Page images
PDF
EPUB

CHAPTER II

ILENCE, stillness, breathless caution were the absolute conditions of our existence. But I hadn't the heart to remonstrate with him for the danger he caused Seraphina and myself. The fog was so thick now that I could not make out his outline, but I could smell the tobacco very plainly. The acrid odor of picadura seemed to knit the events of three years into one uninterrupted adventure. I remembered the shingle beach; the deck of the old Thames. It brought to my mind my first vision of Seraphina, and the emblazoned magnificence of Carlos' sick bed. It all came and went in a whiff of smoke; for of all the power and charm that had made Carlos so seductive there remained no such deep trace in the world as in the heart of the little grizzled bandit who, like a philosopher, or a desperado, puffed his cigarette in the face of the very spirit of murder hovering round us, under the mask and cloak of the fog. And by the serene heaven of my life's evening, the spirit of murder became actually audible to us in hasty and rhythmical knocks, accompanied by a cheerful tinkling. These sounds, growing swiftly louder, at last induced Castro to throw away his cigarette. Seraphina clutched my arm. The noise of oars rowing fast, to the precipitated jingling of a guitar, swooped down upon us with a gallant ferocity. “Caramba,” Castro muttered; “it is the fool Manuel him, self!” I said, then: “We have eight shots between us two, Tomas.” He thrust.his brace of pistols upon my knees. “Dispose of them as your worship pleases,” he muttered. “You mustn't give up, yet,” I whispered. “What is it that I give up?” he mumbled wearily. “Besides, there grows from my forearm a blade. If I shall find myself indisposed to quit this world alone. . . . Listen to the singing of that imbecile.” A caroling falsetto seemed to hang muffled in upper space, above the fog that settled low on the water, like a dense and milky sediment of the air. The moonlight fell into it strangely. We seemed to breathe at the bottom of a shallow sea, white as snow, shining like silver, and impenetrably opaque everywhere, except overhead, where the yellow disc of the moon glittered through a thin cloud of steam. The gay truculence of the hollow knocking, the metallic jingle, the shrill trolling, went on crescendo to a burst of babbling voices, a mad speed of tinkling, a thundering shout, “Altro, Amigo!" followed by a great clatter of oars flung in. The sudden silence pulsated with the ponderous strokes of my heart. To escape now seemed impossible. At least it seemed impossible while they talked. A dark spot in the shining expanse of fog swam into view. It shifted its place after I had first made it out, and then remained motionless, astern of the dingey. It was the shadow of a big boat full of men, but when they were silent, I was not sure that I saw anything at all. I make no doubt, had they been aware of our nearness, there were amongst them eyes that could have detected us in the same elusive way. But how could they even dream of anything of the kind? They talked noisily, and there must have been a round dozen of them, at the least. Sometimes they would fall a-shouting all together, and then keep quiet as if listening. By-and-by I began to hear answering yells, that seemed to converge upon us from all directions. We were in the thick of it. It was Manuel's boat, as Castro had guessed, and the other boats were rallying upon it gropingly, keeping up a succession of yells: “Ohel Ohel Where, where?” And the people in Manuel's boat howled back at them, “Ohel Ohe . . e." This way; here!” Suddenly he struck the guitar a mighty blow, and chanted in an inspired and grandiose strain: “Steer—for—the-song.” His fingers ran riot among the strings, and above the jingling his voice, forced to the highest pitch, declaimed, as in the midst of a tempest:

“I adore the saints in the glory of heaven
And, on the dust of the earth,
The print of her footsteps.”

He was improvising. Sometimes he gasped; the rill of softened tinkle ran on, and, glaring watchfully, I fancied I could detect his shape in the white vapor, like a shadow thrown from afar by a tallow dip upon a snowy sheet—the lank droop of his posturing, the greasy locks, the attentive poise of his head, the sentimental rolling of his lustrous and enormous eyes. I had not forgotten his astonishing display in the cabin of the schooner when, after the confiding of his woes and his ambitions, he had favored me with a sample of his art. As at that time, when he had been nursing his truculent conceit, he sang, and the unsteady twanging of his guitar lurched and staggered far behind his voice, like a drunken slave in the footsteps of a raving master. Tinkle, tinkle, twang! A headlong rush of muddled fingering; a sudden bang, like a heavy stumble. “She is the proud daughter of the old Castile! Olă/ Olú!” he chanted mysteriously at the beginning of every stanza in a rapturous and soft ecstasy, and then would shriek, as though he had been suddenly cast up on the rock. The poet of Rio Medio was rallying his crew of thieves to a rhapsody of secret and unrequited passion. Twang, ping, tinkle tinkle. He was the Capataz of the valiant Lugareños / The true Capataz / The only Capataz. Olă/ Old/ Twang, twang. But he was the slave of her charms, the captive of her eyes, of her lips, of her hair, of her eyebrows, which, he proclaimed in a soaring shriek, were like rainbows arched over Stars. It was a love-song, a mournful parody, the odious grimacing of an ape to the true sorrow of the human face. I could have fled from it, as from an intolerable humiliation. And it would have been easy to pull away unheard while he sang, but I had a plan, the beginning of a plan, something like the beginning of a hope. And for that I should have to use the fog for the purpose of remaining within earshot. Would the fog last long enough to serve my turn? That was the only question, and I believed it would, for it settled lower; it settled down denser, almost too heavy to be stirred by the fitful

[merged small][merged small][graphic]

- ---

--

« PreviousContinue »