A Captain at Fifteen by Jules Verne Part I Chapter 17

A Hundred Miles in Ten Days

Generally, travelers or ramblers in the woods, who have slept in the forests under the lovely stars, are awakened by howlings as fantastic as disagreeable. There is everything in this morning concert: clucking, grunting, croaking, sneering, barking, and almost "speaking," if one may make use of this word, which completes the series of different noises.

There are the monkeys who thus salute the daybreak. There we meet the little "marikina," the marmoset with a speckled mask; the "mono gris," the skin of which the Indians use to recover the batteries of their guns; the "sagous," recognizable from their long bunches of hair, and many others, specimens of this numerous family.

Of these various four-handed animals, the most remarkable are decidedly the "gueribas," with curling tails and a face like Beelzebub. When the sun rises, the oldest of the band, with an imposing and mysterious voice, sings a monotonous psalm. It is the baritone of the troop. The young tenors repeat after him the morning symphony. The Indians say then that the "gueribas" recite their _pater-nosters_.

But, on this day, it seemed that the monkeys did not offer their prayer, for no one heard them; and, meanwhile, their voice is loud, for it is produced by the rapid vibration of a kind of bony drum, formed by a swelling of the hyoides bone in the neck.

In short, for one reason or for another, neither the "gueribas," nor the "sagous," nor any other four-handed animals of this immense forest, sang, on this morning, their usual concert.

This would not have satisfied the wandering Indians. Not that these natives appreciate this kind of strange choral music, but they willingly give chase to the monkeys, and if they do, it is because the flesh of this animal is excellent, above all, when it is smoke-dried.

Dick Sand, of course, could not be familiar with the habits of the "gueribas," neither were his companions, or this not hearing them would have undoubtedly been a subject of surprise. They awoke then, one after the other, much refreshed by these few hours of repose, which no alarm had come to disturb.

Little Jack was not the last to stretch his arms. His first question was, to ask if Hercules had eaten a wolf during the night. No wolf had shown himself, and consequently Hercules had not yet breakfasted.

All, besides, were fasting like him, and after the morning prayer, Nan occupied herself preparing the repast.

The bill of fare was that of the supper of the night before, but with appetites sharpened by the morning air of the forest, no one dreamed of being difficult to please. It was necessary, above all, to gather strength for a good day's march, and they did it. For the first time, perhaps, Cousin Benedict comprehended that to eat was not an action indifferent or useless to life; only, he declared that he had not come to "visit" this country to walk with his hands in his pockets, and that, if Hercules prevented him from chasing the "cocuyos," and other luminous flies, Hercules would have some trouble with him.

This threat did not seem to frighten the giant to any great extent. However, Mrs. Weldon took him aside and told him that, perhaps, he might allow his big baby to run to the right and left, but on condition that he did not lose sight of him. It would not do to completely sever Cousin Benedict from the pleasures so natural to his age.

At seven o'clock in the morning, the little troop took up their journey toward the east, preserving the order of march that had been adopted the previous day. It was always the forest. On this virgin soil, where the heat and the moisture agreed to produce vegetation, it might well be thought that the reign of growth appeared in all its power. The parallel of this vast plateau was almost confounded with tropical latitudes, and, during certain months in summer, the sun, in passing to the zenith, darted its perpendicular rays there. There was, therefore, an enormous quantity of imprisoned heat in this earth, of which the subsoil preserved the damp. Also, nothing could be more magnificent than this succession of forests, or rather this interminable forest.

Meanwhile, Dick Sand had not failed to observe this--that, according to Harris, they were in the region of the pampas. Now, pampas is a word from the "quichna" language, which signifies a plain. Now, if his recollections did not deceive him, he believed that these plains presented the following characteristics: Lack of water, absence of trees, a failure of stones, an almost luxuriant abundance of thistles during the rainy season, thistles which became almost shrubby with the warm season, and then formed impenetrable thickets; then, also, dwarf trees, thorny shrubs, the whole giving to these plains a rather arid and desolate aspect.

Now, it had not been thus, since the little troop, guided by the American, had left the coast. The forest had not ceased to spread to the limits of the horizon. No, this was not the pampas, such as the young novice had imagined them. Had nature, as Harris had told him, been able to make a region apart from the plateau of Atacama, of which he knew nothing, if it did not form one of the most vast deserts of South America, between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean?

On that day Dick Sand propounded some questions on this subject, and expressed to the American the surprise he felt at this singular appearance of the pampas.

But he was quickly undeceived by Harris, who gave him the most exact details about this part of Bolivia, thus witnessing to his great knowledge of the country.

"You are right, my young friend," he said to the novice. "The true pampa is indeed such as the books of travels have depicted it to you, that is, a plain rather arid, and the crossing of which is often difficult. It recalls our savannahs of North America--except that these are a little marshy. Yes, such is indeed the pampa of the Rio Colorado, such are the "llanos" of the Orinoco and of Venezuela. But here, we are in a country, the appearance of which even astonishes me. It is true, it is the first time I have followed this route across the plateau, a route which has the advantage of shortening our journey. But, if I have not yet seen it, I know that it presents an extraordinary contrast to the veritable pampa. As to this one, you would find it again, not between the Cordilleras of the west and the high chain of the Andes, but beyond the mountains, over all that eastern part of the continent which extends as far as the Atlantic."

"Must we then clear the Andes range?" Dick Sand asked, quickly.

"No, my young friend, no," replied the American, smiling. "So I said: You _would_ find it again, and not: You _will_ find it again. Be reassured, we shall not leave this plateau, the greatest elevations of which do not exceed fifteen hundred feet. Ah! if it had been necessary to cross the Cordilleras with only the means of transport at our disposal, I should never have drawn you into such an undertaking."

"In fact," replied Dick Sand, "it would be better to ascend or descend the coast."

"Oh! a hundred times!" replied Harris. "But the Farm of San Felice is situated on this side of the Cordilleras. So, then, our journey, neither in its first nor in its second part, will offer any real difficulty."

"And you do not fear going astray in these forests, which you cross for the first time?" asked Dick Sand.

"No, my young friend, no," replied Harris. "I know indeed that this forest is like an immense sea, or rather like the bottom of a sea, where a sailor himself could not take the latitude nor recognize his position. But accustomed to traveling in the woods, I know how to find my route only by the inclination of certain trees, by the direction of their leaves, by the movement or the composition of the soil, by a thousand details which escape you! Be sure of it, I will lead you, you and yours, where you ought to go!"

All these things were said very clearly by Harris. Dick Sand and he, at the head of the troop, often talked without any one mingling in their conversation. If the novice felt some doubts that the American did not always succeed in scattering, he preferred to keep them to himself.

The 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th of April passed in this manner, without any incident to mark the journey. They did not make more than eight to nine miles in twelve hours. The times consecrated to eating or repose came at regular intervals, and though a little fatigue was felt already, the sanitary condition was still very satisfactory.

Little Jack began to suffer a little from this life in the woods, to which he was not accustomed, and which was becoming very monotonous for him. And then all the promises which had been made him had not been kept. The caoutchouc jumping-jacks, the humming-birds, all those seemed constantly to recede. There had also been a question of showing him the most beautiful parrots in the world, and they ought not to be wanting in these rich forests. Where, then, were the popinjays with green plumage, almost all originally from these countries, the _aras_, with naked cheeks, with long pointed tails, with glittering colors, whose paws never rest on the earth, and the "camindes," which are more peculiar to tropical countries, and the many-colored she-parrots, with feathered faces, and finally all those prattling birds which, according to the Indians, still speak the language of extinct tribes?

Of parrots, little Jack only saw ash-gray jakos, with red tails, which abounded under the trees. But these jakos were not new to him. They have transported them into all parts of the world. On the two continents they fill the houses with their insupportable chattering, and, of all the family of the "psittacius," they are the ones which learn to speak most easily.

It must be said, besides, that if Jack was not contented, Cousin Benedict was no more so. He had been allowed to wander a little to the right or to the left during the march. However, he had not found any insect which was fit to enrich his collection. Even the "pyrophores" obstinately refused to show themselves to him, and attract him by the phosphorescences of their corselet. Nature seemed truly to mock the unhappy entomologist, whose temper was becoming cross.

For four days more the march toward the northeast was continued in the same way. On the 16th of April the distance traversed from the coast could not be estimated at less than one hundred miles. If Harris had not gone astray--and he affirmed it without hesitation--the Farm of San Felice was no more than twenty miles from the halting place of that day. Before forty-eight hours the little troop then would have a comfortable shelter where its members could at last repose from their fatigues.

Meanwhile, though the plateau had been almost entirely crossed in its middle part, not a native, not a wanderer had been encountered under the immense forest.

More than once, without saying anything about it, Dick Sand regretted being unable to go ashore on some other point of the coast. More to the south, or more to the north, villages, hamlets, or plantations would not have been lacking, and long before this Mrs. Weldon and her companions would have found an asylum.

But, if the country seemed to be abandoned by man, animals showed themselves more frequently during these last days. At times was heard a kind of long, plaintive cry, that Harris attributed to some of those large tardi-grades, habitual denizens of those vast wooded regions, named "ais."

On that day, also, during the midday halt, a hissing passed through the air, which made Mrs. Weldon very uneasy, because it was so strange.

"What is that?"' she asked, rising hastily.

"A serpent!" cried Dick Sand, who gun, in hand, threw himself before Mrs. Weldon.

They might fear, in fact, that some reptile would glide among the plants to the halting place. It would be nothing astonishing if it were one of those enormous "sucurus," kinds of boas, which sometimes measure forty feet in length.

But Harris reminded Dick Sand that the blacks were already following, and he reassured Mrs. Weldon.

According to him, that hissing could not be produced by a "sucuru," because that serpent does not hiss; but he indicated the presence of several inoffensive quadrupeds, rather numerous in that country.

"Be reassured, then," said he, "and make no movement which may frighten those animals."

"But what are they?" asked Dick Sand, who made it like a law of conscience to interrogate and make the American speak--who, however, never required pressing before replying.

"They are antelopes, my young friend," replied Harris.

"Oh! how I should like to see them!" cried Jack.

"That is very difficult, my good little man," replied the American, "very difficult."

"Perhaps we may try to approach than--those hissing antelopes?" returned Dick Sand.

"Oh! you will not take three steps," replied the American, shaking his head, "before the whole band will take flight. I beg of you, then, not to trouble yourself."

But Dick Sand had his reasons for being curious. He wished to see, and, gun in hand, he glided among the herbs. Immediately a dozen graceful gazelles, with small, sharp horns, passed with the rapidity of a water-spout. Their hair, bright red, looked like a cloud of fire under the tall underwood of the forest.

"I had warned you," said Harris, when the novice returned to take his place.

Those antelopes were so light of foot, that it had been truly impossible to distinguish them; but it was not so with another troop of animals which was signaled the same day. Those could be seen--imperfectly, it is true--but their apparition led to a rather singular discussion between Harris and some of his companions.

The little troop, about four o'clock in the afternoon, had stopped for a moment near an opening in the woods, when three or four animals of great height went out of a thicket a hundred steps off, and scampered away at once with remarkable speed.

In spite of the American's recommendations, this time the novice, having quickly shouldered his gun, fired at one of these animals. But at the moment when the charge was going off, the weapon had been rapidly turned aside by Harris, and Dick Sand, skilful as he was, had missed his aim.

"No firing; no firing!" said the American.

"Ah, now, but those are giraffes!" cried Dick Sand, without otherwise replying to Harris's observation.

"Giraffes!" repeated Jack, standing up on the horse's saddle. "Where are they, the large beasts?"

"Giraffes!" replied Mrs. Weldon. "You are mistaken, my dear Dick. There are no giraffes in America."

"Indeed," said Harris, who appeared rather surprised, "there cannot be any giraffes in this country."

"What, then?" said Dick Sand.

"I really do not know what to think," replied Harris. "Have not your eyes deceived you, my young friend, and are not those animals more likely to be ostriches?"

"Ostriches!" repeated Dick Sand and Mrs. Weldon, looking at each other in great surprise.

"Yes, only ostriches," repeated Harris.

"But ostriches are birds," returned Dick Sand, "and consequently they have only two feet."

"Well," replied Harris, "I indeed thought I saw that those animals, which have just made off so rapidly, were bipeds."

"Bipeds!" replied the novice.

"Indeed it seemed to me that I saw animals with four legs," then said Mrs. Weldon.

"I also," added old Tom; then Bat, Acteon, and Austin confirmed those words.

"Ostriches with four legs!" cried Harris, with a burst of laughter. "That would be ridiculous!"

"So," returned Dick Sand, "we have believed they were giraffes, and not ostriches."

"No, my young friend, no," said Harris. "You have certainly seen badly. That is explained by the rapidity with which those animals have flown away. Besides, it has happened more than once that hunters have been deceived like you, and in the best faith in the world."

What the American said was very plausible. Between an ostrich of great height and a giraffe of medium height, seen at a certain distance, it is easy to make a mistake. If it were a question of a beak or a nose, both are none the less joined to the end of a long neck turned backward, and, strictly speaking, it may be said that an ostrich is only a half giraffe. It only needs the hind legs. Then, this biped and this quadruped, passing rapidly, on a sudden may, very properly, be taken one for the other.

Besides, the best proof that Mrs. Weldon and the others were mistaken was that there are no giraffes in America.

Dick Sand then made this reflection:

"But I believed that ostriches were not met with in the New World any more than giraffes."

"Yes, my young friend," replied Harris; "and, indeed, South America possesses a peculiar species. To this species belongs the 'nandon,' which you have just seen."

Harris spoke the truth. The "nandon" is a long-legged bird, rather common in the plains of South America, and its flesh, when it is young, is good to eat.

This strong animal, whose height sometimes exceeds two meters, has a straight beak; wings long, and formed of tufted feathers of a bluish shade; feet formed of three claws, furnished with nails--which essentially distinguishes it from the ostriches of Africa.

These very exact details were given by Harris, who appeared to be very strongly posted on the manners of the "nandons."

Mrs. Weldon and her companions were obliged to acknowledge that they had been deceived.

"Besides," added Harris, "possibly we may encounter another band of these ostriches. Well, next time look better, and no longer allow yourselves to takes birds for quadrupeds! But above all, my young friend, do not forget my recommendations, and do not fire on any animal whatsoever. We have no need of hunting to procure food, and no detonation of a fire-arm must announce our presence in this forest."

Meanwhile Dick Sand remained pensive. Once more a doubt had just arisen on his mind.

The next day, April 17th, the march was continued, and the American affirmed that twenty-four hours would not pass before the little troop should be installed at the Farm of San Felice.

"There, Mrs. Weldon," added he, "you will receive all the care necessary to your position, and a few days' rest will quite restore you. Perhaps you will not find at this farm the luxury to which you are accustomed in your residence in San Francisco, but you will see that our improved lands in the interior do not lack what is comfortable. We are not absolutely savages."

"Mr. Harris," replied Mrs. Weldon, "if we have only thanks to offer you for your generous resort, at least we shall offer them to you with all our hearts. Yes! It is time for us to arrive there!"

"You are very much fatigued, Mrs. Weldon?"

"I, no matter!" replied Mrs. Weldon; "but I perceive that my little Jack is gradually becoming exhausted! The fever begins to affect him at certain hours!"

"Yes," replied Harris, "and although the climate of this plateau is very healthful, it must be acknowledged that in March and April intermittent fevers reign."

"Doubtless," then said Dick Sand, "but also Nature, who is always and everywhere provident, has put the remedy near the evil!"

"And how is that, my young friend?" asked Harris, who did not seem to understand.

"Are we not, then, in the region of the quinquinas?" replied Dick Sand.

"In fact," said Harris, "you are perfectly right. The trees which furnish, the precious febrifuge bark are native here."

"I am even astonished," added Dick Sand, "that we have not yet seen a single one."

"Ah! my young friend," replied Harris, "those trees are not easy to distinguish. Though they are often of great height, though their leaves are large, their flowers rosy and odoriferous, we do not discover them easily. It is rarely that they grow in groups. They are rather scattered through the forests, and the Indians who collect the quinquina can only recognize them by their foliage, always green."

"Mr. Harris," said Mrs. Weldon, "if you see one of those trees you will show it to me."

"Certainly, Mrs. Weldon, but at the farm you will find some sulphate of quinine. That is worth still more to break the fever than the simple bark of the tree."

Formerly, this bark was only reduced to powder, which bore the name of "Jesuits' Powder," because, in 1649, the Jesuits of Rome received a considerable quantity from their mission in America.

This last day of the journey passed without other incident. Evening came and the halt was organized for the whole night as usual. Till then it had not rained, but the weather was preparing to change, for a warm mist rose from the soil and soon found a thick fog.

They were touching, in fact, on the rainy season. Fortunately, the next day, a comfortable shelter would be hospitably offered to the little troop. There were only a few hours to elapse.

Though, according to Harris, who could only establish his calculation by the time which the journey had lasted, they could not be more than six miles from the farm, the ordinary precautions were taken for the night. Tom and his companions would watch one after the other. Dick Sand insisted that nothing should be neglected in that respect. Less than ever, would he depart from his habitual prudence, for a terrible suspicion was incrusted in his mind; but he did not wish to say anything yet.

The retiring to rest had been made at the feet of a group of large trees. Fatigue aiding, Mrs. Weldon and hers were already asleep, when they were awakened by a great cry.

"Eh! what's the matter?" asked Dick Sand, quickly, who was on his feet first of all.

"It is I! it is I who have cried!" replied Cousin Benedict.

"And what is the matter with you?" asked Mrs. Weldon.

"I have just been bit!"

"By a serpent?" asked Mrs. Weldon, with alarm.

"No, no! It was not a serpent, but an insect," replied Cousin Benedict. "Ah! I have it! I have it!"

"Well, crush your insect," said Harris, "and let us sleep, Mr. Benedict!"

"Crush an insect!" cried Cousin Benedict. "Not so! I must see what it is!"

"Some mosquito!" said Harris, shrugging his shoulders.

"No! It is a fly," replied Cousin Benedict, "and a fly which ought to be very curious!"

Dick Sand had lit a little portable lantern, and he approached Cousin Benedict.

"Divine goodness!" cried the latter. "Behold what consoles me for all my deceptions! I have, then, at last made a discovery!"

The honest man was raving. He looked at his fly in triumph. He would willingly kiss it.

"But what is it, then?" asked Mrs. Weldon.

"A dipter, cousin, a famous dipter!" And Cousin Benedict showed a fly smaller than a bee, of a dull color, streaked with yellow on the lower part of its body.

"And this fly is not venomous?" asked Mrs. Weldon.

"No, cousin, no; at least not for man. But for animals, for antelopes, for buffaloes, even for elephants, it is another thing. Ah! adorable insect!"

"At last," asked Dick Sand, "will you tell us, Mr. Benedict, what is this fly?"

"This fly," replied the entomologist, "this fly that I hold between my fingers, this fly--it is a _tsetse_! It is that famous dipter that is the honor of a country, and, till now, no one has ever found a _tsetse_ in America!"

Dick Sand did not dare to ask Cousin Benedict in what part of the world this redoubtable _tsetse_ was only to be met. And when his companions, after this incident, had returned to their interrupted sleep, Dick Sand, in spite of the fatigue which overwhelmed him, did not close his eyes the whole night.