Ranni provided a good meal, and Pilescu built a camp-fire, whose red glow was very comforting. “Wild animals will keep at a safe distance if we keep the fire going well,” said Pilescu, putting a pile of brushwood nearby. “Ranni or I will be keeping guard tonight, and we will have a fine fire going.”
Rugs were spread around the fire, whose crackling made a very cheerful sound. The five children lay down, happy and excited. They had come to the right place — and now they were going to look for Captain and Mrs. Arnold. Adventures lay behind them, and even more exciting ones lay in front.
“I shall never go to sleep,” said Nora, sitting up. “Never! What is that funny sound I hear, Ranni?”
“Baboons in the hills,” said Ranni. “Never mind them. They won’t come near us.”
“And now what’s that noise?” asked Peggy.
“Only a night-bird calling,” said Ranni. “It will go on all night long, so you will have to get used to it. Lie down, Nora. If you are not asleep in two minutes I shall put you into the plane to sleep there by yourself.”
This was such a terrible threat that Nora lay down at once. It was a marvellous night. The little girl lay on her back looking up at the enormous, brilliant stars that hung like bright lamps in the velvet sky. All around her she heard strange bird and animal sounds. She was warm and comfortable and the fire at her feet crackled most comfortingly. She took a last look at big Ranni, who sat with his back to the plane, gun in hand, and then shut her eyes.
“The children are all asleep,” said big Ranni to Pilescu in his own language. “I think we should not have brought them on this adventure, Pilescu. We do not know what will happen. And how shall we find Captain and Mrs. Arnold in this strange country? It is like seeking for a nut on an apple tree!”
Pilescu grunted. He was very tired, for he had flown the plane all the way, without letting Ranni help. Ranni was to watch three-quarters of the night, and Pilescu was to sleep — then he would take the rest of the watch.
“We will see what tomorrow brings,” he said, his big red beard spreading over his chest as his head fell forward in sleep. And then another noise was added to the other night-sounds — for Pilescu snored.
He had a wonderful snore that rose and fell with his breathing. Ranni was afraid that he would wake up the children and he nudged him.
But Pilescu did not wake. He was too tired to stir. Jack awoke when he heard the new sound and sat up in alarm. He listened in amazement.
“Ranni! Ranni! Some animal is snorting round our camp!” he called. “Are you awake? Can’t you hear him?”
Ranni smothered an enormous laugh. “Lie down, Jack,” he said. “It is only our good friend Pilescu. Maybe he snores like that to keep wild animals away. Even a lion might run from that noise!”
Jack grinned and lay down again. Good gracious, Pilescu made a noise as loud as the aeroplane! Well — almost, thought Jack, floating away into sleep again.
Ranni kept watch most of the night. He saw shadowy shapes not far off, and knew them to be some kind of night-hunting animals. He watched the stars move down the sky. He smelt the fragrance of the wood burning on the fire, and sometimes he reached out his hand and threw some more into the heart of the leaping flames.
A little before dawn Ranni awoke Pilescu. The big Baronian yawned loudly and opened his eyes. At once he knew where he was. He spoke to Ranni, and then went for a short walk round the camp to stretch his legs and get wide awake.
Then Ranni slept in his turn, his hand still on his gun. Pilescu watched the dawn come, and saw the whole country turn into silver and gold. When daylight was fully there he awoke everyone, for in such a hot country they must be astir early whilst the air was still cool.
The children were wild with excitement when they awoke and saw their strange surroundings. They ran round the camp, yelling and shouting, whilst Ranni cooked a delicious-smelling meal over the camp fire.
“Hie, look! Here’s a kind of little lake!” shouted Jack. “Let’s wash in it. Ranni, Pilescu! Could we bathe in this lake, do you think?”
“Not unless you want to be eaten by crocodiles,” said Ranni.
Nora gave a scream and tore back to the camp at top speed. Ranni grinned. He went to look at the lake. It was not much more than a pond, really.
“This is all right,” he said. “There are no crocodiles here. All the same, you mustn’t bathe in it, for there may be slug-like things called leeches, which will fasten on to your legs and hurt you. Please remember to be very careful indeed in this strange country. Animals that you only see at the Zoo in England run wild here all over the place.”
This was rather an alarming idea to the two girls. They did a very hasty wash indeed, but the three boys splashed vigorously. The air was cool and delicious, and every one of the children felt as if they could run for miles. But they only ran to the camp beside the plane, for they were so hungry, and breakfast smelt so good. The hot coffee sent its smell out, and the frying bacon sizzled and crackled in the pan.
“What’s the plan for today, Pilescu?” asked Jack. “Do we find someone and ask if they know anything of the White Swallow and its pilots?”
“We are in such a remote part of Africa, that the people round here might never have seen a plane before. But Ranni is going to the nearest village to try and get news,” said Pilescu, ladling out hot bacon on to the plates.
“But how does he know where the next village is?” asked Mike in wonder, looking round. “I can’t see a thing.”
“You haven’t used your eyes,” said Ranni, with a smile. “Look over there.”
The children looked in the direction to which he was pointing, where low hills lay. And they all saw at once what Ranni meant.
“A spire of smoke!” said Mike. “Yes — that means a fire — and fire means people. So that’s where you are going, Ranni? Be careful, won’t you?”
“My gun and I will look after one another,” said big Ranni with a grin, and he tapped his pocket. “I shall not be back till nightfall, so be good whilst I am gone!”
Ranni set off soon after breakfast, carrying food with him. He wore his sun-hat, for the sun was now getting hot. The children watched him go.
“I do wish we could have gone with him,” said Jack longingly. “I hope he will have some news when he comes back.”
“Come, you children can wash these dishes in water from the pool,” called Pilescu. “Soon it will be too hot to do anything. Before it is, we must also find some firewood ready for tonight.”
Pilescu kept the children busy until the sun rose higher. Then when its rays beat down like fire, he made them get into the shade of the plane. Paul did not want to, for he enjoyed the heat, but Pilescu ordered him to go with the others.
“Pilescu, it is not for you to order me,” said the little Prince, sticking his chin into the air.
“Little Paul, I am in command now,” said the big Baronian, gently but sternly. “You are my lord, but I am your captain in this adventure. Do as I say.”
“Paul, don’t be an idiot, or I’ll come and get you into the shade by the scruff of your neck,” called Mike. “If you get sunstroke, you’ll be ill and will have to be flown back to London at once.”
Paul trotted into the shade like a lamb. He lay down by the others. Soon they were so thirsty that Pilescu found himself continually getting in and out of the plane with supplies of cool lemonade from the little refrigerator there.
The children slept in the midday heat. Pilescu was sleepy too, but he kept guard on the little company, wondering how big Ranni was getting on. When the sun began to slip down the coppery sky, he mopped his brow and awoke the children.
“There is some tinned fruit in the plane,” he told Nora. “Get it, and open the tins. It will be delicious to eat whilst we wait for the day to cool.”
Ranni did not come back until the sun had set with the same suddenness as the day before. The children watched and waited impatiently for him, and lighted the bonfire early to guide him.
Pilescu was not worried, for he knew that, although the spire of smoke had looked fairly near, it was really far away — and he knew also that Ranni would not be able to walk far when the midday heat fell on the land like flames from a furnace.
The little company sat round the fire, and above them hung the big bright stars. They all watched for Ranni to return.
“I do wonder if he will have any news,” said Nora impatiently. “Oh, Ranni, do hurry! I simply can’t wait!”
But she had to wait and so did everyone else. It was late before they heard the big Baronian shouting loudly to them. They all leapt up and trained their eyes to see him.
“There he is!” shouted Jack, who had eyes like a cat’s in the dark. “Look — see that moving shadow among those rocks?”
The shadow gave a shout and everyone yelled back in delight.
“Ranni! Hurrah! He’s back!”
“What news, Ranni?”
“Hurry, Ranni, do hurry!”
The big Baronian came up to the fire. He was tired and hot. He dropped down to the rugs and wiped his hot forehead. Pilescu gave him a jug of lemonade and he drank it all in one gulp.
“Have you news, Ranni?” asked Pilescu.
“Yes — I have. And strange news it is too,” said Ranni. “Give me some more sandwiches or biscuits, Pilescu, and I will tell my tale. Are you all safe and well?”
“Perfectly,” said Pilescu. “Now speak, Ranni. What is this strange news you bring?”