The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
XXVIII. A Residence at Juja
A short time later, at about middle of the rainy season, McMillan left for a little fishing off Catalina Island. The latter is some fourteen thousand miles of travel from Juja. Before leaving on this flying trip, McMillan made us a gorgeous offer.
"If," said he, "you want to go it alone, you can go out and use Juja as long as you please."
This offer, or, rather, a portion of it, you may be sure, we accepted promptly. McMillan wanted in addition to leave us his servants; but to this we would not agree. Memba Sasa and Mahomet were, of course, members of our permanent staff. In addition to them we picked up another house boy, named Leyeye. He was a Masai. These proud and aristocratic savages rarely condescend to take service of any sort except as herders; but when they do they prove to be unusually efficient and intelligent. We had also a Somali cook, and six ordinary bearers to do general labour. This small safari we started off afoot for Juja. The whole lot cost us about what we would pay one Chinaman on the Pacific Coast.
Next day we ourselves drove out in the mule buckboard. The rains were on, and the road was very muddy. After the vital tropical fashion the grass was springing tall in the natural meadows and on the plains and the brief-lived white lilies and an abundance of ground flowers washed the slopes with colour. Beneath the grass covering, the entire surface of the ground was an inch or so deep in water. This was always most surprising, for, apparently, the whole country should have been high and dry. Certainly its level was that of a plateau rather than a bottom land; so that one seemed always to be travelling at an elevation. Nevertheless walking or riding we were continually splashing, and the only dry going outside the occasional rare "islands" of the slight undulations we found near the very edge of the bluffs above the rivers. There the drainage seemed sufficient to carry off the excess. Elsewhere the hardpan or bedrock must have been exceptionally level and near the top of the ground.
Nothing nor nobody seemed to mind this much. The game splashed around merrily, cropping at the tall grass; the natives slopped indifferently, and we ourselves soon became so accustomed to two or three inches of water and wet feet that after the first two days we never gave those phenomena a thought.
The world above at this season of the year was magnificent. The African heavens are always widely spacious, but now they seemed to have blown even vaster than usual. In the sweep of the vision four or five heavy black rainstorms would be trailing their skirts across an infinitely remote prospect; between them white piled scud clouds and cumuli sailed like ships; and from them reflected so brilliant a sunlight and behind all showed so dazzling a blue sky that the general impression was of a fine day. The rainstorms' gray veils slanted; tremendous patches of shadow lay becalmed on the plains; bright sunshine poured abundantly its warmth and yellow light.
So brilliant with both direct and reflected light and the values of contrast were the heavens, that when one happened to stand within one of the great shadows it became extraordinarily difficult to make out game on the plains. The pupils contracted to the brilliancy overhead. Often too, near sunset, the atmosphere would become suffused with a lurid saffron light that made everything unreal and ghastly. At such times the game seemed puzzled by the unusual aspect of things. The zebra especially would bark and stamp and stand their ground, and even come nearer out of sheer curiosity. I have thus been within fifty yards of them, right out in the open. At such times it was as though the sky, instead of rounding over in the usual shape, had been thrust up at the western horizon to the same incredible height as the zenith. In the space thus created were piled great clouds through which slanted broad bands of yellow light on a diminished world.
It rained with great suddenness on our devoted heads, and with a curious effect of metamorphoslng the entire universe. One moment all was clear and smiling, with the trifling exception of distant rain squalls that amounted to nothing in the general scheme. Then the horizon turned black, and with incredible swiftness the dark clouds materialized out of nothing, rolled high to the zenith like a wave, blotted out every last vestige of brightness. A heavy oppressive still darkness breathed over the earth. Then through the silence came a faraway soft drumming sound, barely to be heard. As we bent our ears to catch this it grew louder and louder, approaching at breakneck speed like a troop of horses. It became a roar fairly terrifying in its mercilessly continued crescendo. At last the deluge of rain burst actually as a relief.
And what a deluge! Facing it we found difficulty in breathing. In six seconds every stitch we wore was soaked through, and only the notebook, tobacco, and matches bestowed craftily in the crown of the cork helmet escaped. The visible world was dark and contracted. It seemed that nothing but rain could anywhere exist; as though this storm must fill all space to the horizon and beyond. Then it swept on and we found ourselves steaming in bright sunlight. The dry flat prairie (if this was the first shower for some time) had suddenly become a lake from the surface of which projected bushes and clumps of grass. Every game trail had become the water course of a swiftly running brook.
But most pleasant were the evenings at Juja, when, safe indoors, we sat and listened to the charge of the storm's wild horsemen, and the thunder of its drumming on the tin roof. The onslaughts were as fierce and abrupt as those of Cossacks, and swept by as suddenly. The roar died away in the distance, and we could then hear the steady musical dripping of waters.
Pleasant it was also to walk out from Juja in almost any direction. The compound, and the buildings and trees within it, soon dwindled in the distances of the great flat plain. Herds of game were always in sight, grazing, lying down, staring in our direction. The animals were incredibly numerous. Some days they were fairly tame, and others exceedingly wild, without any rhyme or reason. This shyness or the reverse seemed not to be individual to one herd; but to be practically universal. On a "wild day" everything was wild from the Lone Tree to Long Juju. It would be manifestly absurd to guess at the reason. Possibly the cause might be atmospheric or electrical; possibly days of nervousness might follow nights of unusual activity by the lions; one could invent a dozen possibilities. Perhaps the kongonis decided it.
At Juja we got to know the kongonis even better than we had before. They are comical, quizzical beasts, with long-nosed humorous faces, a singularly awkward construction, a shambling gait; but with altruistic dispositions and an ability to get over the ground at an extraordinary speed. Every move is a joke; their expression is always one of grieved but humorous astonishment. They quirk their heads sidewise or down and stare at an intruder with the most comical air of skeptical wonder. "Well, look who's here!" says the expression.
"Pooh!" says the kongoni himself, after a good look, "pooh! pooh!" with the most insulting inflection.
He is very numerous and very alert. One or more of a grazing herd are always perched as sentinels atop ant hills or similar small elevations. On the sIightest intimation of danger they give the alarm, whereupon the herd makes off at once, gathering in all other miscellaneous game that may be in the vicinity. They will go out of their way to do this, as every African hunter knows. It immensely complicates matters; for the sportsman must not only stalk his quarry, but he must stalk each and every kongoni as well. Once, in another part of the country, C. and I saw a kongoni leave a band of its own species far down to our right, gallop toward us and across our front, pick up a herd of zebra we were trying to approach and make off with them to safety. We cursed that kongoni, but we admired him, for he deliberately ran out of safety into danger for the purpose of warning those zebra. So seriously do they take their job as policemen of the plains that it is very common for a lazy single animal of another species to graze in a herd of kongonis simply for the sake of protection. Wildebeeste are much given to this.
The kongoni progresses by a series of long high bounds. While in midair he half tucks up his feet, which gives him the appearance of an automatic toy. This gait looks deliberate, but is really quite fast, as the mounted sportsman discovers when he enters upon a vain pursuit. If the horse is an especially good one, so that the kongoni feels himself a trifle closely pressed, the latter stops bouncing and runs. Then he simply fades away into the distance.
These beasts are also given to chasing each other all over the landscape. When a gentleman kongoni conceives a dislike for another gentleman kongoni, he makes no concealment of his emotions, but marches up and prods him in the ribs. The ensuing battle is usually fought out very stubbornly with much feinting, parrying, clashing of the lyre-shaped horns; and a good deal of crafty circling for a favourable opening. As far as I was ever able to see not much real damage is inflicted; though I could well imagine that only skilful fence prevented unpleasant punctures in soft spots. After a time one or the other feels himself weakening. He dashes strongly in, wheels while his antagonist is braced, and makes off. The enemy pursues. Then, apparently, the chase is on for the rest of the day. The victor is not content merely to drive his rival out of the country; he wants to catch him. On that object he is very intent; about as intent as the other fellow is of getting away. I have seen two such beasts almost run over a dozen men who were making no effort to keep out of sight. Long after honour is satisfied, indeed, as it seems to me, long after the dictates of common decency would call a halt that persistent and single-minded pursuer bounds solemnly and conscientiously along in the wake of his disgusted rival.
These and the zebra and wildebeeste were at Juja the most conspicuous game animals. If they could not for the moment be seen from the veranda of the house itself, a short walk to the gate was sufficient to reveal many hundreds. Among them fed herds of the smaller Thompson's gazelle, or "Tommies." So small were they that only their heads could be seen above the tall grass as they ran.
To me there was never-ending fascination in walking out over those sloppy plains in search of adventure, and in the pleasure of watching the beasts. Scarcely less fascination haunted a stroll down the river canyons or along the tops of the bluffs above them. Here the country was broken into rocky escarpments in which were caves; was clothed with low and scattered brush; or was wooded in the bottom lands. Naturally an entirely different set of animals dwelt here; and in addition one was often treated to the romance of surprise. Herds of impalla haunted these edges; graceful creatures, trim and pretty with wide horns and beautiful glowing red coats. Sometimes they would venture out on the open plains, in a very compact band, ready to break back for cover at the slightest alarm; but generally fed inside the fringe of bushes. Once from the bluff above I saw a beautiful herd of over a hundred pacing decorously along the river bottom below me, single file, the oldest buck at the head, and the miscellaneous small buck bringing up the rear after the does. I shouted at them. Immediately the solemn procession broke. They began to leap, springing straight up into the air as though from a released spring, or diving forward and upward in long graceful bounds like dolphins at sea. These leaps were incredible. Several even jumped quite over the backs of others; and all without a semblance of effort.
Along the fringe of the river, too, dwelt the lordly waterbuck, magnificent and proud as the stags of Landseer; and the tiny steinbuck and duiker, no bigger than jack-rabbits, but perfect little deer for all that. The incredibly plebeian wart-hog rooted about; and down in the bottom lands were leopards. I knocked one off a rock one day. In the river itself dwelt hippopotamuses and crocodiles. One of the latter dragged under a yearling calf just below the house itself, and while we were there. Besides these were of course such affairs as hyenas and jackals, and great numbers of small game: hares, ducks, three kinds of grouse, guinea fowl, pigeons, quail, and jack snipe, not to speak of a variety of plover.
In the drier extents of dry grass atop the bluffs the dance birds were especially numerous; each with his dance ring nicely trodden out, each leaping and falling rhythmically for hours at a time. Toward sunset great flights of sand grouse swarmed across the yellowing sky from some distant feeding ground.
Near Juja I had one of the three experiences that especially impressed on my mind the abundance of African big game. I had stalked and wounded a wildebeeste across the N'derogo River, and had followed him a mile or so afoot, hoping to be able to put in a finishing shot. As sometimes happens the animal rather gained strength as time went on; so I signalled for my horse, mounted, and started out to run him down. After a quarter mile we began to pick up the game herds. Those directly in our course ran straight away; other herds on either side, seeing them running, came across in a slant to join them. Inside of a half mile I was driving before me literally thousands of head of game of several varieties. The dust rose in a choking cloud that fairly obscured the landscape, and the drumming of the hooves was like the stampeding of cattle. It was a wonderful sight.
On the plains of Juja, also, I had my one real African Adventure, when, as in the Sunday Supplements, I Stared Death in the Face-also everlasting disgrace and much derision. We were just returning to the farm after an afternoon's walk, and as we approached I began to look around for much needed meat. A herd of zebra stood in sight; so leaving Memba Sasa I began to stalk them. My usual weapon for this sort of thing was the Springfield, for which I carried extra cartridges in my belt. On this occasion, however, I traded with Memba Sasa for the 405, simply for the purpose of trying it out. At a few paces over three hundred yards I landed on the zebra, but did not knock him down. Then I set out to follow. It was a long job and took me far, for again and again he joined other zebra, when, of course, I could not tell one from t'other. My only expedient was to frighten the lot. There upon the uninjured ones would distance the one that was hurt. The latter kept his eye on me. Whenever I managed to get within reasonable distance, I put up the rear sight of the 405, and let drive. I heard every shot hit, and after each hit was more than a little astonished to see the zebra still on his feet, and still able to wobble on.* The fifth shot emptied the rifle. As I had no more cartridges for this arm, I approached to within sixty yards, and stopped to wait either for him to fall, or for a very distant Memba Sasa to come up with more cartridges. Then the zebra waked up. He put his ears back and came straight in my direction. This rush I took for a blind death flurry, and so dodged off to one side, thinking that he would of course go by me. Not at all! He swung around on the circle too, and made after me. I could see that his ears were back, eyes blazing, and his teeth snapping with rage. It was a malicious charge, and, as such, with due deliberation, I offer it to sportsman's annals. As I had no more cartridges I ran away as fast as I could go. Although I made rather better time than ever I had attained to before, it was evident that the zebra would catch me; and as the brute could paw, bite, and kick, I did not much care for the situation. Just as he had nearly reached me, and as I was trying to figure on what kind of a fight I could put up with a clubbed rifle barrel, he fell dead. To be killed by a lion is at least a dignified death; but to be mauled by a zebra!
I am sorry I did not try out this heavy-calibred rifle oftener at long range. It was a marvellously effective weapon at close quarters; but I have an idea-but only a tentative idea-that above three hundred yards its velocity is so reduced by air resistance against the big blunt bullet as greatly to impair its hitting powers.
We generally got back from our walks or rides just before dark to find the house gleaming with lights, a hot bath ready, and a tray of good wet drinks next the easy chairs. There, after changing our clothes, we sipped and read the papers-two months off the press, but fresh arrived for all that-until a white-robed, dignified figure appeared in the doorway to inform us that dinner was ready. Our ways were civilized and soft, then, until the morrow when once again, perhaps, we went forth into the African wilderness.
Juja is a place of startling contrasts-of naked savages clipping formal hedges, of windows opening from a perfectly appointed brilliantly lighted dining-room to a night whence float the lost wails of hyenas or the deep grumbling of lions, of cushioned luxurious chairs in reach of many books, but looking out on hills where the game herds feed, of comfortable beds with fine linen and soft blankets where one lies listening to the voices of an African night, or the weirder minor house noises whose origin and nature no man could guess, of tennis courts and summer houses, of lawns and hammocks, of sundials and clipped hedges separated only by a few strands of woven wire from fields identical with those in which roamed the cave men of the Pleistocene. But to Billy was reserved the most ridiculous contrast of all. Her bedroom opened to a veranda a few feet above a formal garden. This was a very formal garden, with a sundial, gravelled walks, bordered flower beds, and clipped border hedges. One night she heard a noise outside. Slipping on a warm wrap and seizing her trusty revolver she stole out on the veranda to investigate. She looked over the veranda rail. There just below her, trampling the flower beds, tracking the gravel walks, endangering the sundial, stood a hippopotamus!
We had neighbours six or seven miles away. At times they came down to spend the night and luxuriate in the comforts of civilization. They were a Lady A., and her nephew, and a young Scotch acquaintance the nephew had taken into partnership. They had built themselves circular houses of papyrus reeds with conical thatched roofs and earth floors, had purchased ox teams and gathered a dozen or so Kikuyus, and were engaged in breaking a farm in the wilderness. The life was rough and hard, and Lady A. and her nephew gently bred, but they seemed to be having quite cheerfully the time of their lives. The game furnished them meat, as it did all of us, and they hoped in time that their labours would make the land valuable and productive. Fascinating as was the life, it was also one of many deprivations. At Juja were a number of old copies of Life, the pretty girls in which so fascinated the young men that we broke the laws of propriety by presenting them, though they did not belong to us. C., the nephew, was of the finest type of young Englishman, clean cut, enthusiastic, good looking, with an air of engaging vitality and optimism. His partner, of his own age, was an insufferable youth. Brought up in some small Scottish valley, his outlook had never widened. Because he wanted to buy four oxen at a cheaper price, he tried desperately to abrogate quarantine regulations. If he had succeeded, he would have made a few rupees, but would have introduced disease in his neighbours' herds. This consideration did not affect him. He was much given to sneering at what he could not understand; and therefore, a great deal met with his disapproval. His reading had evidently brought him down only to about the middle sixties; and affairs at that date were to him still burning questions. Thus he would declaim vehemently over the Alabama claims.
"I blush with shame," he would cry, "when I think of England's attitude in that matter."
We pointed out that the dispute had been amicably settled by the best minds of the time, had passed between the covers of history, and had given way in immediate importance to several later topics.
"This vacillating policy," he swept on, "annoys me. For my part, I should like to see so firm a stand taken on all questions that in any part of the world, whenever a man, and wherever a man, said 'I am an Englishman? everybody else would draw back!'"
He was an incredible person. However, I was glad to see him; he and a few others of his kind have consoled me for a number of Americans I have met abroad. Lady A., with the tolerant philosophy of her class, seemed merely amused. I have often since wondered how this ill-assorted partnership turned out.
Two other neighbours of ours dropped in once or twice-twenty-six miles on bicycles, on which they could ride only a portion of the distance. They had some sort of a ranch up in the Ithanga Hills; and were two of the nicest fellows one would want to meet, brimful of energy, game for anything, and had so good a time always that the grumpiest fever could not prevent every one else having a good time too. Once they rode on their bicycles forty miles to Nairobi, danced half the night at a Government House ball, rode back in the early morning, and did an afternoon's plowing! They explained this feat by pointing out most convincingly that the ground was just right for plowing, but they did not want to miss the ball!
Occasionally a trim and dapper police official would drift in on horseback looking for native criminals; and once a safari came by. Twelve miles away was the famous Kamiti Farm of Heatly, where Roosevelt killed his buffalo; and once or twice Heatly himself, a fine chap, came to see us. Also just before I left with Duirs for a lion hunt on Kapiti, Lady Girouard, wife of the Governor, and her nephew and niece rode out for a hunt. In the African fashion, all these people brought their own personal servants. It makes entertaining easy. Nobody knows where all these boys sleep; but they manage to tuck away somewhere, and always show up after a mysterious system of their own whenever there is anything to be done.
We stayed at Juja a little over three weeks. Then most reluctantly said farewell and returned to Nairobi in preparation for a long trip to the south.