These large turtles, which in other parts of South America are called "arraus," or simply "tortugas," assemble every year in large armies, from all parts of the river. Each one of these armies chooses for itself a place to breed—some sandy island, or great sand-bank. This they approach very cautiously—lying near it for some days, and reconnoitring it with only their heads above the water. They then crawl ashore at night in vast multitudes—just as the party saw them—and each turtle, with the strong crooked claws of her hind feet, digs a hole for herself in the sand. These holes are three feet in diameter and two deep. In this she deposits her eggs—from seventy to one hundred and twenty of them—each egg being white, hard-shelled, and between the size of a pigeon's and pullet's. She then covers the whole with sand, levelling it over the top so that it may look like the rest of the surface, and so that the precious treasure may not be found by vultures, jaguars, and other predatory creatures. When this is done the labour of the turtle is at an end.
The great army again betakes itself to the water, and scatters in every direction. The sun acting upon the hot sand does the rest; and in less than six weeks the young turtles, about an inch in diameter, crawl out of the sand, and at once make for the water. They are afterwards seen in pools and lakes, where the water is shallow, far from the place where they have been hatched; and it is well known that the first years of their life are not spent in the bed of the great river. How they find these pools, or whether the mothers distinguish their own young and conduct them thither, as the crocodiles and alligators do, is a mystery. With these last the thing is more easy, as the crocodile mothers deposit their eggs in separate places, and each returns for her young when they are hatched, calls them by her voice, and guides them to the pool where they are to remain until partly grown.
But among the thousands of little turtles hatched at one place and time, and that seek the water altogether, how would it be possible for the turtle mother to distinguish her own young? Yet an old female turtle is frequently seen swimming about with as many as a hundred little ones after her! Now are these her own, or are they a collection picked up out of the general progeny? That is an undetermined question. It would seem impossible that each turtle mother should know her own young, yet amidst this apparent confusion there may be some maternal instinct that guides her to distinguish her own offspring from all the rest. Who can say?
It is not often, however, that the turtle is permitted to have offspring at all. These creatures are annually robbed of their eggs in millions. They have many enemies, but man is the chief. When a turtle hatching place is discovered, the Indians assemble, and as soon as all the eggs have been deposited, they uncover and collect them. They eat them—but that is not the principal use to which they are put. It is for the making of oil, or "tortoise-butter," they are collected.
The eggs are thrown into a large trough or canoe, where they are broken up with a wooden spade and stirred about for awhile. They then remain exposed to the sun, until the oily part collects on the surface, which is then skimmed off and well boiled. The "tortoise-butter" is now made, and after being poured into earthen jars or bottles, it is ready for market. The oil is clear, of a pale yellow colour, and some regard it as equal to the best olive oil, both for lamps and for cooking. Sometimes, however, it has a putrid smell, because many of the eggs are already half hatched before the gathering takes place.
What would be the result were these eggs not gathered by the Indians? Perhaps in the different rivers of South America more than an hundred millions of them are deposited every year! In the Orinoco alone, in three principal hatching places, it has been calculated that at least thirty three millions are annually destroyed for the making of tortoise-butter! Fancy, then, one hundred millions of animals, each of which grows to the weight of fifty or sixty pounds, being produced every year, and then the increase in production which these would make if left to themselves! Why the rivers would be crowded; and it would be true what old Father Gumilla once asserted, that "It would be as difficult to count the grains of sand on the shores of the Orinoco, as to count the immense number of tortoises that inhabit its margins and waters. Were it not for the vast consumption of tortoises and their eggs, the river, despite its great magnitude, would be unnavigable, for vessels would be impeded by the enormous multitude of the tortoises."
But nature has provided against this "over-population" of the turtles by giving them a great many enemies. The jaguars, the ocelots, the crocodiles, the cranes, and the vultures, all prey upon them; and, perhaps, if man were to leave them alone, the result would be, not such a great increase in the number of the turtles, but that the creatures who prey upon them would come in for a larger share.
The "carapa," or arrau turtle, is, when full grown, forty or fifty pounds in weight. It is of a dark green colour above and orange beneath, with yellow feet. There are many other species of fresh-water turtles in the rivers of South America, but these breed separately, each female choosing her own place, and making her deposit alone. Indeed, some of the smaller species, as the "terekay," are more esteemed both for their flesh and eggs; but as a large quantity of these eggs is never found together, they are not collected as an article of trade, but only to be roasted and eaten. The white does not coagulate in roasting or boiling, and only the yolk is eaten, but that is esteemed quite as palatable as the eggs of the common fowl.
The flesh of all kinds is eaten by the Indians, who fry it in pots, and then pour it with its own oil into other vessels and permit it to cool. When thus prepared, it will keep for a long time, and can be taken out when required for use.
Most of the above particulars were communicated by Guapo; and when he had finished talking, all the others went to sleep, leaving Guapo to his midnight vigil.
A FIGHT BETWEEN TWO VERY SCALY CREATURES.
When they awoke in the morning they found Guapo busy over the fire. He had already been at the turtles' nests, and had collected a large basketful of the eggs, some of which he was cooking for breakfast. In addition to the eggs, moreover, half-a-dozen large turtles lay upon their backs close by. The flesh of these Guapo intended to scoop out and fry down, so as to be carried away as a sort of stock of preserved meat;—and a very excellent idea it was. He had caught them during his watch as they came out of the water.
All the turtles had gone off, although this is not always the case; for frequently numbers that have not finished covering their eggs during the night may be seen hard at work in the morning, and so intent on it, that they do not heed the presence of their worst enemies. These the Indians denominate "mad tortoises."
This morning, however, no "mad tortoises" were to be seen; but when our travellers cast their eyes along the beach they saw quite a number that appeared to be turned upon their backs just like those that Guapo had capsized. They were at some distance from the camp, but curiosity prompted our travellers to walk along the beach and examine them. Sure enough there were nearly a dozen large tortoises regularly laid on their backs, and unable to stir; but, besides these, there were several tortoise-shells out of which the flesh had been freshly scooped, and these were as neatly cleaned out as if the work had been done by an anatomist. All this would have been a mystery but for the experience of Guapo; but Guapo knew it was the jaguar that had turned the tortoises on their backs, and that had cleaned out and eaten the flesh from the empty shells!
Now, it is no easy thing for a man, provided with the necessary implements, to separate the flesh of a tortoise from its shell, and yet the jaguar, with his paw, can in a few minutes perform this operation most adroitly, as our travellers had full proof. All that they saw had been done that same night; and it gave them no very pleasant feeling to know that the jaguar had been at work so near them.
This animal, as Guapo said, in attacking the turtles, first turns them over, so as to prevent their escape—for the "carapas" are of those tortoises that once upon their backs on level ground cannot right themselves again. He then proceeds to tear out the flesh, and eats it at his leisure. Oftentimes he capsizes a far greater number than he can eat, and even returns to the spot to have a second meal of them; but frequently the Indians wandering along the river, find the tortoises he has turned over, and of course make an easy capture of them.
Guapo, upon this occasion, took advantage of the jaguar's skill, and carried to the camp all that the latter had left. It was Guapo's design to make a large quantity of "turtle sausage-meat," so that they might have a supply for many days, as by this time even Guapo himself was getting tired of the horse-flesh "charqui."
They were about returning to camp, when their attention was drawn to two dark objects upon the sand-beach a little farther on. These objects were in motion, and at first they believed they were a pair of "mad tortoises" that had not yet returned to the water, although they were close to its edge.
Led on by curiosity our party approached them, and saw that one only was a tortoise, and one of the largest kind, being nearly three feet in diameter. The other animal was a small caiman or alligator.
As our travellers drew near they saw that these two creatures were engaged in a fierce and deadly combat. Now, it is a curious fact that the larger alligators and crocodiles are among the most destructive enemies which the turtles have, eating thousands of the latter while they are still tiny little creatures and unable to defend themselves; and, on the other hand, that the turtles prey extensively on the young of both alligators and crocodiles, eating them whenever they can catch them! I say this is a curious fact in natural history, and it seems a sort of retaliatory principle established between these two kinds of reptiles, as if they ate one another's offspring en revanche.
There is no feeling of revenge, however, in the matter. It is merely an instinct of appetite by which both kinds will eat almost any small fry they come across. In fact, the alligators and crocodiles not only eat the young of the turtles, but their own young as well. That is, the old males do; and it has been stated, that the males of some species of tortoises have a similar unnatural appetite.
The turtle of which we are speaking is one of the most carnivorous of the whole race, and one of the fiercest in its nature too; so much so, that it has earned the name of the "fierce tortoise." It will eat fish and small crustacea, and almost any living thing it finds in the water, which is not too large for it. It is extremely expert in catching its prey. It lies concealed at the bottom among the roots of flags and nymphae; and when any small fish chances to pass it, by means of its long neck darts out its head and seizes upon its unsuspecting victim. Once the bill of the "fierce turtle" has closed upon any object its hold is secure. You may cut its head off, but otherwise it cannot be forced to let go, until it has either captured its prey or taken the piece with it. It will "nip" a stout walking-cane between its mandibles, as if it was no more than a rush.
A very good story is told of a thief and a tortoise. The thief was prowling about the larder of an hotel in search of plunder, when he came upon a large market-basket filled with provisions. He immediately inserted his hand to secure the contents, when he felt himself suddenly seized by the fingers, and bitten so severely, that he was fain to draw back his hand in the most hasty manner possible. But along with the hand he drew out a "snapping" turtle. To get rid of the "ugly customer" was his next care; but, in spite of all his efforts, the turtle held on, determined to have the finger. The scuffle, and the shouts which pain compelled the thief to give utterance to, awoke the landlord and the rest of the household; and before the thief could disengage himself and escape, he was secured and given into custody.
Well, it was just a tortoise of this species, a "snapping turtle," and one of the largest size, that our travellers now saw doing battle with the caiman. The caiman was not one of large size, else the turtle would have fled from it, not that even the largest caimans are feared by the full-grown carapas. No; the strong plate-armour of the latter protects them both from the teeth and tail of this antagonist. The jaguar, with his pliable paws and sharp subtle claws, is to them a more dreaded assailant than the crocodile or caiman.
The one in question was some six or seven feet long, and altogether not much heavier than the turtle itself. It was not for the purpose of eating each other they fought. No—their strife was evidently on other grounds. No doubt the caiman had been attempting to plunder the new-laid eggs of the tortoise, and the latter had detected him in the act. At all events, the struggle must have been going on for some time, for the sand was torn up, and scored, in many places, by the sharp claws of both.
The battle appeared to be still at its height when our party arrived on the spot. Neither tortoise nor caiman paid any attention to their presence, but fought on pertinaciously. The aim of the caiman appeared to be to get the head of the tortoise in his mouth; but whenever he attempted this, the latter suddenly drew his head within the shell, and repeatedly disappointed him. The tortoise, on its part, rose at intervals upon its hind-feet, and making a dash forward, would dart forth its long neck, and clutch at the softer parts of its antagonist's body just under the throat. Several times it had succeeded in this manoeuvre, and each time it had brought the piece with it, so that the caiman was already somewhat mangled. Another manoeuvre of the tortoise was to seize the tail of its antagonist. Instinct seemed to teach it that this was a vulnerable part, and for the purpose of reaching the tail, it constantly kept crawling and edging round towards it.
Now, there is no movement so difficult for a reptile of the crocodile kind as to turn its body on dry land. The peculiar formation of the vertebrae, both of its neck and spine, renders this movement difficult; and in "changing front," the reptile is forced to describe a full circle with its unwieldy body—in fact to turn "all of a piece." The tortoise, therefore, had the advantage, and, after several efforts, he at length succeeded in outflanking his antagonist, and getting right round to his rear. He lost no time, but, raising himself to his full height and making a dart forward, seized the tail and held on. He had caught by the very tip, and it was seen that his horny mandibles had taken a proper hold.
Now commenced a somewhat ludicrous scene. The caiman, though but a small one, with the immense muscular power which he possessed in his tail, if not able to detach his antagonist, was able to give him a sound shaking, and the turtle was seen vibrating from side to side, dragged along the sand. He held his broad yellow feet spread out on all sides, so as to preserve his equilibrium, for he well knew that to lose that would be to lose his life. Should he get turned on his back it would be all over with him; but he carefully guarded against such a fatal catastrope. Of course there were intervals when the caiman became tired, and remained still for a moment; and at each of these intervals the tortoise renewed his hold, and, in fact, as our party now perceived, was slowly, though surely, eating the tail!
When this had continued a short while, the great saurian seemed to despair. The pain, no doubt, caused him to weep "crocodile's tears," though none were seen, but his eyes glared with a lurid light, and he began to look around for some means of escape from his painful position. His eye fell upon the water. That promised something, although he knew full well the turtle was as much at home there as he. At all events, his situation could not be a worse one, and with this, or some such reflection, he made a "dash" for the water. He was but a few feet from it, but it cost him a good deal of pulling and dragging, and clawing the sand, before he could get into it. In fact, the tortoise knew that its position could not be benefited by the change, and would have preferred fighting it out on dry land, and to do this he set his claws as firmly as possible, and pulled the tail in the opposite direction!
The strength of the caiman at length prevailed. He got his body into the water, and, with a few strokes of his webbed feet, jerked the turtle after, and both were now fairly launched. Once in the river, the caiman seemed to gain fresh vigour. His tail vibrated violently and rapidly, throwing the tortoise from side to side until the foam floated around them, and then both suddenly sank to the bottom.
Whether they continued "attached," or became "separated" there, or whether the turtle killed the lizard, or the lizard the turtle, or "each did kill the other," no one ever knew, as it is highly probable that no human eye ever saw either of them again.
At all events, no one of our party saw any more of them; and, having watched the surface for some time, they turned in their steps and walked back to the camp.
A PAIR OF VALIANT VULTURES.
They had got into a part of the river that seemed to be a favourite resort with turtles and crocodiles, and creatures of that description. At different times they saw turtles of different kinds; among others, the "painted turtle," a beautiful species that derives its name from the fine colouring of its shell, which appears as if it had been painted in enamel. Of crocodiles, too, they saw three or four distinct species, and not unfrequently, the largest of all, the great black crocodile (Jacare nigra). This was sometimes seen of the enormous length of over twenty feet! Terrible-looking as these crocodiles are, they are not masters of every creature upon the river. There are even birds that can sorely vex them, and compel them to take to the water to save themselves from a fearful calamity—blindness.
One day, while descending the river, our travellers were witness to an illustration of this.
They were passing a wide sand-bank that shelved back from the river, with a scarcely perceptible slope, when they saw, at a distance of about two hundred yards from the water's edge, a crocodile making for the river. He looked as though he had just awoke from his torpid sleep, for his body was caked all over with dry mud, and he seemed both hungry and thirsty. It was like enough he was coming from some inland pond, where the water had dried up, and he was now on his way to the river.
All at once two dark shadows were seen passing over the white surface of the sand-bank. In the heaven two large birds were wheeling about, crossing each other in their courses, and holding their long necks downwards, as if the crocodile was the object of their regard.
The latter, on seeing them, paused; and lowered his body into a squatted or crouching attitude, as if in the birds he recognised an enemy. And yet what could such a large creature fear from a pair of "king-vultures?" for king vultures they were, as was easily seen by their red-orange heads and cream-coloured plumage. What could a crocodile, full ten feet long, fear from these, even had they been eagles, or the great condor himself? No matter; he was evidently frightened at them; and each time that they drew near in their flight, he stopped and flattened his body against the sand, as if that might conceal him. As soon as they flew off again to a more distant point of their aerial circle, he would once more elevate himself on his arms, and make all haste toward the water.
He had got within about an hundred yards of the river, when the birds made a sudden turn in the sky, and swooping down, alighted upon the sand directly before the snout of the crocodile. The latter stopped again, and kept his eyes fixed upon them. They did not leave him long to rest; for one of them, making a few hops towards him, came so close, that it might have been supposed the crocodile could have seized it in his jaws. This, in fact, he attempted to do; but the wary bird threw up its broad wings, and flapped to one side out of his reach.
Meanwhile, the other had hopped close up to his opposite shoulder; and while the crocodile was engaged with the first one, this made a dash forward, aiming its great open beak at the eye of the reptile. The crocodile parried the thrust by a sudden turn of his head; but he had scarcely got round, when the second vulture, watching its opportunity, rushed forward at the other eye. It must have succeeded in pecking it, for the great lizard roared out with the pain; and rushing forward a bit, writhed and lashed the sand with his tail.
The vultures paid no attention to these demonstrations, but only kept out of the way of the teeth and claws of their antagonist; and then, when he became still again, both returned to the attack as before. One after the other was seen dashing repeatedly forward—using both legs and wings to effect their object, and each time darting out their great beaks towards the eyes of the reptile. The head of the latter kept continuously moving from side to side; but move where it would, the beaks of the vultures were ready to meet it, and to pierce into the sockets of those deep lurid eyes.
This terrible contest lasted all the time the balza was floating by. It was a slow current at this place, and our travellers were a long time in passing, so that they had a good opportunity of witnessing the strange spectacle. Long after they had glided past, they saw that the conflict continued. They could still perceive the black body of the reptile upon the white sand-bank, writhing and struggling, while the flapping wings of the vultures showed that they still kept up their terrible attack. But the head of the crocodile was no longer directed towards the water.
At the first onset the reptile had used every effort to retreat in that direction. He knew that his only safety lay in getting into the river, and sinking beyond the reach of his adversaries. At every interval between their assaults, he had been seen to crawl forward, stopping only when compelled to defend himself. Now, however, his head was seen turned from the water; sometimes he lay parallel with the stream; and sometimes he appeared to be heading back for the woods, while his struggles and contortions betrayed the agony he was undergoing. But his turning in this way was easily accounted for. He knew not in what direction lay the river. He could no longer see. His eyes were mutilated by the beaks of the birds. He was blind!
Guapo said the vultures would not leave him until they had made a meal of his eyes, and that was all they wanted. He would then remain on shore, perhaps without finding his way back to the water, and most likely be attacked by jaguars, or other preying creatures, who could conquer him the easier now that he was deprived of his sight!
As the balza glided on, Guapo told our travellers many strange stories of crocodiles. He stated, what is well known to be true, that in the rivers of South America many people are every year killed by these ravenous creatures; in fact, far more than have ever fallen victims to the salt-sea sharks. In some places they are much fiercer than in others; but this may arise from different species being the inhabitants of these different places. There is the true crocodile, with long sharp snout, and large external tusks; and the caiman, with a snout broader and more pike-shaped; and the former is a much more courageous and man-eating creature. Both are often found in the same river; but they do not associate together, but keep in distinct bands or societies; and they are often mistaken for each other.
This may account for the difference of opinion that exists in regard to the fierceness of these reptiles—many asserting that they are utterly harmless, and will not attack man under any circumstances; while others, who have witnessed their attacks, of course bearing testimony to the contrary. There are many places in South America, where the natives will fearlessly enter a lake or river known to be full of crocodiles, and drive these creatures aside with a piece of a stick; but there are other districts where nothing will tempt an Indian to swim across a river infested with these reptiles. In the Amazon districts, in every Indian village, several people may be seen who have been maimed by crocodiles. No wonder that among author-travellers there should be such a difference of opinion.
Guapo stated, that when an Indian has been seized by a crocodile in its great jaws, he has only one chance of escape, and that is, by thrusting his fingers into the eyes of the reptile. This will invariably cause it to let go its hold, and generally frighten it, so as to enable the person to escape. It, of course, requires great presence of mind to effect this, as the person who has been seized will himself be in great pain from the tearing teeth of the monster, and, perhaps, will have been drawn under the water, before he can gather his senses. But it has often occurred that Indians, and even women, have escaped in this way.
The eyes of the crocodile are its most tender parts,—in fact, the only parts that can be made to feel pain. A crocodile may be disabled by cutting at the root of its tail, but it can only be frightened by an attack upon the eyes; and this appears to be a well-known fact, not only to the Indians, but to all its other enemies among the birds and quadrupeds.
The young crocodiles are often attacked, and have their eyes pecked out, by the small gallinazo or "zamuro" vultures just in the same way that we have seen one of a larger size become the victim of the more powerful king vultures.
After many days of rafting our travellers arrived in a most singular country. They were now approaching the mighty Amazon, and the river upon which they had hitherto been travelling appeared to divide into many branches, where it formed deltas with the Amazon. Every day, and sometimes two or three times in the day, they passed places where the river forked, as though each branch passed round an island, but our travellers perceived that these branches did not meet again; and they conjectured that they all fell into the Amazon by separate embouchures. They were often puzzled to know which one to take, as the main river was not always broadest, and they might get into one that was not navigable below. A curious region it was through which they passed; for, in fact, they were now travelling in the country of the "Gapo."
What is the "Gapo?" you will ask. The "Gapo," then, is the name given to vast tracts of country upon the Amazon and some of its tributary streams, that are annually inundated, and remain under water for several months in the year. It extends for hundreds of miles along the Amazon itself, and up many of the rivers, its tributaries also, for hundreds of miles.
But the whole country does not become one clear sheet of water, as is the case with floods in other parts of the world. On the contrary, high as is the flood, the tree-tops and their branches rise still higher, and we have in the "Gapo" the extraordinary spectacle of a flooded forest, thousands of square miles in extent!
In this forest the trees do not perish, but retain life and verdure. In fact, the trees of this part are peculiar, most of them differing in kind from the trees of any other region. There are species of palms growing in the "Gapo" that are found nowhere else; and there are animals and birds, too, that remain in this region during the whole season of flood. It has been further asserted that there are tribes of "Gapo" Indians, who live in the middle of the inundation, making their dwellings upon the trees, and who can pass from branch to branch and tree to tree almost as nimbly as monkeys.
This may or may not be true. It would not be a new thing, if true, for it is well known that the Guarano Indians, at the mouth of the Orinoco, dwell among the tops of the murichi palms during many months of the season of flood. These people build platforms on the palms, and upon these erect roofs, and sling their hammocks, and, with little fireplaces of mud, are enabled to cook their provisions upon them. But they have canoes, in which they are able to go from place to place, and capture fish, upon which they principally subsist. The murichi palm furnishes them with all the other necessaries of life.
This singular tree is one of the noblest of the palms. It rises to a height of more than one hundred feet, and grows in immense palmares, or palm-woods, often covering the bank of the river for miles. It is one of those called "fan-palm"—that is, the leaves, instead of being pinnate or feathery, have long naked stalks, at the end of which the leaflets spread out circularly, forming a shape like a fan. One of the murichi leaves is a grand sight. The leaf-stalk, or petiole, is a foot thick where it sprouts from the trunk; and before it reaches the leaflets it is a solid beam of ten or twelve feet long, while the circular fan or leaf itself is nine or ten in diameter! A single leaf of the murichi palm is a full load for a man.
With a score of such leaves,—shining and ever verdant as they are,—at the top of its column-like trunk, what a majestic tree is the murichi palm!
But it is not more beautiful than useful. Its leaves, fruit, and stem, are all put to some use in the domestic economy of the Indians. The leaf-stalk, when dried, is light and elastic, like the quill of a bird—owing to the thin, hard, outer covering and soft internal pith. Out of the outer rind, when split off, the Indian makes baskets and window-blinds. The pithy part is separated into laths, about half an inch thick, with which window-shutters, boxes, bird-cages, partitions, and even entire walls, are constructed.
The epidermis of the leaves furnishes the strings for hammocks and all kinds of cordage. From the fruits a favourite beverage is produced, and these fruits are also pleasant eating, somewhat resembling apples. They are in appearance like pine-cones, of a red colour outside and yellow pulp. The trunk itself furnishes a pith or marrow that can be used as sago; and out of the wood the Indian cuts his buoyant canoe! In short, there are tribes of Indians that not only live, in a literal sense, on the murichi palms, but that almost subsist on them.
Although the flood had, to a considerable extent, subsided, the river in most places was still beyond its banks; and this made it difficult for our travellers to find a place for their night-camps. Several nights they were obliged to sleep, as they best could, on the balza,—the latter being secured to a tree. Sometimes, by pushing some distance up the mouth of an "igaripe," or creek, they were able to find dry ground, on which to encamp. During their passage through this labyrinth of rivers, they travelled but very slowly, and their provisions were fast running out. There was no chance for increasing their stock, as they could not find either wild-hogs (peccaries) or capivaras. These creatures, although they can swim well enough, would only be found upon the banks of the river, when it returned within its proper channel.
Now and then Guapo brought down a parrot, a macaw, or an aracari, with his blow-gun; but these were only temporary supplies. They had often heard howling monkeys in the trees, but had not been able to see them; and none of the party would have refused to eat roast-monkey now, as they had all tried it and found it quite palatable. Guapo, blow-gun in hand, was continually peering up among the tree-tops in search of monkeys or other game. He was, at length, rewarded for his vigilance.
One night they had pushed the balza up an "igaripe" for a hundred yards or so, where a dry bank gave them an opportunity of landing. The creek itself was not much wider than the balza, and tall trees stood upon both banks. In one or two places the thorny "jacitara" palm—which is a sort of climbing plant, often hanging over the branches of other trees—nearly reached across the stream. These curious palms had even to be cautiously pushed to one side as the balza passed,—for the arrowy claws upon them, if once hooked into the clothes of passengers, would either have dragged the latter from off the raft, or have torn out the piece of cloth.
Our party had passed several of these jacitaras, made the balza fast, landed, and were just cooking their scanty supper, when they heard a band of howling monkeys afar off in the woods. There was nothing unusual in this; for these creatures are heard at all times among the forests of the Amazon, especially at sunrise and before sunset, or whenever there is any appearance of the approach of a rain-storm.
Our travellers would not have noticed their voices on this occasion, but that they seemed to be approaching in that direction; and as they were coming along the bank of the main river, Guapo concluded that on arriving at the "igaripe" they would turn up it and pass near where the balza was, and thus he might have them within reach of his gravatana. It was certain they were coming down the river side—of course upon the tree-tops, and would, no doubt, turn up as Guapo expected, for the trees on the opposite side of the igaripe stood too far apart even for monkeys to spring across.
After waiting for half-an-hour or so, the hideous howling of the monkeys could be heard at no great distance, and they were taking the desired route. In fact, in a few minutes after, the troop appeared upon some tall trees that stood on the edge of the creek, not fifty yards from where the balza was moored. They were large animals, of that lanky and slender shape that characterises the prehensile-tailed monkeys; but these were different from the ateles already mentioned. They were true howlers, as they had already proved by the cries they had been uttering for the half-hour past.
There are several species of howling monkeys, as we have already stated. Those that had arrived on the igaripe Guapo pronounced to be araguatoes. Their bodies are of a reddish-brown colour on the body and shoulders, lighter underneath, and their naked wrinkled faces are of a bluish black, and with very much of the expression of an old man. Their hair is full and bushy, and gives them some resemblance to a bear, whence their occasional name of "bear-ape," and also their zoological designation, Simia ursina. The araguato is full three feet without the tail, and that powerful member is much longer.
When the band made its appearance on the igaripe, they were seen to come to a halt, all of them gathering into a great tree that stood by the water's edge. This tree rose higher than the rest, and the most of the monkeys having climbed among the top branches, were visible from the balza. There were about fifty in the troop, and one that seemed larger than any of the others appeared to act as leader. Many of them were females, and there were not a few that had young ones, which they carried upon their backs just as the Indian mothers and those of other savage nations carry their children.
Most of the little monkeys lay along the backs of their mothers, clasping them around the neck with their fore-arms, while their hind ones girdled the middle of the body. But it was in their tails the little fellows seemed to place most reliance. The top parts of these were firmly lapped around the thick base of the tails of the old ones, and thus not only secured their seat, but made it quite impossible for them to drop off. No force could have shaken them from this hold, without dragging out their tails or tearing their bodies to pieces, indeed, it was necessary they should be thus firmly seated, as the exertions of the mothers,—their quick motions and long springing leaps from tree to tree—would otherwise have been impossible.
On reaching the bank of the igaripe, the araguatoes were evidently at fault. Their intention had been to proceed down along the main river, and the creek now interfered. Its water lay directly across their course, and how were they to get over it? Swim it, you may, say. Ha! little do you know the dread these creatures have of water. Yes; strange to say, although many species of them pass their lives upon trees that overhang water, or even grow out of it, they are as much afraid of the water beneath them as if it were fire. A cat is not half so dainty about wetting her feet as some monkeys are; and besides a cat can swim, which the monkeys cannot—at best so badly that in a few minutes they would drown.
Strange, is it not, that among animals, those that approach nearest to man, like him are not gifted by nature with the power of swimming? It is evident, then, that that is an art left to be discovered by the intellect of man. To fall into the water would be a sad mishap for a monkey, not only on account of the ducking, but of the danger. There is not much likelihood of an araguato falling in. Even though one branch may have broken and failed it, in the great concave sphere which it can so quickly trace around it by means of its five long members, it is sure of finding a second. No; the araguatoes might spend a life-time in the flooded forest without even wetting a hair farther than what is wetted by the rain.
From their movements, it was evident the igaripe had puzzled them; and a consultation was called among the branches of the tall tree already mentioned. Upon one of the very highest sat the large old fellow who was evidently leader of the band. His harangue was loud and long, accompanied by many gestures of his hands, head, and tail. It was, no doubt, exceedingly eloquent. Similar speeches delivered by other old araguato chiefs, have been compared to the creaking of an ungreased bullock-cart, mingled with the rumbling of the wheels!
Our party thought the comparison a just one. The old chief finished at length. Up to this point not one of the others had said a word. They all sat silent, observing perfect decorum; indeed, much greater than is observed in the great British Parliament or the Congress of America. Occasionally one of the children might utter a slight squeak, or throw out its hand to catch a mosquito; but in such cases a slap from the paw of the mother, or a rough shaking, soon reduced it to quiet.
When the chief had ended speaking, however, no debate in either Congress or Parliament could have equalled the noise that then arose. Every araguato seemed to have something to say, and all spoke at the same time. If the speech of the old one was like the creaking of a bullock-cart, the voices of all combined might appropriately be compared to a whole string of these vehicles, with half the quantity of grease and a double allowance of wheels!
Once more the chief, by a sign, commanded silence, and the rest became mute and motionless as before.
This time the speech of the leader appeared to refer to the business in hand—in short, to the crossing of the igaripe. He was seen repeatedly pointing in that direction, as he spoke, and the rest followed his motions with their eyes.
BRIDGING AN IGARIPE.
The tree upon which the araguatoes were assembled stood near the edge of the water, but there was another still nearer. This was also a tall tree free of branches for a great way up. On the opposite bank of the igaripe was a very similar tree, and the long horizontal branches of the two were separated from each other by a space of about twenty feet. It was with these two trees that the attention of the araguatoes appeared to be occupied; and our travellers could tell by their looks and gestures that they were conversing about, and calculating, the distance between their upper branches. For what purpose?
Surely they do not expect to be able to make a crossing between them? No creature without wings could pass from one to the other! Such were the questions and doubts expressed by Leon, and indeed by all except Guapo, but Guapo had seen araguatoes before, and knew some of their tricks. Guapo, therefore, boldly pronounced that it was their intention to cross the igaripe by these two trees. He was about to explain the manner in which they would accomplish it, when the movement commenced, and rendered his explanation quite unnecessary.
At a commanding cry from the chief, several of the largest and strongest monkeys swung themselves into the tree that stood on the edge of the water. Here, after a moment's reconnoissance, they were seen to get upon a horizontal limb—one that projected diagonally over the igaripe. There were no limbs immediately underneath it on the same side of the tree; and for this very reason had they selected it. Having advanced until they were near its top, the foremost of the monkeys let himself down upon his tail, and hung head downward. Another slipped down the body of the first, and clutched him around the neck and fore-arms with his strong tail, with his head down also. A third succeeded the second, and a fourth the third, and so on until a string of monkeys dangled from the limb.
A motion was now produced by the monkeys striking other branches with their feet, until the long string oscillated back and forwards like the pendulum of a clock. This oscillation was gradually increased, until the monkey at the lower end was swung up among the branches of the tree on the opposite side of the igaripe. After touching them once or twice, he discovered that he was within reach; and the next time when he had reached the highest point of the oscillating curve, he threw out his long thin fore-arms, and firmly clutching the branches, held fast.
The oscillation now ceased. The living chain stretched across the igaripe from tree to tree, and, curving slightly, hung like a suspension-bridge! A loud screaming, and gabbling, and chattering, and howling, proceeded from the band of araguatoes, who, up to this time, had watched the manoeuvres of their comrades in silence—all except the old chief, who occasionally had given directions both with voice and gestures. But the general gabble that succeeded was, no doubt, an expression of the satisfaction of all that the bridge was built.
The troop now proceeded to cross over, one or two old ones going first, perhaps to try the strength of the bridge. Then went the mothers carrying their young on their backs, and after them the rest of the band.
It was quite an amusing scene to witness, and the behaviour of the monkeys would have caused any one to laugh. Even Guapo could not restrain his mirth at seeing those who formed the bridge biting the others that passed over them, both on the legs and tails, until the latter screamed again!
The old chief stood at the near end and directed the crossing. Like a brave officer, he was the last to pass over. When all the others had preceded him, he crossed after, carrying himself in a stately and dignified manner. None dared to bite at his legs. They knew better than play off their tricks on him, and he crossed quietly and without any molestation.
Now the string still remained suspended between the trees. How were the monkeys that formed it to get themselves free again? Of course the one that had clutched the branch with his arms might easily let go, but that would bring them back to the same side from which they had started, and would separate them from the rest of the band. Those constituting the bridge would, therefore, be as far from crossing as ever!
There seemed to be a difficulty here—that is, to some of our travellers. To the monkeys themselves there was none. They knew well enough what they were about, and they would have got over the apparent difficulty in the following manner:—The one at the tail end of the bridge would simply have let go his hold, and the whole string would then have swung over and hung from the tree on the opposite bank, into which they could have climbed at their leisure. I say they would have done so had nothing interfered to prevent them from completing the manoeuvre. But an obstacle intervened which brought the affair to a very different termination.
Guapo had been seated along with the rest, gravatana in hand. He showed great forbearance in not having used the gravatana long before, for he was all the while quite within reach of the araguatoes; but this forbearance on his part was not of his own freewill. Don Pablo had, in fact, hindered him, in order that he and the others, should have an opportunity of witnessing the singular manoeuvres of the monkeys. Before the scene was quite over, however, the Indian begged Don Pablo to let him shoot, reminding him how much they stood in need of a little "monkey-meat." This had the effect Guapo desired; the consent was given, and the gravatana was pointed diagonally upwards. Once more Guapo's cheeks were distended—once more came the strong, quick puff—and away went the arrow. The next moment it was seen sticking in the neck of one of the monkeys.
Now, the one which Guapo had aimed at and hit was that which had grasped the tree on the opposite side with its arms. Why did he chose this more than any other? Was it because it was nearer, or more exposed to view? Neither of these was the reason. It was, that had he shot any of the others in the string—they being supported by their tails—it would not have fallen; the tail, as we have already seen, still retaining its prehensile power even to death. But that one which held on to the tree by its fore-arms would in a second or two be compelled from weakness to let go, and the whole chain would drop back on the near side of the igaripe. This was just what Guapo desired, and he waited for the result. It was necessary only to wait half-a-dozen seconds. The monkey was evidently growing weak under the influence of the curare, and was struggling to retain its hold. In a moment it must let go.
The araguato at the "tail-end" of the bridge, not knowing what had happened, and thinking all was right for swinging himself across, slipped his tail from the branch just at the very same instant that the wounded one let go, and the whole chain fell "souse" into the water! Then the screaming and howling from those on shore, the plunging and splashing of the monkeys in the stream, mingled with the shouts of Leon, Guapo, and the others, created a scene of noise and confusion that lasted for several minutes. In the midst of it, Guapo threw himself into the canoe, and with a single stroke of his paddle shot right down among the drowning monkeys. One or two escaped to the bank, and made off; several went to the bottom;, but three, including the wounded one, fell into the clutches of the hunter.
Of course roast-monkey was added to the supper; but none of the travellers slept very well after it, as the araguatoes, lamenting their lost companions, kept up a most dismal wailing throughout the whole of the night.
The araguatoes, with dried plantains and cassava, were the food of our travellers for several days after. On the evening of the third day they had a change. Guapo succeeded in capturing a very large turtle, which served for relish at several meals. His mode of taking the turtle was somewhat curious, and deserves to be described.
The balza had been brought to the bank, and they were just mooring it, when something out on the water attracted the attention of Leon and Leona. It was a small, darkish object, and would not have been observed but for the ripple that it made on the smooth surface of the river, and by this they could tell that it was in motion.
"A water-snake!" said Leon.
"Oh!" ejaculated the little Leona, "I hope not, brother Leon."
"On second thoughts," replied Leon, "I don't think it is a snake."
Of course the object was a good distance off, else Leon and Leona would not have talked so coolly about it. But their words had reached the ear of Dona Isidora, and drawn her attention to what they were talking about.
"No; it is not a snake," said she. "I fancy it is a turtle."
Guapo up to this had been busy with Don Pablo in getting the balza made fast. The word "turtle," however, caught his ear at once, and he looked up, and then out on the river in the direction where Leon and Leona were pointing. As soon as his eye rested upon the moving object he replied to the remark of Dona Isidora.
"Yes, my mistress," said he, "it is a turtle, and a big one too. Please all keep quiet—I think I can get him."
How Guapo was to get the turtle was a mystery to all. The latter was about thirty paces distant, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, to hit his small snout—the only part above water—with the arrow of the blow-gun. Moreover, they thought that the arrow would not penetrate the hard, bony substance, so as to stick there and infuse its poison into the wound.
These conjectures were true enough, but his gravatana was not the weapon which Guapo was about to use. He had other weapons as well—a fish-spear or harpoon, and a regular bow and arrows, which he had made during his leisure hours in the valley.
The latter was the weapon with which the tortoise was to be killed.
Taking the bow, and adjusting an arrow to the string, Guapo stepped forward to the water's edge. All watched him, uttering their hopes of his success. It was still not clear with them how the turtle was to be killed by an arrow shot from a bow any more than by one sent from a blow-gun. Would it not glance from the shell even should he succeed in hitting it under water! Surely it would!
As they stood whispering their conjectures to one another, they observed Guapo, to their great astonishment, pointing his arrow upward, and making as if he was going to discharge it in the air! This he, in fact, did do a moment after; and they would have been puzzled by his apparently strange conduct, had they not observed, in the next instant, that the arrow, after flying high up, came down again head-foremost and stuck upright in the back of the turtle!
The turtle dived at once, and all of them expected to see the upright arrow carried under water. What was their surprise as well as chagrin to see that it had fallen out, and was floating on the surface! Of course the wound had only been a slight one, and the turtle would escape, and be none the worse for it.
But Guapo shared neither their surprise nor chagrin. Guapo felt sure that the turtle was his, and said nothing; but, jumping into the canoe, began to paddle himself out to where the creature had been last seen. What could he be after? thought they.
As they watched him, they saw that he made for the floating arrow. "Oh!" said they, "he is gone to recover it."
That seemed probable enough, but, to their astonishment, as he approached the weapon it took a start, and ran away from him! Something below dragged it along the water. That was clear, and they began to comprehend the mystery. The head of the arrow was still sticking in the shell of the turtle. It was only the shaft that floated, and that was attached to the head by a string! The latter had been but loosely put on, so that the pressure of the water, as the turtle dived, should separate it from the shaft, leaving the shaft with its cord to act as a buoy, and discover the situation of the turtle.
Guapo, in his swift canoe, soon laid hold of the shaft, and after a little careful manoeuvring, succeeded in landing his turtle high and dry upon the bank. A splendid prize it proved. It was a "jurara" tortoise—the "tataruga," or great turtle of the Portuguese, and its shell was full three feet in diameter.
Guapo's mode of capturing the "jurara" is the same as that generally practised by the Indians of the Amazon, although strong nets and the hook are also used. The arrow is always discharged upwards, and the range calculated with such skill, that it falls vertically on the shell of the turtle, and penetrates deep enough to stick, and detach itself from the shaft. This mode of shooting is necessary, else the jurara could not be killed by an arrow, because it never shows more than the tip of its snout above water, and any arrow hitting it in a direct course would glance harmlessly from its shell. A good bowman among the Indians will rarely miss shooting in this way,—long practice and native skill enabling him to guess within an inch of where his weapon will fall.
In the towns of the Lower Amazon, where turtles are brought to market, a small square hole may be observed in the shells of these creatures. That is the mark of the arrow-head.
Guapo lost no time in turning his turtle inside out, and converting part of it into a savoury supper, while the remainder was fried into sausage-meat, and put away for the following day.
But on that following day a much larger stock of sausage-meat was procured from a very different animal, and that was a "cow."
"How?" you exclaim,—"a cow in the wild forests of the Amazon! Why, you have said that no cattle—either cows or horses—can exist there without man to protect them, else they would be devoured by pumas, jaguars, and bats. Perhaps they had arrived at some settlement where cows were kept?"
Not a bit of it; your conjecture, my young friend, is quite astray. There was not a civilised settlement for many hundreds of miles from where Guapo got his cow—nor a cow neither, of the sort you are thinking of. But there are more kinds of cows than one; and, perhaps, you may have heard of a creature called the "fish-cow?" Well, that is the sort of cow I am speaking of. Some term it the "sea-cow," but this is an improper name for it, since it also inhabits fresh-water rivers throughout all tropical America. It is known as the Manati, and the Portuguese call it "peixe boi," which is only "fish-cow" done into Portuguese.
It is a curious creature the fish-cow, and I shall offer you a short description of it. It is usually about seven feet in length, and five round the thickest part of the body, which latter is quite smooth, and tapers off into a horizontal flat tail, semicircular in shape. There are no hind-limbs upon the animal, but just behind the head are two powerful fins of an oval shape. There is no neck to be perceived; and the head, which is not very large, terminates in a large mouth and fleshy lips, which are not unlike those of a cow: hence its name of "cow-fish." There are stiff bristles on the upper lip, and a few thinly scattered hairs over the rest of the body. Behind the oval fins are two mammae, or breasts, from which, when pressed, flows a stream of beautiful white milk. Both eyes and ears are very small in proportion to the size of the animal, but, nevertheless, it has full use of these organs, and is not easily approached by its enemy.
The colour of the skin is a dusky lead, with some flesh-coloured marks on the belly, and the skin itself is an inch thick at its thickest part, on the back. Beneath the skin is a layer of fat, of great, thickness, which makes excellent oil when boiled. As we have said, the manati has no appearance of hind-limbs. Its fore-limbs, however, are highly developed for a water animal. The bones in them correspond to those in the human arm, having five fingers with the joints distinct, yet so enclosed in an inflexible sheath that not a joint can be moved.
The cow-fish feeds on grass, coming in to the borders of the lakes and rivers to procure it. It can swim very rapidly by means of its flat tail and strong fins, and is not so easily captured as might be supposed. All the art of the hunter is required to effect its destruction. The harpoon is the weapon usually employed, though sometimes they are caught in strong nets stretched across the mouths of rivers or the narrow arms of lakes. The flesh of the manati is much esteemed, and tastes somewhat between beef and pork, altogether different from "fish." Fried in its own oil, and poured into pots or jars, it can be preserved for many months.
As already stated, on the day after Guapo shot the turtle—in fact, the next morning—just as they were going to shove off, some of the party, in gazing from the edge of the balza, noticed a queer-looking animal in the clear water below. It was no other than a "fish-cow;" and, as they continued to examine it more attentively, they were astonished to observe that, with its short paddle-like limbs, it hugged two miniature models of itself close to its two breasts. These were the "calves" in the act of suckling, for such is the mode in which the manati nourishes her young.
All the others would have watched this spectacle for a while, interested in the maternal and filial traits thus exhibited by a subaqueous creature, but while they stood looking into the water, something glanced before their eyes, and glided with a plunge to the bottom. It was the harpoon of Guapo.
Blood rose to the surface immediately, and there was a considerable splashing as the strong manati made its attempt to escape; but the head of the harpoon was deeply buried in its flesh, and, with the attached cord, Guapo soon hauled the animal ashore. It was as much as he and Don Pablo could do to drag it on dry land; but the knife soon took it to pieces; and then several hours were spent in making it fit for preservation. Its fat and flesh yielded enough to fill every spare vessel our travellers had got; and, when all were filled, the balza was pushed off, and they continued their voyage without any fear of short rations for some time to come.
THE CLOSING CHAPTER.
After many days of difficult navigation the balza floated upon the broad and mighty Amazon, whose yellowish-olive flood flowed yet fifteen hundred miles farther to the Atlantic Ocean.
The current was in most places over four miles an hour, and the navigation smooth and easy—so that our travellers rarely made less than fifty miles a-day. There was considerable monotony in the landscape, on account of the absence of mountains, as the Amazon, through most of its course, runs through a level plain. The numerous bends and sudden windings of the stream, however, continually opening out into new and charming vistas, and the ever-changing variety of vegetation, formed sources of delight to the travellers.
Almost every day they passed the mouth of some tributary river—many of these appearing as large as the Amazon itself. Our travellers were struck with a peculiarity in relation to these rivers—that is, their variety of colour. Some were whitish, with a tinge of olive, like the Amazon itself; others were blue and transparent; while a third kind had waters as black as ink. Of the latter class is the great river of the Rio Negro—which by means of a tributary (the Cassiquiare) joins the Amazon with the Orinoco.
Indeed, the rivers of the Amazon valley have been classed into white, blue, and black. Red rivers, such as are common in the northern division of the American continent, do not exist in the valley of the Amazon.
There appears to be no other explanation for this difference in the colour of rivers, except by supposing that they take their hue from the nature of the soil through which these channels run.
But the white rivers, as the Amazon itself, do not appear to be of this hue merely because they are "muddy." On the contrary, they derive their colour, or most of it, from some impalpable substance held in a state of irreducible solution. This is proved from the fact, that even when these waters enter a reservoir, and the earthy matter is allowed to settle, they still retain the same tinge of yellowish olive. There are some white rivers, as the Rio Branco, whose waters are almost as white as milk itself!
The blue rivers of the Amazon valley are those with clear transparent waters, and the courses of these lie through rocky countries where there is little or no alluvium to render them turbid.
The black streams are the most remarkable of all. These, when deep, look like rivers of ink; and when the bottom can be seen, which is usually a sandy one, the sand has the appearance of gold. Even when lifted in a vessel, the water retains its inky tinge, and resembles that which may be found in the pools of peat-bogs. It is a general supposition in South America that the black-water rivers get their colour from the extract of sarsaparilla roots growing on their banks. It is possible the sarsaparilla roots may have something to do with it, in common with both the roots and leaves of many other vegetables. No other explanation has yet been found to account for the dark colour of these rivers, except the decay of vegetable substances carried in their current; and it is a fact that all the black-water streams run through the most thickly wooded regions.
A curious fact may be mentioned of the black rivers; that is, that mosquitoes—the plague of tropical America—are not found on their banks. This is not only a curious, but an important fact, and might be sufficient to determine any one on the choice of a settlement. You may deem a mosquito a very small thing, and its presence a trifling annoyance. Let me tell you that settlements have been broken up and deserted on account of the persecution experienced from these little insects! They are the real "wild beasts" of South America, far more to be dreaded than pumas, or crocodiles, or snakes, or even the fierce jaguar himself.
Day after day our travellers kept on their course, meeting with many incidents and adventures—too many to be recorded in this little volume. After passing the mouth of the Rio Negro, they began to get a peep now and then of high land, and even mountains, in the distance; for the valley of the Amazon, on approaching its mouth, assumes a different character from what it has farther up-stream. These mountains bend towards it both from the Brazilian country on the south, and from Guiana on the north, and these are often visible from the bosom of the stream itself.
It was about a month from their entering the main stream of the Amazon, and a little more than two from the first launching of their vessel, when the balza was brought alongside the wharf of Grand Para, and Don Pablo and his party stepped on shore at this Brazilian town. Here, of course, Don Pablo was a free man—free to go where he pleased—free to dispose of his cargo as he thought best. But he did not dispose of it at Grand Para.
A better plan presented itself. He was enabled to freight part of a vessel starting for New York, and thither he went, taking his family and cargo along with him. In New York he obtained a large price for his bark, roots, and beans; in fact, when all were disposed of, he found himself nearly twenty thousand dollars to the good. With this to live upon, he determined to remain in the great Republic of the North until such time as his own dear Peru might be freed from the Spanish oppressor.
Ten years was the period of his exile. At the end of that time the Spanish-American provinces struck almost simultaneously for liberty; and in the ten years' struggle that followed, not only Don Pablo, but Leon—now a young man—bore a conspicuous part. Both fought by the side of Bolivar at the great battle of Junin, which crowned the patriot army with victory.
At the close of the War of Independence, Don Pablo was a general of division, while Leon had reached the grade of a colonel. But as soon as the fighting was over, both resigned their military rank, as they were men who did not believe in soldiering as a mere profession. In fact, they regarded it as an unbecoming profession in time of peace, and in this view I quite agree with them.
Don Pablo returned to his studies; but Leon organised an expedition of cascarilleros, and returned to the Montana, where for many years he employed himself in "bark-hunting." Through this he became one of the richest of Peruvian "ricos."
Guapo, who at this time did not look a year older than when first introduced, was as tough and sinewy as ever, and was at the head of the cascarilleros; and many a coceada did Guapo afterwards enjoy with his mountain friend the "vaquero" while passing backward and forward between Cuzco and the Montana.
Dona Isidora lived for a long period an ornament to her sex, and the little Leona had her day as the "belle of Cuzco."
But Leon and Leona both got married at length; and were you to visit Cuzco at the present time, you might see several little Leons and Leonas, with round black eyes, and dark waving hair—all of them descendants from our family of—
ADVENTURES IN THE WILDS OF SOUTHERN AFRICA.
Hendrik Von Bloom was a boer.
When I called Hendrik Von Bloom a boer, I did not mean him any disrespect. Quite the contrary.
All the same it may be well to explain that Mynheer Hendrik had not always been a boer. He could boast of a somewhat higher condition—that is, he could boast of a better education than the mere Cape farmer usually possesses, as well as some experience in wielding the sword. He was not a native of the colony, but of Holland; and he had found his way to the Cape, not as a poor adventurer seeking his fortune, but as an officer in a Dutch regiment then stationed there.
His soldier-service in the colony was not of long duration. A certain cherry-cheeked, flaxen-haired Gertrude—the daughter of a rich boer—had taken a liking to the young lieutenant; and he in his turn became vastly fond of her. The consequence was, that they got married. Gertrude's father dying shortly after, the large farm, with its full stock of horses, and Hottentots, broad-tailed sheep, and long-horned oxen, became hers. This was an inducement for her soldier-husband to lay down the sword and turn "vee-boer," or stock farmer, which he consequently did.
These incidents occurred many years previous to the English becoming masters of the Cape colony. When that event came to pass, Hendrik Von Bloom was already a man of influence in the colony and "field-cornet" of his district, which lay in the beautiful county of Graaf Reinet. He was then a widower, the father of a small family. The wife whom he had fondly loved,—the cherry-cheeked, flaxen-haired Gertrude—no longer lived.
History will tell you how the Dutch colonists, discontented with English rule, rebelled against it. The ex-lieutenant and field-cornet was one of the most prominent among these rebels. History will also tell you how the rebellion was put down; and how several of those compromised were brought to execution. Von Bloom escaped by flight; but his fine property in the Graaf Reinet was confiscated and given to another.
Many years after we find him living in a remote district beyond the great Orange River, leading the life of a "trek-boer,"—that is, a nomade farmer, who has no fixed or permanent abode, but moves with his flocks from place to place, wherever good pastures and water may tempt him.
From about this time dates my knowledge of the field-cornet and his family. Of his history previous to this I have stated all I know, but for a period of many years after I am more minutely acquainted with it. Most of its details I received from the lips of his own son. I was greatly interested, and indeed instructed, by them. They were my first lessons in African zoology.
Believing, boy reader, that they might also instruct and interest you, I here lay them before you. You are not to regard them as merely fanciful. The descriptions of the wild creatures that play their parts in this little history, as well as the acts, habits, and instincts assigned to them, you may regard as true to Nature. Young Von Bloom was a student of Nature, and you may depend upon the fidelity of his descriptions.
Disgusted with politics, the field-cornet now dwelt on the remote frontier—in fact, beyond the frontier, for the nearest settlement was an hundred miles off. His "kraal" was in a district bordering the great Kalihari desert—the Saaera of Southern Africa. The region around, for hundreds of miles, was uninhabited, for the thinly-scattered, half-human Bushmen who dwelt within its limits, hardly deserved the name of inhabitants any more than the wild beasts that howled around them.
I have said that Von Bloom now followed the occupation of a "trek-boer." Farming in the Cape colony consists principally in the rearing of horses, cattle, sheep, and goats; and these animals form the wealth of the boer. But the stock of our field-cornet was now a very small one. The proscription had swept away all his wealth, and he had not been fortunate in his first essays as a nomade grazier. The emancipation law, passed by the British Government, extended not only to the Negroes of the West India Islands, but also to the Hottentots of the Cape; and the result of it was that the servants of Mynheer Von Bloom had deserted him. His cattle, no longer properly cared for, had strayed off. Some of them fell a prey to wild beasts—some died of the murrain. His horses, too, were decimated by that mysterious disease of Southern Africa, the "horse-sickness;" while his sheep and goats were continually being attacked and diminished in numbers by the earth-wolf, the wild hound, and the hyena. A series of losses had he suffered until his horses, oxen, sheep, and goats, scarce counted altogether an hundred head. A very small stock for a vee-boer, or South African grazier.
Withal our field-cornet was not unhappy. He looked around upon his three brave sons—Hans, Hendrik, and Jan. He looked upon his cherry-cheeked, flaxen-haired daughter, Gertrude, the very type and image of what her mother had been. From these he drew the hope of a happier future.
His two eldest boys were already helps to him in his daily occupations; the youngest would soon be so likewise. In Gertrude,—or "Trueey," as she was endearingly styled,—he would soon have a capital housekeeper. He was not unhappy therefore; and if an occasional sigh escaped him, it was when the face of little Trueey recalled the memory of that Gertrude who was now in heaven.
But Hendrik Von Bloom was not the man to despair. Disappointments had not succeeded in causing his spirits to droop. He only applied himself more ardently to the task of once more building up his fortune.
For himself he had no ambition to be rich. He would have been contented with the simple life he was leading, and would have cared but little to increase his wealth. But other considerations weighed upon his mind—the future of his little family. He could not suffer his children to grow up in the midst of the wild plains without education.
No; they must one day return to the abodes of men, to act their part in the drama of social and civilised life. This was his design.
But how was this design to be accomplished? Though his so called act of treason had been pardoned, and he was now free to return within the limits of the colony, he was ill prepared for such a purpose. His poor wasted stock would not suffice to set him up within the settlements. It would scarce keep him a month. To return would be to return a beggar!
Reflections of this kind sometimes gave him anxiety. But they also added energy to his disposition, and rendered him more eager to overcome the obstacles before him.
During the present year he had been very industrious. In order that his cattle should be provided for in the season of winter he had planted a large quantity of maize and buckwheat, and now the crops of both were in the most prosperous condition. His garden, too, smiled, and promised a profusion of fruits, and melons, and kitchen vegetables. In short, the little homestead where he had fixed himself for a time, was a miniature oaesis; and he rejoiced day after day, as his eyes rested upon the ripening aspect around him. Once more he began to dream of prosperity—once more to hope that his evil fortunes had come to an end.
Alas! It was a false hope. A series of trials yet awaited him—a series of misfortunes that deprived him of almost everything he possessed, and completely changed his mode of existence.
Perhaps these occurrences could hardly be termed misfortunes, since in the end they led to a happy result.
But you may judge for yourself, boy reader, after you have heard the "history and adventures" of the "trek-boer" and his family.
The ex-field-cornet was seated in front of his kraal—for such is the name of a South African homestead. From his lips protruded a large pipe, with its huge bowl of meerschaum. Every boer is a smoker.
Notwithstanding the many losses and crosses of his past life, there was contentment in his eye. He was gratified by the prosperous appearance of his crops. The maize was now "in the milk," and the ears, folded within the papyrus-like husks, looked full and large. It was delightful to hear the rustling of the long green blades, and see the bright golden tassels waving in the breeze. The heart of the farmer was glad as his eye glanced over his promising crop of "mealies."
But there was another promising crop that still more gladdened his heart—his fine children. There they are—all around him.
Hans—the oldest—steady, sober Hans, at work in the well-stocked garden; while the diminutive but sprightly imp Jan, the youngest, is looking on, and occasionally helping his brother. Hendrik—the dashing Hendrik, with bright face and light curling hair—is busy among the horses, in the "horse-kraal;" and Trueey—the beautiful, cherry-cheeked, flaxen-haired Trueey—is engaged with her pet—a fawn of the springbok gazelle—whose bright eyes rival her own in their expression of innocence and loveliness.
Yes, the heart of the field-cornet is glad as he glances from one to the other of these his children—and with reason. They are all fair to look upon,—all give promise of goodness. If their father feels an occasional pang, it is, as we have already said, when his eye rests upon the cherry-cheeked, flaxen-haired Gertrude.
But time has long since subdued that grief to a gentle melancholy. Its pang is short-lived, and the face of the field-cornet soon lightens up again as he looks around upon his dear children, so full of hope and promise.
Hans and Hendrik are already strong enough to assist him in his occupations,—in fact, with the exception of "Swartboy," they are the only help he has.
Who is Swartboy?
Look into the horse-kraal, and you will there see Swartboy engaged, along with his young master Hendrik, in saddling a pair of horses. You may notice that Swartboy appears to be about thirty years old, and he is full that; but if you were to apply a measuring rule to him, you would find him not much over four feet in height! He is stoutly built, however, and would measure better in a horizontal direction. You may notice that he is of a yellow complexion, although his name might lead you to fancy he was black—for "Swartboy" means "black-boy."
You may observe that his nose is flat and sunk below the level of his cheeks; that his cheeks are prominent, his lips very thick, his nostrils wide, his face beardless, and his head almost hairless—for the small kinky wool-knots thinly scattered over his skull can scarcely be designated hair. You may notice, moreover, that his head is monstrously large, with ears in proportion, and that the eyes are set obliquely, and have a Chinese expression. You may notice about Swartboy all those characteristics that distinguish the "Hottentots" of South Africa.
Yet Swartboy is not a Hottentot—though he is of the same race. He is a Bushman.
How came this wild Bushman into the service of the ex-field-cornet Von Bloom? About that there is a little romantic history. Thus:—
Among the savage tribes of Southern Africa there exists a very cruel custom,—that of abandoning their aged or infirm, and often their sick or wounded, to die in the desert. Children leave their parents behind them, and the wounded are often forsaken by their comrades with no other provision made for them beyond a day's food and a cup of water!
The Bushman Swartboy had been the victim of this custom. He had been upon a hunting excursion with some of his own kindred, and had been sadly mangled by a lion. His comrades, not expecting him to live, left him on the plain to die; and most certainly would he have perished had it not been for our field-cornet. The latter, as he was "trekking" over the plains, found the wounded Bushman, lifted him into his wagon, carried him on to his camp, dressed his wounds, and nursed him till he became well. That is how Swartboy came to be in the service of the field-cornet.
Though gratitude is not a characteristic of his race, Swartboy was not ungrateful. When all the other servants ran away, he remained faithful to his master; and since that time had been a most efficient and useful hand. In fact, he was now the only one left, with the exception of the girl, Totty—who was, of course, a Hottentot; and much about the same height, size, and colour, as Swartboy himself.
We have said that Swartboy and the young Hendrik were saddling a pair of horses. As soon as they had finished that job, they mounted them, and riding out of the kraal, took their way straight across the plain. They were followed by a couple of strong, rough-looking dogs.
Their purpose was to drive home the oxen and the other horses that were feeding a good distance off. This they were in the habit of doing every evening at the same hour,—for in South Africa it is necessary to shut up all kinds of live stock at night, to protect them from beasts of prey. For this purpose are built several enclosures with high walls,—"kraals," as they are called,—a word of the same signification as the Spanish "corral," and I fancy introduced into Africa by the Portuguese—since it is not a native term.
These kraals are important structures about the homestead of a boer, almost as much so as his own dwelling-house, which of itself also bears the name of "kraal."
As young Hendrik and Swartboy rode off for the horses and cattle, Hans, leaving his work in the garden, proceeded to collect the sheep and drive them home. These browsed in a different direction; but, as they were near, he went afoot, taking little Jan along with him.
Trueey having tied her pet to a post, had gone inside the house to help Totty in preparing the supper. Thus the field-cornet was left to himself and his pipe, which he still continued to smoke.
He sat in perfect silence, though he could scarce restrain from giving expression to the satisfaction he felt at seeing his family thus industriously employed. Though pleased with all his children, it must be confessed he had some little partiality for the dashing Hendrik, who bore his own name, and who reminded him more of his own youth than any of the others. He was proud of Hendrik's gallant horsemanship, and his eyes followed him over the plain until the riders were nearly a mile off, and already mixing among the cattle.
At this moment an object came under the eyes of Von Bloom, that at once arrested his attention. It was a curious appearance along the lower part of the sky, in the direction in which Hendrik and Swartboy had gone, but apparently beyond them. It resembled a dun-coloured mist or smoke, as if the plain at a great distance was on fire!
Could that be so? Had some one fired the karoo bushes? Or was it a cloud of dust?
The wind was hardly strong enough to raise such a dust, and yet it had that appearance. Was it caused by animals? Might it not be the dust raised by a great herd of antelopes,—a migration of the springboks, for instance? It extended for miles along the horizon, but Von Bloom knew that these creatures often travel in flocks of greater extent than miles. Still he could not think it was that.
He continued to gaze at the strange phenomenon, endeavouring to account for it in various ways. It seemed to be rising higher against the blue sky—now resembling dust, now like the smoke of a widely-spread conflagration, and now like a reddish cloud. It was in the west, and already the setting sun was obscured by it. It had passed over the sun's disc like a screen, and his light no longer fell upon the plain. Was it the forerunner of some terrible storm?—of an earthquake?
Such a thought crossed the mind of the field-cornet. It was not like an ordinary cloud,—it was not like a cloud of dust,—it was not like smoke. It was like nothing he had ever witnessed before. No wonder that he became anxious and apprehensive.
All at once the dark-red mass seemed to envelope the cattle upon the plain, and these could be seen running to and fro as if affrighted. Then the two riders disappeared under its dun shadow!
Von Bloom rose to his feet, now seriously alarmed. What could it mean?
The exclamation to which he gave utterance brought little Trueey and Totty from the house; and Hans with Jan had now got back with the sheep and goats. All saw the singular phenomenon, but none of them could tell what it was. All were in a state of alarm.
As they stood gazing, with hearts full of fear, the two riders appeared coming out of the cloud, and then they were seen to gallop forward over the plain in the direction of the house. They came on at full speed, but long before they had got near, the voice of Swartboy could be heard crying out,—