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Title: Down the Orinoco in a Canoe
Author: Triana, S. Pérez
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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       [Illustration: MAP SHOWING THE ORINOCO AND ITS TRIBUTARIES
                          High-resolution Map]



                            Down the Orinoco
                               in a Canoe


                                   By
                            S. Pérez Triana

                        With an Introduction by
                        R. B. Cunninghame Graham

  ‘Que ejcura que ejtá la Noche!
  La Noche! que ejcura ejtá!
  Asi de ejcura ej la ausencia ...
  Bogá, Negrito, bogá,
      Bogá!’
                                                        Candelario Obeso


                                New York
                        Thomas Y. Crowell & Co.
                               Publishers
                                  1902



                                PREFACE


‘Climas pasé, mudé constelaciones, golfos inavegables,
navegando.’—Ercilla: _La Araucana_.

To read a book to which a friend has asked you to write a preface is an
unusual—nay, even a pedantic—thing to do. It is customary for a
preface-monger to look contemptuously at the unopened bundle of his
friend’s proofs, and then to sit down and overflow you his opinions upon
things created, and those which the creator has left in chaos. I plead
guilty at once to eccentricity, which is worse than the sin of
witchcraft, for witchcraft at one time may have exposed one to the
chance of the stake; but eccentricity at all times has placed one
outside the pale of all right-thinking men. To wear a different hat,
waistcoat, or collar, from those affected by the Apollos who perambulate
our streets, to cut your hair too short, to wear it by the twentieth
fraction of an inch too long, is _scandalum magnatum_, and not to be
endured. So in confessing that I have read ‘Down the Orinoco in a
Canoe,’ not only in the original Spanish in which it first appeared, but
in its English dress, is to condemn myself out of my own mouth, to be
set down a pedant, perhaps a palterer with the truth, and at the best a
man so wedded to old customs that I might almost be a Socialist.

It is undoubtedly a far cry to Bogotá. Personally, more by good fortune
than by any effort of my own, I know with some degree of certainty where
the place is, and that it is not built upon the sea. My grandfather was
called upon to mediate between Bolivar and General Paez, and I believe
acquitted himself to the complete dissatisfaction of them both. Such is
the mediator’s meed.

The general public, of whom (or which) I wish to speak with all respect,
is generally, I take it, in the position of the American Secretary of
State to whom an office-seeker came with a request to be appointed the
United States Vice-Consul for the town of Bogotá. The request was duly
granted, and as the future Consul left the room the Secretary turned to
the author of this book, and said: ‘Triany, where in thunder is Bogoter,
any way?’ Still, Bogotá to-day is, without doubt, the greatest literary
centre south of Panama. Putting aside the floods of titubating verse
which, like a mental dysentery, afflict all members of the
Spanish-speaking race, in Bogotá more serious literary work is done
during a month than in the rest of the republics in a year. The
President himself, Don José Manuel Marroquin, during the intervals of
peace—which in the past have now and then prevailed in the republic over
which he rules—has found the time to write a book, ‘El Moro,’ in which
he draws the adventures of a horse. The book is written not without
literary skill, contains much lore of horsemanship, and is a veritable
mine of local customs; and for the moral of it—and surely Presidents,
though not anointed, as are Kings, must have a moral in all they write,
they do and say—it is enough to make a man incontinently go out and pawn
his spurs.

Thus, Bogotá, set in its plateau in Columbian wilds, is in a way a kind
of Chibcha Athens. There all men write, and poets rave and madden
through the land, and only wholesome necessary revolutions keep their
number down. Still, in the crowd of versifiers one or two, such as
Obeso, the negro poet, who, being denied all access to the lady of his
love—the colour line being strictly drawn in Bogotá, as well befits a
democratic government—brought out a paper once a week, entitled _Lectura
para ti_, have written verse above the average of Spanish rhyme. Others,
again, as Gregorio Gutierrez Gonzalez and Samuel Uribe Velazquez have
written well on local matters, and Juan de Dios Carasquilla has produced
a novel called ‘Frutos de mi Tierra,’ far better than the average
‘epoch-making’ work of circulating library and press.

Pérez Triana, son of an ex-President, and speaking English and Spanish
with equal fluency, is a true son of Bogotá, and writes as easily as
other people talk.

His book occurred in this wise. The usual biennial revolution having
placed his enemies in power, he found it requisite to leave the country
with all speed. The seaports being watched, he then determined, like
Fray Gaspar de Carbajal, to launch his boat upon the Orinoco, and, that
the parallel should be exact, write an account of all he saw upon the
way. Few books of travel which I have come across contain less details
of the traveller himself. Strangely enough, he rescued no one
single-handed from great odds. His strength and valour, and his
fertility of brain in times of peril, together with his patience, far
exceeding that of Indian fakirs, are not obtruded on the bewildered
reader, as is usual in like cases.

Though armed, and carrying on one occasion so much lethal stuff as to
resemble, as he says himself, a ‘wandering arsenal,’ he yet slew no one,
nor did he have those love adventures which happen readily to men in
foreign lands from whom a kitchen wench would turn in scorn in their own
native town: nothing of empire and little of patriotism is there in his
book. In fact, he says that those who are his countrymen are those who
have the same ideals as himself—a cursed theory which, if it once
obtained, would soon abolish Custom-houses, and render armies useless,
make navies all to be sold for scrap iron, and would leave hundreds of
patriotic sweaters without a platitude. What chiefly seems to have
appealed to this unusual traveller was the strangeness and beauty of the
long reaches on the interminable waterways, the brightness of the moon,
the thousand noises of the desert night, the brilliant birds,
kaleidoscopic fish, and the enchantment of a world remote from all that
to a really well-constituted modern mind makes life endurable. At times,
although I tremble as I write, it seems to me he doubts of things which
we all take on trust, such as the Stock Exchange. Even the army is not
sacred to this democrat, sprung from a shameless State in which there is
no King, and which, consequently, can never hope to contemplate a
Coronation show, for he retails a joke current in Columbia, but which, I
think, if duly followed up, might be encountered in Menander, or, at the
least, in Aristophanes. A Columbian Mayor of a town sent to the
President a hundred volunteers, with a request that all the ropes should
be returned. Jokes such as these cannot be helpful to a State; in fact,
a joke at all is to a serious man a rank impertinence, and if an author
wishes to obtain a place within the ranks of Anglo-Saxon literature, he
should not joke at all, or, if he does, joke about fat or thin men, bald
heads or sea-sickness, or on some subject which the great public mind
has set apart for wit. However, as a member of the Latin race, it cannot
reasonably be expected of him that at one bound he should attain unto
the fulness of our Anglo-Saxon grace.

The careful reader of this book may possibly be struck with the
different point of view from which a Latin looks at many questions which
to an Englishman are set immovably as the foundations of the world,
embedded in the putty of our prejudice.

For instance, on arriving at the open plains after a tedious journey
across mountain ranges and through forest paths, the thing that
interests the author most is that the land in the Columbian _llanos_ is
not held in many instances by individuals, but that so scant is
population that it is open to all those who choose to take it up. This
does not strike him as a folly or as affording room for speculation, but
simply as a fact which, on the whole, he seems rather to approve of, but
without enthusiasm, looking upon the matter as a curious generality, but
not inclining to refine or to reduce it to any theory in particular. A
state of mind almost impossible for Saxons (Anglo or Celtic), who, as a
general rule, seem quite incapable of looking at a proposition as a
whole, but must reduce it to its component parts.

The voyage in itself was memorable, for no one of the party seems to
have been the least the kind of man who generally ventures upon journeys
of the sort, and furthermore because, since the first conquerors went
down the river with the faith that in their case, if rightly used, might
have smoothed out all the mountain ranges in the world, no one except a
stray adventurer, or india-rubber trader, has followed in their steps.
Leal, the jaguar-hunter, who slew his tigers as I have seen them slain
in Paraguay, on foot, with a forked stick in one hand and in the other a
bamboo lance; the Indian guide Gatiño; and the young Venezuelan Governor
of a State, who, shut up in his house, fought to the death, his
mistress, an ex-ballet dancer, handing him up loaded guns, are to the
full as striking characters as I have met in any book of travels outside
the types that crowd the pages of the ‘Conquistadores’ of America. The
naked Indian in his canoe, before whose eyes the immeasurable wealth of
powder, looking-glasses, a red flannel shirt, and other treasures, rich
and rare to him, were spread, who yet had strength of mind to scorn them
all rather than pledge his liberty for two days’ paddling, is the kind
of Indian that merits such a chronicler as he has found. Long may he
paddle on the _caños_ and the _aguapeys_, and die, still crowned with
feathers and with liberty, as did his fathers, by some forgotten beach
or by some _morichal_, where parrots chatter and toucans flit through
the leaves, and hummingbirds hover like bees above the tropic flowers.

What most delights me in the book is that the author had no settled plan
by means of which he strove to square the circle of the globe.

‘We wandered,’ as he says, ‘with the definite aim of reaching the
Atlantic Ocean. Beyond that we did not venture to probe too deeply the
mysterious and wonderful manifestations of Nature, but took them as they
appeared to our limited means of vision and understanding, and sought
nothing beyond.’

A charming way to travel, and a wise, and if not profitable to commerce,
yet to literature, for books writ in the fashion of this brief record of
a trip through the great waterways of Venezuelan and Columbian wilds,
although perhaps not ‘epoch-making,’ yet live and flourish when the
smart travellers’ tales, bristling with paltry facts and futile figures,
which for a season were sea-serpents in the press, have long been pulped
to make the soles of ammunition boots.

                                               R. B. CUNNINGHAME GRAHAM.



                            DOWN THE ORINOCO
                               IN A CANOE



                               CHAPTER I


The hour was about ten one evening in December, which in equatorial
Andine latitudes is a month of clear skies, cold winds, and starry
nights. The moon shone brilliantly, casting upon the ground shadows as
clear as those caused by a strong electric light. Truly, the local poet
who said that such nights as these might serve as days in other lands
was right.

We came out—three of us, Alex, Fermin and I—through an old Spanish
gateway, a rectangular structure of _adobes_, or sun-burnt bricks,
capped with a slanting roof of tiles, dark-reddish and moss-covered,
with a swinging gate of cross wooden beams, held together by iron bolts.
This was the gateway of the _hacienda_ of Boita, about thirty miles
north of the city of Bogotá, in the South American Republic of Colombia.
We passed into the open road, and turned our horses and our minds
northwards.

From south to north, as far as eyes could see, stretched the road, an
old Spanish causeway, bordered on either side by low-lying stone fences,
in front of which were ditches filled with water and covered with
vegetation.

The ground was hard with the consistency of baked clay. As no rain had
fallen for weeks, the dust was thick, and the horses’ hoofs rang like
hammer-strokes upon muffled or broken brass. We let the reins hang
loose, and the horses, knowing their way, started at a brisk canter.
Wrapped in thought and in our _ponchos_, we journeyed on.

No sound was audible; we seemed to be travelling through a deserted or
dead world; the neighbouring meadows, black beneath the moon, contrasted
with the grayish white line of the broad causeway. Now and then the
solitary houses, some close to the road, some far back, loomed up with
the magic-lantern effects of moonlight, and their white walls seemed
like huge tombstones in that lonely cemetery. Sometimes we crossed
bridges, under which the water lay motionless, as though enchanted by
the universal stillness; only a gentle breeze, causing ripples on the
neighbouring pools, made them glitter and revealed their presence. A cow
or a stray heifer would poise its head across the stone fence and watch
us with wondering moist eyes, whilst two tiny columns of condensed
breath rose from its nostrils.

Beyond, black and frowning, misshapen and mysterious, the huge boulders
of the Andes raised their vague outlines, forming a sort of irregular
circle, in some directions quite close to us, in others lost in the
darkness which the moon and the stars were too remote to overcome.
Indeed, that other local poet was also right in thinking that under the
brilliant moon those mountains looked like huge sepulchres, wherein are
stored the ashes of dead worlds upon which judgment had been passed.

And so we journeyed on.

Many travellers have observed that whenever a voyage of a certain nature
is undertaken—one that for some reason or other differs from the
ordinary transference of one’s self elsewhere, when through
circumstances beyond our control we know that the moment of starting
necessarily marks an epoch in our lives, even as the beginning of a
descent or an ascent from the summit or the foot of a mountain
necessarily marks a change in our motions—our thoughts fly backwards,
and not only cover the immediate time and space behind us, but, once
started, plunge, so to speak, with the rapidity inherent to them, into
the deepest recesses of our memory, so that, as our bodies are carried
forward, our minds revisit old scenes, we hold converse with old
friends, and the old-time world seems to live and throb again within our
hearts.

Unheeding the clatter of the horses’ hoofs, which was the only
perceptible noise, my mind flew across the few leagues that separated me
from my dear quaint old native town, cradled there to the south at the
foot of two hills, each crowned by a tiny church. I saw its streets
meeting at right angles, its two streams, dubbed rivers, parched with
thirst, crawling under the ancient arched Spanish bridges, its low
houses, with their enclosing _patios_ planted with roses and flowers
that bloom all the year round, with fountains murmuring in the midst,
and creepers covering the columns and the ceilings of the open
corridors, and then climbing out of sight; the numerous churches, each
one with its familiar legend; the convents—solid, spacious—turned into
barracks or public offices or colleges; the still old cells desecrated,
their dividing walls torn down so as to convert the space into large
halls, and, ruthless iconoclasm having carried away the statues of the
saints, no other trace of religion left but a stone cross, or a carved
saint’s face set too high above ground to be reached by irreverent
hands.

Yes, there was the little Church of Holy Humility—El Humilladero—an
_adobe_ structure, a mere hut, yet reverenced beyond words as being, so
tradition said, the first church built in the land. And not far from it
the Church of la Tercera and its convent, about which gruesome tales
were told. Its monks never slept on mattresses, and, as they felt death
approaching, would have themselves placed upon the ground to die close
to their Mother Earth; and one of them, it was said, for some
misdeameanour or possibly greater fault, had committed suicide, and
wandered headless—people had seen him—on dark and stormy nights through
the neighbouring street of the Arch, as it was called, though of the
arch nothing but the memory remained. And close to that convent of la
Tercera was the other one of the jolly Franciscan Fathers, four
beautiful _patios_ surrounded with broad cloisters, into which opened
over 600 cells, each provided, besides the sitting and sleeping room,
with a snug kitchen, old Moorish style, an open hearth for charcoal
fire, on which meats were roasted and earthenware saucepans simmered and
purred all day long, extracting the juice from beef, mutton, plantains,
mañoc, green corn, potatoes, and the other numerous vegetables of that
region, forming a most substantial broth, a peculiarly rich _pot-au-feu_
which enabled the reverend monks to recruit their strength and spirits
after the pious labours of the day; and with this came, it is said, a
copious supply of that beer, _chicha_, brewed from molasses and Indian
corn, strong and delicious—to those who like it. These reverend monks,
it is said, owned broad lands and numerous herds, and each had a lay
brother who looked after the material wants of his superior, and
received daily rations sufficient for ten or twenty men, so that a great
part of them was sold by the monks to the profane outside the cloister
walls. As the lay brother looked after all these worldly interests, he
enabled the monk to devote his whole time and attention to finding a
smooth path to heaven, not only for himself, but for as many others of
his fellow-creatures as he met.

But though of good cheer, they were not lacking in piety, nor were they
unable to withstand temptation. Their church was beautiful, all full of
gilt columns, carved woodwork, niches with statues of saints displaying
rich silks and gems and gold embroidery.

And though many of these things had disappeared in my day, and of the
monks only a few more vital spirits survived, downcast and forlorn,
lamenting the good old times, yet enough remained to give an idea of the
happier age.

A proof of the virtue of the monks was visible at the entrance of the
church looking on the main street, where the Evil One himself had
branded it, so to say, for the greater glory of God and the renown of
the convent.

It was whispered that Father Antonio, who combined profane
accomplishments with spiritual insight, skilled in playing the guitar,
not averse to a song or two, fond of cards for a friendly quiet game
with the Father Superior and two or three other plump, kind-hearted
brethren, where small sums were staked merely to give zest to the game,
discovered to his horror one night that the Evil One, possibly in memory
of his namesake (the monk’s, not the Evil One’s), had decided to tempt
his virtue, and appeared in his cell in the guise of a beautiful damsel.

Alas! the Evil One had reckoned without his host. Holy water was poured
upon him, the cross with the Redeemer nailed on it which lay handy was
taken up by Antonio, so that Beelzebub in his fright jumped out of the
window with such force that his cloven foot left its imprint upon the
granite slab outside the church, and this imprint I saw myself in my
very young years. Although many people continue to see it, I have grown
so short-sighted that, strive as I may, the stone now appears untouched
and like the others. But then these things will happen, and they
certainly should not lead us to doubt so pious a tradition.

And so all the old memories of the town kept passing before me. I saw a
living panorama, silent, bathed in mysterious light, moving slowly in
the background of the mind, large, infinite in its magnitude, with space
in it for men and buildings and mountains and rivers and broad plains
and leafy forests, and, what is more, with space in it for Time, the
boundless Time that contains all and everything.

Schooldays, holidays spent in the neighbouring towns and villages which
lie in the warmer valleys, my first voyage to a certain distance, and
then across the ocean—life, in fact, with its ebb and flow under various
suns and in different continents—all came back; but it were out of place
to give my reflections on them here.

Then, pausing for one moment as a bird alights on the mast of a ship
before launching forth into mid-ocean, my mind rested for an instant on
the old cemetery where so many loved ones slumbered. Alas! when we leave
the graves of those whom we have loved, not knowing when we shall again
kneel upon the sod that covers them, we feel that death itself has not
severed the link that bound us to those who were blood of our blood and
bone of our bone.



                               CHAPTER II


A little geography may not be amiss here. A glance at the map will show
that the city of Bogotá is situated upon a vast plateau, at an altitude
of about 8,500 feet above sea-level, 4 degrees from the equator, and 75
degrees to the west of Greenwich. Its position in the continent is
central. It is perched like a nest high up in the mountains. To reach
the ocean, and thus the outer world, the inhabitants of Bogotá are even
now still compelled to have recourse to quite primitive methods; true,
there are some apologies for railways starting northward, southward and
westward, but in some cases their impetus ends as soon as they reach the
end of the plain, and in others long before attaining that distance.
Once the railway journey finished—which does not exceed two or three
hours on any of the lines—the traveller has to content himself with the
ancient and slow method of riding, mostly mule riding. The ground is so
broken and the roads are so bad that horses could not cross them as
safely as that thoughtful, meditative, and much-maligned animal the
mule. After covering a distance of some ninety to one hundred miles
westward, the traveller reaches the town of Honda, which lies on the
Magdalena River. Here steam-boats are to be found, stern-wheeled,
shallow-bottomed, drawing no more than from 2½ to 3 feet, in which,
within four or five days, he makes the journey down to the sea-coast.

The map of the country would seem to show that the easiest way from the
capital to the ocean would be towards the Pacific, and as the crow flies
such is the case; but between Bogotá and the Pacific Ocean the Andes, at
some period of their youth, must have frolicked and gambolled amongst
themselves and lost their way home, so that they now form the most
rugged country imaginable. Geographers, with that thirst for
classification that afflicts—or should I rather say animates?—men of
science, speak of two or three chains of mountains. The average man,
however, who has to travel over that country, conceives his task as
corresponding to a start made from one end of a huge comb, following the
developments of it from the root to the point of each tooth until
Providence and Nature take pity on him, and land him, so to speak, on
the sea-shore.

Bogotá is no thoroughfare. When you get there, there you are, and if you
go there, it is because you were bent on it; it is not like other towns
that may be on the road to somewhere else, so that travellers may chance
to find themselves there.

The plateau of Bogotá proper was formerly—no one knows how many
centuries or thousands of years ago—a lake of about eighty square miles
encased between the surrounding mountains. The waters of the lake broke
through the barrier of mountains towards the south, draining it, and
leaving the plateau dry, save for some small lakes that dot it here and
there, and a few rivers of no great importance. I could not help
thinking that this immense lake thus held aloft upon that mighty
pedestal at such an altitude formed a sort of gigantic goblet such as is
rarely seen under the sun. The river that marks the course through which
the waters are supposed to have been drained drags its sluggish waves
meandering in many turns and twists from north to south along the plain,
and gives a sudden leap of 750 feet through the open gap on the
mountain-side, forming those magnificent waterfalls called the
Tequendama. The river plunges headlong, as if to make up for its
previous semi-stagnant condition; it disappears between two mighty walls
of stone, polished as if chiselled by the hand of man; it roars with a
deafening sound; its waters appear, as they curl over the abyss, white
as the wool of a lamb, and their consistency conveys the impression of
wool rather than that of snow. The morning sun plays upon the mass of
waters, and crowns it with a halo of rainbows varying in size. On the
borders of the river, at the place where the cataract springs, are to be
seen evergreens and pine-trees, and other such plants belonging to the
temperate or cold zones; down below, where the water falls, and the
river reappears like a dying stream following its course in the lower
valley, palm-trees and tropical vegetation are to be seen, and birds of
variegated plumage, parrots, cockatoos, parroquets and others, fly like
living arrows from the sunlight, and plunge into the mist with piercing
shrieks amidst the deafening roar of the cataract.

As we journeyed on in the cool night air, it seemed to me that the whole
country—north, south, east and west—lay at my feet, and to the mind’s
eye it appeared with its vast interminable plains to the east crossed by
numberless rivers, the mountain region to the north on the western side
of the Magdalena Valley, the broad plains in the Lower Magdalena, and
the rugged mountainous district of Antioquia on the western side of the
river, and then mountains and more mountains towards the Pacific Ocean.

Surely, if a journey in these days presents such difficulties, the first
journey undertaken by the conquerors who discovered the plateau of
Bogotá, may be held for a feat worthy of those men who, whatever their
faults, were brave among the bravest.

Towards the east of the Magdalena River, on the coast of the Atlantic,
the city of Santa Marta had been founded somewhere in 1530. News of the
vast empire alleged to exist in the interior of the country had reached
the founders of the town, and they soon decided to conquer that region
about which such marvels were told. In the month of August, 1536, an
expedition of 700 soldiers, infantry, and 80 horse left Santa Marta to
penetrate into the heart of the continent, confident in their courage,
and lusting for gold and adventure. This part of the expedition marched
by land, and 200 more men journeyed in boats along the river Magdalena.

A full narrative of their adventures would be long. They met foes large
and small, from poisonous reptiles and the numerous insects which made
life a burden, to tigers and alligators: add to these fevers and
illnesses absolutely unknown to them. It is said that one man, whilst
sleeping in camp with all his companions, was snatched from his hammock
by a famished tiger. At times the rank and file seemed ripe for mutiny,
but the captain was a man of iron. His name was Gonzalo Jiménez de
Quesada. Though himself sore smitten by some disease peculiar to the
locality, he kept the lead, and dragged the rest in his train. Praise is
likewise due to the chaplain of the expedition, Domingo de las Casas,
who stoutly supported the commander. This friar was a kinsman of that
other friar Bartolomé de las Casas, whose unwearying efforts in behalf
of the native races won for him the well-deserved name of ‘Protector of
the Indians.’

After a while the boats and the shores of the great river were
abandoned, and the men found themselves in a mountainous country where
the temperature became more tolerable and pleasant as they climbed
higher. Finally, their eyes beheld the Empire of the Chibchas. What a
joy—after toil and suffering which had lasted over seventeen months,
when only 160 of the original expedition were left—to gaze upon a land
where cultivated fields were seen in all directions, and the
hearth-smoke rising from the houses to heaven! This was the land of the
Chibchas, who formed an empire second only to that of the Incas of Peru
and the Aztecs of Mexico. They had a religion—by no means a bad one as
religions went amongst the American aborigines—they had their code of
laws, their division of time, their rules and codes in all matters
appertaining to family life and administration of government; they
tilled the soil, they believed in the immortality of the soul, they
reverenced their dead, and practised barter according to well-defined
laws.

The thousands and thousands of soldiers which the Zipa or King of the
Chibchas could bring against the Spaniards were overawed rather than
overcome by force. The greater sagacity of the Spaniards, coupled with
their courage, soon made them masters of the land. Jiménez de Quesada
founded the city of Bogotá in 1537. He chose a spot on the plains which
suited him—where the city now stands—and, clad in full armour,
surrounded by his companions and by a large crowd of Indians, plucked
some grass from the ground, and, unsheathing his sword, declared that he
took possession of the land for the greater glory of God as the property
of his King and master, Charles V. of Spain. Then turning, with a fierce
glance, to those who surrounded him, he challenged one and all to single
combat should they dare to dispute his action. Naturally, no dispute
arose, and so the title was acquired. They had their own peculiar ways,
those old Spanish conquerors! A similar method was followed by Nuñez de
Balboa, when, in the name of his King and master, he took possession of
the Pacific Ocean with whatever lands and islands might border on it,
stepping into the waters clad in full armour, holding the flag of Spain
in his left hand, and his trusty Toledo blade—_la de Juanes_—in his
right.

To speak of this conquest of the Chibcha Empire recalls the fact that
the land of Bogotá was really the land of El Dorado. _El Dorado_ in
Spanish means the gilt one, the man covered with gold, and all
chroniclers and historians of the early period are agreed as to the
origin of the tradition.

The King of the Chibchas, amongst whom power and property passed by law
of inheritance from uncle to nephew, was called the Zipa. His power as a
monarch was absolute, but to attain the dignity of what we should
nowadays call Crown Prince, and to become in due course King, it was not
enough to be a nephew, or even to be the right nephew. The prospective
heir to the throne had to qualify himself by passing through an ordeal
which Princes of other nations and other times would certainly find most
obnoxious. He had to live in a cave for six years, fasting the whole
time, with limited rations, barely enough to sustain life. No meat or
salt were to be eaten during the whole time. He must see no one, with
the exception of his male servants, nor was he even allowed to gaze upon
the sun. Only after sunset and before sunrise might he issue from his
cave. After this ordeal he was qualified, but should he have so much as
cast his eyes upon a woman during that period, his rights to the throne
were lost. The consecration, so to speak, of the Zipa took the form of a
most elaborate ceremony. The prospective Zipa would betake himself—being
carried upon a special sort of frame so arranged that twenty men
standing under it could lift it upon their shoulders—to one of the five
sacred lakes that still exist in the plateau, generally to the lake of
Guatavita. There, stripped naked, his body was smeared with a resinous
substance, upon which gold-dust was sprinkled in large quantities.
Naturally, after this process the man appeared like unto a very statue
of gold. Two other high dignitaries or chiefs, called Caciques, as nude
as the Zipa, would go with him upon a raft of twisted reeds and slowly
paddle into the centre of the lake. All round the shore was a dense
crowd, burning a species of aromatic herb which produced clouds of
smoke. On every hand was heard the sound of music, or, rather, of noises
representing the music customary at all ceremonies. On the raft, at the
feet of the Zipa, lay a huge pile of gold and emeralds. Each of his
companions, too, had gold and emeralds, wherewith to propitiate the god
in whose honour the ceremony was performed. One of the chiefs in the
raft would raise a white flag and wave it. The noise on the shores
became deafening, whilst the gilded Zipa threw into the lake all the
gold and all the emeralds; then his companions would follow his example.
When all the gold and emeralds on the raft had been cast into the lake,
the people ashore also made their offerings of gold. Thus, after six
years’ fasting, the Zipa was (so to put it) anointed or qualified for
kingship. On reaching the land the period of abstinence came to an end,
and now that the Zipa was full-fledged Crown Prince, or Zipa (if his
predecessor should have chanced to die), his first act was to get
gloriously drunk.

From the early days of the conquest, efforts were made to drain the five
lakes, from which numerous samples of gold idols and roughly-worked gold
have been recovered. Even recently a company was formed in England for
that purpose. The tradition in this case being so universal, it seems
rational to assume that vast treasures must lie at the bottom of these
lakes, because the Chibchas were an ancient race, and their ceremonies
must have been repeated during centuries. The country also is rich in
emeralds and in gold—hence the belief in the large amount of treasure to
be obtained from those lakes whose waters look so placid.

Some years ago in Bogotá an enthusiast, who sought to form a company for
the purpose of draining one of the lakes, carried about with him a few
samples of gold, idols and suchlike, which, so he said, had been brought
to light by a man whom he named, a good diver, who plunged five times
into the lake, and after each plunge brought up one of the specimens
exhibited. He argued thus: The bottom of the lake must be practically
studded with gold, since Mr. X. succeeded each time. There are millions
in the lake, and all that is needed is a little money to drain it.

The argument seemed so strong, and the gold gleamed so bright in his
hands, that he obtained numerous subscribers, until he had the
misfortune to come across one of those sceptics impervious to reason,
who, after listening to him, replied: ‘Yes, I have no doubt that there
must be millions in the lake, since X. at each plunge brought out a bit
of gold like those you show me; but what I cannot for the life of me
understand is why he is not still plunging—it seems so easy!’ The tale
went round the town, and the lake was not drained, nor has it been up to
the present.

This gilding of the man is the germ of the legend of El Dorado, which
has cost so much blood, and in search of which so many thousands and
thousands of men have wandered during past centuries in all possible
directions on their bootless quest.



                              CHAPTER III


Returning to the lake, and now gathering the information furnished by
geology, whose silent annals are so carefully and truthfully recorded
(being as they are beyond reach of man’s little contentions and petty
adjustments), we find that the original lake covered an area of about
seventy-five square miles, and attained great depths. Its placid waters,
beating possibly for centuries against the environing rocks, have left
their marks, from which it may be seen that in some places the depth was
120 feet, and in others 180.

We cannot fix the date of the break in the mountains which allowed the
drain to occur. So far man has not succeeded in grasping with invariable
accuracy the chronology of the admirable geological archives to which we
have referred, and in matters of this kind a discrepancy of a few
hundred years more or less is accepted as a trifle scarcely worth
mentioning. And possibly this may be right. For man’s passage through
life is so short that his conception of time cannot be applied to
Nature, whose evolutions, though apparently protracted and very slow to
see, in truth are sure to develop themselves harmoniously in every way,
as to time inclusive.

But no matter how far back the draining of the great lake may have taken
place, it had left its memory and impression, not only on the mountains
and the rocks, but also in the minds of men. The legend ran thus: At one
time there came among the Chibchas a man differing in aspect from the
inhabitants of the plateau, a man from the East, the land where the sun
rises, and from the low plains where the mighty rivers speed to the
ocean. He had taught them the arts of peace, the cultivation of the
soil, the division of time; he had established their laws, the precepts
by which their life was to be guided, their form of government; in one
word, he had been their apostle and legislator. His name was Bochica or
Zuhe. He resembled in aspect the Europeans who invaded the country under
Quesada.

It is asserted by a pious Spanish Bishop, who in the middle of the
seventeenth century wrote the history of the discovery and conquest of
the Chibcha kingdom, that the said Bochica was none other than the
Apostle St. Bartholomew, as to whose final work and preachings there is
(not to overstate the case) some obscurity. The good old Bishop states
that, as the Christian faith, according to the Divine decree, was to be
preached in every corner of the earth, it must have also been preached
amongst the Chibchas, and that, as nothing was known with certainty
about the final whereabouts of the Apostle Bartholomew, and he was not
unlike the description made of Bochica by the Chibchas (which,
by-the-by, was such that it might have fitted any white man with a long
blonde beard), it is evident that the saint must have visited those
Andine regions. Furthermore, he adds, there is a stone on one of the
mountains, situated between the plateau of Bogotá and the eastern
plains, which bears the footprints of the saint. This, to many people,
is decisive, and I, for my part, am not going to gainsay it, since it
serves two important ends. It explains the saint’s whereabouts in a most
creditable and appropriate fashion, and it puts a definite end to all
doubts concerning Bochica’s identity. We cannot be too grateful to those
who thus afford pleasant explanations of matters which would otherwise
be intricate and difficult, perhaps even impossible, of solution.

The legend went on to say that the god of the Chibchas (Chibchacum),
becoming irate at their excesses and vices, flooded the plain where they
lived, by turning into it several neighbouring rivers. The inhabitants,
or such of them as were not drowned, took refuge on the neighbouring
mountain-tops, where, animated by that fervour and love of the Deity
which takes possession of every true believer when he finds himself
thoroughly cornered, they prayed abundantly to the Bochica, whose
precepts they had utterly forgotten. He, of course, took pity on them,
and, appearing amidst them on the mountain-top one afternoon in all the
glory of the setting sun, which covered him as with a sort of royal
mantle, he dashed his golden sceptre against the mighty granite wall of
the nearest mountain, which opened at the blow into the gap through
which the waters poured, draining the lake, and leaving as a memorial of
his power and his love for his chosen people those waterfalls whose
thunder goes up like a perennial hymn to heaven high above the trees
that crown the mountain-tops, and whose sprays are as incense for ever,
wreathing on high at the foot of a stupendous altar.

The cataract takes two leaps, first striking a protruding ledge at a
distance of about 75 feet from the starting-point, a sort of
spring-board from which the other mighty leap is taken. Close to the
shore, at a distance of about 6 feet, on the very brim of the abyss,
there is a rock about 10 feet square, which, when the waters are low,
breaks the river, and appears like a sinking island in the mass of
foaming waters. The rock is slippery, being covered with moss, which the
waters and the mists keep constantly wet. Bolivar, the soldier to whose
tenacity and genius Colombia and four other South American republics owe
their political independence, once visited the cataracts, and stood on
the very edge of the abyss; glancing fitfully at the small round island
of stone that stood in the very centre of the waters, fascinated by the
danger, he jumped, booted and spurred as he was, upon the stone, thus
standing in the very vortex of the boiling current. After remaining
there for a few minutes he jumped back. The tale is interesting, for few
men indeed have the courage and nerve required, once upon the rock, not
to fall from it and disappear in a shroud fit for any man, however
great.

After the little scene of the foundation of Bogotá, in what later on
became the public square of the city, Quesada devoted himself to
establishing a government. I cannot help thinking that challenges like
that which he flung down for the purpose of establishing the right of
property are, to say the least, peculiar. True it is that no one
contradicted, and, according to the old proverb, silence gives consent.
A comfortable little tag this, especially when you can gag the other
side! And a most serviceable maxim to burglars, conquerors, and, in
fact, all such as practise the art of invading somebody else’s premises,
and taking violent possession of the premises and all that may be found
on them. What I cannot for the life of me understand is, how it is that,
the process being identical in essence, so many worthy men and so many
worthy nations punish the misunderstood burglar, and bestow honours,
praise, and, so far as it lies in their power, glory, upon the
conqueror. It seems a pity that the gentle moralists who act in this
puzzling fashion have not found time to indicate the point, in the
process of acquiring somebody else’s property by violence and bloodshed,
when the vastness of the undertaking transfigures crime into virtue. The
average man would hold it for a boon if those competent to do it were to
fix the limit, just as in chemistry a freezing or a boiling point is
marked by a certain number of degrees of heat. What a blessing it would
be for the rest of us poor mortals, who find ourselves beset by many
doubts, and who through ignorance are prone to fall into grave errors!
but as these hopes are certainly beyond fulfilment, and are possibly out
of place, it is better to drop them.

Quesada, after vanquishing the Chibchas and becoming lord of the land,
did not have it all his own way. The fame of El Dorado existed all over
the continent. Though peopled by numerous tribes, mostly hostile to each
other, some knowledge of the power of the Chibcha Empire, covering over
5,000 square miles and including a population estimated at over a
million and a half of inhabitants, had in the course of centuries slowly
permeated to very remote parts of what is now known as South America. In
the land of Quito, situated below the equator, it is said that the
conquerors who had invaded it heard from an Indian of the wonderful El
Dorado. The Indian’s tale must have been enhanced with all the charms
invented by a vivid imagination, playing safely at a distance. This set
many of the conquerors on the road to Bogotá. Don Sebastian de
Belalcázar, who had entered the continent by the Pacific, led his
troops—not over 200 in number at the end of the journey—to the Bogotá
plateau, thus making a march of several hundred leagues across forest
and mountains, attracted by the renown of the land of El Dorado. Another
expedition which had entered the continent by the north-east coast of
the Atlantic, and had wandered along the Orinoco Valley for over two
years, eventually found itself near the plateau, and entered it, so
that, shortly after his arrival into the country and his conquest of it,
Quesada found himself confronted with two powerful rivals. For the
moment there was great danger that the conquerors might come to blows
amongst themselves, but Quesada’s political ability matched his military
gifts, and arrangements were soon made by which the three expeditions
were merged into one, gold and emeralds distributed amongst the
soldiers, numerous offices created, taxes established, the Indians and
their belongings distributed amongst the Christian conquerors, and the
reign of civilization established to the greater glory of God, and that
of his beloved monarch, the King of all the Spains.

One detail deserves mention as an instance of tenacious though
unpretending heroism. The men who had come along the Orinoco had
wandered for many weary months, and at times had been on the point of
starvation, so that all their leather equipment had been devoured. With
the expedition marched a friar who carried with him a fine Spanish cock
and four hens. During that long journey, which cost the lives of so many
men, the murderous attempts made against this feathered family were past
counting; yet the useful birds were saved, and formed the basis of an
innumerable progeny in the land of Colombia. The incident seems trivial,
but, if well weighed, the friar’s sustained effort against others, and
doubtless against himself, to save the precious germ, deserves the
highest praise.

After months of hunger, when the plenty found on the plateau had
restored equanimity to the hearts of the conquerors, they must have felt
how much they owed to the good friar, who, even if his sermons—about
which I know nothing—may not have been of the best, had left behind him
the hens to lay the egg so dear to civilized man, and the chanticleer to
sing the praises of the Almighty and to remind everyone in this instance
of the humble beings who serve Him and their fellow-creatures in such a
practical way.

It is not at all strange that the Spanish conquerors swallowed the
wonderful tales of incalculable treasure to be found in different parts
of the continent which they had just discovered. Columbus himself, in
his second voyage, landed at Veraguas on the mainland, and reaped a most
bountiful harvest of gold. Never before in the history of Spanish wars
had such booty fallen to the lot of the common soldier as in that
instance. Other expeditions in various parts of the continent were
equally fortunate, so that they supported the belief that gold was
inexhaustible. The ostensible object of the conquest was the conversion
of the infidels to the true faith; officially the Government of the
Metropolis proclaimed first and foremost its intense desire to save the
souls of so many million men who groped in the darkness of heathenism.
Doubtless many of the conquerors really thought that they were doing the
work of God, but the great majority of them were certainly moved by more
worldly ends and attractions.

The Indians, on their side, not only in Colombia but everywhere else,
received the Spaniards in a friendly and hospitable way. Some warlike
tribes there were, but it does not appear that their hostilities against
the Spaniards began before these had shown their cruel greed and
insatiable thirst for gold. The precious metals and jewels that had been
accumulated amongst the tribes in the course of many generations were
given freely to the Spaniards, who, believing that greater treasures
were kept back from them, did not hesitate to recur to the cruellest
methods of extortion, burning, pillaging, killing, and destroying
everything in their way.

After a struggle which did not last long, the Indians—even those of
riper civilization and better organized—were completely subdued, and the
sway of the Spaniard established all over the land, whose former lords
became the slaves of the conquerors.

Those who know the Indian of to-day in certain parts of the South
American continent can hardly understand how at one time that same race
possessed the qualities indispensable to the civilization which it had
attained at the time of the Spanish conquest. Boiling the whole thing
down to hard facts, we find that the Spaniards discovered a land wherein
they found a people with civilization inferior to that of the old world;
that this people, divided and subdivided in many tribes, received the
conquerors hospitably, treated them generously, and in their ignorance
considered them as superior beings; that they gave over to the Spaniards
all the gold and treasures which the latter coveted, and that it would
have been feasible for those superior beings to establish the
civilization and the religion which they longed to propagate amongst the
infidels, by methods worthy of the Christian faith which they professed.
Instead of this, violence and bloodshed were the only methods employed,
not to civilize, but to despoil the natives; and the right of force,
brutal and sanguinary, was the law of the land. To this and its
accompaniments the poets lifted up pæans of praise, the Church gave its
blessing, history its acceptance, and, barring a handful of the just, no
one gave a thought to the oppressed and helpless Indians whose sole
crime was they were weaker than their aggressors.

Let us be thankful for what we have. Quintana, the great Spanish lyrical
poet, pondering on these misdeeds and crimes, exclaims that they were
crimes of the epoch, not of Spain. Fortunately it is, as we like to
think, our privilege to live in an epoch when such things are
impossible, when the mere thirst for gold, or its equivalent, cannot
impel powerful nations to forget right and justice and to proclaim
hypocritically that in so doing they are fulfilling the law of Him who
said, ‘Love ye one another,’ and proclaimed charity amongst men as the
supreme rule of life. Nowadays such wrongs as those perpetrated by the
Spanish conquerors could not happen. Wars we have, and violence and
destruction, and malcontents complain of them, saying that the same old
burglarious spirit of brutal greed is the real cause of those wars; but
those malcontents should not be (and, in fact, are not) listened to. I
myself do not understand or pretend to explain where the justice of many
wars comes in, but certainly they must be waged for good and honest
ends, because the great and the powerful say that the ends are good and
honest, that civilization and Christianity are served thereby; and it
must be so since they say it, for they, like Brutus, are ‘honourable
men.’ Let us be thankful, then, that we live in an age of justice and
universal fairness amongst men!



                               CHAPTER IV


But let us go back to our subject.

All this time we journeyed on. The stars had kept their watch above our
heads, and the moon, as if passing in review the various quarters of
heaven, had been moving from west to east, and was very high on the
horizon. We were chilled through after the night’s ride, longing to
arrive at some wayside inn or _venta_ where we might get something warm.
The dawn was heralded in the far east by a broad streak of light, which
grew rapidly, covering that side of the horizon like a fan, and soon
bursting into glorious daylight. In equatorial regions there is hardly
any dawn or twilight; in those latitudes there is no prelude of
semi-obscurity that either waxes into day or wanes slowly into the dark,
like the note of the lute, falling into silence so faintly and softly
that none can tell the exact moment when it dies. At evening the sun
sinks to the verge of the horizon, and disappears like a luminous orb
dropped into empty space, and darkness sets in almost immediately. In
the mountainous lands his last rays crown the highest peaks with a halo
of glory, when darkness has settled over the valleys and mountain
flanks. The moment the sun sets the stars assert their empire, and they
are more numerous to the eye than anywhere else in the world. As for the
moon, I have already spoken of its brilliancy. Another phenomenon
connected with it is worthy of notice in our special case. During the
various months of the trip which I am now describing, it seems to me
that we had a full moon every night. I know that this is not quite in
accordance with the established rules, or what in modern parlance is
sometimes called the schedule of time for lunar service, but I am
narrating my impressions, and, according to them, such is the fact. I
should suggest that, as everything in Spanish lands is more or less
topsy-turvy at times, the rules applicable to the moon in well-regulated
countries do not hold good there, but I remember just in time that these
irregularities apply solely to things human that happen ‘tiles
downwards,’ as the Spaniards say, and cannot, therefore, affect the
phenomena of Nature. As an explanation must be found for my permanent
moon, an acceptable compromise would be that the ordinary moon did duty
on its appointed nights, leaving the others—during which we wandered
over mountain, through valley and forest, and on the waters of the
silent rivers—to be illuminated for our own special benefit by some
deputy moon, for whose services we were then, and still are, most
grateful.

As to the topsy-turviness of things Spanish and Spanish-American, the
story is told that Santiago, the patron saint of Spain, being admitted
into the presence of God, asked and obtained for the land of Spain and
for its people all sorts of blessings: marvellous fertility for the
soil, natural wealth of all kinds in the mountains and the forests,
abundance of fish in the rivers and of birds in the air; courage,
sobriety, and all the manly virtues for men; beauty, grace, loveliness,
for the women. All this was granted, but, on the point of leaving, the
saint, it is said, asked from God that he would also grant Spain a good
government. The request was denied, as then, it is said, the Lord
remarked, the angels would abandon heaven and flock to Spain. The story
has lost none of its point even at the present day.

With the morning we reached the longed-for _venta_, a square,
thatch-roofed hut, which stood by the roadside quite close to the
mountain-range which we had reached after crossing the whole breadth of
the plateau. Outside stood several pack-horses and mules, tied to the
columns and waiting for their loads. Under the roof the space was
divided into three rooms, one of them provided with a counter and
shelves running along the sides of the walls, whereon bottles of various
sizes and contents were exhibited, and where _chicha_, the national
drink, was served to thirsty travellers. The middle room was what might
be called the sitting, waiting, sleeping, and dining room all in one,
and the other was the kitchen. The fire was built on the ground, several
logs burning brightly in the open air, filling the room with smoke and
heat, On three stones—the traditional stones of the first hearth—a
saucepan was seen in full boil. In the parlour we saw several _peones_,
or labourers, from the highlands on their way to the coffee estates to
help in the harvest. Behind the counter, the _ventera_, barmaid and
landlady all in one, buxom and wreathed in smiles, was already filling
either the _totuma_, a large bowl cut from a gourd, containing about a
quart of _chicha_, or the small glass of native whisky (_aguardiente_).

We jumped from our horses and entered the so-called sitting-room,
envying the men who slept deep and strong as virtue on the bare ground.
In a few minutes Fermin had brought from our saddle-bags the copper
kettle used for making chocolate, and the paste for the preparation of
that delicious drink. Within twenty minutes of our arrival we had before
us the steaming cups of chocolate which had been boiled three times, in
accordance with the orthodox principle which lays it down that this must
be done if it is to be rightly done; it was well beaten and covered with
that foam peculiar to chocolate brewed in hot water, which looks at you
with its thousand eyes or bubbles that burst as the liquor is imbibed.
Never was a cup of chocolate more welcome. The night seemed to have been
interminable now that it lay behind. We would fain have stretched
ourselves on the ground with the labourers, but to reach our destination
that day it was necessary to lose no time; so after an hour’s rest,
during which our horses had had their _pienso_ of fodder, we started
again, now over more broken country, leaving the plain behind us,
climbing and descending the road which was still available for carts and
wheeled vehicles of all sorts.

And thus we advanced, seeing the sunrise darting its slanting rays,
which were quite pleasant to feel in the early morning, until they
became perpendicular, hot, and almost unbearable in the dusty road.

The horses, after the long journey, slackened their pace, and we looked
upon surrounding Nature with weary eyes and that emptiness of feeling in
the brain, that consciousness of a void somewhere, which always follow
nights passed absolutely without sleep.

Towards four in the afternoon, after seventeen hours’ steady ride,
interrupted only by the short stay at the roadside _venta_, we reached
the _hacienda_ of Gambita, where one of our companions, Raoul, who had
started ahead to prepare everything for the longer journey, was waiting
for us. He came up quite briskly along the road, joyful at our arrival,
full of spirits, and most anxious that the journey should be continued.
He might well feel thus, as he had not passed a sleepless night on
horseback like a knight-errant over field and moor. The desire for sleep
and rest was overpowering—all else lacked interest for us; so that,
alighting from our horses, we walked into the house, and, finding
convenient sofas, stretched ourselves and slept. Like Dante after
listening to the sorrowful tale of Francesca, we fell as a dead body
falls, which goes to prove that identical effects may arise from totally
different causes. Towards ten at night Raoul waked us. The supper
waiting for us was quickly despatched, and our mules were saddled and
ready.

As I have said before, mules are far preferable to horses when
travelling on the mountain-paths, which are called roads in the Andes.
The old Shakespearian query, ‘What’s in a name?’ and the answer that a
rose would smell as sweet even if called by another name, demonstrates
the elasticity of words. To the average Englishman a road is a
well-defined means of communication with or without rails, but offering
all sorts of advantages for comfortable locomotion. Roads in the Andes
at times are such as to invite the formation of legends. It is said that
an American diplomatist, visiting a South American republic, alighted
from the river steamer which had borne him far inland by the respective
river, and was shown the mountain-road which he had to follow to reach
the capital—a yellowish or reddish streak like a gash in the mountain,
lying on its side like a rope carelessly thrown from the summit towards
the base, following the sinuosities of the ground—and straightway
remarked, ‘I’m off home; this road is only fit for birds.’

On such roads the mule is the best friend of man. Had Richard III. found
himself in the plight we all know of in some such locality, the generous
offer of bartering his kingdom (which, by-the-by, at that moment was a
minus quantity to him) would have made for a mule instead of for a
horse, and although the phrase—‘A mule! a mule! my kingdom for a
mule!’—sounds comical (for these are questions of habit), probably the
stock phrase would bring down the house with laughter. If the camel is
called the ship of the desert, the mule deserves the title of the
balloon of the mountains.

A friend of mine, knowing of my intended trip, had sent me his favourite
mule, and well did the animal deserve the praises that its owner
bestowed upon it; patient, sure-footed, collected, it carried me by
precipice, ravine, ascended paths only fit for ants as lightly and
carefully as if no weight were on its back. At the mud ditches which
intersected the roads, and at times reached the proportions of miniature
lakes, often treacherously deep, it would halt, looking at the waters
with its big, ball-shaped, moist eyes, and no hint of mine, whether
given with spur or whip, could disturb its equanimity. At the right
moment, heedless of my meddling, it would jump or ford or slide as
circumstances required. At the beginning of our companionship, during
those long days, I began by endeavouring to have a mind of my own as to
the part of the road to be selected. I soon saw that my efforts were
useless, for that wisdom of the mule which men call stubbornness was
invincible. And, frankly, it was lucky that I soon gained this
conviction, as certainly the mule knew far better than I what should be
done.

How strange all this sounds in this land of railroads, automobiles,
omnibuses, and wheeled conveyances of every sort! yet there is more
genuine travelling, more real travelling, in going from one place to
another on the back of a mule than in being cooped for hours or days in
a railway compartment whirled along at lightning speed. What does one
learn about the country, what does one see of its beauty or of its
peculiarities, in this latter case? It may be transportation, it may be
locomotion, but it is not travelling.

If I were a man of ample means, I would certainly endow that splendid
beast which carried me during so many days, or provide a pension for it,
so that it might spend the remainder of its life in the enjoyment of
meadows ever green, luscious with rich grass and sweet with the waters
of rippling streams.

From Gambita on, our cavalcade had something of the aspect of a caravan.
There were Alex, Raoul, and myself, besides our servant Fermin, four
muleteers, and ten or twelve mules laden with our luggage, tents,
provisions, arms, and so forth. This mob of travellers was so unusual
that the simple folks in the villages through which we passed said that
his lordship the Archbishop was no doubt on a tour. On hearing this, and
finding that the people began to kneel by the roadside, rather than
shatter their illusion, I—knowing that I was the most episcopal-looking
of our crowd—decided to give my blessing, which I did with due unction
to the kneeling maidens and matrons along the roadside.

From Gambita we shaped our course eastward. It was our intention to
reach the Atlantic through the Orinoco River. We were seeking one of the
many affluents of the river Meta, which is itself one of the largest
tributaries of the Orinoco. The affluents of the Meta start on the
eastern slope of the mountains which form the plateau of Bogotá.

After three days’ ride from Gambita, we reached the estate of a friend
near the town of Miraflores, where we had to prepare ourselves for the
last stage of the land journey which would carry us through the dense
forests bordering the lower eastern slope of the Cordilleras, and
constituting a sort of fringe around the endless plains that extend for
thousands of miles from the foot of the Cordilleras to the ocean. Across
these plains flow the mighty rivers, their numerous affluents, and the
countless _caños_, or natural canals connecting the rivers amongst
themselves, and thus forming a perfect network of natural waterways.

At Miraflores we stopped for twenty-four hours to recruit our forces and
prepare everything, not only for the last stage of the land journey, but
for the long canoe voyage that lay before us.



                               CHAPTER V


From Miraflores on, the descent was continuous. Before penetrating into
the forest, we skirted the mountain for a good many miles. The road,
barely 4 or 5 feet in width, had been cut out of the rock, like the
cornice of a temple. On the one side we had the bluff of the mountain,
and on the other a precipice of hundreds, and even thousands, of feet in
depth. The inclination at times was so steep that at a distance the line
of the road on the mountain seemed almost vertical, and the file of
mules with riders or with loads on their backs appeared like so many
flies on a wall.

Up to the time that we reached Miraflores, we had followed what in
Colombia are called, according to the loyal tradition still living on
the lips, if not in the hearts, of the people, ‘royal roads,’ or
_caminos reales_. These royal roads are paths along the mountain slopes,
said to follow the old Indian trails, and the Indians had a peculiar way
of selecting their paths or trails. They seem to have been impervious to
fatigue, and Franklin’s adage, now accepted the world over, that time is
money, did not obtain with them, for they had no money and abundant
time. When an Indian wanted to cross a range of mountains, instead of
selecting the lowest summit, he fixed his eye on the highest peak, and
over it would wend his way. The explanation given is that thus he
accomplished two ends—crossing the range and placing himself in a
position to see the widest possible horizon. Be that as it may, the
Spaniards who settled in the colonies accepted the precedent, and the
result is a most wearisome and unpleasant one in the present day.

But if as far as Miraflores we had the so-called ‘royal roads,’ from
thence on in an easterly direction towards the plain we lacked even
these apologies for roads. From Miraflores towards the _llanos_, along
the slope of the Cordilleras, extends an intricate forest in its
primeval state. We had to fight our way through the under-brush amongst
the trunks of the huge trees, and at times really battling for each foot
that we advanced. However, our guides, who were expert
cattle-drivers—large quantities of cattle being driven through these
forests from the plains to the uplands—knew the forest so well that the
obstacles were reduced to their minimum.

We rode in Indian file, the chief of the guides ahead of the line
cutting with his cutlass, or _machete_, the branches and overhanging
boughs, thorns, reeds, creepers, and the like, that might strike us in
the face as we rode under them. Next to him followed two _peones_, who
cleared the ground, if necessary, from fallen branches or stones against
which our mules might stumble. At first this slow mode of travel was
most interesting. The light scarcely filtered through the dense mass of
leaves, so that we felt as if we stood constantly behind some cathedral
stained-glass window. The air was full of the peculiar fragrance of
tropical flowers and plants; the orchids swung high above our heads like
lamps from the vaults of a temple, and the huge trunks of the trees,
covered with creepers studded with multi-coloured flowers, appeared like
the festooned columns of a temple on a feast-day.

However, there were certain drawbacks: the ground was so wet and spongy
that the feet of the animals sank into it, and progress was accordingly
very slow. Now and then we would come to a halt, owing to a huge boulder
of rock or large trunk of a tree barring the passage absolutely. It was
then necessary for the guides to seek the best way of overcoming the
obstacle. Frequently we had to alight from our mules, as it was
dangerous to ride them in many places. The guides and the muleteers
walked on the uneven ground—now stony, and now slippery—with the agility
of deer, sure-footed and unconscious of the difficulty. I had to invent
a means of advancing: I placed myself between two of the guides, hooking
one arm to a guide’s on each side, and thus, though frequently
stumbling, I never fell, but it may be readily understood that this mode
of progression was neither comfortable nor rapid.

Another inconvenience was found in the thorny bushes, prickly plants,
and trees which it was dangerous to approach, such as the _palo_
_santo_, so called because it is frequented by a kind of ant of that
name, whose bite is most painful and induces a slight fever.

On the second day the guide who was ahead fired his gun, and, on our
asking him for the cause, said:

‘Only a rattle-snake!’

As a matter of fact, he had killed a large specimen, said to be seven
years old, as shown by the seven rattles that were taken from its tail.
These things did not help to make the ride through the intricate forest
more pleasant. We longed to see the open sky, which we could only
discern through the veil or network of leaves and branches, and, by a
phenomenon of sympathy between the lungs and the eyes, it seemed to us
that we lacked air to breathe. Now and then we would come to a clearing,
but we soon plunged again into the thick of it, and felt like wanderers
gone astray in an interminable labyrinth or maze of tall trees, moist
foliage, and tepid atmosphere.

The guides told us from the start that it would take from four to five
days to reach the end of the forest. On the fifth day, towards noon,
almost suddenly we came upon the open plain. Our hearts leaped for very
joy, and we hailed the vast green motionless solitude, that extended far
into the horizon before our eyes like a frozen sea, with a shout of joy.
The trees of the forest stood as in battle-line in front of the endless
plain; the sun darted its rays, which shimmered in the countless
ribbons, some broader than others, of the silver streams sluggishly
dragging their waves along the bosom of the unending prairie. Copses of
_moriches_, an exceptionally graceful species of palm, dotted the plains
in all directions. They seemed as though planted by the hand of man to
hide behind them a castle, or some old feudal structure, which our
imagination reared complete, full-fledged, with its walls, its roof, its
turrets, and its legends. The site looked as if prepared for a large
city about to be built, and waiting only for the arrival of its
architects and inhabitants, even as the white page tarries for him that
is to inscribe upon it a living and immortal thought.

To continue our journey on the _llanos_, the assistance of the guides
was even more necessary than in the thick of the forest. To attempt
travelling on the _llanos_ without expert guides would be like seeking
to cross the sea without a compass.

Once in the _llanos_, we came within a few hours to the hamlet of San
Pedro, a cattle-trading station consisting of a few thatch-roofed
houses, almost deserted except during the various weeks of the year
specially fixed for traders and breeders to meet. Here we were at last
at the end of the first stage of our journey. It was New Year’s Day.
Behind us lay the maze of forest, the meandering trails and paths, the
sheer mountains, the cold fertile plateau, the native city, and the dead
year. Before us we had the unlimited plain, the wandering rivers, and
there, beyond all, like a promise, tossing, heaving, roaring, the sea,
vast, immeasurable, the open roadway to the shores of other lands, some
of them free, some of them perhaps hospitable, all girdled by the
ever-beating waves which now die moaning on the sands, now dash their
fury into foam on the rocks of the shore.



                               CHAPTER VI


Before parting from our friends the mules, it may not be amiss to speak
of the equipment for man and beast which obtains in Colombian Andine
regions. The saddle used—sometimes native, sometimes European—offers
nothing striking in its composition, only that it is provided with a
crupper which must be very strong—strong as a braced strap—since in the
steep ascents or descents the girth alone would be insufficient. The men
wear leggings or _zamorros_, which, in fact, are rather seatless
trousers than leggings, 2 feet wide, held together by a strap across the
loins, the outside consisting of tanned hide with the hair on it, and
the inside of soft leather. They have the advantage of being very easily
put on and slipped off when the rider alights. The stirrups are a large
shoe wherein the whole foot is encased, made of copper or brass. At
first those unfamiliar with the roads find them awkward, bulky, and
heavy, but one soon learns that they are an indispensable protection, a
sort of armour or shield against the stones, trees, and sundry other
obstacles which the rider’s foot is bound to strike. The _poncho_, which
is a rectangular piece of woven cotton cloth about 5 to 6 feet long by 3
to 3½ feet broad, with a slit in the centre, is worn by all riders, and
a similar piece of india-rubber cloth, only somewhat larger, is carried
strapped to the back of the saddle to be used when rain comes on. The
real native accoutrement, in which the saddle differs, having a pommel
and being high-seated in the back, is not complete without the lasso,
made of twisted raw hide, kept soft and pliable by the frequent use of
tallow, which is rubbed into it. The expert herdsman can throw the lasso
a long distance, either across the neck of the horses or right over the
horns of the cattle; their aim is unerring. They fasten the lasso to the
pommel of the saddle, and turn their horses backwards so that they may
better withstand the pull of the lassoed animal. Spurs in Colombia are
frequently worn, especially when you ride somebody else’s hired mule or
horse. The spurs are more formidable in appearance than harmful in
reality; the rollocks, instead of being small with little pinlike pricks
as in Europe, are huge in size, about 3 inches in diameter, and each
prick about 1½ inches; they make a great rattle on the slightest
provocation, but are less painful to the animal than the little European
spurs. Apropos of this, I remember the case of an individual who,
finding the Colombian spurs too heavy, only wore one, arguing that if he
managed to make one side of his mule get along, the other side would be
sure to follow, and hence only one spur was needed.

On arriving at the wayside _venta_, or inn—and Heaven only knows how
elastic a man’s conscience must be to bestow the name of inn upon many
of these _ventas_—the first care of an experienced traveller is to see
to the welfare of his mules and horses. If available, Indian corn, brown
sugar of the species called _panela_, which is uncrystallized solidified
molasses, and the best grass that can be got in the neighbourhood, are
given to the animals. If there happens to be an enclosure, the mules and
horses are let loose in it, so that they may rest more comfortably; but
these enclosures are very frequently a delusion and a snare, as
inexperienced travellers find when, on rising early in the morning the
next day, they are told that the animals have jumped over the fence or
broken through, or in some other way disappeared, whereupon the
muleteers, with the boys and men available in the locality pressed into
the service for the occasion, scour the mountains and the neighbouring
forests in search of the missing animals, the search lasting at times
four and five hours, during which the traveller frets, foams, and
possibly, if he be quite natural and unspoiled by convention, swears.

But notwithstanding these drawbacks, there is a special charm about this
mode of travelling. In the morning about four the traveller arises from
his not too soft couch. The first breakfast is at once prepared, and
whilst it is being cooked the _mañanas_, or morning greeting, is
indulged in, consisting of a little whisky, brandy, _aguardiente_, rum,
or whatever spirits happen to be available. The hour, even in the hot
lands, is cool. The stars still shine brightly in the heavens, and, were
it not for the testimony of one’s watch, one would believe one’s self
still in the middle of the night. The mules are brought forward, given
their morning rations, the luggage is strapped on the ‘cargo’ mules, as
they are called, and the others are saddled, and if all goes well,
towards five or half-past, the journey begins.

There is a characteristic odour in the temperate and low lands of the
tropics at that special hour of morning, and the dawn is announced by a
hum in the ear, which, whilst it is still dark, is not of birds, but of
the thousand insects that inhabit the forest. Finally, when the sun
bursts forth in all his glory, a hymn seems to start in all directions,
and the mountains vibrate with echoes of universal animation from the
grass and the bushes, the running streams, and the nests in the branches
of the trees laden with life. In the cool air of the morning the mind is
quite alert, and the climbing and descending, the fording of rivers, the
crossing of ravines and precipices, the slow ascent of the sun in the
horizon, the fresh stirring of the breeze in the leaves, the
reverberation of the light on the drops of fresh dew still hanging from
the boughs and dotting the many-coloured flowers—all these things induce
such a feeling of communion with Nature that one feels one’s self an
integral part of the large, immense, palpitating life that throbs in
every direction, and the conception of immortality seems to crystallize,
so to speak, in the mind of the traveller; but, of course, familiarity
breeds contempt, and things beautiful, though they are a joy for ever,
might tire Keats himself through repetition, so that at times travelling
in this wise often seems slow, and one longs for some other means of
locomotion. Yet I cannot help thinking with regret of the days when one
will ask for a ticket—railway, ‘tube,’ balloon, or whatever it may
be—from any place on earth to any other place. When that day arrives,
men will be transported more rapidly from one place to another, but the
real traveller will have disappeared, as the knight-errant disappeared,
as the gentleman is being driven out from the world in these days when
all things are bought and sold, and kindness and generosity are becoming
empty words or obsolete relics of a past that very few understand, and
fewer still care to imitate.

On the very outskirts of the forest, within half an hour’s ride from the
long file of trees, we came upon a group of thatch-roofed structures
which form the so-called town or hamlet of San Pedro del Tua, a
meeting-place, as I have said before, for herdsmen and dealers, deserted
at the present season; the only persons who had remained were those
whose poverty—heavier than any anchor—had kept them on the spot away
from the Christmas and New Year’s festivities that were being celebrated
in all the towns and villages of the neighbouring region. Our first care
was to find a roof under which to pass the night. We inquired for the
man in power, namely, the _correjidor_, a sort of justice of the peace,
mayor, sheriff, all in one, an official to be found in hamlets or
villages like that which we had just reached. It was not hard to find
him, since there were only fifteen persons in the place. We had a letter
of introduction to him, which made things easier. He immediately took us
to the best house in the place, which happened to belong to him. He
asked us what good winds had wafted us thither, and whither we went. As
we did not care, until having felt our ground a little more, to state
frankly that we wanted to cross into the neighbouring republic of
Venezuela, one of us—the most audacious if not the best liar of the
lot—calmly stated that we had come to the _llanos_ for the purpose of
selecting and purchasing some land, as we intended to go into the
cattle-breeding business, and possibly into some agricultural pursuit or
other. The _correjidor_ said nothing, but an ironical smile seemed to
flit across his lips. When we had become more familiar with things and
customs in the plains, we understood why he had not replied, and the
cause of his almost imperceptible smile. To purchase land in the
_llanos_ would be tantamount to buying salt water in the midst of the
ocean! People ‘squat’ wherever they like in those endless plains that
belong to him who exploits them. The cattle, horses, sheep, are the
elements of value to which ownership is attached, but the grazing lands
belong to one and all, and as matters stand now, given the scarcity of
population and its slow increase, such will be the condition of affairs
for many a long year to come.

Once inside the house that the _correjidor_ had placed at our disposal,
and feeling more at ease with him, we told him of our intention to go to
Venezuela, and asked for his assistance. His name was Leal, which means
loyal; its sound had in it the clink of a good omen, and later events
proved that he deserved it. He told us that our undertaking was by no
means an easy one, nor one that could be accomplished without the
assistance of expert and intelligent guides. He added that he knew the
various ways to penetrate from Colombia into Venezuela, and that if we
would accept his services he would accompany us. I need not state that
the offer was accepted with alacrity.

In the short journey from the skirt of the forest to the hamlet of San
Pedro del Tua across the _llano_ itself, we had time to remark that its
aspect, once in contact with it, was quite different from the beautiful
velvety green waving in the sunlight, soft and thick, that we had seen
from a distance. The ground was covered with a coarse grass varying in
height and colour, we were told, according to the season of the year. A
great many small pathways seemed to cross it in all directions, formed
by the cropping of the grass and the animals that moved to and fro on
the plains. We crossed various _caños_, which are natural canals,
uniting the larger rivers. As we were at the beginning of the dry
season, these canals were low, and we forded them without any
difficulty, but in winter—that is to say, in the rainy season—they
attain the dimension of large rivers, and travelling in the _llanos_ on
horseback then becomes most difficult. We came frequently upon copses of
the _moriche_ palms already described. In the centre of these copses one
always finds a cool natural basin of water, which is preferred by the
natives as being the healthiest and the sweetest of the locality—_agua
de morichal_. There must be something in it, for the cattle also prefer
this water to that of the rivers and _caños_.

To our inexperienced eye the _llanos_ bore no landmark which might serve
as a guide to our movements. After a copse of _moriche_ palms came
another one, and then another one, and no sooner was one _caño_ crossed
than another took its place, so that without guides it would have been
impossible for us to know whether we were moving in the right direction.

Leal advised us to lose no time, as the journey we had before us was a
long one. Now that we were close to the beginning of our canoe journey
on the rivers, we at once set to counting the belongings we had brought
at such great expense and trouble from the high plateau of Bogotá, which
seemed ever so far away when with the mind’s eye we beheld it perched
like an eagle’s nest high up on the summit of those mountains that it
had taken us about eighteen days to descend. As every inch of ground
that we had left behind had been, so to say, felt by us, the distance
appeared enormous, and the old city and the plateau seemed more like the
remembrance of a dream than of a reality. We drew up our inventory, and
found that we were the happy possessors of about eight cases, 50 pounds
in weight each, containing preserved meats, vegetables, and food of all
kinds in boxes, jars, tins, and so forth. Next came about six large jugs
or demijohns of native fire-water, or _aguardiente_, a most useful and
indispensable beverage in those latitudes, and about half a ton of salt,
a most precious article in that region. We were going across the plains
where there are neither salt-water fountains nor salt-bearing rock
deposits, and we knew that as an article of barter, salt went far beyond
anything else that we might possess, hence the large quantity which we
carried. Our arsenal consisted of four fowling-pieces, six Remington and
two Spencer rifles, plenty of ammunition, cartridges, gunpowder, one
dozen cutlasses, or _machetes_, and four revolvers. We also had a box
with books, our trunks with clothing, rugs, mosquito-nets, waterproof
sheets, a medicine-chest, and two guitars of the native Colombian type;
but what rendered us most important and steady service during the whole
of that journey was a certain wicker basket, 1 yard long, ¾ of a yard
wide, and 10 inches in height, which contained a complete assortment of
cooking utensils and table-ware for six persons—plates, corkscrews,
can-openers, frying-pans, and all that one could wish to prepare as
sumptuous a meal as mortal man could desire in those vast solitudes. The
saucepans, six in number, fitted one inside of the other, nest-wise;
they were copper-bottomed, and proved of inestimable value. The tumblers
and cups were also nested—pewter ware with porcelain inside. Everything
was complete, compact, and so solid that, after the long journey with
its vicissitudes, the wicker basket and its contents, though looking
somewhat the worse for wear, were perfectly serviceable.

Leal, a man of simple habits, who had never been in a town of more than
4,000 or 5,000 inhabitants, on looking at that display of superfluous
articles, argued that we were altogether too rich, and that our
movements would be greatly facilitated were we to dispense with, say,
two-thirds of what lay before him on the ground. We pleaded that since
the worst had been accomplished, namely, the transportation across land,
roads, and mountain trails, we might as well keep what we had, and only
abandon it when forced to do so. Leal nodded his head, as one who sees
that it is useless to argue, and nothing more was said on the subject.

Everything was prepared on that New Year’s Day to start on the next day
for the neighbouring cattle-farm of Santa Rosa del Tua, situated on the
river Tua, one of the affluents of the Meta, which itself is one of the
most important tributaries of the mighty Orinoco. These arrangements and
decisions once arrived at, it was deemed prudent to celebrate our
arrival into the place, and the arrival on the scene of life of the New
Year, by a banquet worthy of the double occasion.

A heifer was slaughtered. Leal brought upon the scene, in front of the
house where we were stopping, the whole side of the animal trimmed and
prepared for roasting; he had passed through it, skewer-wise, a long
thin pole of some special wood hard and difficult to burn. A huge
bonfire was lit on the ground, and Leal fixed the lower end of the
skewer quite close to the fire, holding the side of the heifer now right
over the flame, now at a certain distance, turning and twisting it with
consummate skill. The air was soon scented with that odour of roast meat
which so deliciously tickles the nostrils of him who has an empty
stomach. Looking at Leal doing the roasting, I realized
Brillat-Savarin’s dictum: _On devient cuisinier, on naît rotisseur_.
Leal, if not a born poet, was a born roaster. Soon the meat was ready;
our plates, forks, and knives not being sufficient for the crowd, we
preferred not to bring them forth. Large leaves, green, fresh, and
shiny, cut from the neighbouring banana and plantain trees, were laid on
the ground both as a cover and as dishes. Leal unsheathed from his belt
a long, thin shining knife as sharp as a razor, and with wonderful
dexterity cut the huge joint, separating the ribs, so that everyone
could have a bone with a large portion of hot, steaming, newly-broiled
meat. Bread was not forthcoming, but there was an abundance of baked and
roasted green plantains, crisp and mealy, which did service for the best
bread; at least, so we thought. As for meat, never in my life do I
remember having enjoyed such a delicious morsel: so the banquet
consisted of meat and roasted plantains _à discretion_. A bottle of rum
which belonged to our stock, and which I had forgotten in the inventory
given above, went round the guests of that primitive board, warming our
hearts into conviviality and good-humour. Finally came the big bowls of
coffee, prepared according to the local fashion, which deserves to be
described. The coffee is roasted and ground in the usual way, but these
operations are only carried out just before the liquor is brewed. In a
large saucepan cold water, sweetened to the taste with black sugar, is
placed over the fire, and the necessary amount of ground coffee is
thrown into it before it gets warm. The heating should not be too rapid;
when the first bubbles indicate that the boiling-point is about to be
reached, the saucepan is withdrawn from the fire, and a spoonful of cold
water dashed upon the surface of the hot liquor almost in ebullition.
This precipitates the roasted coffee to the bottom, and gives a most
delicious beverage, which, though not as strong as the coffee distilled
according to other methods, retains all the aroma and flavour of the
grain. The method is a very good one in localities where delicate
coffee-machines cannot be easily procured, and it is in truth nothing
more or less than the method of preparing Turkish coffee, with less fuss
than is required for the Oriental variety.

We had soon grown, in that very first day of our encounter with him, to
like Leal and to wonder at his intimate knowledge of the plains, the
forests, and the rivers of that vast region. He was not a Colombian; he
had been born on the shores of the river Gaurico, one of the affluents
of the Orinoco. From boyhood he had thus come into daily contact with
the mighty rivers and the deep and mysterious forests that cover their
shores. His plan was that we should first follow the river Tua down to
the Meta. On arriving at this latter river, we should have to find
larger canoes, which would enable us to reach the Orinoco. Once on the
Orinoco we would arrive at the settlement called Urbana, where we were
sure to obtain larger craft in which to go as far as Caicara. Here we
might wait for the steamers that go to Ciudad Bolivar. As to the time
required for this journey, Leal said that, barring unforeseen obstacles,
fifty days might suffice for us to reach Ciudad Bolivar. The only
inhabited places which we would come across were first San Pedro del
Arrastradero, then Orocue, and finally San Rafael, the last Colombian
settlements where troops were stationed, and on inquiry Leal stated that
on the river Meta it was necessary to follow the only channel that
existed, so that it would be indispensable for us to touch at the
various towns he had named, as there was no lateral _caños_ by which we
might avoid them, should we want to do so, as was the case in other
parts of the plains, where one might either follow the main stream or
some _caño_ or tributary. If we wanted to take another river route, we
might, on reaching San Pedro del Arrastradero, walk a short distance of
about a mile to the _caño_ called Caracarate, which would take us to the
river Muco, an affluent of the Vichada, almost as large as the Meta
River, and flowing into the Orinoco. But, said Leal, if we follow the
Vichada instead of arriving on the Orinoco below the rapids, we shall
strike that river above the rapids, and these alone will entail more
trouble and difficulty and require more time than any other part of the
river. For the moment no decision was taken. The question was left open
to be solved as might be most convenient at an opportune moment.



                              CHAPTER VII


Early next morning, January 2, we started from the village, and, after a
short ride across the plain, reached the river Tua, at the house of a
small cattle-ranch called Santa Rosa del Tua.

The owner of the premises welcomed us most hospitably, and, to our joy,
placed at our disposal two small canoes. No others were to be found
there at the moment. However, they were large enough to carry us and our
belongings, and accordingly we made ready for an early start next day.

The houses—or what serve for houses in the _llanos_—are built on the
most primitive architectural principles. Poles, varying in thickness and
in length, according to the proportions of the desired structure, are
sunk into the ground at convenient distances, following the lines either
of a perfect square or of a rectangle. Cross-beams are nailed or tied to
the vertical poles at the required height; in the latter case the
vertical poles are grooved, so as to give additional support. From the
cross-beams on either side other beams are thrown, slanting so as to
meet in the centre, thus forming the basis of the roof, which is again
covered with reeds, upon which are placed several layers of palm-leaves,
fastened by means of thin ropes to the slanting beams and poles; and
thus the roof is completed. This finishes the house for use during the
dry season.

During the wet season the sides are covered in the same fashion as the
roof. The palm-leaf most used is that of the _moriche_, which abounds in
the _llanos_.

When lying in the hammock during the dry season one feels the breath of
the breeze as it blows across the plain, and may see the stars twinkling
in the deep blue dome of heaven, like far-off tapers. The _llaneros_, or
inhabitants of the plains, prefer to sleep in the open air, even without
palm-leaf roofing above their heads. It is as though they felt
imprisoned indoors, and pined for the ampler ether.

Here we had thus reached the last stage of our land journey. The real
voyage was about to begin.

The reader who has followed me thus far will have gathered that there
were three of us in this expedition—Alex, Raoul, and myself. With us
came our servant Fermin, who adapted himself to the most urgent
requirements, being now muleteer, now valet, now cook. Leal had engaged
the services of several _peones_ to paddle the canoes when we reached
the Tua River; these numbered seventeen, so that, including Leal and
ourselves, we formed a group of twenty-two men. The canoes were so small
that we were packed like herrings, but, as it was impossible to obtain
others, we had to make the best of them.

Raoul was a sportsman: more than once he had taken up arms against the
harmless ducks that swarm at certain seasons of the year in the lakes
studding the plateau of Bogotá. I had no personal knowledge of his
powers, but, with the modesty and truthfulness characteristic of all
hunters and fishermen, he carefully impressed upon us that he was a dead
shot, and that when a bird, hare, or any furred or feathered creature,
came within range of his gun its doom was certain.

Immediately upon our arrival at the river Tua, the shores of which are
covered with a dense forest, he called our attention to the numberless
birds to be seen, and as soon as he could manage it he left us,
accompanied by one of the men, and was speedily lost to sight amongst
the trees. Shortly afterwards the report of his gun reached us with such
frequency that one might think he was wasting powder for mere love of
smoke. By-and-by he returned, bringing with him about sixteen different
birds of various sizes and kinds, sufficient to feed the whole
expedition for one or two days. He was on the point of starting on
another murderous excursion, when we remonstrated against the wanton
destruction of animal life. Leal quietly observed that if Raoul thus
continued wasting powder and shot he would soon exhaust our store of
those indispensable articles, the lack of which might entail most
serious consequences later on. On hearing this we held what might be
called a council of war, at which it was decided that no more birds or
game were to be shot than were absolutely indispensable. We were
influenced not so much by a feeling of humanity or love for the birds as
by the fact that a long journey lay before us, that the loss of a canoe,
the flooding of a river, or illness, or any accident that might befall
us, would detain us for much longer than we had bargained. Raoul
reluctantly listened to all these reasons, but, acknowledging their
force, agreed to comply with them.

Our descent of the river Tua began next day. The waters were very
shallow, owing to the dry season, and, as our men could not use their
paddles, they punted the canoes down-stream. We were often detained by
palisades which obstructed the current. These were formed by trunks
uprooted from the shores by the river in its flood, and then jettisoned
in the bed of the stream. In the dry season they stood forth like small
islands, and gathered round them all the floating débris of the river.
These palisades, with which we met very often, gave us a deal of
trouble. We often had to jump out of the canoes and either drag or push
them, as they would stick to the sandy bottom, and punting failed to
make them budge. We took to this task cheerfully, and found it tolerable
sport, until one of our men was stung by a peculiar sort of fish, black
and round, called _raya_. This lies hidden in the sand, and, when
touched or trodden upon, stings, darting its harpoon into the ankle or
the calf, leaving its point in the wound, a most painful one, which
continues to smart for several days. The man, who was stung in our
presence, cried and moaned like a child, so intense was the pain. After
this we were decidedly chary of lending a hand in dragging or pushing
the canoes, and—I must confess it to our shame—we would wade booted to
the shore and wait till they had been got afloat again, rather than take
the chances of being stung in our turn.

We had started at about six in the morning; towards five in the
afternoon Leal began to cast his eyes about in search of a nice, dry,
sandy beach upon which to pitch our camp for the night. So far we had
always found some house or hut to sleep in; now, for the first time, we
were faced by the necessity of camping in the open air without any roof
whatever above our heads. We experienced a peculiar sensation of
unwarranted fear—a dread arising, doubtless, from the force of habit in
the civilized man, naturally averse to imitating the birds and the
beasts, which sleep under God’s heaven and run all risks; but whatever
our feelings, we were forced to accept the inevitable.

As soon as a satisfactory strip of beach was found, we jumped ashore.
The canoes were dragged halfway out of the water, and tied with stout
ropes to neighbouring trees to prevent their being carried away in case
of an unexpected flood—by no means an impossible contingency. The men
took out the mats upon which we were to sleep, and as there were swarms
of the mosquitoes, sand-flies, and numerous insects which make life a
burden in the early hours of the night on the shores of these rivers,
the mosquito-bars, made of cotton cloth, were rigged up over the mats.

Fermin, who had been promoted to the rank of private cook for Alex,
Raoul, and myself, prepared our supper, making use of the saucepans and
sundry implements contained in our travelling basket. To prepare their
meals, the men used a huge iron pot, which was soon tilted over a large
fire.

We were four days on the river Tua punting or paddling, according to the
depth of water. When we reached the river Meta, we had already arranged
the daily routine best suited to our requirements, and I might as well,
once for all, describe it.

Our acting chief, Leal, ever watchful and alert, wakened us at about
three in the morning. Every man had his appointed task: two of them
prepared the indispensable coffee in the fashion of the land; others
folded up the mats, the mosquito-bars, and whatever else might have been
landed. Alex, Raoul, and I would in the meantime stand on the river
brink, whilst two of the men poured upon us small cataracts of water
drawn from the river in the _coyabras_ or _totumas_ cut from native
gourds, which form an indispensable part of the domestic arrangements in
the _llanos_. It would have been sheer madness to bathe in the river,
with its _rayas_, or water-snakes, or perhaps some shy, dissembling
alligator in quest of a tasty morsel.

Sandy beaches are the best places for camping on the shores of tropical
rivers. They are dry, clean, soft, and perfectly free from snakes,
scorpions, tarantulas, and all such obnoxious creatures, which are more
likely to be found amongst the high luxuriant grass and the leafy trees.

Between four and five, as soon as it was ready, every man drank a large
goblet of coffee and a small glass of aniseed _aguardiente_, which is
said to be a specific against malaria. The men’s faith in the virtue of
the distilled spirit was astounding; they never failed to take it, and
would even ask for more, lest the quantity given were not enough to
protect them from the dreaded illness. Though the merits of quinine are
more universally acknowledged, it did not seem to be as acceptable, nor
to be coveted with equal greediness.

We generally started at about five in the morning, paddling steadily
till about eleven, when we landed as soon as we found a suitable spot,
if possible shaded with trees. Here we would hang the hammocks, prepare
the midday repast, and wait until three, letting the hottest hours of
the day pass by. At this time the sun seemed to dart real rays of fire
upon the burnished waters, whose reflection dazzled and blinded our
eyes.

About three in the afternoon we would start again for two or three hours
more, until a convenient beach was found; once there, the camp was
formed without delay, the canoes tied up, the mats spread, and in a few
minutes two huge bonfires, made of driftwood, sent their glad flames
flickering in the night air. After supper we crept under the
mosquito-bars, and waited for Leal to call us in the morning.

The seasons in the plains, as is well known, are sharply divided into
dry and rainy. The first lasts from May to November, and the second from
November to May. During the wet season it rains from eighteen to twenty
hours out of the twenty-four; showers are not frequent during the dry
season, but they fall now and then.

The third or fourth night that we spent on the banks of the Tua, I was
awakened by feeling a moist sheet over my face, and at once realized
that the heavy rain had beaten down the mosquito-bar. There was nothing
for it but to cover myself with the waterproof _poncho_, sitting up for
greater convenience, and disengaging myself from the fallen
mosquito-net. There we all sat helpless under the dense cataract. The
beach, slanting towards the river, bore with it the waters from the
higher ground, and as my body made an indenture in the sand, I felt on
either side a rushing stream. Fortunately, the shower was soon over, the
bonfires were heaped with driftwood and blazed forth joyously. Coffee
was specially prepared for the occasion, and we sat in the genial warmth
of the flames until the sun burst forth on the horizon. That morning we
did not start as early as usual: the tents and covers were spread in the
sun, and after an hour or so were again dry and soft. Then we started on
our journey, leaving behind us the discomforts of the night. The rain
seemed to have gladdened the forest, and brightened the trees and bushes
into a livelier green. During the journey we underwent a similar
experience upon two or three other occasions.

As for food, we had a comfortable supply, and hardly a day passed
without our having either some fine bird, or at times a larger piece of
game in the shape of a species of wild-boar, fairly plentiful in that
locality, the flesh of which is quite agreeable after one learns to eat
it. Besides game, we also had plenty of fish. All this without counting
the salt meat and tinned provisions. The birds most abundant were ducks
of various descriptions, wild turkeys, and a beautiful bird of fine
dark-bluish plumage, similar to a wild turkey, called _paujil_ by the
natives, the meat of which greatly resembles that of the pheasant.

At about this stage of the journey an incident took place which shows
how even the humblest tasks in life require a certain degree of ability
and experience. One day on the river Tua, Raoul—who, as I have said, was
a great hunter before the Lord, and had no more esteem than most men for
the milder arts—had brought down a beautiful duck of exceptional size,
and of the kind known as ‘royal duck.’ Not satisfied with his triumph as
a Nimrod, he took it into his head to cook the bird himself and rival
the achievements of Vattel or Carême. He invited me to help him in his
undertaking. My culinary attainments being purely of a theoretical kind,
I promised him my moral support and hearty co-operation in the shape of
advice. We invited Alex to share our wonderful supper, to which he
replied that, being aware of the perils most incident to the efforts of
inexperienced cooks, however enthusiastic they might be, he preferred
the men’s supper, which, though humbler, was far more to be depended on.
Heedless of this taunt, Raoul went on with his work. A pot filled with
water was placed over the fire, and as soon as it was boiling the bird
was plunged into it. In due course Raoul began to pluck valiantly;
feathers black and bluish fell from his hand numerous as flakes of snow
in a winter storm. When he began to tire after a while, I took the bird
in hand, and continued the task, the feathers falling like dry leaves in
the autumnal forest. After half an hour of steady work, when the ground
was literally covered with black feathers, that blessed bird seemed
untouched. We were beginning to feel anxious and hungry, and the
tempting whiffs from the large iron pot, where the men were stirring
their stew, stung our nostrils in a tantalizing fashion. However, it was
now a question of pride and self-esteem, and we were bound to cook the
bird at any cost. By-and-by Alex, holding a steaming plate in his hand,
came to us and invited us to eat. Raoul rejected the offer, and though I
was most anxious to accept it, I felt bound in loyalty to stand by him.
We told Alex that we wanted to reserve the fulness of our appetite for
our delicious bird, to which Alex replied that by the time that bird was
ready we should certainly be hungry enough to devour it, leaving the
bones quite clean. Raoul and I took turns at plucking the duck, which at
last seemed to yield, showing a few whitish specks here and there devoid
of all feathery covering. Seeing our plight, Fermin, who had stood by,
not being called upon to help, seized the bird, declaring that we had
allowed it to become chilled, and that the perfect plucking of it was
well-nigh impossible. However, he undertook the job most courageously,
and finally, taking advantage of the shades of night, which facilitated
a compromise, we dropped that royal duck into the boiling water and
pretended to enjoy our supper, such as it was, when ready. How much we
ate is a question as to which I need not go into detail here, but I must
own that in lying down upon my mat under the mosquito-bar I felt
famished. From that day onwards both Raoul and I decided to forego all
interference in matters culinary, beyond occasional advice. I have no
doubt that, had Fermin or one of the men undertaken the task, we should
not only have had our supper much sooner, but a dish fit for any man’s
palate.



                              CHAPTER VIII


On the fourth day, about two hours’ sail from the confluence of the Tua
with the Meta River, we stopped at a large cattle-ranch called Santa
Barbara. The owner invited us to a dinner—the inevitable dishes of the
_llano_: meat roasted over a bonfire, plaintains and coffee.

The ranch consisted, we were told, of about 10,000 head of cattle, and
was typical of the ranches to be found on the _llanos_ of Colombia and
Venezuela.

Here, in the person of what might be called the sub-manager, whose name
was Secundino, we came face to face with a real tiger-hunter.

After dinner I asked Secundino how men fleeted the time away in that
lonely region beyond the din of civilized life. His statements
corroborated what I had heard before, that there is no ownership of land
in the _llanos_; the herds graze freely over the plains, the animals
being practically wild, and kept together by the presence amongst them
of a few tame cattle which, being accustomed to the presence of man,
will remain in the neighbourhood of the houses or _caneyes_. Another
great attraction to the cattle is the salt which is strewn upon large
slabs of stone or flat boards. By these two devices, thousands of
animals are kept within a comparatively short distance of the ranch.

To enable each ranch-owner to brand the cattle belonging to him,
_rodeos_ or round-ups are held two or three times during the year. These
_rodeos_ are gatherings of the herds. The men ride out in all directions
from the ranch, and drive the cattle towards the _corrales_. In this
task they are greatly helped by the presence of the tame animals, which
are easily led or driven as required, and are always followed by the
others.

Once in the _corrales_, the branding begins. A red-hot iron is used,
shaped either to form one or two letters or some special sign which
constitutes the trade or hall mark, so to speak, of the respective
ranch. The animals are forced to pass through a long, narrow enclosure
between two fences, and are branded as they go by; but with animals that
give a great deal of trouble a different method is followed. This
consists in starting the bull, heifer, or cow, as the case may be, on
the run. A man on horseback follows, and when both the horse and the
bull have attained sufficient impetus, the man seizes the bull by the
tail, and with a sudden twist turns it over on its side, jumping at once
from his horse to pass the tail under the bull’s leg; this compresses
certain muscles, prevents all motion, and leaves the fallen animal
helpless. The branding is then done without any difficulty, either on
the fore or the hind quarters.

Secundino told us that this way of throwing the cattle down was not
confined to the branding season, but that it formed a frequent sport
amongst herdsmen in the plains, as it required great skill to accomplish
it. Another sport in which he and his friends indulged, and which he
described with great zest, was riding wild bulls. The process consists
first in throwing the bull to the ground, whereupon a thick rope is tied
as a girdle, only that it is placed quite close to the withers and right
under the forelegs of the animal. All this time the bull has been held
on the ground, bellowing and panting for sheer rage; as soon as the rope
is ready, the intending rider stands by the side of the animal with his
two hands stuck between the rope and the skin, on either side of the
spine, and the moment the bull is let loose and stands on its feet the
man leaps on its back. Then follows a wonderful struggle: the beast,
unaccustomed to any burden, rears and plunges, springs backwards and
forwards with great violence; the man, always spurred, increases the
fury of the animal by pricking its sides. His two arms, like bars of
iron, stand rigid, and man and bullock seem as though made of one piece.
At last the bull is exhausted, and sullenly acknowledges the superior
force of the rider; but it takes rare courage and strength to accomplish
this feat.

After describing these and other pastimes, Secundino quietly added:

‘Whenever my work leaves me time, I kill tigers.’

He said this unpretentiously, yet with a certain air of
self-consciousness that must have brought the shadow of a doubting smile
to my lips. Secundino saw this, and, without appearing to take notice of
it, invited us outside the house, and showed us, at a certain distance
from it, lying on the ground, ten tigers’ skulls, some of which bore
traces of having been recently cleansed from skin and flesh.

‘You see,’ he added, ‘that I have some proofs of my tiger-killing!’

He told us that the tigers were the worst enemies of the cattle-farmer.

‘Other animals,’ he said, ‘will take just what they want, but the tiger
is fierce, cruel, and kills for the sake of killing. If he should happen
to get into an enclosure containing twenty or thirty young calves, he
will kill them all, and take one away with him. We are at open and
constant warfare with the tigers,’ he added, ‘and there is no truce
between us.’

The _llaneros_ usually kill tigers by spearing them. Referring to this,
Secundino said that doubtless it was more dangerous than shooting the
beast down at long range with a Winchester or a Remington rifle; ‘but,’
he went on to say, ‘powder and lead are expensive, cartridges are
difficult to obtain, and when once exhausted your weapon is no better
than a broomstick. The spear, however, is always ready, and never fails
you. When I go out tiger-hunting I take my dogs, who follow the scent
and guide me. I carry with me, besides the spears, a muzzle-loader, in
case of emergency. The moment the dogs see the tiger they give cry; the
beast seeks higher ground, and the fight with the dogs begins at once.
The tiger is afraid even of a cur. The dogs that we have here are well
trained, and though at times they are killed by the tiger, that seldom
happens. I follow my dogs, keeping the animal well in sight, with my
spear ready, and at the right moment dash forward and plunge it into his
breast. If the blow is a good one, that ends it. Now and then it is
necessary to fire the rifle into him; but this is a great pity, owing to
the waste of lead and gunpowder.’

I am trying to repeat here word by word Secundino’s quiet statement. It
sounds fanciful and exaggerated, but all those who have travelled over
the plains of either Venezuela or Colombia will have heard that such is
the commonest mode of tiger-killing amongst the _llaneros_. The tiger of
these latitudes, however, is not the same as the tiger of India and
other parts of Asia. It is smaller, but not less ferocious; it is
spotted, and not striped. The spear used is very long, made of very hard
wood, and has a most murderous appearance.

Secundino, after telling me of his short way with tigers, asked me to
handle the weapon, and generously gave me some instructions as to the
exact poise to be adopted for striking a blow, explaining to me how
dangerous it might be were I to forget the rules which he could
recommend from experience. To begin with, I could hardly lift the spear,
and, then, there was practically no chance of my ever going to seek a
tiger in his lair. Secundino, however, was profoundly in earnest, and,
rather than disabuse him or hurt his feelings, I solemnly promised him
that I would never kill tigers otherwise than in strict conformity with
his advice, and that at the first opportunity I would practise throwing
the spear and poising my body, so as to make sure.

Towards evening, as we were about leaving, when I was already seated in
the canoe, whilst Leal was still ashore, I overheard these words passing
between him and Secundino:

‘How far are you going, Friend Leal?’

‘Down to the Orinoco, to accompany these gentlemen.’

‘How are you coming back, by land or by water?’

‘I do not know yet—that depends.’

‘Well, all right; if you come this way, I should like you to tackle a
horse that we have here, which no one seems able to ride, and which I
dare not tackle myself.’

‘Never you mind,’ answered Leal; ‘I will see to it when I return.’

Here was a revelation. Leal’s prowess grew in our estimation. This guide
of ours was called upon to break in a horse which Secundino, the
tiger-hunter, whose title to the name, if devoid of diplomas or academic
signatures, was vouched for by the ten tiger-skulls which we had seen,
would not dare to ride himself!

On we went towards the Meta River, leaving our friends on the shore
shouting to us messages of good speed. We soon noticed that our canoe,
being lighter in draft, had left the other far behind it.

It darkened much earlier than we expected, and to our great regret we
saw that the second canoe could not catch us up, which was annoying, as
supper, beds, and everything else, with the exception of a demijohn of
aniseed _aguardiente_, were in it. We landed at the first beach that we
struck, hoping against hope that the stragglers might overtake us.

Time had passed so agreeably at Santa Barbara, listening to Secundino’s
tales, that we had not noticed how late it was. It seemed to us,
furthermore, that darkness had set in earlier than usual. On hearing
some remark to that effect, Fermin observed that the sun had set for us
that day earlier than usual. He laid stress upon the words ‘for us,’
and, on being asked what he meant thereby, said that the darkness had
been caused by a cloud which had interposed itself between us and the
setting sun, thus bringing night earlier than usual.

‘What nonsense are you talking about?’ said Raoul. ‘There is no cloud in
the matter; we went on talking and talking, and forgot the time.’

‘No, sir,’ Fermin said, without moving a muscle; ‘I know what I am
talking about. The cloud was formed by the feathers of that bird which
we tried to pluck yesterday; they are so many that they darken the light
of the sun!’

Up to this day I cannot say what happened. I do not know if we mistook
the hour of the day and were overtaken by night, or if, in truth, as
Fermin asserted, the wrathful ghost of the mishandled duck spread its
black feathers above our heads, thus forming a mantle like the mantle of
arrows which the Spartan warriors asked the Persian invaders to fire at
them, so that they might fight in the shade. This problem, which
contains historical, astronomical and atmospherical elements, will
remain for ever as dark and mysterious as the feathers of the dead bird.



                               CHAPTER IX


Night soon asserted her sway. The blue vault of heaven, alive with
innumerable stars, was clear and diaphanous; no cloud was to be seen.
The evening noises died away, and the dead silence was only broken now
and then by a vague rumour wafted mysteriously through space—the wash of
waters on the shore, or possibly the lisp of forests by the river. We
gave up all hope of the other canoe arriving that night, and faced the
inevitable—no supper, no beds. As in our own canoe we carried a demijohn
of _aguardiente_, one or two generous draughts were our only supper. We
were not hampered by excess of riches or of comforts; as to the
selection of our beds, the whole extent of the beach was equally sandy
and soft; but, having slept for many nights on the shores of the Tua,
and knowing that we were at its confluence with the Meta, for the sake
of a change—a distinction without a difference—we stretched ourselves
full length on the side of the beach looking to the Meta River.

The water-course, practically unknown to civilization, appeared to me as
I lay there like a wandering giant lost amidst the forests and the
plains of an unknown continent. The surface of the waters sparkled in
the starlight like hammered steel. My thoughts followed the luminous
ripples until they were lost to sight in the darkness of the opposite
shore, or, wandering onwards with the flow, melted into the horizon.
Whither went those waters? Whence came they? What were their evolutions,
changes, and transformations? Idle questions! Flow of life or flow of
wave, who but He that creates all things can know its source and its
finality? Idle cavillings indeed!

Suddenly, as drowsiness had begun to seize me, a wonderful phenomenon
took place. There from the midst of the waters arose an indistinct yet
mighty figure; high it stood amidst the waters which parted, forming a
sort of royal mantle upon its shoulders; it gazed upon me with the
sublime placidity of the still seas, the high mountains, the unending
plains, the primeval forests, and all the manifestations of Nature,
great and serene in their power and majesty. And the figure spoke:

‘Listen to me, O pilgrim, lost in these vast solitudes; listen to the
voice of the wandering streams! We rivers bring life to forest and
valley; we are children of the mountains, heralds of continents,
benefactors of man. My current, powerful and mighty though it seems, is
but a tiny thread of the many streams that, mingled and interwoven, so
to say, go to form the main artery of whirling, heaving water called the
Orinoco. From north and south, from east and west, we all flow along the
bosom of the plains, after having gathered unto ourselves the playful
streamlets, the murmuring brooks that swell into torrents and dash down
the mountain-sides, filling the hills and the intervening valleys with
life and joy. They come from the highest slopes—nay, from the topmost
peaks crowned with everlasting snow, the sources of our life; down they
rush, and after innumerable turns and twists, after forming now
cataracts, now placid lakes, reach the plain, and in their course they
broaden the large streams which in turn merge with others in the huge
basin, and form the vast artery that drains the surface of a great part
of the continent, and bears its tribute to the Atlantic Ocean. Yea,
verily indeed, we rivers are as twin brothers of Time; the hours pass
and pass, ceaseless as our waves; they flow into Eternity, we into the
bosom of the great deep. This land, the land of your birth and of mine,
to-day an unknown quantity in the history of the world, is a destined
site of a mighty empire. The whole continent of South America is the
reserve store for the future generations of millions of men yet unborn.
Hither they will come from all parts of the world: on the surface of the
globe no more favourable spot exists for the home of mankind. Along the
coast of the Pacific Ocean runs the mighty backbone of the Cordillera
like a bulwark, high, immense, stately; above it, like the towers and
turrets in the walls of a fortified city, rise the hundred snow-capped
peaks that look east and west, now on the ocean, now on the
ever-spreading undulating plains, and south and north to the line of
mountains extending for thousands of miles.

‘In the very heart of the tropical zone, where the equatorial sun darts
his burning rays, are the plateaus of the Andes, hundreds of square
miles in extent, with all the climates and the multitudinous products of
the temperate zone. In the heart and bowels of the mountains are the
precious metals coveted by man’s avarice and vanity, those forming the
supreme goal of his endeavours; and the useful—indeed, the truly
precious—metals, coal, iron, copper, lead, and all others that are known
to man, exist in a profusion well-nigh illimitable. The trade-winds,
whose wings have swept across the whole width of the Atlantic Ocean,
laden with moisture, do not stop their flight when the sea of moving
waters ceases and the sea of waving grass begins. Across the plains,
over the tree-tops of the primeval forests, shaking the plumage of the
palm-trees, ascending the slopes of the hills, higher, still higher,
into the mountains, and finally up to the loftiest peaks, those winds
speed their course, and there the last drops of moisture are wrung from
them by that immeasurable barrier raised by the hand of God; their force
seems to be spent, and, like birds that have reached their native
forest, they fold their wings and are still. The moisture thus gathered
and thus deposited forms the thousand currents of water that descend
from the heights at the easternmost end of the continent, and convert
themselves into the largest and most imposing water systems in the
world. Thus is formed the Orinoco system, which irrigates the vast
plains of Colombia and Venezuela. Further south, created by a similar
concurrence of circumstances and conditions, the Amazon system drags the
volume of its wandering sea across long, interminable leagues of
Brazilian forest and plain. Its many streams start in their pilgrimage
from the interior of Colombia, of Ecuador, of Peru, and of Bolivia, and
these two systems of water-ways, which intersect such an immense extent
of land thousands of miles from the mouth of the main artery that
plunges into the sea, are connected by a natural canal, the Casiquiare
River, so that the traveller might enter either river, follow its course
deep into the heart of the continent, cross by water to the other, and
then reappear on the ocean, always in the same boat.

‘If the wealth of the mountains is boundless and virgin, if on the
slopes and on the plateaus and the neighbouring valleys all the
agricultural products useful to man may be grown—and the forests teem
with wealth that belongs to him who first takes it—if the rocks likewise
cover or bear immense deposits of all the metals and minerals useful to
man, the lowlands and the plains offer grazing-ground for untold herds
of cattle and horses, and further to the south beyond the Amazon,
running southward, not eastward like the Orinoco and the Amazon, the
Parana unrolls its waves, which, after leaving the tropic, enter the
southern temperate zone, irrigating for untold miles the endless pampas
of Argentina and Uruguay. In very truth, this continent is the Promised
Land.

‘In your pilgrimage along the waters of the Orinoco, you will see all
the wonders of tropical Nature. Now the forests will stand on either
bank close along the shores in serried file, and moving mirrors of the
waters will reflect the murmuring tops of the trees, noisy and full of
life as the winds sweep by in their flight, or else the frowning rock,
bare and rugged, will stand forth from the current like the wall of a
medieval castle. Now the trees will open a gap through which, as from
under a triumphal arch, the current of a river, a wanderer from the
mysterious and unknown depths of the neighbouring forests, pours forth
into the main stream and mingles with the passing waters, joining his
fate to theirs, even as the High Priest of some unknown creed might
issue from the temple and mingle with the passing crowd. Some rivers
that reach the main artery have had but a short pilgrimage, the junction
of their many waters having taken place at no great distance from the
main stream; others have had a long wandering, sometimes placid and
serene, sometimes amidst rocks and boulders, with an ever frenzied and
agitated course like the lives of men striving and struggling till the
last great trumpet sounds. The course of the river will be studded with
islands large enough for the foundation of empires, and before reaching
the sea the river will extend and spread its current into a thousand
streams, as if loth to part from the Mother Earth it sought to embrace
more firmly in its grasp, and our waters will flow into the unplumbed
deep, there to mingle with those of all the rivers, whether their course
has been through lands alive with civilization, swarming with multitudes
of men on their shores, laden with the memories of centuries and famous
in history, or whether they, like us, have wandered through vast
solitudes where Nature is still supreme in her primeval pride, as yet
unpolluted by the hand of man. There we all meet, and to us what men
call time and its divisions exist not, for all the transformations that
affect mankind are as naught to us who form part and parcel of Nature
itself, who only feel time after the lapse of æons which to the mind of
man are practically incomprehensible. Seek to learn the lesson of
humility, to acknowledge the power of the Creator, who gave to man what
we rivers and all other material things can never hope for—a future
beyond this earth, higher, brighter, infinite, eternal.’

The figure seemed to sink slowly under the mantle of waters that had
covered its shoulders; the sun was rising in the eastern horizon, the
rumour of awakening Nature filled the air with its thousand echoes, and
drifting rapidly towards us we saw Leal with the canoe that had remained
behind the night before.

On telling Alex, Raoul, and Fermin my experience, and asking in good
faith what they had thought of the visitation, they looked askance at
me. It seems that sleep had overpowered them; they had not seen the
river-god of the Meta, and irreverently set down the whole occurrence to
the quality of my supper the preceding night. It is ever thus with
unbelievers; they will seek some material or vulgar explanation for that
which they cannot understand and have not seen.

That very morning, after the necessary arrangements and the usual
morning coffee, we started down the Meta River. If we might have called
the navigation on the Tua somewhat amphibious, navigation on the Meta,
specially for such small craft as we possessed, seemed to us as on the
open sea. Our first care was to seek larger canoes. Leal guided us
through one of the neighbouring _caños_ to a cattle-ranch, where he
expected to suit our requirements. This _caño_ chanced to be famous for
its snakes, principally of the kind called _macaurel_, a dark brownish
species, varying from 2 to 4 and 5 feet in length, and from ¼ inch to 2
inches in diameter. When in repose they coil themselves around the
branches of the trees, and their bite, if not cured immediately, is
fatal. Leal shot one of the horrible reptiles in the body; the linking
of the rings that take the place of vertebræ being thus unloosened, the
coils became wider, the animal lost its grip and fell into the water,
staining it with a blue-greenish reflection of a metallic hue. It seems
that one shot of the smallest size is sufficient to kill these snakes,
provided it breaks one of the rings above mentioned. I shuddered as we
passed under the trees, knowing that many of these dreaded reptiles must
be above our heads. The _caño_ in some parts was so narrow and the
forest so dense that it was impossible to avoid the overhanging
branches, and when I thought that we should have to go over the same
route next day, disgust and a feeling of dread took possession of me. By
the time we reached our destination, after a journey of eight or ten
miles, over twenty of these creatures had been brought down. We obtained
two large canoes, which seemed to us like veritable ships or floating
palaces compared to the little craft we had used for so many days. We
turned to the river Meta, and did not feel safe until we had left the
_caño_ behind, and could breathe once more in the open air on the bosom
of the large river, with only heaven above our heads.

The Meta River, which flows entirely upon Colombian territory, describes
large winding curves in its course eastward towards the Orinoco. Its
banks are high and well defined, its channel fairly steadfast even in
the dry season. This is not common, most of these rivers often shifting
their course, to the despair of pilots and navigators. Both sides of the
Meta we knew were occupied, or, rather, frequently visited, by various
wild tribes. Now and then Leal would point out a part of the shore,
stating that it belonged to some ranch, but how he could know was a
mystery to us, as no visible difference existed.

The temperature, though quite hot in the middle of the day, was
agreeable, and even cool, in the early morning and a greater part of the
night. The trade-wind, which blows steadily every day during the dry
season, at times gathered such force that we were compelled, going
against it as we did, to wait long hours for it to subside. Our canoes
were not so arranged as to enable us to hoist sail and tack against the
wind.

On the river Meta we observed a large species of fish, which, had we
been at sea, we should have identified at once as porpoises. The men
told us that they were called _bufeos_, and in reality came from the
sea, having ascended the waters of the Orinoco for thousands of miles,
and branched off into the Meta River. One of the men, illiterate like
all his fellows, but versed in forest, mountain and plain lore, stated
that those _bufeos_ were the friends of man; that they loved music and
song; that they would follow a boat or canoe whence the echoes of
singing or of some musical instrument could be heard for miles and miles
at a time; that when they were present in the water the alligators and
all the other enemies of man kept away, or were driven away by the
_bufeos_; and that whenever by chance the fishermen caught one of these,
he would at once release it in remembrance of their friendship for
mankind. These were, therefore, our old-time friends the porpoises.

The simple tale of the man, one of our paddlers, who had never been in a
city in his life nor seen any of the wonders of our times, to whose mind
such words as civilization, Fatherland, and religion, as well as many
others that form the glib vocabulary of modern man, were mere empty
sounds or air, could not but set me a-thinking—first, as to the value of
those words. Fatherland, our country, his and mine, yet how different
the conception, and how those consecrated, holy words are abused by the
tricksters, great and small, who control and exploit mankind for their
own benefit! Patriotism should consist in justice and equality of rights
and tolerance to all, whereas, in fact, it is but a mask for the greed
and avarice of the strong. My countryman is he whose ideals are
identical with mine. What makes another being my fellow-man and my
brother is an identity of ideals, not a concurrence of geographical
conditions of birth. If he who is born ten thousand miles away in an
unknown climate and in a different latitude shares with me the love of
justice and of freedom, and will struggle for them even as I would, why
should we be separated by conventional distinctions which benefit
neither him nor me nor justice nor freedom as ideals?

I thought, are these lands and this vast continent still virgin in the
sense that humanity has not exploited them? are they to be the last
scene of the stale criminal imposture now called civilization? Are men
to come by thousands and by millions to these plains and these
mountains, and settle on the shores of these rivers, bringing with them
their old prejudices, their old tyrannical conventionalities, the
hatreds that have stained history with blood for hundreds and for
thousands of years, rearing on these new lands the old iniquities,
calling them fatherlands, baptizing their crimes with holy words, and
murdering in the name of patriotism? If such is to be the future of
these lands, far better were it that the mighty rivers should overflow
their course and convert into one immense lake, twin brother of the
neighbouring sea, the vast plains, the endless mysterious forest; and
that the immense bulwark of the Andes, aflame with a thousand volcanoes,
should make the region inhospitable and uninhabitable to man: for of
iniquity there is enough, and no more should be created under God’s
heaven.

But the tale set me also a-thinking of the power of tradition and the
beauty of song. If my memory plays me no trick, Arion, homeward-bound
from the Court of Corinth, and laden with gifts of a King who worshipped
song, was seized and thrown into the sea by the crew, but the listening
dolphins or porpoises, grateful for the heavenly message thus delivered
by him, bore him ashore and saved his life. So, more or less, runs the
classical tale; and here in the wilds of America, from the lips of an
unlettered woodman, the same beautiful conceit, clothed in simple words,
had rung in my ears. The power of song, the beauty of the legend, had
filtered itself through hundreds of generations from the days of our
mother Greece, the mother of art and of beauty, across the mountains and
the years and the seas and the continents, and the legend and the
allegory were alive in their pristine and essential characteristics in
the forests of tropical America. This gave me hope. If the power of
things ideal, of things that have in them the divine charm of undying
force, overcomes time and distance, why should not the ideal of
righteousness, of liberty, and of justice prevail? And the vast
continent of South America, why should it not be the predestined home of
a happy and regenerate humanity? The trade-winds which come from the old
world and across the ocean are purified on the heights of the
Cordilleras. Even so humanity in that pilgrimage that is bound to take
place ere long, as the ancient world begins to overflow, may regenerate
itself and establish liberty and justice in that new world. If these be
dreams, awakening were bitter.

We soon heard that it was easy to reach one of the affluents of the
Vichada by crossing the plains for about a mile overland, and, all
things considered, decided to abandon the Meta River, even though the
journey might be longer than we had at first intended. Thus, on the
fourth day of navigation down the Meta we stopped, and at a place known
as San Pedro del Arrastradero, where we found quite a large settlement,
about 150 people, we left the Meta behind us and at once made ready for
our journey through the Vichada, as large as the Meta, we were told, and
inhabited by numerous savage tribes. This gave additional interest to
the journey, and we looked forward to it with pleasure.



                               CHAPTER X


The settlement of San Pedro del Arrastradero—or of Arimena, as it is
also called—lies on the right shore of the River Meta about 150 miles
from its confluence with the Orinoco. Within a very short distance of
the Meta at that point, less than a mile to the south, the _caño_ of
Caracarate branches towards the Muco River, which, flowing to the
south-east, joins the Vichada; the latter, of about the same volume as
the Meta, flows south-east till it strikes the Orinoco above the rapids.
The Meta and the Vichada and the Orinoco form a triangle, of which the
last named is the base. The Vichada enters the main stream some fifty
miles above, and the Meta about 200 miles below, the series of rapids
which divide the river into the Lower and the Upper Orinoco.

Scattered far and wide at long distances apart on the plain which
borders the Meta are numerous cattle-ranches, and on its very shores are
settlements testifying to the effort of civilized man. But the new
region that we were about to enter, irrigated by the Muco, the Vichada,
and their affluents, is absolutely wild, and has seldom been crossed by
white men other than stray missionaries, or adventurous traders in
search of cheap rubber, resinous substances, tonga beans, hammocks, etc.
These the Indians exchange for trifles, or implements which they prize
very highly: to the wild inhabitants an axe, a cutlass, a knife, are
veritable treasures, distinguishing their owner among his fellows.

The tribes along the shores of the Meta River were known to be mostly
hostile and aggressive. Travellers on that river always, if possible,
pitch their camps on islets in mid-stream for fear of night attacks, and
even then they need to keep strict watch and have their arms beside
them. It is dangerous for small expeditions to cross the part of the
river below San Pedro del Arrastradero.

But the tribes along the region that we were about to cross, though no
less primitive than the others, are mild and easily amenable to
civilization. They are numerous, and under good guidance might be
advantageously employed in useful work, might be taught to gather the
natural products abounding in the forests, and cultivate the soil
systematically. Their present notions of agriculture are elementary;
they only practise it on a very small scale, relying principally on what
they can hunt and fish.

At San Pedro we found an individual who for over thirty years had been
in the habit of travelling on the Muco and the Vichada, often going as
far as Ciudad Bolivar, near the mouth of the Orinoco. He had amassed a
little fortune by trading with the Indians. He spoke their dialect, and
practised polygamy in accordance with their unsophisticated rites and
customs. It was said that he had a great number of children along the
shores of the river; he could therefore recommend us to his family, so
to speak. His name was Gondelles. He had often accompanied the
missionaries who had attempted to preach the Gospel among the savages,
and, unless Rumour was a lying jade, he had himself strenuously
endeavoured to observe that Divine precept which refers to increasing
and multiplying the human species!

The Indians of this region are specially expert in weaving beautiful
hammocks from fibres of the various kinds of _maguey_ or _agave_ plants,
or else extracted from the leaves of the _moriche_. The most prized,
however, are those made of fibre of the _cumare_ palm, soft and pliant
as silk. A large and comfortable hammock woven of this fibre will take
up the smallest possible space and last longer than any other. These
Indians are also skilled in canoe-making; with their primitive stone
instruments, aided by fire, they will make admirable canoes of one
piece, hewn from the trunk of a tree. These canoes at times are so large
that they will seat from twenty to twenty-five men comfortably, but most
of them are small craft easily handled, holding six or eight persons at
most.

Some of the men who had accompanied us thus far now refused to continue
the journey. We were informed that it would be comparatively easy to
replace them with Indians who would accompany us for four or five days
at a trifling wage. The tribes being numerous, it would not be difficult
to find new hands at each stage.

The wage of our new canoe men was always paid in kind: a handkerchief, a
pound of salt, an empty bottle, a strip of gaudy silk—we had still some
London cravats—were the most coveted articles. The idea of equity and
work done for value received does not exist amongst the Indians. We soon
found that it was folly to give them the article agreed upon until the
work was done; for once the men had received what they coveted, they
would abandon us, stealthily leaving the camp in the dusk at the first
landing, and sometimes even rushing into the jungle in broad daylight.

So now with a full crew, now crippled, we managed to continue the
journey, first for six days on the Muco, and then on the Vichada, the
navigation of which proved to be much longer than we had expected.

The general aspect of Nature on these two rivers differed very little
from what we had seen on the Meta. The shores of the Muco are generally
covered with mangroves that push far into the current their submerged
network of roots and branches, of which one must steer clear, as they
are hiding-places for snakes, and are apt, if struck unexpectedly, to
capsize the canoes. These beautiful clear waters, so harmless, so
placid, in appearance, are in truth full of danger. Apart from
alligators and water snakes, they abound in a species of small fish
called _caribe_, which attack men and animals, especially if they find a
sore spot in the skin. They swarm in such quantities and are so
voracious that a bull or a horse crossing the river, if attacked by
these fish, may lose a leg, or receive such a deep wound in the body
that death is inevitable. No less perilous is the electric eel, which,
on being touched, gives a shock so strong that the man or animal
receiving it generally falls into the stream. Even tigers are known to
have been struck by these peculiar fish, and it is said that some have
been drowned, being unable to recover themselves in time.

During the month of January the turtles begin to lay their eggs. Our
attention was called to a specially bright star in the horizon, which
the men asserted only appeared in that month of the year. It was called
the star of the _terecayes_. The _terecay_ is a small species of turtle,
and much prized, and with reason, on account of its exquisite flesh. On
more than one occasion, quite unexpectedly, the canoes would be steered
ashore, the men would jump on the sand and run as if guided by some
well-known landmark. After a few yards they would stop, and, digging in
the sand with their hands, would extract a nest full of _terecay_ eggs,
the contents varying from fifty to over a hundred. Their experienced
eyes had seen the tracks of the _terecay_ on the sand. These turtles,
like all others, lay their eggs once a year on the sand, and cover them
up carefully, leaving the cares of motherhood to the forces of Nature.
Once hatched in this fashion, the young turtles must shift for
themselves, and their instinct tells them that their numerous enemies
lie in watch for their awakening to active life. The moment they break
the shell they make as quickly as they can for the neighbouring waters,
where they are comparatively safe.

If the inhabitants of those regions lack book-learning and knowledge of
things in which their more civilized fellow-creatures are versed, Nature
and the life which they lead have given them a keenness of sight, of
hearing, and of touch far beyond the average citizen of town and
village. I often noticed of an evening, as the canoes were being tied
and hoisted halfway out of the water, that the men walking along the
beach would mutter to themselves, or call the attention of their fellows
to the sand, which to me seemed smooth and uniform. Pointing to the
ground, they would say, duck, turtle, tapir, alligator, wild-boar, deer,
tiger, and so forth. The tracks which they saw were, so to speak, the
visiting-cards of animals which had spent the day on the beach where our
camp was pitched at night.

When we first came in contact with a real wild Indian I experienced a
feeling very difficult to describe.

Here was a being whose appearance was identical with our own, save for
details of colour of skin and other trivial distinctions which could not
affect the essential organic elements; yet he awakened within us a
curiosity akin to that with which we gaze at a wild animal in some
zoological garden. What a deep gulf yawned between that forlorn brother
and ourselves! The work of generations, the treasures heaped up by man
for man during centuries of struggle and endeavour, hopes and fears,
disappointments, traditions, ideals, conventionalities, all that
constitutes civilization; the higher belief in a Supreme Being, the
evolution of habits, the respect for established laws and regulations,
the reverence for sacred things—all that world essential to us was as
naught, absolutely non-existent, for that naked fellow-creature who
stood before us, unprotected, lost amid the forest in a climate
unfavourable to man. There was no one to help him, or make any effort to
improve the natural forces within him, none to lift his soul into a
higher and better world. Curiosity gave way to pity. The labour of the
missionary—of the ideal missionary—became holier and greater in my eyes.
Here was a field of promising harvest for a real worker.

One clear and fragrant night, when all the camp slept, the bonfires half
out, the river a few feet off, as I lay awake thinking of the world to
which we belonged, so different from our present surroundings, so
distant that it seemed a far-off cloud in the sky, something that had
gone by, and which could never be reached again, I suddenly remembered
the words uttered by one of our men when we landed that afternoon upon
the beach. He had clearly enumerated a long list of animals whose tracks
were upon the very sand covered by my body. Logic took possession of my
brain with overpowering rapidity. The alligator, the tiger, and their
numerous companions have visited this beach; they may again visit it
during the night. What is to hinder them from doing so; and in that
case, what is to protect me from their attack? Little did I care for the
wild-boar, the tapir, or the deer—I knew they would be as scared of me
as I was of the other animals; and so, after this attack of fright, my
imagination worked till the sweat began to run clammy on my forehead. It
seemed to me that from the neighbouring forest a veritable Noah’s-ark of
living, rushing, roaring, famished beasts, multiplied by my fancy, and
numerous as the progeny of Gondelles, came upon us. I almost felt the
hot breath and saw the glistening eyes of the tiger outside the thin
partition of cotton of my mosquito-bar, heard the awkward shamble of the
alligator’s body, and felt the unpleasant, musky odour of the huge
lizard an instant before it crushed my bones between its jaws. Unable to
master myself, I sat upright, and would have yelled from dread but for
the spectacle that met my eyes in the moonlight, flooding the
surrounding scene. There to right and left of me snored all my
companions; the river shone brilliantly, the breeze blew softly, no one
stirred. This absence of fear on the part of those who were perfectly
familiar with all the dangers of the region reassured me completely. Oh
blessed snores and valiant snorers! My peace of mind returned, and,
lying back upon my sandy couch, I lustily joined the tuneful choir.

Community of danger constitutes the most acceptable guarantee; no man
ever thinks of ascertaining who drives the locomotive that is to whirl
him and hundreds of his fellow-creatures at lightning speed through
glade and forest, over bridge and under tunnel; no man questions the
capability of the captain responsible for the steamship and for the
lives of thousands of his fellow-men; the most distrustful of us never
gives a thought to these points. Why? Because we know that the driver or
the captain, as the case may be, stakes his own life. Each humble
boatman who listened to Cæsar’s proud assurance that the skiff could not
sink because it carried him and all his fortunes equalled Cæsar in
self-esteem, for the lives of those poor mariners were as dear to them
as Cæsar’s life could be to him. The truth of my assertion that
community of danger constitutes the acceptability of a given guarantee
is demonstrated when, for instance, a traveller entrusting his life on a
railway or a ship to the agent of a company advances or lends money to
the same company. Then comes the hour of discrimination. All the
appliances invented by that most wonderful engine of human ingenuity,
the law of commerce, which in its numerous forms rules the world
paramount and supreme, are brought to bear. No one’s word is accepted as
sufficient; documents, signatures, seals, formalities, numerous and
complicated, are employed as a delicate proof of the trust that the man
of the world ever places in the good faith of his brother before God.
This suspicion is responsible for an enormous amount of expense and
trouble which, were good faith more abundant or were belief in its
existence general, might be applied to relieve misery and sorrow. If the
action of humanity all the world over in this dreary endeavour to
protect man from the rascality of man be justified, we are, indeed, not
very far removed in truth and in essence from the savages of the forest,
who seize what they need and prey upon each other according to the
dictates of nature. If beauty be but skin-deep, civilization is not more
profoundly ingrained, and the smallest rub reveals the primitive
ravening beast. Yet I may be mistaken; perhaps it is not distrust which
begets all those precautions, but something so noble that I dare not
presume to divine, much less to understand, it.



                               CHAPTER XI


Though several years have elapsed since my journey across those wild
vast regions, the remembrance of them is most vivid and clear in my
mind. It seems to me that everything in that period of my life,
landscape and human beings, forest and plain, stream and cloud,
mountains and breezes, all, all are still alive; they form part of the
panorama or scene wherein my memory keeps them immortal, abiding for
ever as I saw them, though unattainable to me. What was, is; what was,
must be; so I imagine. Memory is in this respect like the artist. The
sculptor or the painter seizes one moment of life, fashions and records
it in marble or in bronze, in line or colour, and there it remains
defying time, unchanging and unchangeable. The gallery of the mind, the
vast storehouse of the past, is infinite. It keeps in its inmost
inexhaustible recesses the living record of our life, the tremulous
shadowy hues of early night deepening into the dark, the glory of the
rising sun casting its veil of light upon the waves, the sensation of
the breeze as it fans our heated brow after an anxious night, the
thunder of the ocean or the deafening tumult of frenzied crowds in hours
of national misfortune or universal anger, the last parting word or look
of those who are gone before, the blithe greeting of him who comes back
to us after years of absence and of sorrow: all these manifestations of
life, the ebb and flow of joy and happiness, of pain and grief, stand
individualized, so to speak, in the memory, and nothing, save the loss
of memory itself, can change them. Nothing so dear to the heart as those
treasures; against them time and the vicissitudes of life are
powerless—even as the lovers and the dancers and the singers and the
enchanted leafy forest in Keats’ ‘Grecian Urn.’ That love will know no
disappointment. Sweet as songs heard may be, far sweeter are those
unheard of human ear; beautiful as are the green boughs of the forest,
far lovelier are those whose verdure is imperishable, whose leaves will
know no autumn; and sweeter than all melody, the unheard melody of those
flutes, dumb and mute in the infinite harmony which man can imagine, but
not create. Our own mind keeps that record of the past; hallowed and
sacred should it be, for therein our sorrow may find relief, and our joy
purity and new strength.

Beautiful indeed were our days. Gliding softly over the waters, we would
read, and there, in forced and intimate communion with Nature, would
seek our old-time friends the historians, the poets, the humbler singers
that had charmed, or instructed, or taught us how to live. The lessons
of history seemed clearer and more intelligible, the puissant and
sonorous voice of poetry sounded fitly under that blue sky in the midst
of those forests, even as the notes of the organ seem to vibrate and
echo as in their very home, under the fretted vault of some Gothic
temple. The majesty of surrounding Nature lent an additional charm to
the voice of the great ones who had delivered a message of consolation
and of hope to mankind. We lived now in Rome, now in Greece, now in
modern Europe, and frequently the songs of our own poets filled our
minds with joy, as the twitter of native birds when the sun rose and the
morning sparkled, bedewed with jewels that night had left on leaves and
flowers.

One day, when we had grown expert in bargaining with the Indians,
shortly before sunset a solitary Indian paddled towards our camp. He had
been attracted by the novel sight. We had learnt that within the memory
of living man no such large convoy as ours had passed through those
waters; groups of eight or ten men in one canoe were the largest ever
seen—at least, the largest groups of strangers. Here was a small army,
with two large canoes and great abundance of strange and wonderful
equipment—boxes, trunks, weapons, cooking utensils, many men with white
faces and marvellous strange array; indeed, enough to attract the
attention and curiosity of any child of the forest. The canoe upon which
the Indian stood was barely six feet in length—so narrow and shallow
that at a distance he seemed to stand on the very mirror of the waters.
He carried a large paddle, shaped like a huge rose-leaf somewhat blunted
at the end, and with a very long stem. He plunged this gracefully in the
water on either side, seeming hardly to bend or to make any effort, and
in feathering there appeared a convex mirror of liquid glass, upon which
the sunlight fell in prismatic hues each time that his paddle left the
water. He drew near, and stood before us like a bronze statue. He was
stark naked, save for a clout round his loins. On his brow was a crown
of tiger-claws surmounted by two eagle feathers. Across his neck, hung
by a string, was a small bag of woven fibre containing a piece of salt,
some hooks made of bone and small harpoons which could be set on arrows,
and two hollow reeds about an eighth of an inch in diameter and four or
five inches long. By means of these reeds the Indians inhale through
their nostrils an intoxicating powder, in which they delight. The man
was young, powerfully built, about five feet ten in height, and well
proportioned; his teeth glistening and regular; his eyes black and
large, gleaming like live coals; he was a perfect incarnation of the
primitive race, and the hardships and exposure of his past life had left
no more trace on him than the flowing waters of the river on the
swan’s-down.

Guided by our civilized instinct, which in these utilitarian days
prompts man to seek in whatever meets his eye, first and foremost, not
its beauty or the symbol which it may represent, or the tendency towards
something higher which it may indicate, but its utility, following this
delightful system of our latest Christian civilization, I, in common
with my companions, at once decided to exploit that simple spirit and
press him into our service. Being unable to bargain ourselves—which was
lucky for him, for in our enlightened way we should have driven a harder
bargain than our men—we entrusted the task to Leal.

The Indian, also true to his instinct, immediately indicated—first by
signs, and then by word of mouth, when he saw he was understood—that he
craved a part of the innumerable riches before his eyes. He really did
not ask for much; he wanted some salt, a knife, a piece of glass like a
small mirror that he saw glittering in the hands of one of our men, and
whatever else we might be willing to give. He was told that he could
have all that he asked and more. He smiled broadly, and a light of joy
came over his face. These were signs truly human, not yet trained into
the hypocritical conventions of well-bred society. As he stretched forth
his hand, he was told that the gift was conditional—that he must earn
the articles he coveted, that we expected him to sit beside the other
paddlers and help to carry us for two or three days, whereupon he would
receive these rich gifts from our prodigal bounty.

This statement seemed to our Indian interlocutor absurd, just as
something utterly incongruous and ludicrous in business would strike the
mind of a London banker. In his primitive mental organism the idea that
one man should work for another was something that found no place. Those
forests, rivers, and plains were his home; he roved free and fearless
through them, alone or in the company of others, each one of whom
provided for himself. A bargain—that basis of civilization, of culture,
that great agent of progress and of human development—was something
which he could not understand. The essence of the fact, and the fact
itself, were beyond him. We could see the struggle between his greed and
his love of freedom. The riches that we offered him tempted him far more
than glittering diamonds on the counter of a jeweller tempt a vain woman
or a burglar at bay. Yet he overcame the temptation. The glad smile
vanished; his face darkened with a look that we could interpret as
reproach, and possibly contempt; he silently lifted his paddle, and with
two strokes sped his canoe into mid-stream. Without glancing backwards,
giving now and then a tremendous stroke, he disappeared in the distance.
The rays of the sinking sun reddened the waters of the river and the
surrounding horizon; the Indian, upright in his canoe, seemed as if clad
in a sheet of flame, and finally vanished as though consumed in the
crimson glow. The sun itself in the western horizon resembled a huge
ball of red-hot iron, as if the Cyclops and the Titans, after playing,
had left it behind on the bosom of the endless plain, flat and still as
the sea in a calm.



                              CHAPTER XII


The course of the rivers on the _llanos_ is far from being as straight
as the proverbial path of righteousness. They meander, wind, and turn
about, so that when on a sharp curve one often sails almost directly
against the main direction of the waters. The Indians take short cuts
overland which enable them to travel much faster than the canoes. Thus
the news of our coming preceded us by several days, and long before we
reached the mouth of the Vichada all the tribes had heard that the
largest expedition known in their history was on the way.

For reasons which he explained to us afterwards, Leal had, without
consulting us, informed the first Indians whom we met that ours was a
party of missionaries. I do not suppose that he went into any further
details. In the mind of the Indians the remembrance of missionaries
seems to have lingered from the days when Jesuit missions were
established on nearly all the principal rivers of the Orinoco watershed.
From the time of the Independence there have been no regular missions
following a consistent plan and belonging to a special organization. Now
and then desultory attempts have been made without any appreciable
results. But the Indians respect the missionary; possibly they also fear
him, and, as we could observe later on from our own experience, they
expect from him gifts not only of a spiritual, but of a material kind.

The result of all this is that a missionary is more likely to be
welcomed and assisted than any other traveller. This was what guided
Leal in what he considered a harmless assertion—a pious fraud, in which
the fraud is more obvious than the piety.

Be it remarked, however, that neither my companions nor I had the least
responsibility for Leal’s action. When travelling along the mule-tracks
leading to the plains, public opinion, or what under the existing
circumstances took its place, had assigned to our expedition an
episcopal character. This assimilation to the Church seemed to have been
our fate. Here again we were incorporated in its fold in an official
capacity, so to speak, without the least intention or effort on our
part. When we learnt what Leal had done, it was too late to withdraw,
and we resigned ourselves to our new ecclesiastical honours with proper
humility.

It is said that men may be great, some because they are born great,
others because they achieve greatness, and others yet again because
greatness is thrust upon them. In the present instance the clerical
character was thrust upon us. We—at least, I can answer for myself—tried
to live up to the new dignity, not only inwardly, but outwardly,
assuming, as far as circumstances would permit, the sedate and reverent,
contemplative demeanour which so well suits him who devotes his life to
the welfare of others, seeking to guide them to heaven by an easy path,
no matter at what cost of personal sacrifice or discomfort to himself.

Strange, however, that this self-sacrificing mood adopted in imitation
of true priests, who despise the comforts and joys of life, should have
been assumed in our own spurious case for the special purpose of
increasing those worldly comforts and material joys!

We soon discovered, to our amazement, that our new position was far from
being a sinecure.

One day we were waiting for the noon-day heat to pass, having halted on
a _poyata_, the name given to small beaches that seem to stretch like a
tongue of sand from under the very roots of the forest into the river;
we had fled for shelter to the coolness of the high vaulting trees, from
whose trunks the hammocks swung invitingly. The blue heaven appeared
like an enamelled background beyond the lace-work of the intertwined
leaves and branches. The fires burned brightly and cheerily, their
flames pale and discoloured in the bright glare of the sun; the pots
simmered, and soon tempting whiffs were wafted by the lazy breeze that
hardly stirred, welcome heralds of good things to come. The stomach
reigns supreme just before and after a meal, which, if it be assured to
a hungry mortal, constitutes for him the most satisfactory event in the
immediate future, calming his anxieties or blunting the edge of care;
and after it has been eaten, the process of digestion, which for the
moment monopolizes the principal energies of the organism, seems to cast
a veil over the unpleasant aspects of life, and to soften the thorns
that beset our path.

Some General of the Confederate Army in the United States, who had
retired to his lands after the final collapse of the South, used to
remark that one of the saddest things for an old man who had been very
active in former years was to receive the frequent news of the death of
former comrades and companions. ‘Whenever such news reaches me,’ he went
on to say, ‘I always order two pigeons for my dinner; they are so
soothing!’

In the midst of our pleasant expectations we found ourselves suddenly
invaded by a swarm of Indians, male and female of all ages, who came
either from the forest or in canoes. They pounced on us so swiftly that
we were practically swamped by them in an instant. They at once began to
beg for presents, to touch and smell any of the articles belonging to us
that they could, and they certainly would have taken everything had it
been possible.

The men were all in the primitive attire of the proud Indian whom we had
been unable to press into our service a few days before. The women wore
tunics made either from coarse cotton stuffs obtained from the traders,
or from a sort of bark, pliant and fairly soft, called _marimba_. Some
of the women were accompanied by two or three children.

With the tribe—for it was a whole tribe that had fallen upon us—came a
man dressed in trousers—the regulation article such as you may see in
any civilized capital—and a woollen shirt of a deep red hue. He was the
chief of the tribe, and had donned that garb in our honour.

The captain told Leal that the various mothers who had brought their
children were anxious to have them baptized. Leal replied that the
matter would be attended to on our return trip, arguing furthermore that
the three reverend missionaries should not be disturbed as they lay in
their hammocks, for though, had they been ordinary men, they might be
thought to be asleep, yet being persons of eminent piety it was more
probable that they were entranced in meditation. Leal backed his plea
with a gift, a most wonderful argument which carries conviction to wild
Indians almost as quickly as to civilized men. The chief did not insist,
and for the moment we were left to our pseudo-religious and silent
contemplations.

Shortly after, however, an Indian mother, with one child in her arms and
two in her wake, proved obdurate and relentless. Her thirst for the
baptismal waters—at least, on behalf of her children if not of
herself—must be slaked at all costs. All Leal’s efforts proving
fruitless, he ended by telling her that I was the chief missionary. Once
recognised as a pillar of the Church, I was prepared for any sacrifice
of self, so that on the Indian woman approaching me I got ready to
perform whatever ceremony she might want to the best of my ability. She
was not only prudent and cautious, but distrustful. She pulled my hat
off, and ran her fingers swiftly through my hair. On seeing that I had
no tonsure—her mimic was as clear as speech—she flung my hat violently
on the ground, gesticulated and shouted, attracting the attention of all
her companions.

Here was a complication for which we had not bargained. If there were
great advantages in our being taken for missionaries, there was also
great danger in being exposed as sham missionaries. Something must be
done to remedy the evil. Leal at once bethought himself of an expedient;
he took the Indian woman towards the hammock where Alex slept in sweet
oblivion, unconscious of what was going on around him. She at once
dragged off his hat, and on finding a head brilliantly bald almost fell
prostrate. Hierarchy, or what in her savage mind stood for it, evidently
grew higher with the size of the tonsure, and here the tonsure was
immense. Had she known the various dignities into which the Catholic
priesthood is divided, she might have taken Alex for the Pope. Be that
as it may, she was satisfied. Alex, on being informed, swallowed the
pill gracefully, and prepared to do his duty.

The woman brought forward her smallest child. Here again new
difficulties ensued. We held a council of consultation as to the _modus
operandi_. Opinions differed widely, and were supported vehemently, as
is sure to be the case when all those discussing a given subject happen
to be equally ignorant. Finally some sort of plan was adopted, and the
child was baptized in accordance with a rite evolved from our own dim
recollections, with such modifications as seemed most fit.

There under the blue heaven, with the broad winding river at our feet,
close by the dense, darkening forest that lay behind us, its branches
overhead forming a panoply of green, studded with the gold and yellow
and blue flowers of the numerous creepers, we performed the ceremony of
baptism, initiating the young savage into the Church of Christ our Lord
with a feeling of deep reverence, intensified by our own sense of
ignorance. Let us hope that the solemnity of the act, which flashed
before us like an unexpected revelation, compensated for any involuntary
informality.

But after the water had been poured on the babe’s head, and the ceremony
had, as we thought, come to an end, the mother would not take her child
back. She had evidently seen other baptisms, and our christening was not
up to her standard. She made us understand that on former occasions
‘book reading’ had taken place: such was Leal’s interpretation of her
words.

We had come to look upon this Indian woman as an expert critic. Through
unpardonable neglect, which to this day I cannot explain satisfactorily,
we had neither a breviary nor a prayer-book with us, so we laid hands on
the next best thing, bearing in mind what a stickler for detail this
Indian woman had proved to be. A book of poems, an anthology of Spanish
poets, gilt-edged and finely bound, stood us in good service. Alex
opened it at random, and read a short poem with due and careful
elocution for the edification of the new little Christian.

The ceremony had to be performed eight or ten times. After the third
child we gave them only one stanza apiece, as our ardour was somewhat
chilled.

When all the children had been christened, the chief claimed the ‘usual’
gifts. He soon explained to us that it was customary for the
missionaries to make presents to the parents of the children newly
baptized. I had begun to admire the zeal of these mothers in quest of a
higher religion for their children; this demand showed that their
fervour was accompanied by greed, being thus of the same nature as that
species of ‘charity with claws’—the Spanish _caridad con uñas_. Trifles
were distributed amongst the mothers, and the tribe disappeared,
rejoicing in their possessions, for to these folk the things were no
trifles, and, let us hope, exultant in the acquisition of eight or ten
buds destined to bloom into Christian flowers.

History doth indeed repeat itself, and humanity imitates humanity
heedless of time and space. If I remember rightly, Clovis, justly
anxious for the conversion of his legions to Christianity, presented
each dripping warrior after baptism with a tunic—a most valuable article
in those days, when Manchester looms did not exist and all weaving was
done by hand. Those pious paladins, it is said, were like our Indian
friends of the Vichada, always ready to be rechristened on the same
terms as before—that is to say, in exchange for a new tunic. Yet, for
all their sameness, things do somehow change with time. In these two
instances we have the Church as a donor, and the new proselyte as a
receiver of presents more or less valuable. Once the conversion fully
assured, what a change in the parts within a few generations! The Church
gives naught; at least, it gives nothing that is of this world. On the
contrary, it takes all it can; the people are led to heaven, the poorer
the easier, for in the kind and capacious bosom of Mother Church they
are to deposit all worldly goods which might hamper their flight to
higher regions. A beautiful and wonderful evolution, and we had not far
to go to see it in full play and force. The savages of the Colombian
plains are still in that primitive pitiful state when they have to be
bribed, so to say, into the fold of the Church; many of the civilized
people in the towns and cities obey and respect that Church which holds
sway supreme over them in life and in death, guiding, controlling,
saving them. Happy the nations where the chosen and appointed servants
of the Most High, disciplined into some sort of priesthood or other,
undertake the pleasing task of saving their reluctant fellow-men at the
latter’s expense, but with the sure and certain faith of those who know
that they are working for justice and for the happiness of their
fellows, though these may choose to deny it. Happy, thrice happy, lands
where the invasion of diabolical modern ideas has been baffled, and the
good old doctrine of abject submission still rules!



                              CHAPTER XIII


Whenever we started afresh in the morning, or after any temporary halt,
the man at the prow of the canoe would call out, ‘_Vaya con Dios_,’ and
the man on the stern, who steered with a paddle far larger than the
others, would reply, ‘_y con la Virgen_’ (‘God go with us,’ ‘and the
Virgin,’ respectively). The fair Queen of Heaven, being thus
commemorated, piety was wedded to chivalry.

The days followed each other in seemingly endless succession, like the
windings of the river. Familiarity with the ever-varying aspects of
Nature begot a sense of monotony and weariness. The forests and the
prairies, dawn and sunset, the whole marvellous landscape, passed
unheeded. We longed to reach the main artery; the Orinoco was our Mecca,
apparently unattainable. Fishing and hunting had lost zest, and become
simple drudgery, indispensable to renew our provender, as in the long
journey nearly all our stores were exhausted.

Raoul and Leal frequently shot at the alligators, which, singly, in
couples, or in shoals, basked in the sun in a sort of gluttonous
lethargy, with hanging tongues and half-closed eyes. The huge saurians,
when hit, would turn over and make for the water, except on rare
occasions when the bullet entered below the shoulder-blade, this being a
mortal wound.

We would sit listening to the even stroke of the paddles on the sides of
the canoe and the drowsy sing-song of the men.

Frequently, towards sundown, we heard the deep note of tigers in the
forest, and always the confused uproar of a thousand animals, frogs,
crickets, birds, ushering in the night.

Besides alligators and wild-boar, the only other large animals which we
frequently saw were the harmless tapirs.

Snakes are not abundant on the Vichada, yet it was on the shores of that
river that we came to quite close quarters with a water-snake of the boa
constrictor species. The reptile was found coiled not far from our
halting-place. Raoul at once fired his fowling-piece at short range,
blinding and wounding it. He then discharged the five bullets of his
revolver into the snake, and the men completed the work, beating it with
their paddles. When stretched out, it measured some 16 feet in length,
and was of corresponding thickness.

These snakes, though not poisonous, are dangerous if hungry. They lurk
at the drinking-places, and when a young calf, deer, or any other small
animal comes within reach, they coil themselves round it and strangle
it. They devour their prey slowly, and then fall into a sleep, which is
said to last for several days.

In all probability, the snake we had killed must have been at the end of
one of these periods. Much to our astonishment, notwithstanding bullets
and blows, the snake began to move in the direction of our hammocks. Had
this not been seen in time, it might possibly have coiled itself around
some unwary sleeper. More blows were administered, and this time the
animal seemed quite dead. However, it managed to roll into the river,
and on striking the water appeared to revive.

This was our only meeting face to face with a denizen of these forests
and rivers, and I can truly say we longed for no closer acquaintance
with them.

For obvious reasons of prudence, we soon made up our minds never to
pitch our night camp on beaches easy of access to the Indians settled
along the shores, but during the day we would frequently halt at their
settlements, and this enabled us to see a good deal of their mode of
life and peculiarities.

We found the tribes docile and friendly, rather inclined to be
industrious in their way than otherwise.

The Indians of the Vichada basin are the bakers, if I may so call them,
of that great region. The bread which they prepare is made from the
_mañoc_, or _yuca_, root, which grows in plenty along the banks of
rivers and streams. There are two kinds of _mañoc_, one sweet and
harmless, the other bitter and poisonous, yet it is from this latter
kind that the _casabe_ is prepared. The root, varying in length from 2
to 3 feet, with a thickness of from 1 to 3 inches, is grated on
specially-prepared boards of very hard wood. Thus a whitish pulp is
obtained, which is then compressed in a most primitive manner. A hollow
cylinder, made of matting of coarse and pliant straw, varying in length
from 4 to 6, and sometimes 8, feet, and in diameter from 5 inches
upwards, is filled with the pulp, sausage-wise. The cylinder is then
hung from the branch of a tree, or a beam conveniently upraised on a
frame; it is then stretched and twisted from below. The juice of the
pulp flows through the mesh of the matting. When all the juice has been
extracted, the pulp is emptied into large wooden basins, and is soaked
in water, which is run off, the operation being repeated several times.
The poisonous element, soluble in water, is thus eliminated, and the
pulp is ready. It is then spread on a slab of stone, thin and perfectly
even, called _budare_, which stands over a fire. The _casabe_ is soon
baked, generally in round cakes from 12 to 18 inches in diameter, and
from half an inch to an inch in thickness. After baking it is stored in
special baskets, called _mapires_, where it can be kept for months, as
it stands all weathers and is impervious to moisture. It has the taste
and the consistency of sawdust, and hunger must be very keen for any
novice to relish the food. Yet it is most nutritious, and after a while
replaces biscuit and bread, especially when these are not to be found!
Not only the Indians, but even the white men, or those who call
themselves civilized in that vast region, use _casabe_ exclusively.
Wheat flour is soon spoiled in that hot, damp atmosphere, where there
are no facilities for protecting it against moisture and vermin, and
though corn might be abundantly produced, there are no mills to grind
the meal. Population is so scarce, and the few inhabitants are so far
apart, that it would not pay to set up the necessary machinery. Nature
seems to overwhelm man, who drifts back easily into primitive conditions
of being.

The Indians also prepare _mañoc_ flour. The method is the same as in the
case of _casabe_, only that before baking the pulp is allowed to ferment
to a certain degree; after that it is baked and reduced to powder. This
powder, mixed with water, makes an acid, refreshing drink. If sugar or
molasses be available, they are added.

As I have said before, the Vichada Indians are expert weavers of
hammocks, and carvers or makers of canoes. They fell a large tree, and,
after months of labour, produce very fine canoes. The canoes, the
hammocks, and the _casabe_ and _mañoc_ are sold to traders who realize
large profits. A pair of trousers and a hat to the captain of a tribe
are deemed a good price for a small canoe. Such articles as a cutlass,
or an axe, are most highly prized by the Indians, and are paid for
accordingly. It is pitiful to learn how these poor savages are cheated,
when not robbed outright, by the pseudo-Christians who come in contact
with them.

They also manufacture torches from resinous substances extracted from
the forests. Some of these substances are excellent for caulking
purposes, and, as they are found in great abundance, should constitute
an important article of trade. A torch made from _peraman_ about 3 to 4
feet in length, lighted as night set in, would burn with a brilliant
yellow flame, and throw a strong glare over the camp in the small hours
when the bonfires had been reduced to embers.

We had been on the Vichada about twenty-five days, when one of us
developed symptoms of fever, and as these increased within the next
twenty-four hours, we looked about for some convenient spot where we
might rest for a few days, lest the attack might become really serious.
It was our intention to build up some sort of hut—a comparatively easy
matter, as some of our men were old hands at that kind of work.
Fortunately for us, however, we met coming from the mouth of the Vichada
a Venezuelan _mañoc_ trader, who was sailing to one of the Vichada
affluents, where he expected to receive a load of _mañoc_ and _casabe_.
The man’s name was Valiente. He had three canoes and ten men with him.
We were delighted to meet him, as it had been impossible for us to
gather correct information from the Indians.

He told us that we were still two or three days’ journey from the
Orinoco, advised us not to put up at any of the beaches, but to push on
to within a few hours of the mouth of the Vichada, where, on the left
bank, we would find an abandoned _caney_ that had been built by
cattle-ranchers some years previously. He had just been there. It was
possible, he added, that we might find some Indians in possession, in
which case we should enforce the right of the white man and drive them
out. At any rate, the _caney_ was on high ground, the forests around
were clear, and we should find it far more comfortable than anywhere
else in that neighbourhood.

Following his advice, we hurried on as fast as we could, promising to
wait for him at Santa Catalina, that being the name of the place.
Valiente thought that he would start back in six or eight days.

In due course we reached Santa Catalina. On the high bluff, about 300
yards from the shore, we saw the welcome outlines of a _caney_; it
showed unmistakable signs of having been built by white men. We could
see from the river that it was inhabited. This was not so pleasant, but
we had made up our minds that we would take possession of the _caney_
with or without the consent of its occupants. If soft words proved
insufficient, we were bound to appeal to the last argument of Kings and
of men at bay—force.

I really did not feel inclined to violence; peaceful means and
diplomatic parleying seemed to me preferable, but as we had no choice,
following the practice sanctioned by experience, of preparing for war if
you want to insure peace, we decided to make a great display of force,
even as the Great Powers, with their military and naval manœuvres—a show
of teeth and claws to overawe the occupants of the _caney_.

We moored on the bank near by. Notwithstanding my appearance, which, as
I have chronicled in these pages, had warranted the belief in others
that I belonged to the holiest of human professions, I was told off to
ascertain whether we should occupy the premises peacefully or by force.
I donned a red shirt, suspended from a broad leather belt a most
murderous-looking cutlass and a six-shooter, cocked my hat sideways in a
desperado fashion, and, full of ardour, advanced, flanked on either side
by Leal and one of our men, each of whom carried a rifle and the
inevitable _machete_. Verily, we looked like a wandering arsenal!

Remembering that the actor’s success is said to be greater the more he
lives up to his part, I endeavoured to look as fierce as possible, and
tried to call to mind scenes of dauntless courage, assaults of
fortresses, heroic deeds from my historical repertory. I must have
succeeded, for I felt uncommonly brave, particularly as there seemed to
be no danger warranting our preparations.

Unfortunately, I happen to be afflicted with myopia, which at a certain
distance blurs the outline of objects large or small.

As we continued to advance I could distinguish that someone was coming
towards us. My courage evaporated; I felt sure that this must be some
hostile Indian intent on hindering our access to the longed-for _caney_.
I would fain have turned tail, but vanity, which is the source of
nine-tenths of the displays of human courage, pricked me on. My ears
awaited the wild whoop of the advancing Indian, and my eyes were
prepared to witness the onslaught of his ferocious braves from the
neighbouring bushes. Yet the die was cast, and forward we went.

Imagine my surprise when, from the approaching figure, still indistinct
and vague to my short-sighted eyes, a greeting of the utmost courtesy in
the purest Castilian rang forth in the air of the clear afternoon. I
shall never forget it. Those words in my native tongue, uttered in the
midst of that wilderness, 500 leagues from the nearest town or civilized
settlement, conjured up in one moment cherished memories of a distant
world.

Greatly relieved, I put aside my weapons of assault and destruction,
which, to speak the truth, were most inconvenient to walk in.

I knew before, and am more convinced than ever since that day, that I am
not compounded of the clay of heroes: in which I am like the rest of the
world. Peace and peaceful avocations are much more in my line. I love
heroes—military ones especially—in books, in pictures, or in statues; as
every-day companions, I believe—not having met any heroes in the
flesh—that they must be unbearable. They really owe it to themselves to
get killed or to die the moment they have attained their honours. They
are sure to be ruined if left to the vulgarizing influences of daily
life, mixing with the rest of humanity in every-day toil and strife. You
cannot have your bust or portrait in Parliament or Assembly, your niche
in the cathedral or in public hall, and your equestrian statue with your
horse eternally lifting his fore-legs for the edification of coming
generations, and at the same time insist on walking about the streets in
the guise of a commonplace mortal! If you live in bronze and marble, if
your name fills half a column of the encyclopædia, and appears as a
noble example in the books in which children are taught to consider
brutal violence the highest evolution of human intellect and action, you
cannot ask your humble companions on earth to put up with you in their
midst. Heroes should find their places, and stick to them, for their own
greater glory and the comfort of their fellow-men.

The gentleman whom we met was named Aponte, and came from Caracas, the
capital of Venezuela. He had been appointed to the governorship of the
Amazon Territory. After spending several years in its capital, San
Carlos, he became afflicted with cataract. People told him that the
Vichada Indians cured cataract with the juice of certain herbs, which
they kept secret. He had arrived at Santa Catalina about ten days before
us, accompanied by his sister and a young Corsican who had been in his
employ at San Carlos. An Indian woman from one of the tribes had taken
him in charge, and made daily applications of some milky juice extracted
from plants, and, strange to say, he found relief. I have since heard
that he is completely cured.

An occulist, who travelled through those regions two or three years
later, investigated the truth of these alleged cures, and found them to
be authentic. He could not, however, induce the Indians to tell him what
they use. This knowledge of the virtue of plants amongst the Indians is
found in nearly all tropical lands. Quinine, to which humanity owes so
much, was also an Indian secret, and was discovered by a well-known
combination of circumstances. Towards the middle of the eighteenth
century, in one of the Peruvian States, the Indians were treated very
cruelly by their masters. The daughter of the house won the love of the
Indian slaves by her kindness and charity. It had been noticed that no
Indians died from malarial and other fevers, which proved fatal to the
white men, but what means they employed could not be learned either by
threats or entreaties.

The daughter of the cruel master was taken ill. Her nurse, an Indian
woman, gave her some concoction which saved her life, but would not
reveal the secret for years. On her deathbed she told her young mistress
what plant it was that the Indians employed against fever. Thus the
_cinchona_, or Peruvian bark, was discovered. In the Choco regions in
Colombia, which teem with snakes, the Indians know not only the plants
that cure the bite and counteract the poison, but those which confer
immunity. They also have a combination of substances forming a sort of
paste, which, when applied to the wounds and ulcers of man or animal,
however sore they may be, exercise a healing and immediate action.

I had an uncle, Dr. Triana, well known to European botanists, and
especially to collectors of orchids, to several varieties of which his
name is linked (the numerous varieties of _Catleya trianensis_ are named
after him). He lived for a long time in the Choco region, and brought
back large quantities of this paste, which he used with success in cases
of wounds and ulcers, both in Europe and America, but he could never
persuade the Indians to tell him its exact composition.

The young Corsican whom we found with Mr. Aponte was a sort of
globe-trotter, jack-of-all-trades, hail-fellow-well-met with everybody.
He was an explorer, a dentist, could serve as barber if required, had
acted as clerk to Mr. Aponte, had with him a fairly well-stocked
medicine-chest, and proved to be a first-rate cook. He either knew
something of medicine or made up for ignorance by his daring. At any
rate, he took our sick companion in hand, administered to him some of
his drugs, and in two or three days restored him to perfect health. This
was a great blessing. Thus disappeared from our horizon the only ominous
cloud which darkened it during those days of so much sunlight and
freedom. Those who know not what tropical fevers are can form no idea of
the dread that their presence inspires when one sees them stealthily
gaining ground. At times they act slowly, and give one a chance of
struggling against them, but often they develop with lightning rapidity,
and a man in full health and in the bloom of life is cut down suddenly
in a few days or in a few hours.

Figarella was the name of the Corsican ‘doctor’ who enlivened the few
days we spent at Santa Catalina with his songs, his tales of Corsica,
the narrative of his adventures, true and fanciful, in all parts of the
world, and who managed to prepare sumptuous dinners with turtle eggs,
wild-boar meat, fresh fish, and other ingredients, picked up the Lord
only knows where. I often had qualms that he must be drawing too freely
on his medicine-chest, but the dishes proved palatable, and as we
survived from day to day we have nothing but thanks and gratitude to the
friend whom we met in the midst of those wilds, with whom our lives came
in contact for a few days, who then remained behind to work out his own
destiny, as we ours, even as two ships that sight each other for a
moment in mid-ocean and then both disappear.



                              CHAPTER XIV


Friend Valiente turned up at Santa Catalina, his canoes laden with
_mañoc_ and	_casabe_, two days after our arrival.

Though the ranch had been abandoned for some time, stray cattle, more or
less wild, roamed about the neighbourhood. Leal and Valiente soon
lassoed a fine heifer, which, slaughtered without delay, replenished our
commissariat. We celebrated a banquet like that held on New Year’s Day
at San Pedro del Tua. We still had a little coffee, but of rum, which
had then formed such an attraction, only the fragrant memory remained.
Its place was supplied with what was left of our last demijohn of
aniseed _aguardiente_.

As Valiente intended following the same route, we decided to wait for
him. He knew that part of the Vichada and the Orinoco well. There were
several small rapids which it was not advisable to cross without a
pilot.

Two days after leaving Santa Catalina we struck the Orinoco, with a
feeling of boundless joy. It seemed to us as if we had reached the open
ocean, and the air itself appeared purer, more charged with invigorating
oxygen.

After a short spin from the mouth of the Vichada, we reached Maipures,
where Venezuelan authorities were stationed. Knowing that Venezuelans,
as a rule, are inclined to be less reverent and respectful towards the
Church and its servants than the average Colombian, we abandoned our
ecclesiastical character, dropping it, as Elias dropped his mantle upon
earth, on the waters of the Vichada, where it had done us such good
service.

It was indispensable that we should find a pilot for the rapids. It
seems that in former days the Venezuelan Government kept two or three
pilots at Maipures, but we found to our sorrow that they had disappeared
long since. However, not far from Maipures we were told that we should
find a man named Gatiño, one of the best pilots on the river. We at once
started in quest of him, and found him in the thick of the forest about
a mile from the shore. He was gathering tonga beans, and had formed a
little camp, accompanied by his family, which consisted of his wife, two
children, a boy and girl of fourteen and twelve respectively, and two
smaller children of five and six. He agreed to take us across the
rapids, provided we would wait at Maipures until he could pack his beans
and gather some india-rubber extracted by himself. As there was no help
for it, we agreed to wait. Maipures turned out to be nothing but a group
of some fifteen or twenty tumble-down, rickety houses, inhabited by
about a score of people, amongst them the prefect or political
representative of the Government. He received us most cordially, and
placed one of the buildings at our service. I believe both Valiente and
Leal gave him to understand that we were high and mighty personages
representing the Colombian Government on a tour of inspection through
the lands awarded to Colombia by a recent decision in a case of
arbitration between the two republics, handed down by the Queen of
Spain. Maipures, where the functionary in question was supreme, came
within the new jurisdiction, and possibly the belief that we might
exercise some influence in maintaining him in his important office may
have had to do with his courtesy and goodwill towards us. It was lucky,
however, that such an impression was created. Shortly after our arrival
he informed us that the Governor of the Amazon territory had just
communicated to him orders to prevent all travellers on the river from
ascending or descending the stream—in a word, to keep them as prisoners
at Maipures. On reading the Governor’s note to us, he argued, ‘This
cannot apply to you, for, being Colombians, you are outside the
Governor’s jurisdiction.’ Here, again, as when conferring ecclesiastical
dignity upon us, Leal had acted with prudence and foresight.

At Maipures we felt, as we never felt before or after during the
journey, the presence of the numerous insects, and noticed that these
winged creatures worked with method and discipline. The _puyon_ sounded
the charge shortly after sunset, attacking without haste and without
rest during the whole night. At dawn it would retire to camp, sated with
our gore. The post of honour was taken by the sand-flies, which would
remain on duty during the earlier part of the forenoon. In their turn
they were replaced by some other arm of the service during the hot hours
of the day, and so on till nightfall, when the _puyon_, refreshed and
eager, would again fall upon his prey. There is no greater regularity in
the change of guards at a fortress than is observed by these insects in
their war upon men and animals.

The mosquito-net was the only real protection. Some relief is obtained
by filling the room with smoke from smouldering horse or cattle manure,
but the nauseous smell and the ammonia fumes made the remedy worse than
the evil. We also feared to share the fate of herrings and other fish
subject to the process, and preferred the seclusion of our
mosquito-bars.

These, however, were all minor troubles, mentioned here as a matter of
record. From our temporary abode we could hear the distant thunder of
the rapids, as of batteries of cannon in a great artillery duel. The
waters of the Orinoco, suddenly twisted into a narrow bed, wrestle with
the boulders of granite scattered in the channel, which they have frayed
through the very heart of the huge basaltic mountains.

Life in those regions, from what we gathered, is as wild, as untamed,
and irresponsible as the rivers or forests, and as the animals that roam
in them. Violence and force are the only law, greed is the sole guiding
principle, amongst men. The functionaries in most cases are only
authorized robbers and slayers. The Indians, being the most helpless
victims, are plundered and murdered, as best suits the fancy of those
representatives of organized Governments, whose crimes remain hidden
behind the dense veil of interminable forests.

When news of any of these misdeeds does chance to reach the official
ear, the facts are so distorted on the one hand, and there is so little
desire to investigate on the other, that no redress is ever obtained.

Whilst at Maipures there came in a man from San Carlos, the capital of
one of the Amazon territories. He told a gruesome story. The Governor of
that province, whom he represented as a prototype of the official
robbers just mentioned, had exasperated his companions by his
all-absorbing greed. The Governor seized all the tonga beans and
india-rubber extracted by the poor Indians, who were forced to work
without any pay, unfed, whip-driven. His companions, who expected a
share in the plunder, conspired to murder him. He was known to be
fearless and an admirable shot. One night, however, his house was
surrounded by a score or so of his followers; a regular siege ensued;
the young Governor kept his assailants at bay for several hours. He was
accompanied by a young Spanish ballet-dancer, who had followed his
fortunes undaunted by the dangers of that wild land. She would reload
the guns whilst he scanned the ground from the only window of the room.
One of the assailants crept upon the roof of the house and shot him from
behind. He died in a few hours. The canoes laden with all kinds of
produce despatched by him—not down the Orinoco, for he feared they might
be seized on the long journey through Venezuelan territory, but through
the Casiquiare to the Amazon—were said to be worth £40,000 or £50,000.
Even if not accurate in all its details, which I repeat from the
statement of the new arrival at Maipures, this instance gives an idea of
the conditions that prevail in those localities.

True to his word, Gatiño turned up at Maipures on the third day, and we
continued our journey at once.

The rapids of the Orinoco break the open current of the river for a
distance of some forty or fifty miles. The Maipures rapids are from five
to six miles in length. The river then continues its quiet flow for
about twenty or twenty-five miles down to the rapids of Atures; thence
it flows to the ocean without any further obstacle of importance.

Gatiño had his own canoe of a special type, much larger than ours, very
deep, heavy, capacious, and comfortable. It was the real home of his
family.

I asked him why he did not settle somewhere on the banks of those
rivers. He told me that both on the Orinoco and on the affluents there
were numberless spots on high ground, free from all floods, abundant in
game, within easy reach of good fishing, healthy and cool, where he
would fain settle. ‘But we poor wretches,’ he added, ‘have no rights.
When we least expect it, up turns a fine gentleman sent by some
Government or other with a few soldiers; they lift our cattle and steal
our chickens, destroy what they do not take away, and compel us to
accompany them, paddling their canoes or serving them as they may want
without any pay. Whenever I hear,’ he went on to say, ‘that white men in
authority are coming along the river, I start immediately in my canoe
through the _caños_ as far inland as I can. The wild Indians and the
savages are kind and generous; it is the whites and the whites in
authority who are to be dreaded.’

Gatiño was himself a full-blooded Indian, but, having been brought up on
some settlement, he considered himself a civilized man, and in truth it
was strange to see how he practised the highest virtues of an honest
man. He loved his wife and family tenderly; he worked day and night for
their welfare. He longed for a better lot for his children, the eldest
of whom ‘studied’ at the city of San Fernando de Atabapo, the only city
which he knew of by personal experience. As it consists of eighty or a
hundred thatch-roofed houses, one may well imagine what the word ‘city’
implied in his case; yet his thoughts were constantly centred on the
learning which that child was storing to the greater honour and
happiness of his wandering family. Reading and writing formed the
curriculum of that university, possibly because they marked the limit of
the teacher’s attainments; but let us be ashamed of mocking the humble
annals of so good a man.

I cannot forbear mentioning an incident, a parallel to which it would be
difficult to find amongst nominally civilized folk. One of our men who
had accompanied us from San Pedro de Arimena, knowing our plight and our
dependence on Gatiño, took him aside, informing him that we had plenty
of gold, and that as one of us was ill, and we desired to reach the open
river as soon as possible, it would be easy for him to name his price.
He suggested that Gatiño should charge one or two thousand dollars for
the job, which we would be bound to pay. Gatiño not only did not improve
that wonderful opportunity, but he forbore from telling us of the advice
given to him. He charged us 100 dollars, a moderate price for the work,
and it was only when on the other side of the rapids that Leal learned
the incident from the other men.

Here was a test which not many men brought up in the midst of civilized
life could have withstood.

Gatiño and his family will ever remain in my mind as a bright, cheerful
group. Alas for them, lost in those solitudes amongst wild beasts and
wild Indians, and subject to the voracity of the white men, who become
more ferocious than the worst tiger when their unbridled greed has no
responsibility and no punishment to dread!

We had three canoes (including Gatiño’s) to take down. We were obliged
to empty them completely. The men carried everything on their backs
along the shore, whilst the canoes shot the rapids.

When I saw Gatiño on the first rapids, I believed him to be bent on
suicide. At that point the river, cut and divided by the rocks, left a
narrow channel of about 300 feet in length close in to the shore. Thus
far the canoes had been dragged by the current and held by means of
ropes. On reaching the channel, Gatiño manned the canoe with four men at
the prow, and sat at the stern. The canoe, still tied by the rope, which
was held by four men, was kept back as much as possible from the
current, which increased in speed at every inch. At the end of the
channel the whole river poured its foaming volume into a huge, cup-like
basin, studded with rocks, where the water seethed as if boiling. From
the basin the river flowed on placidly for several miles. This was the
end of the first rapids.

Halfway down the channel the men let go the ropes, and the canoe, with
its crew, seemed like a huge black feather upon a sea of foam, and the
whole length of the channel, white and frothy, appeared like the arched
neck of a gigantic horse curved to drink from the waters below. The
waters, before entering the basin, formed a small cataract shooting over
the protruding ledge. The canoe fell into the basin, and seemed about to
be dashed against a rock that stood in its way. On again striking the
waters, Gatiño gave the word of command, and the four men began to
paddle steadily and with great force, as if to increase the impetus.
Gatiño remained quiet and motionless in his place, holding his paddle
out of the water ready to strike. At a given moment he uplifted it,
thrust it deeply into the waves, and moved it dexterously, so that the
canoe turned as if on a pivot, and quietly glided along the rock upon
which it would have been dashed into a thousand pieces.

Gatiño explained to me that it was necessary for the men to paddle so as
to give the canoe her own share in the impetus, and make it more
responsive to his steering.

Though he assured me that there was no danger, and though the journey
along the shore was tiresome and slow, I did not venture to accompany
him when shooting the other rapids before reaching the open river.

The Orinoco has drilled an open passage-way through a spur of the
mountains at Maipures. The struggle between the waters and the rocks
must have lasted centuries.

‘Here shalt thou halt,’ said the rock.

‘Further will I go,’ replied the river.

Like the spoils of battle on a stricken field, the shattered rocks stud
the current, which sweeps roaring and foaming around and over them. They
resemble the ruins in the breach of a battered bastion. The river is the
victor, but, as will happen when two great forces counteract each other,
the result is a compromise, and the course of the stream is deviated.
The difference of level from the beginning to the end of the rapids is
in itself not sufficient to cause the violence with which the waters
run. It arises from the sudden compression of the powerful volume of
waters into a narrow space. The waters rush through the openings made in
the rock with a deafening sound, torn by the remnants of pillars in the
bed through which they pass. They fill the air with the tumult of their
advance; one would say an army was entering a conquered city, quivering
with the rapture of triumph, lifting up the thunder of battle, Titanic
bugle-calls, and the pæans of victory. After each one of these narrow
breaches in the wall of granite the river plunges into deep basins,
where the foaming waters soon sink into their former quiet flow. The
soldiers have crossed the first entrenchments, and collect their forces
before the next assault. Soon the margins on either side begin to hem
in, the waters stir more rapidly, and soon again the mad rush, the
desperate plunge, the wild, roaring, irresistible onslaught, and again
through the very heart of the mountain into the next basin. Finally,
after storming the last redoubt, the river, like a lion freed from the
toils which imprisoned him, leaps upon the bosom of the plain, bounding
forward in solemn flow towards the ocean. The clear tropical sun
reflects itself on its ever-moving bosom, even as the clouds and the
forests, the mountains and the birds on wing. The wandering mirror keeps
on its course, being, as Longfellow has it, like unto the life of a good
man ‘darkened by shadows of earth, but reflecting an image of heaven.’



                               CHAPTER XV


We spent ten days in covering the distance from the upper to beyond the
lower rapids, walking whenever it was impossible to use the canoes,
which were drifted by the current or shot over the rapids. The delay was
due chiefly to the loading and unloading of the canoes, and the
necessarily slow transportation of packages, bundles, and sundry
articles along the shore.

The banks of the river on either side along the whole length of the
rapids are high and rocky, sometimes extending for a mile or two in
flat, grass-covered, wavy meadows, and then rising in small hills,
abrupt and ragged on the very edge of the water. This is specially the
case in the narrow part of the gorges. The grass in the small
meadow-like plains is the same as on the shores of the Meta, and the
whole aspect of the region, bare of large forests, is that of a field in
a civilized country.

A few days after leaving Maipures we noticed, to our joy, the absence of
mosquitoes and other such tormentors. They seemed to have been blown
away by the wind, which had freer scope in the more open stretches along
the main river.

We missed the soft couch of the sand beaches to which we had become
accustomed, the thin layer of sand or earth being powerless to soften
the bed-rock on which we now had to stretch ourselves, but the flight of
the mosquitoes and their companions more than made up for this.

Our commissariat had dwindled to utter meagreness; we had neither sugar
nor coffee, and _casabe_ was our only bread. The last drops of
_aguardiente_ had been drained at Santa Catalina. At Maipures we had
obtained a drink which they called white rum—in truth, pure alcohol,
which we had to drown in three times the quantity of water before we
swallowed it. Our cigars, cigarettes and tobacco were all gone; they
were part and parcel of an enchanted past—smoke wafted heavenward like
so many of our hopes and illusions. We had obtained native tobacco, with
which we made cigars or rolled cigarettes out of newspaper clippings.
Thus we consumed many a literary article or political effusion which it
would have been utterly impossible to utilize in any other way. Corn-cob
pipes also came in handily.

Game, furred or feathered, was not to be found on the shores of the
rapids; we had to rely principally on fishing, which was most abundant
in the quieter pools and basins. We ate all sorts of fish, some of
admirable quality, especially the _morrocoto_, far superior to the
French sole or the American shad, blue fish, or Spanish mackerel. If
Marguery could meet with it, his immense renown would increase tenfold,
as with this fish at his disposal he would be certain to evolve what
from a culinary point of view would amount to an epic poem of the most
sublime order. Such, at least, was my opinion when eating that fish,
with my imagination duly fired by a voracious appetite and a lack of
material condiments which gave rise to dreams worthy of Lucullus in
exile.

Rice and salt we had in plenty; butter, oil, and lard were unknown
quantities. Had we been in Lent, necessity would have enabled us very
easily to observe the ordinance of the Roman Church with regard to
abstinence from meat. We thought of this, and although we were not sure
of our dates, we at once decided to offer up our enforced diet in a
truly Catholic spirit in atonement for some of our many sins! May our
offering prove acceptable!

We did not go to sleep as readily on our new hard beds as on the sand.
The clearness of the air and freedom from insects also contributed to
long watches, which we spent in listening to the far-off roar of the
river pealing incessantly through the night air, whilst Gatiño would
tell us about the life of men and beasts in those territories. The voice
of the river seemed like the distant bass of a powerful orchestra, all
the high notes of which had been lost in space.

Gatiño was familiar with the rivers that flow into the Orinoco above its
confluence with the Vichada, and the numerous _caños_ which intersect
that region were so well known to him that on one occasion, when flying
from some Governor on his way to the upper territories who was anxious
to obtain his services as a guide, Gatiño had managed to lose himself in
such an intricate maze of _caños_ and water-ways, and, finally, in a
small lagoon, unknown to all except the wild Indians, that the Governor
had given up the chase in despair. He had travelled on the Casiquiare
and the Rio Negro, and had visited the Upper Amazon. According to him,
the Upper Orinoco and its affluents are as abundant in india-rubber
forests as the Amazon and its tributaries, the Putumayo, the Napo and
the Yarabi. The gum or india-rubber is identical in quality with that of
the best species of Para. In some places the trees grow so closely that
a man may extract from twenty to forty pounds of india-rubber a day.
Besides large virgin areas rich in india-rubber forests, in other parts
_piazaba_ palm forests stretch for hundreds of acres at a time. This
_piazaba_ is used for matting, broom-making, and twisting of ropes and
cables. It is perfectly impervious to moisture, and is even said to
improve instead of rotting in water. Not far from where we were in one
of the _caños_, the _piazaba_ forest followed the water-course for a
distance of, Gatiño said, ‘twenty twists.’ An odd system of measuring,
but the only one at his command. ‘Twenty twists’ might be five or twenty
miles, according to the size of the curves. These forests further
contained infinite abundance of sarsaparilla, tonga bean, _peraman_ and
_caraña_, the resinous substances used for caulking and torch-making.
Gatiño himself exploited those sources of wealth as far as his own
personal means and limitations would allow him. He stated his
willingness at any time to guide us to the spots where rubber, tonga
bean, and so forth, could be found, adding that he knew we would treat
him well, but that he would never consent to act as a guide to others,
especially to the white men in official positions who now and then
appeared along the river. These he held in special abhorrence, and no
doubt their doings justified his feelings.

Gatiño’s statements as to the wealth of the Orinoco were perfectly
truthful. It seems strange that such vast sources of wealth should
remain practically unexploited. The rapids of the Orinoco act as a
barrier, before which traders and explorers have come to a standstill.
Some sixty or seventy years ago cart-roads existed on the shores along
the rapids; these were built by the missionaries, and parts of them are
still intact. Vegetation being weak on the hard soil of those banks, it
would be easy to re-establish them. The great obstacle, however, is to
be found in the numerous affluents which fall into the Orinoco along the
rapids. The missionaries had large pontoon-like rafts on which they
transported their carts from one side to the other. Were this primitive
service started once more, the flow of natural products extracted from
the forests would soon establish itself from the Upper to the Lower
Orinoco.

One day, having left our canoes behind, we arrived at the shores of the
Cantaniapo, a clear stream flowing into the Orinoco between two
stretches of rapids. No tree shaded us from the fierce glare of the sun.
The waters murmured most invitingly on the pebbles of the beach. On the
other side was a sort of shed, a vestige of former splendour. A small
canoe was moored alongside, tied with a _piazaba_ rope to the trunk of a
neighbouring tree. So near, and yet so far! We should have to wait,
perhaps, broiling in the sun for hours, till our canoes arrived. Whilst
we discussed the arduous architectural problem of building a tent with
such articles as coats, india-rubber waterproof sheets, and so on, a
noise as of a body falling into the water drew our attention to the
river. Leal, holding his _machete_ between his teeth, was swimming
_llanero_ fashion—that is to say, throwing each arm out of the water in
succession, and covering a distance equal to the length of his body at
every stroke. The peril, potentially speaking, was extreme; one never
knows whether the alligators and other inhabitants of those waters may
or may not be at hand. Yet Leal did not seem to care. Fortunately, he
soon landed on the opposite shore, jumped into the canoe, cut the rope
and paddled back. On our remonstrating with him, he argued that the
danger was slight; alligators hate noise, and he had taken care to be as
noisy as possible.

‘Furthermore,’ he added, ‘I had my _machete_ with me.’

We stopped that night under the shed. Gatiño came in due time. We
particularly wished to bathe in the transparent waters of that river,
not as Leal had done, but in our usual prudent way, standing on the
shore far from all possible danger.

The next morning we saw the only living tiger which met our eyes during
that long trip. Early, before striking the camp, the shout went forth—‘A
tiger! A tiger!’ There, at a distance of about 150 feet from us, on a
small protruding ledge which plunged into the river, forming a sort of
natural drinking-place, stood a beautiful specimen of the native tiger.
The wind, which, as Leal told us, blew from the land, carried the scent
in the wrong direction, and this explained the tiger’s visit. On hearing
the shout, Leal sprang up and seized one of the rifles. The tiger looked
towards our group and turned tail, bolting in the direction whence he
had come, behind a clump of bushes. Leal followed him. We soon heard a
shot, and after a few minutes Leal returned, disgusted. He had only
wounded the animal. I argued with him that we were most thankful to the
lord of the forest for his abrupt courtesy in leaving the field entirely
to us, as, had he felt inclined to enter into closer relations, we might
have found it awkward, to say the least.

Valiente had come with Gatiño. Our belongings seemed to him, as they had
previously seemed to Leal, an abnormal accumulation of wealth. We had
kept with us, not knowing whether they might again be required, our
riding-saddles. My own was large, comfortable, and soft, a work of art
in its way. Valiente seemed to admire it. The remarks which he made
deserve to be noted here.

‘This saddle is certainly very fine and comfortable; but how do you
manage when crossing a river? Do you not find it very heavy on your
head?’

I could not understand what he meant, until I remembered that the
_llaneros_, when swimming across a river, generally carry their saddles
on their heads to keep them dry. At first I thought Valiente was
‘pulling my leg.’ A mere glance at my person should suffice to persuade
anyone that not even the furious onslaught of a regiment of Cossacks
would induce me in any circumstances to plunge into a river where there
was a chance of meeting alligators and such-like; I was still less
likely to venture on such feats with the additional burden of a heavy
saddle on my head. However, Valiente was perfectly in earnest, and meant
no harm; so I assured him with perfect calm that I had never noticed on
any occasion, either in or out of the water, that the saddle was a heavy
one.

‘Possibly,’ I added, ‘it is a question of habit.’

‘May be,’ he said, ‘but it would be a long time before I got used to it.
Look at my saddle!’ he went on to say; ‘it only weighs a fourth of
yours. Still, I should like to try yours, not for real hard
work—branding, lassoing, or rounding up cattle—but just to prance round
the town on a good horse and charm the girls. That’s about what it’s fit
for!’

That day, marked in the calendar of our memory as the ‘tiger day,’ our
supper consisted of boiled rice and _casabe_. Somehow or other there had
been no fishing. Yet we did not grumble; custom had taught us to be
easily satisfied. We learned from Gatiño that within twelve miles from
us the Atures ruins were to be found. Behind the thick forest which
separates it from the river stands a short range of high cliffs. They
are the last spur of the chain through which the Orinoco has drilled its
way. At a height of 600 to 700 metres on the vertical wall, so straight
and smooth that it seems to have been polished all over by the hand of
man, there appear, carved in the very substance of the rock, a huge
alligator and two human figures, standing near its head and tail
respectively. All are of colossal dimensions. According to the
measurements of other travellers provided with the required instruments,
the length of the alligator exceeds 500 feet, and the human figures are
of proportionate size. It is difficult to understand what sort of
scaffolding was used to carry out this work at such a height, no support
or traces of support of any kind in the rock being apparent; what
instruments were used for the carving, and what purpose the whole work
served: all this is very perplexing.

Footprints of human endeavour, thoughts of past generations entirely
lost to our minds, left there in the midst of the forest, marking the
passage of men who must have been powerful at a period so remote that
only these traces remain. What more eloquent proof of the nothingness,
the vanity, of our own ephemeral individual life!

The mere magnitude of the work carried out demonstrates that in those
regions, totally deserted to-day, where Nature has reasserted her
absolute sway, and where the wanderer has to fight for every inch of
ground in the jungle and the thicket, there must once have been
multitudes of men educated in certain arts—arts which in their turn must
have been links in a chain of sequence indispensable to their own
existence, as isolated effort in one direction would be
incomprehensible. Nothing of those myriads of men survives beyond this
dumb expression of their thoughts and aspirations.

Were those figures carved on that huge wall, on the virgin rock of the
mountains, hundreds or thousands of years ago? Who knows? Who can tell?

With the rapidity inherent to human thought, my mind sped to the
pyramids of Egypt, the ruins of Babylon and Nineveh, the buried cities
of Ceylon, the excavated temples and palaces in Yucatan and elsewhere,
wherever vestiges of vanished generations are found.

That sculpture on the rock on the shores of the Orinoco brought to my
mind the dying lion cut into the granite on the banks of the Lake of
Lucerne, as a symbol of respect and admiration to the loyalty and
steadfastness of the compatriots of William Tell, who died for a cause
upon which judgment has been passed in the minds of men and in the pages
of history. I could not help thinking that perhaps when Macaulay’s
famous New Zealander shall stand upon the broken arches of London Bridge
to gaze at the ruins of St. Paul’s, when England and London shall have
crumbled into potsherds, so in years to come some native of these
Orinoco regions, then populous and civilized, may sail on the cool
waters of Lucerne and interrogate the mute rock, anxious to know the
allegory embodied in that dying lion holding in its claws the shield
which bears the three secular lilies of old France. Even as the rock was
mute to us, so shall the rock again be mute to him who thousands of
years hence may question Thorwaldsen’s sculpture. The efforts of man are
powerless against time and oblivion, even though they choose the
largest, the most lasting manifestations of Nature for their pedestal.

Time passes grimly on. The endeavours of pride, of flattery, of
gratitude, the emblems of glory, all become dumb and meaningless.
Egyptian hieroglyphics, figures and signs carved in monoliths or
pyramids or in the rock of the mountains, after the lapse of what, to
the world, is but an instant, all become confused, vague, and
undefinable. The seeker and the student find all those attempts to
perpetuate the memory or the aspirations of men, now on the burning
sands of the desert, now decked in the foliage and wealth of Nature,
aggressively reasserting her empire, now in the naked summits of the
uplifted mountains—yea, the seeker finds them all; but he knows not
whether they be expressions of human pride anxious to survive the life
of the body, or whether they be witnesses of servile flattery paying
tribute to the mighty, or the grateful offering of nations to their
heroes and their benefactors, or the emblem of some dim forgotten
religion, whose very rites are as unintelligible to living men as is the
mystic power which once gave them force.



                              CHAPTER XVI


With the accession of Gatiño and his family and Valiente and his men,
our numbers had gradually increased, and the camp at night had quite a
lively aspect. The men would tell their adventures, and conversation
frequently turned on local topics. We had gradually drifted into
practical indifference concerning the doings of that distant world to
which we belonged, and towards which we were moving. Newspapers,
letters, telegrams, the multifarious scraps of gossip, the bursts of
curiosity which fill so great a part in the life of modern man, had
totally disappeared as daily elements in our own. To tell the truth, I
did not miss them greatly. I have always thought that the daily
newspapers are thieves of time, and cannot but approve the system of a
certain friend of mine, an Englishman, who, residing in New York, had no
other source of information for the world’s news than the weekly edition
of the _Times_. He was dependent on it even for the news of American
life and politics.

He argued that the ups and downs of a given event were of little
interest to him.

‘All that one need know,’ he said, ‘is the upshot, the crystallized
fact, without wasting valuable time in the slow developments which, at
times, are pure inventions of the editor—“padding,” as it is called. I
am a little behind-hand at times,’ he remarked, ‘but at the end of the
year I make it up, balance the account, and start afresh.’

Certainly if all the attention given to local news of no importance, or
to descriptions of fires, crimes, and sundry topics which never change
in essence and vary solely as regards names and secondary details, were
devoted to studying something useful, the average mind of the great
newspaper-reading nations would not have been degraded to the depths
revealed by a glance at a collection of the newspapers and reading
matter on the bookstalls of any railway-station in France, England, or
the United States, where the flood of trash and sensationalism swamps
and carries away with it public intelligence, or what stands for it.

Gautier used to complain of the curse of the daily press.

‘Formerly,’ he said, ‘every human being brayed in his own original
asinine way. Now we only get variations on the leaders in their
respective newspapers!’

The great French writer expressed the simple truth in a pointed way. The
cheap press, like cheap liquor, is a public calamity.

Our men poured forth personal impressions of Nature. The world varies in
size and in beauty in proportion to the eye and the mind that
contemplate it. In Leal’s and Valiente’s conversation especially there
was something like the voice of the forest and the murmuring waters.
They had lived to some purpose in those deserts, and to them cities,
railways, palaces, sea-going ships, and all the other methods of modern
locomotion—material civilization, in fact—were as wonderful as the
beauties and splendours of Eastern tales are to us.

Talking about tigers, Leal told us that they roamed all over those
plains, especially on the banks of the Meta and the Orinoco, where the
forests intersect breeding and grazing plains. The cattle-ranchers must
be ever on the watch, and from instinct and experience the cattle
acquire a natural spirit of defence without which the losses would be
far heavier than at present.

Whenever the cattle scent the approach of the tiger, they crowd
together, the young calves in the centre, the cows and young heifers
covering them behind their bodies, and the bulls pacing around and
outside the group like sentinels before a tent. There is no exaggeration
in this tale. Leal assured us that he had himself seen these
preparations on more than one occasion.

The tiger, whose daring and ferocity are multiplied tenfold by hunger,
frequently attacks the group: then ensues a life and death struggle. The
tiger tries to jump upon the bull sideways or from behind, whilst the
bull strives to face the tiger constantly. As the latter is far more
agile and can leap from a long distance, he frequently lands upon the
bull, sometimes breaking his spine with the blow. If he misses, the bull
gores him. Occasionally both animals die, the tiger in its
death-struggle tearing the bull’s neck open with its claws.

‘More than once,’ said Leal, ‘have I found the two enemies dead in a
pool of blood side by side.’

The tigers also crouch in the bushes close to the drinking-places, and
jump upon the animals as they lower their heads into the water. They rip
open the necks of their victims, drag them into the jungle, and there
devour them.

The hunters know that a sated tiger is far less daring than a hungry
one, and they frequently place a calf or some other easy prey within his
reach. After his meal he is hunted down, but Leal added that this is not
considered fair play amongst thoroughbred _llaneros_; it is a trick
unworthy of a real sportsman.

The tigers live exclusively upon other animals. They prefer cattle, and
have a special predilection for donkeys and mules; they are gourmets.
The choicest morsel to their taste seems to be the fat neck of donkeys
and mules; they have, too, a pretty taste in turtles. They can crush the
back of the younger turtles not yet fully developed. These awkward
amphibians rush, if their ponderous movements can be so described, into
the water for fear of the tiger. There he is powerless to harm them.

The alligator rivals the tiger in voracity and fierceness. They are
sworn enemies, and attack each other whenever they meet. The odds are on
the tiger’s side if the struggle be on land, and in favour of the
alligator if the pair meet in the water. The tiger seeks to turn the
alligator over on his back, or to get at the body towards the stomach,
where the softer skin can be penetrated by the tiger’s claws, which
disembowel his enemy. The alligator defends himself by striking terrific
blows with his tail, and seeks to scrunch the tiger between his
formidable jaws. Fights between them, Leal said, are frequently seen on
the beaches, and are a fascinating though ghastly spectacle.

The tigers frequently cross rivers infested with alligators, and display
a really marvellous cunning in avoiding their enemy in his own element.
The tiger will stand on the beach at a given point of the river, and
there roar with all his might for an hour or so on end. The alligators,
in the hope of getting at him, congregate in the water at that
particular point. When the members of the assembly thus convened have,
so far as the tiger can judge, met at the appointed place, he starts
up-stream along the banks as rapidly as possible, and crosses two or
three miles higher up. There are two details to be noted: first, the
stratagem by which the tiger misleads his enemies; and, second, his
choice of a crossing-place, so that the alligator would have to swim
against the current to get at him.

Both Leal and Valiente had the true cattle-breeder’s love for cattle,
which to them are man’s best friends.

‘They give us milk and meat and cheese,’ Leal would say; ‘they help us
to cultivate the ground, and their very presence drives away fevers,
mosquitoes, and miasmas. We and the cattle are allies against the boas,
the tigers, the snakes, and all the beasts without which these lands
would be a real paradise.’

The tales of our friends sounded most wonderful in Fermin’s ears. He was
a townsman, accustomed to bricks and mortar; furthermore, he was
naturally sceptical as to all that he heard, and felt rather small at
seeing our men’s familiarity with things and manifestations of Nature
which to him were so strange and new.

Fermin came from the city of Medellin, where he had spent most of his
life. It is a typical old Spanish town of the central tropical belt. It
nestles amongst the hills, 100 miles from the left bank of the Magdalena
River, at a height of about 4,500 feet. The ground around is
mountainous. The valley is small and beautiful, with numberless streams
coursing down the hills, and luxuriant vegetation in perpetual bloom.

Prior to this journey, Fermin’s travels had never taken him beyond his
own province. Like all Colombians, he had been a soldier at some period
of his life, a ‘volunteer’ of the type described in a telegram (very
well known in Colombia) which a candid or witty—the distinction is at
times difficult—mayor sent to a colleague in a neighbouring town:
‘Herewith I send a hundred volunteers; kindly return the ropes!’ Having
joined the army in this wise, it is not strange that Fermin left it as
soon as he could. His military career was no longer and no more glorious
than Coleridge’s.

Continental Europeans are wont to grow amusingly solemn and censorious
when they hear of the system still obtaining in many parts of Spanish
America for the formation of armies which are chiefly engaged in the
civil wars that devastate those countries from time to time; this system
is nothing more nor less than the press-gang method practised all over
Europe not so long ago. But between this press-gang, which suddenly
compels a man to join the ranks destined to fight, and the conscription,
which forces him into the army whether he likes it or not, I can only
see a difference of detail, but none in essence. Individual liberty is
as much violated in the one case as in the other. In both cases the
weak, the helpless, and the poor are the prey of the more cunning and
more powerful, and as for the causes at stake, whatever the name or
pretext may be, if the whole question is sifted, greed and ambition
masquerading under some conventional high-sounding name will be found to
be the real and essential motors. Militarism is a form of exploitation
of mankind which adds human blood to the ingredients productive of gold
and power to others; it is nothing but an engine of plunder and of
pride, the more disgusting on account of its sleek hypocrisy. Your
money-lender frankly tells you that he will charge you three, four, or
five per cent. per month, and despoil you of house and home if you
cannot pay; this, though cruel, is frank and open and above-board. But
your advocate of militarism will despoil you like the cosmopolite Jew,
telling you that glory shall be yours, that patriotism and the holy
traditions of religion, the dynasty, the empire, or the nation, as the
case may be, are at stake, and that it is necessary for you to risk your
skin in consequence. With such baubles and clownish maunderings men have
been led on, and are still being led on, to cut each other’s throats for
the personal benefit and satisfaction of their leaders, who give them a
bit of ribbon or stamped metal if they survive and have luck. Meanwhile
the exploiters sit safe on their office chairs, pocket the shekels, and
chuckle at the pack of fools, the smug middle-class flunkies, and the
dirty, bamboozled millions, the cannon fodder, fit only for bayonet and
shrapnel.

After leaving the army, Fermin, who by trade was a journeyman tailor,
had joined the remnants of a wrecked theatrical company, a group of
strollers travelling through the towns and villages of his province, and
giving performances from the modern and the ancient Spanish repertory,
to the enjoyment and the edification of the natives.

He had been in my service for over a year, proving himself admirable as
a valet, and certainly very plastic, for during the journey he had been
by turns muleteer, amateur paddler, fisherman, hunter and cook.

The people of his province, a hardy mountaineer race, so prolific that
population doubles itself every twenty-eight years, are known all over
Spanish America for their readiness at repartee, the frequent metaphors
that brighten their daily speech, and a knack of humorous exaggeration.

Fermin, referring to one of the men whose idleness he criticised, said,
‘That fellow is so lazy that he cannot even carry a greeting!’ and
talking of the wonderful climbing ability of a certain mule, he said
that, if it could only find the way, it would reach the gates of heaven
and bray in the ears of St. Peter!

One evening, during a lull in the conversation, Fermin, who had quietly
listened to tales of fierce tigers, chivalrous bulls, alligators, and
many other natives of forest or stream, burst forth, saying that he also
knew of some wonderful beasts; but I prefer to quote his words as nearly
as possible.

‘The truth is,’ said he, ‘that before starting on this trip I knew
nothing about tigers, alligators, boas, and so forth, except from
picture-books. I had even thought that people lied a great deal about
those animals, but sight has now convinced me of their existence. I have
no doubt they are to be found somewhere in my native province, but it is
not about them that I am going to talk. I will tell you something which
will show that we, too, have wonderful animals in our part of the
country.

‘Some years ago I was the first lover in a theatrical company which,
though modest in its pretensions, scored great success wherever it
played. One night, in the mining region near the Cauca River, we were
forced to sleep in the very shed where we had performed the comic opera
entitled “The Children of Captain Grant,” a most popular seafaring tale
set to music.

‘Mosquitoes were as abundant and aggressive as anywhere in the world,
but they seemed to me to have far stronger lungs than those of these
localities. Anyhow, there was a specially sustained high-sounding ring
in their little trumpets, so that they formed a sort of orchestra
beneath the moon.

‘One of the lady artistes held the doctrine that life was sacred in all
its manifestations; that man has no right to kill any animal, however
small it may be, so she did not kill the mosquitoes that swarmed around
her, but tried to blow them away with her fan. However, as some of them
alighted on her forehead and on her hands, she would take them carefully
between thumb and forefinger and place them on the side of a basin half
filled with water, moistening their wings so that they stuck and
remained harmless for the time being.

‘The smokers amongst us—all the men, in fact—after lighting their cigars
or cigarettes, threw their wooden matches into the basin, a necessary
precaution lest the thatch-roofed shed might catch fire.

‘In the earlier part of the night the mosquitoes made sleep almost
impossible, and there we lay on the ground or upon canvas stretchers
snoozing and tossing about, waiting for the morning. As night advanced,
with the arrival of a welcome breeze, they seemed to diminish in
numbers. I began to doze, but was awakened by one of my companions who
called my attention to the echo of distant music, sweet and low, a
harmony of lutes and soft recorders, whose sounds were wafted on the
wings of the night air. We went out of the shed, and the sounds ceased.
On returning to it we heard the melody again. This was a mystery. Nearly
all our companions were asleep. We were determined to ascertain whence
the music came, and, on investigation, found that the blessed
mosquitoes, placed by the charitable and humane artiste on the sides of
the basin, had contrived to build a raft with the fag-ends of matches,
on which, waiting for their wings to dry completely, they were whiling
the night away gaily singing the most popular ditty in our operetta,
descriptive of the joys of life on the ocean wave!

‘This will show you,’ Fermin added, ‘that, though we have neither
tigers, nor boas, nor turtles, nor fighting bulls, nor alligators, in
our province, our mosquitoes beat all yours in talent and ability!’



                              CHAPTER XVII


Not far from the Atures rapids, we stopped at Puerto Real, a short curve
in the river where the waters penetrate into a sort of bay justifying
the name of ‘port,’ but with no other title to it, for no human
habitation, not even the humblest hut, exists on either shore. Here the
canoes were laden permanently, as the river flowed straight to the
ocean, free from all rapids except at a few narrow places where the
current is swifter. These, however, did not call for the precautions of
the past days.

Leal considered his task at an end. We were on the open Orinoco in the
Republic of Venezuela, and in the hands of a guide as careful and expert
as Gatiño. This led Leal to return. In vain did we seek to persuade him
to accompany us, to enter Colombia by the Magdalena River, thence to
Bogotá, and then by the road we had followed to San Pedro del Tua. He
would not abandon his companions, and decided to go back by the
identical route we had followed. We deeply felt parting from that noble
companion whose quiet, unobtrusive courage, whose skilled prudence and
ready intelligence, had not only contributed greatly to our comfort
during the ninety odd days that he had been with us, but had doubtless
saved our lives on more than one occasion.

As a proof of the extent and value of his services, I will quote a
letter received many months after in Europe, when, in the midst of
modern civilization, the events and occurrences of my journey through
the tropical regions of South America seemed more like a dream than a
reality. Alex, who had returned to Bogotá, wrote as follows:


‘I have just received a letter from Leal, dated from his home at San
Pedro del Tua. You will remember that he left us with fourteen of our
men, to return by the Vichada and the Meta. On the very day of their
departure, whilst they were ascending the rapids, and we proceeded on
our journey down-stream, only a few hours after bidding us farewell, one
of the two canoes, carrying seven men, struck the trunk of a tree lying
under the water, and capsized. The men were all good swimmers, and soon
overtook the canoe, which was drifting with the stream. After a good
deal of trouble, they succeeded in turning it over. Whilst they were
getting back into it, they were attacked by two enormous alligators
which sought to overturn the canoe, striking it furiously with their
tails. One of the sailors was struck on the head and stunned, losing his
grip, and before he could be pulled in the other alligator cut his body
in two, as if with a saw, crushing him between its jaws, so that the man
was actually devoured in the very presence of his companions.’


On reading these tragic details, I felt a cold shiver run through me,
like a man who sees lightning strike an object close to him, or feels a
murderous bullet whizz past his head. A retrospective fear seized upon
me at the thought of the many nights spent on the lonely beaches, and
the numberless times that our canoes had struck submerged rocks or
trunks of trees. Surely a kind Providence had watched over us during
that long journey. ‘The child’s heart within the man’s’ revived in me,
with the faith in God learnt from the lips of my mother, and my soul
went to her who, during those long, anxious days, had prayed night and
day to Him above for the safety of her absent son.

Greatly diminished in numbers, we continued downwards, hoping to strike
some camp of tonga-bean-gatherers, the harvest season having just begun.

If the Meta had seemed large and mighty to us, the Orinoco bore the
aspect of an inland sea. The breezes and the hurricanes blow upon its
billows and dash them into surf on the bank; the trade-winds—our old
friends of the Meta—reappeared on the Orinoco, only far stronger than
before. One would say that they spend their force in the long journey,
and are somewhat weary in the upper regions. It is impossible to make
any progress in the teeth of the trade-wind. With a stern or a side wind
the canoes hoist their sails and travel with the speed of birds on the
wing. The great force of the wind is generally felt during the middle
hours of the day; it lulls in the morning and afternoon.

Far more frequently than on the Meta we were forced to wait for hours on
the sandy desert beaches, or close in to the shore covered with jungle,
waiting, waiting for the wind to sink. The worst feature of these
breezes is that they raise a great quantity of sand to a height varying
from 2 to 3 feet.

Cooking becomes impossible, as the wind blows the fire out, scattering
the embers and the logs, and unless rocks or trees be available on which
to sit at a certain height, one is compelled to stand, as it is
impossible to breathe the air, which is impregnated with sand. At such
times we were compelled to make our meals of _casabe_ dipped in water,
and drink more freely of the white rum which took the place of warmer
food and drink. Once we were kept thus imprisoned for nearly thirty
hours; our helplessness against the elements exercised a most depressing
influence.

The tonga bean, called in Spanish _zarrapia_, constitutes a most
important article of trade, and is obtained in large quantities on the
shore of the Orinoco and of many of its affluents below the rapids. It
is said to abound also in the Upper Orinoco, but there it is seldom
gathered.

The tonga-tree is large and leafy, very similar to the mango-tree. The
branches, which spread over an area of 20, 30, or 40 feet, are covered
with thick foliage, and the yield of fruit is enormous. The fruit
resembles the mango in shape and appearance. Under a sweet pulp, quite
palatable, is found an oval nut, identical with that of the mango, and
inside this nut, which has the consistency of a walnut, is encased a
small elongated bean of a pink colour. It soon turns dark red when
exposed to air and sun. The trees shed the fruit in the months of
February and March; the men gather it from the ground, clean off the
pulp, and break the nut with stones. This must be carefully done to
avoid breaking the bean, which is then placed in the sun on dry,
untanned hides, and after two or three days packed in bags ready for
transportation.

The tonga bean is chiefly used in perfumery, and is a very good
substitute for vanilla.

We were told that the exports averaged, at the prices then ranging, a
yearly output of £100,000 to £150,000.	I understand that the price has
fallen considerably of late years, but as the gathering costs very
little, and the transportation, owing to the numerous waterways, is
cheap, there must still be great profits in the business.

Traders flock from the different parts of the river to certain
well-known camps, from which they branch off into the forests, bringing
back the bean for sale to the camps. Although the Venezuelan Government
has more than once granted special privileges and monopolies to
individuals and companies for the exploitation of the tonga bean, its
gathering is practically free, as it would be next to impossible to
watch over such vast uninhabited areas where men can easily conceal
themselves in the forests.

Our progress was far slower than before, as we generally lost half a day
waiting for the breeze to fall. This was owing principally to the size
of our canoes, too small for navigation in a high wind.

In due time we came upon the first camp, a most welcome sight to our
eyes; a whole village of tents stood pitched on the bank of the river,
and upwards of twenty or thirty canoes were moored along the shore.
Amongst them we saw a small one-masted schooner, which raised its
graceful lines above the surrounding small craft. We gazed upon it with
covetous eyes, and decided to make every possible effort to acquire it,
if it could be had for love or money.

We did not attract any attention at first; the people in the camp
thought that we were tonga-bean-gatherers like themselves, coming from
some point above; but they showed great interest and courtesy on hearing
that we came not only from beyond the rapids, but from the upper
affluents of the Orinoco. We soon closed a bargain for the schooner,
into which we transferred our belongings, and the next day the three
small sails were let loose to the very breeze that, during the past few
days, had nailed us to the shores.

Besides the schooner, we obtained a supply of provisions, though not as
much as we wished. The traders had only what they needed, and were loath
to part with them, especially as we were going towards the centres of
supply.

In the course of a day or two we stopped at a large flat island, some
twelve miles in length, as we were told, and varying from two to four
miles in breadth; this is known as the Beach of Lard (_Playa de la
Manteca_). This island is the laying-place of hundreds of thousands of
turtles, which come to it every year in the laying season. The island
belongs to the Government, who place a small detachment of soldiers to
watch over it. The traders buy the right of working a given section of
the ground. They dig out the eggs, from which the oil is extracted. It
is used for cooking, and is a substitute for lard and butter—hence the
name of the beach.

The turtles swarm in myriads, and are forced by those coming up behind
them to go further into the island. After laying their eggs they seek
the water, but are so numerous that it is necessary for the soldiers and
traders to keep a pathway open, otherwise many of them could not get
back to the river.

It is a marvel to see countless acres of ground covered with turtles as
thick as the stones of a pavement; and the fact might be incredible if
it were not vouched for by so many travellers.

A turtle lays, according to its size and age, from fifty to three or
four hundred eggs. The men—traders or Government agents—are free to take
as many turtles as they like; the eggs are the only article of barter
upon which a price is set.

Some idea of the number of turtles laying eggs on the beach may be
gathered from the reckoning of a French traveller who investigated the
subject.

The oil extracted from the eggs is gathered in demijohns holding on an
average seven gallons each, and the average yield of a good year is
about ten thousand demijohns. Each demijohn requires from four to five
thousand eggs; ten thousand demijohns represent from four to five
millions, which means that there must be from four to five hundred
thousand turtles. The tale seems extravagant.

It is needless to say that we took in as large a supply of turtles and
of eggs as we could carry. The sailors of the schooner were delighted at
the prospect of turtle meat and turtle eggs _ad libitum_. The eggs are
boiled in salt water, and keep for a practically indefinite period.

The capacity for eating these eggs shown by the natives of those regions
seems to be unlimited. I could not understand, looking at the size of
the men and at the young mountain of turtle eggs before which they sat,
and which disappeared after a period of sustained assimilation, how it
was possible that they did not swell outwardly or explode. Here was a
case in which the envelope was, to all purposes and appearances, smaller
than the contents assimilated—a problem for some sapient naturalist to
investigate whenever he may chance to stray into those remote regions.

It is said that the turtle yields seven kinds of meat, and that in the
hands of a good cook it is transfigured into calf’s head, veal, tender
loin steak, chicken, venison, pork, and (naturally) turtle meat. Be that
as it may, notwithstanding the uncouth and, to some, repulsive
appearance of the animal, it is evident that the various parts of its
body are not only palatable, but may be disguised to imitate the
varieties mentioned, a peculiarity which in its turn works inversely, as
in the well-known case of mock-turtle soup.

The turtles we bought were placed on their backs, which seems to be the
universal method of keeping them all the world over. There in the bottom
of our schooner the poor beasts had ample opportunity to watch the
flight of clouds by day and the grouping of the constellations by night.
I fear, however, that they did not improve their time with the study
either of atmospherical changes or of astronomical wonders.

Fermin rapidly learnt how to cook and prepare turtles in the various
native ways, to which he added devices of his own, reminiscent of the
preparation of other meats and dishes in his native province.

The change of diet was most welcome at first, but after the fourth or
fifth day the very name of turtle was revolting. Fermin was told that,
if nothing else but turtle was to be found, we preferred to fall back on
boiled rice and _casabe_. Relying, however, on his ability and the
protean plasticity of turtle meat, he insisted on serving some of it as
wild-boar flesh, and only upon a formal threat of shooting, or being
left tied to the trunk of a tree along the shore, like a new Andromache,
did he cease his attempts to deceive our palates. Thus, notwithstanding
the plentiful supply of turtles and turtle eggs, we drifted back to the
diet of _casabe_, boiled fish and boiled rice.

We had hoped to strike some cattle-farm, but we scanned the horizon in
vain. The plains and the forests rolled before our eyes, an interminable
blank for our purposes.

Finally, as everything happens at last, our expectation was gratified;
near the confluence of our old friend the Meta with the Orinoco, we came
upon a cattle-ranch where we obtained corn, molasses, eggs, lard,
cheese, coffee, and the whole side of a recently slaughtered heifer.

I can readily understand that persons of a delicate taste, should they
happen to read these awkwardly penned lines, must feel disgusted at the
recurrence of such vulgar and material details. Their amazement will
certainly be great, for in all probability they will be surrounded by
all the comforts and the luxury of civilized life. There is no harsher
censor of the misdeeds or faults arising out of somebody else’s hunger
than the drowsy philosopher who passes judgment in a comfortable
armchair after a plentiful meal; his untempted rectitude makes him the
austerest critic of failings and weaknesses in others. However, the
opinion of those immaculate beings, with their hot-house virtue, safe
from wind and wet behind glass panes, receives precisely the attention
it deserves.

Still, I admit that, after having crossed those regions, it were better
if I could describe what I saw in a series of pen-pictures which would
unroll before the reader in sequence or harmonious groups the numerous
sublime aspects of Nature; it were far better that, even as the essence
retains the perfume of the flower, the written word should convey to
other minds the deep impression left upon my own by the mysterious
murmuring forest, the invisible wind whose breath so often cooled my
forehead, the constant throb of the wandering waves pent within their
narrow channels, the infinite azure of the sky, and the numberless
sounds and rumours, now soft, now deafening, which fill the air in that
world still free from the burden of civilization, living the life of
untrodden Nature, a link in the endless chain of existence ravening on
death, with the great drama of being made manifest in a thousand diverse
shapes.

Happy were I could I seize one single note from that vast symphony,
capture it, and fix it with my words! Vain wishes!

We passed from those solitudes, leaving no more trace behind us than the
clouds in the sky, and although the impression of the greatness and the
majesty of Nature sank deeply into my heart, so that at times my soul,
returning to the days of the past, loses itself in the depths of the
forests and the summits of the mountains, follows the course of the
rivers, or bathes itself in the pure atmosphere of the free and
boundless plain, whenever I seek to utter my inmost feelings, so that
others may feel and understand with me, only the faintest shadow of my
thought falls on the blank page. The gift of seeing and of feeling, and
of creating what we have felt and seen so that others in their turn may
feel a similar impression, has been given by the Almighty only to those
few chosen artists and men of genius who throw upon the work which they
create ‘the light that never was on land or sea.’ I must perforce limit
myself to the humble narrative of our daily life. I have no higher
ambition in writing these pages, and I shall be fortunate if I meet with
readers who understand my motive.

The schooner took us down to La Urbana (a settlement with urban
pretensions); it boasts some _adobe_ houses covered with tiles, and a
small church. Here we abandoned the schooner, and were obliged to take
to a far smaller canoe—large enough, however, for navigation on the
Orinoco—in which we proceeded to Caicara, where we expected to meet the
steamers plying between Ciudad Bolivar and the Apure River.



                             CHAPTER XVIII


The journey from La Urbana to Caicara passed off without any incident.
On jumping ashore at this latter point we hoped that we were leaving our
canoes for good, and that the rest of the journey to Ciudad Bolivar
would take place by steam.

The people received us very kindly, and, though the town was far from
modern or rich, we enjoyed some comforts that we had lacked during the
long journey which lay behind us.

Though eight weeks had passed since the news of the death of the
Governor of San Carlos had reached Maipures, nothing was known about it
at Caicara. This will give an idea of the abandonment in which those
vast territories are left by those under whose political authority they
live. Grave international complications with the neighbouring States
might arise from disturbances like that at San Carlos, and yet the news
had only come down by mere chance, brought by travellers who had no
personal interest in it.

Finding that there was no certainty as to the steamers likely to touch
at Caicara, we reluctantly decided to take again to the slow and sure
method of canoeing, rather than wait for him who had not promised to
come, and thus we proceeded on our journey in the same canoes that we
had imagined we were abandoning once for all two days before. A feeling
of discontent began to possess us. It was not that we were dissatisfied
with the kind of life, nor that we had become over-sensitive to the
privations inherent to it, nor that we complained of being plain squires
compelled to adopt the practices of knight-errants, such as not eating
off linen, nor sleeping on comfortable couches, nor under roof of house
or mansion; no, our great longing arose at the thought of those far away
in the civilized world, to whom our long silence must necessarily be a
source of anxiety. For the rest, however, the life we were leading had
become a sort of second nature, and we found it by no means
disagreeable. We ate with healthy appetites, and when night came,
stretched on our matting, we heedlessly let the wind fold its wings or
shriek into madness, whilst the river either murmured gently along like
a stream across the green meadow or lashed into fury like a lion.

We rowed or sailed as the river and the wind permitted, gaining ground
without the loss of an available minute, with the tenacity of one who
has a given task to accomplish, and wants to perform it with the least
possible delay. One night, shortly after halting, a shudder of delight
ran through us on hearing one of the men exclaim, ‘Steamer coming!’ We
turned in the direction pointed out by him, but saw nothing. However, we
had learnt by that time to trust to the keener senses of the natives.
Shortly afterwards, with ear to ground, we heard, or thought we heard, a
far-off indistinct vibration as of the paddles of a steamer striking the
water. The sound soon became unmistakable. Here was an unexpected
redemption. From sheer joy we ceased the preparations for our evening
meal. To attract the attention of those on board the steamer the
bonfires were piled up high, and, to leave no possible loophole to
adverse fate, Alex and four of the men sailed into mid-stream, so as to
be quite close to the craft. Soon it loomed majestic and welcome to our
eyes. The pennant of whitish smoke rose in the still blue night, and
floated as a signal of welcome. The boat advanced steadily; we could see
the people on board. That rather undersized vessel was to us, for the
moment, the great in fact, the only—steamer in the world. We fired our
revolvers. Alex and his men bawled themselves hoarse. No sign of
recognition came from the steamer as she ploughed on swiftly,
relentlessly, disdainfully, soon to be lost in the distance. This was
wanton cruelty, and, as we thought at the time, a sin against human
nature. Our feelings were not such as might be commended to the
attention and imitation of Sunday-school children! Our language was
decidedly ‘unfit for publication.’ According to the reckoning of our
men, which events proved accurate, we should require twelve days more to
reach Ciudad Bolivar, whilst the steamer, sailing day and night as it
could, even against the breeze, would cover the distance in forty-eight
or sixty hours. It is well that we possessed no magic powers enabling us
to destroy, as if with a thunder-bolt, for in that case the steamer
would not have reached its destination. So it generally happens in life
when the action of others foils our little plans or obstructs our way.
Looking solely to our own side of the question, we are apt to make no
allowance, and attribute to utter perversity what from the standpoint of
the other side may be perfectly reasonable. As revolutions are frequent
in those latitudes, and as steamers had on several occasions been seized
by parties of men ambushed on the shore, the captain of the steamer
probably thought that prudence and caution were his safest guides. He
may have believed that, besides the small group which he saw in the
canoe and on the shore, a formidable host might be lurking in the
forest, and under those circumstances his behaviour is perfectly
intelligible.

As we approached the end of our journey, our impatience and anxiety grew
keener. Up to that time we had never lost our equanimity, and now, when
we could reckon with a fair degree of accuracy the date of our arrival
at Ciudad Bolivar, the smallest obstacle or detention irritated us
beyond measure. Yet all things end. On April 20 we arrived at a small
outlying village three hours from Ciudad Bolivar.

Our approach to a civilized community awakened slumbering feelings of
vanity, and for the first time during many months we bethought ourselves
of our appearance. I had an authentic mane on my head; our beards were
thick and bushy as the jungle on the banks of the river. Such clothes as
we had could hardly have passed muster under the eyes of the most
lenient critic. Most of those that we possessed at starting had been
left behind amongst the Indians, in payment of work, and what little
remained had not been improved by the moisture of the climate. On taking
stock, I soon found that my dress coat and trousers—evolved by some
London artist—were the only decent clothes left to me; yet I could not
screw up courage to don them, as I feared that if, after several months’
journey through the wildest regions of South America, I jumped ashore at
noonday on the banks of the Orinoco in a swallow-tail, the authorities
would probably provide me with free board and lodging in some cool
lunatic asylum! We consoled ourselves with the thought that we were
clean, and thus near to godliness, and that we could soon replace our
patched and tattered clothes at Ciudad Bolivar.

I have forgotten to mention our visit to the cattle estates of General
Crespo, at that time President of Venezuela, a typical son of the
_llanos_. These estates had a frontage of twenty-five leagues along the
river, and extend Heaven only knows how far into the interior. The
manager, or _major-domo_, told us that the herds on those estates
numbered upwards of 200,000 head of cattle. The figure appears
fantastic, but the fact that at that time 1,500 three-year-old bullocks
were exported monthly to the neighbouring West India Island, principally
Trinidad, may serve as a basis for calculation.

On that eventful 20th of April the breeze blew tantalizingly against us,
yet we would not be detained, and decided to advance in its very teeth.
The men jumped ashore and pulled the canoes with ropes. The city, built
as upon a terrace, soon appeared in the distance, its white, red-roofed
houses standing out under the clear sky like dabs of paint upon a blue
canvas. Behind the town the hill continued to rise, and opposite the
city the river itself, encased into a narrow space, is only one-third of
a mile broad. It was a delight to look once more on houses, towers and
churches, and other signs of civilized life. The sight was an
enchantment after the eternal panorama of forest, mountain, plain and
river. We had a feeling akin to that of Columbus and his companions when
the watch shouted ‘Land! land!’ We could echo those words in their full
significance. The struggle was at an end; river, forest, rapids, fevers,
wild beasts, poisonous snakes, savages, and all the obstacles that lay
behind us, were over, leaving no further trace than the dust along the
roads or the foam of the waves on the sands. Thanks to the Divine
protection, we had reached the end of an adventurous journey full of
possibilities of mishap and of danger, and all that had taken place was
simply as a memory in our minds.

We attracted great attention on landing, and were soon installed in one
of the good hotels of the towns. We stared with something like
wonderment at mirrors, tables, sofas, as at so many good old friends
from whom we had been long separated. In us, primitive man had very soon
reasserted full sway, and we had to make some effort to return to the
habits and customs of civilized life. As soon as we could, we placed
ourselves in the hands of a barber in the town. He had been told of our
great store of luggage, and, inquisitive as all men of his profession
are, on hearing one of us humming for very joy under his razor and
shears, asked (I know not whether in innocence or banter): ‘How many of
you are in the company, and what opera are you going to begin with?’ To
this I replied: ‘We are not an opera company, but a circus, and our
performances will begin shortly; we are on the look-out for a clown.’ He
did not proceed with his cross-examination.

Ciudad Bolivar is famous in the annals of Venezuelan and Colombian
history. It bears the name of the emancipator of those regions. Formerly
it was called Angostura, which means ‘the Narrows.’ In 1819 one of the
first Colombian Congresses was held at that city, and its deliberations,
which soon crystallized into action, brought about the expulsion of the
Spaniards after a daring and sanguinary series of campaigns. The very
men who sat at Ciudad Bolivar, 300 miles from the shores of the
Atlantic, ended their military campaign on the plateau of Ayacucho in
1824, having marched thousands of leagues across plain and forests,
snow-capped mountains, precipices, jungle, fighting for every inch of
ground against the stubborn soldiers of Spain in one of the most heroic
and tenacious struggles on both sides that are to be found in the annals
of history.

The river, as I have stated before, narrows after its long pilgrimage,
and, even as a regiment which closes its ranks, rolls its waves in
denser array opposite the city. No sooner does it reach the outside
limits than it broadens again, and, after running through fertile plains
and swampy valleys for a distance of 600 kilometres, reaches the sea.
The normal depth opposite Ciudad Bolivar is 120 metres. During the rainy
season the level rises from 10 to 20 metres.

Verily the Orinoco is a living, wandering sea of fresh water gathered
from the northern plains of South America, which forms the tribute of
those lands to the Atlantic Ocean. We had just followed it in its
pilgrimage for a long part of its course. We had known it in tempest and
in calm; we had watched the dawn gilding its throbbing waters or the
twilight covering them with flickering shadows; we had listened to the
whispering of the winds and the roar of the hurricane along its shores;
we had seen the monsters which roam in its waters, admired the river’s
Titanic sport, dashing in the rapids, or its majestic quiet in the deep
basins of granite where the current seems to rest before leaping in a
wild onslaught through the cañons; and now we saw it majestically unroll
before our eyes in the august pageant of its last procession to the
ocean. We could not but think that, if that great artery of palpitating
life which vibrates through the centre of the continent had stood us in
such good service, its possibilities for the development of those vast
unknown territories, when once appreciated by humanity, were practically
unlimited. To our mind’s eye, prophetic with desire, the vast solitudes
we had left behind became resonant glad with the presence of myriads of
men; the forests were cleared, the plains tilled, and a happy and
prosperous nation, the outcome of the present struggling democracies
that own those lands, increased by swarms of immigrants from distant
overcrowded countries, reared its cities and towns along the banks of
the river which, in its immutable, defiant majesty and power, still
rolled to the sea, serving men, but remaining a bond of union, a mighty
link between the Cordilleras and the ocean.



                              CHAPTER XIX


I have thus far sought to give an idea of my personal impressions during
a journey most memorable to me; and I am aware that I bring no new or
useful contribution from a scientific point of view. We had no
instruments of observation, not even an ordinary every-day compass,
enabling us to fix the cardinal points with certainty. Furthermore, had
we possessed more complicated instruments, we were too ignorant to use
them. Let these remarks be borne in mind should errors of appreciation
be noticed, as certainly they exist, in this disjointed narrative.

We wandered on with the definite aim of reaching the Atlantic Ocean.
Beyond that we did not venture to scrutinize too deeply the mysterious
and wonderful manifestations of Nature, but took them as they appeared
to our limited means of vision and understanding, and sought nothing
beyond.

However, before closing these pages, assuming that some kind reader’s
patience may have enabled him to accompany me thus far, it may not be
amiss to give some accurate data which I take from the admirable
monograph entitled ‘South America: an Outline of its Physical
Geography,’ published in the _Geographical Journal_ of April, 1901, by
Colonel George Earl Church, a book which might be called ‘South America
in a Nutshell,’ wonderfully accurate and concise, and worthy of the
highest praise.

The total length of the Orinoco is about 1,500 miles, but if measured by
its Guaviari branch it is several hundred miles longer. It reaches its
maximum height in August. To its point of junction with the Guaviare it
takes a north-west course. Ninety miles before its union with that
stream it receives its principal eastern affluent, the Ventuario. From
the Guaviare it runs north nearly as far as the Apure, where it suddenly
turns east. Between the Guaviare and the Meta the course of the river is
obstructed by the Maipures Rapids, which extend for a length of four
miles, with a total fall of about 40 feet. Below this the Atures Rapids
cover a distance of about six miles, falling about 30 feet. Navigation
is then free for about 700 miles, as far as the rapids of Cariben,
within six miles of the mouth of the Meta. The river at this point is
about a mile wide. Its course continues to the north, and at the mouth
of the Apure it is two miles wide in the dry season, and about seven
when in flood. At Cariben it rises 32 feet; but at the Angostura, or
‘Narrows,’ 372 miles from the sea, it has risen to 60 feet. It enters
the sea by its main trunk, the Boca Grande. About 100 miles above its
mouth it throws off a branch northward to the Gulf of Paria, also 100
miles in length. Six other considerable arms find their way to the ocean
across a vast delta about 7,000 square miles in area. The Boca Grande is
the deepest and main navigable entrance at all seasons, the muddy bar
usually maintaining a depth of 16 feet. The basin of the Orinoco covers
an area of 364,500 square miles.

The principal affluents flowing from the Andean slopes are the Apure,
the Arauca, the Meta, and the Guaviare.

The Apure is 695 miles long, of which 564 are navigable. The Apure in
its turn receives numerous tributaries, some of which are navigable for
short distances.

The Arauca, the Meta and the Guaviare, are also navigable.

The Casiquiare Canal unites the upper Orinoco with the Rio Negro branch
of the Amazon. It is about 300 miles long, with an average depth of 30
feet, and has a strong current in the direction of the Negro. The list
of affluents of the Orinoco and of its tributaries would be a very long
one, and would serve no useful purpose here.

Evidently the Orinoco and the Orinoco system, with their innumerable
ramifications in all directions, form a basis for the easy exploitation
of the vast sources of natural wealth which exist in the immense
territory through which their waters flow.

That territory lies within the borders of the Republics of Colombia and
Venezuela. Up to the present neither nation has seriously attempted to
utilize the valuable elements so bountifully offered by Nature. In the
matter of navigation, ocean-going steamers sail frequently as far as
Ciudad Bolivar. From this latter point river steamers ply once or twice
a month up the Orinoco, turning into the Apure as far as San Fernando de
Apure, and during the tonga-bean harvest follow the course of the main
river generally as far as the Caura, where the harvesters established
their central camps a good many years ago. An effort was made to
establish navigation on the Orinoco and its affluents above the rapids,
and also to run small steamers in the navigable part between the Atures
and Maipures rapids; but the French company, which held a charter
practically placing the whole region at its disposal, failed of its
object, after spending a considerable amount of money. During our
journey, in several places we could see, rotting in the sun, the
remnants of broken-down steamers, which appeared uncanny objects in
those surroundings. The rapids, acting as a barrier, have deterred
traders and explorers. The upper part of the Orinoco is the most
abundant in natural wealth. As I have had occasion to note in these
pages, india-rubber, _piazaba_, tonga bean, resinous and medicinal
plants, are found in practically unlimited quantities along the shores
of all the rivers above the rapids, and the small proportion which is
gathered is generally shipped through the Rio Negro by way of the
Amazon, as traders prefer that long and tedious journey to the
difficulties of the Orinoco Rapids.

Yet to give life to the Orinoco, to establish a stream of natural
products down its waters, and to facilitate the opening of the forests
and mountains beyond the rapids, it would not be necessary to carry out
work of a very stupendous nature, beyond the resources of the peoples
and the nations most interested in the work. A cursory glance at the
elements of the problem reveals the possibility of carrying out a plan,
the general outlines of which might be the following:

A line of steamers should be established plying at least twice a month
between Ciudad Bolivar and the highest accessible point for navigation
below the Atures Rapids.

The old road along the rapids, which extended from that highest point of
navigation to beyond Maipures where the river is again free and open,
should be reconstructed. A railway could be built along either shore,
the ground being mostly level and hard. It would not be necessary to
undertake great engineering works, and the road-bed itself would require
neither deep cuttings nor terracing, nor expensive culverts and works of
drainage, and the few bridges required, being of short span, would not
run into high figures.

Steam navigation should also be established beyond the rapids on the
rivers forming the upper basin. This could be done at first by means of
small steam-launches such as are used in the affluents of the Amazon
River, but the service should be carried out faithfully and
periodically, even though at first freight and passengers were lacking.
People in Spanish America are generally very sceptical as to these
enterprises, but once a feeling of confidence was created, explorers
would flock both from Colombia and from Venezuela, as they would know
that they would have an outlet for whatever products they might gather.

The Indians on the Vichada, and even those on the Meta, would supply
abundant labour, and the exports of natural products would soon furnish
all the freight that might be desired to make the whole arrangement of
steamers above and below the rapids, and the railway along the same, a
paying concern.

A line of steamers should also follow the course of the Meta River as
far as La Cruz, a port situated about ninety miles from Bogotá, thus
tapping the import and export trade of the most thickly-populated region
of Colombia, the inhabitants of which in the three provinces of
Santander, Boyacá, and Cundinamarca, are over 1,500,000 in number.

Supposing four steamers to be needed for navigation on the lower river
and on the Meta, to be bought at Ciudad Bolivar at a cost of £10,000
each, £40,000 would be required under this head. Taking the length of
the railway at 60 kilometres, including the bridges, at a cost of £2,000
per kilometre, £120,000 would be required for the railway; and supposing
that ten small steam-launches of twenty to thirty tons burden were
started for the rivers on the upper basin, £20,000 would be required—in
all, £180,000 for the whole undertaking.

The preceding figures are not imaginative, and might, perhaps, be
reduced in actual practice. If it has been possible to raise the capital
required for the construction of a railway of upwards of 200 kilometres
in length along the shores of the Congo, where climate, distance, and
natives combine to establish far more serious obstacles than exist on
the Orinoco, should it not be possible to find the capital for the
establishment of modern means of transportation in a region which offers
far brighter and surer prospects than the Congo? Let it be remembered
that from Colombia and from Venezuela civilized white, coloured and
Indian labour could be found in abundance, and that Europeans engaged in
the undertaking, and provided with steamers, could in two days, if on
the Meta, reach the high and healthy plateaus of Bogotá and find
themselves in a civilized community where they would lack none of the
luxuries or comforts of their own land; and that in the Lower Orinoco
they would have Ciudad Bolivar, to which the same remarks, barring the
advantage of climate, may be applied. The two Governments of Colombia
and Venezuela, equally interested in the development of the Orinoco
basin, might unite their efforts and guarantee in a form satisfactory to
European capitalists the paltry yearly amount required to pay the
service of interest and sinking fund on the £180,000. Taking the
interest at 6, with a sinking fund of 1 per cent., £12,600 yearly would
be required—that is to say, £6,300 for each Government. I know that at
the present moment such a task would be well-nigh impossible, but I also
know that if a sincere effort were made, notwithstanding the universal
feeling of distrust, it would be possible to create securities specially
applicable to this purpose, which would satisfy the most exacting
capitalist.

In the midst of the daily turmoil and agitation and sanguinary struggle
which constitutes the life of those democracies, these problems, urgent
and vital as they are, pass unheeded; and the more the pity, for in
their solution lies the basis of a permanent peace. Prosperity begets
abhorrence of internal revolutions. The development of Mexico is a case
in point, from which Colombia and Venezuela might take heed. Woe to them
if they do not! The world begins to sicken at the very mention of the
constant strife which converts into a positive hell those regions where
Nature has shown herself prodigal beyond measure in all her gifts. Not
only the valley of the Orinoco, with its boundless prairies, its dense
forests, and its innumerable affluents, but the uplands of the Andine
regions and the plains extending in Venezuela towards the North Atlantic
or Caribbean Sea, and in Colombia to the Pacific Ocean, are coveted by
nations where humanity is overcrowded by races which would fain
establish colonies in those regions. The development of humanity cannot
be stayed; the human wave, even as the stream of water contained by a
dyke, will sooner or later break through the walls that imprison it and
flood the surrounding country. It were well for men animated by real
patriotism in Colombia and in Venezuela to ponder over these
possibilities, so that the two nations might themselves open the
flood-gates for immigration without delay, so that the new-comers would
prove a fresh source of strength and power, helping to build up on the
basis of the now existing nations free and mighty commonwealths, rather
than as conquerors, who (whether they come from the North as wolves in
sheep’s clothing under cover of the Monroe doctrine, or from across the
ocean, driven by necessity stronger than all political conventionality)
would come as masters.

Now is our accepted time. The moments are counted during which the
danger may be averted and the inevitable turned to account; but, alas!
feuds and errors deep-rooted in medieval soil, luxuriant in this our
twentieth century, darken the minds of men, influence their judgment,
turn away their activity from the real aims that would lead their
nations to greatness, and force them into barbarous struggles which the
world regards with amazement and brands as crimes against mankind.



                               CHAPTER XX


After a week in Ciudad Bolivar, we bethought ourselves of continuing the
journey to the sea. Civilization had reclaimed us for her own, and
rigged in European attire, such as befits the tropics, with all the
social conventionalities once again paramount in our mind, we set forth
on that, the last stage of the journey. We had been, not a nine days’
but a nine hours’ wonder in the historical town which rears its houses
and churches alongside the narrows of the majestic stream. Early in the
afternoon of a dazzling tropical day, cloudless, blue and hazy from the
very brilliancy of the air, we stepped into the large steamboat that was
to carry us to the neighbouring British island of Trinidad, once also a
Spanish possession. The usual events accompanying the departure of all
steamers from the shore repeated themselves: clanging of chains,
shouting of orders, groans of the huge structure, shrill whistles, and
that trepidation, the dawn as it were of motion, something like a
hesitation of things inert apparently unwilling to be set in motion,
which is the life of matter inanimate; then the steady throbbing of the
machinery, the stroke of the paddles, splash, splash, until regularity
and monotony are attained, and the ship, wheeled into midstream after
describing a broad arc, set the prow eastward with the current to the
ocean.

We looked at the town as it dwindled indistinct, seeming to sink into
the vast azure of the horizon, swallowed in the scintillating folds of
the blue distance. We sat on the deck as if in a trance. Shortly after
starting, wild Nature reasserted her sway, and the small oasis built by
the hand of man in the heart of the untamed region, seemed to us who
knew how unmeasurable were those forests and those plains, like a tiny
nest perched on the branches of a lofty and over-spreading _ceiba_. A
feeling of superiority over our fellow-passengers unconsciously filled
our breasts. For were we not boon companions, fellow-travellers, tried
and trusted comrades of those rushing waters? Had we not shared their
pilgrimage for days and days, in calm and in storm, in sunshine and in
darkness? Had we not slept on their bosom or travelled upon it for
countless hours, till the secret of their mystery and the joy of their
wandering had penetrated into our very soul? What knew they, the other
travellers of a few hours, of the intimate life of those waters which we
had watched, gathering their strength from all the points of the
compass, swelling the current of the central stream, mingling their life
with it, now as rivulets, now as rivers, now placid in the embrace, now
plunging, foaming, as if loath to loose their identity? Yea, verily, we
were comrades, fellow-pilgrims, with the splendid travelling sea, there
on its final march to the boundless deep.

Forest and plain, marsh, morass, jungle, succeeded one another in
interminable procession, and the setting sun now broke its ray on the
low-lying hills, now reverberated on the far-off marshes on either side
of the current, tinging them with a crimson glow. Towards sunset the
whistle of the steamer frightened a flock of flamingoes gathered to
roost, as is their wont when the shadows of evening approach. The whole
flock sought refuge in flight, and their widespread wings, as they rose
before us, seemed like a huge transparent pink curtain lifted before our
very eyes, rising higher and higher until it vanished in space.

Night fell upon the scene. First the stars and then the moon kindled
their beacon fires, dispelling darkness into a semi-obscurity fraught
with mystery, embalmed with the effluvia from the forest and the river.
We felt like a shadow crossing the wilderness. The littleness of self,
the insignificance of the human being, became overwhelming.

What could it matter if that daring shell with its human freight were
dashed to pieces against a submerged tree and swallowed in the waves?
Nature, impassible, would take no notice of the event; in far-off homes
sorrow would fill the loving hearts. The river would be looked upon as a
grave, wondrous vast, where a dear one had found his rest, but the river
itself would suffer no change, and our world of hopes, ambitions,
infinite longings, would leave no more trace than the smallest bubble of
the floating foam.

And thus the morrow came. With the light of day the circle of the
horizon broadened; we were out at sea, no trace of land was visible. The
waves tossed the struggling craft tenderly, gliding under its keel, the
wind caressed the flying pennants on the mastheads and seemed to whisper
promises of freedom as it rustled through the rigging. The mighty river
had disappeared, paying its tribute, like a human being to the grave, to
Father Ocean. And the long journey which lay behind us was nothing more
than a dream in our memory, for things dreamt and things lived do so
intermingle their identity in our minds that the attempt to disentangle
their threads were useless. And so we drifted into the broad,
unmeasurable expanse of waters which seemed to palpitate and tremble as
with the touch of life under the glorious rays of the morning sun.


                                THE END


                 BILLING AND SONS, PRINTERS, GUILDFORD



                          Transcriber’s Notes


--Retained publication information from the printed edition: this eBook
  is public-domain in the country of publication.

--In the text versions only, italicized text is delimited by
  _underscores_.

--Corrected a few palpable typographical errors.





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