THE WHITE LION. By Geoffrey Williams
This story was paraphrased in some Australian papers as though fact.
The white lion lives in the densest part of the lava bush and is rarely seen. It is smaller than the common lion, but far more dangerous. When the Macheina see one they run away, and are very frightened. – Native Story.
When Fate cast my lot in the strange country of the Macheina I gradually came to learn many of their stories and legends, but few appealed to me as deeply as that of the white lion. Of its existence the people had no doubt whatever, but when it came to details there was a singular difficulty in getting at anything definite. Every account ended in the same way: "When the Macheina see one they are very frightened and run away." As they will tackle every other beast with their poisoned arrows, this widespread fear struck me as something very unusual, and fired me with a keen desire to know more.
Doubtless a new-comer to the country would have ejaculated, " Rubbish! " and promptly put the story aside as a native lie and forgotten all about it; but experience of the lava bush makes one slow to deny off-hand the truth of even the wildest legend.
A more extraordinary country I have never seen in all my wanderings, and that it holds to this day many an unknown beast and bird no one who knows it well can doubt for a moment. In the dim past the imposing row of craters in the Nyara Hills had poured forth vast streams of lava that flowed for thirty miles and more down the sloping country-side, and on this ancient lava grows the densest bush to be found in Africa or out of it. Fibre plants shaped like a gigantic hand and armed with formidable spikes pierce the dense undergrowth in countless thousands, and render any examination of the forest utterly hopeless. Even in the compara¬tively open glades where no lava lies the growth is so thick one cannot see for more than a few yards, and all one knows of many of the inhabitants of these trackless jungles is a glimpse of an unfamiliar shape moving from tree to tree, or some strange tracks crossing a native path after heavy rain.
Here the white lion or anything else might live unknown and unseen, and with the difficulty of learning anything definite about the beast the desire to obtain a specimen grew daily till I thought of little else. But the months went by without my anxious inquiries producing any result, and in the end it was only a lucky chance that gave me my opportunity.
It so happened that in a little adventure with a rhinoceros, which is not worth the telling in these days when half the women in London can give blood-curdling accounts of their prowess among the big game, I managed to save the life of a Macheina boy named Matoi. He was rather superior to the majority of his tribe, display¬ing a feeling of gratitude somewhat unusual in a native, and next morning he informed me that he would put me on the track of the animal I had so long sought in vain. Matoi had only been with me a few weeks, and it appeared from the story he told that he had come across the Nyara Hills, by a practically unknown path, from some tribe far away to the north. On the other side of the hills, he said, there was more lava country though the forests were slightly less dense, and in a small glade where the grass grew shorter than elsewhere he had seen a white lion bound across and vanish among the lava blocks.
As may be imagined, I made up my mind, even before he had finished the story, to cross the hills by the route he spoke of, and try my best to get a chance at the much-desired quarry. But I was met at the very outset by a grave difficulty. For a long while Matoi flatly refused to accompany me as guide, and declared that nothing would induce him to venture anywhere near that glade again. He would explain the route, but that was all.
However, by alternate appeals to his gratitude and cupidity I prevailed at last, and he agreed to come, after extracting from me a promise not to breathe a word of my object to any of the porters, lest they should take alarm as we drew near our journey's end and desert us in the forest. T
his advice was undoubtedly sound, and when I started two days later my twelve picked boys knew only that we were bound for a shooting trip to a new country where game was in abundance and they would be able to have as much meat as they wanted every day.
As this is an attraction no native can resist we started off in great spirits, the twelve porters singing their curious little marching song in a very minor key, which always betokens satisfaction with life generally. I myself was wildly excited at the prospect of getting the chance for which I had waited so long, and the only discordant note was Matoi himself, who walked as though he were going to execution, with a face a yard long and stonily silent. It was evident he already regretted the impulse which had led him to tell me of what he had seen, and that nothing but my rather easily-earned reputation as a Nimrod kept him to his promise.
But it would have taken more than one gloomy boy to damp my ardour, and as I marched at the head of the line to the tune of the weird little chant, I felt that life was well worth the living as long as the old quotation, " Ex Africa semper aliquis novi " held good.
Even the troubles we met by the way (and they were many) seemed part of the game'; and though we had started very late in the season, and consequently almost came to hopeless grief near the base of the hills from lack of water, we reached the highest point of the pass early on the fourth day. As I gazed over the glorious panorama that opened suddenly before me I heaved a sigh of delighted anticipation. Perched on the edge of one of the ancient craters, knee-deep in bracken and surrounded by thoroughly English flowers such as clover, scabious, and blackberry, the air keen and pure, and heavy with the scent of wild white jasmine that rambled over every bush, it was more than strange to look away over the vast plains below. Down the slopes in every direction flowed the vast, forest-clad rivers of lava far out into the plains, where they merged imperceptibly into the thorn and scrub of the lower lands; and as I stood and drank in the cool silence of that mountain solitude, it seemed impossible that a few short hours of walking would take one down once more into the heat of the tropics.
But, alas! in these lovely heights there is no water; the great clefts and gorges lack the finishing touch of a stream tumbling downwards over their grey lava boulders, and if I wished to reach water that night, it behoved me to push onward speedily.
It was near to sundown when we reached the river that wandered round the base of the hills, now a mere trickle after the long drought; and when I had shot some meat for my weary and hungry porters I was more than ready to turn in and dream of thrilling hunting adventures such as one seldom meets with in real life.
In the morning I was up at the unearthly hour that big-game shooting requires, and after a hurried breakfast I started off alone with Matoi in search of the glade we had come so far to find. Rain had fallen in the night, the first for many months, and if the white lion was still in the district there was a fair possibility of our striking his spoor even if we did not actually see him, more especi-ally as, according to Matoi, it was the habit of the beast to use a regular track to and from his hunting grounds.
Our way led us back up the slopes, and by the time the sun was well up we were high above the river and out of the great heat of the lower country.
By eight o'clock, after some heavy walking over rough lava, we reached our goal, and there before us, plainly marked in the damp earth, close to the edge of the forest, were the tracks I longed to see. They might well have been merely those of an unusually large leopard, but Matoi declared that there was no doubt whatever and that the white lion had passed on his homeward way that very morning. This was very satisfactory so far as it went, but I suddenly met with an unexpected check. Matoi, who had been growing more and more nervous as we approached the glade, now flatly declined to come any farther. To follow the spoor into the lava bush was more than he could stand, and no temptation could move him. As a rule I am entirely of his opinion as to the rank folly of pursuing dangerous game in thick bush; but this was an exceptional case, and though my skill as a tracker is not great, the wet earth made it a fairly simple matter, and the end of it was that I started off alone, leaving Matoi ensconced in a high tree to wait my return.
For a while all was plane sailing, but after following a clearly defined path for a mile or so the tracks branched off over ground thickly strewn with huge blocks of grey lava, on which all traces were quickly lost. By dint of the most careful examination I picked up a mark here and there which carried me on a few hundred yards farther, only to find myself completely at fault and defeated just when I had begun to think I was nearing success. Dis¬appointed and angry, I proceeded to make long casts in different directions, on the off-chance of getting a hint of the right one to pursue; but the only result of this foolish policy was that, after half an hour's useless scrambling over boulders as big as a large arm¬chair, I awoke to the fact that I had completely turned round and had not the vaguest idea how to get back. The forest had grown gradually thicker and taller, and I was evidently now right in the heart of it. Yards of yellowish-grey lichen hung from all the branches, giving an indescribably mournful effect, which was en¬hanced by the dim light that filtered through far overhead. The great grey boulders looked strange and inhospitable, and I began to feel the place getting on my nerves.
However, there was nothing to be gained by sitting and looking at the view–what there was of it. It was more than unlikely that anyone would come and search for me, the spoor of the white lion would soon put a stop to any attempt of that kind, and I started off again, hoping in time to emerge somewhere, as I knew, from my bird's-eye view from the mountain on the previous day, that the forests, though long, were not very wide, as they only followed the rivers of lava.
Fortunately there was little or no fibre, and I managed to make fairly good progress till, after a quarter of an hour's scrambling, I saw a break in the trees just ahead. Inspired by this I hurried on, and was just entering what seemed to be a small glade, like the one I had left, when a big lump of lava turned over as I stepped on it and I found myself falling into nothingness. I landed with a crash in a thick green bush, and when I had recovered from the shock sufficiently to extricate myself I found I was in a kind of pit or bubble in the lava, not more than thirty feet deep and about fifty yards long by twenty wide. The sides, though clothed with bushes at the top which had prevented my seeing it, were bare and precipitous near the bottom, and I realised to my horror that I was in a trap from which there was no egress. The floor of the pit was covered with grass except for two clumps of densely thick bushes which grew close against the side in one corner, and into one of which I had fortunately fallen. For a while I was absolutely paralysed at my apparently hopeless situation, and sat down gloomily on a stone to recover myself. But after a few minutes my eye fell on something which quite put my imprisonment out of my head. There, right before me, deeply imprinted in a patch of bare soft soil, was the spoor of the white lion I had been following all the morning in vain.
I stared at the unexpected sight in speechless amazement, for how it had got there I could not imagine. But I was not allowed much time for speculation. Even as I stood, still staring, I heard a rustling in the farther patch of bush, and realised in an instant that I was in a tighter place than ever. However, the lion had reached the pit, he was obviously in it now, and I looked hastily round for some place of refuge. My rifle still lay where it had fallen, on the grass near the bushes, and I was perfectly defenceless. At first there seemed nowhere to go, but after a moment I noticed that in one spot the pit side was not perfectly smooth and that about four¬teen feet up there was a small ledge on which I might manage to sit. Above the ledge the lava was quite smooth and sheer for another fifteen feet and it was obviously impossible to climb any higher. Still, any refuge was better than none, and dashing across the grass I managed by dint of some skilful climbing to reach my perch, which proved a painfully insecure and uneasy one. Hardly had I reached it when the rustling in the bushes increased, and out stalked a beast the like of which I had never seen before.
The head was that of a lion, but the build was more graceful and easy, reminding one of the leopard tribe; but the strangest thing about it was the colour, which was a light grey, almost white. For the moment I forgot even my horrible position in the delight of being the first to discover a new animal; but I was not allowed to forget it long. As it reached the stone on which I had sat, it picked up the scent like a hound, and in an instant had crossed the grass and crouched below my ledge with its head on its forepaws, looking up at me. I never saw a more evil expression in my life, and I realised at once the reason of the fear it inspired in all the tribes of the country round. There was no anger in those gleaming eyes, only a steady, forceful purpose, which was infinitely more alarming. As I looked, I seemed to see an evil human spirit in their depths, one that loved killing for killing's sake, and would leave no stone unturned to achieve its end. The effect was heightened by the brute's absolute silence and stillness; there was no growling, no lashing of the tail, only that horrible expression of resistless purpose. We stared at each other for what seemed hours, though probably it was really only minutes, and at length I began to feel as if I were being mesmerised. Beside me lay a loose stone, and, thinking anything better than the terrible stillness, I threw it down and hit the beast fair between the eyes.
In an instant it had sprung, and missed my legs by a foot, as they hung over the ledge; I had not dreamt it could get so near. Then, retiring slowly, it gathered itself together and sprang again, gaining several inches. I tried in vain to get my legs under me on the ledge; it was all I could do to balance myself on it at all, and as it was I nearly fell in making the effort. There was nothing to do but to sit tight and hope that those extra few inches would prove beyond the lion's powers; and this was not so easy as it sounds. As time went on, my uneasy perch on the rough lava grew into a veri¬table seat of torture, and all the while that awful beast below kept returning to the charge with a fiendish deliberation that racked my nerves to breaking point. I think the pauses between each spring were the worst part. The brute seemed to realise that it would need all its powers to succeed, and after every leap crouched as at first, still and silent, for what seemed ages. Fortunately the height was just too much for it, and I was beginning to feel comparatively safe, when a huge flake of lava loosened by the repeated blows of the lion's paws fell away from beneath my feet.
In an instant the lion grasped the advantage the accident gave it, and using the stone as a place to take off from, began a fresh series of springs from the higher level. The flake was thin, and luckily, as it did not lie quite level, my enemy could not get a fair leap from it; still, even so it got so near that once it actually touched my right boot as it swung below the ledge. But the constant effort gradually began to tell, and at last, just as I was beginning to realise that I could hold out no longer, and was calculating my chance in a rough-and-tumble with no weapon but a hunting knife, the brute gave in for the time being, and retired to the bushes whence it had come, seizing my rifle as it passed, and crushing it into a twisted travesty of a weapon. Utterly exhausted by the long strain–for I had spent several hours on my lava chair–I clambered down and sat with my back against the stone that had so nearly proved my un¬doing, trying to make up my mind what to do next. To stay where I was obviously spelled death, and equally obviously the lion must have a means of egress behind the clump of bushes, since the rest of the pit was precipitous. But the alternative of plunging into the very clump where my enemy lay required more nerve than I could muster up. There was only one chance. When night fell the lion might go hunting, leaving the way clear, and I made up my mind to wait till dusk, and then risk all and search behind the bushes.
Too tired and anxious to sleep, I lay still against my rock till the shadows began to fall and the time drew near for action. The deadly silence oppressed me like a nightmare, and the hours seemed endless; but there was no way out of it, and at length when night had fairly set in I felt that further waiting only made bad worse, and taking my courage in both hands, I crept silently round the bushes, not troubling to pick up my useless rifle, and crawled behind them along the lava wall. As I had expected, I soon found a hole, just wide enough to allow me to pass on my hands and knees, and up this I crawled as quickly as I could, though progress was hideously slow and tiring.
After about fifty yards I reached a spot where the cave widened for a few yards, allowing me room to sit, and here I was compelled to rest a little and recover my breath. I sat facing the passage up which I had come – somehow I felt safer that way, and as the utter darkness was oppressive, I struck a match, and saw for the first time the strange place I was in. The roof, walls, and floor, instead of being solid, were formed of boulders of lava loosely piled and appearing frightfully insecure. One great block in the low roof just in front of me moved slightly even when I touched it with my hand. However, as it had lasted so long I supposed it would last my time, and I was just preparing to resume my scramble when I heard a faint sound. With a horrid chill at my heart I stopped and listened. Yes, there was no doubt of it; from the far end of the passage came the soft "pad, pad" of something moving–the lion had not gone hunting after all, and I must have crept past it while it slept at ease in the certainty that I could not escape it. Clearly it had picked up my scent, and a few seconds more would see the end. But fear gave me inspiration, and in an instant I was striving to dislodge the loose boulder in the roof. Of course the chances were that one boulder would bring down the rest, but that was no worse than what would happen if it did not fall, and anyway I had no time to think about it. The whole incident happened in a flash, and almost before I had realised the situation I was sitting breathless but safe, and listening to a furious scratching in the blocked passage within three feet of me.
Trembling with the inevitable reaction after what I had just gone through, 1 struck another match, and as it flared up a great white paw came through a small opening near the roof and strained at the boulder that alone lay between me and death, till even as I looked and the tiny flame flickered out it shifted slightly. The possibility of its turning over altogether restrung my nerves as nothing else, could have done, and I wasted no time in resuming my scramble down the passage, which now began to slope steeply upwards.
In ten minutes more I had emerged into the edge of a long stretch of grass with that gruesome forest behind me and the stars in a clear sky twinkling congratulations.
The way home was now plane sailing, and, hurrying on at a pace much accelerated by the thought that my kindly boulder might release the prisoner at any moment, I reached my camp just in time to find the boys preparing to bolt. They had followed me as far as the glade which was the beginning of all my troubles, and hearing of my temerity from the wretched Matoi, who by that time was nearly falling out of his tree from terror, they promptly fled back again, giving me up for lost. When once they found out that the dreaded beast was in the neighbourhood nothing would induce them to stay and give me another chance, and I must confess I was not over-keen myself.
I had had about enough of the White Lion.
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