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Text - "The Old Man of the Mountain" Herbert Strang


Their preparations were quickly made, and they set off while the morning was still young. Hamid Gul carried his cooking utensils, plates, knives and forks, and other articles; Sher Jang shouldered some blankets, in which he had wrapped a quantity of ammunition, and the three white men divided the food among them. Each of the party had his rifle slung behind his back. Their guides, a dozen of the villagers, harnessed themselves to tree trunks, which they dragged through the wood and down the rocky slope beyond. It had been arranged before they started that the white men should follow at some little distance, so that the natives, in case of need, might repudiate knowledge of them, and escape all responsibility for bringing the strangers to the neighbourhood of the falls. At the foot of the slope they came to a rivulet. Without the Naga head-man Sher Jang could not hold any oral communication with the villagers; but they managed to convey to him the information that the smaller falls of which they had spoken were a little way down-stream; the larger falls lay a much greater distance in the other direction. Some minutes were occupied in forming the balks of timber into a raft. When this was done half the party of natives swam to the farther bank, carrying ropes attached to the raft, and then the two sections hauled their wares against the sluggish current, tramping along towpaths which must have been trodden by several generations of their forebears. The view ahead was shut out by the trees that grew almost to the edge of the winding stream; but it was not long before the white men, walking about half a mile behind their guides, were aware of a dull rumble that grew louder moment by moment as they proceeded. "That's the fall!" cried Jackson. "We can't be far away." "A pretty big one, by the sound of it," Forrester remarked. "Small falls make a sort of crash-this is more of a roar. Perhaps we shall find a second Niagara." "I'm fair flummoxed!" said Mackenzie, inconsequently. "What about?" "About yon Eye. You see, these folks were terrified by the storm: 'He speaks,' they said. Well, that was the thunder. By what the philosophers call parity of reasoning, the Eye is lightning. Well, lightning can take off a man's arm, and strike him daft or dead; but what about the little men up yonder? Are they scunnered at the Eye, too? What has the Eye to do with Beresford?" "Trust a Scot to ask questions!" said Jackson. "But you won't reason it out, Mac; you'll just have to wait, like an Englishman." "Och, man! I want facts. Give me facts, and I'll draw my own conclusions." "Well, this row is a fact, and a stunning one," said Forrester. "It's time we caught sight of the fall that's making such an uproar." But they marched on for a couple of hours without seeing any sight of a waterfall, or even any quickening of the current. The noise had gradually increased to a stupendous din, and thoughts of their ultimate errand were overborne by excitement as they looked eagerly ahead for the mass of falling water. At last the belt of forest land came to an abrupt end, and they gazed forth over a wide rocky plain, in the midst of which was an immense lake that appeared to be considerably below the level of the surrounding country. From it ran the stream whose course they were following, and a larger stream far to the right. Beyond the plain rose the mountains, towering up peak behind peak to the summits of the snowy range in the remote distance. The three men halted involuntarily, struck both by the majesty of the scene and by the deafening roar which almost drowned their voices. "Man, it's grand!" Mackenzie shouted. "But where is it?" Forrester bawled in his ear. They looked all around, but saw nothing to account for the thunderous noise. The sky was overcast, and a layer of mist obscured the lower foothills, though the heights beyond heaved their grey masses in clear undulations miles above. As they stood, a sunbeam stole through the clouds, and a rainbow flung its gay arch across the plain directly ahead of them. "There's rain over there," said Jackson, at the top of his voice. "Only mist!" Forrester cried in reply. For a few moments they gazed mutely upon a sight that never loses its interest and wonder. Then Mackenzie smote his thigh, and cried like one in ecstasy:- "Man-it's the Fall!" The mist was rolling away as the sun gathered strength, yet the rainbow did not fade, but shone more brightly than ever over a space of perhaps one-eighth of a mile. And then the onlookers saw that what had hitherto seemed to them a part of the bank of mist was in reality a gigantic torrent of water, mingled with spray thrown up hundreds of feet from the unseen bottom. They watched it in silent awe. The villagers had described it as falling from the clouds into the depths of the earth. Their words appeared to be literally true. An eighth of a mile in width, the torrent poured over the edge of a tableland-a single huge step in the ascent to the plateaux of Tibet. Mist still hung above it, the enormous screen of spray concealed its lower part, and at the distance they still were from it the spectators could only just distinguish the movement of the mighty volume of water. It had been arranged with their guides that they should remain on the spot where they first caught sight of the fall until the men had delivered their timber and returned. The delay gave them an opportunity of taking a meal. As they ate they amused themselves by guessing at the height of the fall. Forrester suggested that it was as high as St. Paul's; Jackson thought this estimate too low; and Mackenzie astonished the others by declaring that he wouldna wonder but it was fully as high as Ben Lomond. It was three hours before the natives returned, and the white men, setting forth impatiently at length to skirt the lake and reach the foot of the hills on the western side of the fall, found to their amazement that they had nearly two miles to go before they came level with it. Then they were struck dumb by the full magnificence of the scene. The spray itself, rising like steam from a gigantic cauldron, attained to the height of St. Paul's. The two Englishmen were prepared to admit that the top of the fall was even higher than the summit of Ben-Lomond; but Mackenzie's calculating eye gauged more nearly to the truth. "I would say it's two thousand feet, or a wee bit more," he said, and his friends laughed at the incongruous use of the word "wee" in such a connection. They found that the scarp over which the torrent poured extended for miles on each side. It appeared to be almost perpendicular, though away to the left it became more broken. On the right, except for one or two steep and rugged spurs, it was one continuous wall of rock. The path they had followed round the western shore of the lake brought them to a small wooden bridge spanning an inflowing stream. It somewhat resembled the bridge delineated in the well-known willow pattern. To this the raft of timber was moored. Evidently it was part of the plan for maintaining the secrecy of the hill community that purchasers and vendors should come into contact as seldom as possible; or perhaps the woodcutters' own fear of the Eye kept them from approaching nearer to the dwelling of the "little men." No doubt the timber would presently be fetched, and drawn along the stream into the lake, and thence to its destination. The three men looked around for some signs of human habitation, but discovered none. A rough roadway, however, led from the bridge along the base of the precipice towards the fall, which appeared to be about half a mile distant. After a brief consultation they decided to make their way along this road. To be prepared for possible danger they first laid down their impedimenta and unslung their rifles. Then they set off, Forrester leading with the shikari. After a while the path rose somewhat steeply on the face of the cliff, and they soon saw that it passed underneath the fall itself, the torrent of water forming a gigantic arch. When they arrived beneath this they found themselves in a dim twilight, the glassy sea-green surface of the watery arch reflecting a pallid hue upon their faces. They were perfectly dry, except for some flecks of spray dashed upon them from the base of the fall. At this spot they were three or four hundred feet above the surface of the lake, which boiled and foamed like an angry sea immensely magnified. The din was terrific; even the loudest shout would scarcely have been audible.

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