« PreviousContinue »
profound, tomb-like stillness of the great house, I had heard the sound of his footsteps on the tesselated pavement from afar. Now he had turned the corner, and the calm, strolling pace of his approach was enough to strike awe into an adversary's heart. It never hesitated, not once; never hurried; never slower till they stopped. He stood in the doorway. I suppose, in that big room, by the light of two candles, I must have presented an impressive picture of a menacing youth all in black, with a tense face, and holding a naked, long rapier in his hand. At any rate, he stood still, eying me from the doorway, the picture of a dapper Spanish lawyer in a lofty frame; all in black, also, with a fair head and a well-turned leg advanced in a black silk stocking. He had taken off his riding boots. For the rest, I had never seen him dressed otherwise. There was no weapon in his hand, or at his side. I lowered the point, and, seeing he remained on the doorstep, as if not willing to trust himself within, I said disdainfully: “You don't suppose I would murder a defenseless man.” “Am I defenseless?” He had a slight lift of the eyebrows. “That is news, indeed. It is you who are supposing. I have been a very certain man for this many a year.” “How can you know how an English gentleman would feel and act? I am neither a murderer nor yet an intriguer.” He walked right in rapidly, and, getting round to the other side of the table, drew a small pistol out of his breeches pocket. “You see—I am not trusting too much to your English generosity.” He laid the pistol negligently on the table. I had turned about on my heels. As we stood, by lunging between the two candlesticks, I should have been able to run him through the body before he could cry out. I laid the sword on the table. “Would you trust a damned Irish rebel?” he asked. “You are wrong in your surmise. I would have nothing to do with a rebel, even in my thoughts and suppositions. I think that the Intendente of Don Balthasar Riego would look twice before murdering in a bedroom the guest of the house—a relation, a friend of the family.”
“That's sensible,” he said, with that unalterable air of good nature, which sometimes was like the most cruel mockery of humor. “And do you think that even a relation of the Riegos would escape the scaffold for killing Don Patricio O'Brien, one of the Royal Judges of the Marine Court, member of the Council, Procurator to the Chapter. . . .” “Intendente of the Casa,” I threw in. “That's my gratitude,” he said gravely. “So you see. . . . “Supreme chief of thieves and picaroons,” I suggested again. He answered this by a gesture of disdainful superiority. “I wonder if you—if any of you English—would have the courage to risk your all—ambition, pride, position, wealth, peace of mind, your dearest hope, your self-respect—like this. For an idea.” His tone, that revealed something exalted and sad behind everything that was sordid and base in the acts of that man's villainous tools, struck me with astonishment. I beheld, as an inseparable whole, the contemptible result, the childishness of his imagination, the danger of his recklessness, and something like loftiness in his pitiful illusion. “Nothing's too hot, too dirty, too heavy. Any way to get at you English; any means. To strike! That's the thing. I would die happy if I knew I had helped to detach from you one island— one little island of all the earth you have filched away, stolen, taken by force, got by lying. . . . Don't taunt me with your taunts of thieves. What weapons better worthy of you could I use? Oh, I am modest. I am modest. This is a little thing, this Jamaica. What do I care for the Separationist blatherskite more than for the loyal fools? You are all English to me. If I had my way, your Empire would die of pin-pricks all over its big-overgrown body. Let only one bit drop off. If robbing your ships may help it, then, as you see me standing here, I am ready to go myself in a leaky boat. I tell you Jamaica's gone. And that may be the beginning of the end.” He lifted his arm not at me, but at England, if I may judge from his burning stare. It was not to me he was speaking. There we were, Irish and English, face to face, as it had been ever since we had met in the narrow way of the world that had never been big enough for the tribes, the nations, the races of man.
“Now, Mr. O'Brien, I don't know what you may do to me, but I won't listen to any of this,” I said, very red in the face. “Who wants you to listen?” he muttered absently, and went away from the table to look out of the loophole, leaving me there with the sword and the pistol. Whatever he might have said of the scaffold, this was very imprudent of him. It was characteristic of the man—of that impulsiveness which existed in him side by side with his sagacity, with his coolness in intrigue, with his unmerciful and revengeful temper. By my own feelings I understood what an imprudence it was. But he was turning his back on me, and how could I? . . . His imprudence was so complete that it made for security. He did not, I am sure, remember my existence. I would just as soon have jumped with a dagger upon a man in the dark. He was really stirred to his depths—to the depths of his hate, and of his love—by seeing me, an insignificant youth (I was no more), surge up suddenly in his path. He turned where he stood at last, and contemplated me with a sort of thoughtful surprise, as though he had tried to account to himself for my existence. “No,” he said, to himself really, “I wonder when I look at you. How did you manage to get that pretty reputation over there? Ramon's a fool. He shall know it to his cost. But the craftiness of that Carlos! Or is it only my confounded willingness to believe?” He was putting his finger nearly on the very spot. I said nothing. “Why,” he exclaimed, “when it's all boiled down, you are only an English beggar boy.” “I've come to a man's estate since we had met last,” I said meaningly. He seemed to meditate over this. His face never changed, except, perhaps, to an even more amused benignity of expression. “You have lived very fast by that account,” he remarked artlessly. “Is it possible, now? Well, life, as you know, can't last forever; and, indeed, taking a better look at you in this poor light, you do seem to be very near death." I did not flinch; and, with a very dry mouth, I uttered defiantly: “Such talk means nothing.”
“Bravely said. But this is not talk. You've gone too fast. I am giving you a chance to turn back.”
“Not an inch,” I said fiercely. “Neither in thought, in deed; not even in semblance.” He seemed as though he wanted to swallow a bone in his throat. “Believe me, there is more in life than you think. There is at your age, more than . . .” he had a strange contortion of the body, as though in a sudden access of internal pain; that humorous smile, that abode in the form of his lips, changed into a ghastly, forced grin . . . “than one love in a life—more than one woman.” I believe he tried to leer at me, because his voice was absolutely dying in his throat. My indignation was boundless. I cried out with the fire of deathless conviction. “It is not true. You know it is not true.” He was speechless for a time; then, shaking and stammering with that inward rage that seemed to heave like molten lava in his breast, without ever coming to the surface of his face: “What! Is it I, then, who have to go back? For—for you— a boy—come from devil knows where—an English, beggarly. . . . For a girl's whim. . . . I–a man.” He calmed down. “ No; you are mad. You are dreaming. You don't know. You can't—you! You don't know what a man is; you with your calf-love a day old. How dare you look at me who have breathed for years in the very air? You fool—you little, wretched fool! For years sleeping, and waking, and working. . . .” “And intriguing,” I broke in, “and plotting, and deceiving— for years.” This calmed him altogether. “I am a man; you are but a boy; or else I would not have to tell you that your love"—he choked at the word—“is to mine like—like—” His eyes fell on a cut-glass water-ewer, and, with a convulsive sweep of his arm, he sent it flying far away from the table. It fell heavily, shattering itself with the unringing thud of a piece of ice. “Like this.” He remained for some time with his eyes fixed on the table, and when he looked up at me it was with a sort of amused incredulity.
Histone was not resentful. He spoke in a business-like manner, a little contemptuously. I had only Don Carlos to thank for the position in which I found myself. What the “poor devil over there "expected from me, he, O'Brien, would not inquire. It was a ridiculous boy and girl affair. If those two—meaning Carlos and Seraphina—had not been so mighty clever, I should have been safe now in Jamaica jail, on a charge of treasonable practices. He seemed to find the idea funny. Well, anyhow, he had meant no worse by me than my own dear countrymen. When he, O'Brien, had found how absurdly he had been hoodwinked by Don Carlos —the poor devil—and misled by Ramon—he would make him smart for it, yet—all he had intended to do was to lodge me in Havana jail. On his word of honor. . . . “Me in jail!” I cried angrily. “You—you would dare! On what charge? You could not. . . .” “You don't know what Pat O'Brien can do in Cuba.” The little country solicitor came out in a flash from under the Spanish lawyer. Then he frowned slightly at me. “You being an Englishman, I would have had you taken up on a charge of stealing.” Blood rushed to my face. I lost control over myself. “Mr. O'Brien,” I said, “I dare say you could have trumped up anything against me. You are a very great scoundrel.” “Why? Because I don't lie about my motives, as you all do? I would wish you to know that I would scorn to lie either to myself or to you.” I touched the haft of the sword on the table. It was lying with the point his way. “I had been thinking,” said I, in great heat, “to propose to you that we should fight it out between us two, man to man, rebel and traitor as you have been.” “The devil you have!” he muttered. “But really you are too much of a Picaroon. I think the gallows should be your end.” I gave reins to my exasperation, because I felt myself hopelessly in his power. What he was driving at, I could not tell. I had an intolerable sense of being as much at his mercy as though I had been lying bound hand and foot on the floor. It gave me pleasure to tell him what I thought. And, perhaps, I was not quite candid,