« PreviousContinue »
kulted tun window he put in bu
HE entrance to the common prison of Havana was a sort of lofty tunnel, finished by great, iron-rusted, wooden
gates. A civil guard was exhibiting the judge's warrant for my committal to a white-haired man, with a red face and blue eyes, that seemed to look through tumbled bushes of silver eyebrows—the alcayde of the prison. He bowed, and rattled two farcically large keys. A practicable postern was ajar on the yellow wood of the studded gates. It was as if it afforded a glimpse of the other side of the world. The venerable turnkey, a gnome in a steeple-crowned hat, protruded a blood-red hand backwards in the direction of the postern.
"Señor Caballero," he croaked, “I pray you to consider this house your own. My servants are yours.”
Within was a gravel yard, shut in by portentous lead-white house-sides with black window holes. Under each row of windows was a vast vaulted tunnel, caged with iron bars, for all the world like beasts' dens. It being day, the beasts were out and lounging about the patio. They had an effect of infinite tranquillity, as if they were ladies and gentlemen parading in a Sunday avenue. Perhaps twenty of them, in snowy white shirts and black velvet knee-breeches, strutted like pigeons in a knot, some with one woman on the arm, some with two. Bundles of variegated rags lay against the walls, as if they were sweepings. Well, they were the sweepings of Havana jail. The men in white and black were the great thieves . . . and there were children, too the place was the city orphanage. For the fifth part of a second my advent made no difference. Then, at the far end, one of the men in black and white separated himself, and came swiftly to me across the sunny patio. The others followed slowly, with pea-fowl steps, their women hanging to them and whispering. The bundles of rags rose up towards me; others slunk furtively out of the barred dens. The man who was approaching had the head of a Julius Cæsar of fifty, for all the world as if he had stolen a bust and endowed it with yellow skin and stubby gray and silver hair. He saluted me with intense gravity, and an imperial glance of yellow eyes along a hooked nose. His linen was the most spotless broidered and embossed stuff; from the crimson scarf round his waist protruded the shagreen and silver handle of a long dagger. He said:
“Señor, I have the honor to salute you. I am Crisostomo Garcia. I ask the courtesy of your trousers.”
I did not answer him. I did not see what he wanted with my trousers, which weren't anyway as valuable as his own. The others were closing in on me like a solid wall. I leant back against the gate; I was not frightened, but I was mightily excited. The man like Cæsar looked fiercely at me, swayed a long way back on his haunches, and imperiously motioned the crowd to recede.
“Señor Inglesito,” he said, “ the gift I have the honor to ask of you is the price of my protection. Without it these, my brothers, will tear you limb from limb, there will nothing of you remain.”
His brothers set up a stealthy, sinister growl, that went round among the heads like the mutter of an obscene echo among the mountain-tops. I wondered whether this, perhaps, was the man who, O'Brien said, would put a knife in my back. I hadn't any knife; I might knock the fellow's teeth down his throat, though.
The alcayde thrust his immense hat, blood-red face, and long, ragged, silver locks out of the little door. His features were convulsed with indignation. He had been whispering with the Civil Guard.
"Are you mad, gentlemen?" he said. “Do you wish to visit hell before your times? Do you know who the señor is? Did you ever hear of Carlos el Demonio? This is the Inglesito of Rio Medio!”
It was plain that my deeds, such as they were, reported by O'Brien spies, by the Lugareños, by all sorts of credulous gossipers, had got me the devil of a reputation in the patio of the jail. Men detached themselves from the crowd, and went running about to announce my arrival. The alcayde drew his long body into the patio, and turned to lock the little door with an immense
key. In the crowd all sorts of little movements happened. Women crossed themselves, and furtively thrust pairs of crooked, skinny, brown, black-nailed fingers in my direction. The man like Cæsar said:
“I ask your pardon, Señor Caballero. I did not know. How could I tell? You are free of all the patios in this land."
The tall alcayde finished grinding the immense key in the lock, and touched me on the arm.
“ If the señor will follow me,” he said. “I will do the honors of this humble mansion, and indicate a choice of rooms where he may be free from the visits of these gentry.”
We went up steps, and through long, shadowy corridors, with here and there a dark, lounging figure, like a stag seen in the dim aisles of a wood. The alcayde threw open a door.
The room was like a blazing oblong box, filled with light, but without window or chimney. Two men were fencing in the illumination of some twenty candles stuck all round the mildewed white walls on lumps of clay. There was a blaze of silver things, like an altar of a wealthy church, from a black, carved table in the far corner. The two men, in shirts and breeches, revolved round each other, their rapiers clinking, their left arms scarved, holding buttoned daggers. The alcayde proclaimed:
“Don Vincente Salazar, I have the honor to announce an English señor."
The man with his face to me tossed his rapier impatiently into a corner. He was a plump, dark Cuban, with a brooding truculence. The other faced round quickly. His cheeks shone in the candle-light like polished yellow leather, his eyes were narrow slits, his face lugubrious. He scrutinized me intently, then drawled :
"My! You? ... Hang me if I didn't think it would be you!”
He had the air of surveying a monstrosity, and pulled the neck of his dirty print shirt open, panting. He slouched out into the corridor, and began whispering eagerly to the alcayde. The little Cuban glowered at me; I said I had the honor to salute him.
He muttered something contemptuous between his teeth. Well,
if he didn't want to talk to me, I didn't want to talk to him. It had struck me that the tall, sallow man was undoubtedly the second mate of the Thames. Nichols, the real Nikola el Escoces ! The Cuban grumbled suddenly:
“You, señor, are without doubt one of the spies of that friend of the priests, that O'Brien. Tell him to beware—that I bid him beware. I, Don Vincente Salazar de Valdepeñas y Forli y ..."
I remembered the name; he was once the suitor of Seraphina -the man O'Brien had put out of the way. He continued with a grotesque frown of portentous significance:
“To-morrow I leave this place. And your compatriot is very much afraid, señor. Let him fear! Let him fear! But a thousand spies should not save him."
The tall alcayde came hurriedly back and stood bowing between us. He apologized abjectly to the Cuban for introducing me upon him. But the room was the best in the place at the disposal of the prisoners of the Juez O'Brien. And I was a noted caballero. Heaven knows what I had not done in Rio Medio. Burnt, slain, ravished. ... The Señor Juez was understood to be much incensed against me. The gloomy Cuban at once rushed upon me, as if he would have taken me into his arms.
“The Inglesito of Rio Medio!” he said. “Ha, ha! Much have I heard of you. Much of the señor's valiance! Many tales !
That foul eater of the carrion of the priests wishes your life! Ah, but let him beware! I shall save you, señor-I, Don Vincente Salazar.”
He presented me with the room—a remarkably bare place but for his properties: silver branch candlesticks, a silver chafing-dish as large as a basin. They might have been chased by Cellini-one used to find things like that in Cuba in those days, and Salazar was the person to have them. Afterwards, at the time of the first insurrection, his eight-mule harness was sold for four thousand pounds in Paris-by reason of the gold and pearls upon it. The atmosphere, he explained, was fetid, but his man was coming to burn sandal-wood and beat the air with fans.
“And to-morrow!” he said, his eyes rolling. Suddenly he stopped. “Señor," he said, “is it true that my venerated friend, my more than father, has been murdered at the instigation of
the the shadow wards the ... Come w
that fiend? Is it true that the señorita has disappeared? These tales are told.”
I said it was very true.
“They shall be avenged,” he declared, “to-morrow! I shall seek out the señorita. I shall find her. I shall find her! For me she was destined by my venerable friend.”
He snatched a black velvet jacket from the table and put it on.
"Afterwards, señor, you shall relate. Have no fear. I shall save you. I shall save all men oppressed by this scourge of the land. For the moment afford me the opportunity to meditate." He crossed his arms, and dropped his round head. “Alas, yes!” he meditated.
Suddenly he waved towards the door. “Señor," he said swiftly, “I must have air; I stifle. Come with me to the corridor. . .,"
He went towards the window giving on to the patio; he stood in the shadow, his arms folded, his head hanging dejectedly. At the moment it grew suddenly dark, as if a veil had been thrown over a lamp. The sun had set outside the walls. A drum began to beat. Down below in the obscurity the crowd separated into three strings and moved slowly towards the barren tunnels. Under our feet the white shirts disappeared; the ragged crowd gravitated to the left; the small children strung into the square cage-door. The drum beat again and the crowd hurried. Then there was a clang of closing grilles and lights began to show behind the bars from deep recesses. In a little time there was a repulsive hash of heads and limbs to be seen under the arches vanishing a long way within, and a little light washed across the gravel of the patio from within.
“Señor," the Cuban said suddenly, “I will pronounce his panegyric. He was a man of a great gentleness, of an inevitable nobility, of an invariable courtesy. Where, in this degenerate age, shall we find the like!” He stopped to breathe a sound of intense exasperation.
"When I think of these Irish, ....” he said. “Of that O'Brien. ..." A servant was arranging the shining room that we had left. Salazar interrupted himself to give some orders about a banquet, then returned to me. “I tell you I am here for introducing my knife to the spine of some sort of Madrid embus