ON the morning of the 23rd January, while we were still considering, seeing what the sun was like, and the languid air, and that we were reduced to tinned beans, fat bacon, and butter which was oil and flies, whether it was worth while to note our breakfast bell--the steward stood swinging it, with the gravity of a priest, under the break of the poop--a shout came from the bridge that the Rio Madeira was in view.
As far back as Swansea we had heard legends of this stream, and they were sufficiently disturbing. When we arrived at Para we heard more, and worse. The pilot we engaged there called the Madeira the "long cemetery." At Serpa, for the first time, we saw what happened to frail humanity when it ventured far on the Madeira. One day a river steamer came to Serpa, with a cargo of men from San Antonio. The river steamers of the Amazon are vessels of broad beam and shallow draft, painted the dingy hue of the river itself, and they have two tiers of decks, open-air shelves, between the supports of which the passengers sling their hammocks. The passengers do not sleep in bunks. This paddleboat came throbbing towards where we were at anchor. It was night, and she was unseen, a palpitation in the dark accompanied somehow by a fountain of sparks. Such boats burn wood in their furnaces. When her noise had ceased, and her lights imperceptibly enlarged as the current dropped her down abeam of us, a breath of her, a draught of air, passed our way. I am more familiar now with the odour malaria causes, but then I thought she must have a freight of the dead. She anchored. We could see her loaded hammocks in the light of the few lamps she carried. Through the binoculars next morning I inspected with peculiar interest the row of cadaverous heads, with black tousled hair, lemon-coloured skins, open mouths and vacant eyes, which stared at us over her rails. Each looked as though once it had peered into the eyes of doom, and then was but waiting, caring nothing.
There, ahead, was the Madeira now for us. We were then nearly a thousand miles from the sea, well within South America. But that meeting-place of the Amazon and its chief tributary was an expanse of water surprising in its immensity. As much light was reflected from the floor as at sea. The water was oceanic in amplitude. The forest boundaries were so far away that one could not realise, even when the time we had been on the river was remembered as a prolonged monotony, that this was the centre of a continent. The forest on our port side was near enough for us to see its limbs and its vines; but to the south-west, where we were heading for Bolivia, and to the north, the way to the Guianas, and to the east, out of which we had come, and to the west, where was Peru, the land was but a low violet harrier, varying in altitude with distance, and with silver sections in it, marking the river roads. In the north-west there was a broad silver path through the wall, the way to the Rio Negro, Manaôs, and the Orinoco. In the south the near forest, being flooded, was a puzzle of islands. As we progressed they opened out as a line of green headlands. The Madeira appeared to have three widely separated mouths, with a complexity of intermediate and connective minor ditches. Indeed, the gate of the river was a region of inundated jungle. One began to understand why travellers here sometimes find themselves on the wrong river.
Our bows turned in to the forest wall, and for a few minutes I could not see any way for us there. The jungle parted, and we were on a narrow turgid flood, the colour of the main river, but swifter; a majestic forest was near to either beam. We were enclosed. And after we entered the Madeira my dark thoughts of our future at once left me. If they returned, it was only to be joked about, in the dry way one does refer to a dread that has been long in the distance, and then one day takes shape, becomes material, and settles down with us. Its form, as you know, nearly always allays your alarms. Your simple mind has expected something with the lowering face of evil. Lo! evil has even bright eyes. Its nature, its dark craft which you have dreaded, is not seen, and your mind grows light with surprise. What, only this, then?
I never saw earth look more resplendent and chromatic than on the day when we entered that river with a bad name. Presently, I thought--here was a brief resurgence of the old gloom which had shrouded my conjectural Madeira--I might be called upon to pay the price for this surprising gift of intense colour, light, and luscious heat, for the quickening of the blood, as though the tropic air were a stimulant as well as a narcotic. Well, it does seem but fair, if chance, being happy, gives you a place in the tropics, to expect to have less time there than is given for the job of eking out a meagre existence in the north. It would not be right to look for gain both ways. (You will have noticed already, I suppose, that I have not been on the Madeira fifteen minutes.) This, I thought, as I walked to and fro on the "Capella," is different from that endurance, bitter and prolonged, in the land where there is no sun worth mentioning, where the northeast wind blows, where the poor rate is so and so in the pound (and you are one of the fortunate if you pay it), and Lord Rosebery lectures on Thrift. I mentioned this to the Doctor. He did not remove his pipe from his mouth.
Because (the idea dawned on me as I sank into a deck chair beside the surgeon under the poop awning, and borrowed his silver tobacco-box), because, as to thrift and parching winds, abstinence and prudence, and lectures by the solemn on how to thin out your life in cold climates where all that is worth having is annexed, why praise a man who is willing to deprave his life to sand and frost? There in merry England the poor wretch is, where the riches of earth are not broadcast largess as I see they are here, but are stacked on each side of the road, and guarded by police, leaving to him but the inclement highway, with nothing but Lord Rosebery's advice and benediction to help him keep the wind out of the holes in his trousers; that benefit, and the bleak consideration that he may swink all day for a handful of beans, or go without. What is prudence in that man? It is his goodwill for the police. To be blue nosed and meek at heart, and to hoard half the crust of your stinted bread, is to blaspheme the King of Glory. Some men will touch their crowns to Carnegie in heaven.
Thrift and abstinence! They began to look the most snivelling of sins as I watched, with spacious leisure, the near procession of gigantic trees, that superb wild which did not arise from such niggard and flinty maxims. Frugality and prudence! That is to regard the means to death in life, the pallor and projecting bones of a warped existence, as good men dwell on courage, motherhood, rebellion, and May time, and the other proofs of vitality and growth. Now, I thought, I see what to do. All those improving lectures, reform leagues, university settlements, labour exchanges, and other props for crippled humanity, are idle. It is a generative idea that is wanted, a revelation, a vision. It would be easier and quicker to take regiments of folk out of Ancoats, Hanley, Bethnal Green, and the cottages of the countryside, for one long glance at the kind of earth I see now. The world would expand as they looked. They would get the dynamic suggestion. In vain, afterwards, would the monopolists and the superior persons chant patriotic verse to drown the noise of chain forging at the Westminster foundry. Not the least good, that. The folk would not hear. Their minds would be absent and outward, not locked within to huddle with cramped and respectful thoughts. They would not start instinctively at the word of command. They would begin with dignity and assurance to compass their own affairs, and in an enormous way; and they would make hardly a sound as they moved forward, and they would have uplifted and shining eyes. ("Then you think more of `em than I do," said the surgeon.)
It would be no use, I saw clearly, sending the folk to Algeria, Egypt, or New York. Such places never betray to the traveller that our world is not a shapeless parcel of fields and buildings, tied up with bylaws, and sealed by the Grand Lama as his last act in the stupendous work of creation. There it is, an angular package in the sky, which the sun reads, and directs on its way to heaven in advance of its limited syndicate of proprietors.
Here on the Madeira I had a vision instead of the earth as a great and shining sphere. There were no fences and private bounds. I saw for the first time an horizon as an arc suggesting how wide is our ambit. That bare shoulder of the world effaced regions and constellations in the sky. Our earth had celestial magnitude. It was warm, a living body. The abundant rain was vital, and the forest I saw, nobler in stature and with an aspect of intensity beyond what the Amazon forests showed, rose like a sign of life triumphant.
You see what that tropical wilderness did for me. and with but a single glance. Whatever comes after, I shall never be the same again. The complacent length of the ship was before us. Amidships were some of the fellows staring overside, absorbed. Now and then, when his beat brought him to the port side, I could see the head of the little pilot on the bridge. His colleague was sleeping in one of the hammocks slung between the stanchions of the poop awning. The Doctor was scrutiising a pair of motuca flies which hovered about his ankles, waiting for him to go to sleep. He wanted them for specimens. The Skipper, looking a little anxious, came slowly up the poop ladder, crossed over, and stood by our chairs. "The river is full of big timber," he said. He went to stare overside, and then came back to us. "The current is about five knots, and those trees adrift are as big as barges. I hope they keep clear of the propeller." The Skipper's eye was uneasy. He was glum with suspicion; he spoke of the way his fools might meet the wiles of fortune at a time when he was below and his ship was without its acute protective intelligence, lie stood, a spare figure in white, in a limp grass hat with flapping eaves, gazing forward to the bridge mistrustfully. He had brought us in a valuable vessel to a place unknown, and now he had to go on, and afterwards get us all out again. I began to feel a large respect for this elderly master mariner (who did not give the beard of an onion for any man's sympathy) who had skilfully contrived to put us where we were, and now was unaware what mischance would send us to rot under the forest wall, the bottom to fall out of our adventure just when we were in its narrowest passage and achievement was almost within view. "This is no place for a ship," the captain mumbled. "It isn't right. We're disturbing the mud all the time; and look at those butterflies now, dodging about us!" He was continuing this monologue as a dirty cap appeared at the head of the ladder, and a long and ragged length of sorrowful sailor mounted there, and doffed the cap. The Skipper brusquely signed to him to approach. He was a youngster in an advanced stage of some trouble, and he had no English. I think he was a Swede. He demonstrated his sickness, baring his arm, muttering unintelligibly. The limb, like his hand, was distorted with large blisters. There was his face, too. I mistrusted my equanimity for some moments, but braced my eyes, compelling them to be scientific and impersonal. By sigus we gathered he had been sleeping on deck, such was the heat of the forecastle, and the mosquitoes, the Doctor said, had poisoned a body already tainted from the stews of Rotterdam. The corroding spirit of the jungle was beginning to permeate through our flaws.
The Doctor went to his surgery. The pilot sat up in his hammock, glanced indifferently at the sick sailor, yawning and stretching his arms, his dainty little brown feet dangling just clear of the deck. He began to roll a cigarette of something which looked like tea. Then he dropped out, and went forward to release his mate on the bridge, and the senior pilot came up as the Doctor had finished his job. The junior pilot, a fragile, girlish fellow, rather taciturn, greets us always with a faintly supercilious smile. His chief is a round, jolly little man, hearty, and lavish with ornamental gestures. We both smiled involuntarily as he marched across to us, with his uniform cap, bearing our ship's badge, stuck on the back of his head with a bias to the right ear. There is not enough of Portuguese in our ship's company to serve one conversation adequately, but we get on well with this pilot, and he with us. He sits in a hammock, making pantomime explanatory of Brazil to us strangers, and we pick him up with alacrity, after but brief pauses. While the Doctor beguiled him into dramatic moments, I lay back and watched him, searching for Brazilian characteristics, to report here.
You know that, when you have returned from a far country, you are asked unanswerable questions about its people, and especially about its women. We are easily flattered by the suggestion that we are authoritative, with opinions got from uncommon experience, especially where women with strange eyes and dark skins are concerned. So, once upon a time, I caught myself--or rather, I caught that cold, critical, and impartial part of me, which is a solemn fake--when answering a question of this kind, explaining in a comprehensive way the character of the Brazilian people, as though I were telling of the objective phenomena of one simple soul. Presently the wise and ribald part of me woke, caught the note of that inhuman voice, and raised a derisive cry, heard by me with grave deprecation, but not heard at all by my listener. I stopped. For what do I know of the Brazilian character? Very little. Is there such a thing? I suppose the true Brazilian is like the true Englishman, or the typical bird which is known by its bones, but may be anything from a crow to a nightingale, but is more likely a lark. You can imagine the foreiguer taking his knowledge of the British pickpocket who met him at the landing-stage, the pen-portraits of Bernard Shaw, the Rev. Jeremiah Hardshell, Father O'Flynn, You, Me, the cabman who swore at him, his landlady and her daughter, Lloyd-George, Piccadilly by night, and Tom Bowling, carefully adjusting all that valuable British data, just as Professor Karl Pearson does his physical statistics, and explaining the result as the modern English; adding, in the usual footnote, what decadent tendencies are to be deduced, in addition, from the facts which could not be worked into the major premises.
Now, there was the handsome Brazilian customs officer, tall, august, with dark eyes haughty and slow with thought, the waves of his romantic black hair faintly traced in silver, who might have been a poet, or a philosophic revolutionist; but who was the man, as the first mate told us (after we had searched everywhere for the articles) who "pinched your bloomin' field-glasses and my meerschaum."
Take, if you like, the ultra-fashionable ladies at the Para hotel, who looked at us with sleepy eyes, and who, I suspect, were not Brazilians at all. Supposing they were, there must be counted the wife of the official at Serpa. She came aboard there with her husband to see an English ship; she reminded me of that picture of the Madonna by Sassoferrato in the National Gallery; I am unable to come nearer to justice to her than that. Again, there was a certain vain native apothecary, and he had the idea that I was bottle-washer to the "Capella's" surgeon, much to that fellow's secret delight. The chemist treated me with a studied difference in consequence; and though our surgeon could have undeceived the mistaken man, having some Portuguese, he refused to do so. I remember the pilot who, when he left us at Serpa, and I bade him farewell, did, before all our ship's company, embrace me heartily, rest his cheek against mine, and make loving noises in his throat. And there is our present chief guide, now swinging in his hammock, and looking down upon us waggishly.
He had not been a pilot always. Once he was a clown in a circus; that little fact is a clue to much which otherwise would have been obscure in him. When he boarded us at Serpa to take the place of the man who shrank from the thought of the Madeira, the chart-room under the bridge was given to him, and as the mate put it, "he moved in." He had bundles, boxes, bags, baskets, a tin trunk, a chair, a parrot, a hammock, and some pictures. He was going to be with us for two months, but his affair had the conclusive character of a migration, a final severance from his old life. His friends came to see him depart, and they wound themselves in each others arms, head laid in resignation on shoulders. "Looks as if we're bound for the Golden Shore," commented the boatswain.
This little rounded man, the pilot, with his unctuous olive skin, tiny moustache of black silk, and impudent eyes, looked ripe in middle age, though actually he was but thirty. He wore a suit of azure cotton, ironed faultlessly, and his tunic fitted with hooks and eyes across his throat. His boots were sulphur coloured and Parisian. A massive gold ring, which carried a carbonado nearly as large as the stopper of a beer bottle, was embedded in a fat finger of his right hand. In the front of his cap he had sewn the badge of our line, and he was curiously proud of that gaudy symbol. He would wear the cap on one ear, and walk up and down in display, with a lofty smile, and a carriage supposed to appertain to a British officer in a grand moment. He had a great admiration for all that was British, except our food. If you were up at sunrise you could see him at his toilet, and the spectacle was worth the effort. His array of toilet vesicles reminded me of the shelves in a barber's shop. Oiled and fragrant, he took his seat for breakfast with much formal politeness. He shook our saloon company into a sense of its responsibilities, for we had grown indifferent as to dress, and sometimes we had three-day beards. His handkerchiefs and linen were scented, and dainty with floral designs. And ours--oh, ours--! He took wine at breakfast, and after idling a little with our foreign dishes he would wipe his mouth on our tablecloth, and then leave for the bridge. As he passed across the poop we would hear him hawk violently, and spit on the deck. Then the Skipper would glare, and drive his chair backwards in a dark passion.
Gazing at the foliage as it unfolded, our pilot named the paranas, tributaries, and islands, when they drew abeam. He told us what the trees were; and then with head shakes and uplifted hands and eyes, indicated what grave things were behind that screen of leaves. (Though I don't suppose he knew.) His mimicry was so spontaneous and exact that it was more entertaining and just as instructive as speech. He taught us how the Indians kill you, and what some villagers did to a naughty padre, and how the sucuruju swallows a deer, and how to make love to a Brazilian girl. He kicked the slippers from his little feet, and smuggled into the hammock mesh for a snooze, waving a hand coyly to us over the edge of his nest.
The dinner bell rang. Because the saloon is now hot beyond endurance, the steward has fixed a table on deck, and so, as we eat, we can see the jungle pass. That keeps some of our mind from dwelling over much on the dreary menu. The potatoes have begun to ferment. The meat is out of tins; sometimes it is served as fritters, sometimes we recognise it in a hash, and sometimes, shameless, it appears without dress, a naked and shiny lump straight from its metal bed. Often the bread is sour. The butter, too, is out of tins. Feeding is not a joy, but a duty. But it is soon over. Although everybody now complains of indigestion, we have far to go yet, and the cheerfulness which faces all circumstances brazenly must be our manna. Our table, some deal planks on trestles, is mellowed by a white tablecloth. We sit round on boxes. Over head the sun flames on the awning, making it golden and translucent. I let the soup pass. The next dish is a hot pot of tinned mutton and preserved vegetables. Something must be done, and I do it then. There is some pickled beef and pickled onions. I watch the forest pass. Then, for desert, the steward, the hot beads touring about the mounts of his large pale face, brings along oleaginous fritters of plum duff. The Doctor leaves. I follow him to the chairs again, and we exchange tobacco-boxes and fill our pipes. This may seem to you unendurable for long. I did not think so, though of habits so regular and engrained that my chances of survival, when viewed comparatively, for my ship mates were hardened and usually were more robust, seemed poor enough. But I enjoyed it. There was nourishment, a tonic stay, in our desire to greet every onset of the miseries, which now were camped about us, besieging our souls, with sansculotte insolence. We called to the Eumenides with mockery. Like Thoreau, I believe I could live on a tenpenny nail, if it comes to that.
There is no doubt the forest influences our moods in a way you at home could not understand. Our minds take its light and shade, and just as our little company, gathered in the Chief's room at a time when the seas were running high, recalled sombre legends which told of foredoom, so this forest, an intrusive presence which is with us morning, noon, and night, voiceless, or making such sounds as we know are not for our ears, now shadows us, the prescience of destiny, as though an eyeless mask sat at table with us, a being which could tell us what we would know, but though it stays, makes no sign.
This forest, since we entered the Para River, now a thousand miles away, has not ceased. There have been the clearings of the settlements from Para inwards; but as Spruce says in his Journal, those clearings and campos alter the forest of the Amazon no more than would the culling of a few weeds alter the aspect of an English cornfield. The few openings I have seen in the forest do not derange my clear consciousness of a limitless ocean of leaves, its deep billows of foliage rolling down to the only paths there are in this country, the rivers, and there overhanging, arrested in collapse. There is no land. One must travel by boat from one settlement to another. The settlements are but islands, narrow footholds, widely sundered by vast gulfs of jungle.
The forest of the Amazons is not merely trees and shrubs. It is not land. It is another element. Its inhabitants are arborean; they have been fashioned for life in that medium as fishes to the sea and birds to the air. Its green apparition is persistent, as the sky is and the ocean. In months of travel it is the horizon which the traveller cannot reach, and its unchanging surface, merged through distance into a mere reflector of the day, a brightness or a gloom, in his immediate vicinity breaks into a complexity of green surges; then one day the voyager sees land at last and is released from it. But we have not seen land since Serpa. There are men whose lives are spent in the chasms of light where the rivers are sunk in the dominant element, but who never venture within its green surface, just as one would not go beneath the waves to walk in the twilight of the sea bottom.
Now I have been watching it for so long I see the outer aspect of the jungles does vary. When I saw it first on the Para River it appeared to my wondering eyes but featureless green cliffs. Then in the Narrows beyond Para I remember an impression of elegance and placidity, for there, the waters still being tidal and saline, the palms were conspicuous and in profuse abundance. The great palms are the chief feature of that forest elevation, with their graceful columns, and their generous and symmetrical fronds which sometimes are like gigantic green feathers, and again are like fans. A tall palm, whatever its species, being a definite expression of life--not an agglomeration of leaves, but body and crown, a real personality--the forest of the Narrows, populous with such exquisite beings, had marges of straight ascending lines and flourishing and geometrical crests.
Beyond the river Xingu, on the main stream, the forest, persistent as a presence, again changed its aspect. It was ragged and shapeless, an impenetrable tangle, its front strewn with fallen trees, the vision of outer desolation. By Obydos it was more aerial and shapely again, but not of that light and soaring grace of the Narrows. It was contained, yet mounted not in straight lines, as in the country of the palms, but in convex masses. Here on the lower Madeira the forest seems of a nature intermediate between the rolling structure of the growth by Obydos, and the grace of the palm groves in the estuarine region of the Narrows. It is barbaric and splendid, easily prodigal with illimitable riches, sinking the river beneath a wealth of forms.
On the Madeira, as elsewhere in the world of the Amazons, some of the forest is on "terra-firma," as that land is called which is not flooded when the waters rise. There the trees reach their greatest altitude and diameter; it is the region of the ca´ apoam, the "great woods" of the Indians. A stretch of terra firma shows as a low, vertical bank of clay, a narrow ribbon of yellow earth dividing the water from the jungle. More rarely the river cuts a section through some undulating heights of red conglomerate-heights I call these cliffs, as heights they are in this flat country, though at home they would attract no more attention than would the side of a gravel-pit--and again the bank may be of that cherry and saffron clay which gives a name to Itacoatiara. On such land the forest of the Madeira is immense, three or four species among the greater trees lording it in the green tumult expansively, always conspicuous where they stand, their huge boles showing in the verdant façade of the jungle as grey and brown pilasters, their crowns rising above the level roof of the forest in definite cupolas. There is one, having a neat and compact dome and a grey, smooth, and rounded trunk, and dense foliage as dark as that of the holm oak; and another, resembling it, but with a flattened and somewhat disrupted dome. I guessed these two giants to be silk-cottons. Another, which I supposed to be of the leguminous order, had a silvery bole, and a texture of pale green leafage open and light, which at a distance resembled that of the birch. These three trees, when assembled and well grown, made most stately riverside groups. The trunks were smooth and bare till somewhere near ninety feet from the ground. Palms were intermediate, filling the spaces between them, but the palms stood under the exogens, growing in alcoves of the mass, rising no higher than the beginning of the branches and foliage of their lords. The whole overhanging superstructure of the forest--not a window, an inlet, anywhere there--was rolling clouds of leaves from the lower rims of which vines were catenary, looping from one green cloud to another, or pendent, like the sundered cordage of a ship's rigging. Two other trees were frequent, the pao mulatto, with limbs so dark as to look black, and the castanheiro, the Brazil nut tree.
The roof of the woods lowered when we were steaming past the igapo. The igapo, or aqueous jungle, through which the waters go deeply for some months of the year, is of a different character, and perhaps of a lesser height--it seems less; but then it grows on lower ground. I was told to note that its foliage is of a lighter green, but I cannot say I saw that. It is in the igapo that the Hevea Braziliensis flourishes, its pale bole, suggestive of the white poplar, deep in water for much of the year, and its crown sheltered by its greater neighbours, so that it grows in a still, heated, and humid twilight. This low ground is always marked by growths of small cecropia trees. These, with their white stems, their habit of free and regular branching, and their long leaves, digital in the manner of the horse-chestnut, have the appearance of great candelabra. Sometimes the igapo is prefaced by an area of cane. The numberless islands, being of recent formation, have a forest of a different nature, and they seldom carry the larger trees. The upper ends of many of the islands terminate in sandy pits, where dwarf willows grow. So foreign was the rest of the vegetation, that notwithstanding its volume and intricacy, I detected those humble little willows at once, as one would start surprised at an English word heard in the meaningless uproar of an alien multitude.
The forest absorbed us; as one's attention would be challenged and drawn by the casual regard, never noticeably direct, but never withdrawn, of a being superior and mysterious, so I was drawn to watch the still and intent stature of the jungle, waiting for it to become vocal, for some relaxing of its static form. Nothing ever happened. I never discovered it. Rigid, watchful, enigmatic, its presence was constant, but without so much as one blossom in all its green vacuity to show the least friendly familiarity to one who had found flowers and woodlands kind. It had nothing that I knew. It remained securely aloof and indifferent, till I thought hostility was implied, as the sea implies its impartial hostility, in a constant presence which experience could not fathom, nor interest soften, nor courage intimidate. We sank gradually deeper inwards towards its central fastnesses.
By noon on our first day on the Madeira we reached the village of Rozarinho, which is on the left bank, with the tributary of the same name a little more up stream, but entering from the other side. Here, as we followed a loop of the stream, the Madeira seemed circumscribed, a tranquil lake. The yellow water, though swift, had so polished a surface that the reflections of the forest were hardly disturbed, sinking below the tops of the inverted trees to the ultimate clouds, giving an illusion of profundity to the apparent lake. The village was but a handful of leaf huts grouped about the nucleus of one or two larger buildings with white walls. There was the usual jetty of a few planks to which some canoes were tied. The forest was a high background to those diminished huts; the latter, as we came upon them, suddenly increased the height of the trees.
In another place the shelter of a family of Indians was at the top of a bank, secretive within the base of the woods. A row of chocolate babies stood outside that nest, with four jabiru storks among them. Each bird, so much taller than the babies, stood resting meditatively on one leg, as though waiting the order to take up an infant and deliver it somewhere. None of them, storks or infants, took the least notice of us. Perhaps the time had not yet come for them to be aware of mundane things. Certainly I had a feeling myself, so strange was the place, and quiet and tranquil the day, that we had passed world's end, and that what we saw beyond our steamer was the coloured stuff of dreams which, if a wind blew, would wreathe and clear; vanish, and leave a shining void. The sunset deepened this apprehension. There came a wonderful sky of orange and mauve. It was over us and came down and under the ship. We moved with glowing clouds beneath our keel. There was no river; the forest girdled the radiant interior of a hollow sphere.
The pilots could not proceed at night. Shortly after sundown we anchored, in nine fathoms. The trees were not many yards from the steamer. When the ship was at rest a canoe with two Indians came alongside, with a basket of guavas. They were shy fellows, and each carried in his hand a bright machete, for they did not seem quite sure of our company. After tea we sat about the poop, trying to smoke, and, in the case of the Doctor and the Purser, wearing at the same time veils of butterfly nets, as protection from the mosquito swarms. The netting was put over the helmet, and tucked into the neck of the tunic. Yet, when I poked the stem of the pipe, which carried the gauze with it, into my mouth, the veil was drawn tight on the face. A mosquito jumped to the opportunity, and arrived. Alongside, the frogs were making the deafening clangour of an iron foundry, and through that sound shrilled the cicadas. I listened for the first time to the din of a tropical night in the forest. There is no word strong enough to convey this uproar to ears which have not listened to it.
Jan. 24. A bright still sunrise, promising heat; and before breakfast the ship's ironwork was too hot to touch. The novelty of this Madeira is already beginning to merge into the yellow of the river, the blue of the sky, and the green of the jungle, with but the occasional variation of low roseous cliffs. The average width of the river may be less than a quarter of a mile. It is loaded with floating timber, launched upon it by "terras-cahidas," landslides, caused by the rains, which carry away sections of the forest each large enough to furnish an English park with trees. Sometimes we see a bight in the bank where such a collapse has only recently occurred, the wreckage of trees being still fresh. Many of the trees which charge down on the current are of great bulk, with half their table-like base high out of the water. Occasionally rafts of them appear, locked with creepers, and bearing flourishing gardens of weeds. This characteristic gives the river its Portuguese name, "river of wood." The Indians know the Madeira as the Cayary, "white " river.
Its course to-day serpentines so freely that at times we steer almost east, and then again go west. Our general direction is south-west. At eight this morning, after some anxious moments when the river was dangerous with reefs, we passed the village of Borba, 140 miles from Serpa. Here there is a considerable clearing, with kine browsing over a hummocky sward that is well above the river on an occurrence of the red clay. This release of the eyes was a smooth and grateful experience after the enclosing walls. Some steps dug in the face of the low cliff led to the white houses, all roofed with red tiles. The village faced the river. From each house ascended the leisurely smoke of early morning. The church was in the midst of the houses, its bell conspicuous with verdigris. Two men stood to watch us pass. It was a pleasant assurance to have, those roofs and the steeple rising actually into the light of the sky. The dominant forest, in which we were sunk, was here definitely put down by our fellow-men.
We were beyond Borba, and its parana and island just above it, before the pilot had finished telling us, where we watched from the "Capella's" bridge, that Borba was a settlement which had suffered much from attacks of the Araras Indians. The river took a sharp turn to the east, and again went west. Islands were numerous. These islands are lancet-shaped, and lie along the banks, separated by side channels, their paranas, from the land. The smaller river craft often take a parana instead of the main stream, to avoid the rush of the current. The whole region seems lifeless. There is never a flower to be seen, and rarely a bird. Sometimes, though, we disturb the snowy heron. On one sandy island, passed during the afternoon, and called appropriately, lIho do Jacaré, we saw two alligators. Otherwise we have the silent river to ourselves; though I am forgetting the butterflies, and the constant arrival aboard of new winged shapes which are sometimes so large and grotesque that one is uncertain about their aggressive qualities. As we idle on the poop we keep by us two insect nets, and a killing-bottle. The Doctor is making a collection, and I am supposed to assist. When I came on deck on the morning of our arrival in the Brazils it was not the orange sunrise behind a forest which was topped by a black design of palm fronds, nor the warm odour of the place, nor the height and intensity of the vegetation, which was most remarkable to me, a new-coiner from the restricted north. It was a butterfly which flickered across our steamer like a coloured flame. No other experience put England so remote. A superb butterfly, too bright and quick to be anything but an escape from Paradise, will stay its dancing flight, as though with intelligent surprise at our presence, hover as if puzzled, and swoop to inspect us, alighting on some such incongruous piece of our furniture as a coil of rope, or the cook's refuse pail, pulsing its wings there, plainly nothing to do with us, the prismatic image of joy. Out always rush some of our men at it, as though the sight of it had maddened them, as would a revelation of accessible riches. It moves only at the last moment, abruptly and insolently. They are left to gape at its mocking retreat. It goes in erratic flashes to the wall of trees and then soars over the parapet, hope at large. Then there are the other things which, so far as most of us know, have no names, though a sailor, wringing his hands in anguish, is usually ready with a name. To-day we had such a visitor. He looked a fellow the Doctor might require, so I marked him down when he settled near a hatch on the afterdeck. He was a bee the size of a walnut, and habited in dark blue velvet. In this land it is wise to assume that everything bites or stings, and that when a creature looks dead it is only carefully watching you. I clapped the net over that fellow and instantly he appeared most dead. Knowing he was but shamming, and that he would give me no assistance, I stood wondering what I could do next; then the cook came along. The cook saw the situation, laughed at my timidity with tropical forms, went down on his knees, and caught my prisoner. The cook raised a piercing cry. On the bridge I saw them levelling their glasses at us; and some engineers came to their cabin doors to see us where we stood on the lonely deck, the cook and the Purser, in a tableau of poignant tragedy. The cook walked round and round, nursing his suffering member, and I did not catch all he said, for I know very little Dutch; but the spirit of it was familiar, and his thumb was bleeding badly. The bee had resumed death again. The state of the cook's thumb was a surprise till the surgeon exhibited the bee's weapons, when it became clear that thumbs, especially when Dutch and rosy, like our cook's, afforded the right medium for an artist who worked with such mandibles, and a tail that was a stiletto.
In England the forms of insect life soon become familiar. There is the housefly, the lesser cabbage white butterfly, and one or two other little things. In the Brazils, though the great host of forms is surprising enough, it is the variety in that host which is more surprising still. Any bright day on the "Capella" you may walk the length of the ship, carrying a net and a collecting-bottle, and fill the bottle (butterflies, cockroaches, and bugs not admitted), and perhaps have not three of a species. The men frequently bring us something buzzing in a hat; though accidents do happen half-way to where the Doctor is sitting, and the specimen is mangled in a frenzy. A hornet came to us that way. He was in violet armour, as hard as a crab, was still stabbing the air with his long needle, and working on a fragment of hat he held in his jaws. But such knights in mail are really harmless, for after all they need not be interfered with. It is the insignificant little fellows whose object in life it is to interfere with us which really make the difference.
So far on the river we have not met the famous pium fly. But the motuca fly is a nuisance during the afternoon sleep. It is nearly of the size and appearance of a "blue-bottle" fly, but its wings, having black tips, look as though their ends were cut off. The motucas, while we slept, would alight on the wrists and ankles, and where each had fed there would be a wound from which the blood steadily trickled.
The mosquitoes do not trouble us till sundown. But one morning in my cabin I was interested in the hovering of what I thought was a small, leggy spider which, because of its colouration of black and grey bands, was evasive to the sight as it drifted about on its invisible thread. At last I caught it, and found it was a new mosquito. In pursuing it I found a number of them in the cabin. When I exhibited the insect to the surgeon he did not well disguise his concern. "Say nothing about it," he said, "but this is the yellow-fever brute," So our interest in our new life is kept alert and bright. The solid teak doors of our cabins are now permanently fixed back. Shutting them would mean suffocation; but as the cabins must be closed before sundown to keep out the clouds of gnats, the carpenter has made wooden frames, covered with copper gauze, to fit the door openings at night, and rounds of gauze to cap the open ports; and with a damp cloth, and some careful hunting each morning, one is able to keep down the mosquitoes which have managed to find entry during the night and have retired at sunrise to rest in dark corners. For our care notwithstanding the insects do find their way in to assault our lighted lamps. The Chief, partly because as an old sailor he is a fatalist, and partly because he thinks his massive body must be invulnerable, and partly because he has a contempt, anyway, for protecting himself, each morning has a new collection of curios, alive and dead, littered about his room. (I do not wonder Bates remained in this land so long; it is Elysium for the entomologist.) One of the live creatures found in his room the Chief retains and cherishes, and hopes to tame, though the object does not yet answer to his name of Edwin. This creature is a green mantis or praying insect, about four inches long, which the Chief came upon where it rested on the copper gauze of his door-cover, holding a fly in its hands, and. eating it as one would an apple. This mantis is an entertaining freak, and can easily keep an audience watching it for an hour, if the day is dull. Edwin, in colour and form, is as fresh, fragile, and translucent as a leaf in spring. He has a long thin neck --the stalk to his wings, as it were--which is quite a third of his length. He has a calm, human face with a pointed chin at the end of his neck; he turns his face to gaze at you without moving his body, just as a man looks backwards over his shoulder. This uncanny mimicry makes the Chief shake with mirth. Then, if you alarm Edwin, he springs round to face you, frilling his wings abroad, standing up and sparring with his long arms, which have hooks at their ends. At other times he will remain still, with his hands clasped up before his face, as though in earnest devotion, for a trying period. If a fly alights near him he turns his face that way and regards it attentively. Then sluggishly he approaches it for closer scrutiny. Having satisfied himself it is a good fly, without warning his arms shoot out and that fly is hopelessly caught in the hooked hands. He eats it, I repeat, as you do apples, and the authentic mouthfuls of fly can be seen passing down his glassy neck. Edwin is fragile as a new leaf in form, has the same delicate colour. and has fascinating ways; but somehow he gives an observer the uncomfortable thought that the means to existence on this earth, though intricately and wonderfully devised, might have been managed differently. Edwin, who seems but a pretty fragment of vegetation, is what we call a lie. His very existence rests on the fact that he is a diabolical lie.
Gossamers in the rigging to-day led the captain to prophesy a storm before night. Clouds of an indigo darkness, of immense bulk, and motionless, reduced the sunset to mere runnels of opaline light about the bases of dark mountains inverted in the heavens. There was a rapid fall of temperature, but no rain. Our world, and we in its centre on the "Capella," waited for the storm in an expectant hush. Night fell while we waited. The smooth river again deepened into the nadir of the last of day, and the forest about us changed to material ramparts of cobalt. The pilot made preparations to anchor. The engine bell rang to stand-by, a summons of familiar urgency, but with a new and alarming note when heard in a place like that. The forest made no response. A little later the bell clanged rapidly again, and the pulse of our steamer slowed, ceased. We could hear the water uncoiling along our plates. The forest itself approached us, came perilously near. The Skipper's voice cried abruptly, "Let go!" and at once the virgin silence was demolished by the uproar of our cable. The "Capella" throbbed violently; she literally undulated in the drag of the current. We still drifted slowly down stream. The second anchor was dropped, and held us. The silence closed in on us instantly. Far in the forest somewhere, while we were whispering to each other in the quiet, a tree fell with a deep, significant boom.
Jan. 25. We had been under way for more than an hour when my eyes opened on the illuminated panorama of leaves and boles unfolding past the door of my cabin. The cicadas were grinding their scissors loudly in the trees alongside. I spent much of this day on the bridge, where I liked to be, watching the pilot at work. The Skipper was there, and in a cantankerous mood. The pilot wants us to make a chart of the river. He has given the captain and me a long list of islands, paranas, tributaries, villages, and sitios. Every map and reference to the river we have on board is valueless. A map of the river indicates many settlements with beautiful names; and at each point, when we arrive, nothing but the forest shows. How the cartographers arrived at such results is a mystery. This river, which their generous imaginings have seen .as a tortuous bough of the Amazon, laden with villages which they indicate on their maps with marks like little round fruits, is almost barren. Every day we pass small sitios or clearings; maybe the map-makers mean such places as those. Yet each, clearing is but a brief security, a raft of land--the size of the garden of an English villa--lonely in an ocean of deep leaves, where a rubber man has built himself a timber house, and some huts for his serfs. It will have a jetty and a huddle of canoes, and usually a few children on the bank watching us. We salute that place with our syren as we pass, and sometimes the kiddies spring for home then as though we were shooting at them. Or we see a little embowered shack with a pile of fuel logs beside it, and a crude name-board, where the river boats replenish when traversing this stream, during the season, for rubber. Our pilots have much to say of these stations, and of all the rubber men on the river and their wealth. But away with their rubber! I am tired of it, and will keep it out of this book if I can. For it is blasphemous that in such a potentially opulent land the juice of one of its wild trees should be dwelt upon--as it is in the states of Amazonas and Para--as though it were the sole act of Providence. The Brazilians can see nothing here but rubber. The generative qualities of this land through fierce sun and warm showers--for rarely a day passes without rain, whatever the season--a land of constant high summer with a free fecundity which has buried the earth everywhere under a wild growth nearly two hundred feet deep, is insignificant to them. They see nothing in it at all but the damnable commodity which is its ruin. Para is mainly rubber, and Manaos. The Amazon is rubber, and most of its tributaries. The Madeira particularly is rubber. The whole system of communication, which covers 84,000 miles of navigable waters, waters nourishing a humus which literally stirs beneath your feet with the movements of spores and seeds, that system would collapse but for the rubber. The passengers on the river boats are rubber men, and the cargoes are rubber. All the talk is of rubber. There are no manufactures, no agriculture, no fisheries, and no saw-mills, in a region which could feed, clothe, and shelter the population of a continent. There was a book by a Brazilian I saw at Para, recently published, and called the "Green Hell" (Inferno Verde). On its cover was the picture of a nude Indian woman, symbolical of Amazonas, and from wounds in her body her blood was draining into the little tin cups which the rubber collector uses against the incisions on the rubber tree. From what I heard of the subject, and I heard much, that picture was little overdrawn. I begin to think the usual commercial mind is the most dull, wasteful, and ignorant of all the sad wonders in the pageant of humanity.
It is only on the "Capella's" bridge that you feel the stagnant air which is upset by the steamer's progress. There it spills over us, heavy with the scent of the lairage on the fore deck. The bridge is a narrow, elevated outlook, full in the sun's eye, where I can get a view of the complete ship as she serpentines in her narrow way. On the port side of it the Skipper has a seat, and there now he sits all day, gazing moodily ahead. The dapper little pilot stands centrally, throwing brief commands over his shoulder into the open window of the wheel-house, where a sailor, gravely chewing tobacco, his hands on the wheel, is as rapt as though in a trance. I think the pilot finds his way by divination. The depth of the river is most variable. In the dry season I hear the stream becomes but a chain of pools connected by threads which may be no more than eighteen inches deep, the rest of its bed being dry mud cross-hatched by sun cracks. The rains in far Bolivia, overflowing the swamps there, during some months of the year increase the depth of the Madeira by forty-five feet. The local rainy season would make hardly any difference to it. The river is fed from reservoirs which stretch beneath the Andes.
There is rarely anything to show why, for a spell, the pilot should take us straight ahead in midstream, and then again tack to and fro across, sometimes brushing the foliage with our shrouds. I have plucked a bunch of leaves in an unexpected swoop inshore. And the big timber comes down afloat to meet us in a never-ending procession; there are the propellor blades to be thought of. I see, now and then, the swirls which betray rocks in hiding, and when dodging those dangerous places the screw disturbs the mud and the stinks. But the pilot takes us round and about, we with our 300 feet of length and 23 feet draught, as a man would steer a motor car. To aid it our rudder has had fixed to it a false wooden length. The "Capella" is a very good girl, as responsive to the pilot's word as though she knew that he alone can save her. She stems this powerful current at but four knots, and sometimes we come to places where, if she hesitated for but two seconds, we should be put athwart stream to close the channel. And what would happen to us with nothing but unexplored malarial forest each side of us is net useful to brood on. Occasionally the pilot, grasping the top of the "dodger," stares beyond us fixedly to where the refracted sunshine is blinding between the green cliffs, and gives quick and numerous orders to the wheelhouse without turning his head. The Skipper gets up to watch. The "Capella" makes surprising swerves, the pilot nervously taps the boards with his foot. . . . Then he says something quietly, relaxes, and comes to us blithely, the funny dog with a nonsense story, and the Skipper sinks couchant again. Once more I watch the front of the jungle for what may show there. Seldom there is anything new which shows. It is rare, even when close alongside, that one can trace the shape of a leaf. There are but the conspicuous grey nests of the ants and wasps. Yet several times to-day I saw trees in blossom; domes of lilac in the green forest roof. Again, to-day we put up a flight of hundreds of ducks; and another incident was a black-water stream, the Rio Mataua, the line of demarcation between the Madeira's yellow flood and its dark tributary being distinct.
. . . . .
Jan. 26. The forest is lower and more open, and the pao mulatto is more numerous. We saw the important village of Manicoré to-day, and Oncas, a little place within a portico of the woods which was veiled in grey smoke, for they were coagulating rubber there. For awhile before sunset the sky was scenic with great clouds, and glowing with the usual bright colours. The wilderness was transformed. Each evening we seem to anchor in a region different, in nature and appearance, under these extraordinary sunset skies, from the country we have been travelling since daylight. Transfiguration at eventime we know in England. Yet sunset there but exalts our homeland till it seems more intimately ours than ever, as though then came a luminous revelation of its rare intrinsic goodness. We see, for some brief moments, its aura. But this tropical jungle, at day-fall, is not the earth we know. It is a celestial vision, beyond physical attaining, beyond knowledge. It is ulterior, glorious, transient, fading before our surprise and wonder fade. We of the "Capella" are its only witnesses, except those pale ghosts, the egrets about the dim aqueous base of the forest.
Darkness comes quickly, the swoop and overspread of black wings. The stopping of the ship's heart, because the pulsations of her body have had unconscious response in yours, as by an incorporeal ligament, is the cessation of your own life. At a moment there is a strange quiet, in which you begin to hear the whisper of inanimate things. A log glides past making faint labial sounds. You are suddenly released from prison, and float lightly in an ether impalpable to the coarse sounds and movements of earth, but which is yet sensitive to the most delicate contact of your thoughts and emotions. The whispering of your fellows is but the rustling of their thoughts in an illimitable and inviolate silence.
Then, almost imperceptibly, the frogs begin their nightlong din. The crickets and cicadas join. Between the varying pitch of their voices come other nocturnes in monotones from creatures unknown to complete the gamut. There are notes so profound, but constant, that they are a mere impression of obscurity to the hearing, as when one peers listening into an abysm in which no bottom is seen, and others are stridulations so attenuated that they shrill beyond reach.
A few frogs begin it. There are ululations, wells of mellow sound bubbling to overflow in the dark, and they multiply and unite till the quality of the sound, subdued and pleasant at first, is quite changed. It becomes monstrous. The night trembles in the powerful beat of a rhythmic clangour. One cannot think of frogs, hearing that metallic din. At one time, soon after it begins, the chorus seems the far hubbub, mingled and levelled by distance, of a multitude of people running and disputing in a place where we who are listening know that no people are. The noise comes nearer and louder till it is palpitating around us. It might be the life of the forest, immobile and silent all day, now released and beating upwards in deafening paroxysms.
Alongside the engine room casing amidships the engineers have fixed an open-air mess-table, with a hurricane lamp in its midst, having but a brief halo of light which hardly distinguishes the pickle jar from the marmalade pot. A haze of mosquitoes quivers round the light. The air is hot and lazy, and the engineers sit about limply in trousers and shirts, the latter open and showing bosoms as various as faces. The men cheer themselves with comical plaints about the heat, the food, the Brazils, and make sudden dabs at bare flesh when the insects bite them. The Chief rallies his boys as would a cheery dad--Sandy, though, is nearly his own age, but still much of a lad, quietly despondent--and the Chief heartily insists on food, like it or lump it. I go forward to the captain's tea table on the poop deck, where we have two hurricane lamps, and where the figures of us round the table, in that dismal glim, are the thin phantoms of men. The lamps have been lighted only that moment, and as we take our seats, the insects come. Just as sharply as though something derisive and invisible were throwing them at us, big mole crickets bounce into our plates. A cicada, though I was then unaware of his identity, a monstrous fly which looked as large as a rat, and with a head like a lantern, alighted before me on the cloth, and remained still. Picking it up tentatively it sprang a startling police rattle between my finger and thumb, and the other chaps shouted their merriment. The steward places a cup of tea before each of us, and in an interval of the talk the Skipper announces a smell of paraffin in his cup. We experiment with ours, and gravely confirm. The surgeon, bending close to a light with his cup, the deep characteristics of his face strongly accentuated--he seems but a bodiless head in the dark--says he detects globules of fat. The Skipper crudely outlines this horror to the steward, who makes an inaudible reply in German, and disappears down the companion. We get a new and innocent brew.
There is hash for us. There is our familiar the pickled beef. There are saucers of brown onions. There are saucers of jam and of butter: To-night the steward has baked some cakes, and their grateful smell and crisp brown rugged surface, studded with plums, determine in my mind a resolution to eat four of them, if I can get them without open shame. I assert that our Skipper has a counting eye for the special dishes; though you may eat all the hash you want. Damn his hash! The bread is sour. I want cakes.
After tea the pilots get into their hammocks and under their curtains, out of the way of the mosquitoes. We know where they are because of the red ends of their cigarettes. We sit around anywhere, the Skipper, the Chief, the Doctor and the Purser. There is little to be said. We talk of the mosquitoes, in ejaculations, for the little wretches quite easily penetrate linen, and can manage even worsted socks. Occasionally flying insects bump into the tin lamp placed above us on the ice chest. (No; there is no ice.) Thin divergent arrows of light, the fireflies, lace the gloom, and the trees alongside are gemmed with them. We find still less to say to each other, but fear to retire to our heated berths, for as it is just possible to breathe in the open we continue to defy the mosquitoes. The first mate serenades us on his accordion. At last there is no help for it. The steward comes to tell the master that his cot is ready. The "old man" sleeps in a cot draped with netting, and slung from the awning beams on the starboard side. Nightly he turns in there, and unfailingly a rain cloud bursts in the very early morning, pounding on the awning till the cool spray compels him, and he retreats in his pyjamas for shelter, taking his pillow with him. It is for that reason I do not use the cot he made for me, which hangs on the port side; though it is delightful for the afternoon nap.
The Skipper disappears. The Doctor and I go below to the surgery, and from the settee there he removes books, tobacco tins, fishing tackle, phials, india rubber tubing, and small leather cases, making room for us both, and first we have some out of his bottle, and then we try some out of mine. The stuff is always tepid, for the water in the carafe has a temperature of 80 degrees. The perspiration begins a steady permeation as we talk, for now we can talk, and talk, being together, and talking is better than sleep, which at its best is but a fitful doze in the tropics. We fall, as it were, on each other's necks. Though the Doctor's breast--I say nothing of mine-is not one which appears to invite the weak tear of a fellow mortal who is harassed by solitude. You might judge it too cold, too hard and unresponsive a support, for that; and I have seen his eye even repellent. He is not elderly, but he is grey, and pallid through too much of the tropics. The lines descending his face show he has been observing things for long, and does not think much of them. When disputing with him, he does not always reply to you; he smiles to himself; a habit which is an annoyance to some people, whose simple minds are suspicious, and who are unaware that the surgeon is sometimes forgetful that his weaker brethren, when they are most heated and disputative with him, then most lack confidence in their case, and need the confirmation of the wit they know is superior. That is no time when one should look at the wall, and smile quietly. The "Capella's" company feel that the surgeon stands where he overlooks them, and they see, where he stands unassumingly superior, that he looks upon them politely. They do not know he is really sad and forgetful; they think he is amused, but that he prefers to pretend he is well bred. I must confess it is known he has prescience having a certain devilish quality of penetration. There was one of our stokers, and one night he was drunk on stolen gin, and latitudinous, and so attempted a curious answer to the second engineer, who sought him out in the forecastle concerning work. Now the second engineer is a young man who has a number of photographs of himself which display him, clad but in vanity and shorts, back, front, and profile, arms folded tightly to swell his very large muscles. He has really a model figure, and he knows it. The cut over the stoker's nose was a bad one.
To the surgeon the stoker went, early next morning, actually for a hair of the dog, but with a story that he was then to go on duty, and so would miss his ration of quinine, which is not served till eleven o'clock. The quinine, as you know, is given in gin. The surgeon complimented the man on such proper attention to his health, and willingly gave him the quinine--in water. He also stood at the door of the alleyway to watch the man retained the quinine as far as the engine room entrance.
Eight bells! Presently I also must go and pretend to sleep. The surgeon's last cheery comment on the cosmic scheme remains but as a wry smile on our faces. We grope in our minds desperately for a topic to keep the talk afloat. There goes one bell!
I arrive at my haunt of cockroaches, where the second mate is already asleep on the upper shelf. The brown light of the oil lamp has its familiar flavour, and the cabin is like an oven. What a prospect for sleep! Raising the mosquito curtain carefully I slip through the opening like an acrobat, hoping to be ahead of the insidious little malaria carriers. A drove of cockroaches scuttles wildly over my warm mattress as I arrive. Striking matches within what the sailor overhead calls my meat safe, I examine my enclosure carefully for mosquitoes, but none seems to be there, though I know very well I shall find at least a dozen, gorged with blood, in the morning. The iron bulkhead which separates my bed from the engine room is, of course, hot to the touch. The air is a passive weight. The old insect bites begin to irritate and burn. I kick the miserable sheet to the foot, and lie on my back without a movement, for I fear I may suffocate in that shut box. My chest seems in bonds, and for long there is no relief, though the body presently grows indifferent to the misery, and the anxiety goes. It is remarkable to what brutality the body will submit, when it knows it must. Yet nothing but a continuous effort of will kept the panic suppressed, and me in that box, till the feeling of anxiety had passed. Thenceforward the sleepless mind, like a petty balloon giddy on a thin but unbreakable thread of thought, would tug at my consciousness, revolving and dodging about, in spite of my resolution to keep it still. If I could only break that thread, I said to myself, turning over again, away it would fly out of sight, and I should forget all this . . . all this . . . And presently it broke loose, and dwindled into oblivion.
Then I knew nothing more till I saw, fixed where I was in hopeless horror, the baby face of one I dwell much upon, in moments of solitude, and it had fallen wan and thin, and was full of woe unutterable, and its appealing eyes were blind. I woke with a cry, sitting up suddenly, the heart going like a rapid hammer. There was the curtained box about me. The clothes were on the hooks. I could see the black shape of the cabin doorway. By my watch it was four o'clock. The air had cooled, and as I sat waiting for the next thing in the silence the mate snored profoundly overhead. Ah! So that was all right.
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Jan. 27. This has been a day of anxious navigation, for the river has had frequent reefs. We remain in a stagnant chasm of trees. The surgeon and I, accompanied by a swarm of flies, went forward into the cattle stew this morning to see how the beasts fared. The patient brutes were suffering badly, and some, quite plainly, were dying. The change from the lush green stuff of the Itacoatiara swamps to compressed American hay put under their noses on an iron deck, and the stifling heat under partial awnings, had ruined them. Some stood, heads down, legs straddled, too indifferent to disperse the loathly clouds of parasites. Most were plagued by ticks, which had the tenacity and appearance of iron bolt heads. But the little black cow, the rebel, blared at us, bound and suffering as she was. Vive la revolution! We drove the flies from her hide, and she tried to kick us, the darling. We found a steer with his shoulder out of joint, lying inert in the sun, indifferent to further outrage. That had to be seen to, and we told the Skipper, who ordered it to be killed. We wanted some fresh meat badly, he added. The boatswain explained that he knew the business, and he brought a long knife, and quite calmly thrust it into the front of the prone creature, and seemed to be trying to find its heart. Nothing happened, except a little blood and some convulsive movements. Another sailor produced a short knife and a hammer, and tapped away behind the horns as though he were a mason and this were stone. The frowning surgeon supposed the fellow was trying to sever the vertebrae. I don't know. Yet another fellow jumped on its abdomen. At last it died. I put down merely what happened. No two voyages are alike, and as this episode came into mine, here it is, to be worked in with the sunsets and things. There was some cheerful talk at the prospect of the first fresh meat since England, and later, passing the cook's galley, I saw an iron bin, and lifted its cover to see what was there. And there was, as I judged there would be, liver for tea that evening. But I learned that though I am a carnivore yet I have not the pluck to be a vulture.
The next day we passed the Cidada de Humayta, the chief town on the Madeira. Actually it was of the size of an unimportant home village. There was nothing there to support the pilot's sonorous title of cidada. For some reason we were visited to-day by an extraordinary number of butterflies. One large specimen was of an olive green, barred with black. Another had wings of a bluish grey, striped with vermilion. Helicons came, and once a morpho, the latter a great rarity away from the interior of the woods. At four in the afternoon the sky grew ominous. We had just time to notice the trees astern suddenly convulsed, writhing where they stood, and the storm sprang at us, roaring, ripping away awnings and loose gear. The noise in the forest round us was that of cataclysm. The rain was an obscurity of falling water, and the trees turned to shadows in a grey fog. The ship became full of waterspouts, large streams and jets curving away from every prominence. This lasted for but twenty minutes; but the impending clouds remained to hasten night when we were in a place which, more than anything I have seen, was the world before the coming of man. The river had broadened and shallowed. The forest enclosed us. There were islands, and the rank growth of swamps. We could see, through breaks in the igapo, extensive lagoons beyond, with the high jungle brooding over empty silver areas. Herons, storks, and egrets were white and still about the tangle of aqueous roots. It was all as silent and other world as a picture.
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Jan. 29. When shouting awakened me this morning I saw the Chief hurry by my cabin, half-dressed, and looking very anxious. By the almost stationary foliage I could see the ship had merely way on her. Out I jumped. On the forecastle head a crowd was gathered, peering overside. A large tree was balanced accurately athwart our stem, and refused to move. What worried the staff was that it would, when free, sidle along our plates till it fouled the propeller. The propeller had to be kept moving, for the river was narrow and its current unusually rapid. There the log obstinately remained for the most of an hour, but suddenly made up its mind, and went, clearing the stern by inches. After that the engines were driven full, for the pilot hoped to get us to Porto Velho by nightfall. In the late afternoon, when passing the Rio Jamary, the clouds again banked astern, bringing night before its time, and another violent storm compelled an early anchorage. The forest was remarkably quiet after the tumult of the squall, and the "Capella" had been put over to the left bank, when close to us on the opposite shore there was a landslip. We saw a section of the jungle wall sway, as though that part was taken by a local tempest, and then the green cliff and its supports fell bodily into the river, raising thunderous submarine explosions. Such landslides, terras cahidas, can be rarely foreseen, and are a grave danger to craft when they come close in to rest at night. To-day we passed a small raft drifting down. A hut was erected in its middle, and we saw two men within.
Jan. 30. Talk enough there has been of a place called Porto Velho, a name I heard first when I signed the articles of the "Capella" at Swansea, and of what would happen to us when we arrived. But I am looking upon it all as a strange myth. There has been time to prove those superstitions of Porto Velho. And what has happened? There was a month we had of the vacant sea, and one day we came upon a low coast where palms grew. There has been a month which has striped the vacant mind in three colours, constant in relative position, but without form, yellow floor, green walls, and a blue ceiling. Plainly we have got beyond all the works of man now. We have intrigued an ocean steamer thousands of miles along the devious waterways of an uninhabited continental jungle, and now she must be near the middle of the puzzle, with voiceless regions of unexplored forest reeking under the equatorial sun at every point of the compass. The more we advance up the Amazon and Madeira rivers the less the likelihood, it seems to me, of getting to any place where our ship and cargo could be required. We shall steam and steam till the river shallows, the forest closes in, and we are trapped. Yet the Madeira looks now much the same as when we entered it, still as broad and deep. I was thinking this morning we might go on so for ever; that this adventure was all of the casual improbabilities of a dream was in my mind when, smoking the after breakfast pipe on the bridge, we turned a corner sharply, and there was the end of the passage within a mile of us, Porto Velho at last.
The forest on the port side ahead was uplifted on an unusually high cliff of the red rock. Beyond that cliff was a considerable clearing, with many buildings of a character different from any we had seen in the country. At the end of the clearing the forest began again, unconquered still, standing across our course as a high barrier; for, leaving Porto Velho, the river turned west almost at a right angle, and vanished; as though now it were done with us. We had arrived. A rough pier was being thrown out on palm boles to receive us, but it was not ready. We anchored in five fathoms, about thirty yards from the shore, and in the quiet which came with the stop of the ship's life we waited for the next thing, all hands lining the "Capella's" side surveying this place of which we had heard so much.
Plainly this was not the usual village. Many acres of trees had been newly cleared, leaving a great bay in the woods. The earth was still raw from a recent attack on what had been inviolate from time's beginning. Trenches, new red gashes, scored it, and holes were gouged in the hill side. You could think man had attacked the forest here in a fury, but had spent his force on one small spot, as though he had struck one wound again and again. The fight was over. The footing had been won, a base perhaps for further campaigns because wooden emergency houses, sheds and barracks, had been built. The assailant evidently had made up his mind to settle on his advantage, though he was tolerating a little quickly rebellious scrub. Just then he was resting, as if the whole affair had been over but five minutes before we came, and now the conqueror was sleeping on his first success. Completely round the conquered space the jungle stood indifferently regarding the trifle of ground it had lost. The jungle on the near opposite shore rose straight and uninterrupted from the river, the front rank, lost each way in distance, of an innumerable army. At the upper end of the clearing the jungle began again on our side, and turned to run across our bows, the complement of the host across the water, and both ranks continued up stream, dark and indeterminate lines converging, till, three miles away, a delicate flickering of light, a mere dimmer, faint but constant, bridged the two walls. No doubt that delicate light would be the San Antonio cataracts, the first of the nineteen rapids of the Madeira.
Porto Velho behaved as though we were not there. A pitiless sun flamed over that deep red wound in the forest, and they who had made it were in their shelters, resting out of sight after such a recent riot of exertion. Nothing was being done then. Two or three white men stood on the dismantled foreshore, placidly regarding us. We might have been something they were not quite sure was there, a possibility not sufficiently interesting for them to verify. There was a hint of mockery, after all our anxiety and travail, in this quiet disregard. Had we arrived too late to help, and so were not wanted? I confess I should not have been surprised to have heard suppressed laughter, some light hilarity from the unseen, at us innocently puzzling as to what was to happen next. There was a violent scream in the forest near our bows, and we turned wondering to that green wall. A locomotive ran out from the base of the trees, still screaming.
In a little while a man left a house, striding down over the debris to the foreshore, and some halfbreeds brought him in a canoe to the "Capella." He was a tall youngster, an American, and his slow body itself was but a thin sallow drawl; only his eyes were alert, and they darted at ours in quick scrutiny. His solemn occupying assurance and accent precipitated reality. He was a doctor and he ordered us to be mustered on the after deck for inspection for yellow fever. We were passed; and then this doctor went below to the saloon, distributing his long limbs and body over several chairs and part of the table, and began with lazy words and gestures to give us a place in the scene. We learned we should stay as we were till the pier was finished and that the railway was actually in being for a short distance. He said something about Porto Velho being hell.
He left us. We sat about on deck furniture, and waited on the unknown gods of the land to see what they would send us. All day in the clearing figures moved about on some mysterious business, but seldom looked at us. We had nothing to do but to watch the raft of timber and flotsam expand about our hawsers, a matter of some concern to us, for the current ran at six knots. Our brief sense of contact got from the medical inspection had gone by night. Reality contracted, closing in upon the "Capella" with rapidly diminishing radii as the light went, till we had lost everything but our steamer.
Into the saloon, where some of us sat listening in sympathy to the Skipper's growls that night, burst our cook, disrespectful and tousled, saying he had seen a canoe, which bore a light, overturn in the river. There was a stampede. We each seized a lantern and leaned overside with it, with that fatuous eagerness to help which makes a man strike matches when looking for one who is lost on a moor. Ghostly logs came floating noiselessly out of darkness into the brief domain of our lanterns, and faded into night again. From somewhere in the collection of driftwood beyond our bows we thought we heard an occasional cry, though that might have been the noise of water sucking through the rubbish, or the creaking of timbers. Our chief mate got out a small boat, and vanished; and we were already growing anxious for him when his luminous grin appeared below in the range of my lantern, and with him came the ponderous figure of a man. The latter, deft and agile, came up the rope ladder, and stepped aboard with innocent inconsequence, shocking my sense of the gravity of the affair; for this streaming object, lifted from the grip of the boney one just in time, was chuckling. "Say," said this big ruddy man to our gaping crowd, "I met a nigger ashore with a letter for the captain of this packet. Said he didn't know how to get. So I brought it, but a tree overturned the canoe. I came up under the timber jam all right, all right, but it took me quite a piece to get my head through." In the saloon, with a pool of water spreading round him, while we got him some dry clothes, he produced this pulpy letter. "Dear Captain" (it ran), "I'm as dry as hell, have you brought drinks in the ship?" The bland indifference of Porto Velho to the "Capella," which had done so much to get there; the locomotive which ran screaming out of those woods where, till then, was the same unbroken front which from Para inwards had surrendered nothing; the inconsequential doctor who carefully examined us for what we had not got; the ruddy man who rose to us streaming out of the deeps, as though that were his usual approach, bearing another stranger's unreasonable letter complaining of thirst, were most puzzling. I even felt some anxiety and suspicion. What, then, were all the other incidents of our difficult six thousand mile voyage? What was this place to which we had come on urgent business long and carefully deliberated, where men merely looked at the whites of our eyes, or changed wet clothes in the saloon, or lightly referred to hell--they all did that--as if hell were an unremarkable feature of their day? Were all these unrelated shadows and movements but part of a long and witless jest? The point of it I could not see. Was there any point to it or did casual episodes appear at unexpected places till they came, just as unexpectedly, to an empty end? The man the mate had rescued sat at the saloon table opposite me, leaning a yard wide chest, which was almost bare, on the red baize, his bulging arms resting before him, and his hairy paws easily clasped. I thought that perhaps this imperturbable being, who could come with easy assurance, his bright friendly eyes merely amused, his large firm mouth merely mocking, and his face heated, from a desperate affair in which his life nearly went, to announce to strangers, "Boys, I'm old man Jim," must have had the point of the joke revealed to him long since, and so now had no respect for its setting, and could have no care and understanding of my anxious innocence. He sat there for hours in quiet discourse. I listened to him with my ears only, his words jostling my thoughts, as one would puzzle over and listen to a superior being which had unbent to be intimate, but was outside our experience. I heard he had been at this place since 1907. He began the work here. Porto Veiho did not then exist. Off where we were anchored, the jungle rose. He had his young son with him, a cousin, and two negroes, and he began the railway. Inside the trees, he said, they could not see three yards, but down it all had to come. There is a small stingless bee here, which "old man Jim" called the sweat bee. It alights in swarms on the face and hands, and prefers death to being dislodged from its enjoyment. The heat, these bees, the ants, the pium flies, the mosquitoes, made the existence of Jim and his mates a misery. Jim merely drawled about in a comic way. Fever came, and mistrust of natives compelled him to dress a dummy, put that in his hammock at night, while he slept in a corner of the hut, one eye open, nursing a gun. I could not see "old man Jim" ever having faith that trains would run, or needed to run, where Indians lurked in the bush, and jaguars nosed round the hut at night. Why these sufferings then? But we learned the line now penetrated into the forest for sixty miles, and that beyond it there were camps, where surveyors were seeing that further way was made, and beyond them again, among the trees of the interior, the surveyors were still, planning the way the line should run when it had got so far.
Though we could not get ashore, there was enough to watch, if it were only the men leisurely driving palm boles into the river, making a pier for us. While at breakfast to-day a canoe of halfbreeds came flying towards us in pursuit of an object which kept a little ahead of them in the river. It passed close under our stern, and we saw it was a peccary. The canoe ran level with it then, and a man leaned over, catching the wild pig by a hind leg, keeping its snout under water while another secured its feet with rope. It was brought aboard in bonds as a present for the Skipper, who begged the natives to convey it below to the bunkers and there release it. He said he would tame it. I saw the eye of the beast as it lay on the deck champing its tusks viciously, and guessed we should have some interesting moments while kindness tried to reduce that light in its eye. The peccary disappeared for a few days.
There being nothing to do this fine morning, we watched the cattle put ashore. This was not so difficult a business as shipping them, for the beasts now submitted quietly to the noose which was put on their horns. The steam tackle hoisted them, they were pushed overside, and dropped into the river. Some natives in a canoe cleared the horns, and the brute, swimming desperately in the strong current, was guided to the bank. Some of the beasts being already near death they were merely jettisoned. The current bore them down stream, making feeble efforts to swim--food for the alligators. We waited for the turn of the black heifer. She was one of the last. She was not led to the ship's side. The tackle was attached to her horns, and made taut before her head was loosed. She made a furious lunge at the men when her nose was free, but the winch rattled, and she was brought up on her hind legs, blaring at us all. In that ugly manner she was walked on two legs across the deck, a heroine in shameful guise, while the men laughed. She was hoisted, and lowered into the river. She fought at the waiting canoe with her feet, but at last the men released her horns from the tackle. With only her face above water she heaved herself, open mouthed, at the canoe, frying to bite it, and then made some almost successful efforts to climb into it. The canoe men were so panic-stricken that they did nothing but muddle one another's efforts. The canoe rocked dangerously. This wicked animal had no care for its own safety like other cattle. It surprised its tormentors because it showed its only wish was to kill them. Just in time the men paddled off for their lives, the cow after them. Seeing she could not catch them, she swam ashore, climbed the bank, looking round then for a sight of the enemy--but they were all in hiding--and then began browsing in the scrub.
As leisurely as though life were without end, the work on the pier proceeded; and we on the "Capella," who could not get ashore, with each of our days a week long, looked round upon this remote place of the American tropics till it seemed we had never looked upon anything else. The days were candent and vaporous, the heat by breakfast-time being such as we know at home in an early afternoon of the dog-days. The forest across the river, about three hundred yards away, from sunrise till eight o'clock, often was veiled in a white fog. There would be a clear river, and a sky that was full day, but not the least suspicion of a forest. We saw what seemed a limitless expanse of bright water, which merged into the opalescent sky walls. Such an invisible fog melted from below, and then the revelation of the dark base of the forest, in mid-distance, was as if our eyes were playing tricks. The forest appeared in the way one magic-lantern picture grows through another. The last of the vapour would roll upwards from the tree-tops for some time, and you could believe the woods were smouldering heavily. Thenceforward the quiet day would be uninterrupted, except for the plunge of a heavy fish, the passing of a canoe, a visit from an adventurous visitor from the shore, or the growing of a cloud in the sky. We tried fishing, though never got anything but some grey scaleless creatures with feelers hanging about their gills. It was not till the evening when the visitors usually came that the day began really to move. The new voices gave our saloon and cabins vivacity, and the stories we heard carried us far and swiftly towards the next breakfast-time. They were strange characters, those visitors, usually Americans, but sometimes we got an Englishman or a Frenchman. They took possession of the ship.
There was an elderly man, Neil O'Brien, who was often with us. At first I thought he was a very exceptional character. He was one of the first to visit our ship. I even felt a little timidity when alone with him, for he had a habit of sitting limply, looking at nothing in particular, and dumb, and plainly he was a man whose thoughts ran in ways I could not even surmise. His pale blue eyes would turn upon me with that searching openness which may mean childish innocence or madness, and I could not forget the whispers I had heard of his dangerously inflammable nature. I could not find common footing with him for some time. My trouble was that I had come out direct from a country where few men are free, and so most of us live in doubt of what would happen to us if we were to act as though we were free men. Where, if a self-reliant man contemptuously dares to a bleak and perilous extremity, he makes all his lawful fellows in-draw their timid breaths; that land where even a reward has been instituted, as for merit, for uncomplaining endurance under life-long hardships, and called an old-age pension. You cannot live much of your life with natural servants, the judicious and impartial, the light shy, and those who look twice carefully, but never leap, without betraying some reflected pallor of their anæmia. O'Brien, the quiet master of his own time, with his eyes I could not read, and his gun, betrayed obliquely in our casual talks together such an ingenuous indifference to accepted things and authority, that I had nothing to work with when gauging him. He was his own standard of conduct. I judged his bearing towards the authority of officials would be tolerant, and even tender, as men use with wilful children. He was not a rebel, as we understand it, one who at last grows impatient and angry, and so votes for the other party. I suppose he was not opposed to authority, unless it were opposed to him. He was outside any authority but his own. He lived without State aid. He himself carried the gun, always the symbol of authority, whether of a man or of a State, and if any man had attempted to rob him of his substance, certainly O'Brien would have shot that man according to his own law and his own prophecy, and would then have cooked his supper. He surprised me for a day or two. I puzzled much over this phenomenon of a free man, who took his freedom so quietly and naturally that he never even discussed the subject, as we do, with enthusiasm, in England. What else? It was long since he was separated from his mother. Soon I found he was but a type. I met others like him in this country. Their innocence of the limitations of a careful man like myself was disconcerting. Once O'Brien casually proposed that I should "beat it," cut the ship, and make a traverse of that wild place to distant Colombia, to some unknown spot by the approximate source of a certain Amazon tributary, where he knew there was gold. First I laughed, and then found, from his glance of resentful candour, that he was quite serious. He generously meant this honour for me; and I think it was an honour for an elderly, quiet, and seasoned privateer like O'Brien, to invite me to be his only companion in a region where you must travel with alert courage and wide experience, or perish. I have learned since he has gone to that far place alone. But what a time he will have. He will have all of it to himself. Well--I was thinking, when I refused him, of my old age pension. I should like to get it.
Men like O'Brien are called here, quite respectfully, "bad men," and "land sailors." The lawless lands of the South American republics--lawless in this sense, that their laws need be little reckoned by the daring, the strong, and the unscrupulous--seem particularly attractive to men of the O'Brien type. I got to like them. I found them, when once used to their feral minds, always entertaining, and often instructive, for their naïve opinions cut our conventions across the middle, showing the surprising insides. They dwell without bounds. As I have read somewhere, we do not think of the buffalo, which treats a continent as pasturage, as we do of the cow which kicks over the pail at milking time and jumps the yard fence. These men regard priest, magistrate and soldier with an indifference which is not even contemptible indifference. They are merely callous to the calculated effect of uniforms. When in luck, they are to be found in the cities, shy and a little miserable, having a good time. Their money gone, they set out on lonely journeys across this continent which show our fuss over authentic explorers to be a little overdone. O'Brien was such a man. He told me he had not slept under a roof for years. He had no home, he confessed to me once. Any place on the map was the same to him. He had spent his life drifting alone between Patagonia and Canada, looking for what he never found, if he knew what he was looking for. His travels were insignificant to him. He might have been a tramp talking of English highways. As he droned on one evening I began to doubt he was unaware that his was an extraordinary narrative. I guessed his unconcern must be an air. It would have been, in my case. I looked straight over at him, and he hesitated nervously, and stopped. Was he wasting my time, he asked? Prospecting for his illusion, his last journey was over the Peruvian Andes into Colombia. He broke an arm in a fall on the mountains, set it himself, and continued. On the Rio Yapura an Indian shot an arrow through his leg, and O'Brien dropped in the long grass, breaking the arrow short each side of the limb, and in an ensuing long watchful duel presently shot the Indian though the throat. And then, coming out on the Amazon, his canoe overturned, and the pickle jar full of gold dust was lost. He put no emphasis on any particular, not even on the loss of his gold.
He was pointed out to me first as a singular fellow who kept doves; a tall, gaunt man, with a deliberate gait, perhaps fifty years of age, in old garments, long boots laced to the knees, and a battered pith helmet. He strolled along with his eyes cast down. If you met him abroad, and stopped him, he answered you with a few mumbles while looking away over your shoulder. His big mouth drew down a grizzled moustache cynically, and one of his front teeth was gold plated. Before he passed on he looked at you with the haughty but doubtful stare of an animal. He seemed too slow and dull to be combustible. I ceased to credit those tales of his berserker rage. He always moved in that deliberate way, as if he were careful, but bored. Or he stood before his doves, and made bubbling noises in his loose, stringy throat. He embarrassed me with a present of many of the trophies he had secured in years of travel in the wilds. One day a negro and O'Brien were in mild dispute on the jetty, and the negro called the white a Yankee. The river was twenty feet below swiftly carrying its logs. O'Brien took the big black, and with vicious ease threw him into the water. The negro missed the floating rubbish, and struck out for the bank. No one could help him. By good luck he managed to get to the water-side; yet O'Brien meanwhile had hurried his long legs over the ties of the skeleton structure, his face transfigured, and was waiting for the negro to emerge, a spade in his hand. But under other circumstances I have not the least doubt he would have fought the Brazilian army single-handed, and so finished, in defence of that same negro.
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