and the notes of which, exactly like the cry of the American wood-marmot, keep the party in line. By this means we covered a mile, and being unencumbered, marched fast, scouring the wood before us at the rate of four miles an hour for three hours.
And what a wild, weird time it was, those three hours, marching with noiseless footfalls, looking constantly right and left and overhead. I could see the line of shadowy figures advancing on either side, not a sound along the whole line, except when the horns carried down in response to one another their thin, wailing notes, or when some palm fruit, over-ripe, dropped rustling down through the canopy of foliage above us. And yet the whole forest was instinct with life. If you set yourself to listen, there came to your ears, all day and night, a great monotone of sound humming through the misty shade, the aggregate voices of millions of insect things that had their being among the foliage or in the daylight that reigned in the outer world above those green clouds which made perpetual twilight for us who were passing underneath. Along the tree-roof streamed also troops of monkeys, and flocks of parrots and other birds; but in their passage overhead, we could not, through the dense vault of foliage, branch, and blossom, hear their voices, except as merged in the one great sound that filled all space, too large almost to be heard at all. In the midst, then, of this vast murmur of confused nature, we seemed to walk in absolute silence. The ear had grown so accustomed to it, that a sneeze was heard with a start, and the occasional knocking together of asses' hoofs made every head turn suddenly, and every rifle move to the shoulder.
At the end of the three hours' marching we came to a river, perhaps that which Stanley, in his "Dark Continent," names the Asna, flowing northwest, with a width here of only one hundred yards, a deep, slow stream, crystal clear, flowing without a ripple or a murmur through the perpetual gloaming, between banks of soft, rich, black leaf-mould. We halted, and, after a rapid meal, re-formed in line, and marching for two miles easterly up the river, made a left wheel; and in the same order, and at the same pace as we had advanced, we continued nearly two hours rather in a northerly direction, and then making a left wheel again, started off due west, crossing the tracks of our morning's march in our fourth mile, and reaching the Asna again in our tenth mile, a total march of nearly thirty-two miles, of which, of course, each man had traversed only one half on foot. No cooking was allowed, and our collation was therefore soon despatched, and before I had lighted my pipe and curled myself up I saw that all the party were snug under their mosquito nets.
I had noticed, when reading travellers' books, that they always suffered severely from mosquitoes and other insects. I determined that I would not; so, before leaving Zanzibar, served out to every man twenty yards of net. These, in the daytime, were worn round the head as turbans, and at night spread upon sticks, and furnished each man a protection against these Macbeths of the sedge and brake. The men thoroughly understood their value, and before turning in for the night, always carefully examined their nets for stray holes, which they caught together with fibres. But somehow I could not go to sleep for a long while; the pain in my arm where the Soko seized me was very great at times; besides, I felt haunted; and indeed, when I awoke and found it already four o'clock, it did not seem that I had been asleep at all. But the time for sleep was now over, so, awakening the expedition, we ate a silent meal, and noiselessly remounting, were again on the war-trail. On this, the second day, we marched some three miles down the river, northwest, and then taking a half right wheel, started off northeast, passing to the north of our camp at about the eleventh mile. Here the first sign of life we had seen since we started broke the tedium of our ghost-like progress.
Between myself and the next man on the line was running a little stream, fed probably by the dews that here rained down upon us from the mvule-trees. These, more than all others, seem to condense the heated upper air, their leaves being thick in texture, and curiously cool, for which reason the natives prefer them for butter and oil dishes. Along the stream, as usual, crowded a thick fringe of white-starred sedge. On a sudden there was a swaying of the herbage, and out bounced a splendidly spotted creature of the cat kind. Immediately behind him crept out his mate; and there they stood: the male, his crest and all the hair along the spine erect with anger at our intrusion, his tail swinging and curling with excitement; beside him, and half behind him, the female crouching low on the ground, her ears laid back along the head, and motionless as a carved stone. My ass saw the pair, and instinct warning it that the beautiful beasts were dangerous to it, with that want of judgment and consideration so characteristic of asses, it must needs bray. And such a bray! At every hee it pumped up enough air from its lungs to have contented an organ, and at every haw it vented a shattering blast to which all the slogans of all the clans were mere puling. It brayed its very soul out in the suddenness of the terror. The effect on the leopards was instant and complete. There was just one lightning flash of color, a yellow streak across the space before me, and plump! the splendid pair soused into a murderous tangle of creeping palms. That they could ever have got out of the awful trap, with its millions of strong spines barbed like fish-hooks and as strong as steel, is probably impossible; but the magnificent promptitude of the suicide, its picturesque completeness, was undeniable.
The ass, however, was by no means soothed by the meteor-like disappearance of the beasts of prey, and the gruesome dronings that, in spite of hard whacks, it indulged in for many minutes, betrayed the depth of its emotions and the cavernous nature of its interior organization. The ass, like the savage, has no perception of the picturesque.
After the morning meal I allowed a three hours' rest, and in knots of twos and threes along the line, the party sat down, talking in subdued tones (for silence was the order of the march), or comfortably snoozing. I slept myself as well as my aching arm would let me. The march resumed, I wheeled the line with its front due west, and after another two hours' rapid advance we found ourselves again at the river, some seven miles farther down its course than the point from which we had started in the morning; and after a hurried meal, I gave the order for home. Striking southeasterly, we crossed in our fifth mile the track of the morning, and in the thirteenth reached our camp. By this means it will be seen we had effectually triangulated a third of a circle of eleven miles radius from our camp and with absolutely no result. During the next two days I determined to scour, if possible, the remaining semicircle. Meanwhile, we were at the point we had started from, and though it was nearly certain that at any rate one Soko was in the neighborhood, we had fatigued ourselves with nearly seventy miles of marching without finding a trace of it.
As nothing was required from our concealed store, we had only to eat and go to sleep; and so the men, after laughing together for a while over the snug arrangements I had made for the safety of our goods, and pretending to have doubts as to this being the real site of the hidden property of the expedition, were soon asleep in a batch. I went to sleep too; not a sound sleep, for I could not drive from my memory the hideous recollection of that evening, only two days before, when, nearly in the same spot I was lying in the Soko's power. And thinking about it, I got so restless that, under the irresistible impression that some supernatural presence was about me, I unpegged my mosquito net, and getting up, began to pace about. I wore at nights a long Cashmere dressing-gown, in lieu of the tighter canvas coat. I had been leaning against a tree; but feeling that the moisture that trickled down the trunk was soaking my back, I was moving off, when my ears were nearly split by a shout from behind me "Soko! Soko!" and the next instant I found myself flung violently to the ground, and struggling with Mabruki! The pain caused by the sudden fall at first made me furious at the mistake that had been made; but the next instant, when the whole absurdity of the position came upon me, I roared with laughter.
The savage is very quickly infected by mirth, and in a minute, as soon as the story got round how Mabruki had jumped upon the master for a Soko, the whole camp was in fits of laughter. Sleep was out of the question with my aching back and aching sides; and so, mixing myself some grog and lighting my pipe, I made Mabruki shampoo my limbs with oil. While he did so he began to talk,
"Does the master ever see devils?"
"Mabruki does, and all the Wanyamwazi of his village do, for his village elders are the keepers of the charm against evil spirits of the whole land of Unyamwazi, and they often see them. I saw a devil to-night."
"Was the devil like a Soko?" I asked, laughing.
"Yes, master," he replied, "like a Soko; but I was always asleep, and never saw it, but whenever it came to me it said, 'I am here,' and then at last I got frightened and got up, and then I saw you, master, and"
But we were both laughing again, and Mabruki stopped.
It was strange that he, too, should have felt the same uncanny presence that had afflicted me. But under Mabraki's manipulation I soon fell asleep. I awoke with a start. Mabruki had gone. But much the same inexplicable, restless feeling that men say they have felt under ghostly visitations, impelled me to get up, and this time, lighting a pipe to prevent mistakes, I resumed my sauntering, and tired at last of being alone, I awoke my men for the start, although day was not yet breaking half-asleep a meal was soon discussed, and in an hour we were again on the move. Shumari had lagged behind, as usual, and on his coming up I reproved him for being the last.
"I am not the last," he said; "Zaidi, the Wangwana, is not here yet. I saw him climbing up for a liane" (the men got their ropes from these useful plants) "just as I was coming away, and I called out to him that you would be angry."
"Peace!" said Baraka, the man next to me; "is not that Zaidi the Wangwana there, riding on the ass? It was not he. It was that good-for-nothing Tarya. He is always the last to stand up and the first to sit down."
"No doubt, then," said Shumari, "it was Tarya; shame on him. He is no bigger than Zaidi, and has hair like his. Besides, it was in the mist I saw him."
But I had heard enough the nervousness of the night still afflicted me.
"Sound the halt!" I cried; "call the men together."
In three minutes all were grouped round me not one was missing! Tarya was far ahead, riding on an ass, and had therefore been one of the first to start.
"Who was the last to leave camp?" I asked, and by the unanimous voice it was agreed to be Shumari himself.
Shumari, then, had seen the Soko! and our storehouse was the Soko's home!
The rest of the men had not heard the preceding conversation, so, putting them in possession of the facts, I gave the order for returning to our camp. We approached. I halted the whole party, and binding up the asses' mouths with cloths, we tied them to a stout liane, and then dividing the party into two, led one myself round to the south side of the camp by a detour, leaving the other about half a mile to the north of it, with orders to rush towards the canebrake and surround it at a hundred yards' distance as soon as they heard my bugle. Passing swiftly round, we were soon in our places, and then, deploying my men on either side so as to cover a semicircle, I sounded the bugle. The response came on the instant, and in a few minutes there was a cordon round the brake at one hundred yards radius, each man about twenty yards or so from the next. But all was silent as the grave. As yet nothing had got through our line, I felt sure; and if therefore Shumari had indeed seen the Soko, the Soko was still within the circle of our guns. A few tufts of young rattan grew between the line and the brake in centre of which were our goods, and unless it was up above us, hidden in the impervious canopy overhead, where was the Soko? A shot was fired into each tuft, and in breathless excitement the circle began to close in upon the brake.
"Let us fire!" cried Mabruki.
"No, no!" I shouted, for the bullets would perhaps have whistled through the lianes amongst ourselves. "Catch the Soko alive if you can."
But first we had to sight the Soko, and this, in an absolutely impenetrable clump of rope-thick creepers, is impossible, except from above. Shumari, as agile as a monkey, was called, and ordered to climb up the tree, the branches of which had served us to sling our goods into the brake, and to see if he could espy the intruder. The lad did not like the job; but with the pluck of his race obeyed, and was soon slung up over the bough, and creeping along it, overhung the centre of the brake. All faces were upturned towards him as he peered down within the wall of vegetation. For many minutes there was silence, and then came Shumari's voice,
"No, master, I cannot see the Soko."
"Climb on to the big liane," called out Mabruki. The lad obeyed, and made his way from knot to knot of the swinging strand. One end of it was rooted into the ground at the foot of the tree inside the canebrake, the other, in cable thickness, hanging down loose within the circle. We, watching, saw him look down, and on the instant heard him cry,
"Ai! ma-ma! the Soko, the Soko!" and while the lad spoke we saw the hanging creeper violently jerked, and then swung to and fro, as if some creature of huge strength had hold of the loose end of it and was trying to shake Shumari from his hold.
"Help! help, master!" cried Shumari. "I am falling;" and then he lost his hold, and fell with a crash down into the brake, and for an instant we held our breath to listen but all was quiet as death. The next instant, at a dozen different points, axes were at work clearing the lianes. For a few minutes nothing was to be heard but the deep breathing of the straining men and the crashing of the branches; and then on a sudden, at the side farthest from me, came a shout and a shot, a confused rush of frantic animal noises, and the sounds of a fierce struggle.
In an instant I was round the brake, and there lay Shumari, apparently unhurt, and the Soko dying!
"Untie his hands," I said. This was done, and the wounded thing made an effort to stagger to its feet.
A dozen arms thrust it to the ground again. "Let him rise," I said; "help him to rise;" and Mabruki helped the Soko on to its feet.
Powers above! If this were an ape, what else were half my expedition? The wounded wood-thing passed its right arm round Mabruki's neck, and taking one of his hands, pressed it to its own heart. A deep sob shook its frame, and then it lifted back its head and looked in turn into all the faces round it, with the death-glaze settling fast in its eyes. I came nearer, and took its hand as it hung on Mabruki's shoulder. The muscles, gradually contracting in death, made it seem as if there was a gentle pressure of my palm, and then the thing died.
Life left it so suddenly that we could not believe that all was over. But the Soko was really dead, and close to where he lay I had him buried.
"Master said he wanted the Soko's skin," said Shumari, in a weak voice, reminding me of my words of a few days before.
"No, no," I said; "bury the wild man quickly. We shall march at once."
|Back to Cryptofiction|
|Aepyornis Island | The Great Beast of Kafue | The Damned Thing | The Great White Moth | Last of the Vampires | No-Man's-Land | Terror of Blue John Gap | The Thing in the Weeds | The Worm|