Chapter 16. On the Way
It was not without a certain apprehension--nothing seemed to justify it, however--that Dick Sand, three hundred steps from the steep bank of the river, penetrated into the thick forest, the difficult paths of which he and his companions were going to follow for ten days. On the contrary, Mrs. Weldon herself, a woman and a mother, whom the perils would make doubly anxious, had every confidence. Two very serious motives had contributed to reassure her; first, because this region of the pampas was neither very formidable on account of the natives, nor on account of the animals which were found there; next, because, under the direction of Harris, of a guide so sure of himself as the American appeared to be, they could not be afraid of going astray.
Here is the order of proceeding, which, as far as possible, would be observed during the journey:
Dick Sand and Harris, both armed, one with his long gun, the other with a Remington, kept at the head of the little troop.
Then came Bat and Austin, also armed, each with a gun and a cutlass.
Behind them followed Mrs. Weldon and little Jack, on horseback; then Nan and Tom.
In the rear, Acteon, armed with the fourth Remington, and Hercules, with a hatchet in his belt, closed the march.
Dingo went backwards and forwards, and, as Dick Sand remarked, always like an uneasy dog seeking a scent. The dog's ways had visibly changed since the "Pilgrim's" shipwreck had cast it on this sea-coast. It seemed agitated, and almost incessantly it kept up a dull grumbling, rather lamentable than furious. That was remarked by all, though no one could explain it.
As to Cousin Benedict, it had been as impossible to assign him an order of marching as Dingo. Unless he had been held by a string, he would not have kept it. His tin box strapped to his shoulder, his net in his hand, his large magnifying glass suspended to his neck, sometimes behind, sometimes in front, he scampered away among the high herbs, watching for orthopters or any other insect in "pter," at the risk of being bit by some venomous serpent.
During the first hour Mrs. Weldon, uneasy, called him back twenty times. It was no use.
"Cousin Benedict," she finished by saying to him, "I beg you very seriously not to go far away, and I urge you for the last time to pay attention to my entreaties."
"Meanwhile, cousin," replied the intractable entomologist, "when I perceive an insect?"
"When you perceive an insect," replied Mrs. Weldon, "you would do well to let it go in peace, or you will put me under the necessity of taking your box away from you."
"Take away my box!" cried Cousin Benedict, as if it were a question of snatching away his heart.
"Your box and your net," added Mrs. Weldon, pitilessly.
"My net, cousin! And why not my glasses? You will not dare! No; you will not dare!"
"Even, your glasses, which I forgot. I thank you, Cousin Benedict, for reminding me that I have that means of making you blind, and, in that way, forcing you to be wise."
This triple menace had the effect of making him keep quiet--this unsubmissive cousin--for about an hour. Then he began to go away again, and, as he would do the same, even without net, without box, and without glasses, they were obliged to let him do as he pleased. But Hercules undertook to watch him closely--which quite naturally became one of his duties--and it was agreed that he would act with Cousin Benedict as the latter would with an insect; that is, that he would catch him, if necessary, and bring him back as delicately as the other would with the rarest of the lepidopters.
That rule made, they troubled themselves no more about Cousin Benedict.
The little troop, it has been seen, was well armed, and guarded itself carefully. But, as Harris repeated, there was no encounter to fear except with wandering Indians, and they would probably see none.
At all events, the precautions taken would suffice to keep them respectful.
The paths which wound across the thick forest did not merit that name. They were rather the tracks of animals than the tracks of men. They could only be followed with difficulty. So, in fixing the average distance that the little troop would make in a march of twelve hours at only five or six miles, Harris had calculated wisely.
The weather, however, was very fine. The sun mounted toward the zenith, spreading in waves his almost perpendicular rays. On the plain this heat would be unbearable, Harris took care to remark; but, under those impenetrable branches, they bore it easily and with impunity.
The greater part of the trees of this forest were unknown, as well to Mrs. Weldon as to her companions, black or white.
However, an expert would remark that they were more remarkable for their quality than for their height. Here, it was the "banhinia," or iron wood; there, the "molompi," identical with the "pterocarpe," a solid and light wood, fit for making the spoons used in sugar manufactories or oars, from the trunk of which exuded an abundant resin; further on, "fusticks," or yellow wood, well supplied with coloring materials, and lignum-vitæs, measuring as much as twelve feet in diameter, but inferior in quality to the ordinary lignum-vitæs.
While walking, Dick Sand asked Harris the name of these different trees.
"Then you have never been on the coast of South America?" Harris asked him before replying to his question.
"Never," replied the novice; "never, during my voyages, have I had occasion to visit these coasts, and to say the truth, I do not believe that anybody who knew about them has ever spoken to me of them."
"But have you at least explored the coasts of Colombia, those of Chili, or of Patagonia?"
"But perhaps Mrs. Weldon has visited this part of the new continent?" asked Harris. "Americans do not fear voyages, and doubtless----"
"No, Mr. Harris," replied Mrs. Weldon. "The commercial interests of my husband have never called him except to New Zealand, and I have not had to accompany him elsewhere. Not one of us, then, knows this portion of lower Bolivia."
"Well, Mrs. Weldon, you and your companions will see a singular country, which contrasts strangely with the regions of Peru, of Brazil, or of the Argentine Republic. Its flora and fauna would astonish a naturalist. Ah! we may say that you have been shipwrecked at a good place, and if we may ever thank chance----"
"I wish to believe that it is not chance which has led us here, but God, Mr. Harris."
"God! Yes! God!" replied Harris, in the tone of a man who takes little account of providential intervention in the things of this world.
Then, since nobody in the little troop knew either the country or its productions, Harris took a pleasure in naming pleasantly the most curious trees of the forest.
In truth, it was a pity that, in Cousin Benedict's case, the entomologist was not supplemented by the botanist! If, up to this time, he had hardly found insects either rare or new, he might have made fine discoveries in botany. There was, in profusion, vegetation of all heights, the existence of which in the tropical forests of the New World had not been yet ascertained. Cousin Benedict would certainly have attached his name to some discovery of this kind. But he did not like botany--he knew nothing about it. He even, quite naturally, held flowers in aversion, under the pretext that some of them permit themselves to imprison the insects in their corollas, and poison them with their venomous juices.
At times, the forest became marshy. They felt under foot quite a network of liquid threads, which would feed the affluents of the little river. Some of the rills, somewhat large, could only be crossed by choosing fordable places.
On their banks grew tufts of reeds, to which Harris gave the name of papyrus. He was not mistaken, and those herbaceous plants grew abundantly below the damp banks.
Then, the marsh passed, thickets of trees again covered the narrow routes of the forest.
Harris made Mrs. Weldon and Dick Sand remark some very fine ebony-trees, much larger than the common ebony-tree, which furnish a wood much blacker and much stronger than that of commerce. Then there were mango-trees, still numerous, though they were rather far from the sea. A kind of fur of white moss climbed them as far as the branches. Their thick shade and their delicious fruit made them precious trees, and meanwhile, according to Harris, not a native would dare to propagate the species. "Whoever plants a mango-tree dies!" Such is the superstitious maxim of the country.
During the second half of this first day of the journey, the little troop, after the midday halt, began to ascend land slightly inclined. They were not as yet the slopes of the chain of the first plane, but a sort of undulating plateau which connected the plain with the mountain.
There the trees, a little less compact, sometimes clustered in groups, would have rendered the march easier, if the soil had not been invaded by herbaceous plants. One might believe himself in the jungles of Oriental India. Vegetation appeared to be less luxuriant than in the lower valley of the little river, but it was still superior to that of the temperate regions of the Old or of the New World.
Indigo was growing there in profusion, and, according to Harris, this leguminous plant passed with reason for the most usurping plant of the country. If a field came to be abandoned, this parasite, as much despised as the thistle or the nettle, took possession of it immediately.
One tree seemed lacking in this forest, which ought to be very common in this part of the new continent; it was the caoutchouc-tree. In fact, the "ficus primoides," the "castilloa elastica," the "cecropia peltats," the "collophora utilis," the "cameraria letifolia," and above all, the "syphonia elastica," which belong to different families, abound in the provinces of South America. And meanwhile, a rather singular thing, there was not a single one to be seen.
Now, Dick Sand had particularly promised his friend Jack to show him some caoutchouc trees. So a great deception for the little boy, who figured to himself that gourds, speaking babies, articulate punchinellos, and elastic balloons grew quite naturally on those trees. He complained.
"Patience, my good little man," replied Harris. "We shall find some of those caoutchoucs, and by hundreds, in the neighborhood of the farm."
"Handsome ones, very elastic?" asked little Jack.
"The most elastic there are. Hold! while waiting, do you want a good fruit to take away your thirst?" And, while speaking, Harris went to gather from a tree some fruits, which seemed to be as pleasant to the taste as those from the peach-tree.
"Are you very sure, Mr. Harris," asked Mrs. Weldon, "that this fruit can do no harm?"
"Mrs. Weldon, I am going to convince you," replied the American, who took a large mouthful of one of those fruits. "It is a mango."
And little Jack, without any more pressing, followed Harris's example, He declared that it was very good, "those pears," and the tree was at once put under contribution.
Those mangos belonged to a species whose fruit is ripe in March and April, others being so only in September, and, consequently, their mangos were just in time.
"Yes, it is good, good, good!" said little Jack, with his mouth full. "But my friend Dick has promised me caoutchoucs, if I was very good, and I want caoutchoucs!"
"You will have them, Jack," replied Mrs. Weldon, "because Mr. Harris assures you of it."
"But that is not all," went on Jack. "My friend Dick has promised me some other thing!"
"What then, has friend Dick promised?" asked Harris, smiling.
"Some humming-birds, sir."
"And you shall have some humming-birds, my good little man, but farther on--farther on," replied Harris.
The fact is that little Jack had a right to claim some of these charming creatures, for he was now in a country where they should abound. The Indians, who know how to weave their feathers artistically, have lavished the most poetical names on those jewels of the flying race. They call them either the "rays" or the "hairs of the sun." Here, it is "the little king of the flowers;" there, "the celestial flower that comes in its flight to caress the terrestrial flower." It is again "the bouquet of jewels, which sparkles in the fire of the day." It can be believed that their imagination would know how to furnish a new poetical appellation for each of the one hundred and fifty species which constitute this marvelous tribe of humming-birds.
Meanwhile, however numerous these humming-birds might be in the forests of Bolivia, little Jack was obliged to still content himself with Harris's promise. According to the American, they were still too close to the coast, and the humming-birds did not like these deserts so near the ocean. The presence of man did not frighten them at the "hacienda;" they heard nothing all day but their cry of "teretere" and the murmur of their wings, similar to that of a spinning-wheel.
"Ah! how I should like to be there!" cried little Jack.
The surest method of getting there--to the "hacienda" of San Felice--was not to stop on the road. Mrs. Weldon and her companions only took the time absolutely necessary for repose.
The aspect of the forest already changed. Between the less crowded trees large clearings opened here and there. The sun, piercing the green carpet, then showed its structure of red, syenite granite, similar to slabs of lapis-lazuli. On some heights the sarsaparilla abounded, a plant with fleshy tubercles, which formed an inextricable tangle. The forest, with the narrow paths, was better for them.
Before sunset the little troop were about eight miles from the point of departure. This journey had been made without accident, and even without great fatigue. It is true, it was the first journey on the march, and no doubt the following halting places would be rougher.
By a common consent they decided to make a halt at this place. The question then was, not to establish a real camp, but to simply organize a resting-place. One man on guard, relieved every two hours, would suffice to watch during the night, neither the natives nor the deer being truly formidable.
They found nothing better for shelter than an enormous mango-tree, whose large branches, very bushy, formed a kind of natural veranda. If necessary, they could nestle in the branches.
Only, on the arrival of the little troop, a deafening concert arose from the top of the tree.
The mango served as a perch for a colony of gray parrots, prattling, quarrelsome, ferocious birds, which set upon living birds, and those who would judge them from their congeners which Europe keeps in cages, would be singularly mistaken.
These parrots jabbered with such a noise that Dick Sand thought of firing at them to oblige them to be silent, or to put them to flight. But Harris dissuaded him, under the pretext that in these solitudes it was better not to disclose his presence by the detonation of a fire-arm.
"Let us pass along without noise," he said, "and we shall pass along without danger."
Supper was prepared at once, without any need of proceeding to cook food. It was composed of conserves and biscuit. A little rill, which wound under the plants, furnished drinkable water, which they did not drink without improving it with a few drops of rum. As to _dessert_, the mango was there with its juicy fruit, which the parrots did not allow to be picked without protesting with their abominable cries.
At the end of the supper it began to be dark. The shade rose slowly from the ground to the tops of the trees, from which the foliage soon stood out like a fine tracery on the more luminous background of the sky. The first stars seemed to be shining flowers, which twinkled at the end of the last branches. The wind went down with the night, and no longer trembled in the branches of the trees. The parrots themselves had become mute. Nature was going to rest, and inviting every living being to follow her in this deep sleep.
Preparations for retiring had to be of a very primitive character.
"Shall we not light a large fire for the night?" Dick Sand asked the American.
"What's the good?" replied Harris. "Fortunately the nights are not cold, and this enormous mango will preserve the soil from all evaporation. We have neither cold nor dampness to fear. I repeat, my young friend, what I told you just now. Let us move along incognito. No more fire than gunshots, if possible."
"I believe, indeed," then said Mrs. Weldon, "that we have nothing to fear from the Indians--even from those wanderers of the woods, of whom you have spoken, Mr. Harris. But, are there not other four-footed wanderers, that the sight of a fire would help to keep at a distance?"
"Mrs. Weldon," replied the American, "you do too much honor to the deer of this country. Indeed, they fear man more than he fears them."
"We are in a wood," said Jack, "and there is always beasts in the woods."
"There are woods and woods, my good little man, as there are beasts and beasts," replied Harris, laughing. "Imagine that you are in the middle of a large park. Truly, it is not without reason that the Indians say of this country, 'Es como el pariso!' It is like an earthly paradise!"
"Then there are serpents?" said Jack.
"No, my Jack," replied Mrs. Weldon, "there are no serpents, and you may sleep tranquilly."
"And lions?" asked Jack.
"Not the ghost of a lion, my good little man," replied Harris.
"Ask your mama if she has ever heard tell of tigers on this continent."
"Never," replied Mrs. Weldon.
"Good!" said Cousin Benedict, who, by chance, was listening to the conversation: "if there are neither lions nor tigers in the New World, which is perfectly true, we at least encounter cougars and jaguars."
"Are they bad?" asked little Jack.
"Phew!" replied Harris; "a native has little fear of attacking those animals, and we are strong. Stay! Hercules would be strong enough to crush two jaguars at once, one in each hand!"
"You will watch well, Hercules," then said little Jack, "and if a beast comes to bite us----"
"It is I who will bite it, Mr. Jack!" replied Hercules, showing his mouth, armed with superb teeth.
"Yes, you will watch, Hercules," said the novice, "but your companions and I will relieve you, turn about."
"No, Mr. Dick," replied Acteon, "Hercules, Bat, Austin, and I, we four will be enough for this labor. You must rest the whole night."
"Thank you, Acteon," replied Dick Sand, "but I ought to----"
"No! let those brave men do it, my dear Dick!" then said Mrs. Weldon.
"I, also; I shall watch!" added little Jack, whose eyelids were already closing.
"Yes, my Jack, yes, you will watch!" replied his mother, who did not wish to contradict him.
"But," the little boy said again, "if there are no lions, if there are no tigers in the forest, there are wolves!"
"Oh! wolves in jest!" replied the American. "They are not even wolves, but kinds of foxes, or rather of those dogs of the woods which they call 'guaras.'"
"And those _guaras_, they bite?" asked little Jack.
"Bah! Dingo would make only one mouthful of those beasts!"
"Never mind," replied Jack, with a last yawn; "guaras are wolves, because they are called wolves!"
And with that Jack fell asleep peaceably in Nan's arms, beside the trunk of the mango. Mrs. Weldon, lying near her, gave a last kiss to her little boy, and her tired eyes quickly closed for the night.
A few moments later Hercules brought back to the camp Cousin Benedict, who had just gone off to commence a chase for pyrophores. They are "cocuyos," or luminous flies, which the stylish put in their hair, like so many living gems. These insects which throw a bright and bluish light from two spots situated at the base of their corselet, are very numerous in South America. Cousin Benedict then counted on making a large collection, but Hercules did not leave him time, and, in spite of his recriminations, the negro brought him to the halting-place. That was because, when Hercules had orders, he executed them with military preciseness, which, no doubt, prevented the incarceration of a notable quantity of luminous flies in the entomologist's tin box.
A few moments after, with the exception of the giant, who was watching, all were reposing in a profound sleep.