The Indians were as good as their
word. Headed by the chief’s canoe, the
adventurers passed in steady procession through more
than a hundred miles of delta waterways. Progress
was slow, for, though the current in the cross channels
was not strong, the wind was hardly felt; the heat
was stifling, and rest during the midday hours absolutely
necessary. Then there were villages to be visited,
presents to be made to the chieftains, and feasts
to be eaten in return. Haste was impossible,
though very desirable. The rains were beginning,
the river would soon be in flood, and pestilence would
stalk through the swampy regions like a destroying
At last the apex of the delta was
reached, and the broad river stretching
miles from bank to bank lay before the navigators.
The milk-white current, laden with chalky washings
from the land, swept by in a mighty flood. On
its bosom floated trees and detached masses of soil,
going northwards to build up the growing delta.
But for the wind and the guidance of the natives
the adventurers would have made no headway against
the mighty volume of the waters. Happily the
North-East Trades from the Atlantic, unimpeded by mountain
or hill, blew with steady and strong persistence across
the flat delta and along the level plains through
which the river made its way. Sandbanks
in the bed diverted the current here and there, making
quiet, lake-like pools under the banks. The
Indians knew of these, and skilfully made use of them.
Sails were spread to the breeze, and the flotilla
went steadily on its way.
One week went by, and then another.
The weather grew worse and worse. Terrific storms
swept across the plains, lashing the Orinoco into fury,
tearing down the mighty trees on its banks, and deluging
the intrepid voyagers. The banks of the stream
were almost lost; hundreds of square miles of forest-clad
plain were under water, the tree-tops alone showing
the navigators the true course of the river.
The flood flowing sea-wards became thicker, deeper,
and mightier than ever. The humid heat of the
stormy summer became well-nigh unbearable. Men
sickened, and in a few cases died. Camping ground
at night was almost unobtainable, and thick, poisonous
mists enwreathed the boats during the hours of darkness,
fevering the men’s blood, cramping and stiffening
their limbs. It became imperative to call a halt
for a while; the enfeebled rowers made scant progress
against the strengthening current, and the success
achieved was not worth the effort that was made.
A pile-supported village was sighted, and the Indian
guides turned their boat thither, the others following.
The village stood on some rising ground
on the western bank of the stream, and in the dry
season must have been at least half a mile from the
margin of the waters. Now the floods rolled between
the piles, submerging at least ten feet of them.
Native canoes were tethered to the supports, and
the house platforms were soon covered with knots of
brown-skinned fellows full of anxiety and apprehension
concerning the oncoming fleet. They knew the
ship’s boats for those used by the white men
who came trading or raiding along the river, and wondered
to find them attempting a voyage at such a time.
The friendly Indians went forward and explained who
the white men were, and what they wanted, and the
villagers proved kind and confiding, as indeed had
all the natives dwelling along the river. They
gave up room in their huts to the fevered men, sleeping
out on the platforms themselves, and for a few days
the expedition rested and recuperated.
The sun had set, the moon was above
the tree-tops, steadily making for its zenith.
A group of three Johnnie Morgan, Timothy
Jeffreys, and Dan Pengelly sat on the platform
of one of the huts, their legs dangling over the edge
within a couple of feet of the water. The day
had been fiercely hot, and the water around had steamed
like a smoking cauldron. With the moon had come
a brisk breeze, that swept the stagnant, mouldy vapours
away, and left a clear landscape and cool air.
Dan was stuffing tobacco into a pipe of bamboo, and
urging the two gentlemen to follow his example, the
smoke of the weed being, he declared, an antidote
against the malarial poisons breathed out by the foul
mud and rotting vegetation that surrounded them.
The old sailor had enjoyed marvellously good health
throughout the river voyage, and, forgetting his previous
travels, and the natural toughness of his constitution,
put his happy condition down to his daily pipes of
the fragrant Indian weed. But his two companions
were too languid for indulgence in smoking.
Their heads were giddy, their hearts throbbing, and
their stomachs at war with all solid food. The
tropical marsh fever had them in its grip, and the
grasp was tightening every moment. The trees
swayed dismally in the breeze, and the birds chattered
querulously at being disturbed. The waters “lap,
lapped” monotonously against the piles, and
horny-backed alligators nosed amongst them, seeking
for scraps and offal or any stray eatables that came
their way. Moths and fireflies flitted about
in such numbers that the air seemed alive with them.
All around was a vast, shallow, fresh-water sea rolling,
heaving, sucking, lapping, shimmering under the tropical
moon. A night full of majesty, beauty, mystery,
Dan curled himself comfortably against
a pillar, closed his eyes, and smoked with keen enjoyment.
Morgan and Jeffreys gazed for a while with aching
eyes at the weird scene around; then the heavy lids
dropped, and they fell a-dreaming.
Johnnie was back in the cool forest
by Severn side; the oaks and the beeches swayed above
him, and the bracken rustled as a rabbit scuttled
through. The nightingale was singing his love
song to his mate and the moon, and the dull, far-off
roar of the rushing tide sounded a low accompaniment
to the song. Gone were the white, warm, mud-laden
waters, the floating trunks, the screaming parrots,
the croaking frogs, the howling beasts; the glare
of the sun no longer hurt his eyes, and its fierce
heat no longer sent his brain throbbing and burning.
The air was cool, the bracken sweet, and the bird
trilled out its passionate music. Why should
he sit uncomfortably propped against a tree?
He would lie down, and let the fresh, green fronds
curl above him. He sighed, his limbs relaxed,
he swayed he fell with a heavy splash into
the warm, lapping waters!
A nosing alligator swished his tail
against a pile and darted off in sudden alarm; but
he came round again speedily, just as the half-fainting
man roused sufficiently to be conscious that he was
in the water. Jeffreys was asleep, but Dan’s
sailor senses were alert in an instant. His
eyes opened, he glanced around, missed Morgan, and
peered over into the flood. The fallen man cried
out, and the huge reptile that had espied him moved
off again. Dan saw both, shouted in alarm, and
hurled a handy log at the prowling horror; then he
swung himself, monkey fashion, down a stout pile,
seized Morgan by the hair, and brought him so that
he got a grip of the platform. A minute later
Johnnie swung himself into safety, and only just in
time, for more than one scaly reptile had scented
the feast, and was hurrying through the moonlit waters,
eager and voracious. This unlucky sousing in
the flood settled the grip of the fever on Morgan.
When next he sunned himself on the platform the waters
had subsided, the mud was baked and cracking, and
the major portion of the expedition leagues away southwards.