« PreviousContinue »
Castro's arms shook under the mantle falling all round him straight from the neck. His whole body seemed convulsed. From his puckered dark lips issued a fiendish and derisive squeal.
“Let his friends beware, then. Por Dios! Let them beware. Let them pray and fast, and beg the intercession of the saints. Ha! ha! ha!
Nothing could have been more unlike his saturnine self-centred truculence of restraint. He impressed me; and even Sebright's steady, cool eyes grew perceptibly larger before this sarcastic fury. Castro choked; the rusty, black folds encircling him shook and heaved. Unexpectedly he thrust out in front of the cloak one yellow, dirty little hand, side by side with the bright end of his fixed blade.
“What do I hear? To England! Going to England ! Ha! Then let him hasten there straight! Let him go straight there, I say—I, Tomas Castro!”
He lowered his tone to impress us more, and the point of the knife, as it were an emphatic forefinger, tapped the open palm forcibly. Did we think that a man was not already riding along the coast to Havana on a fast mule?-the very best mule from the stables of Don Balthasar himself-that murdered saint. The Captain-General had no such mules. His late excellency owned a sugar estate halfway between Rio Medio and Havana, and a relay of riding mules was kept there for quickness when his excellency of holy memory found occasion to write his commands to the capital. The news of our escape would reach the Juez next day at the latest. Manuel would take care of that-unless he were drowned. But he could swim like a fish. Malediction!
“I cried out to you to kill!” he addressed me directly; "with all my soul I cried. And why? Because he
had seen you and the señorita, too, alas! He should have been made dumb-made dumb with your pistol, Señor, since those two stupid English mariners were too much for an old man like me. Manuel should have been made dumb, dumb forever, I say. What mattered he—that gutter-born offspring of an evil Gitana, whom I have seen, Señor! I, myself, have seen her in the days of my adversity in Madrid, Señor-a red flower behind the ear, clad in rags that did not cover all her naked skin, looking on while they fought for her with knives in a wine-shop full of beggars and thieves. Si, Señor. That's his mother. Impro isador-politico --capataz. Ha.
“What mattered he? The coach would have returned from the cathedral, and the Casa Riego could have been held for days—and who could have known you were not inside. I had conversed earnestly with Cesar the major-domo—an African, it is true, but a man of much character and excellent sagacity. Ah, Manuel! Manuel! If I But the devil himself fathers the children of such mothers. I am no longer in possession of my first vigour, and you, Señor, have all the folly of your nation He bared his grizzled head to me loftily.
And the courage! Doubtless, that is certain. It is well.
It is well. You may want it all before long, Señor
And the courage!” The broken plume swept the deck. For a time he blinked his creased, brown eyelids in the sun, then pulled his hat low down over his brows, and, wrapping himself up closely, turned away from me to look at the sail to leeward.
“What an old, old, wrinkled, little, puffy beggar he is!” observed Sebright, in an undertone.
“Well, and what is your worship's opinion as to the purpose of that schooner?” Castro shrugged his shoulders. “Who knows?”
He released the gathered folds of his cloak, and moved off without a look at either of us.
“There he struts, with his wings drooping like a turkey-cock gone into deep mourning,” said Sebright. “Who knows? Ah, well, there's no hurry to know for a day or two. I don't think that craft could overhaul the Lion, if they tried ever so. They may manage to keep us in sight perhaps.”
He yawned, and left me standing motionless, thinking of Seraphina. I longed to see her to make sure, as if my belief in the possession of her had been inexplicably weakened. I was going to look at the door of her cabin. But when I got as far as the companion I had to stand aside for Mrs. Williams, who was coming up the winding stairs.
From above I saw the gray woollen shawl thrown over her narrow shoulders. Her parting made a broad line on her brown head. She mounted busily, holding up a little the front of her black, plain skirt. Her glance met mine with a pale, searching candour from below.
Overnight she had heard all my story. She had come out to the saloon whilst I had been giving it to Williams, and after saying reassuringly, “The young lady, I am thankful, is asleep,” she had sat with her eyes fixed upon my lips. I had been aware of her anxious face, and of the slight, nervous movements of her hands at certain portions of my narrative under the blazing lamps. We met now, for the first time, in the daylight.
Hastily, as if barring my road to Seraphina's cabin, “Miss Riego, I would have you know,” she said, "is in good bodily health. I have this moment looked
upon her again. The poor, superstitious young lady is on her knees, crossing herself.”
Mrs. Williams shuddered slightly. It was plain that the sight of that popish practice had given her a shockalmost a scare, as if she had seen a secret and nefarious rite. I explained that Seraphina, being a Catholic, worshipped as her lights enjoined, as we did after ours. Mrs. Williams only sighed at this, and, making an effort, proposed that I should walk with her a little. We began to pace the poop, she gliding with short steps at my side, and drawing close the skimpy shawl about her. The smooth bands of her hair put a shadow into the slight hollows of her temples. No nun, in the chilly meekness of the habit, had ever given me such a strong impression of poverty and renunciation.
But there was in that faded woman a warmth of sentiment. She flushed delicately whenever caught (and one could not help catching her continually) following her husband with eyes that had an expression of maternal uneasiness and the captivated attention of a bride. And after she had got over the idea that I, as a member of the male British aristocracy, was dissolute --it was an article of faith with her--that warmth of sentiment would bring a faint, sympathetic rosiness to her sunken cheeks.
She said suddenly and trembling, “Oh, young sir, reflect upon these things before
these things before it is too late. You young men, in your luxurious, worldly, ungoverned lives
I shall never forget that first talk with her on the poop -her hurried, nervous voice (for she was a timid woman, speaking from a sense of duty), and the extravagant forms her ignorance took. With the emotions of the past night still throbbing in my brain and heart, with the sight of the sea and the coast, with the
Rio Medio schooner hanging on our quarter, I listened to her, and had a hard task to believe my ears. She was so convinced that I was “dissolute,” because of my class—as an earl's grandson.
It is difficult to imagine how she arrived at the conviction; it must have been from pulpit denunciations of the small Bethel on the outskirt of Bristol. Her uncle, J. Perkins, was a great ruffian, certainly, and Williams was dissolute enough, if one wished to call his festive imbecilities by a hard name. But these two could, by no means, be said to belong to the upper classes. And these two, apart from her favourite preacher, were the only two men of whom she could be said to have more than a visual knowledge.
She had spent her best years in domestic slavery to her bachelor uncle, an old shipowner of savage selfishness; she had been the deplorable mistress of his big, half-furnished house, standing in a damp garden full of trees. The outrageous Perkins had been a sailor in his time-mate of a privateer in the great French war, afterwards master of a slaver, developing at last into the owner of a small fleet of West Indiamen. Williams was his favourite captain, whom he would bring home in the evening to drink rum and water, and smoke churchwarden pipes with him. The niece had to sit up, too, at these dismal revels. Old Perkins would keep her out of bed to mix the grogs, till he was ready to climb the bare stone staircase, echoing from top to bottom with his stumbles. However, it seems he dozed a good deal in snatches during the evening, and this, I suppose, gave their opportunity to the pale, spiritual-looking spinster with the patient eyes, and to the thick, staring Williams, florid with good living, and utterly unused to the company of women of that sort. But in what way these two unsimilar beings had looked