Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon, by Jules Verne

Chapter XI

From Pevas to the Frontier

DURING THE FEW days which followed nothing occurred worthy of note. The nights were so fine that the long raft went on its way with the stream without even a halt. The two picturesque banks of the river seemed to change like the panoramas of the theaters which unroll from one wing to another. By a kind of optical illusion it appeared as though the raft was motionless between two moving pathways.

Benito had no shooting on the banks, for no halt was made, but game was very advantageously replaced by the results of the fishing.

A great variety of excellent fish were taken —“pacos,” “surubis,” “gamitanas,” of exquisite flavor, and several of those large rays called “duridaris,” with rose-colored stomachs and black backs armed with highly poisonous darts. There were also collected by thousands those “candirus,” a kind of small silurus, of which many are microscopic, and which so frequently make a pincushion of the calves of the bather when he imprudently ventures into their haunts.

The rich waters of the Amazon were also frequented by many other aquatic animals, which escorted the jangada through its waves for whole hours together.

There were the gigantic “pria-rucus,” ten and twelve feet long, cuirassed with large scales with scarlet borders, whose flesh was not much appreciated by the natives. Neither did they care to capture many of the graceful dolphins which played about in hundreds, striking with their tails the planks of the raft, gamboling at the bow and stern, and making the water alive with colored reflections and spurts of spray, which the refracted light converted into so many rainbows.

On the 16th of June the jangada, after fortunately clearing several shallows in approaching the banks, arrived near the large island of San Pablo, and the following evening she stopped at the village of Moromoros, which is situated on the left side of the Amazon. Twenty-four hours afterward, passing the mouths of the Atacoari or Cocha — or rather the “furo,” or canal, which communicates with the lake of Cabello-Cocha on the right bank — she put in at the rising ground of the mission of Cocha. This was the country of the Marahua Indians, whose long floating hair, and mouths opening in the middle of a kind of fan made of the spines of palm-trees, six inches long, give them a cat-like look — their endeavor being, according to Paul Marcoy, to resemble the tiger, whose boldness, strength, and cunning they admire above everything. Several women came with these Marahuas, smoking cigars, but holding the lighted ends in their teeth. All of them, like the king of the Amazonian forests, go about almost naked.

The mission of Cocha was then in charge of a Franciscan monk, who was anxious to visit Padre Passanha.

Joam Garral received him with a warm welcome, and offered him a seat at the dinner-table.

On that day was given a dinner which did honor to the Indian cook. The traditional soup of fragrant herbs; cake, so often made to replace bread in Brazil, composed of the flour of the manioc thoroughly impregnated with the gravy of meat and tomato yelly; poultry with rice, swimming in a sharp sauce made of vinegar and “malagueta;” a dish of spiced herbs, and cold cake sprinkled with cinnamon, formed enough to tempt a poor monk reduced to the ordinary meager fare of his parish. They tried all they could to detain him, and Yaquita and her daughter did their utmost in persuasion. But the Franciscan had to visit on that evening an Indian who was lying ill at Cocha, and he heartily thanked the hospitable family and departed, not without taking a few presents, which would be well received by the neophytes of the mission.

For two days Araujo was very busy. The bed of the river gradually enlarged, but the islands became more numerous, and the current, embarrassed by these obstacles, increased in strength. Great care was necessary in passing between the islands of Cabello-Cocha, Tarapote, and Cacao. Many stoppages had to be made, and occasionally they were obliged to pole off the jangada, which now and then threatened to run aground. Every one assisted in the work, and it was under these difficult circumstances that, on the evening of the 20th of June, they found themselves at Nuestra-Senora-di-Loreto.

Loreto is the last Peruvian town situated on the left bank of the river before arriving at the Brazilian frontier. It is only a little village, composed of about twenty houses, grouped on a slightly undulating bank, formed of ocherous earth and clay.

It was in 1770 that this mission was founded by the Jesuit missionaries. The Ticuma Indians, who inhabit the territories on the north of the river, are natives with ruddy skins, bushy hair, and striped designs on their faces, making them look like the lacquer on a Chinese table. Both men and women are simply clothed, with cotton bands bound round their things and stomachs. They are now not more than two hundred in number, and on the banks of the Atacoari are found the last traces of a nation which was formerly so powerful under its famous chiefs.

At Loreto there also live a few Peruvian soldiers and two or three Portuguese merchants, trading in cotton stuffs, salt fish, and sarsaparilla.

Benito went ashore, to buy, if possible, a few bales of this smilax, which is always so much in demand in the markets of the Amazon. Joam Garral, occupied all the time in the work which gave him not a moment’s rest, did not stir. Yaquita, her daughter, and Manoel also remained on board. The mosquitoes of Loreto have a deserved reputation for driving away such visitors as do not care to leave much of their blood with the redoubtable diptera.

Manoel had a few appropriate words to say about these insects, and they were not of a nature to encourage an inclination to brave their stings.

“They say that all the new species which infest the banks of the Amazon collect at the village of Loreto. I believe it, but do not wish to confirm it. There, Minha, you can take your choice between the gray mosquito, the hairy mosquito, the white-clawed mosquito, the dwarf mosquito, the trumpeter, the little fifer, the urtiquis, the harlequin, the big black, and the red of the woods; or rather they make take their choice of you for a little repast, and you will come back hardly recognizable! I fancy these bloodthirsty diptera guard the Brazilian frontier considerably better than the poverty-stricken soldiers we see on the bank.”

“But if everything is of use in nature,” asked Minha, “what is the use of mosquitoes?”

“They minister to the happiness of entomologists,” replied Manoel; “and I should be much embarrassed to find a better explanation.”

What Manoel had said of the Loreto mosquitoes was only too true. When Benito had finished his business and returned on board, his face and hands were tattooed with thousands of red points, without counting some chigoes, which, in spite of the leather of his boots, had introduced themselves beneath his toes.

“Let us set off this very instant,” said Benito, “or these wretched insects will invade us, and the jangada will become uninhabitable!”

“And we shall take them into Para,” said Manoel, “where there are already quite enough for its own needs.”

And so, in order not to pass even the night near the banks, the jangada pushed off into the stream.

On leaving Loreto the Amazon turns slightly toward the southwest, between the islands of Arava, Cuyari, and Urucutea. The jangada then glided along the black waters of the Cajaru, as they mingled with the white stream of the Amazon. After having passed this tributary on the left, it peacefully arrived during the evening of the 23d of June alongside the large island of Jahuma.

The setting of the sun on a clear horizon, free from all haze, announced one of those beautiful tropical nights which are unknown in the temperate zones. A light breeze freshened the air; the moon arose in the constellated depths of the sky, and for several hours took the place of the twilight which is absent from these latitudes. But even during this period the stars shone with unequaled purity. The immense plain seemed to stretch into the infinite like a sea, and at the extremity of the axis, which measures more than two hundred thousand millions of leagues, there appeared on the north the single diamond of the pole star, on the south the four brilliants of the Southern Cross.

The trees on the left bank and on the island of Jahuma stood up in sharp black outline. There were recognizable in the undecided silhouettes the trunks, or rather columns, of “copahus,” which spread out in umbrellas, groups of “sandis,” from which is extracted the thick and sugared milk, intoxicating as wine itself, and “vignaticos” eighty feet high, whose summits shake at the passage of the lightest currents of air. “What a magnificent sermon are these forests of the Amazon!” has been justly said. Yes; and we might add, “What a magnificent hymn there is in the nights of the tropics!”

The birds were giving forth their last evening notes —“bentivis,” who hang their nests on the bank-side reeds; “niambus,” a kind of partridge, whose song is composed of four notes, in perfect accord; “kamichis,” with their plaintive melody; kingfishers, whose call responds like a signal to the last cry of their congeners; “canindes,” with their sonorous trumpets; and red macaws, who fold their wings in the foliage of the “jaquetibas,” when night comes on to dim their glowing colors.

On the jangada every one was at his post, in the attitude of repose. The pilot alone, standing in the bow, showed his tall stature, scarcely defined in the earlier shadows. The watch, with his long pole on his shoulder, reminded one of an encampment of Tartar horsemen. The Brazilian flag hung from the top of the staff in the bow, and the breeze was scarcely strong enough to lift the bunting.

At eight o’clock the three first tinklings of the Angelus escaped from the bell of the little chapel. The three tinklings of the second and third verses sounded in their turn, and the salutation was completed in the series of more rapid strokes of the little bell.

However, the family after this July day remained sitting under the veranda to breathe the fresh air from the open.

It had been so each evening, and while Joam Garral, always silent, was contented to listen, the young people gayly chatted away till bedtime.

“Ah! our splendid river! our magnificent Amazon!” exclaimed the young girl, whose enthusiasm for the immense stream never failed.

“Unequaled river, in very truth,” said Manoel; “and I do not understand all its sublime beauties. We are going down it, however, like Orellana and La Condamine did so many centuries ago, and I am not at all surprised at their marvelous descriptions.”

“A little fabulous,” replied Benito.

“Now, brother,” said Minha seriously, “say no evil of our Amazon.”

“To remind you that it has its legends, my sister, is to say no ill of it.”

“Yes, that is true; and it has some marvelous ones,” replied Minha.

“What legends?” asked Manoel. “I dare avow that they have not yet found their way into Para — or rather that, for my part, I am not acquainted with them.”

“What, then do you learn in the Belem colleges?” laughingly asked Minha.

“I begin to perceive that they teach us nothing,” replied Manoel.

“What, sir!” replied Minha, with a pleasant seriousness, “you do not know, among other fables, that an enormous reptile called the ‘minhocao,’ sometimes visits the Amazon, and that the waters of the river rise or fall according as this serpent plunges in or quites them, so gigantic is he?”

“But have you ever seen t his phenomenal minhocao?”

“Alas, no!” replied Lina.

“What a pity!” Fragoso thought it proper to add.

“And the ‘Mae d’Aqua,’” continued the girl —“that proud and redoubtable woman whose look fascinates and drages beneath the waters of the river the imprudent ones who gaze a her.”

“Oh, as for the ‘Mae d’Aqua,’ she exists!” cried the naïve Lina; “they say that she still walks on the banks, but disappears like a water sprite as soon as you approach her.”

“Very well, Lina,” said Benito; “the first time you see her just let me know.”

“So that she may seize you and take you to the bottom of the river? Never, Mr. Benito!”

“She believes it!” shouted Minha.

“There are people who believe in the trunk of Manaos,” said Fragoso, always ready to intervene on behalf of Lina.

“The ‘trunk of Manaos’?” asked Manoel. “What about the trunk of Manaos?”

“Mr. Manoel,” answered Fragoso, with comic gravity, “it appears that there is — or rather formerly was — a trunk of ‘turuma,’ which every year at the same time descended the Rio Negro, stopping several days at Manaos, and going on into Para, halting at every port, where the natives ornamented it with little flags. Arrived at Belem, it came to a halt, turned back on its road, remounted the Amazon to the Rio Negro, and returned to the forest from which it had mysteriously started. One day somebody tried to drag it ashore, but the river rose in anger, and the attempt had to be given up. And on another occasion the captain of a ship harpooned it and tried to tow it along. This time again the river, in anger, broke off the robes, and the trunk mysteriously escaped.”

“What became of it?” asked the mulatto.

“It appears that on its last voyage, Miss Lina,” replied Fragoso, “it mistook the way, and instead of going up the Negro it continued in the Amazon, and it has never been seen again.”

“Oh, if we could only meet it!” said Lina.

“If we meet it,” answered Benito, “we will put you on it! It will take you back to the mysterious forest, and you will likewise pass into the state of a legendary mind!”

“And why not?” asked the mulatto.

“So much for your legends,” said Manoel; “and I think your river is worthy of them. But it has also its histories, which are worth something more. I know one, and if I were not afraid of grieving you — for it is a very sad one — I would relate it.”

“Oh! tell it, by all means, Mr. Manoel,” exclaimed Lina; “I like stories which make you cry!”

“What, do you cry,:ina?” said Benito.

“Yes, Mr. Benito; but I cry when laughing.”

“Oh, well! let is uave it, Manoel!”

“It is the history of a Frenchwoman whose sorrows rendered these banks memorable in the eighteenth century.”

“We are listening,” said Minha.

“Here goes, then,” said Manoel. “In 1741, at the time of the expedition of the two Frenchmen, Bouguer and La Condamine, who were sent to measure a terrestrial degree on the equator, they were accompanied by a very distinguished astronomer, Godin des Odonais. Godin des Odonais set out then, but he did not set out alone, for the New World; he took with him his young wife, his children, his father-in-law, and his brother-in-law. The travelers arrived at Quito in good health. There commenced a series of misfortunes for Madame Odonais; in a few months she lost some of her children. When Godin des Odonais had completed his work, toward the end of the year 1759, he left Quito and started for Cayenne. Once arrived in this town he wanted his family to come to him, but war had been declared, and he was obliged to ask the Portuguese government for permission for a free passage for Madame Odonais and her people. What do you think? Many years passed before the permission could be given. In 1765 Godin des Odonais, maddened by the delay, resolved to ascend the Amazon in search of his wife at Quito; but at the moment of his departure a sudden illness stopped him, and he could not carry out his intention. However, his application had not been useless, and Madame des Odonais learned at last that the king of Portugal had given the necessary permission, and prepared to embark and descend the river to her husband. At the same time an escort was ordered to be ready in the missions of the Upper Amazon. Madame des Odonais was a woman of great courage, as you will see presently; she never hesitated, and notwithstanding the dangers of such a voyage across the continent, she started.”

“It was her duty to her husband, Manoel,” said Yaquita, “and I would have done the same.”

“Madame des Odonais,” continued Manoel, “came to Rio Bamba, at the south of Quito, bringing her brother-in-law, her children, and a French doctor. Their endeavor was to reach the missions on the Brazilian frontier, where they hoped to find a ship and the escort. The voyage at first was favorable; it was made down the tributaries of the Amazon in a canoe. The difficulties, however, gradually increased with the dangers and fatigues of a country decimated by the smallpox. Of several guides who offered their services, the most part disappeared after a few days; one of them, the last who remained faithful to the travlers, was drowned in the Bobonasa, in endeavoring to help the French doctor. At length the canoe, damaged by rocks and floating trees, became useless. It was therefore necessary to get on shore, and there at the edge of the impenetrable forest they built a few huts of foliage. The doctor offered to go on in front with a negro who had never wished to leave Madame des Odonais. The two went off; they waited for them several days, but in vain. They never returned.

“In the meantime the victuals were getting exhausted. The forsaken ones in vain endeavored to descend the Bobonasa on a raft. They had to again take to the forest, and make their way on foot through the almost impenetrable undergrowth. The fatigues were too much for the poor folks! They died off one by one in spite of the cares of the noble Frenchwoman. At the end of a few days children, relations, and servants, were all dead!”

“What an unfortunate woman!” said Lina.

“Madame des Odonais alone remained,” continued Manoel. “There she was, at a thousand leagues from the ocean which she was trying to reach! It was no longer a mother who continued her journey toward the river — the mother had lost her shildren; she had buried them with her own hands! It was a wife who wished to see her husband once again! She traveled night and day, and at length regained the Bobonasa. She was there received by some kind-hearted Indians, who took her to the missions, where the escort was waiting. But she arrived alone, and behind her the stages of the route were marked with graves! Madame des Odonais reached Loreto, where we were a few days back. From this Peruvian village she descended the Amazon, as we are doing at this moment, and at length she rejoined her husband after a separation of nineteen years.”

“Poor lady!” said Minha.

“Above all, poor mother!” answered Yaquita.

At this moment Araujo, the pilot, came aft and said:

“Joam Garral, we are off the Ronde Island. We are passing the frontier!”

“The frontier!” replied Joam.

And rising, he went to the side of the jangada, and looked long and earnestly at the Ronde Island, with the waves breaking up against it. Then his hand sought his forehead, as if to rid himself of some remembrance.

“The frontier!” murmured he, bowing his head by an involuntary movement.

But an instant after his head was raised, and his expression was that of a man resolved to do his duty to the last.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:24