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- IN THE HEART OF AFRICA - 20/42 -


park-like valley occupied by his people, and the day following was spent in receiving visits from the head men. Messengers soon after arrived from Mek Nimmur inviting us to pay him a visit at his residence.

As we were conversing with Mek Nimmur's messengers through the medium of Taher Noor, who knew their language, our attention was attracted by the arrival of a tremendous swell, who at a distance I thought must be Mek Nimmur himself. A snow-white mule carried an equally snow-white person, whose tight white pantaloons looked as though he had forgotten his trousers and had mounted in his drawers. He carried a large umbrella to shade his complexion; a pair of handsome silver-mounted pistols were arranged upon his saddle, and a silver-hilted curved sword, of the peculiar Abyssinian form, hung by his side. This grand personage was followed by an attendant, also mounted upon a mule, while several men on foot accompanied them, one of whom carried his lance and shield. Upon near approach he immediately dismounted and advanced toward us, bowing in a most foppish manner, while his attendant followed him on foot with an enormous violin, which he immediately handed to him. This fiddle was very peculiar in shape, being a square, with an exceedingly long neck extending from one corner. Upon this was stretched a solitary string, and the bow was very short and much bent. This was an Abyssinian Paganini. He was a professional minstrel of the highest grade, who had been sent by Mek Nimmur to welcome us on our arrival.

These musicians are very similar to the minstrels of ancient times. They attend at public rejoicings, and at births, deaths, and marriages of great personages, upon which occasions they extemporize their songs according to circumstances. My hunting in the Base country formed his theme, and for at least an hour he sang of my deeds in an extremely loud and disagreeable voice, while he accompanied himself upon his fiddle, which he held downward like a violoncello. During the whole of his song he continued in movement, marching with a sliding step to the front, and gliding to the right and left in a manner that, though intended to be graceful, was extremely comic. The substance of this minstrelsy was explained to me by Taher Noor, who listened eagerly to the words, which he translated with evident satisfaction. Of course, like all minstrels, he was an absurd flatterer, and, having gathered a few facts for his theme, he wandered slightly from the truth in his poetical description of my deeds.

He sang of me as though I had been Richard Coeur de Lion, and recounted, before an admiring throng of listeners, how I had wandered with a young wife from my own distant country to fight the terrible Base; how I had slain them in a single combat, and bow elephants and lions were struck down like lambs and kids by my hands. That during my absence in the hunt my wife had been carried off by the Base; that I had, on my return to my pillaged camp, galloped off in chase, and, overtaking the enemy, hundreds had fallen by my rifle and sword, and I had liberated and recovered the lady, who now had arrived safe with her lord in the country of the great Mek Nimmur, etc., etc.

This was all very pretty, no doubt, and as true as most poetical and musical descriptions; but I felt certain that there must be something to pay for this flattering entertainment. If you are considered to be a great man, a PRESENT is invariably expected in proportion to your importance. I suggested to Taher Noor that I must give him a couple of dollars. "What!" said Taher Noor, "a couple of dollars? Impossible! a musician of his standing is accustomed to receive thirty and forty dollars from great people for so beautiful and honorable a song."

This was somewhat startling. I began to reflect upon the price of a box at Her Majesty's Theatre in London; but there I was not the hero of the opera. This minstrel combined the whole affair in a most simple manner. He was Verdi, Costa, and orchestra all in one. He was a thorough Macaulay as historian, therefore I had to pay the composer as well as the fiddler. I compromised the matter, and gave him a few dollars, as I understood that he was Mek Nimmur's private minstrel; but I never parted with my dear Maria Theresa (* The Austrian dollar, that is the only large current coin in that country.) with so much regret as upon that occasion, and I begged him not to incommode himself by paying us another visit, or, should he be obliged to do so, I trusted he would not think it necessary to bring his violin.

The minstrel retired in the same order that he had arrived, and I watched his retreating figure with unpleasant reflections, that were suggested by doubts as to whether I had paid him too little or too much. Taher Noor thought that he was underpaid; my own opinion was that I had brought a curse upon myself equal to a succession of London organ-grinders, as I fully expected that other minstrels, upon hearing of the Austrian dollars, would pay us a visit and sing of my great deeds.

In the afternoon we were sitting beneath the shade of our tamarind tree, when we thought we could perceive our musical friend returning. As he drew near, we were convinced that it was the identical minstrel, who had most probably been sent with a message from Mek Nimmur. There he was, in snow-white raiment, on the snow-white mule, with the mounted attendant and the violin as before. He dismounted upon arrival opposite the camp, and approached with his usual foppish bow; but we looked on in astonishment: it was not our Paganini, it was ANOTHER MINSTREL! who was determined to sing an ode in our praise. I felt that this was an indirect appeal to Maria Theresa, and I at once declared against music. I begged him not to sing; "my wife had a headache--I disliked the fiddle--could He play anything else instead?" and I expressed a variety of polite excuses, but to no purpose; he insisted upon singing. If I disliked the fiddle, he would sing without an accompaniment, but he could not think of insulting so great a man as myself by returning without an ode to commemorate our arrival.

I was determined that he should NOT sing; he was determined that he WOULD, therefore I desired him to leave my camp. This he agreed to do, provided I would allow him to cross the stream and sing to my Tokrooris in my praise, beneath a neighboring tree about fifty yards distant. He remounted his mule with his violin, to ford the muddy stream, and descended the steep bank, followed by his attendant on foot, who drove the unwilling mule. Upon arrival at the brink of the dirty brook, that was about three feet deep, the mule positively refused to enter the water, and stood firm with its fore feet sunk deep in the mud. The attendant attempted to push it on behind, and at the same time gave it a sharp blow with his sheathed sword. This changed the scene to the "opera comique." In one instant the mule gave so vigorous and unexpected a kick into the bowels of the attendant that he fell upon his back, heels, uppermost, while at the same moment the minstrel, in his snow-white garments, was precipitated head fore-most into the muddy brook, and, for the moment disappearing, the violin alone could be seen floating on the surface. A second later, a wretched-looking object, covered with slime and filth, emerged from the slongh; this was Paganini the second! who, after securing his fiddle, that had stranded on a mud-bank, scrambled up the steel slope, amid the roars of laughter of my people and of ourselves, while the perverse mule, having turned harmony into discord, kicked up its heels and galloped off, braying an ode in praise of liberty, as the "Lay of the Last Minstrel." The discomfited fiddler was wiped down by my Tokrooris, who occasionally burst into renewed fits of laughter during the operation. The mule was caught, and the minstrel remounted, and returned home completely out of tune.

On the following morning at sunrise I mounted my horse, and, accompanied by Taher Noor and Bacheet, I rode to pay my respects to Mek Nimmur. Our route lay parallel to the stream, and after a ride of about two miles through a fine park-like country, bounded by the Abyssinian Alps about fifteen miles distant, I observed a crowd of people round a large tamarind tree, near which were standing a number of horses, mules, and dromedaries. This was the spot upon which I was to meet Mek Nimmur. Upon my approach the crowd opened, and, having dismounted, I was introduced by Taher Noor to the great chief. He was a man of about fifty, and exceedingly dirty in appearance. He sat upon an angarep, surrounded by his people; lying on either side upon his seat were two brace of pistols, and within a few yards stood his horse ready saddled. He was prepared for fight or flight, as were also his ruffianly looking followers, who were composed of Abyssinians and Jaleens. After a long and satisfactory conversation I retired. Immediately on my arrival at camp I despatched Wat Gamma with a pair of beautiful double-barrelled pistols, which I begged Mek Nimmur to accept. On March 27th we said good-by and started for the Bahr Salaam.

The next few days we spent in exploring the Salaam and Angrab rivers. They are interesting examples of the destructive effect of water, that has during the course of ages cut through and hollowed out, in the solid rock, a succession of the most horrible precipices and caverns, in which the maddened torrents, rushing from the lofty chain of mountains, boil along until they meet the Atbara and assist to flood the Nile. No one could explore these tremendous torrents, the Settite, Royan, Angrab, Salaam, and Atbara, without at once comprehending their effect upon the waters of the Nile. The magnificent chain of mountains from which they flow is not a simple line of abrupt sides, but the precipitous slopes are the walls of a vast plateau, that receives a prodigious rainfall in June, July, August, and until the middle of September, the entire drainage of which is carried away by the above-named channels to inundate Lower Egypt.

I thoroughly explored the beautiful country of the Salaam and Angrab, and on the 14th of April we pushed on for Gallabat, the frontier market-town of Abyssinia.

We arrived at our old friend, the Atbara River, at the sharp angle as it issues from the mountains. At this place it was in its infancy. The noble Atbara, whose course we had tracked for hundreds of weary miles, and whose tributaries we had so carefully examined, was here a second-class mountain torrent, about equal to the Royan, and not to be named in comparison with the Salaam or Angrab. The power of the Atbara depended entirely upon the western drainage of the Abyssinian Alps; of itself it was insignificant until aided by the great arteries of the mountain-chain. The junction of the Salaam at once changed its character, and the Settite or Taccazzy completed its importance as the great river of Abyssinia, that has washed down the fertile soil of those regions to create the Delta of Lower Egypt, and to perpetuate that Delta by annual deposits, that ARE NOW FORMING A NEW EGYPT BENEATH THE WATERS OF THE MEDITERRANEAN. We had seen the Atbara a bed of glaring sand--a mere continuation of the burning desert that surrounded its course--fringed by a belt of withered trees, like a monument sacred to the memory of a dead river. We had seen the sudden rush of waters when, in the still night, the mysterious stream had invaded the dry bed and swept all before it like an awakened giant; we knew at that moment "the rains were falling in Abyssinia," although the sky above us was without a cloud. We had subsequently witnessed that tremendous rainfall, and seen the Atbara at its grandest flood. We had traced each river and crossed each tiny stream that fed the mighty Atbara from the mountain-chain, and we now, after our long journey, forded the Atbara in its infancy, hardly knee-deep, over its rocky bed of about sixty yards' width, and camped in the little village of Toganai, on the rising ground upon the opposite side. It was evening, and we sat upon an angarep among the lovely hills that surrounded us, and looked down upon the Atbara for the last time, as the sun sank behind the rugged mountain of Ras el Feel (the elephant's head). Once more I thought of that wonderful river Nile, that could flow forever through the exhausting deserts of sand, while the Atbara, during the summer months, shrank to a dry skeleton, although the powerful affluents, the Salaam and the Settite, never ceased to flow; every drop of their waters was evaporated by the air and absorbed by the desert sand in the bed of the Atbara, two hundred miles above its junction with the Nile!


IN THE HEART OF AFRICA - 20/42

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