WE had 5200 tons of cargo, and nearly all of it was patent fuel. This was to be put into baskets, hauled up, and emptied into railway trucks run out on the jetty alongside. We watched the men at work for a few days and nights, and judged we should be at Porto Velho for a month. I saw for myself long rambles in the forest during that time of golden leisure, but saw them no more after the first attempt. The clearing on its north side rose steeply to about a hundred feet on the hard red conglomerate; to the south, on the San Antonio side, it ended in a creek and a swamp. But at whatever point the Doctor and I attempted to leave the clearing we soon found ourselves stopped by a dense undergrowth. At a few places there were narrow footpaths, subterranean m the quality of their light, made by timbermen when searching for suitable trees for the saw-mill. These tracks never penetrated more than a few hundred yards, and always ended in a well of sunshine in the forest where some big trees would be prone in a tangle of splintered branches, and a deep litter of leaves and broken fronds. And that was as far as man had got inwards from the east bank of the Madeira river. Beyond it was the undiscovered, and the Araras Indians. On the other side of the river the difficulty was the same. The Rio Purus, the next tributary of the Amazon westward from the Madeira, had its course, it was guessed, perhaps not more than fifty miles across country from the river bank opposite Porto Velho; but no one yet has made a traverse of the land between the two streams. The dark secrecy of the region was even oppressive. Sometimes when venturing alone a little beyond a footpath, out of hearing of the settlement, surrounded by the dim tangle in which there was not a movement or a sound, I have become suspicious that the shapes about me in the half light were all that was real there, and Porto Velho and its men an illusion, and there has been a touch of panic in my haste to find the trail again, and to prove that it could take me to an open prospect of sunny things with the solid "Capella" in their midst.
We carried our butterfly nets ashore and went of a morning across the settlement, choosing one of the paths which ended in a small forest opening, where there was sunlight as well as shadow. Few butterflies came to such places. You could really think the forest was untenanted. A tanager would dart a ray of metallic sheen in the wreckage of timber and dead branches about us, or some creature would call briefly, melancholy wise, in the woods. Very rarely an animal would go with an explosive rush through the leaves. But movements and sounds, except the sound of our own voices, were surprises; and a sight of one of the larger inhabitants of the jungle is such a rarity that we knew we might be there for years and never get it. Yet life about its various business in the woods kept us interested till the declining sun said it was time to get aboard again. Every foot of earth, the rotting wood, the bark of the standing trees, every pool, and the litter of dead leaves and husks, were populous when closely regarded. Most of the trees had smooth barks. A corrugated trunk, like that of our elm, was exceptional. But when a bole had a rough surface it would be masked by the grey tenacious webbing of spiders; on one such tree we found a small mantis, which so mimicked the spiders that we were long in discovering what it really was. Many of the smooth tree trunks were striated laterally with lines of dry mud. These lines were actually tunnels, covered ways for certain ants. The corridors of this limitless mansion had many such surprises. There were the sauba ants; they might engross all a man's hours, for in watching them he could easily forget there were other things in the world. They would move over the ground in an interminable procession. Looked at quickly, that column of fluid life seemed a narrow brook, its surface smothered with green leaves, which it carried, not round or under obstructions, but upwards and over them. Nearly every tiny creature in that stream of life held upright in its jaws a banner, much larger than itself, cut from a fresh leaf. It bore its banner along hurriedly and resolutely. All the ants carrying leaves moved in one direction. The flickering and forward movement of so many leaves gave the procession of ants the wavering appearance of shallow water running unevenly. On both sides of the column other ants hurried in the reverse direction, often stopping to communicate something, with their antennæ, to their burdened fellows. Two ants would stop momentarily, and there would be a swift intimation, and then away they would go again on their urgent affairs. We would see rapid conversations of that kind everywhere in the host. Other ants, with larger heads, kept moving hither and thither about the main body; having an eye on matters generally, I suppose, policing or superintending them. There was no doubt all those little fellows had a common purpose. There was no doubt they had made up their minds about it long since, had come to a decision communally, and that each of them knew his job and meant to get it done. There did not appear to be any ant favoured by the god of the ants. You have to cut your own leaf and get along with it, if you are a sauba.
There they were, flowing at our feet. I see it now, one of those restricted forest openings to which we often went, the wall of the jungle all round, and some small attalea palms left standing, the green of their long plumes as hard and bright as though varnished. Nothing else is there that is green, except the weeds which came when the sunlight was let in by the axe. The spindly forest columns rise about, pallid in a wall of gloom, draped with withered stuff and dead cordage. Their far foliage is black and undistinguishable against the irregular patch of overhead blue. It never ceased to be remarkable that so little that was green was there. The few pothos plants, their shapely parasitic foliage sitting like decorative nests in some boughs half-way to the sky, would be strangely conspicuous and bright. The only leaves of the forest near us were on the ground, brown parchments all of one simple shape, that of the leaf of the laurel. I remember a stagnant pool there, and over it suspended some enamelled dragon-flies, their wings vibrating so rapidly that the flies were like rubies shining in obscure nebulæ. When we moved, the nymphs vanished, just as if a light flashed out. We sat down again on our felled tree to watch, and magically they reappeared in the same place, as though their apparition depended on the angle and distance of the eye. When a bird called one started involuntarily, for the air was so muffled and heavy that it was strange to find it open instantly to let free the delicate sibilation.
In the low ground beyond Porto Velho up stream there was another place in the forest where sometimes we would go, the approach to it being through a deep cutting made by the railwaymen in the clay. This clay, a stiff homogeneous mass mottled rose and white, was saturated with moisture, and the helicon butterflies frequented it, probably because it was damp; and a sight of their black and yellow, or black and crimson wings, spread on the clean plane of the beautifully tinted rock, was far better than putting them in the collecting box. The helicons are bold insects, and did not seem to mind our close inspecting eyes. Beyond the cutting was a long narrow clearing, with a giant silk cotton tree, a province in itself, on the edge of the forest. Looking straight upward we could see its foliage, but so far away was the spreading canopy of leaves that it was only a black cloud, the outermost sprays mere wisps of dark vapour melting in the intense brightness of the sky. The smooth grey trunk was heavily buttressed, the "sapeomas" (literally, flat roots) ascending the bole for more than fifty feet, and radiating in walls about the base of the tree; the compartments were so large that they could have been used as stabling for four or five horses. From its upper limbs a wreckage of lianas hung to the ground. Beyond this giant the path rose to a place where the clearing was already waist high with scrub, Then it descended again to the woods. But the woods there were flooded. That was my first near view of the igapo. We had approached the trees, for they seemed free of the usual undergrowth, and passed into the sombre colonnades. The way appeared clear enough, and we thought we could move ahead freely at last, but found in a few steps the bare floor was really black water. The base of the forest was submerged, the columns which supported the unseen roof, through which came little light, diminished down soundless distance into night. After the flaming day from which we had just come this darkness was repellant. The forest, that austere, stately and regarding Presence draped interminably in verdant folds, while we gazed upon it suspecting no new thing of it, as by a stealthy movement had withdrawn its green robe, and our sight had fallen into the cavernous gloom of its dank and hollow heart.
It was about the little wooden town itself, where the scarified earth was already sparsely mantled with shrubs, flowering vines, and weeds, and where the burnt tree stumps, and even the door posts in some cases, were freshly budding--life insurgent, beaten down by fire and sword, but never to its source and copious springs--that most of the butterflies were to be found. In a land where blossoms were few, these were the winged flowers. About the squalid wooden barracks of the negro and native labourers, which were built off the ground to allow of ventilation, and had a trench round them foul with drainage and evil with smells, a Coloenis, a scarlet butterfly with narrow, swallow-like wings, used to flash, and frequently would settle there. Over the flowering weeds on the waste ground there would be, in the morning hours, or when the sky was overcast, glittering clouds of the smaller and duller species, though among them now and then would stoop a very emperor of butterflies, a being quick and unbelievably beautiful to temperate eyes. After midday, when the sun was intense, the butterflies became scarce. When out of the shade of the woods, and stranded, at that time, in the hopeless heat of the bare settlement, we could turn into one of the houses of the officials of the company for shelter. These also were of timber, cool, with a verandah that was a cage of fine copper gauze to keep out the insects. All the doors were self-closing. The fewest chances were offered to the mosquitoes. There was no glass, for the window openings also were covered with copper mesh. Here we could sit in shaded security, in lazy chairs, and look out over the clearing to the river below, and to the level line of forest across the river, while listening to stories which had come down to Porto Velho from the interior, brought by the returning pioneers.
Porto Velho had a population of about three hundred. There were Americans, Germans, English, Brazilians, a few Frenchmen, Portuguese, some Spaniards, and a crowd of negroes and negresses. There was but one white woman in the settlement. I was told the climate seemed to poison them. The white girl, who persisted in staying in spite of warnings from the doctors, was herself a Brazilian, the wife of one of the labourers. She refused to leave, and sometimes I saw her about, petite, frail, looking very sad. But her husband was earning good money. It was a busy place, most of it being workshops, stores, and offices, with an engine and trucks jangling inconsequentially on the track by the shore. The line crossed a creek by a trestle bridge, and disappeared in the forest in the direction of San Antonio. The hospital for the men was nearly two miles up the track.
It was along the railway track towards the hospital, with the woods to the left, and a short margin of scrub and forest, and then the river, on the right hand, that I saw one morning in sauntering a few miles as many butterflies as there are flowers in an English garden in June. They were the blossoms of the place. The track was bright with them. They settled on the hot metals and ties, clustered thickly round muddy pools, a plantation there as vivid and alive, in the quick movements of their wings, as though a wind shook the petals of a bed of flowers. They flashed by like birds. One would soar slowly, wings outspread and stable, a living plane of metallic green and black. There was a large and insolent beauty--he did not move from his drink at a puddle though my boot almost touched him--his wings a velvety black with crimson eyes on the underwings, and I caught him; but I was so astonished by the strength of his convulsive body in the net that I let him go. Near the hospital some bushes were covered with minute flowers, and seen from a distance the countless insects moving about those bushes were a glistening and puzzling haze.
All that morning I had felt the power of the torrid sun, which clung to the body like invisible bonds, and made one's movements slow, was a luscious benefit, a golden bath, a softening and generative balm; a mother heat and light whose ardent virtues stained pinions crimson and cobalt, and made bodies strong and convulsive, and caused the earth to burst with rushing sap, to send up green fountains; for so the palms, which showed everywhere in the woods, looked to me. You could hear the incessant low murmur of multitudinous wings. And I had been warned to beware of all things. I felt instead that I could live and grow for ever in such a land.
Presently, becoming a little weary of so much strong light, I found it was midday, and looking back, there was the ship across a curve of the river. It was two good miles away; two intense, shadeless, silent afternoon miles. I began the return journey. An increasing rumbling sound ahead made me look up, as I stepped from tie to tie, and there came at me a trolley car, pumped along slowly, four brown bodies rising and falling rhythmically over its handle. A man in a white suit was its passenger. As it passed me I saw it bore also something under a white cloth; the cloth moulded a childish figure, of which only the hem of a skirt and the neat little booted feet showed beyond the cloth, and the feet swayed limply with the jolts of the car in a way curiously appealing and woful. The car stopped, and the white man, a cheerful young doctor chewing an extinct cigar, came to me for a light. He stood to gossip for a few minutes, giving his men a rest. "That's the Brazilian girl," he said; "she wouldn't go home when told, poor thing."
. . . . .
This Madeira river had the look of very adventurous fishing, and the Doctor had brought with him an assortment of tackle. The water was opaque, and it was deep. Its prospects, though the forest closed round us, were spacious. It flowed silently, with great power, and its surface was often coiled by profound movements. The coils of the river, as we were looking over the side one morning, began to move in our minds also, and the Doctor mentioned his tackle. There was the forest enclosing us, as mute as the water, its bare roots clenched in aqueous earth. Nobody could tell us much about the fish in this river, but we heard stories of creatures partly seen. There was one story of a thing taken from the very place in the river where we were anchored, a fish in armour which the natives declared was new to them; a fearful ganoid I guessed it, reconstructing it in vision from fragments of various tales about it, such as is pictured in a book on primeval rocks. There were alligators, too, and there was the sucuruju, which I could call the great water serpent, only the Indian name sounds so much more right and awful; and that fellow is forty feet long in his legend, but spoils a good story through reducing himself by half when he is actually killed. Still, twenty feet of stout snake is enough for trouble. I saw one, just after it was killed, which was twenty-two feet in length, and was three feet round its middle. So to fish in the Madeira was as if one's hook and line were cast into the deeps where forms that are without name stir in the dark of dreams. We got out our tackle, and the cook had an assortment of stuff he did not want, and that we put on the hooks, and waited, our lines carried astern by the current, for signals from the unknown. Yet excepting for a few catfish, nothing interrupted the placid flow of stream and time. The Doctor put a bight of the lime round his wrist, sat down, and slept. We had fine afternoons, broad with the wealth of our own time.
Old man Jim came aboard and saw our patience with amusement. He suggested dynamite, and no waiting. The river was full of good fish, and he would come next day with a canoe and take us where we could get a load. It was a suggestion which needed slurring, to look attractive to sportsmen. Jim took it for granted that we simply wanted fish to eat, and as many as we could get; and next morning there he was alongside with his big boat and its crew. Jim himself was in the stern, the navigator, and he was sitting on what I was told was a box of dynamite. Now, there were two others of our company who, but the day before, were even eager to see what dynamite would send up from the bottom of that river; but when they saw the craft alongside with its wild-looking crew, and Jim with his rifle sitting on a power which could lift St. Paul's, they considered everything, and decided they could not go that day. I went alone.
I suppose men do plucky things because they are largely thoughtless of the danger of the things they do. As soon as I was sitting on the level of the water in that crazy boat, with Jim and his explosive, and beside him what whisky he had not already consumed, and saw under my nose the eddies and upheavals of the current, I knew I was doing a very plucky thing indeed, and wished I was high and safe on the "Capella." But we had pushed off.
Jim, with his eyes dreamy through barley juice, was the pilot, and there was a measure of confidence to be got from the way he navigated us past the charging trees afloat. There was no drink in the steering paddle, at least. But the shore was a long swim away; yet perhaps it would have been as pleasant to be drowned or blown-up as to be lost in the jungle. We turned into a still creek, where the trees met overhead. Jim continued his course till the inundated forest was about us. The gloom was hollow, the pillars rising from the black floor were spectral, and our voices and paddles sounded like a noisy irruption among the aisles of a temple. The echoes fled from us deeper into the dark. But Jim was all unconscious of this; he but stopped our progress, and opened the box of cartridges.
I had never seen dynamite, but only heard of it. I understood it had unexpected qualities. Jim had a cartridge in his hand, and was digging a knife into it. I repeat, the flooded wilderness was round us, and below was the black deep. Jim fitted a detonator to a length of fuse, and stuck it in the cartridge. He was in no hurry. He stopped now and then for another drink. Having got the cartridge ready, with its potent filament, he tied four more cartridges round it. I put these things down simply, but my hand ached with the way I gripped the gunwale, and I could hear myself breathing.
Then Jim struck a match on his breeches, with all the fumbling deliberation of the fully ripe--brushing the vine leaves from his eyes the better to see what he was doing--and he lit the fuse, after it had twice dodged the match. It fizzed. The splutter worked downwards energetically. Jim did not deign to look at it, though it fascinated me. He slowly scratched his back with his disengaged hand, and gazed absently into the forest.
The spark and its spurts of smoke were now near the bottom. Jim changed the menace into his right hand, in order to reach another part of his back with his leisurely left. His eyes were still on the forest. I kept swallowing.
"Jim," I said eagerly--though I did not know I was going to speak--"don't--don't you think you'd better throw it away now?"
He regarded me steadily, with eyes half shut. The spark spurted, and dropped another inch. He looked at it. He looked round the waters without haste. Then, and I could have cried aloud, he threw the shocking handful away from us.
It sank. There were a few bubbles, and we sat regarding each other in the quiet of a time which had been long dead, waiting for something to happen in a time to come. At the end of two weeks the bottom of the river fell out, with the noise of the collapse of an iron foundry on a Sunday. Our boat tried to leap upwards, but failed. The water did not burst asunder. It vibrated, and was then convulsed.
Dead fish appeared everywhere, patches of white all round; but we hardly saw them. There was a great head which emerged from the floor, looking upwards sleepily, and two hands moved slowly. These quietly sank again. The tail of the saurean appeared, slowly described a half circle, and went. The big alligator then lifted itself, and performed some grotesque antics with deliberation and gravity. Then it gathered speed. It rotated, thrashed, and drummed. It did all that a ten-horse-power maniac might. I think the natives shrieked. I think Jim kept saying "hell"; for I was conscious only with my eyes. When the dizzy reptile recovered, it shot away among the trees like a torpedo.
We went home. That night I understand the second mate was kept awake listening to me, as I slept, bursting into spasms of dreadful merriment.
. . . . .
When you are lost in the map of a country that is beyond the worn routes, trying to discover therein the place name which is the most secluded and inaccessible, if the map should happen to be that of South America, then your thought would naturally wander to the neighbourhood of San Antonio of the Rio Madeira. There you stay, to wonder what strange people and rocks and trees are to be found at San Antonio. It looks remote, even on the map. The sign which stands for the village is caught in a central loop of the mesh which is the river system of the Amazon forest. San Antonio must be beyond all, and a great journey. It is far outside the radius. And that would be enough, to be beyond the last ripple of the traffic and at peace, where that dark disquiet, that sombre emanation which rises from the soured earth where myriads have their chimneys, their troubles and their strife, staining even the morning and the morning thought, is no more. A place where the light has the clarity of the first dawn, and one might hear, while sure of absolute solitude, the winding of a strange horn, and suspect, when coming to an opening in the woods, the flight of a shining one; for somewhere the ancient gods must have sanctuary. A land where the rocks have the moss of unvisited fastnesses, and you can snuff the scents of original day.
Where we were anchored, San Antonio was in view, about five miles up stream. Where at the end of that reach of river a line of tremulous light, which we thought was the cataracts, bridged the converging palisades of the jungle, in the trees of the right bank it was sometimes easy to believe there was a glint of white buildings. But looking again, to reassure your sight, the apparition of dwellings vanished. At night, in the quiet, sometimes the ears could detect the shudder of the weighty rapids by San Antonio; but it was merely a tremor felt; there was no sound. The village remained to us for some time just that uncertain gleam by day, and the rapids but a minute reduction of a turmoil that was far. For in that languorous heat we counted miles differently, and it was pleasanter to suspect than to go and prove, and much easier.
One day I went. When in a small boat the jungle towered. The river, too, had a different character. From the shore, or from the big "Capella," the river was an expanse of light, an impression of shining peace. Whenever you got close to its surface it became alive and menacingly intimate. Our little boat seemed to roll in the powerful folds of a monster which wallowed ponderously and without ceasing. The trees afloat, charging down swiftly and in what one felt was an ominous quiet, stood well above our tiny craft.
We steered close in-shore to avoid the drifting wood and the set of the current. The jungle's sheer height, confusion, and intensity were more awesome than when seen from the steamer. Not many of the trees were of great beam, but their consistent height, with the lianas in a wreck from the far overhanging cornice, dwarfed our boat to an unimportant straw. At times the forest had a selvage of cane, and growths of arrow grass, bearing long white plumes twelve feet above us, and a pair of fan-shaped leaves resembling palm leaves.
The sound of the cataracts increased, and a barrier grew in height athwart the Madeira. Mounting high right ahead of us at last was a mass of granite boulders, with broad smooth surfaces, having the structure of gigantic masonry in ruin which weathered plutonic rock so often assumes. Beyond the barrier the river was plainly above our level. It was seen, resplendent as quicksilver, through the crenellations of the black rocks. One central mass of rock, higher than the rest, had a crown of dark and individual palms, standing paramount in the upper light. Yet, with that gleam of wide river behind, no great rush of water broke there. A few fountains spurted, apparently without source, and collapsed, and pulsed again. The white runnels of foam which laced the contours of the piled boulders gave the barrier the appearance of being miraculously uplifted, as though one saw thin daylight through its interstices. Not till the village was in view did we see where the main river avoided the barrier. The course here was looped. Above the barrier the river turned from the right bank, and heaped itself in a smooth steep glide through a narrow pass against the opposite shore, the roaring welter then running obliquely across the foot of the rocks to the front of San Antonio on the right bank again. The forest beside the falls seemed to be tremulous with continuous and profound underground thunder.
The little huddle of San Antonio's white houses is on slightly rising ground, and the lambent green of the jungle is beside them and over them. The foliage presses the village down to the river. Like every Amazonian town and village, it appears, set in that forest, as rare a human foothold as a ship in mid-ocean; a few lights and a few voices in the dark and interminable wastes. So I landed from our little craft elated with a sense of luckily acquired security.
The white embowered village, the leaping fountains and the rocks, the air in a flutter with the shock of ponderous water collapsing, the surmounting island in mid-stream with its coronet of palms, the half-naked Indians idling among the Bolivian rubber boats hauled up to the foreshore below, the unexplored jungle which closed in and framed the scene, the fierce sun set in the rounded amplitude of the clouds of the rains, made the tropical picture which was the right reward for a great journey. I had come down long weeks of empty leisure, in which the mind got farther and farther away from the cities where time is so carefully measured and highly valued. The centre of the ultimate wilderness was more than a matter of fact. It was now a personal conviction which needed no verification. The village had but one street. There were two rows of houses of a single storey, built of clay and plaster, dilapidated, the whitewash stained and peeling, every house open and cavernous below, without doors, in the way of Brazilian dwellings, to give coolness. The street was almost deserted when we entered it. A few children played in the shadows, and outside one house a merchant in a white cotton suit stood overlooking the scales while the half-breeds weighed balls of rubber; for this town is in the midst of the richest rubber country of the world, and all the wealth of the rivers Manoré, Beni, and Madre de Dios comes this way. And that was why, as we idled through its single thoroughfare, some dark girls came to stand at the house openings, dressed in odorous muslin, red flowers in their shiny black hair, and their smiling eyes full of interest in us. The rough road between the dwellings was overgrown with grass, and in the centre of it, partly hidden by the grass, was the line laid long ago by the railway enterprise which ended so tragically. To-day the rubber men use it as a portage for their boats. There were several inns, half-obliterated names painted on their outer walls. They had crude interior walls of mud, and floors of bare earth. In such an inn would be a few iron tables and chairs, and there a visitor might drink from bottles which at least bore European labels, though the contents and cost were past all European understanding. I forgot to say that by the foreshore of this little village is the head depôt of a great rubber house, a building apparently out of all proportion to the size of San Antonio. But I looked on that place with the less interest, though from what my native companion told me the head of the house is a monarch more absolute and undisputed in this wild country than most eastern kings are to-day.
I was more interested in the huge boulders of smooth granite which rose strangely from the street in places, and broke its regularity. These rounded and noble rocks often topped the houses. What man had built looked mean and transitory beside the poise and fine contours of the rocks. The colony of giant rocks had a look of settled and tranquil solidity, a friendly and hospitable aspect. They might have been old friends which time had proved; the houses beside them were alien by contrast. I felt that San Antonio had merely imposed itself on them, that they tolerated the village because it was but an incident; that they could afford to wait. When I saw them there I recognised the village of my map. I climbed to the summit of one, over its weather-worn shelves. It had a skin of lichen, warm in the sun and harshly familiar. The curious hieroglyphics of the lichen were intelligible enough, and more easily read than the signs on the walls of the inns. I learned where I was; and knew that when the day of the great rubber house had long passed, my village would still be there, and prospering.
Below my rock, on the land side--to which I had turned my back--was a monstrous cesspool. It was in the centre of the village. It was the capital of all flies, and the source and origin of all smells, varying smells which reposed, as I had found when below in the hot and stagnant street, in strata, each layer of smell invisible but well-defined. Among the weeds in the roads were many derelict cans. Over the empty tins, and the garbage, pulsed and darted hundreds of Brazil's wonderful insects.
But I was above all that, on my high rock. Its height released me to a wide and splendid liberty. I cannot tell you all that my vantage surveyed. But chiefly I was assured by what I saw that I was more central even than my eyes showed; they merely found for me the intimation. Here was all the proof I wanted; for faith is not blind, but critical, yet instantly transcends to knowledge at the faintest glimmer of authentic light, as when an exile who is beset by inexplicable and puissant circumstance among strangers whose tongue is barbarous, is surprised at a secret sign passed there of fellowship, and is at once content. Yet I can report but a broad river flowing smooth and bright out of indefinite distance between dark forests to the wooded islands below; and by the islands suddenly accelerated and divided, in a slight descent, pouring to a lower level in taut floods as smooth, noiseless, and polished as mercury. Lower still was the gleaming turmoil of the falls, pulsing, and ever on the point of vanishing, but constant, its shouting riot baffled by the green cliffs everywhere. But I could escape, for once, over the parapets of the jungle to the upper rolling ocean of leaves; to the distance, dim and blue, the region where man has never been.
. . . . .
There was a man who looked like a sensational ruffian who boarded us one morning at Porto Velho, and said he had come to find me. He was going up into the forest, beyond the track, and would I go with him? That made me look at him again, and with some anxiety; for I had tried before to get away, but the crowd on the "Capella" disliked the idea. The Doctor talked dysentery and things. He said it was safer to keep to the ship during the month we had still to spend at Porto Velho. I felt, overborne by their arguments, a rather thin sort of adventurer. That mysterious railway would have drawn the mind of any man who had not lost his curiosity, and who valued being alive more than his chance of old age. The track went from Porto Velho into outer darkness. It left the clearing and the village of mushroom buildings, the place where the inhuman had been moderately subdued, where a modicum of industry was established in a continent of primitive wild, crossed a creek by a trestle bridge in view of our steamer, and vanished; that was the end of it, so far as we knew. Men came back to the settlement through that hole of the forest, and boarded the "Capella" to tell us, in long hot nights, something of what the forest of the Madeira was hiding; and they were bearded like Crusoe, pallid as anæmic women, and speckled with insect bites. These men said that where they had been working the sun never shone, for his light was stopped on the unbroken green which, except where the big rivers flowed, roofed the whole land. I liked the look of the stranger who had come to persuade me to this rare holiday. He said his name was Marion Hill, of Texas. He wore muddy riding breeches, and a black shirt open at the throat, and boots of intricately embossed leather which came well up his thighs, spurs that would have ravelled a pachyderm, and the insolent hat of a bandit. He had a waistbelt heavy with guns and ammunition. I saw his face, and divined instantly that this was a man, and that the memory of a time with him would serve me as a refuge in the grey and barren years, and as a solace. I told him I would get my things together. The Skipper called after me that if I returned too late I should have to walk home.
There was a commissary train next morning, taking men and supplies to the camps. It had a number of open waggons, loaded with material, about which the labourers going up to replenish the gangs made themselves as comfortable as they could. I had an indiarubber bag for all my belongings, being told that it was best for strapping to a mule, and a valuable lifebuoy when a canoe overturned. I accepted it with perfect faith, for I knew nothing of mules or canoes. The train moved off, a bell on the engine ringing sepulchrally. Hill and I were packed into a box car, which had a door open on either side for light and air. Two American engineers were in charge, there was an Austrian to superintend the distribution at each camp of the provisions, the Austrian had an Italian assistant, and a few Barbadian blacks were there to move about the packages. I sat on a case of tinned fruit. Hill reposed on one of the shelves where we should stow fever victims, when we collected them. There was no more room in the car, and another degree of heat would have meant complete ruin.
When Porto Velho is left for the place where the line is to end, when completed, though it is but 250 miles away, two months at least is required for the return journey. That way goes the paymaster, with his armed escort, and every bundle of shovels and tin of provisions. When I went, too, the train helped for sixty miles. Then most of the material was transported at the Rio Caracoles, a tributary of the Madeira, and taken by boats in stages up the main stream, cargoes and boats being hauled round each cataract. Travellers could shorten the journey by going overland part of the way, mules being kept on the hither side of the Caracoles river for that purpose.
We delivered some patients at the hospital, went through a cutting of red granite to the back of San Antonio, and then entered the forest. That absorbed us. Thenceforward, and until I reached the ship again, I was dominated by the lofty, silent, confused, and brooding growth. Everywhere it was dramatically passionate in its intensity, an arrested riot of green life, and its muteness kept expectant attention fixed upon it. The right of way through the forest was a hundred feet wide. On each side of us the trees rose like virid cliffs. The trees usually were of slender girth, almost as straight as fir poles, rising perhaps for sixty feet without a branch. Occasionally there was a giant, a silk cotton tree, or the strange tree with its grey trunk and pale birch-like habit of foliage which I had noticed on the riverside; but they were not common. Palms were numerous. From ground to high parapet the spaces between the columns were filled with lianas, unrelated big leaves, and the characteristic fronds of the endogens. In this older part of the track, though it had been made but little more than a year, the scrub was dense. The undergrowth was often so strong and aggressive as to brush the train as we slowly bumped along. Sometimes we went through deep cuttings in the red clay, close enough for me to notice it was interstratified with waterworn but angular quartz peebles. But the track usually was over flat country, only rarely crossing a gulley.
At every maintenance camp we stopped to deliver supplies. From out of a small huddle of shanties made of leaves and poles, insignificant beneath the forest wall, a number of languid halfbreeds, merely in pants and hats, would loiter through the hot sun to us for their sustenance. The men of those secluded huts must have been glad of our temporary uproar, and our new faces. The bell rang, and we left them to burial in their deep silence again. There were intervening camps, which had been deserted as the work progressed. These were even more interesting to me. The work of the human, when he leaves it to the wild from which he has won it with so much pain, has an appeal of its own, with its abandoned ruin returning to the ground again. There would be a sandy swamp, and standing back from the line some weather-worn shanties with roofs awry. I am sure there were ghosts in those camps. One we passed, and it was called Camp 10 1/2, and resting against its open front where the posts were giving was a butterfly net. I pointed this out. "Oh, that," said Hill. "Old man Biddell. I knew him. He was all right. He was great on bugs and butterflies. Used to wear spectacles. He was a good engineer though. Died of blackwater fever before the line got past this camp. That was his shack." And that was his butterfly net, all of Biddell now, his sole monument and reminder. As we bumped by the huts the helicons and swallow tails rose precipitously from the mangled cans and cast rubbish. I never knew Biddell, the man with spectacles and a butterfly net, but a first rate railway man, who left that net outside his hut one morning, and at evening was buried, but now I am doomed to think of him while I live.
It was near midnight when we reached the last active camp but one on the line, where we alighted. It was wiser, I was told, to run the remaining length of the track by daylight. Here a doctor and a few engineers, bearing handlamps against which moths were blundering, met us in a place which seemed to be the bottom of a well, for the black shadows which rose round us shut out all but a few stars. The men raised joyous cries at the sight of Hill; and they took this stranger on trust. We fed in a hut which was four poles and a roof. One pole had a hurricane lamp tied to it. There was an enormous quiet, which the men seemed to delight in breaking with their voices. Four planks nailed unevenly to uprights was our table, and we sat crooked on a similar but lower construction. We ate out of enamelled plates with iron instruments, and it was very good indeed. There were four of us who were white, and we were babes in the wood. One of us pretended he was playing on a Jew's-harp, sang songs riotously, and then began to talk long and earnestly of New York. These men lived in four railway waggons which had doors made of copper gauze, berths with mosquito bars, and portraits of the folk at home; and in the case of the doctor the waggon smelt of iodoform, had one wall full of bottles, and a table with a board and chessmen. In one of those waggons I lay down to sleep under a net; but the blanket felt damp and had a foreign smell. My thoughts crowded me. For long I listened to so much jungle pressing close to my bed, waiting for it to make known its near but unseen presence with a voice; but it did not.
Next morning at sunrise the train moved forward to the construction camp at the Rio Caracoles. I rode on a truck pushed in front of the locomotive, perched there with some engineers who kept a careful eye on the track. I saw at once why the train did not proceed at night. It was too speculative altogether. Behind us the locomotive's smoke stack rolled like a steamer's funnel when a beam sea is running. This part of the line crossed many ravines, where we looked down upon the tree tops; and when on a frail wooden bridge which crossed a vacancy like that such movements of the drunken engine behind us became dazzling. Then, too, there were some high "fills," or embankments. After heavy rains these have a habit of retiring from the metals, which are left looped and twisted in mid-air. An engineer told me that one cannot always tell when an embankment is on the point of retiring. He was carefully watching, however. But we reached the construction camp.
At the construction camp by the side of the Rio Caracoles we stayed two days. There was the end of the line, and the men who were growing the track were so busy that I was left to my own devices. Till the railwaymen came none but the Caripuna Indians knew what was there; so into the woods, of course, I would go, trying every track which led from the camp. A botanist might have seen some difference from the forest at Porto Velho, but I could not discover any. In appearance it was exactly the same. The trees mostly were arborescent laurels I believe, with smooth brown boles which were blotched through their outer cuticle peeling away, much in the manner of that of the plane tree. The brown parchments of their laurel-like leaves covered the floor of the woods. The trees were rarely of great diameter, but their crowns were so distant that nothing could be made of their living foliage. I saw no flowers at all. There were few orchids, but the large shapely emerald coloured leaves of pothos plants were very frequent, sitting in the angles of branches and trunk. Aloft was always the wreckage of vines suspended, as vaguely seen and as motionless as cobwebs and dilapidations in the overhead darkness of high vaults. I rarely heard a sound in that forest, though there was a bird which called. I often heard it in the woods of the upper Madeira. It called thrice, as a boy who whistles shrilly through his fingers; a long call, and then another whistle in the same key followed instantly by a falling note. One delightful walk was along a path which had not been made by the railwaymen, for it was evidently old, as it ran, a cleft in the trees, not through broken timber, but in partial sunshine, with a mesh of vines and freely growing plants on either side. It led downwards to a small stream, which was cumbered with fallen and rotting timber, a cool hollow where ferns were abundant. It was in the woods at the Caracoles that I first saw the great morpho butterfly at home. This species, peculiar to South America, is rarely seen except in the shades of the virgin forest. One day in the twilight aisles near the Caracoles camp, where nothing moved, and all was a grey monotone, it so surprised me with its happy undulating flight--as though it danced along, and were in no hurry--its great size, and its bright blue wings, that I rose mesmerised, stumbling after it through the dank litter, thoughtless of direction, not thinking of the danger of losing my way, thinking of nothing but that joyous resplendent creature dancing aloft ahead of me in the gloom and just beyond my reach. Its polished blue wings flashed like speculæ. It might have been a drifting fragment of sunny sky. I had never seen anything alive so beautiful. A fall over a log brought me to sobriety, and when I looked up it was gone. Afterwards I saw many of them; sometimes when walking the forest there would be morphos always in sight.
The construction camp was not more than a month old. Perched on an escarpment by the line was a row of tents, and at the back of the tents some flimsy huts built of forest stuff. They stood about a ruin of felled trees, with a midden and its butterflies in the midst. Probably thirty white men were stationed there. They were then throwing a wooden bridge across the Caracoles. Most of them were young American civil engineers, though some were English; and when I found one of them--and he happened to be a countryman of mine--balancing himself on a narrow beam high over a swift current, and, regardless of the air heavy with vapour and the torrid sun, directing the disposal of awkward weights with a concentration and keenness which made me recall with regret the way I do things at times, I saw his profession with a new regard. I noticed the men of that transient little settlement in the wilds were in constant high spirits. They betrayed nothing of the gravity of their undertaking. They might have been boys employed at some elaborate jest. But it seemed to me to be a pose of heartiness. They repelled reality with a laugh and a hand clapped to your shoulder. At our mess table, over the dishes of toucan and parrot supplied by the camp hunters, they rallied each other boisterously. There was a touch of defiance in the way they referred to the sickness and the shadow; for it was notorious that changes were frequent in their little garrison. They were forced to talk of these changes, and this was the way they chose to do it. As if laughter was their only prophylactic! But such laughter, to a visitor who did not have to wait till fever took him, but could go when he liked, could be answered only with a friendly smile. Some of my cheery friends of the Caracoles were but the ghosts of men.
. . . . .
Hill warned me late one afternoon to be ready to start at sunrise, and then went to play poker. On my way to my hut, at sunset, I stopped to gossip with the young doctor, where he was busy dressing wounds at his surgery. The labourers, half-breeds, Brazilians, and Bolivian Spaniards, work being over, were giving the doctor a full evening with their ailments. Mostly these were skin troubles. The least abrasion in the tropics may spread to a horrid and persistent wound. The legs of the majority of these natives were unpleasant with livid scars. In one case a vampire bat had punctured a man's arm near the elbow while he slept, and that little wound had grown disastrously. We were in a region where the plum flies swarmed, tiny black insects which alight on the hands and face, perhaps a dozen at a time, and gorge themselves, though you may be unconscious of it. Where the pium fly feeds it leaves a dot of extravasated blood which remains for weeks, so that most of us were speckled. Even these minute wounds were liable to become deep and bad. There were larger flies which put their eggs in the human body, where they hatch with dire results. (Do not think the splendid tropics have nothing but verdure, orchids, butterflies, and coral snakes banded orange and black and crimson and black.) So the doctor was a busy man that evening. The floor of his surgery was made of unequal boughs; the walls and roof were of dried fronds. A lamp was slung on a doorpost. He was a young American, and he did not grumble at his bumpy floor, the bad light, the appliances and remedies which were all one should expect in the jungle, nor the number of his patients, except comically. He told me he was rather keen on the diseases of the tropics. He liked them. (I should think he must have liked them.) He was merrily insolent with those swarthy and melancholy men, and they smiled back sadly at the clever, handsome, and lively youngster. He was quick in his decisions, deft, insistent, kind, and thorough, working down that file of pitiable humanity, as careful with the last of the long row as with the first; telling me, as he went along, much that I had never heard before, with demonstrations. "Don't go," he cried, when I would have left him; for I thought it might be he was as kind with this stranger as he was with the others. "Ah! don't go. Let me hear a true word or two." He said he would give me a treat if I stayed. He finished, put his materials away deliberately, accurately, his back to me, while I saluted him as a fine representative of ours. He turned, free of his task and jolly, and produced that treat of his, two bottles of treasured and precious ginger ale. It was a miracle performed. We talked till the light went out.
Much later a cry in the woods woke me. It was yet dark, but I could see Hill up, and fumbling with his accoutrements. Out I jumped, though still unreasonably tired; and sleepily dressed. When I turned to Hill, to see if he were ready, he was then under his net, watching me. He explained he had just returned from poker, and was wondering why I was dressing, but did not like to ask, knowing that Englishmen have ways that are not American. So the sun was up long before we were, though presently, in a small canoe, we embarked on the Caracoles. This tributary of the Madeira comes from nobody knows where. It is a river of the kind which explorers in these forests have sometimes mentioned, to our fearful joy. The sunlight hardly reached the water. The river was merely a drain burrowing under the jungle. The forest on its banks met overhead. There was little foliage below; we saw but the base of the forest, grey columns that might have been of stone upholding a darkness from which dead stuff suspended. The canoe had to dodge the lianas, which dropped to the water. The noise of our paddles convoyed us down stream, a rout of panic echoes trying to escape. We came to an opening and full daylight presently, and landed by a mule corral; and I began a lonely ride with Hill through the forest. The mule was such a docile little brown creature that I was left in the silence to my thoughts, which were interrupted now and then by the wandering blue flame of a morpho. My mule followed Hill's mule along a winding trail, and our leader was nearly always out of sight. I do not remember much of my first ride in the forest. I had an impression of being at a viewless distance from the sun. We were on the abysmal floor of a growth which was not trees, but the hoary pediments of a structure which was too high and vast for human sight. We rode in the basal gloom of it, no more than lost ants there, at an immeasurable depth in the atmosphere. The roof of the world was far away. Somewhere was the sun, for occasionally there was a well which its light had filled, and a grove of green palms, complete and personal, standing at the bottom of the well, living and reasonable shapes. Or one of the morphos would flicker among those spectral bastions, aerial and bright as a fairy in Hades. The sombre mind caught it at once, an unexpected gleam of hope, a bright blue thought to set among one's shapeless fears. We descended into hollows, going down into darker fathoms of the shades; mounted again through brighter suffusions of day, and in a while came out upon the open lane in the woods, the long cut in the jungle made for the railway, when it should get so far.
Now I could see my companion. He was from Texas, and it was easy to guess that. In the long rides which followed in the land where we looked upon what was there for the first time since genesis, where we might have been in the hush of the seventh day, so new, strange, and quiet was all, the figure ahead of me, with its long boots, negligent black shirt, the guns about the waist, and the hat with its extravagant size nobly raked, made me stop at times to assure myself that I was not pursuing a day-dream of boyhood, too much Mayne Reid in my head, especially when my wild and improbable companion paused under a group of statuesque palms and looked back at me--I suppose to make sure that I was still there, and that the silence had not absorbed me utterly, a faint rustle of intruding sound in a virgin and absorbent world. And again I remember the sparkle and lift of early morning there. The air was new, it was stimulative, it recharged me with buoyant youth. To breathe that air in the fresh of the morning was exaltation, and to see the young sunlight on the ardent foliage was to know the springs of life were full. That was at the breakfast hour, when the camp fires crackled and were aromatic, the smoke going straight to the tree tops. Then quickly the narrow track through the forest filled with day, increased in heat till I felt I could bear no more of it, and so gazed vacantly at the mule's ears, merely enduring and numbed. The vitality of the morning went, and in the fierce pour of light I looked no more to the strange leaves and vines, the curious fronds, the anthills by the way, the butterflies and birds, but had only a dull dread that the avenue through which we were riding was straight and interminable. There was no escape from this heat. There were no openings through which we could retreat under the trees. The air was immobile; the air itself was the incumbent heat. The only shadows were under the mules' bellies. Cruel and relentless noons! How the surveyors endured it, standing for long eyeing their exacting instruments in such a defeating glare, I do not know. At the end of each day my pigskin leggings were like wet brown paper with sweat, and my hands crinkled and bleached as though they had been in a soda bath.
We reached another and greater tributary of the Madeira, the Rio Jaci-Parana. Here there was a very extensive clearing as great as the one at Porto Velho. The bridging of the Jaci would be a considerable undertaking, consequently there were numerous huts dotted about the rough open ground; but I think the original intention in cutting back the jungle to such an extent was that in the days to come a town would grow there. I imagine it will not, and that the project is abandoned. In one of my early walks in the woods I came by chance upon the new cemetery; it was already large. The Jaci country has proved to be more than usually unhealthy. The ground was cleared down to a coarse herbage, round which stood shadowing frees. Little crucifixes, made by splitting a stick and putting another stick crosswise in the slit, were planted at all sorts of drunken angles in the ground. One large cross in the centre stood for all the dead. There were no names given. A Brazil nut-tree grew alongside this graveyard in the jungle, so tall that the flock of screaming parrots about its foliage were but drifting black specks.
Because Hill had a touch of the fever we stayed for some days by the Jaci. I had a hut given to me, typical of the rest; but I was so much alone in it that that hut on the Jaci, where our remoteness from human things tested and known, the aloofness and quiet of the forest, the deadly nature of the romantic and beautiful river bank where we were marooned, and the sickness of my friend Hill, threw me upon my centre, until I began even to talk to myself, and received such an impress of the minute details of my little habitation that, ephemeral as it was and now long since gone, it endures, of coloured and indestructible stuff, with a sunny portal I still can enter whenever my mind turns that way. It was of four palm trunks, lapped round and over with mats of leaves. The floor was of untrimmed branches, two feet from the earth, and their unexpected inequalities, never remembered, were always jolting my thoughts as I walked across. They were crooked, and I could see the dusty earth two feet beneath where brown and green lizards ran. At one end was a verandah with a narrow floor made of the lids of soap and dynamite boxes, and laid without any idea that some curious tenant might wish to read the manufacturers' full names and see their complete trade marks. It was a puzzle. There was nothing to do, and I searched long on my verandah floor for the clue to one embarrassing fragment of a stencilled word. Hill sometimes huddled in a hammock on one side of the verandah, a leg hanging limply over, his thin sallow face drawn and resting on his breast, and his eyes shut; and I sat near him on the rail, silent, alone with any thought I met, and gazing blankly down the steep slope, past two tall Brazil nut-trees, to the half-hidden Rio Jaci below, and the roof of the forest opposite, over which the sun set each day in uplifted splendour. I remembered but one conversation during that wait. An elderly white man came up to the verandah one evening, and murmured something to Hill, who opened his eyes, and looked at his visitor under weary lids. This man was one of Hill's subordinates. He had something to say of the work; but one would hardly call it speech. The flow of his life was so weak that he could do no more than lift a few small words from his gaping mouth between his breaths. He held on to the verandah. His loose clothes hung straight down from his bones. The veins were in blue knots on his forehead. "Say," said Hill, rousing himself, "I want you to ride to the Caracoles, go down to Porto Velho, and take this note to the hospital." The man said nothing, but nodded. Hill scrawled his note, and the man left. "He'll be dead in a month,', said Hill, five minutes after the man had gone. "But he would not go to the hospital for his health. I have to pretend that he must go for mine. He may as well die in a comfortable bed. . . . I wish those damned parrots would cease!" They were somewhere down by the river, unseen, but all the sound there was, their voices long, keen and distracting flaws in the pellucid and coloured dayfall.
One morning we crossed the Jaci, and on the opposite shore some mules were already geared with Texan saddles, the hombres at their heads, waiting for us. I considered my mule. He was a big, grey, upstanding fellow, with the legs and feet of a racehorse, the head of a hammer, and alert and inquisitive ears. He was very much alive. I had no doubt he could leave anywhere like light, when he had a mind for it. So that I turned to Hill, and said, "Is mine a quiet animal? Is he vicious?" "0 say," said my guide, glancing carelessly at my dubious mount, "I guess he's just a mule." When a hombre shouted at my mule he stepped briskly, with more than a hint of the malicious rebel in his gait.
I knew it would happen, and it did. One foot was no sooner buried in a wooden shoe called a stirrup than he was off, like an explosion. A desperate leap got my other leg over my travelling sack, lashed on his rump, and I came down in the saddle, much surprised. Texan saddles are not leather pads for riding domestic creatures, but thrones for ruling devils, and the bit would have broken the mouth of a hippopotamus. The brute stopped, turned back one ear, and his thought was in his swivel eye. "You wait," I saw him say. In the few engrossing moments when his body was expanding and contracting under me I got some idea of the force I was supposed to guide, and it did not make my mind easy, for an office chair had been my most unstable seat till then. Yet off we went quietly, along the track, and Hill was in front, and my mule was as meek as a sheep. There came a swamp, into which he went to the knees, and I dismounted, jumping from hummock to hummock, encouraging him, and showing him the best places. His brown eyes were then like those of a good woman. So leaning forward, when we were through, I patted his sleek neck, and gave him pleasant words. Afterwards, when he showed a certain precious care in difficult places, for the country was very broken, stepping like a tightrope walker, I was fool enough to think it was because of our understanding. Though I believe he would have deceived anybody.
At noon we left the track and entered the forest by a path so narrow that the trees touched our legs, and sometimes we had just time to duck beneath a noose which a liana dangled in our faces. It was a low and narrow tunnel, and it descended to a bottom where a shallow stream brawled among granite boulders; thence up the trail went through the trees and vines again, and at last we came to a little clearing, where there was a hut, and men who would give us meat and drink. We dismounted. I rubbed my mule's soft nose, and spoke him playfully, as a familiar; but when entering the hut was rebuked by a man there for making a short cut round the heels of my mule. "Never do it. Don't give him a chance. A mule will be peaches for ten years waiting for the sure chance of getting his heels right on your stomach. They're not horses, them mules. They don't bite, and they don't muzzle you and show friendly. They've got no feelings. That chap of yours, his mother was an ass, and his father was old Solfernio himself. But they've all got one good point--they're barren."
The mule stood deep in thought till I was mounted again; then instantly bolted back along the path which led to the ravine. The idle hombre had mishandled the reins, and I could get no pull. I went across that clearing like (so Hill said afterwards) Tod Sloan up. The beast, his ears back, was in a frenzy, and the convulsions of his powerful body made my thoughts pallid and ghastly. Nothing but disaster could stop him, and the black mouth of that steep tunnel in the forest yawned before us, and grew larger, though not large enough. He took the opening as clean as a lucky shot; but I was laid carefully along his back. Why we missed the tangle of woods and the rocks in that precipitate descent is known only to my lucky stars. I had my feet from the stirrups, my toes hooked on his rump, one arm round the horn of the saddle, and the other stretched along his sawing neck. I saw the roots and stones leap up and by us, close to my face. Several things occurred to me, and one was that some methods of dire fate were fatuous and undignified. I wondered also whether I should be taken back to the ship, or buried there. The impetus of the brute, which I expected would send us somersaulting among the rocks of the bottom, took him partly up the hither slope, and soon he had to gather his haunches for the upward leaps. I slipped off. He swung round at the length of the reins, and eyed me, cocking his ears derisively. A horse's nerves are human-like, and a horse would have been in a muck, but this murderous mule was calm and mocking. I watched him, and listened for an obscene and confident guffaw.
I found afterwards that punishment has no more effect on them than kindness. There is no guidance in this matter, take the mule all round. It is dealing with the uncanny. It is better to cross yourself when you go near a mule. Every morning about a camp we would watch the hombres gear up those pensive and placid creatures. They were sleek, lissom, and beautiful, and it was a pleasure to watch them. But as soon as the business of the day began one of the mules (and there was no prophecy as to which one it would be) became a homicidal maniac. At one camp it was necessary to keep a hundred or more mules in reserve, and there, for their health, a sane old horse was kept also. The horse was a knacker's body, a sorry spectacle, and in that climate he but pottered about waiting for disease to take him. He was smaller than the fine and healthy mules, but the respect the hammer-heads had for him was comical, and a great help to the men. Without the horse, it would have been opening the door of an asylum to have let the mules out of the corral to water at the river. But he led the way, and they bunched round him bashfully, and followed him to the stream. He took no notice of them whatever. He did not flatter them by pretending to be aware of their existence. When he had had his fill, he turned, and ambled through them, scorning to see them, and returned to the corral. Round went all the mules nearest to him, and any of them on the outskirts of the mob that stayed on because they did not see him go lost their heads, when they looked up, and risked their necks in short cuts through the timber. "Ho, mule!" would shout the hombres in alarm; for even mules cost money.
. . . . .
The land through which we were riding shall have a little railway there some day, if the men who are building it keep their hearts of brass, and refuse in working hours to remember London and New York. When it is there, that short line, it will begin and end in places having names which will convey little meaning to people outside Brazil; but to know what endurance of valour, but chiefly what raillery and light-hearted disregard of the gods who put baleful forests guarded by dragons--the dragons of mythology were lambs to what mosquitoes are--in the path of weak men pursuing their purpose, to know what has gone to the building of that track, though it nowhere plainly shows, for the graveyards are casual and obscure, brings you to a stand, surprised into awe of your fellows, as though through a coarse disguise you caught a gleam of divinity. Something shows, a light shows, which is beyond human. Would men be so prodigal of life and time if they were not aware of their great wealth? I don't know. My travels never brought me to that ultimate assurance. But I did see that my fellow-men are indifferent, spendthrift with their known and scanty store as though they were immortals, the remittance men of Great Jove. I have no doubt now the line will be finished some day; but there were times, riding along the roughly cleared trail where it is to be, and we came upon places where men, in a spasm of pointless and soon expiring energy had scratched and mauled the pristine earth, when I did not think so. Always the same dumb mystery was about us at noon as at nightfall. I felt we were lost at the back of the world, that we had crossed the boundary beyond which the voice of traffic never goes, and were idly wandering on the confines of oblivion. Sometimes I had that consciousness of futility which comes to us when, in sleep, we are earnest in the absurd activities of a dream, one point of the reason remaining awake to wonder at the antics of the busy but blind mind. Why was I there at all? Was I there? Those forlorn spots in the forest where our fellows had been before us, which we two riders overlooked alone, seemed to show that those men, while in the midst of their feverish labour, had recovered their minds, and had seen the wilderness was too vast, was unconquerable; and they had fled. There before us was what they had done. A deep trench would be in the track, the sand thrown up on either side. Some dead trees would be prone in our path, and we had to ride round them. There would be a few empty huts of leaves, with old ashes at the entrances, and a midden with its usual gorgeous butterflies. There would not be a sign of life, except the butterflies over the refuse, and not a sound or a movement but a clink from our own harness, and the heads of our mules impatient with the flies. Over the evidence of man's far-fetched enterprise and industry, his short and ferocious attack on the wild, brooded the forest. That bent over us, and it might have been solicitous and compassionate, or it might have been merely curious about the behaviour of the surprising creatures who had come there for the first time, and had been so active for a while. Sitting in the pour of the sun, looking upon the scanty work of my fellows, and then upon the near watchful ranks of that continent of trees pressing close to regard the grave-like trench into which man's hope might have been thrown, I had a dread of the easy and enduring dominion of those powers which were before man.
We would ride on then, sometimes up to our saddles in swamps, and every day I lost faith that there was any company of our fellows in that desolation, who would take our mules at nightfall, and show hammocks for our rest. But always before night caught us we would spy a few huts diminutive under the cliffs of forest--land ho!--and the little outpost of two or three engineers and a doctor would meet us as we came up. Such a camp was like finding security and fellowship again after the uncertainty and emptiness of the sea. The voices of new friends disarmed the forest. It was not curious that we found it so easy to talk and laugh.
One such camp I remember well. We came upon it late, and my bones, through a longer ride than usual in the wooden saddle, had grown into an unjointed frame. This was the real meaning of fatigue. My body was a comprehensive ache. Yet my mind was alert and buoyant; and I remembered that perhaps it was so because I had been well bitten by the mosquitoes of the Jaci-Parana, a first effect of the inoculation; so I swallowed twenty grains of my store of quinine.
You in settled lands, unless you have been very poor indeed and know what trouble is and what friends are, have never seen the face of your brother, nor the serenity of evening when you have found, without expecting it, shelter for the night; you don't know what the taste of bread and meat is, nor the savour of tobacco, nor what comfortable security is the whispering of a comrade unseen in the shadows of a resting place, nor what it is to sleep. I found those gifts are not means to life only, but reasons for living too; something to live for. With these at nightfall, our frail little hut, beleaguered in the limitless woods, the shack in which the ants and spiders swarmed and gross insects rang on the metal lamp, where we loafed in hammocks, smoking, and listened to the cries of we knew not what in the unknown about us, was impregnable to the hosts of darkness.
Perhaps I remember that camp so well because it was a night of full moon. There were three huts. We were deep in the trees. The dark walls of that well in the jungle rose sheer all round us. Nobody knew what was beyond the huts. The moon appeared just clear of the lofty parapet of the well, and poured down to us an imponderable rarity of bluish fire. Wherever this fire lodged it stayed. Half-way up projected palm fronds, and they were heavy patterns in burnished silver. Nameless shapes grew luminous in the dark about us. The ragged thatch of a hut fell from its apex in a cascade of lustrous fluid metal suddenly congealed. The gloom beneath that shining roof was hollowed by the pale yellow light of a lamp; so I could see, under the eaves, the three hammocks slung from the posts. The quiet talk of my companions was the only sound. I limped with weariness towards the voices, and sat in a shadow listening; and looked beyond to sprays of motionless shining foliage leaning out from inscrutable darkness. I seemed to have escaped from my tired body; my disembodied mind was free and at large. A camp hunter had killed a jaguar there, during the afternoon, they were saying. There were many about, for we were beyond the railway men, the track being but a lane of felled trees. They were saying the country there abounded with wild life. Just as we arrived that evening one of the men brought in a wounded animal, its nature so disguised that I thought it was a kind of sloth. It was about two feet long, and covered with long grizzled hair from its snout to the end of its considerable tail; but when I lifted it, and the poor injured creature shook its hair from its eyes, I saw it was a monkey; that anguished and fearful gaze which met mine was of my own tiny brother. It was a rare and little-known creature, the Hairy Saki, the first of its kind I had seen. The native took it away to eat it. I may say that at every camp we ate what we could get; and being by nature squeamish I never asked what it was that was put before me. Whatever it was, there it was, and it was all they could give me. I only emphatically directed that monkey flesh would be worse to me than hunger.
"There are plenty of tigers about here," called one of our hosts to me; "I'll fix you with a gun to-morrow, and we'll have some fun." But thank you, no. I did not carry arms throughout my journey. The jaguars did me no hurt when I went exploring o' mornings; and as for me, I was not looking for trouble. Quite politely the jaguars retired while I wandered about alone; though I should have been delighted to have sighted one. The whiffs of feral odour I got, especially in the neighbourhood of the mules, about which the jaguars prowled at night, were my only big game trophies. Sometimes an indistinguishable object would step across ahead of me, or stir in a bush close by, drawing ear and eye at once in a place where trees and leaves were always as fixtures, like the air. I never met one of the larger natives of the place. I knew the parrots by their voices. I heard and smelt the cats. The monkeys called from a great distance; or a body would slip round a tree so like a shadow moving that when I examined the place, and saw nothing, it was easy to believe the eye was only suspicious.
The men began to talk of the Indians. They said we were in the land of the Caripunas. "You won't see them," said Hill. "I expect they are watching us now though," he added, after a pause. I glanced up with some interest at the spectral foliage, where right before me the pale moonfire on leaves and trunks framed portals in the night. I could see nothing.
"It's odds that some of them have been following us all day," continued Hill. "They watch us. They can't make us out. The rubber men told us the Caripunas would kill and eat us. They kill the rubber men all right, and a good job too. But they only slip through the forest watching us. I saw some once. On the Jaci. I jollied them into putting their canoe ashore. It was only a bark contraption, the roughest thing of its kind I've seen, sharpened fore and aft by lacing the ends together with sinews. They were fine light brown fellows, well made, and stark naked. The black hair of some of them was frizzy. Curious, isn't it? But I've heard that in the slave days runaway niggers got down here, and the forest Indians collared them to improve their own miserable stock. The Brazilians have always had a tradition of a frizzy-haired race on the Madeira; and here they are. They had bows and arrows, those chaps, made entirely of cane and wood. The arrows were tipped with macaw feathers, and were over six feet long. I couldn't bend the bloomin' bow. These fellows keep to the side rivers, and their villages are always hidden in the woods. It's a funny thing, but whenever the surveyors come on a village they find it has been vacated about a week,"
We were silent for a time, and then a half-breed crept up to a hammock and spoke in Spanish to the doctor. The doctor laughed, and the fellow went away. "He's asking for a piece of that onca to eat. He says it will make him strong." They began to talk of that, and the talk went on to what the Indians say of the mai d'aqua, the mother of the waters, who frequents islands in the rivers and is the ruin of young men, and of such dreads as the jurupari, and the curupira, and the maty tapéré.
They admitted it was easy to imagine such things into the forest. It wasn't what was seen there. Only the trees and the shadows were seen. But sometimes there were sounds. One of us, when alone making a traverse in the forest, had heard a scream, as if a woman had been frightened, and then there was no more sound. The camp doctor began to talk. He was an Englishman. He sat upright in the middle of his hammock, swinging it with one foot. "There was a curious yarn I heard about a tiger in Hampshire. Ah! Hampshire! I had a practice there once, you know. It made me so busy and popular that at last I began to wonder whether I wasn't altogether too successful. It was the practice or me. As I wanted to live on and do some useful work I slew the practice. I've got one or two ideas about that beri-beri you chaps die of here. A doctor cannot serve God and a lot of old women with colds. . . . Oh yes, about that tiger. Well, one of those travelling shows came to our village. I could see the steam of its roundabout engines from my surgery windows, and I told the farmer who rented the field to the showmen that if he let a mechanical organ come anywhere near my place again he could take his gallstone somewhere else in future.
"Late one night I got an urgent message to go over to the show. There had been an accident. I was taken into a caravan. There was a fat woman dressed as a pink fairy kneeling over a man stretched on a bunk, shaking him, and crying. The man was dead all right. But I couldn't find a mark on him. Diseased heart, I supposed, but he looked a good 'un. Some of the well-made, powerful chaps have most unreliable hearts. The woman kept crying out something about 'that beast of a tiger.' Curious sort of remark, and I asked the boss afterwards what she meant. He shuffled about a bit, pretending that she was talking silly. 'Nothing to do with the tigress,' he said, 'although the man was found unconscious in her cage!' 'It's such a tame thing,' said the showman. 'Anybody could handle it. Never shows vice. Old Jackson'--that was the dead chap--'he'd been inside tinkering with a partition. When we found him she was lying in a corner as if asleep, and only sat up and yawned when we got him out of her cage. Come and see for yourself.' "I went. There was nothing to see, except a slit-eyed tigress sitting up in a corner of her cage, blinking at the lantern, and looking rather spooky. A rather small creature, and prettily marked--one of the melantic variety.
"Well, the chap was buried after an inquest, and that inquest made me ask a lot of questions afterwards. It was a simple affair, the inquest. Death from natural causes. But there was something behind the evidence of the man's wife, and I wanted to find out about that.
"She told me she had a little girl, who got one night into the tent where the big cats were kept. Nobody was there at the time. Next morning she said to her mother, 'Mummie, who was the funny lady in Lucy's cage?'
"Lucy was the name of the tigress. The child said that there was only the lady in the cage, and the lady watched her. And that was all they could get out of the kiddie. The funny thing about it is that once before the child had come back with a yarn like that, after straying into the menagerie tent late at night. The wife's idea was her husband had died of fright.
"Don't ask me what I want to make out, boys. I'm only just telling you the yarn. There you are.
"Well, before the show left our village, I heard they'd got a nigger to look after the big cats. He was with the show two days. On the third day he was missing. He went without drawing his money, and he had left open the door of Lucy's cage. She hadn't attempted to get out. The nigger was found some days after, wandering about the country, and a little cracked, by all accounts. And that's all."
The doctor struck a match, and then hoisted his legs into the hammock. Somewhere far in the forest the monkeys were howling.
"That doctor is a good body mender," said Hill to me. "He is the most entertaining liar on this job."
. . . . .