The next day dawned very misty. White clouds rolled round about the mountain pass, and it was difficult to see very far ahead. The children were most disappointed.
But as they walked steadily upwards towards the rocky pass between the two mountains, the sun began to shine more strongly through the mists, and soon the last fragments disappeared.
“Isn’t everything glorious!” cried Mike, looking round. Below them lay the great hillside they had climbed, and in the distance, stretching for miles, they could see the rolling country of Africa. Above them towered the mountains and overhead was the blazing sky.
“All the colours look so much brighter here,” said Peggy, picking a brilliant orange flower and sticking it into her hat. “Oh, Mafumu, for goodness sake!”
Mafumu had darted forward when he saw Peggy picking the flower, and had plucked a great armful of the orange flowers, which he now presented to her. The little girl laughed and took them. She didn’t know what to do with them, but in the end she and Nora stuck them all round their hats.
“I feel like a walking garden now,” said Nora. “I wish Mafumu wouldn’t be so generous!”
“Soon we shall arrive at the place from which we get our first glimpse of the Secret Mountain,” said Ranni.
That made everyone walk forward even more eagerly. For three hours they climbed towards the rocky pass, the guide leading the way, finding a path even when it seemed almost impossible to get by. Sometimes there was hard climbing to be done, and Ranni and Pilescu had to pull and push the children to get them up the hillside or over big rocks. Sometimes they passed through thick little copses of strange trees, where brilliant birds called to one another. It was all unknown country and most exciting.
At last they reached the top of the pass. From here they could see the other side of the range of mountains. Truly it was a marvellous place to stand! From this mountain peep-hole the little company could see both east and west — rolling country behind them for miles, disappearing into purple hills — and in front another range of mountains towering high into the sky, with a narrow valley in between the mountains they were on, and the range opposite.
Everyone stood silent, even the guide. It was surely the most wonderful sight in the world, the children thought, Then Paul spoke eagerly.
“Which is the Secret Mountain? Where is it? Quick, tell us!”
Ranni spoke to the guide, and he raised his spear and pointed with it. He spoke shortly to Ranni.
Ranni turned to the listening children. “Do you see that mountain over there, with clouds rolling round it? Wait till they clear a little, and you will see that the mountain has a curiously flat top. You will also see that it has a yellowish look, because, so this fellow says, a rare yellow bush grows there, which at some season of the year turns a fiery red.”
This all sounded rather weird. The children gazed across to the opposite mountains — and each saw the one that had clouds covering it. As they watched, the clouds uncurled themselves, and became thinner and thinner, at last disappearing altogether. And then everyone could see the curious Secret Mountain!
It stood out baldy from the other because of its yellow appearance, and also because of its strange summit. This was almost flat, like a table-top. The guide raised his spear again, and pointed, muttering something to Ranni.
“He says that he has heard that the Folk of the Mountain sometimes appear on the top of it, and that they worship the sun from there,” said Ranni. “Though how anyone could see people so far away I can’t imagine. However, it is quite possible that there is a way up inside the mountain to the top.”
“Isn’t it strange to think of a tribe of people taking such a queer home, and living there apart from everyone else?” said Jack in wonder.
“Oh, that has often happened,” said Pilescu. “Sometimes there are tribes living apart from others in the middle of dense forests — sometimes on islands — sometimes even in deserts. But a mountain certainly seems one of the strangest places to choose.”
“I suppose they come out to hunt, and that is how the other people know about them,” said Mike.
“I think you are right,” said Ranni. “Well — there’s the wonderful Secret Mountain — and here we are. The mountain won’t come to us, so we must go to the mountain. Shall we set off again, Pilescu?”
The guide spoke rapidly to Ranni, making faces and waving his arms about.
“He says he doesn’t want to come any further,” said Ranni. “Is it any good his coming?” He swears he doesn’t know any way into the mountain.”
“He’s going to come with us all the way,” said Pilescu firmly. “He may find that he knows the way in after all, once we get there! Anyway, he won’t get paid if he doesn’t come.”
“Where is the money?” asked Nora. “It’s not being carried along with us, is it?”
“Of course not,” said Ranni with a laugh.
“Well, did you put it back into the cabin of the plane?” said Jack. “You locked that.”
“No. I wrapped up the money carefully and hid it under the low brances of that big tree by the washing-pool before we left,” said Ranni. “I shall tell our guide where it is when he has done his job — but not before!”
“That’s a clever idea,” said Peggy. Ranni turned to the man and spoke to him again. He shook his head violently. Ranni shrugged his shoulders, and bade the little company set off.
They made their way along a rocky path, leaving the guide and Mafumu behind. But they had not gone very far before loud shouts came from the tribesman, and the children saw him leaping along to catch them up. Mafumu trotted behind, his face was one big smile.
His uncle spoke with Ranni, but Ranni shook his head. The children could quite well guess what was happening — the man was asking to be paid, and Ranni was being determined. In the end the guide agreed to go with them once more, and Ranni promised to tell him where the money was as soon as they reached the Secret Mountain.
It was a good thing that their guide went with them, for the way he led them was one which they would never have found for themselves. It was a hidden way, so that the little company would not be seen by any watchers on the Secret Mountain.
Ranni and Pilescu had had no idea that there was this hidden path to the mountain. They would have tried to lead the party across the valley, over marshy ground, or through such thickly growing bushes that it would have been almost impossible to make their way through.
As it was, the tribesman avoided these, and took them to a narrow river, not much more than a large stream, that flowed along swiftly towards the mountain. This stream was almost completely covered in by bushes and trees that met above the water, making a kind of green tunnel, below which the river gurgled and bubbled.
“Golly! What an exciting river!” cried Jack, thrilled to see the dim green tunnel. “How are we going to get along? Is it shallow enough to wade down the stream?”
“In parts it would be, but I don’t fancy doing that,” said Pilescu. “What is the fellow doing — and Mafumu too? I believe they are making rough rafts for us!”
“What fun!” cried Paul, and he ran to watch the two workers.
Mafumu was busy bringing armfuls of stuff that looked rather like purple cork to his uncle. He had got it from a marshy piece of ground. It smelt horrible.
“Is it cork?” said Paul.
“No — it looks more like some sort of fungus, or enormous toadstool,” said Pilescu. “Look at his uncle binding it together with creeper-ropes!”
In two hours’ time four small rafts of the horrible-smelling cork were made. They looked rather queer and they smelt even queerer, but they floated marvellously, bobbing about on the water like strange ducks. The children were delighted. It was going to be splendid fun to float down the hidden river, under a green archway of trees, right up to the Secret Mountain!
“Our guide says that his tribe always use these queer rafts to get quickly down this valley, which they fear because of the Mountain Folk,” said Ranni. “The stream goes right round the foot of the Secret Mountain, and joins a river round there. Then it goes into the next valley, which is a fine hunting-ground used by Mafumu’s tribe. He says that the rafts don’t last long — they gradually fall to bits — but last just long enough to take a man into the next valley with safety!”
Pilescu and Paul got on to one raft. It wobbled dangerously, but sank hardly at all into the water. There was only just room for the two of them to squat. They held on to the creeper-ropes that bound the raft together. Then down the stream they went, bobbing like corks.
Ranni and Nora went next. Mike and Peggy went together, and last of all came the guide, Jack, and, of course, Mafumu, who was determined not to leave Jack for even a minute!
It was a strange journey, a little frightening. The trees met overhead and were so thick that no sunlight pierced through to the swift stream. The only light there was glowed a dim green.
“Your face looks green!” cried Peggy to Mike, as they set off together down the strange river-tunnel.
“So does yours!” said Mike. “Everything looks green. I feel as if we must be under water! It’s because we can’t see any daylight at all — only the green of the trees and of the stream below.”
The stream became swifter as it ran down the valley. In no place did the trees break — the tunnel was complete the whole way. The rafts were really splendid, but towards the end of the journey they began to break up a little. The outside edges fell off, and the rafts began to loosen from the creeper-ropes.
“Hie! We shall soon be in the water!” yelled Ranni. “Where do we land?”
The guide shouted something back. “Well, that’s a good thing!” cried Ranni. “We’re nearly there, children.”
The bobbing rafts spun slowly round and round as they went along. It really was a most peculiar journey, but the children loved every minute. They were sad to see their rafts gradually coming to pieces, getting smaller and smaller!
Suddenly the stream ran into a large still pool. It ran out again the other end of the pool, but when the guide gave a loud shout, everyone knew that their journey’s end had come. The pool was their stopping place. If they went any further they would go right round the mountain and into the next valley.
Ranni’s raft spun into the quiet pool, and by pulling at the branches of a nearby tree he dragged himself and Paul to the bank, on which grew thick bushes. All the others followed, though Mike and Peggy nearly sailed right on, for their raft was right in the very middle of the current! However, they managed to swing it round and joined the others.
“If I don’t get off my raft it will disappear from under me,” said big Ranni, whose weight had made his raft break up more than those of the others. Everyone jumped off their rafts and stood on the banks of the pool. They had to stand on rotting branches and roots, for the trees and bushes grew so thickly there that the bare ground could not be seen.
“Well — we’ve arrived,” said Pilescu. “And now — where’s the mountain? We should be at the foot.”
The guide, with a frown on his face, took them through the thick bushes, squeezing his way with difficulty, and came to a tall tree. He climbed it, beckoning the others behind him.
Ranni climbed up, and one by one everyone followed. They all wanted to see what the man had to show them. Monkeys fled chattering from the branches as the little company climbed upwards, helping themselves by using the long creepers which hung down like strong ropes.
Their guide took them almost to the top of the tree. It towered over the bush below, and from its top could be seen, quite close at hand, the Secret Mountain!