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CHAPTER VI A FOREST ON THE GROUND
THE GARRAL family were in high glee. The magnificent journey on the Amazon was to be undertaken under conditions as agreeable as possible. Not only were the fazender and his family to start on a voyage for several months, but, as we shall see, he was to be accompanied by a part of the staff of the farm.
In beholding every one happy around him, Joam forgot the anxieties which appeared to trouble his life. From the day his decision was taken he had been another man, and when he busied himself about the preparations for the expedition he regained his former activity. His people rejoiced exceedingly at seeing him again at work. His moral self reacted against his physical self, and Joam again became the active, energetic man of his earlier years, and moved about once more as though he had spent his life in the open air, under the invigorating influences of forests, fields, and running waters.
Moreover, the few weeks that were to precede his departure had been well employed.
At this period, as we have just remarked, the course of the Amazon was not yet furrowed by the numberless steam vessels, which companies were only then thinking of putting into the river. The service was worked by individuals on their own account alone, and often the boats were only employed in the business of the riverside establishments.
These boats were either -"ubas,"- canoes made from the trunk of a tree, hollowed out by fire, and finished with the ax, pointed and light in front, and heavy and broad in the stern, able to carry from one to a dozen paddlers, and of three or four tons burden: -"egariteas,"- constructed on a larger scale, of broader design, and leaving on each side a gangway for the rowers: or -"jangada,"- rafts of no particular shape, propelled by a triangular sail, and surmounted by a cabin of mud and straw, which served the Indian and his family for a floating home.
These three kinds of craft formed the lesser flotilla of the Amazon, and were only suited for a moderate traffic of passengers or merchandise.
Larger vessels, however, existed, either -"vigilingas,"- ranging from eight up to ten tons, with three masts rigged with red sails, and which in calm weather were rowed by four long paddles not at all easy to work against the stream; or -"cobertas,"- of twenty tons burden, a kind of junk with a poop behind and a cabin down below, with two masts and square sails of unequal size, and propelled, when the wind fell, by six long sweeps which Indians worked from a forecastle.
But neither of these vessels satisfied Joam Garral. From the moment that he had resolved to descend the Amazon he had thought of making the most of the voyage by carrying a huge convoy of goods into Para. From this point of view there was no necessity to descend the river in a hurry. And the determination to which he had come pleased every one, excepting, perhaps, Manoel, who would for very good reasons have preferred some rapid steamboat.
But though the means of transport devised by Joam were primitive in the extreme, he was going to take with him a numerous following and abandon himself to the stream under exceptional conditions of comfort and security.
It would be, in truth, as if a part of the fazenda of Iquitos had been cut away from the bank and carried down the Amazon with all that composed the family of the fazender - masters and servants, in their dwellings, their cottages, and their huts.
The settlement of Iquitos included a part of those magnificent forests which, in the central districts of South America, are practically inexhaustible.
Joam Garral thoroughly understood the management of these woods, which were rich in the most precious and diverse species adapted for joinery, cabinet work, ship building, and carpentry, and from them he annually drew considerable profits.
The river was there in front of him, and could it not be as safely and economically used as a railway if one existed? So every year Joam Garral felled some hundreds of trees from his stock and formed immense rafts of floating wood, of joists, beams, and slightly squared trunks, which were taken to Para in charge of capable pilots who were thoroughly acquainted with the depths of the river and the direction of its currents.
This year Joam Garral decided to do as he had done in preceding years. Only, when the raft was made up, he was going to leave to Benito all the detail of the trading part of the business. But there was no time to lose. The beginning of June was the best season to start, for the waters, increased by the floods of the upper basin, would gradually and gradually subside until the month of October.
The first steps had thus to be taken without delay, for the raft was to be of unusual proportions. It would be necessary to fell a half-mile square of the forest which was situated at the junction of the Nanay and the Amazon - that is to say, the whole river side of the fazenda, to form the enormous mass, for such were the -jangadas,- or river rafts, which attained the dimensions of a small island.
It was in this -jangada,- safer than any other vessel of the country, larger than a hundred -egariteas- or -vigilingas- coupled together, that Joam Garral proposed to embark with his family, his servants, and his merchandise.
"Excellent idea!" had cried Minha, clapping her hands, when she learned her father's scheme.
"Yes," said Yaquita, "and in that way we shall reach Belem without danger or fatigue."
"And during the stoppages we can have some hunting in the forests which line the banks," added Benito.
"Won't it take rather long?" observed Manoel; "could we not hit upon some quicker way of descending the Amazon?"
It would take some time, obviously, but the interested observation of the young doctor received no attention from any one.
Joam Garral then called in an Indian who was the principal manager of the fazenda.
"In a month," he said to him, "the jangada must be built and ready to launch."
"We'll set to work this very day, sir."
It was a heavy task. There were about a hundred Indians and blacks, and during the first fortnight in May they did wonders. Some people unaccustomed to these great tree massacres would perhaps have groaned to see giants many hundred years old fall in a few hours beneath the axes of the woodmen; but there was such a quantity on the banks of the river, up stream and down stream, even to the most distant points of the horizon, that the felling of this half-mile of forest would scarcely leave an appreciable void.
The superintendent of the men, after receiving the instructions of Joam Garral, had first cleared the ground of the creepers, brushwood, weeds, and arborescent plants which obstructed it. Before taking to the saw and the ax they had armed themselves with a felling-sword, that indispensable tool of every one who desires to penetrate the Amazonian forests, a large blade slightly curved, wide and flat, and two or three feet long, and strongly handled, which the natives wield with consummate address. In a few hours, with the help of the felling-sword, they had cleared the ground, cut down the underwood, and opened large gaps into the densest portions of the wood.
In this way the work progressed. The ground was cleared in front of the woodmen. The old trunks were divested of their clothing of creepers, cacti, ferns, mosses, and bromelias. They were stripped naked to the bark, until such time as the bark itself was stripped from off them.
Then the whole of the workers, before whom fled an innumerable crowd of monkeys who were hardly their superiors in agility, slung themselves into the upper branches, sawing off the heavier boughs and cutting down the topmost limbs, which had to be cleared away on the spot. Very soon there remained only a doomed forest, with long bare stems, bereft of their crowns, through which the sun luxuriantly rayed on to the humid soil which perhaps its shots had never before caressed.
There was not a single tree which could not be used for some work of skill, either in carpentry or cabinet-work. There, shooting up like columns of ivory ringed with brown, were wax-palms one hundred and twenty feet high, and four feet thick at their base; white chestnuts, which yield the three-cornered nuts; -"murichis,"- unexcelled for building purposes; -"barrigudos,"- measuring a couple of yards at the swelling, which is found at a few feet above the earth, trees with shining russet bark dotted with gray tubercles, each pointed stem of which supports a horizontal parasol; and -"bombax"- of superb stature, with its straight and smooth white stem. Among these magnificent specimens of the Amazonian flora there fell many -"quatibos"- whose rosy canopies towered above the neighboring trees, whose fruits are like little cups with rows of chestnuts ranged within, and whose wood of clear violet is specially in demand for ship-building. And besides there was the ironwood; and more particularly the -"ibiriratea,"- nearly black in its skin, and so close grained that of it the Indians make their battle-axes; -"jacarandas,"- more precious than mahogany; -"caesalpinas,"- only now found in the depths of the old forests which have escaped the woodman's ax; -"sapucaias,"- one hundred and fifty feet high, buttressed by natural arches, which, starting from three yards from their base, rejoin the tree some thirty feet up the stem, twining themselves round the trunk like the filatures of a twisted column, whose head expands in a bouquet of vegetable fireworks made up of the yellow, purple, and snowy white of the parasitic plants.
Three weeks after the work was begun not one was standing of all the trees which had covered the angle of the Amazon and the Nanay. The clearance was complete. Joam Garral had not even had to bestir himself in the demolition of a forest which it would take twenty or thirty years to replace. Not a stick of young or old wood was left to mark the boundary of a future clearing, not even an angle to mark the limit of the denudation. It was indeed a clean sweep; the trees were cut to the level of the earth, to wait the day when their roots would be got out, over which the coming spring would still spread its verdant cloak.
This square space, washed on its sides by the waters of the river and its tributary, was destined to be cleared, plowed, planted, and sown, and the following year fields of manioc, coffee-shrubs, sugar-canes, arrowroot, maize, and peanuts would occupy the ground so recently covered by the trees.
The last week of the month had not arrived when the trunks, classified according to their varieties and specific gravity, were symmetrically arranged on the bank of the Amazon, at the spot where the immense jangada was to be guilt - which, with the different habitations for the accommodation of the crew, would become a veritable floating village - to wait the time when the waters of the river, swollen by the floods, would raise it and carry it for hundreds of leagues to the Atlantic coast.
The whole time the work was going on Joam Garral had been engaged in superintending it. From the clearing to the bank of the fazenda he had formed a large mound on which the portions of the raft were disposed, and to this matter he had attended entirely himself.
Yaquita was occupied with Cybele with the preparations for the departure, though the old negress could not be made to understand why they wanted to go or what they hoped to see.
"But you will see things that you never saw before," Yaquita kept saying to her.
"Will they be better than what I see now?" was Cybele's invariable reply.
Minha and her favorite for their part took care of what more particularly concerned them. They were not preparing for a simple voyage; for them it was a permanent departure, and there were a thousand details to look after for settling in the other country in which the young mulatto was to live with the mistress to whom she was so devotedly attached. Minha was a trifle sorrowful, but the joyous Lina was quite unaffected at leaving Iquitos. Minha Valdez would be the same to her as Minha Garral, and to check her spirits she would have to be separated from her mistress, and that was never thought of.
Benito had actively assisted his father in the work, which was on the point of completion. He commenced his apprenticeship to the trade of a fazender, which would probably one day become his own, as he was about to do that of a merchant on their descent of the river.
As for Manoel, he divided his time between the house, where Yaquita and her daughter were as busy as possible, and the clearing, to which Benito fetched him rather oftener than he thought convenient, and on the whole the division was very unequal, as may well be imagined.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER VII FOLLOWING A LIANA