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At Last
by Charles Kingsley
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So we sat watching the little dark things flit by, like the gibbering ghosts of the suitors in the Odyssey, into the darkness of the cave; and then turned to long talk of things concerning which it is best nowadays not to write; till it was time to feel our way indoors, by such light as Venus gave, over the slippery rocks, and then, cautiously enough, past the Manchineel {107} bush, a broken sprig of which would have raised an instant blister on the face or hand.

Our night, as often happens in the Tropics, was not altogether undisturbed; for, shortly after I had become unconscious of the chorus of toads and cicadas, my hammock came down by the head. Then I was woke by a sudden bark close outside, exactly like that of a clicketting fox; but as the dogs did not reply or give chase, I presumed it to be the cry of a bird, possibly a little owl. Next there rushed down the mountain a storm of wind and rain, which made the coco-leaves flap and creak, and rattle against the gable of the house; and set every door and window banging, till they were caught and brought to reason. And between the howls of the wind I became aware of a strange noise from seaward—a booming, or rather humming most like that which a locomotive sometimes makes when blowing off steam. It was faint and distant, but deep and strong enough to set one guessing its cause. The sea beating into caves seemed, at first, the simplest answer. But the water was so still on our side of the island, that I could barely hear the lap of the ripple on the shingle twenty yards off; and the nearest surf was a mile or two away, over a mountain a thousand feet high. So puzzling vainly, I fell asleep, to awake, in the gray dawn, to the prettiest idyllic picture, through the half-open door, of two kids dancing on a stone at the foot of a coconut tree, with a background of sea and dark rocks.

As we went to bathe we heard again, in perfect calm, the same mysterious booming sound, and were assured by those who ought to have known, that it came from under the water, and was most probably made by none other than the famous musical or drum fish; of whom one had heard, and hardly believed, much in past years.

Mr. Joseph, author of the History of Trinidad from which I have so often quoted, reports that the first time he heard this singular fish was on board a schooner, at anchor off Chaguaramas.

'Immediately under the vessel I heard a deep and not unpleasant sound, similar to those one might imagine to proceed from a thousand AEolian harps; this ceased, and deep twanging notes succeeded; these gradually swelled into an uninterrupted stream of singular sounds like the booming of a number of Chinese gongs under the water; to these succeeded notes that had a faint resemblance to a wild chorus of a hundred human voices singing out of tune in deep bass.'

'In White's Voyage to Cochin China,' adds Mr. Joseph, 'there is as good a description of this, or a similar submarine concert, as mere words can convey: this the voyager heard in the Eastern seas. He was told the singers were a flat kind of fish; he, however, did not see them.'

'Might not this fish,' he asks, 'or one resembling it in vocal qualities, have given rise to the fable of the Sirens?'

It might, certainly, if the fact be true. Moreover, Mr. Joseph does not seem to be aware that the old Spanish Conquistadores had a myth that music was to be heard in this very Gulf of Paria, and that at certain seasons the Nymphs and Tritons assembled therein, and with ravishing strains sang their watery loves. The story of the music has been usually treated as a sailor's fable, and the Sirens and Tritons supposed to be mere stupid manatis, or sea-cows, coming in as they do still now and then to browse on mangrove shoots and turtle-grass: {110} but if the story of the music be true, the myth may have had a double root.

Meanwhile I see Hardwicke's Science Gossip for March gives an extract from a letter of M. O. de Thoron, communicated by him to the Academie des Sciences, December 1861, which confirms Mr. Joseph's story. He asserts that in the Bay of Pailon, in Esmeraldos, Ecuador, i.e. on the Pacific Coast, and also up more than one of the rivers, he has heard a similar sound, attributed by the natives to a fish which they call 'The Siren,' or 'Musico.' At first, he says, he thought it was produced by a fly, or hornet of extraordinary size; but afterwards, having advanced a little farther, he heard a multitude of different voices, which harmonised together, imitating a church organ to great perfection. The good people of Trinidad believe that the fish which makes this noise is the trumpet-fish, or Fistularia—a beast strange enough in shape to be credited with strange actions: but ichthyologists say positively no: that the noise (at least along the coast of the United States) is made by a Pogonias, a fish somewhat like a great bearded perch, and cousin of the Maigre of the Mediterranean, which is accused of making a similar purring or grunting noise, which can be heard from a depth of one hundred and twenty feet, and guides the fishermen to their whereabouts.

How the noise is made is a question. Cuvier was of opinion that it was made by the air-bladder, though he could not explain how: but the truth, if truth it be, seems stranger still. These fish, it seems, have strong bony palates and throat-teeth for crushing shells and crabs, and make this wonderful noise simply by grinding their teeth together.

I vouch for nothing, save that I heard this strange humming more than once. As for the cause of it, I can only say, as was said of yore, that 'I hold it for rashness to determine aught amid such fertility of Nature's wonders.'

One afternoon we made an attempt on the other Guacharo cave, which lies in the cliff on the landward side of the Monos Boca. But, alas! the wind had chopped a little to the northward; a swell was rolling in through the Boca; and when we got within twenty yards of the low-browed arch our crew lay on their oars and held a consultation, of which there could but be one result. They being white gentlemen, and not Negroes, could trust themselves and each other, and were ready, as I know well, to 'dare all that became a man.' But every now and then a swell rolled in high enough to have cracked our sculls against the top, and out again deep enough to have staved the boat against the rocks. If we went to wreck, the current was setting strongly out to sea; and the Boca was haunted by sharks, and (according to the late Colonel Hamilton Smith) by a worse monster still, namely, the giant ray, {111a} which goes by the name of devil-fish on the Carolina shores. He saw, he says, one of these monsters rise in this very Boca, at a sailor who had fallen overboard, cover him with one of his broad wings, and sweep him down into the depths. And, on the whole, if Guacharos are precious, so is life. So, like Gyges of old, we 'elected to survive,' and rowed away with wistful eyes, determining to get Guacharos—a determination which was never carried out—from one of the limestone caverns of the northern mountains.

And now it may be asked, and reasonably enough, what Guacharos {111b} are; and why five English gentlemen and a canny Scots coastguardman should think it worth while to imperil their lives to obtain them.

I cannot answer better than by giving Humboldt's account of the Cave of Caripe, on the Spanish main hard by, where he discovered them, or rather described them to civilised Europe, for the first time:—

'The Cueva del Guacharo is pierced in the vertical profile of a rock. The entrance is towards the south, and forms a vault eighty feet broad and seventy-two feet high. This elevation is but a fifth less than the colonnade of the Louvre. The rock that surmounts the grotto is covered with trees of gigantic height. The Mammee-tree and the Genipa, with large and shining leaves, raise their branches vertically towards the sky; while those of the Courbaril and the Erythrina form, as they extend themselves, a thick vault of verdure. Plants of the family of Pothos with succulent stems, Oxalises, and Orchideae of a singular construction, rise in the driest clefts of the rocks; while creeping plants waving in the winds are interwoven in festoons before the opening of the cavern. We distinguished in these festoons a Bignonia of a violet blue, the purple Dolichos, and, for the first time, that magnificent Solandra, the orange flower of which has a fleshy tube more than four inches long. The entrances of grottoes, like the view of cascades, derive their principal charm from the situation, more or less majestic, in which they are placed, and which in some sort determines the character of the landscape. What a contrast between the Cueva of Caripe and those caverns of the north crowned with oaks and gloomy larch-trees!

'But this luxury of vegetation embellishes not only the outside of the vault, it appears even in the vestibule of the grotto. We saw with astonishment plantain-leaved Heliconias, eighteen feet high, the Praga palm-trees, and arborescent Arums follow the banks of the river, even to those subterranean places. The vegetation continues in the Cave of Caripe, as in the deep crevices of the Andes, half excluded from the light of day; and does not disappear till, advancing in the interior, we reach thirty or forty paces from the entrance. . . .

'The Guacharo quits the cavern at nightfall, especially when the moon shines. It is almost the only frugivorous nocturnal bird that is yet known; the conformation of its feet sufficiently shows that it does not hunt like our owls. It feeds on very hard fruits, as the Nutcracker and the Pyrrhocorax. The latter nestles also in clefts of rocks, and is known under the name of night-crow. The Indians assured us that the Guacharo does not pursue either the lamellicorn insects, or those phalaenae which serve as food to the goat-suckers. It is sufficient to compare the beaks of the Guacharo and goat-sucker to conjecture how much their manners must differ. It is difficult to form an idea of the horrible noise occasioned by thousands of these birds in the dark part of the cavern, and which can only be compared to the croaking of our crows, which in the pine forests of the north live in society, and construct their nests upon trees the tops of which touch each other. The shrill and piercing cries of the Guacharos strike upon the vaults of the rocks, and are repeated by the echo in the depth of the cavern. The Indians showed us the nests of these birds by fixing torches to the end of a long pole. These nests were fifty or sixty feet high above our heads, in holes in the shape of funnels, with which the roof of the grotto is pierced like a sieve. The noise increased as we advanced, and the birds were affrighted by the light of the torches of copal. When this noise ceased a few minutes around us we heard at a distance the plaintive cries of the birds roosting in other ramifications of the cavern. It seemed as if these bands answered each other alternately.

'The Indians enter into the Cueva del Guacharo once a year, near midsummer, armed with poles, by means of which they destroy the greater part of the nests. At this season several thousands of birds are killed; and the old ones, as if to defend their brood, hover over the heads of the Indians, uttering terrible cries. The young, which fall to the ground, are opened on the spot. Their peritoneum is extremely loaded with fat, and a layer of fat reaches from the abdomen to the anus, forming a kind of cushion between the legs of the bird. This quantity of fat in frugivorous animals, not exposed to the light, and exerting very little muscular motion, reminds us of what has been long since observed in the fattening of geese and oxen. It is well known how favourable darkness and repose are to this process. The nocturnal birds of Europe are lean, because, instead of feeding on fruits, like the Guacharo, they live on the scanty produce of their prey. At the period which is commonly called at Caripe the "oil harvest," the Indians build huts with palm-leaves near the entrance, and even in the porch of the cavern. Of these we still saw some remains. There, with a fire of brushwood, they melt in pots of clay the fat of the young birds just killed. This fat is known by the name of butter or oil (manteca or aceite) of the Guacharo. It is half liquid, transparent without smell, and so pure that it may be kept above a year without becoming rancid. At the convent of Caripe no other oil is used in the kitchen of the monks but that of the cavern; and we never observed that it gave the aliments a disagreeable taste or smell.

'Young Guacharos have been sent to the port or Cumana, and lived there several days without taking any nourishment, the seeds offered to them not suiting their taste. When the crops and gizzards of the young birds are opened in the cavern, they are found to contain all sorts of hard and dry fruits, which furnish, under the singular name of Guacharo seed (semilla del Guacharo), a very celebrated remedy against intermittent fevers. The old birds carry these seeds to their young. They are carefully collected and sent to the sick at Cariaco, and other places of the low regions, where fevers are prevalent. . . .

'The natives connect mystic ideas with this cave, inhabited by nocturnal birds; they believe that the souls of their ancestors sojourn in the deep recesses of the cavern. "Man," say they, "should avoid places which are enlightened neither by the sun" (Zis) "nor by the moon" (Nuna). To go and join the Guacharos is to rejoin their fathers, is to die. The magicians (piaches) and the poisoners (imorons) perform their nocturnal tricks at the entrance of the cavern, to conjure the chief of the evil spirits (ivorokiamo). Thus in every climate the first fictions of nations resemble each other, those especially which relate to two principles governing the world, the abode of souls after death, the happiness of the virtuous, and the punishment of the guilty. The most different and barbarous languages present a certain number of images which are the same, because they have their source in the nature of our intellect and our sensations. Darkness is everywhere connected with the idea of death. The Grotto of Caripe is the Tartarus of the Greeks; and the Guacharos, which hover over the rivulet, uttering plaintive cries, remind us of the Stygian birds. . . .

'The missionaries, with all their authority, could not prevail on the Indians to penetrate farther into the cavern. As the vault grew lower, the cries of the Guacharos became more shrill. We were obliged to yield to the pusillanimity of our guides, and trace back our steps. The appearance of the cavern was indeed very uniform. We find that a bishop of St. Thomas of Guiana had gone farther than ourselves. He had measured nearly two thousand five hundred feet from the mouth to the spot where he stopped, though the cavern reached farther. The remembrance or this fact was preserved in the convent of Caripe, without the exact period being noted. The bishop had provided himself with great torches of white wax of Castille. We had torches composed only of the bark of trees and native resin. The thick smoke which issues from these torches, in a narrow subterranean passage, hurts the eyes and obstructs the respiration.

'We followed the course of the torrent to go out of the cavern. Before our eyes were dazzled by the light of day, we saw, without the grotto, the water of the river sparkling amid the foliage of the trees that concealed it. It was like a picture placed in the distance, and to which the mouth of the cavern served as a frame. Having at length reached the entrance, and seated ourselves on the banks of the rivulet, we rested after our fatigue. We were glad to be beyond the hoarse cries of the birds, and to leave a place where darkness does not offer even the charm of silence and tranquillity. We could scarcely persuade ourselves that the name of the Grotto of Caripe had hitherto remained unknown in Europe. The Guacharos alone would have been sufficient to render it celebrated. These nocturnal birds have been nowhere yet discovered except in the mountains of Caripe and Cumanacoa.'

So much from the great master, who was not aware (never having visited Trinidad) that the Guacharo was well known there under the name of Diablotin. But his account of Caripe was fully corroborated by my host, who had gone there last year, and, by the help of the magnesium light, had penetrated farther into the cave than either the bishop or Humboldt. He had brought home also several Guacharos from the Trinidad caves, all of which died on the passage, for want, seemingly, of the oily nuts on which they feed. A live Guacharo has, as yet, never been seen in Europe; and to get one safe to the Zoological Gardens, as well as to get one or two corpses for the Cambridge Museum, was our hope—a hope still, alas! unfulfilled. A nest, however, of the Guacharo has been brought to England by my host since my departure; a round lump of mud, of the size and shape of a large cheese, with a shallow depression on the top, in which the eggs are laid. A list of the seeds found in the stomachs of Guacharos by my friend Mr. Prestoe of the Botanical Gardens, Port of Spain, will be found in an Appendix.

We rowed away, toward our island paradise. But instead of going straight home, we turned into a deep cove called Ance Maurice—all coves in the French islands are called Ances—where was something to be seen, and not to be forgotten again. We grated in, over a shallow bottom of pebbles interspersed with gray lumps of coral pulp, and of Botrylli, azure, crimson, and all the hues of the flower-garden; and landed on the bank of a mangrove swamp, bored everywhere with the holes of land-crabs. One glance showed how these swamps are formed: by that want of tide which is the curse of the West Indies.

At every valley mouth the beating of the waves tends all the year round to throw up a bank of sand and shingle, damming the land-water back to form a lagoon. This might indeed empty itself during the floods of the rainy season; but during the dry season it must remain a stagnant pond, filling gradually with festering vegetable matter from the hills, beer-coloured, and as hideous to look at as it is to smell. Were there a tide, as in England, of from ten to twenty feet, that swamp would be drained twice a day to nearly that depth; and healthy vegetation, as in England, establish itself down to the very beach. A tide of a foot or eighteen inches only, as is too common in the West Indies, will only drain the swamp to that depth; and probably, if there be any strong pebble-bearing surf outside, not at all. So there it all lies, festering in the sun, and cooking poison day and night; while the mangroves and graceful white roseaux {115a} (tall canes) kindly do their best to lessen the mischief, by rooting in the slush, and absorbing the poison with their leaves. A white man, sleeping one night on the edge of that pestilential little triangle, half an acre in size, would be in danger of catching a fever and ague, which would make a weaker man of him for the rest of his life. And yet so thoroughly fitted for the climate is the Negro, that not ten yards from the edge of the mud stood a comfortable negro-house, with stout healthy folk therein, evidently well to do in the world, to judge from the poultry, and the fruit- trees and provision-ground which stretched up the glen.

Through the provision-ground we struggled up, among weeds as high as our shoulders; so that it was difficult, as usual, to distinguish garden from forest. But no matter to the black owner. The weeds were probably of only six weeks' growth; and when they got so high that he actually could not find his tanias {115b} among them, he would take cutlass and hoe, and make a lazy raid upon them, or rather upon a quarter of them, certain of two facts; that in six weeks more they would be all as high as ever; and that if they were, it did not matter; for so fertile is the soil, so genial the climate, that he would get in spite of them more crop off the ground than he needed. 'Pity the poor weeds. Is there not room enough in the world for them and for us?' seems the Negro's motto. But he knows his own business well enough, and can exert himself when he really needs to do so; and if the weeds harmed him seriously he would make short work with them. Still this soil, and this climate, put a premium on bad farming, as they do on much else that is bad.

Up we pushed along the narrow path, past curious spiral flags {115c} just throwing out their heads of delicate white or purple flower, and under the shade of great Balisiers or wild plantains, {115d} with leaves six or eight feet long; and many another curious plant unknown to me; and then through a little copse, of which we had to beware, for it was all black Roseau {115e}—a sort of dwarf palm some fifteen feet high, whose stems are covered with black steel needles, which, on being touched, run right through your finger, or your hand, if you press hard enough, and then break off; on which you cut them out if you can. If you cannot, they are apt, like needles, to make voyages about among the muscles, and reappear at some unexpected spot, causing serious harm. Of all the vegetable pests of the forest, none, not even the croc-chien, is so ugly a neighbour as certain varieties of black Roseau.

All this while—I fear I may be prolix: but one must write as one walked, stopping every moment to seize something new, and longing for as many pairs of eyes as a spider—all this while, I say, we heard the roar of the trade-surf growing louder and louder in front; and pushing cautiously through the Roseau, found ourselves on a cliff thirty feet high, and on the other side of the island.

Now it was plain how the Bocas had been made; for here was one making.

Before us seethed a shallow horse-shoe bay, almost a lake, some two hundred yards across inside, but far narrower at the mouth. Into it, between two lofty points of hard rock, worn into caves and pillars and natural arches, the trade-surf came raging in from the north, hurling columns of foam right and left, and then whirling round and round beneath us upon a narrow shore of black sand with such fury that one seemed to see the land torn away by each wave. The cliffs, some thirty feet high where we stood, rose to some hundred at the mouth, in intense black and copper and olive shadows, with one bright green tree in front of a cave's mouth, on which, it seemed, the sun had never shone; while a thousand feet overhead were glimpses of the wooded mountain-tops, with tender slanting lights, for the sun was growing low, through blue-gray mist on copse and lawn high above. A huge dark-headed Balata, {116a} like a storm- torn Scotch pine, crowned the left-hand cliff; two or three young Fan-palms, {116b} just ready to topple headlong, the right-hand one; and beyond all, through the great gateway gleamed, as elsewhere, the foam-flecked hazy blue of the Caribbean Sea.

We stood spellbound for a minute at the sudden change of scene and of feeling. From the still choking blazing steam of the leeward glen, we had stepped in a moment into coolness and darkness, pervaded by the delicious rush of the north-eastern wind; into a hidden sanctuary of Nature where one would have liked to build, and live and die: had not a second glance warned us that to die was the easiest of the three. For the whole cliff was falling daily into the sea, and it was hardly safe to venture to the beach for fear of falling stones and earth.

Down, however, we went, by a natural ladder of Matapalo roots, and saw at once how the cove was being formed. The rocks are probably Silurian; and if so, of quite immeasurable antiquity. But instead of being hard, as Silurian rocks are wont to be, they are mere loose beds of dark sand and shale, yellow with sulphur, or black with carbonaceous matter, amid which strange flakes and nodules of white quartz lie loose, ready to drop out at the blow of every wave. The strata, too, sloped upward and outward toward the sea, which is therefore able to undermine them perpetually; and thus the searching surge, having once formed an entrance in the cliff face, between what are now the two outer points, has had nought to do but to gnaw inward; and will gnaw, till the Isle of Monos is cut sheer in two, and the 'Ance Biscayen,' as the wonderful little bay is called, will join itself to the Ance Maurice and the Gulf of Paria. In two or three generations hence the little palm-wood will have fallen into the sea. In two or three more the negro house and garden and the mangrove swamp will be gone likewise: and in their place the trade- surf will be battering into the Gulf of Paria from the Northern Sea, through just such a mountain chasm as we saw at Huevos; and a new Boca will have been opened.

But not, understand, a deep and navigable one, as long as the land retains its present level. To make that, there must be a general subsidence of the land and sea bottom around. For surf, when eating into land, gnaws to little deeper than low-water mark: no deeper, probably, than the bottoms of the troughs between the waves. Its tendency is—as one may see along the Ramsgate cliffs—to pare the land away into a flat plain, just covered by a shallow sea. No surf or currents could nave carved out the smaller Bocas to a depth of between twenty and eighty fathoms; much less the great Boca of the Dragon's Mouth, between Chacachacarra and the Spanish Main, to a depth of more than seventy fathoms. They are sunken mountain passes, whose sides have been since carved into upright cliffs by the gnawing of the sea; and, as Mr. Wall well observes, {117} 'the situation of the Bocas is in a depression of the range, perhaps of the highest antiquity.'

We wandered along the beach, looking up at a cliff clothed, wherever it was not actually falling away, with richest verdure down to the water's edge; but in general utterly bare, falling away too fast to give root-hold to any plant. We lay down on the black sand, and gazed, and gazed, and picked up quartz crystals fallen from above, and wondered how the cove had got its name. Had some old Biscayan whaler, from Biarritz or St. Jean de Luz, wandered into these seas in search of fish, when, in the beginning of the seventeenth century, he and his fellows had killed out all the Right Whales of the Bay of Biscay? And had he, missing the Bocas, been wrecked and perished, as he may well have done, against those awful walls? At last we turned to re-ascend—for the tide was rising—after our leader had congratulated us on being, perhaps, the only white men who had ever seen Ance Biscayen—a congratulation which was premature; for, as we went to climb up the Matapalo-root ladder, we were stopped by several pairs of legs coming down it, which belonged, it seemed, to a bathing party of pleasant French people, 'marooning' (as picnicking is called here) on the island; and after them descended the yellow frock of a Dominican monk, who, when landed, was discovered to be an old friend, now working hard among the Roman Catholic Negroes of Port of Spain.

On the way back to our island paradise we found along the shore two plants worth notice—one, a low tree, with leaves somewhat like box, but obovate (larger at the tip than at the stalk), and racemes of little white flowers of a delicious honey-scent. {118a} It ought to be, if it be not yet, introduced into England, as a charming addition to the winter hothouse. As for the other plant, would that it could be introduced likewise, or rather that, if introduced, it would flower in a house; for it is a glorious climber, second only to that which poor Dr. Krueger calls 'the wonderful Norantea,' which shall be described in its place. You see a tree blazing with dark gold, passing into orange, and that to red; and on nearing it find it tiled all over with the flowers of a creeper, {118b} arranged in flat rows of spreading brushes, some foot or two long, and holding each hundreds of flowers, growing on one side only of the twig, and turning their multitudinous golden and orange stamens upright to the sun. There—I cannot describe it. It must be seen first afar off, and then close, to understand the vagaries of splendour in which Nature indulges here. And yet the Norantea, common in the high woods, is even more splendid, and, in a botanist's eyes, a stranger vagary still.

On past the whaling quay. It was deserted; for the whales had not yet come in, and there was no chance of seeing a night scene which is described as horribly beautiful—the sharks around a whale while flensing is going on, each monster bathed in phosphorescent light, which makes his whole outline, and every fin, even his evil eyes and teeth, visible far under water, as the glittering fiend comes up from below, snaps his lump out of the whale's side, and is shouldered out of the way by his fellows. We were unlucky indeed, in the matter of sharks; for, with the exception of a problematical back-fin or two, we saw none in the West Indies, though they were swarming round us.

The next day the boat's head was turned homewards. And what had been learnt at the little bay of Alice Biscayen suggested, as we went on, a fresh geological question. How the outer islands of the Bocas had been formed, or were being formed, was clear enough. But what about the inner islands? Gaspar Grande, and Diego, and the Five Islands, and the peninsula—or island—of Punta Grande? How were these isolated lumps of limestone hewn out into high points, with steep cliffs, not to the windward, but to the leeward? What made the steep cliff at the south end of Punta Grande, on which a mangrove swamp now abuts? No trade-surf, no current capable of doing that work, has disturbed the dull waters of the 'Golfo Triste,' as the Spaniards named the Gulf of Paria, since the land was of anything like its present shape. And gradually we began to dream of a time when the Bocas did not exist; when the Spanish Main was joined to the northern mountains of the island by dry land, now submerged or eaten away by the trade-surf; when the northern currents of the Orinoco, instead of escaping through the Bocas as now, were turned eastward, past these very islands, and along the foot of the northern mountains, over what is now the great lowland of Trinidad, depositing those rich semi alluvial strata which have been since upheaved, and sawing down along the southern slope of the mountains those vast beds of shingle and quartz boulders which now form as it were a gigantic ancient sea-beach right across the island. A dream it may be: but one which seemed reasonable enough to more than one in the boat, and which subsequent observations tended to verify.



CHAPTER VII: THE HIGH WOODS



I have seen them at last. I have been at last in the High Woods, as the primeval forest is called here; and they are not less, but more, wonderful than I had imagined them. But they must wait awhile; for in reaching them, though they were only ten miles off, I passed through scenes so various, and so characteristic of the Tropics, that I cannot do better than sketch them one by one.

I drove out in the darkness of the dawn, under the bamboos, and Bauhinias, and palms which shade the road between the Botanic Gardens and the savannah, toward Port of Spain. The frogs and cicalas had nearly finished their nightly music. The fireflies had been in bed since midnight. The air was heavy with the fragrance of the Bauhinias, and after I passed the great Australian Blue-gum which overhangs the road, and the Wallaba-tree, {120a} with its thin curved pods dangling from innumerable bootlaces six feet long, almost too heavy with the fragrance of the 'white Ixora.' {120b} A flush of rose was rising above the eastern mountains, and it was just light enough to see overhead the great flowers of the 'Bois chataigne,' {120c} among its horse-chestnut-like leaves; red flowers as big as a child's two hands, with petals as long as its fingers. Children of Mylitta the moon goddess, they cannot abide the day; and will fall, brown and shrivelled, before the sun grows high, after one night of beauty and life, and probably of enjoyment. Even more swiftly fades an even more delicate child of the moon, the Ipomoea, Bona-nox, whose snow-white patines, as broad as the hand, open at nightfall on every hedge, and shrivel up with the first rays of dawn.

On through the long silent street of Port of Spain, where the air was heavy with everything but the fragrance of Ixoras, and the dogs and vultures sat about the streets, and were all but driven over every few yards, till I picked up a guide—will he let me say a friend?—an Aberdeenshire Scot, who hurried out fresh from his bath, his trusty cutlass on his hip, and in heavy shooting-boots and gaiters; for no clothing, be it remembered, is too strong for the bush; and those who enter it in the white calico garments in which West-India planters figure on the stage, are like to leave in it, not only their clothes, but their skin besides.

In five minutes more we were on board the gig, and rowing away south over the muddy mirror; and in ten minutes more the sun was up, and blazing so fiercely that we were glad to cool ourselves in fancy, by talking over salmon-fishings in Scotland and New Brunswick, and wadings in icy streams beneath the black pine-woods.

Behind us were the blue mountains, streaked with broad lights and shades by the level sun. On our left the interminable low line of bright green mangrove danced and quivered in the mirage, and loomed up in front, miles away, till single trees seemed to hang in air far out at sea. On our right, hot mists wandered over the water, blotting out the horizon, till the coasting craft, with distorted sails and masts, seemed afloat in smoke. One might have fancied oneself in the Wash off Sandringham on a burning summer's noon.

Soon logs and stumps, standing out of the water, marked the mouth of the Caroni; and we had to take a sweep out seaward to avoid its mud- banks. Over that very spot, now unnavigable, Raleigh and his men sailed in to conquer Trinidad.

On one log a huge black and white heron moped all alone, looking in the mist as tall as a man; and would not move for all our shouts. Schools of fish dimpled the water; and brown pelicans fell upon them, dashing up fountains of silver. The trade-breeze, as it rose, brought off the swamps a sickly smell, suggestive of the need of coffee, quinine, Angostura bitters, or some other febrifuge. In spite of the glorious sunshine, the whole scene was sad, desolate, almost depressing, from its monotony, vastness, silence; and we were glad, when we neared the high tree which marks the entrance of the Chaguanas Creek, and turned at last into a recess in the mangrove bushes; a desolate pool, round which the mangrove roots formed an impenetrable net. As far as the eye could pierce into the tangled thicket, the roots interlaced with each other, and arched down into the water in innumerable curves, by no means devoid of grace, but hideous just because they were impenetrable. Who could get over those roots, or through the scrub which stood stilted on them, letting down at every yard or two fresh air-roots from off its boughs, to add fresh tangle, as they struck into the mud, to the horrible imbroglio? If one had got in among them, I fancied, one would never have got out again. Struggling over and under endless trap-work, without footing on it or on the mud below, one must have sunk exhausted in an hour or two, to die of fatigue and heat, or chill and fever.

Let the mangrove foliage be as gay and green as it may—and it is gay and green—a mangrove swamp is a sad, ugly, evil place; and so I felt that one to be that day.

The only moving things were some large fish, who were leaping high out of water close to the bushes, glittering in the sun. They stopped as we came up: and then all was still, till a slate-blue heron {122a} rose lazily off a dead bough, flapped fifty yards up the creek, and then sat down again. The only sound beside the rattle of our oars was the metallic note of a pigeon in the high tree, which I mistook then and afterwards for the sound of a horn.

On we rowed, looking out sharply right and left for an alligator basking on the mud among the mangrove roots. But none appeared, though more than one, probably, was watching us, with nothing of him above water but his horny eyes. The heron flapped on ahead, and settled once more, as if leading us on up the ugly creek, which grew narrower and fouler, till the oars touched the bank on each side, and drove out of the water shoals of four-eyed fish, ridiculous little things about as long as your hand, who, instead of diving to the bottom like reasonable fish, seemed possessed with the fancy that they could succeed better in the air, or on land; and accordingly jumped over each other's backs, scrambled out upon the mud, swam about with their goggle-eyes projecting above the surface of the water, and, in fact, did anything but behave like fish.

This little creature (Star-gazer, {122b} as some call him) is, you must understand, one of the curiosities of Trinidad and of the Guiana Coast. He looks, on the whole, like a gray mullet, with a large blunt head, out of which stand, almost like horns, the eyes, from which he takes his name. You may see, in Wood's Illustrated Natural History, a drawing of him, which is—I am sorry to say—one of the very few bad ones in the book; and read how, 'at a first glance, the fish appears to possess four distinct eyes, each of these organs being divided across the middle, and apparently separated into two distinct portions. In fact an opaque band runs transversely across the corner of the eye, and the iris, or coloured portion, sends out two processes, which meet each other under the transverse band of the cornea, so that the fish appears to possess even a double pupil. Still, on closer investigation, the connection, between the divisions of the pupil are apparent, and can readily be seen in the young fish. The lens is shaped something like a jargonelle pear, and so arranged that its broad extremity is placed under the large segment of the cornea.'

These strangely specialised eyes—so folks believe here—the fish uses by halves. With the lower halves he sees through the water, with the upper halves through the air; and, elevated by this quaint privilege, he aspires to be a terrestrial animal, emulating, I presume, the alligators around, and tries to take his walks upon the mud. You may see, as you go down to bathe on the east coast, a group of black dots, in pairs, peering up out of the sand, at the very highest verge of the surf-line. As you approach them, they leap up, and prove themselves to belong to a party of four-eyes, who run—there is no other word—down the beach, dash into the roaring surf, and the moment they see you safe in the sea run back again on the next wave, and begin staring at the sky once more. He who sees four-eyes for the first time without laughing must be much wiser, or much stupider, than any man has a right to be.

Suddenly the mangroves opened, and the creek ended in a wharf, with barges alongside. Baulks of strange timbers lay on shore. Sheds were full of empty sugar-casks, ready for the approaching crop-time. A truck was waiting for us on a tramway; and we scrambled on shore on a bed of rich black mud, to be received, of course, in true West Indian fashion, with all sorts of courtesies and kindnesses.

And here let me say, that those travellers who complain of discourtesy in the West Indies can have only themselves to thank for it. The West Indian has self-respect, and will not endure people who give themselves airs. He has prudence too, and will not endure people whom he expects to betray his hospitality by insulting him afterwards in print. But he delights in pleasing, in giving, in showing his lovely islands to all who will come and see them; Creole, immigrant, coloured or white man, Spaniard, Frenchman, Englishman, or Scotchman, each and all, will prove themselves thoughtful hosts and agreeable companions, if they be only treated as gentlemen usually expect to be treated elsewhere. On board a certain steamer, it was once proposed that the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company should issue cheap six-month season tickets to the West Indies, available for those who wished to spend the winter in wandering from island to island. The want of hotels was objected, naturally enough, by an Englishman present. But he was answered at once, that one or two good introductions to a single island would ensure hospitality throughout the whole archipelago.

A long-legged mule, after gibbing enough to satisfy his own self- respect, condescended to trot off with us up the tramway, which lay along a green drove strangely like one in the Cambridgeshire fens. But in the ditches grew a pea with large yellow flower-spikes, which reminded us that we were not in England; and beyond the ditches rose on either side, not wheat and beans, but sugar-cane ten and twelve feet high. And a noble grass it is, with its stems as thick as one's wrist, tillering out below in bold curves over the well-hoed dark soil, and its broad bright leaves falling and folding above in curves as bold as those of the stems: handsome enough thus, but more handsome still, I am told, when the 'arrow,' as the flower is called, spreads over the cane-piece a purple haze, which flickers in long shining waves before the breeze. One only fault it has; that, from the luxuriance of its growth, no wind can pass through it; and that therefore the heat of a cane-field trace is utterly stifling. Here and there we passed a still uncultivated spot; a desolate reedy swamp, with pools, and stunted alder-like trees, reminding us again of the Deep Fens, while the tall chimneys of the sugar-works, and the high woods beyond, completed the illusion. One might have been looking over Holm Fen toward Caistor Hanglands; or over Deeping toward the remnants of the ancient Bruneswald.

Soon, however, we had a broad hint that we were not in the Fens, but in a Tropic island. A window in heaven above was suddenly opened; out of it, without the warning cry of Gardyloo—well known in Edinburgh of old—a bucket of warm water, happily clean, was emptied on each of our heads; and the next moment all was bright again. A thunder-shower, without a warning thunder-clap, was to me a new phenomenon, which was repeated several times that day. The suddenness and the heaviness of the tropic showers at this season is as amusing as it is trying. The umbrella or the waterproof must be always ready, or you will get wet through. And getting wet here is a much more serious matter than in a temperate climate, where you may ride or walk all day in wet clothes and take no harm; for the rapid radiation, produced by the intense sunshine, causes a chill which may beget, only too easily, fever and ague not to be as easily shaken off.

The cause of these rapid and heavy showers is simple enough. The trade-wind, at this season of the year, is saturated with steam from the ocean which it has crossed; and the least disturbance in its temperature, from ascending hot air or descending cold, precipitates the steam in a sudden splash of water, out of a cloud, if there happens to be one near; if not, out of the clear air. Therefore it is that these showers, when they occur in the daytime, are most common about noon; simply because then the streams of hot air rise most frequently and rapidly, to struggle with the cooler layers aloft. There is thunder, of course, in the West Indies, continuous and terrible. But it occurs after midsummer, at the breaking up of the dry season and coming on of the wet.

At last the truck stopped at a manager's house with a Palmiste, {124} or cabbage-palm, on each side of the garden gate, a pair of columns which any prince would have longed for as ornaments for his lawn. It is the fashion here, and a good fashion it is, to leave the Palmistes, a few at least, when the land is cleared; or to plant them near the house, merely on account of their wonderful beauty. One Palmiste was pointed out to me, in a field near the road, which had been measured by its shadow at noon, and found to be one hundred and fifty-three feet in height. For more than a hundred feet the stem rose straight, smooth, and gray. Then three or four spathes of flowers, four or five feet long each, jutted out and upward like; while from below them, as usual, one dead leaf, twenty feet long or more, dangled head downwards in the breeze. Above them rose, as always, the green portion of the stem for some twenty feet; and then the flat crown of feathers, as dark as yew, spread out against the blue sky, looking small enough up there, though forty feet at least in breadth. No wonder if the man who possessed such a glorious object dared not destroy it, though he spared it for a different reason from that for which the Negroes spare, whenever they can, the gigantic Ceibas, or silk cotton trees. These latter are useless as timber; and their roots are, of course, hurtful to the canes. But the Negro is shy of felling the Ceiba. It is a magic tree, haunted by spirits. There are 'too much jumbies in him,' the Negro says; and of those who dare to cut him down some one will die, or come to harm, within the year. In Jamaica, says my friend Mr. Gosse, 'they believe that if a person throws a stone at the trunk, he will be visited with sickness, or other misfortune. When they intend to cut one down, they first pour rum at the root as a propitiatory offering.' The Jamaica Negro, however, fells them for canoes, the wood being soft, and easily hollowed. But here, as in Demerara, the trees are left standing about in cane-pieces and pastures to decay into awful and fantastic shapes, with prickly spurs and board-walls of roots, high enough to make a house among them simply by roofing them in; and a flat crown of boughs, some seventy or eighty feet above the ground, each bough as big as an average English tree, from which dangles a whole world, of lianes, matapalos, orchids, wild pines with long air-roots or gray beards; and last, but not least, that strange and lovely parasite, the Rhipsalis cassytha, which you mistake first for a plume of green sea-weed, or a tress of Mermaid's hair which has got up there by mischance, and then for some delicate kind of pendent mistletoe; till you are told, to your astonishment, that it is an abnormal form of Cactus—a family which it resembles, save in its tiny flowers and fruit, no more than it resembles the Ceiba-tree on which it grows; and told, too, that, strangely enough, it has been discovered in Angola—the only species of the Cactus tribe in the Old World.

And now we set ourselves to walk up to the Depot, where the Government timber was being felled, and the real 'High Woods' to be seen at last. Our path lay, along the half-finished tramway, through the first Cacao plantation I had ever seen, though, I am happy to say, not the last by many a one.

Imagine an orchard of nut-trees, with very large long leaves. Each tree is trained to a single stem. Among them, especially near the path, grow plants of the common hothouse Datura, its long white flowers perfuming all the air. They have been planted as landmarks, to prevent the young Cacao-trees being cut over when the weeds are cleared. Among them, too, at some twenty yards apart, are the stems of a tree looking much like an ash, save that it is inclined to throw out broad spurs, like a Ceiba. You look up, and see that they are Bois immortelles, {126} fifty or sixty feet high, one blaze of vermilion against the blue sky. Those who have stood under a Lombardy poplar in early spring, and looked up at its buds and twigs, showing like pink coral against the blue sky, and have felt the beauty of the sight, can imagine faintly—but only faintly—the beauty of these Madres de Cacao (Cacao-mothers), as they call them here, because their shade is supposed to shelter the Cacao-trees, while the dew collected by their leaves keeps the ground below always damp.

I turned my dazzled eyes down again, and looked into the delicious darkness under the bushes. The ground was brown with fallen leaves, or green with ferns; and here and there a slant ray of sunlight pierced through the shade, and flashed on the brown leaves, and on a gray stem, and on a crimson jewel which hung on the stem—and there, again, on a bright orange one; and as my eye became accustomed to the darkness, I saw that the stems and larger boughs, far away into the wood, were dotted with pods, crimson or yellow or green, of the size and shape of a small hand closed with the fingers straight out. They were the Cacao-pods, full of what are called at home coco-nibs. And there lay a heap of them, looking like a heap of gay flowers; and by them sat their brown owner, picking them to pieces and laying the seeds to dry on a cloth. I went up and told him that I came from England, and never saw Cacao before, though I had been eating and drinking it all my life; at which news he grinned amusement till his white teeth and eyeballs made a light in that dark place, and offered me a fresh broken pod, that I might taste the pink sour- sweet pulp in which the rows of nibs lie packed, a pulp which I found very pleasant and refreshing.

He dries his Cacao-nibs in the sun, and, if he be a well-to-do and careful man, on a stage with wheels, which can be run into a little shed on the slightest shower of rain; picks them over and over, separating the better quality from the worse; and at last sends them down on mule-back to the sea, to be sold in London as Trinidad cocoa, or perhaps sold in Paris to the chocolate makers, who convert them into chocolate, Menier or other, by mixing them with sugar and vanilla, both, possibly, from this very island. This latter fact once inspired an adventurous German with the thought that he could make chocolate in Trinidad just as well as in Paris. And (so goes the story) he succeeded. But the fair Creoles would not buy it. It could not be good; it could not be the real article, unless it had crossed the Atlantic twice to and from that centre of fashion, Paris. So the manufacture, which might have added greatly to the wealth of Trinidad, was given up, and the ladies of the island eat nought but French chocolate, costing, it is said, nearly four times as much as home made chocolate need cost.

As we walked on through the trace (for the tramway here was still unfinished) one of my kind companions pointed out a little plant, which bears in the island the ominous name of the Brinvilliers. {127} It is one of those deadly poisons too common in the bush, and too well known to the negro Obi men and Obi-women. And as I looked at the insignificant weed I wondered how the name of that wretched woman should have spread to this remote island, and have become famous enough to be applied to a plant. French Negroes may have brought the name with them: but then arose another wonder. How were the terrible properties of the plant discovered? How eager and ingenious must the human mind be about the devil's work, and what long practice—considering its visual slowness and dulness—must it have had at the said work, ever to have picked out this paltry thing among the thousand weeds of the forest as a tool for its jealousy and revenge. It may have taken ages to discover the Brinvilliers, and ages more to make its poison generally known. Why not? As the Spaniards say, 'The devil knows many things, because he is old.' Surely this is one of the many facts which point toward some immensely ancient civilisation in the Tropics, and a civilisation which may have had its ugly vices, and have been destroyed thereby.

Now we left the Cacao grove: and I was aware, on each side of the trace, of a wall of green, such as I had never seen before on earth, not even in my dreams; strange colossal shapes towering up, a hundred feet and more in height, which, alas! it was impossible to reach; for on either side of the trace were fifty yards of half- cleared ground, fallen logs, withes, huge stumps ten feet high, charred and crumbling; and among them and over them a wilderness of creepers and shrubs, and all the luxuriant young growth of the 'rastrajo,' which springs up at once whenever the primeval forest is cleared—all utterly impassable. These rastrajo forms, of course, were all new to me. I might have spent weeks in botanising merely at them: but all I could remark, or cared to remark, there as in other places, was the tendency in the rastrajo toward growing enormous rounded leaves. How to get at the giants behind was the only question to one who for forty years had been longing for one peep at Flora's fairy palace, and saw its portals open at last. There was a deep gully before us, where a gang of convicts was working at a wooden bridge for the tramway, amid the usual abysmal mud of the tropic wet season. And on the other side of it there was no rastrajo right and left of the trace. I hurried down it like any schoolboy, dashing through mud and water, hopping from log to log, regardless of warnings and offers of help from good-natured Negroes, who expected the respectable elderly 'buccra' to come to grief; struggled perspiring up the other side of the gully; and then dashed away to the left, and stopped short, breathless with awe, in the primeval forest at last.

In the primeval forest; looking upon that upon which my teachers and masters, Humboldt, Spix, Martius, Schomburgk, Waterton, Bates, Wallace, Gosse, and the rest, had looked already, with far wiser eyes than mine, comprehending somewhat at least of its wonders, while I could only stare in ignorance. There was actually, then, such a sight to be seen on earth; and it was not less, but far more wonderful than they had said.

My first feeling on entering the high woods was helplessness, confusion, awe, all but terror. One is afraid at first to venture in fifty yards. Without a compass or the landmark of some opening to or from which he can look, a man must be lost in the first ten minutes, such a sameness is there in the infinite variety. That sameness and variety make it impossible to give any general sketch of a forest. Once inside, 'you cannot see the wood for the trees.' You can only wander on as far as you dare, letting each object impress itself on your mind as it may, and carrying away a confused recollection of innumerable perpendicular lines, all straining upwards, in fierce competition, towards the light-food far above; and next of a green cloud, or rather mist, which hovers round your head, and rises, thickening and thickening to an unknown height. The upward lines are of every possible thickness, and of almost every possible hue; what leaves they bear, being for the most part on the tips of the twigs, give a scattered, mist-like appearance to the under-foliage. For the first moment, therefore, the forest seems more open than an English wood. But try to walk through it, and ten steps undeceive you. Around your knees are probably Mamures, {129a} with creeping stems and fan-shaped leaves, something like those of a young coconut palm. You try to brush through them, and are caught up instantly by a string or wire belonging to some other plant. You look up and round: and then you find that the air is full of wires—that you are hung up in a network of fine branches belonging to half a dozen different sorts of young trees, and intertwined with as many different species of slender creepers. You thought at your first glance among the tree-stems that you were looking through open air; you find that you are looking through a labyrinth of wire-rigging, and must use the cutlass right and left at every five steps. You push on into a bed of strong sedge-like Sclerias, with cutting edges to their leaves. It is well for you if they are only three, and not six feet high. In the midst of them you run against a horizontal stick, triangular, rounded, smooth, green. You take a glance along it right and left, and see no end to it either way, but gradually discover that it is the leaf-stalk of a young Cocorite palm. {129b} The leaf is five-and-twenty feet long, and springs from a huge ostrich plume, which is sprawling out of the ground and up above your head a few yards off. You cut the leaf- stalk through right and left, and walk on, to be stopped suddenly (for you get so confused by the multitude of objects that you never see anything till you run against it) by a gray lichen-covered bar, as thick as your ankle. You follow it up with your eye, and find it entwine itself with three or four other bars, and roll over with them in great knots and festoons and loops twenty feet high, and then go up with them into the green cloud over your head, and vanish, as if a giant had thrown a ship's cables into the tree-tops. One of them, so grand that its form strikes even the Negro and the Indian, is a Liantasse. {129c} You see that at once by the form of its cable—six or eight inches across in one direction, and three or four in another, furbelowed all down the middle into regular knots, and looking like a chain cable between two flexible iron bars. At another of the loops, about as thick as your arm, your companion, if you have a forester with you, will spring joyfully. With a few blows of his cutlass he will sever it as high up as he can reach, and again below, some three feet down, and, while you are wondering at this seemingly wanton destruction, he lifts the bar on high, throws his head back, and pours down his thirsty throat a pint or more of pure cold water. This hidden treasure is, strange as it may seem, the ascending sap, or rather the ascending pure rain-water which has been taken up by the roots, and is hurrying aloft, to be elaborated into sap, and leaf, and flower, and fruit, and fresh tissue for the very stem up which it originally climbed, and therefore it is that the woodman cuts the Water-vine through first at the top of the piece which he wants, and not at the bottom, for so rapid is the ascent of the sap that if he cut the stem below, the water would have all fled upwards before he could cut it off above. Meanwhile, the old story of Jack and the Bean-stalk comes into your mind. In such a forest was the old dame's hut, and up such a bean stalk Jack climbed, to find a giant and a castle high above. Why not? What may not be up there? You look up into the green cloud, and long for a moment to be a monkey. There may be monkeys up there over your head, burly red Howler, {131a} or tiny peevish Sapajou, {131b} peering down at you, but you cannot peer up at them. The monkeys, and the parrots, and the humming birds, and the flowers, and all the beauty, are upstairs—up above the green cloud. You are in 'the empty nave of the cathedral,' and 'the service is being celebrated aloft in the blazing roof.'

We will hope that, as you look up, you have not been careless enough to walk on, for if you have you will be tripped up at once: nor to put your hand out incautiously to rest it against a tree, or what not, for fear of sharp thorns, ants, and wasps' nests. If you are all safe, your next steps, probably, as you struggle through the bush between tree trunks of every possible size, will bring you face to face with huge upright walls of seeming boards, whose rounded edges slope upward till, as your eye follows them, you find them enter an enormous stem, perhaps round, like one of the Norman pillars of Durham nave, and just as huge, perhaps fluted, like one of William of Wykeham's columns at Winchester. There is the stem: but where is the tree? Above the green cloud. You struggle up to it, between two of the board walls, but find it not so easy to reach. Between you and it are half a dozen tough strings which you had not noticed at first—the eye cannot focus itself rapidly enough in this confusion of distances—which have to be cut through ere you can pass. Some of them are rooted in the ground, straight and tense, some of them dangle and wave in the wind at every height. What are they? Air roots of wild Pines, {131c} or of Matapalos, or of Figs, or of Seguines, {131d} or of some other parasite? Probably: but you cannot see. All you can see is, as you put your chin close against the trunk of the tree and look up, as if you were looking up against the side of a great ship set on end, that some sixty or eighty feet up in the green cloud, arms as big as English forest trees branch off; and that out of their forks a whole green garden of vegetation has tumbled down twenty or thirty feet, and half climbed up again. You scramble round the tree to find whence this aerial garden has sprung: you cannot tell. The tree-trunk is smooth and free from climbers; and that mass of verdure may belong possibly to the very cables which you met ascending into the green cloud twenty or thirty yards back, or to that impenetrable tangle, a dozen yards on, which has climbed a small tree, and then a taller one again, and then a taller still, till it has climbed out of sight and possibly into the lower branches of the big tree. And what are their species? what are their families? Who knows? Not even the most experienced woodman or botanist can tell you the names of plants of which he only sees the stems. The leaves, the flowers, the fruit, can only be examined by felling the tree; and not even always then, for sometimes the tree when cut refuses to fall, linked as it is by chains of liane to all the trees around. Even that wonderful water-vine which we cut through just now may be one of three or even four different plants. {132}

Soon you will be struck by the variety of the vegetation, and will recollect what you have often heard, that social plants are rare in the tropic forests. Certainly they are rare in Trinidad; where the only instances of social trees are the Moras (which I have never seen growing wild) and the Moriche palms. In Europe, a forest is usually made up of one dominant plant—of firs or of pines, of oaks or of beeches, of birch or of heather. Here no two plants seem alike. There are more species on an acre here than in all the New Forest, Savernake, or Sherwood. Stems rough, smooth, prickly, round, fluted, stilted, upright, sloping, branched, arched, jointed, opposite-leaved, alternate-leaved, leaflets, or covered with leaves of every conceivable pattern, are jumbled together, till the eye and brain are tired of continually asking 'What next?' The stems are of every colour—copper, pink, gray, green, brown, black as if burnt, marbled with lichens, many of them silvery white, gleaming afar in the bush, furred with mosses and delicate creeping film-ferns, or laced with the air-roots of some parasite aloft. Up this stem scrambles a climbing Seguine {133a} with entire leaves; up the next another quite different, with deeply-cut leaves; {133b} up the next the Ceriman {133c} spreads its huge leaves, latticed and forked again and again. So fast do they grow, that they have not time to fill up the spaces between their nerves, and are, consequently full of oval holes; and so fast does its spadix of flowers expand, that (as indeed do some other Aroids) an actual genial heat and fire of passion, which may be tested by the thermometer, or even by the hand, is given off during fructification. Beware of breaking it, or the Seguines. They will probably give off an evil smell, and as probably a blistering milk. Look on at the next stem. Up it, and down again, a climbing fern {133d} which is often seen in hothouses has tangled its finely-cut fronds. Up the next, a quite different fern is crawling, by pressing tightly to the rough bark its creeping root-stalks, furred like a hare's leg. Up the next, the prim little Griffe-chatte {133e} plant has walked, by numberless clusters of small cats'-claws, which lay hold of the bark. And what is this delicious scent about the air? Vanille? Of course it is; and up that stem zigzags the green fleshy chain of the Vanille Orchis. The scented pod is far above, out of your reach; but not out of the reach of the next parrot, or monkey, or negro hunter, who winds the treasure. And the stems themselves: to what trees do they belong? It would be absurd for one to try to tell you who cannot tell one- twentieth of them himself. {133f} Suffice it to say, that over your head are perhaps a dozen kinds of admirable timber, which might be turned to a hundred uses in Europe, were it possible to get them thither: your guide (who here will be a second hospitable and cultivated Scot) will point with pride to one column after another, straight as those of a cathedral, and sixty to eighty feet without branch or knob. That, he will say, is Fiddlewood; {133g} that a Carapo, {133h} that a Cedar, {133i} that a Roble {133j} (oak); that, larger than all you have seen yet, a Locust; {133k} that a Poui; {133l} that a Guatecare, {133m} that an Olivier, {133n} woods which, he will tell you, are all but incorruptible, defying weather and insects. He will show you, as curiosities, the smaller but intensely hard Letter wood, {133o} Lignum vitae, {133p} and Purple heart. {134a} He will pass by as useless weeds, Ceibas {134b} and Sandbox-trees, {134c} whose bulk appals you. He will look up, with something like a malediction, at the Matapalos, which, every fifty yards, have seized on mighty trees, and are enjoying, I presume, every different stage of the strangling art, from the baby Matapalo, who, like the one which you saw in the Botanic Garden, has let down his first air-root along his victim's stem, to the old sinner whose dark crown of leaves is supported, eighty feet in air, on innumerable branching columns of every size, cross-clasped to each other by transverse bars. The giant tree on which his seed first fell has rotted away utterly, and he stands in its place, prospering in his wickedness, like certain folk whom David knew too well. Your guide walks on with a sneer. But he stops with a smile of satisfaction as he sees lying on the ground dark green glossy leaves, which are fading into a bright crimson; for overhead somewhere there must be a Balata, {134d} the king of the forest; and there, close by, is his stem—a madder-brown column, whose head may be a hundred and fifty feet or more aloft. The forester pats the sides of his favourite tree, as a breeder might that of his favourite racehorse. He goes on to evince his affection, in the fashion of West Indians, by giving it a chop with his cutlass; but not in wantonness. He wishes to show you the hidden virtues of this (in his eyes) noblest of trees—how there issues out swiftly from the wound a flow of thick white milk, which will congeal, in an hour's time, into a gum intermediate in its properties between caoutchouc and gutta-percha. He talks of a time when the English gutta-percha market shall be supplied from the Balatas of the northern hills, which cannot be shipped away as timber. He tells you how the tree is a tree of a generous, virtuous, and elaborate race—'a tree of God, which is full of sap,' as one said of old of such—and what could he say better, less or more? For it is a Sapota, cousin to the Sapodilla, and other excellent fruit-trees, itself most excellent even in its fruit-bearing power; for every five years it is covered with such a crop of delicious plums, that the lazy Negro thinks it worth his while to spend days of hard work, besides incurring the penalty of the law (for the trees are Government property), in cutting it down for the sake of its fruit. But this tree your guide will cut himself. There is no gully between it and the Government station; and he can carry it away; and it is worth his while to do so; for it will square, he thinks, into a log more than three feet in diameter, and eighty, ninety—he hopes almost a hundred—feet in length of hard, heavy wood, incorruptible, save in salt water; better than oak, as good as teak, and only surpassed in this island by the Poui. He will make a stage round it, some eight feet high, and cut it above the spurs. It will take his convict gang (for convicts are turned to some real use in Trinidad) several days to get it down, and many more days to square it with the axe. A trace must be made to it through the wood, clearing away vegetation for which an European millionaire, could he keep it in his park, would gladly pay a hundred pounds a yard. The cleared stems, especially those of the palms, must be cut into rollers; and the dragging of the huge log over them will be a work of weeks, especially in the wet season. But it can be done, and it shall be; so he leaves a significant mark on his new-found treasure, and leads you on through the bush, hewing his way with light strokes right and left, so carelessly that you are inclined to beg him to hold his hand, and not destroy in a moment things so beautiful, so curious, things which would be invaluable in an English hothouse.

And where are the famous Orchids? They perch on every bough and stem: but they are not, with three or four exceptions, in flower in the winter; and if they were, I know nothing about them—at least, I know enough to know how little I know. Whosoever has read Darwin's Fertilisation of Orchids, and finds in his own reason that the book is true, had best say nothing about the beautiful monsters till he has seen with his own eyes more than his master.

And yet even the three or four that are in flower are worth going many a mile to see. In the hothouse they seem almost artificial from their strangeness: but to see them 'natural,' on natural boughs, gives a sense of their reality, which no unnatural situation can give. Even to look up at them perched on bough and stem, as one rides by; and to guess what exquisite and fantastic form may issue, in a few months or weeks, out of those fleshy, often unsightly, leaves, is a strange pleasure; a spur to the fancy which is surely wholesome, if we will but believe that all these things were invented by A Fancy, which desires to call out in us, by contemplating them, such small fancy as we possess; and to make us poets, each according to his power, by showing a world in which, if rightly looked at, all is poetry.

Another fact will soon force itself on your attention, unless you wish to tumble down and get wet up to your knees. The soil is furrowed everywhere by holes; by graves, some two or three feet wide and deep, and of uncertain length and shape, often wandering about for thirty or forty feet, and running confusedly into each other. They are not the work of man, nor of an animal; for no earth seems to have been thrown out of them. In the bottom of the dry graves you sometimes see a decaying root: but most of them just now are full of water, and of tiny fish also, who burrow in the mud and sleep during the dry season, to come out and swim during the wet. These graves are, some of them, plainly quite new. Some, again, are very old; for trees of all sizes are growing in them and over them.

What makes them? A question not easily answered. But the shrewdest foresters say that they have held the roots of trees now dead. Either the tree has fallen and torn its roots out of the ground, or the roots and stumps have rotted in their place, and the soil above them has fallen in.

But they must decay very quickly, these roots, to leave their quite fresh graves thus empty: and—now one thinks of it—how few fallen trees, or even dead sticks, there are about. An English wood, if left to itself, would be cumbered with fallen timber; and one has heard of forests in North America, through which it is all but impossible to make way, so high are piled up, among the still- growing trees, dead logs in every stage of decay. Such a sight may be seen in Europe, among the high Silver-fir forests of the Pyrenees. How is it not so here? How indeed? And how comes it—if you will look again—that there are few or no fallen leaves, and actually no leaf-mould? In an English wood there would be a foot— perhaps two feet—of black soil, renewed by every autumn leaf fall. Two feet? One has heard often enough of bison-hunting in Himalayan forests among Deodaras one hundred and fifty feet high, and scarlet Rhododendrons thirty feet high, growing in fifteen or twenty feet of leaf-and-timber mould. And here, in a forest equally ancient, every plant is growing out of the bare yellow loam, as it might in a well- hoed garden bed. Is it not strange?

Most strange; till you remember where you are—in one of Nature's hottest and dampest laboratories. Nearly eighty inches of yearly rain and more than eighty degrees of perpetual heat make swift work with vegetable fibre, which, in our cold and sluggard clime, would curdle into leaf-mould, perhaps into peat. Far to the north, in poor old Ireland, and far to the south, in Patagonia, begin the zones of peat, where dead vegetable fibre, its treasures of light and heat locked up, lies all but useless age after age. But this is the zone of illimitable sun-force, which destroys as swiftly as it generates, and generates again as swiftly as it destroys. Here, when the forest giant falls, as some tell me that they have heard him fall, on silent nights, when the cracking of the roots below and the lianes aloft rattles like musketry through the woods, till the great trunk comes down, with a boom as of a heavy gun, re-echoing on from mountain-side to mountain-side; then—

'Nothing in him that doth fade, But doth suffer an air-change Into something rich and strange.'

Under the genial rain and genial heat the timber tree itself, all its tangled ruin of lianes and parasites, and the boughs and leaves snapped off not only by the blow, but by the very wind, of the falling tree—all melt away swiftly and peacefully in a few months— say almost a few days—into the water, and carbonic acid, and sunlight, out of which they were created at first, to be absorbed instantly by the green leaves around, and, transmuted into fresh forms of beauty, leave not a wrack behind. Explained thus—and this I believe to be the true explanation—the absence of leaf-mould is one of the grandest, as it is one of the most startling, phenomena of the forest.

Look here at a fresh wonder. Away in front of us a smooth gray pillar glistens on high. You can see neither the top nor the bottom of it. But its colour, and its perfectly cylindrical shape, tell you what it is—a glorious Palmiste; one of those queens of the forest which you saw standing in the fields; with its capital buried in the green cloud and its base buried in that bank of green velvet plumes, which you must skirt carefully round, for they are a prickly dwarf palm, called here black Roseau. {137a} Close to it rises another pillar, as straight and smooth, but one-fourth of the diameter—a giant's walking-cane. Its head, too, is in the green cloud. But near are two or three younger ones only forty or fifty feet high, and you see their delicate feather heads, and are told that they are Manacques; {137b} the slender nymphs which attend upon the forest queen, as beautiful, though not as grand, as she.

The land slopes down fast now. You are tramping through stiff mud, and those Roseaux are a sign of water. There is a stream or gully near: and now for the first time you can see clear sunshine through the stems; and see, too, something of the bank of foliage on the other side of the brook. You catch sight, it may be, of the head of a tree aloft, blazing with golden trumpet flowers, which is a Poui; and of another lower one covered with hoar-frost, perhaps a Croton; {137c} and of another, a giant covered with purple tassels. That is an Angelim. Another giant overtops even him. His dark glossy leaves toss off sheets of silver light as they flicker in the breeze; for it blows hard aloft outside while you are in stifling calm. That is a Balata. And what is that on high?—Twenty or thirty square yards of rich crimson a hundred feet above the ground. The flowers may belong to the tree itself. It may be a Mountain- mangrove, {137d} which I have never seen, in flower: but take the glasses and decide. No. The flowers belong to a liane. The 'wonderful' Prince of Wales's Feather {137e} has taken possession of the head of a huge Mombin, {137f} and tiled it all over with crimson combs which crawl out to the ends of the branches, and dangle twenty or thirty feet down, waving and leaping in the breeze. And over all blazes the cloudless blue.

You gaze astounded. Ten steps downward, and the vision is gone. The green cloud has closed again over your head, and you are stumbling in the darkness of the bush, half blinded by the sudden change from the blaze to the shade. Beware. 'Take care of the Croc-chien!' shouts your companion: and you are aware of, not a foot from your face, a long, green, curved whip, armed with pairs of barbs some four inches apart; and are aware also, at the same moment, that another has seized you by the arm, another by the knees, and that you must back out, unless you are willing to part with your clothes first, and your flesh afterwards. You back out, and find that you have walked into the tips—luckily only into the tips—of the fern-like fronds of a trailing and climbing palm such as you see in the Botanic Gardens. That came from the East, and furnishes the rattan-canes. This {138a} furnishes the gri-gri- canes, and is rather worse to meet, if possible, than the rattan. Your companion, while he helps you to pick the barbs out, calls the palm laughingly by another name, 'Suelta-mi-Ingles'; and tells you the old story of the Spanish soldier at San Josef. You are near the water now; for here is a thicket of Balisiers. {138b} Push through, under their great plantain-like leaves. Slip down the muddy bank to that patch of gravel. See first, though, that it is not tenanted already by a deadly Mapepire, or rattlesnake, which has not the grace, as his cousin in North America has, to use his rattle.

The brooklet, muddy with last night's rain, is dammed and bridged by winding roots, in shape like the jointed wooden snakes which we used to play with as children. They belong probably to a fig, whose trunk is somewhere up in the green cloud. Sit down on one, and look, around and aloft. From the soil to the sky, which peeps through here and there, the air is packed with green leaves of every imaginable hue and shape. Round our feet are Arums, {138c} with snow-white spadixes and hoods, one instance among many here of brilliant colour developing itself in deep shade. But is the darkness of the forest actually as great as it seems? Or are our eyes, accustomed to the blaze outside, unable to expand rapidly enough, and so liable to mistake for darkness air really full of light reflected downward, again and again, at every angle, from the glossy surfaces of a million leaves? At least we may be excused; for a bat has made the same mistake, and flits past us at noonday. And there is another—No; as it turns, a blaze of metallic azure off the upper side of the wings proves this one to be no bat, but a Morpho—a moth as big as a bat. And what was that second larger flash of golden green, which dashed at the moth, and back to yonder branch not ten feet off? A Jacamar {138d}—kingfisher, as they miscall her here, sitting fearless of man, with the moth in her long beak. Her throat is snowy white, her under-parts rich red brown. Her breast, and all her upper plumage and long tail, glitter with golden green. There is light enough in this darkness, it seems. But now a look again at the plants. Among the white-flowered Arums are other Arums, stalked and spotted, of which beware; for they are the poisonous Seguine-diable, {139a} the dumb-cane, of which evil tales were told in the days of slavery. A few drops of its milk, put into the mouth of a refractory slave, or again into the food of a cruel master, could cause swelling, choking, and burning agony for many hours.

Over our heads bend the great arrow leaves and purple leafstalks of the Tanias; {139b} and mingled with them, leaves often larger still: oval, glossy, bright, ribbed, reflecting from their underside a silver light. They belong to Arumas; {139c} and from their ribs are woven the Indian baskets and packs. Above these, again, the Balisiers bend their long leaves, eight or ten feet long apiece; and under the shade of the leaves their gay flower-spikes, like double rows of orange and black birds' beaks upside down. Above them, and among them, rise stiff upright shrubs, with pairs of pointed leaves, a foot long some of them, pale green above, and yellow or fawn- coloured beneath. You may see, by the three longitudinal nerves in each leaf, that they are Melastomas of different kinds—a sure token they that you are in the Tropics—a probable token that you are in Tropical America.

And over them, and among them, what a strange variety of foliage: look at the contrast between the Balisiers and that branch which has thrust itself among them, which you take for a dark copper-coloured fern, so finely divided are its glossy leaves. It is really a Mimosa—Bois Mulatre, {139d} as they call it here. What a contrast again, the huge feathery fronds of the Cocorite palms which stretch right away hither over our heads, twenty and thirty feet in length. And what is that spot of crimson flame hanging in the darkest spot of all from an under-bough of that low weeping tree? A flower-head of the Rosa del Monte. {139e} And what is that bright straw- coloured fox's brush above it, with a brown hood like that of an Arum, brush and hood nigh three feet long each? Look—for you require to look more than once, sometimes more than twice—here, up the stem of that Cocorite, or as much of it as you can see in the thicket. It is all jagged with the brown butts of its old fallen leaves; and among the butts perch broad-leaved ferns, and fleshy Orchids, and above them, just below the plume of mighty fronds, the yellow fox's brush, which is its spathe of flower.

What next? Above the Cocorites dangle, amid a dozen different kinds of leaves, festoons of a liane, or of two, for one has purple flowers, the other yellow—Bignonias, Bauhinias—what not? And through them a Carat {140a} palm has thrust its thin bending stem, and spread out its flat head of fan-shaped leaves twenty feet long each: while over it, I verily believe, hangs eighty feet aloft the head of the very tree upon whose roots we are sitting. For amid the green cloud you may see sprigs of leaf somewhat like that of a weeping willow; {140b} and there, probably, is the trunk to which they belong, or rather what will be a trunk at last. At present it is like a number of round-edged boards of every size, set on end, and slowly coalescing at their edges. There is a slit down the middle of the trunk, twenty or thirty feet long. You may see the green light of the forest shining through it. Yes. That is probably the fig; or, if not, then something else. For who am I, that I should know the hundredth part of the forms on which we look?—And above all you catch a glimpse of that crimson mass of Norantea which we admired just now; and, black as yew against the blue sky and white cloud, the plumes of one Palmiste, who has climbed toward the light, it may be for centuries, through the green cloud; and now, weary and yet triumphant, rests her dark head among the bright foliage of a Ceiba, and feeds unhindered on the sun.

There, take your tired eyes down again; and turn them right, or left, or where you will, to see the same scene, and yet never the same. New forms, new combinations; a wealth of creative Genius—let us use the wise old word in its true sense—incomprehensible by the human intellect or the human eye, even as He is who makes it all, Whose garment, or rather Whose speech, it is. The eye is not filled with seeing, or the ear with hearing; and never would be, did you roam these forests for a hundred years. How many years would you need merely to examine and discriminate the different species? And when you had done that, how many more to learn their action and reaction on each other? How many more to learn their virtues, properties, uses? How many more to answer the perhaps ever unanswerable question—How they exist and grow at all? By what miracle they are compacted out of light, air, and water, each after its kind? How, again, those kinds began to be, and what they were like at first? Whether those crowded, struggling, competing shapes are stable or variable? Whether or not they are varying still? Whether even now, as we sit here, the great God may not be creating, slowly but surely, new forms of beauty round us? Why not? If He chose to do it, could He not do it? And even had you answered that question, which would require whole centuries of observation as patient and accurate as that which Mr. Darwin employed on Orchids and climbing plants, how much nearer would you be to the deepest question of all—Do these things exist, or only appear? Are they solid realities, or a mere phantasmagoria, orderly indeed, and law- ruled, but a phantasmagoria still; a picture-book by which God speaks to rational essences, created in His own likeness? And even had you solved that old problem, and decided for Berkeley or against him, you would still have to learn from these forests a knowledge which enters into man, not through the head, but through the heart; which (let some modern philosophers say what they will) defies all analysis, and can be no more defined or explained by words than a mother's love. I mean, the causes and the effects of their beauty; that 'AEsthetic of plants,' of which Schleiden has spoken so well in that charming book of his, The Plant, which all should read who wish to know somewhat of 'The Open Secret.'

But when they read it, let them read with open hearts. For that same 'Open Secret' is, I suspect, one of those which God may hide from the wise and prudent, and yet reveal to babes.

At least, so it seemed to me, the first day that I went, awe struck, into the High Woods; and so it seemed to me, the last day that I came, even more awe-struck, out of them.



CHAPTER VIII: LA BREA



We were, of course, desirous to visit that famous Lake of Pitch, which our old nursery literature described as one of the 'Wonders of the World.' It is not that; it is merely a very odd, quaint, unexpected, and only half-explained phenomenon: but no wonder. That epithet should be kept for such matters as the growth of a crystal, the formation of a cell, the germination of a seed, the coming true of a plant, whether from a fruit or from a cutting: in a word, for any and all those hourly and momentary miracles which were attributed of old to some Vis Formatrix of nature; and are now attributed to some other abstract formula, as they will be to some fresh one, and to a dozen more, before the century is out; because the more accurately and deeply they are investigated, the more inexplicable they will be found.

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