Part 2 out of 5
an acacia shrub, and stems and broad, arrow-shaped leaves of an
aquatic plant, and slim, drooping fern fronds, and they were
motionless and seemed not to have been touched by something
passing through them. She had gone, yet I continued still, bent
almost double, gazing fixedly at the spot where I had last seen
her, my mind in a strange condition, possessed by sensations
which were keenly felt and yet contradictory. So vivid was the
image left on my brain that she still seemed to be actually
before my eyes; and she was not there, nor had been, for it was a
dream, an illusion, and no such being existed, or could exist, in
this gross world; and at the same time I knew that she had been
there--that imagination was powerless to conjure up a form so
With the mental image I had to be satisfied, for although I
remained for some hours at that spot, I saw her no more, nor did
I hear any familiar melodious sound. For I was now convinced
that in this wild solitary girl I had at length discovered the
mysterious warbler that so often followed me in the wood. At
length, seeing that it was growing late, I took a drink from the
stream and slowly and reluctantly made my way out of the forest
and went home.
Early next day I was back in the wood full of delightful
anticipations, and had no sooner got well among the trees than a
soft, warbling sound reached my ears; it was like that heard on
the previous day just before catching sight of the girl among the
ferns. So soon! thought I, elated, and with cautious steps I
proceeded to explore the ground, hoping again to catch her
unawares. But I saw nothing; and only after beginning to doubt
that I had heard anything unusual, and had sat down to rest on a
rock, the sound was repeated, soft and low as before, very near
and distinct. Nothing more was heard at this spot, but an hour
later, in another place, the same mysterious note sounded near
me. During my remaining time in the forest I was served many
times in the same way, and still nothing was seen, nor was there
any change in the voice.
Only when the day was near its end did I give up my quest,
feeling very keenly disappointed. It then struck me that the
cause of the elusive creature's behaviour was that she had been
piqued at my discovery of her in one of her most secret
hiding-places in the heart of the wood, and that it had pleased
her to pay me out in this manner.
On the next day there was no change; she was there again,
evidently following me, but always invisible, and varied not from
that one mocking note of yesterday, which seemed to challenge me
to find her a second time. In the end I was vexed, and resolved
to be even with her by not visiting the wood for some time. A
display of indifference on my part would, I hoped, result in
making her less coy in the future.
Next day, firm in my new resolution, I accompanied Kua-ko and two
others to a distant spot where they expected that the ripening
fruit on a cashew tree would attract a large number of birds.
The fruit, however, proved still green, so that we gathered none
and killed few birds. Returning together, Kua-ko kept at my
side, and by and by, falling behind our companions, he
complimented me on my good shooting, although, as usual, I had
only wasted the arrows I had blown.
"Soon you will be able to hit," he said; "hit a bird as big as a
small woman"; and he laughed once more immoderately at the old
joke. At last, growing confidential, he said that I would soon
possess a zabatana of my own, with arrows in plenty. He was
going to make the arrows himself, and his uncle Otawinki, who had
a straight eye, would make the tube. I treated it all as a joke,
but he solemnly assured me that he meant it.
Next morning he asked me if I was going to the forest of evil
fame, and when I replied in the negative, seemed surprised and,
very much to my surprise, evidently disappointed. He even tried
to persuade me to go, where before I had been earnestly
recommended not to go, until, finding that I would not, he took
me with him to hunt in the woods. By and by he returned to the
same subject: he could not understand why I would not go to that
wood, and asked me if I had begun to grow afraid.
"No, not afraid," I replied; "but I know the place well, and am
getting tired of it." I had seen everything in it--birds and
beasts--and had heard all its strange noises.
"Yes, heard," he said, nodding his head knowingly; "but you have
seen nothing strange; your eyes are not good enough yet."
I laughed contemptuously and answered that I had seen everything
strange the wood contained, including a strange young girl; and I
went on to describe her appearance, and finished by asking if he
thought a white man was frightened at the sight of a young girl.
What I said astonished him; then he seemed greatly pleased, and,
growing still more confidential and generous than on the previous
day, he said that I would soon be a most important personage
among them, and greatly distinguish myself. He did not like it
when I laughed at all this, and went on with great seriousness to
speak of the unmade blowpipe that would be mine--speaking of it
as if it had been something very great, equal to the gift of a
large tract of land, or the governorship of a province, north of
the Orinoco. And by and by he spoke of something else more
wonderful even than the promise of a blow-pipe, with arrows
galore, and this was that young sister of his, whose name was
Oalava, a maid of about sixteen, shy and silent and mild-eyed,
rather lean and dirty; not ugly, nor yet prepossessing. And this
copper-coloured little drab of the wilderness he proposed to
bestow in marriage on me! Anxious to pump him, I managed to
control my muscles and asked him what authority he--a young
nobody, who had not yet risen to the dignity of buying a wife for
himself--could have to dispose of a sister in this offhand way?
He replied that there would be no difficulty: that Runi would
give his consent, as would also Otawinki, Piake, and other
relations; and last, and LEAST, according to the matrimonial
customs of these latitudes, Oalava herself would be ready to
bestow her person--queyou, worn figleaf-wise, necklace of accouri
teeth, and all--on so worthy a suitor as myself. Finally, to
make the prospect still more inviting, he added that it would not
be necessary for me to subject myself to any voluntary tortures
to prove myself a man and fitted to enter into the purgatorial
state of matrimony. He was a great deal too considerate, I said,
and, with all the gravity I could command, asked him what kind of
torture he would recommend. For me--so valorous a person--"no
torture," he answered magnanimously. But he--Kua-ko--had made up
his mind as to the form of torture he meant to inflict some day
on his own person. He would prepare a large sack and into it put
fire-ants--"As many as that!" he exclaimed triumphantly,
stooping and filling his two hands with loose sand. He would put
them in the sack, and then get into it himself naked, and tie it
tightly round his neck, so as to show to all spectators that the
hellish pain of innumerable venomous stings in his flesh could be
endured without a groan and with an unmoved countenance. The
poor youth had not an original mind, since this was one of the
commonest forms of self-torture among the Guayana tribes. But
the sudden wonderful animation with which he spoke of it, the
fiendish joy that illumined his usually stolid countenance, sent
a sudden disgust and horror through me. But what a strange
inverted kind of fiendishness is this, which delights at the
anticipation of torture inflicted on oneself and not on an enemy!
And towards others these savages are mild and peaceable! No, I
could not believe in their mildness; that was only on the
surface, when nothing occurred to rouse their savage, cruel
instincts. I could have laughed at the whole matter, but the
exulting look on my companion's face had made me sick of the
subject, and I wished not to talk any more about it.
But he would talk still--this fellow whose words, as a rule, I
had to take out of his mouth with a fork, as we say; and still on
the same subject, he said that not one person in the village
would expect to see me torture myself; that after what I would do
for them all--after delivering them from a great evil--nothing
further would be expected of me.
I asked him to explain his meaning; for it now began to appear
plain that in everything he had said he had been leading up to
some very important matter. It would, of course, have been a
great mistake to suppose that my savage was offering me a
blow-pipe and a marketable virgin sister from purely
In reply he went back to that still unforgotten joke about my
being able eventually to hit a bird as big as a small woman with
an arrow. Out of it all came, when he went on to ask me if that
mysterious girl I had seen in the wood was not of a size to suit
me as a target when I had got my hand in with a little more
practice. That was the great work I was asked to do for
them--that shy, mysterious girl with the melodious wild-bird
voice was the evil being I was asked to slay with poisoned
arrows! This was why he now wished me to go often to the wood,
to become more and more familiar with her haunts and habits, to
overcome all shyness and suspicion in her; and at the proper
moment, when it would be impossible to miss my mark, to plant the
fatal arrow! The disgust he had inspired in me before, when
gloating over anticipated tortures, was a weak and transient
feeling to what I now experienced. I turned on him in a sudden
transport of rage, and in a moment would have shattered on his
head the blow-pipe I was carrying in my hand, but his astonished
look as he turned to face me made me pause and prevented me from
committing so fatal an indiscretion. I could only grind my teeth
and struggle to overcome an almost overpowering hatred and wrath.
Finally I flung the tube down and bade him take it, telling him
that I would not touch it again if he offered me all the sisters
of all the savages in Guayana for wives.
He continued gazing at me mute with astonishment, and prudence
suggested that it would be best to conceal as far as possible the
violent animosity I had conceived against him. I asked him
somewhat scornfully if he believed that I should ever be able to
hit anything--bird or human being--with an arrow. "No," I almost
shouted, so as to give vent to my feelings in some way, and
drawing my revolver, "this is the white man's weapon; but he
kills men with it--men who attempt to kill or injure him--but
neither with this nor any other weapon does he murder innocent
young girls treacherously." After that we went on in silence for
some time; at length he said that the being I had seen in the
wood and was not afraid of was no innocent young girl, but a
daughter of the Didi, an evil being; and that so long as she
continued to inhabit the wood they could not go there to hunt,
and even in other woods they constantly went in fear of meeting
her. Too much disgusted to talk with him, I went on in silence;
and when we reached the stream near the village, I threw off my
clothes and plunged into the water to cool my anger before going
in to the others.
Thinking about the forest girl while lying awake that night, I
came to the conclusion that I had made it sufficiently plain to
her how little her capricious behaviour had been relished, and
had therefore no need to punish myself more by keeping any longer
out of my beloved green mansions. Accordingly, next day, after
the heavy rain that fell during the morning hours had ceased, I
set forth about noon to visit the wood. Overhead the sky was
clear again; but there was no motion in the heavy sultry
atmosphere, while dark blue masses of banked-up clouds on the
western horizon threatened a fresh downpour later in the day. My
mind was, however, now too greatly excited at the prospect of a
possible encounter with the forest nymph to allow me to pay any
heed to these ominous signs.
I had passed through the first strip of wood and was in the
succeeding stony sterile space when a gleam of brilliant colour
close by on the ground caught my sight. It was a snake lying on
the bare earth; had I kept on without noticing it, I should most
probably have trodden upon or dangerously near it. Viewing it
closely, I found that it was a coral snake, famed as much for its
beauty and singularity as for its deadly character. It was about
three feet long, and very slim; its ground colour a brilliant
vermilion, with broad jet-black rings at equal distances round
its body, each black ring or band divided by a narrow yellow
strip in the middle. The symmetrical pattern and vividly
contrasted colours would have given it the appearance of an
artificial snake made by some fanciful artist, but for the gleam
of life in its bright coils. Its fixed eyes, too, were living
gems, and from the point of its dangerous arrowy head the
glistening tongue flickered ceaselessly as I stood a few yards
away regarding it.
"I admire you greatly, Sir Serpent," I said, or thought, "but it
is dangerous, say the military authorities, to leave an enemy or
possible enemy in the rear; the person who does such a thing must
be either a bad strategist or a genius, and I am neither."
Retreating a few paces, I found and picked up a stone about as
big as a man's hand and hurled it at the dangerous-looking head
with the intention of crushing it; but the stone hit upon the
rocky ground a little on one side of the mark and, being soft,
flew into a hundred small fragments. This roused the creature's
anger, and in a moment with raised head he was gliding swiftly
towards me. Again I retreated, not so slowly on this occasion;
and finding another stone, I raised and was about to launch it
when a sharp, ringing cry issued from the bushes growing near,
and, quickly following the sound, forth stepped the forest girl;
no longer elusive and shy, vaguely seen in the shadowy wood, but
boldly challenging attention, exposed to the full power of the
meridian sun, which made her appear luminous and rich in colour
beyond example. Seeing her thus, all those emotions of fear and
abhorrence invariably excited in us by the sight of an active
venomous serpent in our path vanished instantly from my mind: I
could now only feel astonishment and admiration et the brilliant
being as she advanced with swift, easy, undulating motion towards
me; or rather towards the serpent, which was now between us,
moving more and more slowly as she came nearer. The cause of
this sudden wonderful boldness, so unlike her former habit, was
unmistakable. She had been watching my approach from some
hiding-place among the bushes, ready no doubt to lead me a dance
through the wood with her mocking voice, as on previous
occasions, when my attack on the serpent caused that outburst of
wrath. The torrent of ringing and to me inarticulate sounds in
that unknown tongue, her rapid gestures, and, above all, her
wide-open sparkling eyes and face aflame with colour made it
impossible to mistake the nature of her feeling.
In casting about for some term or figure of speech in which to
describe the impression produced on me at that moment, I think of
waspish, and, better still, avispada--literally the same word in
Spanish, not having precisely the same meaning nor ever applied
contemptuously--only to reject both after a moment's reflection.
Yet I go back to the image of an irritated wasp as perhaps
offering the best illustration; of some large tropical wasp
advancing angrily towards me, as I have witnessed a hundred
times, not exactly flying, but moving rapidly, half running and
half flying, over the ground, with loud and angry buzz, the
glistening wings open and agitated; beautiful beyond most
animated creatures in its sharp but graceful lines, polished
surface, and varied brilliant colouring, and that wrathfulness
that fits it so well and seems to give it additional lustre.
Wonder-struck at the sight of her strange beauty and passion, I
forgot the advancing snake until she came to a stop at about five
yards from me; then to my horror I saw that it was beside her
naked feet. Although no longer advancing, the head was still
raised high as if to strike; but presently the spirit of anger
appeared to die out of it; the lifted head, oscillating a little
from side to side, sunk down lower and lower to rest finally on
the girl's bare instep; and lying there motionless, the deadly
thing had the appearance of a gaily coloured silken garter just
dropped from her leg. It was plain to see that she had no fear
of it, that she was one of those exceptional persons, to be
found, it is said, in all countries, who possess some magnetic
quality which has a soothing effect on even the most venomous and
Following the direction of my eyes, she too glanced down, but did
not move her foot; then she made her voice heard again, still
loud and sharp, but the anger was not now so pronounced.
"Do not fear, I shall not harm it," I said in the Indian tongue.
She took no notice of my speech and continued speaking with
I shook my head, replying that her language was unknown to me.
Then by means of signs I tried to make her understand that the
creature was safe from further molestation. She pointed
indignantly at the stone in my hand, which I had forgotten all
about. At once I threw it from me, and instantly there was a
change; the resentment had vanished, and a tender radiance lit
her face like a smile.
I advanced a little nearer, addressing her once more in the
Indian tongue; but my speech was evidently unintelligible to her,
as she stood now glancing at the snake lying at her feet, now at
me. Again I had recourse to signs and gestures; pointing to the
snake, then to the stone I had cast away, I endeavoured to convey
to her that in the future I would for her sake be a friend to all
venomous reptiles, and that I wished her to have the same kindly
feelings towards me as towards these creatures. Whether or not
she understood me, she showed no disposition to go into hiding
again, and continued silently regarding me with a look that
seemed to express pleasure at finding herself at last thus
suddenly brought face to face with me. Flattered at this, I
gradually drew nearer until at the last I was standing at her
side, gazing down with the utmost delight into that face which so
greatly surpassed in loveliness all human faces I had ever seen
And yet to you, my friend, it probably will not seem that she was
so beautiful, since I have, alas! only the words we all use to
paint commoner, coarser things, and no means to represent all the
exquisite details, all the delicate lights, and shades, and swift
changes of colour and expression. Moreover, is it not a fact
that the strange or unheard of can never appear beautiful in a
mere description, because that which is most novel in it attracts
too much attention and is given undue prominence in the picture,
and we miss that which would have taken away the effect of
strangeness--the perfect balance of the parts and harmony of the
whole? For instance, the blue eyes of the northerner would, when
first described to the black-eyed inhabitants of warm regions,
seem unbeautiful and a monstrosity, because they would vividly
see with the mental vision that unheard-of blueness, but not in
the same vivid way the accompanying flesh and hair tints with
which it harmonizes.
Think, then, less of the picture as I have to paint it in words
than of the feeling its original inspired in me when, looking
closely for the first time on that rare loveliness, trembling
with delight, I mentally cried: "Oh, why has Nature, maker of so
many types and of innumerable individuals of each, given to the
world but one being like this?"
Scarcely had the thought formed itself in my mind before I
dismissed it as utterly incredible. No, this exquisite being was
without doubt one of a distinct race which had existed in this
little-known corner of the continent for thousands of
generations, albeit now perhaps reduced to a small and dwindling
Her figure and features were singularly delicate, but it was her
colour that struck me most, which indeed made her differ from all
other human beings. The colour of the skin would be almost
impossible to describe, so greatly did it vary with every change
of mood--and the moods were many and transient--and with the
angle on which the sunlight touched it, and the degree of light.
Beneath the trees, at a distance, it had seemed a somewhat dim
white or pale grey; near in the strong sunshine it was not white,
but alabastrian, semi-pellucid, showing an underlying rose
colour; and at any point where the rays fell direct this colour
was bright and luminous, as we see in our fingers when held
before a strong firelight. But that part of her skin that
remained in shadow appeared of a dimmer white, and the underlying
colour varied from dim, rosy purple to dim blue. With the skin
the colour of the eyes harmonized perfectly. At first, when lit
with anger, they had appeared flame-like; now the iris was of a
peculiar soft or dim and tender red, a shade sometimes seen in
flowers. But only when looked closely at could this delicate hue
be discerned, the pupils being large, as in some grey eyes, and
the long, dark, shading lashes at a short distance made the whole
eye appear dark. Think not, then, of the red flower, exposed to
the light and sun in conjunction with the vivid green of the
foliage; think only of such a hue in the half-hidden iris,
brilliant and moist with the eye's moisture, deep with the eye's
depth, glorified by the outward look of a bright, beautiful soul.
Most variable of all in colour was the hair, this being due to
its extreme fineness and glossiness, and to its elasticity, which
made it lie fleecy and loose on head, shoulders, and back; a
cloud with a brightness on its surface made by the freer outer
hairs, a fit setting and crown for a countenance of such rare
changeful loveliness. In the shade, viewed closely, the general
colour appeared a slate, deepening in places to purple; but even
in the shade the nimbus of free flossy hairs half veiled the
darker tints with a downy pallor; and at a distance of a few
yards it gave the whole hair a vague, misty appearance. In the
sunlight the colour varied more, looking now dark, sometimes
intensely black, now of a light uncertain hue, with a play of
iridescent colour on the loose surface, as we see on the glossed
plumage of some birds; and at a short distance, with the sun
shining full on her head, it sometimes looked white as a noonday
cloud. So changeful was it and ethereal in appearance with its
cloud colours that all other human hair, even of the most
beautiful golden shades, pale or red, seemed heavy and dull and
dead-looking by comparison.
But more than form and colour and that enchanting variability was
the look of intelligence, which at the same time seemed
complementary to and one with the all-seeing, all-hearing
alertness appearing in her face; the alertness one remarks in a
wild creature, even when in repose and fearing nothing; but
seldom in man, never perhaps in intellectual or studious man.
She was a wild, solitary girl of the woods, and did not
understand the language of the country in which I had addressed
her. What inner or mind life could such a one have more than
that of any wild animal existing in the same conditions? Yet
looking at her face it was not possible to doubt its
intelligence. This union in her of two opposite qualities,
which, with us, cannot or do not exist together, although so
novel, yet struck me as the girl's principal charm. Why had
Nature not done this before--why in all others does the
brightness of the mind dim that beautiful physical brightness
which the wild animals have? But enough for me that that which
no man had ever looked for or hoped to find existed here; that
through that unfamiliar lustre of the wild life shone the
spiritualizing light of mind that made us kin.
These thoughts passed swiftly through my brain as I stood
feasting my sight on her bright, piquant face; while she on her
part gazed back into my eyes, not only with fearless curiosity,
but with a look of recognition and pleasure at the encounter so
unmistakably friendly that, encouraged by it, I took her arm in
my hand, moving at the same time a little nearer to her. At that
moment a swift, startled expression came into her eyes; she
glanced down and up again into my face; her lips trembled and
slightly parted as she murmured some sorrowful sounds in a tone
so low as to be only just audible.
Thinking she had become alarmed and was on the point of escaping
out of my hands, and fearing, above all things, to lose sight of
her again so soon, I slipped my arm around her slender body to
detain her, moving one foot at the same time to balance myself;
and at that moment I felt a slight blow and a sharp burning
sensation shoot into my leg, so sudden and intense that I dropped
my arm, at the same time uttering a cry of pain, and recoiled one
or two paces from her. But she stirred not when I released her;
her eyes followed my movements; then she glanced down at her
feet. I followed her look, and figure to yourself my horror when
I saw there the serpent I had so completely forgotten, and which
even that sting of sharp pain had not brought back to
remembrance! There it lay, a coil of its own thrown round one of
her ankles, and its head, raised nearly a foot high, swaying
slowly from side to side, while the swift forked tongue flickered
continuously. Then--only then--I knew what had happened, and at
the same time I understood the reason of that sudden look of
alarm in her face, the murmuring sounds she had uttered, and the
downward startled glance. Her fears had been solely for my
safety, and she had warned me! Too late! too late! In moving I
had trodden on or touched the serpent with my foot, and it had
bitten me just above the ankle. In a few moments I began to
realize the horror of my position. "Must I die! must I die!
Oh, my God, is there nothing that can save me?" I cried in my
She was still standing motionless in the same place: her eyes
wandered back from me to the snake; gradually its swaying head
was lowered again, and the coil unwound from her ankle; then it
began to move away, slowly at first, and with the head a little
raised, then faster, and in the end it glided out of sight.
Gone!--but it had left its venom in my blood--O cursed reptile!
Back from watching its retreat, my eyes returned to her face, now
strangely clouded with trouble; her eyes dropped before mine,
while the palms of her hands were pressed together, and the
fingers clasped and unclasped alternately. How different she
seemed now; the brilliant face grown so pallid and vague-looking!
But not only because this tragic end to our meeting had pierced
her with pain: that cloud in the west had grown up and now
covered half the sky with vast lurid masses of vapour, blotting
out the sun, and a great gloom had fallen on the earth.
That sudden twilight and a long roll of approaching thunder,
reverberating from the hills, increased my anguish and
desperation. Death at that moment looked unutterably terrible.
The remembrance of all that made life dear pierced me to the
core--all that nature was to me, all the pleasures of sense and
intellect, the hopes I had cherished--all was revealed to me as
by a flash of lightning. Bitterest of all was the thought that I
must now bid everlasting farewell to this beautiful being I had
found in the solitude this lustrous daughter of the Didi--just
when I had won her from her shyness--that I must go away into the
cursed blackness of death and never know the mystery of her life!
It was that which utterly unnerved me, and made my legs tremble
under me, and brought great drops of sweat to my forehead, until
I thought that the venom was already doing its swift, fatal work
in my veins.
With uncertain steps I moved to a stone a yard or two away and
sat down upon it. As I did so the hope came to me that this
girl, so intimate with nature, might know of some antidote to
save me. Touching my leg, and using other signs, I addressed her
again in the Indian language.
"The snake has bitten me," I said. "What shall I do? Is there
no leaf, no root you know that would save me from death? Help
me! help me!" I cried in despair.
My signs she probably understood if not my words, but she made no
reply; and still she remained standing motionless, twisting and
untwisting her fingers, and regarding me with a look of ineffable
grief and compassion.
Alas! It was vain to appeal to her: she knew what had happened,
and what the result would most likely be, and pitied, but was
powerless to help me. Then it occurred to me that if I could
reach the Indian village before the venom overpowered me
something might be done to save me. Oh, why had I tarried so
long, losing so many precious minutes! Large drops of rain were
falling now, and the gloom was deeper, and the thunder almost
continuous. With a cry of anguish I started to my feet and was
about to rush away towards the village when a dazzling flash of
lightning made me pause for a moment. When it vanished I turned
a last look on the girl, and her face was deathly pale, and her
hair looked blacker than night; and as she looked she stretched
out her arms towards me and uttered a low, wailing cry.
"Good-bye for ever!" I murmured, and turning once more from her,
rushed away like one crazed into the wood. But in my confusion I
had probably taken the wrong direction, for instead of coming out
in a few minutes into the open border of the forest, and on to
the savannah, I found myself every moment getting deeper among
the trees. I stood still, perplexed, but could not shake off the
conviction that I had started in the right direction. Eventually
I resolved to keep on for a hundred yards or so and then, if no
opening appeared, to turn back and retrace my steps. But this
was no easy matter. I soon became entangled in a dense
undergrowth, which so confused me that at last I confessed
despairingly to myself that for the first time in this wood I was
hopelessly lost. And in what terrible circumstances! At
intervals a flash of lightning would throw a vivid blue glare
down into the interior of the wood and only serve to show that I
had lost myself in a place where even at noon in cloudless
weather progress would be most difficult; and now the light would
only last a moment, to be followed by thick gloom; and I could
only tear blindly on, bruising and lacerating my flesh at every
step, falling again and again, only to struggle up and on again,
now high above the surface, climbing over prostrate trees and
branches, now plunged to my middle in a pool or torrent of water.
Hopeless--utterly hopeless seemed all my mad efforts; and at each
pause, when I would stand exhausted, gasping for breath, my
throbbing heart almost suffocating me, a dull, continuous,
teasing pain in my bitten leg served to remind me that I had but
a little time left to exist--that by delaying at first I had
allowed my only chance of salvation to slip by.
How long a time I spent fighting my way through this dense black
wood I know not; perhaps two or three hours, only to me the hours
seemed like years of prolonged agony. At last, all at once, I
found that I was free of the close undergrowth and walking on
level ground; but it was darker here darker than the darkest
night; and at length, when the lightning came and flared down
through the dense roof of foliage overhead, I discovered that I
was in a spot that had a strange look, where the trees were very
large and grew wide apart, and with no undergrowth to impede
progress beneath them. Here, recovering breath, I began to run,
and after a while found that I had left the large trees behind
me, and was now in a more open place, with small trees and
bushes; and this made me hope for a while that I had at last
reached the border of the forest. But the hope proved vain; once
more I had to force my way through dense undergrowth, and finally
emerged on to a slope where it was open, and I could once more
see for some distance around me by such light as came through the
thick pall of clouds. Trudging on to the summit of the slope, I
saw that there was open savannah country beyond, and for a moment
rejoiced that I had got free from the forest. A few steps more,
and I was standing on the very edge of a bank, a precipice not
less than fifty feet deep. I had never seen that bank before,
and therefore knew that I could not be on the right side of the
forest. But now my only hope was to get completely away from the
trees and then to look for the village, and I began following the
bank in search of a descent. No break occurred, and presently I
was stopped by a dense thicket of bushes. I was about to retrace
my steps when I noticed that a tall slender tree growing at the
foot of the precipice, its green top not more than a couple of
yards below my feet, seemed to offer a means of escape. Nerving
myself with the thought that if I got crushed by the fall I
should probably escape a lingering and far more painful death, I
dropped into the cloud of foliage beneath me and clutched
desperately at the twigs as I fell. For a moment I felt myself
sustained; but branch after branch gave way beneath my weight,
and then I only remember, very dimly, a swift flight through the
air before losing consciousness.
With the return of consciousness, I at first had a vague
impression that I was lying somewhere, injured, and incapable of
motion; that it was night, and necessary for me to keep my eyes
fast shut to prevent them from being blinded by almost continuous
vivid flashes of lightning. Injured, and sore all over, but warm
and dry--surely dry; nor was it lightning that dazzled, but
firelight. I began to notice things little by little. The fire
was burning on a clay floor a few feet from where I was lying.
Before it, on a log of wood, sat or crouched a human figure. An
old man, with chin on breast and hands clasped before his
drawn-up knees; only a small portion of his forehead and nose
visible to me. An Indian I took him to be, from his coarse,
lank, grey hair and dark brown skin. I was in a large hut,
falling at the sides to within two feet of the floor; but there
were no hammocks in it, nor bows and spears, and no skins, not
even under me, for I was lying on straw mats. I could hear the
storm still raging outside; the rush and splash of rain, and, at
intervals, the distant growl of thunder. There was wind, too; I
listened to it sobbing in the trees, and occasionally a puff
found its way in, and blew up the white ashes at the old man's
feet, and shook the yellow flames like a flag. I remembered now
how the storm began, the wild girl, the snake-bite, my violent
efforts to find a way out of the woods, and, finally, that leap
from the bank where recollection ended. That I had not been
killed by the venomous tooth, nor the subsequent fearful fall,
seemed like a miracle to me. And in that wild, solitary place,
lying insensible, in that awful storm and darkness, I had been
found by a fellow creature--a savage, doubtless, but a good
Samaritan all the same--who had rescued me from death! I was
bruised all over and did not attempt to move, fearing the pain it
would give me; and I had a racking headache; but these seemed
trifling discomforts after such adventures and such perils. I
felt that I had recovered or was recovering from that venomous
bite; that I would live and not die--live to return to my
country; and the thought filled my heart to overflowing, and
tears of gratitude and happiness rose to my eyes.
At such times a man experiences benevolent feelings, and would
willingly bestow some of that overplus of happiness on his
fellows to lighten other hearts; and this old man before me, who
was probably the instrument of my salvation, began greatly to
excite my interest and compassion. For he seemed so poor in his
old age and rags, so solitary and dejected as he sat there with
knees drawn up, his great, brown, bare feet looking almost black
by contrast with the white wood-ashes about them! What could I
do for him? What could I say to cheer his spirits in that Indian
language, which has few or no words to express kindly feelings?
Unable to think of anything better to say, I at length suddenly
cried aloud: "Smoke, old man! Why do you not smoke? It is good
He gave a mighty start and, turning, fixed his eyes on me. Then
I saw that he was not a pure Indian, for although as brown as old
leather, he wore a beard and moustache. A curious face had this
old man, which looked as if youth and age had made it a
battling-ground. His forehead was smooth except for two parallel
lines in the middle running its entire length, dividing it in
zones; his arched eyebrows were black as ink, and his small black
eyes were bright and cunning, like the eyes of some wild
carnivorous animal. In this part of his face youth had held its
own, especially in the eyes, which looked young and lively. But
lower down age had conquered, scribbling his skin all over with
wrinkles, while moustache and beard were white as thistledown.
"Aha, the dead man is alive again!" he exclaimed, with a
chuckling laugh. This in the Indian tongue; then in Spanish he
added: "But speak to me in the language you know best, senor; for
if you are not a Venezuelan call me an owl."
"And you, old man?" said I.
"Ah, I was right! Why sir what I am is plainly written on my
Surely you do not take me for a pagan! I might be a black man
from Africa, or an Englishman, but an Indian--that, no! But a
minute ago you had the goodness to invite me to smoke. How, sir,
can a poor man smoke who is without tobacco?"
"Without tobacco--in Guayana!"
"Can you believe it? But, sir, do not blame me; if the beast
that came one night and destroyed my plants when ripe for cutting
had taken pumpkins and sweet potatoes instead, it would have been
better for him, if curses have any effect. And the plant grows
slowly, sir--it is not an evil weed to come to maturity in a
single day. And as for other leaves in the forest, I smoke them,
yes; but there is no comfort to the lungs in such smoke."
"My tobacco-pouch was full," I said. "You will find it in my
coat, if I did not lose it."
"The saints forbid!" he exclaimed. "Grandchild--Rima, have you
got a tobacco-pouch with the other things? Give it to me."
Then I first noticed that another person was in the hut, a slim
young girl, who had been seated against the wall on the other
side of the fire, partially hid by the shadows. She had my
leather belt, with the revolver in its case, and my hunting-knife
attached, and the few articles I had had in my pockets, on her
lap. Taking up the pouch, she handed it to him, and he clutched
it with a strange eagerness.
"I will give it back presently, Rima," he said. "Let me first
smoke a cigarette--and then another."
It seemed probable from this that the good old man had already
been casting covetous eyes on my property, and that his
granddaughter had taken care of it for me. But how the silent,
demure girl had kept it from him was a puzzle, so intensely did
he seem now to enjoy it, drawing the smoke vigorously into his
lungs and, after keeping it ten or fifteen seconds there, letting
it fly out again from mouth and nose in blue jets and clouds.
His face softened visibly, he became more and more genial and
loquacious, and asked me how I came to be in that solitary place.
I told him that I was staying with the Indian Runi, his
"But, senor," he said, "if it is not an impertinence, how is it
that a young man of so distinguished an appearance as yourself, a
Venezuelan, should be residing with these children of the devil?"
"You love not your neighbours, then?"
"I know them, sir--how should I love them?" He was rolling up
his second or third cigarette by this time, and I could not helD
noticing that he took a great deal more tobacco than he required
in his fingers, and that the surplus on each occasion was
conveyed to some secret receptacle among his rags. "Love them,
sir! They are infidels, and therefore the good Christian must
only hate them. They are thieves--they will steal from you before
your very face, so devoid are they of all shame. And also
murderers; gladly would they burn this poor thatch above my head,
and kill me and my poor grandchild, who shares this solitary life
with me, if they had the courage. But they are all arrant
cowards, and fear to approach me--fear even to come into this
wood. You would laugh to hear what they are afraid of--a child
would laugh to hear it!"
"What do they fear?" I said, for his words had excited my
interest in a great degree.
"Why, sir, would you believe it? They fear this child--my
granddaughter, seated there before you. A poor innocent girl of
seventeen summers, a Christian who knows her Catechism, and would
not harm the smallest thing that God has made--no, not a fly,
which is not regarded on account of its smallness. Why, sir, it
is due to her tender heart that you are safely sheltered here,
instead of being left out of doors in this tempestuous night."
"To her--to this girl?" I returned in astonishment. "Explain,
old man, for I do not know how I was saved."
"Today, senor, through your own heedlessness you were bitten by a
"Yes, that is true, although I do not know how it came to your
knowledge. But why am I not a dead man, then--have you done
something to save me from the effects of the poison?"
"Nothing. What could I do so long after you were bitten? When a
man is bitten by a snake in a solitary place he is in God's
hands. He will live or die as God wills. There is nothing to be
done. But surely, sir, you remember that my poor grandchild was
with you in the wood when the snake bit you?"
"A girl was there--a strange girl I have seen and heard before
when I have walked in the forest. But not this girl--surely not
"No other," said he, carefully rolling up another cigarette.
"It is not possible!" I returned.
"III would you have fared, sir, had she not been there. For
after being bitten, you rushed away into the thickest part of the
wood, and went about in a circle like a demented person for
Heaven knows how long. But she never left you; she was always
close to you--you might have touched her with your hand. And at
last some good angel who was watching you, in order to stop your
career, made you mad altogether and caused you to jump over a
precipice and lose your senses. And you were no sooner on the
ground than she was with you--ask me not how she got down! And
when she had propped you up against the bank, she came for me.
Fortunately the spot where you had fallen is near--not five
hundred yards from the door. And I, on my part, was willing to
assist her in saving you; for I knew it was no Indian that had
fallen, since she loves not that breed, and they come not here.
It was not an easy task, for you weigh, senor; but between us we
brought you in."
While he spoke, the girl continued sitting in the same listless
attitude as when I first observed her, with eyes cast down and
hands folded in her lap. Recalling that brilliant being in the
wood that had protected the serpent from me and calmed its rage,
I found it hard to believe his words, and still felt a little
"Rime--that is your name, is it not?" I said. "Will you come
here and stand before me, and let me look closely at you?"
"Si, senor." she meekly answered; and removing the things from
her lap, she stood up; then, passing behind the old man, came and
stood before me, her eyes still bent on the ground--a picture of
She had the figure of the forest girl, but wore now a scanty
faded cotton garment, while the loose cloud of hair was confined
in two plaits and hung down her back. The face also showed the
same delicate lines, but of the brilliant animation and variable
colour and expression there appeared no trace. Gazing at her
countenance as she stood there silent, shy, and spiritless before
me, the image of her brighter self came vividly to my mind and I
could not recover from the astonishment I felt at such a
Have you ever observed a humming-bird moving about in an aerial
dance among the flowers--a living prismatic gem that changes its
colour with every change of position--how in turning it catches
the sunshine on its burnished neck and gorges plumes--green and
gold and flame-coloured, the beams changing to visible flakes as
they fall, dissolving into nothing, to be succeeded by others and
yet others? In its exquisite form, its changeful splendour, its
swift motions and intervals of aerial suspension, it is a
creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all
description. And have you seen this same fairy-like creature
suddenly perch itself on a twig, in the shade, its misty wings
and fan-like tail folded, the iridescent glory vanished, looking
like some common dull-plumaged little bird sitting listless in a
cage? Just so great was the difference in the girl as I had seen
her in the forest and as she now appeared under the smoky roof in
After watching her for some moments, I spoke: "Rime, there must
be a good deal of strength in that frame of yours, which looks so
delicate; will you raise me up a little?"
She went down on one knee and, placing her arms round me,
assisted me to a sitting posture.
"Thank you, Rima--oh, misery!" I groaned. "Is there a bone left
unbroken in my poor body?"
"Nothing broken," cried the old man, clouds of smoke flying out
with his words. "I have examined you well--legs, arms, ribs.
For this is how it was, senor. A thorny bush into which you fell
saved you from being flattened on the stony ground. But you are
bruised, sir, black with bruises; and there are more scratches of
thorns on your skin than letters on a written page."
"A long thorn might have entered my brain," I said, "from the way
it pains. Feel my forehead, Rima; is it very hot and dry?"
She did as I asked, touching me lightly with her little cool
hand. "No, senor, not hot, but warm and moist," she said.
"Thank Heaven for that!" I said. "Poor girl! And you followed
me through the wood in all that terrible storm! Ah, if I could
lift my bruised arm I would take your hand to kiss it in
gratitude for so great a service. I owe you my life, sweet
Rima--what shall I do to repay so great a debt?"
The old man chuckled as if amused, but the girl lifted not her
eyes nor spoke.
"Tell me, sweet child," I said, "for I cannot realize it yet; was
it really you that saved the serpent's life when I would have
killed it--did you stand by me in the wood with the serpent lying
at your feet?"
"Yes, senor," came her gentle answer.
"And it was you I saw in the wood one day, lying on the ground
playing with a small bird?"
"And it was you that followed me so often among the trees,
calling to me, yet always hiding so that I could never see you?"
"Oh, this is wonderful!" I exclaimed; whereat the old man
"But tell me this, my sweet girl," I continued. "You never
addressed me in Spanish; what strange musical language was it you
spoke to me in?"
She shot a timid glance at my face and looked troubled at the
question, but made no reply.
"Senor," said the old man, "that is a question which you must
excuse my child from answering. Not, sir, from want of will, for
she is docile and obedient, though I say it, but there is no
answer beyond what I can tell you. And this is, sir, that all
creatures, whether man or bird, have the voice that God has given
them; and in some the voice is musical and in others not so."
"Very well, old man," said I to myself; "there let the matter
rest for the present. But if I am destined to live and not die,
I shall not long remain satisfied with your too simple
"Rima," I said, "you must be fatigued; it is thoughtless of me to
keep you standing here so long."
Her face brightened a little, and bending down, she replied in a
low voice: "I am not fatigued, sir. Let me get you something to
She moved quickly away to the fire, and presently returned with
an earthenware dish of roasted pumpkin and sweet potatoes and,
kneeling at my side, fed me deftly with a small wooden spoon. I
did not feel grieved at the absence of meat and the stinging
condiments the Indians love, nor did I even remark that there was
no salt in the vegetables, so much was I taken up with watching
her beautiful delicate face while she ministered to me. The
exquisite fragrance of her breath was more to me than the most
delicious viands could have been; and it was a delight each time
she raised the spoon to my mouth to catch a momentary glimpse of
her eyes, which now looked dark as wine when we lift the glass to
see the ruby gleam of light within the purple. But she never for
a moment laid aside the silent, meek, constrained manner; and
when I remembered her bursting out in her brilliant wrath on me,
pouring forth that torrent of stinging invective in her
mysterious language, I was lost in wonder and admiration at the
change in her, and at her double personality. Having satisfied
my wants, she moved quietly away and, raising a straw mat,
disappeared behind it into her own sleeping-apartment, which was
divided off by a partition from the room I was in.
The old man's sleeping-place was a wooden cot or stand on the
opposite side of the room, but he was in no hurry to sleep, and
after Rima had left us, put a fresh log on the blaze and lit
another cigarette. Heaven knows how many he had smoked by this
time. He became very talkative and called to his side his two
dogs, which I had not noticed in the room before, for me to see.
It amused me to hear their names--Susio and Goloso: Dirty and
Greedy. They were surly-looking brutes, with rough yellow hair,
and did not win my heart, but according to his account they
possessed all the usual canine virtues; and he was still holding
forth on the subject when I fell asleep.
When morning came I was too stiff and sore to move, and not until
the following day was I able to creep out to sit in the shade of
the trees. My old host, whose name was Nuflo, went off with his
dogs, leaving the girl to attend to my wants. Two or three times
during the day she appeared to serve me with food and drink, but
she continued silent and constrained in manner as on the first
evening of seeing her in the hut.
Late in the afternoon old Nuflo returned, but did not say where
he had been; and shortly afterwards Rima reappeared, demure as
usual, in her faded cotton dress, her cloud of hair confined in
two long plaits. My curiosity was more excited than ever, and I
resolved to get to the bottom of the mystery of her life. The
girl had not shown herself responsive, but now that Nuflo was
back I was treated to as much talk as I cared to hear. He talked
of many things, only omitting those which I desired to hear
about; but his pet subject appeared to be the divine government
of the world--"God's politics"--and its manifest imperfections,
or, in other words, the manifold abuses which from time to time
had been allowed to creep into it. The old man was pious, but
like many of his class in my country, he permitted himself to
indulge in very free criticisms of the powers above, from the
King of Heaven down to the smallest saint whose name figures in
"These things, senor," he said, "are not properly managed.
Consider my position. Here am I compelled for my sins to inhabit
this wilderness with my poor granddaughter--"
"She is not your granddaughter!" I suddenly interrupted,
thinking to surprise him into an admission.
But he took his time to answer. "Senor, we are never sure of
anything in this world. Not absolutely sure. Thus, it may come
to pass that you will one day marry, and that your wife will in
due time present you with a son--one that will inherit your
fortune and transmit your name to posterity. And yet, sir, in
this world, you will never know to a certainty that he is your
"Proceed with what you were saying," I returned, with some
"Here we are," he continued, "compelled to inhabit this land and
do not meet with proper protection from the infidel. Now, sir,
this is a crying evil, and it is only becoming in one who has the
true faith, and is a loyal subject of the All-Powerful, to point
out with due humility that He is growing very remiss in His
affairs, and is losing a good deal of His prestige. And what,
senor, is at the bottom of it? Favoritism. We know that the
Supreme cannot Himself be everywhere, attending to each little
trick-track that arises in the world--matters altogether beneath
His notice; and that He must, like the President of Venezuela or
the Emperor of Brazil, appoint men--angels if you like--to
conduct His affairs and watch over each district. And it is
manifest that for this country of Guayana the proper person has
not been appointed. Every evil is done and there is no remedy,
and the Christian has no more consideration shown him than the
infidel. Now, senor, in a town near the Orinoco I once saw on a
church the archangel Michael, made of stone, and twice as tall as
a man, with one foot on a monster shaped like a cayman, but with
bat's wings, and a head and neck like a serpent. Into this
monster he was thrusting his spear. That is the kind of person
that should be sent to rule these latitudes--a person of firmness
and resolution, with strength in his wrist. And yet it is
probable that this very man- -this St. Michael--is hanging about
the palace, twirling his thumbs, waiting for an appointment,
while other weaker men, and--Heaven forgive me for saying it--not
above a bribe, perhaps, are sent out to rule over this province."
On this string he would harp by the hour; it was a lofty subject
on which he had pondered much in his solitary life, and he was
glad of an opportunity of ventilating his grievance and
expounding his views. At first it was a pure pleasure to hear
Spanish again, and the old man, albeit ignorant of letters, spoke
well; but this, I may say, is a common thing in our country,
where the peasant's quickness of intelligence and poetic feeling
often compensate for want of instruction. His views also amused
me, although they were not novel. But after a while I grew tired
of listening, yet I listened still, agreeing with him, and
leading him on to let him have his fill of talk, always hoping
that he would come at last to speak of personal matters and give
me an account of his history and of Rima's origin. But the hope
proved vain; not a word to enlighten me would he drop, however
cunningly I tempted him.
"So be it," thought I; "but if you are cunning, old man, I shall
be cunning too--and patient; for all things come to him who
He was in no hurry to get rid of me. On the contrary, he more
than hinted that I would be safer under his roof than with the
Indians, at the same time apologizing for not giving me meat to
"But why do you not have meat? Never have I seen animals so
abundant and tame as in this wood." Before he could reply Rima,
with a jug of water from the spring in her hand, came in;
glancing at me, he lifted his finger to signify that such a
subject must not be discussed in her presence; but as soon as she
quitted the room he returned to it.
"Senor," he said, "have you forgotten your adventure with the
snake? Know, then, that my grandchild would not live with me for
one day longer if I were to lift my hand against any living
creature. For us, senor, every day is fast-day--only without the
fish. We have maize, pumpkin, cassava, potatoes, and these
suffice. And even of these cultivated fruits of the earth she
eats but little in the house, preferring certain wild berries and
gums, which are more to her taste, and which she picks here and
there in her rambles in the wood. And I, sir, loving her as I
do, whatever my inclination may be, shed no blood and eat no
I looked at him with an incredulous smile.
"And your dogs, old man?"
"My dogs? Sir, they would not pause or turn aside if a
coatimundi crossed their path--an animal with a strong odour. As
a man is, so is his dog. Have you not seen dogs eating grass,
sir, even in Venezuela, where these sentiments do not prevail?
And when there is no meat--when meat is forbidden--these
sagacious animals accustom themselves to a vegetable diet."
I could not very well tell the old man that he was lying to
me--that would have been bad policy--and so I passed it off. "I
have no doubt that you are right," I said. "I have heard that
there are dogs in China that eat no meat, but are themselves
eaten by their owners after being fattened on rice. I should not
care to dine on one of your animals, old man."
He looked at them critically and replied: "Certainly they are
"I was thinking less of their leanness than of their smell," I
returned. "Their odour when they approach me is not flowery, but
resembles that of other dogs which feed on flesh, and have
offended my too sensitive nostrils even in the drawing-rooms of
Caracas. It is not like the fragrance of cattle when they return
from the pasture."
"Every animal," he replied, "gives out that odour which is
peculiar to its kind"; an incontrovertible fact which left me
nothing to say.
When I had sufficiently recovered the suppleness of my limbs to
walk with ease, I went for a ramble in the wood, in the hope that
Rima would accompany me, and that out among the trees she would
cast aside that artificial constraint and shyness which was her
manner in the house.
It fell out just as I had expected; she accompanied me in the
sense of being always near me, or within earshot, and her manner
was now free and unconstrained as I could wish; but little or
nothing was gained by the change. She was once more the
tantalizing, elusive, mysterious creature I had first known
through her wandering, melodious voice. The only difference was
that the musical, inarticulate sounds were now less often heard,
and that she was no longer afraid to show herself to me. This
for a short time was enough to make me happy, since no lovelier
being was ever looked upon, nor one whose loveliness was less
likely to lose its charm through being often seen.
But to keep her near me or always in sight was, I found,
impossible: she would be free as the wind, free as the butterfly,
going and coming at her wayward will, and losing herself from
sight a dozen times every hour. To induce her to walk soberly at
my side or sit down and enter into conversation with me seemed
about as impracticable as to tame the fiery-hearted little
humming-bird that flashes into sight, remains suspended
motionless for a few seconds before your face, then, quick as
lightning, vanishes again.
At length, feeling convinced that she was most happy when she had
me out following her in the wood, that in spite of her bird-like
wildness she had a tender, human heart, which was easily moved, I
determined to try to draw her closer by means of a little
innocent stratagem. Going out in the morning, after calling her
several times to no purpose, I began to assume a downcast manner,
as if suffering pain or depressed with grief; and at last,
finding a convenient exposed root under a tree, on a spot where
the ground was dry and strewn with loose yellow sand, I sat down
and refused to go any further. For she always wanted to lead me
on and on, and whenever I paused she would return to show
herself, or to chide or encourage me in her mysterious language.
All her pretty little arts were now practiced in vain: with cheek
resting on my hand, I still sat,
So my eyes fixed on that patch of yellow sand at my feet,
watching how the small particles glinted like diamond dust when
the sunlight touched them. A full hour passed in this way,
during which I encouraged myself by saying mentally: "This is a
contest between us, and the most patient and the strongest of
will, which should be the man, must conquer. And if I win on
this occasion, it will be easier for me in the future--easier to
discover those things which I am resolved to know, and the girl
must reveal to me, since the old man has proved impracticable."
Meanwhile she came and went and came again; and at last, finding
that I was not to be moved, she approached and stood near me.
Her face, when I glanced at it, had a somewhat troubled
look--both troubled and curious.
"Come here, Rima," I said, "and stay with me for a little
while--I cannot follow you now."
She took one or two hesitating steps, then stood still again; and
at length, slowly and reluctantly, advanced to within a yard of
me. Then I rose from my seat on the root, so as to catch her
face better, and placed my hand against the rough bark of the
"Rima," I said, speaking in a low, caressing tone, "will you stay
with me here a little while and talk to me, not in your language,
but in mine, so that I may understand? Will you listen when I
speak to you, and answer me?"
Her lips moved, but made no sound. She seemed strangely
disquieted, and shook back her loose hair, and with her small
toes moved the sparkling sand at her feet, and once or twice her
eyes glanced shyly at my face.
"Rime, you have not answered me," I persisted. "Will you not say
"Where does your grandfather spend his day when he goes out with
She shook her head slightly, but would not speak.
"Have you no mother, Rima? Do you remember your mother?"
"My mother! My mother!" she exclaimed in a low voice, but with
a sudden, wonderful animation. Bending a little nearer, she
continued: "Oh, she is dead! Her body is in the earth and turned
to dust. Like that," and she moved the loose sand with her foot.
"Her soul is up there, where the stars and the angels are,
grandfather says. But what is that to me? I am here--am I not?
I talk to her just the same. Everything I see I point out, and
tell her everything. In the daytime--in the woods, when we are
together. And at night when I lie down I cross my arms on my
breast--so, and say: 'Mother, mother, now you are in my arms; let
us go to sleep together.' Sometimes I say: 'Oh, why will you
never answer me when I speak and speak?' Mother--mother--mother!"
At the end her voice suddenly rose to a mournful cry, then sunk,
and at the last repetition of the word died to a low whisper.
"Ah, poor Rima! she is dead and cannot speak to you--cannot hear
you! Talk to me, Rima; I am living and can answer."
But now the cloud, which had suddenly lifted from her heart,
letting me see for a moment into its mysterious depths--its
fancies so childlike and feelings so intense--had fallen again;
and my words brought no response, except a return of that
troubled look to her face.
"Silent still?" I said. "Talk to me, then, of your mother,
Rima. Do you know that you will see her again some day?"
"Yes, when I die. That is what the priest said."
"Yes, at Voa--do you know? Mother died there when I was
small--it is so far away! And there are thirteen houses by the
side of the river--just here; and on this side--trees, trees."
This was important, I thought, and would lead to the very
knowledge I wished for; so I pressed her to tell me more about
the settlement she had named, and of which I had never heard.
"Everything have I told you," she returned, surprised that I did
not know that she had exhausted the subject in those half-dozen
words she had spoken.
Obliged to shift my ground, I said at a venture: "Tell me, what
do you ask of the Virgin Mother when you kneel before her
picture? Your grandfather told me that you had a picture in your
"You know!" flashed out her answer, with something like
"It is all there in there," waving her hand towards the hut.
"Out here in the wood it is all gone--like this," and stooping
quickly, she raised a little yellow sand on her palm, then let it
run away through her fingers.
Thus she illustrated how all the matters she had been taught
slipped from her mind when she was out of doors, out of sight of
the picture. After an interval she added: "Only mother is
here--always with me."
"Ah, poor Rima!" I said; "alone without a mother, and only your
old grandfather! He is old--what will you do when he dies and
flies away to the starry country where your mother is?"
She looked inquiringly at me, then made answer in a low voice:
"You are here."
"But when I go away?"
She was silent; and not wishing to dwell on a subject that seemed
to pain her, I continued: "Yes, I am here now, but you will not
stay with me and talk freely! Will it always be the same if I
remain with you? Why are you always so silent in the house, so
cold with your old grandfather? So different--so full of life,
like a bird, when you are alone in the woods? Rima, speak to me!
Am I no more to you than your old grandfather? Do you not like
me to talk to you?"
She appeared strangely disturbed at my words. "Oh, you are not
like him," she suddenly replied. "Sitting all day on a log by
the fire--all day, all day; Goloso and Susio lying beside
him--sleep, sleep. Oh, when I saw you in the wood I followed
you, and talked and talked; still no answer. Why will you not
come when I call? To me!" Then, mocking my voice: "Rime, Rima!
Come here! Do this! Say that! Rima! Rima! It is nothing,
nothing--it is not you," pointing to my mouth, and then, as if
fearing that her meaning had not been made clear, suddenly
touching my lips with her finger. "Why do you not answer
me?--speak to me--speak to me, like this!" And turning a little
more towards me, and glancing at me with eyes that had all at
once changed, losing their clouded expression for one of
exquisite tenderness, from her lips came a succession of those
mysterious sounds which had first attracted me to her, swift and
low and bird-like, yet with something so much higher and more
soul-penetrating than any bird-music. Ah, what feeling and
fancies, what quaint turns of expression, unfamiliar to my mind,
were contained in those sweet, wasted symbols! I could never
know--never come to her when she called, or respond to her
spirit. To me they would always be inarticulate sounds,
affecting me like a tender spiritual music--a language without
words, suggesting more than words to the soul.
The mysterious speech died down to a lisping sound, like the
faint note of some small bird falling from a cloud of foliage on
the topmost bough of a tree; and at the same time that new light
passed from her eyes, and she half averted her face in a
"Rima," I said at length, a new thought coming to my aid, "it is
true that I am not here," touching my lips as she had done, "and
that my words are nothing. But look into my eyes, and you will
see me there--all, all that is in my heart."
"Oh, I know what I should see there!" she returned quickly.
"What would you see--tell me?"
"There is a little black ball in the middle of your eye; I should
see myself in it no bigger than that," and she marked off about
an eighth of her little fingernail. "There is a pool in the
wood, and I look down and see myself there. That is better.
Just as large as I am--not small and black like a small, small
fly." And after saying this a little disdainfully, she moved
away from my side and out into the sunshine; and then, half
turning towards me, and glancing first at my face and then
upwards, she raised her hand to call my attention to something
Far up, high as the tops of the tallest trees, a great
blue-winged butterfly was passing across the open space with
loitering flight. In a few moments it was gone over the trees;
then she turned once more to me with a little rippling sound of
laughter--the first I had heard from her, and called: "Come,
I was glad enough to go with her then; and for the next two hours
we rambled together in the wood; that is, together in her way,
for though always near she contrived to keep out of my sight most
of the time. She was evidently now in a gay, frolicsome temper;
again and again, when I looked closely into some wide-spreading
bush, or peered behind a tree, when her calling voice had
sounded, her rippling laughter would come to me from some other
spot. At length, somewhere about the centre of the wood, she led
me to an immense mora tree, growing almost isolated, covering
with its shade a large space of ground entirely free from
undergrowth. At this spot she all at once vanished from my side;
and after listening and watching some time in vain, I sat down
beside the giant trunk to wait for her. Very soon I heard a low,
warbling sound which seemed quite near.
"Rime! Rima!" I called, and instantly my call was repeated like
an echo. Again and again I called, and still the words flew back
to me, and I could not decide whether it was an echo or not.
Then I gave up calling; and presently the low, warbling sound was
repeated, and I knew that Rima was somewhere near me.
"Rime, where are you?" I called.
"Rime, where are you?" came the answer.
"You are behind the tree."
"You are behind the tree."
"I shall catch you, Rima." And this time, instead of repeating
my words, she answered: "Oh no."
I jumped up and ran round the tree, feeling sure that I should
find her. It was about thirty-five or forty feet in
circumference; and after going round two or three times, I turned
and ran the other way, but failing to catch a glimpse of her I at
last sat down again.
"Rime, Rima!" sounded the mocking voice as soon as I had sat
down. "Where are you, Rima? I shall catch you, Rima! Have you
"No, I have not caught her. There is no Rima now. She has faded
away like a rainbow--like a drop of dew in the sun. I have lost
her; I shall go to sleep." And stretching myself out at full
length under the tree, I remained quiet for two or three minutes.
Then a slight rustling sound was heard, and I looked eagerly
round for her. But the sound was overhead and caused by a great
avalanche of leaves which began to descend on me from that vast
leafy canopy above.
"Ah, little spider-monkey--little green tree-snake--you are
there!" But there was no seeing her in that immense aerial
palace hung with dim drapery of green and copper-coloured leaves.
But how had she got there? Up the stupendous trunk even a monkey
could not have climbed, and there were no lianas dropping to
earth from the wide horizontal branches that I could see; but by
and by, looking further away, I perceived that on one side the
longest lower branches reached and mingled with the shorter
boughs of the neighbouring trees. While gazing up I heard her
low, rippling laugh, and then caught sight of her as she ran
along an exposed horizontal branch, erect on her feet; and my
heart stood still with terror, for she was fifty to sixty feet
above the ground. In another moment she vanished from sight in a
cloud of foliage, and I saw no more of her for about ten minutes,
when all at once she appeared at my side once more, having come
round the trunk of the more. Her face had a bright, pleased
expression, and showed no trace of fatigue or agitation.
I caught her hand in mine. It was a delicate, shapely little
hand, soft as velvet, and warm--a real human hand; only now when
I held it did she seem altogether like a human being and not a
mocking spirit of the wood, a daughter of the Didi.
"Do you like me to hold your hand, Rima?"
"Yes," she replied, with indifference.
"Is it I?"
"Yes." This time as if it was small satisfaction to make
acquaintance with this purely physical part of me.
Having her so close gave me an opportunity of examining that
light sheeny garment she wore always in the woods. It felt soft
and satiny to the touch, and there was no seam nor hem in it that
I could see, but it was all in one piece, like the cocoon of the
caterpillar. While I was feeling it on her shoulder and looking
narrowly at it, she glanced at me with a mocking laugh in her
"Is it silk?" I asked. Then, as she remained silent, I
continued: "Where did you get this dress, Rima? Did you make it
yourself? Tell me."
She answered not in words, but in response to my question a new
look came into her face; no longer restless and full of change in
her expression, she was now as immovable as an alabaster statue;
not a silken hair on her head trembled; her eyes were wide open,
gazing fixedly before her; and when I looked into them they
seemed to see and yet not to see me. They were like the clear,
brilliant eyes of a bird, which reflect as in a miraculous mirror
all the visible world but do not return our look and seem to see
us merely as one of the thousand small details that make up the
whole picture. Suddenly she darted out her hand like a flash,
making me start at the unexpected motion, and quickly withdrawing
it, held up a finger before me. From its tip a minute gossamer
spider, about twice the bigness of a pin's head, appeared
suspended from a fine, scarcely visible line three or four inches
"Look!" she exclaimed, with a bright glance at my face.
The small spider she had captured, anxious to be free, was
falling, falling earthward, but could not reach the surface.
Leaning her shoulder a little forward, she placed the finger-tip
against it, but lightly, scarcely touching, and moving
continuously, with a motion rapid as that of a fluttering moth's
wing; while the spider, still paying out his line, remained
suspended, rising and falling slightly at nearly the same
distance from the ground. After a few moments she cried: "Drop
down, little spider." Her finger's motion ceased, and the minute
captive fell, to lose itself on the shaded ground.
"Do you not see?" she said to me, pointing to her shoulder.
Just where the finger-tip had touched the garment a round shining
spot appeared, looking like a silver coin on the cloth; but on
touching it with my finger it seemed part of the original fabric,
only whiter and more shiny on the grey ground, on account of the
freshness of the web of which it had just been made.
And so all this curious and pretty performance, which seemed
instinctive in its spontaneous quickness and dexterity, was
merely intended to show me how she made her garments out of the
fine floating lines of small gossamer spiders!
Before I could express my surprise and admiration she cried
again, with startling suddenness: "Look!"
A minute shadowy form darted by, appearing like a dim line traced
across the deep glossy more foliage, then on the lighter green
foliage further away. She waved her hand in imitation of its
swift, curving flight; then, dropping it, exclaimed: "Gone--oh,
"What was it?" I asked, for it might have been a bird, a
bird-like moth, or a bee.
"Did you not see? And you asked me to look into your eyes!"
"Ah, little squirrel Sakawinki, you remind me of that!" I said,
passing my arm round her waist and drawing her a little closer.
"Look into my eyes now and see if I am blind, and if there is
nothing in them except an image of Rima like a small, small fly."
She shook her head and laughed a little mockingly, but made no
effort to escape from my arm.
"Would you like me always to do what you wish, Rima--to follow
you in the woods when you say 'Come'--to chase you round the tree
to catch you, and lie down for you to throw leaves on me, and to
be glad when you are glad?"
"Then let us make a compact. I shall do everything to please
you, and you must promise to do everything to please me."
"Little things, Rima--none so hard as chasing you round a tree.
Only to have you stand or sit by me and talk will make me happy.
And to begin you must call me by my name--Abel."
"Is that your name? Oh, not your real name! Abel, Abel--what is
that? It says nothing. I have called you by so many
names--twenty, thirty--and no answer."
"Have you? But, dearest girl, every person has a name, one name
he is called by. Your name, for instance, is Rima, is it not?"
"Rima! only Rima--to you? In the morning, in the evening . .
. now in this place and in a little while where know I? . . .
in the night when you wake and it is dark, dark, and you see me
all the same. Only Rima--oh, how strange!"
"What else, sweet girl? Your grandfather Nuflo calls you Rima."
"Nuflo?" She spoke as if putting a question to herself. "Is
that an old man with two dogs that lives somewhere in the wood?"
And then, with sudden petulance: "And you ask me to talk to you!"
"Oh, Rima, what can I say to you? Listen--"
"No, no," she exclaimed, quickly turning and putting her fingers
on my mouth to stop my speech, while a sudden merry look shone in
her eves. "You shall listen when I speak, and do all I say. And
tell me what to do to please you with your eyes--let me look in
your eyes that are not blind."
She turned her face more towards me and with head a little thrown
back and inclined to one side, gazing now full into my eyes as I
had wished her to do. After a few moments she glanced away to
the distant trees. But I could see into those divine orbs, and
knew that she was not looking at any particular object. All the
ever-varying expressions--inquisitive, petulant, troubled, shy,
frolicsome had now vanished from the still face, and the look was
inward and full of a strange, exquisite light, as if some new
happiness or hope had touched her spirit.
Sinking my voice to a whisper, I said: "Tell me what you have
seen in my eyes, Rima?"
She murmured in reply something melodious and inarticulate, then
glanced at my face in a questioning way; but only for a moment,
then her sweet eyes were again veiled under those drooping
"Listen, Rima," I said. "Was that a humming-bird we saw a little
while ago? You are like that, now dark, a shadow in the shadow,
seen for an instant, and then--gone, oh, little thing! And now
in the sunshine standing still, how beautiful!--a thousand times
more beautiful than the humming-bird. Listen, Rima, you are like
all beautiful things in the wood--flower, and bird, and
butterfly, and green leaf, and frond, and little silky-haired
monkey high up in the trees. When I look at you I see them
all--all and more, a thousand times, for I see Rima herself. And
when I listen to Rima's voice, talking in a language I cannot
understand, I hear the wind whispering in the leaves, the
gurgling running water, the bee among the flowers, the organ-bird
singing far, far away in the shadows of the trees. I hear them
all, and more, for I hear Rima. Do you understand me now? Is it
I speaking to you--have I answered you--have I come to you?"
She glanced at me again, her lips trembling, her eyes now clouded
with some secret trouble. "Yes," she replied in a whisper, and
then: "No, it is not you," and after a moment, doubtfully: "Is it
But she did not wait to be answered: in a moment she was gone
round the more; nor would she return again for all my calling.
That afternoon with Rima in the forest under the mora tree had
proved so delightful that I was eager for more rambles and talks
with her, but the variable little witch had a great surprise in
store for me. All her wild natural gaiety had unaccountably gone
out of her: when I walked in the shade she was there, but no
longer as the blithe, fantastic being, bright as an angel,
innocent and affectionate as a child, tricksy as a monkey, that
had played at hide-and-seek with me. She was now my shy, silent
attendant, only occasionally visible, and appearing then like the
mysterious maid I had found reclining among the ferns who had
melted away mist-like from sight as I gazed. When I called she
would not now answer as formerly, but in response would appear in
sight as if to assure me that I had not been forsaken; and after
a few moments her grey shadowy form would once more vanish among
the trees. The hope that as her confidence increased and she
grew accustomed to talk with me she would be brought to reveal
the story of her life had to be abandoned, at all events for the
present. I must, after all, get my information from Nuflo, or
rest in ignorance. The old man was out for the greater part of
each day with his dogs, and from these expeditions he brought
back nothing that I could see but a few nuts and fruits, some
thin bark for his cigarettes, and an occasional handful of haima
gum to perfume the hut of an evening. After I had wasted three
days in vainly trying to overcome the girl's now inexplicable
shyness, I resolved to give for a while my undivided attention to
her grandfather to discover, if possible, where he went and how
he spent his time.
My new game of hide-and-seek with Nuflo instead of with Rima
began on the following morning. He was cunning; so was I. Going
out and concealing myself among the bushes, I began to watch the
hut. That I could elude Rima's keener eyes I doubted; but that
did not trouble me. She was not in harmony with the old man, and
would do nothing to defeat my plan. I had not been long in my
hiding-place before he came out, followed by his two dogs, and
going to some distance from the door, he sat down on a log. For
some minutes he smoked, then rose, and after looking cautiously
round slipped away among the trees. I saw that he was going off
in the direction of the low range of rocky hills south of the
forest. I knew that the forest did not extend far in that
direction, and thinking that I should be able to catch a sight of
him on its borders, I left the bushes and ran through the trees
as fast as I could to get ahead of him. Coming to where the wood
was very open, I found that a barren plain beyond it, a quarter
of a mile wide, separated it from the range of hills; thinking
that the old man might cross this open space, I climbed into a
tree to watch. After some time he appeared, walking rapidly
among the trees, the dogs at his heels, but not going towards the
open plain; he had, it seemed, after arriving at the edge of the
wood, changed his direction and was going west, still keeping in
the shelter of the trees. When he had been gone about five
minutes, I dropped to the ground and started in pursuit; once
more I caught sight of him through the trees, and I kept him in
sight for about twenty minutes longer; then he came to a broad
strip of dense wood which extended into and through the range of
hills, and here I quickly lost him. Hoping still to overtake
him, I pushed on, but after struggling through the underwood for
some distance, and finding the forest growing more difficult as I
progressed, I at last gave him up. Turning eastward, I got out
of the wood to find myself at the foot of a steep rough hill, one
of the range which the wooded valley cut through at right angles.
It struck me that it would be a good plan to climb the hill to
get a view of the forest belt in which I had lost the old man;
and after walking a short distance I found a spot which allowed
of an ascent. The summit of the hill was about three hundred
feet above the surrounding level and did not take me long to
reach; it commanded a fair view, and I now saw that the belt of
wood beneath me extended right through the range, and on the
south side opened out into an extensive forest. "If that is your
destination," thought I, "old fox, your secrets are safe from
It was still early in the day, and a slight breeze tempered the
air and made it cool and pleasant on the hilltop after my
exertions. My scramble through the wood had fatigued me
somewhat, and resolving to spend some hours on that spot, I
looked round for a comfortable resting-place. I soon found a
shady spot on the west side of an upright block of stone where I
could recline at ease on a bed of lichen. Here, with shoulders
resting against the rock, I sat thinking of Rima, alone in her
wood today, with just a tinge of bitterness in my thoughts which
made me hope that she would miss me as much as I missed her; and
in the end I fell asleep.
When I woke, it was past noon, and the sun was shining directly
on me. Standing up to gaze once more on the prospect, I noticed
a small wreath of white smoke issuing from a spot about the
middle of the forest belt beneath me, and I instantly divined
that Nuflo had made a fire at that place, and I resolved to
surprise him in his retreat. When I got down to the base of the
hill the smoke could no longer be seen, but I had studied the
spot well from above, and had singled out a large clump of trees
on the edge of the belt as a starting-point; and after a search
of half an hour I succeeded in finding the old man's
hiding-place. First I saw smoke again through an opening in the
trees, then a small rude hut of sticks and palm leaves.
Approaching cautiously, I peered through a crack and discovered
old Nuflo engaged in smoking some meat over a fire, and at the
same time grilling some bones on the coals. He had captured a
coatimundi, an animal somewhat larger than a tame tom-cat, with a
long snout and long ringed tail; one of the dogs was gnawing at
the animal's head, and the tail and the feet were also lying on
the floor, among the old bones and rubbish that littered it.
Stealing round, I suddenly presented myself at the opening to his
den, when the dogs rose up with a growl and Nuflo instantly
leaped to his feet, knife in hand.
"Aha, old man," I cried, with a laugh, "I have found you at one
of your vegetarian repasts; and your grass-eating dogs as well!"
He was disconcerted and suspicious, but when I explained that I
had seen a smoke while on the hills, where I had gone to search
for a curious blue flower which grew in such places, and had made
my way to it to discover the cause, he recovered confidence and
invited me to join him at his dinner of roast meat.
I was hungry by this time and not sorry to get animal food once
more; nevertheless, I ate this meat with some disgust, as it had
a rank taste and smell, and it was also unpleasant to have those
evil-looking dogs savagely gnawing at the animal's head and feet
at the same time.
"You see," said the old hypocrite, wiping the grease from his
moustache, "this is what I am compelled to do in order to avoid
giving offence. My granddaughter is a strange being, sir, as you
have perhaps observed--"
"That reminds me," I interrupted, "that I wish you to relate her
history to me. She is, as you say, strange, and has speech and
faculties unlike ours, which shows that she comes of a different
"No, no, her faculties are not different from ours. They are
sharper, that is all. It pleases the All-Powerful to give more
to some than to others. Not all the fingers on the hand are
alike. You will find a man who will take up a guitar and make it
speak, while I--"
"All that I understand," I broke in again. "But her origin, her
history--that is what I wish to hear."
"And that, sir, is precisely what I am about to relate. Poor
child, she was left on my hands by her sainted mother--my
daughter, sir--who perished young. Now, her birthplace, where
she was taught letters and the Catechism by the priest, was in an
unhealthy situation. It was hot and wet--always wet--a place
suited to frogs rather than to human beings. At length, thinking
that it would suit the child better--for she was pale and
weakly--to live in a drier atmosphere among mountains, I brought
her to this district. For this, senor, and for all I have done
for her, I look for no reward here, but to that place where my
daughter has got her foot; not, sir, on the threshold, as you
might think, but well inside. For, after all, it is to the
authorities above, in spite of some blots which we see in their
administration, that we must look for justice. Frankly, sir,
this is the whole story of my granddaughter's origin."
"Ah, yes," I returned, "your story explains why she can call a
wild bird to her hand, and touch a venomous serpent with her bare
foot and receive no harm."
"Doubtless you are right," said the old dissembler. "Living
alone in the wood, she had only God's creatures to play and make
friends with; and wild animals, I have heard it said, know those
who are friendly towards them."
"You treat her friends badly," said I, kicking the long tail of
the coatimundi away with my foot, and regretting that I had
joined in his repast.
"Senor, you must consider that we are only what Heaven made us.
When all this was formed," he continued, opening his arms wide to
indicate the entire creation, "the Person who concerned Himself
with this matter gave seeds and fruitless and nectar of flowers
for the sustentation of His small birds. But we have not their
delicate appetites. The more robust stomach which he gave to man
cries out for meat. Do you understand? But of all this, friend,
not one word to Rima!"
I laughed scornfully. "Do you think me such a child, old man, as
to believe that Rima, that little sprite, does not know that you
are an eater of flesh? Rima, who is everywhere in the wood,
seeing all things, even if I lift my hand against a serpent, she
"But, sir, if you will pardon my presumption, you are saying too
much. She does not come here, and therefore cannot see that I
eat meat. In all that wood where she flourishes and sings, where
she is in her house and garden, and mistress of the creatures,
even of the small butterfly with painted wings, there, sir, I
hunt no animal. Nor will my dogs chase any animal there. That
is what I meant when I said that if an animal should stumble
against their legs, they would lift up their noses and pass on
without seeing it. For in that wood there is one law, the law
that Rima imposes, and outside of it a different law."
"I am glad that you have told me this," I replied. "The thought
that Rima might be near, and, unseen herself, look in upon us
feeding with the dogs and, like dogs, on flesh, was one which
greatly troubled my mind."
He glanced at me in his usual quick, cunning way.
"Ah, senor, you have that feeling too--after so short a time with
us! Consider, then, what it must be for me, unable to nourish
myself on gums and fruitlets, and that little sweetness made by
wasps out of flowers, when I am compelled to go far away and eat
secretly to avoid giving offence."
It was hard, no doubt, but I did not pity him; secretly I could
only feel anger against him for refusing to enlighten me, while
making such a presence of openness; and I also felt disgusted
with myself for having joined him in his rank repast. But
dissimulation was necessary, and so, after conversing a little
more on indifferent topics, and thanking him for his hospitality,
I left him alone to go on with his smoky task.
On my way back to the lodge, fearing that some taint of Nuflo's
evil-smelling den and dinner might still cling to me, I turned
aside to where a streamlet in the wood widened and formed a deep
pool, to take a plunge in the water. After drying myself in the
air, and thoroughly ventilating my garments by shaking and
beating them, I found an open, shady spot in the wood and threw
myself on the grass to wait for evening before returning to the
house. By that time the sweet, warm air would have purified me.
Besides, I did not consider that I had sufficiently punished Rima
for her treatment of me. She would be anxious for my safety,
perhaps even looking for me everywhere in the wood. It was not
much to make her suffer one day after she had made me miserable
for three; and perhaps when she discovered that I could exist
without her society she would begin to treat me less
So ran my thoughts as I rested on the warm ground, gazing up into
the foliage, green as young grass in the lower, shady parts, and
above luminous with the bright sunlight, and full of the
murmuring sounds of insect life. My every action, word, thought,
had my feeling for Rima as a motive. Why, I began to ask myself,
was Rima so much to me? It was easy to answer that question:
Because nothing so exquisite had ever been created. All the
separate and fragmentary beauty and melody and graceful motion
found scattered throughout nature were concentrated and
harmoniously combined in her. How various, how luminous, how
divine she was! A being for the mind to marvel at, to admire
continually, finding some new grace and charm every hour, every
moment, to add to the old. And there was, besides, the
fascinating mystery surrounding her origin to arouse and keep my
interest in her continually active.
That was the easy answer I returned to the question I had asked
myself. But I knew that there was another answer--a reason more
powerful than the first. And I could no longer thrust it back,
or hide its shining face with the dull, leaden mask of mere
intellectual curiosity. BECAUSE I LOVED HER; loved her as I had
never loved before, never could love any other being, with a
passion which had caught something of her own brilliance and
intensity, making a former passion look dim and commonplace in
comparison--a feeling known to everyone, something old and worn
out, a weariness even to think of.
From these reflections I was roused by the plaintive
three-syllable call of an evening bird--a nightjar common in
these woods; and was surprised to find that the sun had set, and
the woods already shadowed with the twilight. I started up and
began hurriedly walking homewards, thinking of Rima, and was
consumed with impatience to see her; and as I drew near to the
house, walking along a narrow path which I knew, I suddenly met
her face to face. Doubtless she had heard my approach, and
instead of shrinking out of the path and allowing me to pass on
without seeing her, as she would have done on the previous day,
she had sprung forward to meet me. I was struck with wonder at
the change in her as she came with a swift, easy motion, like a
flying bird, her hands outstretched as if to clasp mine, her lips
parted in a radiant, welcoming smile, her eyes sparkling with
I started forward to meet her, but had no sooner touched her
hands than her countenance changed, and she shrunk back
trembling, as if the touch had chilled her warm blood; and moving
some feet away, she stood with downcast eyes, pale and sorrowful
as she had seemed yesterday. In vain I implored her to tell me
the cause of this change and of the trouble she evidently felt;
her lips trembled as if with speech, but she made no reply, and
only shrunk further away when I attempted to approach her; and at
length, moving aside from the path, she was lost to sight in the
I went on alone, and sat outside for some time, until old Nuflo
returned from his hunting; and only after he had gone in and had
made the fire burn up did Rima make her appearance, silent and
constrained as ever.
On the following day Rima continued in the same inexplicable
humour; and feeling my defeat keenly, I determined once more to
try the effect of absence on her, and to remain away on this
occasion for a longer period. Like old Nuflo, I was secret in
going forth next morning, waiting until the girl was out of the
way, then slipping off among the bushes into the deeper wood; and
finally quitting its shelter, I set out across the savannah
towards my old quarters. Great was my surprise on arriving at
the village to find no person there. At first I imagined that my
disappearance in the forest of evil fame had caused them to
abandon their home in a panic; but on looking round I concluded
that my friends had only gone on one of their periodical visits
to some neighbouring village. For when these Indians visit their
neighbours they do it in a very thorough manner; they all go,
taking with them their entire stock of provisions, their cooking
utensils, weapons, hammocks, and even their pet animals.
Fortunately in this case they had not taken quite everything; my
hammock was there, also one small pot, some cassava bread, purple
potatoes, and a few ears of maize. I concluded that these had
been left for me in the event of my return; also that they had
not been gone very many hours, since a log of wood buried under
the ashes of the hearth was still alight. Now, as their absences
from home usually last many days, it was plain that I would have
the big naked barn-like house to myself for as long as I thought
proper to remain, with little food to eat; but the prospect did
not disturb me, and I resolved to amuse myself with music. In
vain I hunted for my guitar; the Indians had taken it to delight
their friends by twanging its strings. At odd moments during the
last day or two I had been composing a simple melody in my brain,
fitting it to ancient words; and now, without an instrument to
assist me, I began softly singing to myself:
Muy mas clara que la luna
en el mundo vos nacistes.
After music I made up the fire and parched an ear of maize for my
dinner, and while laboriously crunching the dry hard grain I
thanked Heaven for having bestowed on me such good molars.
Finally I slung my hammock in its old corner, and placing myself
in it in my favourite oblique position, my hands clasped behind
my head, one knee cocked up, the other leg dangling down, I
resigned myself to idle thought. I felt very happy. How
strange, thought I, with a little self-flattery, that I,
accustomed to the agreeable society of intelligent men and
charming women, and of books, should find such perfect
contentment here! But I congratulated myself too soon. The
profound silence began at length to oppress me. It was not like
the forest, where one has wild birds for company, where their
cries, albeit inarticulate, have a meaning and give a charm to
solitude. Even the sight and whispered sounds of green leaves
and rushes trembling in the wind have for us something of
intelligence and sympathy; but I could not commune with mud walls
and an earthen pot. Feeling my loneliness too acutely, I began
to regret that I had left Rima, then to feel remorse at the
secrecy I had practiced. Even now while I inclined idly in my
hammock, she would be roaming the forest in search of me,
listening for my footsteps, fearing perhaps that I had met with
some accident where there was no person to succour me. It was
painful to think of her in this way, of the pain I had doubtless
given her by stealing off without a word of warning. Springing
to the floor, I flung out of the house and went down to the
stream. It was better there, for now the greatest heat of the
day was over, and the weltering sun began to look large and red
and rayless through the afternoon haze.
I seated myself on a stone within a yard or two of the limpid
water; and now the sight of nature and the warm, vital air and
sunshine infected my spirit and made it possible for me to face
the position calmly, even hopefully. The position was this: for
some days the idea had been present in my mind, and was now fixed
there, that this desert was to be my permanent home. The thought
of going back to Caracas, that little Paris in America, with its
Old World vices, its idle political passions, its empty round of
gaieties, was unendurable. I was changed, and this change--so
great, so complete--was proof that the old artificial life had
not been and could not be the real one, in harmony with my deeper
and truer nature. I deceived myself, you will say, as I have
often myself said. I had and I had not. It is too long a
question to discuss here; but just then I felt that I had quitted
the hot, tainted atmosphere of the ballroom, that the morning air
of heaven refreshed and elevated me and was sweet to breathe.
Friends and relations I had who were dear to me; but I could
forget them, even as I could forget the splendid dreams which had
been mine. And the woman I had loved, and who perhaps loved me
in return--I could forget her too. A daughter of civilization
and of that artificial life, she could never experience such
feelings as these and return to nature as I was doing. For
women, though within narrow limits more plastic than men, are yet
without that larger adaptiveness which can take us back to the
sources of life, which they have left eternally behind. Better,
far better for both of us that she should wait through the long,
slow months, growing sick at heart with hope deferred; that,
seeing me no more, she should weep my loss, and be healed at last
by time, and find love and happiness again in the old way, in the
And while I thus sat thinking, sadly enough, but not
despondingly, of past and present and future, all at once on the
warm, still air came the resonant, far-reaching KLING-KLANG of
the campanero from some leafy summit half a league away.
KLING-KLANG fell the sound again, and often again, at intervals,
affecting me strangely at that moment, so bell-like, so like the
great wide-travelling sounds associated in our minds with
Christian worship. And yet so unlike. A bell, yet not made of
gross metal dug out of earth, but of an ethereal, sublimer
material that floats impalpable and invisible in space--a vital
bell suspended on nothing, giving out sounds in harmony with the
vastness of blue heaven, the unsullied purity of nature, the
glory of the sun, and conveying a mystic, a higher message to the
soul than the sounds that surge from tower and belfry.
O mystic bell-bird of the heavenly race of the swallow and dove,
the quetzal and the nightingale! When the brutish savage and the
brutish white man that slay thee, one for food, the other for the
benefit of science, shall have passed away, live still, live to
tell thy message to the blameless spiritualized race that shall
come after us to possess the earth, not for a thousand years, but
for ever; for how much shall thy voice be our clarified
successors when even to my dull, unpurged soul thou canst speak
such high things and bring it a sense of an impersonal,
all-compromising One who is in me and I in Him, flesh of His
flesh and soul of His soul.
The sounds ceased, but I was still in that exalted mood and, like
a person in a trance, staring fixedly before me into the open
wood of scattered dwarf trees on the other side of the stream,
when suddenly on the field of vision appeared a grotesque human
figure moving towards me. I started violently, astonished and a
little alarmed, but in a very few moments I recognized the
ancient Cla-cla, coming home with a large bundle of dry sticks on
her shoulders, bent almost double under the burden, and still