If things had gone well with me, if I had spent my twelve months on the Rio Negro, as I had meant to do, watching and listening to the birds of that district, these desultory chapters, which might be described as a record of what I did not do, would never have been written. For I should have been wholly occupied with my special task, moving in a groove too full of delights to allow of its being left, even for an occasional run and taste of liberty; and seeing one class of objects too well would have made all others look distant, obscure, and of little interest. But it was not to be as I had planned it. An accident, to be described by-and-by, disabled me for a period, and the winged people could no longer be followed with secret steps to their haunts, and their actions watched through a leafy screen. Lying helpless on my back through the long sultry mid-summer days, with the white-washed walls of my room for landscape and horizon, and a score or two of buzzing house-flies, perpetually engaged in their intricate airy dance, for only company, I was forced to think on a great variety of subjects, and to occupy my mind with other problems than that of migration. These other problems, too, were in many ways like the flies that shared my apartment, and yet always remained strangers to me, as I to them, since between their minds and mine a great gulf was fixed. Small unpainful riddles of the earth; flitting, sylph-like things, that began life as abstractions, and developed, like imago from maggot, into entities: I always flitted among them, as they performed their mazy dance, whirling in circles, falling and rising, poised motionless, then suddenly cannoning against me for an instant, mocking my power to grasp them, and darting off again at a tangent. Baffled I would drop out of the game, like a tired fly that goes back to his perch, but like the resting, restive fly I would soon turn towards them again; perhaps to see them all wheeling in a closer order, describing new fantastic figures, with swifter motions, their forms turned to thin black lines, crossing and recrossing in every direction, as if they had all combined to write a series of strange characters in the air, all forming a strange sentence — the secret of secrets! Happily for the progress of knowledge only a very few of these fascinating elusive insects of the brain can appear before us at the same time: as a rule we fix our attention on a single individual, like a falcon amid a flight of pigeons or a countless army of small field finches; of a dragon-fly in the thick of a cloud of mosquitoes, or infinitesimal sand-flies. Hawk and dragon-fly would starve if they tried to capture, or even regarded, more than one at a time.
I caught nothing, and found out nothing; nevertheless, these days of enforced idleness were not unhappy. And after leaving my room, hobbling round with the aid of a stout stick, and sitting in houses, I consorted with men and women, and listened day by day to the story of their small unavian affairs, until it began to interest me. But not too keenly. I could always quit them without regret to lie on the green sward, to gaze up into the trees or the blue sky, and speculate on all imaginable things. The result was that when no longer any excuse for inaction existed, use had bred a habit in me — the habit of indolence, which was quite common among the people of Patagonia, and appeared to suit the genial climate; and this habit and temper of mind I retained, with occasional slight relapses, during the whole period of my stay.
Our waking life is sometimes like a dream, which proceeds logically enough until the stimulus of some new sensation, from without or within, throws it into temporary confusion, or suspends its action; after which it goes on again, but with fresh characters, passions, and motives, and a changed argument.
After feasting on cherries, and resting at the estancia, or farm, where we first touched the shore, we went on to the small town of El Carmen, which has existed since the last century, and is built on the side of a hill, or bluff, facing the river. On the opposite shore, where there is no cliff nor high bank, and the low level green valley extends back four or five miles to the grey barren uplands, there is another small town called La Merced. In these two settlements I spent about a fortnight, and then, in company with a young Englishman, who had been one or two years in the colony, I started for an eighty miles’ ride up the river. Half-way to our destination we put up at a small log hut, which my companion had himself built a year before; but finding, too late, that the ground would produce nothing, he had lately abandoned it, leaving his tools and other belongings locked up in the place.
A curious home and repository was this same little rude cabin. The interior was just roomy enough to enable a man of my height (six feet) to stand upright and swing a cat in without knocking out its brains against the upright rough-barked willow-posts that made the walls. Yet within this limited space was gathered a store of weapons, tackle, and tools, sufficient to have enabled a small colony of men to fight the wilderness and found a city of the future. My friend had an ingenious mind and an amateur’s knowledge of a variety of handicrafts. The way to make him happy was to tell him that you had injured something made of iron or brass — a gun-lock, watch, or anything complicated. His eyes would shine, he would rub his hands and be all eagerness to get at the new patient to try his surgical skill on him. Now he had to give two or three days to all these wood and metal friends of his, to give a fresh edge to his chisels, and play the dentist to his saws; to spread them all out and count and stroke them lovingly, as a breeder pats his beasties, and feed and anoint them with oil to make them shine and look glad. This was preliminary to the packing for transportation, which was also a rather slow process.
Leaving my friend at his delightful task I rambled about the neighbourhood taking stock of the birds. It was a dreary and desolate spot, with a few old gaunt and half-dead red willows for only trees. The reeds and rushes standing in the black stagnant pools were yellow and dead; and dead also were the tussocks of coarse tow-coloured grass, while the soil beneath was white as ashes and cracked everywhere with the hot suns and long drought. Only the river close by was always cool and green and beautiful.
At length, one hot afternoon, we were sitting on our rugs on the clay floor of the hut, talking of our journey on the morrow, and of the better fare and other delights we should find at the end of the day at the house of an English settler we were going to visit. While talking I took up his revolver to examine it for the first time, and he had just begun to tell me that it was a revolver with a peculiar character of its own, and with idiosyncrasies, one of which was that the slightest touch, or even vibration of the air, would cause it to go off when on the cock — he was just telling me this, when off it went with a terrible bang and sent a conical bullet into my left knee, an inch or so beneath the knee-cap. The pain was not much, the sensation resembling that caused by a smart blow on the knee; but on attempting to get up I fell back. I could not stand. Then the blood began to flow in a thin but continuous stream from the round symmetrical bore which seemed to go straight into the bone of the joint, and nothing that we could do would serve to stop it. Here we were in a pretty fix! Thirty-six miles from the settlement, and with no conveyance that my friend could think of except a cart at a house several miles up the river, but on the wrong side! He, however, in his anxiety to do something, imagined, or hoped, that by some means the cart might be got over the river, and so, after thoughtfully putting a can of water by my side, he left me lying on my saddle-rugs, and, after fastening the door on the outside to prevent the intrusion of unwelcome prowlers, he mounted his horse and rode away. He had promised that, with or without some wheeled thing, he would be back not long after dark. But he did not return all night; he had found a boat and boatman to transport him to the other side only to learn that his plan was impracticable, and then returning with the disappointing tidings, found no boat to recross, and so in the end was obliged to tie his horse to a bush and lie down to wait for morning.
For me night came only too soon. I had no candle, and the closed, windowless cabin was intensely dark. My wounded leg had become inflamed and pained a great deal, but the bleeding continued until the handkerchiefs we had bound round it were saturated. I was fully dressed, and as the night grew chilly I pulled my big cloth poncho, that had a soft fluffy lining, over me for warmth. I soon gave up expecting my friend, and knew that there would be no relief until morning. But I could neither doze nor think, and could only listen. From my experience during those black anxious hours I can imagine how much the sense of hearing must be to the blind and to animals that exist in dark caves. At length, about midnight, I was startled by a slight curious sound in the intense silence and darkness. It was in the cabin and close to me. I thought at first it was like the sound made by a rope drawn slowly over the clay floor. I lighted a wax match, but the sound had ceased, and I saw nothing. After a while I heard it again, but it now seemed to be out of doors and going round the hut, and I paid little attention to it. It soon ceased, and I heard it no more. So silent and dark was it thereafter that the hut I reposed in might have been a roomy coffin in which I had been buried a hundred feet beneath the surface of the earth. Yet I was no longer alone, if I had only known it, but had now a messmate and bedfellow who had subtly crept in to share the warmth of the cloak and of my person — one with a broad arrow-shaped head, set with round lidless eyes like polished yellow pebbles, and a long smooth limbless body, strangely segmented and vaguely written all over with mystic characters in some dusky tint on an indeterminate greyish-tawny ground.
At length, about half-past three to four o’clock, a most welcome sound was heard — the familiar twittering of a pair of scissor-tail tyrant birds from a neighbouring willow-tree; and after an interval, the dreamy, softly rising and falling, throaty warblings of the white-rumped swallow. A loved and beautiful bird is this, that utters his early song circling round and round in the dusky air, when the stars begin to pale; and his song, perhaps, seems sweeter than all others, because it corresponds in time to that rise in the temperature and swifter flow of the blood — the inward resurrection experienced on each morning of our individual life. Next in order the red-billed finches begin to sing — a curious, gobbling, impetuous performance, more like a cry than a song. These are pretty reed birds, olive-green, buff-breasted, with long tails and bright red beaks. The intervals between their spasmodic bursts of sound were filled up with the fine frail melody of the small brown and grey crested song-sparrows. Last of all was heard the long, leisurely-uttered chanting cry of the brown carrion-hawk, as he flew past, and I knew that the morning was beautiful in the east. Little by little the light began to appear through the crevices, faint at first, like faintly-traced pallid lines on a black ground, then brighter and broader until I, too, had a dim twilight in the cabin.
Not until the sun was an hour up did my friend return to me to find me hopeful still, and with all my faculties about me, but unable to move without assistance. Putting his arms around me he helped me up, and just as I had got erect on my sound leg, leaning heavily on him, out from beneath the poncho lying at my feet glided a large serpent of a venomous kind, the ‘Craspedocephalus alternatus’, called in the vernacular the ‘serpent with a cross’. Had my friend’s arms not been occupied with sustaining me he, no doubt, would have attacked it with the first weapon that offered, and in all probability killed it, with the result that I should have suffered from a kind of vicarious remorse ever after. Fortunately it was not long in drawing its coils out of sight and danger into a hole in the wall. My hospitality had been unconscious, nor, until that moment, had I known that something had touched me, and that virtue had gone out from me; but I rejoice to think that the secret deadly creature, after lying all night with me, warming its chilly blood with my warmth, went back unbruised to its den.
Speaking of this serpent with a strange name, I recall the fact that Darwin made its acquaintance during his Patagonian rambles about sixty years ago; and in describing its fierce and hideous aspect, remarks, “I do not think I ever saw anything more ugly, excepting, perhaps, some of the vampire bats.” He speaks of the great breadth of the jaws at the base, the triangular snout, and the linear pupil in the midst of the mottled coppery iris, and suggests that its ugly and horrible appearance is due to the resemblance of its face, in its shape, to the human countenance.
This idea of the ugliness or repulsiveness of an inferior animal, due to its resemblance to man in face, is not, I believe, uncommon; and I suppose that the reason that would be given for the feeling is that an animal of that kind looks like a vile copy of ourselves, or like a parody maliciously designed to mock us. It is an erroneous idea, or, at all events, is only a half-truth, as we recognise at once when we look at animals that are more or less human-like in countenance, and yet cause no repulsion. Seals may be mentioned — the mermaids and mermen of the old mariners; also the sloth with its round simple face, to which its human shape imparts a somewhat comical and pathetic look. Many monkeys seem ugly to us, but we think the lemurs beautiful, and greatly admire the marmosets, those hairy manikins with sprightly, bird-like eyes. And yet it is true that there is something human in the faces of this and perhaps of other pit-vipers, and of some vampire bats, as Darwin remarks; and that the horror they excite in us is due to this resemblance; what he failed to see was that it is the expression rather than the shape that horrifies. For in these creatures it simulates such expressions as excite fear and abhorrence in our own species, or pity so intense as to be painful — ferocity, stealthy, watchful malignity, a set look of anguish or despair, or some dreadful form of insanity. Someone has well and wisely said that there is no ugliness in us except the expression of evil thoughts and passions; for these do most assuredly write themselves on the countenance. Looking at a serpent of this kind, and I have looked at many a one, the fancy is born in me that I am regarding what was once a fellow-being, perhaps one of those cruel desperate wretches I have encountered on the outskirts of civilisation, who for his crimes has been changed into the serpent form, and cursed with immortality.
As a rule the deceptive resemblances and self-plagiarisms of nature, when we light by chance on them, give us only pleasure, heightened by wonder or a sense of mystery; but the case of this serpent forms an exception: in spite of the tenderness I cherish towards the entire ophidian race, the sensation is not agreeable.
To return. My friend made a fire to boil water, and after we had had some breakfast, he galloped off once more in a new direction; he had at last remembered that on our side of the river there lived a settler who owned a bullock-cart, and to him he went. About ten o’clock he returned, and was shortly followed by the man with his lumbering cart drawn by a couple of bullocks. In this conveyance, suffering much from the heat and dust and joltings on the rough hard road, I was carried back to the settlement. Oxen travel slowly, and we were on the road all day and all night, and only reached our destination when the eastern sky had begun to grow bright, and the swallows from a thousand roosting-places were rising in wide circles into the still, dusky air, making it vocal with their warblings.
My miserable journey ended at the Mission House of the South American Missionary Society, in the village on the south bank of the river, facing the old town; and the change from the jolting cart to a comfortable bed was an unspeakable relief, and soon induced refreshing sleep. Later in the day, on awakening, I found myself in the hands of a gentleman who was a skilful surgeon as well as a divine, one who had extracted more bullets and mended more broken bones than most surgeons who do not practise on battle-fields. My bullet, however, refused to be extracted, or even found in its hiding-place, and every morning for a fortnight I had a bad quarter of an hour, when my host would present himself in my room with a quiet smile on his lips and holding in his hands a bundle of probes — oh, those probes! — of all forms, sizes, and materials — wood, ivory, steel, and gutta-percha. These painful moments over, with no result except the reopening of a wound that wished to heal, there would be nothing more for me to do but to lie watching the flies, as I have said, and dreaming.
To conclude this vari-coloured chapter, I may here remark that some of the happiest moments of my life have been occasioned by those very circumstances which one would imagine would have made me most unhappy — by grave accidents, and sickness, which have disabled and cast me a burden upon strangers; and by adversity —
Which, like a toad, ugly and venomous, Yet wears a precious jewel in its head.
Familiar words, but here newly interpreted; for this jewel which I have found — man’s love for man, and the law of helpful kindness written in the heart — is worthy to be prized above all our possessions, and is most beautiful, outshining the lapidary’s gems, and of so sovereign a virtue that cynicism itself grows mute and ashamed in its light.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55