The Cocal
Next day, like the 'Young Muleteers of Grenada,' a good song which often haunted me in those days,

'With morning's earliest twinkle
Again we are up and gone,'

with two horses, two mules, and a and a Coolie carrying our scanty luggage in Arima baskets: but not without an expression of pity from the who cleaned my boots. 'Where were we going?' To the east coast. Cuffy turned up what little nose he had. He plainly considered the east coast, and indeed Trinidad itself, as not worth looking at. 'Ah! you should go Barbadoes, sa. Dat de country to see. I Barbadian, sa.' No doubt. It is very quaint, this self-satisfaction of the Barbadian . Whether or not he belonged originally to some higher race -- for there are as great differences of race among as among any white men -- he looks down on the , and indeed on the white men, of other islands, as beings of an inferior grade; and takes care to inform you in the first five minutes that he is 'neider C'rab nor Creole, but true Barbadian barn.' This self-conceit of his, meanwhile, is apt to make him unruly, and the cause of unruliness in others when he emigrates. The Barbadian are, I believe, the only ones who give, or ever have given, any trouble in Trinidad; and in Barbadoes itself, though the agricultural work hard and well, who that knows the West Indies knows not the insubordination of the Bridgetown boatmen, among whose hands a traveller and his luggage are, it is said, likely enough to be pulled in pieces? However, they are rather more quiet just now; for not a thousand years ago a certain steamer's captain, utterly unable to clear his quarter of the fleet of fighting, jabbering brown people, turned the steam pipe on them. At which quite unexpected artillery they fled precipitately; and have had some rational respect for a steamer's quarter ever since. After all, I do not deny that this man's being a Barbadian opened my heart to him at once, for old sakes' sake.

Another specimen of character I was to have analysed, or tried to analyse, at the estate where I had slept. M. F -- - had lately caught a black servant at the brook-side busily washing something in a calabash, and asked him what was he doing there? The conversation would have been held, of course, in French-Spanish-African -- Creole patois, a language which is becoming fixed, with its own grammar and declensions, etc. A curious book on it has lately been published in Trinidad by Mr. Thomas, a coloured gentleman, who seems to be at once no mean philologer and no mean humorist. The substance of the 's answer was, 'Why, sir, you sent me to the town to buy a packet of sugar and a packet of salt; and coming back it rained so hard, the packets burst, and the salt was all washed into the sugar. And so -- I am washing it out again.' . . .

This worthy was to have been brought to me, that I might discover, if possible, by what processes of 'that which he was pleased to call his mind' he had arrived at the conclusion that such a thing could be done. Clearly, he could not plead unavoidable ignorance of the subject-matter, as might the old cook at San Josef, who, the first time her master brought home Wenham Lake ice from Port of Spain, was scandalised at the dirtiness of the 'American water,' washed off the sawdust, and dried the ice in the sun. His was a case of Handy- Andyism, as that intellectual disease may be named, after Mr. Lover's hero; like that of the Obeah-woman, when she tried to bribe the white gentleman with half a dozen of bottled beer; a case of muddle-headed craft and elaborate silliness, which keeps no proportion between the means and the end; so common in insane persons; frequent, too, among the lower Irish, such as Handy Andy; and very frequent, I am afraid, among the . But -- as might have been expected -- the poor boy's moral sense had proved as shaky as his intellectual powers. He had just taken a fancy to some goods of his master's; and had retreated, to enjoy them the more securely, into the southern forests, with a couple of brown policemen on his track. So he was likely to undergo a more simple investigation than that which was submitted to my analysis, viz. how he proposed to wash the salt out of the sugar.

We arrived after a while at Valencia, a scattered hamlet in the woods, with a good shop or 'store' upon a village green, under the verandah whereof lay, side by side with bottled ale and biscuit tins, bags of Carapo {265} nuts; trapezoidal brown nuts -- enclosed originally in a round fruit -- which ought some day to form a valuable article of export. Their bitter anthelminthic oil is said to have medicinal uses; but it will be still more useful for machinery, as it has -- like that curious flat gourd the Sequa {266a} -- the property of keeping iron from rust. The tree itself, common here and in Guiana, is one of the true Forest Giants; we saw many a noble specimen of it in our rides. Its timber is tough, not over heavy, and extensively used already in the island; while its bark is a febrifuge and tonic. In fact it possesses all those qualities which make its brethren, the Meliaceae, valuable throughout the Tropics. But it is not the only tree of South America whose bark may be used as a substitute for quinine. They may be counted possibly by dozens. A glance at the excellent enumerations of the uses of vegetable products to be found in Lindley's Vegetable Kingdom (a monument of learning) will show how God provides, how man neglects and wastes. As a single instance, the Laurels alone are known already to contain several valuable febrifuges, among which the Demerara Greenheart, or Bibiri, {266b} claims perhaps the highest rank. 'Dr. Maclagan has shown,' says Dr. Lindley, 'that sulphate of Bibiri acts with rapid and complete success in arresting ague.' This tree spreads from Jamaica to the Spanish Main. It is plentiful in Trinidad; still more plentiful in Guiana; and yet all of it which reaches Europe is a little of its hard beautiful wood for the use of cabinetmakers; while in Demerara, I am assured by an eye-witness, many tons of this precious Greenheart bark are thrown away year by year. So goes the world; and man meanwhile at once boasts of his civilisation, and complains of the niggardliness of Nature.

But if I once begin on this subject I shall not know where to end.

Our way lay now for miles along a path which justified all that I had fancied about the magnificent possibilities of landscape gardening in the Tropics. A grass drive, as we should call it in England -- a 'trace,' as it is called in the West Indies -- some sixty feet in width, and generally carpeted with short turf, led up hill and down dale; for the land, though low, is much ridged and gullied, and there has been as yet no time to cut down the hills, or to metal the centre of the road. It led, as the land became richer, through a natural avenue even grander than those which I had already seen. The light and air, entering the trace, had called into life the undergrowth and lower boughs, till from the very turf to a hundred and fifty feet in height rose one solid green wall, spangled here and there with flowers. Below was Mamure, Roseau, Timit, Aroumas, and Tulumas, {266c} mixed with Myrtles and Melastomas; then the copper Bois Mulatres among the Cocorite and Jagua palms; above them the heads of enormous broad-leaved trees of I know not how many species; and the lianes festooning all from cope to base. The crimson masses of Norantea on the highest tree-tops were here most gorgeous; but we had to beware of staring aloft too long, for fear of riding into mud-holes -- for the wet season would not end as yet, though dry weather was due -- or, even worse, into the great Parasol- ant warrens, which threatened, besides a heavy fall, stings innumerable. At one point, I recollect, a gold-green Jacamar sat on a log and looked at me till I was within five yards of her. At another we heard the screams of Parrots; at another, the double note of the Toucan; at another, the metallic clank of the Bell-bird, or what was said to be the Bell-bird. But this note was not that solemn and sonorous toll of the Campanese of the mainland which is described by Waterton and others. It resembled rather the less poetical sound of a woman beating a saucepan to make a swarm of bees settle.

At one point we met a gang of felling timber to widen the road. Fresh fallen trees, tied together with lianes, lay everywhere. What a harvest for the botanist was among them! I longed to stay there a week to examine and collect. But time pressed; and, indeed, collecting plants in the wet season is a difficult and disappointing work. In an air saturated with moisture specimens turn black and mouldy, and drop to pieces; and unless turned over and exposed to every chance burst of sunshine, the labour of weeks is lost, if indeed meanwhile the ants, and other creeping things, have not eaten the whole into rags.

Among these was one who excited my astonishment; not merely for his size, though he was perhaps the tallest man whom I saw among the usually tall of Trinidad; but for his features, which were altogether European of the highest type; the forehead high and broad, the cheek-bones flat, the masque long and oval, and the nose aquiline and thin enough for any prince. Conscious of his own beauty and strength, he stood up among the rest as an old Macedonian might have stood up among the Egyptians he had conquered. We tried to find out his parentage. My companions presumed he was an 'African,' i.e. imported during the times of slavery. He said No: that he was a Creole, island born; but his father, it appeared, had been in one of our regiments, and had been settled afterwards on a Government grant of land. Whether his beauty was the result of 'atavism' -- of the reappearance, under the black skin and woolly hair, of some old stain of white blood; or whether, which is more probable, he came of some higher African race; one could not look at him without hopeful surmises as to the possible rise of the , and as to the way in which it will come about -- the only way in which any race has permanently risen, as far as I can ascertain; namely, by the appearance among them of sudden sports of nature; individuals of an altogether higher type; such a man as that terrible Daaga, whose story has been told. If I am any judge of physiognomy, such a man as that, having -- what the has not yet had -- 'la carriere ouverte aux talents,' might raise, not himself merely, but a whole tribe, to an altogether new level in culture and ability.

Just after passing this gang we found, lying by the road, two large snakes, just killed, which I would gladly have preserved had it been possible. They were, the told us, 'Dormillons,' or 'Mangrove Cascabel,' a species as yet, I believe, undescribed; and, of course, here considered as very poisonous, owing to their likeness to the true Cascabel, {268} whose deadly fangs are justly dreaded by the Lapo hunter. For the Cascabel has a fancy for living in the Lapo's burrow, as does the rattlesnake in that of the prairie dog in the Western United States, and in the same friendly and harmless fashion; and is apt, when dug out, to avenge himself and his host by a bite which is fatal in a few hours. But these did not seem to me to have the heads of poisonous snakes; and, in spite of the entreaties of the terrified , I opened their mouths to judge for myself, and found them, as I expected, utterly fangless and harmless. I was not aware then that Dr. De Verteuil had stated the same fact in print; but I am glad to corroborate it, for the benefit of at least the rational people in Trinidad: for snakes, even poisonous ones, should be killed as seldom as possible. They feed on rats and vermin, and are the farmer's good friend, whether in the Tropics or in England; and to kill a snake, or even an adder- -who never bites any one if he is allowed to run away -- is, in nineteen cases out of twenty, mere wanton mischief.

The way was beguiled, if I recollect rightly, for some miles on, by stories about Cuba and Cuban slavery from one of our party. He described the political morality of Cuba as utterly dissolute; told stories of great sums of money voted for roads which are not made to this day, while the money had found its way into the pockets of Government officials; and, on the whole, said enough to explain the determination of the Cubans to shake off Spanish misrule, and try what they could do for themselves on this earth. He described Cuban slavery as, on the whole, mild; corporal punishment being restricted by law to a few blows, and very seldom employed: but the mildness seemed dictated rather by self-interest than by humanity. 'Ill-use our slaves?' said a Cuban to him. 'We cannot afford it. You take good care of your four-legged mules: we of our two-legged ones.' The children, it seems, are taken away from the mothers, not merely because the mothers are needed for work, but because they neglect their offspring so much that the children have more chance of living -- and therefore of paying -- if brought up by hand. So each estate has, or had, its creche, as the French would call it -- a great nursery, in which the little black things are reared, kindly enough, by the elder ladies of the estate. To one old lady, who wearied herself all day long in washing, doctoring, and cramming the babies, my friend expressed pity for all the trouble she took about her human brood. 'Oh dear no,' answered she; 'they are a great deal easier to rear than chickens.' The system, however, is nearly at an end. Already the Cuban Revolution has produced measures of half- emancipation; and in seven years' time probably there will not be a slave in Cuba.

We waded stream after stream under the bamboo clumps, and in one of them we saw swimming a green rigoise, or whip-snake, which must have been nearly ten feet long. It swam with its head and the first two feet of its body curved aloft like a swan, while the rest of the body lay along the surface of the water in many curves -- a most graceful object as it glided away into dark shadow along an oily pool. At last we reached an outlying camp, belonging to one of our party who was superintending the making of new roads in that quarter, and there rested our weary limbs, some in hammock, some on the tables, some, again, on the clay floor. Here I saw, as I saw every ten minutes, something new -- that quaint vegetable plaything described by Humboldt and others; namely, the spathe of the Timit palm. It encloses, as in most palms, a branched spadix covered with innumerable round buds, most like a head of millet, two feet and a half long: but the spathe, instead of splitting and forming a hood over the flowers, as in the Cocorite and most palms, remains entire, and slips off like the finger of a glove. When slipped off, it is found to be made of two transverse layers of fibre -- a bit of veritable natural lace, similar to, though far less delicate than, the famous lace-bark of the Lagetta-tree, peculiar, I believe, to one district in the Jamaica mountains. And as it is elastic and easily stretched, what hinders the brown child from pulling it out till it makes an admirable fool's cap, some two feet high, and exactly the colour of his own skin, and dancing about therein, the fat oily little Cupidon, without a particle of clothing beside? And what wonder if we grown-up whites made fools' caps too, for children on the other side of the Atlantic? During which process we found -- what all said they had never seen before -- that one of the spadices carried two caps, one inside the other, and one exactly like the other; a wanton superfluity of Nature, which I should like to hear explained by some morphologist.

We rode away from that hospitable group of huts, whither we were to return in two or three days; and along the green trace once more. As we rode, M -- - the civiliser of Montserrat and I side by side, talking of Cuba, and staring at the Noranteas overhead, a dull sound was heard, as if the earth had opened; as indeed it had, engulfing in the mud the whole forehand of M -- -'s mule; and there he knelt, his beard outspread upon the clay, while the mule's visage looked patiently out from under his left arm. However, it was soft falling there. The mule was hauled out by main force. As for cleaning either her or the rider, that was not thought of in a country where they were sure to be as dirty as ever in an hour; and so we rode on, after taking a note of the spot, and, as it happened, forgetting it again -- one of us at least.

On again, along the green trace, which rose now to a ridge, with charming glimpses of wooded hills and glens to right and left; past comfortable squatters' cottages, with cacao drying on sheets at the doors or under sheds; with hedges of dwarf Erythrina, dotted with red jumby beads, and here and there that pretty climbing vetch, the Overlook. {270} I forgot, by the by, to ask whether it is planted here, as in Jamaica, to keep off the evil eye, or 'overlook'; whence its name. Nor can I guess what peculiarity about the plant can have first made the fix on it as a fetish. The genesis of folly is as difficult to analyse as the genesis of most other things.

All this while the dull thunder of the surf was growing louder and louder; till, not as in England over a bare down, but through thickest foliage down to the high tide mark, we rode out upon the shore, and saw before us a right noble sight; a flat, sandy, surf beaten shore, along which stretched, in one grand curve, lost at last in the haze of spray, fourteen miles of Coco palms.

This was the Cocal; and it was worth coming all the way from England to see it alone. I at once felt the truth of my host's saying, that if I went to the Cocal I should find myself transported suddenly from the West Indies to the East. Just such must be the shore of a Coral island in the Pacific.

These Cocos, be it understood, are probably not indigenous. They spread, it is said, from an East Indian vessel which was wrecked here. Be that as it may, they have thoroughly naturalised themselves. Every nut which falls and lies, throws out, during the wet season, its roots into the sand; and is ready to take the place of its parent when the old tree dies down.

About thirty to fifty feet is the average height of these Coco palms, which have all, without exception, a peculiarity which I have noticed to a less degree in another sand- and shore-growing tree, the Pinaster of the French Landes. They never spring-upright from the ground. The butt curves, indeed lies almost horizontal in some cases, for the lowest two or three yards; and the whole stem, up to the top, is inclined to lean; it matters not toward which quarter, for they lean as often toward the wind as from it, crossing each other very gracefully. I am not mechanician enough to say how this curve of the stem increases their security amid loose sands and furious winds. But that it does so I can hardly doubt, when I see a similar habit in the Pinaster. Another peculiarity was noteworthy: their innumerable roots, long, fleshy, about the thickness of a large string, piercing the sand in every direction, and running down to high-tide mark, apparently enjoying the salt water, and often piercing through bivalve shells, which remained strung upon the roots. Have they a fondness for carbonate of lime, as well as for salt?

The most remarkable, and to me unexpected, peculiarity of a Cocal is one which I am not aware whether any writer has mentioned; namely, the prevalence of that amber hue which we remarked in the very first specimens seen at St. Thomas's. But this is, certainly, the mark which distinguishes the Coco palm, not merely from the cold dark green of the Palmiste, or the silvery gray of the Jagua, but from any other tree which I have ever seen.

When inside the Cocal, the air is full of this amber light. Gradually the eye analyses the cause of it, and finds it to be the resultant of many other hues, from bright vermilion to bright green. Above, the latticed light which breaks between and over the innumerable leaflets of the fruit fronds comes down in warmest green. It passes not over merely, but through, the semi-transparent straw and amber of the older leaves. It falls on yellow spadices and flowers, and rich brown spathes, and on great bunches of green nuts, to acquire from them more yellow yet; for each fruit-stalk and each flower-scale at the base of the nut is veined and tipped with bright orange. It pours down the stems, semi-gray on one side, then yellow, and then, on the opposite side, covered with a powdery lichen varying in colour from orange up to clear vermilion, and spreads itself over a floor of yellow sand and brown fallen nuts, and the only vegetation of which, in general, is a long crawling Echites, with pairs of large cream-white flowers. Thus the transparent shade is flooded with gold. One looks out through it at the chequer-work of blue sky, all the more intense from its contrast; or at a long whirl of white surf and gray spray; or, turning the eyes inland toward the lagoon, at dark masses of mangrove, above which rise, black and awful, the dying balatas, stag-headed, blasted, tottering to their fall; and all as through an atmosphere of Rhine wine, or from the inside of a topaz.

We rode along, mile after mile, wondering at many things. First, the innumerable dry fruits of Timit palm, which lay everywhere; mostly single, some double, a few treble, from coalition, I suppose, of the three carpels which every female palm flower ought to have, but of which it usually develops only one. They may have been brought down the lagoon from inland by floods; but the common belief is, that most of them come from the Orinoco itself, as do also the mighty logs which lie about the beach in every stage of wear and tear; and which, as fast as they are cut up and carried away, are replaced by fresh ones. Some of these trees may actually come from the mainland, and, drifting into this curving bay, be driven on shore by the incessant trade wind. But I suspect that many of them are the produce of the island itself; and more, that they have grown, some of them, on the very spot where they now lie. For there are, I think, evidences of subsidence going on along this coast. Inside the Cocal, two hundred yards to the westward, stretches inland a labyrinth of lagoons and mangrove swamps, impassable to most creatures save alligators and boa-constrictors. But amid this labyrinth grow everywhere mighty trees -- balatas in plenty among them, in every stage of decay; dying, seemingly, by gradual submergence of their roots, and giving a ghastly and ragged appearance to the forest. At the mouth of the little river Nariva, a few miles down, is proof positive, unless I am much mistaken, of similar subsidence. For there I found trees of all sizes -- roseau scrub among them -- standing rooted below high-tide mark; and killed where they grew.

So we rode on, stopping now and then to pick up shells; chip-chips, {274a} which are said to be excellent eating; a beautiful purple bivalve, {274b} to which, in almost every case, a coralline {274c} had attached itself, of a form quite new to me. A lash some eighteen inches long, single or forked; purplish as long as its coat of lime -- holding the polypes -- still remained, but when that was rubbed off a mere round strip of dark horn; and in both cases flexible and elastic, so that it can be coiled up and tied in knots; a very curious and graceful piece of Nature's workmanship. Among them were curious flat cake-urchins, with oval holes punched in them, so brittle that, in spite of all our care, they resolved themselves into the loose sand of which they had been originally compact; and I could therefore verify neither their genus nor their species.

These were all, if I recollect, that we found that day. The next day we came on hundreds of a most beautiful bivalve, {274d} their purple colour quite fresh, their long spines often quite uninjured. Some change of the sandy bottom had unearthed a whole warren of the lovely things; and mixed with chip-chips innumerable, and with a great bivalve {274e} with a thin wing along the anterior line of the shell, they strewed the shore for a quarter of a mile and more.

We came at last to a little river, or rather tideway, leading from the lagoon to the sea, which goes by the name of Doubloon River. Some adventurous Spaniard, the story goes, contracted to make a cutting which would let off the lagoon water in time of flood for the sum of one doubloon -- some three pound five; spent six times the money on it; and found his cutting, when once the sea had entered, enlarge into a roaring tideway, dangerous, often impassable, and eating away the Cocal rapidly toward the south; Mother Earth, in this case at least, having known her own business better than the Spaniard.

How we took off our saddles, sat down on the sand, hallooed, waited; how a black policeman -- whose house was just being carried away by the sea -- appeared at last with a canoe; how we and our baggage got over one by one in the hollow log without -- by seeming miracle -- being swept out to sea or upset: how some horses would swim, and others would not; how the held on by the horses till they all went head over ears under the surf; and how, at last, breathless with laughter and anxiety for our scanty wardrobes, we scrambled ashore one by one into prickly roseau, re-saddled our horses in an atmosphere of long thorns, and then cut our way and theirs out through scrub into the Cocal; -- all this should not be written in these pages, but drawn for the benefit of Punch, by him who drew the egg-stealing frog -- whose pencil I longed for again and again amid the delightful mishaps of those forest rambles, in all of which I never heard a single grumble, or saw temper lost for a moment. We should have been rather more serious, though, than we were, had we been aware that the river-god, or presiding Jumby, of the Doubloon was probably watching us the whole time, with the intention of eating any one whom he could catch, and only kept in wholesome awe by our noise and splashing.

At last, after the sun had gone down, and it was ill picking our way among logs and ground-creepers, we were aware of lights; and soon found ourselves again in civilisation, and that of no mean kind. A large and comfortable house, only just rebuilt after a fire, stood among the palm-trees, between the sea and the lagoon; and behind it the barns, sheds, and engine-houses of the coco-works; and inside it a hearty welcome from a most agreeable German gentleman and his German engineer. A lady's hand -- I am sorry to say the lady was not at home -- was evident enough in the arrangements of the central room. Pretty things, a piano, and good books, especially Longfellow and Tennyson, told of cultivation and taste in that remotest wilderness. The material hospitality was what it always is in the West Indies; and we sat up long into the night around the open door, while the surf roared, and the palm trees sighed, and the fireflies twinkled, talking of dear old Germany, and German unity, and the possibility of many things which have since proved themselves unexpectedly most possible. I went to bed, and to somewhat intermittent sleep. First, my comrades, going to bed romping, like English schoolboys, and not in the least like the effeminate and luxurious Creoles who figure in the English imagination, broke a four-post bedstead down among them with hideous roar and ruin; and had to be picked up and called to order by their elders. Next, the wind, which ranged freely through the open roof, blew my bedclothes off. Then the dogs exploded outside, probably at some henroost-robbing opossum, and had a chevy through the cocos till they tree'd their game, and bayed it to their hearts' content. Then something else exploded -- and I do not deny it set me more aghast than I had been for many a day -- exploded, I say, under the window, with a shriek of Hut-hut-tut-tut, hut-tut, such as I hope never to hear again. After which, dead silence; save of the surf to the east and the toads to the west. I fell asleep, wondering what animal could own so detestable a voice; and in half an hour was awoke again by another explosion; after which, happily, the thing, I suppose, went its wicked way, for I heard it no more.

I found out the next morning that the obnoxious bird was not an owl, but a large goat-sucker, a Nycteribius, I believe, who goes by the name of jumby-bird among the English : and no wonder; for most ghostly and horrible is his cry. But worse: he has but one eye, and a glance from that glaring eye, as from the basilisk of old, is certain death: and worse still, he can turn off its light as a policeman does his lantern, and become instantly invisible: opinions which, if verified by experiment, are not always found to be in accordance with facts. But that is no reason why they should not be believed.

In St. Vincent, for instance, the one evening rushed shrieking out of a boiling-house, 'Oh! Massa Robert, we all killed. Dar one great jumby-bird come in a hole a-top a roof. Oh! Massa Robert, you no go in; you killed, we killed,' etc. etc. Massa Robert went in, and could see no bird. 'Ah, Massa Robert, him darky him eye, but him see you all da same. You killed, we killed,' etc. Da capo.

Massa Robert was not killed: but lives still, to the great benefit of his fellow-creatures, especially. Nevertheless, the held to their opinion. He might, could, would, or should have been killed; and was not that clear proof that they were right?

After this, who can deny that the is a man and a brother, possessing the same reasoning faculties, and exercising them in exactly the same way, as three out of four white persons?

But if the night was disturbed, pleasant was the waking next morning; pleasant the surprise at finding that the whistling and howling air-bath of the night had not given one a severe cold, or any cold at all; pleasant to slip on flannel shut and trousers -- shoes and stockings were needless -- and hurry down through a stampede of kicking, squealing mules, who were being watered ere their day's work began, under the palms to the sea; pleasant to bathe in warm surf, into which the four-eyes squattered in shoals as one ran down, and the moment they saw one safe in the water, ran up with the next wave to lie staring at the sky; pleasant to sit and read one's book upon a log, and listen to the soft rush of the breeze in the palm- leaves, and look at a sunrise of green and gold, pink and orange, and away over the great ocean, and to recollect, with a feeling of mingled nearness and loneliness, that there was nothing save that watery void between oneself and England, and all that England held; and then, when driven in to breakfast by the morning shower, to begin a new day of seeing, and seeing, and seeing, certain that one would learn more in it than in a whole week of book-reading at home.

We spent the next morning in inspecting the works. We watched the splitting the coconuts with a single blow of that all-useful cutlass, which they handle with surprising dexterity and force, throwing the thick husk on one side, the fruit on the other. We saw the husk carded out by machinery into its component fibres, for coco-rope matting, coir-rope, saddle-stuffing, brushes, and a dozen other uses; while the fruit was crushed down for the sake of its oil; and could but wish all success to an industry which would be most profitable, both to the projectors and to the island itself, were it not for the uncertainty, rather than the scarcity, of labour. Almost everything is done, of course, by piecework. The has the price of his labour almost at his own command; and when, by working really hard and well for a while, he has earned a little money, he throws up his job and goes off, careless whether the whole works stand still or not. However, all prosperity to the coco-works of Messrs. Uhrich and Gerold; and may the day soon come when the English of Trinidad, like the Ceylonese and the Dutch of Java, shall count by millions the coco-palms which they have planted along their shores, and by thousands of pounds the profit which accrues from them.

After breakfast -- call it luncheon rather -- we started for the lagoon. We had set our hearts on seeing Manatis ('sea cows'), which are still not uncommon on the east coast of this island, though they have been exterminated through the rest of the West Indies since the days of Pere Labat. That good missionary speaks of them in his delightful journal as already rare in the year 1695; and now, as far as I am aware, none are to be found north of Trinidad and the Spanish Main, save a few round Cuba and Jamaica. We were anxious, too, to see, if not to get, a boa-constrictor of one kind or other. For there are two kinds in the island, which may be seen alive at the Zoological Gardens in the same cage. The true Boa, {277a} which is here called Mahajuel, is striped as well as spotted with two patterns, one over the other. The Huillia, Anaconda, or Water-boa, {277b} bears only a few large round spots. Both are fond of the water, the Huillia living almost entirely in it; both grow to a very large size; and both are dangerous, at least to children and small animals. That there were Huillias about the place, possibly within fifty yards of the house, there was no doubt. One of our party had seen with his own eyes one of seven-and-twenty feet long killed, with a whole kid inside it, only a few miles off. The brown policeman, crossing an arm of the Guanapo only a month or two before, had been frightened by meeting one in the ford, which his excited imagination magnified so much that its head was on the one bank while its tail was on the other -- a measurement which must, I think, be divided at least by three. But in the very spot in which we stood, some four years since, happened what might have been a painful tragedy. Four young ladies, whose names were mentioned to me, preferred, not wisely, a bathe in the still lagoon to one in the surf outside; and as they disported themselves, one of them felt herself seized from behind. Fancying that one of her sisters was playing tricks, she called out to her to let her alone; and looking up, saw, to her astonishment, her three sisters sitting on the bank, and herself alone. She looked back, and shrieked for help: and only just in time; for the Huillia had her. The other three girls, to their honour, dashed in to her assistance. The brute had luckily got hold, not of her poor little body, but of her bathing-dress, and held on stupidly. The girls pulled; the bathing-dress, which was, luckily, of thin cotton, was torn off; the Huillia slid back again with it in his mouth into the dark labyrinth of the mangrove-roots; and the girl was saved. Two minutes' delay, and his coils would have been round her; and all would have been over.

The sudden daring of these lazy and stupid animals is very great. Their brain seems to act like that of the alligator or the pike, paroxysmally, and by rare fits and starts, after lying for hours motionless as if asleep. But when excited, they will attempt great deeds. Dr. De Verteuil tells a story -- and if he tells it, it must be believed -- of some hunters who wounded a deer. The deer ran for the stream down a bank; but the hunters had no sooner heard it splash into the water than they heard it scream. They leapt down to the place, and found it in the coils of a Huillia, which they killed with the deer. And yet this snake, which had dared to seize a full- grown deer, could have had no hope of eating her; for it was only seven feet long.

We set out down a foul porter-coloured creek, which soon opened out into a river, reminding us, in spite of all differences, of certain alder and willow-fringed reaches of the Thames. But here the wood which hid the margin was altogether of mangrove; the common Rhizophoras, or black mangroves, being, of course, the most abundant. Over them, however, rose the statelier Avicennias, or white mangroves, to a height of fifty or sixty feet, and poured down from their upper branches whole streams of air-roots, which waved and creaked dolefully in the breeze overhead. But on the water was no breeze at all. The lagoon was still as glass; the sun was sickening; and we were glad to put up our umbrellas and look out from under them for Manatis and Boas. But the Manatis usually only come in at night, to put their heads out of water and browse on the lowest mangrove leaves; and the Boas hide themselves so cunningly, either altogether under water, or with only the head above, that we might have passed half a dozen without seeing them. The only chance, indeed, of coming across them, is when they are travelling from lagoon to lagoon, or basking on the mud at low tide.

So all the game which we saw was a lovely white Egret, {278} its back covered with those stiff pinnated plumes which young ladies -- when they can obtain them -- are only too happy to wear in their hats. He, after being civil enough to wait on a bough till one of us got a sitting shot at him, heard the cap snap, thought it as well not to wait till a fresh one was put on, and flapped away. He need not have troubled himself. The -- but too apt to forget something or other -- had forgotten to bring a spare supply; and the gun was useless.

As we descended, the left bank of the river was entirely occupied with cocos; and the contrast between them and the mangroves on the right was made all the more striking by the afternoon sun, which, as it sank behind the forest, left the mangrove wall in black shadow, while it bathed the palm-groves opposite with yellow light. In one of these palm-groves we landed, for we were right thirsty; and to drink lagoon water would be to drink cholera or fever. But there was plenty of pure water in the coco-trees, and we soon had our fill. A walked -- not climbed -- up a stem like a four-footed animal, his legs and arms straight, his feet pressed flat against it, his hands clinging round it -- a feat impossible, as far as I have seen, to an European -- tossed us down plenty of green nuts; and our feast began.

Two or three blows with the cutlass, at the small end of the nut, cut off not only the pith-coat, but the point of the shell; and disclose -- the nut being held carefully upright meanwhile -- a cavity full of perfectly clear water, slightly sweet, and so cold (the pith-coat being a good non-conductor of heat) that you are advised, for fear of cholera, to flavour it with a little brandy. After draining this natural cup, you are presented with a natural spoon of rind, green outside and white within, and told to scoop out and eat the cream which lines the inside of the shell, a very delicious food in the opinion of Creoles. After which, if you are as curious as some of us were, you will sit down under the amber shade, and examine at leisure the construction and germination of these famous and royal nuts. Let me explain it, even at the risk of prolixity. The coat of white pith outside, with its green skin, will gradually develop and harden into that brown fibre of which matting is made. The clear water inside will gradually harden into that sweetmeat which little boys eat off stalls and barrows in the street; the first delicate deposit of which is the cream in the green nut. This is albumen, intended to nourish the young palm till it has grown leaves enough to feed on the air, and roots enough to feed on the soil; and the birth of that young palm is in itself a mystery and a miracle, well worth considering. Much has been written on it, of which I, unfortunately, have read very little; but I can at least tell what I have seen with my own eyes.

If you search among the cream-layer at the larger end of the nut, you will find, gradually separating itself from the mass, a little white lump, like the stalk of a very young mushroom. That is the ovule. In that lies the life, the 'forma formativa,' of the future tree. How that life works, according to its kind, who can tell? What it does, is this: it is locked up inside a hard woody shell, and outside that shell are several inches of tough tangled fibre. How can it get out, as soft and seemingly helpless as a baby's finger?

All know that there are three eyes in the monkey's face, as the children call it, at the butt of the nut. Two of these eyes are blind, and filled up with hard wood. They are rudiments -- hints -- that the nut ought to have, perhaps had uncounted ages since, not one ovule, but three, the type-number in palms. One ovule alone is left; and that is opposite the one eye which is less blind than the rest; the eye which a schoolboy feels for with his knife, when he wants to get out the milk.

As the nut lies upon the sand, in shade, and rain, and heat, that baby's finger begins boring its way, with unerring aim, out of the weakest eye. Soft itself, yet with immense wedging power, from the gradual accretion of tiny cells, it pierces the wood, and then rends right and left the tough fibrous coat. Just so may be seen -- I have seen -- a large flagstone lifted in a night by a crop of tiny soft toadstools which have suddenly blossomed up beneath it. The baby's finger protrudes at last, and curves upward toward the light, to commence the campaign of life: but it has meanwhile established, like a good strategist, a safe base of operations in its rear, from which it intends to draw supplies. Into the albuminous cream which lines the shell, and into the cavity where the milk once was, it throws out white fibrous vessels, which eat up the albumen for it, and at last line the whole inside of the shell with a white pith. The albumen gives it food wherewith to grow, upward and downward. Upward, the white plumule hardens into what will be a stem; the one white cotyledon which sheaths it develops into a flat, ribbed, forked, green leaf, sheathing it still; and above it fresh leaves, sheathing always at their bases, begin to form a tiny crown; and assume each, more and more, the pinnate form of the usual coco-leaf. But long ere this, from the butt of the white plumule, just outside the nut, white threads of root have struck down into the sand; and so the nut lies, chained to the ground by a bridge-like chord, which drains its albumen, through the monkey's eye, into the young plant. After a while -- a few months, I believe -- the draining of the nut is complete; the chord dries up -- I know not how, for I had neither microscope nor time wherewith to examine -- and parts; and the little plant, having got all it can out of its poor wet-nurse, casts her ungratefully off to wither on the sand; while it grows up into a stately tree, which will begin to bear fruit in six or seven years, and thenceforth continue, flowering and fruiting the whole year round without a pause, for sixty years and more.

I think I have described this -- to me -- 'miraculum' simply enough to be understood by the non-scientific reader, if only he or she have first learned the undoubted fact -- known, I find, to very few 'educated' English people -- that the coco-palm which produces coir- rope, and coconuts, and a hundred other useful things, is not the same plant as the cacao-bush which produces chocolate, nor anything like it. I am sorry to have to insist upon this fact: but till Professor Huxley's dream -- and mine -- is fulfilled, and our schools deign to teach, in the intervals of Latin and Greek, some slight knowledge of this planet, and of those of its productions which are most commonly in use, even this fact may need to be re-stated more than once.

We re-embarked again, and rowed down to the river-mouth to pick up shells, and drink in the rich roaring trade breeze, after the choking atmosphere of the lagoon; and then rowed up home, tired, and infinitely amused, though neither Manati nor Boa-constrictor had been seen; and then we fell to siesta; during which -- with Mr. Tennyson's forgiveness -- I read myself to sleep with one of his best poems; and then went to dinner, not without a little anxiety.

For M -- - (the civiliser of Montserrat) had gone off early, with mule, cutlass, and haversack, back over the Doubloon and into the wilds of Manzanilla, to settle certain disputed squatter claims, and otherwise enforce the law; and now the night had fallen, and he was not yet home. However, he rode up at last, dead beat, with a strong touch of his old swamp-fever, and having had an adventure, which had like to have proved his last. For as he rode through the Doubloon at low tide in the morning, he espied in the surf that river-god, or Jumby, of which I spoke just now; namely, the gray back-fin of a shark; and his mule espied it too, and laid back her ears, knowing well what it was. M -- - rode close up to the brute. He seemed full seven feet long, and eyed him surlily, disinclined to move off; so they parted, and M -- - went on his way. But his business detained him longer than he expected; when he got back to the river-mouth it was quite dark, and the tide was full high. He must either sleep on the sands, which with fever upon him would not have been over-safe, or try the passage. So he stripped, swam the mule over, tied her up, and then went back, up to his shoulders in surf; and cutlass in hand too, for that same shark might be within two yards of him. But on his second journey he had to pile on his head, first his saddle, and then his clothes and other goods; few indeed, but enough to require both hands to steady them: and so walked helpless through the surf, expecting every moment to be accosted by a set of teeth, from which he would hardly have escaped with life. To have faced such a danger, alone and in the dark, and thoroughly well aware, as an experienced man, of its extremity, was good proof (if any had been needed) of the indomitable Scots courage of the man. Nevertheless, he said, he never felt so cold down his back as he did during that last wade. By God's blessing the shark was not there, or did not see him; and he got safe home, thankful for dinner and quinine.

Going back the next morning at low tide, we kept a good look-out for M -- -'s shark, spreading out, walkers and riders, in hopes of surrounding him and cutting him up. There were half a dozen weapons among us, of which my heavy bowie-knife was not the worst; and we should have given good account of him had we met him, and got between him and the deep water. But our valour was superfluous. The enemy was nowhere to be seen; and we rode on, looking back wistfully, but in vain, for a gray fin among the ripples.

So we rode back, along the Cocal and along that wonderful green glade, where I, staring at Noranteas in tree-tops, instead of at the ground beneath my horse's feet, had the pleasure of being swallowed up -- my horse's hindquarters at least -- in the very same slough which had engulfed M -- -'s mule three days before, and got a roll in much soft mud. Then up to -- -'s camp, where we expected breakfast, not with greediness, though we had been nigh six hours in the saddle, but with curiosity. For he had promised to send out the hunters for all game that could be found, and give us a true forest meal; and we were curious to taste what lapo, quenco, guazupita-deer, and other strange meats might be like. Nay, some of us agreed, that if the hunters had but brought in a tender young red monkey, {282a} we would surely eat him too, if it were but to say that we had done it. But the hunters had had no luck. They had brought in only a Pajui, {282b} an excellent game bird; an Ant-eater, {282c} and a great Cachicame, or nine-banded Armadillo. The ant-eater the foolish fellows had eaten themselves -- I would have given them what they asked for his skeleton; but the Armadillo was cut up and hashed for us, and was eaten, to the last scrap, being about the best game I ever tasted. I fear he is a foul feeder at times, who by no means confines himself to roots, or even worms. If what I was told be true, there is but too much probability for Captain Mayne Reid's statement, that he will eat his way into the soft parts of a dead horse, and stay there until he has eaten his way out again. But, to do him justice, I never heard him accused, like the giant Armadillo {282d} of the Main, of digging dead bodies out of their graves, as he is doing in a very clever drawing in Mr. Wood's Homes without Hands. Be that as it may, the Armadillo, whatever he feeds on, has the power of transmuting it into most delicate and wholesome flesh.

Meanwhile -- and hereby hangs a tale -- I was interested, not merely in the Armadillo, but in the excellent taste with which it, and everything else, was cooked in a little open shed over a few stones and firesticks. And complimenting my host thereon, I found that he had, there in the primeval forest, an admirable French cook, to whom I begged to be introduced at once. Poor fellow! A little lithe Parisian, not thirty years old, he had got thither by a wild road. Cook to some good bourgeois family in Paris, he had fallen in love with his master's daughter, and she with him. And when their love was hopeless, and discovered, the two young foolish things, not having -- as is too common in France -- the fear of God before their eyes, could think of no better resource than to shut themselves up with a pan of lighted charcoal, and so go they knew not-whither. The poor girl went -- and was found dead. But the boy recovered; and was punished with twenty years of Cayenne; and here he was now, on a sort of ticket-of-leave, cooking for his livelihood. I talked a while with him, cheered him with some compliments about the Parisians, and so forth, dear to the Frenchman's heart -- what else was there to say? -- and so left him, not without the fancy that, if he had had but such an education as the middle classes in Paris have not, there were the makings of a man in that keen eye, large jaw, sharp chin. 'The very fellow,' said some one, 'to have been a first-rate Zouave.' Well: perhaps he was a better man, even as he was, than as a Zouave.

And so we rode away again, and through Valencia, and through San Josef, weary and happy, back to Port of Spain.

I would gladly, had I been able, have gone farther due westward into the forests which hide the river Oropuche, that I might have visited the scene of a certain two years' Idyll, which was enacted in them some forty years and more ago.

In 1827 cacao fell to so low a price (two dollars per cwt.) that it was no longer worth cultivating; and the head of the F -- - family, leaving his slaves to live at ease on his estates, retreated, with a household of twelve persons, to a small property of his own, which was buried in the primeval forests of Oropuche. With them went his second son, Monsignor F -- -, then and afterwards cure of San Josef, who died shortly before my visit to the island. I always heard him spoken of as a gentleman and a scholar, a saintly and cultivated priest of the old French School, respected and beloved by men of all denominations. His church of San Josef, though still unfinished, had been taxed, as well as all the Roman Catholic churches of the island, to build the Roman Catholic Cathedral at Port of Spain; and he, refusing to obey an order which he considered unjust, threw up his cure, and retreated with the rest of the family to the palm-leaf ajoupas in the forest.

M. F -- - chose three of his finest as companions. Melchior was to go out every day to shoot wild pigeons, coming every morning to ask how many were needed, so as not to squander powder and shot. The number ordered were always punctually brought in, besides sometimes a wild turkey -- Pajui -- or other fine birds. Alejos, who is now a cacao proprietor, and owner of a house in Arima, was chosen to go out every day, except Sundays, with the dogs; and scarcely ever failed to bring in a lapp or quenco. Aristobal was chosen for the fishing, and brought in good loads of river fish, some sixteen pounds weight: and thus the little party of cultivated gentlemen and ladies were able to live, though in poverty, yet sumptuously.

The Bishop had given Monsignor F -- - permission to perform service on any of his father's estates. So a little chapel was built; the family and servants attended every Sunday, and many days in the week; and the country folk from great distances found their way through the woods to hear Mass in the palm-thatched sanctuary of 'El Riposo.'

So did that happy family live 'the gentle life' for some two years; till cacao rose again in price, the tax on the churches was taken off, and the F -- -s returned again to the world: but not to civilisation and Christianity. Those they had carried with them into the wilderness; and those they brought back with them unstained.

chapter xii the savanna of
Top of Page
Top of Page