. . . . . .
We passed out of the Hittia Indian village, still continuing to walk along the savanna till we came to a small lake or pond which I had long wished to see, not only on account of its excellent fish, of which I had more than once eaten at the house of “Mother Leps,” but also on account of a superstitious dread which the Indians, and not they only, had of the lake.
Mr. Leps reminds one of those thoughtful, almost saturnine gentlemen, under whose searching eyes one is scarcely ever at ease. His legend of the Hittia lake is—
The Mermaid's Lake.—There was a captain of Indians who was also a Piai priest and doctor. He lived on this savanna. His little daughter went down to the river every day to bathe, and was frequently seen splashing, diving, and swimming with a companion of apparently her own age. Much notice was not taken of her doings, as she was a spoilt and wayward child, and allowed by her fond father to do, and to go, whatever and wherever she liked. But one day she was missing.
Evening came, and the captain's daughter was not at home. Search was made for her in the river, but without success. At night the piaiman's wailing was heard supplicating the spirits of the river and savanna to inspire him with the knowledge of his daughter's fate. At the dawn of day he went down to the river and searched about the bank, rattling his goubi-shak-shak, or magic gourd, as it is indiscriminately called(but properly, as by themselves, eumaraca), and chanting in plaintive and sorrowful tones.
At times he would place his ears to the ground and shake his eumaraca, and listen as if seeking to discover by sound a hollow space under ground—a passage from the river. Thus he went on, forming for himself an irregular path upward to the savanna, until he came to the lake. Here he sat down, and in sweetest tones implored for the restitution of his child. There was a motion in the water, and then appeared a mintje mama, mermaid, or merman, (Guiana legends tend to the belief of the hermaphrodite nature of these mysterious and fabulous creatures,) who laughed derisively and tauntingly while swimming about and lashing the water with his tail. Arrow after arrow, with unerring aim, sped from the captain's bow.
The merman's head and breast were covered with them. He sank down into the lake. But his descent was for a moment only. He returned, and with him the captain's daughter swimming around and plucking out the arrows from the head and breast of her mysterious lover. The captain, tantalised and enraged beyond forbearance at this explicit sign of his daughter's unnatural affection, plunged into the pond with his uplifted cutlass, slashing right and left. A terrible commotion ensued, the water everywhere bubbled and foamed. But the captain has never been seen from that day.
In the bright moonlight nights an occasional Indian traveller passing by, and ignorant of the legend, has heard a woman's voice lamenting. It is the voice of the captain's daughter chanting the death song for her father's memory. In the dry season, when the lake is almost dry, they say that the merman and his Indian wife have retired to the river, and drawn the water after them.
One of these odd days or another, Mr. Leps will most certainly “catch a Tartar,” as he persists against knowledge, and to the horror of the Hittia Indians, to dredge the “Mermaid's Lake” with his net, and to take out of it fish of delicious flavour.
I was one day repeating this story to a Dutch creole lady of the river, who in her younger days was an expert huntress with the gun and bow. She knew the story, and believed it. She had herself been troubled by a mischievous “merchild” (probably an otter or water-dog), who at one time went regularly to her fish pen and liberated the fishes entrapped. One day she caught him in the very act, and railed out at him; but he lashed his tail about and laughed heartily, as amused at her ill-temper.