Chapter II.

20 Apr

Two husky Varzeans in nothing more than loincloths loaded the visitors’ luggage into the rear of the long land carriage.

Mem Samekh himself drove the large farm vehicle into the forest along a narrow, unpaved road. His sister sat beside him, while the two guests occupied the back seats. The four of them moved ahead slowly, carefully.

“None of my tribers know how to handle a motorized lander like this one,” smirked the planter. “They don’t have any capacity for handling something so complex. Their brains have never developed to where they can work with anything mechanical. They remain a limited population. There is no forward progress in how they live their primitive lives.”

“No one has ever taught them how to drive, Mem,” responded his sister. “Their potential has never been tested or measured, I understand. Who can become competent without opportunity? They have never enjoyed any kind.”

For a moment, none of the four said anything.

“I saw a naked Varzean from our ship,” suddenly revealed Lea.

“We insist that all our tribers stay covered when outdoors or in public,” grumbled the planter. “That was probably a squatter you saw. Someone unattached to a particular latifundium.”

“There are fugitives about in the deepest forests,” noted Thav Samekh. “We even have criminal bands of dacoits in our district. They present a continual problem to the local police, committing crimes like burglaries. There is constant danger posed by them. We witness thievery all the time.”

Lea reacted to this new information instantly.

“You mean there are native bandits and outlaws?” she asked with unhidden excitement in her voice.

The planter at the wheel answered her with soothing words.

“Our armed guards have these malefactors on the run. It is only a matter of time, hopefully very short, until the problem disappears for good. Have no worry, Miss Vexa. We have a safe, secure plantation. No criminals dare to attack us or our holdings. Everything we own is secure.”

Thav then spoke as if to herself alone.

“It is the terrible depression of the economy in Tochsylvania that lies behind the stealing. The tribers no longer have the work they once had when there was demand for our caoutchouc and timber. Conditions have fallen to extreme levels of…”

Her brother interrupted in a curt tone.

“Our friends did not travel this far to hear of such sad matters, my dear. I ask you, Gimel, can you identify the trees along this road?”

The leaf collector had to think a moment.

“Silk-cotton trees,” he ventured. “You Tochians call it the kapok, I believe.”

“Correct, my friend. It is amazing how much you know. The kapok grows up to 150 feet in height and towers over other varieties. It can reach the age of three hundred years. But there is much more that I plan for you to learn here. In the coming days, you shall observe innumerable varieties of our plant life, dear fellow. You shall see for yourself both the beauty and the potential of our forests.”

“That is why we accepted your invitation, my good man,” said the Landian collector of tree leaves, grinning with anticipation. “We are eager to see as much as we can while we are in Tochsylvania. Our curiosity is infinite.”

The plantation manor house, large and sprawling but in disrepair, was surrounded by towering jungle. Gimel Vexa identified purpleheart, greenheart, and crabwood trees from the screened veranda where he and his daughter ate luncheon with the owner and Thav. Breathless enthusiasm filled both his mind and body. He could hardly wait to explore the rich forests he had already seen from a distance. It seemed as if it were calling to him.

The gossoon who served them bowls of raggee was a boy of eleven or twelve. He wore short khaki pants and a brown linen shirt. His face, a yellowish shade of bronze, contained gleaming charcoal eyes. No one could follow the quick, invisible movements and motions of this small Varzean. He was master of the requirements of his position of servility to his oppressive controllers. His own body control had attained an incredible height of development.

The Master spoke as if the servant had no ability to overhear him.

“We still have a squad of six tribers attached to this building,” he boasted to the guests. “Despite the condition of our economy, I refuse to stint on essential comfort. My daughter and I do not deserve to live in a state of scarcity. We do not skimp on our level of well-being. As costly as it may be, we maintain the traditions of the old-time manner of life of our predecessors.”

Gimel Vexa gave him a look of sympathy. “The latifundia of the Tochian forest no longer enjoy foreign markets for their rubber latex since the development of synthetic substitutes, I understand. It is not at all easy to change an established system of production and export to something completely different. A region then becomes the prisoner of its outmoded methods for many years, I fear. That appears to have been what happened in this land of forests in recent times. But the wonderful trees of the forest remain.”

Mem seemed absent for a moment, but then continued the discussion already begun.

“In my father’s day, caoutchouc tapping attained its acme. I recall, as a small boy, when we had over three hundred Varzeans indentured to work a portion of our forest. Today, there are fewer than a third that number. Conditions have radically fallen. Things are not at all as they once were. The market for natural rubber latex abroad has all but dried up. It is only a small fraction of what it was in the past.

“Like our neighbors’ acreage, our holding is under severe obligation to the banks. We have to pay heavy amounts every month that passes. This is a very heavy burden for us to carry.”

The gossoon went around the table, offering each of the four to take some fico figs grown on the latifundium.

Lea decided to add something of her own to the discussion.

“On the riverine, I met a dendrologist who runs a research station near here,” she declared. “It was an interesting experience for me. I have never met anyone like this forest researcher. He seems to be a very interesting person.”

The others at the table turned their eyes toward her.

“You mean Resh Zayeth, an impractical interloper.” Mem’s brow furrowed grimly. “No one pays attention to him and his foolish advice. He tells us owners we should transform the forest completely. I lose no time with that dreamer and ignore him. He lives and thinks in his own world, not reality as it is today. He seems to dwell in a reality all his own, that he himself created. The man is close to being mad.”

Lea brimmed with curiosity. “How would he accomplish such dramatic changes?” she inquired.

“By importing strange, new saplings from the foreign regions they are native to,” grimaced the host. “As if Tochsylvania did not have unique conditions of soil, rain, and weather. And he dreams of making the trees of the forest much higher, using exotic mechanisms and devices to try to accomplish that. It is all fantasy, nothing beyond that. He believes that he can carry out miraculous changes in our traditional jungle forests. In his estimation, our trees are not tall enough but must grow ever higher. This man is a crazy dreamer.”

Gimel suddenly changed the subject to his personal purpose in making the long journey there.

“I am eager to have a look at the leaf collection you wrote me about. Why don’t you show it to me this afternoon, Mem?”

The latter formed an indecipherable smile.

“It was actually put together by my father, not me,” admitted the plantation owner. “I have merely preserved the specimens the way that he left them to me. There are quite a few leaves that come from trees that are now rare and hard to find anywhere in my forest or any other. No one else in this country possesses such a variety of different examples. My collection is rare and unique. There is nothing similar to it anywhere. I believe that I have the right to be proud of my leaves.”

Thav suddenly brought forth a suggestion of her own.

“Why don’t I show Lea about while you two men go through the leaf collection?” she briskly proposed to her brother.

Her sibling accepted the idea at once. “That, then, will be our schedule for this afternoon,” he determined in a firm voice. “Do we all agree?”

Everyone accepted this common schedule of activity for the remainder of the day.

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