From A Mingled Yarn, Copyright 1953 by H. M. Tomlinson, Indianapolis and New York, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. Chapter 14, p127-132.
Out of Touch
H. M. Tomlinson
WE could go no further. Our steamer had left the sea weeks before, and had slowly serpentined her way into the heart of a continent. She had been persuaded over bars, she had waited patiently till floods gave her a chance to insinuate herself against the river current still deeper into that forest of the tropics. She had rounded bends so narrowly that her crew cheered derisively when her gear brought down showers of leaves and twigs from the overhanging front of the forest. When the monkeys answered our siren the bo'sun gave me a look, half appealing, half startled. But now we could go no further. We were nearly two thousand miles from the sea, and just ahead of us was an incline of foaming water. No ship had intruded into that solitude before; beyond those cataracts, up into the unexplored wilderness, that river had its origin somewhere in the Andes of Bolivia.
There we anchored. Both anchors were out, because two were necessary. It was doubted that two were enough. Mr. Bullock, the mate, was complaining bitterly. I was standing with him on the forecastle head, and we were both watching the taut cables, which at times were tremulous in the strain of the current. "A nice thing," he said, "a nice thing. Ever see anything like it before? It isn't right."
What he was pointing to was certainly unusual. It is not right, or at least it is most irregular, for forest rubbish to gather in such a mass against a ship's cables that the danger of something coming adrift is evident. "Ever see anytning like it? Eh? I bet you haven't, mister. It isn't right. Trees and bamboos and meadows--a whole raft of it, like a day in the country. All it wants is a few cows. And what's going to happen if she drags in this place? No steam and the damned jungle under our counter. We should have to rot here, mister, for we'd never get her off. We're out of touch of everything civilized."
So it seemed. Not only were great trees caught against the cables, but the trees were in green leaf. They were clouds of leaves, and perhaps birds were still perched in them. A few acres of top-heavy forest had collapsed into the river the night before, and there it was, or what was left of it, verdant and dense. No doubt more of it was to come.
"That's a new job for a sailor," commented Mr. Bullock. "Clearing away a copse from a ship's bows. I shall have to get a boat away to see to that."
An area of the tangle, a stretch of meadow and a height of foliage, became agitated, and detached itself in the pull of the stream as we watched. It foundered a little, uplifted again, pivoted in a half-circle, came free, and went swiftly by the length of the ship, a travelling island. Behind it swam a peccary.
"There you are," exclaimed the excited mate. "What did I tell you? Pigs, mister. We'll get the whole farmyard in a minute."
Next morning the surrounding forest seemed to have gone. We had nothing but an opaque silence about us. The vapours of the miasmic solitude shrouded the high palisades of trees and leaves. Somewhere the sun had just risen, and the mist was luminous. Imperceptibly the white steam rose, till the bottom of the forest across the water was plain. The jungle looked as though it were sheered off a few feet above the bank in a straight line. But the curtain rose quickly as I watched. To starboard again was the towering and ominous barrier of still leaves and fronds, the place where no man had ever landed. The sun looked at us. Languor fell over the ship. The parrots and the monkeys cried aloud for a minute or two, and then the sky became silent. It was no place for a ship. That was an unpleasant word of the mate's, that we should rot. The sensation in that heated stillness, where there was nothing for us to do but to wait, was certainly of ferment and stagnation. The ironwork of the steamer felt like the plates of an oven.
On the poop, under an awning, the steward was spreading our breakfast. The captain appeared, a slim and stooping figure in white linen and a Panama hat, and walked towards me, fingering his grey beard as he eyed things about him. He did not wear the expression of a man who would respond to a hearty "good morning". He rested his hands on the bulwark and looked overside, contemplating the stream. He stopped by the open door of the chief's cabin, and questioned the engineer whether it might not be wise to rig a dam round the rudder, that the wreckage might not get entangled with the propeller. It was at that moment that pandemonium broke out in the bunkers. The noise rose through a bunker hatch, which was open for ventilation--yells, clanging of shovels, crowbars ringing on bulkheads, shouts, and hysterical laughter. The chief came out in his pyjamas, and the three of us peered down into the twilight below.
The chief bawled commands to his men. There was no answer. The infernal scuffling and clanging below went on. Then as suddenly it stopped. The chief cried down peremptorily, and the stokers heard him. One of them appeared below us, a blackened gnome, his dirty mask veined with pink where the sweat ran. He was panting. When he saw the stern faces above him he showed a broad white smile.
"All right, sir, we've done him in. Took some doin' though."
"What the hell do you mean? What's this row about?"
The man vanished. Some whispering went on under the deck. Then several stokers appeared, hauling on a rope. It had a great snake at the end of it, its head limp, its body gashed. The hilarious stokers kicked and shoved the dead twelve feet of it into coils which we could inspect from above.
"There you are, sir," said one of the showmen. "That's it. All right to find that in the coal, aint' it? You ought to have seen the way he scrapped. . . . And don't forget we didn't sign on to kill boa-constrictors, sir," added a quiet voice from the dark.
"I don't wonder at it," said the mate at breakfast. "Crawled in by a hawse-pipe, of course. The ship will get full of 'em with that green stuff about the cables."
"Glad to hear it. That will give us some compensation, captain," our surgeon commented. "Otherwise we should be dull here." The surgeon's mind was inclined to curiosity in wayward things, and he always kept a butterfly-net handy. "One of the men this morning showed me a wound on his elbow. It was hard to stop the bleeding. He didn't know how he got it, and I didn't tell him. But there are vampire bats in the fo'c'sle."
The captain gave an impatient exclamation and blamed the surgeon for frivolity. "Bats! Vampire bats! You talk like a novelist, doctor. Never heard of bats in a fo'c'sle. You're thinking of belfries."
The surgeon chuckled. "You'll hear all right, captain, when the men find out."
The captain grumbled through all the meal. Place didn't smell like a ship, smelt like a hothouse. Nice place to be in. In all his years at sea, nothing like it. Another charter like this, and the owner could look after the boa-constrictors himself. "Mr. Mate, just keep the men from thinking too much about it. A good time now to get some of that work done."
For me after breakfast, with the decorative office of supercargo, there was no work. There was only the forest to look at, the yellow flood with its flotsam, and the river ahead tumultuous and gleaming in the rapids. The heat increased. The silence was a heavy weight. One felt a little fearful because so much forest made no sound whatever, no more sound than if it had been a dream, not a murmur nor the rustle of a leaf. It was quite still, an illusion of trees. We might have made a ridiculous escape to the world's end, and now were a little scared, not knowing what to make of it.
The only movement was the tumult of the cataracts, a glittering and flashing about a mass of black rocks. But that gave no sense that water was falling, but only that it was inclined, for its pour never ended. Beyond those rapids there was nothing; only trees and the sun. Nobody had ever been there. There was no reason why a man should go. The summit of the cataracts, where black triangles of waves above our heads continually leaped but never seemed to descend, was the edge of the world. While I was gazing at that line of leaping waves, which stretched between the high barriers of the forest, the figure of a man appeared there. He poised for an instant on the verge, in the centre of the line, against the sky, arms stretched out as if in appeal, and then vanished in the spray below.
"See that?" exclaimed the chief. He hurried along to me. "See him? That must have been an Indian. Couldn't stop himself there. Can you see him now?"
We could not. We could see only the incline of heaving water. We must have been mistaken, and were beginning to argue about it when an object came slowly away from the foot of the falls. It was an overturned canoe. A swimmer righted it, got in, and began to paddle towards us.
The man came alongside, standing up in his scallop, stark-naked, a paddle in his hand, grinning. I thought he must be of some unnamed tribe. He was a little lighter in colour than an Indian, but his curly black hair and beard made him remarkably different. The natives never have beards, though that difference was not so astonishing as his light-hearted grin, which was absurdly familiar in that laughless and inhuman wild. He did not speak, but airily waved his hand as he came alongside, and grabbed our Jacob's ladder. Up he came, in leisured nonchalance.
"Pardon me," he said, as he stood up, still smiling, before our gaping company of seamen, his fine body glistening. "Anybody lend me a pair of pants?"
Our captain was frowning at him in wonder, but at that he grimaced. "Come aft," he said. The brown figure nodded to us in good humour, and followed the captain, stepping like a god. He turned, as he was about to descend the companion and gazed at our house-flag. You may see profiles like his in any collection of Greek antiquities. When he had gone we leaned overside to stare at his dug-out canoe, hitched to our ladder. There was nothing in it but some arrows and a bow, and a machete, all lashed to a peg.
The stranger, that night, came with the chief to my cabin. He inspected our books in evident enjoyment. "Books!" he said. "Books, here!"
"You know," he continued, looking round at us, "I thought I'd gone light-headed when I saw your ship below the falls. I was so surprised that a jerk sent me overside, and I came down the rapids with an arm over the canoe. I was sure I was going to miss meeting you after all. Too bad!"
He gave us his name. It was that of a learned English judge. I reminded him of that. "Oh, yes. My father. He'd have been amused if he'd seen me this morning. Is he all right?"
He was quite cool about it. This sort of thing, I gathered from his manner, might happen to anybody. "Never expected to meet Christians at a place like this."
Where had he come from? "Mollendo," he replied, rolling a cigarette.
Was the man a liar? Mollendo was a thousand miles away on the Pacific side. The Andes were between us, The youngster saw our doubt, and smiled. "Yes," he said. "Mollendo. And I crossed the Andes, though don't you do it unless you want to. This side of them I lost my gun. Lost everything. Got a canoe and some arrows and a bow, and here I am. You know," he went on, "you can shoot fish with an arrow. I'll show you in the morning. That's how I lived, when I wasn't with the natives."
"Is that all?" I asked. I thought of the rumours of cannibals and head-hunters, and the stories of what was in store for those who ventured alone into the region beyond us.
"Well," he said, taking down a book to see what it was, "well . . . it took some months. It's a bad country. But I say! Fancy your knowing my dad. I thought I was quite out of touch here."