Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon
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_nil_. Benito guided his movements by those of the raft, which the
long poles of the Indians kept just over his head.
The light penetrated deep through the clear waters, and the
magnificent sun, shining in a cloudless sky, shot its rays down into
them unchecked. Under ordinary conditions, at a depth of some twenty
feet in water, the view becomes exceedingly blurred, but here the
waters seemed to be impregnated with a luminous fluid, and Benito was
able to descend still lower without the darkness concealing the river
The young man slowly made his way along the bank. With his iron-shod
spear he probed the plants and rubbish accumulated along its foot.
Flocks of fish, if we can use such an expression, escaped on all
sides from the dense thickets like flocks of birds. It seemed as
though the thousand pieces of a broken mirror glimmered through the
waters. At the same time scores of crustaceans scampered over the
sand, like huge ants hurrying from their hills.
Notwithstanding that Benito did not leave a single point of the river
unexplored, he never caught sight of the object of his search. He
noticed, however, that the slope of the river bed was very abrupt,
and he concluded that Torres had rolled beyond the eddy toward the
center of the stream. If so, he would probably still recover the
body, for the current could hardly touch it at the depth, which was
already great, and seemed sensibly to increase. Benito then resolved
to pursue his investigations on the side where he had begun to probe
the vegetation. This was why he continued to advance in that
direction, and the raft had to follow him during a quarter of an
hour, as had been previously arranged.
The quarter of an hour had elapsed, and Benito had found nothing. He
felt the need of ascending to the surface, so as to once more
experience those physiological conditions in which he could recoup
his strength. In certain spots, where the depth of the river
necessitated it, he had had to descend about thirty feet. He had thus
to support a pressure almost equal to an atmosphere, with the result
of the physical fatigue and mental agitation which attack those who
are not used to this kind of work. Benito then pulled the
communication cord, and the men on the raft commenced to haul him in,
but they worked slowly, taking a minute to draw him up two or three
feet so as not to produce in his internal organs the dreadful effects
As soon as the young man had set foot on the raft the metallic sphere
of the diving-dress was raised, and he took a long breath and sat
down to rest.
The pirogues immediately rowed alongside. Manoel, Fragoso, and Araujo
came close to him, waiting for him to speak.
"Well?" asked Manoel.
"Still nothing! Nothing!"
"Have you not seen a trace?"
"Shall I go down now?"
"No, Manoel," answered Benito; "I have begun; I know where to go. Let
me do it!"
Benito then explained to the pilot that his intention was to visit
the lower part of the bank up to the Bar of Frias, for there the
slope had perhaps stopped the corpse, if, floating between the two
streams, it had in the least degree been affected by the current. But
first he wanted to skirt the bank and carefully explore a sort of
hole formed in the slope of the bed, to the bottom of which the poles
had evidently not been able to penetrate. Araujo approved of this
plan, and made the necessary preparations.
Manoel gave Benito a little advice. "As you want to pursue your
search on that side," he said, "the raft will have to go over there
obliquely; but mind what you are doing, Benito. That is much deeper
than where you have been yet; it may be fifty or sixty feet, and you
will have to support a pressure of quite two atmospheres. Only
venture with extreme caution, or you may lose your presence of mind,
or no longer know where you are or what to do. If your head feels as
if in a vice, and your ears tingle, do not hesitate to give us the
signal, and we will at once haul you up. You can then begin again if
you like, as you will have got accustomed to move about in the deeper
parts of the river."
Benito promised to attend to these hints, of which he recognized the
importance. He was particularly struck with the fact that his
presence of mind might abandon him at the very moment he wanted it
Benito shook hands with Manoel; the sphere of the diving-dress was
again screwed to his neck, the pump began to work, and the diver once
more disappeared beneath the stream.
The raft was then taken about forty feet along the left bank, but as
it moved toward the center of the river the current increased in
strength, the ubas were moored, and the rowers kept it from drifting,
so as only to allow it to advance with extreme slowness.
Benito descended very gently, and again found himself on the firm
sand. When his heels touched the ground it could be seen, by the
length of the haulage cord, that he was at a depth of some sixty-five
or seventy feet. He was therefore in a considerable hole, excavated
far below the ordinary level.
The liquid medium was more obscure, but the limpidity of these
transparent waters still allowed the light to penetrate sufficiently
for Benito to distinguish the objects scattered on the bed of the
river, and to approach them with some safety. Besides, the sand,
sprinkled with mica flakes, seemed to form a sort of reflector, and
the very grains could be counted glittering like luminous dust.
Benito moved on, examining and sounding the smallest cavities with
his spear. He continued to advance very slowly; the communication
cord was paid out, and as the pipes which served for the inlet and
outlet of the air were never tightened, the pump was worked under the
Benito turned off so as to reach the middle of the bed of the Amazon,
where there was the greatest depression. Sometimes profound obscurity
thickened around him, and then he could see nothing, so feeble was
the light; but this was a purely passing phenomenon, and due to the
raft, which, floating above his head, intercepted the solar rays and
made the night replace the day. An instant afterward the huge shadow
would be dissipated, and the reflection of the sands appear again in
All the time Benito was going deeper. He felt the increase of the
pressure with which his body was wrapped by the liquid mass. His
respiration became less easy; the retractibility of his organs no
longer worked with as much ease as in the midst of an atmosphere more
conveniently adapted for them. And so he found himself under the
action of physiological effects to which he was unaccustomed. The
rumbling grew louder in his ears, but as his thought was always
lucid, as he felt that the action of his brain was quite clear--even
a little more so than usual--he delayed giving the signal for return,
and continued to go down deeper still.
Suddenly, in the subdued light which surrounded him, his attention
was attracted by a confused mass. It seemed to take the form of a
corpse, entangled beneath a clump of aquatic plants. Intense
excitement seized him. He stepped toward the mass; with his spear he
felt it. It was the carcass of a huge cayman, already reduced to a
skeleton, and which the current of the Rio Negro had swept into the
bed of the Amazon. Benito recoiled, and, in spite of the assertions
of the pilot, the thought recurred to him that some living cayman
might even then be met with in the deeps near the Bar of Frias!
But he repelled the idea, and continued his progress, so as to reach
the bottom of the depression.
And now he had arrived at a depth of from eighty to a hundred feet,
and consequently was experiencing a pressure of three atmospheres.
If, then, this cavity was also drawn blank, he would have to suspend
Experience has shown that the extreme limit for such submarine
explorations lies between a hundred and twenty and a hundred and
thirty feet, and that below this there is great danger, the human
organism not only being hindered from performing his functions under
such a pressure, but the apparatus failing to keep up a sufficient
supply of air with the desirable regularity.
But Benito was resolved to go as far as his mental powers and
physical energies would let him. By some strange presentiment he was
drawn toward this abyss; it seemed to him as though the corpse was
very likely to have rolled to the bottom of the hole, and that
Torres, if he had any heavy things about him, such as a belt
containing either money or arms, would have sunk to the very lowest
point. Of a sudden, in a deep hollow, he saw a body through the
gloom! Yes! A corpse, still clothed, stretched out like a man asleep,
with his arms folded under his head!
Was that Torres? In the obscurity, then very dense, he found it
difficult to see; but it was a human body that lay there, less than
ten paces off, and perfectly motionless!
A sharp pang shot through Benito. His heart, for an instant, ceased
to beat. He thought he was going to lose consciousness. By a supreme
effort he recovered himself. He stepped toward the corpse.
Suddenly a shock as violent as unexpected made his whole frame
vibrate! A logn whip seemed to twine round his body, and in spite of
the thick diving-dress he felt himself lashed again and again.
"A gymnotus!" he said.
It was the only word that passed his lips.
In fact, it was a _"puraque,"_ the name given by the Brazilians to
the gymnotus, or electric snake, which had just attacked him.
It is well known that the gymnotus is a kind of eel, with a blackish,
slimy skin, furnished along the back and tail with an apparatus
composed of plates joined by vertical lamellę, and acted on by nerves
of considerable power. This apparatus is endowed with singular
electrical properties, and is apt to produce very formidable results.
Some of these gymnotuses are about the length of a common snake,
others are about ten feet long, while others, which, however, are
rare, even reach fifteen or twenty feet, and are from eight to ten