Page images

another house if the one where he first stopped was full, but he would always find a lodging. Custom also prescribed that he should make a small gift on departure. I once asked a native whether such involuntary guests and hosts ever robbed each other, and he answered indignantly that no human being would do such a thing.


The stars were still bright when I was wakened by the bearers calling to each other, and we were well on our way before it became gray in the east. Daylight showed that there were additions to our party, three young women who had found friends among my men the night before, and a wandering Hova, who had attached himself to us for protection. The day was a repetition of the first, except that as we went deeper into the desert the villages and cultivated fields along the way grew fewer and finally disappeared. The few travelers we met were in groups, the men armed and the women carrying the baggage. The road narrowed to a mere lane between unbroken walls of cactus and thorny scrub, with here and there a gigantic bottle-shaped baobab tree. The cactus was a mass of yellow bloom, and there were other flowers flat pink or white blossoms that looked like wild roses, big pea flowers of a sickly bluish green, like carnations dyed for St. Patrick's Day, and a little creeping plant whose flowers had only two bright blue petals, which stuck up from the top like the ears of an elfin rabbit. By afternoon the baobabs had almost disappeared and we were marching through a forest of bare bright-green poles thirty feet high. Some were as straight and smooth as a flagstaff, others forked into two or three thick, upward-pointing branches. Close inspection showed that the whole tree was

covered with close-set alternate rows of short thorns and small crisp leaves. There seemed to be no birds in this forest and little other life. Once a huge tortoise lumbered across the road, and just before sunset we came on a herd of lemurs, big white animals with black heads and incredibly long tails. They stood erect, with their hind feet close together, and fled with awkward bouncing leaps, like boys on pogo sticks. I shot three, thinking to give the bearers some meat, but discovered too late that the flesh was taboo to their tribe.

The evening of the fourth day brought us to Behara, a mud fort perched on the crest of a low hill that rose above the forest of sticks. I had hoped to find a European there, but discovered that he had been carried to Fort Dauphin, dying of black-water fever. The next stage of the journey was said to be the worst, ten hours without water, and, as one of my men had had sunstroke the day before, I decided to stay at the fort until evening and travel through the night. The bearers were delighted at the idea, and it would give me a chance to do some collecting in the village that sprawled at the foot of the hill.

I sent the men away with orders to return at four-thirty, and started out with my interpreter to see what we could find. Five minutes after we entered the village we were both hopelessly lost. The place was a maze of narrow paths running between eightfoot hedges of the green poles. Through the cracks we could catch tantalizing glimpses of houses and people, but we wandered for some time before we found a gate and got inside one of the compounds. Half a dozen little houses were ranged around the enclosure, their backs to the fence, and there were a few granaries raised on high posts. The centre was open and was evidently used as a cattle pen. The only people in sight were a child, who fled yelling,

and an old woman who was weaving in the shade of one of the granaries. Strolling toward her slowly, so as not to frighten her, I squatted down beside the loom and began to examine her work, admiring it and asking a few harmless questions. She gradually became friendly and then voluble.

Two or three men came out of the houses and stood watching us with expressionless faces. Finally one of them sauntered over, squatted beside me, and began to explain the weaving technique in excellent French. He had been in Europe five years, during and after the war.

He asked whether

I was English, and when I answered, 'American,' he brightened. 'I met lots of American soldiers,' he said. "They always bought us something to drink.' After a little more talk I asked if I might see his house, and he led me to the best of the huts. The walls were made of hewn planks, set on end and mortised into heavy beams at the top and bottom, and the roof was of clapboards. At either side of the front end there was a little doorway, surrounded by a heavy beaded moulding. One door, he explained, was for himself, the other for his wife. Dropping on all fours and wriggling in, I found myself in a room about twice the size of an ordinary apartment-house cupboard. Standing in the centre, I could easily touch the wall on all sides. At the front, between the two doors, there was a fireplace, and across the rear wall ran a long shelf, edged with a carved plank. This was packed solid with square boxes of equal size, their fronts embroidered with wild silk in simple designs. Most of them, I found, were empty, and when I tried to lift one the rest came with it. They had been sewn together into a single block. Small baskets, rolls of mats, and odds and ends of clothing hung from pegs on the wall. Everything was stained with soot, and

long ropes of it hung from the rafters.

I began my real business by asking him whether he would sell a carved wooden spoon that was lying in a dish by the fireplace. He looked surprised, but agreed readily. Other things followed. Neighbors who had poked their heads in to see what was happening slipped away and returned with things of their own. I refused to buy these, saying I would bargain with each of them in his or her own house. When the possibilities of the first hut had been exhausted I passed on to the next, then to another and another. In half an hour I had seen the inside of every house in the compound, even the granaries, and bought some fifteen good objects. Then we moved on to other compounds, the army man leading the way. News of us had, of course, gone ahead, and the work went smoothly and rapidly. By noon I had seen the whole village, except for a few houses whose owners were away, and had a one-man load of specimens. I had also made some notes on technical processes, weaving, mat making, and the preparation of food, and a few photographs. The less obvious parts of the native life, such as the religious beliefs and practices and the social organization, would have to wait until I came to some place where I could settle down for a while and work with the old people.

The afternoon was spent in writing up notes and cataloguing. I noticed that the heat was unusually oppressive and that heavy banks of clouds were gathering in the west. There was a light shower as we started out. An hour to the west of the fort we came to a river. It was rising rapidly and the current was already so swift that the ferryman had to paddle far upstream each trip and then come down on a long diagonal. The canoe was old and cranky and had a large hole in the bow, so that it was necessary to bail it out between trips.

It would carry only six men or two loads at a time, so it was twilight before the whole safari was across.

We had been marching for perhaps twenty minutes when the men began to call to each other excitedly. They were saying something about water, or rain, I could not make out what. Then I saw that the sky ahead had turned almost as black as ebony. A moment later I caught a far-off murmur that grew louder and louder. A black curtain with a silver border was flung suddenly across the road in front of us. The bearers shouted when they saw it, dropped their loads, and scattered in all directions. The curtain came on slowly, hardly faster, it seemed, than a man could walk, and the air was as still as death. As it drew near I saw that the silver border was a belt of spray that leaped back waist-high from the ground, and that writhing arms of foam-flecked water were reaching out to seize the road ahead of it. The murmur suddenly became a roar, a puff of cold air jerked the helmet strap tight against my chin, then I was beaten to my knees by the force of the rain. I struggled to my feet again, realizing that if I fell I should be drowned, for the spray seemed as thick as that of a breaking wave. Even with my head above it and my face sheltered by my hands, I had to gasp for breath. The water was ice-cold, and came with the force of a fire hose, driving through my clothes as though they had been so much tissue paper, and soaking me to the skin in an instant.

The first violence of the storm lasted about ten minutes, then it settled to a steady downpour, as heavy as an ordinary thunder shower. There was no shelter nearer than the next village, four hours ahead, so, after some persuasion and a little mild violence, I got the bearers to take up their loads again and we started on. The road had

become an ankle-deep river, with occasional holes into which I dropped to the waist, and it was so dark that I could not see my hand two inches before my eyes. Every few yards some member of the party would blunder off the narrow way and bring up in a cactus or thorn bush, with appropriate remarks. After some two hours of this we came to a better road and I mounted the filanzana. The bearers crawled along and I soon discovered that they were whispering among themselves, usually a sign of trouble. I decided that they must be discussing the feasibility of dropping me and bolting, for I knew they were much too wet and cold for any sort of attack; so I promised that I would give every man a drink of rum when we got in. The whispering ceased, and they struck out at a better pace. After what seemed an eternity they stopped. We had somehow passed the village in the dark. Scouts were sent out, and after much shouting we heard a distant call in answer. A point of light appeared. This resolved itself into a naked man carrying a glowing brand, swinging it back and forth in his attempt to keep it aflame. He led us to the village and showed us the strangers' house. The roof was full of holes, for no one ever spent the night there and the house had been allowed to go to pieces. All baggage and bedding were soaked, of course, but I managed to rig a crude tent with the cover of my bedding roll and turned in, after taking thirty grains of quinine to stave off the fever that would probably follow such a soaking.


Next morning it was still raining, with a brisk wind, but we pushed on to the next town, an abandoned army post with a few native huts clustered around the old blockhouse. Here the weather kept us for two days. On the

third morning the clouds had disappeared and the sun seemed to beat down with more than its usual heat. I found that the desert had suddenly leaped to life. The bush, usually so silent, rang with the cries of birds and the shrill notes of insects. Wherever the rain had left a pool, hundreds of little pink and brown toads congregated, frolicking in the warm water and cheeping their delight in a deafening chorus. Gleaming metallic flies rose from the earth in swarms and drunken bees blundered against me as I passed. The miracle of resurrection went on before my eyes. Dozens of trees and bushes that had seemed dead were pushing out buds. By afternoon I had counted six new flowering species, by the next night more than twenty-five. Some trees clothed themselves in soft clouds of yellow or crimson mist, others dropped long sprays of wistaria-like flowers, and still others covered their ungainly branches with row on row of rusty red bells as large as hens' eggs. Even the green poles caught the infection and pushed out long, spidery, dark gray filaments from their tips. There seemed to be no end to the variety of smaller flowering plants. I passed purple bushes, white bushes, bushes pink, yellow, and red, clumps of tall grass sprinkled with stars of half a dozen colors, sprawling vines that rioted in mauve and yellow and blue, and big yellow lilies, stiff and formal, their petals bent back until they met about the stalk. Every turn of the trail brought a new glory and a new fragrance. For three days our march seemed to lead through a great garden, until at last we came to Ambovombe.

Ambovombe was a place of some importance, the capital of a district. It had the usual fort, three or four government buildings, and several broad streets that wandered away and lost themselves in the scrub. There were

two Europeans, a chef de district, and a government veterinary who was making experiments in crossing European sheep with the native ones. I found that the chef de district had been sick in bed for about two weeks as the result of a chigger, a small insect which burrows into the toe, settles down, and proceeds to raise a family. He had not found it in time and his whole leg had become infected, with an abscess in the groin. Fortunately this had broken the night before I arrived and he seemed on the road to recovery. He could not have been more than twenty-two or twentythree and had a boy's eager eyes and a boy's face, which was set off rather than masked by his thick black beard. He was pathetically friendly and talked incessantly, apologizing again and again for not being able to take me in. I spent most of the afternoon with him and found it hard to get away.

I had been told that if I wished to see the veterinary I should have to visit him that evening, for he was leaving for an outlying station the next day. His farm was about two miles out of town - I should know it by a sign on the gate. After about twenty minutes' walk I came to a huge concrete gateway that loomed in the dusk like a megalithic monument. There was no fence, no gate, and, as far as I could see, no sign of a farm. A weed-grown road led away from it, apparently into the heart of the unbroken scrub. Another ten minutes brought me to a clump of buildings hidden in a hollow, and I was soon chatting with the man I sought. Conversation lagged at first and it gradually dawned on me that he thought I was a missionary. The moment I had set him right on this he took a deep breath and shouted, 'Boto! Apportez les bouteilles!' When I left he invited me to come to lunch the next day. His trip could easily wait a while. He also insisted on driving me back to town,

for he had a horse, the only one in the district. It was a gentle, middle-aged animal, but all the natives took to the bush when they saw it. I learned that they looked upon it much as we should regard a pet tiger, and the veterinary had a great reputation for courage.

This was my bearers' home district, so I dismissed them, asking the government to provide others five days later. I had hoped to spend this time peacefully working with informants, but the bearers spread the news that I was buying specimens and the first morning found a dozen natives waiting with things to sell. By noon the crowd had grown until it blocked the road and I had to put a bar across my gate and station a soldier there to let them in four or five at a time. The whole population seemed to have been seized by the mood that is known to my profession as a 'selling streak.' People came in from villages twenty miles away bringing anything and everything from the family jewels to the baby's milk gourd. When I had bought enough of the common things and began to turn others away, rare objects came to light, bits of old carving stained a rich brown with the smoke of years, charms, and things used in religious ceremonies.

The charms and sacred objects were usually brought at night, when the owners thought they would be safe from too much publicity. I would hear a low knock at the door, and an old man would slip in with his face half hidden in his lamba. From somewhere in its ample folds he would produce a charm, usually a section of carved cow horn with a collar of bright beads around the large end, and hold it out to me silently, waiting to see what I would offer. Most of these things were innocent enough, charms for general good fortune, for safety on a journey, or for the increase of cattle, but one man came three times in succession

bringing me charms that I knew to be of evil significance. On the fourth trip he produced from under his lamba a curious wooden image about eighteen inches high, with long human hair attached to the head. A crocodile and snake were carved on the body in low relief and the whole figure was covered with little dots representing figures in the sikidy, a native form of divination. He said that it was used for healing the sick, which I did not believe, but after I had paid him for it he added that the natives might think it was something bad and advised me to keep it hidden. A few minutes later another man came in and nearly stepped on the image, lying in the shadow beside my table. When he saw it he jumped back as if it had been a coiled snake and fled in such haste that he had trouble getting out the door. It proved to be a particularly deadly charm for killing enemies.

I had bought so much material that I decided to box my collections on the spot and send them back to Fort Dauphin for shipment to America. Good specimens kept coming in up to the last minute and it was noon of the sixth day before we got under way once more. I found later that it would have been better to wait until the next day, for only the villages which lay at the end of the scheduled days' marches had kept their strangers' houses in repair. My noon start threw me off the regular itinerary so that I had to sleep in bad ones all the way.


Beyond Ambovombe the country changed once more. The soil changed to a fine white sand that reflected the sun like a mirror and blistered my bearers' feet as they ploughed through it. The sea, now many miles away, had been there only a short time before, for in the sand I could still find fragments

« PreviousContinue »