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Europe to the service of his king, had fought against the French, had a price put upon his head by a special proclamation. He had known passion, power, war, exile, and love. He had been thanked by his returned king, honoured for his wisdom, and crushed with sorrow by the death of his young wife-Seraphina's mother.
What a life! And what was my arm—my arm on which he had leaned in his decay? I looked at it with a sort of surprise, dubiously. What was expected of it? I asked myself. Would it have the strength? Ah, let her only lean on it!
It seemed to me that I would have the power to shake down heavy pillars of stone, like Samson, in her service; to reach up and take the stars, one by one, to lay at her feet. I heard a sigh. A shadow appeared in the gallery.
The door of my room was open. Leaning my back against the balustrade, I saw the black figure of the Father Antonio, muttering over his breviary, enter the space of the light.
He crossed himself, and stopped with a friendly, “You are taking the air, my son. The night is warm. He was rubicund, and his little eyes looked me over with priestly mansuetude.
I said it was warm indeed. I liked him instinctively.
He lifted his eyes to the starry sky. “The orbs are shining excessively," he said; then added, “To the greater glory of God. One is never tired of contemplating this sublime spectacle."
“How is Don Carlos, your reverence?” I asked.
“My beloved penitent sleeps,” he answered, peering at me benevolently; "he reposes. Do you know, young caballero, that I have been a prisoner of war in your country, and am acquainted with Londres? I was chaplain of the ship San José at the battle of Trafalgar.
On my soul, it is, indeed, a blessed, fertile country, full of beauty and of well-disposed hearts. I have never failed since to say every day an especial prayer for its return to our holy mother, the Church. Because I love it.”
I said nothing to this, only bowing; and he laid a short, thick hand on my shoulder.
“May your coming amongst us, my son, bring calmness to a Christian soul too much troubled with the affairs of this world.” He sighed, nodded to me with a friendly, sad smile, and began to mutter his prayers as he went.
Don BALTHASAR accepted my presence without a question. Perhaps he fancied he had invited me; of my manner of coming he was ignorant, of course. O'Brien, who had gone on to Havana in the ship which had landed the Riegos in Rio Medio, gave no sign of life. And yet, on the arrival of the Breeze, he must have found out I was no longer on board. I forgot the danger suspended over my head. For a fortnight I lived as if in a dream.
“What is the action you want me to take, Carlos?” I asked one day.
Propped up with pillows, he looked at me with the big eyes of his emaciation.
“I would like best to see you marry my cousin. Once before a woman of our race had married an Englishman. She had been happy. English things last foreverEnglish peace, English power, English fidelity. It is a country of much serenity, of order, of stable affection.
His voice was very weak and full of faith. I remained silent, overwhelmed at this secret of my innermost heart, voiced by his bloodless lips—as if a dream had come to pass, as if a miracle had taken place. He added, with an indefinable smile of an almost unearthly wistfulness:
“I would have married your sister, my Juan.”
He had on him the glamour of things English-of English power emerging from the dust of wars and revolution; of England stable and undismayed, like a strong
man who had kept his feet in the tottering of secular edifices shaken to their foundations by an earthquake. It was as if for him that were something fine, something romantic, just as for me romance had always seemed to be embodied in his features, in his glance, and to live in the air he breathed. On the other side of the bed the old Don, lost in a high-backed armchair, remained plunged in that meditation of the old which resembles sleep, as sleep resembles death. The priest, lighted up by the narrow, bright streak of the window, was reading his breviary through a pair of enormous spectacles. The white coif of the nun hovered in distant corners of the room.
We were constantly talking of O'Brien. He was the only subject of all our conversations; and when Carlos inveighed against the Intendente, the old Don nodded sadly in his chair. He was dishonouring the name of the Riegos, Carlos would exclaim feebly, turning his head towards his uncle. His uncle's own province, the name of his own town, stood for a refuge of the scum of the Antilles. It was a shameful sanctuary. Every ruffian, rascal, murderer, and thief of the West Indies had come to think of this ancient and honourable town as a safe haven.
I myself could very well remember the Jamaica household expression, “The Rio Medio piracies,” and all these paragraphs in the home papers that reached us a month old headed, “The Activity of the So-called Mexican Privateers,” and urging upon our Government the necessity of energetic remonstrances in Madrid. “The fact, incredible as it may appear,” said the writers, “seeming to be that the nest of these Picaroons is actually within the loyal dominions of the Spanish Crown.” If Spain, our press said, resented our recognition of South American independence, let it do so openly, not by countenancing criminals. It was unworthy of a great nation. “Our West Indian trade is being stabbed in the back," declaimed the Bristol Mirror. “Where is our fleet?” it asked. “If the Cuban authorities are unable or unwilling, let us take the matter in our own hands."
There was a great deal of mystery about this peculiar outbreak of lawlessness that seemed to be directed so pointedly against the British trade. The town of Rio Medio was alluded to as one of the unapproachable towns of the earth—closed, like the capital of Prester John to the travellers, or Mecca to the infidels. Nobody I ever met in Jamaica had set eyes on the place. The impression prevailed that no stranger could come out of it alive. Incredible stories were told of it in the island, and indignation at its existence grew at home and in the colonies.
Admiral Rowley, an old fighter, grown a bit lazy, no diplomatist (the stories of his being venal, I take it, were simply abominable calumnies), unable to get anything out of the Cuban authorities but promises and lofty protestations, had made up his mind, under direct pressure from home, to take matters into his own hands. His boat attack had been a half-and-half affair, for all that. He intended, he had said, to go to the bottom of the thing, and find out what there was in the place; but he could not believe that anybody would dare offer resistance to the boats of an English squadron. They were sent in as if for an exploration rather than for an armed landing.
It ended in a disaster, and a sense of wonder had been added to the mystery of the fabulous Rio Medio organization. The Cuban authorities protested against the warlike operations attempted in a friendly country; at the same time, they had delivered the seven pirates