CHAPTER I. REMATE DE MALES, OR "CULMINATION OF EVILS"
My eyes rested long upon the graceful white-painted hull of the R.M.S. Manco as she disappeared behind a bend of the Amazon River, more than 2200 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. After 47 days of continuous travel aboard of her, I was at last standing on the Brazilian frontier, watching the steamer's plume of smoke still hanging lazily over the immense, brooding forests. More than a plume of smoke it was to me then; it was the final link that bound me to the outside world of civilisation. At last it disappeared. I turned and waded through the mud up to a small wooden hut built on poles.
It was the end of January, 1910, that saw me approaching this house, built on Brazilian terra firma - or rather terra aqua, for water was inundating the entire land. I had behind me the Amazon itself, and to the right the Javary River, while the little house that I was heading for was Esperanca, the official frontier station of Brazil. The opposite shore was Peru and presented an unbroken range of dense, swampy forest, grand but desolate to look upon.
A middle-aged man in uniform came towards me and greeted me cordially, in fact embraced me, and, ordering a servant to pull my baggage out of the water, led me up a ladder into the house. I told him that I intended to go up the Javary River, to a place called Remate de Males, where I would live with a medical friend of mine, whereupon he informed me that a launch was due this same night, which would immediately proceed to my proposed destination. Later in the evening the launch came and I embarked after being once more embraced by the courteous Cor. Monteiro, the frontier official. The captain of this small trading launch was an equally hospitable and courteous man; he invited me into his cabin and tried to explain that this river, and the town in particular, where we were going, was a most unhealthy and forbidding place, especially for a foreigner, but he added cheerfully that he knew of one white man, an Englishman, who had succeeded in living for several years on the Javary without being killed by the fever, but incidentally had drank himself to death.
The night was very dark and damp, and I did not see much of the passing scenery; a towering black wall of trees was my total impression during the journey. However, I managed at length to fall asleep on some coffee-bags near the engine and did not wake till the launch was exhausting its steam supply through its whistle.
My next impression was that of a low river bank fringed with dirty houses lighted by candles. People were sitting in hammocks smoking cigarettes, dogs were barking incessantly, and frogs and crickets were making a deafening noise when I walked up the main and only street of this little town, which was to be my headquarters for many months to come.
After some inquiry, I finally found my friend, Dr. M - - , sitting in a dark, dismal room in the so-called Hotel Agosto. With a graceful motion of his hand he pointed to a chair of ancient structure, indicating that having now travelled so many thousand miles to reach this glorious place, I was entitled to sit down and let repose overtake me. Indeed, I was in Remate de Males.
Never shall I forget that first night's experience with mosquitoes and ants. Besides this my debut in a hammock for a bed was a pronounced failure, until a merciful sleep temporarily took me from the sad realities.
Remate de Males lies just where a step farther would plunge one into an unmapped country. It is a little village built on poles; the last "blaze" of civilisation on the trail of the upper river. When the rainy winter season drives out of the forests every living creature that can not take refuge in the trees, the rubber-workers abandon the crude stages of the manufacture that they carry on there and gather in the village to make the best of what life has to offer them in this region. At such times the population rises to the number of some 500 souls, for the most part Brazilians and domesticated Indians or caboclos.
Nothing could better summarise the attractions (!) of the place than the name which has become fixed upon it. Translated into English this means "Culmination of Evils," Remate de Males.
Some thirty years ago, a prospector with his family and servants, in all about a score, arrived at this spot near the junction of the Javary and the Itecoahy rivers, close to the equator. They came by the only possible highway, the river, and decided to settle. Soon the infinite variety of destroyers of human life that abound on the upper Amazon began their work on the little household, reducing its number to four and threatening to wipe it out altogether. But the prospector stuck to it and eventually succeeded in giving mankind a firm hold on this wilderness. In memory of what he and succeeding settlers went through, the village received its cynically descriptive name.