« PreviousContinue »
The blue gleam was much larger-it flared smokily right up towards the sky. I made out ghastly parallelograms of a ship's sails high above us, and at last many faces peering unseeingly over the rail in our direction. We all shouted together.
I may say that it was thanks to me that we reached the ship. Our boat went down under us whilst I was tying a rope under Carlos' arms. He was standing up with the bailer still in his hand. On board, the women passengers were screaming, and as I clung desperately to the rope that was thrown me, it struck me oddly that I had never before heard so many women's voices at the same time. Afterwards, when I stood on the deck, they began laughing at old Rangsley, who held forth in a thunderous voice, punctuated by hiccoughs:
“They carried I aboord-a-cop—theer lugger and sinks I in the cold, coold sea.”
It mortified me excessively that I should be tacked to his tail and exhibited to a number of people, and I had a sudden conviction of my small importance. I had expected something altogether different-an audience sympathetically interested in my desire for a passage to the West Indies; instead of which people laughed while I spoke in panting jerks, and the water dripped out of my clothes. After I had made it clear that I wanted to go with Carlos, and could pay for my passage, I was handed down into the steerage, where a tallow candle burnt in a thick, blue atmosphere. I was stripped and filled with some fiery liquid, and fell asleep. Old Rangsley was sent ashore with the pilot.
It was a new and strange life to me, opening there suddenly enough. The Thames was one of the usual West Indiamen; but to me even the very ropes and spars, the sea, and the unbroken dome of the sky, had a rich strangeness. Time passed lazily and gliding. I made more fully the acquaintance of my companions, but seemed to know them no better. I lived with Carlos in the cabin—Castro in the half-deck; but we were all three pretty constantly together, and they being the only Spaniards on board, we were more or less isolated from the other passengers.
Looking at my companions at times, I had vague misgivings. It was as if these two had fascinated me to the verge of some danger. Sometimes Castro, looking up, uttered vague ejaculations. Carlos pushed his hat back and sighed. They had preoccupations, cares, interests in which they let me have no part.
Castro struck me as absolutely ruffianly. His head was knotted in a red, white-spotted handkerchief; his grizzled beard was tangled; he wore a black and rusty cloak, ragged at the edges, and
hand. As a rule, the place of his forearm was taken by a long, thin, steel blade, that he was forever sharpening.
Carlos talked with me, telling me about his former life and his adventures. The other passengers he discountenanced by a certain coldness of manner that made me ashamed of talking to them. I respected him so; he was so wonderful to me then. Castro I de
standing how Carlos, with his fine grain, his high soul-I gave him credit for a high soul-could put up with the squalid ferocity with which I credited Castro. It seemed to hang in the air round
Carlos had made Spain too hot to hold him in those tortuous intrigues of the Army of the Faith and Bourbon troops and Italian legions. From what I could understand, he must have played fast and loose in an insolent manner. And there was some woman offended. There was a gayness and gallantry in that part of it. He had known the very spirit of romance, and now he was sailing gallantly out to take up his inheritance from an uncle who was a great noble, owning the greater part of one of the Intendencias of Cuba.
“He is a very old man, I hear," Carlos said—"a little doting, and having need of me.”
There were all the elements of romance about Carlos' story, except the actual discomforts of the ship in which we were sailing. He himself had never been in Cuba or seen his uncle; but he had, as I have indicated, ruined himself in one way or another in Spain, and it had come as a God-send to him when his uncle had sent Tomas Castro to bring him to Cuba, to the town of Rio Medio.
“The town belongs to my uncle. He is very rich; a Grand d'Espagne . . . everything; but he is now very old, and has left Havana to die in his palace in his own town. He has an only daughter, a Doña Seraphina, and I suppose that if I find favor in
his eyes I shall marry her, and inherit my uncle's great riches; I am the only one that is left of the family to inherit.” He waved his hand and smiled a little. “Vaya; a little of that great wealth would be welcome. If I had had a few pence more there would have been none of this worry, and I should not have been on this dirty ship in these rags.” He looked down good-humoredly at his clothes.
“But,” I said, “how do you come to be in a scrape at all?” He laughed a little proudly.
“In a scrape?” he said. "I... I am in none. It is Tomas Castro there.” He laughed affectionately. “He is as faithful as he is ugly," he said; “but I fear he has been a villain, too.... What do I know? Over there in my uncle's town, there are some villains—you know what I mean, one must not speak too loudly on this ship. There is a man called O'Brien, who mismanages my uncle's affairs. What do I know? The good Tomas has been in some villainy that is no affair of mine. He is a good friend and a faithful dependent of my family's. He certainly had that man's watch—the man we met by evil chance at Liverpool, a man who came from Jamaica. He had bought it—of a bad man, perhaps, I do not ask. It was Castro your police wished to take. But I, bon Dieu, do you think I would take watches?”
I certainly did not think he had taken a watch; but I did not relinquish the idea that he, in a glamorous, romantic way, had been a pirate. Rooksby had certainly hinted as much in his irritation.
He lost none of his romantic charm in my eyes. The fact that he was sailing in uncomfortable circumstances detracted little; nor did his clothes, which, at the worst, were better than any I had ever had. And he wore them with an air and a grace. He had probably been in worse circumstances when campaigning with the Army of the Faith in Spain. And there was certainly the uncle with the romantic title and the great inheritance, and the cousinthe Miss Seraphina, whom he would probably marry. I imagined him an aristocratic scapegrace, a corsair—it was the Byronic period then—sailing out to marry a sort of shimmering princess with hair like Veronica's, bright golden, and a face like that of a certain keeper's daughter. Carlos, however, knew nothing about his cousin; he cared little more, as far as I could tell. “What can
she be to me since I have seen your ...?" he said once, and then stopped, looking at me with a certain tender irony. He insisted, though, that his aged uncle was in need of him. As for Castro he and his rags came out of a life of sturt and strife, and I hoped he might die by treachery. He had undoubtedly been sent by the uncle across the seas to find Carlos and bring him out of Europe; there was something romantic in that mission. He was now a dependent of the Riego family, but there were unfathomable depths in that tubby little man's past. That he had gone to Russia at the tail of the Grande Armee, one could not help believing. He had been most likely in the grand army of sutlers and camp-followers. He could talk convincingly of the cold, and of the snows and his escape. And from his allusions one could get glimpses of what he had been before and afterwards-apparently everything that was questionable in a secularly disturbed Europe; no doubt somewhat of a bandit; a guerrilero in the sixes and sevens; with the Army of the Faith near the French border, later on. There had been room and to spare for that sort of pike, in the muddy waters, during the first years of the century. But the waters were clearing, and now the good Castro had been dodging the gallows in the Antilles or in Mexico. In his heroic moods he would swear that his arm had been cut off at Somo Sierra; swear it with a great deal of asseveration, making one see the Polish lancers charging the gunners, being cut down, and his own sword arm falling suddenly.
Carlos, however, used to declare with affectionate cynicism that the arm had been broken by the cudgel of a Polish peasant while Castro was trying to filch a pig from a stable.... “I cut his throat out, though,” Castro would grumble darkly; “so, like that, and it matters very little—it is even an improvement. See, I put on my blade. See, I transfix you that fly there. . . . See how astonished he was. He did never expect that." He had actually impaled a crawling cockroach. He spent his days cooking extraordinary messes, crouching for hours over a little charcoal brazier that he lit surreptitiously in the back of his bunk, making substitutes for eternal gaspachos.
All these things, if they deepened the romance of Carlos' career, enhanced, also, the mystery. I asked him one day, “But why do you go to Jamaica at all if you are bound for Cuba?"
He looked at me, smiling a little mournfully.
“Ah, Juan mio,” he said, “Spain is not like your England, unchanging and stable. The party who reign to-day do not love me, and they are masters in Cuba as in Spain. But in his province my uncle rules alone. There I shall be safe.” He was condescending to roll some cigarettes for Tomas, whose wooden hand incommoded him, and he tossed a fragment of tobacco to the wind with a laugh. “In Jamaica there is a merchant, a Señor Ramon; I have letters to him, and he shall find me a conveyance to Rio Medio, my uncle's town. He is an afiliado.”
He laughed again." It is not easy to enter that place, Juanino."
There was certainly some mystery about that town of his uncle's. One night I overheard him say to Castro:
“Tell me, O my Tomas, would it be safe to take this caballero, my cousin, to Rio Medio ?”
Castro paused, and then murmured gruffly:
“Señor, unless that Irishman is consulted beforehand, or the English lord would undertake to join with the picaroons, it is very assuredly not safe.”
Carlos made a little exclamation of mild astonishment. “Pero? Is it so bad as that in my uncle's own town?” Tomas muttered something that I did not catch, and then: “If the English caballero committed indiscretions, or quarreled -and all these people quarrel, why, God knows—that Irish devil could hang many persons, even myself, or take vengeance on your worship.”
Carlos was silent as if in a reverie. At last he said:
“But if affairs are like this, it would be well to have one more with us. The caballero, my cousin, is very strong and of great courage.”
Castro grunted, “Oh, of a courage! But as the proverb says, 'If you set an Englishman by a hornets' nest they shall not remain long within.'"
After that I avoided any allusion to Cuba, because the thing, think as I would about it, would not grow clear. It was plain that something illegal was going on there, or how could “that Irish devil,” whoever he was, have power to hang Tomas and be revenged on Carlos ? It did not affect my love for Carlos, though.