Green Mansions/Chapter 12

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TO follow impetuous, bird-like Rima in her descent of the hill would have been impossible, nor had I any desire to be a witness of old Nuflo's discomfiture at the finish. It was better to leave them to settle their quarrel themselves, while I occupied myself in turning over these fresh facts in my mind to find out how they fitted into the speculative structure I had been building during the last two or three weeks. But it soon struck me that it was getting late, that the sun would be gone in a couple of hours; and at once I began the descent. It was not accomplished without some bruises and a good many scratches. After a cold draught, obtained by putting my lips to a black rock from which the water was trickling, I set out on my walk home, keeping near the western border of the forest for fear of losing myself. I had covered about half the distance from the foot of the hill to Nuflo's lodge when the sun went down. Away on my left the evening uproar of the howling monkeys burst out, and after three or four minutes ceased; the after silence was pierced at intervals by screams of birds going to roost among the trees in the distance, and by many minor sounds close at hand, of small bird, frog, and insect. The western sky was now like amber-coloured flame, and against that immeasurably distant luminous background the near branches and clustered foliage looked black; but on my left hand the vegetation still appeared of a uniform dusky green. In a little while night would drown all colour, and there would be no light but that of the wandering lantern-fly, always unwelcome to the belated walker in a lonely place, since, like the ignis fatuus, it is confusing to the sight and sense of direction.

With increasing anxiety I hastened on, when all at once a low growl issuing from the bushes some yards ahead of me brought me to a stop. In a moment the dogs, Susio and Goloso, rushed out from some hiding-place furiously barking; but they quickly recognised me and slunk back again. Relieved from fear, I walked on for a short distance; then it struck me that the old man must be about somewhere, as the dogs scarcely ever stirred from his side. Turning back I went to the spot where they had appeared to me; and there, after a while, I caught sight of a dim, yellow form, as one of the brutes rose up to look at me. He had been lying on the ground by the side of a wide-spreading bush, dead and dry, but overgrown by a creeping plant which had completely covered its broad, flat top like a piece of tapestry thrown over a table, its slender terminal stems and leaves hanging over the edge like a deep fringe. But the fringe did not reach to the ground, and under the bush, in its dark interior, I caught sight of the other dog; and after gazing in for some time I also discovered a black, recumbent form, which I took to be Nuflo.

"What are you doing there, old man?" I cried. "Where is Rima—have you not seen her? Come out."

Then he stirred himself, slowly creeping out on all fours; and, finally, getting free of the dead twigs and leaves, he stood up and faced me. He had a strange, wild look, his white beard all disordered, moss and dead leaves clinging to it, his eyes staring like an owl's, while his mouth opened and shut, the teeth striking together audibly, like an angry peccary's. After silently glaring at me in this mad way for some moments he burst out: "Cursed be the day when I first saw you, man of Caracas! Cursed be the serpent that bit you and had not sufficient power in its venom to kill! Ha! you come from Ytaioa, where you talked with Rima? And you have now returned to the tiger's den to mock that dangerous animal with the loss of its whelp. Fool, if you did not wish the dogs to feed on your flesh it would have been better if you had taken your evening walk in some other direction."

These raging words did not have the effect of alarming me in the least, nor even of astonishing me very much, albeit up till now the old man had always shown himself suave and respectful. His attack did not seem quite spontaneous. In spite of the wildness of his manner and the violence of his speech, he appeared to be acting a part which he had rehearsed beforehand. I was only angry, and stepping forward I dealt him a very sharp rap with my knuckles on his chest. "Moderate your language, old man," I said; " remember that you are addressing a superior."

"What do you say to me?" he screamed in a shrill, broken voice, accompanying his words with emphatic gestures. "Do you think you are on the pavement of Caracas? Here are no police to protect you—here we are alone in the desert, where names and titles are nothing, standing man to man."

"An old man to a young one," I returned. "And in virtue of my youth I am your superior. Do you wish me to take you by the throat and shake your insolence out of you?"

"What, do you threaten me with violence?" he exclaimed, throwing himself into a hostile attitude. "You, the man I saved, and sheltered, and fed, and treated like a son! Destroyer of my peace, have you not injured me enough? You have stolen my grandchild's heart from me; with a thousand inventions you have driven her mad! My child, my angel, Rima, my saviour! With your lying tongue you have changed her into a demon to persecute me! And you are not satisfied, but must finish your evil work by inflicting blows on my worn body! All, all is lost to me! Take my life if you wish it, for now it is worth nothing, and I desire not to keep it!" And here he threw himself on his knees, and tearing open his old, ragged mantle, presented his naked breast to me. "Shoot! Shoot!" he screeched. "And if you have no weapon take my knife and plunge it into this sad heart, and let me die!" And drawing his knife from its sheath, he flung it down at my feet.

All this performance only served to increase my anger and contempt; but before I could make any reply I caught sight of a shadowy object at some distance moving towards us—something grey and formless, gliding swift and noiseless, like some great low-flying owl among the trees. It was Rima, and hardly had I seen her before she was with us, facing old Nuflo, her whole frame quivering with passion, her wide-open eyes appearing luminous in that dim light.

"You are here!" she cried in that quick, ringing tone that was almost painful to the sense. "You thought to escape me! To hide yourself from my eyes in the wood! Miserable! Do you not know that I have need of you—that I have not finished with you yet? Do you then wish to be scourged to Riolama with thorny twigs—to be dragged thither by the beard?"

He had been staring open-mouthed at her, still on his knees, and holding his mantle open with his skinny hands. "Rima! Rima! have mercy on me!" he cried out piteously. "Oh, my child, I cannot go to Riolama, it is so far—so far. And I am old and should meet my death. Oh, Rima, child of the woman I saved from death, have you no compassion I shall die, I shall die!"

"Shall you die? Not until you have shown me the way to Riolama. And when I have seen Riolama with my eyes then you may die, and I shall be glad at your death; and the children and the grandchildren and cousins and friends of all the animals you have slain and fed on shall know that you are dead and be glad at your death. For you have deceived me with lies all these years—even me—and are not fit to live! Come now to Riolama; rise instantly, I command you!"

Instead of rising he suddenly put out his hand and snatched up the knife from the ground. "Do you then wish me to die?" he cried. "Shall you be glad at my death? Behold, then I shall slay myself before your eyes. By my own hand, Rima, I am now about to perish, striking this knife into my heart!"

While speaking he waved the knife in a tragic manner over his head, but I made no movement; I was convinced that he had no intention of taking his own life—that he was still acting. Rima, incapable of understanding such a thing, took it differently.

"Oh, you are going to kill yourself!" she cried. " Oh, wicked man, wait until you know what will happen to you after death. All shall now be told to my mother. Hear my words, then kill yourself."

She also now dropped on to her knees, and lifting her clasped hands and fixing her resentful sparkling eyes on the dim blue patch of heaven visible beyond the tree-tops, began to speak rapidly in clear, vibrating tones. She was praying to her mother in heaven; and while Nuflo listened absorbed, his mouth open, his eyes fixed on her, the hand that clutched the knife dropped to his side. I also heard with the greatest wonder and admiration. For she had been shy and reticent with me, and now, as if oblivious of my presence, she was telling aloud the secrets of her inmost heart.

"O mother, mother, listen to me, to Rima, your beloved child!" she began. "All these years I have been wickedly deceived by grandfather—Nuflo—the old man that found you. Often have I spoken to him of Riolama, where you once were, and your people are, and he denied all knowledge of such a place. Sometimes he said that it was at an immense distance, in a great wilderness full of serpents larger than the trunks of great trees, and of evil spirits and savage men, slayers of all strangers. At other times he affirmed that no such place existed; that it was a tale told by the Indians; such false things did he say to me—to Rima, your child. O mother, can you believe such wickedness?

"Then a stranger, a white man from Venezuela, came into our woods: this is the man that was bitten by a serpent, and his name is Abel: only I do not call him by that name, but by other names which I have told you. But perhaps you did not listen, or did not hear, for I spoke softly and not as now, on my knees, solemnly. For I must tell you, O mother, that after you died the priest at Voa told me repeatedly that when I prayed, whether to you or to any of the saints, or to the Mother of Heaven, I must speak as he had taught me, if I wished to be heard and understood. And that was most strange, since you had taught me differently; but you were living then, at Voa, and now that you are in Heaven perhaps you know better. Therefore listen to me now, O mother, and let nothing I say escape you.

"When this white man had been for some days with us a strange thing happened to me, which made me different, so that I was no longer Rima, although Rima still—so strange was this thing; and I often went to the pool to look at myself and see the change in me, but nothing different could I see. In the first place it came from his eyes passing into mine, and filling me just as the lightning fills a cloud at sunset: afterwards it was no longer from his eyes only, but it came into me whenever I saw him, even at a distance, when I heard his voice, and most of all when he touched me with his hand. When he is out of my sight I cannot rest until I see him again; and when I see him then I am glad, yet in such fear and trouble that I hide myself from him. O mother, it could not be told; for once when he caught me in his arms and compelled me to speak of it he did not understand; yet there was need to tell it; then it came to me that only to our people could it be told, for they would understand, and reply to me, and tell me what to do in such a case.

"And now, O mother, this is what happened next. I went to grandfather and first begged and then commanded him to take me to Riolama; but he would not obey, nor give attention to what I said, but whenever I spoke to him of it he rose up and hurried from me; and when I followed he flung back a confused and angry reply, saying in the same breath that it was so long since he had been to Riolama that he had forgotten where it was, and that no such place existed. And which of his words were true and which false I knew not: so that it would have been better if he had returned no answer at all; and there was no help to be got from him. And having thus failed, and there being no other person to speak to except this stranger, I determined to go to him, and in his company seek through the whole world for my people. This will surprise you, O mother, because of that fear which came on me in his presence, causing me to hide from his sight; but my wish was so great that for a time it overcame my fear; so that I went to him as he sat alone in the wood, sad because he could not see me, and spoke to him, and led him to the summit of Ytaioa to show me all the countries of the world from the summit. And you must also know that I tremble in his presence, not because I fear him as I fear Indians and cruel men; for he has no evil in him, and is beautiful to look at, and his words are gentle, and his desire is to be always with me, so that he differs from all other men I have seen, just as I differ from all women, except from you only, O sweet mother.

"On the mountain-top he marked out and named all the countries of the world, the great mountains, the rivers, the plains, the forests, the cities; and told me also of the peoples, whites and savages, but of our people nothing. And beyond where the world ends there is water, water, water. And when he spoke of that unknown part on the borders of Guayana, on the side of the Cordilleras, he named the mountains of Riolama, and in that way I first found out where my people are. I then left him on Ytaioa, he refusing to follow me, and ran to grandfather and taxed him with his falsehoods; and he, finding I knew all, escaped from me into the woods, where I have now found him once more, talking with the stranger. And now, O mother, seeing himself caught and unable to escape a second time, he has taken up a knife to kill himself, so as not to take me to Riolama; and he is only waiting until I finish speaking to you, for I wish him to know what will happen to him after death. Therefore, O mother, listen well and do what I tell you. When he has killed himself, and has come into that place where you are, see that he does not escape the punishment he merits. Watch well for his coming, for he is full of cunning and deceit, and will endeavour to hide himself from your eyes. When you have recognised him—an old man, brown as an Indian, with a white beard—point him out to the angels, and say, 'This is Nuflo, the bad man that lied to Rima.' Let them take him and singe his wings with fire, so that he may not escape by flying; and afterwards thrust him into some dark cavern under a mountain, and place a great stone that a hundred men could not remove over its mouth, and leave him there alone and in the dark for ever!"

Having ended, she rose quickly from her knees, and at the same moment Nuflo, dropping the knife, cast himself prostrate at her feet.

"Rima—my child, my child, not that!" he cried out in a voice that was broken with terror. He tried to take hold of her feet with his hands, but she shrank from him with aversion; still he kept on crawling after her like a disabled lizard, abjectly imploring her to forgive him, reminding her that he had saved from death the woman whose enmity had now been enlisted against him, and declaring that he would do anything she commanded him, and gladly perish in her service.

It was a pitiable sight, and moving quickly to her side I touched her on the shoulder and asked her to forgive him.

The response came quickly enough. Turning to him once more she said: "I forgive you, grandfather. And now get up and take me to Riolama."

He rose, but only to his knees. "But you have not told her!" he said, recovering his natural voice, although still anxious, and jerking a thumb over his shoulder. "Consider, my child, that I am old and shall doubtless perish on the way. What would become of my soul in such a case? For now you have told her everything, and it will not be forgotten."

She regarded him in silence for a few moments, then moving a little way apart, dropped on to her knees again, and with raised hands and eyes fixed on the blue space above, already sprinkled with stars, prayed again.

"O mother, listen to me, for I have something fresh to say to you. Grandfather has not killed himself, but has asked my forgiveness and has promised to obey me. O mother, I have forgiven him, and he will now take me to Riolama, to our people. Therefore, O mother, if he dies on the way to Riolama let nothing be done against him, but remember only that I forgave him at the last; and when he comes into that place where you are, let him be well received, for that is the wish of Rima, your child."

As soon as this second petition was ended she was up again and engaged in an animated discussion with him, urging him to take her without further delay to Riolama; while he, now recovered from his fear, urged that so important an undertaking required a great deal of thought and preparation; that the journey would occupy about twenty days, and unless he set out well provided with food he would starve before accomplishing half the distance; and his death would leave her worse off than before: he concluded by affirming that he could not start in less time than seven or eight days.

For a while I listened with keen interest to this dispute, and at length interposed once more on the old man's side. The poor girl in her petition had unwittingly revealed to me the power I possessed, and it was a pleasing experience to exercise it. Touching her shoulder again, I assured her that seven or eight days was only a reasonable time in which to prepare for so long a journey: she instantly yielded, and after one glance at my face she moved swiftly away into the darker shadows, leaving me alone with the old man.

As we returned together through the now profoundly dark wood I explained to him how the subject of Riolama had first come up during my conversation with Rima, and he then apologised for the violent language he had used to me. This personal question disposed of, he spoke of the pilgrimage before him, and informed me in confidence that he intended preparing a quantity of smoke-dried meat and packing it in a bag, with a layer of cassava bread, dried pumpkin slips, and such innocent trifles to conceal it from Rima's keen sight and delicate nostrils. Finally, he made a long rambling statement, which, I vainly imagined, was intended to lead up to an account of Rima's origin, with something about her people at Riolama; but it led to nothing except an expression of opinion that the girl was afflicted with a maggot in the brain, but that as she had interest with the powers above, especially with her mother, who was now a very important person among the celestials, it was good policy to submit to her wishes. Turning to me, doubtless to wink (only I missed the sign owing to the darkness), he added that it was a fine thing to have a friend at court. With a little gratulatory chuckle he went on to say that for others it was necessary to obey all the ordinances of the Church, to contribute to its support, hear mass, confess from time to time, and receive absolution: consequently those who went out into the wilderness, where there were no churches and no priests to absolve them, did so at the risk of losing their souls. But with him it was different: he expected in the end to escape the fires of purgatory, and go directly in all his uncleanness to heaven—a thing, he remarked, which happened to very few; and he, Nuflo, was no saint, and had first become a dweller in the desert, as a very young man, in order to escape the penalty of his misdeeds.

I could not resist the temptation of remarking here that to an unregenerate man the celestial country might turn out a somewhat uncongenial place for a residence. He replied airily that he had considered the point and had no fear about the future; that he was old, and from all he had observed of the methods of government followed by those who ruled over earthly affairs from the sky, he had formed a clear idea of that place, and believed that even among so many glorified beings he would be able to meet with those who would prove companionable enough, and would think no worse of him on account of his little blemishes.

How he had first got this idea into his brain about Rima's ability to make things smooth for him after death I cannot say; probably it was the effect of the girl's powerful personality and vivid faith acting on an ignorant and extremely superstitious mind. While she was making that petition to her mother in heaven it did not seem in the least ridiculous to me: I had felt no inclination to smile, even when hearing all that about the old man's wings being singed to prevent his escape by flying. Her rapt look; the intense conviction that vibrated in her ringing, passionate tones; the brilliant scorn with which she, a hater of bloodshed, one so tender towards all living things, even the meanest, bade him kill himself, and only hear first how her vengeance would pursue his deceitful soul into other worlds; the clearness with which she had related the facts of the case, disclosing the inmost secrets of her heart—all this had had a strange, convincing effect on me. Listening to her I was no longer the enlightened, the creedless man. She herself was so near to the supernatural that it seemed brought near me; indefinable feelings, which had been latent in me, stirred into life, and following the direction of her divine, lustrous eyes, fixed on the blue sky above, I seemed to see there another being like herself, a Rima glorified, leaning her pale, spiritual face to catch the winged words uttered by her child on earth. And even now, while hearing the old man's talk, showing as it did a mind darkened with such gross delusions, I was not yet altogether free from the strange effect of that prayer. Doubtless it was a delusion; her mother was not really there above listening to the girl's voice. Still, in some mysterious way, Rima had become to me, even as to superstitious old Nuflo, a being apart and sacred, and this feeling seemed to mix with my passion, to purify and exalt it and make it infinitely sweet and precious.

After we had been silent for some time I said, "Old man, the result of the grand discussion you have had with Rima is that you have agreed to take her to Riolama, but about my accompanying you not one word has been spoken by either of you."

He stopped short to stare at me, and although it was too dark to see his face, I felt his astonishment. "Señor!" he exclaimed, "we cannot go without you. Have you not heard my granddaughter's words—that it is only because of you that she is about to undertake this crazy journey? If you are not with us in this thing, then, señor, here we must remain. But what will Rima say to that?"

"Very well, I will go, but only on one condition."

"What is it?" he asked, with a sudden change of tone, which warned me that he was becoming cautious again.

"That you tell me the whole story of Rima's origin, and how you came to be now living with her in this solitary place, and who these people are she wishes to visit at Riolama."

"Ah, señor, it is a long story, and sad. But you shall hear it all. You must hear it, señor, since you are now one of us; and when I am no longer here to protect her then she will be yours. And although you will never be able to do more than old Nuflo for her, perhaps she will be better pleased; and you, señor, better able to exist innocently by her side, without eating flesh, since you will always have that rare flower to delight you. But the story would take long to tell. You shall hear it all as we journey to Riolama. What else will there be to talk about when we are walking that long distance, and when we sit at night by the fire?"

"No, no, old man, I am not to be put off in that way. I must hear it before I start."

But he was determined to reserve the narrative until the journey, and after some further argument I yielded the point.