Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon
Chapter 7: Following a Liana
IT WAS a Sunday, the 26th of May, and the young people had made up their minds to take a holiday. The weather was splendid, the heat being tempered by the refreshing breezes which blew from off the Cordilleras, and everything invited them out for an excursion into the country.
Benito and Manoel had offered to accompany Minha through the thick woods which bordered the right bank of the Amazon opposite the fazenda.
It was, in a manner, a farewell visit to the charming environs of Iquitos. The young men went equipped for the chase, but as sportsmen who had no intention of going far from their companions in pursuit of any game. Manoel could be trusted for that, and the girls--for Lina could not leave her mistress--went prepared for a walk, an excursion of two or three leagues being not too long to frighten them.
Neither Joam Garral nor Yaquita had time to go with them. For one reason the plan of the jangada was not yet complete, and it was necessary that its construction should not be interrupted for a day, and another was that Yaquita and Cybele, well seconded as they were by the domestics of the fazenda, had not an hour to lose.
Minha had accepted the offer with much pleasure, and so, after breakfast on the day we speak of, at about eleven o'clock, the two young men and the two girls met on the bank at the angle where the two streams joined. One of the blacks went with them. They all embarked in one of the ubas used in the service of the farm, and after having passed between the islands of Iquitos and Parianta, they reached the right bank of the Amazon.
They landed at a clump of superb tree-ferns, which were crowned, at a height of some thirty feet with a sort of halo made of the dainty branches of green velvet and the delicate lacework of the drooping fronds.
"Well, Manoel," said Minha, "it is for me to do the honors of the forest; you are only a stranger in these regions of the Upper Amazon. We are at home here, and you must allow me to do my duty, as mistress of the house."
"Dearest Minha," replied the young man, "you will be none the less mistress of your house in our town of Belem than at the fazenda of Iquitos, and there as here--"
"Now, then," interrupted Benito, "you did not come here to exchange loving speeches, I imagine. Just forget for a few hours that you are engaged."
"Not for an hour--not for an instant!" said Manoel.
"Perhaps you will if Minha orders you?"
"Minha will not order me."
"Who knows?" said Lina, laughing.
"Lina is right," answered Minha, who held out her hand to Manoel. "Try to forget! Forget! my brother requires it. All is broken off! As long as this walk lasts we are not engaged: I am no more than the sister of Benito! You are only my friend!"
"To be sure," said Benito.
"Bravo! bravo! there are only strangers here," said the young mulatto, clapping her hands.
"Strangers who see each other for the first time," added the girl; "who meet, bow to--"
"Mademoiselle!" said Manoel, turning to Minha.
"To whom have I the honor to speak, sir?" said she in the most serious manner possible.
"To Manoel Valdez, who will be glad if your brother will introduce me."
"Oh, away with your nonsense!" cried Benito. "Stupid idea that I had! Be engaged, my friends--be it as much as you like! Be it always!"
"Always!" said Minha, from whom the word escaped so naturally that Lina's peals of laughter redoubled.
A grateful glance from Manoel repaid Minha for the imprudence of her tongue.
"Come along," said Benito, so as to get his sister out of her embarrassment; "if we walk on we shall not talk so much."
"One moment, brother," she said. "You have seen how ready I am to obey you. You wished to oblige Manoel and me to forget each other, so as not to spoil your walk. Very well; and now I am going to ask a sacrifice from you so that you shall not spoil mine. Whether it pleases you or not, Benito, you must promise me to forget--"
"That you are a sportsman!"
"What! you forbid me to--"
"I forbid you to fire at any of these charming birds--any of the parrots, caciques, or curucus which are flying about so happily among the trees! And the same interdiction with regard to the smaller game with which we shall have to do to-day. If any ounce, jaguar, or such thing comes too near, well--"
"But--" said Benito.
"If not, I will take Manoel's arm, and we shall save or lose ourselves, and you will be obliged to run after us."
"Would you not like me to refuse, eh?" asked Benito, looking at Manoel.
"I think I should!" replied the young man.
"Well then--no!" said Benito; "I do not refuse; I will obey and annoy you. Come on!"
And so the four, followed by the black, struck under the splendid trees, whose thick foliage prevented the sun's rays from every reaching the soil.
There is nothing more magnificent than this part of the right bank of the Amazon. There, in such picturesque confusion, so many different trees shoot up that it is possible to count more than a hundred different species in a square mile. A forester could easily see that no woodman had been there with his hatchet or ax, for the effects of a clearing are visible for many centuries afterward. If the new trees are even a hundred years old, the general aspect still differs from what it was originally, for the lianas and other parasitic plants alter, and signs remain which no native can misunderstand.
The happy group moved then into the tall herbage, across the thickets and under the bushes, chatting and laughing. In front, when the brambles were too thick, the negro, felling-sword in hand, cleared the way, and put thousands of birds to flight.
Minha was right to intercede for the little winged world which flew about in the higher foliage, for the finest representations of tropical ornithology were there to be seen--green parrots and clamorous parakeets, which seemed to be the natural fruit of these gigantic trees; humming-birds in all their varieties, light-blue and ruby red; _"tisauras"_ with long scissors-like tails, looking like detached flowers which the wind blew from branch to branch; blackbirds, with orange plumage bound with brown; golden-edged beccaficos; and _"sabias,"_ black as crows; all united in a deafening concert of shrieks and whistles. The long beak of the toucan stood out against the golden clusters of the _"quiriris,"_ and the treepeckers or woodpeckers of Brazil wagged their little heads, speckled all over with their purple spots. It was truly a scene of enchantment.
But all were silent and went into hiding when above the tops of the trees there grated like a rusty weathercock the _"alma de gato"_ or "soul of the cat," a kind of light fawn-colored sparrow-hawk. If he proudly hooted, displaying in the air the long white plumes of his tail, he in his turn meekly took to flight when in the loftier heights there appeared the _"gaviao,"_ the large white-headed eagle, the terror of the whole winged population of these woods.
Minha made Manoel admire the natural wonders which could not be found in their simplicity in the more civilized provinces of the east. He listened to her more with his eyes than his ears, for the cries and the songs of these thousands of birds were every now and then so penetrating that he was not able to hear what she said. The noisy laughter of Lina was alone sufficiently shrill to ring out with its joyous note above every kind of clucking, chirping, hooting, whistling, and cooing.
At the end of an hour they had scarcely gone a mile. As they left the river the trees assumed another aspect, and the animal life was no longer met with near the ground, but at from sixty to eighty feet above, where troops of monkeys chased each other along the higher branches. Here and there a few cones of the solar rays shot down into the underwood. In fact, in these tropical forests light does not seem to be necessary for their existence. The air is enough for the vegetable growth, whether it be large or small, tree or plant, and all the heat required for the development of their sap is derived not from the surrounding atmosphere, but from the bosom of the soil itself, where it is stored up as in an enormous stove.
And on the bromelias, grass plantains, orchids, cacti, and in short all the parasites which formed a little forest beneath the large one, many marvelous insects were they tempted to pluck as though they had been genuine blossoms--nestors with blue wings like shimmering watered silk, leilu butterflies reflexed with gold and striped with fringes of green, agrippina moths, ten inches long, with leaves for wings, maribunda bees, like living emeralds set in sockets of gold, and legions of lampyrons or pyrophorus coleopters, valagumas with breastplates of bronze, and green elytræ, with yellow light pouring from their eyes, who, when the night comes, illuminate the forest with their many-colored scintillations.
"What wonders!" repeated the enthusiastic girl.
"You are at home, Minha, or at least you say so," said Benito, "and that is the way you talk of your riches!"
"Sneer away, little brother!" replied Minha; "such beautiful things are only lent to us; is it not so, Manoel? They come from the hand of the Almighty and belong to the world!"
"Let Benito laugh on, Minha," said Manoel. "He hides it very well, but he is a poet himself when his time comes, and he admires as much as we do all these beauties of nature. Only when his gun is on his arm, good-by to poetry!"
"Then be a poet now," replied the girl.
"I am a poet," said Benito. "O! Nature-enchanting, etc."
We may confess, however, that in forbidding him to use his gun Minha had imposed on him a genuine privation. There was no lack of game in the woods, and several magnificent opportunities he had declined with regret.
In some of the less wooded parts, in places where the breaks were tolerably spacious, they saw several pairs of ostriches, of the species known as _"naudus,"_ from four to five feet high, accompanied by their inseparable _"seriemas,"_ a sort of turkey, infinitely better from an edible point of view than the huge birds they escort.
"See what that wretched promise costs me," sighed Benito, as, at a gesture from his sister, he replaced under his arm the gun which had instinctively gone up to his shoulder.
"We ought to respect the seriemas," said Manoel, "for they are great destroyers of the snakes."
"Just as we ought to respect the snakes," replied Benito, "because they eat the noxious insects, and just as we ought the insects because they live on smaller insects more offensive still. At that rate we ought to respect everything."
But the instinct of the young sportsman was about to be put to a still more rigorous trial. The woods became of a sudden full of game. Swift stags and graceful roebucks scampered off beneath the bushes, and a well-aimed bullet would assuredly have stopped them. Here and there turkeys showed themselves with their milk and coffee-colored plumage; and peccaries, a sort of wild pig highly appreciated by lovers of venison, and agouties, which are the hares and rabbits of Central America; and tatous belonging to the order of edentates, with their scaly shells of patterns of mosaic.
And truly Benito showed more than virtue, and even genuine heroism, when he came across some tapirs, called "antas" in Brazil, diminutives of the elephant, already nearly undiscoverable on the banks of the Upper Amazon and its tributaries, pachyderms so dear to the hunters for their rarity, so appreciated by the gourmands for their meat, superior far to beef, and above all for the protuberance on the nape of the neck, which is a morsel fit for a king.
His gun almost burned his fingers, but faithful to his promise he kept it quiet.
But yet--and he cautioned his sister about this--the gun would go off in spite of him, and probably register a master-stroke in sporting annals, if within range there should come a _"tamandoa assa,"_ a kind of large and very curious ant-eater.