Puslapio vaizdai
PDF
„ePub“

promise, for the Indians of the Monte Grande do not face their intended victims, but spring from behind a tree to shoot the traveler in the back, and dodge back out of sight again. They shoot seated, using the feet to stretch the bow, a slight advantage, in time, to their prey. Rumor has it that the tribe is by nature peaceful; but they were long hunted for sport and are still shot on sight, with no questions asked, and have come to look upon all travelers as tribal enemies. They are said to be entirely nomadic, to wear nothing but a feather clout, and to bind their limbs in childhood so that the forearm and the leg below the knee become mere bone and sinew with which they can thrust their way through the spiny undergrowth with out pain. This improvement on nature draws the foot out of shape, and the footprint of a savage, showing only the imprint of the heel, the outer edge of the foot, and the crooked big toe, is easily distinguished from that of the ordinary native. However, this was not my lucky day, and I caught not so much as a kodakshot at a feather clout, though I glanced frequently over my shoulder all the day through.

But if the Indians failed us, there were other visitations to make up for them. Every instant of the day we fought swarms of gnats and mosquitoes; though the sun rarely got a peep in upon us, its damp, heavy heat kept us half-blinded with the salt sweat in our eyes. The road was really a long tunnel through unbroken forest meeting overhead, into which the thorny undergrowth crowded in spite of the ox-cart traffic. All day long, mudholes often waist-deep for long distances, completely occupied the narrow forest lane. The region being utterly flat, the waters of the rainy season gather in the slightest depression, which passing oxcarts plough into a slough beyond description; while the barest suggestion of a stream inundates to a swamp all the surrounding territory. For the first mile we sought, in our inexperience, to tear our way around them through the edge of the forest. But so dense was this that it

barred us as effectually as a cactus hedge. We took to wading, now to the knees, now to the waist, sometimes slipping into unseen cart-ruts and plunging to the shoulders in noisome slime.

At sunset we waded through a barred gate into the pascana, or tiny natural clearing, of Cañada Larga, the first of the four fortines. Five miserable thatched. huts, some without walls and the others of open-work poles set upright, were occupied by eight boyish soldiers in faded. rags of khaki and ancient cork helmets of the same color, and a slattern female belonging to the lieutenant. The latter was a haughty fellow of twenty-five, sallow with fever and gaunt from long tropical residence, a graduate of the Bolivian West Point in La Paz, and permanently in command of all the garrisons of the Monte Grande. The others were twoyear conscripts between nineteen and twenty-one, assigned to the forts for a year, usually to be forgotten by the government and left there months longer.

The lieutenant insisted on sending along a soldier to "protect" us from the savages. He was a girlish-looking boy of Indian features, armed with an ancient Winchester of broken butt, thick with rust inside and out. Most of the day he lagged far behind, for the sun-dried stretches of road between the swamps and mud-holes hurt even his calloused feet. We tramped unbrokenly for seven hours, the endless forest wall close on either hand, without sighting another human being, until the jungle opened out slightly on the little pascana of Tres Cruces. The sergeant in command dragged himself out a few yards to meet us, a rifle-shot having warned him of our approach. He had four soldiers and a gnat-bitten female. They called the bucketful they brought us from a swamp "excellent water." It was clear, to be sure, and a decided improvement on what we had drunk from the mud-holes during the day, the swampy taste not quite overwhelming. But it was luke-warm from lying out under the sun and had at least a hundred tadpoles swimming merrily about in it. One dipped up a cup

ful, picked out the tadpoles gently but firmly, and forced as much of their vacated bath as possible down the feverish throat.

The gnats of Tres Cruces quickly got wind of the arrival of fresh supplies and attacked us in regiments. The previous camp had been gnatless compared to this. Known to the natives as jejenes, they are almost invisible, yet could bite through a woolen garment or a cloth hammock so effectively that the mosquito's puny efforts passed unnoticed in comparison. Wherever they alight they leave a red spot the size of a mustard-seed that itches and burns for days afterward. What such a host of them had hoped to feed on had we not unexpectedly turned up, I cannot guess; surely they were taking long chances of famine and starvation here in the unpeopled wilderness. Under no circumstances did they give us a moment of respite. Even the soldiers, tropical born and long accustomed to them, ate their suppers, plate in hand, marching swiftly up and down the "parade-ground," viciously striking at themselves with the free hand. We could not leave off fighting them long enough to lift a kettle off the fire without a hundred instantly stinging us in as many distinct spots.

The sergeant insisted, languidly and tropically, on sending one of his armed boys along. We refused. Should anything have happened to the child, such as a sprained ankle in "protecting" us from the savages, we could never have forgiven ourselves. All day long we tramped due eastward through unbroken forest. Monotonously the swamps and mud-holes continued. It would not have been so bad could we have waded all the way barefoot; but the sun-dried stretches between made shoes imperative. Never a patch of clearing, never a sign of human existence -though I still glanced frequently over my shoulder-never the suggestion of a breeze to temper the heat or to break the ranks of the swarming insects. We threw ourselves face-down at any mud-hole or cart-rut, gratefully, to drink. "It was crawlin' an' it stunk, but"-anything that

can by any stretch of the word be called water is only too welcome in tropical Bolivia.

Two

A toilsome eighteen miles ended at Pozo del Tigre, there was something fetching about the name of this third fortín,-the "Tiger's Drinking-place." Here were four boys, a cossack post in command of a corporal; also at last something for sale, for some one had planted a patch of corn back in the forest. soldiers brought us choclos and huiro, green-corn for ourselves and stalks of the same for the mule. The conscripts preferred coffee and rice in payment, for money is of slight value beyond the Rio Grande, but demanded five times what the stuff was worth. It was not sweetcorn, and was either half-grown or overripe, but welcome for all that. We threw the ears into the fire and raked them out to munch what was not entirely burned or still raw. The jejenes made it impossible to hold them over the fire to toast. We squatted over the blaze so close it all but burned our garments, yet the relief was so great, in spite of the smoke in our eyes, that we all but fell over into the fire asleep.

The life of these garrisons is dismal in the extreme. The soldiers had absolutely no drill or other fixed duty. In most cases they were too apathetic to plant anything, even to dig a well, however heavily time hung on their hands, preferring to starve on half-rations, to choke in the dry season and drink mud in the wet weather rather than to exert themselves. Each "fort" in the center of the "parade-ground" had a crude horizontal bar made of a sapling. But it was used only for a languid moment when utter ennui drove some one to it. The impossibility of "team-work" among Latin-Americans was never more clearly demonstrated than by the fact that each soldier cooked his own food separately three times a day over his own stick fire. There was not faith enough among them even to permit division of labor in bringing fire-wood Each set his marmita, a soldier's tin cook-pot shaped to fit between the shoulders, on the ends

of burning sticks and sat constantly on his heels beside it lest it spill over as one of the fagots burned away. They were astonished to learn the use of Y-shaped sticks for hanging their kettles.

All this region is noted for its petas, a large land-turtle, with the empty charred shells of which any camping-ground is sure to be scattered. During the afternoon the German actually ran one down.

Tied on the pack, it arrived at the fourth and last fortin of the Monte Grande, Guayritos, a large clearing surrounded by matorrales, or palm-tree swamps, and noted for attacks by the savages. The corporal ordered one of his three men to prepare the turtle. He split it open with a machete and, removing all the meat, spitted the liver, the chief delicacy, on a stick, and I set the rest to boiling. When it had cooked for an hour, the addition of a handful of rice and a chip of salty rock made the most savory repast of several days. All through the cooking Konanz had sat moodily by, fighting clouds of jejenes and smoking furiously for protection. When the meal was ready he refused to touch it. Evidently turtle is not eaten in the German army. But for once the inner man all but overcame the iron discipline of years. It may have been the smoke that brought tears to his eyes as I fell upon the mess; at any rate he moved away from the fire and went to tramp gloomily up and down the edge of the pascana. The thick muscles that in life are so strong that a man cannot pull a leg from its shell by main force were of a dark-red meat far superior to the finest chicken-unless appetite deceived me-and almost boneless. The comatose condition induced by the feast lasted with only an occasional break all night, so that I slept considerably, even though the gnats

roared about my net like a raging sea on a distant cliff-bound coast, and a few hundred managed to gain admittance.

A tropical shower was raging when we finished loading. Even the soldiers were in a snarling mood. The going was so slippery it was painful.

That afternoon our journey seemed to have come ignominiously to an end. An immense swamp or lake a half-mile wide spread across the trail and far away into the now thinner forest in both directions, the notorious "curiche de Tuná." We attempted to flank it, only to have a faint. side path end in the impassable tangles of an even greater swamp. Wandering in this for an hour, we regained the road at last and, putting everything damageable in our hats and strapping our revolvers about our necks, we attempted the crossing. The lake proved only chest-deep, but the gluelike mud bottom all but swallowed up the mule, and the pack emerged streaming water from every corner.

The sun was getting low when we sighted a little wooded hill above the seaflat forest ahead, and with it the first rock. I had seen since long before Santa Cruz. The road dodged the hillock, however, and we slushed hopelessly on through endless virgin forest. The insignificance of man in these primeval woods is appalling. Night was coming on. Suddenly a large fence-railed cornfield appeared in a clearing beside the "road," but this plunged on again into the wilderness without disclosing any other sign of humanity. Darkness was upon us when a man in white rode out of the gloom ahead and all but fell from his mule in astonishment. We had passed unseen the branch trail to the scattered hamlet of El Cerro, a score of thatched huts constituting the first civilian dwelling of man beyond the Rio Grande.

STELLA

The Second Fiddle

By PHYLLIS BOTTOME

Author of "The Dark Tower" etc.

Illustrations by Norman Price

Part IV.

was afraid that when she went down to dinner it would be like slipping into another life-a life to which she was attached by her love for Julian, but to which she did not belong. It did not seem possible to her that Lady Verny would be able to bear her as a daughterin-law. As a secretary it had not mattered in the least that she was shabby and socially ineffective. And she could n't be different; they 'd have to take her like that if they took her at all. She ranged them together in her fear of their stateliness; she almost wished that they would n't take her at all, but let her slink back to Redcliffe Square and bury herself in her own insignificance.

But when she went down-stairs she found herself caught in a swift embrace by Lady Verny, and meeting without any barrier the adoration of Julian's eyes.

"My dear, my dear," said Lady Verny, "I always felt that you belonged to me." "But are you pleased?" whispered Stella in astonishment.

"Pleased!" cried Lady Verny, with a little shaken laugh. "I'm satisfied, a thing that at my age I hardly had the right to expect."

"Mother thinks it's all her doing," Julian explained. "It 's her theory that we 've shown no more initiative than a couple of guaranteed Dutch bulbs. Shall I tell you what she was saying before you came down-stairs?"

"Dear Julian," said Lady Verny, blushing like a girl, "you 're so dreadfully modern, you will frighten Stella if you say things to her so quickly before she has got used to the idea of you."

Chapter XXIV.

"She's perfectly used to the idea of me," laughed Julian, "and I 've tried frightening her already without the slightest success. Besides, there's nothing modern about a madonna lily. My mother said, Stella, that she did n't care very much for madonna lilies in the garden. They're too ecclesiastical for the other flowers, but very suitable in church for weddings. And out in ten days' time, did n't you say, Mother? I hope they have n't any of Stella's procrastinating habits."

"You must n't mind his teasing, dear," Lady Verny said, smiling. "We will go in to dinner now. You 're a little late, but no wonder. I am delighted to feel that now I have a right to scold you."

"The thing that pleases me most," said Julian, "is that I shall be able to remove Stella's apples and pears forcibly from her plate and peel them myself. I forget how long she has been here, but the anguish I have suffered meal by meal as I saw her plod her unreflecting way over their delicate surfaces, beginning at the stalk and slashing upward without consideration for any of the laws of nature, nothing but the self-control of a host could have compelled me to endure. I offered to peel them for her once, but she said she liked peeling them; and I was far too polite to say, 'Darling, you 've got to hand them over to me.' I 'm going to say it now, though, every time."

"Hush, dear," said Lady Verny, nervously. "Thompson has barely shut the door. I really don't know what has happened to your behavior."

"I have n't any," said Julian. "I'm like the old lady in the earthquake who found herself in the street with no clothes on. She bowed gravely to a gentleman she had met the day before and said, 'I should be happy to give you my card, Mr. Jones, but I have lost the receptacle.' Things like that happen in earthquakes. I have lost my receptacle." He met Stella's eyes and took the consent of her laughter. He was as happy with her as a boy set loose from school.

Lady Verny, watching him, was almost frightened at his lack of self-restraint. "He has never trusted any one like this before," she thought. "He is keeping nothing back." It was like seeing the released waters of a frozen stream.

While they sat in the hall before Julian rejoined them, Lady Verny showed Stella all the photographs of Julian taken since he was a baby.

There was a singularly truculent one of him, at three years old, with a menacingly poised cricket-bat, which Stella liked best of all. Lady Verny had no copy of it, but she pressed Stella to take it.

"Julian will give you so many things," she said; "but I want to give you something that you will value and which is quite my own." So Stella took the truculent baby, which was Lady Verny's own. "You look very comfortable sitting there together; I won't disturb you for chess," Julian observed when he came in shortly afterward. "I was wondering if you would like to hear what I did in Germany. It's a year old now and as safe with you as with me, but it must n't go any further."

Julian told his story very quietly, leaning back against the cushions of a couch by the open window. Above his head Stella could see the dark shapes of the black yew hedges, and the wheeling of the bats as they scurried to and fro upon their secret errands.

Neither Lady Verny nor Stella moved until Julian had finished speaking. It was the most thrilling of detective stories, but it is not often that the roots of our being are involved in detective stories.

They could not believe that he lay there before them, tranquilly smoking a cigarette and breathed on by the soft June air. As they watched his face comfort. and security vanished. They were in a ruthless world where a false step meant death. Julian had been in danger, but it was never the danger which he had been in that he described; it was the work he had set out to do and the way he had done it. He noticed danger only when it obstructed him. Then he put his wits to meet it. They were, as Stella realized, very exceptional wits for meeting things. Julian combined imagination with strict adherence to fact. He had the courage which never broods over an essential risk and the caution which avoids all unnecessary ones.

"Of course," he broke off for a moment, "you felt all the time rather like a flea under a microscope. Don't underrate the Germans. As a microscope there's nothing to beat them; where the microscope leaves off is where their miscalculations begin. A microscope can tell everything about a flea except where it is going to hop.

"I had a lively time over my hopping; but the odd part of it was the sense of security I often had, as if some one back of me was giving me a straight tip. I don't understand concentration. You 'd say it is your own doing, of course, and yet behind your power of holding on to things it seems as if Something Else was holding on much harder. It's as if you set a ball rolling, and some one else kicked it in the right direction.

"After I'd been in Germany for a month I began to believe in an Invisible Kicker-Off. It was company for me, for I was lonely. I had to calculate every word I said, and there 's no sense of company where one has to calculate. The feeling that there was something back of me was a great help. I'd get to the end of my job, and then something fresh would be pushed toward me.

"For instance, I met a couple of naval officers by chance,-I was n't out for anything naval, and they poured submarine

« AnkstesnisTęsti »