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CHAPTER VII FOLLOWING A LIANA
IT WAS a Sunday, the 26th of May, and the young people had made up their minds to take a holiday. The weather was splendid, the heat being tempered by the refreshing breezes which blew from off the Cordilleras, and everything invited them out for an excursion into the country.
Benito and Manoel had offered to accompany Minha through the thick woods which bordered the right bank of the Amazon opposite the fazenda.
It was, in a manner, a farewell visit to the charming environs of Iquitos. The young men went equipped for the chase, but as sportsmen who had no intention of going far from their companions in pursuit of any game. Manoel could be trusted for that, and the girls - for Lina could not leave her mistress-went prepared for a walk, an excursion of two or three leagues being not too long to frighten them.
Neither Joam Garral nor Yaquita had time to go with them. For one reason the plan of the jangada was not yet complete, and it was necessary that its construction should not be interrupted for a day, and another was that Yaquita and Cybele, well seconded as they were by the domestics of the fazenda, had not an hour to lose.
Minha had accepted the offer with much pleasure, and so, after breakfast on the day we speak of, at about eleven o'clock, the two young men and the two girls met on the bank at the angle where the two streams joined. One of the blacks went with them. They all embarked in one of the ubas used in the service of the farm, and after having passed between the islands of Iquitos and Parianta, they reached the right bank of the Amazon.
They landed at a clump of superb tree-ferns, which were crowned, at a height of some thirty feet with a sort of halo made of the dainty branches of green velvet and the delicate lacework of the drooping fronds.
"Well, Manoel," said Minha, "it is for me to do the honors of the forest; you are only a stranger in these regions of the Upper Amazon. We are at home here, and you must allow me to do my duty, as mistress of the house."
"Dearest Minha," replied the young man, "you will be none the less mistress of your house in our town of Belem than at the fazenda of Iquitos, and there as here - - "
"Now, then," interrupted Benito, "you did not come here to exchange loving speeches, I imagine. Just forget for a few hours that you are engaged."
"Not for an hour - not for an instant!" said Manoel.
"Perhaps you will if Minha orders you?"
"Minha will not order me."
"Who knows?" said Lina, laughing.
"Lina is right," answered Minha, who held out her hand to Manoel. "Try to forget! Forget! my brother requires it. All is broken off! As long as this walk lasts we are not engaged: I am no more than the sister of Benito! You are only my friend!"
"To be sure," said Benito.
"Bravo! bravo! there are only strangers here," said the young mulatto, clapping her hands.
"Strangers who see each other for the first time," added the girl; "who meet, bow to - - "
"Mademoiselle!" said Manoel, turning to Minha.
"To whom have I the honor to speak, sir?" said she in the most serious manner possible.
"To Manoel Valdez, who will be glad if your brother will introduce me."
"Oh, away with your nonsense!" cried Benito. "Stupid idea that I had! Be engaged, my friends - be it as much as you like! Be it always!"
"Always!" said Minha, from whom the word escaped so naturally that Lina's peals of laughter redoubled.
A grateful glance from Manoel repaid Minha for the imprudence of her tongue.
"Come along," said Benito, so as to get his sister out of her embarrassment; "if we walk on we shall not talk so much."
"One moment, brother," she said. "You have seen how ready I am to obey you. You wished to oblige Manoel and me to forget each other, so as not to spoil your walk. Very well; and now I am going to ask a sacrifice from you so that you shall not spoil mine. Whether it pleases you or not, Benito, you must promise me to forget - - "
"That you are a sportsman!"
"What! you forbid me to - - "
"I forbid you to fire at any of these charming birds - any of the parrots, caciques, or curucus which are flying about so happily among the trees! And the same interdiction with regard to the smaller game with which we shall have to do to-day. If any ounce, jaguar, or such thing comes too near, well - - "
"But - - " said Benito.
"If not, I will take Manoel's arm, and we shall save or lose ourselves, and you will be obliged to run after us."
"Would you not like me to refuse, eh?" asked Benito, looking at Manoel.
"I think I should!" replied the young man.
"Well then - no!" said Benito; "I do not refuse; I will obey and annoy you. Come on!"
And so the four, followed by the black, struck under the splendid trees, whose thick foliage prevented the sun's rays from every reaching the soil.
There is nothing more magnificent than this part of the right bank of the Amazon. There, in such picturesque confusion, so many different trees shoot up that it is possible to count more than a hundred different species in a square mile. A forester could easily see that no woodman had been there with his hatchet or ax, for the effects of a clearing are visible for many centuries afterward. If the new trees are even a hundred years old, the general aspect still differs from what it was originally, for the lianas and other parasitic plants alter, and signs remain which no native can misunderstand.
The happy group moved then into the tall herbage, across the thickets and under the bushes, chatting and laughing. In front, when the brambles were too thick, the negro, felling-sword in hand, cleared the way, and put thousands of birds to flight.
Minha was right to intercede for the little winged world which flew about in the higher foliage, for the finest representations of tropical ornithology were there to be seen - green parrots and clamorous parakeets, which seemed to be the natural fruit of these gigantic trees; humming-birds in all their varieties, light-blue and ruby red; -"tisauras"- with long scissors-like tails, looking like detached flowers which the wind blew from branch to branch; blackbirds, with orange plumage bound with brown; golden[-edged beccaficos; and -"sabias,"- black as crows; all united in a deafening concert of shrieks and whistles. The long beak of the toucan stood out against the golden clusters of the -"quiriris,"- and the treepeckers or woodpeckers of Brazil wagged their little heads, speckled all over with their purple spots. It was truly a scene of enchantment.
But all were silent and went into hiding when above the tops of the trees there grated like a rusty weathercock the -"alma de gato"- or "soul of the cat," a kind of light fawn-colored sparrow-hawk. If he proudly hooted, displaying in the air the long white plumes of his tail, he in his turn meekly took to flight when in the loftier heights there appeared the -"gaviao,"- the large white-headed eagle, the terror of the whole winged population of these woods.
Minha made Manoel admire the natural wonders which could not be found in their simplicity in the more civilized provinces of the east. He listened to her more with his eyes than his ears, for the cries and the songs of these thousands of birds were every now and then so penetrating that he was not able to hear what she said. The noisy laughter of Lina was alone sufficiently shrill to ring out with its joyous note above every kind of clucking, chirping, hooting, whistling, and cooing.
At the end of an hour they had scarcely gone a mile. As they left the river the trees assumed another aspect, and the animal life was no longer met with near the ground, but at from sixty to eighty feet above, where troops of monkeys chased each other along the higher branches. Here and there a few cones of the solar rays shot down into the underwood. In fact, in these tropical forests light does not seem to be necessary for their existence. The air is enough for the vegetable growth, whether it be large or small, tree or plant, and all the heat required for the development of their sap is derived not from the surrounding atmosphere, but from the bosom of the soil itself, where it is stored up as in an enormous stove.
And on the bromelias, grass plantains, orchids, cacti, and in short all the parasites which formed a little forest beneath the large one, many marvelous insects were they tempted to pluck as though they had been genuine blossoms - nestors with blue wings like shimmering watered silk, leilu butterflies reflexed with gold and striped with fringes of green, agrippina moths, ten inches long, with leaves for wings, maribunda bees, like living emeralds set in sockets of gold, and legions of lampyrons or pyrophorus coleopters, valagumas with breastplates of bronze, and green elytrae, with yellow light pouring from their eyes, who, when the night comes, illuminate the forest with their many-colored scintillations.
"What wonders!" repeated the enthusiastic girl.
"You are at home, Minha, or at least you say so," said Benito, "and that is the way you talk of your riches!"
"Sneer away, little brother!" replied Minha; "such beautiful things are only lent to us; is it not so, Manoel? They come from the hand of the Almighty and belong to the world!"
"Let Benito laugh on, Minha," said Manoel. "He hides it very well, but he is a poet himself when his time comes, and he admires as much as we do all these beauties of nature. Only when his gun is on his arm, good-by to poetry!"
"Then be a poet now," replied the girl.
"I am a poet," said Benito. "O! Nature-enchanting, etc."
We may confess, however, that in forbidding him to use his gun Minha had imposed on him a genuine privation. There was no lack of game in the woods, and several magnificent opportunities he had declined with regret.
In some of the less wooded parts, in places where the breaks were tolerably spacious, they saw several pairs of ostriches, of the species known as -"naudus,"- from for to five feet high, accompanied by their inseparable -"seriemas,"- a sort of turkey, infinitely better from an edible point of view than the huge birds they escort.
"See what that wretched promise costs me," sighed Benito, as, at a gesture from his sister, he replaced under his arm the gun which had instinctively gone up to his shoulder.
"We ought to respect the seriemas," said Manoel, "for they are great destroyers of the snakes."
"Just as we ought to respect the snakes," replied Benito, "because they eat the noxious insects, and just as we ought the insects because they live on smaller insects more offensive still. At that rate we ought to respect everything."
But the instinct of the young sportsman was about to be put to a still more rigorous trial. The woods became of a sudden full of game. Swift stags and graceful roebucks scampered off beneath the bushes, and a well-aimed bullet would assuredly have stopped them. Here and there turkeys showed themselves with their milk and coffee-colored plumage; and peccaries, a sort of wild pig highly appreciated by lovers of venison, and agouties, which are the hares and rabbits of Central America; and tatous belonging to the order of edentates, with their scaly shells of patterns of mosaic.
And truly Benito showed more than virtue, and even genuine heroism, when he came across some tapirs, called "antas" in Brazil, diminutives of the elephant, already nearly undiscoverable on the banks of the Upper Amazon and its tributaries, pachyderms so dear to the hunters for their rarity, so appreciated by the gourmands for their meat, superior far to beef, and above all for the protuberance on the nape of the neck, which is a morsel fit for a king.
His gun almost burned his fingers, but faithful to his promise he kept it quiet.
But yet - and he cautioned his sister about this - the gun would go off in spite of him, and probably register a master-stroke in sporting annals, if within range there should come a -"tamandoa assa,"- a kind of large and very curious ant-eater.
Happily the big ant-eater did not show himself, neither did any panthers, leopards, jaguars, guepars, or cougars, called indifferently ounces in South America, and to whom it is not advisable to get too near.
"After all," said Benito, who stopped for an instant, "to walk is very well, but to walk without an object - - "
"Without an object!" replied his sister; "but our object is to see, to admire, to visit for the last time these forests of Central America, which we shall not find again in Para, and to bid them a fast farewell."
"Ah! an idea!"
It was Lina who spoke.
"An idea of Lina's can be no other than a silly one," said Benito, shaking his head.
"It is unkind, brother," said Minha, "to make fun of Lina when she has been thinking how to give our walk the object which you have just regretted it lacks."
"Besides, Mr. Benito, I am sure my idea will please you," replied the mulatto.
"Well, what is it?" asked Minha.
"You see that liana?"
And Lina pointed to a liana of the -"cipos"- kind, twisted round a gigantic sensitive mimosa, whose leaves, light as feathers, shut up at the least disturbance.
"Well?" said Benito.
"I proposed," replied Minha, "that we try to follow that liana to its very end."
"It is an idea, and it is an object!" observed Benito, "to follow this liana, no matter what may be the obstacles, thickets, underwood, rocks, brooks, torrents, to let nothing stop us, not even - - "
"Certainly, you are right, brother!" said Minha; "Lina is a trifle absurd."
"Come on, then!" replied her brother; "you say that Lina is absurd so as to say that Benito is absurd to approve of it!"
"Well, both of you are absurd, if that will amuse you," returned Minha. "Let us follow the liana!"
"You are not afraid?" said Manoel.
"Still objections!" shouted Benito.
"Ah, Manoel! you would not speak like that if you were already on your way and Minha was waiting for you at the end."
"I am silent," replied Manoel; "I have no more to say. I obey. Let us follow the liana!"
And off they went as happy as children home for their holidays.
This vegetable might take them far if they determined to follow it to its extremity, like the thread of Ariadne, as far almost as that which the heiress of Minos used to lead her from the labyrinth, and perhaps entangle them more deeply.
It was in fact a creeper of the salses family, one of the cipos known under the name of the red -"japicanga,"- whose length sometimes measures several miles. But, after all, they could leave it when they liked.
The cipo passed from one tree to another without breaking its continuity, sometimes twisting round the trunks, sometimes garlanding the branches, here jumping form a dragon-tree to a rosewood, then from a gigantic chestnut, the -"Bertholletia excelsa,"- to some of the wine palms, -"baccabas,"- whose branches have been appropriately compared by Agassiz to long sticks of coral flecked with green. Here round -"tucumas,"- or ficuses, capriciously twisted like centenarian olive-trees, and of which Brazil had fifty-four varieties; here round the kinds of euphorbias, which produce caoutchouc, -"gualtes,"- noble palm-trees, with slender, graceful, and glossy stems; and cacao-trees, which shoot up of their own accord on the banks of the Amazon and its tributaries, having different melastomas, some with red flowers and others ornamented with panicles of whitish berries.
But the halts! the shouts of cheating! when the happy company thought they had lost their guiding thread! For it was necessary to go back and disentangle it from the knot of parasitic plants.
"There it is!" said Lina, "I see it!"
"You are wrong," replied Minha; "that is not it, that is a liana of another kind."
"No, Lina is right!" said Benito.
"No, Lina is wrong!" Manoel would naturally return.
Hence highly serious, long-continued discussions, in which no one would give in.
Then the black on one side and Benito on the other would rush at the trees and clamber up to the branches encircled by the cipo so as to arrive at the true direction.
Now nothing was assuredly less easy in that jumble of knots, among which twisted the liana in the middle of bromelias, -"karatas,"armed with their sharp prickles, orchids with rosy flowers and violet lips the size of gloves, and oncidiums more tangled than a skein of worsted between a kitten's paws.
And then when the liana ran down again to the ground the difficulty of picking it out under the mass of lycopods, large-leaved heliconias, rosy-tasseled calliandras, rhipsalas encircling it like the thread on an electric reel, between the knots of the large white ipomas, under the fleshy stems of the vanilla, and in the midst of the shoots and branchlets of the grenadilla and the vine.
And when the cipo was found again what shouts of joy, and how they resumed the walk for an instant interrupted!
For an hour the young people had already been advancing, and nothing had happened to warn them that they were approaching the end.
They shook the liana with vigor, but it would not give, and the birds flew away in hundreds, and the monkeys fled from tree to tree, so as to point out the way.
If a thicket barred the road the felling-sword cut a deep gap, and the group passed in. If it was a high rock, carpeted with verdure, over which the liana twisted like a serpent, they climbed it and passed on.
A large break now appeared. There, in the more open air, which is as necessary to it as the light of the sun, the tree of the tropics, -par excellence,- which, according to Humboldt, "accompanies man in the infancy of his civilization," the great provider of the inhabitant of the torrid zones, a banana-tree, was standing alone. The long festoon of the liana curled round its higher branches, moving away to the other side of the clearing, and disappeared again into the forest.
"Shall we stop soon?" asked Manoel.
"No; a thousand times no!" cried Benito, "not without having reached the end of it!"
"Perhaps," observed Minha, "it will soon be time to think of returning."
"Oh, dearest mistress, let us go on again!" replied Lina.
"On forever!" added Benito.
And they plunged more deeply into the forest, which, becoming clearer, allowed them to advance more easily.
Besides, the cipo bore away to the north, and toward the river. It became less inconvenient to follow, seeing that they approached the right bank, and it would be easy to get back afterward.
A quarter of an hour later they all stopped at the foot of a ravine in front of a small tributary of the Amazon. But a bridge of lianas, made of -"bejucos,"- twined together by their interlacing branches, crossed the stream. The cipo, dividing into two strings, served for a handrail, and passed from one bank to the other.
Benito, all the time in front, had already stepped on the swinging floor of this vegetable bridge.
Manoel wished to keep his sister back.
"Stay - stay, Minha!" he said, "Benito may go further if he likes, but let us remain here."
"No! Come on, come on, dear mistress!" said Lina. "Don't be afraid, the liana is getting thinner; we shall get the better of it, and find out its end!"
And, without hesitation, the young mulatto boldly ventured toward Benito.
"What children they are!" replied Minha. "Come along, Manoel, we must follow."
And they all cleared the bridge, which swayed above the ravine like a swing, and plunged again beneath the mighty trees.
But they had not proceeded for ten minutes along the interminable cipo, in the direction of the river, when they stopped, and this time not without cause.
"Have we got to the end of the liana?" asked Minha.
"No," replied Benito; "but we had better advance with care. Look!" and Benito pointed to the cipo which, lost in the branches of a high ficus, was agitated by violent shakings.
"What causes that?" asked Manoel.
"Perhaps some animal that we had better approach with a little circumspection!"
And Benito, cocking his gun, motioned them to let him go on a bit, and stepped about ten paces to the front.
Manoel, the two girls, and the black remained motionless where they were.
Suddenly Benito raised a shout, and they saw him rush toward a tree; they all ran as well.
Sight the most unforeseen, and little adapted to gratify the eyes!
A man, hanging by the neck, struggled at the end of the liana, which, supple as a cord, had formed into a slipknot, and the shakings came from the jerks into which he still agitated it in the last convulsions of his agony!
Benito threw himself on the unfortunate fellow, and with a cut of his hunting-knife severed the cipo.
The man slipped on to the ground. Manoel leaned over him, to try and recall him to life, if it was not too late.
"Poor man!" murmured Minha.
"Mr. Manoel! Mr. Manoel! cried Lina. "He breathes again! His heart beats; you must save him."
"True," said Manoel, "but I think it was about time that we came up."
He was about thirty years old, a white, clothed badly enough, much emaciated, and he seemed to have suffered a good deal.
At his feet were an empty flask, thrown on the ground, and a cup and ball in palm wood, of which the ball, made of the head of a tortoise, was tied on with a fiber.
"To hang himself! to hang himself!" repeated Lina, "and young still! What could have driven him to do such a thing?"
But the attempts of Manoel had not been long in bringing the luckless wight to life again, and he opened his eyes and gave an "ahem!" so vigorous and unexpected that Lina, frightened, replied to his cry with another.
"Who are you, my friend?" Benito asked him.
"An ex-hanger-on, as far as I see."
"But your name?"
"Wait a minute and I will recall myself," said he, passing his hand over his forehead. "I am known as Fragoso, at your service; and I am still able to curl and cut your hair, to shave you, and to make you comfortable according to all the rules of my art. I am a barber, so to speak more truly, the most desperate of Figaros."
"And what made you think of - - "
"What would you have, my gallant sir?" replied Fragoso, with a smile; "a moment of despair, which I would have duly regretted had the regrets been in another world! But eight hundred leagues of country to traverse, and not a coin in my pouch, was not very comforting! I had lost courage obviously."
To conclude, Fragoso had a good and pleasing figure, and as he recovered it was evident that he was of a lively disposition. He was one of those wandering barbers who travel on the banks of the Upper Amazon, going from village to village, and putting the resources of their art at the service of negroes, negresses, Indians and Indian women, who appreciate them very much.
But poor Fragoso, abandoned and miserable, having eaten nothing for forty hours, astray in the forest, had for an instant lost his head, and we know the rest.
"My friend," said Benito to him, "you will go back with us to the fazenda of Iquitos?"
"With pleasure," replied Fragoso; "you cut me down and I belong to you. I must somehow be dependent."
"Well, dear mistress, don't you think we did well to continue our walk?" asked Lina.
"That I do," returned the girl.
"Never mind," said Benito; "I never thought that we should finish by finding a man at the end of the cipo."
"And, above all, a barber in difficulties, and on the road to hang himself!" replied Fragoso.
"The poor fellow, who was now wide awake, was told about what had passed. He warmly thanked Lina for the good idea she had had of following the liana, and they all started on the road to the fazenda, where Fragoso was received in a way that gave him neither wish nor want to try his wretched task again.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER VIII THE JANGADA