DECEMBER 28. Lat. 89.10 N., long. 16.8 W. Course, S.W. 1/2 west. We are nearing the tropics. Now the ship has such a complete set of grumblers, good fellows who know their work better than anyone less than God, that our great distance at sea is plain. Our men, casually gathered and speaking divers tongues, detached from earth and set afloat on a mobile islet to mix on it if they can, have become one body to deal with the common enemy. We are corporate to face each trouble as it meets us, and free to explain afterwards how much better we should have done under another captain. The skipper knows this broad spirit now possesses us, and so is contented and blithe, wearing only on deck that weary look which is the sober badge of high office, as though he were an unfortunate man to have us about him, we being what we are, but that he would do his best with the fools, seeing we are in his charge. This morning at six, hearing the men at the hosepipes giving the decks their daily wash, I tumbled out for a cold tub. This is a simple affair. You leave the cabin with a towel about you, stand in a clear space, and rotate before the hydrant, to general cheering. A hot bath on the "Capella" is not so easy, because, although there is a bath-room aboard, it has become a paint locker. One must descend into the engine-room, after warning the engineer on duty, who then will have ready a barrel, filled from the boilers. The ingenious man will fix a shower bath also. This is a perforated meat tin, hanging from a grating above the tub, and connected with a pump. After a hot bath in the engine-room, where the temperature was often well over 120 degrees, that shower of cold sea water would strike loud cries from any man whose self-control was uncertain.
This morning was the right prelude to the tropics. This was the morning when, if our planet had been till then untenanted, a world unconsummated and waiting approval, the divine approval would have come, and a child would have been born, an immortal, the offspring of Aurora and the Sea God, flame-haired and lusty, with eyes as bright as joy, and a rosy body to be kissed from toes to crown. The dancing light, and the warm shower suddenly born alive in it from one ripe cloud, the golden air, the waves of the north-east trades, the seas of the world in the first dawn, moving along like a multitude released to play, their blue passionate and profound, their crests innocent and dazzling, made me think I might hear faint cheering, if I listened intently. In the west was a steep range of cloudland rising from the sea, and against it was inclined the flame of a rainbow. There was that rainbow, as constant as the pennant hoisted over an uplighted occasion. The world's noble emblem was aloft. I demanded of the Skipper if he would run up our ensign in reply to it; but he only peered at me curiously.
The heat increased with the day. We had run well down from the bleak apex of the world with its nimbus of fogs. Here was the entrance to the place where our youthful dreams began. I recognised it. Every feature was as we both have seen it from afar, across the roofs from our outlook in the arid city when the path to it had appeared as hopeless to our feet as the path to the moon. This pioneer can assure his fellows whose bright illusions grow fainter with age that their dreams must be followed up, to be reached.
At midday we began to cast clothes. As to the afternoon, of that I remember the less. There was the chief's empty bunk, so much more alluring than my own. Into that I climbed, my mind steeled against drowsy weakness. I would digest my dinner with a book, eyes sternly alert.
The "Capella" rocked slowly, a big cradle. My body was lax and responsive. There was about us the silent emptiness which is far from the centres where many men believe it is necessary to get lots of things done. The Chief suspired on his settee. The waves were singing to themselves. A ray of light laughed in my eyes, playing hide and seek across the wisdom of my book. . . . I put the book down.
As you know, where I had come from we do not dare to sleep during daylight without first arguing with the conscience, which usually we fail to convince. This comes of our mental trick which takes a pleasure we wholly desire and puts on it a prohibitive label. Self-indulgence, you understand; softening of the character; courage, brothers, do not stumble. The solemn forefinger wags gravely in our faces. Before I fell asleep, my habit, born of the hard grey weather which makes an Englishman hard and prosperous, did come with its admonitory forefinger. Remembering that I was secure in a sunnier world I cried out with ribald mockery across the abyss I had safely crossed, knowing my old self could not follow, and shut my eyes happily. And also, let me say--sitting up again with an urgent afterthought, which I must get rid of before I sleep--if this were not a plain narrative of travel without any wise asides I would get off the "Capella" here to argue that what all you fellows want in the place I have luckily left is not more self-restraint, in which wan virtue you have long shown yourselves to be so proficient that our awards for your merit have overcrowded the workhouses, but more rollicking self-indulgence and a ruddy and bright eyed insistence on the means to it. Look at me now in this bunk! Not since I was last in a cradle have I felt the world would buoy me up if I dared to shut my eyes to affairs while the sun was shining. But I am going to try it again now, and risk my future. I repeat, I would argue this with you, only I want to sleep. .
It is worth recording that when I awoke I found nothing had happened to me, except benefit. The venture can be made safely. Others had kept the course for me. The ship had not stopped. Through the door I could see a half-naked, blackened, and sweating stoker, who had been keeping the fires while I slept, and he was getting back his breath in loud sobs. Something had made him sick. These stupid and dirty men will drink too much while they are attending to the furnaces. They have been warned of the danger, of which they take no heed, and so they have to suffer. On the poop was the second officer, busy in the hot sun with a gang, overhauling a boat. And I found, on enquiry, that a man was still at the wheel. So thereafter, while in the land of the constant sun, I slept every afternoon, and was never a penny. the worse. Somehow, you know, things went on. I think I shall become one of the intelligent leisured class.
It was within an hour of midnight. The moon had set. I was idling amidships about the ship's shadowy structure when I was asked to take charge of the bridge till eight bells. The second mate was ill, and the first mate was asleep through overwork. The skipper said he would not keep me up there long. I had but to call if a light came into view, and to keep an eye on the wheelhouse. Ah, but it is long since I played at ships, and was a pirate captain. I remembered there are dull folk who wonder what it feels like to be a king. The king does not know. Ask the small boy who is surprised with an order to hold a horse's head. I took my promotion, mounting the steep ladder to the open height in the night.
I felt then I was more than sundered from my kind. I had been taken and placed remotely from the comfort of the "Capella's" isolated community also. There was me, and there were the stars. They were my nearest neighbours. I stood for you among them alone. When the last man hears but does not see the deep waters of this dark sphere in that night to which there shall be no morning sun, he shall know what was my sensation aloft in the saddle of the "Capella"; the only inhabitant of a congealed asteroid off the main track in space, with the sun diminished to a point through travel, and the Milky Way not reached yet; though I could see we were approaching its bay of light. An appreciable journey had been made. But by the faintness of its shine there was a timeless vacancy to be travelled still. We should make that faint glow, that congregation of suns, that archipelago of worlds; though not yet. But had we not all the night to travel in? The night would be long. We should not be disrupted any more by the old day. The final morning had passed. I had no doubt the drift of the dark lump to which I clung in space, while my hair streamed with our speed, would at length reach the bright fraternity, no more than a dimmer of removed promise though it seemed.
A bell rang beside me in the night. It was answered at once from somewhere ahead. Others, then, were journeying with me. The void was peopled, though the travellers were all invisible; and I heard a confident voice call, "Lights are burning bright." The lights were. I could see that. But when the profundities are about you, and you think you are alone in outer night, that is the kind of word to hear. Joyously I shouted into what seemed to be boundless nothing, "All Right!"
. . . . .
One dayfall we saw the Canary Islands a great distance on the port beam. I do not know which day it was. The Hesperides were as blurred as the place in the calendar. The days had run together into a measureless sense of well-being. We had passed the last of the trivial allotments of time. The islands loomed, and I wondered whether that land was the hint of something in a past life which the memory saw but could not shape. Whatever was there it was too long forgotten. That apparition which a whisper told me was land faded as I gazed at it overseas, lazily trying to remember what it once meant. It was gone again. It was no matter now. Perhaps I was deceiving myself. Perhaps I had had no other life. This "Capella," always under the height of a blue dome, always the centre of a circular floor of waters, waters to be seen beating against the steep and luminous walls encompassing us, though nowhere finding an outlet, was all my experience. I could recall only the faintest shadows of a past into that limpid present. I could see nothing clearly that was not confined within the dark faultless line where the sky was inseparably annealed to the sea. Here I had been always. All I knew was this length of sheltered deck, and those doors behind me where I leaned on a rail between the stanchions, doors which sheltered a few familiars with their clothes on hooks, their pipe racks, and photographs of women, a length of deck finishing on either hand in two iron ladders, the ladder forward, just past the radiation and coal grit by the engine-room casing, descending to a broad walk which led to the forecastle head, that bare outlook always at a difference with the horizon; and the ladder aft going down to another broad walk, sticky with new tar, where the bulwarks were as high as the breast, and Tinker, the dog, glad of a word from you, trotted about the rusty winches and around the hatches; and that walk aft finished in the door of the alley-way opening upon the asylum of the doctor's cabin, and the saloon, the skipper's sanctum, and the domain of the friendly steward. There was the smell of the cargo drawing from the ventilators on the deck, when you went by their trumpet mouths. There was the warm oily gush of air from the engine-room entrance. And in the saloon alley-way I used to think the store of potatoes, right behind, was generating gases. (But nobody knows every origin of the marine smells.) Well, here were all the things my senses apprehended. I could walk round my universe in five minutes. And when I had finished I could do it again. Here I had been always. Nothing could be clearer than that. Looking out from my immediate circumstances I saw no entrance to the place where we were rocking, the place where the "Capella" was alone. The walls of the enclosure were flawless. There was not a door through them anywhere. There was not a rift in the precision of the dark circle about us where one could crawl out between the sky and the sea.
There we indubitably were though, and I dwelt constantly on the miracle of that lucky existence. I could not doubt that we were there. Yet how had we got there? I leave that to the metaphysicians. There we were; and no man who merely trusted his experience could explain our presence. There was some evidence to my simple mind that such a life in such surroundings perchance was the gift of the gods, and that we could never get any nearer the limits of the world in which we had been placed to see what was beyond, could never approach that enclosure of blue walls where the distant waves, which beat against them, could not get out. Morning after morning I watched them, the dark leaping shapes of the far rebels, mounting their prison at its base, and collapsing, beaten. The seas never changed. They followed us and the wind, a living host, the blue of their slopes and hollows as deep as ecstasy, their crests white and lambent. They were buoyant, they were leisurely, they were the right companions of travel. They just kept pace with us. They ran after us like happy children, as though they had been lagging. They came a-beam to turn up to us their shining faces, calling to us musically, then dropping behind again in silence. When I looked overside into the pellucid depths, peering below the surface in long forgetfulness, leaving the body and gliding the mind in that palpable and hyacinthine air beneath us where the sunken foam dimmered in pale clouds, I felt myself not afloat but hovering in the midst of a hollow sphere filled with light. The blue water was only a heavier and a darker air. I had no weight there. I was only a quiet thought tinctured with the royal colour of the space wherein I drifted. The upper half of the sphere was blue also, but of a different blue. The rarer and more volatile ether was above us. The sea was its essence and precipitate. The sea colour was profound and satisfying; but the colour of the sky was diffused, as though the heaven were an idea which was beyond you, which you stood regarding, and azure were it symbol, and that by concentration you might fathom its meaning. But I can report no luck from my concentrated efforts on that symbol. The colour may have been its own reward.
. . . . .
Every morning after breakfast the Skipper and the Doctor made a visit to the forecastle. Then, after the Doctor had carefully searched his dress for insects, we spent the day together. We mounted the forecastle to begin with, watching the acre of dazzling foam which the "Capella's" bows broke around us. Out of that the flying fish would get up, just under us, to go skimming off, flights of silver locusts. This reminded the surgeon that we might try for albacore and bonito, which would be a change from tinned mutton. The Skipper found a long fir pole, to which was attached sixty fathoms of line, with a large hook which we covered with a white rag, lapping a cutting of tin round the shank. When this object was dropped over the stern in its leaps from wave to wave it bore a distant resemblance to a flying fish. The weight of the trailing line, breaking a cord "tell-tale," frequently gave us false alarms and long tiring hauls. But on the second day the scaffold pole vibrated to some purpose, and we knew we were hauling in more than the bait. We got aboard a coryphene, the dolphin of the sailors. It gave us in its death agony the famous display, beautiful, but rather painful to watch, for the wonderful hues, as they changed, stayed in the eye, and sent to the mind only a message of a creature in a violent death struggle.
The contours of this predatory fish express extraordinary speed and power, and its armed mouth has been upturned by Providence the better to catch the flying fish as they drop back to sea after an effort to escape from it. But Providence, or evolution, had never taught the coryphene that there are times when the little flying fish, as it falls back exhausted, may be a rag of white shirt and a scrap of bright tin ware with a large hook in its deceptive little belly. So there the dolphin was, glowing and fading with the hues of faery. Its life really illuminating it from within. As its life ebbed, or strove convulsively, its colours waned and pulsed. It was gold when it came on board, and darkened to ultramarine as it thrashed the deck, and its broad dorsal fin showed violet eyes. Its body changed to a pale metallic green; and then its light went out.
Now as I look back upon the "Capella" and her company as they were in that period of our adventure when our place was but somewhere in midocean between Senegambia and Trinidad, I see us but indifferently, for we are mellowed in that haze in which retrospection just discerns those affairs, long since accomplished, that were not altogether wearisome. It is better to go to my log again, for there the matter was noted by the stub of a pencil at the very time, and when, unless a beautiful mist was seen, it had not the remotest chance of being recorded. When I turn to the diary for further evidence of those days of blue and gold in the northeast trades its faithfulness is seen at once.
"30 Decr. A grey day. The sun fitful. Wind and seas on the port quarter, and the large following billows occasionally lopping inboard as she rolled. The decks therefore are sloppy again. We had a sharp reminder at six bells that we are not bound to any health resort, as Sandy put it. We were told to go aft, where the doctor would give each of us five grains of quinine. This is to be a daily rite. To encourage the men to take the quinine it is to be given to them in gin. Being foreigners, they did not understand the advice about the quinine, but they caught the word gin quite well, and they were outside the saloon alley-way, a smiling queue, at the stroke of eleven. I went along to see the harsh truth dawn on them. The first man was a big German deckhand. He took the glass from the doctor. His shy and puzzled smile at this unexpected charity from the skipper dissolved instantly when the quinine got behind it. His eyes opened and stared at nothing. To the surprise of his fellows he turned violently to the ship's side, rested his hands on it, and spat; spat carefully, continuously and with grave deliberation. "Distance run since noon yesterday 230 miles. Actual knots 9.5. Totol distance 2072 miles. There was not a living thing in sight to-day; not even a flying fish.
"The night is fine and starlit, the Milky Way a brilliant arch from east to west, under which we are steaming. When Venus rose she was a tiny moon, so refulgent that she gave a faint pallor to a large area of sky, outlined the coast of a cloud, and made a broad shining path on the sea. The moon rose after nine, veiled in filmy air, peeping motionless at the edge of a black curtain.
"The moon later was quite obscured, and the steamer ceased to exist except where in my heated cabin the smoky oil lamp showed me my dismal cubicle. I went in and sat on the mate's sea chest. The mate was on duty. On the washstand was his mug of cocoa, and on top of the mug two thick sandwiches of bread and meat. That food was black with cockroaches. The oil lamp stank but gave little light. The engines were throbbing, and out of the open door I saw the gleam of the wash, and heard its harassing note. I could not read. I loathed the idea of getting into the hot bunk and lying there, stewing, a clear keen clangour of thoughts making sleep impossible. The mate appeared, drove off the cockroaches cheerfully, examined the sandwiches for inconspicuous deer, opening each to make sure, and then muffled himself with one. My God! I could have killed him with these two hands. What right had he to be cheerful? But he is such a ginger-headed boy, and to break that unconsciously happy smile of his would be sacrilege. Besides, he began to tell me about his sweetheart. Her portrait hangs in our cabin. It is an enlargement. You pay for the frame, and the photographer, overjoyed I suppose, gives you the enlargement. I prefer the second engineer's sweethearts, who are in colours, and are Dutch picture postcards and cuttings from French comic papers; and he calls them his recollections of Sundays at home. I listened, patient and kind, to the second mate's reminiscences of rapturous evening walks under the lamps of Swansea with this girl in the picture--no doubt it eased his heart to tell me--till I could have howled aloud, like the dog who hears music at night. Then I broke away, and ran to the chief's cabin for sanctuary.
"The Chief was making an abstract, and was searching through his log for ten tons of coal which were missing. In the hunt for the lost coal I lost myself. I grew excited wherever a thick bush of figures promised the hidden quarry; and in an hour's search found the strayed tons in hiding at the bottom of a column. They had been left there, and not transported into the next. Again the dread of that bunk had to be faced and dealt with. I stood at the chief's door, knocking out my pipe, looking astern into the night, looking to where Ursa-Major, our celestial familiar of home, was low down and preparing to leave us altogether to the strange and perhaps unlucky gods of other skies. O the nights at sea!
"31 Decr. Wakened with my heart jumping because of a devastating sound without. In the early morning, Tinker was being thrashed by the Old Man for eating the saloon mats. When at 11.30 the men congregated amidships with their tins for dinner the sun was a near furnace and the breeze a balm. The white of the ship is now a glare, and the sea foam cannot be looked at. Donkey lumbered out of his place where he attends to the minor boiler, his face the colour of putty, and held to a rail, gazing out with dead eyes overside, gasping. He declared he couldn't stick his job. The flying fish are getting up in flights all day long. I saw one fish go a distance of about fifty yards in a semi-circle, making a bight in the direction of the wind. We caught another large coryphene to-day, and had him in steaks for tea. He was much better cooked than the last, which had the texture of white wool; and to increase our happiness the cook had not given us sour bread. At midday we were 17.22 N. and 33.27 W.
"I had a lonely evening with the chief. This is New Year's eve. We talked of the East India Dock Road, and of much else in London Town. At eight bells, when we held up our glasses in the direction of Polaris, the moon was bright and the waters hushed. Then we took each a hurricane lamp, and went about the decks collecting flying fish for breakfast, finding a dozen of them.
"1 Jan. The uplifted splendour of these days persists; but the splendour sags now a little at midday with the weight of the heat. The poop deck is now sheltered with an awning; and lying there in lazy chairs, with a wind following and barely overtaking us, idly watching the shadows of the overhead gear move on the bright awning as the ship rolls, is to get caught in the toils of the droning wake, and to sleep before you know you are a prisoner. The wake itself, in these seas, when the sun is on it, a broad road going home straight and white over the hills, the road which is not for us, is one of the good things of the voyage. Straight beneath the rail the wake is an upheaval of gems, sapphires, emeralds, and diamonds, always instantly melting in the sun, always fusing and fleeting in swift coils of malachite and chrysoprase, but never gone. As you watch that coloured turmoil it draws your mind from your body. You feel your careless gaze snatched in the revolving hues speeding astern, and your consciousness is instantly unwound from your spinning brain, and you are left standing on the ship, an empty spool. "Under the awning at night, to the Doctor and to me, the first mate played his accordion. He is a little Welshman, this mate, with a childish nose and a brutish moustache, and in his face is blended a girlish innocence of large affairs, and the hirsute nature of the adult male animal, a nature he relieves on the "Capella" with bawdy talk and guffaws. He played 'Come, Birdie, Come,' and things like that, and then told us some Monte Videan stories. As they were true stories about himself and other young sailors they ought really to be included in a faithful diary of a sea voyage, yet as I cannot reproduce the Doctor's antiseptic judgment, of which I know nothing but the glow of his pipe in the unresponding dark at the end of the stories--the last titter of the mate had died away--it is better to leave this matter alone.
"3 Jan. The hottest day we have had. I descended at midday to the engines to see Sandy at work with his shining giants. Standing on the middle platform, while he was shouting his greetings to me over the uproar, I felt the heat of the grating through my boot soles, and shifted. The temperature there was 122 degrees. Sandy was but in his drawers and a pair of old boots, and the tongues of the boots, properly, were hanging out. His noble torso was glistening with moisture, and as I talked, energetically vaulting my words above the roar of the crank throws in that hot and oleaginous place, the perspiration began a sudden drop from my own face and hands, and in a copious way which startled me. For a time I had some difficulty in breathing, as though in a vacuum, but gradually forgot this danger of suffocation in the love of the artist Sandy showed while offering me the spectacle of 'his job.' I think I understood him. At first one would see no order in that haze of rioting steel. The massive metal waves of the shaft were walloping and plunging in their pits with an astonishing bird-like alacrity; about fifteen tons of polished steel were moving with swift and somewhat awful desperation. The big room shook and hummed with the vigour of it.
But order came as Sandy talked, and presently I found the continuous thunder, that deadening bass of the crank throws, seemed to lessen as we conversed, sitting together on a tool chest. Our voices easily penetrated it. And listening more attentively at length I found what Sandy said was true, that each tossing and circling part of the room-full could be heard contributing its strident or profound note to the chorus, and each became constant and expected, a singing personality which was heard through the others whenever listened for. Above all, at regular intervals, a rod rang clear, like the bell in Parsifal; yet, curiously enough, Sandy declared he could not catch that note, though it tolled clear and resonant enough in my ears. The skylight was so far above us that we got little daylight. Hanging from the gratings in a few places, some black iron pots, shaped like kettles, had cotton rags in their spouts, and were giving us oil flares instead. The terrific unremitting energy of the ponderous arms, moving thunderously, and still with a speed which made tons as aery as flashes of light; and Sandy in the midst of it, quick in nothing but his eyes, moving about his raging but tethered monsters cock-sure and casual, rubbing his hands on a pull of cotton waste, putting his ear down to listen attentively at a bearing, his face turned from a steel fist which flung violently at his head, missed him, and withdrew to shoot at him again, gave me the first distinct feeling that our enterprise had its purpose powerfully energised and cunningly directed. I felt as I watched the dance of the eccentrics and the connecting rods that our ship was getting along famously. I think I detected in Sandy himself a faint contempt for the chap at the upper end of the telegraph. I stayed two hours, and then my shirt was as though I had been overboard; and ascending a greasy and almost perpendicular series of ladders to the upper world, I discovered, from the drag of my feet and the weight of my body, that I had had just as much of an engineer's watch in the tropics as I could stand. There was a burst of cool light. The tumult ceased; and again there was the old "Capella" rocking in the singing seas, for ever under the tranquil clouds. We had stopped again.
"4 Jan. A moderate north-east wind and sea, and a bright morning; but far out a dark cloud formed, and drew, and driving towards us, covered us presently with a blue-black canopy. The warm torrent fell with outrageous violence, and for all we could see of our way the "Capella" might have been in a dense fog. The mosquito curtains were served out to-day, and we amused ourselves draping our bunks. Later, the weather cleared. The night was stiflingly hot; and in that reeking bunk, with an iron bulkhead separating me from the engine room, it was like lying on the shelf of an oven. Though wide open on its catch, the door admitted no air, but did allow a miserable tap-tapping as the ship rolled. At eleven o'clock a pale face floated in the black vacancy of the door, and I could see the Doctor peering in to find if I were awake. 'I say, Purser, I can't sleep. Will you come and have a gossip, old dear?' We went aft in our pyjamas, the Doctor cleared away bottles and things from his settee, and we disembarked from the 'Capella,' visiting other and distant stars, returning to our own again not before three next morning.
"5 Jan. We seem to have got to a dead end of the trade winds. The heat of the forenoon was oppressively humid and dinner was nearly lost through it. The cook, a fair and plump Dutchman, broke down in the midst of his pans, and was carried out to find his breath again. This poor chef is up at four o'clock every morning coffee making; is working in the galley, which is badly ventilated, all day, getting two hours' rest in the early afternoon. Then he goes on till the saloon tea is over; when he begins to bake bread. He fills in his leisure in peeling potatoes.
"All round the horizon motionless and permanent storm clouds are banked. Their forms do not alter, but their colours change with the hours. They seem to encompass us in a circular lake, a range of precipitous and intricately piled Alps, high and massive. Cleaving those steeps of calamitous rocks--for so they looked, and not in the least like vapour--are chasms full of night, and the upper slopes and summits are lucent in amber and pearl. In the south and east the ranges are indigo dark and threatening, and the water between us and that closed country is opaque and heavy as molten lead. Across the peaks of the mountains rest horizontal strata of mist. Some petrels were about to-day. The evening is cool, with a slight head breeze."
After weeks at sea, imprisoned within the walls of the sky, walls which have not opened once to admit another vessel to give the assurance of communion, you begin to doubt your direction and destination, and the possibility of change. Only the clouds change. The ship is no nearer breaking that rigid circle. She cannot escape from her place under the centre of the dome. The most cheering assurance I had was the pulse of the steamer, felt whenever I rested against her warm body. Purposeful life was there, at least. Though the day may have been brazen, and without a hint of progress, and the sea the same empty wilderness, yet when most disheartened in the blind and melancholy night I felt under me the beatings, energetic and insistent, of her lively heart, some of that vitality was communicated, and I got sleep as a child would in the arms of a strong and wakeful guardian.
Poised between two profundities--though nearer the clouds, cirrus and lofty though they are, than the land straight beneath the keel--and with morning and night the only variety in the round, the days flicker by white and black like a magic lantern working without a story. Tired of watching for the fruits of our enterprise I went to sleep. Old Captain Morgan must have lived a dull life, monotonous with adventure. What is the use of travel, I asked myself. The stars are as near to London as they are to the Spanish main. In their planetary journey through the void the passengers at Peckham see as much as their fellows who peer through the windows in Macassar. The sun rises in the east, and the moon is horned; but some of the passengers on the mudball, strangely enough, take their tea without milk. Yet what of that?
In the chart room some days ago I learned we had 8000 fathoms under us. Well; these waves of the tropics, curling over such abysmal deeps, look much the same as the waves off Land's End. I began to see what I had done. I had changed the murk of winter in London for the discomforts of the dog days. I had come thousands of miles to see the thermometer rise. Where are the Spanish Main, the Guianas, and the Brazils? At last I had discovered them. I found their true bearings. They are in Raleigh's "Golden City of Manoa," in Burney's "Buccaneers of America," with Drake, Humboldt, Bates, and Wallace; and I had left them all at home. We borrow the light of an observant and imaginative traveller, and see the foreign land bright with his aura; and we think it is the country which shines.
. . . . .
At eight this morning we crossed the equator. I paid my footing in whisky, and forgot all about the equator. Soon after that, idling under the poop awning, I picked up the Doctor's book from his vacant chair. I took the essays of Emerson carelessly and read at once--the sage plainly had laid a trap for me--"Why covet a knowledge of new facts? Day and night, a house and garden, a few books, a few actions, serve as well as all trades and spectacles." So--. At this moment the first mate crossed my light, and presently I heard the sounding machine whirring, and then stop. There was a pause, and then the mate's unimportant voice, "Twenty-five fathoms, sir, grey sand!" Emerson went sprawling. I stood up. Twenty-five fathoms! Then that grey sand stuck to the tallow of the weight was the first of the Brazils. The circle of waters was still complete about us, but over the bows, at a great distance, were thunder clouds and wild lights. The oceanic swell had decreased to a languid and glassy beat, and the water had become jade green in colour, shot with turquoise gleams. The Skipper, himself interested and almost jolly, announced a pound of tobacco to the first man who spied the coast. We were nearing it at last. Those far clouds canopied the forests of the Amazon. We stood in at slow speed.
I know those forests. I mean I have often navigated their obscure waterways, rafting through the wilds on a map, in my slippers, at night. Now those forests soon were to loom on a veritable skyline. I should see them where they stood, their roots in the unfrequented floods. I should see Santa Maria de Belem, its aerial foliage over its shipping and squalor. It was quite near now. I should see Santarem and Obydos, and Ita-coatiara; and then, turning from the King of Rivers to his tributary, the Madeira, follow the Madeira to the San Antonio falls in the heart of the South American continent. We drew over 23 feet, with this "Capella." We were going to try what had never been attempted before by an ocean steamer. This, too, was pioneering. I also was on an adventure, going two thousand miles under those clouds of the equatorial rains, to live for a while in the forests of the Orellana. And our vessel's rigging, so they tell me, sometimes shall drag the foliage in showers on our decks, and where we anchor at night the creatures of the jungle will call.
Our nearness to land stirs up some old dreads in our minds also. We discuss those dreads again, though with more concern than we did at Swansea. Over the bows is now the prelude. We have heard many unsettling legends of yellow fever, malaria, blackwater fever, dysentery, and beri-beri. The mates, looking for land, swear they were fools to come a voyage like this. They ought to have known better. The Doctor, who does not always smile when he is amused, advises us not to buy a white sun umbrella at Para, but a black one; then it will do for the funerals.
"Land O!" That was the Skipper's own perfunctory cry. He had saved his pound of tobacco.
It was two in the afternoon. There was America. I rediscovered it with some difficulty. All I could see was a mere local thickening of the horizon, as though the pen which drew the faint line dividing the world ahead into an upper and a nether opalescence had run a little freely at one point. That thickening of the horizon was the island of Monjui. Soon, though, there was a palpable something athwart our course. The skyline heightened into a bluish barrier, which, as we approached still nearer, broke into sections. The chart showed that a series of low wooded islands skirted the mainland. Yet it was hard to believe we were approaching land again. What showed as land was of too unsubstantial a quality, too thin and broken a rind on that vast area of water to be of any use as a foothold. Where luminous sky was behind an island groups of diminutive palms showed, as tiny and distinct as the forms of mildew under a magnifying glass, delicate black pencillings along the foot of the skywall. Often that hairlike tracery seemed to rest upon the sea. The "Capella" continued to stand in, till America was more than a frail and tinted illusion which sometimes faded the more the eye sought it. Presently it cast reflections. The islands grew into cobalt layers, with vistas of silver water between them, giving them body. The course was changed to west, and we cruised along for Atalaia point, towards the pilot station. Over the thin and futile rind of land which topped the sea--it might have undulated on the low swell--ponderous thunder clouds towered, continents of night in the sky, with translucent areas dividing them which were strangely illuminated from the hither side. Curtains as black as bitumen draped to the waters from great heights. Two of these appalling curtains, trailing over America, were a little withdrawn. We could look beyond them to a diminishing array of glowing cloud summits, as if we saw there an accidental revelation of a secret and wonderful region with a sun of its own. And all, gigantic clouds, the sea, the far and frail coast, were serene and still. The air had ceased to breathe. I thought this new lucent world we had found might prove but a lucky dream after all, to be seen but not to be entered, and that some noise would presently shatter it and wake me. But we came alongside the white pilot schooner, and the pilot put off in a boat manned by such a crowd of grinning, ragged, and cinnamon skinned pirates as would have broken the fragile wonder of any spell. Ours, though, did not break, and I was able to believe we had arrived. At sunset the great clouds were full of explosions of electric fire, and there were momentary revelations above us of huge impending shapes. We went slowly over a lower world obscurely lighted by phosphorescent waves.
. . . . .
It was not easy to make out, before sunrise, what it was we had come to. I saw a phantom and indeterminate country; but as though we guessed it was suspicious and observant, and its stillness a device, we moved forward slowly and noiselessly, as a thief at an entrance. Low level cliffs were near to either beam. The cliffs might have been the dense residuum of the night. The night had been precipitated from the sky, which was clearing and brightening. Our steamer was between banks of these iron shades.
Suddenly the sunrise ran a long band of glowing saffron over the shadow to port, and the vague summit became remarkable with a parapet of black filigree, crowns and fronds of palms and strange trees showing in rigid patterns of ebony. A faint air then moved from off shore as though under the impulse of the pouring light. It was heated and humid, and bore a curious odour, at once foreign and familiar, the smell of damp earth, but not of the earth I knew, and of vegetation, but of vegetation exotic and wild. For a time it puzzled me that I knew the smell; and then I remembered where we had met before. It was in the palm house at Kew Gardens. At Kew that odour once made a deeper impression on me than the extraordinary vegetation itself, for as a boy I thought that I inhaled the very spirit of the tropics of which it was born. After the first minute on the Para River that smell went, and I never noticed it again. Full day came quickly to show me the reality of one of my early visions, and I suppose I may not expect many more such minutes as I spent when watching from the "Capella's" bridge the forest of the Amazon take shape. It was soon over. The morning light brimmed at the forest top, and spilled into the river. The channel filled with sunshine. There it was then. In the northern cliff I could see even the boughs and trunks; they were veins of silver in a mass of solid chrysolite. This forest had not the rounded and dull verdure of our own woods in midsummer, with deep bays of shadow. It was a sheer front, uniform, shadowless, and astonishingly vivid. I thought then the appearance of the forest was but a local feature, and so gazed at it for what it would show me next. It had nothing else to show me. Clumps of palms threw their fronds above the forest roof in some places, or a giant exogen raised a dome; but that was all. Those strong characters in the growth were seen only in passing. They did not change the outlook ahead of converging lines of level green heights rising directly from a brownish flood. Occasionally the river narrowed, or we passed close to one wall, and then we could see the texture of the forest surface, the microstructure of the cliff, though we could never look into it for more than a few yards, except where, in some places, habitations were thrust into the base of the woods, as in lower caverns. An exuberant wealth of forms built up that forest which was so featureless from a little distance. The numerous palms gave grace and life to the façade, for their plumes flung in noble ares from tall and slender columns, or sprayed directly from the ground in emerald fountains. The rest was inextricable confusion. Vines looped across the front of green, binding the forest with cordage, and the roots of epiphytes dropped from upper boughs, like hanks of twine.
In some places the river widened into lagoons, and we seemed to be in a maze of islands. Canoes shot across the waterways, and river schooners, shaped very like junks, with high poops and blue and red sails, were diminished beneath the verdure, betraying the great height of the woods. Because of its longitudinal extension, fining down to a point in the distance, the elevation of the forest, when uncontrasted, looked much less than it really was. The scene was so luminous, still, and voiceless, it was so like a radiant mirage, or a vivid remembrance of an emotional dream got from books react and read again, that only the unquestionable verity of our iron steamer, present with her smoke and prosaic gear, convinced me that what was outside us was there. Across a hatch a large butterfly hovered and flickered like a flame. Dragon flies were suspended invisibly over our awning, jewels in shimmering enamels.
. . . . .
We anchored just before breakfast, and a small launch flying a large Brazilian flag was soon fussing at our gangway. The Brazilian customs men boarded us, and the official who was left in charge to overlook the "Capella" while we remained was a tall and majestic Latin with dark eyes of such nobility and brooding melancholy that it never occurred to me that our doctor, who has travelled much, was other than a fellow with a dull Anglo-Saxon mind when he removed some loose property to his cabin and locked his door, before he went ashore. So I left my field glasses on the ice-chest; and that was the last I saw of them. Yet that fellow had such lovely hair, as the ladies would say, and his smile and his courtesy were fit for kings. He carried a scented pink handkerchief and wore patent leather boots. Our surgeon had but a faint laugh when these explanations were made to him, taking my hand fondly, and saying he loved little children.
Para, a flat congestion of white buildings and red roofs in the sun, was about a mile beyond our anchorage, over the port bow; and as its name has been to me one that had the appeal of the world not ours, like Tripoli of Barbary, Macassar, the Marquesas, and the Rio Madre de Dios, the agent's launch, as it took us towards the small craft lying immediately before the front of that spread of houses between the river and the forest, was so momentous an occasion that the small talk of the dainty Englishmen in linen suits, a gossiping group around the agent and the Skipper, hardly came into the picture, to my mind. The launch rudely hustled through a cluster of gaily painted native boats, the dingiest of them bearing some sonorous name, and I landed in Brazil. There was an esplanade, shadowed by an avenue of mangoes. We crossed that, and went along hot narrow streets, by blotched and shabby walls, to the office to which our ship was consigned. We met a fisherman carrying a large turtle by a flipper. We came to a dim cool warehouse. There, some negroes and half-breeds were lazily hauling packages in the shadows. It had an office railed off where a few English clerks, in immaculate white, overlooked a staff of natives. The warehouse had a strange and memorable odour, evasive, sweet, and pungent, as barbaric a note as I found in Para, and I understood at once I had come to a place where there were things I did not know. I felt almost timorous and yet compelled when I sniffed at those shadows; though what the eye saw in the squalid streets of the riverside, where brown folk stood regarding us carelessly from openings in the walls, I had thought no more than a little interesting. What length of time we should have in Belem was uncertain, but presently the Skipper, looking most morose, came away from his discussion with the agent and told us, at some length, what he thought of people who kept a ship waiting because of a few unimportant papers. Then he mumbled, very reluctantly, that we had plenty of time to see all Para. The Doctor and I were out of that office before the Skipper had time to change his mind. Our captain is a very excellent master mariner, but occasionally he likes to test the security of his absolute autocracy, to see if it is still sound. I never knew it when it was not; but yet he must, to assure himself of a certainty, or to exercise some devilish choler in his nature, sometimes beat our poor weak bodies against the adamant thing, to see which first will break. I will say for him that he is always polite when handing back to us our bruised fragments. Here he was giving us a day's freedom, and one's first city of the tropics in which to spend it; and we agreed with him that such a waste of time was almost unbearable, and left hurriedly.
Outside the office was a small public square where grew palms which ran flexible boles, swaying with the weight of their crowns, clear above the surrounding buildings, shadowing them except in one place, where the front of a ruinous church showed, topped by a crucifix. The church, a white and dilapidated structure, was hoary with ficus and other plants which grew from ledges and crevices. Through the crowns of the palms the sunlight fell in dazzling lathes and partitions, chequering the stones. An ox-cart stood beneath. The Paraenses, passing by at a lazy gait--which I was soon compelled to imitate--in the heat, were puzzling folk to one used to the features of a race of pure blood, like ourselves. Portuguese, negro, and Indian were there, but rarely a true type of one. Except where the black was the predominant factor the men were impoverished bodies, sallow, meagre, and listless; though there were some brown and brawny ruffians by the foreshore. But the women often were very showy creatures, certainly indolent in movement, but not listless, and built in notable curves. They were usually of a richer colour than their mates, and moved as though their blood were of a quicker temper. They had slow and insolent eyes. The Indian has given them the black hair and brown skin, the negro the figure, and Portugal their features and eyes. Of course, the ladies of Para society, boasting their straight Portuguese descent, are not included in this insulting description; and I do not think I saw them. Unless, indeed, they were the ladies who boldly eyed us in the fashionable Para hotel, where we lunched, at a great price, off imported potatoes, tinned peas, and beef which in England would be sold to a glue factory; I mean the women in those Parisian costumes erring something on the sides of emphasis, and whose remarkable pallor was even a little greenish in the throat shadows.
After lunch some disappointment and irresolution crept into our holiday. . . . There had been a time--but that was when Para was only in a book; that was when its mere printed name was to me a token of the tropics. You know the place I mean. You can picture it. Paths that go at noon but a little way into the jungle which overshadows an isolated community of strange but kindly folk, paths that end in a twilight stillness; ardent hues, flowers of vanilla, warm rain, a luscious and generative earth, fireflies in the scented dusk of gardens; and mystery--every outlook disappearing in the dark of the unknown. Well, here I was, placed by the ordinary moves of circumstance in the very place the name of which once had been to me like a chord of that music none hears but oneself. I stood in Para, outside a picture postcard shop. Electric cars were bumping down a narrow street. The glitter of a cheap jeweller's was next to the stationer's; and on the other side was a vendor of American and Parisian boots. There have been changes in Para since Bates wrote his idylls of the forest. We two travellers, after ordering some red earthenware chatties, went to find Bates' village of Nazareth. In 1850 it was a mile from the town. It is part of the town now, and an electric tram took us there, a tram which drove vultures off the line as it bumped along. The heat was a serious burden. The many dogs, which found energy enough to limp out of the way of the car only when at the point of death, were thin and diseased, and most unfortunate to our nice eyes. The Brazilian men of better quality we passed were dressed in black cloth suits, and one mocked the equator with a silk hat and yellow boots. I set down these things as the tram showed them. The evident pride and hauteur, too, of these Latins, was a surprise to one of a stronger race. We stopped at a street corner, and this was Nazareth. Bates' pleasant hamlet is now the place of Para's fashionable homes--pleasant still, though the overhead tram cables, and the electric light standards which interrupt the avenues of trees, place you there, now your own turn comes to look for the romance of the tropics, in another century. But the villas are in heliotrope, primrose, azure, and rose, bowered in extravagant arbours of papaws mangoes, bananas, and palms, with shrubberies beneath of feathery mimosas, and cassias with orange and crimson blooms. And my last walk ashore was in Swansea High Street in the winter rain! From Nazareth's main street the side turnings go down to the forest. For, in spite of its quays, its steamers, and its electric trains, Para is but built in a larger clearing of the wilderness. The jungle stood at the bottom of all suburban streets, a definite city wall. The spontaneity and savage freedom of the plant life in this land of alternate hot sun and warm showers at last blurred and made insignificant to me the men who braved it in silk hats and broadcloth there, and the trains, and the jewellers, shops, for my experience of vegetation was got on my knees in a London suburb, praying things to come out of the cold mud. Here, I began to suspect, they besieged us, quick and turbulent, an exhaustible army, ready to reconquer the foothold man had hardly won, and to obliterate his works. We passed through by-ways, where naked brown babies played before the doors. We happened upon the cathedral, and went on to the little dock where native vessels rested on garbage, the tide being out. Vultures pulled at stuff beneath the bilges. The crews, more Indian than anything, and men of better body than the sallow fellows in the town, sprawled on the hot stones of the quays and about the decks. There was a huge negress, arms akimbo, a shapeless monument in black indiarubber draped in cotton print, who talked loudly with a red boneless mouth to two disregarding Indians sitting with their backs to a wall. She had a rabbit's foot, mounted in silver, hanging between her dugs. The schooners, ranged in an arcade, were rigged for lateen sails, very like Mediterranean craft. The forest was a narrow neutral tinted ribbon far beyond. The sky was blue, the texture of porcelain. The river was yellow. And I was grievously disappointed; yet if you put it to me I cannot say why. There was something missing, and I don't know what. There was something I could not find; but as it is too intangible a matter for me to describe even now, you may say, if you like, that the fault was with me, and not with Para. We stood in a shady place, and the doctor, looking down at his hand, suddenly struck it. "Let us go," he said. He showed me the corpse of a mosquito. "Have you ever seen the yellow fever chap?" the Doctor asked. "That is he." We left. Near the agent's office we met an English shipping clerk, and he took us into a drink shop, and sat us at a marble-topped table having gilded iron legs, and called for gin tonics. We began to tell him what we thought of Para. It did not seem much of a place. It was neither here nor there. He was a pallid fellow with a contemplative smile, and with weary eyes and tired movements. "I know all that," he said. "It's a bit of a hole. Still-- You'd be surprised. There's a lot here you don't see at first. It's big. All out there--he waved his arm west inclusively--it's a world with no light yet. You get lost in it. But you're going up. You'll see. The other end of the forest is as far from the people in the streets here as London is--it's farther--and they know no more about it. I was like you when I first came. I gave the place a week, and then reckoned I knew it near enough. Now, I'm--well, I'm half afraid of it . . . not afraid of anything I can see . . . I don't know. There's something dam strange about it. Something you never can find out. It's something that's been here since the beginning, and it's too big and strong for us. It waits its time. I can feel it now. Look at those palm trees, outside. Don't they look as if they're waiting? What are they waiting for? You get that feeling here in the afternoon when you can't get air, and the rain clouds are banking up round the woods, and nothing moves. 'Lord,' said a fellow to me when I first came, 'tell us about Peckham. But for the spicy talk about yellow fever I'd think I was dead and waiting wide awake for the judgment day.' That's just the feeling. As if something dark was coming and you couldn't move. There the forest is, all round us. Nobody knows what's at the back of it. Men leave Para, going up river. We have a drink in here, and they go up river, and don't come back. "Down by the square one day I saw an old boy in white ducks and a sun helmet having a shindy with the sentry at the barracks. The old fellow was kicking up a dust. He was English, and I suppose he thought the sentry would understand him, if he shouted. English and Americans do. "You have to get into the road here, when you approach the barracks. It's the custom. The sentry always sends you off the pavement. The old chap was quite red in the face about it. And the things he was saying! Lucky for him the soldier didn't know what he meant. So I went over, as he was an Englishman, and told him what the sentry wanted. 'What,' said the man, 'walk in the road? Not me. I'd sooner go back.' "Go back he did, too. I walked with him and we got rather pally. We came in here. We sat at that table in the corner. He said he was Captain Davis, of Barry. Ever heard of him? He said he had brought out a shallow-draught river boat, and he was taking her up the Rio Japura. The way he talked! Do you know the Japura? Well, it's a deuce of a way from here. But that old captain talked--he talked like a child. He was so obstinate about it. He was going to take that boat up the Japura, and you'd have thought it was above Boulter's Lock. Then he began to swear about the dagoes. "The old chap got quite wild again when he thought of that soldier. He was a little man, nothing of him, and his face was screwed up as if he was always annoyed about something. You have to take things as they come, here, and let it go. But this Davis man was an irritable old boy, and most of his talk was about money. He said he was through with the boat running jobs. No more of 'em. It was as bare as boards. Nothing to be made at the game, he said. Over his left eye he had a funny hairy wart, a sort of knob, and whenever he got excited it turned red. I may say he let me pay for all the drinks. I reckon he was pretty close with his money.
"He told me he knew a man in Barry who'd got a fine pub--a little gold-mine. He said there was a stuffed bear at the pub and it brought lots of customers. Seemed to think I must know the place. He said he was going to try to get an alligator for the chap who kept the pub. The alligator could stand on its hind legs at the other side of the door, with an electric bulb in its mouth, like a lemon. That was his fine idea. He reckoned that would bring customers. Then old Davis started to fidget about. I began to think he wanted to tell me something, and I wondered what the deuce it was. I thought it was money. It generally is. At last he told me. He wanted one of those dried Indian heads for that pub. 'You know what I mean,' he said. 'The Indians kill somebody, and make his head smaller than a baby's, and the hair hangs down all round.' "Have you ever seen one of those heads? The Indians bone 'em, and stuff 'em with spice and gums, and let 'em dry in the sun. They don't look nice. I've seen one or two.
"But I tried to persuade him to let the head go. The Government has stopped that business, you know. Got a bit too thick. If you ordered a head, the Johnnies would just go out and have somebody's napper.
"I missed old Davis after that. I was transferred to Manaôs, up river. I don't know what became of him. It was nearly a year when I came back to Para. Our people had had the clearing of that boat old Davis brought out, and I found some of his papers, still unsettled. I asked about him, in a general way, and found he hadn't arrived. His tug had been back twice. When it was here last it seemed the native skipper explained Davis went ashore, when returning, at a place where they touched for rubber. He went into the village and didn't come back. Well, it seems the skipper waited. No Davis. So he tootled his whistle and went on up stream, because the river was falling, and he had some more stations to do in the season. He was at the village again in a few days, though, and Davis wasn't there then. The tug captain said the village was deserted, and he supposed the old chap had gone down river in another boat. But he's not back yet. The boss said the fever had got him, somewhere. That's the way things go here. "A month ago an American civil engineer touched here, and had to wait for a boat for New York. He'd been right up country surveying for some job or another, Peru way. I went up to his hotel with the fellows to see him one evening. He was on his knees packing his trunks. 'Say, boys,' he said, sitting on the floor, 'I brought a whole lot of truck from way up, and now it hasn't got a smile for me.' He offered me his collection of butterflies. Then the Yankee picked up a ball of newspaper off the floor, and began to peel it. 'This goes home,' he said. 'Have you seen anything like that? I bet you haven't.' He held out the opened packet in his hand, and there was a brown core to it. 'I reckon that is thousands of years old,' said the American. "It was a little dried head, no bigger than a cricket ball, and about the same colour. Very like an Indian's too. The features were quite plain, and there was a tiny wart over the left eye-brow. 'I bet you that's thousands of years old,' said the American. 'I bet you it isn't two,' I said."
. . . . .
We returned to the steamer in the late afternoon, bringing with us two Brazilian pilots, who were to take us as far as Ita-coatiara. We sailed next morning for the interior. Para, like all the towns on the Amazon, has but one way out of it. There is a continent behind Para, but you cannot go that way; when you leave the city you must take the river. Para stands by the only entrance to what is now the greatest region of virgin tropics left in the world. Always at anchor off the city's front are at least a dozen European steamers, most of them flying the red ensign. A famous engineering contractor, also British, is busy constructing modern wharves there; and Thames tugs and mudhoppers, flying the Brazilian flag, as the law insists, but bawling London compliments as they pass your ship, help the native schooners with their rakish lateen sails, blue and scarlet, to make the anchorage brisk and lively. Looking out from the "Capella's" bridge she appeared to be within a lagoon. The lake was elliptical, and so large it was a world for the eye to range in. It was bound by a low barrier of forest, a barrier distant enough to lose colour, nature, and significance. Para, white and red, lay reflecting the sunset from many facets in the southwest, with a cheerful array of superior towers and spires. From the ship Para looked big, modern, and prosperous; and with those vast rounded clouds of the rains assembling and mounting over the bright city, and brooding there, impassive and dark, but with impending keels lustrous with the burnish of copper and steel, and seeing a rainbow curving down from one cloud over the city's white front, I, being a new-coiner, and with a pardonable feeling of exhilaration which was of my own well-being in a new and a wide and radiant place, thought of man there as a conqueror who had overcome the wilderness, builded him a city, bridled the exuberance of a savage land, and directed the sap and life, born in a rich soil of ardent sun and rain, into the forms useful to him. So I entered the chart-room, and looked with a new interest on the chart of the place. Then I felt less certain of the conqueror and his taming bridle. I saw that this lagoon in which the "Capella" showed large and important was but a point in an immense area of tractless islands and meandering waterways, a region intricate, and, the chart confessed, little known. The coast opposite the city, which I had taken for mainland, was the trivial Ihla des Oncas. The main channel of the river was beyond that island, with the coast of Marajo for the farther shore; and Marajo also was but an island, though as large as Wales. The north channel of the Amazon was beyond again, with more islands, about which the chart confessed less knowledge. One of the pilots was with me; and when I spoke of those points in the ultimate Amazons, the alluring names on maps you read in England, here they were, at Para, just what they are at home, still vague and far, journeys thither to be reckoned by time; a shrug of the shoulders and a look of amusement; two months, Senhor, or perhaps three or four. The idea came slowly; but it dawned, something like the conception of astronomy's amplitudes, of the remoteness of the beyond of Amazonas, that new world I had just entered.
I crept within the mosquito curtain that night, and the still heated dark lay on my mind, the pressure of an unknown full of dread. I thought of the pale shipping clerk and his tired smile, and of Captain Davis, his face no bigger than a cricket ball, and the same colour, with a wart over his eye; and recalled the anxious canvass I had heard made for news of sickness up-river. A ship had passed outwards that morning, the consul told us, with twenty men on board down with fever.
And Thorwaldsen. I forgot to tell you about Thorwaldsen. He was a trader, and last rainy season he took his vessel up some far backwater, beyond Manaos, with his wife and his little daughter. News had just come from nowhere to Para that his wife had died in childbirth in the wilds, and Thorwaldsen had been murdered; but nothing was known of his daughter. There it was. I did not know the Thorwaldsens. But the trader's little girl who might then be alone in the gloom of the jungle with savages, helped to keep me awake. And the wife, that fair-haired Swede; she was in the alien wilderness, beyond all gentlehood, when her time came. I could see two mosquitoes doing their best to work backwards through the curtain mesh. They were after me, the emissaries of the unknown, and their pertinacity was astonishing.
. . . . .
"Jan. 9. The 'Capella' left Para at three o'clock this morning, and continued up the Para River. Daylight found us in a wide brownish stream, with the shores low and indistinguishable on either beam. When the sun grew hot, the jungle came close in; it was often so close that we could see the nests of wasps on the trees, like grey shields hanging there. Between the Para River and the Amazon the waters dissipate into a maze of serpenting ditches. In width these channels usually are no more than canals, but they were deep enough to float our big tramp steamer. They thread a multitude of islands, islands overloaded with a massed growth which topped our mast-heads. Our steamer was enclosed within resonant chasms, and the noise and incongruity of our progress awoke deep protests there.
"The dilated loom of the rains, the cloud shapes so continental that they occupied, where they stood not so far away, all the space between the earth and sky, bulged over the forest at the end of every view. The heat was luscious; but then I had nothing to do but to look on from a hammock under the awning. The foliage which was pressed out over the water, not many yards from the hurrying 'Capella,' had a closeness of texture astonishing, and even awful, to one who knew only the thin woods of the north. It ascended directly from the water's edge, sometimes out of the water, and we did not often see its foundation. There were no shady aisles and glades. The sight was stopped on a front of polished emerald, a congestion of stiff leaves. The air was still. Individual sprays and fronds, projecting from the mass in parabolas with flamboyant abandon and poise, were as rigid as metallic and enamelled shapes. The diversity of forms, and especially the number and variety of the palms, so overloaded an unseen standing that the parapets of the woods occasionally leaned outwards to form an arcade above our masts. One should not call this the jungle; it was even a soft and benignant Eden. This was the forest I really wished to find. Often the heavy parapets of the woods were upheld on long colonnades of grey palm boles; or the whole upper structure appeared based on low green arches, the pennate fronds of smaller palms flung direct from the earth.
"There was not a sound but the noise of our intruding steamer. Occasionally we brushed a projecting spray, or a vine pendent from a cornice. We proved the forest then. In some shallow places were regiments of aquatic grasses, bearing long plumes. There were trees which stood in the water on a tangle of straight pallid roots, as though on stilts. This up-burst of intense life so seldom showed the land to which it was fast, and the side rivers and paranas were so many, that I could believe the forest afloat, an archipelago of opaque green vapours. Our heavy wash swayed and undulated the aquatic plants and grasses, as though disturbing the fringe of those green clouds which clung to the water because of their weight in a still air. "There was seldom a sign of life but the infrequent snowy herons, and those curious brown fowl, the ciganas. The sun was flaming on the majestic assembly of the storm. The warm air, broken by our steamer, coiled over us in a lazy flux. I did not hear the bell calling to meals. We all hung over the 'Capella's' side, gaping, like a lot of boys. "Sometimes we passed single habitations on the water side. Ephemeral huts of palm-leaves were forced down by the forest, which overhung them, to wade on frail stilts. A canoe would be tied to a toy jetty, and on the jetty a sad woman and several naked children would stand, with no show of emotion, to watch us go by. Behind them was the impenetrable foliage. I thought of the precarious tenure on earth of these brown folk with some sadness, especially as the day was going. The easy dominance of the wilderness, and man's intelligent morsel of life resisting it, was made plain when we came suddenly upon one of his little shacks secreted among the aqueous roots of a great tree, cowering, as it were, between two of the giant's toes. Those brown babies on the jetties never cheered us. They watched us, serious and forlorn. Alongside their primitive hut were a few rubber trees, which we knew by their scars. Late in the afternoon we came to a large cavern in the base of the forest, a shadowy place where at last we did see a gathering of the folk. A number of little wooden crosses peeped above the floor in the hollow. The sundering floods and the forest do not always keep these folk from congregation, and the comfort of the last communion. "There was a question at night as to whether our pilots would anchor or not. They decided to go on. We did not go the route of Bates, via Breves, but took the Parana de Buyassa on our way to the Amazon. It was night when we got to the parana, and but for the trailing lights, the fairy mooring lines of habitations in the woods, and what the silent explosions of lightning revealed of great heads of trees, startlingly close and monstrous, as though watching us in silent and intent regard, we saw nothing of it."
. . . . .
Once I knew a small boy, and on a summer day too much in the past now to be recalled without some private emotion, he said to his father, on the beach of a popular East Anglian resort, "And where is the sea?" He stood then, for the first time, where the sea, by all the promises of pictures and poems, should have been breaking on its cold grey crags. "The sea?" said the father, in astonishment, "why, there it is. Didn't you know?"
And that father, being an exact man, there beyond appeal the sea was. And what was it? A discoloured wash, of mean limit, which flopped wearily on some shabby sands littered with people and luncheon papers. Such a flat, stupid, and leaden disillusion surely never before fell on the upturned, bright and expectant soul of a young human, who, I can vouch, began life, like most others, believing the noblest of everything. It was an ocean which was inferior even to the bathing-machines, and could be seen but in division when that child, walking along the rank of those boxes on wheels, peeped between them. You will have noticed with what simple indifference the people who really know what they call the truth will shatter an illusion we have long cherished; though, as we alone see our private dreams, those honest folk cannot be blamed for poking their feet through fine pictures they did not know were there.
I had a picture of the Amazon, which I had long cherished. I was leaning today over the bulwarks of the "Capella," watching the jungle pass. The Doctor was with me. I thought we were still on the Para River, and was waiting for our vessel to emerge from that stream, as through a narrow gate, dramatically, into the broad sunlight of the greatest river in the world, the king of rivers, the Amazon of my picture. We idly scanned the forest with binoculars, having nothing to do, and saw some herons, and the ciganas, and once a sloth which was hanging to a tree. Para, I felt, was as distant as London. The silence, the immobility of it all, and the pour of the tropic sun, were just beginning to be a little subduing. We had come already to the wilderness. There was, I thought, a very great deal of this forest; and it never varied. "We shall be on the Amazon soon," I said hopefully, to the doctor.
"We have been on it for hours," he replied. And that is how I got there.
But the Amazon is not seen, any more than is the sea, at the first glance. What the eye first gathers, is, naturally (for it is but an eye), nothing like commensurate with your own image of the river. The mind, by suggestive symbols, builds something portentous, a vague and tremendous idea. What I saw was only a very swift and opaque yellow flood, not much broader, it seemed to me, than the Thames at Gravesend, and the monotonous green of the forest. It was all I saw for a considerable time.
I see something different now. It is not easily explained merely as a yellow river, with a verdant elevation on either hand, and over it a blue sky. It would be difficult to find, except by luck, a word which would convey the immensity of the land of the Amazons, something of the aloofness and separation of the points of its extremes, with months and months of adventure between them. What a journey it would be from Ino in Bolivia, on the Rio Madre de Dios, to Conception in Colombia, on the Rio Putumayo; there is another "Odyssey" in a voyage like that. And think of the names of those places and rivers! When I take the map of South America now, and hold it with the estuary of the Amazon as its base, my thoughts are like those might be of a lost ant, crawling in and over the furrows and ridges of an exposed root as he regards all he may of the trunk rising into the whole upper cosmos of a spreading oak. The Amazon then looks to me, properly symbolical, as a monstrous tree, and its tributaries, paranas, furos, and igarapes, as the great boughs, little boughs, and twigs of its ascending and spreading ramifications, so minutely dissecting the continent with its numberless watercourses that the mind sees that dark region as an impenetrable density of green and secret leaves; which, literally, when you go there, is what you will find. You enter the leaves, and vanish. You creep about the region of but one of its branches, under a roof of foliage which stays the midday shine and lets it through to you in the dusk of the interior but as points of distant starlight. Occasionally, as we did upon a day, you see something like Santarem. There is a break and a change in the journey. Moving blindly through the maze of green, there, hanging in the clear day at the end of a bough, is a golden fruit.
"Jan. 10. The torrid morning, tempered by a cooling breeze which followed us up river, was soon overcast. Disappointingly narrow at first, the Amazon broadened later, but not to one's conception of its magnitude. But the greatness of this stream, I have already learned, dawns upon you in time, and if you sufficiently endure. It persists about you, this forest and this river, like the stark desolation of the sea. The real width of the river is not often seen because of the islands which fringe its banks, many of them of considerable size. The side channels, or paranas-miris, between the islands and the shores, are used in preference to the main stream by the native sailing craft, to avoid the strength of the current. We had the river to ourselves. The 'Capella' was taken by the pilots, first over to one side and then to the other, dodging the set of the stream. The forest has changed. It has now a graceless and savage aspect when we are close to it. There are not so many palms. At a little distance the growth appears a mass of spindly oaks and beeches, though with a more vivid and lighter green foliage. But when near it shows itself alien enough, a front of nameless and congested leaves. I suppose it would be more than a hundred feet in altitude. Sometimes the forest stands in the water. At other times a yellow bank shows, a narrow strip under the trees, rarely more than four feet high, and strewn with the bleaching skeletons of trees and entanglements of vine. There is rarely a sign of life. Once this morning a bird called in the woods when we were close. Butterflies are continually crossing the ship, and dragonflies and great wasps and hornets are hawking over us. The sight of one swallowtail butterfly, a big black and yellow fellow, sent the cook insane. The insect stayed its noble flight, poised over our hatch, and then came down to see what we were. It settled on a coil of rope, leisurely pulsing its wings. The cook, at the sight of this bold and bright being, sprang from the galley, and leaped down to the deck with a dish cloth. To our surprise he caught the insect, and explained with eagerness how that the shattered pattern of colours, which more than covered his gross palm, would improve his firescreen in a Rotterdam parlour.
"Early in the forenoon sections of the forest vanished in grey rain squalls, though elsewhere the sun was brilliant. The plane of the dingy yellow flood was variegated with transient areas of bright sulphur and chocolate. We were hugging the right bank, and so saw the mouth of the Xingu as we passed. At midday some hills ahead, the Serra de Almerim, gave us relief from the dead level of the wearying green walls. The sight of those blue heights with their flat tops--they were perhaps no more than 1000 feet above the forest--curiously stimulated the eye and lifted one's humour, long depressed by the everlasting sameness of the prospect and the heat. Later in the day we passed more of the welcome hills, the Serra de Maranuaqua, Velha Pobre, and Serras de Tapaiunaquara and Paranaquara, their cones, truncated pyramids, knolls and hog backs, ranging contrary to our course. Bates says some of them are bare, or covered only with a short herbage; but all those I examined with a good telescope had forest to the summits; though a few of the inferior heights, which stood behind the island of Jurupari (the island where dreams come at night) were grassy. Those cobalt prominences rose like precipitous islands from a green sea. We were the only spectators. One high range, as we passed, was veiled in a glittering mesh of rain. The river, after we left Jurupari, bent round, and brought the heights astern of us. The sun set. "The river and the forest are best at sundown. The serene level rays discovered the woods. We saw trees then distinctly, almost as a surprise. Till then the forest had been but a gloom by day. Behind us was the jungle front. It changed from green to gold, a band of light between the river and the darkling sky. Some greater trees emerged majestically. It was the first time that day we had really seen the features of the jungle. It was but a momentary revelation. The clouds were reflectors, throwing amber lights below. In the hills astern of us ravines hitherto unsuspected caught the transitory glory. The dark heights had many polished facets. One range, round-shouldered and wooded, I thought resembled the promontories about Clovelly, and for a few minutes the Amazon had the bright eyes of a friend. On a ridge of those heights I could see the sky through some of its trees. The light quickly gave out, and it was night.
"We continued cruising along the south shore. The usual pulsations of lightning made night intermittent; the forest was not more than 150 feet from our vessel, and sitting under the awning the trees kept jumping out of the night, startlingly near. The night was still and hot, and my cabin lamp had attracted myriads of insects through the door which had been left open for air. A heap of crawlers lay dead on the desk, and the bunk curtain was smothered with grotesque winged shapes, flies, cicadas, mantis, phasmas, moths, beetles, and mosquitoes." Next morning found us running along the north shore. Parrots were squawking in the woods alongside. A large alligator floated close by the ship, its jaws open in menace. At breakfast time a strip of white beach came into view on the opposite coast, a place in that world of three colours on which one s tired eyes could alight and rest. That was Santarem. Sharp hills rose immediately behind the town. The town is in a saddle of the hills, slipping down to the river in terraces of white, chrome, and blue houses. The Rio Tapajos, a black water tributary and a noble river, enters the main stream by Santarem, its dark flood sharply contrasted with the tawny Amazon. But the Amazon sweeps right across its mouth in a masterful way. There is a definite line dividing black from yellow water, and then no more Tapajos.
We passed numerous floating islands (Ilhas de Caapim) and trees adrift, evidence, the pilots said, that the river was rising. These grass islands are a feature of the Amazon. They look like lush pastures adrift. Some of them are so large it is difficult to believe they are really afloat till they come alongside. Then, if the river is at all broken by a breeze, the meadow plainly undulates. This floating cane and grass grows in the sheltered bays and quiet paranas-miris, for though the latter are navigable side-channels of the river in the rainy season, in the dry they are merely isolated swamps. But when the river is in flood the earth is washed away from the roots of this marsh growth, and it moves off, a flourishing, mobile field, often twenty feet in thickness. Such islands, when large, can be dangerous to small craft. Small flowers blossom on these aquatic fields, which shelter snakes and turtles, and sometimes the peixe-boi, the manatee. Obydos was in sight in the afternoon, but presently we lost it in a violent squall of rain. The squall came down like a gun burst, and nearly carried away the awnings. It was evening before we were abreast of that most picturesque town I saw on the river. Obydos rests on one of the rare Amazon cliffs of rufus clay and sandstone. The forest mounts the hill above it, and the scattered red roofs of the town show in a surf of foliage. The cliffs glowed in cream and cherry tints, with a cascade of vines falling over them, though not reaching the shore. The dainty little houses sit high in a loop of the cliffs. We left the city behind, with a huge cumulus cloud resting over it, and the evening light on all.
But Obydos and sunsets and rain squalls, and the fireflies which flit about the dark ship at night in myriads, tiny blue and yellow glow-lamps which burn with puzzling inconstancy, as though being switched on and off, though they help me with this narrative, yet candour compels me to tell you that they take up more space in this book than they do in the land of the Amazon. They were incidental and small to us, dominated by the shadowing presence of the forest.
We have been on the river nearly a week. But our steamer's decks, even by day, are deserted now. We lean overside no longer looking at this strange country. The heat is the most noteworthy fact, and drives every one to what little leeward to the glare there is. Our cook, who is a salamander of a fellow, and has no need to fear the possibilities of his future life--though I do not remember he ever told me he was really thoughtful for them--feeling a little uncomfortable one day when at work on our dinner, glanced at his thermometer, and fled in terror. It registered 134 degrees. He begged me to go in and verify it, and once inside I was hardly any time doing that. We have such days, without a breath of air, and two vivid walls of still jungle, and between them a yellow river serpentining under the torrid sun, and a silence which is like deafness. Under the shadow of the awning aft, in his deck chair, the Doctor is preparing our defences by sounding a profound volume on tropical diseases. This gives us but little confidence; though, as to our surgeon, recently I overheard one fireman to another, "I tell yer the--doc's a Man. That's what he is." (This is the result of the gin with the quinine.) Yet, good man as he is, his book on the consequences of the tropics is so large that we fear we all cannot escape so many impediments to joy. But our health's guardian is careful we do not anticipate anything from peeps into the mysteries. He never leaves his big book about, much as some of us would like to see the pictures in it, after what the donkeyman told us.
This is how it was. Donkey, in spite of instructions, and I know how emphatic the Skipper usually is, slept on deck away from his mosquito bar a few nights ago. He said at the time that he wasn't afraid of them little fanciful biters, or something of the kind. I have no doubt the Doctor would have had some trouble in making clear to Donkey's understanding exactly what are the links, delicate but sure, between mosquitoes and dissolution and decay in man. So he showed Donkey a picture. I wish I knew what it was--but the surgeon preserves the usual professional reticence in the affairs of his patients. For now Donkey is convinced it is very bad to sleep outside his curtain, and when he tries to tell us how unwholesome such sleeping can be, just at the point when he gets most entertaining his vocabulary wears into holes and tatters. You could not conjure that man from his curtain now, no, not if you showed him, in a vision. Cardiff, and the fairy lights of all its dock hotels. I know that in the Doctor's book there is a picture of a negro who acquired, in a superb way, a wonderful form of elephantiasis, for the Doctor showed it to me once, as a treat, when he thought I was growing slack and bored.
We require now such childish laughter at each other's discomfiture to break the spell of this land into which we are sinking deeper. Still the forest glides by. It is a shadow on the mind. It stands over us, an insistent riddle, every morning when I look out from my bunk. I watch it all day, drawn against my will; and as day is dying it is still there, paramount, enigmatic, silent, its question implied in its mere persistence--meeting me again on the next day, still with its mute interrogation.
We have been passing it for nearly a week. It should have convinced me by now that it is something material. But why should I suppose it is that? We have had no chance to examine it. It does not look real. It does not remind me of anything I know of vegetation. When you sight your first mountains, a delicate and phantom gleam athwart the stars, are you reminded of the substance of the hills? I have been watching it for so long, this abiding and soundless forest, that now I think it is like the sky, intangible, an apparition; what the eye sees of the infinite, just as the eye sees a blue colour overhead at midday, and the glow of the Milky Way at night. For the mind sees this forest better than the eye. The mind is not deceived by what merely shows. Wherever the steamer drives the forest recedes, as does the sky at sea; but it never leaves us.
The jungle gains nothing, and loses nothing, at noon. It is only a sombre thought still, as at midnight. It is still, at noon, so obscure and dumb a presence that I suspect the sun does not illuminate it so much as reveal our steamer in its midst. We are revealed instead. The presence sees us advancing into its solitudes, a small, busy, and impudent intruder. But the forest does not greet, and does not resent us. It regards us with the vacancy of large composure, with a lofty watchfulness which has no need to show its mind. I think it knows our fears of its domain. It knows the secret of our fate. It makes no sign. The pallid boles of the trees, the sentinels by the water with the press of verdure behind them, stand, as we pass, like soundless exclamations. So when we go close in shore I find myself listening for a chance whisper, a careless betrayal of the secret. There is not a murmur in the host; though once a white bird flew yauping from a tree, and then it seemed the desolation had been surprised into a cry, a prolonged and melancholy admonition. Following that the silence was deepened, as though an indiscretion were regretted. A sustained and angry protest at our presence would have been natural; but not that infinite line of lofty trees, darkly superior, silently watching us pass.
. . . . .
One night we anchored off the south shore in twenty fathoms, but close under the trees. At daybreak we stood over to the opposite bank. The river here was of great width, the north coast being low and indistinct. These tacks across stream look so purposeless, in a place where there are no men and all the water looks the same. You go over for nothing. But this morning, high above the land ahead, some specks were seen drifting like frag ments of burnt paper, the sport of an idle and distant wind. Those drifting dots were urubus, the vultures, generally the first sign that a settlement is near. To come upon a settlement upon the Amazons is like landfall at sea. It brings all on deck. And there, at last, was Itacoatiara or Serpa. From one of the infrequent, low, ferruginous cliffs of this river the jungle had been cleared, and on that short range of modest, undulating heights which displaced the green palisades with soft glowings of rose, cherry, and orange rock, the sight escaped to a disorder of arboured houses, like a disarray of little white cubes; Serpa was, in appearance, half a basketful of white bricks shot into a portico of the forest.
That morning was no inducement to exertion, but when an Indian paddled his canoe alongside our anchored steamer the Doctor and the Purser got into it, and away. The hot earth would be a change from hot iron. Besides, I was eager for my first walk in equatorial woods. Our steamer was anchored below the town, off a small campo, or clearing. The native swashed his canoe into a margin of floating plants, which had rounded leaves and inflated stalks, like buoys. I looked at them, and indeed at the least thing, as keenly as though we were now going to land in the moon. Nothing should escape me; the colour of the mud, the water tepid to my hand, the bronze canoeman in his pair of old cotton pants split just where they should have been scrupulous, and the weeds and grass. I would drain my tropics to the last precious drop. I myself was seeing what I had thought others lucky to have seen. It was like being born into the world as an understanding adult. We got to a steep bank of red clay, fissured by the heat, and as hard as brickwork. Green and brown lizards whisked before us as we broke the quiet. From the top of the bank the anchored steamer looked a little stranger. Aboard her, and she is a busy village. Now she appeared but a mark I did not recognise in that reticent solitude. The Amazon was an immensity of water, a plain of burnished silver, where headlands, islands, and lines of cliff were all cut in one level mass of emerald veined with white. The canoe going downstream appeared to dissolve in candent vapour. Cloudland low down over the forest to the south, a far disorder of violet heights, waiting to fill the sky at sunset and to shock our unimportance then with convulsions of blue flames, did not seem more aloof and inaccessible to me than our immediate surroundings.
The clearing was a small bay in the jungle. A few statuesque silk-cotton trees, buttressed giants, were isolated in its centre. A bunch of dun-coloured cattle with twisted horns stood beneath them, though the trees gave them no shade, for each grey trunk was as bare of branches for sixty feet of its length as a stone column. The wall of the jungle was quite near, and as I stood watching it intently, I could hear but the throb of my own life. The faint sibilation of insects was only as if, in the silence, you heard the sharp rays of the sun impinge on the earth; your finer ear caught that sound when you forgot the ring and beat of your body. It was something below mere silence. We approached the wall to the west, as a path went through the harsh swamp herbage that way, and entered the jungle. The sun went out almost at once. It was cellar cool under the trees. We had no idea where the path would lead us. That did not matter. No doubt it would be the place desired. The Doctor walked ahead, and I could just see his helmet, the way was so narrow and uncertain. I kept missing the helmet, for everything in the half-lighted solitude was strange. One could not keep an eye on a white hat on one's first equatorial ramble, and only when the quiet was heavy enough to be a burden did I look up from a puzzling leaf, or some busy ants, to find myself alone. There was a feeling that you were being watched; but there were no eyes, when you glanced round quickly. Do you remember that dream which sometimes came when we were children? There were, I remember, empty corridors prolonging into the shadows of a nameless house where not a sign showed of what was there. We went on, and no words we could think of when we woke could tell what we felt when we looked into those long silent aisles of the house without a name; for we knew something was there; but there was no telling what the thing would be like when it showed. That is your sensation in a first walk in a Brazilian forest. I stopped at lianas, and curious foliage, trying to trace them to a beginning, but rarely with any success. There were some mantis, which commenced to run on a tree while I was examining its bark. They were like flakes of the bark. For a moment the tree seemed to quiver its hide at my irritating touch. Then the Doctor called, and I pushed along to find him stooping over a land snail, the size of a man's fist, which rather puzzled him, for it had what he called an operculum; that is, a cap such as a winkle's, only in this case it was as large as a crown piece. I do not know if it was the operculum, for my knowledge of such things is small; but I did feel this was the only twelfth birthday which had come to me for many years. Presently we saw light, as you would from the interior of a tunnel. Some beams of sunshine slanted from a break in the roof to where a tree had fallen, making a bridge for us across an igaripe, a stream, that is, large enough to be a way for a canoe. The sundered, buttressed roots of the tree formed a steep climb to begin with, but the buttresses going straight along the trunk as handrails made crossing the bridge an easy matter. Raising my hand to a root which was hot in the sun, and watching a helicon butterfly, a black and yellow fellow, which settled near us, slowly open and shut his wings, I jumped, because it felt as though a lighted match had dropped into my sleeve. But I couldn't douse it. It burned in ten places at once. It was a first lesson in constant watchfulness in this new world. I had placed my hand in a swarm of inconspicuous fire ants. The dead tree was alive with them, and our passage quickened. We rubbed ourselves hysterically, for the Doctor had got some too; and there was no professional reserve about him that time.
After crossing the igaripe the character of the forest changed. It was now a growth of wild cacao trees. Nothing grew beneath them. The floor was a black paste, littered with dead sticks. The woods were more open, but darker and more dank than before. The sooty limbs of the cacao trees grew low, and filled the view ahead with a perplexity of leafless and tortured boughs. They were hung about with fruit, pendent lamps lit with a pale greenish light. We saw nothing move there but two delicate butterflies, which had transparent wings with opaque crimson spots, such as might have been served Titania herself; yet the gloom and black ooze, and the eerie globes, with their illusion of light hung upon distorted shapes, was more the home of the fabulous sucuruja, the serpent which is forty feet long. A dry stick snapping underfoot had the same effect as that crash which resounds for some embarrassing seconds when your umbrella drops in a gallery of the British Museum. The impulse was to apologise to something. We had been so long in the twilight, recoiling at nameless objects in the path, a monstrous legume perhaps a yard long and coiled like a reptile, seeing things only with a second look, that the sudden entrance into a malocal, a forest clearing, which, as though it were a reservoir, the sun had filled with bright light, was like a plunge into a warm, fluid, and lustrous element.
In the clearing were the huts of an Indian village. Only the roofs could be seen, through some plantations of bananas. Around the clearing, a side of which was cut off by a stream, was the overshadowing green presence. Some chocolate babies, as serious as gnomes, looked up as we came into daylight, opened their eyes wide, and fled up the path between the plantains. If I could sing, I would sing the banana. It has the loveliest leaf I know. I feel intemperate about it, because I came upon it after our passage through a wood which could have been underground, a tangle of bare roots joining floor and ceiling in limitless caverns. We stood looking at the plantation till our mind was fed with grace and light. The plantain jets upwards with a copious stem, and the fountain returns in broad rippled pennants, falling outwardly, refined to points, when the impulse is lost. A world could not be old on which such a plant grows. It is sure evidence of earth's vitality. To look at it you would not think that growing is a long process, a matter of months and natural difficulties. The plantain is an instant and joyous answer to the sun. The midribs of the leaves, powerful but resilient, held aloft in generous arches the broad planes of translucent green substance. It is not a fragile and dainty thing, except in colour and form. It is lush and solid, though its ascent is so aerial, and its form is content to the eye. There is no green like that of its leaves, except at sea. The stout midribs are sometimes rosy, but the banners they hold well above your upturned face are as the crest of a wave in the moment of collapse, the day showing through its fluid glass. And after the place of dead matter and mummied husks in gloom, where we had been wandering, this burst of leaves in full light was a return to life.
We continued along the path, in the way of the vanished children. Among the bananas were some rubber trees, their pale trunks scored with brown wounds, and under some of the incisions small tin cups adhered, fastened there with clay. In most of the cups the collected latex was congealed, for the cups were half full of rain-water, which was alive with mosquito larvæ. The path led to the top of the river bank. The stream was narrow, but full and deep. A number of women and children were bathing below, and they looked up stolidly as we appeared. Some were negligent on the grass, sunning themselves. Others were combing their long, straight hair over their honey- and snuff-coloured bodies. The figures of the women were full, lissom, and rounded, and they posed as if they were aware that this place was theirs. They were as unconscious of their grace as animals. They looked round and up at us, and one stayed her hand, her comb half through the length of her hair, and all gazed intently at us with faces having no expression but a little surprise; then they turned again to proceed with their toilets and their gossip. They looked as proper with their brown and satiny limbs and bodies, in the secluded and sunny arbour where the water ran, framed in exuberant tropical foliage, as a herd of deer.
I had never seen primitive man in his native place till then. There he was, as at the beginning, and I saw with a new respect from what a splendid creature we are derived. It was, I am glad to say, to cheer the existence of these people that I had put money in a church plate at Poplar. Poplar, you may have heard, is a parish in civilisation where an organised community is able, through its heritage of the best of two thousand years of religion, science, commerce, and politics, to eke out to a finish the lives of its members (warped as they so often are by arid dispensations of Providence) with the humane Poor Law. The Poor Law is the civilised man's ironic rebuke to a parsimonious Creator. It is a jest which will ruin the solemnity of the Judgment Day. Only the man of long culture could think of such a shattering insult to the All Wise who made this earth too small for the children He continues to send to it, trailing their clouds of glory which prove a sad hindrance and get so fouled in the fight for standing room on their arrival. But these savages of the Brazilian forest know nothing of the immortal joke conceived by their cleverer brothers. They have all they want. Experience has not taught them to devise such a cosmic mock as a Poor Law. How do these poor savages live then, who have not been vouchsafed such light? They pluck bananas, I suppose, and eat them, swinging in hammocks. They live a purely animal existence. More than that, I even hear that should you find a child hungry in an Indian village, you may be sure all the strong men there are hungry too. I was not able to prove that; yet it may be true there are people to-day to whom the law that the fittest must survive has not yet been helpfully revealed. (This is really the Doctor's fault. I should never have thought of Poplar if he had not wondered aloud how those bathers under the palms managed without a workhouse.)
Behind us were the shelters of these settled Indians, the "cabaclos," as they are called in Brazil (literally, copper coloured). Each house was but a square roof of the fronds of a species of attalea palm, upheld at each corner by poles seven feet high. The houses had no sides, but were quite open, except that some had a quarter of the interior partitioned off with a screen of leaves. There was a rough attempt at a garden about each dwelling, with rose bushes and coleas in the midst of gourds and patches of maize. The roses were scented, and of the single briar kind. We entered one of the dwellings, and surprised a young woman within who was swinging in a hammock smoking a native pipe of red clay through a grass stem. One fine limb, free of her cotton gown to the thigh, hung indolently over the hammock, the toes touching the earth and giving the couch movement. Her black hair, all at first we could see of her head, nearly reached the ground.
A well-grown girl, innocent from head to feet, saw us enter, and cried to her mother, who rose in the hammock, threw her gown over her leg, smiled gravely at us, and alighted, to vanish behind the screen with the child, reappearing presently with the girl neatly attired. Other children came, and soon had confidence to examine us closely and critically, grave little mortals with eyes which spoke the only language I understood there. The men and women who gathered stood behind the children, smiling sadly and kindly. They were gentle, undemonstrative, and observant, with features of the conventional Indian type. The men were spare and lithe, of medium height, wearing only shorts tied with string below their bronze busts. The women were of fuller build, with heavier but more cheerful features, and each was dressed in a single cotton garment, open above, revealing the breasts.
The noon shadows of the hut, and the trees, were deep as the stains of ink. A tray of mandioca root, farinha, was set in the hot sun to dry. Under a gourd tree was a heap of turtle shells. A little game, a capybara, and a bird like a crow with a brown rump, were hung on the screen. But the most remarkable feature of the house in the forest was its pets. A pair of parraquets ran in and out the bushes like green mice. My helmet was tipped over my eyes, and, looking upwards, there was an audience of monkeys in the shadow, quite beside themselves with curiosity. My sudden movement sent them off like fireworks. One was a most engaging little fellow, a jet-black tamarin slightly larger than a squirrel. Presently he found courage to come closer, with a companion, a brown monkey of his own size. As they sat side by side the Doctor pointed out that the expressions in the faces of these monkeys showed temperaments separating them even more widely then they were separated by those physical differences which made them species. I saw at once, with some pleasure and a little vanity, that I might be more nearly related to the friendly cabaclos than I am to some people in England. The brown chap would be no doubt a master of industry on the tree tops, keeping a whole tree to himself, and living on nuts which others gathered. You could see it in his keen and domineering look, and in the quick, casual way he crowded his fellow, who always made room for him. I have seen such a face, and such manners, in great industrial centres. They are the marks of the ablest and best, who get on. His hard, eager eyes showed censoriousness, cruelty, and acquisitiveness. But his companion, with a sooty and hairless face, and black hair parted in the middle of a frail forehead, was a pal of ours, and knew it. The brown midget showed angry distrust of us, knowing what devilry was in his own mind. But the black, though more delicate and nervous a monkey, his mind being innocent of secret plots, had gentleness and faith in his looks, and showed a laughable and welcome curiosity in us. He made friendly twitterings--not the harsh and menacing chatter of the other--and perfectly selfpossessed, his pure soul giving him quiethood, examined us in a brotherly way with an ebon paw which was as small and fragile as a black fairy's.
A jabiru stork stood on one leg, beak on breast, meditating, caring nothing for all that was outside its ruminating mind. There were parrots on the cross-ties of the roof, on the floor, on the shoulders of the women, and in the hands of the children, and they were getting an interesting time through the monkeys when their faces were not cocked sideways at us in a knowing fashion. And what looked like a crow was giving bitter and ruthless chase to a young agouti, in and out of the bare feet of the company. I have never seen creatures so tame. But Indian women, as I learned afterwards, have a fine gift for winning the confidence of wild things, and that afternoon they took hold of the creatures, anyhow and anywhere, to bring them for our inspection, without the captives showing the least alarm or anger. There were the dogs, too. But they were like all the dogs we saw in Brazil, looking sorry for themselves; and they sat about in case they should fall if they attempted to stand. Our audience broke up suddenly, in an uproar of protests, to chase the brown monkey, who was towing a frantic parrot by the tail.
We continued our walk, entering the forest again on another path. Here the growth was secondary, and the underbush dense on both sides of the trail. The voices of the village stopped as we entered the shades, and there was no more sound except when a bird scurried away heavily, and again, when some cicadas, the "scissors grinders," suddenly sprang an astonishing whirring from a tree. The sound was as loud as that of a locomotive letting steam escape in a covered station. At a clearing so small that the roof of the jungle had been but little broken, where a hut stood as though at a well-bottom sunk in a depth of trees, we turned back. That deep well in the trees contained but little light, for already it was being choked with vines. The hut was of the usual light construction, though its sides were of leaves, as well as its roof. I think it was the most melancholy dwelling I have ever happened on in my wanderings. It did not look as though it had been long deserted. There were ashes and a broken flesh-pot outside it. The entrance was veiled with gross spiders' webs. On the earth floor within were puddles of rain. Round it the forest stood, like night in abeyance. The tree tops overhung, silently intent on what man had been doing at their feet. A child's chemise was stretched on a thorn, and close by was a small grave, separated by little sticks from the secular earth. A dead plant was in the centre of the grave, and a crude wooden crucifix.
. . . . .
We had plenty of opportunities for exploring Serpa, for the Amazon that rainy season was slow in rising, and consequently it would have been unsafe for us to venture into the Madeira. The tributary would have been full, but it was necessary for the waters of the main stream to dam and heighten the flood of its tributary before we could trust our draught there. We were nine days at Serpa. The Amazon would rise as much as a foot one day, and our distance from the shore would increase perceptibly, with strong whirling eddies which made the trip ashore more difficult. Then it would fall again. Some of the yellow Amazon porpoises showed alongside occasionally, and alligators floated about, though nothing was seen of them but their snouts.
Serpa is a small but growing place. It was but a missionary settlement of Abacaxis Indians from the Madeira in 1759, and was called Itacoatiara. When I was there it was renewing its old importance, because the Madeira-Mamoré railway undertaking had placed a depot a little to the west of the village. The Doctor and I spent many memorable days in its neighbourhood, butterfly-hunting and sauntering. Though mosquitoes, anopeline and culex, are as common here as elsewhere in the Brazils--the lighters which came alongside with cargo for us conveyed clouds of them, and they took possession of every dark nook of the "Capella"--it is noteworthy that Serpa has the reputation, in Amazonas, of a health resort. I could find no explanation of that. There was malaria at Serpa, of course; but compared with the really lethal country, a country not so different in appearance and climate, of the upper Madeira, the salubrity of Serpa is perplexing. That virulent form of malaria peculiar to some tropical localities is a phenomenon which medical research has not yet explained. In the almost unexplored region of the Rio Madeira the fever is certain to every traveller, though the land is largely without inhabitants; and it is almost equally certain that it will be of the malignant type. Yet at an old settlement like Serpa, where probably every inhabitant has had malaria, and every mosquito is likely to be a host, the fever is but mild, and the traveller may escape it entirely.
By now you will be asking what Itacoatiara is like, that community contentedly lost in the secret forest. I am afraid you will not learn, unless, in the happy future, you and I select a few friends, a few books, and erect some houses of palm leaves to protect us from the too vigorous sun there, and so, secure from all the really urgent and important matters which do not matter a twinkle to the eternal stars, noon it far and secure until the time comes for the gentle villagers to carry us out and forget us; remembering us again when the annual Day of the Dead comes round. They will leave some comfortable candles above us that night.
There the earth is a warm and luscious body. The lazy paths are cool with groves, and in the middle hours of the sun, when only a few butterflies are abroad, and the grasshoppers are shrilling in the quiet, you swing in a hammock under a thatch--the air has been through some tree in blossom--and gossip, and drink coffee. Beyond the path of the village there is--nobody knows what; not even the Royal Geographical Society. One heard of a large and mysterious lake a day's journey inland. Nobody knew anything about it. Nobody cared. One old man once, when hunting, saw its mirror through the forest's aisles, and heard the multitude of its birds.
The foreshore of the village is rugged with boulders richly tinctured with iron oxide, and often having a scoriaceous surface. There we would land, and scramble up to a street which ends on the height above the river. It is a broad road, with white, substantial, one-story houses on either side. The dwellings and stores have no windows, but are built with open fronts, for ventilation. This is Serpa's main street. It is shaded with avenues of trees. In the narrower side turnings the trees meet to form arcades. One day we saw such an avenue covered with yellow, trumpet-shaped blossoms. Ox-carts with solid wheels stand in the walks. The sunlight, broken in the leaves of the trees, patterned the roads with white fire, and so dappled the cattle that they were obscure; you saw the oxen only when they moved. There is a large square, grass-grown, in the centre of the village, where stands the church, a white, simple building with an open belfry in which the bell hangs plain, bright with verdigris. About here the merchants and tradesmen of Serpa have their places. The men, hearty and friendly souls, walk abroad in clean linen suits and straw hats, and their ladies, pallid, slight, but often singularly beautiful, are dressed as Europeans, but without hats; sometimes, when out walking late in the day, a lady would have a scarlet flower in her hair.
By the foreshore were the cabins, of mud and wood, of the negroes. Beyond the town, the roads run through the clearings, and end on the forest. In the clearings were the huts, wattle and daub, and of leaves, of the settled Indians and half-breeds. These were often prettily placed beneath groups of graceful palms. It was in the last direction that most often we made our way with our butterfly nets while other folk were sleeping during the sun's height. The humid heat, I suppose, was really a trial. One did perspire in an alarming way and with the least exertion. The Doctor, who carries substance, would have dark patches in his khaki uniform, and would wonder, with foreboding, whether any more in this life he would catch hold of a cold jug which held a straight pint in which ice tinkled. But to me the illumination, the heat, the odour, and the quiethood of those noons made life a great prize. I will say that my comrade, the Doctor, did much to make it so, with his gentle fun, and his wide knowledge of earth-lore. There was so much, wherever we went, to keep me on the magic side of time, and out of its shadow. On the west of the town were some huts, with plantations of bananas, pineapples, papaws, and maize, where blossomed cannas, mimosas, passion-flowers, and where other unseen blooms, especially after rain, made breathing a sensuous pleasure. There we tried to intercept the swallow-like flight of big sulphur and orange butterflies, though never with success. We had more success with the butterflies in the clearings, where some new huts stood, beyond the village. Over the stagnant pools in those open spaces dragon-flies hovered, fellows that moved, when we approached, like lines of red light. The butterflies, particularly a vermilion beauty with black bars on his wings, and a swift flier, used to settle and gem the mud about these pools. Other species frequented the flowering shrubs which had grown over the burnt wreckage and stumps of the forest. That area was full of insects and birds. There we saw daily the Sauba ants, sometimes called the parasol ants, in endless processions, each ant holding a piece of leaf, the size of a sixpenny bit, over its tiny body. Tanagers shot amongst the bushes like blue projectiles. We saw a ficus there on one occasion, of fair size, with large leathery leaves, which carried a colony of remarkable caterpillars, each about seven inches long, thick in proportion, blue black in colour with yellow stripes, and a coral head, and filaments at the latter end. They were pugnacious worms, fighting each other desperately when two met on a leaf. The larvæ stripped that tree in a day. We were not always sure that the people in this part of Serpa were friendly. Mostly they were half-breeds, varying mixtures of Indian and negro, and no doubt very superstitious. The rodent's foot was commonly worn by the women, who, if we took notice of their children, sometimes would spit, to avert the evil eye. But when the thunder clouds banked close, and the air, being still, became loaded with the scent of the wood fires of the villagers, promising rain, we would enter a hut, and then always found we were welcome.
Even when kept to the ship for any reason this country offered constant new things to keep our thoughts moving. A regatao, the river pedlar, would bring his roomy montario, the gipsy van of the river, his family aboard--the wife, the grandmother, and the sad, shy, little children--and offer us fruits, and perhaps his monkey and parrots. Gradually the "Capella" added to her company. The Chief bought a parrot which had many Indian and Portuguese phrases. It tried to climb a funnel guy, in escaping the curiosity of our terrier, and fell into the river. We fished her out with a bucket. The vampire bats came aboard every night. They were not very terrible creatures to look at; but we discovered they frequented the forecastle for no good purpose. Again, stories filtered through to us of sickness on the Madeira, and abruptly they gave the palms and the sunsets a new light. One man was brought in from beyond and died of beri-beri. This shook the nerves of one of our Brazilian pilots, and he refused to go beyond where we were. As for me, there at Serpa the "Capella" was at anchor, and we were not near the Madeira, and seemed never likely to go. I watched the sunsets. The brief, cool evenings prompted me (fever in the future or not) to praise and grace. Crickets chirped everywhere on the ship then, and the air was full of the sparks of fireflies. You could smell this good earth.
There was one sunset when the overspreading of violet clouds would have shut out the day quite, but that the canopy was not closely adjusted to the low barrier of forest to the westward. Through that narrow chink a yellow light streamed, and traced shapes on the lurid walls and roof which narrowly enclosed us. This was the beginning of the most alarming of our daily electrical storms. There was no wind. Serpa and all the coast facing that rift where the light entered our prison, stood prominent and strange, and surprised us as much as if we had not looked in that direction till then. The curtain dropped behind the forest, and all light was shut out. We could not see across the ship. Knowing how strong and bright could be the electrical discharges (though they were rarely accompanied by thunder) when not heralded in so portentous a way, we waited with some anxiety for this display to begin. It began over the trees behind Serpa. Blue fire flickered low down, and was quickly doused. Then a crack of light sprang across the inverted black bowl from east to west in three quick movements. Its instant ramifications fractured all the roof in a network of dazzling blue lines. The reticulations of light were fleeting, but never gone. Night contracted and expanded, and the sharp sounds, which were not like thunder, might have been the tumbling finders of night's roof. We saw not only the river, and the shapes of the trees and the village, as in wavering daylight, but their colours. One flash sheeted the heavens, and its overbright glare extinguished everything. It came with an explosion, like the firing of a great gun close to our ears, and for a time we thought the ship was struck. In this effort the storm exhausted itself.
. . . . .
The day before we left for the Madeira we took aboard sixty head of cattle. They were wild things, which had been collected in the campo with great difficulty, and driven into lighters. A rope was dropped over the horns of each beast: this was attached to a crane hook, the winch was started, and up the poor wretch came, all its weight on its horns, bumping inertly against the ship's side in its passage, like a bale, and was then dumped in a heap on deck. This treatment seemed to subdue it. Each quietly submitted to a halter. Several lost horns, and one hurt its leg, and had to be dragged to its place. But, to our great joy--we were watching the scene from the bridge--the Brazilian herdsmen on the lighter shouted an anxious warning to their fellows on our deck as a small black heifer, a pot-bellied lump with a stretched neck, rotated in her unusual efforts to free her horns. She even bellowed. She bumped heavily against the ship's side, and tried desperately to find her feet. She was, and I offered up thanks for this benefit, most plainly an implacable rebel. The cattlemen, as punishment for the trouble she had given them ashore, kept her dangling over the deck, and one got level with her face and mocked her, slapping her nose. She actually defied him, though she was quite helpless, with some minatory sounds. She was no cow. She was insurrection, she was the hate for tyrants incarnated. They dropped her. She was up and away like a cat, straight for the winchman, and tried to get the winch out of her path, bellowing as she worked. She put everybody on that deck in the shrouds or on the forecastle head as she trotted round, with her tail up, looking for brutes to put them to death. None of the cows (of course) helped her. By a trick she was caught, and her horns were lashed down to a ring bolt in a hatch coaming. Then she tried to kick all who passed. If the rest of the cattle had been like her none would have suffered. Alas! They were probably all scientific evolutionists, content to wait for men to become kindly apple-lovers by slow and natural uplift; and gravely deprecated the action of the heifer, from which, as peaceful cows, they disassociated themselves.
The Indian says that if he eats a morsel of tiger he becomes fierce and strong. I have not the faith of the Indian, or I would have begged the heart of that heifer, and of it I would have brewed gallons of precious liquor, and brought it home in jars for incomparable gifts to the meek at heart who always do what the herdsmen tell them. The Doctor and I made a pet of that black cow, to the extent of seeing she got her rations regularly. It was no joke wading through manure among a press of nervous animals on a ship's deck in the tropics, in order to see that a brave creature was justly dealt with; particularly as she swore violently whenever she saw us, looking up from her tightly tethered head with eyes full of unabated fury, and tried to get at us on the hatch above her, bound though she was. What a heart! For her head was fixed immovably, unlike the others; yet, till we arrived at Porto Velho she kept her fierce spirit, often kicking over her water bucket with her forefeet. Curse their charity!
With two new pilots, we up-anchored next morning; and full of cattle, flies, and new odours, and a gang of cattlemen who at least appeared villainous, and carried long knives, the "Capella" continued up stream for the Madeira. The cattle were sheltered, as far as possible, with awnings improvised from spare canvas, and their fodder was bales of American hay. The Skipper did his best to meliorate the harsh native methods with dumb things.
And now it seems time to explain why we are bound for the centre of the American continent, where the unexplored jungle still persists, and disease or death, so the legends tell us, come to all white men who stay there for but a few months. If you will get your map of the Brazils, begin from Para, and cruise along the Amazon to the Madeira River--you turn south just before Manaôs--when you have reached Santo Antonio on the tributary stream you have traversed the ultimate wilderness of a continent, and stand on the threshold of Bolivia, almost under the shadow of the Andes. If you find any pleasure in maps, flying in shoes of that kind when affairs pursue you too urgently (and I suppose you do, or you would not be so far into this narrative), you will hardly thank me when I tell you it is possible for an ocean steamer exceeding 23 feet in draught to make such a journey, and so break the romance of the obscure place at the end of it. But it must be said. Even one who travels for fun should keep to the truth in the matter of a ship's draught. As a reasonable being you would prefer to believe the map; and that clearly shows the only way there (when the chance comes for you to take it) must be by canoe, a long and arduous journey to a seclusion remote, and so the more deeply desired. It certainly hurts our faith in a favourite chart to find that its well-defined seaboard is no barrier to modern traffic, but that, journeying over those pink and yellow inland areas, which should have no traffic with great ships, a large cargo steamer, full of Welsh coal, can come to an anchorage, still with many fathoms under her, at a point where the cartographer, for lack of place-names and other humane symbols, has set the word Forest, with the letters spread widely to the full extent of his ignorance, and so promised us sanctuary in plenty. I suppose that in a few years those remote wilds, somehow cleared of Indians, jungle, and malaria--though I do not see how all this can be done--will have no further interest for us, because it will possess many of the common disadvantages of civilisation's benefits: it will be a point on a regular route of commerce. I am really sorry for you; but in the sad and cruel code of the sailor I can only reply as Jack did when he got the sole rag of beef in the hash, "Blow you, Bill. I'm all right." I had the fortune to go when the route was still much as it was in the first chapter of Genesis. "But after all," you question me, hopeful yet, "nothing can be done with 5000 tons of Welsh cargo in a jungle."
People with the nose for dollars can do wonders. It would be unwise to back such a doughty opponent as the pristine jungle with its malaria against people who smell money there. In the early 'seventies there was a man with one idea, Colonel George Church. His idea was to give to Bolivia, which the Andes shuts out from the Pacific, and two thousand miles of virgin forest from the Atlantic, a door communicating with the outside world. He said, for he was an enthusiast, that Bolivia is the richest country in the world. The mines of Potosi are in Bolivia. Its mountains rise from fertile tropical plains to Arctic altitudes. The rubber tree grows below, and a climate for barley is found in a few days' journey towards the sky. But the riches of Bolivia are locked up. Small parcels of precious goods may be got out over the Andean barrier, on mule back; or they may dribble in a thin stream down the Beni, Mamoré and Madre de Dios rivers--rivers which unite not far from the Brazilian boundary to form the Rio Madeira. The Beni is a very great and deep river which has a course of 1500 miles before it contributes its volume to the Madeira. The Rio Madeira, a broad and deep stream in the rainy season, reaches the Amazon in another 1100 miles. But between Guajara-Merim and San Antonio the Madeira comes down a terrace 250 miles in length of nineteen dangerous cataracts. The Bolivian rubber collectors shoot those rapids in their batelaôes, large vessels carrying sometimes ten tons of produce and a crew of a dozen men, when the river is full. Many are overturned, and the produce and the men are lost. The Madeira traverses a country notorious even on the Amazon for its fever, and quite unexplored a mile inland anywhere on its banks; the rubber hunters, too, have to reckon with wandering tribes of hostile Indians.
The country is like that to-day. Then judge its value for a railway route in the early 'seventies. But Colonel Church was a New Englander, and again he was a visionary, so therefore most energetic and compelling; he soon persuaded the practical business folk, who seldom know much, and are at the mercy of every eloquent dreamer, to part with a lot of money to buy his Bolivian dream. We do really find the Colonel, on 1st November 1871, solemnly cutting the first sod of a railway in the presence of a party of Indians, with the wild about him which had persisted from the beginning of things. What the Indians thought of it is not recorded. Anyhow, they seem to have humoured the infatuated man who stopped to cut a square of grass in the land of the Parentintins, the men who go stark naked, and make musical instruments out of the shin bones of their victims.
An English company of engineering contractors was given the job of building the line, and a small schooner, the "Silver Spray," went up to San Antonio with materials in 1872. Her captain, and some of her officers, died on the way. A year later the contractors confessed utter defeat. The jungle had won. They declared that "the country was a charnel-house, their men dying like flies, that the road ran through an inhospitable wilderness of alternating swamp and porphyry ridges, and that, with the command of all the capital in the world, and half its population, it would be impossible to build the road." (There is a quality of bitterness in their vehement hate which I recognise. I heard the same emotional chord expressed concerning that land, though not because of failure there, only two years ago.)
But the Bank of England held a large sum in trust for the pursuance of this enterprise, and after the lawyers had attended to the trust money in long debate in Chancery, there was yet enough of it left to justify the indefatigable colonel in beginning the railway again. That was in 1876. Messrs. Collins, of Philadelphia, obtained the contract. The road, of metre gauge, was to be built in three years. The matter excited the United States into a wonderful attention. The press there went slightly delirious, and the excited Eagle was advised that "two Philadelphians are to overcome the Madeira rapids, and to open up to the world a land as fair as the Garden of the Lord." The little steamer "Mercedita," of 856 tons, with 54 engineers and material, was despatched to San Antonio on 2nd January 1878. Her departure was made an important national occasion, and it is an historic fact, which may be confirmed by a reference to the files of Philadelphian papers of that date, that strong men, as well as women and children, sobbed aloud on the departure of the steamer. The vessel arrived at San Antonio on the 16th February. They had barely started operations when, so they said, a Brazilian official told them, betraying some feeling, "when the English came here they did nothing but smoke and drink for two days, but Americans work like the devil." Yet, by all accounts, the English method was right. I prefer it, on the Amazon. The preface to work there should be extended to three or even more days of drinking and smoking.
Yet it must be said that if ever men should have honour for holding to a duty when it was far more easy, and even more reasonable, to leave it, then I submit the claim of those American engineers. Having lived in the place where many of them died, and knowing their story, I feel a certain kinship. There is no monument to them. No epic has been written of their tragedy. But their story is, I should think, one of the saddest in the annals of commerce. Of the 941 who left for San Antonio at different times, 221 lost their lives, mostly of disease, though 80 perished in the wreck of a transport ship. That is far higher a mortality rate than that of, say, the South African or the American Civil War.
Few of those men appeared to know the tropics. They thought "the tropics" meant only prodigal largess of fruits and sun and a wide latitude of life--a common mistake. The enterprise became a lingering disaster. Their state was already bad when a supply ship was lost; and they hopefully waited, ill and starving, but with a gallant mockery of their lot, as their letters and diaries attest, for food and medicine which were not to reach them. The doctors continued the daily round of the host of the fever-stricken, giving them quinine, which was a deceit made of flour. The wages of all ceased for legal reasons, and they were in a place where little is cultivated, and so most food has to be imported in spite of a tariff which usually doubles the price of every necessary of life. Some of the survivors, despairing and heroic souls, attempted to escape on rafts down the river; they might as well have tried to cut their way through the thousand miles of forest between them and Manaôs. The railway undertaking collapsed again, and the clearing, the huts, and the workshops, and the short line that was actually laid, were left for the vines and weeds to bury. But now again the conquering forest is being attacked. The Madeira-Mamoré Railway has been recommenced, and our steamer, the "Capella," is taking up supplies for the establishment at Porto Velho, from which the new railway begins, three miles this side of San Antonio.
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