At Last
by Charles Kingsley
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

I scrambled down on gravelly beaches, and gazed up the green avenues of the brooks. I sat amid the Balisiers and Aroumas, above still blue pools, bridged by huge fallen trunks, or with wild Pines of half a dozen kinds set in rows: I watched the shoals of fish play in and out of the black logs at the bottom: I gave myself up to the simple enjoyment of looking, careless of what I looked at, or what I thought about it all. There are times when the mind, like the body, had best feed, gorge if you will, and leave the digestion of its food to the unconscious alchemy of nature. It is as unwise to be always saying to oneself, 'Into what pigeon-hole of my brain ought I to put this fact, and what conclusion ought I to draw from it?' as to ask your teeth how they intend to chew, and your gastric juice how it intends to convert your three courses and a dessert into chyle. Whether on a Scotch moor or in a tropic forest, it is well at times to have full faith in Nature; to resign yourself to her, as a child upon a holiday; to be still and let her speak. She knows best what to say.

And yet I could not altogether do it that day. There was one class of objects in the forest which I had set my heart on examining, with all my eyes and soul; and after a while, I scrambled and hewed my way to them, and was well repaid for a quarter of an hour's very hard work.

I had remarked, from the camp, palms unlike any I had seen before, starring the opposite forest with pale gray-green leaves. Long and earnestly I had scanned them through the glasses. Now was the time to see them close, and from beneath. I soon guessed (and rightly) that I was looking at that Palma de Jagua, {246} which excited—and no wonder—the enthusiasm of the usually unimpassioned Humboldt. Magnificent as the tree is when its radiating leaves are viewed from above, it is even more magnificent when you stand beneath it. The stem, like that of the Coconut, usually curves the height of a man ere it rises in a shaft for fifty or sixty feet more. From the summit of that shaft springs a crown—I had rather say, a fountain— of pinnated leaves; only eight or ten of them; but five-and-twenty feet long each. For three-fourths of their length they rise at an angle of 45 degrees or more; for the last fourth they fall over, till the point hangs straight down; and each leaflet, which is about two feet and a half long, falls over in a similar curve, completing the likeness of the whole to a fountain of water, or a gush of rockets. I stood and looked up, watching the innumerable curled leaflets, pale green above and silver-gray below, shiver and rattle amid the denser foliage of the broad-leaved trees; and then went on to another and to another, to stare up again, and enjoy the mere shape of the most beautiful plant I had ever beheld, excepting always the Musa Ensete, from Abyssinia, in the Palm-house at Kew. Truly spoke Humboldt, of this or a closely allied species, 'Nature has lavished every beauty of form on the Jagua Palm.'

But here, as elsewhere to my great regret, I looked in vain for that famous and beautiful tree, the Piriajo, {247} or 'Peach Palm,' which is described in Mr. Bates's book, vol ii. p. 218, under the name of Pupunha. It grows here and there in the island, and always marks the site of an ancient Indian settlement. This is probable enough, for 'it grows,' says Mr. Bates, 'wild nowhere on the Amazons. It is one of those few vegetable productions (including three kinds of Manioc and the American species of Banana) which the Indians have cultivated from time immemorial, and brought with them in their original migration to Brazil.' From whence? It has never yet been found wild; 'its native home may possibly,' Mr. Bates thinks, 'be in some still unexplored tract on the eastern slopes of the AEquatorial Andes.' Possibly so: and possibly, again, on tracts long sunk beneath the sea. He describes the tree as 'a noble ornament, from fifty to sixty feet in height, and often as straight as a scaffold- pole. The taste of the fruit may be compared to a mixture of chestnuts and cheese. Vultures devour it greedily, and come in quarrelsome flocks to the trees when it is ripe. Dogs will also eat it. I do not recollect seeing cats do the same, though they will go into the woods to eat Tucuma, another kind of palm fruit.'

'It is only the more advanced tribes,' says Mr. Bates, 'who have kept up the cultivation. . . . Bunches of sterile or seedless fruits'—a mark of very long cultivation, as in the case of the Plantain—'occur. . . . It is one of the principal articles of food at Ega when in season, and is boiled and eaten with treacle or salt. A dozen of the seedless fruits make a good nourishing meal for a full-grown person. It is the general belief that there is more nutriment in Pupunha than in fish, or Vacca Marina (Manati).'

My friend Mr. Bates will, I am sure, excuse my borrowing so much from him about a tree which must be as significant in his eyes as it is in mine.

So passed many hours, till I began to be tired of—I may almost say, pained by—the appalling silence and loneliness; and I was glad to get back to a point where I could hear the click of the axes in the clearing. I welcomed it just as, after a long night on a calm sea, when one nears the harbour again, one welcomes the sound of the children's voices and the stir of life about the quay, as a relief from the utter blank, and feels oneself no longer a bubble afloat on an infinity which knows one not, and cares nothing for one's existence. For in the dead stillness of mid-day, when not only the deer, and the agoutis, and the armadillos, but the birds and insects likewise, are all asleep, the crack of a falling branch was all that struck my ear, as I tried in vain to verify the truth of that beautiful passage of Humboldt's—true, doubtless, in other forests, or for ears more acute than mine. 'In the mid-day,' he says, {248a} 'the larger animals seek shelter in the recesses of the forest, and the birds hide themselves under the thick foliage of the trees, or in the clefts of the rocks: but if, in this apparent entire stillness of nature, one listens for the faintest tones which an attentive ear can seize, there is perceived an all-pervading rustling sound, a humming and fluttering of insects close to the ground, and in the lower strata of the atmosphere. Everything announces a world of organic activity and life. In every bush, in the cracked bark of the trees, in the earth undermined by hymenopterous insects, life stirs audibly. It is, as it were, one of the many voices of Nature, and can only be heard by the sensitive and reverent ear of her true votaries.'

Be not too severe, great master. A man's ear may be reverent enough: but you must forgive its not being sensitive while it is recovering from that most deafening of plagues, a tropic cold in the head.

Would that I had space to tell at length of our long and delightful journey back the next day, which lay for several miles along the path by which we came, and then, after we had looked down once more on the exquisite bay of Fillette, kept along the northern wall of the mountains, instead of turning up to the slope which we came over out of Caura. For miles we paced a mule-path, narrow, but well kept—as it had need to be; for a fall would have involved a roll into green abysses, from which we should probably not have reascended. Again the surf rolled softly far below; and here and there a vista through the trees showed us some view of the sea and woodlands almost as beautiful as that at Fillette. Ever and anon some fresh valuable tree or plant, wasting in the wilderness, was pointed out. More than once we became aware of a keen and dreadful scent, as of a concentrated essence of unwashed tropic humanity, which proceeded from that strange animal, the porcupine with a prehensile tail, {248b} who prowls in the tree-tops all night, and sleeps in them all day, spending his idle hours in making this hideous smell. Probably he or his ancestors have found it pay as a protection; for no jaguar or tiger-cat, it is to be presumed, would care to meddle with anything so exquisitely nasty, especially when it is all over sharp prickles.

Once—I should know the spot again among a thousand—where we scrambled over a stony brook just like one in a Devonshire wood, the boulders and the little pools between them swarmed with things like scarlet and orange fingers, or sticks of sealing-wax, which we recognised, and, looking up, saw a magnificent Bois Chataigne, {249a}—Pachira, as the Indians call it,—like a great horse- chestnut, spreading its heavy boughs overhead. And these were the fallen petals of its last-night's crop of flowers, which had opened there, under the moonlight, unseen and alone. Unseen and alone? How do we know that?

Then we emerged upon a beach, the very perfection of typical tropic shore, with little rocky coves, from one to another of which we had to ride through rolling surf, beneath the welcome shade of low shrub-fringed cliffs; while over the little mangrove-swamp at the mouth of the glen, Tocuche rose sheer, like M'Gillicuddy's Reeks transfigured into one huge emerald.

We turned inland again, and stopped for luncheon at a clear brook, running through a grove of Cacao and Bois Immortelles. We sat beneath the shade of a huge Bamboo clump; cut ourselves pint-stoups out of the joints; and then, like great boys, got, some of us at least, very wet in fruitless attempts to catch a huge cray-fish nigh eighteen inches long, blue and gray, and of a shape something between a gnat and a spider, who, with a wife and child, had taken up his abode in a pool among the spurs of a great Bois Immortelle. However, he was too nimble for us; and we went on, and inland once more, luckily not leaving our bamboo stoups behind.

We descended, I remember, to the sea-shore again, at a certain Maraccas Bay, and had a long ride along bright sands, between surf and scrub; in which ride, by the by, the civiliser of Montserrat and I, to avoid the blinding glare of the sand, rode along the firm sand between the sea and the lagoon, through the low wood of Shore Grape and Mahaut, Pinguin and Swamp Seguine {249b}—which last is an Arum with a knotted stem, from three to twelve feet high. We brushed our way along with our cutlasses, as we sat on our saddles, enjoying the cool shade; till my companion's mule found herself jammed tight in scrub, and unable to forge either ahead or astern. Her rider was jammed too, and unable to get off; and the two had to be cut out of the bush by fair hewing, amid much laughter, while the wise old mule, as the cutlasses flashed close to her nose, never moved a muscle, perfectly well aware of what had happened, and how she was to be got out of the scrape, as she had been probably fifty times before.

We stopped at the end of the long beach, thoroughly tired and hungry, for we had been on the march many hours; and discovered for the first time that we had nothing left to eat. Luckily, a certain little pot of 'Ramornie' essence of soup was recollected and brought out. The kettle was boiling in five minutes, and half a teaspoonful per man of the essence put on a knife's point, and stirred with a cutlass, to the astonishment of the grinning and unbelieving Negroes, who were told that we were going to make Obeah soup, and were more than half of that opinion themselves. Meanwhile, I saw the wise mule led up into the bush; and, on asking its owner why, was told that she was to be fed—on what, I could not see. But, much to my amusement, he cut down a quantity of the young leaves of the Cocorite palm; and she began to eat them greedily, as did my police-horse. And, when the bamboo stoups were brought out, and three-quarters of a pint of good soup was served round—not forgetting the Negroes, one of whom, after sucking it down, rubbed his stomach, and declared, with a grin, that it was very good Obeah- -the oddness of the scene came over me. The blazing beach, the misty mountains, the hot trade-wind, the fantastic leaves overhead, the black limbs and faces, the horses eating palm-leaves, and we sitting on logs among the strange ungainly Montrichardias, drinking 'Ramornie' out of bamboo, washing it down with milk from green coconuts—was this, too, a scene in a pantomime? Would it, too, vanish if one only shut one's eyes and shook one's head?

We turned up into the loveliest green trace, where, I know not how, the mountain vegetation had, some of it, come down to the sea-level. Nowhere did I see the Melastomas more luxuriant; and among them, arching over our heads like parasols of green lace, between us and the sky, were tall tree-ferns, as fine as those on the mountain slopes.

In front of us opened a flat meadow of a few acres; and beyond it, spur upon spur, rose a noble mountain, in so steep a wall that it was difficult to see how we were to ascend.

Ere we got to the mountain foot, some of our party had nigh come to grief. For across the Savanna wandered a deep lagoon brook. The only bridge had been washed away by rains; and we had to get the horses through as we could, all but swimming them, two men on each horse; and then to drive the poor creatures back for a fresh double load, with fallings, splashings, much laughter, and a qualm or two at the recollection that there might be unpleasant animals in the water. Electric eels, happily, were not invented at the time when Trinidad parted from the Main, or at least had not spread so far east: but alligators had been by that time fully developed, and had arrived here in plenty; and to be laid hold of by one, would have been undesirable; though our party was strong enough to have made very short work with the monster.

So over we got, and through much mud, and up mountains some fifteen hundred feet high, on which the vegetation was even richer than any we had seen before; and down the other side, with the great lowland and the Gulf of Paria opening before us. We rested at a police- station—always a pleasant sight in Trinidad, for the sake of the stalwart soldier-like brown policemen and their buxom wives, and neat houses and gardens a focus of discipline and civilisation amid what would otherwise relapse too soon into anarchy and barbarism; we whiled away the time by inspecting the ward police reports, which were kept as neatly, and worded as well, as they would have been in England; and then rolled comfortably in the carriage down to Port of Spain, tired and happy, after three such days as had made old blood and old brains young again.


The last of my pleasant rides, and one which would have been perhaps the pleasantest of all, had I had (as on other occasions) the company of my host, was to the Cocal, or Coco-palm grove, of the east coast, taking on my way the Savanna of Aripo. It had been our wish to go up the Orinoco, as far as Ciudad Bolivar (the Angostura of Humboldt's travels), to see the new capital of Southern Venezuela, fast rising into wealth and importance under the wise and pacific policy of its president, Senor Dalla Costa, a man said to possess a genius and an integrity far superior to the average of South American Republicans—of which latter the less said the better; to push back, if possible, across those Llanos which Humboldt describes in his Personal Narrative, vol. iv. p. 295; it may be to visit the Falls of the Caroni. But that had to be done by others, after we were gone. My days in the island were growing short; and the most I could do was to see at Aripo a small specimen of that peculiar Savanna vegetation, which occupies thousands of square miles on the mainland.

If, therefore, the reader cares nothing for botanical and geological speculations, he will be wise to skip this chapter. But those who are interested in the vast changes of level and distribution of land which have taken place all over the world since the present forms of animals and vegetables were established on it, may possibly find a valuable fact or two in what I thought I saw at the Savanna of Aripo.

My first point was, of course, the little city of San Josef. To an Englishman, the place will be always interesting as the scene of Raleigh's exploit, and the capture of Berreos; and, to one who has received the kindness which I have received from the Spanish gentlemen of the neighbourhood, a spot full of most grateful memories. It lies pleasantly enough, on a rise at the southern foot of the mountains, and at the mouth of a torrent which comes down from the famous 'Chorro,' or waterfall, of Maraccas. In going up to that waterfall, just at the back of the town, I found buried, in several feet of earth, a great number of seemingly recent but very ancient shells. Whether they be remnants of an elevated sea-beach, or of some Indian 'kitchen-midden,' I dare not decide. But the question is well worth the attention of any geologist who may go that way. The waterfall, and the road up to it, are best described by one who, after fourteen years of hard scientific work in the island, now lies lonely in San Fernando churchyard, far from his beloved Fatherland—he, or at least all of him that could die. I wonder whether that of him which can never die, knows what his Fatherland is doing now? But to the waterfall of Maraccas, or rather to poor Dr. Krueger's description of it:—

'The northern chain of mountains, covered nearly everywhere with dense forests, is intersected at various angles by numbers of valleys presenting the most lovely character. Generally each valley is watered by a silvery stream, tumbling here and there over rocks and natural dams, ministering in a continuous rain to the strange- looking river-canes, dumb-canes, and balisiers that voluptuously bend their heads to the drizzly shower which plays incessantly on their glistening leaves, off which the globules roll in a thousand pearls, as from the glossy plumage of a stately swan.

'One of these falls deserves particular notice—the Cascade of Maraccas—in the valley of that name. The high road leads up the valley a few miles, over hills, and along the windings of the river, exhibiting the varying scenery of our mountain district in the fairest style. There, on the river-side, you may admire the gigantic pepper-trees, or the silvery leaves of the Calathea, the lofty bamboo, or the fragrant Pothos, the curious Cyclanthus, or frowning nettles, some of the latter from ten to twelve feet high. But how to describe the numberless treasures which everywhere strike the eye of the wandering naturalist?

'To reach the Chorro, or Cascade, you strike to the right into a "path" that brings you first to a cacao plantation, through a few rice or maize fields, and then you enter the shade of the virgin forest. Thousands of interesting objects now attract your attention: here, the wonderful Norantea or the resplendent Calycophyllum, a Tabernaemontana or a Faramea filling the air afar off with the fragrance of their blossoms; there, a graceful Heliconia winking at you from out some dark ravine. That shrubbery above is composed of a species of Boehmeria or Ardisia, and that scarlet flower belongs to our native Aphelandra. In the rear are one or two Philodendrons—disagreeable guests, for their smell is bad enough, and they blister when imprudently touched. There also you may see a tree-fern, though a small one. Nearer to us, and low down beneath our feet, that rich panicle of flowers belongs to a Begonia; and here also is an assemblage of ferns of the genera Asplenium, Hymenophyllum, and Trichomanes, as well as of Hepaticae and Mosses. But what are those yellow and purple flowers hanging above our heads? They are Bignonias and Mucunas—creepers straying from afar which have selected this spot, where they may, under the influence of the sun's beams, propagate their race. Those chain- like, fantastic, strange-looking lianes, resembling a family of boas, are Bauhinias; and beyond, through the opening you see, in the abandoned ground of some squatter's garden, the trumpet-tree (Cecropia) and the groo-groo, the characteristic plants of the rastrajo.

'Now, let us proceed on our walk; we mean the cascade:—Here it is, opposite to you, a grand spectacle indeed! From a perpendicular wall of solid rock, of more than three hundred feet, down rushes a stream of water, splitting in the air, and producing a constant shower, which renders this lovely spot singularly and deliciously cool. Nearly the whole extent of this natural wall is covered with plants, among which you can easily discern numbers of ferns and mosses, two species of Pitcairnia with beautiful red flowers, some Aroids, various nettles, and here and there a Begonia. How different such a spot would look in cold Europe! Below, in the midst of a never-failing drizzle, grow luxuriant Ardisias, Aroids, Ferns, Costas, Heliconias, Centropogons, Hydrocotyles, Cyperoids, and Grasses of various genera, Tradescantias and Commelynas, Billbergias, and, occasionally, a few small Rubiaceae and Melastomaceae.'

The cascade, when I saw it, was somewhat disfigured above and below. Above, the forest-fires of last year had swept the edge of the cliff, and had even crawled half-way down, leaving blackened rocks and gray stems; and below, loyal zeal had cut away only too much of the rich vegetation, to make a shed or stable, in anticipation of a visit from the Duke of Edinburgh, who did not come. A year or two, however, in this climate will heal these temporary scars, and all will be as luxuriant as ever. Indeed such scars heal only too fast here. For the paths become impassable from brush and weeds every six months, and have to be cutlassed out afresh; and when it was known that we were going up to the waterfall, a gang had to be set to work to save the lady of the party being wetted through by leaf- dew up to her shoulders, as she sat upon her horse. Pretty it was— a bit out of an older and more simple world—to see the yeoman- gentleman who had contracted for the mending of the road, and who counts among his ancestors the famous Ponce de Leon, meeting us half-way on our return; dressed more simply, and probably much poorer, than an average English yeoman: but keeping untainted the stately Castilian courtesy, as with hat in hand—I hope I need not say that my hat was at my saddle-bow all the while—he inquired whether La Senorita had found the path free from all obstructions, and so forth.

'The old order changes, giving place to the new: Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.'

But when, two hundred years hence, there are no more such gentlemen of the old school left in the world, what higher form of true civilisation shall we have invented to put in its place? None as yet. All our best civilisation, in every class, is derived from that; from the true self respect which is founded on respect for others.

From San Josef, I was taken on in the carriage of a Spanish gentleman through Arima, a large village where an Indian colony makes those baskets and other wares from the Arouma-leaf for which Trinidad is noted; and on to his estate at Guanapo, a pleasant lowland place, with wide plantations of Cacao, only fourteen years old, but in full and most profitable bearing; rich meadows with huge clumps of bamboo; and a roomy timber-house, beautifully thatched with palm, which serves as a retreat, in the dry season, for him and his ladies, when baked out of dusty San Josef. On my way there, by the by, I espied, and gathered for the first and last time, a flower very dear to me—a crimson Passion flower, rambling wild over the bush.

When we arrived, the sun was still so high in heaven that the kind owner offered to push on that very afternoon to the Savanna of Aripo, some five miles off. Police-horses had arrived from Arima, in one of which I recognised my trusty old brown cob of the Northern Mountains, and laid hands on him at once; and away three or four of us went, the squire leading the way on his mule, with cutlass and umbrella, both needful enough.

We went along a sandy high road, bordered by a vegetation new to me. Low trees, with wiry branches and shining evergreen leaves, which belonged, I was told, principally to the myrtle tribe, were overtopped by Jagua palms, and packed below with Pinguins; with wild pine-apples, whose rose and purple flower-heads were very beautiful; and with a species of palm of which I had often heard, but which I had never seen before, at least in any abundance, namely, the Timit, {256a} the leaves of which are used as thatch. A low tree, seldom rising more than twenty or thirty feet, it throws out wedge shaped leaves some ten or twelve feet long, sometimes all but entire, sometimes irregularly pinnate, because the space between the straight and parallel side nerves has not been filled up. These flat wedge-shaped sheets, often six feet across, and the oblong pinnae, some three feet long by six inches to a foot in breadth, make admirable thatch; and on emergency, as we often saw that day, good umbrellas. Bundles of them lay along the roadside, tied up, ready for carrying away, and each Negro or Negress whom we passed carried a Timit-leaf, and hooked it on to his head when a gush of rain came down.

After a while we turned off the high road into a forest path, which was sound enough, the soil being one sheet of poor sand and white quartz gravel, which would in Scotland, or even Devonshire, have carried nothing taller than heath, but was here covered with impenetrable jungle. The luxuriance of this jungle, be it remembered, must not delude a stranger, as it has too many ere now, into fancying that the land would be profitable under cultivation. As long as the soil is shaded and kept damp, it will bear an abundant crop of woody fibre, which, composed almost entirely of carbon and water, drains hardly any mineral constituents from the soil. But if that jungle be once cleared off, the slow and careful work of ages has been undone in a moment. The burning sun bakers up everything; and the soil, having no mineral staple wherewith to support a fresh crop if planted, is reduced to aridity and sterility for years to come. Timber, therefore, I believe, and timber only, is the proper crop for these poor soils, unless medicinal or otherwise useful trees should be discovered hereafter worth the planting. To thin out the useless timbers—but cautiously, for fear of letting in the sun's rays—and to replace them by young plants of useful timbers, is all that Government can do with the poorer bits of these Crown lands, beyond protecting (as it does now to the best of its power) the natural crop of Timit-leaves from waste and destruction. So much it ought to do; and so much it can and will do in Trinidad, which—happily for it—possesses a Government which governs, instead of leaving every man, as in the Irishman's paradise, to 'do what is right in the sight of his own eyes, and what is wrong too, av he likes.' Without such wise regulation, and even restraint, of the ignorant greediness of human toil, intent only (as in the too exclusive cultivation of the sugar-cane and of the cotton-plant) on present profits, without foresight or care for the future, the lands of warmer climates will surely fall under that curse, so well described by the venerable Elias Fries, of Lund. {257a}

'A broad belt of waste land follows gradually in the steps of cultivation. If it expands, its centre and its cradle dies, and on the outer borders only do we find green shoots. But it is not impossible, only difficult, for man, without renouncing the advantage of culture itself, one day to make reparation for the injury which he has inflicted; he is the appointed lord of creation. True it is that thorns and thistles, ill-favoured and poisonous plants, well named by botanists "rubbish-plants," mark the track which man has proudly traversed through the earth. Before him lay original Nature in her wild but sublime beauty. Behind him he leaves the desert, a deformed and ruined land; for childish desire of destruction or thoughtless squandering of vegetable treasures has destroyed the character of Nature; and, terrified, man himself flies from the arena of his actions, leaving the impoverished earth to barbarous races or to animals, so long as yet another spot in virgin beauty smiles before him. Here, again, in selfish pursuit of profit, and, consciously or unconsciously, following the abominable principle of the great moral vileness which one man has expressed— "Apres nous le deluge"—he begins anew the work of destruction. Thus did cultivation, driven out, leave the East, and perhaps the Deserts formerly robbed of their coverings: like the wild hordes of old over beautiful Greece, thus rolls the conquest with fearful rapidity from east to west through America; and the planter now often leaves the already exhausted land, the eastern climate becomes infertile through the demolition of the forests, to introduce a similar revolution into the far West.'

For a couple of miles or more we trotted on through this jungle, till suddenly we saw light ahead; and in five minutes the forest ended, and a scene opened before us which made me understand the admiration which Humboldt and other travellers have expressed at the far vaster Savannas of the Orinoco.

A large sheet of gray-green grass, bordered by the forest wall, as far as the eye could see, and dotted with low bushes, weltered in mirage; while stretching out into it, some half a mile off, a gray promontory into a green sea, was an object which filled me with more awe and admiration than anything which I had seen in the island.

It was a wood of Moriche palms; like a Greek temple, many hundred yards in length, and, as I guessed, nearly a hundred feet in height; and, like a Greek temple, ending abruptly at its full height. The gray columns, perfectly straight and parallel, supported a dark roof of leaves, gray underneath, and reflecting above, from their broad fans, sheets of pale glittering-light. Such serenity of grandeur I never saw in any group of trees; and when we rode up to it, and tethered our horses in its shade, it seemed to me almost irreverent not to kneel and worship in that temple not made with hands.

When we had gazed our fill, we set hastily to work to collect plants, as many as the lateness of the hour and the scalding heat would allow. A glance showed the truth of Dr. Krueger's words:—

'It is impossible to describe the feelings of the botanist when arriving at a field like this, so much unlike anything he has seen before. Here are full-blowing large Orchids, with red, white, and yellow flowers; and among the grasses, smaller ones of great variety, and as great scientific interest—Melastomaceous plants of various genera; Utricularias, Droseras, rare and various grasses, and Cyperoids of small sizes and fine kinds, with a species of Cassytha; in the water, Ceratophyllum (the well-known hornwort of the English ponds) and bog-mosses. Such a variety of forms and colours is nowhere else to be met with in the island.'

Of the Orchids, we only found one in flower; and of the rest, of course, we had time only to gather a very few of the more remarkable, among which was that lovely cousin of the Clerodendrons, the crimson Amasonia, which ought to be in all hothouses. The low bushes, I found, were that curious tree the Chaparro, {259a} but not the Chaparro {259b} so often mentioned by Humboldt as abounding on the Llanos. This Chaparro is remarkable, first, for the queer little Natural Order to which it belongs; secondly, for its tanning properties; thirdly, for the very nasty smell of its flowers; fourthly, for the roughness of its leaves, which make one's flesh creep, and are used, I believe, for polishing steel; and lastly, for its wide geographical range, from Isla de Pinos, near Cuba—where Columbus, to his surprise, saw true pines growing in the Tropics— all over the Llanos, and down to Brazil; an ancient, ugly, sturdy form of vegetation, able to get a scanty living out of the poorest soils, and consequently triumphant, as yet, in the battle of life.

The soil of the Savanna was a poor sandy clay, treacherous, and often impassable for horses, being half dried above and wet beneath. The vegetation grew, not over the whole, but in innumerable tussocks, which made walking very difficult. The type of the rushes and grasses was very English; but among them grew, here and there, plants which excited my astonishment; above all, certain Bladder- worts, {259c} which I had expected to find, but which, when found, were so utterly unlike any English ones, that I did not recognise at first what they were. Our English Bladder-worts, as everybody knows, float in stagnant water on tangles of hair-like leaves, something like those of the Water-Ranunculus, but furnished with innumerable tiny bladders; and this raft supports the little scape of yellow snapdragon-like flowers. There are in Trinidad and other parts of South America Bladder-worts of this type. But those which we found to-day, growing out of the damp clay, were more like in habit to a delicate stalk of flax, or even a bent of grass, upright, leafless or all but leafless, with heads of small blue or yellow flowers, and carrying, in one species, a few very minute bladders about the roots, in another none at all. A strange variation from the normal type of the family; yet not so strange, after all, as that of another variety in the high mountain woods, which, finding neither ponds to float in nor swamp to root in, has taken to lodging as a parasite among the wet moss on tree-trunks; not so strange, either, as that of yet another, which floats, but in the most unexpected spots, namely, in the water which lodges between the leaf-sheaths of the wild pines, perched on the tree-boughs, a parasite on parasites; and sends out long runners, as it grows, along the bough, in search of the next wild pine and its tiny reservoirs.

In the face of such strange facts, is it very absurd to guess that these Utricularias, so like each other in their singular and highly specialised flowers, so unlike each other in the habit of the rest of the plant, have started from some one original type perhaps long since extinct; and that, carried by birds into quite new situations, they have adapted themselves, by natural selection, to new circumstances, changing the parts which required change—the leaves and stalks; but keeping comparatively unchanged those which needed no change—the flowers?

But I was not prepared, as I should have been had I studied my Griesbach's West Indian Flora carefully enough beforehand, for the next proof of the wide distribution of water-plants. For as I scratched and stumbled among the tussocks, 'larding the lean earth as I stalked along,' my kind guide put into my hand, with something of an air of triumph, a little plant, which was—there was no denying it—none other than the long-leaved Sundew, {260a} with its clammy-haired paws full of dead flies, just as they would have been in any bog in Devonshire or in Hampshire, in Wales or in Scotland. But how came it here? And more, how has it spread, not only over the whole of Northern Europe, Canada, and the United States, but even as far south as Brazil? Its being common to North America and Europe is not surprising. It may belong to that comparatively ancient Flora which existed when there was land way between the two continents by way of Greenland, and the bison ranged from Russia to the Rocky Mountains. But its presence within the Tropics is more probably explained by supposing that it, like the Bladder-worts, has been carried on the feet or in the crop of birds.

The Savanna itself, like those of Caroni and Piarco, offers, I suspect, a fresh proof that a branch of the Orinoco once ran along the foot of the northern mountains of Trinidad.

'It is impossible,' says Humboldt, {260b} 'to cross the burning plains' (of the Orinocquan Savannas) 'without inquiring whether they have always been in the same state; or whether they have been stripped of their vegetation by some revolution of nature. The stratum of mould now found on them is very thin. . . . The plains were, doubtless, less bare in the fifteenth century than they are now; yet the first Conquistadores, who came from Coro, described them then as Savannas, where nothing could be perceived save the sky and the turf; which were generally destitute of trees, and difficult to traverse on account of the reverberation of heat from the soil. Why does not the great forest of the Oroonoco extend to the north, or the left bank of that river? Why does it not fill that vast space that reaches as far as the Cordillera of the coast, and which is fertilised by various rivers? This question is connected with all that relates to the history of our planet. If, indulging in geological reveries, we suppose that the Steppes of America and the desert of Sahara have been stripped of their vegetation by an irruption of the ocean, or that they formed the bottom of an inland lake'—(the Sahara, as is now well known, is the quite recently elevated bed of a great sea continuous with the Atlantic)—'we may conceive that thousands of years have not sufficed for the trees and shrubs to advance toward the centre from the borders of the forests, from the skirts of the plains either naked or covered with turf, and darken so vast a space with their shade. It is more difficult to explain the origin of bare savannas enclosed in forests, than to recognise the causes which maintain forests and savannas within their ancient limits like continents and seas.'

With these words in my mind, I could not but look on the Savanna of Aripo as one of the last-made bits of dry land in Trinidad, still unfurnished with the common vegetation of the island. The two invading armies of tropical plants—one advancing from the north, off the now almost destroyed land which connected Trinidad and the Cordillera with the Antilles; the other from the south-west, off the utterly destroyed land which connected Trinidad with Guiana—met, as I fancy, ages since, on the opposite banks of a mighty river, or estuary, by which the Orinoco entered the ocean along the foot of the northern mountains. As that river-bed rose and became dry land, the two Floras crossed and intermingled. Only here and there, as at Aripo, are left patches, as it were, of a third Flora, which once spread uninterruptedly along the southern base of the Cordillera and over the lowland which is now the Gulf of Paria, along the alluvial flats of the mighty stream; and the Moriche palms of Aripo may be the lineal descendants of those which now inhabit the Llanos of the main; as those again may be the lineal descendants of the Moriches which Schomburgk found forming forests among the mountains of Guiana, up to four thousand feet above the sea. Age after age the Moriche apples floated down the stream, settling themselves on every damp spot not yet occupied by the richer vegetation of the forests, and ennobled, with their solitary grandeur, what without them would have been a dreary waste of mud and sand.

These Savannas of Trinidad stand, it must be remembered, in the very line where, on such a theory, they might be expected to stand, along the newest deposit; the great band of sand, gravel, and clay rubbish which stretches across the island at the mountain-foot, its highest point in thirty-six miles being only two hundred and twenty feet—an elevation far less than the corresponding depression of the Bocas, which has parted Trinidad from the main Cordillera. That the rubbish on this line was deposited by a river or estuary is as clear to me as that the river was either a very rapid one, or subject to violent and lofty floods, as the Orinoco is now. For so are best explained, not merely the sheets of gravel, but the huge piles of boulder which have accumulated at the mouth of the mountain gorges on the northern side.

As for the southern shore of this supposed channel of the Orinoco, it at once catches the eye of any one standing on the northern range. He must see that he is on one shore of a vast channel, the other shore of which is formed by the Montserrat, Tamana, and Manzanilla hills; far lower now than the northern range, Tamana only being over a thousand feet, but doubtless, in past ages, far higher than now. No one can doubt this who has seen the extraordinary degradation going on still about the summits, or who remembers that the strata, whether tertiary or lower chalk, have been, over the greater part of the island, upheaved, faulted, set on end, by the convulsions seemingly so common during the Miocene epoch, and since then sawn away by water and air into one rolling outline, quite independent of the dip of the strata. The whole southern two thirds of Trinidad represent a wear and tear which is not to be counted by thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of years; and yet which, I verily believe, has taken place since the average plants, trees, and animals of the island dwelt therein.

This elevation may have well coincided with the depression of the neighbouring Gulf of Paria. That the southern portion of that gulf was once dry land; that the Serpent's Mouth did not exist when the present varieties of plants and animals were created, is matter of fact, proven by the identity of the majority of plants and animals on both shores. How else—to give a few instances out of hundreds— did the Mora, the Brazil-nut, the Cannon-ball tree: how else did the Ant-eater, the Coendou, the two Cuencos, the Guazupita deer, enter Trinidad? Humboldt—though, unfortunately, he never visited the island—saw this at a glance. While he perceived that the Indian story, how the Boca Drago to the north had been only lately broken through, had a foundation of truth, 'It cannot be doubted,' he says, 'that the Gulf of Paria was once an inland basin, and the Punta Icacque (its south-western extremity) united to the Punta Toleto, east of the Boca de Pedernales.' {262} In which case there may well have been—one may almost say there must have been—an outlet for that vast body of water which pours, often in tremendous floods, from the Pedernales' mouth of the Orinoco, as well as from those of the Tigre, Guanipa, Caroli, and other streams between it and the Cordillera on the north; and this outlet probably lay along the line now occupied by the northern Savannas of Trinidad.

So much this little natural park of Aripo taught, or seemed to teach me. But I did not learn the whole of the lesson that afternoon, or indeed till long after. There was no time then to work out such theories. The sun was getting low, and more intolerable as he sank; and to escape a sunstroke on the spot, or at least a dark ride home, we hurried off into the forest shade, after one last look at the never-to-be-forgotten Morichal, and trotted home to luxury and sleep.


Next day, like the 'Young Muleteers of Grenada,' a good song which often haunted me in those days,

'With morning's earliest twinkle Again we are up and gone,'

with two horses, two mules, and a Negro and a Coolie carrying our scanty luggage in Arima baskets: but not without an expression of pity from the Negro who cleaned my boots. 'Where were we going?' To the east coast. Cuffy turned up what little nose he had. He plainly considered the east coast, and indeed Trinidad itself, as not worth looking at. 'Ah! you should go Barbadoes, sa. Dat de country to see. I Barbadian, sa.' No doubt. It is very quaint, this self-satisfaction of the Barbadian Negro. Whether or not he belonged originally to some higher race—for there are as great differences of race among Negroes as among any white men—he looks down on the Negroes, and indeed on the white men, of other islands, as beings of an inferior grade; and takes care to inform you in the first five minutes that he is 'neider C'rab nor Creole, but true Barbadian barn.' This self-conceit of his, meanwhile, is apt to make him unruly, and the cause of unruliness in others when he emigrates. The Barbadian Negroes are, I believe, the only ones who give, or ever have given, any trouble in Trinidad; and in Barbadoes itself, though the agricultural Negroes work hard and well, who that knows the West Indies knows not the insubordination of the Bridgetown boatmen, among whose hands a traveller and his luggage are, it is said, likely enough to be pulled in pieces? However, they are rather more quiet just now; for not a thousand years ago a certain steamer's captain, utterly unable to clear his quarter of the fleet of fighting, jabbering brown people, turned the steam pipe on them. At which quite unexpected artillery they fled precipitately; and have had some rational respect for a steamer's quarter ever since. After all, I do not deny that this man's being a Barbadian opened my heart to him at once, for old sakes' sake.

Another specimen of Negro character I was to have analysed, or tried to analyse, at the estate where I had slept. M. F—- had lately caught a black servant at the brook-side busily washing something in a calabash, and asked him what was he doing there? The conversation would have been held, of course, in French-Spanish-African—Creole patois, a language which is becoming fixed, with its own grammar and declensions, etc. A curious book on it has lately been published in Trinidad by Mr. Thomas, a coloured gentleman, who seems to be at once no mean philologer and no mean humorist. The substance of the Negro's answer was, 'Why, sir, you sent me to the town to buy a packet of sugar and a packet of salt; and coming back it rained so hard, the packets burst, and the salt was all washed into the sugar. And so—I am washing it out again.' . . .

This worthy was to have been brought to me, that I might discover, if possible, by what processes of 'that which he was pleased to call his mind' he had arrived at the conclusion that such a thing could be done. Clearly, he could not plead unavoidable ignorance of the subject-matter, as might the old cook at San Josef, who, the first time her master brought home Wenham Lake ice from Port of Spain, was scandalised at the dirtiness of the 'American water,' washed off the sawdust, and dried the ice in the sun. His was a case of Handy- Andyism, as that intellectual disease may be named, after Mr. Lover's hero; like that of the Obeah-woman, when she tried to bribe the white gentleman with half a dozen of bottled beer; a case of muddle-headed craft and elaborate silliness, which keeps no proportion between the means and the end; so common in insane persons; frequent, too, among the lower Irish, such as Handy Andy; and very frequent, I am afraid, among the Negroes. But—as might have been expected—the poor boy's moral sense had proved as shaky as his intellectual powers. He had just taken a fancy to some goods of his master's; and had retreated, to enjoy them the more securely, into the southern forests, with a couple of brown policemen on his track. So he was likely to undergo a more simple investigation than that which was submitted to my analysis, viz. how he proposed to wash the salt out of the sugar.

We arrived after a while at Valencia, a scattered hamlet in the woods, with a good shop or 'store' upon a village green, under the verandah whereof lay, side by side with bottled ale and biscuit tins, bags of Carapo {265} nuts; trapezoidal brown nuts—enclosed originally in a round fruit—which ought some day to form a valuable article of export. Their bitter anthelminthic oil is said to have medicinal uses; but it will be still more useful for machinery, as it has—like that curious flat gourd the Sequa {266a}—the property of keeping iron from rust. The tree itself, common here and in Guiana, is one of the true Forest Giants; we saw many a noble specimen of it in our rides. Its timber is tough, not over heavy, and extensively used already in the island; while its bark is a febrifuge and tonic. In fact it possesses all those qualities which make its brethren, the Meliaceae, valuable throughout the Tropics. But it is not the only tree of South America whose bark may be used as a substitute for quinine. They may be counted possibly by dozens. A glance at the excellent enumerations of the uses of vegetable products to be found in Lindley's Vegetable Kingdom (a monument of learning) will show how God provides, how man neglects and wastes. As a single instance, the Laurels alone are known already to contain several valuable febrifuges, among which the Demerara Greenheart, or Bibiri, {266b} claims perhaps the highest rank. 'Dr. Maclagan has shown,' says Dr. Lindley, 'that sulphate of Bibiri acts with rapid and complete success in arresting ague.' This tree spreads from Jamaica to the Spanish Main. It is plentiful in Trinidad; still more plentiful in Guiana; and yet all of it which reaches Europe is a little of its hard beautiful wood for the use of cabinetmakers; while in Demerara, I am assured by an eye-witness, many tons of this precious Greenheart bark are thrown away year by year. So goes the world; and man meanwhile at once boasts of his civilisation, and complains of the niggardliness of Nature.

But if I once begin on this subject I shall not know where to end.

Our way lay now for miles along a path which justified all that I had fancied about the magnificent possibilities of landscape gardening in the Tropics. A grass drive, as we should call it in England—a 'trace,' as it is called in the West Indies—some sixty feet in width, and generally carpeted with short turf, led up hill and down dale; for the land, though low, is much ridged and gullied, and there has been as yet no time to cut down the hills, or to metal the centre of the road. It led, as the land became richer, through a natural avenue even grander than those which I had already seen. The light and air, entering the trace, had called into life the undergrowth and lower boughs, till from the very turf to a hundred and fifty feet in height rose one solid green wall, spangled here and there with flowers. Below was Mamure, Roseau, Timit, Aroumas, and Tulumas, {266c} mixed with Myrtles and Melastomas; then the copper Bois Mulatres among the Cocorite and Jagua palms; above them the heads of enormous broad-leaved trees of I know not how many species; and the lianes festooning all from cope to base. The crimson masses of Norantea on the highest tree-tops were here most gorgeous; but we had to beware of staring aloft too long, for fear of riding into mud-holes—for the wet season would not end as yet, though dry weather was due—or, even worse, into the great Parasol- ant warrens, which threatened, besides a heavy fall, stings innumerable. At one point, I recollect, a gold-green Jacamar sat on a log and looked at me till I was within five yards of her. At another we heard the screams of Parrots; at another, the double note of the Toucan; at another, the metallic clank of the Bell-bird, or what was said to be the Bell-bird. But this note was not that solemn and sonorous toll of the Campanese of the mainland which is described by Waterton and others. It resembled rather the less poetical sound of a woman beating a saucepan to make a swarm of bees settle.

At one point we met a gang of Negroes felling timber to widen the road. Fresh fallen trees, tied together with lianes, lay everywhere. What a harvest for the botanist was among them! I longed to stay there a week to examine and collect. But time pressed; and, indeed, collecting plants in the wet season is a difficult and disappointing work. In an air saturated with moisture specimens turn black and mouldy, and drop to pieces; and unless turned over and exposed to every chance burst of sunshine, the labour of weeks is lost, if indeed meanwhile the ants, and other creeping things, have not eaten the whole into rags.

Among these Negroes was one who excited my astonishment; not merely for his size, though he was perhaps the tallest man whom I saw among the usually tall Negroes of Trinidad; but for his features, which were altogether European of the highest type; the forehead high and broad, the cheek-bones flat, the masque long and oval, and the nose aquiline and thin enough for any prince. Conscious of his own beauty and strength, he stood up among the rest as an old Macedonian might have stood up among the Egyptians he had conquered. We tried to find out his parentage. My companions presumed he was an 'African,' i.e. imported during the times of slavery. He said No: that he was a Creole, island born; but his father, it appeared, had been in one of our Negro regiments, and had been settled afterwards on a Government grant of land. Whether his beauty was the result of 'atavism'—of the reappearance, under the black skin and woolly hair, of some old stain of white blood; or whether, which is more probable, he came of some higher African race; one could not look at him without hopeful surmises as to the possible rise of the Negro, and as to the way in which it will come about—the only way in which any race has permanently risen, as far as I can ascertain; namely, by the appearance among them of sudden sports of nature; individuals of an altogether higher type; such a man as that terrible Daaga, whose story has been told. If I am any judge of physiognomy, such a man as that, having—what the Negro has not yet had—'la carriere ouverte aux talents,' might raise, not himself merely, but a whole tribe, to an altogether new level in culture and ability.

Just after passing this gang we found, lying by the road, two large snakes, just killed, which I would gladly have preserved had it been possible. They were, the Negroes told us, 'Dormillons,' or 'Mangrove Cascabel,' a species as yet, I believe, undescribed; and, of course, here considered as very poisonous, owing to their likeness to the true Cascabel, {268} whose deadly fangs are justly dreaded by the Lapo hunter. For the Cascabel has a fancy for living in the Lapo's burrow, as does the rattlesnake in that of the prairie dog in the Western United States, and in the same friendly and harmless fashion; and is apt, when dug out, to avenge himself and his host by a bite which is fatal in a few hours. But these did not seem to me to have the heads of poisonous snakes; and, in spite of the entreaties of the terrified Negroes, I opened their mouths to judge for myself, and found them, as I expected, utterly fangless and harmless. I was not aware then that Dr. De Verteuil had stated the same fact in print; but I am glad to corroborate it, for the benefit of at least the rational people in Trinidad: for snakes, even poisonous ones, should be killed as seldom as possible. They feed on rats and vermin, and are the farmer's good friend, whether in the Tropics or in England; and to kill a snake, or even an adder- -who never bites any one if he is allowed to run away—is, in nineteen cases out of twenty, mere wanton mischief.

The way was beguiled, if I recollect rightly, for some miles on, by stories about Cuba and Cuban slavery from one of our party. He described the political morality of Cuba as utterly dissolute; told stories of great sums of money voted for roads which are not made to this day, while the money had found its way into the pockets of Government officials; and, on the whole, said enough to explain the determination of the Cubans to shake off Spanish misrule, and try what they could do for themselves on this earth. He described Cuban slavery as, on the whole, mild; corporal punishment being restricted by law to a few blows, and very seldom employed: but the mildness seemed dictated rather by self-interest than by humanity. 'Ill-use our slaves?' said a Cuban to him. 'We cannot afford it. You take good care of your four-legged mules: we of our two-legged ones.' The children, it seems, are taken away from the mothers, not merely because the mothers are needed for work, but because they neglect their offspring so much that the children have more chance of living—and therefore of paying—if brought up by hand. So each estate has, or had, its creche, as the French would call it—a great nursery, in which the little black things are reared, kindly enough, by the elder ladies of the estate. To one old lady, who wearied herself all day long in washing, doctoring, and cramming the babies, my friend expressed pity for all the trouble she took about her human brood. 'Oh dear no,' answered she; 'they are a great deal easier to rear than chickens.' The system, however, is nearly at an end. Already the Cuban Revolution has produced measures of half- emancipation; and in seven years' time probably there will not be a slave in Cuba.

We waded stream after stream under the bamboo clumps, and in one of them we saw swimming a green rigoise, or whip-snake, which must have been nearly ten feet long. It swam with its head and the first two feet of its body curved aloft like a swan, while the rest of the body lay along the surface of the water in many curves—a most graceful object as it glided away into dark shadow along an oily pool. At last we reached an outlying camp, belonging to one of our party who was superintending the making of new roads in that quarter, and there rested our weary limbs, some in hammock, some on the tables, some, again, on the clay floor. Here I saw, as I saw every ten minutes, something new—that quaint vegetable plaything described by Humboldt and others; namely, the spathe of the Timit palm. It encloses, as in most palms, a branched spadix covered with innumerable round buds, most like a head of millet, two feet and a half long: but the spathe, instead of splitting and forming a hood over the flowers, as in the Cocorite and most palms, remains entire, and slips off like the finger of a glove. When slipped off, it is found to be made of two transverse layers of fibre—a bit of veritable natural lace, similar to, though far less delicate than, the famous lace-bark of the Lagetta-tree, peculiar, I believe, to one district in the Jamaica mountains. And as it is elastic and easily stretched, what hinders the brown child from pulling it out till it makes an admirable fool's cap, some two feet high, and exactly the colour of his own skin, and dancing about therein, the fat oily little Cupidon, without a particle of clothing beside? And what wonder if we grown-up whites made fools' caps too, for children on the other side of the Atlantic? During which process we found— what all said they had never seen before—that one of the spadices carried two caps, one inside the other, and one exactly like the other; a wanton superfluity of Nature, which I should like to hear explained by some morphologist.

We rode away from that hospitable group of huts, whither we were to return in two or three days; and along the green trace once more. As we rode, M—- the civiliser of Montserrat and I side by side, talking of Cuba, and staring at the Noranteas overhead, a dull sound was heard, as if the earth had opened; as indeed it had, engulfing in the mud the whole forehand of M—-'s mule; and there he knelt, his beard outspread upon the clay, while the mule's visage looked patiently out from under his left arm. However, it was soft falling there. The mule was hauled out by main force. As for cleaning either her or the rider, that was not thought of in a country where they were sure to be as dirty as ever in an hour; and so we rode on, after taking a note of the spot, and, as it happened, forgetting it again—one of us at least.

On again, along the green trace, which rose now to a ridge, with charming glimpses of wooded hills and glens to right and left; past comfortable squatters' cottages, with cacao drying on sheets at the doors or under sheds; with hedges of dwarf Erythrina, dotted with red jumby beads, and here and there that pretty climbing vetch, the Overlook. {270} I forgot, by the by, to ask whether it is planted here, as in Jamaica, to keep off the evil eye, or 'overlook'; whence its name. Nor can I guess what peculiarity about the plant can have first made the Negro fix on it as a fetish. The genesis of folly is as difficult to analyse as the genesis of most other things.

All this while the dull thunder of the surf was growing louder and louder; till, not as in England over a bare down, but through thickest foliage down to the high tide mark, we rode out upon the shore, and saw before us a right noble sight; a flat, sandy, surf beaten shore, along which stretched, in one grand curve, lost at last in the haze of spray, fourteen miles of Coco palms.

This was the Cocal; and it was worth coming all the way from England to see it alone. I at once felt the truth of my host's saying, that if I went to the Cocal I should find myself transported suddenly from the West Indies to the East. Just such must be the shore of a Coral island in the Pacific.

These Cocos, be it understood, are probably not indigenous. They spread, it is said, from an East Indian vessel which was wrecked here. Be that as it may, they have thoroughly naturalised themselves. Every nut which falls and lies, throws out, during the wet season, its roots into the sand; and is ready to take the place of its parent when the old tree dies down.

About thirty to fifty feet is the average height of these Coco palms, which have all, without exception, a peculiarity which I have noticed to a less degree in another sand- and shore-growing tree, the Pinaster of the French Landes. They never spring-upright from the ground. The butt curves, indeed lies almost horizontal in some cases, for the lowest two or three yards; and the whole stem, up to the top, is inclined to lean; it matters not toward which quarter, for they lean as often toward the wind as from it, crossing each other very gracefully. I am not mechanician enough to say how this curve of the stem increases their security amid loose sands and furious winds. But that it does so I can hardly doubt, when I see a similar habit in the Pinaster. Another peculiarity was noteworthy: their innumerable roots, long, fleshy, about the thickness of a large string, piercing the sand in every direction, and running down to high-tide mark, apparently enjoying the salt water, and often piercing through bivalve shells, which remained strung upon the roots. Have they a fondness for carbonate of lime, as well as for salt?

The most remarkable, and to me unexpected, peculiarity of a Cocal is one which I am not aware whether any writer has mentioned; namely, the prevalence of that amber hue which we remarked in the very first specimens seen at St. Thomas's. But this is, certainly, the mark which distinguishes the Coco palm, not merely from the cold dark green of the Palmiste, or the silvery gray of the Jagua, but from any other tree which I have ever seen.

When inside the Cocal, the air is full of this amber light. Gradually the eye analyses the cause of it, and finds it to be the resultant of many other hues, from bright vermilion to bright green. Above, the latticed light which breaks between and over the innumerable leaflets of the fruit fronds comes down in warmest green. It passes not over merely, but through, the semi-transparent straw and amber of the older leaves. It falls on yellow spadices and flowers, and rich brown spathes, and on great bunches of green nuts, to acquire from them more yellow yet; for each fruit-stalk and each flower-scale at the base of the nut is veined and tipped with bright orange. It pours down the stems, semi-gray on one side, then yellow, and then, on the opposite side, covered with a powdery lichen varying in colour from orange up to clear vermilion, and spreads itself over a floor of yellow sand and brown fallen nuts, and the only vegetation of which, in general, is a long crawling Echites, with pairs of large cream-white flowers. Thus the transparent shade is flooded with gold. One looks out through it at the chequer-work of blue sky, all the more intense from its contrast; or at a long whirl of white surf and gray spray; or, turning the eyes inland toward the lagoon, at dark masses of mangrove, above which rise, black and awful, the dying balatas, stag-headed, blasted, tottering to their fall; and all as through an atmosphere of Rhine wine, or from the inside of a topaz.

We rode along, mile after mile, wondering at many things. First, the innumerable dry fruits of Timit palm, which lay everywhere; mostly single, some double, a few treble, from coalition, I suppose, of the three carpels which every female palm flower ought to have, but of which it usually develops only one. They may have been brought down the lagoon from inland by floods; but the common belief is, that most of them come from the Orinoco itself, as do also the mighty logs which lie about the beach in every stage of wear and tear; and which, as fast as they are cut up and carried away, are replaced by fresh ones. Some of these trees may actually come from the mainland, and, drifting into this curving bay, be driven on shore by the incessant trade wind. But I suspect that many of them are the produce of the island itself; and more, that they have grown, some of them, on the very spot where they now lie. For there are, I think, evidences of subsidence going on along this coast. Inside the Cocal, two hundred yards to the westward, stretches inland a labyrinth of lagoons and mangrove swamps, impassable to most creatures save alligators and boa-constrictors. But amid this labyrinth grow everywhere mighty trees—balatas in plenty among them, in every stage of decay; dying, seemingly, by gradual submergence of their roots, and giving a ghastly and ragged appearance to the forest. At the mouth of the little river Nariva, a few miles down, is proof positive, unless I am much mistaken, of similar subsidence. For there I found trees of all sizes—roseau scrub among them—standing rooted below high-tide mark; and killed where they grew.

So we rode on, stopping now and then to pick up shells; chip-chips, {274a} which are said to be excellent eating; a beautiful purple bivalve, {274b} to which, in almost every case, a coralline {274c} had attached itself, of a form quite new to me. A lash some eighteen inches long, single or forked; purplish as long as its coat of lime—holding the polypes—still remained, but when that was rubbed off a mere round strip of dark horn; and in both cases flexible and elastic, so that it can be coiled up and tied in knots; a very curious and graceful piece of Nature's workmanship. Among them were curious flat cake-urchins, with oval holes punched in them, so brittle that, in spite of all our care, they resolved themselves into the loose sand of which they had been originally compact; and I could therefore verify neither their genus nor their species.

These were all, if I recollect, that we found that day. The next day we came on hundreds of a most beautiful bivalve, {274d} their purple colour quite fresh, their long spines often quite uninjured. Some change of the sandy bottom had unearthed a whole warren of the lovely things; and mixed with chip-chips innumerable, and with a great bivalve {274e} with a thin wing along the anterior line of the shell, they strewed the shore for a quarter of a mile and more.

We came at last to a little river, or rather tideway, leading from the lagoon to the sea, which goes by the name of Doubloon River. Some adventurous Spaniard, the story goes, contracted to make a cutting which would let off the lagoon water in time of flood for the sum of one doubloon—some three pound five; spent six times the money on it; and found his cutting, when once the sea had entered, enlarge into a roaring tideway, dangerous, often impassable, and eating away the Cocal rapidly toward the south; Mother Earth, in this case at least, having known her own business better than the Spaniard.

How we took off our saddles, sat down on the sand, hallooed, waited; how a black policeman—whose house was just being carried away by the sea—appeared at last with a canoe; how we and our baggage got over one by one in the hollow log without—by seeming miracle—being swept out to sea or upset: how some horses would swim, and others would not; how the Negroes held on by the horses till they all went head over ears under the surf; and how, at last, breathless with laughter and anxiety for our scanty wardrobes, we scrambled ashore one by one into prickly roseau, re-saddled our horses in an atmosphere of long thorns, and then cut our way and theirs out through scrub into the Cocal;—all this should not be written in these pages, but drawn for the benefit of Punch, by him who drew the egg-stealing frog—whose pencil I longed for again and again amid the delightful mishaps of those forest rambles, in all of which I never heard a single grumble, or saw temper lost for a moment. We should have been rather more serious, though, than we were, had we been aware that the river-god, or presiding Jumby, of the Doubloon was probably watching us the whole time, with the intention of eating any one whom he could catch, and only kept in wholesome awe by our noise and splashing.

At last, after the sun had gone down, and it was ill picking our way among logs and ground-creepers, we were aware of lights; and soon found ourselves again in civilisation, and that of no mean kind. A large and comfortable house, only just rebuilt after a fire, stood among the palm-trees, between the sea and the lagoon; and behind it the barns, sheds, and engine-houses of the coco-works; and inside it a hearty welcome from a most agreeable German gentleman and his German engineer. A lady's hand—I am sorry to say the lady was not at home—was evident enough in the arrangements of the central room. Pretty things, a piano, and good books, especially Longfellow and Tennyson, told of cultivation and taste in that remotest wilderness. The material hospitality was what it always is in the West Indies; and we sat up long into the night around the open door, while the surf roared, and the palm trees sighed, and the fireflies twinkled, talking of dear old Germany, and German unity, and the possibility of many things which have since proved themselves unexpectedly most possible. I went to bed, and to somewhat intermittent sleep. First, my comrades, going to bed romping, like English schoolboys, and not in the least like the effeminate and luxurious Creoles who figure in the English imagination, broke a four-post bedstead down among them with hideous roar and ruin; and had to be picked up and called to order by their elders. Next, the wind, which ranged freely through the open roof, blew my bedclothes off. Then the dogs exploded outside, probably at some henroost-robbing opossum, and had a chevy through the cocos till they tree'd their game, and bayed it to their hearts' content. Then something else exploded—and I do not deny it set me more aghast than I had been for many a day— exploded, I say, under the window, with a shriek of Hut-hut-tut-tut, hut-tut, such as I hope never to hear again. After which, dead silence; save of the surf to the east and the toads to the west. I fell asleep, wondering what animal could own so detestable a voice; and in half an hour was awoke again by another explosion; after which, happily, the thing, I suppose, went its wicked way, for I heard it no more.

I found out the next morning that the obnoxious bird was not an owl, but a large goat-sucker, a Nycteribius, I believe, who goes by the name of jumby-bird among the English Negroes: and no wonder; for most ghostly and horrible is his cry. But worse: he has but one eye, and a glance from that glaring eye, as from the basilisk of old, is certain death: and worse still, he can turn off its light as a policeman does his lantern, and become instantly invisible: opinions which, if verified by experiment, are not always found to be in accordance with facts. But that is no reason why they should not be believed.

In St. Vincent, for instance, the Negroes one evening rushed shrieking out of a boiling-house, 'Oh! Massa Robert, we all killed. Dar one great jumby-bird come in a hole a-top a roof. Oh! Massa Robert, you no go in; you killed, we killed,' etc. etc. Massa Robert went in, and could see no bird. 'Ah, Massa Robert, him darky him eye, but him see you all da same. You killed, we killed,' etc. Da capo.

Massa Robert was not killed: but lives still, to the great benefit of his fellow-creatures, Negroes especially. Nevertheless, the Negroes held to their opinion. He might, could, would, or should have been killed; and was not that clear proof that they were right?

After this, who can deny that the Negro is a man and a brother, possessing the same reasoning faculties, and exercising them in exactly the same way, as three out of four white persons?

But if the night was disturbed, pleasant was the waking next morning; pleasant the surprise at finding that the whistling and howling air-bath of the night had not given one a severe cold, or any cold at all; pleasant to slip on flannel shut and trousers— shoes and stockings were needless—and hurry down through a stampede of kicking, squealing mules, who were being watered ere their day's work began, under the palms to the sea; pleasant to bathe in warm surf, into which the four-eyes squattered in shoals as one ran down, and the moment they saw one safe in the water, ran up with the next wave to lie staring at the sky; pleasant to sit and read one's book upon a log, and listen to the soft rush of the breeze in the palm- leaves, and look at a sunrise of green and gold, pink and orange, and away over the great ocean, and to recollect, with a feeling of mingled nearness and loneliness, that there was nothing save that watery void between oneself and England, and all that England held; and then, when driven in to breakfast by the morning shower, to begin a new day of seeing, and seeing, and seeing, certain that one would learn more in it than in a whole week of book-reading at home.

We spent the next morning in inspecting the works. We watched the Negroes splitting the coconuts with a single blow of that all-useful cutlass, which they handle with surprising dexterity and force, throwing the thick husk on one side, the fruit on the other. We saw the husk carded out by machinery into its component fibres, for coco-rope matting, coir-rope, saddle-stuffing, brushes, and a dozen other uses; while the fruit was crushed down for the sake of its oil; and could but wish all success to an industry which would be most profitable, both to the projectors and to the island itself, were it not for the uncertainty, rather than the scarcity, of labour. Almost everything is done, of course, by piecework. The Negro has the price of his labour almost at his own command; and when, by working really hard and well for a while, he has earned a little money, he throws up his job and goes off, careless whether the whole works stand still or not. However, all prosperity to the coco-works of Messrs. Uhrich and Gerold; and may the day soon come when the English of Trinidad, like the Ceylonese and the Dutch of Java, shall count by millions the coco-palms which they have planted along their shores, and by thousands of pounds the profit which accrues from them.

After breakfast—call it luncheon rather—we started for the lagoon. We had set our hearts on seeing Manatis ('sea cows'), which are still not uncommon on the east coast of this island, though they have been exterminated through the rest of the West Indies since the days of Pere Labat. That good missionary speaks of them in his delightful journal as already rare in the year 1695; and now, as far as I am aware, none are to be found north of Trinidad and the Spanish Main, save a few round Cuba and Jamaica. We were anxious, too, to see, if not to get, a boa-constrictor of one kind or other. For there are two kinds in the island, which may be seen alive at the Zoological Gardens in the same cage. The true Boa, {277a} which is here called Mahajuel, is striped as well as spotted with two patterns, one over the other. The Huillia, Anaconda, or Water-boa, {277b} bears only a few large round spots. Both are fond of the water, the Huillia living almost entirely in it; both grow to a very large size; and both are dangerous, at least to children and small animals. That there were Huillias about the place, possibly within fifty yards of the house, there was no doubt. One of our party had seen with his own eyes one of seven-and-twenty feet long killed, with a whole kid inside it, only a few miles off. The brown policeman, crossing an arm of the Guanapo only a month or two before, had been frightened by meeting one in the ford, which his excited imagination magnified so much that its head was on the one bank while its tail was on the other—a measurement which must, I think, be divided at least by three. But in the very spot in which we stood, some four years since, happened what might have been a painful tragedy. Four young ladies, whose names were mentioned to me, preferred, not wisely, a bathe in the still lagoon to one in the surf outside; and as they disported themselves, one of them felt herself seized from behind. Fancying that one of her sisters was playing tricks, she called out to her to let her alone; and looking up, saw, to her astonishment, her three sisters sitting on the bank, and herself alone. She looked back, and shrieked for help: and only just in time; for the Huillia had her. The other three girls, to their honour, dashed in to her assistance. The brute had luckily got hold, not of her poor little body, but of her bathing-dress, and held on stupidly. The girls pulled; the bathing-dress, which was, luckily, of thin cotton, was torn off; the Huillia slid back again with it in his mouth into the dark labyrinth of the mangrove-roots; and the girl was saved. Two minutes' delay, and his coils would have been round her; and all would have been over.

The sudden daring of these lazy and stupid animals is very great. Their brain seems to act like that of the alligator or the pike, paroxysmally, and by rare fits and starts, after lying for hours motionless as if asleep. But when excited, they will attempt great deeds. Dr. De Verteuil tells a story—and if he tells it, it must be believed—of some hunters who wounded a deer. The deer ran for the stream down a bank; but the hunters had no sooner heard it splash into the water than they heard it scream. They leapt down to the place, and found it in the coils of a Huillia, which they killed with the deer. And yet this snake, which had dared to seize a full- grown deer, could have had no hope of eating her; for it was only seven feet long.

We set out down a foul porter-coloured creek, which soon opened out into a river, reminding us, in spite of all differences, of certain alder and willow-fringed reaches of the Thames. But here the wood which hid the margin was altogether of mangrove; the common Rhizophoras, or black mangroves, being, of course, the most abundant. Over them, however, rose the statelier Avicennias, or white mangroves, to a height of fifty or sixty feet, and poured down from their upper branches whole streams of air-roots, which waved and creaked dolefully in the breeze overhead. But on the water was no breeze at all. The lagoon was still as glass; the sun was sickening; and we were glad to put up our umbrellas and look out from under them for Manatis and Boas. But the Manatis usually only come in at night, to put their heads out of water and browse on the lowest mangrove leaves; and the Boas hide themselves so cunningly, either altogether under water, or with only the head above, that we might have passed half a dozen without seeing them. The only chance, indeed, of coming across them, is when they are travelling from lagoon to lagoon, or basking on the mud at low tide.

So all the game which we saw was a lovely white Egret, {278} its back covered with those stiff pinnated plumes which young ladies— when they can obtain them—are only too happy to wear in their hats. He, after being civil enough to wait on a bough till one of us got a sitting shot at him, heard the cap snap, thought it as well not to wait till a fresh one was put on, and flapped away. He need not have troubled himself. The Negroes—but too apt to forget something or other—had forgotten to bring a spare supply; and the gun was useless.

As we descended, the left bank of the river was entirely occupied with cocos; and the contrast between them and the mangroves on the right was made all the more striking by the afternoon sun, which, as it sank behind the forest, left the mangrove wall in black shadow, while it bathed the palm-groves opposite with yellow light. In one of these palm-groves we landed, for we were right thirsty; and to drink lagoon water would be to drink cholera or fever. But there was plenty of pure water in the coco-trees, and we soon had our fill. A Negro walked—not climbed—up a stem like a four-footed animal, his legs and arms straight, his feet pressed flat against it, his hands clinging round it—a feat impossible, as far as I have seen, to an European—tossed us down plenty of green nuts; and our feast began.

Two or three blows with the cutlass, at the small end of the nut, cut off not only the pith-coat, but the point of the shell; and disclose—the nut being held carefully upright meanwhile—a cavity full of perfectly clear water, slightly sweet, and so cold (the pith-coat being a good non-conductor of heat) that you are advised, for fear of cholera, to flavour it with a little brandy. After draining this natural cup, you are presented with a natural spoon of rind, green outside and white within, and told to scoop out and eat the cream which lines the inside of the shell, a very delicious food in the opinion of Creoles. After which, if you are as curious as some of us were, you will sit down under the amber shade, and examine at leisure the construction and germination of these famous and royal nuts. Let me explain it, even at the risk of prolixity. The coat of white pith outside, with its green skin, will gradually develop and harden into that brown fibre of which matting is made. The clear water inside will gradually harden into that sweetmeat which little boys eat off stalls and barrows in the street; the first delicate deposit of which is the cream in the green nut. This is albumen, intended to nourish the young palm till it has grown leaves enough to feed on the air, and roots enough to feed on the soil; and the birth of that young palm is in itself a mystery and a miracle, well worth considering. Much has been written on it, of which I, unfortunately, have read very little; but I can at least tell what I have seen with my own eyes.

If you search among the cream-layer at the larger end of the nut, you will find, gradually separating itself from the mass, a little white lump, like the stalk of a very young mushroom. That is the ovule. In that lies the life, the 'forma formativa,' of the future tree. How that life works, according to its kind, who can tell? What it does, is this: it is locked up inside a hard woody shell, and outside that shell are several inches of tough tangled fibre. How can it get out, as soft and seemingly helpless as a baby's finger?

All know that there are three eyes in the monkey's face, as the children call it, at the butt of the nut. Two of these eyes are blind, and filled up with hard wood. They are rudiments—hints— that the nut ought to have, perhaps had uncounted ages since, not one ovule, but three, the type-number in palms. One ovule alone is left; and that is opposite the one eye which is less blind than the rest; the eye which a schoolboy feels for with his knife, when he wants to get out the milk.

As the nut lies upon the sand, in shade, and rain, and heat, that baby's finger begins boring its way, with unerring aim, out of the weakest eye. Soft itself, yet with immense wedging power, from the gradual accretion of tiny cells, it pierces the wood, and then rends right and left the tough fibrous coat. Just so may be seen—I have seen—a large flagstone lifted in a night by a crop of tiny soft toadstools which have suddenly blossomed up beneath it. The baby's finger protrudes at last, and curves upward toward the light, to commence the campaign of life: but it has meanwhile established, like a good strategist, a safe base of operations in its rear, from which it intends to draw supplies. Into the albuminous cream which lines the shell, and into the cavity where the milk once was, it throws out white fibrous vessels, which eat up the albumen for it, and at last line the whole inside of the shell with a white pith. The albumen gives it food wherewith to grow, upward and downward. Upward, the white plumule hardens into what will be a stem; the one white cotyledon which sheaths it develops into a flat, ribbed, forked, green leaf, sheathing it still; and above it fresh leaves, sheathing always at their bases, begin to form a tiny crown; and assume each, more and more, the pinnate form of the usual coco-leaf. But long ere this, from the butt of the white plumule, just outside the nut, white threads of root have struck down into the sand; and so the nut lies, chained to the ground by a bridge-like chord, which drains its albumen, through the monkey's eye, into the young plant. After a while—a few months, I believe—the draining of the nut is complete; the chord dries up—I know not how, for I had neither microscope nor time wherewith to examine—and parts; and the little plant, having got all it can out of its poor wet-nurse, casts her ungratefully off to wither on the sand; while it grows up into a stately tree, which will begin to bear fruit in six or seven years, and thenceforth continue, flowering and fruiting the whole year round without a pause, for sixty years and more.

I think I have described this—to me—'miraculum' simply enough to be understood by the non-scientific reader, if only he or she have first learned the undoubted fact—known, I find, to very few 'educated' English people—that the coco-palm which produces coir- rope, and coconuts, and a hundred other useful things, is not the same plant as the cacao-bush which produces chocolate, nor anything like it. I am sorry to have to insist upon this fact: but till Professor Huxley's dream—and mine—is fulfilled, and our schools deign to teach, in the intervals of Latin and Greek, some slight knowledge of this planet, and of those of its productions which are most commonly in use, even this fact may need to be re-stated more than once.

We re-embarked again, and rowed down to the river-mouth to pick up shells, and drink in the rich roaring trade breeze, after the choking atmosphere of the lagoon; and then rowed up home, tired, and infinitely amused, though neither Manati nor Boa-constrictor had been seen; and then we fell to siesta; during which—with Mr. Tennyson's forgiveness—I read myself to sleep with one of his best poems; and then went to dinner, not without a little anxiety.

For M—- (the civiliser of Montserrat) had gone off early, with mule, cutlass, and haversack, back over the Doubloon and into the wilds of Manzanilla, to settle certain disputed squatter claims, and otherwise enforce the law; and now the night had fallen, and he was not yet home. However, he rode up at last, dead beat, with a strong touch of his old swamp-fever, and having had an adventure, which had like to have proved his last. For as he rode through the Doubloon at low tide in the morning, he espied in the surf that river-god, or Jumby, of which I spoke just now; namely, the gray back-fin of a shark; and his mule espied it too, and laid back her ears, knowing well what it was. M—- rode close up to the brute. He seemed full seven feet long, and eyed him surlily, disinclined to move off; so they parted, and M—- went on his way. But his business detained him longer than he expected; when he got back to the river-mouth it was quite dark, and the tide was full high. He must either sleep on the sands, which with fever upon him would not have been over-safe, or try the passage. So he stripped, swam the mule over, tied her up, and then went back, up to his shoulders in surf; and cutlass in hand too, for that same shark might be within two yards of him. But on his second journey he had to pile on his head, first his saddle, and then his clothes and other goods; few indeed, but enough to require both hands to steady them: and so walked helpless through the surf, expecting every moment to be accosted by a set of teeth, from which he would hardly have escaped with life. To have faced such a danger, alone and in the dark, and thoroughly well aware, as an experienced man, of its extremity, was good proof (if any had been needed) of the indomitable Scots courage of the man. Nevertheless, he said, he never felt so cold down his back as he did during that last wade. By God's blessing the shark was not there, or did not see him; and he got safe home, thankful for dinner and quinine.

Going back the next morning at low tide, we kept a good look-out for M—-'s shark, spreading out, walkers and riders, in hopes of surrounding him and cutting him up. There were half a dozen weapons among us, of which my heavy bowie-knife was not the worst; and we should have given good account of him had we met him, and got between him and the deep water. But our valour was superfluous. The enemy was nowhere to be seen; and we rode on, looking back wistfully, but in vain, for a gray fin among the ripples.

So we rode back, along the Cocal and along that wonderful green glade, where I, staring at Noranteas in tree-tops, instead of at the ground beneath my horse's feet, had the pleasure of being swallowed up—my horse's hindquarters at least—in the very same slough which had engulfed M—-'s mule three days before, and got a roll in much soft mud. Then up to —-'s camp, where we expected breakfast, not with greediness, though we had been nigh six hours in the saddle, but with curiosity. For he had promised to send out the hunters for all game that could be found, and give us a true forest meal; and we were curious to taste what lapo, quenco, guazupita-deer, and other strange meats might be like. Nay, some of us agreed, that if the hunters had but brought in a tender young red monkey, {282a} we would surely eat him too, if it were but to say that we had done it. But the hunters had had no luck. They had brought in only a Pajui, {282b} an excellent game bird; an Ant-eater, {282c} and a great Cachicame, or nine-banded Armadillo. The ant-eater the foolish fellows had eaten themselves—I would have given them what they asked for his skeleton; but the Armadillo was cut up and hashed for us, and was eaten, to the last scrap, being about the best game I ever tasted. I fear he is a foul feeder at times, who by no means confines himself to roots, or even worms. If what I was told be true, there is but too much probability for Captain Mayne Reid's statement, that he will eat his way into the soft parts of a dead horse, and stay there until he has eaten his way out again. But, to do him justice, I never heard him accused, like the giant Armadillo {282d} of the Main, of digging dead bodies out of their graves, as he is doing in a very clever drawing in Mr. Wood's Homes without Hands. Be that as it may, the Armadillo, whatever he feeds on, has the power of transmuting it into most delicate and wholesome flesh.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10     Next Part
Home - Random Browse