Continuing the diary of an anonymous nineteenth-century Jesuit, translated and annotated by Brigadier Sir George A.M.F. MacPhail (author of Up the Congo with Crossbow).
The effects of drinking a copious amount of foreign water when in a state of mental and physical upset need not be documented here. Suffice it to say that none of us slept, and that I feel sorry for any traveller who may stumble on the remains of our encampment.
By sunrise, the pangs of hunger were unbearable. We did not have to go far to quench them. The forest floor was littered with all kinds of exotic fruit, which presumably had fallen from the vast canopy above our heads. I breakfasted on a mild fruit with pinkish-orange flesh and a tough green skin. The effect does not seem to be noxious – or, if so, it is difficult to tell.
None of us had the heart to resume our discussion of the day before. It was agreed by all that we should walk a little further and see if we could find any further habitation, or at least a clear point where we might light a beacon. Our path along the river had a definite upward incline which, said Father Spada, was a very hopeful sign indeed – although what he should know about it I am not certain. Father Dalmasso said rather curtly that perhaps we ought not to think quite so much about being rescued after all. Who knew but we might have some useful ministry to perform here? We had come to the New World to continue our work, and here we were, and since we had come this far we might as well get on with it.
I agreed with him – agree with him, of course, wholeheartedly, but must confess to a definite tendency to think wistfully of Turin, and my mother.
We took the can, and the spear, and I tucked my paper and pencil into the breast of my cassock, and we set off to walk.
In this dim forest, it is hard to chart the passage of time. The day seemed endless, and after a while the gentle incline of our path seemed the purest form of torture. I soon came to regret my cassock, which was heavy and stiff with dried salt-water – but to take it off, as Father Spada had done, and walk around in my shirt and drawers was unthinkable. The cassock was all that remained to me of my priestly dignity – the sea had stripped me of the rest.
(Besides, Father Spada’s legs have since come up in evil-looking red welts – I do not think his decision wise.)
The long walk meant that I had ample opportunity to observe the life of this strange forest. I was happy to see that the beasts who inhabit this place kept well away from us – happy, because it surely means that they are accustomed to human company and therefore shy of it. We heard their noise and their chatter, but saw nothing of them beyond some movement in the trees above our heads. The birds were bolder: one only had to be still for a moment, and they would swoop down to fish or forage. We sat down by the water at what we judged to be midday for a poor lunch of fruit, and in that time the stream was visited by birds of the most extraordinary form and colour, from bright scarlet to emerald and sapphire blue – a wondrous sight, spoiled only by Father Olivero muttering that what we really need is a bow and arrow.
As for the fearsome river predators for which the New World is famous, we have as yet met none – I think this little stream is thankfully too narrow to admit them.
We were still walking as night fell, with no sight of reaching the top of the rise, but there was no further discussion to be had. All four of us were now possessed of the conviction that we were here for some definite reason, and that it would be cowardly to turn back now when we might so easily come across some impoverished community of savages where our charism could be usefully employed. This strength of purpose was perhaps aided by our having caught and killed some sort of local animal: a fat brown creature with a sad-comic face, immense front teeth and a barrel body borne on short, thin legs. The one we found was almost certainly half-way to death already – it seemed tired, and it greeted Father Spada’s spear-blow with something like resignation. We made our fire and ate the first fresh red meat we had consumed since leaving home. I feel that sleep will come rather more easily tonight.
[The usual pieties follow. – G.M.]
We have been walking in the same way now for several days, following the river. Even if I had plenty of paper (and I do not, nor is there any sign of finding more), there has been little to record. The gruelling monotony of it all has been broken only by discussions so petty, so unworthy, that I would blush to recall them, much less write them down.
Dear God, give me the strength and the wisdom to survive this ordeal – grant me patience and generosity of spirit – fortify me in body and mind. Thy will be done. Amen.
Even the birds are quiet, and yet there is still no sign of human life. My spirits are oppressed – my imagination turns morbid. It is the hunger, I am certain. I have eaten nothing in the last days but fruit and my share of the occasional rat – they, at least, are not afraid – my brain is surely weakened, maddened, and still I cannot shake off the idea that
[The rest of this entry has been torn out, I suspect by the author’s own hand. – G.M.]
© Alix Montague 2015