The Secret Mountain towered up steeply. It was covered by the curious yellow bushes, which gave it its strange appearance from a distance. The bushes had yellow leaves and waxy-white flowers over which hovered brilliant butterflies and insects of every kind.
But it was the mountain itself that held the children’s eyes. It was so steep. It looked quite impossible to climb. It rose up before their eyes, enormous, seeming to touch the sky. They were very near to it, and Nora was quite frightened by its bigness.
The tribesman frowned as he looked at it and muttered strings of queer-sounding words to himself. He was plainly going no further. Only the money he had been promised had made him come so far. He slid down the tree and spoke rapidly to Ranni.
Ranni told him where he would find his reward, and the man nodded, showing all his white teeth. He called to Mafumu, and the two of them disappeared into the bushes.
“Hie, Mafumu — say good-bye!” yelled Jack, very sorry indeed to see the merry little fellow going. But his uncle had Mafumu firmly by one ear and the boy could do nothing.
“Well, he might at least have said good-bye,” said Peggy. “I did like him. I wish he was going with us.”
“Did Mafumu’s uncle give you any idea at all as to how we might get into the mountain?” Mike asked Ranni. Ranni shook his head.
“All he would say was that we should have to walk through the rock!” he said. “I don’t think he really knew what he meant. It was just something he had heard.”
“Walk through the rock!” said Jack. “That sounds a bit like Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Do you remember — the robbers made their home in a cave inside a hill — and when the robber chief said ‘Open Sesame!’ a rock slid aside — and they all went in!”
Pilescu and Ranni did not know the tale, and they listened with interest.
“Well, the way in may be by means of a moving rock,” said Ranni. “But, good gracious, we can’t go all round this enormous mountain looking for a moving rock! And if we did find it, I’m sure we should not know the secret of moving it!”
They were all sitting down at the foot of the tree, eating a meal, for they were hungry and tired. It was hot in the valley, even in the shade of the trees. The calls of the birds, the hum of insects and the chattering of monkeys sounded all the time. The sun was sinking low, and Pilescu made up his mind that they must all camp where they were for the night, He glanced up at the enormous branches of the tree they were under, and wondered if, by spreading out the rugs in a big fork halfway up, the children could sleep there safely.
“I don’t like letting the children sleep on the ground tonight,” he said to Ranni. “I daren’t light a fire to keep wild creatures away, because if we do we shall attract the attention of the Mountain Folk — and we don’t want to be surrounded and captured in the night. Do you think that tree would hold them all?”
Ranni glanced upwards. “The tree would hold them all right,” he said. “But supposing they fall out in their sleep!”
“Oh, we can easily prevent that,” said Pilescu. “We can tie them on with those creeper-ropes.”
The two men had been talking to one another in their own language, and only Paul understood. He listened with delight.
“We’re going to sleep up in a tree!” he told the others, who listened in astonishment. “We daren’t light a fire tonight, you see.”
“Golly! How exciting!” said Mike. “I really don’t think anyone could have had such a lot of thrills in a short time as we’ve had this week!”
Pilescu made the children climb the tree whilst it was still daylight. Halfway up the branches forked widely, spreading out almost straight, and there was a kind of rough platform. Pilescu stuffed the spaces between the branches with creepers, twigs and some enormous leaves that he pulled from another tree. Then he spread out half the rugs, and told the children to settle down.
They spread themselves on the rugs, joyful to think they were to spend a whole night in a tree. Some monkeys, who had been watching from the next tree, set up a great chattering when they saw the children settling down.
“They think you are their cousins from a far-off land,” said Pilescu with a broad grin. “They’re not far wrong, either. Now lie still whilst I cover you with these other rugs, and then I’m going to tie you firmly to the branches.”
“Oh, Pilescu — we’re too hot to be covered!” cried Paul, pushing away the rug.
“It will be very chilly in the early morning,” said Pilescu. “Very well — leave the rug half off now, and pull it on again later.”
Pilescu and Ranni made a very good job of tying the children to the tree. Now they were safe! The two men slid down the big tree to the ground. The monkeys fled away. The children talked drowsily for a while, and Peggy tried her hardest to keep awake and enjoy the strangeness of a night up a tree.
But her eyes were very heavy, and although she listened for a while to the enormously loud voices of some giant frogs in the nearby marsh, and the curious call of a bird that seemed to say, “Do do it, do do it,” over and over again, she was soon as fast asleep as the others.
As usual, Ranni and Pilescu took turn and turn about to watch. They both sat at the foot of the great tree, one at one side, the other at the other. Ranni took first turn, and then Pilescu.
Pilescu was very wide awake. He sat with his gun in his hand watching for any movement or sound nearby that might mean an enemy of some kind. He, too, heard the frogs, and the bird crying “Do do it, do do it.” He heard the trumpeting of far-off elephants, the roar of some big forest cat, maybe a leopard, and the stir of the wind in the branches of the trees.
And then, towards dawn, he heard something and saw something that was not bird or animal. Something or someone was creeping between the bushes, very slowly, very carefully. Pilescu stiffened, and took hold of his gun firmly. Could it be any of the Folk of the Secret Mountain?
The Something came nearer, and Pilescu put out a hand and shook Ranni carefully. Ranni awoke at once.
“There’s something strange over there,” whispered Pilescu. “I can only see a shadow moving. Do you suppose it’s a scout sent out by the Mountain Folk?”
Ranni peered between the bushes in the dim light of half-dawn. He, too, could see something moving.
“I’ll slip behind that bush and pounce on whatever it is,” whispered Ranni. “I can move away from this side of the tree without being seen.”
So big Ranni slid away as silently as a cat, and crawled behind the nearest bush. From there he made his way to another bush and waited for the Something to come by.
He pounced on it — and there came a terrified yell, and a shrill voice that cried out something that sounded like “Yakka, longa, yakka, longa!”
Ranni picked up what he had caught and carried it to Pilescu. It was something very small — something that both men knew very well. They cried out in amazement.
Yes — it was Mafumu. Poor Mafumu, crawling painfully along the bushes, searching for the friends he had left the day before.
“Mafumu! What has happened?” asked Ranni. The boy told him his story.
“I went back a long way with my uncle, but he was unkind to me, and he told me he would give me to the first crocodile he saw in a river. So I ran away from him to come back to my new friends. And a big thorn went into my foot — see — so I could not walk, I could only crawl.”
The poor little boy was so tired, and in such pain that tears fell out of his eyes. As dawn came stealing over the countryside, big Ranni took the poor little fellow into his arms, whilst Pilescu pulled out the great thorn from his foot. He bathed the hurt and bound it up with lint and gauze. He gave the boy something to eat and drink and then told him to sleep.
But comfortable though he was in Ranni’s arms, Mafumu would not stay there. He must go to his new friends, and especially Jack!
So up the tree he climbed, and was soon snuggled down beside Jack, who did not even wake when the boy lay almost on top of him.
“Mafumu may be helpful to us,” said Pilescu to Ranni. “He knows the language of the tribes around here, he knows where to find fruit and drinking water, and he can guide as well.”
In the morning, what loud cries of amazement came from the tree above, when the children awoke and found Mafumu with them!
“How did you get here, Mafumu?”
“Mafumu, get off me, I can’t move!”
“Mafumu, what have you done to your foot?”
Mafumu sat up on Jack’s legs and grinned round happily.
“Me back,” he said, proud that he could say some English words with the right meaning. “Me back.” Then he went off into his usual gibberish.
“Hallo, goodnight, shutup, what’s the matter!”
Everyone laughed. Jack punched him on the back in a friendly manner. “You’re an idiot, but an awfully nice idiot,” he said. “We’re jolly glad to see you again. I shouldn’t be surprised if you help us quite a lot!”
And Jack was right, as we shall soon see!