Written by Sir John M——, from his own journals.
Continuing the narrative which began here.
The Ninth Day: How We First Set Foot on the Cannibal Coast and Received an Unexpected Welcome.
THE YELLOWISH HAZE of the dawn foretold an exceptionally hot day as our two boats left home—for so I had already learned to think of our leviathan—and headed for the unknown shores of the Cannibal Coast. The Duke himself came to see us off and to dispense a few sage words of advice; but he was laboring under the impression that we were off the coast of Alsace, and his remarks, therefore, dwelt mostly on the subject of how best to deal with the Alsatians, whom he described as an honest but easily offended race.
There is nothing so thrilling as approaching an unknown shore for the first time, though I recognize that there is probably nothing duller than the narration of such an approach. As the boat comes closer to land, a thousand thoughts crowd into the minds of the passengers. What strange creatures live in this new land? Will the native inhabitants be friendly or hostile? Will our names be enrolled in the lists of great explorers in history?
With all these questions running through our minds, we made a gentle landing on the sandy shore. A wide beach of reddish sand separated the sea from a low forest, over which occasional palms towered like sentinels and from which (when the wind blew that way) came the most delightful scents of flowers and spices. It appeared to have all the makings of a terrestrial paradise; yet we had heard that the most savage and ferociously uncivilized tribes of men, if indeed they could be called men, inhabited those unexplored forests. It is also said that the land has such an abundance of gold that the natives place no value on that metal, and indeed (I must suppose) those rumors were at least in part our reason for stopping in such a place: for if the rumors could be verified, the profit to be made by future colonists would be more than compensation for any dangers to which they might be exposed.
Having reassembled our party on the beach, we paused to examine our surroundings. That there were native inhabitants was at once obvious from a number of foot tracks farther up the beach; as the tracks all appeared to funnel into a gap in the margin of the forest, we decided that a trail must lead thence into the forest and whatever settlements might be there.
It had been my understanding that our first business would be to make contact with the native inhabitants on friendly terms, and indeed that was my primary reason for wishing to be part of the expedition. Now, however, there was some debate as to whether such a course was advisable. At least, certain members of the party advised us, let us seek some high ground from which we can survey the land as a whole before making a final decision. I pointed out, with considerable justice (I thought), that we could see no high ground from where we stood, and the mountains we had glimpsed from the sea must be many miles distant, so that we should have to traverse the forest anyway to get to them. This reasoning did not satisfy certain of the more timorous members of the party, among them Lord Darkwood, whom indeed I now suspected of grasping at any excuse to abandon our explorations and return to the safety and comfort of the leviathan.
Although the Count of the Lower Ridings was nominally in charge of our expedition, he is a changeable soul unused to authority, and the arguments of so eminent a man as Lord Darkwood, meritless as they were, appeared to sway him. As the senior diplomat of the party, therefore, I took it upon myself to assure the rest that the Duke would be in no wise pleased if we turned back before we began. This immediately brought the lower orders to my side, for they regard the Duke with a kind of superstitious reverence. With a clear majority in favor of proceeding, the Count was willing to take our chances with the path into the forest.
We formed ourselves into a more or less orderly array, with two soldiers in front, and myself and the Count behind them, and so two by two into the woods. After we had passed through the shrubby and overgrown margin of the forest along the beach, we found the path broad and inviting. It was, however, oppressively hot away from the ocean breezes, and even in the shade of the forest we were soon perspiring liberally.
We had walked about half an hour when we heard voices ahead of us. The soldiers immediately drew their swords; but I admonished them to put them away at once, reminding them that we were to meet any natives on friendly terms if possible. Nevertheless, my heart beat faster, for what we had heard of the natives did not dispose us to regard them with trust.
The natives were not long in appearing; but, far from the half-naked savages I had anticipated, they appeared to be a party of remarkably well-dressed men and women (for there were women among them), and their bearing displayed a cultured refinement. The garments they wore reminded me of nothing so much as the elaborate drapery seen on classical statues, though infinitely more colorful.
By elaborate and obviously respectful gestures they conveyed their greetings to us. We returned their greetings with the best show of respect we could devise, after which I presented a few gifts we had brought with us to the one who appeared to be the chief of the party. He accepted the trinkets with a grateful bow, and handed them to a woman who stood behind him, who handed them to a man who stood behind her. These formalities having been concluded successfully, the chief indicated that we should follow his party; and I could not help feeling, with a certain degree of surprise and perhaps apprehension, that we had somehow been expected.
For hours we walked, and Lord Darkwood began to complain that we were being led to our doom God knew where. I told the Count that the path was well-marked, and we should have no difficulty finding our way back to our boats when the occasion arose. The natives continued to smile and lead us onward through the forest, at one point crossing a river on a terrifying but well-made rope bridge. At last, when the sun was well along in its descent toward the horizon, we came to a clearing at the foot of the mountains, and our astonishment almost deprived us of speech. Here was nothing less than a great city, although like no other city I had ever seen. The dwellings were made of palm fronds and other large leaves woven together and stretched over a skeleton of poles; they were laid out in good order, with straight and capacious streets between the rows. There was something about the place, however, that made it seem hastily constructed; and I reflected that it would hardly be possible for such structures to stand very long without constant reconstruction.
Along the streets were moving men and women of all descriptions, wearing the most splendid variety of costumes. A moment’s survey of the scene was sufficient to determine that the people were mostly moving in groups distinguished by their similar costumes, and a moment’s reflection convinced me that this transitory city was some sort of gathering of travelers or pilgrims from many nations. Perhaps it was the equivalent of one of our great markets or fairs.
Our guides brought us to a group of thatched huts at the fringes of the city, where, after a number of attempts, they at last succeeded in making us understand by gestures that we were to consider ourselves at home. The huts were dry and spacious inside, furnished abundantly with artistically woven mats, and moreover provisioned generously with baskets of strange tropical fruits and unleavened bread. That they had prepared accommodations for us was very strange; but, as it was near the end of the day, we were glad of such unexpected comfort.
Once the guides left us to ourselves, we had quite a lively discussion. Lord Darkwood and his faction (for he seemed to have assumed the leadership of a small but vocal group of noblemen) were of the opinion that we should leave at once and march back to the leviathan, hinting darkly that we were being fattened up for a cannibal feast. I, on the other hand, was certain that these people were not savage cannibals, and I invoked the Duke’s name again to rally the majority to my side. This satisfied the Count, who agreed that we should stay at least one night and attempt to make contact with the leaders of these people.
This evening, before dark, I strolled through the city. Toward the center are a number of large permanent buildings made of wood and stone, and in the very center is a high mound with what appears to be a temple or other public building at the top of it. No one I passed took any notice of my pale skin and strange clothes, which confirmed my impression that this was a gathering where visitors from many nations were expected.
Along my way back I heard a great commotion, and following the noise found my way to a broad thoroughfare leading in to the center of the city. Here I saw a procession, with many spectators lining the way to catch a glimpse of the participants. There were soldiers in exceptionally colorful costume; then rows of dignitaries in costumes even more colorful; and then, in the center of it all, a girl or young woman in chains, dressed simply in yellow drapery. This girl, who appeared to find the whole proceeding most unpleasant, was evidently the reason for the whole procession, and the crowds cheered as she went by. She did not acknowledge their cheers, but stared straight ahead as she walked, or rather was pulled, through the assembled multitude.
I simply did not know what to think of this spectacle. Having returned to our hut, I arranged some of the mats into a passable bed, and was one of the last to retire. On the morrow I might find out more about this convocation of nations, and perhaps about the young woman who so incongruously seemed to be at the center of it.