« PreviousContinue »
"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 sensor 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 weakened 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.
Castro had moved forward, as if to show his readiness to pull round. Meantime I heard a click. A feeble gleam fell on his misty hands under the black halo of the hat rim. Again the flint and blade clicked, and a large red spark winked rapidly in the bows. He had lighted a cigarette.
silence, 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 himself!"
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 sedi ment 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 overheads 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:
"Ohe! Ohe! Where, where?"
And the people in Manuel's boat howled back at them, "Ohe! Ohe . . el This way; here!"
Suddenly he struck the guitar a mighty blow, and chanted in an inspired and grandiose strain:
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: