« PreviousContinue »
parting the propelling motion of the oar. All the rest of my body was gripped helplessly in the dead expectation of the end, as if in the benumbing seconds of a fall from a towering height. And it was swift, too. I felt a draught at the back of my neck—a breath of wind. And instantly, as if a battering-ram had been let swing past me at many layers of stretched gauze, I beheld, through a tattered deep hole in the fog, a roaring vision of flames, borne down and springing up again; a dance of purple gleams on the strip of unveiled water, and three coal-black figures in the light.
One of them stood high on lank black legs, with long black arms thrown up stiffly above the black shape of a hat. The two others crouched low on the very edge of the water, peering as if from an ambush. · The clearness of this vision was contained by a thick and fiery atmosphere, into which a soft white rush and swirl of fog fell like a sudden whirl of snow. It closed down and overwhelmed at once the tall flutter of the flames, the black figures, the purple gleams playing round my oar. The hot glare had struck my eyeballs once, and had melted away again into the old, fiery stain on the mended fabric of the fog. But the attitudes of the crouching men left no room for doubt that we had been seen. I expected a sudden uplifting of voices on the shore, answered by cries from the sea, and I screamed excitedly at Castro to lay hold of his oar.
He did not stir, and after my shout, which must have fallen on the scared ears with a weird and unearthly note, a profound silence attended us—the silence of a superstitious fear. And, instead of howls, I heard, before the boat had traveled its own short length, a voice that seemed to be the voice of fear itself asking, “Did you hear that?" and a trembling mutter of an invocation to all the saints. Then a strangled throat trying to pronounce firmly, " The souls of the dead Inglez. Crying from pain."
Admiral Rowley's seamen, so miserably thrown away in the illconceived attack on the bay, were making a ghostly escort for our escape. Those dead boats'-crews were supposed to haunt the fatal spot, after the manner of specters that linger in remorse, regret, or revenge, about the gates of departure. I had blundered; the fog, breaking apart, had betrayed us. But my obscure and vanquished countrymen held possession of the outlet by the memory
A of their courage. In this critical moment it was they, I may say, who stood by us.
We, on our part, must have been disclosed, dark, indistinct, utterly inexplicable; completely unexpected; an apparition of stealthy shades. The painful voice in the fog said:
"Let them be. Answer not. They shall pass on, for none of them died on the shore—all in the water. Yes, all in the water."
I suppose the man was trying to reassure himself and his com1 panions. His meaning, no doubt, was that, being on shore, they
were safe from the ghosts of those Inglez who had never achieved i a landing. From the enlarging and sudden deepening of the
glow, I knew that they were throwing more brushwood on the fire.
I kept on sculling, and gradually the sharp fusillade of dry twigs grew more distant, more muffled in the fog. At last it ceased altogether. Then a weakness came over me, and, hauling my oar in, I sat down by Seraphina's side. I longed for the sound of her voice, for some tender word, for the caress of a murmur upon my perplexed soul. I was sure of her, as of a conquered and rare treasure, whose possession simplifies life into a sort of adoring guardianship—and I felt so much at her mercy that an overwhelming sense of guilt made me afraid to speak to her. The slight heave of the open sea swung the boat up and down.
Suddenly Castro let out a sort of lugubrious chuckle, and, in low tones, I began to upbraid him with his apathy. Even with his one arm he should have obeyed my call to the oar. It was incomprehensible to me that we had not been fired at. Castro enlightened me, in a few moody and scornful words. The Rio Medio people, he commented upon the incident, were fools, of bestial nature, afraid of they knew not what.
“ Castro, the valor of these dead countrymen of mine was not wasted; they have stood by us like true friends," I whispered in the excitement of our escape.
"These insensate English," he grumbled. ... "A dead enemy would have served the turn better. If the caballero had none other than dead friends. ..."
His harsh, bitter mumble stopped. Then Seraphina's voice said softly:
" It is you who are the friend, Tomas Castro. To you shall come a friend's reward."
"Alas, senorita!" he sighed. "What remains for me in this world—for me who have given for two masses for the souls of that illustrious man, and of your cousin Don Carlos, my last piece of silver?"
"We shall make you very rich, Tomas Castro," she said with decision, as if there had been bags of gold in the boat.
He returned a high-flown phrase of thanks in a bitter, absent whisper. I knew well enough that the help he had given me was not for money, not for love—not even for loyalty to the Riegos. It was obedience to the last recommendation of Carlos. He ran risks for my safety, but gave me none of his allegiance.
He was still the same tubby, murderous little man, with a steel blade screwed to the wooden stump of his forearm, as when, swelling his breast, he had stepped on his toes before me like a bloodthirsty pigeon, in the steerage of the ship that had brought us from home. I heard him mumble, with almost incredible, sardonic contempt, that, indeed, the señor would soon have none but dead friends if he refrained from striking at his enemies. Had the senor taken the very excellent opportunity afforded by Providence, and that any sane Christian man would have taken—to let him stab the Juez O'Brien—we should not then be wandering in a little boat. What folly! What folly! One little thrust of a knife, and we should all have been now safe in our beds. ...
His tone was one of weary superiority, and I remained appalled by that truth, stripped of all chivalrous pretense. It was clear, in sparing that defenseless life, I had been guilty of cruelty for the sake of my conscience. There was Seraphina by my side; it was she who had to suffer. I had let her enemy go free, because he had happened to be near me, disarmed. Had I acted like an Englishman and a gentleman, or only like a fool satisfying his sentiment at other people's expense? Innocent people, too, like the Riego servants, Castro himself; like Seraphina, on whom my high-minded forbearance had brought all these dangers, these hardships, and this uncertain fate.
She gave no sign of having heard Castro's words. The silence of women is very impenetrable, and it was as if my hold upon the world—since she was the whole world for me—had been weaks
ned by that shade of decency of feeling which makes a distinction between killing and murder. But suddenly I felt, without her cloaked figure having stirred, her small hand slip into mine. Its soft warmth seemed to go straight to my heart, soothing, invigorating—as if she had slipped into my palm a weapon of extraordinary and inspiring potency.
"Ah, you are generous," I whispered close to the edge of the cloak overshadowing her face.
"You must now think of yourself, Juan," she said.
"Of myself," I echoed sadly. "I have only you to think of, and you are so far away—out of my reach. There are your dead —all your loss, between you and me."
She touched my arm.
“ It is I who must think of my dead," she whispered. "But you, you must think of yourself, because I have nothing of mine in this world now."
Her words affected me like the whisper of remorse. It was true. There were her wealth, her lands, her palaces; but her only refuge was that little boat. Her father's long aloofness from life had created such an isolation round his closing years that his daughter had no one but me to turn to for protection against the plots of her own Intendente. And, at the thought of our desperate plight, of the suffering awaiting us in that small boat, with the possibility of a lingering death for an end, I wavered for a moment. Was it not my duty to return to the bay and give myself up? In that case, as Castro expressed it, our throats would be cut for love of the Juez.
But Seraphina, the rabble would carry to the Casa on the palms of their hands--out of veneration for the family, and for fear of O'Brien.
"So, senor," he mumbled, "if to you to-morrow's sun is as little as to me, let us pull the boat's head round."
"Let us set our hands to the side and overturn it, rather," Seraphina said, with an indignation of high command.
I said no more. If I could have taken O'Brien with me into the other world, I would have died to save her the pain of so much as a pinprick. But because I could not, she must even go with me; must suffer because I clung to her as men cling to their hope of highest good—with an exalted and selfish devotion.