« PreviousContinue »
on the head, for everything grew dark; the night seemed to fall on us, as we fought.
Afterwards I found myself lying gasping on my back on the deck of the schooner; four or five men were holding me down. Castro was putting a pistol into his belt. He stamped his foot violently, and then went and shouted in Spanish:
“Come you all on board. You have done mischief enough, fools of Lugareños. Now we go.'
I saw, as in a dream of stress and violence, some men making ready to cast off the schooner, and then, in a supreme effort, an effort of lusty youth and strength, which I remember to this day, I scattered men like chaff, and stood free.
For the fraction of a second I stood, ready to fall I myself, and looking at prostrate men. It was a flash of vision, and then I made a bolt for the rail. I clambered furiously; I saw the deck of the old barque; I had just one exulting sight of it, and then Major Cowper uprose before my eyes and knocked me back on board the schooner, tumbling after me himself.
Twenty men flung themselves upon my body. I made no movement. The end had come. I hadn't
the strength to shake off a fly, my heart was bursting · my ribs. I lay on my back and managed to say, “Give me air." I thought I should die.
Castro, draped in his cloak, stood over me, but Major Cowper fell on his knees near my head, almost sobbing:
“My papers! My papers! I tell you I shall starve. Make them give me back my papers. They ain't any use to them—my pension-mortgages—not worth a penny piece to you.”
He crouched over my face, and the Spaniards stood around, wondering. He begged me to intercede, to save him those papers of the greatest importance.
Castro preserved his attitude of a conspirator. I was touched by the major's distress, and at last I condescended to address Castro on his behalf, though it cost me an effort, for I was angry, indignant, and humiliated.
“Whart—whart? What do I know of his papers? Let him find them.” He waved his hand loftily.
The deck was hillocked with heaps of clothing, of bedding, casks of rum, old hats, and tarpaulins. Cowper ran in and out among the plunder, like a pointer in a turnip field. He was groaning.
Beside one of the pumps was a small pile of shiny cases; ship's instruments, a chronometer in its case, a medicine chest.
Cowper tottered at a black dispatch-box. “There, there!” he said; “I tell you I shall starve if I don't have it. Ask him-ask him- ” He was clutching me like a drowning man.
Castro raised the inevitable arm towards heaven, letting his round black cloak fall into folds like those of an umbrella Cowper gathered that he might take his japanned dispatch-box; he seized the brass handles and rushed towards the side, but at the last moment he had the good impulse to return to me, holding out his hand, and spluttering distractedly, “God bless you, God bless you.” After a time he remembered that I had rescued his wife and child, and he asked God to bless me for that too. “If it is ever necessary,” he said, “on my honour, if you escape, I will come a thousand miles to testify. On my honour remember.” He said he was going to live in Clapham. That is as much as I remember. I was held pinned down to the deck, and he disappeared from my sight. Before the ships had separated, I was carried below in the cabin of the schooner.
They left me alone there, and I sat with my head on
my arms for a long time. I did not think of anything at all; I was too utterly done up with my struggles, and there was nothing to be thought about. I had grown to accept the meanness of things as if I had aged a great deal. I had seen men scratch each other's faces over coat buttons, old shoes-over Mercer's trousers. My own future did not interest me at this stage. I sat up and looked round me.
I was in a small, bare cabin, roughly wainscotted and exceedingly filthy. There were the grease-marks from the backs of heads all along a bulkhead above a wooden bench; the rough table, on which my arms rested, was covered with layers of tallow spots. Bright light shone through a porthole. Two or three ill-assorted muskets slanted about round the foot of the mast—a long old piece, of the time of Pizarro, all red velvet and silver chasing, on a swivelled stand, three English fowlingpieces, and a coachman's blunderbuss. A man was rising from a mattress stretched on the floor; he placed a mandolin, decorated with red favours, on the greasy table. He was shockingly thin, and so tall that his head disturbed the candle-soot on the ceiling. He said: “Ah, I was waiting for the cavalier to awake.”
He stalked round the end of the table, slid between it and the side, and grasped my arm with wrapt earnestness as he settled himself slowly beside me. He wore a red shirt that had become rather black where his long brown ringlets fell on his shoulders; it had tarnished gilt buttons ciphered “G. R.,” stolen, I suppose, from some English ship.
“I beg the Señor Caballero to listen to what I have to record,” he said, with intense gravity. “I cannot bear this much longer—no, I cannot bear my sufferings much longer.”
His face was of a large, classical type; a close-featured, rather long face, with an immense nose that from the front resembled the section of a bell; eyebrows like horseshoes, and very large-pupilled eyes that had the purplish-brown lustre of a horse's. His air was mournful in the extreme, and he began to speak resonantly as if his chest were a sounding-board. He used immensely long sentences, of which I only understood one-half.
“What, then, is the difference between me, Manueldel Popolo Isturiz, and this Tomas Castro? The Señor Caballero can tell at once. Look at me. I am the finer man. I would have you ask the ladies of Rio Medio, and leave the verdict to them. This Castro is an Andalou-a foreigner. And we, the braves of Rio Medio, will suffer no foreigner to make headway with our ladies. Yet this Andalusian is preferred because he is a humble friend of the great Don, and because he is for a few days given the command. I ask you, Señor, what is the radical difference between me, the sailing captain of this vessel, and him, the fighting captain for a few days? Is it not I that am, as it were, the brains of it, and he only its knife? I ask the Señor Caballero.”
I didn't in the least know what to answer. His great eyes wistfully explored my face. I expect I looked bewildered.
“I lay my case at your feet," he continued. “You are to be our chief leader, and, on account of your illustrious birth and renowned intelligence, will occupy a superior position in the council of the notables. Is it not so? Has not the Señor Juez O'Brien so ordained? You will give ear to me, you will alleviate my indignant sufferings?” He implored me with his eyes for a long time.
Manuel-del-Popolo, as he called himself, pushed the hair back from his forehead I had noticed that the love-locks were plaited with black braid, and that he wore large dirty silk ruffles.
“The caballero,” he continued, marking his words with a long, white finger a-tap on the table, “will represent my views to the notables. My position at present, as I have had the honour to observe, is become unbearable. Consider, too, how your worship and I would work together. What lightness for you and me. You will find this Castro unbearably gross. But I-I assure you Iam a man of_taste an improvisador—an artist. My songs are celebrated. And yet!...”
He folded his arms again, and waited; then he said, employing his most impressive voice:
“I have influence with the men of Rio. I could raise a riot. We Cubans are a jealous people; we do not love that foreigners should take our best from us. We do not love it; we will not suffer it. Let this Castro bethink himself and go in peace, leaving us and our ladies. As the proverb says, “It is well to build a bridge for a departing enemy.””
He began to peer at me more wistfully, and his eyes grew more luminous than ever. This man, in spite of his grotesqueness, was quite in earnest, there was no doubting that.
"I have a gentle spirit,” he began again, “a gentle spirit. I am submissive to the legitimate authorities. What the Señor Juez O'Brien asks me to do, I do. I would put a knife into any one who inconvenienced the Señor Juez O'Brien, who is a good Catholic; we would all do that, as is right and fitting. But this Castro—this Andalou, who is nearly as bad as a heretic! When my day comes, I will have his arms flayed and the soles of his feet, and I will rub red pepper into them; and all the men of Rio who do not love foreigners will applaud. And I will stick little thorns under his tongue, and I will