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Chapter Twenty Three. Tough Travelling.
Next morning they did not start so early, because the great plain before them was shrouded under a fog, and they waited for it to pass off.

It was not dispelled until the sun had risen in the heavens behind them, for their backs were still to the east, their route lying due westward.

During the night, and again in the morning, they had discussed the question of striking straight across the plain, or making a circuitous march around it. When the fog at length lifted, this point was definitely settled by what they saw before and on each side of them, that the great valley plain extended both to right and left beyond the limits of their vision. To go round it might add scores of miles and many days to their journey. They could not think of taking such a circuitous route, even with the fear of the wild men before them; a danger Captain Redwood believed to be greatly exaggerated by the Malay, who in such matters was of a somewhat imaginative turn. Throwing aside all thought of such an encounter, they struck down the mountain slope, determined on crossing the plain.

It was sunset when they arrived at the mountain-foot, and another night was passed there.

On the following morning they commenced the passage of the plain; which introduced them to a very different and much more difficult kind of travelling than any they had experienced since leaving the sea-coast. Some parts of their journey, both in the ascent and descent, had been toilsome enough; but the slopes, as well as the summits, were comparatively clear of underwood. On the low level it was quite another affair. The huge forest-trees were loaded with parasitical creepers, which, stretching from trunk to trunk in all directions, formed here and there an impenetrable net or trellis-work. In such places the kris of Saloo, and the ship’s axe carried by Murtagh, were called into requisition, and much time was expended in cutting a way through the tangled growth.

Another kind of obstacle was also occasionally met with, in the brakes of bamboo, where these gigantic canes, four or five inches in diameter, and rising to a height of over fifty feet, grew so close together that even a snake would have found difficulty in working its way through them. Fortunately, their stems being hollow, they are easily brought down, and a single stroke from the axe, or even Saloo’s sharp kris, given slantingly, would send one of them crashing over, its leafy top bearing along with it the long ribbon-like leaves of many others.

One of these cane brakes proved to be upwards of a mile in width, and its passage delayed them at least three hours. They might have attempted to get round it, but they did not know how far it extended. Possibly ten or twenty miles—for the bamboo thickets often run in belts, their growth being due to the presence of some narrow water track, or the course of a stream. In the Indian Archipelago are several species of these tall canes, usually known by the general name of bamboo, though differing from each other in size and other respects. They furnish to the inhabitants of these islands the material for almost every article required for their domestic economy—as the various species of palms do to the natives of South America—more especially the denizens of the great Amazon valley. Not only are their houses constructed of bamboo, but the greater portion of their praus; while utensils of many kinds, cups, bottles, and water-casks of the best make, are obtained from its huge joints, cheaply and conveniently. A bare catalogue of bamboo tools and utensils would certainly occupy several pages.

Notwithstanding its valuable properties, our travellers hated the sight of it; and more than once the Irishman, as he placed his axe upon the silicious culms, was heard to speak disrespectfully about it, “weeshin’ that there wasn’t a stalk of the cane in all Burnayo.”

But another kind of obstruction vexed Murtagh even more than the brakes of bamboo. This was the webs of huge spiders—ugly tarantula-looking animals—whose nets in places, extending from tree to tree, traversed the forest in every direction, resembling the seines of a fishing-village hung out to dry, or miles of musquito-curtain depending from the horizontal branches. Through this strange festoonery they had to make their way, often for hundreds of yards; the soft silky substance clutching disagreeably around their throats and clinging to their clothes till each looked as though clad in an integument of ragged cotton, or the long loose wool of a merino sheep yet unwoven into cloth. And as they forced their way through it—at times requiring strength to extricate them from its tough retentive hold—they could see the hideous forms of the huge spiders who had spun and woven these strangely patterned webs scuttling off, and from their dark retreats in the crevices of the trees looking defiant and angry at the intruders upon their domain—perhaps never before trodden by man.

Yet another kind of obstruction our travellers had to encounter on their way across the great plain. There were tracts of moist ground, sometimes covered with tall forest-trees, at others opening out into a sedgy morass, with perhaps a small lake or water-patch in the centre. The first required them to make way through mud, or thick stagnant water covered with scum, often reaching above their knees. These places were especially disagreeable to cross; for under the gloomy shadow of the trees they would now and then catch a glimpse of huge newt-like lizards of the genus hydrosaurus—almost as large as crocodiles—slowly floundering out of the way, as if reluctant to leave, and half-determined to dispute the passage.

Moreover, while thus occupied, they lived in the obscurity of an eternal twilight, and could travel only by guess-work. They had no guide save the sun, which in these shadows is never visible. Through the thick foliage overhead its disc could not be seen; nor aught that would enable them to determine its position in the sky, and along with it their direction upon the earth. It was, therefore, not only a relief to their feelings, but a positive necessity for their continuance in the right direction, that now and then a stretch of open swamp obstructed their track. True, it caused them to make a détour, and so wasted their time; but then it afforded them a glimpse of the sun’s orb, and enabled them to pursue their journey in the right course.

During the mid-day hours they were deprived of even this guidance: for the meridian sun gives no clue to the points of the compass. They did not much feel the disadvantage; as at noon-tide the hot tropical atmosphere had become almost insupportable, and the heat, added to their fatigue from incessant toiling through thicket and swamp, made it necessary for them to take several hours of rest.

They resumed their journey in the evening, as the sun, declining toward the western horizon, pointed out to them the way they were to go. They aimed to reach the sheet of water seen by them from the brow of the mountain. They wished to strike it at its southern end, as this was right in the direction westward. It appeared to lie about midway between the two mountain-ranges; and, in such a case, would be a proper halting-place on their journey across the plain. On starting from the higher ground, they expected to reach it in a few hours, or at the latest by sunset of that same day. But it was twilight of the third day, when, with exhausted strength and wearied limbs, their clothing torn and mud-stained, they stood upon its nearest shore! They did not stand there long, but dropping down upon the earth, forgetful of everything—even the necessity of keeping watch—they surrendered themselves over to sleep.


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