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Chapter IX

In Which are Related the Further Misfortunes That Befell Us as We Journeyed into the Great Lone Land.

HARDWICKE undertook the first walk despite the objections both Jimmy and I raised.

“No mutiny,” he cried. “I am the leader of this expedition, and I walk first.” And all who have the pleasure of my cousin's acquaintance must know that he is a man of his word. Therefore we demolished a hearty breakfast, and after we had filled and lit our pipes, he gave the word “forward,” and with a long and swinging stride stepped out. The black and I followed on horseback, the former driving the pack-horse before him.

We steered a more westerly course, thereby making due allowance for the northern position we had attained. Meagre in the extreme was our conversation, each adventurer being entirely engrossed with his own thoughts. Now and again King Jimmy's voice was heard as he shouted and swore at the pack-horse, but beyond those ebullitions of feeling on his part, it was a very silent procession, broken only by remarks


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on the nature of the country we were travelling, and what it was likely to be farther on. About mid-day we passed on the northern side of some gigantic sand ridges, but as they lay not within our course, they affected us but slightly, though they foreboded difficulties in the future.

For the first five days the travelling, though heavy, was not too laborious, nothing of any consequence impeding our progress. The horses continued to go well, and the little party remained in good health. We unfortunately discovered no water. A few shrubs seemed to spring as if by enchantment out of the dry sand, but beyond that there was no sign of life, animal or vegetable. The land lay before us a dreary wilderness, over which we passed silently as spectres.

On the sixth day we sank a well in what appeared to be a likely spot, and were lucky enough to get about two gallons and a half of fresh water from it, which, it is scarcely necessary to say, was a more than welcome addition to our scanty store. The next day we were away again at sunrise, but after traversing another five miles, our good fortune suddenly deserted us. We had struck a region of mountainous sand ridges.

These sand ridges, which are exactly similar to huge waves, were about eighty or ninety feet in height, and on an average between four and five hundred yards long. They stretched from east to west, and at the bottom of the great valleys formed by them we pursued our way. The heat was more than intense. Hitherto we had the breeze as well as the sun, but in these mighty hollows it was all sun, all heat; stifling, choking heat. The heavens seemed not to possess a tiny breath of wind. My brain whirled giddily. I felt like undergoing an eternal suffocation. The poor horses foamed at the mouth, and gasped and sweated so exceedingly that I expected every moment to see them drop. When the evening came about, we three would climb to the top of the highest ridge to pass the dreadful night, being forced to leave our wretched horses gasping on the sands below.




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This horrible experience lasted for three days, days that seemed like an eternity. It appeared as though we were never to emerge from that hideous world of hills. Had the road been a very difficult one we should never have survived so exhaustive and terrible an ordeal. As it was, we were in a most wretched plight, even our finger-nails becoming as brittle as glass and breaking in little pieces at the slightest provocation.

On emerging from our prison we were astonished to find ourselves standing upon the margin of a great dry salt lake, or swamp. Morton had said nothing of such a place, and I began to have horrible fears that we had strayed far out of our proper track. Dick could not account for it either, though, like myself, he believed we had gone astray during our wanderings among the sandhills. We, however, pitched our camp upon its shores that night, thankful for what we had escaped and wondering what was stretched before.

The next morning we finished the last drop of water, and then pushed on with all haste. Small comfort gained we from the prospect that opened to our view. Before us stretched the glittering swamp as far as the eye could reach, while to the south rose the sandhills to an apparently greater height than any we as yet had seen.

At first the way was firm, but by degrees it grew softer and softer, until further advancement was an utter impossibility. Then a council of war was held, and it was decided to make a détour to the south, since we were unable to steer due west. “For,” added Dick by way of convincing me that such was our better plan, and perhaps to convince himself as well, “Morton must have passed to the south of this swamp, to the south of those big sandhills yonder, which completely hid this marsh from sight, or he would have mentioned it in his directions.”

We then retraced our steps, steering a southerly course, and by degrees got on much firmer footing, which enabled us to push forward at a much better pace.

All that day we jogged along with the fixed determination of men who know that on their own strenuous exertions


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depend their lives. The heat of the sun was terrible, and the blinding glare of the glittering salt bed so awful as to make the eyes ache till they ran with water. We also experienced great difficulty in preventing our horses from licking the gleaming crystal. It seemed cruel to deprive them of that for which their mouths literally watered, but the salt would have had the same effect on them as sea water on a shipwrecked mariner.

About ten o'clock that night our laborious journey came to an end, and tired out and half dead with thirst, we threw ourselves upon the soft sand and slept a dull, heavy sleep till morning. Then began a feverish search for water, and notwithstanding the unlikely look of the country, we were fortunate enough to discover some amid a great mass of red sandstone rocks. It was in a large basin, sheltered from the sun by a projecting ledge, and beside it we stayed all that day, the rest being both necessary for ourselves and our horses. The next morning, after filling our kegs and waterbottles and taking a long farewell drink ourselves, we were away once more. By six that night we must have covered a good twenty-five miles, a performance on which we greatly prided ourselves.

The next day we were again unfortunate enough to encounter the dreadful sandhills, and this time an exceedingly difficult task was set us, for instead of running east and west, as the former ones, they bore north and south, so that we had to cross them at right angles. Two whole days were we kept ascending and descending those barren hills, and during that time I am sure we could not have gone more than five miles. How we were enabled to survive the ordeal I cannot imagine; how the poor, half-starved, broken-down horses lived through it, is even a greater puzzle. We almost dragged them up the soft sides of the ridges, and even had to push them to make them begin the descent.

At length the horrible task came to an end, and we emerged once more upon the level plain, or what appeared to be level, after the awful country we had crossed. Here


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a sort of shrub grew, of which the horses ate plentifully, and glad were we to see them find something palatable at last. Alas! we little foresaw the consequences. Next day they refused to drink, while to make their symptoms more alarming, they had visibly swollen through the night. About four o'clock that afternoon the horse Jimmy rode caved in. It rushed along like a drunken man, then staggered and fell heavily to the earth, and five minutes after lay dead.

Here was an appalling situation indeed, and one to make a man's heart quail within him; and, as if to add an intenser gloom to our already dreary prospects, the pack-horse gave up the ghost in a similar manner two hours later, and was quickly followed by the third.

For the first time in all our troubles Hardwicke fairly broke down.

“My God, this is awful!” he said, looking at me in blank dismay. “While we had those animals to carry our stores I did not, would not harbour a thought of despair. But now—my God—what now?”

“Cheer up,” said I, assuming a cheerful tone, though I felt in no gay mood. “We are worth a thousand dead men yet.”

“But do you know where we are?”

“No—that is, I guess. But I know where we are going.”

“Ah!”

“To the Golden Lake; so cheer up, Dick, and onward.”

“Yes, onward,” said he, his face growing more fixed and determined. “And we'll fight for it yet, Archie; we'll fight for it yet.” And I knew that nothing less than downright exhaustion would quell that indomitable spirit.

“There is no time to lose,” he continued. “We must go forward while we have the strength, for Heaven only knows what lies before us in this cursed country.”

We then proceeded to unpack our provisions, to see how we best might carry them.

“I have never done any slave-driving,” said he, in the midst of his work; “but if I came across any natives now. I should be sorely tempted to press them into my service.”




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But as there were no natives to press, we were forced to depend upon our own skill and stamina.

We had altogether about three gallons of water when this great misfortune befell us; but as it was impossible for us to carry anything like that quantity, we could do no more than fill our bottles, each bottle, as I have said before, holding about half a gallon. We boiled a gallon of that which remained, and made tea with our last packet of that precious leaf. The fire-arms and ammunition were next served out, Dick and I each having a rifle, besides our revolvers, while Jimmy undertook to carry the shot gun with a box of one hundred cartridges; for on this gun we depended chiefly for subsistence when we came into the regions of birds or game. We could carry sufficient meat to last for six days, supposing that we ate but sparingly. But in those latitudes water is the chief necessity of existence, and Dick determined to carry the spade, as without it, to sink a well would have been an impossibility.

These things we wrapped in our rugs, making what is known in bush parlance as a “swag.” These swags are slung over the shoulders by the aid of straps, and answer the purpose of a soldier's knapsack, everything being carried in them, thus rendering progress, even with a good weight, more easy than any other method. Thus equipped we set out across the dreary plain, knowing not what country lay before, knowing not at what moment death would strike us down.

Early the next morning, having partaken of a good breakfast and drunk deeply of the fragrant tea (ambrosial nectar it seemed), we started on our journey to pierce farther and farther into the great unknown. Dick led the way with the same long, swinging stride; I followed, and then came Jimmy, who, by the way, seemed concerned but little at our misfortunes. So long as that worthy had plenty to eat and drink, he could not conceive the existence of calamity. Indeed, he had feasted so royally during the last twelve hours on our spare provisions, that his face positively beamed


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with gladness. I envied him his savage state, his contented lot. Truly civilisation and learning create a world of woe for their possessor. This fellow would have died with a smile on his face as contentedly as if he were going to sleep. He knew not the mind's disease—the longing, sickening hope. I was almost tempted to say—lucky is he who is born a savage.

We walked a good twenty miles before sundown—at least Dick and Jimmy reckoned it at that, while I, if my state of exhaustion counted anything, felt that we had gone twice or three times that distance. Hardwicke, who led the way throughout, never once diminished his speed, except to now and again point out some object, or else slow down to smoke a pipe for half-an-hour. All the rest of the time he kept well to the fore, with the one dogged, determined look on his face, a look which meant to conquer, or at least to die game. It was a great comfort to me to see him so defiantly scornful of the many obstacles Fate seemed to wilfully throw in our way. He was a true descendant of the old British adventurer, knowing neither fear nor defeat. He was one who inspired confidence, and one whom, had he been a soldier, his men would have followed to the very gates of the infernal regions.

That night a heavy dew fell which completely saturated our clothes, for, little thinking of such a mishap, we had thrown ourselves down upon the sand without first wrapping our rugs about us. We consequently awoke stiff with the cold, that is, my cousin and I did, Jimmy absolutely refusing to stir, saying that no dew could harm him, which I verily believe was true, his constitution being like iron. To keep ourselves warm and our joints loose till our old friend the sun came out, Dick and I decided to dig a well, especially as the spot on which we had camped had the appearance of once being a creek or gully. We were fortunate enough to find a plentiful supply of fresh water at a depth of about eight feet, and, as a consequence, there was great rejoicing, Dick declaring that some kind providence was watching us after all.




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When the sun came out, our clothes speedily dried upon us. Jimmy was awakened from his damp couch, but his wet clothes seemed to trouble him but little. He shook himself much after the style of a dog, and then went on with his work in his usual stoical manner.

We pushed on rapidly that day beneath a sweltering sun. Luckily we suffered no inconvenience from our previous soaking—a fact we put down to the exercise we had undertaken—for in our present state, with constitutions naturally weakened by exhaustion, we were very liable to be seized by one of the numerous complaints that fall to the lot of the unhappy explorer; fever, ague, scurvy, and various other bodily ailments being prevalent in this desert country.

At mid-day we were much surprised to see before us what appeared to be a forest. We could scarcely believe our eyes, yet there it rose weirdly strange, but withal most pleasing to the sight that had rested upon nothing but sand and the coarsest vegetation for so many days. Dick was loud in his delight.

“This is the promised land of which people have dreamed,” he said, “and we shall be the first to give the good news to the world.”

But as we drew nearer, his sudden burst of pleasure was turned to unutterable dismay, for we found the great trees gradually decrease in size till they proved to be no more than mere shrubs of three or four feet in height. At first we could scarcely credit our senses, and felt as though we were the sport of some monstrous hallucination, but it was all too true. The forest had dwindled to a scrub, and that of the poorest and most beggarly description.

“Well,” said Dick, “this beats everything in the way of optical illusions I have ever seen. Had I alone observed it I should have sworn my brain was turning. What a remarkable thing! I wonder what is the cause of it.”

It now struck me that I had read somewhere of similar illusions caused by the extreme expansion of the atmosphere which forced all objects, that rose to any height out of the level plain, to wear an unreasonably distorted aspect. This


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we found to be the true solvent of the puzzle, for as we went farther on and left the patch of scrub behind, we saw many objects which appeared to be high ranges of hills, but which in reality were nothing more than big lumps of rock and clay.

We got a few kangaroo rats in the above-mentioned scrub, which, as our larder was running low, were a welcome addition to it. Such food was perhaps not the most dainty one could wish to eat, but when properly grilled on the live embers, as only a native knows how to grill them, they make not indifferent eating. Later on we saw a flock of pigeons a little to the north which, though we were not near enough to shoot, we regarded as a favourable sign, for where one sees game of any sort it is a sure sign that water of some description is not far off.

We now began to look ahead for that range of mountains which hid in its recesses the Great White City. I could not bring myself to entirely believe that we should behold so wonderful a phenomenon in the midst of this barren land, and was quite convinced within myself that the only city Morton saw was in the regions of his own imagination; yet what had passed had been so true that I hovered in a perpetual state of uncertainty between doubting and believing. I, however, kept my thoughts to myself, well knowing that their expression could do no good, whereas the disappointment attending failure would be for my companion keen enough misery in itself. We were already several days over our estimate, but as that estimate was simply a chance shot, we had no cause to be angry with it on that account. Water and provisions were rapidly becoming scarce, and fatigue began to tell upon us, but yet the mythical city loomed not to our eager gaze. That it would never appear I felt sure, yet on I trudged in moody silence after my companion, who never once slackened his rapid pace or let one sigh of dissatisfaction escape him. Yet I could see as the day flew on, and no sign of the wished-for goal arose to our view, that his face became more pinched and determined, while his restless spirit scarcely allowed


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him a moment's repose. On, on he went, and if anything, walked faster and faster in his excitement till his speed almost amounted to what is commonly called a “jog trot.” He continually shaded his eyes with his hand so as to protect them from the rays of the sun and obtain a clearer view, but the wished-for sight never met his vision, and the sun had begun to sink fiercely in the west, flooding the great dreary plain with a world of rosy fire.

At last he stood stock-still and beckoned me towards him.

“What do you see, Archie?” he said in a suppressed and tremulous tone, pointing straight before him.

“Nothing,” I replied.

“Nothing?” he almost screamed. “Look again.”

I did as I was bidden, and this time, taking a longer and more intense gaze, I distinctly saw the faint blue outline of a range of hills.

“Well,” said he, anxiously, “Can you see nothing, now?”

“Yes,” I answered, “unless it is another illusion, I can see a range of mountains.”

“It is no illusion, Archie,” he cried, “that is the range of mountains Morton mentioned, and yonder is the Great White City.”

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