A Captain at Fifteen by Jules Verne Part I Chapter 18

The Terrible Word

It was time to arrive. Extreme lassitude made it impossible for Mrs. Weldon to continue any longer a journey made under such painful conditions. Her little boy, crimson during the fits of fever, very pale during the intermissions, was pitiable to see. His mother extremely anxious, had not been willing to leave Jack even in the care of the good Nan. She held him, half-lying, in her arms.

Yes, it was time to arrive. But, to trust to the American, on the very evening of this day which was breaking--the evening of the 18th of April, the little troop should finally reach the shelter of the "hacienda" of San Felice.

Twelve days' journey for a woman, twelve nights passed in the open air; it was enough to overwhelm Mrs. Weldon, energetic as she was. But, for a child, it was worse, and the sight of little Jack sick, and without the most ordinary cares, had sufficed to crush her.

Dick Sand, Nan, Tom, and his companions had supported the fatigues of the journey better.

Their provisions, although they were commencing to get exhausted, had not become injured, and their condition was satisfactory.

As for Harris, he seemed made for the difficulties of these long journeys across the forests, and it did not appear that fatigue could affect him. Only, in proportion as he neared the farm, Dick Sand observed that he was more preoccupied and less frank in behavior than before. The contrary would have been more natural. This was, at least, the opinion of the young novice, who had now become more than suspicious of the American. And meanwhile, what interest could Harris have in deceiving them? Dick Sand could not have explained it, but he watched their guide more closely.

The American probably felt himself suspected by Dick Sand, and, no doubt, it was this mistrust which made him still more taciturn with "his young friend."

The march had been resumed.

In the forest, less thick, the trees were scattered in groups, and no longer formed impenetrable masses. Was it, then, the true pampas of which Harris had spoken?

During the first hours of the day, no accident happened to aggravate the anxieties that Dick Sand felt. Only two facts were observed by him. Perhaps they were not very important, but in these actual junctures, no detail could be neglected.

It was the behavior of Dingo which, above all, attracted more especially the young man's attention.

In fact the dog, which, during all this journey, had seemed to be following a scent, became quite different, and that almost suddenly. Until then, his nose to the ground, generally smelling the herbs or the shrubs, he either kept quiet, or he made a sort of sad, barking noise, like an expression of grief or of regret.

Now, on this day, the barking of the singular animal became like bursts, sometimes furious, such as they formerly were when Negoro appeared on the deck of the "Pilgrim." A suspicion crossed suddenly Dick Sand's mind, and it was confirmed by Tom, who said to him:

"How very singular, Mr. Dick! Dingo no longer smells the ground as he did yesterday! His nose is in the air, he is agitated, his hair stands up! One would think he scented in the distance----"

"Negoro, is it not so?" replied Dick Sand, who seized the old black's arm, and signed to him to speak in a low voice.

"Negoro, Mr. Dick! May it not be that he has followed our steps?"

"Yes, Tom; and that at this moment even he may not be very far from us."

"But why?" said Tom.

"Either Negoro does not know this country," went on Dick Sand, "and then he would have every interest in not losing sight of us----"

"Or?" said Tom, who anxiously regarded the novice.

"Or," replied Dick Sand, "he does know it, and then he----"

"But how should Negoro know this country? He has never come here!"

"Has he never been here?" murmured Dick Sand.

"It is an incontestable fact that Dingo acts as if this man whom he detests were near us!"

Then, interrupting himself to call the dog, which, after some hesitation, came to him:

"Eh!" said he; "Negoro! Negoro!"

A furious barking was Dingo's reply. This name had its usual effect upon him, and he darted forward, as if Negoro had been hidden behind some thicket.

Harris had witnessed all this scene. With his lips a little drawn, he approached the novice.

"What did you ask Dingo then?" said he.

"Oh, not much, Mr. Harris," replied old Tom, jokingly. "We asked him for news of the ship-companion whom we have lost!"

"Ah!" said the American, "the Portuguese, the ship's cook of whom you have already spoken to me?"

"Yes." replied Tom. "One would say, to hear Dingo, that Negoro is in the vicinity."

"How could he get as far as this?" replied Harris.

"He never was in this country that I know of; at least, he concealed it from us," replied Tom.

"It would be astonishing," said Harris. "But, if you wish, we will beat these thickets. It is possible that this poor devil has need of help; that he is in distress."

"It is useless, Mr. Harris," replied Dick Sand. "If Negoro has known how to come as far as this, he will know how to go farther. He is a man to keep out of trouble."

"As you please," replied Harris.

"Let us go. Dingo, be quiet," added Dick Sand, briefly, so as to end the conversation.

The second observation made by the novice was in connection with the American horse. He did not appear to "feel the stable," as do animals of his species. He did not suck in the air; he did not hasten his speed; he did not dilate his nostrils; he uttered none of the neighings that indicate the end of a journey. To observe him well, he appeared to be as indifferent as if the farm, to which he had gone several times, however, and which he ought to know, had been several hundreds of miles away.

"That is not a horse near home," thought the young novice.

And, meanwhile, according to what Harris had said the evening before, there only remained six miles to go, and, of these last six miles, at five o'clock in the evening four had been certainly cleared.

Now, if the horse felt nothing of the stable, of which he should have great need, nothing besides announced the approaches to a great clearing, such as the Farm of San Felice must be.

Mrs. Weldon, indifferent as she then was to what did not concern her child, was struck at seeing the country still so desolate. What! not a native, not a farm-servant, at such a short distance! Harris must be wild! No! she repulsed this idea. A new delay would have been the death of her little Jack!

Meanwhile, Harris always kept in advance, but he seemed to observe the depths of the wood, and looked to the right and left, like a man who was not sure of himself--nor of his road.

Mrs. Weldon shut her eyes so as not to see him.

After a plain a mile in extent, the forest, without being as dense as in the west, had reappeared, and the little troop was again lost under the great trees.

At six o'clock in the evening they had reached a thicket, which appeared to have recently given passage to a band of powerful animals. Dick Sand looked around him very attentively. At a distance winch far surpassed the human height, the branches were torn off or broken. At the same time the herbs, roughly scattered, exhibited on the soil, a little marshy, prints of steps which could not be those of jaguars, or cougars.

Were these, then, the "ais," or some other tardi-graves, whose feet had thus marked the soil? But how, then, explain the break in the branches at such a height?

Elephants might have, without doubt, left such imprints, stamped these large traces, made a similar hole in the impenetrable underwood. But elephants are not found in America. These enormous thick-skinned quadrupeds are not natives of the New World. As yet, they have never been acclimated there.

The hypothesis that elephants had passed there was absolutely inadmissible.

However that might be, Dick Sand hardly knew how much this inexplicable fact gave him to think about. He did not even question the American on this point. What could he expect from a man who had tried to make him take giraffes for ostriches? Harris would have given him some explanation, more or less imaginative, which would not have changed the situation.

At all events, Dick had formed his opinion of Harris. He felt in him a traitor! He only awaited an occasion to unmask his disloyalty, to have the right to do it, and everything told him that this opportunity was near.

But what could be Harris's secret end? What future, then, awaited the survivors of the "Pilgrim?" Dick Sand repeated to himself that his responsibility had not ceased with the shipwreck. It was more than ever necessary for him to provide for the safety of those whom the waves had thrown on this coast! This woman, this young child, these blacks--all his companions in misfortune--it was he alone who must save them! But, if he could attempt anything on board ship, if he could act on the sea, here, in the midst of the terrible trials which he foresaw, what part could he take?

Dick Sand would not shut his eyes before the frightful reality that each instant made more indisputable. In this juncture he again became the captain of fifteen years, as he had been on the "Pilgrim." But he would not say anything which could alarm the poor mother before the moment for action had arrived.

And he said nothing, not even when, arrived on the bank of a rather large stream, preceding the little troop about one hundred feet, he perceived enormous animals, which threw themselves under the large plants on the brink.

"Hippopotami! hippopotami!" he was going to exclaim.

And they were, indeed, these thick-skinned animals, with a big head, a large, swollen snout, a mouth armed with teeth which extend a foot beyond it--animals which are squat on their short limbs, the skin of which, unprovided with hair, is of a tawny red. Hippopotami in America!

They continued to march during the whole day, but painfully. Fatigue commenced to retard even the most robust. It was truly time to arrive, or they would be forced to stop.

Mrs. Weldon, wholly occupied with her little Jack, did not perhaps feel the fatigue, but her strength was exhausted. All, more or less, were tired. Dick Sand, resisted by a supreme moral energy, caused by the sentiment of duty.

Toward four o'clock in the evening, old Tom found, in the grass, an object which attracted his attention. It was an arm, a kind of knife, of a particular shape, formed of a large, curved blade, set in a square, ivory handle, rather roughly ornamented. Tom carried this knife to Dick Sand, who took it, examined it, and, finally, showed it to the American, saying:

"No doubt the natives are not very far off."

"That is so," replied Harris, "and meanwhile----"

"Meanwhile?" repeated Dick Sand, who now steadily looked Harris in the face.

"We should be very near the farm," replied Harris, hesitating, "and I do not recognize----"

"You are then astray?" quickly asked Dick Sand.

"Astray! no. The farm cannot be more than three miles away, now. But, I wished to take the shortest road through the forest, and perhaps I have made a little mistake!"

"Perhaps," replied Dick Sand.

"I would do well, I think, to go in advance," said Harris.

"No, Mr. Harris, we will not separate," replied Dick Sand, in a decided tone.

"As you will," replied the American. "But, during the night, it will be difficult for me to guide you."

"Never mind that!" replied Dick Sand. "We are going to halt. Mrs. Weldon will consent to pass a last night under the trees, and to-morrow, when it is broad daylight, we will proceed on our journey! Two or three miles still, that will be an hour's walk!"

"Be it so," replied Harris.

At that moment Dingo commenced to bark furiously.

"Here, Dingo, here!" cried Dick Sand. "You know well that no one is there, and that we are in the desert!"

This last halt was then decided upon.

Mrs. Weldon let her companions work without saying a word. Her little Jack was sleeping in her arms, made drowsy by the fever.

They sought the best place to pass the night. This was under a large bunch of trees, where Dick Sand thought of disposing all for their rest. But old Tom, who was helping him in these preparations, stopped suddenly, crying out:

"Mr. Dick! look! look!"

"What is it, old Tom?" asked Dick Sand, in the calm tone of a man who attends to everything.

"There--there!" cried Tom; "on those trees--blood stains!--and--on the ground--mutilated limbs!"

Dick Sand rushed toward the spot indicated by old Tom. Then, returning to him: "Silence, Tom, silence!" said he.

In fact, there on the ground were hands cut off, and above these human remains were several broken forks, and a chain in pieces!

Happily, Mrs. Weldon had seen nothing of this horrible spectacle.

As for Harris, he kept at a distance, and any one observing him at this moment would have been struck at the change made in him. His face had something ferocious in it.

Dingo had rejoined Dick Sand, and before these bloody remains, he barked with rage.

The novice had hard work to drive him away.

Meanwhile, old Tom, at the sight of these forks, of this broken chain, had remained motionless, as if his feet were rooted in the soil. His eyes were wide open, his hands clenched; he stared, murmuring these incoherent words:

"I have seen--already seen--these forks--when little--I have seen!"

And no doubt the memories of his early infancy returned to him vaguely. He tried to recall them. He was going to speak.

"Be silent, Tom!" repeated Dick Sand. "For Mrs. Weldon's sake, for all our sakes, be silent!"

And the novice led the old black away.

Another halting place was chosen, at some distance, and all was arranged for the night.

The repast was prepared, but they hardly touched it. Fatigue took away their hunger. All were under an indefinable impression of anxiety which bordered on terror.

Darkness came gradually: soon it was profound. The sky was covered with great stormy clouds. Between the trees in the western horizon they saw some flashes of heat lightning. The wind had fallen; not a leaf moved on the trees. An absolute silence succeeded the noises of the day, and it might be believed that the heavy atmosphere, saturated with electricity, was becoming unfit for the transmission of sounds.

Dick Sand, Austin, and Bat watched together. They tried to see, to hear, during this very dark night, if any light whatsoever, or any suspicious noise should strike their eyes or their ears. Nothing troubled either the calm or the obscurity of the forest.

Torn, not sleepy, but absorbed in his remembrances, his head bent, remained quiet, as if he had been struck by some sudden blow.

Mrs. Weldon rocked her child in her arms, and only thought of him.

Only Cousin Benedict slept, perhaps, for he alone did not suffer from the common impression. His faculty for looking forward did not go so far.

Suddenly, about eleven o'clock, a prolonged and grave roaring was heard, with which was mingled a sort of sharper shuddering. Tom stood up and stretched out his hand toward a dense thicket, a mile or more distant.

Dick Sand seized his arm, but he could not prevent Tom from crying in a loud voice: "The lion! the lion!"

This roaring, which he had so often heard in his infancy, the old black had just recognized it.

"The lion!" he repeated.

Dick Sand, incapable of controlling himself longer, rushed, cutlass in hand, to the place occupied by Harris.

Harris was no longer there, and his horse had disappeared with him.

A sort of revelation took place in Dick Sand's mind. He was not where he had believed he was!

So it was not on the American coast that the "Pilgrim" had gone ashore! It was not the Isle of Paques, whose bearing the novice had taken at sea, but some other island situated exactly to the west of this continent, as the Isle of Paques is situated to the west of America.

The compass had deceived him during a part of the voyage, we know why! Led away by the tempest over a false route, he must have doubled Cape Horn, and from the Pacific Ocean he had passed into the Atlantic! The speed of his ship, which he could only imperfectly estimate, had been doubled, unknown to him, by the force of the hurricane!

Behold why the caoutchouc trees, the quinquinas, the products of South America were missing in this country, which was neither the plateau of Atacama nor the Bolivian pampa!

Yes, they were giraffes, not ostriches, which had fled away in the opening! They were elephants that had crossed the thick underwood! They were hippopotami whose repose Dick Sand had troubled under the large plants! It was the _tsetse_, that dipter picked up by Benedict, the formidable _tsetse_ under whose stings the animals of the caravans perish!

Finally, it was, indeed, the roaring of the lion that had just sounded through the forest! And those forks, those chains, that knife of singular form, they were the tools of the slave-trader! Those mutilated hands, they were the hands of captives!

The Portuguese Negoro, and the American Harris, must be in collusion! And those terrible words guessed by Dick Sand, finally escaped his lips:

"Africa! Equatorial Africa! Africa of the slave-trade and the slaves!"