By REX BEACH
Author of "THE AUCTION BLOCK" "THE SPOILERS" "THE IRON TRAIL" Etc.
I. THE VALLEY OF DELIGHT
II. SPANISH GOLD
III. "THE O'REILLY"
V. A CRY FROM THE WILDERNESS
VI. THE QUEST BEGINS
VII. THE MAN WHO WOULD KNOW LIFE
VIII. THE SPANISH DOUBLOON
X. O'REILLY TALKS HOG LATIN
XI. THE HAND OF THE CAPTAIN-GENERAL
XII. WHEN THE WORLD RAN BACKWARD
XIV. A WOMAN WITH A MISSION
XVI. THE CITY AMONG THE LEAVES
XVII. THE CITY OF BEGGARS
XVIII. SPEAKING OF FOOD
XIX. THAT SICK MAN FROM SAN ANTONIO
XX. EL DEMONIO'S CHILD
XXII. THE TROCHA
XXIII. INTO THE CITY OF DEATH
XXV. THE HAUNTED GARDEN
XXVI. HOW COBO STOOD ON HIS HEAD
XXVII. MORIN, THE FISHERMAN
XXVIII. THREE TRAVELERS COME HOME
XXIX. WHAT HAPPENED AT SUNDOWN
XXX. THE OWL AND THE PUSSY-CAT
THE VALLEY OF DELIGHT
In all probability your first view of the valley of the Yumuri will be from the Hermitage of Montserrate, for it is there that the cocheros drive you. Up the winding road they take you, with the bay at your back and the gorge at your right, to the crest of a narrow ridge where the chapel stands. Once there, you overlook the fairest sight in all Christendom—"the loveliest valley in the world," as Humboldt called it—for the Yumuri nestles right at your feet, a vale of pure delight, a glimpse of Paradise that bewilders the eye and fills the soul with ecstasy.
It is larger than it seems at first sight; through it meanders the river, coiling and uncoiling, hidden here and there by jungle growths, and seeking final outlet through a cleft in the wall not unlike a crack in the side of a painted bowl. The place seems to have been fashioned as a dwelling for dryads and hamadryads, for nixies and pixies, and all the fabled spirits of forest and stream. Fairy hands tinted its steep slopes and carpeted its level floor with the richest of green brocades. Nowhere is there a clash of color; nowhere does a naked hillside or monstrous jut of rock obtrude to mar its placid beauty; nowhere can you see a crude, disfiguring mark of man's handiwork—there are only fields, and bowers, with an occasional thatched roof faded gray by the sun.
Royal palms, most perfect of trees, are scattered everywhere. They stand alone or in stately groves, their lush fronds drooping like gigantic ostrich plumes, their slim trunks as smooth and regular and white as if turned in a giant lathe and then rubbed with pipe- clay. In all Cuba, island of bewitching vistas, there is no other Yumuri, and in all the wide world, perhaps, there is no valley of moods and aspects so varying. You should see it at evening, all warm and slumberous, all gold and green and purple; or at early dawn, when the mists are fading like pale memories of dreams and the tints are delicate; or again, during a tempest, when it is a caldron of whirling vapors and when the palm-trees bend like coryphees, tossing their arms to the galloping hurricane. But whatever the time of day or the season of the year at which you visit it, the Yumuri will render you wordless with delight, and you will vow that it is the happiest valley men's eyes have ever looked upon.
Standing there beside the shrine of Our Lady of Montserrate, you will see beyond the cleft through which the river emerges another hill, La Cumbre, from which the view is almost as wonderful, and your driver may tell you about the splendid homes that used to grace its slopes in the golden days when Cuba had an aristocracy. They were classic Roman villas, such as once lined the Via Appia— little palaces, with mosaics and marbles and precious woods imported from Europe, and furnished with the rarest treasures—for in those days the Cuban planters were rich and spent their money lavishly. Melancholy reminders of this splendor exist even now in the shape of a crumbled ruin here and there, a lichened pillar, an occasional porcelain urn in its place atop a vine-grown bit of wall. Your cochero may point out a certain grove of orange-trees, now little more than a rank tangle, and tell you about the quinta of Don Esteban Varona, and its hidden treasure; about little Esteban and Rosa, the twins; and about Sebastian, the giant slave, who died in fury, taking with him the secret of the well.
The Spanish Main is rich in tales of treasure-trove, for when the Antilles were most affluent they were least secure, and men were put to strange shifts to protect their fortunes. Certain hoards, like jewels of tragic history, in time assumed a sort of evil personality, not infrequently exercising a dire influence over the lives of those who chanced to fall under their spells. It was as if the money were accursed, for certainly the seekers often came to evil. Of such a character was the Varona treasure. Don Esteban himself was neither better nor worse than other men of his time, and although part of the money he hid was wrung from the toil of slaves and the traffic in their bodies, much of it was clean enough, and in time the earth purified it all. Since his acts made so deep an impress, and since the treasure he left played so big a part in the destinies of those who came after him, it is well that some account of these matters should be given.
The story, please remember, is an old one; it has been often told, and in the telling and retelling it is but natural that a certain glamour, a certain tropical extravagance, should attach to it, therefore you should make allowance for some exaggeration, some accretions due to the lapse of time. In the main, however, it is well authenticated and runs parallel to fact.
Dona Rosa Varona lived barely long enough to learn that she had given birth to twins. Don Esteban, whom people knew as a grim man, took the blow of his sudden bereavement as became one of his strong fiber. Leaving the priest upon his knees and the doctor busied with the babies, he strode through the house and out into the sunset, followed by the wails of the slave women. From the negro quarters came the sound of other and even louder lamentations, for Dona Rosa had been well loved and the news of her passing had spread quickly.
Don Esteban was at heart a selfish man, and now, therefore, he felt a sullen, fierce resentment mingled with his grief. What trick was this? he asked himself. What had he done to merit such misfortune? Had he not made rich gifts to the Church? Had he not gone on foot to the shrine of Our Lady of Montserrate with a splendid votive offering—a pair of eardrops, a necklace, and a crucifix, all of diamonds that quivered in the sunlight like drops of purest water? Had he not knelt and prayed for his wife's safe delivery and then hung his gifts upon the sacred image, as Loyola had hung up his weapons before that other counterpart of Our Lady? Don Esteban scowled at the memory, for those gems were of the finest, and certainly of a value sufficient to recompense the Virgin for any ordinary miracle. They were worth five thousand pesos at least, he told himself; they represented the price of five slaves—five of his finest girls, schooled in housekeeping and of an age suitable for breeding. An extravagance, truly! Don Esteban knew the value of money as well as anybody, and he swore now that he would give no more to the Church.
He looked up from his unhappy musings to find a gigantic, barefooted negro standing before him. The slave was middle-aged; his kinky hair was growing gray; but he was of superb proportions, and the muscles which showed through the rents in his cotton garments were as smooth and supple as those of a stripling. His black face was puckered with grief, as he began:
"Master, is it true that Dona Rosa—" The fellow choked.
"Yes," Esteban nodded, wearily, "she is dead, Sebastian."
Tears came to Sebastian's eyes and overflowed his cheeks; he stood motionless, striving to voice his sympathy. At length he said:
"She was too good for this world. God was jealous and took her to Paradise."
The widowed man cried out, angrily:
"Paradise! What is this but paradise?" He stared with resentful eyes at the beauty round about him. "See! The Yumuri!" Don Esteban flung a long arm outward. "Do you think there is a sight like that in heaven? And yonder—" He turned to the harbor far below, with its fleet of sailing-ships resting like a flock of gulls upon a sea of quicksilver. Beyond the bay, twenty miles distant, a range of hazy mountains hid the horizon. Facing to the south, Esteban looked up the full length of the valley of the San Juan, clear to the majestic Pan de Matanzas, a wonderful sight indeed; then his eyes returned, as they always did, to the Yumuri, Valley of Delight. "Paradise indeed!" he muttered. "I gave her everything. She gained nothing by dying."
With a grave thoughtfulness which proved him superior to the ordinary slave, Sebastian replied:
"True! She had all that any woman's heart could desire, but in return for your goodness she gave you children. You have lost her, but you have gained an heir, and a beautiful girl baby who will grow to be another Dona Rosa. I grieved as you grieve, once upon a time, for my woman died in childbirth, too. You remember? But my daughter lives, and she has brought sunshine into my old age. That is the purpose of children." He paused and shifted his weight uncertainly, digging his stiff black toes into the dirt. After a time he said, slowly: "Excellency! Now, about the—well—?"
"Yes. What about it?" Esteban lifted smoldering eyes.
"Did the Dona Rosa confide her share of the secret to any one? Those priests and those doctors, you know—?"
"She died without speaking."
"Then it rests between you and me?"
"It does, unless you have babbled."
"Master!" Sebastian drew himself up and there was real dignity in his black face.
"Understand, my whole fortune is there—everything, even to the deeds of patent for the plantations. If I thought there was danger of your betraying me I would have your tongue pulled out and your eyes torn from their sockets."
The black man spoke with a simplicity that carried conviction. "You have seen me tested. You know I am faithful. But, master, this secret is a great burden for my old shoulders, and I have been thinking—Times are unsettled, Don Esteban, and death comes without warning. You are known to be the richest man in this province and these government officials are robbers. Suppose—I should be left alone? What then?"
The planter considered for a moment. "They are my countrymen, but a curse on them," he said, finally. "Well, when my children are old enough to hold their tongues they will have to be told. If I'm gone, you shall be the one to tell them. Now leave me; this is no time to speak of such things."
Sebastian went as noiselessly as he had come. On his way back to his quarters he took the path to the well—the place where most of his time was ordinarily spent. Sebastian had dug this well, and with his own hands he had beautified its surroundings until they were the loveliest on the Varona grounds. The rock for the building of the quinta had been quarried here, and in the center of the resulting depression, grass-grown and flowering now, was the well itself. Its waters seeped from subterranean caverns and filtered, pure and cool, through the porous country rock. Plantain, palm, orange, and tamarind trees bordered the hollow; over the rocky walls ran a riot of vines and ferns and ornamental plants. It was Sebastian's task to keep this place green, and thither he took his way, from force of habit.
Through the twilight came Pancho Cueto, the manager, a youngish man, with a narrow face and bold, close-set eyes. Spying Sebastian, he began:
"So Don Esteban has an heir at last?"
The slave rubbed his eyes with the heel of his huge yellow palm and answered, respectfully:
"Yes, Don Pancho. Two little angels, a boy and a girl." His gray brows drew together in a painful frown. "Dona Rosa was a saint. No doubt there is great rejoicing in heaven at her coming. Eh? What do you think?"
"Um-m! Possibly. Don Esteban will miss her for a time and then, I dare say, he will remarry." At the negro's exclamation Cueto cried: "So! And why not? Everybody knows how rich he is. From Oriente to Pinar del Rio the women have heard about his treasure."
"What treasure?" asked Sebastian, after an instant's pause.
Cueto's dark eyes gleamed resentfully at this show of ignorance, but he laughed.
"Ho! There's a careful fellow for you! No wonder he trusts you. But do you think I have neither eyes nor ears? My good Sebastian, you know all about that treasure; in fact, you know far more about many things than Don Esteban would care to have you tell. Come now, don't you?"
Sebastian's face was like a mask carved from ebony. "Of what does this treasure consist?" he inquired. "I have never heard about it."
"Of gold, of jewels, of silver bars and precious ornaments." Cueto's head was thrust forward, his nostrils were dilated, his teeth gleamed. "Oh, it is somewhere about, as you very well know! Bah! Don't deny it. I'm no fool. What becomes of the money from the slave girls, eh? And the sugar crops, too? Does it go to buy arms and ammunition for the rebels? No. Don Esteban hides it, and you help him. Come," he cried, disregarding Sebastian's murmurs of protest, "did you ever think how fabulous that fortune must be by this time? Did you ever think that one little gem, one bag of gold, would buy your freedom?"
"Don Esteban has promised to buy my freedom and the freedom of my girl."
"So?" The manager was plainly surprised. "I didn't know that." After a moment he began to laugh. "And yet you pretend to know nothing about that treasure? Ha! You're a good boy, Sebastian, and so I am. I admire you. We're both loyal to our master, eh? But now about Evangelina." Cueto's face took on a craftier expression. "She is a likely girl, and when she grows up she will be worth more than you, her father. Don't forget that Don Esteban is before all else a business man. Be careful that some one doesn't make him so good an offer for your girl that he will forget his promise and—sell her."
Sebastian uttered a hoarse, animal cry and the whites of his eyes showed through the gloom. "He would never sell Evangelina!"
Cueto laughed aloud once more. "Of course! He would not dare, eh? I am only teasing you. But see! You have given yourself away. Everything you tell me proves that you know all about that treasure."
"I know but one thing," the slave declared, stiffening himself slowly, "and that is to be faithful to Don Esteban." He turned and departed, leaving Pancho Cueto staring after him meditatively.
In the days following the birth of his children and the death of his wife, Don Esteban Varona, as had been his custom, steered a middle course in politics, in that way managing to avoid a clash with the Spanish officials who ruled the island, or an open break with his Cuban neighbors, who rebelled beneath their wrongs. This was no easy thing to do, for the agents of the crown were uniformly corrupt and quite ruthless, while most of the native- born were either openly or secretly in sympathy with the revolution in the Orient. But Esteban dealt diplomatically with both factions and went on raising slaves and sugar to his own great profit. Owing to the impossibility of importing negroes, the market steadily improved, and Esteban reaped a handsome profit from those he had on hand, especially when his crop of young girls matured. His sugar-plantations prospered, too, and Pancho Cueto, who managed them, continued to wonder where the money went.
The twins, Esteban and Rosa, developed into healthy children and became the pride of Sebastian and his daughter, into whose care they had been given. As for Evangelina, the young negress, she grew tall and strong and handsome, until she was the finest slave girl in the neighborhood. Whenever Sebastian looked at her he thanked God for his happy circumstances.
Then, one day, Don Esteban Varona remarried, and the Dona Isabel, who had been a famous Habana beauty, came to live at the quinta. The daughter of impoverished parents, she had heard and thought much about the mysterious treasure of La Cumbre.
There followed a period of feasting and entertainment, of music and merrymaking. Spanish officials, prominent civilians of Matanzas and the countryside, drove up the hill to welcome Don Esteban's bride. But before the first fervor of his honeymoon cooled the groom began to fear that he had made a serious mistake. Dona Isabel, he discovered, was both vain and selfish. Not only did she crave luxury and display, but with singular persistence she demanded to know all about her husband's financial affairs.
Now Don Esteban was no longer young; age had soured him with suspicion, and when once he saw himself as the victim of a mercenary marriage he turned bitterly against his wife. Her curiosity he sullenly resented, and he unblushingly denied his possession of any considerable wealth. In fact, he tried with malicious ingenuity to make her believe him a poor man. But Isabel was not of the sort to be readily deceived. Finding her arts and coquetries of no avail, she flew into a rage, and a furious quarrel ensued—the first of many. For the lady could not rest without knowing all there was to know about the treasure. Avaricious to her finger-tips, she itched to weigh those bags of precious metal and yearned to see those jewels burning upon her bosom. Her mercenary mind magnified their value many times, and her anger at Don Esteban's obstinacy deepened to a smoldering hatred.
She searched the quinta, of course, whenever she had a chance, but she discovered nothing—with the result that the mystery began to engross her whole thought. She pried into the obscurest corners, she questioned the slaves, she lay awake at night listening to Esteban's breathing, in the hope of surprising his secret from his dreams. Naturally such a life was trying to the husband, but as his wife's obsession grew his determination to foil her only strengthened. Outwardly, of course, the pair maintained a show of harmony, for they were proud and they occupied a position of some consequence in the community. But their private relations went from bad to worse. At length a time came when they lived in frank enmity; when Isabel never spoke to Esteban except in reproach or anger, and when Esteban unlocked his lips only to taunt his wife with the fact that she had been thwarted despite her cunning.
In most quarters, as time went on, the story of the Varona treasure was forgotten, or at least put down as legendary. Only Isabel, who, in spite of her husband's secretiveness, learned much, and Pancho Cueto, who kept his own account of the annual income from the business, held the matter in serious remembrance. The overseer was a patient man; he watched with interest the growing discord at the quinta and planned to profit by it, should occasion offer.
It was only natural under such conditions that Dona Isabel should learn to dislike her stepchildren—Esteban had told her frankly that they would inherit whatever fortune he possessed. The thought that, after all, she might never share in the treasure for which she had sacrificed her youth and beauty was like to drive the woman mad, and, as may be imagined, she found ways to vent her spite upon the twins. She widened her hatred so as to include old Sebastian and his daughter, and even went so far as to persecute Evangelina's sweetheart, a slave named Asensio.
It had not taken Dona Isabel long to guess the reason of Sebastian's many privileges, and one of her first efforts had been to win the old man's confidence. It was in vain, however, that she flattered and cajoled, or stormed and threatened; Sebastian withstood her as a towering ceiba withstands the summer heat and the winter hurricane.
His firmness made her vindictive, and so in time she laid a scheme to estrange him from his master.
Dona Isabel was crafty. She began to complain about Evangelina, but it was only after many months that she ventured to suggest to her husband that he sell the girl. Esteban, of course, refused point-blank; he was too fond of Sebastian's daughter, he declared, to think of such a thing.
"So, that is it," sneered Dona Isabel. "Well, she is young and shapely and handsome, as wenches go. I rather suspected you were fond of her—"
With difficulty Esteban restrained an oath. "You mistake my meaning," he said, stiffly. "Sebastian has served me faithfully, and Evangelina plays with my children. She is good to them; she is more of a mother to them than you have ever been."
"Is that why you dress her like a lady? Bah! A likely story!" Isabel tossed her fine, dark head. "I'm not blind; I see what goes on about me. This will make a pretty scandal among your friends— she as black as the pit, and you—"
"WOMAN!" shouted the planter, "you have a sting like a scorpion."
"I won't have that wench in my house," Isabel flared out at him.
Goaded to fury by his wife's senseless accusation, Esteban cried: "YOUR house? By what license do you call it yours?"
"Am I not married to you?"
"Damnation! Yes—as a leech is married to its victim. You suck my blood."
"Your blood!" The woman laughed shrilly. "You have no blood; your veins run vinegar. You are a miser."
"Miser! Miser! I grow sick of the word. It is all you find to taunt me with. Confess that you married me for my money," he roared.
"Of course I did! Do you think a woman of my beauty would marry you for anything else? But a fine bargain I made!"
"Wife or vampire, I intend to rule this house, and I refuse to be shamed by a thick-lipped African. Her airs tell her story. She is insolent to me, but—I sha'n't endure it. She laughs at me. Well, your friends shall laugh at you."
"Silence!" commanded Esteban.
"Sell her, or—"
Without waiting to hear her threat Esteban tossed his arms above his head and fled from the room. Flinging himself into the saddle, he spurred down the hill and through the town to the Casino de Espanol, where he spent the night at cards with the Spanish officials. But he did not sell Evangelina.
In the days that followed many similar scenes occurred, and as Esteban's home life grew more unhappy his dissipations increased. He drank and gambled heavily; he brought his friends to the quinta with him, and strove to forget domestic unpleasantness in boisterous revelry.
His wife, however, found opportunities enough to weary and exasperate him with reproaches regarding the slave girl.
The twins were seven years old when Dona Isabel's schemes bore their first bitter fruit, and the occasion was a particularly uproarious night when Don Esteban entertained a crowd of his Castilian friends. Little Rosa was awakened at a late hour by the laughter and shouts of her father's guests. She was afraid, for there was something strange about the voices, some quality to them which was foreign to the child's experience. Creeping into her brother's room, she awoke him, and together they listened.
Don Mario de Castano was singing a song, the words of which were lost, but which brought a yell of approval from his companions. The twins distinguished the voice of Don Pablo Peza, too—Don Pablo, whose magnificent black beard had so often excited their admiration. Yes, and there was Col. Mendoza y Linares, doubtless in his splendid uniform. These gentlemen were well and favorably known to the boy and girl, yet Rosa began to whimper, and when Esteban tried to reassure her his own voice was thin and reedy from fright.
In the midst of their agitation they heard some one weeping; there came a rush of feet down the hallway, and the next instant Evangelina flung herself into the room. A summer moon flooded the chamber with radiance and enabled her to see the two small white figures sitting up in the middle of the bed.
Evangelina fell upon her knees before them. "Little master! Little mistress!" she sobbed. "You will save me, won't you? We love each other, eh? See then, what a crime this is! Say that you will save me!" She was beside herself, and her voice was hoarse and cracked from grief. She wrung her hands, she rocked herself from side to side, she kissed the twins' nightgowns, tugging at them convulsively.
The children were frightened, but they managed to quaver: "What has happened? Who has harmed you?"
"Don Pablo Peza," wept the negress. "Your father has sold me to him—lost me at cards. Oh, I shall die! Sebastian won't believe it. He is praying. And Asensio—O God! But what can they do to help me? You alone can save me. You won't let Don Pablo take me away? It would kill me."
"Wait!" Esteban scrambled out of bed and stood beside his dusky nurse and playmate. "Don't cry any more. I'll tell papa that you don't like Don Pablo."
Rosa followed. "Yes, come along, brother," she cried, shrilly. "We'll tell Don Pablo to go home and leave our Evangelina."
"My blessed doves! But will they listen to you?" moaned the slave.
"Papa does whatever we ask," they assured her, gravely. "If he should growl we'll come back and hide you in the big wardrobe where nobody will ever find you." Then hand in hand, with their long nightgowns lifted to their knees, they pattered out into the hall and down toward the living-room, whence came the shouting and the laughter.
Don Mario de Castano, who was facing the door, stopped in the midst of a ribald song to cry: "God be praised! What's this I see?"
The others looked and then burst into merriment, for across the litter of cards and dice and empty glasses they saw a dimpled girl and boy, as like as two peas. They were just out of bed; they were peering through the smoke, and blinking like two little owls. Their evident embarrassment amused the guests hugely.
"So! You awaken the household with your songs," some one chided Don Mario.
"Two cherubs from heaven," another exclaimed.
And a third cried, "A toast to Esteban's beautiful children."
But the father lurched forward, a frown upon his face. "What is this, my dears?" he inquired, thickly. "Run back to your beds. This is no place for you."
"We love Evangelina," piped the twins. "You must not let Don Pablo have her—if you please."
They nodded. "We love her. ... She plays with us every day. ... We want her to stay here. ... She belongs to us."
Accustomed as they were to prompt compliance with their demands, they spoke imperiously; but they had never seen a frown like this upon their father's face, and at his refusal their voices grew squeaky with excitement and uncertainty.
"Go to your rooms, my sweethearts," Don Esteban directed, finally.
"We want Evangelina. She belongs to us," they chorused, stubbornly.
Don Pablo shook with laughter. "So! She belongs to you, eh? And I'm to be robbed of my winnings. Very well, then, come and give me a kiss, both of you, and I'll see what can be done."
But the children saw that Don Pablo's face was strangely flushed, that his eyes were wild and his magnificent beard was wet with wine; therefore they hung back.
"You won your bet fairly," Esteban growled at him. "Pay no heed to these babies."
"Evangelina is ours," the little ones bravely repeated.
Then their father exploded: "The devil! Am I dreaming? Where have you learned to oppose me? Back to your beds, both of you." Seeing them hesitate, he shouted for his wife. "Ho, there! Isabel, my love! Come put these imps to rest. Or must I teach them manners with my palm? A fine thing, truly! Are they to be allowed to roam the house at will and get a fever?"
Mere mention of their stepmother's name was enough for Rosa and Esteban; they scuttled away as fast as they could go, and when Dona Isabel came to their rooms, a few moments later, she found them in their beds, with their eyes deceitfully squeezed shut. Evangelina was cowering in a corner. Isabel had overheard the wager, and her soul was evilly alight; she jerked the slave girl to her feet and with a blow of her palm sent her to her quarters. Then she turned her attention to the twins. When she left them they were weeping silently, both for themselves and for Evangelina, whom they dearly loved.
Meanwhile Don Mario had resumed his singing.
Day was breaking when Esteban Varona bade his guests good-by at the door of his house. As he stood there Sebastian came to him out of the mists of the dawn. The old man had been waiting for hours. He was half crazed from apprehension, and now cast himself prone before his master, begging for Evangelina.
Don Pablo, in whom the liquor was dying, cursed impatiently: "Caramba! Have I won the treasure of your whole establishment?" he inquired. "Perhaps you value this wench at more than a thousand pesos; if so, you will say that I cheated you."
"No! She's only an ordinary girl. My wife doesn't like her, and so I determined to get rid of her. She is yours, fairly enough," Varona told him.
"Then send her to my house. I'll breed her to Salvador, my cochero. He's the strongest man I have."
Sebastian uttered a strangled cry and rose to his feet. "Master! You must not—"
"Silence!" ordered Esteban. Wine never agreed with him, and this morning its effects, combined with his losses at gambling, had put him in a nasty temper. "Go about your business. What do you mean by this, anyhow?" he shouted.
But Sebastian, dazed of mind and sick of soul, went on, unheeding. "She is my girl. You promised me her freedom. I warn you—"
"Eh?" The planter swayed forward and with blazing eyes surveyed his slave. Esteban knew that he had done a foul thing in risking the girl upon the turn of a card, and an inner voice warned him that he would repent his action when he became sober, but in his present mood this very knowledge enraged him the more. "You warn me? Of what?" he growled.
At this moment neither master nor man knew exactly what he said or did. Sebastian raised his hand on high. In reality the gesture was meant to call Heaven as a witness to his years of faithful service, but, misconstruing his intent, Pablo Peza brought his riding-whip down across the old man's back, crying:
"Ho! None of that."
A shudder ran through Sebastian's frame. Whirling, he seized Don Pablo's wrist and tore the whip from his fingers. Although the Spaniard was a strong man, he uttered a cry of pain.
At this indignity to a guest Esteban flew into a fury. "Pancho!" he cried. "Ho! Pancho!" When the manager came running, Esteban explained: "This fool is dangerous. He raised his hand to me and to Don Pablo."
Sebastian's protests were drowned by the angry voices of the others.
"Tie him to yonder grating," directed Esteban, who was still in the grip of a senseless rage. "Flog him well and make haste about it."
Sebastian, who had no time in which to recover himself, made but a weak resistance when Pancho Cueto locked his wrists into a pair of clumsy, old-fashioned manacles, first passing the chain around one of the bars of the iron window-grating which Esteban had indicated. Sebastian felt that his whole world was tumbling about his ears. He thought he must be dreaming.
Cueto swung a heavy lash; the sound of his blows echoed through the quinta, and they summoned, among others, Dona Isabel, who watched the scene from behind her shutter with much satisfaction. The guests looked on approvingly.
Sebastian made no outcry. The face he turned to his master, however, was puckered with reproach and bewilderment. The whip bit deep; it drew blood and raised welts the thickness of one's thumb; nevertheless, for the first few moments the victim suffered less in body than in spirit. His brain was so benumbed, so shocked with other excitations, that he was well-nigh insensible to physical pain. That Evangelina, flesh of his flesh, had been sold, that his lifelong faithfulness had brought such reward as this, that Esteban, light of his soul, had turned against him—all this was simply astounding. More his simple mind could not compass for the moment. Gradually, however, he began to resent the shrieking injustice of it all, and unsuspected forces gathered inside of him. They grew until his frame was shaken by primitive savage impulses.
After a time Don Esteban cried: "That will do, Cueto! Leave him now for the flies to punish. They will remind him of his insolence."
Then the guests departed, and Esteban staggered into the house and went to bed.
All that morning Sebastian stood with his hands chained high over his head. The sun grew hotter and ever hotter upon his lacerated back: the blood dried and clotted there; a cloud of flies gathered, swarming over the raw gashes left by Cueto's whip.
Before leaving for Don Pablo's quinta Evangelina came to bid her father an agonized farewell, and for a long time after she had gone the old man stood motionless, senseless, scarcely breathing. Nor did the other slaves venture to approach him to offer sympathy or succor. They passed with heads averted and with fear in their hearts.
Since Don Esteban's nerves, or perhaps it was his conscience, did not permit him to sleep, he arose about noon-time and dressed himself. He was still drunk, and the mad rage of the early morning still possessed him; therefore, when he mounted his horse he pretended not to see the figure chained to the window-grating. Sebastian's affection for his master was doglike and he had taken his punishment as a dog takes his, more in surprise than in anger, but at this proof of callous indifference a fire kindled in the old fellow's breast, hotter by far than the fever from his fly- blown scores. He was thirsty, too, but that was the least of his sufferings.
Sometime during the afternoon the negro heard himself addressed through the window against the bars of which he leaned. The speaker was Dona Isabel. She had waited patiently until she knew he must be faint from exhaustion and then she had let herself into the room behind the grating, whence she could talk to him without fear of observation.
"Do you suffer, Sebastian?" she began in a tone of gentleness and pity.
"Yes, mistress." The speaker's tongue was thick and swollen.
"La! La! What a crime! And you the most faithful slave in all Cuba!"
"Can I help you?"
The negro raised his head; he shook his body to rid himself of the insects which were devouring him.
"Give me a drink of water," he said, hoarsely.
"Surely, a great gourdful, all cool and dripping from the well. But first I want you to tell me something. Come now, let us have an understanding with each other."
"A drink, for the love of Christ," panted the old man, and Dona Isabel saw how cracked and dry were his thick lips, how near the torture had come to prostrating him.
"I'll do more," she promised, and her voice was like honey. "I'll tell Pancho Cueto to unlock you, even if I risk Esteban's anger by so doing. You have suffered too much, my good fellow. Indeed you have. Well, I can help you now and in the future, or—I can make your life just such a misery as it has been to-day. Will you be my friend? Will you tell me something?" She was close to the window; her black eyes were gleaming; her face was ablaze with greed.
"What can I tell you?"
"Oh, you know very well! I've asked it often enough, but you have lied, just as my husband has lied to me. He is a miser; he has no heart; he cares for nobody, as you can see. You must hate him now, even as I hate him." There was a silence during which Dona Isabel tried to read the expression on that tortured face in the sunlight. "Do you?"
"Then tell me—is there really a treasure, or—?" The woman gasped; she choked; she could scarcely force the question for fear of disappointment. "Tell me there is, Sebastian." She clutched the bars and shook them. "I've heard so many lies that I begin to doubt."
The old man nodded. "Oh yes, there is a treasure," said he.
"God! You have seen it?" Isabel was trembling as if with an ague. "What is it like? How much is there? Good Sebastian, I'll give you water; I'll have you set free if you tell me."
"How much? I don't know. But there is much—pieces of Spanish gold, silver coins in casks and in little boxes—the boxes are bound with iron and have hasps and staples; bars of precious metal and little paper packages of gems, all tied up and hidden in leather bags." Sebastian could hear his listener panting; her bloodless fingers were wrapped tightly around the bars above his head.—
"Yes! Go on."
"There are ornaments, too. God knows they must have come from heaven, they are so beautiful; and pearls from the Caribbean as large as plums."
"Are you speaking the truth?"
"Every peso, every bar, every knickknack I have handled with my own hands. Did I not make the hiding-place all alone? Senora, everything is there just as I tell you—and more. The grants of title from the crown for this quinta and the sugar-plantations, they are there, too. Don Esteban used to fear the government officials, so he hid his papers securely. Without them the lands belong to no one. You understand?"
"Of course! Yes, yes! But the jewels—God! where are they hidden?"
"You would never guess!" Sebastian's voice gathered strength. "Ten thousand men in ten thousand years would never find the place, and nobody knows the secret but Don Esteban and me."
"I believe you. I knew all the time it was here. Well? Where is it?"
Sebastian hesitated and said, piteously, "I am dying—"
Isabel could scarcely contain herself. "I'll give you water, but first tell me where—where! God in heaven! Can't you see that I, too, am perishing?"
"I must have a drink."
"Tell me first."
Sebastian lifted his head and, meeting the speaker's eyes, laughed hoarsely.
At the sound of his unnatural merriment Isabel recoiled as if stung. She stared at the slave's face in amazement and then in fury. She stammered, incoherently, "You—you have been—lying!"
"Oh no! The treasure is there, the greatest treasure in all Cuba, but you shall never know where it is. I'll see to that. It was you who sold my girl; it was you who brought me to this; it was your hand that whipped me. Well, I'll tell Don Esteban how you tried to bribe his secret from me! What do you think he'll do then? Eh? You'll feel the lash on your white back—"
"You FOOL!" Dona Isabel looked murder. "I'll punish you for this; I'll make you speak if I have to rub your wounds with salt."
But Sebastian closed his eyes wearily. "You can't make me suffer more than I have suffered," he said. "And now—I curse you. May that treasure be the death of you. May you live in torture like mine the rest of your days; may your beauty turn to ugliness such that men will spit at you; may you never know peace again until you die in poverty and want—"
But Dona Isabel, being superstitious, fled with her fingers in her ears; nor did she undertake to make good her barbarous threat, realizing opportunely that it would only serve to betray her desperate intentions and put her husband further on his guard. Instead she shut herself into her room, where she paced the floor, racking her brain to guess where the hiding-place could be or to devise some means of silencing Sebastian's tongue. To feel that she had been overmatched, to know that there was indeed a treasure, to think that the two who knew where it was had been laughing at her all this time, filled the woman with an agony approaching that which Sebastian suffered from his flies.
As the sun was sinking beyond the farther rim of the Yumuri and the valley was beginning to fill with shadows. Esteban Varona rode up the hill. His temper was more evil than ever, if that were possible, for he had drunk again in an effort to drown the memory of his earlier actions. With him rode half a dozen or more of his friends, coming to dine and put in another night at his expense. There were Pablo Peza, and Mario de Castano, once more; Col. Mendoza y Linares, old Pedro Miron, the advocate, and others of less consequence, whom Esteban had gathered from the Spanish Club. The host dismounted and lurched across the courtyard to Sebastian.
"So, my fine fellow," he began. "Have you had enough of rebellion by this time?"
"Why did you have him flogged?" the advocate inquired.
Esteban explained, briefly, "He dared to raise his hand in anger against one of my guests."
Sebastian's face was working as he turned upon his master to say: "I would be lying if I told you that I am sorry for what I did. It is you have done wrong. Your soul is black with this crime. Where is my girl?"
"The devil! To hear you talk one would think you were a free man." The planter's eyes were bleared and he brandished his riding-whip threateningly. "I do as I please with my slaves. I tolerate no insolence. Your girl? Well, she's in the house of Salvador, Don Pablo's cochero, where she belongs. I've warned him that he will have to tame her unruly spirit, as I have tamed yours."
Sebastian had hung sick and limp against the grating, but at these words he suddenly roused. It was as if a current of electricity had galvanized him. He strained at his manacles and the bars groaned under his weight. His eyes began to roll, his lips drew back over his blue gums. Noting his expression of ferocity, Esteban cut at his naked back with the riding-whip, crying:
"Ho! Not subdued yet, eh? You need another flogging."
"Curse you and all that is yours," roared the maddened slave. "May you know the misery you have put upon me. May you rot for a million years in hell." The whip was rising and falling now, for Esteban had lost what little self-control the liquor had left to him. "May your children's bodies grow filthy with disease; may they starve; may they—"
Sebastian was yelling, though his voice was hoarse with pain. The lash drew blood with every blow. Meanwhile, he wrenched and tugged at his bonds with the fury of a maniac.
"Pablo! Your machete, quick!" panted the slave-owner. "God's blood! I'll make an end of this black fiend, once for all."
Esteban Varona's guests had looked on at the scene with the same mild interest they would display at the whipping of a balky horse: and, now that the animal threatened to become dangerous, it was in their view quite the proper thing to put it out of the way. Don Pablo Peza stepped toward his mare to draw the machete from its scabbard. But he did not hand it to his friend. He heard a shout, and turned in time to see a wonderful and a terrible thing.
Sebastian had braced his naked feet against the wall; he had bowed his back and bent his massive shoulders—a back and a pair of shoulders that looked as bony and muscular as those of an ox—and he was heaving with every ounce of strength in his enormous body. As Pablo stared he saw the heavy grating come away from its anchorage in the solid masonry, as a shrub is uprooted from soft ground. The rods bent and twisted; there was a clank and rattle and clash of metal upon the flags; and then—Sebastian turned upon his tormentor, a free man, save only for the wide iron bracelets and their connecting chain. He was quite insane. His face was frightful to behold; it was apelike in its animal rage, and he towered above his master like some fabled creature out of the African jungle of his forefathers.
Sebastian's fists alone would have been formidable weapons, but they were armored and weighted with the old-fashioned, hand- wrought irons which Pancho Cueto had locked upon them. Wrapping the chain in his fingers, the slave leaped at Esteban and struck, once. The sound of the blow was sickening, for the whole bony structure of Esteban Varona's head gave way.
There was a horrified cry from the other white men. Don Pablo Peza ran forward, shouting. He swung his machete, but Sebastian met him before the blow could descend, and they went down together upon the hard stones. Again Sebastian smote, with his massive hands wrapped in the chain and his wrists encased in steel, and this time it was as if Don Pablo's head had been caught between a hammer and an anvil. The negro's strength, exceptional at all times, was multiplied tenfold; he had run amuck. When he arose the machete was in his grasp and Don Pablo's brains were on his knuckles.
It all happened in far less time than it takes to tell. The onlookers had not yet recovered from their first consternation; in fact they were still fumbling and tugging at whatever weapons they carried when Sebastian came toward them, brandishing the blade on high. Pedro Miron, the advocate, was the third to fall. He tried to scramble out of the negro's path, but, being an old man, his limbs were too stiff to serve him and he went down shrieking.
By now the horses had caught the scent of hot blood and were plunging furiously, the clatter of their hoofs mingling with the blasphemies of the riders, while Sebastian's bestial roaring made the commotion even more hideous.
Esteban's guests fought as much for their lives as for vengeance upon the slayer, for Sebastian was like a gorilla; he seemed intent upon killing them all. He vented his fury upon whatever came within his reach; he struck at men and animals alike, and the shrieks of wounded horses added to the din.
It was a frightful combat. It seemed incredible that one man could work such dreadful havoc in so short a time. Varona and two of his friends were dead; two more were badly wounded, and a Peruvian stallion lay kicking on the flagging when Col. Mendoza y Linares finally managed to get a bullet home in the black man's brain.
Those who came running to learn the cause of the hubbub turned away sick and pallid, for the paved yard was a shambles. Pancho Cueto called upon the slaves to help him, but they slunk back to their quarters, dumb with terror and dismay.
All that night people from the town below came and went and the quinta resounded to sobs and lamentations, but of all the relatives of the dead and wounded, Dona Isabel took her bereavement hardest. Strange to say, she could not be comforted. She wept, she screamed, she tore her hair, tasting the full nauseousness of the cup her own avarice had prepared. Now, when it was too late, she realized that she had overreached herself, having caused the death of the only two who knew the secret of the treasure. She remembered, also, Sebastian's statement that even the deeds of patent for the land were hidden with the rest, where ten thousand men in ten thousand years could never find them.
Impressed by her manifestations of grief, Esteban's friends reasoned that the widow must have loved her husband dearly. They told one another they had wronged her.
Age and easy living had caused Don Mario de Castano, the sugar merchant, to take on weight. He had, in truth, become so fat that he waddled like a penguin when he walked; and when he rode, the springs of his French victoria gave up in despair. They glued themselves together, face to face, and Don Mario felt every rut and every rock in the road. Nor was the merchant any less heavy in mind than in body, for he was both very rich and very serious, and nothing is more ponderous than a rich, fat man who takes his riches and his fatness seriously. In disposition Don Mario was practical and unromantic; he boasted that he had never had an illusion, never an interest outside of his business. And yet, on the day this story opens, this prosaic personage, in spite of his bulging waistband and his taut neckband, in spite of his short breath and his prickly heat, was in a very whirl of pleasurable excitement. Don Mario, in fact, suffered the greatest of all illusions: he was in love, and he believed himself beloved. The object of his adoration was little Rosa Varona, the daughter of his one-time friend Esteban. At thought of her the planter glowed with ardor—at any rate he took it to be ardor, although it might have been the fever from that summer rash which so afflicted him— and his heart fluttered in a way dangerous to one of his apoplectic tendencies. To be sure, he had met Rosa only twice since her return from her Yankee school, but twice had been enough; with prompt decision he had resolved to do her the honor of making her his wife.
Now, with a person of Don Mario's importance, to decide for himself is to decide for others, and inasmuch as he knew that Dona Isabel, Rosa's stepmother, was notoriously mercenary and had not done at all well since her husband's death, it did not occur to him to doubt that his suit would prosper. It was, in fact, to make terms with her that he rode forth in the heat of this particular afternoon.
Notwithstanding the rivulets of perspiration that were coursing down every fold of his flesh, and regardless of the fact that the body of his victoria was tipped at a drunken angle, as if struggling to escape the burdens of his great weight, Don Mario felt a jauntiness of body and of spirit almost like that of youth. He saw himself as a splendid prince riding toward the humble home of some obscure maiden whom he had graciously chosen to be his mate.
His arrival threw Dona Isabel into a flutter; the woman could scarcely contain her curiosity when she came to meet him, for he was not the sort of man to inconvenience himself by mere social visits. Their first formal greetings over, Don Mario surveyed the bare living-room and remarked, lugubriously:
"I see many changes here."
"No doubt," the widow agreed. "Times have been hard since poor Esteban's death."
"What a terrible calamity that was! I shudder when I think of it," said he. "I was his guest on the night previous, you remember? In fact, I witnessed his wager of the negro girl, Evangelina—the root of the whole tragedy. Well, well! Who would have believed that old slave, her father, would have run mad at losing her? A shocking affair, truly! and one I shall never get out of my mind."
"Shocking, yes. But what do you think of a rich man, like Esteban, who would leave his family destitute? Who would die without revealing the place where he had stored his treasure?"
Dona Isabel, it was plain, felt her wrongs keenly; she spoke with as much spirit as if her husband had permitted himself to be killed purely out of spite toward her.
De Castano shook his round bullet head, saying with some impatience: "You still believe in that treasure, eh? My dear senora, the only treasure Varona left was his adorable children— and your admirable self." Immediately the speaker regretted his words, for he remembered, too late, that Dona Isabel was reputed to be a trifle unbalanced on this subject of the Varona treasure.
"I do not believe; I KNOW!" the widow answered, with more than necessary vehemence. "What became of all Esteban's money if he did not bury it? He never gave any to me, for he was a miser. You know, as well as I, that he carried on a stupendous business in slaves and sugar, and it was common knowledge that he hid every peso for fear of his enemies. But where? WHERE? That is the question."
"You, if any one, should know, after all the years you have spent in hunting for it," the merchant observed. "Dios mio! Almost before Esteban was buried you began the search. People said you were going to tear this house down."
"Well, I never found a trace. I had holes dug in the gardens, too."
"You see? No, senora, it is possible to hide anything except money. No man can conceal that where another will not find it."
Isabel's face had grown hard and avaricious, even during this brief talk; her eyes were glowing; plainly she was as far as ever from giving up her long-cherished conviction.
"I don't ask anybody to believe the story," she said, resentfully. "All the same, it is true. There are pieces of Spanish gold and silver coins, in boxes bound with iron and fitted with hasps and staples; packages of gems; pearls from the Caribbean as large as plums. Oh? Sebastian told me all about it."
"Of course, of course! I shall not argue the matter."' Don Mario dismissed the subject with a wave of his plump hand. "Now, Dona Isabel—"
"As if it were not enough to lose that treasure," the widow continued, stormily, "the Government must free all our slaves. Tse! Tse! And now that there is no longer a profit in sugar, my plantations—"
"No profit in sugar? What are you saying?" queried the caller.
"Oh, you have a way of prospering! What touches your fingers turns to gold. But you are not at the mercy of an administrador."
"Precisely! I am my own manager. If your crops do not pay, then Pancho Cueto is cheating you. He is capable of it. Get rid of him. But I didn't come here to talk about Esteban's hidden treasure, nor his plantations, nor Pancho Cueto. I came here to talk about your step-daughter, Rosa."
"So?" Dona Isabel looked up quickly.
"She interests me. She is more beautiful than the stars." Don Mario rolled his eyes toward the high ceiling, which, like the sky, was tinted a vivid cerulean blue. "She personifies every virtue; she is—delectable." He pursed his wet lips, daintily picked a kiss from between them with his thumb and finger, and snapped it into the air.
Inasmuch as Isabel had always hated the girl venomously, she did not trust herself to comment upon her caller's enthusiasm.
"She is now eighteen," the fat suitor went on, ecstatically, "and so altogether charming—But why waste time in pretty speeches? I have decided to marry her."
De Castano plucked a heavily scented silk handkerchief from his pocket and wiped a beading of moisture from his brow and upper lip. He had a habit of perspiring when roused from his usual lethargy.
"Rosa has a will of her own," guardedly ventured the stepmother.
Don Mario broke out, testily: "Naturally; so have we all. Now let us speak plainly. You know me. I am a person of importance. I am rich enough to afford what I want, and I pay well. You understand? Well, then, you are Rosa's guardian and you can bend her to your desires."
"If that were only so!" exclaimed the woman. "She and Esteban— what children! What tempers!—Just like their father's! They have never liked me; they disobey me at every opportunity; they exercise the most diabolical ingenuity in making my life miserable. They were to be their father's heirs, you know, and they blame me for his death, for our poverty, and for all the other misfortunes that have overtaken us. We live like cats and dogs."
Don Mario had been drumming his fat fingers impatiently upon the arm of his chair. Now he exclaimed:
"Your pardon, senora, but I am just now very little interested in your domestic relations; they do not thrill me—as my own prospective happiness does. What you say about Rosa only makes me more eager, for I loathe a sleepy woman. Now tell me, is she—Has she any-affairs of the heart?"
"N-no, unless perhaps a flirtation with that young American, Juan O'Reilly." Dona Isabel gave the name its Spanish pronunciation of "O'Rail-ye."
"Juan O'Reilly? O'Reilly? Oh yes! But what has he to offer a woman? He is little more than a clerk."
"That is what I tell her. Oh, it hasn't gone far as yet."
"Good!" Don Mario rose to leave, for the exertion of his ride had made him thirsty. "You may name your own reward for helping me and I will pay it the day Rosa marries me. Now kindly advise her of my intentions and tell her I shall come to see her soon."
It was quite true that Johnnie O'Reilly—or "The O'Reilly," as his friends called him—had little in the way of worldly advantage to offer any girl, and it was precisely because of this fact that he had accepted a position here in Cuba, where, from the very nature of things, promotion was likely to be more rapid than in the New York office of his firm. He had come to this out-of-the-way place prepared to live the lonely life of an exile, if an O'Reilly could be lonely anywhere, and for a brief time he had been glum enough.
But the O'Reillys, from time immemorial, had been born and bred to exile; it was their breath, their meat and drink, and this particular member of the clan thrived upon it quite as well as had the other Johnnies and Michaels and Andys who had journeyed to far shores. The O'Reillys were audacious men, a bit too heedless of their own good, perhaps; a bit too light-hearted readily to impress a grave world with their varied abilities, but sterling men, for all that, ambitious men, men with lime in their bones and possessed of a high and ready chivalry that made friends for them wherever their wandering feet strayed. Spain, France, and the two Americas had welcomed O'Reillys of one sort or another; even Cuba had the family name written large upon her scroll. So Johnnie, of New York and Matanzas, although at first he felt himself a stranger in a strange land, was not so considered by the Cubans.
A dancing eye speaks every language; a singing heart gathers its own audience. Before the young Irish-American had more than a bowing acquaintance with the commonest Spanish verbs he had a calling acquaintance with some of the most exclusive people of Matanzas. He puzzled them, to be sure, for they could not fathom the reason for his ever-bubbling gladness, but they strove to catch its secret, and, striving, they made friends with him. O'Reilly did not puzzle their daughters nearly so much: more than one aristocratic senorita felt sure that she quite understood the tall, blond stranger with the laughing eyes, or could understand him if he gave her half a chance, and so, as had been the case with other O'Reillys in other lands, Johnnie's exile became no exile at all. He had adjusted himself serenely to his surroundings when Rosa Varona returned from school, but with her coming, away went all his complacency. His contentment vanished; he experienced a total change in his opinions, his hopes, and his ambitions.
He discovered, for example, that Matanzas was by no means the out- of-the-way place he had considered it; on the contrary, after meeting Rosa once by accident, twice by design, and three times by mutual arrangement, it had dawned upon him that this was the chief city of Cuba, if not, perhaps, the hub around which the whole world revolved; certainly it was the most agreeable of all cities, since it contained everything that was necessary for man's happiness. Yet, despite the thrill of his awakening, O'Reilly was not at all pleased with himself, for, as it happened, there was another girl back home, and during his first year of loneliness he had written to her more freely and more frequently than any man on such a salary as his had a right to do.
O'Reilly laid no claims to literary gifts; nevertheless, it seemed to him, as he looked back upon it, that his pen must have been dipped in magic and in moonlight, for the girl had expressed an eager willingness to share his interesting economic problems, and in fact was waiting for him to give her the legal right. Inasmuch as her father was O'Reilly's "Company" it may be seen that Rosa Varona's home-coming seriously complicated matters, not only from a sentimental, but from a business standpoint.
It was in a thoughtful mood that he rode up La Cumbre, toward the Quinta de Esteban, late on the afternoon of Don Mario's visit. Instead of going directly to the house as the merchant had done, O'Reilly turned off from the road and, after tethering his horse in a cluster of guava bushes, proceeded on foot. He did not like Dona Isabel, nor did Dona Isabel like him. Moreover, he had a particular reason for avoiding her to-day.
Just inside the Varona premises he paused an instant to admire the outlook. The quinta commanded an excellent view of the Yumuri, on the one hand, and of the town and harbor on the other; no one ever climbed the hill from the city to gaze over into that hidden valley without feeling a pleasurable surprise at finding it still there. We are accustomed to think of perfect beauty as unsubstantial, evanescent; but the Yumuri never changed, and in that lay its supremest wonder.
Through what had once been well-tended grounds, O'Reilly made his way to a sort of sunken garden which, in spite of neglect, still remained the most charming nook upon the place; and there he sat down to wait for Rosa. The hollow was effectually screened from view by a growth of plantain, palm, orange, and tamarind trees; over the rocky walls ran a profusion of flowering plants and vines; in the center of the open space was an old well, its masonry curb all but crumbled away.
When Rosa at last appeared, O'Reilly felt called upon to tell her, somewhat dizzily, that she was beyond doubt the sweetest flower on all the Quinta de Esteban, and since this somewhat hackneyed remark was the boldest speech he had ever made to her, she blushed prettily, flashing him a dimpled smile of mingled pleasure and surprise.
"Oh, but I assure you I'm in no sweet temper," said she. "Just now I'm tremendously angry."
"It's that stepmother—Isabel."
"So! You've been quarreling again, eh? Well, she's the easiest woman in all Matanzas to quarrel with—perhaps the only one who doesn't see something good in me. I'm afraid to talk to her for fear she'd convince me I'm wholly abominable."
Rosa laughed, showing her fine, regular teeth—O'Reilly thought he had never seen teeth so even and white. "Yes, she is a difficult person. If she dreamed that I see you as often as I do—Well—" Rosa lifted her eloquent hands and eyes heavenward. "I suppose that's why I enjoy doing it—I so dearly love to spite her."
"I see!" O'Reilly puckered his brows and nodded. "But why, in that case, haven't you seen me oftener? We might just as well have made the good lady's life totally unbearable."
"Silly! She knows nothing about it." With a flirtatious sigh Rosa added: "That's what robs the affair of its chief pleasure. Since it does not bother her in the least, I think I will not allow you to come any more."
After judicious consideration, O'Reilly pretended to agree.
"There's no fun in wreaking a horrible revenge, when your enemy isn't wise to it," he acknowledged. "Since it's your idea to irritate your stepmother, perhaps it would annoy her more if I made love directly to her."
Rosa tittered, and then inquired, naively, "Can you make love, senor?"
"Can I? It's the one ability an O'Reilly inherits. Listen to this now." Reaching forth, he took Rosa's fingers in his. "Wait!" he cried as she resisted. "Pretend that you're Mrs. Varona, your own stepmother, and that this is her dimpled hand I'm holding."
"Oh-h!" The girl allowed his grasp to remain. "But Isabel's hand isn't dimpled: it's thin and bony. I've felt it on my ears often enough."
"Don't interrupt," he told her. "Isabel, my little darling—"
"'Little'! La! La! She's as tall and ugly as a chimney."
"Hush! I've held my tongue as long as I can, but now it's running away of its own accord, and I must tell you how mad I am about you. The first time I saw you—it was at the ball in the Spanish Club—" Again Rosa drew away sharply, at which O'Reilly laid his other hand over the one in his palm, saying, quickly: "You and your stepdaughter, Rosa. Do you remember that first waltz of ours? Sure, I thought I was in heaven, with you in my arms and your eyes shining into mine, and I told you so."
"So you make the same pretty speeches to all women, eh?" the girl reproached him.
"Isabel, sweetheart, I lose my breath when I think of you; my lips pucker up for kisses—"
"'ISABEL'!" exclaimed a voice, and the lovers started guiltily apart. They turned to find Esteban, Rosa's twin brother, staring at them oddly. "Isabel?" he repeated. "What's this?"
"You interrupted our theatricals. I was rehearsing an impassioned proposal to your beloved stepmother," O'Reilly explained, with a pretense of annoyance.
"Yes, Senor O'Reilly believes he can infuriate Isabel by laying siege to her. He's a—foolish person—" Rosa's cheeks were faintly flushed and her color deepened at the amusement in Esteban's eyes. "He makes love wretchedly."
"What little I overheard wasn't bad," Esteban declared; then he took O'Reilly's hand.
Esteban was a handsome boy, straight, slim, and manly, and his resemblance to Rosa was startling. With a look engaging in its frank directness, he said: "Rosa told me about your meetings here and I came to apologize for our stepmother's discourtesy. I'm sorry we can't invite you into our house, but—you understand? Rosa and I are not like her; we are quite liberal in our views; we are almost Americans, as you see. I dare say that's what makes Isabel hate Americans so bitterly."
"Wouldn't it please her to know that I'm becoming Cubanized as fast as ever I can?" ventured the caller.
"Oh, she hates Cubans, too!" laughed the brother. "She's Spanish, you know. Well, it's fortunate you didn't see her to-day. Br-r! What a temper! We had our theatricals, too. I asked her for money, as usual, and, as usual, she refused. It was like a scene from a play. She'll walk in her sleep to-night, if ever."
Rosa nodded soberly, and O'Reilly, suppressing some light reply that had sprung to his lips, inquired, curiously, "What do you mean by that?"
Brother and sister joined in explaining that Dona Isabel was given to peculiar actions, especially after periods of excitement or anger, and that one of her eccentricities had taken the form of somnambulistic wanderings. "Oh, she's crazy enough," Esteban concluded. "I believe it's her evil conscience."
Rosa explained further: "She used to steal about at night, hoping to surprise papa or Sebastian going or coming from the treasure. They were both killed, as you know, and the secret of the hiding- place was lost. Now Isabel declares that they come to her in her sleep and that she has to help them hunt for it, whether she wishes or not. It is retribution." The speaker drew up her shoulders and shivered, but Esteban smiled.
"Bah!" he exclaimed. "I'll believe in ghosts when I see one." Then, with a shake of his head: "Isabel has never given up the hope of finding that treasure. She would like to see Rosa married, and me fighting with the Insurrectos, so that she might have a free hand in her search."
O'Reilly scanned the speaker silently for a moment; then he said, with a gravity unusual in him, "I wonder if you know that you're suspected of—working for the Insurrecto cause."
"Indeed? I didn't know."
"Well, it's a fact." O'Reilly heard Rosa gasp faintly. "Is it true?" he asked.
"I am a Cuban." Esteban's smile was a trifle grim.
"Cuban? Your people were Spanish."
"True. But no Spaniard ever raised a Spanish child in Cuba. We are Cubans, Rosa and I."
At this statement the sister cried: "Hush! It is dangerous to speak in that way, with this new war growing every day."
"But O'Reilly is our good friend," Esteban protested.
"Of course I am," the American agreed, "and for that reason I spoke. I hope you're not too deeply involved with the rebels."
"There, Esteban! Do you hear?" Turning to O'Reilly, Rosa said, imploringly: "Please reason with him. He's young and headstrong and he won't listen to me."
Esteban frowned. "Young, eh? Well, sometimes the young are called upon to do work that older men wouldn't care to undertake."
"What work?" O'Reilly's eyes were still upon him. "You can tell ME."
"I think I can," the other agreed. "Well, then, I know everybody in Matanzas; I go everywhere, and the Spanish officers talk plainly before me. Somebody must be the eyes and the ears for Colonel Lopez."
"Colonel Lopez!" exclaimed O'Reilly.
Rosa's face, as she looked. at the two men, was white and worried. For a time the three of them sat silent; then the American said, slowly, "You'll be shot if you're caught."
Rosa whispered: "Yes! Think of it!"
"Some one must run chances," Esteban averred. "We're fighting tyranny; all Cuba is ablaze. I must do my part."
"But sooner or later you'll be discovered—then what?" persisted O'Reilly.
Esteban shrugged. "Who knows? There'll be time enough when—"
"What of Rosa?"
At this question the brother stirred uneasily and dropped his eyes. O'Reilly laid a hand upon his arm. "You have no right to jeopardize her safety. Without you, to whom could she turn?" The girl flashed her admirer a grateful glance.
"Senor, you for one would see that she—"
"But—I'm going away." O'Reilly felt rather than saw Rosa start, for his face was averted. Purposely he kept his gaze upon Esteban, for he didn't wish to see the slow pallor that rose in the girl's cheeks, the look of pain that crept into her eyes. "I came here to tell you both good-by. I may be gone for some time. I—I don't know when I can get back."
"I'm sorry," Esteban told him, with genuine regret. "We have grown very fond of you. You will leave many friends here in Matanzas, I'm sure. But you will come back before long, eh?"
"Yes, as soon as I can. That is, if—" He did not finish the sentence.
"Good. You're one of us. In the mean time I'll remember what you say, and at least I'll be careful." By no means wanting in tact, Esteban rose briskly and, after shaking hands with O'Reilly, left the two lovers to say farewell as best suited them.
But for once O'Reilly's ready tongue was silent. The laughter was gone from his blue eyes when he turned to the girl at his side.
"You say you are going away?" Rosa inquired, breathlessly. "But why?"
"I'm going partly because of this war, and partly because of— something else. I tried to tell you yesterday, but I couldn't. When the revolution started everybody thought it was merely a local uprising, and I wrote my company to that effect; but, bless you, it has spread like fire, and now the whole eastern end of the island is ablaze."
"Esteban says it will be more terrible than the Ten Years' War."
"God forbid! And yet all the old fighters are back again. Nobody believed that Maximo Gomez had returned, but it's true. And the Maceos are here, too, from Costa Rica. Antonio has already gained control of most of Santiago Province, and he's sweeping westward. Of course the Spaniards minimize the reports of his success, and we, here, don't understand what's really going on. Anyhow, business has stopped, and my employers have ordered me home to find out what's happened to their profits. They seem to hold me personally responsible for this insurrection."
"I see. And when you have told them the truth you will come back. Is that it?"
"You said there was something else—"
O'Reilly's hesitation became an embarrassed silence. He tried to laugh it off.
"There is, otherwise I'd stay right here and tell my penurious friends to whistle for their profits. It seems I'm cursed with a fatal beauty. You may have noticed it? No? Well, perhaps it's a magnificent business ability that I have. Anyhow, the president of my company has a notion that I'd make him a good son-in-law."
"I—Oh!" cried Rosa.
And at her tone O'Reilly hurried on:
"These rich men have the most absurd ideas. I suppose I'll have to—"
"Then you are in love, senor?"
The young man nodded vigorously. "Indeed I am—with the sweetest girl in Cuba. That's the whole trouble. That's why I'm hurrying home to resign before I'm fired." Not daring to look too long or too deeply into Rosa Varona's eyes until she had taken in the whole truth, he waited, staring at his feet. "I'm sort of glad it has come to a show-down and I can speak out. I'm hoping she'll miss me." After a moment he ventured, "Will she—er—will you, Rosa?"
"I? Miss you?" Rosa lifted her brows in pretended amazement. Then she tipped her head daintily to one side, as if weighing his question earnestly. "You are amusing, of course, but—I won't have much time to think about you, for I am so soon to be married."
"Married? WHAT?" O'Reilly started violently, and the girl exclaimed, with well-feigned concern:
"Oh, senor! You have wounded yourself again on that thorn-bush. This place is growing up to brambles."
"It wasn't my finger! Something pierced me through the heart. MARRIED? Nonsense!"
"Indeed! Do you think I'm so ugly nobody would have me?"
"Good Lord! You—" O'Reilly swallowed hard. "I won't tell you the truth when you know it so well."
"The richest man in Matanzas asked for my hand this very afternoon."
"Who? Mario de Castano?"
O'Reilly laughed with relief, and though Rosa tried to look offended, she was forced to smile. "He's fat, I know," she admitted, "and he makes funny noises when he breathes; but he is richer than Croesus, and I adore rich men."
"I hate 'em!" announced O'Reilly. Then for a second time he took Rosa's dimpled hand, saying, earnestly: "I'm sure you know now why I make love so badly, dear. It's my Irish conscience. And you'll wait until I come back, won't you?"
"Will you be gone—very long?" she asked.
O'Reilly looked deeply now into the dark eyes turned to his, and found that at last there was no coquetry in them anywhere—nothing but a lonesome, hungry yearning—and with a glad, incoherent exclamation he held out his arms. Rosa Varona crept into them; then with a sigh she upturned her lips to his.
"I'll wait forever," she said.
Although for a long time Dona Isabel had been sure in her own mind that Pancho Cueto, her administrador, was robbing her, she had never mustered courage to call him to a reckoning. And there was a reason for her cowardice. Nevertheless, De Castano's blunt accusation, coupled with her own urgent needs, served to fix her resolution, and on the day after the merchant's visit she sent for the overseer, who at the time was living on one of the plantations.
Once the message was on its way, Isabel fell into a condition bordering upon panic, and was half minded to countermand her order. She spent an evening of suspense, and a miserable night. This last, however, was nothing unusual with her; she was accustomed to unpleasant dreams, and she was not surprised when old familiar shapes came to harass her. Nor, in view of her somnambulistic vagaries, was she greatly concerned to find, when she woke in the morning, that her slippers were stained and that her skirt was bedraggled with dew and filled with burs.
Scarcely a month passed that she did not walk in her sleep.
Cueto was plainly curious to learn why he had been sent for, but since he asked no questions, his employer was forced to open the subject herself. Several times he led up to it unsuccessfully; then she took the plunge. Through dry, white lips she began:
"My dear Pancho, times are hard. The plantations are failing, and so—" Pancho Cueto's eyes were set close to his nose, his face was long and thin and harsh; he regarded the speaker with such a sinister, unblinking stare that she could scarcely finish: "—and so I—can no longer afford to retain you as administrador."
"Times will improve," he said.
"Impossible! This war threatens to bring utter ruin; and now that Esteban and Rosa are home they spend money like water. I groan with poverty."
"Yes, they are extravagant. It is the more reason for me to remain in your service."
"No, no! I tell you I'm bankrupt."
"So? Then the remedy is simple—sell a part of your land."
Although this suggestion came naturally enough, Dona Isabel turned cold, and felt her smile stiffen into a grimace. She wondered if Cueto could be feeling her out deliberately. "Sell the Varona lands?" she queried, after a momentary struggle with herself. "Esteban would rise from his grave. No. It was his wish that the plantations go to his children intact."
"And his wish is sacred to you, eh?" Cueto nodded his approval, although his smile was disconcerting. "An admirable sentiment! It does you honor! But speaking on this subject, I am reminded of that dispute with Jose Oroz over the boundary to La Joya. He is a rascal, that Oroz; he would steal the sap out of your standing cane if he could. I have promised to show him the original deed to La Joya and to furnish him with the proofs about the boundary line. That would be better than a lawsuit, wouldn't it?"
"Decidedly! But—I will settle with him myself."
Cueto lifted an admonitory hand, his face alight with the faintest glimmer of ironic mirth. "I couldn't trust you to the mercies of that rascal," he said, piously. "No, I shall go on as I am, even at a sacrifice to myself. I love Don Esteban's children as my very own; and you, senora—"
Isabel knew that she must win a complete victory at once or accept irretrievable defeat,
"Never!" she interrupted, with a tone of finality. "I can't accept your sacrifice. I am not worthy. Kindly arrange to turn over your books of account at once. I shall make you as handsome a present as my circumstances will permit in recognition of your long and faithful service."
Then Pancho Cueto did an unexpected thing: he laughed shortly and shook his head.
Dona Isabel was ready to faint and her voice quavered as she went on: "Understand me, we part the best of friends despite all I have heard against you. I do not believe these stories people tell, for you probably have enemies. Even if all they say were true I should force myself to be lenient because of your affection for my husband."
The man rose, still smiling. "It is I who have been lenient," said he.
"Eh? Speak plainly."
"Gladly. I have long suspected that Don Esteban hid the deeds of his property with the rest of his valuables, and now that you admit—"
Dona Isabel recoiled sharply. "Admit! Are you mad? Deeds! What are you talking about?" Her eyes met his bravely enough, but she could feel her lips trembling loosely.
Casting aside all pretense, the overseer exclaimed: "Por el amor de Dios! An end to this! I know why you sent for me. You think I have been robbing you. Well, to be honest, so I have. Why should I toil as I do while you and those twins live here in luxury and idleness, squandering money to which you have no right?"
"Have I lost my reason?" gasped the widow. "No right?"
"At least no better right than I. Don't you understand? You have no title to those plantations! They are mine, for I have paid the taxes out of my own pockets now these many years."
"Taxes! What do you mean?"
"I paid them. The receipts are in my name."
"God! Such perfidy! And you who knew him!"
"The deeds have been lost for so long that the property would have reverted to the crown had it not been for me. You doubt that, eh? Well, appeal to the court and you will find that it is true. For that matter, the officials make new laws to fit each case, and should they learn that Esteban Varona died intestate they would arrange somehow to seize all his property and leave you without a roof over your head. Fortunately I can prevent that, for I have a title that will stand, in want of a better one."
There was a momentary silence while the unhappy woman struggled with herself. Then:
"You took advantage of my ignorance of business to rob me," she declared. "Well, I know something about the Government officials: if they would make a law to fit my case they will make one to fit yours. When I tell them what you have done perhaps you will not fare so well with them as you expect." She was fighting now with the desperation of one cornered.
"Perhaps." Cueto shrugged. "That is what I want to talk to you about, if only you will be sensible. Now then, let us be frank. Inasmuch as we're both in much the same fix, hadn't we better continue our present arrangements?" He stared unblinkingly at his listener. "Oh, I mean it! Is it not better for you to be content with what my generosity prompts me to give, rather than to risk ruin for both of us by grasping for too much?"
"Merciful God! The outrage! I warrant you have grown rich through your stealing." Isabel's voice had gone flat with consternation.
"Rich? Well, not exactly, but comfortably well off." Cueto actually smiled again. "No doubt my frankness is a shock to you. You are angry at my proposition, eh? Never mind. You will think better of it in time, if you are a sensible woman."
"What a fiend! Have you no sentiment?"
"Oh, senora! I am all sentiment. Don Esteban was my benefactor. I revere his memory, and I feel it my duty to see that his family does not want. That is why I have provided for you, and will continue to provide—in proper measure. But now, since at last we enjoy such confidential relations, let us have no more of these miserable suspicions of each other. Let us entirely forget this unpleasant misunderstanding and be the same good friends as before."
Having said this, Pancho Cueto stood silent a moment in polite expectancy; then receiving no intelligible reply, he bowed low and left the room.
To the avaricious Dona Isabel Cueto's frank acknowledgment of theft was maddening, and the realization that she was helpless, nay, dependent upon his charity for her living, fairly crucified her proud spirit.
All day she brooded, and by the time evening came she had worked herself into such a state of nerves that she could eat no dinner. Locking herself into her room, she paced the floor, now wringing her hands, now twisting in agony upon her bed, now biting her wrists in an endeavor to clear her head and to devise some means of outwitting this treacherous overseer. But mere thought of the law frightened her; the longer she pondered her situation the more she realized her own impotence. There was no doubt that the courts were corrupt: they were notoriously venal at best, and this war had made them worse. Graft was rampant everywhere. To confess publicly that Esteban Varona had left no deeds, no title to his property, would indeed be the sheerest folly. No, Cueto had her at his mercy.
Sometime during the course of the evening a wild idea came to Isabel. Knowing that the manager would spend the night beneath her roof, she planned to kill him. At first it seemed a simple thing to do—merely a matter of a dagger or a pistol, while he slept— but further thought revealed appalling risks and difficulties, and she decided to wait. Poison was far safer.
That night she lay awake a long time putting her scheme into final shape, and then for an interval that seemed longer she hung poised in those penumbral regions midway between wakefulness and slumber. Through her mind meanwhile there passed a whirling phantasmagoria, an interminable procession of figures, of memories, real yet unreal, convincing yet unconvincing. When she did at last lose all awareness of reality the effect was merely to enhance the vividness of those phantoms, to lend substance to her vaporous visions. Constant brooding over the treasure had long since affected Dona Isabel's brain, and as a consequence she often dreamed about it. She dreamed about it again to-night, and, strangely enough, her dreams were pleasant. Sebastian appeared, but for once he neither cursed nor threatened her; and Esteban, when he came, was again the lover who had courted her in Habana. It was all very wonderful, very exciting, very real. Dona Isabel found herself robed for him in her wedding-gown of white, and realized that she was beautiful. It seemed also as if her powers of attraction were magically enhanced, for she exercised a potent influence over him. Her senses were quickened a thousandfold, too. For instance, she could see great distances—a novel and agreeable sensation; she enjoyed strange, unsuspected perfumes; she heard the music of distant waterfalls and understood the whispered language of the breeze. It was amazing, delightful. Esteban and she were walking through the grounds of the quinta and he was telling her about his casks of Spanish sovereigns, about those boxes bound with iron, about the gold and silver ornaments of heavenly, beauty and the pearls as large as plums. As he talked, Isabel felt herself grow hot and cold with anticipation; she experienced spasms of delight. She felt that she must dance, must run, must cast her arms aloft in ecstasy. Never had she experienced so keen an intoxication of joy as now, while Esteban was leading her toward the treasure and wooing her with youthful ardor.
Then of a sudden Isabel's whole dream-world dissolved. She awoke, or thought she did, at hearing her name shouted. But although she underwent the mental and the physical shock of being startled from slumber, although she felt the first swift fright of a person aroused to strange surroundings, she knew on the instant that she must still be asleep; for everything about her was dim and dark, the air was cold and damp, wet grass rose to her knees. It flashed through her mind that she had simply been whirled from a pleasant dream into one of terror. As she fought with herself to throw off the illusion of this nightmare its reality became overwhelming. Warring, incongruous sensations, far too swift for her mind to compass, were crowded into the minutest fraction of time. Before she could half realize her own condition she felt herself plunged into space. Now the sensation of falling was not strange to Isabel—it is common to all sufferers from nightmare— nevertheless, she experienced the dawn of a horror such as she had never guessed. She heard herself scream hoarsely, fearfully, and knew, too late, that she was indeed awake. Then—whirling chaos—A sudden, blinding crash of lights and sounds—Nothing more!
Esteban Varona sat until a late hour that night over a letter which required the utmost care in its composition. It was written upon the thinnest of paper, and when it was finished the writer inclosed it in an envelope of the same material. Esteban put the letter in his pocket without addressing it. Then he extinguished his light, tip-toed to the door connecting his and Rosa's rooms, and listened. No sound whatever came to his ears, for his sister slept like a kitten. Reassured, he stole out into the hall. Here he paused a moment with his ear first to Pancho Cueto's door, and then to the door of his step-mother's room. He could hear the overseer's heavy breathing and Isabel's senseless babbling—the latter was moaning and muttering ceaselessly, but, being accustomed to her restlessness, Esteban paid no heed.
Letting himself out into the night, he took the path that led to the old sunken garden. Nocturnal birds were chirruping; his way was barred with spider-webs, heavy with dew and gleaming in the moonlight like tiny ropes of jewels; the odor of gardenias was overpowering. He passed close by the well, and its gaping black mouth, only half protected by the broken coping, reminded him that he had promised Rosa to cover it with planks. In its present condition it was a menace to animals, if not to human beings who were unaware of its presence. He told himself he would attend to it on the morrow.
Seating himself on one of the old stone benches, the young man lit a cigarette and composed himself to wait. He sat there for a long time, grumbling inwardly, for the night was damp and he was sleepy; but at last a figure stole out of the gloom and joined him. The new-comer was a ragged negro, dressed in the fashion of the poorer country people.
"Well, Asensio, I thought you'd never come. I'll get a fever from this!" Esteban said, irritably.
"It is a long way, Don Esteban, and Evangelina made me wait until dark. I tell you we have to be careful these days."
"What is the news? What did you hear?"
Asensio sighed gratefully as he seated himself. "One hears a great deal, but one never knows what to believe, There is fighting in Santa Clara, and Maceo sweeps westward."
Taking the unaddressed letter from his pocket, Esteban said, "I have another message for Colonel Lopez."
"That Lopez! He's here to-day and there to-morrow; one can never find him."
"Well, you must find him, and immediately, Asensio. This letter contains important news—so important, in fact"—Esteban laughed lightly—"that if you find yourself in danger from the Spaniards I'd advise you to chew it up and swallow it as quickly as you can."
"I'll remember that," said the negro, "for there's danger enough. Still, I fear these Spaniards less than the guerrilleros: they are everywhere. They call themselves patriots, but they are nothing more than robbers. They—"
Asensio paused abruptly. He seized his companion by the arm and, leaning forward, stared across the level garden into the shadows opposite. Something was moving there, under the trees; the men could see that it was white and formless, and that it pursued an erratic course.
"What's that?" gasped the negro. He began to tremble violently and his breath became audible. Esteban was compelled to hold him down by main force. "Jesus Cristo! It's old Don Esteban, your father. They say he walks at midnight, carrying his head in his two hands."
Young Varona managed to whisper, with some show of courage: "Hush! Wait! I don't believe in ghosts." Nevertheless, he was on the point of setting Asensio an example of undignified flight when the mysterious object emerged from the shadows into the open moonlight; then he sighed with relief: "Ah-h! Now I see! It is my stepmother. She is asleep."
"Asleep?" Asensio was incredulous. He was still so unnerved by his first fright that Esteban dared not release him.
"Yes; her eyes are open, but she sees nothing."
"I don't like such things," the negro confessed in a shaky voice. "How can she walk if she is asleep? If her eyes are open, how can she help seeing us? You know she hates Evangelina and me."
"I tell you she sees nothing, knows nothing—" For a moment or two they watched the progress of the white-robed figure; then Esteban stirred and rose from his seat. "She's too close to that well. There is—" He started forward a pace or two. "They say people who walk at night go mad if they're awakened too suddenly, and yet—"
Dona Isabel was talking in a low, throaty, unnatural tone. Her words were meaningless, but the effect, at that hour and in those surroundings, was bizarre and fearsome. Esteban felt his scalp prickling uncomfortably. This was very creepy.
When the somnambulist's deliberate progress toward the mouth of the well continued he called her name softly. "Dona Isabel!" Then he repeated it louder. "Dona Isabel! Wake up."
The woman seemed to hear and yet not to hear. She turned her head to listen, but continued to walk.
"Don't be alarmed," he said, reassuringly. "It is only Esteban— DONA ISABEL! STOP!" Esteban sprang forward, shouting at the top of his voice, for at the sound of his name Isabel had abruptly swerved to her right, a movement which brought her dangerously close to the lip of the well.
"STOP! GO BACK!" screamed the young man.
Above his warning there came a shriek, shrill and agonized—a wail of such abysmal terror as to shock the night birds and the insects into stillness. Dona Isabel slipped, or stumbled, to her knees, she balanced briefly, clutching at random while the earth and crumbling cement gave way beneath her; then she slid forward and disappeared, almost out from between Esteban's hands. There was a noisy rattle of rock and pebble and a great splash far below; a chuckle of little stones striking the water, then a faint bubbling. Nothing more. The stepson stood in his tracks, sick, blind with horror; he was swaying over the opening when Asensio dragged him back.
Pancho Cueto, being a heavy sleeper, was the last to be roused by Esteban's outcries. When he had hurriedly slipped into his clothes in response to the pounding on his door, the few servants that the establishment supported had been thoroughly awakened. Esteban was shouting at them, explaining that Dona Isabel had met with an accident. He was calling for a lantern, too, and a stout rope. Cueto thought they must all be out of their minds until he learned what had befallen the mistress of the house. Then, being a man of action, he, too, issued swift orders, with the result that by the time he and Esteban had run to the well both rope and lantern were ready for their use. Before Esteban could form and fit a loop for his shoulders there was sufficient help on hand to lower him into the treacherous abyss.
It was a commentary upon Dona Isabel's character that during the long, slow moments of uncertainty while Esteban was being lowered the negroes exhibited more curiosity than concern over her fate. In half-pleased excitement they whispered and giggled and muttered together, while Pancho lay prone at the edge of the orifice, directing them how to manipulate the rope.
That was a gruesome task which fell to Esteban, for the well had been long unused, its sides were oozing slime, its waters were stale and black. He was on the point of fainting when he finally climbed out, leaving the negroes to hoist the dripping, inert weight which he had found at the bottom.
Old Sebastian's curse had come true; Dona Isabel had met the fate he had called down upon her that day when he hung exhausted in his chains and when the flies tormented him. The treasure for which the woman had intrigued so tirelessly had been her death. Like an ignis fatuus, it had lured her to destruction. Furthermore, as if in orirnmest irony, she had been permitted at the very last to find it. Living, she had searched to no purpose whatsoever; dying, she had almost grasped it in her arms.
Once the first excitement had abated and a messenger had been sent to town, Cueto drew Esteban aside and questioned him.
"A shocking tragedy and most peculiar," said the overseer. "Nothing could amaze me more."
"Exactly! And all because of her sleep-walking. I'm all in a tremble."
"She was asleep? You are sure?"
"Have I not told you so?" Esteban was impatient.
"But it is said that people given to that peculiarity never come to grief. They say some sixth sense guides them—gives them warning of pitfalls and dangers. I—I can't understand—"
"That well was a menace to a waking person. I didn't realize how near to it she was; and when I cried out to her it seemed only to hasten her steps." The young man shuddered, for the horror of the thing was still in his mind.
"Tell me, how did you come to be there at such an hour, eh?"
Esteban saw the malevolent curiosity in Cueto's face and started. "I—That is my affair. Surely you don't think—"
"Come, come! You can trust me." The overseer winked and smiled.
"I had business that took me there," stiffly declared the younger man.
"Exactly! And a profitable business it proved!" Cueto laughed openly now. "Well, I don't mind telling you, Dona Isabel's death is no disappointment to any one. Anybody could see—"
"Stop!" Esteban was turning alternately red and white. "You seem to imply something outrageous."
"Now let us be sensible. I understand you perfectly, my boy. But an officer of the Guardia Civil may arrive at any moment and he will want to know how you came to be with your stepmother when she plunged into that trap. So prepare yourself. If only you had not given the alarm. If only you had waited until morning. But—in the dead of night! Alone! He will think it queer. Suppose, too, he learns that you and Dona Isabel quarreled the other day over money matters?"
Young Varona recovered himself quickly. He was watching his inquisitor now with a faintly speculative frown. When Cueto had finished, Esteban said:
"Dona Isabel and I frequently quarreled over money matters, so there is nothing strange in that. You would like me to confess to some black iniquity that would make us better friends, eh? Well, it so happens that I was not alone to-night, but that another person saw the poor woman's death and can bear me out in everything I say. No, Pancho, you overreach yourself. Now then"— Esteban was quick-tempered, and for years he had struggled against an instinctive distrust and dislike of the plantation manager— "remember that I have become the head of this house, and your employer. You will do better to think of your own affairs than of mine. Do you understand me? I have long suspected that certain matters of yours need attention, and at the first opportunity I intend to have a careful reckoning with you. I think you know I have a good head for figures." Turning his back upon the elder man, he walked away.
Now it did not occur to Cueto really to doubt the boy's innocence, though the circumstances of Dona Isabel's death were suspicious enough to raise a question in any mind; but in view of Esteban's threat he thought it wise to protect himself by setting a back- fire. It was with some such vague idea in his head that he turned to the sunken garden as the first gray light of dawn appeared. He hoped to gain some inspiration by examining the place again, and, as it proved, he succeeded beyond his most sanguine expectations.
As he sat on an old stone bench, moodily repicturing the catastrophe as Esteban had described it, his attention fell upon an envelope at his feet. It was sealed; it was unaddressed. Cueto idly broke it open and began to read. Before he had gone far he started; then he cast a furtive glance about. But the place was secluded; he was unobserved. When he finished reading he rose, smiling. He no longer feared Esteban. On the contrary, he rather pitied the young fool; for here between his fingers was that which not only promised to remove the boy from his path forever, but to place in his hands the entire Varona estates. Fate was kind. After years of patient scheming Cueto had obtained his reward.