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The Legend of La Brea
Down beside the loathly Pitch Lake, In the stately Morichal, Sat an ancient Spanish Indian, Peering through the columns tall. Watching vainly for the flashing Of the jewelled colibris; Listening vainly for their humming Round the honey-blossomed trees. 'Few,' he sighed, 'they come, and fewer, To the cocorite bowers; Murdered, madly, through the forests Which of yore were theirs—and ours By there came a negro hunter, Lithe and lusty, sleek and strong, Rolling round his sparkling eyeballs, As he loped and lounged along. Rusty firelock on his shoulder; Rusty cutlass on his thigh; Never jollier British subject Rollicked underneath the sky. British law to give him safety, British fleets to guard his shore, And a square of British freehold— He had all we have, and more. Fattening through the endless summer, Like his own provision ground, He had reached the summum bonum Which our latest wits have found. So he thought; and in his hammock Gnawed his junk of sugar-cane, Toasted plantains at the fire-stick, Gnawed, and dozed, and gnawed again. Had a wife in his ajoupa — Or, at least, what did instead; Children, too, who died so early, He'd no need to earn their bread. Never stole, save what he needed, From the Crown woods round about; Never lied, except when summoned— Let the warden find him out. Never drank, except at market; Never beat his sturdy mate; She could hit as hard as he could, And had just as hard a pate. Had no care for priest nor parson, Hope of heaven nor fear of hell; And in all his views of nature Held with Comte and Peter Bell. Healthy, happy, silly, kindly, Neither care nor toil had he, Save to work an hour at sunrise, And then hunt the colibri. Not a bad man; not a good man: Scarce a man at all, one fears, If the Man be that within us Which is born of fire and tears. Round the palm-stems, round the creepers, Flashed a feathered jewel past, Ruby-crested, topaz-throated, Plucked the cocorite bast, Plucked the fallen ceiba-cotton, Whirred away to build his nest, Hung at last, with happy humming, Round some flower he fancied best. Up then went the rusty muzzle, 'Dat de tenth I shot to-day:' But out sprang the Indian shouting, Balked the negro of his prey. 'Eh, you Senor Trinidada! What dis new ondacent plan? Spoil a genl'man's chance ob shooting? I as good as any man. 'Dese not your woods; dese de Queen's woods: You seem not know whar you ar, Gibbin' yuself dese buckra airs here, You black Indian Papist! Dar!' Stately, courteous, stood the Indian; Pointed through the palm-tree shade: 'Does the gentleman of colour Know how yon Pitch Lake was made?' Grinned the negro, grinned and trembled— Through his nerves a shudder ran— Saw a snake-like eye that held him; Saw—he'd met an Obeah man. Saw a fetish—such a bottle— Buried at his cottage door; Toad and spider, dirty water, Rusty nails, and nine charms more. Saw in vision such a cock's head In the path—and it was white! Saw Brinvilliers in his pottage: Faltered, cold and damp with fright. Fearful is the chance of poison: Fearful, too, the great unknown: Magic brings some positivists Humbly on their marrow-bone. Like the wedding-guest enchanted, There he stood, a trembling cur; While the Indian told his story, Like the Ancient Mariner. Told how—'Once that loathly Pitch Lake Was a garden bright and fair; How the Chaymas off the mainland Built their palm ajoupas there. 'How they throve, and how they fattened, Hale and happy, safe and strong; Passed the livelong days in feasting; Passed the nights in dance and song. 'Till they cruel grew, and wanton: Till they killed the colibris. Then outspake the great Good Spirit, Who can see through all the trees, 'Said—"And what have I not sent you, Wanton Chaymas, many a year? Lapp, agouti, cachicame, Quenc and guazu-pita deer. '"Fish I sent you, sent you turtle, Chip-chip, conch, flamingo red, Woodland paui, horned screamer, And blue ramier overhead. '"Plums from balata and mombin, Tania, manioc, water-vine; Let you fell my slim manacques, Tap my sweet moriche wine. '"Sent rich plantains, food of angels; Rich ananas, food of kings; Grudged you none of all my treasures: Save these lovely useless things." 'But the Chaymas' ears were deafened; Blind their eyes, and could not see How a blissful Indian's spirit Lived in every colibri. 'Lived, forgetting toil and sorrow, Ever fair and ever new; Whirring round the dear old woodland, Feeding on the honey-dew. 'Till one evening roared the earthquake: Monkeys howled, and parrots screamed: And the Guaraons at morning Gathered here, as men who dreamed. 'Sunk were gardens, sunk ajoupas; Hut and hammock, man and hound: And above the Chayma village Boiled with pitch the cursed ground. 'Full, and too full; safe, and too safe; Negro man, take care, take care. He that wantons with God's bounties Of God's wrath had best beware. 'For the saucy, reckless, heartless, Evil days are sure in store. You may see the Negro sinking As the Chayma sank of yore.' Loudly laughed that stalwart hunter— 'Eh, what superstitious talk! Nyam am nyam, an' maney maney; Birds am birds, like park am park; An' dere's twenty thousand birdskins Ardered jes' now fram New Yark.'
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