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Chapter Twenty. The Deadly Upas.

“Upas!”

A word sufficient to explain all that had passed. Both Captain Redwood and his ship-carpenter understood its signification; for what man is there who has ever sailed through the islands of the India Archipelago without having heard of the upas? Indeed, who in any part of the world has not either heard or read of this poisonous tree, supposed to carry death to every living thing for a wide distance around it, not even sparing shrubs or plants—things of its own kind—but inflicting blight and destruction wherever its envenomed breath may be wafted on the breeze?

Captain Redwood was a man of too much intelligence, and too well-informed, to have belief in this fabulous tale of the olden time. Still he knew there was enough truth in it to account for all that had occurred—for the vertigo and vomiting, the horrible nausea and utter prostration of strength that had come upon them unconsciously. They had made their camp under one of these baneful trees—the true upas (antiaris toxicaria); they had kindled a fire beneath it, building it close to the trunk—in fact, against it; the smoke had ascended among its leaves; the heat had caused a sudden exudation of the sap; and the envenomed vapour floating about upon the air had freely found its way both into their mouths and nostrils. For hours had this empoisoned atmosphere been their only breath, nearly depriving them of that upon which their lives depended.

If still suffering severely from the effects of having inhaled the noxious vapour, they were now no longer wretched. Their spirits were even restored to a degree of cheerfulness, as is always the case with those who have just escaped from some calamity or danger. They now knew that in due time they would recover their health and strength. The glorious tropical sun that had arisen was shining benignantly in their faces, and brightening everything around, while the breeze, blowing fresh upon them from a serene sapphire-coloured sea, cooled their fevered blood. They felt already reviving. The sensations they experienced were those of one who, late suffering from sea-sickness, pent up in the state-room of a storm-tossed ship, with all its vile odours around him, has been suddenly transferred to terra firma, and laid upon some solid bank, grassy or moss-grown, with tall trees waving above, and the perfume of flowers floating upon the balmy air.

For a long while they sat upon the sands in this pleasant dreamy state, gazing upon the white surf that curled over the coral reefs, gazing upon the blue water beyond, following the flight of large white-winged birds that now and then went plunging down into the sea, to rise up with a fish glistening in their beaks, half unconscious of the scene under their eyes and the strife continuing before them, but conscious, contented, and even joyous at knowing they still lived, and that the time had not yet come for them to die.

They no longer blamed the hornbill for what had happened. The cause was in their own carelessness or imprudence; for Captain Redwood knew the upas-tree, and was well aware of its dangerous properties to those venturing into too close proximity. He had seen it in other islands; for it grows not only in Java, with which its name is more familiarly identified, but in Bali, Celebes, and Borneo. He had seen it elsewhere, and heard it called by different names, according to the different localities, as tayim, hippo, upo, antijar, and upas; all signifying the same thing—the “tree of poison.”

Had he been more careful about the selection of their camping-place, and looked upon its smooth reddish or tan-coloured bark and closely-set leaves of glossy green, he would have recognised and shunned it. He did not do so; for who at such a time could have been thinking of such a catastrophe? Under a tree whose shade seemed so inviting, who would have suspected that danger was lurking, much less that death dwelt among its leaves and branches?

The first had actually arisen, and the last had been very near. But it was now far away, or at least no longer to be dreaded from the poison of the upas. The sickness caused by it would continue for a while, and it might be some time before their strength or energies would be fully restored. But of dying there was no danger, as the poison of the upas does not kill, when only inhaled as a vapour; unless the inhalation be a long time continued. Its sap taken internally, by the chewing of its leaves, bark, or root, is certain death, and speedy death. It is one of the ingredients used by the Bornean Dyaks for tipping their poisoned spears, and the arrows of their sumpitans or blow-guns. They use it in combination with the bina, another deadly poison, extracted from the juice of a parasitical plant found everywhere through the forests of Borneo.

It is singular that the upas-tree should belong to the same natural order, the Artocarpaceae, as the bread-fruit; the tree of death thus being connected with the tree of life. In some of the Indian islands it is called Popon-upas; in Java it is known as the Antijar.

Its leaves are shaped like spear-heads; the fruit is a kind of drupe, clothed in fleshy scales.

The juice, when prepared as a poison, is sometimes mixed with black pepper, and the juice of galanga-root, and of ginger. It is as thick as molasses, and will keep for a long time if sheltered from the action of the air.

The upas does not grow as a gregarious tree, and is nowhere found in numbers. Like the precious treasures of nature—gold, diamonds, and pearls—her poisons, too, happily for man, are sparsely distributed. Even in the climate and soil congenial to it, the antiaris toxicaria is rare; but wherever discovered is sure to be frequently visited, if in a district where there are hunters or warriors wishing to empoison and make more deadly their shafts. A upas-tree in a well-known neighbourhood is usually disfigured by seams and scars, where incisions have been made to extract its envenomed juice.

That there were no such marks upon the one where they had made their camp, was evidence that the neighbourhood was uninhabited. So said Saloo, and the others were but too glad to accept his interpretation of the sign.


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