Westward Ho


And as the sun rose higher and higher, a great stillness fell upon the forest.The jaguars and the monkeys had hidden themselves in the darkest depths of the woods.The birds' notes died out one by one; the very butterflies ceased their flitting over the tree-tops, and slept with outspread wings upon the glossy leaves, undistinguishable from the flowers around them.Now and then a colibri whirred downward toward the water, hummed for a moment around some pendent flower, and then the living gem was lost in the deep blackness of the inner wood, among tree-trunks as huge and dark as the pillars of some Hindoo shrine; or a parrot swung and screamed at them from an overhanging bough; or a thirsty monkey slid lazily down a liana to the surface of the stream, dipped up the water in his tiny hand, and started chattering back, as his eyes met those of some foul alligator peering upward through the clear depths below.In shaded nooks beneath the boughs, the capybaras, rabbits as large as sheep, went paddling sleepily round and round, thrusting up their unwieldy heads among the blooms of the blue water-lilies; while black and purple water-hens ran up and down upon the rafts of floating leaves.The shining snout of a freshwater dolphin rose slowly to the surface; a jet of spray whirred up; a rainbow hung upon it for a moment; and the black snout sank lazily again.Here and there, too, upon some shallow pebbly shore, scarlet flamingoes stood dreaming knee-deep, on one leg; crested cranes pranced up and down, admiring their own finery;and ibises and egrets dipped their bills under water in search of prey: but before noon even those had slipped away, and there reigned a stillness which might be heard--such a stillness (to compare small things with great) as broods beneath the rich shadows of Amyas's own Devon woods, or among the lonely sweeps of Exmoor, when the heather is in flower--a stillness in which, as Humboldt says, "If beyond the silence we listen for the faintest undertones, we detect a stifled, continuous hum of insects, which crowd the air close to the earth; a confused swarming murmur which hangs round every bush, in the cracked bark of trees, in the soil undermined by lizards, millepedes, and bees; a voice proclaiming to us that all Nature breathes, that under a thousand different forms life swarms in the gaping and dusty earth, as much as in the bosom of the waters, and the air which breathes around."At last a soft and distant murmur, increasing gradually to a heavy roar, announced that they were nearing some cataract; till turning a point, where the deep alluvial soil rose into a low cliff fringed with delicate ferns, they came full in sight of a scene at which all paused: not with astonishment, but with something very like disgust.

"Rapids again!" grumbled one."I thought we had had enough of them on the Orinoco.""We shall have to get out, and draw the canoes overland, I suppose.

Three hours will be lost, and in the very hottest of the day, too.""There's worse behind; don't you see the spray behind the palms?""Stop grumbling, my masters, and don't cry out before you are hurt.

Paddle right up to the largest of those islands, and let us look about us."In front of them was a snow-white bar of raging foam, some ten feet high, along which were ranged three or four islands of black rock.

Each was crested with a knot of lofty palms, whose green tops stood out clear against the bright sky, while the lower half of their stems loomed hazy through a luminous veil of rainbowed mist.The banks right and left of the fall were so densely fringed with a low hedge of shrubs, that landing seemed all but impossible; and their Indian guide, suddenly looking round him and whispering, bade them beware of savages; and pointed to a canoe which lay swinging in the eddies under the largest island, moored apparently to the root of some tree.

"Silence all!" cried Amyas, "and paddle up thither and seize the canoe.If there be an Indian on the island, we will have speech of him: but mind and treat him friendly; and on your lives, neither strike nor shoot, even if he offers to fight."So, choosing a line of smooth backwater just in the wake of the island, they drove their canoes up by main force, and fastened them safely by the side of the Indian's, while Amyas, always the foremost, sprang boldly on shore, whispering to the Indian boy to follow him.

Once on the island, Amyas felt sure enough, that if its wild tenant had not seen them approach, he certainly had not heard them, so deafening was the noise which filled his brain, and seemed to make the very leaves upon the bushes quiver, and the solid stone beneath his feet to reel and ring.For two hundred yards and more above the fall nothing met his eye but one white waste of raging foam, with here and there a transverse dyke of rock, which hurled columns of spray and surges of beaded water high into the air,--strangely contrasting with the still and silent cliffs of green leaves which walled the river right and left, and more strangely still with the knots of enormous palms upon the islets, which reared their polished shafts a hundred feet into the air, straight and upright as masts, while their broad plumes and golden-clustered fruit slept in the sunshine far aloft, the image of the stateliest repose amid the wildest wrath of Nature.

Charles Kingsley