That afternoon with Rima in the forest under the mora tree had proved so delightful that I was eager for more rambles and talks with her, but the variable little witch had a great surprise in store for me. All her wild natural gaiety had unaccountably gone out of her: when I walked in the shade she was there, but no longer as the blithe, fantastic being, bright as an angel, innocent and affectionate as a child, tricksy as a monkey, that had played at hide-and-seek with me. She was now my shy, silent attendant, only occasionally visible, and appearing then like the mysterious maid I had found reclining among the ferns who had melted away mist-like from sight as I gazed. When I called she would not now answer as formerly, but in response would appear in sight as if to assure me that I had not been forsaken; and after a few moments her grey shadowy form would once more vanish among the trees. The hope that as her confidence increased and she grew accustomed to talk with me she would be brought to reveal the story of her life had to be abandoned, at all events for the present. I must, after all, get my information from Nuflo, or rest in ignorance. The old man was out for the greater part of each day with his dogs, and from these expeditions he brought back nothing that I could see but a few nuts and fruits, some thin bark for his cigarettes, and an occasional handful of haima gum to perfume the hut of an evening. After I had wasted three days in vainly trying to overcome the girl's now inexplicable shyness, I resolved to give for a while my undivided attention to her grandfather to discover, if possible, where he went and how he spent his time.
My new game of hide-and-seek with Nuflo instead of with Rima began on the following morning. He was cunning; so was I. Going out and concealing myself among the bushes, I began to watch the hut. That I could elude Rima's keener eyes I doubted; but that did not trouble me. She was not in harmony with the old man, and would do nothing to defeat my plan. I had not been long in my hiding-place before he came out, followed by his two dogs, and going to some distance from the door, he sat down on a log. For some minutes he smoked, then rose, and after looking cautiously round slipped away among the trees. I saw that he was going off in the direction of the low range of rocky hills south of the forest. I knew that the forest did not extend far in that direction, and thinking that I should be able to catch a sight of him on its borders, I left the bushes and ran through the trees as fast as I could to get ahead of him. Coming to where the wood was very open, I found that a barren plain beyond it, a quarter of a mile wide, separated it from the range of hills; thinking that the old man might cross this open space, I climbed into a tree to watch. After some time he appeared, walking rapidly among the trees, the dogs at his heels, but not going towards the open plain; he had, it seemed, after arriving at the edge of the wood, changed his direction and was going west, still keeping in the shelter of the trees. When he had been gone about five minutes, I dropped to the ground and started in pursuit; once more I caught sight of him through the trees, and I kept him in sight for about twenty minutes longer; then he came to a broad strip of dense wood which extended into and through the range of hills, and here I quickly lost him. Hoping still to overtake him, I pushed on, but after struggling through the underwood for some distance, and finding the forest growing more difficult as I progressed, I at last gave him up. Turning eastward, I got out of the wood to find myself at the foot of a steep rough hill, one of the range which the wooded valley cut through at right angles. It struck me that it would be a good plan to climb the hill to get a view of the forest belt in which I had lost the old man; and after walking a short distance I found a spot which allowed of an ascent. The summit of the hill was about three hundred feet above the surrounding level and did not take me long to reach; it commanded a fair view, and I now saw that the belt of wood beneath me extended right through the range, and on the south side opened out into an extensive forest. "If that is your destination," thought I, "old fox, your secrets are safe from me."
It was still early in the day, and a slight breeze tempered the air and made it cool and pleasant on the hilltop after my exertions. My scramble through the wood had fatigued me somewhat, and resolving to spend some hours on that spot, I looked round for a comfortable resting-place. I soon found a shady spot on the west side of an upright block of stone where I could recline at ease on a bed of lichen. Here, with shoulders resting against the rock, I sat thinking of Rima, alone in her wood today, with just a tinge of bitterness in my thoughts which made me hope that she would miss me as much as I missed her; and in the end I fell asleep.
When I woke, it was past noon, and the sun was shining directly on me. Standing up to gaze once more on the prospect, I noticed a small wreath of white smoke issuing from a spot about the middle of the forest belt beneath me, and I instantly divined that Nuflo had made a fire at that place, and I resolved to surprise him in his retreat. When I got down to the base of the hill the smoke could no longer be seen, but I had studied the spot well from above, and had singled out a large clump of trees on the edge of the belt as a starting-point; and after a search of half an hour I succeeded in finding the old man's hiding-place. First I saw smoke again through an opening in the trees, then a small rude hut of sticks and palm leaves. Approaching cautiously, I peered through a crack and discovered old Nuflo engaged in smoking some meat over a fire, and at the same time grilling some bones on the coals. He had captured a coatimundi, an animal somewhat larger than a tame tom-cat, with a long snout and long ringed tail; one of the dogs was gnawing at the animal's head, and the tail and the feet were also lying on the floor, among the old bones and rubbish that littered it. Stealing round, I suddenly presented myself at the opening to his den, when the dogs rose up with a growl and Nuflo instantly leaped to his feet, knife in hand.
"Aha, old man," I cried, with a laugh, "I have found you at one of your vegetarian repasts; and your grass-eating dogs as well!"
He was disconcerted and suspicious, but when I explained that I had seen a smoke while on the hills, where I had gone to search for a curious blue flower which grew in such places, and had made my way to it to discover the cause, he recovered confidence and invited me to join him at his dinner of roast meat.
I was hungry by this time and not sorry to get animal food once more; nevertheless, I ate this meat with some disgust, as it had a rank taste and smell, and it was also unpleasant to have those evil-looking dogs savagely gnawing at the animal's head and feet at the same time.
"You see," said the old hypocrite, wiping the grease from his moustache, "this is what I am compelled to do in order to avoid giving offence. My granddaughter is a strange being, sir, as you have perhaps observed — "
"That reminds me," I interrupted, "that I wish you to relate her history to me. She is, as you say, strange, and has speech and faculties unlike ours, which shows that she comes of a different race."
"No, no, her faculties are not different from ours. They are sharper, that is all. It pleases the All-Powerful to give more to some than to others. Not all the fingers on the hand are alike. You will find a man who will take up a guitar and make it speak, while I — "
"All that I understand," I broke in again. "But her origin, her history — that is what I wish to hear."
"And that, sir, is precisely what I am about to relate. Poor child, she was left on my hands by her sainted mother — my daughter, sir — who perished young. Now, her birthplace, where she was taught letters and the Catechism by the priest, was in an unhealthy situation. It was hot and wet — always wet — a place suited to frogs rather than to human beings. At length, thinking that it would suit the child better — for she was pale and weakly — to live in a drier atmosphere among mountains, I brought her to this district. For this, senor, and for all I have done for her, I look for no reward here, but to that place where my daughter has got her foot; not, sir, on the threshold, as you might think, but well inside. For, after all, it is to the authorities above, in spite of some blots which we see in their administration, that we must look for justice. Frankly, sir, this is the whole story of my granddaughter's origin."
"Ah, yes," I returned, "your story explains why she can call a wild bird to her hand, and touch a venomous serpent with her bare foot and receive no harm."
"Doubtless you are right," said the old dissembler. "Living alone in the wood, she had only God's creatures to play and make friends with; and wild animals, I have heard it said, know those who are friendly towards them."