Country of the Dwarfs - Paul du Chaillu

Escape Through a Burning Prairie


War began to loom up as we reached the southeast end of the Matimbiť irimba. We came to a village called Dilolo, the path we were following leading directly to it, and as we approached we found that the place had been barricaded, and that it was guarded outside by all its fighting men. On the path charms had been, placed, to frighten away the Aponos. The men were armed with spears, bows and arrows, and sabres. When we came near earshot, having left the path with the intention of passing by the side of the village, they vented bitter curses against Nchiengain for bringing the Oguizi, into their country—"the Oguizi who comes with the eviva  (plague) into villages," they shouted. "Do not come near us; do not try to enter our village, for there be war!" The war-drums were beaten, and the men advanced and retired before us, spear in hand, as if to drive us away, for they thought we had come too near. We marched forward, nevertheless. So long as the Apono porters did not show the white feather, I felt safe; they also had their spears and their bows, and my men held their guns in readiness. Suddenly fires appeared in different parts of the prairie. The people of Dilolo had set fire to the grass, hoping that we might perish in the flames. The fire spread with fearful rapidity, but we soon came to a place where our path made a turn by the village, and we reached the rear of the place. At that moment we observed a body of villagers moving in our direction, evidently intending to stop our progress. Presently two poisoned arrows were shot at us. I thought we were going to have a fight, but ordered my men to keep cool, and not to fire. Nchiengain walked all along the line to cheer up his men, and shouted that "Nchiengain's people were not afraid of war," but at the same time he begged me not to fire a gun unless some of our people were hit with the arrows.

We continued our march, keeping close together, so that we might help each other in case of need. My men were outside the path, between Nchiengain and the Dilolo people, with their guns ready to fire when I gave the word. The villagers, mistaking our forbearance for fear, became bolder, and the affair was coming to a crisis. A warrior, uttering a fierce cry of battle, came toward us, and, with his bow bent, stood a few yards in front of Rapelina, threatening to take his life. I could see the poison on the barbed arrow. My eyes were fixed upon the fellow, and I felt very much like sending a bullet through his head. Plucky Rapelina faced his enemy boldly, and, looking him fiercely in the face, uttered the war cry of the Commi, and, lowering the muzzle of his gun, advanced two steps, and shouted in the Apono language that if the Dilolo did not put down his bow he would be a dead man before he could utter another word. By this time all my Commi men had come up, with the muzzle of their guns pointing toward the Dilolo, awaiting my order to fire. The bow fell from the warrior's hand, and he retreated.

Nchiengain behaved splendidly. He began to curse the Dilolo people, and said to them, "You will hear of me one of these days;" and my Aponos threw down their loads and got ready to fight.

"Let us hurry," I said to the men; "don't you see the country is getting into a blaze of fire? We must get out of it."

I fired a gun after we had passed the village, and the inhabitants were terrified at the noise. Nchiengain was furious, and again shouted to the enemy, "You will see that I am not a boy, and that my name is Nchiengain!"

The discomfited warriors of Dilolo gradually left us, probably thinking that the fire, so rapidly spreading, would do the work they could not perform; and, indeed, while we had escaped a conflict through our good common sense, we were now exposed to a far greater danger. The fire was gaining fearfully. The whole country seemed to be in a blaze. Happily, the wind blew from the direction in which we were going; still the flames were fast encircling us, and there was but one break in the circuit it was making. I shouted, "Hurry, boys! hurry! for if we do not get there in time, we shall have to go back, and then we must fight, for we will have to get into the village of Dilolo." So we pressed forward with the utmost speed, and finally our road lay between two walls of fire, but the prairie was clear of flames ahead. Although the walls of fire were far apart, they were gaining upon us. "Hurry on, boys!" I exclaimed; "hurry on!" We walked faster and faster, for the smoke was beginning to reach us. The fire roared as it went through the grass, and left nothing but the blackened ground behind it. We began to feel the heat. The clear space was getting narrower and narrower. I turned to look behind, and saw the people of Dilolo watching us. Things were looking badly. Were we going to be burned to death? Again looking back toward Dilolo, I saw that the fires had united, and that the whole country lying between ourselves and Dilolo was a sheet of flame.

Onward we sped, Nchiengain exhorting his men to hurry. We breathed the hot air, but happily there was still an open space ahead. We came near it, and felt relieved. At last we reached it, and a wild shout from Nchiengain, the Aponos, and my Commi rent the air. We were saved, but nearly exhausted.

I said to my Commi men, "Are we not men? There is no coming back after this! Boys, onward to the River Nile!" They all shouted in reply, "We must go forward; we are going to the white man's country."

Between four and five o'clock we came to another wood, in the midst of which was a cool spring of water. We encamped there for the night, and not far in the distance on the prairie we could see the smoke coming out of a cluster of Apono villages. They dreaded our approach. In the silence of the twilight, the wind from the mountains brought to us the cries of the people. We could hear the shrieks and the weeping of the women, and the beating of the war-drums. Afterward the people came within speaking distance, and shouted to us, "Oh, Nchiengain, why have you brought this curse upon us? We do not want the Oguizi in our country, who brings the plague with him. We do not want to see the Ibamba. The Ishogo are all dead; the Ashango have all left; there is nothing but trees in the forest. Go back! go back!" They yelled and shouted till about ten, o'clock, and then all became silent, and soon afterward my people were asleep by the fires which they had lighted. They all suffered from sore feet. Igala, Mouitchi, and Rapelina were to keep watch with me, while my other Commi men were resting; but they, too, after a while, went to sleep. Even our poor dogs were tired, and were also sound asleep.

I stood all alone, watching over the whole camp, so anxious that I could not sleep. Things did look dark indeed. A most terrible dread of me had taken possession of the people. Something had to be done to allay their fear or my journey would come to an end.

How quiet every thing was! The rippling of the water coming from the little brook sounded strangely in the midst of the silent night. I looked at the strange scene around me. Each of my men had his gun upon his arm, but I thought of how useless the weapons would be in the hands of men so weary, and sunk in deep sleep. If, that night, any one of you could have been there, you would have seen Paul Du Chaillu leave the camp and the woods, and then have seen him all alone upon the prairie, standing like a statue, no one by him, his gun in one hand, his revolvers hung by his side. The stars shone beautifully above his head, as if to cheer him in his loneliness, for lonely and sad enough he felt. Then, with an anxious feeling, he looked through his spy-glass in the direction of the Apono villages to see if any thing was going there. No. All there, too, was silent as death.

At three o'clock in the morning I awakened Igala and some of my Commi boys, and told them to keen watch while I tried to get a little sleep.