Read CHAPTER SIXTEEN of The Rover of the Andes A Tale of Adventure on South America , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on ReadCentral.com.

TELLS OF ABSURD, AS WELL AS EVIL, DOINGS, AND WINDS UP WITH A HORRID SURPRISE.

Whether Pedro’s pursuers continued the chase as far as the Indian hunter’s hut we cannot tell, for long before noon of the following day our travellers were far from the hunting-grounds of the gallant savage.

Soon after the usual midday siesta, the canoe, which contained the whole of the hunter’s worldly wealth, was run on the beach near to the spot where dwelt his father-in-law with many members of his tribe.

That worthy old man, in a light evening costume consisting of a cotton shirt and straw hat, came down to receive his children, who landed amid much noise with their boys and girls and household gods, including the red monkey, the parrot, the flamingo, the fat guinea-pig, the turtle, and the infant tapir.  The old chief was quite willing to take care of the family during the absence of his son-in-law, and was very pressing in his offers of hospitality to the white travellers, but Pedro refused to delay more than an hour at the village.

The old man also evinced a considerable amount of curiosity in regard to Manuela, and made one or two attempts to engage her in conversation, but on being informed by Pedro that she belonged to a tribe living half-way between his hunting-grounds and the regions of Patagonia, and that she did not understand his dialect at all, he forbore to question her, and satisfied himself with simply gazing.

After a farewell which was wonderfully affectionate for savages, Spotted Tiger embarked in Pedro’s canoe, and, pushing off into the river, bade the Indians adieu.

The canoe in which the party now travelled belonged to Tiger, and was larger as well as more commodious than that in which they had hitherto journeyed, having a gondola-like cabin constructed of grasses and palm-leaves, underneath which Manuela found shelter from the sun.  In the evenings Pedro could lie at full length on the top of it and smoke his cigarette.  They were floating with the current, you see, and did not require to labour much at the paddles at that time.

It would weary the reader were we to continue our description of the daily proceedings of our adventurers in journalistic form.  To get on with our tale requires that we should advance by bounds, and even flights-not exactly of fancy, but over stretches of space and time, though now and then we may find it desirable to creep or even to stand still.

We request the reader to creep with us at present, and quietly listen while Pedro and Tiger talk.

Pedro lies extended on his back on the roof of the gondola-like cabin, his hands under his head, his knees elevated, and a cigarette in his mouth.  Lawrence and Quashy are leaning in more or less lazy attitudes on the gunwale of the canoe, indulging now and then in a few remarks, which do not merit attention.  Manuela, also in a reclining attitude, rests under the shade of the erection on which Pedro lies, listening to their discourse.  Tiger is the only one on duty, but his labour is light:  it consists merely of holding the steering oar, and guiding the light craft along the smooth current of the river.  Pedro lies with his head to the stern, so that his talk with the Indian is conducted, so to speak, upside-down.  But that does not seem to incommode them, for the ideas probably turn right end foremost in passing to and fro.

Of course their language is in the Indian tongue.  We translate.

“Tiger,” said Pedro, sending a long whiff of smoke straight up towards the bright blue sky, where the sun was beginning to descend towards his western couch, “we shan’t make much, I fear, of the men of this part of the country.”

“I did not expect that you would,” replied the Indian, giving a gentle turn to his oar in order to clear a mudbank, on which a number of alligators were basking comfortably.

“Why so, Tiger?  Surely peace and good government are as desirable to them as to others.”

“No doubt, but many of them do not love peace.  They are young.  Their blood is hot, and they have nothing to do.  When that is so, war is pleasant to them.  It is natural.  Man must work, or play, or fight.  He cannot lie still.  Those who are killed cannot return to tell their comrades what fools they have been, so those that remain are greater fools than ever.”

“I agree with you, Tiger; but you see it is not the young men who have the making of war, though they generally get all the doing of it, and the poor women and children take the consequences; it is the governors, whom one would expect to show some sort of wisdom, and recognise the fact that union is strength, and that respect for Law is the only hope of the land.”

“Governors,” returned Tiger, in a deep voice, “are not only fools, but villains-tyrants!”

The Indian spoke with such evidence of suppressed indignation that Pedro tried to look at him.

The aspect of his frowning countenance upside-down was not conducive to gravity.

“Come, Tiger,” said Pedro, with a tendency to laugh, “they are not all tyrants; I know one or two who are not bad fellows.”

I know one who is a fool and a robber.”

“Indeed.  What has he done to make you so bitter?” asked Pedro.

“Made us wear spectacles!” replied the Indian, sternly.

“What do you mean?”

“Have you not heard about it?”

“No; you know I have been away in Chili for some time, and am ignorant of much that has been going on in these parts.”

“There is in Spain a white man, I know not who,” said Tiger, with an expression of ineffable contempt, “but he must be the chief of the fools among the white men, who seem to me to be all fools together.”

“Thank you for the compliment,” said Pedro, with a laugh.

“This white fool,” continued Tiger, paying no regard to his friend’s interruption, “thought that he would send out here for sale some spectacles-glass things, you know, that old white men look through when they cannot see.  We Indians, as you know, never need such things.  We can see well as long as we live.  It is supposed that a mistake was made by some one, for something like a canoe-load of spectacles was sent out-so many that in a hundred years the white men could not have used them up.  The trader knew not what to do.  There was no sale for them.  He applied to the governor-that robber of whom I have spoken.  He said to the trader, with a wink of his eye-that sort of wink which the white fool gives when he means to pass from folly to knavery-`Wait,’ he said, `and you shall see.’  Then he issued an order that no Indian should dare to appear in his district, or in church during festival-days, without spectacles!  The consequence was that the spectacles were all sold.  I know not the price of these foolish things, but some white men told me they were sold at an enormous profit.”

Although Pedro sympathised heartily with his brown friend in his indignation, he could not quite repress a smile at the ridiculous ideas called up.  Fortunately the Indian failed to interpret an upside-down smile, particularly with the moustache, as it were, below instead of above the mouth, and a cigarette in the lips.  It was too complicated.

“And were you obliged to buy and wear a pair of these spectacles, Tiger?” asked Pedro, after a few silent puffs.

“Yes-look! here they are,” he replied, with inconceivable bitterness, drawing forth the implements of vision from his pouch and fixing them on his nose with intense disgust.  Then, suddenly plucking them off; he hurled them into the river, and said savagely-“I was a Christian once, but I am not a Christian now.”

“How? what do you mean?” asked Pedro, raising himself on his elbow at this, so as to look straightly as well as gravely at his friend.

“I mean that the religion of such men must be false,” growled the Indian, somewhat defiantly.

“Now, Tiger,” returned his friend in a remonstrative tone, “that is not spoken with your usual wisdom.  The religion which a man professes may be true, though his profession of it may be false.  However, I am not unwilling to admit that the view of our religion which is presented in this land is false-very false.  Nevertheless, Christianity is true.  I will have some talk with you at another time on this subject, my friend.  Meanwhile, let us return to the point from which we broke off-the disturbed state of this unhappy country.”

Let us pause here, reader, to assure you that this incident of the spectacles is no fiction.  Well would it be for the South American Republics at this day, as well as for the good name of Spain, if the poor aborigines of South America had nothing more serious to complain of than the arbitrary act of the dishonest governor referred to; but it is a melancholy fact that, ever since the conquest of Peru by Pizarro, the Spaniards have treated the Indians with brutal severity, and it is no wonder that revenge of the fiercest nature still lingers in the breasts of the descendants of those unfortunate savages.

Probably our reader knows that the Peruvian region of the Andes is rich in gold and silver-mines.  These the Spanish conquerors worked by means of Indian slave labour.  Not long after the conquest a compulsory system of personal toil was established, whereby a certain proportion of the natives of each district were appointed by lot to work in the mines.  Every individual who obtained a grant of a mine became entitled to a certain number of Indians to work it, and every mine which remained unwrought for a year and a day became the property of any one who chose to claim and work it.  As there were many hundreds of mines registered in Peru alone, it may be imagined what a host of Indians were consequently condemned to a degraded state of slavery.

The labour of the mines was so dreadful that each unfortunate on whom the lot fell considered it equivalent to his death-warrant.  And that there was ground for this belief is proved by the fact that not more than one in six of the Indians condemned to the mines survived the treatment there inflicted.  Each mitayo, or conscript, received nominally two shillings a day.  But he never actually received it.  On his fate being fixed by lot, the poor fellow carried his wife and children to the mines with him, and made arrangements for never again returning home.  His food and lodging, being supplied by his employers, (owners?) were furnished at such an extravagant rate that he always found himself in debt at the end of his first year-if he outlived it.  In that case he was not allowed to leave until his debt was paid, which, of course, it never was.

Usually, however, the bad air and heavy labour of the mines, coupled with grief, told so much on men accustomed to the fresh air and free life of the wilderness, that death closed the scene before the first year of servitude was out.  It is said that above eight millions of natives have perished thus in the mines of Peru.

We have shown briefly one of the many phases of tyrannical cruelty practised by the conquerors of the land.  Here is another specimen.  At first there were few merchants in Peru, therefore privilege was granted to the Spanish corregidors, or governors of districts, to import goods suitable for Indians, and barter them at a fair price.  Of course this permission was abused, and trade became a compulsory and disgraceful traffic.  Useless and worthless articles and damaged goods-razors, for instance, silk stockings, velvets, etcetera-were forced on Indians who preferred naked feet and had no beards.

The deeds of the soldiers, miners, and governors were but too readily copied by the priests, many of whom were rapacious villains who had chosen the crucifix as their weapon instead of the sword.  One priest, for instance, besides his regular dues and fees, received during the year as presents, which he exacted at certain festivals, 200 sheep, 6000 head of poultry, 4000 guinea-pigs, and 50,000 eggs, and he would not say mass on those festival-days until a due proportion of the presents was delivered.  And this case of extortion is not told of one of the priests of old.  It occurred in the second quarter of the present century.  Another priest summoned a widow to make declaration of the property left her by her husband, so that he might fix the scale of his burial fees!  He made a high demand.  She implored his mercy, reminding him of her large family.  He was inexorable, but offered to give up his claim if she would give him her eldest son-a boy of eight-to be sold as a slave or given away as a present. (It seems that the senhoras of those lands want such boys to carry their kneeling carpets.) The civil authorities could not be appealed to in this case.  There was no redress, so the widow had to agree to give up her son!  Doubtless both in camp and in church there may have been good men, but if so, they form an almost invisible minority on the page of Peruvian history.

In short, tyranny in every form was, and for centuries has been, practised by the white men on the savages; and it is not a matter of wonder that the memory of these things rankles in the Indian’s bosom even at the present time, and that in recent books of travel we read of deeds of diabolical cruelty and revenge which we, in peaceful England, are too apt to think of as belonging exclusively to the days of old.

But let us return to our friends in the little canoe.

“To tell you the truth,” said Pedro to the Indian, “I am deeply disappointed with the result of my mission.  It is not so much that men do not see the advantages and necessity for union, as that they are heartless and indifferent-caring nothing, apparently, for the welfare of the land, so long as the wants and pleasures of the present hour are supplied.”

“Has it ever been otherwise?” asked Tiger, with grave severity of expression.

“Well, I confess that my reading of history does not warrant me to say that it has; but my reading of the good Creator’s Word entitles me to hope for and strive after better times.”

“I know not,” returned the Indian, with a far-off, pensive look, “what your histories say.  I cannot read.  There are no books in my tongue, but my memory is strong.  The stories, true stories, of my fathers reach very far back-to the time before the white man came to curse the land,-and I remember no time in which men did not desire each other’s property, and slay each other for revenge.  It is man’s nature, as it is the river’s nature to flow down hill.”

“It is man’s fallen, not his first, nature,” said Pedro.  “Things were as bad in England once.  They are not quite so bad now.  God’s law has made the difference.  However, we must take things here as we find them, and I’m sorry to think that up to this point my mission has been a failure.  Indeed, the last effort, as you know, nearly cost me my life.”

“And what will you now do?” asked Tiger.

“I will visit a few more places in the hope that some of the people may support us.  After that, I’ll mount and away over the Pampas to Buenos Ayres; see the colonel, and deliver Manuela to her father.”

“The white-haired chief?” asked Tiger.

“Even so,” replied Pedro.

During the foregoing conversation Quashy had thrust his fat nose down on a plank and gone to sleep, while Lawrence and Manuela, having nothing better to do, taught each other Spanish and English respectively!  And, strange though it may appear, it is a fact that Manuela, with all her quick-witted intelligence, was wonderfully slow at learning English.  To Lawrence’s intense astonishment and, it must be confessed, to his no small disappointment, the Indian maiden not only made the same blunders over and over again, and seemed to be incapable of making progress, but even laughed at her own stupidity.  This somewhat cooled his admiration of her character, which coolness afforded him satisfaction rather than the reverse, as going far to prove that he was not really, (as how could he be?) in love with the brown-skinned, uneducated, half-savage girl, but only much impressed with her amiable qualities.  Poor fellow, he was much comforted by these thoughts, because, had it been otherwise, how terrible would have been his fate!-either, on the one hand, to marry her and go and dwell with her savage relations-perhaps be compelled to paint his visage scarlet with arabesque devices in charcoal, and go on the war-path against the white man; or, on the other hand, to introduce his Indian bride into the salons of civilisation, with the certainty of beholding the sneer of contempt on the face of outraged society; with the probability of innumerable violations of the rules of etiquette, and the possibility of Manuela exhibiting the squaw’s preference for the floor to a chair, fingers to knives and forks, and-pooh! the thing was absurd, utterly out of the question!

Towards sunset they came to a part of the river where there were a good many sandbanks, as well as extensive reaches of sand along shore.

On one of these low-lying spits they drew up the canoe, and encamped for that night in the bushes, close enough to the edge to be able to see the river, where a wide-spreading tree canopied them from the dews of night.

Solemn and inexpressibly sad were the views of life taken by Lawrence that night as he stood by the river’s brink in the moonlight, while his companions were preparing the evening meal, and gave himself up to the contemplation of things past, present, and to come,-which is very much like saying that he thought about nothing in particular.  What he felt quite sure of was that he was horribly depressed-dissatisfied with himself, his companions and his surroundings, and ashamed in no small degree of his dissatisfaction.  As well he might be; for were not his companions particularly agreeable, and were not his surroundings exquisitely beautiful and intensely romantic?  The moon in a cloudless sky glittered in the broad stream, and threw its rippling silver treasures at his very feet.  A gentle balmy air fanned his cheek, on which mantled the hue of redundant health, and the tremendous puffs and long-drawn sighs of the alligators, with the growl of jaguars, croak and whistle of frogs, and the voice of the howling monkey, combined to fill his ear with the music of thrilling romance, if not of sweetness.

“What more could I wish?” he murmured, self-reproachfully.

A tremendous slap on the face-dealt by his own hand, as a giant mosquito found and probed some tenderer spot than usual-reminded him that some few things, which he did not wish for, were left to mingle in his cup of too great felicity, and reduce it, like water in overproof whisky, to the level of human capacity.

Still dissatisfied, despite his reflections, he returned to the fire under the spreading tree, and sat down to enjoy a splendid basin of turtle soup,-soup prepared by Tiger the day before from the flesh of a turtle slain by his own hand, and warmed up for the supper of that evening.  A large tin dish or tureen full of the same was placed at his elbow to tempt his appetite, which, to say truth, required no tempting.

Manuela, having already supped, sat with her little hands clasped in her lap, and her lustrous eyes gazing pensively into the fire.  Perhaps she was attempting to read her fortune in the blazing embers.  Perchance engaged in thinking of that very common subject-nothing!  If Pedro had smoked the same thing, it would have been better for his health and pocket; but Pedro, thinking otherwise, fumigated his fine moustache, and disconcerted the mosquitoes in the region of his nose.

Quashy, having just replenished the fire until the logs rose two feet or more from the ground, turned his back on the same, warmed his hands behind him, and gazed up through the over-arching boughs at the starry sky with that wistfully philosophical expression which negroes are apt to assume when their thoughts are “too deep,” or too complex, “for utterance.”

Spotted Tiger continued to dally with the turtle soup, and seemed loath to give in as he slowly, with many a pause between, raised the huge iron spoon to his lips.

No one seemed inclined to break the silence into which they had sunk, for all were more or less fatigued; and it seemed as if the very brutes around sympathised with them, for there was a perceptible lull in the whistling of the frogs, the howling monkeys appeared to have gone to rest, and the sighing alligators to have subsided and sunk, so that the breaking of a twig or the falling of a leaf was perceptible to the listening ear.

Things were in this state of profound and peaceful calm when a slight rustling was heard among the branches of the tree above them.

The instant glare of Quashy’s eyes; the gaze of Manuela’s; the cock of Pedro’s ear, and the sudden pause of our hero’s spoon on its way to his lips, were sights to behold!  The Indian alone seemed comparatively indifferent to the sound, though he looked up inquiringly.

At that moment there burst forth an ear-splitting, marrow-shrivelling blood-curdling yell, that seemed to rouse the entire universe into a state of wild insanity.  There could be no mistaking it-the peculiar, horrid, shrieking, only too familiar war-whoop of the painted savage!

Quashy staggered back.  He could not recover himself, for a log had caught his heel.  To sit down on the fire he knew would be death, therefore he bounded over it backwards and fell into Lawrence’s lap, crushing that youth’s plate almost into the region where the soup had already gone, and dashing his feet into the tureen!

Lawrence roared; Manuela shrieked; Pedro sprang up and seized his weapons.  So did Lawrence and his man, regardless of the soup.

Tiger alone sat still, conveying the iron spoon slowly to his lips, but with a peculiar motion of his broad shoulders which suggested that the usually grave savage was convulsed with internal laughter.

“Ghosts and crokidiles!-what’s dat?” gasped Quashy, staring up into the tree, and ready to fire at the first visible object.

Tiger also looked up, made a peculiar sound with his mouth, and held out his hand.

Immediately a huge bird, responding to the call, descended from the tree and settled on his wrist.

Quashy’s brief commentary explained it all.

“Purrit!”

It was indeed the Indian’s faithful pet-parrot, which he had taught thus to raise the war-cry of his tribe, and which, having bestowed its entire affections on its master, was in the habit of taking occasional flights after him when he went away from home.