A Traveller's Tale by unknown


HE bombardment of Algiers not only broke the power of the pirate nation, but gave to England a prestige which extended far beyond the dominions of the Dey; and three Britons who, a few years after Lord Exmouth's campaign, started from Tripoli on an expedition into the wilds of West Africa, found the fame of their countrymen stand them in good stead. Two out of the three, Major Denham and Lieutenant Clapperton, R.N., had won their laurels already in the great war with France, and, being but little over thirty, were by no means disposed to settle down quietly on half-pay. These two, and their companion, Dr. Audney, had felt that strange summons which comes to one man and another in every age and nation, the call into the unknown, into the mysterious places where none of their race have ever trod. And if they did not expect to meet men with heads growing below their shoulders, such as the mediæval travellers looked for, yet the heart of Africa might hold marvels almost as strange. Seventeen years before, Mungo Park, the great Scottish explorer, who set forth for the last time to follow the course of the river Niger, had passed away into the silence of the unknown land. It was hoped that this new expedition might succeed in recovering his papers and journal.

The party started from Tripoli early in December. Their journey at first was quite a triumphal progress; the English dress and speech were honoured everywhere, and the strangers treated with the reverence due to the representatives of the great unknown king whose sailors had conquered Algiers. Many were the questions asked about the mighty monarch, and we may be sure that the magnificence of the mysterious 'Sultan George' (King George III. of England) lost nothing in the description his subjects gave of him. There were delays, however, owing to the bad faith of the Sultan of Tripoli, and it was not till February that the expedition reached the city of Kouka, the capital of Bornu. Strange indeed is the description of this wealthy city, where the Sultan sat to receive his visitors behind the bars of a golden cage, and where corpulence was looked upon as so necessary a part of a fine figure that the young dandies of the calvary regiments padded themselves out to the proper size, if they had the misfortune to be naturally thin.

"The head of a snake thrust out close to him."

"The head of a snake thrust out close to him."

The travellers had plenty of time to study the peculiarities of the place, being detained there some time, first from want of camels for the journey, and then by Dr. Audney's serious illness. Major Denham, growing weary of inaction, and hearing that the Sultan of Kouka was planning an attack upon a neighbouring tribe, begged leave to accompany the expedition. The Sultan, who was very much impressed by the importance of the English visitors, and by the idea of the pains and penalties that might follow if any harm came to them, refused for some time to let him go, and it was not until the last moment before the departure of the expedition that the Major wrung from him permission to be of the party. In fact, it was rather a doubtful proceeding for a member of a peaceful mission, and Major Denham freely owns in his journal that the attack was unjustifiable and did not deserve to succeed. However, neither he nor any of his personal attendants took part in the fighting, and the opportunity of seeing the country and the native methods of warfare, together with the chance of an adventure, were too attractive to be missed; and certainly, so far as excitement was concerned, the daring Englishman got enough and to spare before he rejoined his friends at Kouka.

The attacking party found the enemy stronger than they had expected, and their advance on the position they hoped to storm was met by storms of poisonous arrows, which scattered their cavalry in hopeless disorder. Major Denham found himself obliged to turn his horse's head with the rest, and fly before the foe, who followed with yells of vengeance, and fresh flights of the deadly arrows.

Denham's horse was wounded and fell with him, then, maddened by fright and pain, struggled up, unseating his rider, and dashed away into the bush, leaving the Major surrounded by the enemy. He received two spear-wounds, mercifully not poisoned, was instantly stripped of most of his clothes by his captors, and gave himself up for lost. But the novel garments so delighted the natives that they left the late wearer while they wrangled over the spoils.

Denham, wounded as he was, determined on a dash for safety, slipped into the bushes, and ran as fast as he could, the thorns of the tropical plants tearing his defenceless feet as he went. A river, flowing between high banks, barred his way, and he had seized a bough to swing himself down when a new peril appeared—the head of a snake, one of the most deadly of African serpents, thrust out close to him from among the dense foliage! Either the horror-stricken fugitive lost his hold, or his involuntary recoil broke the bough to which he clung; at any rate he fell headlong into the stream below him. The shock of the cold plunge brought back his failing senses, and he struck out boldly for the opposite bank, reaching it in safety, though almost at the end of his powers. He had distanced his pursuers for the time being, but his position, as he dragged himself ashore, was terrible enough to have daunted even his brave spirit. He was alone in the enemy's country, wounded, without food or weapons, and night coming on—the night of tropical Africa, when the reign of wild-beast life begins. His first thought was to find some tree, into which he could climb and put himself out of reach of prowling leopards; then the remembrance of his late narrow escape recalled the fact that there were dangers in the branches as horrible as any on the ground; and while he hesitated, it seemed as if the question were to be decided for him, for suddenly upon his ears came the gallop of horse's hoofs, and an armed band bore down upon him.

For a moment Major Denham thought all was over, for he was past further flight and had no weapon. Then, as one of the new-comers dashed up to him, he recognised, with relief and thanks, the negro servant of the Sultan's chief officer. They were his friends, flying in disorder indeed, but mounted and armed, and able, in some sort, to protect their guest. There was no time to be lost. The Englishman, draped in classical fashion in an exceedingly dirty blanket, was helped on to the bare-backed horse ridden by the negro, and the flight continued with all possible speed. It was a terrible journey, with constantly diminishing numbers, for men and horses, wounded by poisoned arrows, dropped and died on the way.

Denham learned later on that a consultation was held over him, while he lay sleeping from sheer exhaustion during a short halt, in which some of the party urged that it was folly to hamper the flight by the burden of a man who would probably die. One man, however, spoke up stoutly for the unconscious foreigner, vowing that one who had been preserved through so much must be fated to be saved. To him Major Denham owed it that, after infinite danger, pain and fatigue, he arrived, with the remnants of the army, at Kouka, and lived to set foot again, two years later, on English shores, there to delight the stay-at-homes with such a traveller's tale as has rarely been equalled, even from the mysterious land of the 'ever new.'