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for this day I have command here. But, all the same, they are dangerous pigs, these slaves of the Señor O'Brien. I wish the town were rid of them. One day there will be a riot-a function-with their jealousies and madness.”
I sat and said nothing, and things fitted themselves together, little patches of information going in here and there like the pieces of a puzzle map. O'Brien had gone on to Havana in the ship from which I had escaped, to render an account of the pirates that had been hung at Kingston; the Riegos had been landed in boats at Rio Medio, of course.
“That poor Don Carlos!” Castro moaned lamentably. “They had the barbarity to take him out in the night, in that raw fog. He coughed and coughed; it made me faint to hear him. He could not even speak to me—his Tomas; it was pitiful. He could not speak when we got to the Casa."
I could not really understand why I had been a second time kidnapped. Castro said that O'Brien had not been unwilling that I should reach Havana. It was Carlos that had ordered Tomas to take me out of the Breeze. He had come down in the raw morning, before the schooner had put out from behind the point, to impress very elaborate directions upon Tomas Castro; indeed, it was whilst talking to Tomas that he had burst a blood-vessel. “He said to me: 'Have a care now.
Listen. He is my dear friend, that Señor Juan. I love him as if he were my only brother. Be very careful, Tomas Castro. Make it appear that he comes to us much against his will. Let him be dragged on board by many men. to understand, Tomas, that he is a youth of noble family, and that you are to be as careful of compromising him as you are of the honour of Our Lady.'
Tomas Castro looked across at me. “You will be able to report well of me,” he said; “I did my best. If you are compromised, it was you who did it by talking to me as if you knew me.'
I remembered, then, that Tomas certainly had resented my seeming to recognize him before Cowper and Lumsden. He closed his eyes again. After a time he added:
“Vaya! After all, it is foolishness to fear being compromised. You would never believe that his Excellency Don Balthasar had led a riotous life-to look at him with his silver head. It is said he had three friars killed once in Seville, a very, very long time ago. It was dangerous in those days to come against our Mother, the Church.” He paused, and undid his shirt, laying bare an incredibly hairy chest; then slowly kicked off his shoes. “One stifles here,” he said. “Ah! in the old days—
Suddenly he turned to me and said, with an air of indescribable interest, as if he were gloating over an obscene idea:
“So they would hang a gentleman like you, if they caught you? What savages you English people are! what savages! Like cannibals! You did well to make that comedy of resisting. Quel pays !
What a people I dream of them still.
The eyes; the teeth! Ah, well! in an hour we shall be in Rio. I must sleep.
By two of the afternoon we were running into the inlet of Rio Medio. I had come on deck when Tomas Castro had started out of his doze. I wanted to see. We went round violently as I emerged, and, clinging to the side, I saw, in a whirl, tall, baked, brown hills dropping sheer down to a strip of flat land and a belt of dark-green scrub at the water's edge; little pink squares of house-walls dropped here and there, mounting the hillside among palms, like men standing in tall grass, running back, hiding in a steep valley; silver-gray huts with ragged dun roofs, like dishevelled shocks of hair; a great pink church-face, very tall and narrow, pyramidal towards the top, and pierced for seven bells, but having only three. It looked as if it had been hidden for centuries in the folds of an ancient land, as it lay there asleep in the blighting sunlight.
When we anchored, Tomas, beside me in saturnine silence, grunted and spat into the water.
“Look here,” I said. “What is the meaning of it all? What is it? What is at the bottom?"
He shrugged his shoulders gloomily. "If your worship does not know, who should?” he said. “It is not for me to say why people should wish to come here."
"Then take me to Carlos," I said. “I must get this settled.”
Castro looked at me suspiciously. “You will not excite him?” he said. “I have known people die right out when they were like that."
“Oh, I won't excite him," I said.
As we were rowed ashore, he began to point out the houses of the notables. Rio Medio had been one of the principal ports of the Antilles in the seventeenth century, but it had failed before the rivalry of Havana because its harbour would not take the large vessels of modern draft. Now it had no trade, no life, no anything except a bishop and a great monastery, a few retired officials from Havana. A large settlement of ragged thatched huts and clay hovels lay to the west of the cathedral. The Casa Riego was an enormous palace, with windows like loopholes, facing the shore. Don Balthasar practically owned the whole town and all the surrounding country, and, except for his age and feebleness, might have been an absolute monarch.
He had lived in Havana with great splendour, but now, in his failing years, had retired to his palace, from which he had since only twice set foot. This had only been when official ceremonies of extreme importance, such as the international execution of pirates that I had witnessed, demanded the presence of someone of his eminence and lustre. Otherwise he had lived shut up in his palace. There was nowhere in Rio Medio for him to go to.
He was said to regard his intendente O'Brien as the apple of his eye, and had used his influence to get him made one of the judges of the Marine Court. The old Don himself probably knew nothing about the pirates. The inlet had been used by buccaneers ever since the days of Columbus; but they were below his serious consideration, even if he had ever seen them, which Tomas Castro doubted.
There was no doubting the sincerity of his tone.
“Oh, you thought I was a pirate!” he muttered. “For a day-yes—to oblige a Riego, my friend-yes! Moreover, I hate that familiar of the priests, that soft
spoken Juez, intendente, intriguer—that O'Brien. A sufferer for the faith! Que picardía! Have I, too, not suffered for the faith? I am the trusted humble friend of the Riegos. But, perhaps, you think Don Balthasar is himself a pirate! He who has in his veins the blood of the Cid Campeador; whose ancestors have owned half this island since the days of Christopher himself.
“Has he nothing whatever to do with it?” I asked. “After all, it goes on in his own town.”
“Oh, you English,” he muttered; "you are all mad! Would one of your great nobles be a pirate? Perhaps they would-God knows. Alas, alas!” he suddenly broke off, “when I think that my Carlos shall leave his bones in this ungodly place.
I gave up questioning Tomas Castro; he was too much for me.
We entered the grim palace by the shore through an imposing archway, and mounted a broad staircase. In a lofty room, giving off the upper gallery round the central court of the Casa Riego, Carlos lay in a great bed. I stood before him, having pushed aside Tomas Castro, who had been cautiously scratching the great brilliant mahogany panels with a dirty finger-nail.
“Damnation, Carlos!” I said. “This is the third of your treacheries. What do you want with me?"
You might well have imagined he was a descendant of the Cid Campeador, only to look at him lying there without a quiver of a feature, his face stainlessly white, a little bluish in extreme lack of blood, with all the nobility of death upon it, like an alabaster effigy of an old knight in a cathedral. On the red-velvet hangings of the bed was an immense coat-of-arms, worked in silk and surrounded by a collar, with the golden sheep hanging from the ring. The shield was patched in