EXPLORATION is not an exciting business after the first novelty has worn off, and by the end of my second week in the unknown territory the journey had settled into a dull routine in which all days were alike. I soon gave up trying to sleep in the native huts, for they were verminous and unendurably stuffy, and spread my bed in the open behind a windbreak of baggage. There were no dogs or pigs to disturb me, for both were tabu to these natives, and I slept peacefully until three or four o’clock, when the cold wakened me. I lay dozing, too chilly really to sleep, but too comfortable to get up, until a voice called from one of the huts. Other voices answered in gruff, sleepy tones, and I heard the scrape of doors sliding back and the faint crunching of bare feet on sand. There was no hint of dawn as yet, but an even luminous grayness, a half light that seemed to come as much from the earth as from the sky. Through this grayness white-robed figures drifted silently and, it seemed, aimlessly, appearing and disappearing.

After a time a little flare of red light sprang up, where the cook kindled a fire to boil tea, and the white shapes crowded about it, stretching thin hands to the blaze as though they groped for life. When I shouted they left the fire reluctantly, drifting through the dimness and taking their places about the filanzana (sedan chair) without a word. For perhaps an hour we plodded along with no sound except the complaining creak of leather and the soft scuffing of the bearers’ feet. As we marched, the stars, which at first seemed closer and brighter than they do in Northern latitudes, grew fainter and faded out one by one, as though the sky were withdrawing from the earth. The strange colorless light strengthened, and little eddies of wind ran past us, rustling in the dry thorn. They came from the west, hurrying to meet the sunrise, and there was a bitter chill in them. The bearers shivered under their thin lambas (mantles), and sometimes I caught the faint click of chattering teeth. Then in the east a glow began, dull at first and overlaid with gray, like a sheet of iron that is beginning to cool. Minute by minute it brightened and mounted until half the sky was the color of thin flame, a smooth sheet of glowing light unbroken by any cloud. For a little while the sand and thorn took on the yellow of gold in dust, and the white lambas of my men seemed dyed with saffron. Then the sun came at a bound, the yellow glow faded, and our shadows leaped out before us, long and black. It seemed only a moment before the heat struck us.

The men halted to take off their lambas, rolling them about their waists or tying them on the poles of the filanzana. They stretched and rubbed their chilled limbs, like lizards thawing out after a frosty night, and their spirits began to revive. The sun was the black man’s friend, just as it was the white man’s enemy. While they were welcoming it I was adjusting my helmet and smoked glasses and greasing my face with vaseline to keep the skin from cracking. Sometimes I tied a handkerchief across my mouth to protect my lips. They had become blistered early in the trip, and with repeated burnings the blisters had turned to open sores that made eating difficult.

As the sun mounted, the heat increased momentarily, until by ten o’clock even the wooden poles of the filanzana were so hot that the bearers had to pad their shoulders with their lambas. I felt as though I were being grilled at a slow fire, but even so I found the heat less troublesome than the light. The glare was indescribable, for the country was a waste of white sand that reflected the sun like a sheet of polished metal. Here and there stunted thorn trees broke the expanse, but they cast no real shadows, only mazes of thin gray lines that writhed in the heat waves like nests of spiders. The light stung my eyes through my dark glasses, and even when I closed them I found little relief, for my whole body was conscious of it. It seemed to come from all directions and to press upon me with a tangible weight, as water presses upon a diver. By the time we came to a village and halted for lunch, I had usually reached the limit of my endurance, and was glad to crawl into the first native hut, welcoming its malodorous darkness. Even this did not bring immediate relief, for I had a curious sensation as though two or three centres deep inside my body had become soaked with light and were radiating it back, like those chemicals which glow for hours after exposure to the sun. The main centre seemed to be in the neighborhood of my solar plexus, and the sensation, although not painful, was decidedly unpleasant. By the end of the noon halt, which was usually about three hours, the feeling would have worn off, and I would be ready to go on.

The afternoon would be a repetition of the morning, and when we reached the night halt I would turn in as soon as possible, almost too tired to eat.

Day after day we plodded westward through the deep sand, following zigzag trails and making long detours to reach villages, so that we rarely made more than five or six miles in an air line. I had planned to travel northwest from Faux Cap until I struck the west coast, then follow it northward to Tulear, visiting a salt lake reported to be somewhere in that region, but I came to believe that this would be impossible. I was following the usual custom of living on the country, and it could not provide food for my safari of thirty men. As we went westward the villages dwindled to mere herdsmen’s camps, vacant a large part of the year. Even the supply of cactus began to run out, and the natives themselves seemed half starved. The short rations brought the bearers first to noisy protests and then to a sullen apathy which was much more dangerous. I was fairly sure that they lacked the spirit for open mutiny so far from home, but I began to fear a knife while I was asleep, or poison. A supply of the latter was always on hand, for the desert contained a surprising number of deadly plants. An old native at Tsiombe had told me of sixteen different poisons and their effects, ending with an account of a certain root which, if cut and laid on the skin of a sleeping man, would kill him in two or three hours without waking him. It may have been only a story, but during the rest of my stay in the region I was careful to make my own bed.


Looking back on that trip, I think that, with luck, I might have won through if it had not been for the appearance of a new and unexpected enemy in my own mind. I had become quite accustomed to solitude and had learned to erect barriers against loneliness, but I found that my defenses were beginning to break down. I suppose that, although I did not realize it then, they had been undermined by the preceding months of travel when I saw other white men on an average of once a week. Then, too, the terrible sun and shortage of food were bringing out the fever in my blood, so that, although not really delirious, I found myself dwelling more and more in a shadowy half world that was neither altogether real nor altogether imaginary. It was as though the everyday world had retreated to a vast distance, while the half-formed thoughts and impressions that pass almost unnoticed at ordinary times had taken on a terrible strength and importance. There is a solitude of waste places, and a solitude of the crowd, and now I felt both pressing upon me.

The barrier between myself and the bearers could not be relaxed, for they would have taken the least touch of familiarity as a sign of weakness, and that would have meant the end. I lightened their work when I could, doctored them when they were sick, and heard them patiently when they had just complaints, but they had to be made to realize that they were only means to an end, draft animals who had to be kept in good condition if the trip were to succeed. As our hardships increased I could feel their indifference changing to a dull, almost impersonal hatred that dragged at me with a force that was intangible but real, as a current drags at a tired swimmer. I could have endured this, but there was something in the country itself that wore me down. There is a peace and a quiet grave companionship in mountains, and in jungles a press of eager and aspiring life, a battle and striving toward the sun, which make them kin to a man’s soul, but there was neither peace nor aspiration in this waste of thorn and shifting sand. It was a defeated land, a land that lay broken under the lash of the sun, lifting its head to snarl at us, hating us because we lived and moved. There was a menace in the crooked, crouching thorn trees that were like old men who had outlived battle and planned treachery, and there was a menace in the restless sand, white as dead men’s teeth, forever whispering, like slaves that plot in corners. A bitter, impotent land that dared not fight us openly, but waited to stab us if we fell.

Slowly but surely I exhausted my mental resources one after the other. The few books I had allowed myself I already knew almost by heart, and they were of little real use, for one cannot read on the march. Long poems that I had learned as a boy were recited over and over until they lost their meaning. I solved scientific problems, composed stories, laid plans for the future — anything to fill my mind and drown the voices from the outside. Memories of well-loved things fed me for a while, then came memories of other things better forgotten, and always, just below the threshold of consciousness, I could feel the restless stir and crowding of those whom Yeats calls ‘the dark folk who live in souls of passionate men, like bats in the dead trees.’ Doubts eager to destroy all I had built up, fears of something more terrible than any ill of life or death, and shapeless black things that were pure evil. I thought that I had put the dark folk from me years before, in France and after, when I learned how much easier it was to act than to think, but now they came pressing up, not to be denied. Shape after shape forced its way into the light of the upper mind, each to be grappled with and each to pass, taking something with it. Then no more came, and the mind was like a bare room, stripped of all except the crude furniture of daily routine, in which I stood and waited.

The voices from outside, which I had feared so, came quite clearly now, but they meant no more than the sound of rain on a roof. It was a strange mood — much, I fancy, like the mood of the mystic who waits a divine word or sign, but lacking his exaltation and his hope. No sign came, no guest entered the room that had been swept but not garnished, and I began to feel a growing resentment that I should be in a room at all. The walls of the mind seemed no longer a defense, but a barrier that shut me in, cutting me off from some larger fellowship and knowledge. I wanted to be free, but I was too tired to force my way out. I could only wait and watch my mind and body going through their daily roimd of unimportant things, wondering dully why they did it and when they would break. I felt as though I were being delayed by some boring visitor when I should be on the way to an important engagement, unable to break away, but too annoyed to pay attention. I was no longer lonely, and when I came among white men once more I felt a strong reluctance to meet them and an inability to talk to them. I understood why the dead return so seldom, and then only speak of trivial matters. There would be no common language in which to discuss the great ones. Everything in the world I had known before seemed somehow small and changed, and I realized with a bleak clarity that hardly one of the things by and for which people moulded their lives really mattered.

In this mood the trip no longer seemed very important, and my grip weakened. Moreover, toward the last I began to be light-headed at times. Even my interpreter seemed unable to tell when I was delirious, and, as the orders I gave then were more forcible and convincing than those I gave when sane, a good deal of confusion resulted. At last I confessed that the desert had beaten me, and turned back, traveling northeastward until I reached one of the French posts. Although I had failed, I could comfort myself with the knowledge that I had gotten considerably farther into the country than any white man who had left a record.

My journal of the return journey is almost a blank, and only one incident remains in my memory. On the afternoon of the last day before we reached the fort a large snake, either a boa or a python, came into the trail ahead of us. It was as thick as a man’s upper arm, and must have newly shed, for its colors were brilliant, a delicate cream mottled with reddish brown. Knowing that these Southern natives never injured snakes, I paid no attention to it, but the bearers crowded about me, begging me to kill it. ‘But,’ I said, ‘it is fady (tabu).’ ‘Yes, yes, fady to us, but it is a bad snake. It eats chickens. Please kill it for us.’ One of them brought me a stout club, and I went after it. By this time the front half had disappeared into the brush, and I hesitated to strike it, not wishing to injure the skin. My interpreter, gifted with more courage and less intelligence than I had given him credit for, seized it by the middle and dragged it back into the road. It instantly coiled around him, and for a few seconds they gave a lively imitation of the Laocoön. I finally got home with the club, and unwound the snake from the hero, who was violently sick at his stomach. The bearers had kept at a safe distance, but they now came forward, and each man solemnly rubbed the great toe of his right foot in the snake’s blood.

When we arrived at the post I paid off my bearers, who could go home from there through territory under government control, then devoted myself whole-heartedly to an attack of fever, which kept me in bed for a week. Fortunately there was a European in command, a sergeant of Corsican birth, and he tended me like a brother. I can only say of him, as Johnson said of Hervey, ‘He was a vicious man, but very kind to me.’ His post was so remote that he was rarely visited by any superior, and he had allowed his desire to retire with a fortune to overshadow most other considerations. He was a talkative little man and would chatter away by the hour without expecting a word from me, which fitted well with my mood. He was very homesick for Corsica, and always came back to the home he would buy there when he left the service. He had it all planned, even to the number of olive trees and vines and how many rooms there would be in the low, white house. He was never to see it, except in dreams, for a month after I had left word came that he was dead. I was grieved, but not surprised, for I had heard many tales of his treatment of the natives, and I had seen that he was getting careless. Matters had come to a head when he took an ox from a native without any pretense of payment, and kicked its owner out of the compound. This was the last straw, and a few days later two men came up to him in the street of the village and speared him without preliminaries. They disappeared into the desert and were never taken.


After the hardships of the preceding month the peace and plentiful food of the fort seemed very pleasant, and I was loath to move on. Even when the fever had lett me I lingered day after day. I found myself regarding the passage of time almost with a native’s indifference, and was conscious of a great reluctance to return to civilization. I knew that three months’ mail must be waiting for me at Tulear, but even this did not seem a great incentive. It was so much easier to sit in the shade of the Government House verandah and watch the village. When I first came to Madagascar I should have felt that its possibilities could be exhausted in half a day, but now I wondered whether an ordinary lifetime would be enough. There was something quiet and immemorial about it, comforting as an old garment that has long since shaped itself to the wearer’s body. The fort with its whitewashed walls stood up stark and uncompromising, as out of place as the civilization it symbolized, but the village blended into the landscape like a patch of lichen on a rock. Like the lichen, it had its own colors, rich but subdued. The sand of the straggling streets was the color of worn gold, and the little houses had the gray of tarnished silver coins. It was days before I realized that their shadows were really blue. Here and there mango trees rose above the houses in rolls of dark green foliage, like sudden puffs of black smoke from locomotive stacks, while along the edge of the clearing ran a hedge of pale blue-green cactus, starred with yellow and orange flowers. Just beyond the village the gray scrub began, stretching away mile after mile to far-off hills that wavered like smoke in the heat haze.

In the face of that silent immensity human beings were dwarfed to microscopic size, but only we white men seemed out of place. Against that background of silence and space and quiet color the people of the village went their daily round, as much a part of it as the trees and sun. They went silently, on bare feet, walking slowly and luxuriously, with the grace of unhurried animals; tall beautiful men in loin cloths with skins the color of dark bronze, and shapely women with the superb carriage of those accustomed to bearing burdens on their heads. Naked children played at quiet, decorous games, squatting beside intricate drawings in the sand and moving pebbles deliberately and at long intervals, as though they were playing chess. Old men, their time of work and war long past, sat all day with their backs against some house wall, changing their places only when the sun left them.

These old men fascinated me, for they had about them a stillness that was inhuman. They would sit for hours without moving a muscle, but wideawake, with quick eyes darting here and there. It was as though, on their road to the grave, they had halted at the very edge of our world, and turned back to watch their descendants distrustfully. Their bodies had been almost laid aside, tools no longer needed, but in their minds I sensed a tense alertness like that of a crouching animal. Everything that happened in the village these watchers saw and recorded and weighed, not against the desires by which younger men measure events, but against one fixed and unalterable standard, the ancient usage of the tribe. In their vigilant immobility I saw a symbol of the fomba, the unalterable custom, fixed as the laws of nature, before which every individual in the tribe must bow or break. I knew that these old men were the real rulers of the village, viceroys for the ancestral spirits whom they would soon join. When they gave judgment they spoke with the voice of the ancestors, from whom there could be no appeal. Perhaps they themselves had rebelled in their youth, but if so they held it as no more than a disgraceful episode. In their eyes the old ways were not the best, but the only ones.

Knowing all this, I had expected them to be hostile to me, but they were not. When I grew strong enough to stroll about the village I found them ready to meet my friendly advances halfway. From the calm security of the unchanging past they regarded me with a fleeting interest, or at least a benevolent indifference. To them the coming of the white men was only an incident, the fort no more than a camping place of a safari moving across the desert. They had known Europeans for, at most, two generations, and believed that in two more they would be gone again.

Like all old men, the watchers loved to talk of the past, and were glad to find someone who did not weary of their reminiscences. Most of their stories grouped themselves about their great king Tsipodra, who had reigned just before the French conquest. His name meant ‘No Powder,’ and he had earned it by training his warriors to charge home with their heavy stabbing spears, instead of blazing away with muskets from a safe distance. None of the other clans had been able to stand against him, and he had raided far and wide, gathering a huge booty of cattle and slaves. Even his death was notable, for his funeral had been worthy of such a hero. His body had lain in state for a whole month, exposed on a flat stone beside his dwelling, while the whole clan feasted at his family’s expense. Rum had flowed like water, and over four hundred cattle had been slaughtered and their fat used to feed the fires which were kept blazing night and day to hide the odor of decaying flesh. When only his bones remained they had been laid in the largest tomb ever built in the Mahafaly country, and the place abandoned, leaving his houses standing with all their furniture. Now and then some native visited the spot to see that nothing had been disturbed; it was tabu to take anything, even a cactus fruit, from it. The houses had long since disappeared, but the posts which fenced his cattle pen had taken root and grown into an almost impenetrable palisade twenty feet high. Other trees had sprung up and, under the protection of the tabu, had grown into a tall grove which rose above the scrub and was visible for a long distance.

I was anxious to visit the place, and as I was not sure the natives would favor this I decided to go alone, and secretly. I felt sure that, with the grove as a mark, I could find it without a guide. By this time the people were quite used to seeing me strolling about with my camera, and no one paid any attention to me when I set out. The trail was a narrow one through dense thorn that rustled at the slightest touch, and after stopping and listening several times I became convinced that I was not being followed. I found the tomb without difficulty, and settled down to take measurements and photographs. The tomb itself was a huge rectangular block of rough stone masonry with a row of ox skulls along its upper edge. Behind these, forming an oblong, were rows of aloalo, slabs of hard wood about eight feet high and eighteen inches wide. The lower part of each slab was carved with a series of crescents and disks which the natives had told me were moon symbols, while on the top were one or more figures. The moon symbols were always the same, but no two groups of figures were alike. Some slabs bore oxen, others birds, either singly or in pairs, and still others human figures, mostly women. Five or six had scenes carved in miniature, men milking cattle, wrestlers, and one a white officer drilling a troop of diminutive native soldiers.

There was no place from which I could get a good photograph of this unless I climbed on the tomb, and, although I had been careful so far not to touch anything, I finally decided to take a chance. I had slung my camera and was preparing to scramble up when something prompted me to turn around. I found myself facing, literally at arm’s length, a huge native armed with a very good modern rifle and the largest stabbing spear I had ever seen. In the instant of encounter it looked as wide as a shovel. He already had it half raised, and if I had laid a hand on the tomb it would have been driven through my back. Even when I turned he held it poised, and it was fortunate for me that my first reaction was neither fear nor fight, but a slightly hysterical amusement at the neat way in which I had been trapped. I laughed. The man’s scowl gave place to a look of blank amazement, then he also began to laugh. ‘May you have health,’ I said, giving him the native greeting. ‘Will you have some tobacco?’ Then, taking care not to make any sudden movements, I drew out my pipe and tobacco pouch with my left hand and offered the pouch to him. Still laughing, he grounded his spear butt and brought out his own pipe from the folds of his loin cloth. I quietly hooked the thumb of my right hand into my belt, where it would be close to my pistol, and began to chat with him about the tomb in a matter-of-fact way.

He soon became quite friendly, pointing out the slab on which the body had lain and the sites of the various houses, and ended by selling me his spear and volunteering to show me a shorter way back to the fort. When he started I heard the bushes rustling in several places, and realized that I had been surrounded. The men who trailed me must have been wonderful stalkers, for they had come up without making a sound. My new friend led off, but soon distanced me, and when I came to a sudden turn in the path I found that he had disappeared. I went on with the best air of leisurely indifference that I could muster, but until I was safe out of the brush I had a distinctly cool sensation up and down my spine. When I was back in my quarters I measured the spear and found that it really was the largest I had seen to date. The blade was seventeen inches long and four inches wide, with razor-sharp edges; and, meditating upon the wound that such a weapon would make, I registered a vow to keep the native tabus from that day forth, whether I thought I was being watched or not. I had the added chagrin of knowing that, like most adventures, the incident had been due to my own bad judgment. I could have accomplished quite as much if I had gone to the tomb openly. The story had reached the village by the time I reached the fort, and for the balance of my stay the natives greeted me with broad grins and sly jokes. I laughed with them, and could see that the incident had not lost me their respect or liking, although the owner of the spear found it convenient to go on a journey and remain away until I was gone.


After a rest of over two weeks I mustered up energy to begin my trip northward to Tulear. The sergeant and I had become fast friends and I left him with genuine regret. He not only gave me his own filanzana bearers for the first stage of my trip, but refused all payment for my stay, a depth of devotion that only one who knew him could appreciate. As usual, we set out at gray dawn. In spite of the chill the bearers were in high spirits, for the fort lay near the edge of the military territory, and once I was in a new province I should have to get new men. They would be relieved the next night, and their two days’ service would exempt them from further duty for some time to come. They laughed and shouted as they trotted along, and one of them blew a little shell trumpet.

Just at sunrise we came to a wide river edged by a line of dark trees and beds of tangled cane. The water was low and ran crystal-clear over shoals of yellow sand. Downstream the sky was reflected on it in little gleaming patches of red and gold that scattered and ran like new coins spilled from a sack. The men slid down the bank and splashed through, shuffling to throw up clouds of glittering spray.

As we crossed the river the break in the brush gave me a view of the sky ahead, and I saw a long, low-lying cloud that seemed to be drifting eastward, like the smoke of a forest fire on a lazy wind. I knew that it could not be smoke, for it was pale brown with hints of light in it, like the furtive gleams in a very dull opal. Also, it had a peculiar motion of its own. Long wisps or streamers would break off from its upper edge, travel above and parallel with it for a time, then drop back into it. Our own path and that of the cloud converged, and I watched it through the occasional openings in the tree tops. As we drew nearer I made out a quantity of black specks that swerved around and through it in a crazy dance, like dust motes in a beam of light.

Within an hour we were in the midst of it — an enormous swarm of locusts in flight. There were literally millions of the big insects, filling the air with little points of light where the sun was reflected on their wings. They flew jerkily, beating upward and then coasting down in a series of long swoops. Their wings made a curious dry rustling, like a snake gliding over paper. It did not seem loud, but I found that I had to shout to make the men hear me. The black motes resolved themselves into a multitude of birds, mostly little hawks slightly larger than our own sparrow hawks. These would dash through the thickest of the flying insects, striking right and left with their talons, and rise with a victim gripped in each foot. They floated above the swarm, devouring their prey at leisure, then plunged down for more. They never seemed to catch the locusts in their beaks, and I saw one foiled in his swoop by striking an insect head-on. The other birds were mostly dark gray buzzards and big black and white crows, but these flapped about clumsily, snapping at their prey and taking a smaller toll.

The locusts themselves were like gigantic grasshoppers about two and a half inches long. Their bodies were olive-green or brown, and their wings, in repose, had the yellowish glitter of thin sheets of mica. Here and there I saw larger individuals which were bright red with fantastic knobs and spines on their bodies and greenish wings. Their colors must have been a danger signal, for I saw a crow that had caught one spit it out and energetically wipe his beak on his wing. The great swarm covered a front of perhaps a mile and a half and was at least five miles deep. It seemed to move in waves, like advancing infantry, those in the van settling to feed while those in the rear flew over them. The feeding insects covered the bushes and trees with a glittering armor that made me think of sleet storms at home. Even the bare ground was almost solidly overspread with them, as though the earth had grown a scaly, reptilian skin. They seemed to love the sun, and I noticed that where a tree cast a heavy shadow they would pile up in seething windrows inches deep along the edges of the shade, but would rarely penetrate any distance into it. They seemed to feed with equal avidity on everything green and on the weak or injured members of the swarm, and left a trail of utter desolation in their wake. I had crossed the paths of such swarms before, and found the trees stripped bare and the ground covered with a litter of brittle, broken twigs, like the aftermath of a hailstorm.

The harvest was too rich to miss, and the bearers asked leave to halt and gather some of them for food. A few resorted to hand methods, but with little success, for the prey were surprisingly quick and wary. The rest paired off, each couple holding a lamba outspread between them like a sail. With these they charged through the thickest of the insects, which rose in shimmering, rustling clouds. Many of the locusts struck and clung to the cloth, and after each charge it was quickly folded and squeezed to break the insects’ wings. In a few minutes the men had gathered several pounds apiece, and we resumed the march with every lamba and rice sack bulging with loot. At the noon halt my cook offered me a dish of them, stripped of their wings and fried in oil, and I found them quite palatable, although they had a peculiar flavor. I only tasted them, for I had been able to gather better food for myself. The brush was becoming less heavy, and in the open glades we surprised many coveys of krakratra, dustybrown ground pigeons as large as grouse, which rose whirring at our approach. I make it a rule never to kill for sport, but these birds were a real delicacy and seemed so numerous that after shooting two for my interpreter and myself I brought down six more, for the bearers of my filanzana.

It happened that these men were a mixed lot, six Mahafaly and the same number of Antandroy. When they received the gift the Mahafaly began to laugh and taunt the Antandroy, saying, ’Poor fellows! Krakratra are fady to you, and you will have to sit hungry and watch us eat a whole bird apiece.’ ‘Of course we can’t eat them,’ the Antandroy answered, ’but we come to one of your villages this noon and we’ll exchange our share for a chicken. Chicken is better than krakratra any day.’ Then, turning to me, ’We can’t touch krakratra, so make one of these ignorant Mahafaly carry our birds for us.’ I agreed that this was just, and everyone thought it a good joke. When we halted for lunch I supervised the exchange myself, and saw to it that the Antandroy got their chicken without having to handle the pigeons. As soon as they had it I retired to the rest house, but presently heard scuffling and laughter and came out to find that two of the Mahafaly were wrestling with an Antandroy and trying to touch him with a handful of pigeon feathers. The other Antandroy stood by grinning, and even the victim took it in good part until they succeeded, when he became angry and struck at one of them with his fist. His tormentors ran away, laughing. Later in the afternoon I saw the same men chatting together amicably, so I judged the offense was not too serious.


We halted that night at a Mahafaly village, then pressed on northward. We had been climbing gradually, and now the country began to change. The sand through which I had been traveling for over two months gave place to hard red soil with outcrops of gray rock, and the thorny scrub disappeared. In its place were leafy trees and bushes that grew in clumps, with winding grassy lanes between. There were no flowers, except those of the ever-present cactus, but we began to find wild fruit. One straggling bush, covered with dark green foliage, bore red berries somewhat like large rose haws. These were tasteless but mildly sweet, and whenever the bearers sighted a clump of them there was a general scramble. One of my filanzana bearers had the trick of taking a handful of these and tossing them high in the air, one after another, catching them in his open mouth as he trotted along. At every catch he brought his teeth together with a click like a steel trap and gave a whoop of delight. There were also low gray trees, nearly always growing alone, which bore translucent yellow fruit, egg-shaped and as large as a big plum. The hardier men ate these and I tasted one, but found it sourer than any lemon. Birds began to appear, big gray parrots which flew high for the most part, small white herons with black beaks and legs, and flocks of guinea fowl which crossed the road marching in single file. They were very wary, and I pursued one flock for nearly a mile until I lost them in an impenetrable cactus thicket, without getting a shot at them. Later in the day my interpreter stalked another flock and got two fine plump birds larger than chickens. I told my cook to prepare one that night, but it did not appear until the next noon. He explained apologetically that he had had to borrow a pot to cook it in, and it was too late to find one when we reached the town. Guinea fowl were his personal fady, imposed long before by an ombiasy (medicine man) whom he had consulted as to the best way to get rich. If he had cooked one in my own pots he could never have eaten food from them afterward.

We passed several herds of cattle, each surrounded by a guard of the little white herons, who perched fearlessly on their backs and picked off the ticks and stinging flies. They were watched by boys or tall, lean men who hid their spears hastily at my approach. Although the grass seemed baked dry the animals were sleek and in good condition. One huge bull, with horns at least four feet across and a hump like a camel, seemed inclined to dispute our passage, until a small boy ran up and drove him away with much shouting and arm waving. Even then he glowered at us from a distance, pawing and bellowing. The bearers were in their element, naming each beast by its particular color and criticizing its points as closely as a group of jockeys around a race horse. Then one of them broached the question whether, all things considered, it was better to have a cow or a second wife. The dispute went on for hours, with a careful weighing of the advantages of each. The Malagasy love such long-drawn-out arguments, and the men became quite rhetorical, quoting proverbs and declaiming in their best style. I ventured a word in favor of the woman, but was ruled out as inexperienced, for I had to admit I had never had either two wives or a cow. Finally the decision went to the cow, on the grounds that she was more profitable and less troublesome.

It was well after dark when we reached the post, but I could see that it was a place of some size. We passed a fort and several whitewashed houses, and the strangers’ house was a large, solidly built affair with three rooms. It was filthy and alive with fleas, a sure sign that I was nearing civilization, and I passed a bad night. Daylight showed that the post was even larger than I had thought it — in fact, the first real town I had seen in three months. There were several streets of mud houses and a number of shops, most of which seemed to be closed. The government offices were also closed, and this should have warned me, but I had been in the brush so long that I had lost all count of time and of the days of the week. I merely concluded that the town was having an epidemic of some sort, the usual explanation when a Madagascar town seems half deserted, and went on to the Administrator’s residence to pay my official call. I knocked, and after some delay an orderly came to the door and I sent in my card. A few moments later I was ushered into the presence of a very small and very irate Frenchman attired in straw slippers and pyjamas. I had committed the unpardonable offense of disturbing him on Sunday. He swelled with outraged dignity and drew himself up haughtily to his full five feet, demanding what I wanted, how I had dared to trouble him out of office hours, et cetera. He gave me no chance to reply, so I merely looked down on him benevolently while he buzzed about me like an angry mosquito. When he paused for breath I apologized for disturbing him and presented my credentials, assuring him that I would call again at a more appropriate time. At sight of my letter from the Governor-General he became visibly deflated, but continued to glare at me, even angrier than he had been before. When I inquired whether it was true that there was an American missionary stationed in the town, he said explosively, ‘Yes! He has the finest house in the town! He is a millionaire! All Americans are millionaires!’ He seemed about to go on on the subject of Americans, but changed his mind and ushered me out with a stiff bow. It was a fitting welcome to civilization.

When I returned next morning, to arrange for new bearers, I found a freshly painted sign in front of his office that Europeans were received only between the hours of 11 and 11.15 A. M. I was foolish enough to regard this, which was an error, for he belonged to the type who take even ordinary courtesy as a sign of fear. During the next few days I was subjected to a series of delays and petty annoyances, culminating in an effort to disarm my interpreter. It was plain that the official wanted a bribe, a small matter to a millionaire American, but I did not feel inclined to give it to him. Instead I had another interview in which I promised to lodge a complaint against him with his superior. He made a half-hearted apology, and I had no more trouble. I must say to the credit of the French Colonial Service that he was one of the three deliberately troublesome officials I met during my stay in the island, and that all three were of the lowest rank.


After my interview I set out to find the missionary and, following the sound of singing, soon discovered his church. Services were under way, but long experience had taught me what to do. As soon as the hymn was finished I entered and took my place on the foremost bench on the men’s side, the proper seat for a European visitor. I could sense great though suppressed excitement in the congregation, and the missionary himself came down and shook hands before going on with the service. When I spoke to him in English he was so startled that he could hardly continue. An old native came sidling up and, with a friendly smile and pat on the shoulder, gave me a hymn book, pointing out the place. Then a wheezy little portable organ began to gasp and rattle, and the congregation droned through verse after verse.

While they were singing I took time to look about me. It was a very simple little church, as plain as the Quaker meetinghouses of my boyhood, and yet it bespoke a wealth of devotion that was almost pitiful. The whitewashed walls of mud brick bulged a little in places, mute evidence of their builders’ inexperience, and the tall wooden posts and rudely joined rafters that supported the roof were scored with the shallow chippings of little native axes. I learned afterward that they had been hewn in the forest and carried over thirty miles on men’s shoulders. Altar, altar rail, and pulpit were of planed wood, the work of the missionary himself. and the altar cloth was a strip of cheap white cotton goods edged with native lace. The congregation sat on rough wooden benches, the men on the right and the women on the left. Most of them were dressed in white lambas with more or less complete European clothing underneath. Plainly they were natives from the Plateau, almost as much strangers in this region as I was myself. A few of the local Mahafaly, in loin cloths and striped blankets, occupied the humble benches near the door, but they seemed to be mostly poor old people. From my raised seat the congregation as a whole gave somewhat the effect of a large and lumpy tablecloth set with rows of black heads.

Small children wandered about, and there was a good deal of coming and going, but one felt that there was nothing casual or perfunctory. Everyone wore a serious, preoccupied expression, and when a dog wandered in the man nearest the door kicked him on the nose with extraordinary precision and without even taking his eyes from his hymn book. The dog’s frantic yelps and hurried flight did not turn a head or bring a smile. When the hymn ended, a native pastor took the pulpit and began to preach. I could not catch his text, but he spoke first of the love and care of God for His own. The people listened with rapt attention, and it was borne in upon me, as often before, that I was in the presence of the real primitive Christians. These simple, earnest, half-civilized folk differed hardly at all from the shepherds and fishermen and artisans who crowded about the Great Teacher on some Judean hillside two thousand years ago. The message given then came to these latest converts with all its original freshness and force, couched in a language they could understand. The Good Shepherd, the wells of clear water, all the old phrases that have become only phrases to us, were for them facts of daily life, similes drawn from the things they knew best.

Then the preacher changed to the wars of the Jews and Philistines, pointing out how the Lord had protected His people. The interest of the audience deepened. It was plain that the trials and tribulations of the early Israelites were to them like so much current history, lit by flashes of their own experience. When he came to the combat of David and Goliath he described it in lively detail, adding several features which had been omitted by the original war correspondent, and wound up with: ‘So David cut off Goliath’s head and hung it up outside his village for the hawks to eat. The family never recovered it, and they had to bury Goliath without a head. Observe, my friends, how God takes away the intelligence of the enemies of His people. Which one of us, armed only with a spear and sword, would attack a man who was at a distance and armed with a sling? Goliath was a great warrior, but he became proud and attacked God’s people, and God took away his brains.’ Several of the older men nodded, and I knew they were recalling their own experiences with the Mahafaly slingers, who are deadly up to seventy-five yards.

After the service many of the men and a few of the older women crowded about to shake hands and to welcome me to the church. Most of them belonged to types I easily recognized, minor officials in stiff white ducks with rows of brass buttons, prosperous merchants, and middle-aged widows, here as everywhere active in church work. There was one man, however, whom I could not place. He was barefoot and dressed in a single straight white garment and stood apart from the others, waiting patiently for them to finish. His light skin and straight hair showed that he came from the Plateau, but he was like no Imerina or Betsileo I had ever seen. They are, for the most part, short, with slender bones and small weak hands, but this man was almost a giant in height, with the chest and shoulders of a wrestler. He seemed lean to the point of emaciation, but his bare arms were corded with muscle, and his whole figure told of strength and almost unlimited endurance. When the others had finished their polite greetings he came forward, and they made room for him quickly and a little timidly. He towered above the sleek officials and merchants as gaunt and uncompromising as a dead pine tree, and seized my hand in a grip as strong as my own.

Looking up into his face, I knew the mystery was solved. I had seen the primitive Christians, and now I was meeting an apostle. All the passionate zeal, the half-insane energy, the spirit burning through the flesh, which Rodin has caught in his great head of John the Baptist, were in the man before me. Still clasping my hand, he asked eagerly, ‘Are you a missionary? A new missionary?’ ‘No,’ I said, and the light seemed to fade from his face. His hand dropped to his side, and I saw that it was strong and yet sensitive, with long big-knuckled fingers like those of a trained musician. ‘ But you are a Christian?’ he asked doubtfully, and I answered that I was, for it seemed no time for definitions. He brightened again, and would have said more if the missionary had not plucked me by the sleeve and asked me to come to his house. As we strolled toward it he explained that the old man was half mad, a member of a purely native sect of wandering preachers who traveled back and forth among the pagan tribes, spreading the Gospel.

‘Of course they do some good by preparing the way for our work,’ he said doubtfully, ‘but I fear many of them are quite unorthodox.’