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“Sit on this chair,” and went on without stopping. I took a chair near the marble rim of the basin with its border of English flowers, its splashing thread of water. The goldfishes that had been lying motionless, with their heads pointing different ways, glided into a bunch to the fall of my shadow, waiting for crumbs of bread. Father Antonio, his head down, and the open breviary under his nose, brushed my foot with the skirt of his cassock. “Have you any plan?” When he came back, walking very slowly, I said, “None.” At his next turn I pronounced rapidly, “I should like to see Carlos.” He frowned over the edge of the book. I understood that he refused to let me in. And, after all, why should I disturb that dying man? The news about him was that he felt stronger that day. But he was preparing for eternity. Father Antonio's business was to save souls. I felt horribly crushed and alone. The priest asked, hardly moving his lips: “What do you trust to?” I had the time to meditate my reply. “Tell Carlos I think of escape by sea.” He made a little sign of assent, turned off towards the staircase, and went back to the sick room. “The folly of it,” I thought. How could I think of it? Escape where? I dared not even show myself outside the Casa. My safety within depended on old Cesar more than on anybody else. He had the key of the gate, and the gate was practically the only thing between me and a miserable death at the hands of the first ruffian I met outside. And with the thought I seemed to stifle in that patio open to the sky. That gate seemed to cut off the breath of life from me. I was there, as if in a trap. Should I—I asked myself—try to enlighten Don Balthasar? Why not? He would understand me. I would tell him that in his own town, as he always called Rio Medio, there lurked assassination for his guest. That would move him if anything could. He was then walking with O'Brien after dinner, as he had walked with me on the day of my arrival. Only Seraphina had not appeared, and we three men had sat out the silent meal alone. They stopped as I approached, and Don Balthasar listened to me benignantly. “Ah, yes, yes! Times have changed.” But there was no reason for alarm. There were some undesirable persons. Had they not arrived lately? He turned to O'Brien, who stood by, in readiness to resume the walk, and answered, “Yes, quite lately. Very undesirable,” in a matter-of-fact tone. The excellent Don Patricio would take measures to have them removed, the old man soothed me. But it was not really dangerous for anyone to go out. Again he addressed O'Brien, who only smiled gently, as much as to say, “What an absurdity.” I must not forget, continued the old man, the veneration for the very name of Riego that still, thank Heaven, survived in these godless and revolutionary times in the Riegos' own town. He straightened his back a little, looking at me with dignity, and then glanced at the other, who inclined his head affirmatively. The utter and complete hopelessness of the position appalled me for a moment. The old man had not put foot outside his door for years, not even to go to church. Father Antonio said Mass for him every day in the little chapel next the dining room. When O'Brien—for his own purposes, and the better to conceal his own connection with the Rio Medio piracies—had persuaded him to go to Jamaica officially, he had been rowed in state to the ship waiting outside. For many years now it had been impossible to enlighten him as to the true condition of affairs. He listened to people's talk as though it had been children's prattle. I have related how he received Carlos' denunciations. If one insisted, he would draw himself up in displeasure. But in his decay he had preserved a great dignity, a grave firmness that intimidated me a little. I did not, of course, insist that evening, and, after giving me my dismissal in a gesture of blessing, he resumed his engrossing conversation with O'Brien. It related to the services commemorating his wife's death, those services that, once every twelve months, draped in black all the churches in Havana. A hundred masses, no less, had to be said that day; a distribution of alms had to be made. O'Brien was charged with all the arrangements, and I caught, as they crept past me up and down the patio, snatches of phrases relating to this mournful function, when all the capital was invited to pray for the soul of the illustrious lady. The priest of the church of San Antonio had said this and that; the grand vicar of the diocese had made difficulties about something; however, by the archbishop's special grace, no less than three altars would be draped
in the cathedral.
I saw Don Balthasar smile with an ineffable satisfaction; he thanked O'Brien for his zeal, and seemed to lean more familiarly on his arm. His voice trembled with eagerness. “And now, my excellent Don Patricio, as to the number of candles. . . .” I stood for a while as if rooted to the spot, overwhelmed by my insignificance. O'Brien never once looked my way. Then, hanging my head, I went slowly up the white staircase towards my IOOin. Cesar, going his rounds along the gallery, shuffled his silk-clad shanks smartly between two young negroes balancing lanthorns suspended on the shafts of their halberds. That little group had a mediaeval and outlandish aspect. Cesar carried a bunch of keys in one hand, his staff of office in the other. He stood aside, in his maroon velvet and gold lace, holding the three-cornered hat under his arm, bowing his gray, woolly head—the most venerable and deferential of major-domos. His attendants, backing against the wall, grounded their halberds heavily at my approach. He stepped out to intercept me, and, with great discretion, “Señor, a word,” he said in his subdued voice. “A moment ago I have been called within the door of our señorita's apartments. She has given me this for your worship, together with many compliments. It is a seal. The señor will understand.” I took it; it was a tiny seal with her monogram on it. “Yes,” I said. “And Señorita Doña Seraphina has charged me to repeat”— he made a stealthy sign, as if to counteract an evil influence —“the words, “Two lives—one death.’ The señor will understand.” “Yes," I said, looking away with a pang at my heart. He touched my elbow. “And to trust Cesar. Señor, I dandled her when she was quite little. Let me most earnestly urge upon your worship not to go near the windows, especially if there is light in your worship's room. Evil men are gazing upon the house, and I have seen myself the glint of a musket at the end of the street. The moon grows fast, too. The señorita begs you to trust Cesar.” “Are there many men?” I asked. “Not many in sight; I have seen only one. But by signs, open to a man of my experience, I suspect many more to be about.” Then, as I looked down on the ground, he added parenthetically, “They are poor shots, one and all, lacking the very firmness of manhood necessary to discharge a piece with a good aim. Still, señor, I am ordered to entreat you to be cautious. Strange it is that to-night, from the great revelry at the Aldea Bajo, one might think they had just visited an English ship outside.” A ship! a ship! of any sort. But how to get out of the Casa? Murder forbade me even as much as to look out of the windows. Was there a ship outside? Cesar was positive there was not— not since I had arrived. Besides, the empty sea itself was unattainable, it seemed. I pressed the seal to my lips. “Tell the señorita how I received her gift,” I said; and the old negro inclined his head lower still. “Tell her that as the letters of her name are graved on this, so are all the words she has spoken graven on my heart.” They went away busily, the lanthorns swinging about the axheads of the halberds, Cesar's staff tapping the stones. I shut my door, and buried my face in the pillows of the state bed. My mental anguish was excessive; action, alone, could relieve it. I had been battling with my thoughts like a man fighting with shadows. I could see no issue to such a struggle, and I prayed for something tangible to encounter—something that one could overcome or go under to. I must have fallen suddenly asleep, because there was a lion in front of me. It lashed its tail, and beyond the indistinct agitation of the brute I saw Seraphina. I tried to shout to her; no voice came out of my throat. And the lion produced a strange noise; he opened his jaws like a door. I sat up. It was like a change of dream. A glare filled my eyes. In the wide doorway of my room, in a group of attendants, I saw a figure in a short black cloak standing, hat on head, and an arm outstretched. It was Don Balthasar. He held himself more erect than I had ever seen him before. Stifled sounds of weeping, a vast, confused rumor of lamentations, running feet and slamming doors, came from behind him; his aged, dry voice, much firmer and very distinct, was speaking to me. “You are summoned to attend the bedside of Don Carlos Riego at the hour of death, to help his soul struggling on the threshold of eternity with your prayers—as a kinsman and a friend.” A great draught swayed the lights about that black and courtly figure. All the windows and doors of the palace had been flung open for the departure of the struggling soul. Don Balthasar turned; the group of attendants was gone in a moment, with a tramp of feet and jostling of lights in the long gallery. I ran out after them. A wavering glare came from under the arch, and, through the open gate, I saw the bulky shape of the bishop's coach waiting outside in the moonlight. A strip of cloth fell from step to step down the middle of the broad white stairs. The staircase was brilliantly lighted, and quite empty. The household was crowding the upper galleries; the sobbing murmurs of their voices fell into the deserted patio. The strip of crimson cloth laid for the bishop ran across it from the arch of the stairway to the entrance. The door of Carlos' room stood wide open; I saw the many candles on a table covered with white linen, the side of the big bed, surpliced figures moving within the room. There was the ringing of small bells, and sighing groans from the kneeling forms in the gallery through which I was making my way slowly. Castro appeared at my side suddenly. “Señor,” he began, with saturnine stoicism, “he is dead. I have seen battlefields—” His voice broke. I saw, through the large portal of the death-chamber, Don Balthasar and Seraphina standing at the foot of the bed; the bowed heads of two priests; the bishop, a tiny old man, in his vestments; and Father Antonio, burly and motionless, with his chin in his hand, as if left behind after leading that soul to the very gate of Eternity. All about me, women and men were crossing themselves; and Castro, who for a moment had covered his eyes with his hand, touched my elbow.