Ah, that return to the forest where Rima dwelt, after so anxious day, when the declining sun shone hotly still, and the green woodland shadows were so grateful! The coolness, the sense of security, allayed the fever and excitement I had suffered on the open savannah; I walked leisurely, pausing often to listen to some bird voice or to admire some rare insect or parasitic flower shining star-like in the shade. There was a strangely delightful sensation in me. I likened myself to a child that, startled at something it had seen while out playing in the sun, flies to its mother to feel her caressing hand on its cheek and forget its tremors. And describing what I felt in that way, I was a little ashamed and laughed at myself; nevertheless the feeling was very sweet. At that moment Mother and Nature seemed one and the same thing. As I kept to the more open part of the wood, on its southernmost border, the red flame of the sinking sun was seen at intervals through the deep humid green of the higher foliage. How every object it touched took from it a new wonderful glory! At one spot, high up where the foliage was scanty, and slender bush ropes and moss depended like broken cordage from a dead limb — just there, bathing itself in that glory-giving light, I noticed a fluttering bird, and stood still to watch its antics. Now it would cling, head downwards, to the slender twigs, wings and tail open; then, righting itself, it would flit from waving line to line, dropping lower and lower; and anon soar upwards a distance of twenty feet and alight to recommence the flitting and swaying and dropping towards the earth. It was one of those birds that have a polished plumage, and as it moved this way and that, flirting its feathers, they caught the beams and shone at moments like glass or burnished metal. Suddenly another bird of the same kind dropped down to it as if from the sky, straight and swift as a falling stone; and the first bird sprang up to meet the comer, and after rapidly wheeling round each other for a moment, they fled away in company, screaming shrilly through the wood, and were instantly lost to sight, while their jubilant cries came back fainter and fainter at each repetition.
I envied them not their wings: at that moment earth did not seem fixed and solid beneath me, nor I bound by gravity to it. The faint, floating clouds, the blue infinite heaven itself, seemed not more ethereal and free than I, or the ground I walked on. The low, stony hills on my right hand, of which I caught occasional glimpses through the trees, looking now blue and delicate in the level rays, were no more than the billowy projections on the moving cloud of earth: the trees of unnumbered kinds — great more, cecropia, and greenheart, bush and fern and suspended lianas, and tall palms balancing their feathery foliage on slender stems — all was but a fantastic mist embroidery covering the surface of that floating cloud on which my feet were set, and which floated with me near the sun.
The red evening flame had vanished from the summits of the trees, the sun was setting, the woods in shadow, when I got to the end of my walk. I did not approach the house on the side of the door, yet by some means those within became aware of my presence, for out they came in a great hurry, Rima leading the way, Nuflo behind her, waving his arms and shouting. But as I drew near, the girl dropped behind and stood motionless regarding me, her face pallid and showing strong excitement. I could scarcely remove my eyes from her eloquent countenance: I seemed to read in it relief and gladness mingled with surprise and something like vexation. She was piqued perhaps that I had taken her by surprise, that after much watching for me in the wood I had come through it undetected when she was indoors.
"Happy the eyes that see you!" shouted the old man, laughing boisterously.
"Happy are mine that look on Rima again," I answered. "I have been long absent."
"Long — you may say so," returned Nuflo. "We had given you up. We said that, alarmed at the thought of the journey to Riolama, you had abandoned us."
"WE said!" exclaimed Rima, her pallid face suddenly flushing. "I spoke differently."
"Yes, I know — I know!" he said airily, waving his hand. "You said that he was in danger, that he was kept against his will from coming. He is present now — let him speak."
"She was right," I said. "Ah, Nuflo, old man, you have lived long, and got much experience, but not insight — not that inner vision that sees further than the eyes."
"No, not that — I know what you mean," he answered. Then, tossing his hand towards the sky, he added: "The knowledge you speak of comes from there."
The girl had been listening with keen interest, glancing from one to the other. "What!" she spoke suddenly, as if unable to keep silence, "do you think, grandfather, that SHE tells me — when there is danger — when the rain will cease — when the wind will blow — everything? Do I not ask and listen, lying awake at night? She is always silent, like the stars."
Then, pointing to me with her finger, she finished:
"HE knows so many things! Who tells them to HIM?"
"But distinguish, Rima. You do not distinguish the great from the little," he answered loftily. "WE know a thousand things, but they are things that any man with a forehead can learn. The knowledge that comes from the blue is not like that — it is more important and miraculous. Is it not so, senor?" he ended, appealing to me.
"Is it, then, left for me to decide?" said I, addressing the girl.
But though her face was towards me, she refused to meet my look and was silent. Silent, but not satisfied: she doubted still, and had perhaps caught something in my tone that strengthened her doubt.
Old Nuflo understood the expression. "Look at me, Rima," he said, drawing himself up. "I am old, and he is young — do I not know best? I have spoken and have decided it."
Still that unconvinced expression, and her face turned expectant to me.
"Am I to decide?" I repeated.
"Who, then?" she said at last, her voice scarcely more than a murmur; yet there was reproach in the tone, as if she had made a long speech and I had tyrannously driven her to it.
"Thus, then, I decide," said I. "To each of us, as to every kind of animal, even to small birds and insects, and to every kind of plant, there is given something peculiar — a fragrance, a melody, a special instinct, an art, a knowledge, which no other has. And to Rima has been given this quickness of mind and power to divine distant things; it is hers, just as swiftness and grace and changeful, brilliant colour are the hummingbird's; therefore she need not that anyone dwelling in the blue should instruct her."
The old man frowned and shook his head; while she, after one swift, shy glance at my face, and with something like a smile flitting over her delicate lips, turned and re-entered the house.
I felt convinced from that parting look that she had understood me, that my words had in some sort given her relief; for, strong as was her faith in the supernatural, she appeared as ready to escape from it, when a way of escape offered, as from the limp cotton gown and constrained manner worn in the house. The religion and cotton dress were evidently remains of her early training at the settlement of Voa.