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HOME > Classical Novels > The Boy Travellers in Mexico > CHAPTER XXVIII.
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While considering the accounts of the ruins of ancient cities in Mexico and the countries bordering it, our young friends came upon allusions to a "mysterious city," somewhere in the unexplored region of tropical forests lying to the southward. Their curiosity was excited, and they wondered if such a city really existed.
They found that two explorers, Stephens and Morelet, believed in its existence, and though they tried hard to reach it were unable to do so. Stephens learned of it from the cura of Quiche, a native town of Guatemala,
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 who claimed to have looked upon the city from the wall of rock surrounding the valley where it stands. He had heard of it many years before at the village of Chajul. He was then young, and had climbed to the top of the ridge which the Indians indicated, and from his elevated stand-point looked down upon the plain and the white walls and towers of the city glistening in the sun. It covered a large area, and its people were advanced in the arts and capable of making a vigorous defence against all intruders.
"Wouldn't that be an expedition worth making?" said Frank to Fred, after they had read the account in Mr. Stephens's book. "Just think of it! to be able to discover the mysterious city which no white man has ever returned from!"
"Yes, that's the tradition concerning it," was the reply. "Several white men have gone there, but no one has ever returned from it to tell the story of what he saw."
"Writers on the subject are not very encouraging," said Frank, "as they assert that the Indians in this mysterious city murder every white man who comes within their boundaries. Not even the Spanish padres are permitted to enter, and they are usually able to go where no other white man dare try to penetrate."
Frank read and reread all the attainable descriptions of the mysterious city, and his imagination was fired almost to the degree of explosion. "The inhabitants understand," he remarked, "that a white race has conquered the rest of the country, but they are determined not to be conquered. They have no coin or other circulating medium, no horses, cattle, mules, or other domestic animals except fowls, and they keep these underground so that the crowing of the cocks will not be heard."
Probably Frank's belief was largely influenced by the circumstance that such a careful explorer as Stephens accepted the story as true; in speaking of it he uses these words: "I conceive it to be not impossible that in this secluded region may exist, at this day, unknown to white men,
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 a living, aboriginal city, occupied by relics of the ancient race, who still worship in the temples of their fathers."
In writing an introduction to the narrative of the travels of Arthur Morelet, who spent several years in that country, and evidently believed in the existence of the mysterious city, Mr. E. G. Squier says as follows:
"There is a region lying between Chiapas, Tabasco, Yucatan, and the Republic of Guatemala, and comprising a considerable portion of each of those States, which, if not entirely blank, is only conjecturally filled up with mountains, lakes, and rivers. It is almost as unknown as the interior of Africa itself.... Within its depths, far off on some unknown tributary
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 of the Usumasinta, the popular tradition of Guatemala and Chiapas places the great aboriginal city, with its white walls shining like silver in the sun, which the cura of Quiche affirmed he had seen with his own eyes from the tops of the mountains of Quezaltenango."
A Guatemalan gentleman, Don Pedro Velasquez, claims to have accompanied two young gentlemen of Baltimore, who succeeded in reaching the mysterious city a few years after the account of Stephens was published. Having once reached the city they were not harmed; but when they attempted to escape they were seized, and one of them was sacrificed on the altar of the Sun, after the manner of the Aztec sacrifices already described. The other made his escape, but was so badly wounded that he died in the forest. Don Pedro and a few Indians who accompanied the young gentlemen managed to get away with their lives, but only by running great risks. The account he gives of their adventures is not very clear, and it has not secured a prominent place in the history of scientific explorations.
A few years ago an enterprising American naturalist, Mr. F. A. Ober, was on the borders of this unexplored region, and was greatly tempted to venture alone in search of the mysterious city, and particularly to learn about the fauna and flora that abound in its vicinity. It would have been madness for him to have undertaken the journey, and he wisely refrained from doing so; he is still of opinion that the examination of this unknown and unconquered region offers a fine field for the naturalist, and for societies engaged in promoting scientific investigation.
After mature deliberation Frank and Fred concluded that the exploration of this unknown region was not practicable just at that time, but they would keep it in mind, and perhaps might lead an expedition thither at some future day.
Doctor Bronson suggested that in the mean while they could amuse themselves by reading "The Phantom City," a romance based upon the stories told by Stephens and others. He thought that the romance might contain hints which would be useful in case they should fit out their expedition. "At all events," said he, "it is an interesting story, and will well repay perusal."
The steamer made a brief halt at Carmen, an insignificant town on an island on the coast, and then proceeded to Campeachy, where she anchored about five miles from shore. There was quite a ground-swell on the sea, which would have made a journey to the shore somewhat uncomfortable, with the possibility, in case the wind increased, of being detained there until the next steamer happened along. So our friends concluded to acquaint
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 themselves with Campeachy by looking at it from the deck of the vessel; all day they lay there, and long before the sun went down the youths were impatient to be on their way.
As they looked upon the white walls of the city glistening in the sun, it was no great stretch of the imagination for them to believe they were repeating the experience of the cura of Quiche, and gazing from the top of the mountain chain which he claims to have ascended. They learned that Campeachy was once of more importance than it is to-day; it has a population of 20,000, and is built of a white limestone that is very abundant in the neighborhood. Its houses are nearly all of but one story in height, and the city is surrounded by walls which were built by the Spaniards when they founded a settlement here.
An interesting feature of Campeachy is the great number of subterranean caves in the hills on which it stands, some of them natural and some artificial. These caves were made by the Indians long ago; most of them have been explored in search of treasure, of which very little was obtained. Numerous skulls and skeletons were found there, and it is evident that the caves were used as burial-places, and are much like the catacombs of Oriental countries. A few of them have been utilized as cellars by the inhabitants, but only a few; the Indians of to-day have a good many
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 superstitions concerning the caves, and look with an unfriendly eye upon any one who desecrates them.
A lighter came alongside with some cargo for the steamer, and Frank made a note of what it brought. There were hides of cattle, deer-skins, sugar in bags made of the pita plant, bales of that textile product, beeswax, and a considerable quantity of Campeachy cigars. The tobacco grown in the States of Campeachy and Tabasco is of very good quality, and the cigars are often sold for "Havanas" in foreign markets.
Frank learned that logwood is an important article of trade on this part of the coast, but it is mostly shipped on sailing-vessels, on account of the lower charge for freight. Carmen has a considerable commerce in logwood, which grows so extensively that there is no immediate danger of the exhaustion of the supply, especially as its cultivation has extended to other countries by planting the seed or transplanting the young trees.
"Logwood is used for dyeing purposes," wrote Frank, after he had informed himself concerning it, "and also in medicine. There is a belief that it is used by wine-makers in coloring claret quite as much as for dyeing cloth or leather. The tree is usually about twenty-five feet high and fifteen inches in diameter. Only the 'heart' of the trunk contains the dyeing substance, and this is the part exported, the outer sap-wood being cut off in the forest as soon as the tree is felled. The logwood-cutters have a hard life, and their business is less profitable of late years, owing to the extensive use of aniline dyes."
A passenger who came on board the steamer at Campeachy had as part of his baggage a cage containing a bird of remarkable plumage. It presented a variety of colors—green, golden, red, and white—and its tail feathers were so long that they seemed out of all proportion to the size of the creature's body. Frank and Fred were immediately attracted to it, and asked what it was.
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"It is a quezal, or quetzal," was the reply, "which was at one time the sacred and imperial bird of Mexico. The one you see here is not a fine specimen. Sometimes you find these birds with the tail feathers four feet long; and in ancient times none but the emperors were permitted to wear them. Perhaps you saw the feather cloak of Montezuma in the museum at the capital? Well, the feathers that adorn that cloak came from the quezal, and the bird is so rare that it takes a long time to gather feathers enough to make a single garment.
"The quezal is still regarded with much respect by the Indians of this part of the country and of Central America, but less so than in the days of the Montezumas. As it darts through the forest its feathers flash like a moving rainbow, and remind us of the accounts that Eastern travellers have given of the bird-of-paradise. It is rarely taken alive, and is so shy that the hunter can only approach it with difficulty.
"This region abounds in birds," continued his informant, "and also with less pleasing things to meet—snakes. Some of the serpents are large and others are venomous. It is a fortunate thing for travellers in the forest that the snake seeks safety in flight when he can do so, and does not voluntarily attack man. Birds and small animals are his prey, and he takes them after the same fashion as the serpents of the rest of the world."
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Fred asked what was the most dangerous of the serpents of this tropical region.
"The worst I know of," was the reply, "is the vivora de sangre, which causes the blood of man or beast to sweat through the pores of the body until the veins are exhausted and the victim dies in a state of utter weakness. It is literally a case of bleeding to death, though not in the ordinary way of opening the veins."
Then he told of another serpent called the mica, or whipping-snake, which when irritated flattens its head upon the ground and seems to fasten it there. Then it lashes on either side with its tail like a whip, and it strikes a blow of wonderful ............
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