Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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JUST after I was nominated for the Presidency of the British Association at Glasgow, I determined if possible to obtain some new facts concerning the "agricultural" and the leaf-cutting (or saüba) ants of Brazil. The subject I has chosen for my inaugural address was "Recent Advances in Entomology," and I knew that the scientific world would, upon this important occasion, look to me for something more than a mere repetition of comparatively stale matter.
When Reinhardt returned from the Upper Amazons bringing with him such an astonishing collection of insects new to science, he informed me that the southern and more humid part of the La Montana region was extraordinarily prolific in ant-life, and there still remained several hundred square miles among the eastern foothills of the Andes which had never been explored by naturalists.
I therefore determined to visit this region; and (to be brief) crossed the Atlantic, and made a quick and uneventful river journey to Barra, where the Rio Negro joins the Amazons. Barra, as many of my readers will doubtless recollect, is a town made historical by Bates and Wallace, and is situated nearly a thousand miles from the mouth of the great Brazilian river. Here I was fortunate enough to find a small trading steamer which was about to start for the Jurua, a large stream which enters the Amazons from the southward about six hundred miles higher up. In this way I travelled almost as far as Caranary, on the Jurua, where, owing to the dangerous state of the rapids, I was obliged to leave the steamer and proceed by canoe.
Fortunately I was able to obtain a crew of six stalwart river Indians, who agreed to paddle me as far as Cigano. They were, I believe, members of the once prosperous Passé tribe spoken of by Humboldt and Bates; and they not only proved excellent canoe-men, but possessed a fair knowledge of Portuguese. At Cigano I was unfortunately compelled to engage another crew of Indians belonging to a lower and more primitive race; for I could not persuade my civilised and docile Passés to accompany me any farther.
At length, by pushing up a tributary stream called the Jagara (which, although wider than the Thames at Kingston, I cannot find marked on any map), I approached an unexplored district not far from the spot where the boundary-lines of Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru all run together. I now found myself among the foothills of the Andes, and in a densely wooded country abounding in new birds, plants, and insects to a bewildering degree. As we advanced the atmosphere became more and more humid, until it was almost as much charged with moisture as a Russian bath. It was no longer possible to keep sugar or salt in a crystalline condition, and even black gunpowder, when exposed to the air, turned to a semi-liquid paste.
Here I procured a number of valuable specimens, and gathered many novel and interesting facts. Although my time was getting rather short, I decided, before returning, to penetrate this fascinating and fruitful region as far as possible.
When we had got some fifty miles up the Jagara my crew of Bura Indians (who were yellow-skinned, stolid savages, apparently akin to the Botocudos), although apparently not afraid of hard poling and paddling up the swift shallow stream, or of the heavy work involved by frequent portages, showed a strong disinclination to going farther. At length, when I directed them to turn up a narrow creek entering the stream from the westward, they stolidly ignored my wishes, and persisted in keeping the canoe close to the opposite bank, giving me to understand that there was some great and mysterious danger to be feared in the region on the western side of the Jagara.
In answer to my demand for particulars, the natives informed me (chiefly by means of the lingua geral and Indian sign-language) that they were very much afraid of certain beings of minute size who inhabited this district, and who were in the habit of capturing and holding in cruel bondage any human trespassers on their domain. From the gestures of my crew I gathered that these supposed supernatural beings were somewhat akin to our European fairies or brownies; and the chief spokesman apparently wished me to believe that, although such terrible fellows, they were no bigger than a moderate-sized ant!
Of course I tried to reason these ignorant, superstitious savages out of such a nonsensical belief. In this I was quite unsuccessful; and at length, being irritated by their stupid obstinacy in refusing to do what I wished, I rated them well as cowards, and even resorted to threats of personal chastisement. As this had no effect, beyond making them extremely sullen, I got into the small and light piragua which we towed behind our large canoe, and telling the Indians to make a camp and wait for me on the "safe" side of the Jagara, I proceeded to paddle towards the little creek which I had determined to explore.
I am fairly at home in a canoe, and as I was provided with a double "paradox" gun, a sharp and heavy machete, a mosquito-net, a good waterproof blanket, and a knapsack containing provisions and other necessaries, I resolved to push up this small tributary of the Jagara as far as I could before sunset, to spend the night on its banks, and to return to the main stream next morning. My chief purpose in doing this was to convince my superstitious and timid crew that there was no real danger to be apprehended in the region I proposed to visit.
I had not gone far up the streamlet before I came to a succession of small cascades, and had to make repeated portages; which, owing to the tangled state of the tropic vegetation on both banks, taxed my strength pretty severely.
As I advanced the route became somewhat easier, and the tropical vegetation around me grew more and more luxuriant. In places the whole air seemed full of the most wondrous flowers, of all hues and sizes, pendent like miniature Chinese lanterns from the network of vines and lianas crossing the stream overhead, among which hundreds of sparkling humming-birds and glowing multitudes of butterflies continually flitted and hovered.
At length I reached a spot of such extravagant beauty that I rested on my paddle, almost wondering whether I had wandered into dreamland. I was in a clear circular pool at the foot of a magnificent waterfall, and shut in all around by the dense, tropical forest. In front of me festoons of splendid orchids hung from the lace-work of creepers which lined both sides of the cascade, while to and fro between them glittering bunches of humming-birds, of inconceivable brilliancy of hue, darted in front of the white veil of falling water; so that it seemed as if some ambushed genii among the flowers on either bank were pelting one another with handfuls of blazing rubies, emeralds, amethysts, opals, and diamonds!
Many of these exquisite winged jewels, especially those with a dazzling topaz lustre on their breasts, came and hovered near me; and I noticed that each had upon its slender bill, or among its delicate head-feathers, a curious white speck or projection, like a fragment of spray from the fall. So entranced was I at the marvellous, fairyland vision before me, that I paid but little attention to this curious fact, and, indeed, the bewildering and incredible loveliness of my surroundings made me lose all count of time as completely as if I had been bemused by hashish.
At length when I approached the shore on the right-hand side of the stream in order to carry my canoe above the waterfall, I was surprised to observe a narrow white pathway in the forest, which came right down to the water's edge. This, together with the surrounding foliage, seemed at first to be thronged with small ants, yet as soon as the prow of the piragua grounded, every insect disappeared as if by magic.
I hauled the canoe ashore, and, carrying my gun and other baggage, I strolled up the mysterious path (which was about two feet wide) to see if it led to the stream above the fall. It seemed to be paved with firm white cement, almost as hard as porcelain, and was as smooth and level as a cycle track.
Suddenly, from the forest recesses round about me, there burst forth a chorus of bird-music which made me look at my watch; for I had learned by experience that this was Nature's vesper-song, indicating the near approach of sunset. I had! not recovered from my surprise at the lateness of the hour when the light began to fade, and I knew that in ten minutes darkness would be upon me.
At the moment I had just reached a small opening in the forest, where the white cemented path widened out into a kind of paved circular space about twenty feet in diameter, surrounded by smooth tree-trunks and densely-tangled foliage. This dry and open spot struck me as a convenient camping-place, so I leaned my gun against a tree, unslung my other burdens, and placed them upon the ground.
Just as I did so, a beetle of the longicorn variety, about the size of a common cockroach but of a blood-red colour, darted from a recess among the roots of the tree against which I had leaned my gun, and ran past me across the white open space with astonishing speed. In a trice I snatched up my butterfly-net, for I saw that this beetle was something quite new to science, more especially as its long, reversed antennae, where they met over its back, seemed joined by a white nodular projection. Although I got my net over it more than once, it succeeded in making its escape into the bushes, owing to its marvellous agility.
After the beetle had disappeared, however, I noticed that the odd white excrescence which I had observed upon its back, between its reversed antennae, had become displaced, and was entangled in the green muslin of my net. On looking at this object more closely I was surprised to find that it was an extremely curious ant, quite different from anything I had ever seen before. Its body was white, and had a smooth glistening appearance almost exactly like the surface of a wax vesta, while its head was of a delicate pink, its antennae bright red, and its lustrous compound eyes of a rich violet or purple. This new and most interesting ant (which was evidently neither an eciton nor a saüba) was about nine millimetres long. It's thin white limbs were peculiarly delicate and fragile in appearance, and presented a marked contrast to those of the common ants of Brazil.
But by far the most extraordinary feature about it was its pink head, which, when compared with its body, appeared to be of enormous dimensions. The light was failing so rapidly that I could not make use of my Coddington lens; but I saw that the cephalic enlargement seemed to be chiefly, or wholly, due to an abnormal development of the anterior ganglion or brain, and not to a mere overgrowth of the mandibles, or of any part of the chitinous helmet, as is commonly the case when the head of an ant seems disproportionately large. Moreover, when I touched it, the skin of this strange, defenceless ant, instead of feeling hard and horn-like, seemed to be almost as soft as that of a human being.
Needless to say I handled so precious a specimen with extreme gentleness and care while I examined it. As it made no attempt to escape, I let it rest upon my open palm, and, so far from appearing terrified at its position, it turned its velvet-like compound eyes towards my face, and seemed to take stock of me in a calm and philosophical manner which was not a little diverting.
I now noticed that one of its antennae, which appeared to have been injured at some time, was cocked upwards and backwards, so that it bore a resemblance to a red feather in a cap. This gave the insect's countenance (and when I use the word "countenance" I speak advisedly, for its front aspect had something the appearance of a human face with a bulging overgrown forehead) a peculiarly waggish yet Mephistophelean look, which, especially when the little creature seemed to nod its head knowingly in response to a like movement on my part, was extremely comical.
Every moment the gloomy shadows around me were growing deeper, and fearing lest my valuable specimen might escape, in spite of its deficient powers of locomotion, I placed it, together with a fresh green leaf, in a ventilated celluloid box with a glass cover. This I enclosed in my aluminium botanical case, taking care that the metal catch was securely fastened.
It had now become almost dark, and I was extremely tired after my exertions in ascending the stream; so, after a hasty supper of biscuits, washed down by a draught of whisky-and-water from my flask, I stretched my mosquito-tent over its collapsible bamboo framework and crept into it. After striking a light and finding every opening secure, I wrapped my waterproof blanket around me, pillowed my head upon my knapsack, and was soon fast asleep.
IN spite of the strangeness of my position I slept soundly for several hours, and dreamed that I was delivering my inaugural speech before the British Association at Glasgow. This speech, I may remark, had been occupying my thoughts a good deal during my journey, and I had not only noted down many telling phrases which had occurred to me from time to time, but had already learned by heart an elaborate and impressive peroration.
In my dream I thought I was about to utter this crowning part of my Presidential Address, when a certain rival entomologist—who shall be nameless—maliciously changed himself into a red howler-monkey, and set up a series of such hideous and deafening yells that, although I raised my voice to its very highest pitch, no one paid the least heed to what I was saying.
Aroused by this distressing nightmare, I shifted my position somewhat, noticing as I did so that the forest glade was full of brilliant fireflies, and that a continual stream of these tiny lantern-bearers seemed circling round and round me, so as to form a kind of halo above the spot where I lay. Oddly enough, this fact brought comfort to my dream-lacerated feelings (it must be remembered that I was but half awake), and, after watching the mazy curves of light for a short time, I again slept soundly.
When I reawoke my feet felt uncomfortably cold, and on tossing aside my waterproof blanket I found to my surprise that they were naked, although I had lain down in my stout shooting boots and a pair of coarse woollen stockings. Everything near me was drenched with dew, and a tropic morning mist, which clung closely to the ground and bushes, obscured all surrounding objects. As I disengaged myself from the mosquito-curtain, which had somehow become a good deal torn and damaged during the night, the first ray of sunshine gleamed down the forest path by which I had entered the clearing.
I now noticed that around my bare feet were a number of very large ants, which were marching to and fro like soldiers on guard. They were bluish-grey in colour, and nearly an inch long, and their enormous jaws, which were shaped like a pair of pincers, looked so formidable that I involuntarily drew up my naked feet. It now became evident that my boots had been totally destroyed during the night, for upon the white ground just beyond my feet were a few shreds of tough sole-leather and a litter of brass eyelet-holes and rusty iron nails.
While I puzzled over this unpleasant fact, the ground-mist grew rapidly thinner under the influence of the warm tropic sunlight, and I suddenly became aware that, with the exception of a clear space on either side of me, the whole arena was thronged with innumerable ants. Unlike the one I had captured, they were mostly dark brown in colour, and extremely active. All of them seemed hurrying to and fro as if engaged in some important business. Fearing lest I had fallen among a marauding army of large ecitons which might prove as dangerous as the terrible "Black Leopard" driver-ants which I had encountered in Central Africa, I determined to make a hasty retreat to my canoe. But, on glancing round at my belongings, which of course I did not wish to leave behind me, I found that the warrior-ants, which I could now see were gigantic representatives of a species all the members of which possess most formidable stings, had drawn closer to my bare feet, and were standing on the alert with their pincers open in a threatening manner. This made me pause, and while I was looking about me, and reckoning my chances of reaching the canoe without getting seriously injured, I noticed a kind of open lane among the busy multitudes of workers.
Along this opening there came a procession of such an extraordinary kind that I thought I must again be dreaming, for it was made up of active longicorn beetles, similar in many respects to the one I had seen the night before, each of which carried upon its back a tallow-coloured ant with a large pink head, purple eyes, and bright scarlet antennae!
As this long procession drew near I saw that it had emerged from another white pathway in the forest, nearly at right angles to that by which I had entered the open circle.
I now observed that a tiny rampart, about an inch high, and made of some white earthy substance, had been built completely round me, and that the crowds of dark-coloured ants—which seemed to be composed of three or four quite distinct species—were bringing materials to add to its height.
The cavalier-ants (for so henceforth I will call them) rode over this rampart without difficulty, and formed up in a circle just inside; so that I found myself enveloped by a large squadron of these extraordinary, beetle-riding creatures. The ant which had headed the procession now advanced to the guards about my feet as if to confer with them, and, on observing it closely, I saw that one of its conspicuous red antennae was tilted backwards over its head. This made me glance at my aluminium botanical case, where I had bestowed the specimen I had captured the night before. Surely enough, in spite of its secure metal catch, the case was wide open, as also was my celluloid collecting-box.
"Surely," thought I, tugging desperately at my dishevelled forelock, "I must still be asleep and dreaming!"
And indeed, to tell the truth, from that day up to the present moment I have again and again had doubts as to whether my incredible experiences in the tropics were actual, or merely part of some feverish and interminable dream.
I have, I believe, a fair amount of courage; but there was something so strange and disquieting in the methodical tactics of these ants, that I abandoned all thoughts of trying to save my goods, and prepared to make a dash for the river (which was not more than forty yards off), hoping that I might clear the cordon of warriors before they could do me harm.
Vain hope! I had barely braced my muscles to spring up and run for it, when the soldier-ants, all acting together as if by word of command, dug their pincers into my unprotected feet and humped their slate-coloured backs as if about to sting. Involuntarily I leaped up, but only to fall back again, writhing and sick with unspeakable agony—agony I can compare with nothing except the fearful and paralysing throes of angina pectoris. Although the worst of the pain soon passed off, all my strength and resolution seemed to have ebbed away as utterly as if I had received some mortal wound.
As I lay still, faint and sweating, with my eyes closed, I felt something soft and tremulous gripping my right fore-finger, and, on glancing up, I looked into the round frightened eyes of a small and very lean monkey.
As far as I could tell it was a "brown capuchin" monkey, a kind very commonly seen in Europe. This creature and I seemed to be alone within the tiny rampart, for, to my unspeakable relief, both the warrior-ants and the troop of beetle-riders appeared to have withdrawn. A pink-and-white speck on the little capuchin's furry "hood," close to where it joined the wrinkled face, now attracted my attention. It was a cavalier-ant. Could it be that this monkey was being ridden, and directed, by one of these marvellous creatures?
He went on tugging nervously at my finger, making a plaintive chirruping noise meanwhile, and every now and then he glanced backwards towards the forest path by which the mounted procession had come. After doing this for several minutes he left me, and ran a little way towards this path, glancing back at me over his shoulder, then returned, and pulled impatiently at the edge of my coat.
As I watched him it became more and more plain that his movements were to a great extent regulated by the tiny ant upon his head; for whenever he turned this insect seemed to sway sideways and tug at the hair, exactly as a stage-driver braces himself when turning an unruly team.
By-and-by, just as it dawned upon me that I was expected to follow the monkey, the little meagre beast gave a kind of chattering screech, and scampered off a few paces, as if in mortal fear of some object behind me. Although evidently wishing to run away, he suddenly stopped, exactly as a shying horse stops when controlled by a strong-armed rider.
On following the monkey's terrified gaze, I saw that the dreadful soldier-ants had again crossed the rampart from the rear, and were coming slowly towards me with open jaws. As I rose hastily to my feet, the little capuchin jumped towards me once more, and gave a frantic tug at my trousers. Casting a nervous glance at my enemies, I started to follow him without more ado, and was greatly relieved to find that I could walk. No sooner had I moved forward than a wide lane opened among the throng of working-ants, while the squadron of beetle-riders, advancing with extraordinary swiftness, again surrounded me, this time acting as an escort.
One last thought of escape Hashed through my mind as soon as I discovered that my most formidable enemies were no longer close to my heels. But no sooner had I turned my head towards the river path than a large blue dragonfly, which must have been nearly six inches long, swooped downwards from somewhere above, and hovered so near my face as to touch me with its vibrating, iridescent wings. I started with mingled surprise and terror. Seated just behind its head was a pink-and-white cavalier, while on the blue metallic scales of its body three enormous soldier-ants stood in a row, and reached towards me with their pincer-like mandibles.
It was enough! I followed the little monkey submissively along the narrow white path through the forest!
After we had proceeded some fifty yards, we came to an open clearing, which must have been about an acre in extent. It was dotted all over with small white domes about the size of a water-melon, which I afterwards found were the nests of the cavaliers, and certain of their numerous insect servants. These nests were connected by a network of white cemented paths, between which were dense patches of food-bearing grass (which I afterwards found to be a kind of "ant-rice") about as high as my knees. In the centre of the clearing was a small grove, or orchard, of banana-trees, and when my guide had led me through this, I found on the other side of it what looked like half-a-dozen round white hillocks, but which turned out to be huts built of fine cement. The largest of these was about six feet six inches in height, and the smallest about a yard. The ground about this group of huts was paved like the paths, and quite level, the whole being encircled by a raised edging or rampart about three inches high.
My guide stopped close to the largest hut, which had a round hole in the side just large enough for a man to creep through. After standing upright for an instant before this opening, he bobbed down and ran in on all-fours, glancing back at me as he did so, as if to give me a hint to follow his example. While I stood hesitating, the dragonfly, with its accursed crew, darted round behind me, and I suddenly felt a bump and a buzz against the back of my neck. With a shudder—and almost a shriek—I dropped down upon my hands and knees, and shuffled through the opening.
As soon as I was inside, and had turned round to make sure that none of the terrible warriors had entered with me, I beheld the little white cavaliers, which were drawn up in a semicircle round the doorway, dismount from their beetles, and advance almost to the entrance of the hut. Here they broke up into groups, and behaved in a manner which irresistibly reminded me of human beings discussing some exciting topic. They waved their antennae at one another, every now and then pointing them towards the hut as if exchanging ideas about my appearance, and the exciting circumstances of my capture.
On the arrival of another body of cavalier-ants, the first comers seemed eager to tell them the news; and my little cock-horned ex-captive, who apparently was playing the part of chief showman, repeatedly led parties of newcomers to the doorway of the hut, and apparently gave them much instructive and amusing information.
One frequent and very odd manoeuvre puzzled me at first a good deal. I noticed, every now and then, that two or three cavaliers, while engaged in animated converse, would suddenly depress their red antennae, hoist their white hindquarters into the air, and flourish their posterior pair of legs in an excited and highly ridiculous fashion. After watching this curious proceeding repeatedly, I arrived at the remarkable conclusion that it amounted to "ant laughter," or, at any rate, was the cavalier-ants' way of expressing applause, or extreme interest, at what they learned.
If this interpretation be correct, my late captive—and, alas! I must add, my future taskmaster—was undoubtedly something of a wag; for no sooner did ho jerk his unmutilated antenna towards me, and begin to "talk," than his hearers, with one consent, would all lower their pink heads to the ground, lift their tallowy latter ends on high, and kick convulsively for several seconds.
THIS must have gone on for an hour or more, and as fresh mounted ants were continually arriving, a great crowd of them had meanwhile assembled in front of the hut. By-and-by the monkey, apparently prompted by his rider, who still maintained its seat upon his head, crept out of the doorway. I was about to follow him, when he turned, as if to push me back, and at the same moment the dragonfly darted down and effectually barred my egress.
Shortly afterwards the monkey returned with a couple of ripe bananas, which ho placed before me on the clean floor of the hut. Feeling very hungry, I at once began to strip one of the bananas, and this act evidently caused great excitement among the crowd of lookers-on. All their scarlet antennae became motionless, and every pair of purple compound eyes was turned intently towards me. When I devoured the first banana in a couple of bites, there seemed to be a kind of thrill of suppressed excitement among the crowd of spectators, and then every pink head was lowered to the ground, and the whole throng became a mass of pallid abdomens and furiously gesticulating legs.
I had just eaten my second banana when I was startled by a muffled, growling sound, which appeared to come from just behind the hut. Shortly afterwards a huge male jaguar passed across the paved surface in front of me, and disappeared down one of the narrow paths leading into the forest. None of the white ants took any notice of him; but I could distinctly see a blue soldier-bearing dragonfly hovering above his head. Could it be that a large and formidable beast of prey such as this was kept in captivity by these extraordinary insects? The capuchin monkey did not seem very much upset by the sight of his hereditary foe, although he was evidently somewhat relieved when the jaguar was gone.
The bananas had only served to awaken my hunger, and I was wondering whether I should be obliged to subsist on such unsatisfying fare, when I saw a long procession of large brown worker-ants swarming over the three-inch rampart. As they came near I noticed that each ant was carrying something in its jaws. The little monkey, again acting as if under direction, ran to one of the neighbouring banana-trees, and tore off a fragment of a leaf about as large as a sheet of foolscap paper. This he placed upon the floor of the hut, just as the leaders of the new procession arrived. During the next ten minutes a continual stream of brown worker-ants (which seemed to belong to several common South American species) entered the hut and deposited their burdens upon the banana-leaf, until the heap must have contained a pound or more of buff-coloured granules, which had very much the appearance of coarse farina made from the root of the manioc I wondered what this could all mean, and sat staring at the pile upon the leaf for some time after the last of the burden-bearers had departed. Apparently the cavaliers were watching me with close attention, as if questioning what I would do next. At length, again following the example of the little monkey, I took up some of the granules in my hand and tasted them.
What this stuff was I have not the least idea; but I found it not only exceedingly palatable, but very sustaining. The granules were somewhat soft, and of a sweet nutty flavour, which nevertheless reminded me somewhat of truffles. I found that, when I squeezed a handful of them together, they cohered into a mass, or cake, which was much more convenient to eat without any implements than the separate grains. In a short time I had finished the whole supply, and also another banana which was brought me by the little capuchin. By the time my hunger was appeased by the novel and excellent food which I had eaten, the feeling of faintness which I had experienced ever since I had been stung by the soldier-ants had disappeared entirely.
While marvelling at the extraordinary intelligence of the cavalier-ants, which apparently possessed a fair knowledge both as to the quality and the amount of nourishment required by a human being, I began to regard my captivity almost as a joke. I had then not the least doubt that, ere long, I should find some way of outwitting my custodians and of escaping to my canoe.
After seeing me fed, and apparently manifesting no little interest and amusement at the sight, the crowd of beetle-riders dispersed. I noticed, however, that a strong guard of soldier-ants was parading the top of the rampart, and once, when I attempted to put my head out of the doorway, I found the dragonfly still on guard. My small tutor nestled down against me and went to sleep, and I now noticed that the cavalier-ant no longer occupied its place upon his head.
After being thus left alone for about a couple of hours, a mounted troop, headed by my cock-horned acquaintance, again drew up before the hut The little ape at once went to the doorway and crouched down, as if making obeisance to its masters, and at the same instant a tiny humming-bird, which seemed to carry two or three cavaliers perched Upon its topaz-coloured crest, darted down and settled for a moment on the capuchin's head. As the bird flew off again I noticed that a pink-and-white ant had again taken its position among the hair just above the monkey's forehead.
The little creature now seized my finger again, as if to drag me out of the hut, and this time, having learned that such hints were best obeyed promptly, I followed without demur. The cavaliers rode around me as before on their swiftly-running beetles, and that accursed dragonfly again hovered menacingly just over my head. As we were entering a narrow pathway between two dense walls of vegetation, I was appalled to see a huge jaguar advancing towards me along this very track. Being quite defenceless, my first instinct was to run away; but I had scarcely faced about when the dragonfly came buzzing against my nose, so that I distinctly felt the points of one of the soldiers' long mandibles.
It will convey some idea as to the unreasoning terror inspired by an attack of these fearful insects when I say that I spun round and faced the jaguar again without an instant's hesitation!
The little monkey had drawn himself close to the edge of the path, but I could see that he was trembling in every limb. The jaguar came to a standstill about six feet from me, then crouched down and snarled. I could easily have blown his brains out, if I had had my "paradox" gun; but, alas! it stood some sixty yards off in the forest. At this moment I felt something nipping my right heel, and on glancing downwards I was startled to find a score or so of soldier-ants close behind me and advancing in a threatening manner. Forgetful of all else, I took a spring into the air, and tumbled right upon the top of the jaguar!
What happened during the next few seconds I could hardly tell. The brute uttered a series of the most awful roars and yells, and I was aware of being rolled about like a football and of receiving a number of cuffs and scratches on various parts of my body. Fortunately the scuffle ended as quickly as it began, and I got up, greatly relieved at finding that I had not been seriously injured. On glancing around I saw the jaguar's tail vanishing into one of the smaller huts, while, for some reason or other, my escort of cavaliers were all tumbling pell-mell off their beetles and standing head-downwards upon the path, while their white hinder extremities, which were hoisted on high, appeared seized with uncontrollable agitation.
After recovering from this strange epileptic seizure, the cavalier-ants remounted, and the poor little monkey, which seemed almost as much shaken as I was by the encounter, again started on in front.
By-and-by we came to a cultivated patch of ground where, apparently, the "ant-rice" had recently been cleared away. Half the little rectangular field—which was about forty feet across—had the appearance of having been roughly ploughed up. My attention was now drawn to a number of objects moving slowly across this piece of ground, and I soon saw that they were armadillos. There were six of them, and they seemed to be advancing in line, diligently scratching up the soil with their powerful digging-claws. Just above them hovered several large dragonflies, each of which apparently carried a cavalier-ant and several armed warriors. No sooner had we reached the scene of operations than the little monkey snatched up a stick, went behind the armadillos, and began to act as if he were digging the ground. Another heavy stick, which appeared to have been gnawed to a sharp point by the chisel-like teeth of a porcupine, coypu, or some other large rodent animal, lay just in front of me, and, as the dragonfly seemed becoming rather demonstrative, I lost no time in following the monkey's lead.
I soon saw that the little ape only made a mere pretence of working; and, as it was very hot, and I felt somewhat done up and languid after my recent trying experiences, I was tempted to follow his bad example, and take things easily. Our place, it appeared, was just behind the gang of armadillos, and it seemed to be expected of us that we should dig up the ground to a somewhat greater depth. After lazily prodding the soil for a few minutes, my small companion gave a sudden shriek of alarm, scampered back to the place where we had started work, and commenced digging the ground over again with desperate energy. I was wondering what had influenced him, when a topaz humming-bird came whirring towards us, bearing on its back my cock-horned ex-captive and a strong patrol of slate-coloured warriors. It settled on my head for an instant, and when it flew off again I saw that two at least of the big stinging ants had been left behind. My first instinct was to bring my hand to my head and endeavour to brush these horrible creatures away; but a slight admonitory nip made me pause in terror, and give up all thoughts of rebellion. Forthwith, with trembling knees, I joined my fellow-captive, and began to dig away at the ground with all my might.
It was, alas, abundantly plain that our new taskmaster would stand no shirking. He kept his aerial mount humming round our ears all the time, so we dug away as if for our lives, until all the earth scratched up by the armadillos was thoroughly turned over. Fortunately the soil was very light and loose, and the sky somewhat overcast, otherwise the fatigue of digging in such a climate would have nearly killed me.
When we had done, our strict overseer mercifully removed the guards from my head and went sailing away out of Bight; and my little companion, who seemed sadly exhausted and depressed, led me to a spring of clear water which broke out in the middle of the banana-grove. After drinking freely, and washing my face and hands, I felt somewhat better both in mind and body, and was able to eat another pile of the granular food, which I found awaiting me in my quarters.
During the remainder of the day, although not allowed to leave the hut, I was left to my own devices, and spent most of my time resting flat upon my back, trying to realise my strange position, and making many plans of escape. I could not help dwelling upon the caustic irony of fate in placing a man who had been acknowledged by the whole scientific world as the foremost living authority on ants, in such a position as that in which I now found myself.
It was plain that these marvellous cavaliers excelled all other insects in intelligence, to an even greater degree than man excels all his fellow-mammals. Apparently they had not only turned to their own use, and improved upon, practically all the special primitive instincts and habits of other ants, but had also greatly enhanced the more valuable qualities (from their own point of view) of most of their domesticated breeds. I bad seen amongst their crowds of slaves unusually huge and perfect specimens of nearly every species of ant in South America. Probably these useful varieties had been bred by the cavaliers for many generations, for all appeared to yield them instinctive obedience, and to require scarcely any supervision. The cavaliers had, moreover, succeeded in taming and breeding, for certain special purposes, many other insects, such as the fireflies, dragonflies, and swift, smooth-running beetles. In addition to this, they seemed to have a good understanding as to the kind of service which such diverse creatures as men, monkeys, rodents, armadillos, and humming-birds could render them. Why they kept such a useless beast as a jaguar in captivity was to me at that time a complete puzzle. I was inclined at first to think that they were prompted by scientific motives, or the mere vanity of possession; but afterwards I received ample proof that here, as in most other matters, they had a shrewd eye to business.
As was to be expected—seeing that the mental attributes of all insects must be more akin to their own than those of birds and mammals—they seemed to have obtained a much greater ascendancy over the former than over the latter. Most of their invertebrate servants appeared to do their bidding as a matter of course, without coercion or any special guidance; whereas I and other warm-blooded captives were always treated as stupid or untrustworthy creatures, which required to be strictly watched, restrained, and generally superintended.
At the approach of nightfall I made up my mind to make my escape in the darkness. But, just as the sun began to sink behind the Andes, a large luminous spider, which spun his web with astonishing rapidity, fixed a curtain over the entrance of my hut. On surveying this web carefully, I found that several threads from its outer side stretched upwards to a number of white nodular projections, about as big as a walnut, which I had already observed just above the doorway. Each of these I now found to my disgust to be a hollow guardroom, garrisoned by several big stinging ants, which would, of course, be able to drop down instantly upon any one disturbing the web.
On testing the walls of the hut elsewhere, I found them so firm and solid that there was not the least chance of my breaking through. I afterwards came to the conclusion that the white cement used for building and paving purposes was manufactured by captive hordes of termites which lived underground; but that the actual building operations were performed by true ant-slaves, similar to those I had seen at work in the forest. Be this as it may, both pavements and buildings were as hard as marble, with a fine porcelain-like surface.
I passed a restless night, brooding over my strange position. Although visited every half-hour or so by a night patrol of cavaliers, which, riding upon large fireflies, sailed in through a small opening in the spider's web and did their round with soldier-like precision, I was quite unmolested during the hours of darkness.
Moreover, although mosquitoes seemed both hungry and plentiful in this region, I was quite free from their attacks until the moment when I regained my liberty. This I believe to have been due to the presence of my spider concièrge or of the soldier-bearing dragonflies which were always hovering near my head in the day-time—it being a well-known fact in the tropics that all insects of the gnat tribe give these hereditary foes as wide a berth as possible.
IT would be a long and tedious narrative if I were to tell all the incidents of my captivity in detail, so, having described the events of the first day, I will henceforth record only some of my more noteworthy experiences among these extraordinary ants.
As a rule, my life was exceedingly monotonous. Every morning, after being fed, I was set to work at something where my height, strength, and power of using sticks and other tools proved valuable to the ant-community. After several days of digging in the ant-rice fields, I was employed in clearing out rotten leaf-mould from some cave-like underground chambers. These had. originally been filled by the saübas, or leaf-cutting ants, in the service of the cavaliers, and had evidently formed hotbeds for growing edible fungi.
On this occasion I managed to wound my right hand rather badly with a splinter, and was extremely apprehensive lest the cock-horned ant should think I was shirking, and have me severely punished. But, strange to relate, my master,—for so henceforth I must call him,—after examining my wound with a good deal of attention, had the splinter plucked out by a soldier-ant (whose forceps-like jaws seemed made on purpose), and then gave me an hour's holiday. Afterwards he was kind enough to find me a lighter job; and for the rest of that day I stood, with a cane in my left hand, as foreman over a strong excavating gang of armadillos.
Early during my second week, and before despair had completely robbed me of initiative, I thought I saw a chance of escape. I had noticed that, when the night-guard was set, and before the first round of the firefly-borne inspectors, some of the big stinging ants would swarm down upon the floor of the hut and clear up any remains of my supper. Although they usually came cautiously, and in detachments, they seemed to have such a weakness for the granular material upon which I was fed, that it occurred to me to turn the fact to my advantage. For if, during the night, I could once lure all of them from the doorway, I could make a dash for freedom before they could do me any hurt. After one or two vain attempts to entice them en masse from their post of duty, I remembered a time-honoured plan of corrupting military morals which has often proved effective in the hands of prisoners—and novelists.
I had carefully preserved the contents of my spirit-flask for special emergencies, and one moonless night I determined to see if I could make my guards drunk by saturating some of my granular food with whisky. The scheme succeeded to admiration. No sooner was it dark than a company of soldier-ants climbed down to the floor, and in less than five minutes they were all too tipsy to return. By-and-by the first detachment was followed by a second. These also, after showing some indignation at the disgraceful state of their comrades, sampled my "Ancient Scotch"—and fell likewise into a state of scandalous intoxication.
After making quite sure that there were none left guarding the doorway, I lost not a minute in plunging through the tough spider's web, and hurrying towards the river as fast as the darkness would allow.
I believe that all would have gone well if I had not met the firefly patrol just as I crossed the three-inch rampart, about ten yards from the hut. It consisted of about a dozen mounted cavaliers, six of which forthwith accompanied me in my flight, while the rest separated, and darted off hither and thither.
As I hurried along the narrow track the little illuminated riders kept up with me, three on each side of my face. Their vigilance and excitement made them sit up like jockeys, and as they sped along I thought I could see the hind-legs of each cavalier working furiously against its firefly's body, like the spurred heels of a horseman.
Alas! I had barely entered the bush on the farther side of the clearing when I heard some large creature rushing along an adjoining forest-path, and as I emerged into the open space where I was first captured, I found myself confronted by the jaguar!
Just then a brilliant firefly came whizzing down the dark narrow glade like a white-hot rifle-bullet, and directly I saw that it carried my redoubtable cock-horned master, I knew that the game was up. Instantly the jaguar, which previously had seemed to hesitate, sprang at me, knocked me down, and rolled me this way and that with his powerful paws. Then he suddenly drew back, like a sheep-dog which had been called off by the shepherd.
As soon as I had recovered my breath, I picked myself up and slunk back to my quarters, thoroughly cowed and submissive. The jaguar sniffed at my dilapidated trousers, and growled horribly all the way, and I knew full well that at any moment, if my custodian gave him the order, ho would, tear me to pieces.
I now no longer speculated why the cavalier-ants kept this enormous jaguar. His business, like that of a sheep-dog or cattle-dog, was to chase and punish any of his mammalian fellow-servants who attempted to break away.
It is needless to say that I felt miserably cast down at the result of this effort to regain my freedom.
Probably no mere verbal statement would bring home to my readers the disastrous moral consequences of my condition as a slave among the cavalier-ants.
After the startling novelty of my adventure had worn off, and I had endured several such defeats as the foregoing, my prevailing mental state was one of frantic and futile rage at finding all my human strength and intelligence, all my scientific knowledge and attainments, and all my experience of life generally, of absolutely no avail, either in helping me to escape, or in preventing my being treated by these imperious insects "as a horse or a mule which have no understanding."
In the same way, I suppose, a wild elephant finds his vast strength and natural wisdom, and all the wonderful fund of forest lore which ho has gathered during half a century, entirely valueless when he is caught and subjugated by men.
Ere long this state of bitter exasperation alternated with fits of lethargic despair, during which the grosser and more grovelling animal instincts seemed to ne supplanting all other springs of action. Latterly there were times when this shameful lapse into mere tame-animalism sent me forth to my labour like a working ox, prompted only by threats of near punishment or by the desire to fill my belly.
ON the morning following my failure to escape, I found a large assembly of cavaliers formed up in a semicircle in front of my dwelling. Inside this semicircle, and placed in a row close to the doorway, were the delinquent guards, still, seemingly, in a state of helpless intoxication. Shortly afterwards a procession of black working-ants, headed by an overgrown saüba with curiously distorted, scissor-like jaws, arrived upon the scene.
This insect, apparently after a brief interview with my master—who advanced without dismounting from his high-bred longicorn—ran to each of the prostrate criminals in turn and expeditiously nipped off all their heads. After the executioner had done his duty, some of the dingy worker-ants carried the carcasses away; and henceforth a double detachment of slate-coloured warriors (which I found to be absolutely incorruptible) occupied the guard-rooms at night. The only punishment I myself suffered was a temporary deprivation of my pleasant granular food. For three days I had to subsist upon bananas and about a quart of gritty millet-like seeds, which I found to be nothing like so nourishing as the mysterious provender which I have already described.
I may state here that whenever, in the opinion of my masters, I became obstreperous: this was the result, and latterly, strange to say, the fear of being deprived of my regular diet (of which I had become extremely fond) influenced my behaviour more than anything else.
The cavaliers, as is the way with most ruling castes, seemed to spend a good deal of time in recreation. In this, and in their evident possession of a sense of humour, and of well-developed powers of hearing (concerning which I shall have more to say presently), they differ widely from all other species of ants.
Some of my most humiliating experiences were traceable to these facts; for at times I was compelled to shout, sing, and to go through various absurd performances for their pleasure. While I was a comparative novelty the mere sight of me seemed to suffice. They would come and watch me in crowds, and, on the first occasion when I undressed in their presence, the act seemed to afford them a vast deal of amusement, which they manifested in the odd fashion I have already described. After this I frequently had to take off all my ragged clothes at the command of my master when he brought parties of friends to look at me.
An even more abasing experience awaited me somewhat later, when, having chanced to skip and jump about in a somewhat agile manner when my bare feet were threatened by the horrible stinging-ants, I was made to repeat the performance over and over again for the entertainment of the assembled cavaliers. In fact, these diabolical insects taught me to "dance" by almost precisely the same methods that civilised showmen resort to when training performing elephants.
At the end of the first month a great trouble befell me in the tragic death of my poor little fellow-slave and tutor. I fear that my capture by the cavalier-ants proved a sad misfortune to this frail and gentle monkey. He had, I think, been in captivity for a long time, for he understood the ways and wishes of his masters in a wonderful manner. This fact, and his apparent kinship with mankind, probably caused our masters to appoint him as my guide and exemplar (just as a young setter or sheep-dog is set to work with an old one which knows its business), and as the interpreter of their wishes to my crude untutored mind. Hence, unhappily, he was made to do regular work in the fields and elsewhere—which, as any one who understands ape-nature will know, was to him an absolutely intolerable burden. Recognising this, I did my best to spare him whenever possible, and I believe he repaid my good intentions with real gratitude and love.
One sultry morning, when I had a bad headache, I had great difficulty in understanding some new piece of work connected with the dam which the cavaliers had erected to enlarge a forest pool where they kept their tame coypus and oapybaras. After trying in many ways to bring the matter within the scope of my comprehension, my poor little schoolmaster seemed worried out of his wits; and at length, in a spasm of frantic rage at my thick-headedness, he flung himself down upon the ground, accidentally squashing the soft-bodied master-ant which was seated upon his head.
It so happened that a large crowd of cavaliers was present at the time, and the sensation caused by this unhappy accident was very great. Both I and the wretched little capuchin were marched forthwith back to our quarters, where we waited, in considerable trepidation, to learn what would happen next.
Half an hour later a great concourse of cavaliers and warriors lined the three-inch rampart, and, as soon as they were in their places, an armed dragonfly came buzzing into the hut, and drove the trembling monkey out into the open. Here, before my eyes, he was pounced upon and torn to pieces by the jaguar! This act of hateful injustice to my innocent friend and colleague so filled me with unthinking rage that I rushed out, all unarmed as I was, to take vengeance on the executioner. But I had scarcely taken three strides when several dragonflies with their armed riders dashed at me like hawks, and a second later I was writhing upon the ground in such unspeakable torment that I wished that the jaguar would kill me also!
Henceforth my position was worse than ever; and, owing to the depression I felt at the loss of my only friend and companion, the mental and moral degeneration which I have already spoken of proceeded more rapidly than before.
Next morning, when I received the signal to go forth to my work, a truculent drab soldier-ant, apparently of a different species from any that I had hitherto seen, was placed by my master just above my bald forehead, where he sat, throughout the day, like a mahout upon an elephant, and prodded me viciously with his mandibles when he considered that I was not doing my best.
I think that all of those who know my character will readily understand that I did not sink into a state of idiotic despair without a struggle to retain my manhood and my reason. When alone I would frequently talk to myself, and recite poetry, and even elementary school lessons which I had learned by rote (such as the Latin and Greek declensions and the Multiplication Table), for the sake of reminding myself that I had once been a civilised human being. At times, when brought very low, I would raise my voice and shout as loudly as possible, in order to create a greater impression upon my failing intellect.
On one occasion when I felt very Rick and feeble, after three days of punishment diet for insubordination, and almost demented through being unmercifully harassed and bullied by my master, who kept repeating some order which I could not in the least comprehend, I managed to pull myself to the hut-door in sheer desperation, and began bawling my own name at the very top of my voice—adding to it the whole string of degrees and honourable titles which have been conferred upon me by learned bodies all over the civilised world.
This recital, I was astonished to observe, seemed to make quite a sensation among the cavalier-ants, who immediately assembled in great crowds in front of my dwelling, and not only gave me a command to repeat the whole programme, but greeted my most strenuous vocal efforts with epileptic spasms of applause.
I was immediately rewarded by being allowed to sup upon my favourite provender: but, alas! I found that I had established a precedent; and henceforth, if I failed to shout or sing very loudly for some ten minutes after being brought in from the fields, I got nothing but a few handfuls of gritty millet which I could scarcely swallow.
Before long, however, this form of entertainment seemed to pall upon the cavaliers, who, I found, were exceedingly fickle; and I am ashamed to confess that I could not help feeling some chagrin at the waning of my popularity.
ON the whole, my physical health remained fairly good, and indeed seemed to improve somewhat as my mind became more clouded; otherwise I could not possibly have stood the heavy work which I was made to do in the fields and the forest. One saving circumstance was that the extreme dampness of this region shortened my hours of labour. It rained nearly every other day, and my masters had a strong objection to being out in the wet. They seemed to know instinctively when rain was coming, and would then hurry me back to my quarters at once, while they themselves took refuge in their little dome-like palaces.
Before I sank into a state of complete mental inertia, I felt a strong wish to investigate the internal economy of these "nests." This desire, however, was not gratified until I had practically ceased to take an intelligent interest in my surroundings. One morning, after a hurricane had torn through the neighbouring forest, I was led forth to repair damages, and found that a large branch of a tree had knocked away one side of the round, porcelain mansion inhabited by my cock-horned chief.
I could see that the interior was made up of a bewildering labyrinth of chambers, with pearly semi-transparent walls; but otherwise I did not add to my knowledge of my master's domestic economy.
Although I have fallen into the habit of using the masculine gender when speaking of the ant whose special property I seemed to be—chiefly because there was something essentially virile and masterful in the character of this extraordinary insect—I have no reason for believing that all the cavaliers which I saw were not true amazons, as is the case with the active members of other ant communities.
During the last fortnight of my captivity my state of mental hebetude several times gave place to a kind of mild delirium, although I was not conscious of any fever. At such times I would sometimes imagine myself back at Oxford, and would commence discoursing on scientific subjects, under the momentary impression that I was lecturing to my class.
While moping stupidly in my hut one brilliant sunny afternoon after returning from labour, I was surprised to see a considerable number of mounted cavaliers advancing towards me. In their midst was some strange object which I could not at first make out, but which, when the procession drew near, I found to be a small and active rattlesnake, bearing upon its back a score or so of white-bodied ants somewhat different from any that I had seen before.
Although similar in many respects to the cavaliers, these insects evidently belonged to a distinct species or variety, for their enormous, bulging heads were tinted light blue; while their antennae were, for the most part, of a brilliant ultramarine. I soon noticed also that they differed considerably from the cavaliers in manner, being much more restless and excitable. When about two feet from my hut door the whole concourse dismounted; and when the visitors had to some extent satisfied their curiosity as to my appearance, my master, who seemed to be engaged in an animated discussion with one of the visitors (which chanced to have its antennae tinted respectively of an Oxford and Cambridge blue) gave me an order to sing.
By this time I readily understood such commands as this, and had learned by painful experiences that no excuse would be accepted. I therefore without delay put my head out of the opening and shouted "Rule Britannia" at the very top of my voice. I began almost as mechanically as a phonograph, but when I came to the words "Britons never, never, never shall be slaves!" I suddenly realised my position, faltered, and broke down.
Upon this my master and his cavalier friends seemed greatly disconcerted, while the blue-headed strangers were so overcome with derisive "laughter" that they all turned head-over-heels and lay kicking helplessly upon their backs.
After a while the discussion was renewed between my master and the ant with Oxford-and-Cambridge antennae; and, while watching them, I felt a sudden conviction that these ill-bred snake-riding ants had come to buy me from the cavaliers. In spite of the misery of my position, I dreaded being handed over to such unprepossessing insects; for, to tell the truth, I had formed a very low opinion of their character. They had nothing of the suavity and ease of manner which distinguished the cavaliers, but rather put me in mind of a lot of vulgar, pushing commercials out for a holiday.
By-and-by the two parties seemed to arrive at some agreement, for the cavaliers remounted their swift beetles and escorted their blue-headed visitors (which, when scrambling on to their loathsome conveyance, strongly resembled a gang of rowdy trippers boarding an excursion train) along one of the paths leading into the forest.
NEXT morning, at daybreak, I found the whole settlement astir, and that a general migration of the cavaliers seemed to be taking place towards the river. After receiving an unusually liberal breakfast I was placed in charge of my drab mahout and taken towards the forest arena where all my troubles began. My master, who hovered round me on an exquisite white humming-bird—which he only rode on state occasions—seemed to be looking me over with a critical eye, and he more than once gave my rider a hint to make me pull myself together, hold up my head, and step out more briskly.
This, perhaps, should have confirmed my previous suspicions that I was being driven to market; but, curiously enough, it had a very different effect upon my mind.
I have already said that I had recently been subject to attacks of mild delirium, during which I quite forgot my present lamentable circumstances, and thought myself back in the post of honour which I had occupied at home. As I strode along the narrow forest pathway, with my shoulders squared and my chin well up, it suddenly seemed to me that I was passing amid a crowd of admiring people at Glasgow while making a dignified approach towards the Presidential Chair. Automatically I began, below my breath, to rehearse parts of the speech which I had prepared for that great occasion.
As soon as I entered the open space, however, the startling novelty of the scene before me brought my mind back from its wanderings. The little arena was thronged with innumerable cavaliers, who not only occupied the high, terraced rampart, which had been erected all around the paved clearing like the tiers of an amphitheatre, but crowded every point of vantage among the leafy walls above. In fact, only the smooth, columnar tree-trunks winch encircled the open space, and a few of the larger branches overhead, were left unoccupied. All else was tinted pink and white by the enormous throng of cavaliers, so that the foliage looked like an apple orchard in full blossom.
I had scarcely taken my appointed place in the centre of the ring when a procession appeared through one of the narrow glades in the forest which surpassed anything I had seen before.
A score or more of huge serpents, most of them pythons or anacondas over twenty feet long, came sliding, two or three abreast, into the opening, like trains entering some great London terminus. Their backs were blue and white with dense crowds of demonstrative (I had almost said "noisy") snake-riders, and these enormous cargoes of excursionists were followed by numerous smaller parties, mounted on rattlesnakes, coral-snakes, whip-snakes, and nearly every kind of serpent represented in South America.
For a while I seemed to be standing on a small island surrounded by a writhing sea of snakes; yet, knowing well that the whole business was being arranged by my potent masters, I felt scarcely any alarm, but found myself vaguely wondering where room was to be found for this vast influx of visitors; for the open-air theatre seemed crowded to its fullest capacity.
The two leading boa-constrictors wriggled straight to the nearest tree and coiled themselves spirally around it, one above the other, thus making, as it were, a number of galleries for about ten feet up the trunk. Most of the other large pythons followed their example, while all the smaller serpents swarmed up the trees and creepers surrounding the open space, and in a few minutes were arranged in a series of marvellous hanging bridges—all densely crowded with spectators—which completely festooned the forest walls.
I was so much taken up with watching this astounding spectacle that I did not notice certain tamed animals which the snake-riding ante had brought with them until I smelt a most unpleasant smell, and suddenly discovered, close to my side, a gaunt and very large howler-monkey. This least seemed quite undisturbed by my presence, and was sitting at its ease upon the white ground scratching its mangy, rufous flanks in an extremely diligent manner.
I found also that the cavaliers had just brought into the arena two of their best working teams of armadillos; while, sprawling on the ground close beside them, was a miserable three-toed sloth, which had lost half its hair and appeared to be in the last stages of consumption.
Almost before the newcomers were settled in their places I was made to stand on one side, while the armadillos and the sloth, after being placed in the middle of the ring, were carefully inspected by my cock-horned chief and his Oxford-and-Cambridge visitor. It was fairly plain that certain negotiations were in progress, but I could scarcely believe that my masters would be so silly as to swap both their best teams of trained and well-fed armadillos for a moribund, three-toed sloth.
Apparently, however, in commercial matters the cavaliers were no match for the bustling blue-heads; for shortly afterwards the whole herd of armadillos was driven off in the direction from whence the visitors had come, while the wretched sloth, attended by an armed dragonfly, crawled away, slowly and painfully, towards the cavalier settlement.
On glancing around I noticed that the majority of the ants, which had hitherto shown but little interest in what was going on in the arena, seemed settling down in their places, like a music-hall audience on the announcement of some popular "turn."
I was now led to the centre again, and made to go down on my hands and knees cheek by jowl with the evil-smelling howler, which was about as large as a collie dog. It seemed as if I were about to be bartered away like the armadillos, and the fears which I had felt during the first visit of the snake-riders were now greatly increased, for the starved and neglected condition of their wretched "pets" showed only too plainly that they were far worse masters than cavaliers. Yet, in spite of the incident which I had just witnessed, I still had some hope that the obvious difference in exchange-value between myself and a sullen and mangy red howler would prove a bar to any such transaction. In this the event showed that I was woefully out of my reckoning, and that in my estimate of my own intrinsic worth I was altogether at sea.
Shortly after my mahout had made me go down on all-fours, side by side with the disgusting monkey, a fresh wave of delirium must have swamped my mind; for I remember declaring this attitude to be an altogether unprecedented one for the delivery of a Presidential Address!
I was partially aroused by a small dragonfly buzzing against my lips—which was the recognised signal when my master desired me to shout or sing. Still prompted by the insane fancy that I was facing a scientific audience, I at once commenced to recite my carefully prepared oration; and, at the same moment, the brute of a monkey began howling like a whole menagerie of jackals.
It seemed for a while that the hideous nightmare fancy, already spoken of, had become true in fact. In my present waking delirium I thought I was indeed addressing the British Association at Glasgow, and that my most prominent scientific rival was attempting to howl me down.
Those who have been partially under the influence of intoxicating drugs will know that for some time after most of the faculties are overcome, and are wandering in the maddest mazes, there still seems to remain one critical atom of sanity in the innermost mental chamber which is perfectly aware of the real state of the case. In like manner, I knew—in a sense—where I was; and what (Heaven help me!) I was doing.
Moreover, an electric flash of recollection told me that this was the very day when, had I been able to return, I should be in reality delivering my Presidential Address to the British Association at Glasgow! Yet so transitory was this lucid interval, that I did not cease raising my voice more and more, in order to make my peroration heard above a hideous crescendo of yelps from the obscene beast.
But, alas! the vocal apparatus of a big howler monkey enables him to defy competition from any living thing! My chances could scarcely have been worse if I had backed myself in a roaring match against the eternal thunders of Niagara!
Suddenly my voice cracked under the intolerable strain. I instantly recovered my sober senses, and came to a full stop; while the monkey's triumphant howls rose louder and louder, to a stupendous and deafening finale.
At this the cavaliers seemed to be in a state of the utmost consternation (I am inclined to think that there were some heavy bets on the result), while all the blue-heads gave way to unseemly somersaults of laughter. It was only too plain that their scraggy and abominable ape—which had again seated himself upon the ground, and was engaged in strenuous entomological researches among his frowzy red hair—was acknowledged my victor in the contest.
Although sick with shame and fury, I had a momentary feeling of relief at the thought that these keen low-bred snake-riders would now refuse to trade.
But I had soon a new and graver cause for apprehension. My master, whose quivering antennae told of intense irritation and chagrin, suddenly dashed off on his white humming-bird towards the cavaliers' clearing. For a few minutes both I and the vast concourse of spectators waited in suspense; then a sudden "sensation" quivered through the whole assembly. He had been to fetch the jaguar!
On emerging from the forest-path this hideous brute stopped, and stood blinking and licking his jaws on the farther side of the opening. In the meantime an eager debate seemed to have been started among one section of the cavaliers, and several deputations advanced to interview my master.
It seemed to me that a large number of them were pleading for my life; and I noticed that many of these kept pointing their scarlet antennae towards the path leading to the river.
The jaguar began switching his barred tail to and fro against his hollow flanks, and growled more and more impatiently during the debate, while my master flew round from tier to tier on the rampart, and from gallery to gallery among the trees, as if taking the sense of the meeting. I believe that all the brutal snake-riders without exception urged him to let me be killed, but happily he seemed to treat their demonstrations with aristocratic contempt.
By-and-by, during an animated conference with several of the leading cavaliers, he evidently made some amusing proposal which was hailed with general approbation. Soon afterwards my mahout guided me to the very tree against which I had leaned my gun when I camped in this fatal spot. The ant-carrying snakes which encircled this tree hissed horribly as I drew near, but unwound themselves and moved away at my master's special request. I then saw that my double-barrelled "paradox" gun was still where I had placed it, although red with rust and almost hidden by a creeper. My mahout gave me a signal to bend forward, so I seized hold of the muzzle and managed to drag it forth, recollecting as I did so that on landing I had loaded both barrels with some waterproof ball-cartridges which I had had specially prepared before visiting this humid region.
Fortunately the locks, which had been well soused with hot petroleum and wrapped in a greasy cloth, were less corroded than the barrels.
While I was examining the gun my master's white humming-bird settled for a moment upon my forehead, and then hovered in front of my eyes, showing me that my mahout had been taken away. On glancing towards the river, I found that the line of guards had disappeared, and that the path was as clear as when I had first traversal it.
Scarcely had I noted these facts when the jaguar ceased growling and twitching his tail, and came creeping upon his belly across the clearing, with his eyes aflame with the lust for blood.
In another instant I had raised the gun and pulled both triggers. A stunning explosion knocked me backwards against the tree, and a blinding flame leaped right into my face. The choked left barrel had burst just beyond my fingers; but, in spite of all, one bullet had flown true! The jaguar was writhing on his back in the middle of the arena, and besmearing the white porcelain-like pavement with brains and blood from his shattered skull!
For some minutes I stood rooted to the spot, with no more power to plan or move than the forest trees about me; and I think that the sight I then saw impressed me more than anything else during my living nightmare in the forest. In spite of the terrific flash and detonation, and the death-struggles of the enormous jaguar in their very midst, the valiant cavaliers were all standing upon their heads in convulsions of laughter at the episode!
When their spasms had partially subsided, the spell which held me motionless was broken by the sight of a dozen huge soldier-ants, which came charging towards my naked feet from beyond where the jaguar was lying.
Without another thought I wheeled round and bolted down the path like a rabbit.
My little dug-out piragua still lay, tight and uninjured, upon the white pathway just above the pool. As I launched it, and pushed off, a white humming-bird suddenly poised itself in front of my face; and alone upon its snowy crest sat my tiny pink-headed master. This marvellous insect seemed to look me straight in the eyes for a few seconds, then he waved his unmutilated antenna in a friendly way, bobbed his Mephistophelean visage, as if bidding me bon voyage, and whirred off into the forest.
I have no recollection as to how I descended the swollen rivulet; but a great shout greeted me as I swept out into the broad Jagara, and I saw several light canoes darting to meet me from the opposite bank. I was too dazed and idiotic to be surprised or to understand the speech of an aged white-haired Indian who took my piragua in tow and jabbered eagerly to me in Portuguese as he paddled across the rapid stream.
I was taken to an Indian village amid the forest on the farther bank, where I was nursed with the utmost kindness; but nearly a week passed before I could understand my aged rescuer, although I had acquired a fair knowledge of Portuguese. When I made my first attempt to give some account of my experiences, and told the old Indian about my cock-horned captive, who afterwards became my master, he crossed himself fervently.
"Ah, senhor!" he exclaimed with a shiver, "him I know well. Sixty years ago he was my master also. Ah, he is a great and terrible piaché! Surely he is the very devil!"
"What!" I cried, "have you also been a slave among the cavalier-ants?"
"Yes, senhor," replied he gravely. "When I was a youth they held me in bondage for two months: then they seemed to get tired of me, and gave me scarcely any food; and at last they dismissed me from their service. When your crew of the Buras came to my village and told me that you had ventured into that forbidden country and had not come back, I said, 'They will, perhaps, get tired of him also in about two months. Let us make a camp on the safe side of the Jagara and wait for him.'"
A. Lincoln Green.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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