Page images

was Castro really at his ease? Was it not good to eat and drink? Had he quite returned to life? But, Caramba, amigos, what neglect! The caballero who has honored us must smoke. They shouted in high glee:

"Yes. Smoke, Castro. Let him smoke."

I suppose he did; and Manuel expounded to him how pleasant life was in which one could eat, and drink, and smoke. His words tortured me. Castro remained mute—from disdain, from despair, perhaps. Afterwards they carried him along clear of the cornice, and I understood they formed a half-circle round him, drawing their knives. Manuel, screeching in a high falsetto, ordered the bonds of his feet to be cut. I advanced my head out as far as I dared; their voices reached me deadened; I could only see the profound shadow of the ravine, a patch of dark, clear sky opulent with stars, and the play of the firelight on the opposite side. The shadow of a pair of monumental feet, and the lower edge of a cloak, spread amply like a skirt, stood out in it, intensely black and motionless, right in front of the cave. Now and then, elbowed in the surge round Castro, the guitar emitted a deep and hollow resonance. He was tumultuously ordered to stand up and, I imagine, he was being pricked with the points of their knives till he did get on his feet. "Jump" they roared all together—and Manuel began to finger the strings, lifting up his voice between the gusts of savage hilarity, mingled with cries of death. He exhorted his followers to close on the traitor inch by inch, presenting their knives.

"He runs here and there, the blood trickling from his limbs —but in vain, this is the appointed time for the leap. . . ."

It was an improvisation; they stamped their feet to the slow measure; they shouted in chorus the one word "Leap!" raising a ferocious roar; and between whiles the song of voice and strings came to me from a distance, softened and lingering in a voluptuous and pitiless cadence that wrung my heart, and seemed to eat up the remnants of my strength. But what could I have done, even if I had had the strength of a giant, and a most fearless resolution? I should have been shot dead before I had crawled halfway up the ledge. A piercing shriek covered the guitar, the song, and the wild merriment.

Then everything seemed to stop—even my own painful breath" ing. Again Castro shrieked like a madman:

"Senorita—your gold. Senorita! Hear me! Help!"

Then all was still.

"Hear the dead calling to the dead," sneered Manuel.

An awestruck sort of hum proceeded from the Spaniards. Was the senorita alive? In the cave? Or where?

"Her nod would have saved thee, Castro," said Manuel slowly,

I got up. I heard Castro stammer wildly:

"She shall fill both your hands with gold. Do you hear, hombres? I, Castro, tell you—each man—both hands"

He had done it. The last hope was gone now. And all that there remained for me to do was to leap over or give myself up, and end this horrible business.

"She was a creature born to command the moon and the stars," Manuel mused aloud in a vibrating tone, and suddenly smote the strings with emphatic violence. She could even stay his vengeance. But was it possible! No, no. It could not be—and yet. ...

"Thou art alive yet, Castro," he cried. "Thou hast eaten and drunk; life is good—is it not, old man?—and the leap is high."

He thundered "Silence!" to still the excited murmurs of his band. If she lived Castro should live, too—he, Manuel, said so; but he threatened him with horrible tortures, with two days of slow dying, if he dared to deceive. Let him, then, speak the truth quickly.

"Speak, viejo. Where is she?"

And at the opening, fifty yards away, I was tempted to call out, as though I had loved Castro well enough to save him from the shame and remorse of a plain betrayal. That the moment of it had come I could have no doubt. And it was I myself, perhaps, who could not face the certitude of his downfall. If my throat had not been so compressed, so dry with thirst and choked with emotion, I believe I should have cried out and brought them away from that miserable man with a rush. Since we were lost, he at least should be saved from this. I suffered from his spasmodic, agonized laugh away there, with twenty knives aimed at his breast and the eighty-feet drop of the precipice at his back. Why did he hesitate?

I was to learn, then, that the ultimate value of life to all of us is based on the means of self-deception. Morally he had his back against the wall, he could not hope to deceive himself; and after Manuel had cried again at him, "Where are they?" in a really terrible tone, I heard his answer:

"At the bottom of the sea."

He had his own courage after all—if only the courage not to believe in Manuel's promises. And he must have been weary of his life—weary enough not to pay that price. And yet he had gone to the very verge, calling upon Seraphina as if she could hear him. Madness of fear, no doubt—succeeded by an awakening, a heroic reaction. And yet sometimes it seems to me as if the whole scene, with his wild cries for help, had been the outcome of a supreme exercise of cunning. For, indeed, he could not have invented anything better to bring the conviction of our death to the most skeptical of those ruffians. All I heard after his words had been a great shout, followed by a sudden and unbroken silence. It seemed to last a very long time. He had thrown himself over! It is like the blank space of a swoon to me, and yet it must have been real enough, because, huddled up just inside the sill, with my head reposing wearily on the stone, I watched three moving flames of lighted branches carried by men follow each other closely in a swaying descent along the path on the other side of the ravine. They passed on downwards, flickering out of view. Then, after a time, a voice below, to the left of the cave, ascended with a hooting and mournful effect from the depths.

"Manuel! Manuel! We have found him! . . . Esmuerte!"

And from above Manuel's shout rolled, augmented, between the rocks.

"Bueno! Turn his face up—for the birds!"

They continued calling to each other for a good while. The men below declared their intention of going on to the sea shore; and Manuel shouted to them not to forget to send him up a good rope early in the morning. Apparently, the schooner had been refloated some time before; many of the Lugarenos were to sleep an board. They purposed to set sail early next day.

This revived me, and I spent the night between Seraphina's couch and the mouth of the cave, keeping tight hold of my reason that seemed to lose itself in this hope, in this darkness, in this torment. I touched her cheek, it was hot—while her forehead felt to my fingers as cold as ice. I had no more voice, but I tried to force out some harsh whispers through my throat. They sounded horrible to my own ears, and she endeavored to soothe me by murmuring my name feebly. I believe she thought me delirious. I tried to pray for my strength to last till I could carry her out of that cave to the side of the brook—then let death come. "Live, live," I whispered into her ear, and would hear a sigh so faint, so feeble, that it swayed all my soul with pity and fear, "Yes, Juan." . . . And I would go away to watch for the dawn from the mouth of the cave, and curse the stars that would not fade.

Manuel's voice always steadied me. A languor had come over them above, as if their passion had been exhausted; as if their hearts had been saddened by an unbridled debauch. There was, however, their everlasting quarreling. Several of them, I understood, left the camp for the schooner, but avoiding the road by the ravine as if Castro's dead body down there had made it impassable. And the talk went on late into the night. There was some superstitious fear attached to the cave—a legend of men who had gone in and had never come back any more. All they knew of it was the region of twilight; formerly, when they used the shelter of the cavern, no one, it seems, ever ventured outside the circle of the fire. Manuel disdained their fears. Had he not been such a profound politico, a man of stratagems, there would have been a necessity to go down and see. . . . They all protested. Who was going down? Not they. . . . Their craven cowardice was amazing.

He begged them to keep themselves quiet. They had him for Capataz now. A man of intelligence. Had he not enticed Castro out? He had never believed there was anyone else in there. He sighed. Otherwise Castro would have tried to save his life by confessing. There had been nothing to confess. But he had the means of making sure. A voice suggested that the Inglez might have withdrawn himself into the depths. These English were not afraid of demons, being devils themselves; and this one was fiendishly reckless. But Manuel observed, contemptuously, that 8 man trapped like this would remain near the opening. Hope would keep him there till he died—unless he rushed out like Castro. Manuel laughed, but in a mournful tone: and, listening to the craven talk of their doubts and fears, it seemed to me that if I could appear at one bound amongst them, they would scatter like chaff before my glance. It seemed intolerable to wait; more than human strength could bear. Would the day never come? A drowsiness stole upon their voices.

Manuel kept watch. He fed the fire, and his incomplete shadow, projected across the chasm, would pass and return, obscuring the glow that fell on the rock. His footsteps seemed to measure the interminable duration of the night. Sometimes he would stop short and talk to himself in low, exalted mutters. A big bright star rested on the brow of the rock opposite, shining straight into my eyes. It sank, as if it had plunged into the stone. At last. Another came to look into the cavern. I watched the gradual coming of a gray sheen from the side of Seraphina's couch. This was the day, the last day of pain, or else of life. Its ghostly edge invaded slowly the darkness of the cave towards its appointed limit, creeping slowly, as colorless as spilt water on the floor. I pressed my lips silently upon her cheek. Her eyes were open. It seemed to me she had a smile fainter than her sighs. She was very brave, but her smile did not go beyond her lips. Not a feature of her face moved. I could have opened my veins for her without hesitation, if it had not been a forbidden sacrifice.

Would they go? I asked myself. Through Castro's heroism or through his weakness, perhaps through both the heroism and the weakness of that man, they must be satisfied. They must be. I could not doubt it; I could not believe it. Everything seemed improbable; everything seemed possible. If they descended I would, I thought, have the strength to carry her off, away into the darkness. If there was any truth in what I had overheard them saying, that the depths of the cavern concealed an abyss, we would cast ourselves into it.

The feeble, consenting pressure of her hand horrified me. They would not come down. They were afraid of that place, I whispered to her—and I thought to myself that such cowardice was

« PreviousContinue »