« AnteriorContinuar »
Not a tree, not a bush can be seen; not a spire of grass grows on this vast field of desolation. Often there falls no rain for eighteen months; and the few rivers that flow from the mountains above, upon the accursed land, are lost in the ground as soon as they reach the salinas. When, at last, rain falls again, the salt that bloomed out in bright crystals all over the unbounded steppe is dissolved, and then the plain changes into a broad expanse of black, brackish mud, covered with scattered tufts of succulent plants. But soon the sun returns; perhaps he succeeds, for a few days, in dispelling the thick mists, and in an incredibly short time the water evaporates, and the whole country, as far as eye can reach, presents an even mirror as of ice, on which the rays of light break with such force as to blind the traveler and his faithful horse. Here and there the salt-snow is heaped up by the wind into little drifts of fanciful shape.
The wind from these salinas, blowing most fiercely in December, is the fatal foe of all that lives and breathes. Men, even in their houses, cover face and hands with wet cloths; any unprotected part, touched by the terrible blast, rises instantly in painful blisters. The leaves fall from the trees, as if singed and scorched, and the bark cracks and peels, as if burnt by the intolerable heat. At night, even the locks, latches, and keys, inside of the houses, are so hot that they cannot be touched with the naked hand; men feel as if they were suffocating, and words cannot describe the intense, intolerable suffering.
Not less terrible, though better known, is the renowned Despoblado, the "uninhabited lands"-a plain on a high table-land of the Andes, perhaps 13,000 feet above the surface of the It still belongs to the system of steppes or pampas, that mark so strikingly the southern part of the continent, although it lies high above the line that defines the last growth of shrubs and more perfect plants. For eight hundred long miles, this strange and mysterious plain stretches along between two parallel chains of the Andes, some of whose snowy peaks rise, in unsurpassed grandeur, more than eight thousand feet above this elevated tableland! But what has attracted most curiosity, and is still the marvel of all
travelers, is the fact that this immense plateau is divided into two parts by a deep valley, through which runs the only road between Bolivia and Buenos Ayres. It is more than thirty miles long, and often not a hundred yards wide; steep, towering rocks bound it on both sides. Nearly half way, lies the town of Ingui, and to the north of it the land rises to its full height, until colossal mountains approach on both sides, and closing the unique valley, unite once more above into a level pampa. Here, also, we find winter visiting a land in the tropics with all the severity of Arctic regions; hailstorms and snow-storms, of unheard of fury and fierceness, rage all through the month of July. In the midst of this melancholy region the amazed traveler meets some miserable huts, in which dwell the unhappy children of the ancient Peruvians. They know neither agriculture nor the raising of cattle; proud only of the memory of their fathers, and boasting of many a priceless secret handed down from father to son, they prefer misery in their mournful home to abundance under foreign masters. Their whole wealth consists in a few lamas, their main occupation is the chase of alpacas, guanacos, and chinchillas, of which uncounted numbers are annually sent to the great marts of Europe. A few wash gold, after heavy rains; others gather snow, and carry it down to the lower country. Here, also, extensive plains of salt occur, which the inhabitants break into large pieces, and loading their patient lamas with the pure, sparkling burden, sell it in the nearest cities. Travelers are apt to become "salt-blind," from the insufferable glare of the sun on these mirror-like plains, as those on the high glaciers and ice-fields of the Alps become "snow-blind."
Such are the pampas of our continent, where, in the day, the sun moves from the right to the left, and at noon stands in the north; where, at night, the glorious sign of the southern heaven-the great southern cross-shines with unwonted brilliancy-the comfort of the blind heathen, the sweet symbol of the Christian; where, by night and by day, in all seasons and all ages, we may hear the words: "Arise, go forth into the plain, and I will there talk with thee!" and behold, as the prophet did, "the glory of the Lord standing there."
PART I-THE COCKPIT.
"The ship was cheered, the harbor cleared;
Below the kirk, below the hill,
WAS sitting one dull, dreary morn
great outward satisfaction-at the fire, when the bell rang, and the postman brought me a letter. It was a portentous looking document, wrapped in a huge yellow envelope, sealed with a great splatch of red wax, and franked over the address, with the ominous words, "Navy Department. Official business."
I have not the least doubt that many a poor trembling mariner has endured the same heart-sick feelings, as came over my spirits, on beholding a similar terrible engine-so calculated to scatter dismay in peaceful families-when about to be pryed out of a happy berth on shore, and sent away out upon the salt seas, to the Lord only knows where.
The long, slim icicles, which hung stiff and sharp from the branches of the trees in front of the windows, rattling in the rough blasts of a bleak March wind, were not colder or more dismal than I was, as I slowly tore off the cover of the document. I knew, by instinct, what would be the contents, and I was not a whit wide of the mark. It was very brief-these epistles usually areand it was couched in the ordinary cast -a peremptory, and by no means affectionate, style.
This was its purport: "Sir,-you are hereby appointed flag lieutenant of the Mediterranean squadron, and will proceed forthwith to report for duty on board the frigate Cumberland." While perusing this explicit and expressive missive, I recollect there was a spark flew in both my eyes from the fire; and when the baby was brought to me, as was customary in the morning, to fondle and tumble about the carpet, I could hardly see the little witch, though her downy cheeks were buried in my whiskers, and the soft, fat arms were twined around my throat.
"Another cruise, my dear," said I to my wife, pointing to the paper, which had fallen open upon the floor. you won't go, will you?" exclaimed my
help-mate with a shudder, as we nearly let the baby drop, between us. "Why, you know I must;" I replied, mechanically, "unless I toss up my commission and resign, and one don't care to take a step of that nature, here in the middle of the month, for it's so apt to derange the purser's accounts, andso I fear there's no help for me."
The servant announced breakfast. "What will you have?" inquired my help-mate, as she took a place at the table. "Tea, of the blackest and strongest decoction," I said sadly, for the document had taken the edge off my appetite for solids; and be assured, brother sailor, that tea is your friend on these occasions, for it gives you a stout and indifferent heart.
It is needless to relate how, for a time, there were individuals about the premises, busily employed making up all sorts of linen, and other invisible gear; while the tailors fitted me out in blue broadcloth and bullion; until finally my kit was pronounced perfect, and away I went.
Very sad it made me to go, and I was not chary of epithets upon the world at large, and the Navy Department in particular; but one may as well rail at the northwest wind, while the breakers are dashing on a lee shore, as to look for sympathy in that quarter; and so I might have saved my breath.
I joined the frigate, I remember, in a blinding snow-storm. She lay chained to the piers of the dock-yard, with her lofty masts, black yards, spar deck, and battery, sheeted in snow, while the boats coming from the receiving hulk, in the stream, were crowded with a living freight, which were to compose the crew. There were about five hundred of these last, consisting of the usual reckless, careless spirits, who roam over the ocean, from all climes, and of all nations, including a goodly portion of newly imported wild Irishmen, and a few hardy Yankee salts.
The ship was commissioned, and about a fortnight after, in addi