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 the calendar.
“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 son.”
“Proceed with what you were saying,” I returned, with some dignity.
“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 waits.”
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 eat.
“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 flesh.”
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 lean.”
“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 tree.
“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 yes?”
“Where does your grandfather spend his day when he goes out with his dogs?”
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 little room.”
“You know!” flashed out her answer, with something like resentment.
“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 disappointed way.
“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 there.
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, 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 caught Rima?”
“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 eyes.
“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 long.
“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, little thing!”
“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 lashes.
“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 you?”
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.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55