« PreviousContinue »
any encroachment of the Casa's offices, only: "That Domingo ”
As soon as we discovered what was their object (their apparent object, at any rate), they were pushed out of the gate unceremoniously,—still protesting their love and respect,—by the Riego negroes. Castro followed them out again, after exchanging a heaning look with Father Antonio. To live in the two camps, as it were, was a triumph of Castro's diplomacy, of his saturnine mysteriousness. He kept us in touch with the outer world, coming in under all sorts of pretenses, mostly with messages from the bishop, or escorting the priests that came in relays to pray by the bodies of the two last Riegos lying in state, side by side, rigid in black velvet and white lace ruffles, on the great bed dragged out into the middle of the room.
Two enormous wax torches in iron stands flamed and guttered at the door; a black cloth draped the emblazoned shields; and the wind from the sea, blowing through the open casement, inclined all together the flames of a hundred candles, pale in the sunlight, extremely ardent in the night. The murmur of prayers for these souls went on incessantly; I have it in my ears now. There would be always some figure of the household kneeling in prayer at the door; or the old major-domo would come in to stand at the foot, motionless for a time; or, through the open door, I would see the cassock of Father Antonio, flung on his knees, with his forehead resting on the edge of the bed, his hands clasped above his tonsure.
Apart from what was necessary for defense, all the life of the house seemed stopped. Not a woman appeared; all the doors were closed; and the numbing desolation of a great bereavement was symbolized by Don Balthasar's chair in the patio, which had remained lying overturned in full view of every part of the house, till I could bear the sight no longer, and asked Cesar to have it put away. "Si, senor," he said deferentially, and a few tears ran suddenly down his withered cheeks. The English flowers had been trampled down; an unclean hat floated on the basin, now here, now there, frightening the goldfish from one side to the other.
And Seraphina. It seems not fitting that I should write of her in these days. I hardly dared let my thoughts approach her, but I had to think of her all the time. Her sorrow was the very soul of the house.
Shortly after I had thrown O'Brien out the bishop had left, and then I learned from Father Antonio that she had been carried away to her own apartments in a fainting condition. The excellent man was almost incoherent with distress and trouble of mind, and walked up and down, his big head drooping on his capacious chest, the joints of his entwined fingers cracking. I had met him in the gallery, as I was making my way back to Carlos' room in anxiety and fear, and we had stepped aside into a large saloon, seldom used, above the gateway. I shall never forget the restless, swift pacing of that burly figure, while, feeling utterly crushed, now the excitement was over, I leaned against a console. Three long bands of moonlight fell, chilly bluish, into the vast room, with its French Empire furniture stiffly arranged about the white walls.
"And that man?" he asked me at last.
"I could have killed him with my own hands," I said. "I was the stronger. He had his pistols on him, I am certain, only I could not be a party to an assassination. ..."
"Oh, my son, it would have been no sin to have exerted the strength which God had blessed you with," he interrupted. "We are allowed to kill venomous snakes, wild beasts; we are given our strength for that, our intelligence...." And all the time he walked about, wringing his hands.
"Yes, your reverence," I said, feeling the most miserable and helpless of lovers on earth; " but there was no time. If I had not thrown him out, Castro would have stabbed him in the back in my very hands. And that would have been— ” Words failed me.
I had been obliged not only to desist myself, but to save his life from Castro. I had been obliged! There had been no option. Murderous enemy as he was, it seemed to me I should never have slept a wink all the rest of my life.
"Yes, it is just, it is just. What else? Alas!" Father Antonio repeated disconnectedly. "Those feelings implanted in your breast I have served my king, as you know, in my sacred calling, but in the midst of war, which is the outcome of the wickedness natural to our fallen state. I understand; I understand. It may be that God, in his mercy, did not wish the death of that
evil man—not yet, perhaps. Let us submit. He may repent." He snuffled aloud. "I think of that poor child," he said through his handkerchief. Then, pressing my arm with his vigorous ringers, he murmured, “I fear for her reason."
It may be imagined in what state I spent the rest of that sleepless night. At times, the thought that I was the cause of her bereavement nearly drove me mad.
And there was the danger, too.
But what else could I have done? My whole soul had recoiled from the horrible help Castro was bringing us at the point of his blade. No love could demand from me such a sacrifice. ..
Next day Father Antonio was calmer. To my trembling inquiries he said something consolatory as to the blessed relief of tears. When not praying fervently in the mortuary chamber, he could be seen pacing the gallery in a severe aloofness of meditation. In the evening he took me by the arm, and, without a word, led me up a narrow and winding staircase. He pushed a small door, and we stepped out on a flat part of the roof, flooded in moonlight.
The points of land dark with the shadows of trees and broken ground clasped the waters of the bay, with a body of shining white mists in the center; and, beyond, the vast level of the open sea, touched with glitter, appeared infinitely somber under the luminous sky.
We stood back from the parapet, and Father Antonio threw out a thick arm at the splendid trail of the moon upon the dark water.
"This is the only way," he said.
He had a warm heart under his black robe, a simple and courageous comprehension of life, this priest who was very much of a man; a certain grandeur of resolution when it was a matter of what he regarded as his principal office.
“ This is the way," he repeated.
Never before had I been struck so much by the gloom, the vastness, the emptiness of the open sea, as on that moonlight night. And Father Antonio's deep voice went on:
"My son, since God has made use of the nobility of your heart to save that sinner from an unshriven death- ".
He paused to mutter, “ Inscrutable! inscrutable!" to himself, sighed, and then;
"Let us rejoice," he continued, with a completely unconcealed resignation, “ that you have been the chosen instrument to afford him an opportunity to repent."
His tone changed suddenly.
"He will never repent," he said with great force. "He has sold his soul and body to the devil, like these magicians of old of whom we have records."
He clicked his tongue with compunction, and regretted his want of charity. It was proper for me, however, as a man having to deal with a world of wickedness and error, to act as though I did not believe in his repentance.
"The hardness of the human heart is incredible; I have seen the most appalling examples." And the priest meditated. "He is not a common criminal, however," he added profoundly.
It was true. He was a man of illusions, ministering to passions that uplifted him above the fear of consequences. Young as I was, I understood that, too. There was no safety for us in Cuba while he lived. Father Antonio nodded dismally.
"Where to go?" I asked. "Where to turn? Whom can we trust? In whom can we repose the slightest confidence? Where can we look for hope?”.
Again the padre pointed to the sea. The hopeless aspect of its moonlit and darkling calm struck me so forcibly that I did not even ask how he proposed to get us out there. I only made a gesture of discouragement. Outside the Casa, my life was not worth ten minutes' purchase. And how could I risk her there? How could I propose to her to follow me to an almost certain death? What could be the issue of such an adventure? How could we hope to devise such secret means of getting away as would prevent the Lugarenos pursuing us? I should perish, then, and she ...
Father Antonio seemed to lose his self-control suddenly.
"Yes," he cried. "The sea is a perfidious element, but what is it to the blind malevolence of men?" He gripped my shoulder. "The risk to her life," he cried; " the risk of drowning, of hunger, of thirst—that is all the sea can do. I do not think of that. I love her too much. She is my very own spiritual child; and I tell you, senor, that the unholy intrigue of that man endangers not her happiness, not her fortune alone—it endangers her innocent soul itself."
A profound silence ensued. I remembered that his business was to save souls. This old man loved that young girl whom he had watched growing up, defenseless in her own home; he loved her with a great strength of paternal instinct that no vow of celibacy can extinguish, and with a heroic sense of his priestly duty. And I was not to say him nay. The sea—so be it. It was easier to think of her dead than to think of her immured; it was better that she should be the victim of the sea than of evil men; that she should be lost with me than to me.
Father Antonio, with that naive sense of the poetry of the sky he possessed, apostrophized the moon, the "gentle orb," as he called it, which ought to be weary of looking at the miseries of the earth. His immense shadow on the leads seemed to fling two vast fists over the parapet, as if to strike at the enemies below, and without discussing any specific plan we descended. It was understood that Seraphina and I should try to escape—I won't say by sea, but to the sea. At best, to ask the charitable help of some passing ship, at worst to go out of the world together.
I had her confidence. I will not tell of my interview with her; but I shall never forget my sensations of awe, as if entering a temple, the melancholy and soothing intimacy of our meeting, the dimly lit loftiness of the room, the vague form of La Chica in the background, and the frail, girlish figure in black with a very pale, delicate face. Father Antonio was the only other person present, and chided her for giving way to grief. "It is like rebellionlike rebellion," he denounced, turning away his head to wipe a tear hastily; and I wondered and thanked God that I should be a comfort to that tender young girl, whose lot on earth had been difficult, whose sorrow was great but could not overwhelm her indomitable spirit, which held a promise of sweetness and love.
Her courage was manifest to me in the gentle and sad tones of her voice. I made her sit in a vast armchair of tapestry, in which she looked lost like a little child, and I took a stool at her feet. This is an unforgetable hour in my life in which not a word of love was spoken, which is not to be written of. The burly shadow of the priest lay motionless from the window right across the room;