BOOKS FOR GIRLS By Laura E. Richards
The MARGARET SERIES
Three Margarets Margaret Montfort Peggy Rita Fernley House
The HILDEGARDE SERIES
Queen Hildegarde Hildegarde's Holiday Hildegarde's Home Hildegarde's Neighbors Hildegarde's Harvest
DANA ESTES & COMPANY Publishers Estes Press, Summer St., Boston
LAURA E. RICHARDS
"PEGGY," "MARGARET MONTFORT," "THREE MARGARETS," ETC.
Illustrated by ETHELDRED B. BARRY
BOSTON DANA ESTES & COMPANY PUBLISHERS
Copyright, 1900 BY DANA ESTES& COMPANY
Colonial Press Electrotyped and Printed by C. H. Simonds & Co. Boston, Mass., U.S.A.
FIVE GIRLS I KNOW
IN THE TOWN OF SAINT JO
If this story should seem extravagant to any of my readers, I can only refer them to some one of the many published accounts of the Spanish-American War. They will find that many delicate and tenderly nurtured girls were forced to endure dangers and privations compared to which Rita's adventures seem like child's play.
L. E. R.
CHAPTER PAGE I. THREATENING WEATHER 11 II. THE STORM BURSTS 23 III. ON THE WAY 33 IV. THE CAMP AMONG THE HILLS 54 V. TO MARGARET 77 VI. IN THE NIGHT 93 VII. CAMP SCENE 110 VIII. THE PACIFICOS 130 IX. IN HIDING 142 X. MANUELA'S OPPORTUNITY 163 XI. CAPTAIN JACK 176 XII. FOR LIFE 190 XIII. MEETINGS AND GREETINGS 200 XIV. ANOTHER CAMP 216 XV. A FOREGONE CONCLUSION 233
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.
"RITA MONTFORT DREW HER DAGGER AND WAITED" Frontispiece
IN THE GARDEN 21
"THE FAMISHED CHILD LOOKED FROM THE BISCUIT TO THE GLOWING FACE" 43
"'HUSH!' SAID THE YOUNG GIRL. 'SIT STILL'" 104
"'WAS SUCH A HAT EVER SEEN IN PARIS?'" 147
"'I THROW OPEN THE DOOR AND STEP BACK, MY HEART IN MY MOUTH'" 172
"NOW AGAIN IT WAS A RIDE FOR LIFE" 205
"THE PATIENTS IDOLISE HER" 237
Senor the illustrious Don John Montfort.
Honoured Senor and Brother:—There are several months that I wrote to inform you of the deeply deplored death of my lamented husband, Senor Don Richard Montfort. Your letter of condolation and advice was balm poured upon my bleeding wounds, received before yesterday at the hands of my banker, Don Miguel Pietoso. You are the brother of my adored husband, your words are as if spoken from his casket. You tell me, stay at home, remain in quietness, till these alarms of war are over. Alas! respectable senor, to accomplish this? Havana is since the shocking affair of the Maine in uproar; on each side are threats, are cries, "Death to the Americanos!" My bewept angel, Don Richard, was in his heart Spanish, by birth American; I see brows black upon me—me, a Castilian!—when I go from my house. Already they speak of to burn the houses of wealthy Americans, to drive forth those dwelling in.
Again, senor, my daughter, your niece Margarita—what to do, I ask you, of this young person? She is Cuban, she is fanatic, she is impossible. I apply myself to instruct her as her station and fortune demand, as befits a Spanish lady of rank; she insubordinates me, she makes mockery of my position as head of her house. She teach her parrot to cry "Viva Cuba Libre!" She play at open windows her guitar, songs of Cuban rebels, forbidden by the authorities. I exert my power, I exhort, I command,—she laughs me at the nose, and sings more loud. I attend that in few days we are all the two in prison. What to do? you already know that her betrothed, Senor Santillo de Santayana, is dead a year ago of a calenture. Her grief was excessive; she intended to die, and made preparation costing large sums of money for her obsequies. She forget all now, she says, for her country. In this alarming time, the freedom her father permitted her (his extreme philanthropy overcoming his judgmatism) becomes impossible. I implore you, highly honoured senor and brother, to write your commands to this unhappy child, that she submit herself to me, her guardian in nature, until you can assert your legal potencies. I intend shortly to make retreat in the holy convent of the White Sisters, few miles from here. Rita accompanionates me, and I trust there to change the spirit of rebellion so shocking in a young person unmarried, into the soul docile and sheep-like as becomes a highly native Spanish maiden. The Sisters are of justice celebrated for their pious austerities and the firmness of their rule. Rita will remain with them until peace is assured, or until your emissaries apport distinct advice.
For me, your kind and gracious inquiries would have watered my heart were it not already blasted. Desolation must attend my remaining years; but through them all I shall be, dear senor and brother, your most grateful and in affliction devoted sister and servant,
MARIA CONCEPCION DE NARAGUA MONTFORT. Havana, April 30, 1898.
DEAREST, DEAREST UNCLE:—My stepmother says she has written to you concerning me. I implore you, as you loved your brother, my sainted father, to believe no single word she says. This woman is of a duplicity, a falseness, impossible for your lofty soul to comprehend. It needs a Cuban, my uncle, to understand a Spaniard. She wants to take me to the convent, to those terrible White Sisters, who will shave my head and lacerate my flesh with heated scourges,—Manuela has told me about them; scourges of iron chains knotted and made hot,—me, a Protestant, daughter of a free American. Uncle John, it is my corpse alone that she will carry there, understand that! Never will I go alive. I have daggers; here on my wall are many of them, beautifully arranged; I polish them daily, it is my one mournful pleasure; they are sharp as lightning, and their lustre dazzles the eye. I have poison also; a drop, and the daughter of your brother is white and cold at the feet of her murderess. Enough! she will be avenged. Carlos Montfort lives; and you, too, I know it, I feel it, would spring, would leap across the sea to avenge your Rita, who fondly loves you. Hear me swear, my uncle, on my knees; never, never will I go alive to that place of death, the convent. (I pray you to pardon this blot; I spilt the ink, kneeling in passion; what would you have?)
Your unhappy RITA.
BELOVED MARGUERITE:—I have written to our dear and honoured uncle of the perils which surround me. My life, my reason, are at stake. It may be that I have but a few weeks more to live. Every day, therefore, dearest, let me pour out my soul to you, now my one comfort on earth, since my heart was laid in the grave of my Santayana.
It is night; all the house is wrapped in slumber; I alone wake and weep. I seldom sleep now, save by fitful snatches. I sit as at this moment, by my little table, my taper illuminated, in my peignoir (you would be pleased with my peignoir, my poor Marguerite! it is white mousseline d'Inde, flowing very full from the shoulders, falling in veritable clouds about me, with deep ruffles of Valenciennes and bands of insertion; the ribbons white, of course; maidens should mourn in white, is it not so, Marguerite? no colour has approached me since my bereavement; fortunately black and white are both becoming to me, while that other, Concepcion, looks like a sick orange in either. Even the flowers in my room are solely white.)
It seems a thousand years since I heard from you, my cool snow-pearl of cousins. Write more often to your Rita, she implores you. I pine for news of you, of Uncle John, of all at dear, dear Fernley. Alas! how young I was there! a simple child, sporting among the Northern daisies. Now, in the whirlwind of my passionate existence, I look back to that peaceful summer. For you, Marguerite, the green oasis, the palm-trees, the crystal spring; for me, the sand storm and the fiery death. No matter! I live and die a daughter of Cuba, the gold star on my brow, the three colours painted on my heart. Good night, beloved! I kiss the happy paper that goes to you. Till to-morrow, and while I live,
HAVANA, May 1, 1898.
Not until afternoon goes the mail steamer, Marguerite, only pearl of my heart. I wrote you a few burning words last night; then I flung myself on my bed, hoping to lose my sorrows for a few minutes in sleep. I slept, a thing hardly known to me at present; it was the sleep of exhaustion, Marguerite. When I woke, Manuela was putting back the curtains to let in the light of dawn. It is still early morning, fresh and dewy, and I am here in the garden. At no time of the day is the garden more beautiful than now, in the purity of the day's birth. I have described it to you at night, with the cocuyos gleaming like lamps in the green dusk of the orange-trees, or the moonlight striking the world to silver. I wish you could see it now—this garden of my soul, so soon, it may be, to be destroyed by ruthless hands of savage Spaniards. The palms stand like stately pillars; till the green plumes wave in the morning breeze, one fancies a temple or cathedral, with aisles of crowned verdure. Behind these stand the banana-trees, rows and rows, with clusters hanging thick, crimson and gold. Would Peggy be happy here, do you think? Poor little Peggy! How often I long to cut down a tree, to send her whole bunches of the fruit she delights in. The mangoes, too! I used to think I could not live without mangoes. When I went to you, it appeared that I must die without my fruits; now their rich pulp dries untasted by my lips: what have I to do with food, save the bare necessary to support what life remains? I am waiting now for my coffee; at this moment Manuela brings it, with the grape-fruit and rolls, and places it here on the table of green marble, close by the fountain where I sit. The fountain soothes my suffering heart, as it tinkles in the broad basin of green marble. Nature, Marguerite, speaks to the heart of despair. You have not known despair, my best one; may it be long, long before you do. Among her other vices, this woman, Concepcion, would like to starve me, in my own house. She counts the rolls, she knows how many lumps of sugar I put in my coffee; an hour will dawn—I say no more! I am patient, Marguerite, I am forbearing, a statue, marble in the midst of fire; but beyond a certain point I will not endure persecution, and I say to you, let Concepcion Montfort, the widow of my sainted father, beware!
Adios, my Magnolia Flower! I must feed my birds. Already they are awake and calling the mistress they love. They hang—I have told you—in large airy cages, all round under the eaves of the summer-house beside the fountain. They are beautiful, Margaret, the Java sparrows, the little love-birds, the splendid macaw, the paroquets, and mocking-birds; but king among them all is Chiquito, our parrot, Marguerite, yours and mine, the one link here that binds me to my Northern home; for I may call Fernley my home, Uncle John has said it; the lonely orphan can think of one spot where tender hearts beat for her, not passionately, but with steadfast pulses. Chico is in superb health; he is—I tell you every time—a revelation in the animal kingdom. More than this, he is a bird of heart; he feels for me, feels intensely, in this dark time. Only yesterday he bit old Julio severely; I am persuaded it was his love for me that prompted the act. Julio is a Spaniard of the Spaniards, the slave of Concepcion. He attempted to cajole my Chico, he offered him sugar. To-day he goes with his arm in a sling, and curses the Cuban bird, with threats against his life. Never mind, Marguerite! a time will soon come—I can say no more. I am dumb; the grave is less silent; but do you think your Rita will submit eternally to tyranny and despotism? No, you know she will not, it is not her nature. You look, my best one, for some outbreak of my passionate nature, you attend that the volcano spring some sudden hour into flame, overwhelming all in its path. You are right, heart of my heart. You shall not be disappointed. Rita will prove herself worthy of your love. How? hush! ask not, dream not! trust me and be silent.
MARGARITA DE SAN REAL MONTFORT.
THE STORM BURSTS.
GREATLY HONOURED SIR:—I permit myself the privilege of addressing your Excellency, my name being known to you as man of business of late your admired brother, Senor Don Ricardo Montfort. I find myself, senor, in a position of great hardness between the two admirable ladies, Senora Montfort, widow of Don Ricardo, and his beautiful daughter, the Senorita Margarita. These ladies, admirable, as I have said, in beauty, character, and abilities, find it, nevertheless, impossible to live in harmony. As man of affairs, I am present at painful scenes, which wring the heart. Each cries to me to save her from the other. The senora desires to make retreat at the convent of the White Sisters, thrice holy and beatified persons, but of a strictness repugnant to the lively and ardent spirit of the senorita. Last evening took place a terrible enactment, at which I most unluckily assisted. Senora Montfort permitted her lofty spirit to assert itself more strongly than her delicate corporosity was able to endure, and fell into violent hystericality. Her shrieks wanted little of arousing the neighbourhood; the servants became appalled and lost their reason. Senorita Margarita maintained her calmness, and even refused to consider the senora's condition as serious. On the assurance of the young lady and the senora's maid, I was obliged to accept the belief that the senora would shortly recover if left to herself, and came away in deep grief, leaving that illustrious matron—I speak with respect—in fits upon the floor. One would have said, a child of six deprived of its toy. Greatly honoured Senor Montfort, I am a man no longer young. Having myself no conjugal ameliorations, I make no pretence to comprehend the more delicate and complex nature of females. I am cut to the heart; the senora scrupled not to address me as "Old Fool." Heaven is my witness that I have endeavoured of my best lights to smoothen the path for her well-born and at present bereaved feet. But what can I do? Neither lady will listen to me. The senorita, let me hasten to say, shows me always a tender, I might without too great a presumption say a filial, kindness. I held her in my arms from the day of her birth, senor; she is the flower of the world to me. When she takes me by the hands and says, "Dear old Donito Miguelito, let me do as I desire and all will be well!" I have no strength to resist her. Had I a house of my own, I would take this charming child home with me, to be my daughter while she would; but—a bachelor living in two rooms—what would you, senor? it is not possible. Deign, I beseech you, to consider this my respectful report, and if circumstances are proprietary come to my assistance, or send me instructions how to act.
Accept, senor, the assurance of my perfect consideration, and believe me
Your obedient, humble servant, MIGUEL PIETOSO.
TO THE HONOURABLE SENOR DON JOHN MONTFORT.
Honoured and dear Brother:—Since I wrote you last week, things the most frightful have happened. Rita's conduct grew more and more violent and unruled; in despair, I sent for Don Miguel. This old man, though of irreproached character, is of a weakness pitiable to see in one wearing the form of mankind. I called upon him to uphold me, and command Rita to obey the wife of her father. He had only smooth words for each of us, and endeavoured to charm this wretched child, when terror should have been his weapon. I leave you to imagine if she was influenced by his gentle admonitions. To my face she caressed him, and he responded to her caresses. Don Miguel is an old man, eighty years of age, but nevertheless my anger, my just anger, rose to a height beyond my power of control. I fainted from excess of emotion; I lay as one dead, and no heart stirred of my sufferings. Since then I have been in my bed, with no power more than has a babe of the cradle. This morning Margarita came to me and expressed regret for her conduct, saying that she was willing from now to submit herself to my righteous authority. I forgave her,—I am a Christian, dear brother, and cannot forget the principles of my holy religion,—and we embraced with tears. This evening we go to the convent, where I hope to find ease for my soul-wounds and to subdue the frightful disposition of my stepdaughter. I feel it my duty to relate these occurrences to you, dear and honoured brother, for I feel that I may succumb under the weight of my afflictions. We start this evening, and Don Miguel will inform you of our departure and safe arrival at the holy convent, whither he accompanies us.
Permit me to express, dear brother, the sentiments of exalted consideration with which I must ever regard you as next in blood to my adored consort, and believe me
Your devoted, MARIA CONCEPCION DE NARAGUA MONTFORT.
GREATLY HONOURED AND ILLUSTRIOUS SIR:—Let me entreat you to prepare yourself for news of alarming nature. Yesterday evening I was honoured by the commands of the Senora Montfort, that I convey her and Senorita Margarita to the holy convent of the White Sisters. My age, senor, is such that a scene of emotion is infinitely distressing to me, but I could not disobey the commands of this illustrious lady, the widow of my kindest patron and friend. I went, prepared for tears, for outcries, perhaps for violent resistance, for the ardent and high-strung nature of my beloved Senorita Margarita is well known to me. Figure to yourself, honoured senor, my surprise at finding this charming damsel calm, composed, even smiling. She greeted me with her accustomed tenderness; a more enchanting personality does not, I am assured, adorn the earth than that of this lovely child. She bade me have no alarms for her, that all was well, she was reconciled to her lot; indeed, she added that she could not now wish things otherwise. Amazed, but also enchanted with her docility and sweetness, I gave her an old man's blessing, and my prayers that the rigour of the holy Sisters might be softened toward her tender and high-spirited youth. She replied that she had no fear of the Sisters; that in truth she thought they would give her no trouble of any kind. I was ravished with this assurance, having, I may confess it to you, senor, dreaded the contact between the senorita and the holy Mother, a woman of incredible force and piety. But I must hasten my narrative. At seven o'clock last evening two volantes were in readiness at the door of the Montfort mansion. The first was driven by the senora's own man, the second by Pasquale, a negro devoted since childhood to the senorita. The senora would have placed her daughter in the first of these vehicles; but no! the senorita sprang lightly into the second volante, followed by her maid, a young person, also tenderly attached to her. Interposing myself to produce calm, I persuade the admirable senora to take the position that etiquette commanded, in the first carriage. It is done; I seat myself by her side; procession is made. The way to the convent of the White Sisters, senor, is a steep and rugged one; on either hand are savage passes, are mountains of precipitation. To conceive what happened, how is it possible? When we reached the convent gate, the second volante was empty. Assassinated with terror, I make demand of Pasquale; he admits that he may have slept during the long traject up the hill. He swears that he heard no sound, that no word was addressed to him. He calls the saints to witness that he is innocent; the saints make no reply, but that is not uncommon. I search; I rend the air with my cries; alone silence responds to me. The senora is carried fainting into the convent, and I return to Havana, a man distracted. I should say that in the carriage was found the long mantle in which the senorita had been gracefully attired; to its fold a note pinned, addressed me in affectionate terms, begging her dear Donito Miguelito not to have fear, that she was going to Don Carlos, her brother, and all would be well. Since then is two days, senor, that I have not closed the eye. I attend a fit of illness, from grief and anxiousness. In duty I intelligence you of this dolorous event, praying you not to think me guilty of sin without pardon. I have deputed a messenger of trust to scrub thoroughly the country in search of Don Carlos, death to await him if he return without news of my beloved senorita. He is gone now twelve hours. If it arrive me at any moment the tidings, I make instantly to convey them to your Excellency, whether of joy or affliction.
Receive, highly honoured senor, the assurance of my consideration the most elevated.
ON THE WAY.
"Ah, senorita! what will become of us? I can go no farther. Will this wilderness never end?"
"Courage, Manuela! Courage, daughter of Cuba! See, it is growing light already. Look at those streaks of gold in the east. A few moments, and the sky will be bright; then we shall see where we are going, and all will be well. In the meantime, we are free, and on Cuban soil. What can harm us?"
Rita looked around her with kindling eyes. She was standing on a rock that jutted from the hillside; it was a friendly rock, and they had been sleeping under it, wrapped in their warm cloaks, for the night was cool. A group of palms nodded their green plumes over the rock; on every side stretched a tangle of shrubs and tall grasses, broken here and there by palms, or by rocks like this. Standing thus in the early morning light, Rita was a picturesque figure indeed. She was dressed in a blouse and short skirt of black serge, with a white kerchief knotted around her throat, and another twisted carelessly around her broad-brimmed straw hat. Her beautiful face was alight with eager inquiry and determination; her eyes roved over the landscape, as if seeking some familiar figure; but all was strange so far. Manuela, crouching at the foot of the rock, had lost, for the moment, all the fire of her patriotism. She was cold, poor Manuela; also, she had had a heavy bag to carry, and her arms ached, and she was hungry, and, if the truth must be told, rather cross. It was absurd to bring all these things into the desert. What use for the white silk blouse, or the lace fichu? but indeed they had no weight, whereas this monster of a—
"How is Chico?" asked Rita, coming down from the rock. "Poor bird! what does he think of our wandering? he must be in need of food, Manuela. You brought the box of seed?"
"I did, senorita; as to the need of birdseed in a wilderness of hideous forest, I have nothing to say. My fingers are so cramped from carrying this detestable cage, I shall never recover the full use of them. But the senorita must be obeyed."
"Assuredly she must be obeyed!" said Rita; and a flash of her eyes added force to the words. "Could I have come away, I ask you, and left this faithful, this patriot bird, to starve, or be murdered outright? Old Julio would have wrung his neck, you know it well, Manuela, the first time he spoke out from his heart, spoke the words of freedom and patriotism that his mistress has taught him. Poor Chiquito! thou lovest me? thou art glad that I brought thee away from that place of tyranny and bloodshed? speak to thy mistress, Chico!"
But Chico's spirits had been ruffled, as well as Manuela's, by being carried about in his cage, at unseemly hours, when he should have been hanging quietly in the verandah, where he belonged. He looked sulky, and only said, "Caramba! no mi gusta!"
"He is hungry! he starves!" cried Rita; "give me the seed!" Sitting down on the rock, she proceeded to feed the parrot, as composedly as if they were indeed on the wide shaded verandah, instead of on a wild hillside, far from sight or sound of anything human.
"And the senorita's own breakfast?" said Manuela at last, when Chiquito had had enough, and had deigned to relax a little, and even to mutter, "Mi gustan todas!" "Is the senorita not also dying of hunger? for myself, I perish, but that is of little consequence, save that my death will leave the senorita alone—with the parrot."
Rita burst into merry laughter. "My poor Manuela!" she said. "Thou shalt not perish. Breakfast? we will have it this moment. Where is the bag?"
The bag being produced,—it really was a heavy one, and it was hardly to be wondered at that Manuela should be a little peevish about it,—Rita drew from it a substantial box of chocolate, and a tin of biscuits. "My child, we breakfast!" she announced. "If kings desire to breakfast more royally, I make them my compliment. For free Cubans, bread and chocolate is a feast. Feast, then, Manuela mine. Eat, and be happy!"
Bread—or rather, delicate biscuits, and chocolate, were indeed a feast to the two hungry girls. They nibbled and crunched, and Manuela's spirits rose with every bite. Rita's had no need to rise. She was having a real adventure; her dreams were coming true; she was a bona-fide heroine, in a bona-fide "situation." "What have we in the bag, best of Manuelas?" she asked. "I told you in a general way; I even added some trifles, for Carlos's comfort; poor dear Carlos! But tell me what you put in, my best one!"
Manuela cast a rueful glance at the plump valise.
"The white silk blouse," she said; "the white peignoir with swansdown."
"In case of sickness!" cried Rita, interrupting. "You would not have me ill, far from my home, and bereft of every slightest comfort, Manuela? surely you would not; I know your kind heart too well. Besides, the peignoir weighs nothing; a feather, a puff of vapour. Go on! what else?"
"Changes of linen, of course," said Manuela. "The gold-mounted toilet-set; two bottles of eau de Cologne; cigarettes for the Senorito Don Carlos; bonbons; the ivory writing-case; the feather fan; three pairs of shoes—"
"Enough! enough!" cried Rita. "We shall do well, Manuela. You have been an angel of thoughtfulness. You did not bring any jewels? no? I thought perhaps the Etruscan gold set, so simple, yet so rich, might suit my altered life well enough; but no matter. After all, what have I to do with jewels now? The next question is, how are we to find Carlos?"
"To find Don Carlos?" echoed Manuela. "You know where he is, senorita?"
"But, assuredly!" said Rita, and she looked about her confidently. "He is—here!"
"Here!" repeated Manuela.
"In the mountains!" said Rita, waving her hand vaguely in the direction of the horizon. "It is a search; we must look for him, without doubt; but he is—here—somewhere. Come, Manuela, do not look so despairing. I tell you, we shall meet friends, it may be at any turn. The mountains are full of the soldiers of Cuba; the first ones we meet will take us to Carlos."
"Yes," said Manuela. "But what if we met the others, senorita? what if we met the Spanish soldiers first? Hark! what was that?"
A sound was heard close behind them; a rustling, sliding sound, as if something or somebody were making his way swiftly through the tall grass. Manuela clutched her mistress's arm, trembling; Rita, rather pale, but composed, looking steadily in the direction of the noise. It came nearer—the grass rustled and shook close beside them; and out from the tufted tangle came—three large land-crabs, scuttling along on their ungainly claws, and evidently in a hurry. Manuela uttered a shriek, but Rita laughed aloud.
"Good luck!" she said. "They are good Cubans, the land-crabs. Many a good meal has Carlos made on them, poor fellow. If we followed them, Manuela? They may be going—somewhere. Let us see!"
The crabs were soon out of sight, but the two girls, taking up their burdens, followed in the direction they had taken, along the hillside, going they knew not whither.
There seemed to be some faint suggestion of a path. The grasses were bent aside, and broken here and there; something had trodden here, whether feet of men or of animals one could not tell. But glad to have any guide, however insufficient, the girls amused themselves by trying to discover fresh marks on tree or shrub or grass-clump. It was a wild tangle, palms and mangoes, coarse grass and savage-looking aloes, with wild vines running riot everywhere. So far, they had seen no sign of human life, and the sun was now well up, his rays beating down bright and hot. Suddenly, coming to a turn on the hillside, they heard voices; a moment later, and they were standing by a human dwelling.
At first sight it looked more like the burrow of some wild animal. It was little more than a hole dug in the side of the clay bank. Some boughs and palm-leaves were wattled together to form a rustic porch, and under this porch three people were sitting, on the bare ground,—two women, one young, the other old, and a little child, evidently belonging to the young woman. They were clothed in a few rags; their cheeks were hollow with famine, their eyes burning with fever. The old woman was stirring a handful of meal into a pot of water; the others looked on with painful eagerness. Rita recoiled with a low cry of terror. She had heard of this; these were some of the unhappy peasants who had been driven from their farms. She had never seen anything like it before. This—this was not the play she had come to see.
The women looked up, and saw the two girls standing near. Instantly they began to cry out, in wailing voices. "Go! go away! there is nothing for you; nothing! we have not more than a mouthful for ourselves. Take yourselves away, and leave us in peace."
Rita came forward, the tears running down her cheeks. "Oh, poor things!" she cried. "Poor souls, I want nothing. I am not hungry! See!—I have brought food for you. Quick, Manuela, the bag—the biscuits, child! Give them to me! Here, thou little one, take this, and eat; there is plenty more!"
The famished child looked from the biscuit to the glowing face that bent over it. It made a feeble movement; then drew back in fear. The old woman still clamoured to the girls to go away; but the younger snatched the biscuit, and began feeding the child hastily, yet carefully. "Mother, be still!" she said, imperiously. "Hush that noise! do you not see this is no poor wretch like ourselves? This is a noble lady come from heaven to bring us help. Thanks, senorita!" With a quick, graceful movement, she lifted the hem of Rita's dress and pressed it to her lips. "We were dying!" she said, simply. "It was the last morsel; we meant to give it to the little one, and some one might find it when we were dead, and keep the life in it."
"But, eat; eat!" cried Rita, filling the hands of both women with chocolate and biscuits. "It is dreadful, terrible! oh, I have heard of it, I have read of it, but I had not seen, I had not known. Oh, if my cousin Margaret were here, she would know what to do! Eat, my poor starving ones. You shall never be hungry again if I can help it."
The child pulled its mother's ragged gown.
"Is it an angel?" it asked, its mouth full of chocolate.
"Hear the innocent!" said the mother. "No, lamb, not yet an angel, only a noble lady on the road to heaven. See, senorita! he was pretty, while his cheeks were round and full. Still, his eyes are pretty, are they not?"
"They are lovely! he is a darling!" cried Rita; and she took the child in her arms, and bent over him to hide the tears. Was this truly Rita Montfort? Yes, the same Rita, only awake now, for the first time now in her pretty idle life. She felt of the little limbs. They were mere skin and bone; no sign of baby chubbiness, no curve or dimple. Indeed, she had come but just in time. "Listen!" she said, presently. "Where do you come from? where is your home?"
The old woman made a gesture as wide and vague as Rita's own of a few minutes before. "Our home, noble lady? the wilderness is our home to-day. Our little farm, our cottage, our patch of cane, all gone, all destroyed. Only the graves of our dead left."
"We come from Velaya," said the young woman. "It is miles from here; we were driven out by the Spaniards. My father was killed before our eyes; she is not herself since, poor soul; do we wonder at it? we have wandered ever since. My husband—do I know if he is alive or dead? He was with our men, he knows nothing of what has happened. If he returns, he will think us all dead. Poor Pedro! These are the conditions of war, senorita."
She spoke very quietly; but her simple words pierced deeper than the plaints of the poor old woman.
"Listen, again!" said Rita. "I am going to my brother; he also is with our army; he is with the General. Do you know, can you tell me, in what direction to look for them? When I find them, I will see; I will have provision made for you. You must stay here now, for a few hours; but have courage, help will come soon. My brother Carlos and the good General will care for you. Only tell me where to find them, and all will be well."
She spoke so confidently that hope and courage seemed to go from her, and creep into the hearts of the forlorn creatures. The baby smiled, and stretched out its little fleshless hands for more of the precious food; even the old grandmother crept a little nearer, to kiss the hand of their benefactress, and call on all the saints to bless her and bring her to Paradise. The younger woman said there had been firing yesterday in that direction, and she pointed westward over the brow of a hill. They had seen no Cuban soldiers since they had been here, but a boy had passed by this morning, on his way to join the General, and he took the same westerly direction, and said the nearest pickets were not far distant.
"And why did you not follow him?" asked Rita. "Why did you not go with him, and throw yourself at the feet of our good General, as I will do for you now? Yes, yes, I know; you were too weak, poor souls; you had no strength to travel farther. But I am young and strong, and so is Manuela; and we will go together, and soon we will come again, or send help for you. Manuela, will you come with me? or will it be better for you to stay and care for these poor ones while I seek Don Carlos?"
But Manuela was, very properly, scandalised at the thought of her young lady's going off alone on any such quest. It appeared, she said, as if the senorita had left her excellent intelligence behind in Havana. These people would do very well now; they had food; they had, indeed, all there was, practically, and the senorita might herself starve, if they did not find Don Carlos soon. That was enough, surely; let them remain as they were.
"You are right, Manuela!" said Rita, nodding sagely. "We must go together. Your heart does not appear to be stirred as mine is; but never mind—the hungry are fed, and that is the thing of importance. Farewell, then, friends! How do they call you, that I may know how to tell those whom I shall send?"
The younger woman was named Dolores, she said. Her husband was Pedro Valdez, and this old one was his mother. If the senorita should see Pedro—if by Heaven's mercy he should be with the General at this moment, all would indeed be well. In any case, their prayers and blessings would go with the senorita and her valued attendant.
Often and often, the soft Spanish speech of compliment and ceremony sounded hollow and artificial in Rita's ears, even though she had been used to it all her life; but there was no doubting the sincerity of these earnest and heartfelt thanks. Her own heart felt very warm, as she turned, with a final wave of the hands, to take a last look at the little group by the earth-hovel.
"We have made a good beginning, Manuela," she said. "We have saved three lives, I truly believe. Now we shall go on with new courage. I feel, Manuela, that I can do anything—meet any foe. Ah! what is that? a snake! a horrible green snake! I faint, Manuela! I die—no, I don't. See, I am the sister of a soldier, and I am not going to die any more, when I see these fearful creatures. Manuela, do you observe? I—am—firm; marble, Manuela, is soft in comparison with me. Ah, he is gone away. This is a world of peril, my poor child. Let us hasten on; Carlos waits for us, though he does not know it."
Talking thus, with much more of the same kind, Rita pushed on, and Manuela followed as best she might. Rita had left the parrot's cage under charge of Dolores, and carried the bird on her shoulder, with only a cord fastened to his leg. Chico was well used to this, and made no effort to fly away; indeed, he had reached an age when it was more comfortable to sit on a soft shoulder and be fed and petted, than to flutter among strange trees and find his living for himself; so he sat still, crooning to himself from time to time, and cocking his bright yellow eye at his mistress, to see what she thought of it all.
It was hard work, pushing through the jungle. The girls' hands were scratched and torn with brambles; Rita's delicate shoes were in a sad condition; her dress began to show more than one jagged rent. Still she made her way forward, with undaunted zeal, cheering the weary Manuela with jest and story. Indeed, the girl seemed thoroughly transformed, and her Northern cousins, who had known and loved her even in her wilful indolence, would hardly have recognised their Rita in this valiant maiden, who made nothing of heat, dust, or even scorpions, and pressed on and on in her quest of her brother.
After an hour of weary walking, the girls came to a road, or something that passed for a road. There was no sign of life on it, but there was something that made them start, then stop and look at each other. Beside the rough path, in a tangle of vines and thorny cactus, stood the ruin of a tiny chapel. A group of noble palms towered above it; from the stony bank behind it bubbled a little fountain. The door of the chapel was gone; it was long since there had been glass in the windows, and the empty spaces showed only emptiness within; yet the bell still hung in the mouldering belfry; the bell-rope trailed above the sunken porch, its whole length twined with flowering creepers. It was a strange sight.
"Manuela!" cried Rita; "do you see?"
"I see the holy chapel," said Manuela, who was a good Catholic. "Some saintly man lived here in old times. Pity, that the altar is gone. It must have been a pretty chapel, senorita."
"The bell!" cried Rita. "Do you see the bell, Manuela? what if we rang it, to let Carlos know that we are near? It is a good idea, a superb idea!"
"Senorita, I implore you not to touch it! For heaven's sake, senorita! Alas, what have you done?"
Manuela clasped her hands, and fairly wailed in terror, for Rita had grasped the bell-rope, and was pulling it with right good will. Ding! ding! the notes rang out loud and clear. The rock behind caught up the echo, and sent it flying across to the hill beyond. Ding! ding! The parrot screamed, and Rita herself, after sounding two or three peals, dropped the rope, and stood with parted lips and anxious eyes, waiting to see what would come of it.
THE CAMP AMONG THE HILLS.
A sound of voices! eager voices of men, calling to one another. The tread of hasty feet, the noise of breaking bushes, of men sliding, jumping, running, hurrying, coming every instant nearer and nearer. What had Rita done, indeed? Manuela crouched on the mouldering floor at her mistress's feet, too terrified even to cry out now; Rita Montfort drew her dagger, and waited.
Next instant the narrow doorway was thronged with men; swarthy black-browed men, ragged, hatless, shoeless, but all armed, all with rifle cocked, all pressing forward with eager, wondering looks.
"Who rang the bell? what has happened?"
A babel of voices arose; Rita could not have made herself heard if she would; and, indeed, for the moment no words came to her lips. But there was one to speak for her. Chiquito, the old gray parrot, raised his head from her shoulder, where he had been quietly dozing, and flapped his wings, and cried aloud:
"Viva Cuba Libre! viva Garcia! viva Gomez! a muerto Espana!" There was a moment's silence; then the voices broke out again in wild cries and cheers.
"Ah, the Cuban bird! the parrot of freedom! Welcome, senorita! You bring us good luck! Welcome to the Cuban ladies and their glorious bird! Viva Cuba Libre! viva Garcia! viva el papageno! long life to the illustrious lady!"
Rita, herself again, stepped from the chapel, erect and joyous, holding the parrot aloft.
"I thank you, brothers!" she said. "I come to seek freedom among you; I am a daughter of Cuba. Does any among you know Don Carlos Montfort?"
The babel rose again. Know Don Carlos? but surely! was he not their captain? Even now he was at the General's quarters, consulting him about the movements of the next day. What joy! what honour for the poor sons of Cuba to form the escort of the peerless sister of Don Carlos to headquarters! But the distance was nothing. They would carry the senorita and her attendant; they would make a throne, and transport them as lightly as if swans drew them. Ah, the fortunate day! the lucky omen of the blessed parrot!
They babbled like children, crowding round Chiquito, extolling his beauty, his wisdom, the miracle of his timely utterance. Chiquito seemed to think, for his part, that he had done enough. He paid no attention to the blandishments of his ragged admirers, but turned himself upside down, always a sign of contempt with him, said "Caramba!" and would say nothing more.
A little procession was formed, the least ragged of the patriots leading the way, Rita and Manuela following. The others crowded together behind, exclaiming, wondering, pleased as children with this wonderful happening. Thus they crossed a ragged hill, threaded a grove of palms, and finally came upon an open space, roughly cleared, in the middle of which stood a tent, with several rude huts around it. The soldiers explained with eager gestures. Behold the tent of the illustrious General. Behold the dwelling of Don Rodrigo, of Don Uberto, of Don Carlos; behold, finally, Don Carlos himself, emerging from the General's tent. The gallant ragamuffins drew back, and became on the instant spectators at a play. A slender young man came out of the tent, evidently to inquire the meaning of the commotion. At what he saw he turned apparently to stone, and stood, cigarette in hand, staring at the vision before him. But for Rita there was no hesitation now. Running to her brother, she threw her arms around his neck with unaffected joy.
"Carlos!" she cried. "I have come to you. I had no one else to go to. They were taking me to the convent, and I would have died sooner. I have come to you, to live or die with you, for our country."
Manuela wept; the soldiers were moved to tears, and brushed their ragged sleeves across their eyes. But Carlos Montfort did not weep.
"Rita!" he said, in English, returning his sister's caress affectionately, but with little demonstration of joy. "What is the meaning of this? what induced you—how could you do such a thing as this? where do you come from? how did you find your way?" And he added to himself, "And what the mischief am I to do with you now you are here?"
Rita explained hastily; gave a dramatic sketch of her adventures, not forgetting the unfortunate peasants, who must, she said, be rescued that instant from their wretched plight; and wound up with a vivid description of the bell-ringing, the gathering of the patriot forces, and the magnificent behaviour of her beloved Chiquito.
"Good gracious! you have brought the parrot, too!" cried poor Carlos. "Rita! Rita! this is too much."
At this moment a new person appeared on the scene. A tall old man, stooping his head, came out from the tent, and greeted the wandering damsel with grave courtesy.
Perhaps the General had seen too much of life and of war to be surprised at anything; perhaps he was sorry for the embarrassment of his young lieutenant, and wished to make things easier for him; however it was, he apparently found it the most natural thing in the world for a young lady and her maid to be wandering in the wilderness in search of the Cuban army. The first thing, he said, was to make the senorita comfortable, as comfortable as their limited powers would allow. She would take his tent, of course; it was her own from that instant; but equally of course neither Rita nor Carlos would hear of this. A friendly dispute ensued; and it was finally decided that Rita and Manuela were to make themselves as comfortable as might be in Carlos's own tent, while he shared that of his commander. The General yielded only under protest to this arrangement; yet he did yield, seeing that resistance would distress both brother and sister. Since the senorita would not take his tent, he said, the next best thing was that she should accept his hospitality, such as he could offer her, within it; or rather, before it, since the evening was warm. His men were even now preparing the evening meal; when the senorita was refreshed and rested, he hoped she and Don Carlos would share it with him.
Rita withdrew into the little hut, in a glow of patriotism and enthusiasm. "Manuela," she cried, "did you ever see such nobleness, such lofty yet gracious courtesy? Ah! I knew he was a man to die for. How happy we are, to be here at last, after dreaming of it so long! I thrill; I burn with sacred fire—what is the matter, Manuela? you look the spirit of gloom. What has happened?"
Manuela was crouching on the bare earthen floor, her shoulders shrugged up to her ears, her dark eyes glancing around the tiny room with every expression of marked disapproval. It was certainly not a luxurious apartment. The low walls were of rough logs, the roof was a ragged piece of very dingy canvas, held in place by stones here and there. In one corner was a pile of dried grass and leaves, with a blanket thrown over it,—evidently Don Carlos's bed. There was a camp-stool, a rude box set on end, that seemed to do duty both for dressing and writing table, since it was littered with papers, shaving materials, cigarette-cases, and a variety of other articles.
Manuela spread out her arms with a despairing gesture. Was this, she asked, the place where the senorita was going to live? Where was she to hang the dresses? where was she to lay out the dressing things? As to making up the bed,—it would be better to die at once, in Manuela's opinion, than to live—Here Manuela stopped suddenly, for she had seen something. Rita, whose back was turned to the doorway of the hut, was rating her severely. Was this Manuela's patriotism, she wished to know? had she not said, over and over again, that she was prepared to shed the last drop of blood for their country, as she herself, Rita, was longing to do? and now, when it was simply a question of a little discomfort, of a few privations shared with their brave defenders, here was Manuela complaining and fretting, like a peevish child. Well! and what was the matter now?
Manuela had risen from her despairing position, and was now bustling about the hut, brushing, smoothing, tidying up, with an air of smiling alacrity. But indeed, yes! she said; the senorita put her to shame. If the senorita could endure these trials, it was not for her poor Manuela to complain. No, indeed, sooner would she die. And after all, the hut was small, but that made things more handy, perhaps. The beautiful table that this would become, if she might remove the Senor Don Carlos's cigar-ashes? There! a scarf thrown over it—ah! What fortune, that she had brought the crimson satin scarf! Behold, an exhibition of beauty! As for the bed, she had heard from—from those who were soldiers themselves, that no couch was so soft, so wooing to sleep, as one of forest boughs. It stood to reason; there was poetry in the thought, as the senorita justly remarked. Now, with a few nails or pegs to hang things on, their little apartment would be complete. Let the senorita of her goodness forget the foolishness of her poor Manuela; she should hear no more of it; that was a promise.
Rita looked in amazement at her follower; the girl's eyes were sparkling, her cheeks flushed, and she could not keep back the smiles that came dimpling and rippling over her pretty face.
"But what has happened to you, Manuela?" cried Rita. "I insist upon knowing. What have you seen?"
What had Manuela seen, to produce such a sudden and amazing change? Nothing, surely; or next to nothing. A ragged soldier had strolled past the door of the hut; a black-browed fellow, with a red handkerchief tied over his head, and a black cigar nearly a foot long; but what should that matter to Manuela?
Rita looked at her curiously, but could get no explanation, save that Manuela had come to her senses, owing to the noble and glorious example set her by her beloved senorita.
"Well!" said Rita, turning away half-petulantly. "Of course I know you are as changeable as a weathercock, Manuela. But as you were saying, if we had a few nails, we should do well enough here. I will go ask the Senor Don Carlos—"
"Pardon, dearest senorita!" cried Manuela, hastily. "But what a pity that would be, to disturb the senor during his arduous labours. Without doubt the illustrious Senor Don Generalissimo (Manuela loved a title, and always made the most of one) requires him every instant, in the affairs of the nation. I—I can find some one who will get nails for us, and drive them also."
"You can find some one?" repeated Rita. "And whom, then, can you find, pray?"
"Only Pepe!" said Manuela, in a small voice.
Was the name a conjuring-spell? It had hardly been spoken when Pepe himself stood in the doorway, ducking respectfully at the senorita, but looking out of the corners of his black eyes at Manuela. Rita smiled in spite of herself. Was this ragamuffin, barefoot, tattered, his hair in elf-locks,—was this the once elegant Pepe, the admired of himself and all the waiting-maids of Havana? He had once been Carlos's servant, when the young Cuban had time and taste for such idle luxuries; now he was his fellow soldier and faithful follower.
"Well, Pepe," said Rita; "you also are here to welcome us, it appears. That is well. If you could find us a few nails, my good Pepe? the Senor Don Carlos is occupied with the General at present, and you can help us, if you will."
Where had Rita learned this new and gracious courtesy? A few months ago, she would have said, "Pepe! drive nails!" and thought no more about it. Indeed, she could have given no explanation, save that "things were different." Perhaps our Rita is growing up, inside as well as outside? Certainly the pretty airs and graces have given way to a womanly and thoughtful look not at all unbecoming to any face, however beautiful.
The thoughtful look deepened into anxiety, as a sudden recollection flashed into her mind. "Oh!" she cried. "And here I sit in peace, and have done nothing about those poor creatures in the hut! I must go to the General! But stay! Pepe, do you know—is there a man in the camp called Pedro Valdez?"
But, yes! Pepe said. Assuredly there was such a man. Did the senorita require him?
"Oh, please bring him!" said Rita. "Tell him that I have something of importance to tell him. Quick, my good Pepe!"
Pepe vanished, and soon returned, dragging by the collar a lean scarecrow even more dilapidated than himself. Apparently the poor fellow had been asleep, and had been roughly clutched and hauled across the camp, for his hair was full of leaves and grass, and he was rubbing his eyes and swearing softly under his breath, vowing vengeance on his captor.
"Silence, animal!" said Pepe, admonishing him by a kick of the presence of ladies; "Behold the illustrious senorita, who does you the honour to look at you. Attention, Swine of the Antilles!"
Thus adjured, poor Pedro straightened himself, made the best bow he could, and stood sheepishly before Rita, trying furtively to brush a few of the sticks and straws off his ragged clothing.
"You are Pedro Valdez?" asked Rita.
At the service of the illustrious senorita. Yes, he was Pedro Valdez; in no condition to appear in such company, but nevertheless her slave and her beast of burden.
"Oh, listen!" cried Rita, her eyes softening with compassion and anxiety. "You have a wife, Pedro Valdez,—a wife and a dear little child, is it not so? and your mother—she is old and weak. When have you seen them all, Valdez? Where did you leave them?"
The man looked bewildered. "Leave them, senorita? I left them at home, in our village. They were well, all was well, when I came away. Has anything befallen them?"
"They are safe! All is well with them now, or will be well, when you go to them. They are near here, Valdez. The Spaniards broke up the village, do you see? Dolores and your mother fled with the little one. The village was burned, and many souls perished; but Dolores was so strong, so brave, that she got the old mother away alive and safe, and the child as well. They have suffered terribly, my poor man; you must look to find them pale and thin, but they are alive, and all will be well when once they have found you."
Seeing Valdez overcome for the moment, Rita hastened to the General's tent and told her story, begging that the husband and father might be allowed to go at once to the relief of his suffering family.
"And he shall bring them here, shall he not?" she cried, eagerly. "They cannot be separated again, can they, dear Senor General? you will make room for Dolores—that is the wife; oh, such a brave woman! and the old mother, and the dear little child!"
The General looked puzzled; a look half quizzical, half sad, stole over his fine face; while he hesitated, Carlos broke out hastily: "Rita! you are too unreasonable! Do you think we are in a city here? do you think the General has everything at his command, to maintain an establishment of women and children? It is not to be thought of. We have no room, no supplies, no conveniences of any kind; they must go elsewhere."
"They can have my house!" cried Rita, "Your house, brother Carlos, which you have given to me. I will sleep in a hammock, under a tree. What matter? I will live on bread and water; I will—"
"My dear young lady!" said the General, interrupting her eager speech with a lifted hand. "My dear child, if an old man may call you so, if only we had bread for all, there would be no further question. We would gladly take these poor people, and hundreds of other suffering ones who fill the hills and valleys of our unhappy country. But—Carlos is right, alas! that I must say it. Here in the mountain camp, it is impossible for us to harbour refugees, unless for a night or so, while other provision is making. Let Valdez bring his family here for the night—we can make shift to feed and shelter them so long. After that—"
He shook his head sadly. Rita clasped her hands in distress. To be brought face to face with the impossible was a new experience to the spoiled child. There was a moment's silence. Then:
"Senor General," she cried, "I know! I see! all may yet be managed. They shall go to our house."
"To our house, Carlos's and mine, in Havana. There are servants, troops of them; there is food, drink, everything, in abundance, in wicked, shameful abundance. Julio shall take care of them; Julio shall treat them as his mother and his sister. I will write commands to him; this instant I will write."
Snatching a sheet of paper from the table, she wrote furiously for a moment, then handed the paper to the General with a look of satisfaction. The General—oh, how slow he was!—adjusted his glasses, and read the paper carefully; looked at Rita; looked at Carlos, and read the paper again. Rita clenched her little hands, but was calm as marble, as she assured herself. "Have I the senorita's permission to read this aloud?" asked the old man at last. "It may be that Don Carlos's advice—a thousand thanks, senorita." He read:
"JULIO:—The bearer of this is the wife of Pedro Valdez. You are to take her and her family in, and give them the best the house contains; the best, do you hear? put them in the marble guest-chamber, and place the house at their disposal. Send for Doctor Blanco to attend them; let Teresa wait upon them, and let her furnish them with clothes from my wardrobe. If you do not do all this, Julio, I will have you killed; so fail not as you value your life.
"MARGARITA DE SAN REAL MONTFORT.
"P.S. The Senor Don Carlos is here with me, and echoes what I say. We are with the brave General Sevillo, and if you dare to disobey, terrible revenge will be taken."
"The ardent patriotism of the senorita," said the General, cautiously, "is beautiful and inspiring; nevertheless, is it not possible that a more conciliatory tone might—I would not presume to dictate, but—"
"Oh, Rita!" cried Carlos. "Child, when will you learn that we are no longer acting plays at home? This is absurd!"
With an impatient movement that might have been Rita's own, he snatched the paper and tore it in two. "The General cannot be troubled with such folly!" he said, shortly. "Go to your room, my sister, and repose yourself after your fatigues."
"By no means!" cried the kindly General, seeing Rita's eyes fill with tears of anger and mortification. "The senorita has promised to make my tea for me this evening. Give orders, I pray you, Don Carlos, that Valdez bring his family to us for the night; the rest can well wait for to-morrow's light. The senorita is exhausted, I fear, with her manifold fatigues, and she must have no more anxieties to-day. Behold the tea at this moment! Senorita Rita, this will be the pleasantest meal I have had since I left my home, two years ago."
No anger could stand against the General's smile. In a moment Rita was smiling herself, though the tears still stood in her dark eyes, and one great drop even rolled down her cheek, to the General's great distress. Carlos, seeing with contrition his sister's effort at self-control, bent to kiss her cheek and murmur a few affectionate words. Soon they were all seated around the little table, Rita and the General on camp-stools, Carlos on a box. The tea was smoking hot; what did it matter that the nose of the teapot was broken? Rita had never tasted anything so delicious as that cup of hot tea, without milk, and with a morsel of sugar-cane for sweetening. The camp fare, biscuits soaked in water and fried in bacon fat, was better, she declared, than any food she had ever tasted in her life. To her delight, a small box of chocolate still remained in her long-suffering bag; this she presented to the General with her prettiest courtesy, and he vowed he was not worthy to taste such delicacies from such a hand. So, with interchange of compliments, and with a real friendliness that was far better, the little feast went on gaily; and when, late in the evening, Rita withdrew to her tent, she told Manuela that she had never enjoyed anything so much in her life; never!
CAMP OF THE SONS OF CUBA, May the —, Midnight.
MY MARGUERITE:—What will you say when your eyes, those calm gray eyes, rest upon the above heading? Will they open wider, I ask myself? Will the breath come quicker between those cool rose-leaves of your lips? "It is true!" you will murmur to yourself. "She has done as she said, as she swore she would. My Rita, my wild pomegranate flower, has kept her vow; she is in the mountains with Carlos; she has taken her place beside the defenders of her country."
Ah! you thought it was play, Marguerite, confess it! You thought the wild Cuban girl was uttering empty breath of nothingness; you have had no real anxiety, you never dreamed that I should really find myself—where now I am. Where is it? Listen, Marguerite! My house—once Carlos's house, now mine by his brotherly gift—stands in a little glen of the hills. An open space, once dry grass, now bare earth, baked by the sun, trodden by many feet; a cluster of palms, a mountain spring gushing from a rock hard by; on every side hills, the brown, rugged hills of Cuba, fairer to me than cloudy Alps of Italy, or those other great mountains of which never can I remember the barbarous names. To teach me geography, Marguerite, you never could succeed, you will remember; more than our poor Peggy history. Poor little Peggy! I could wish she were here with me; it would be the greatest pleasure of her life. For you, Marguerite, the scene is too wild, too stern; but Peggy has a martial spirit under her somewhat clumsy exterior. But I wander, and Peggy is without doubt sleeping at this moment under the stern eye of her schoolmistress. I began to tell you about my house, Marguerite. So small a house you saw never. Standing, I reach up my hand and touch the roof, of brown canvas, less fresh than once it was. Sitting, I stretch out my arms—here is one wall; there—almost, but a few feet between—is the other. In a corner my bed—ah, Marguerite! on your white couch there, with snowy draperies falling softly about you, consider my bed! a pile of dried grasses and leaves, shaken and tossed anew every morning, covered with a camp blanket. I tell you, the gods might sleep on it, and ask no better. In another corner sleeps Manuela, my faithful maid, my humble friend, the companion of my wanderings. Some day you shall see Manuela; she is an excellent creature. Cultivated, no; intellinctual—what is that for a word, Marguerite? Ah! when will you learn Spanish, that I may pour my soul with freedom?—no; but a heart of gold, a spirit of fire and crystal. She keeps my hut neat, she arranges my toilet,—singular toilets, my dear, yet not wholly unbecoming, I almost fancy,—she helps me in a thousand ways. She has a little love-affair, that is a keen interest to me; Pepe, formerly the servant of Carlos, adores her, and she casts tender eyes upon the young soldier. For me, as you know, Marguerite, these things are for ever past, buried in the grave of my hero, in the stately tomb that hides the ashes of the Santillos. I take a sorrowful pleasure in watching the budding happiness of these young creatures. More of this another time.
I sit, Marguerite, in the doorway of my little house. It is the middle hour of the night, when tomb-yards gape, as your Shakespeare says. Am I sleepy? No! The camp slumbers, but I—I am awake, and I watch. I had a very long siesta, too. The moon is full, and the little glade is bathed in silver light. Here in Cuba, Marguerite, the moon is other than with you in the north. You call her pale moon, gentle moon, I know not what. Here she shines fiercely, with passion, with palpitations of fiery silver. The palms, the aloes, the tangled woods about the camp, are black as night; all else is a flood of airy silver. I float, I swim in this flood, entranced, enraptured. I ask myself, have I lived till now? is not this the first real thrill of life I have ever experienced? I alone wake, as I said; the others slumber profoundly. The General in his tent; ah, that you could know him, Marguerite! that you and my uncle could embrace this noble, this godlike figure! He is no longer young, the snows of seventy winters have blanched his clustering locks; it is the only sign of age. For the rest, erect, vigorous, a knight, a paladin, a—in effect, a son of Cuba. The younger officers regard him as a divinity; they live or die at his command. They are three, these officers; Carlos is one; the others, Don Alonzo Ximenes, Don Uberto Cortez. Don Alonzo is not interesting; he is fat, and rather stupid, but most good-natured. Don Uberto is Carlos's friend, a noble young captain, much admired formerly in Havana. I have danced with him, my cousin, in halls of rose-wreathed marble; we meet here in the wilderness, I with my shattered affections, he with his country's name written on his soul. It is affecting; it is heart-stirring, Marguerite; yet think nothing of it; romance is dead for Margarita Montfort. Carlos is my kind brother, as ever. He was vexed at first at my coming here. Heavens! what was I to do? My stepmother was dragging me to a convent; my days would have been spent there, and in a short time my life would have gone out like a flame. "Out, short candle!" You see I remember your Shakespeare readings, my dearest. Can I forget anything that recalls you to me, half of my heart? If there had been time, indeed, I might have written to my uncle; I might even have come to you; but the hour descended like a thunderbolt; I fled, Manuela with me. The manner of my flight? you will ask. Marguerite, it was managed—I do not boast, I am the soul of humility, you know it!—the manner of it was perfect. Listen, and you shall hear all. You remember that in my last letter—written, alas! in my beloved garden, which I may never see more—I spoke with a certain restraint, even an approach to mystery. It was thus. At first, when that woman proposed to take me to the convent, I was a creature distracted. The fire of madness burned in my veins, and I could think of nothing save death or revenge. But with time came reflection; came wisdom, Marguerite, and inflexible resolve. To those she loves, Margarita Montfort is wax, silk, down, anything the most soft and yielding that can be figured. To her enemies, steel and adamant are her composition. I had two friends in that house of Spaniards; one was Pasquale, good, faithful Pasquale, an under gardener and helper; the other, Manuela, my maid. I have described her to you—enough! I realised that action must be of swiftness, the lightning flash, the volcano fire that I predicted. Do not say that I did not warn you, Marguerite; knowing me, you must have expected from my last letter what must come. I called Manuela to my room, I made pretence that she should arrange my hair. My hair has grown three inches, Marguerite, since I left you; it now veritably touches the floor as I sit. Our holy religion tells us that it is a woman's crown, yet how heavy a one at times! I closed the door, I locked it; I caused to draw down the heavy Persians. Then, tiger-like, I sprang upon my attendant, and laid my hand on her mouth. "Hush!" I tell her. "Not a word, not a sound! dare but breathe, and you may be my death. My life, I tell you, hangs by a thread. Hush! be silent, and tell me all. Tell me who assists Geronimo in the stables since Pablo is ill." Manuela struggles, she releases herself to reply—
It is the answer from heaven. Pasquale, I have said, is my one friend beside Manuela. I say to her, "Do thus, and thus! give these orders to Pasquale; tell him that it imports of your life and mine, saying nothing of his own; that if I am not obeyed, the evil eye will be the least of his punishments, and death without the sacraments the end for him."
Manuela hears; she trembles; she flies to execute my commands. Then, Marguerite—then, what does the daughter of Cuba do? She goes to the wall, to the trophy I have described to you so often. She selects her weapons. Ah, if you could see them! First, a long slender dagger, the steel exquisitely inlaid with gold, in a sheath of green enamel; a dagger for a prince, Marguerite, for your Lancelot or Tristram! Another, short and keen, the blade plain but deadly, cased in wrought leather of Cordova. Last, my machete, my pearl of destructiveness. It was his, my Santayana's; he procured it from Toledo, from the master sword-maker of the universe. The blade is so fine, the eye refuses to tell where it melts into the air; a touch, and the hardest substance is divided exactly in two pieces. The handle, gold, set with an ancestral emerald, which for centuries has brought victory in the field to the arm of the hero who wore it; the sheath—I forget myself; this weapon has no sheath. When a Santillo de Santayana rides into battle, he has no thought to sheathe his sword. These, Marguerite, are my armament; these, and a tiny gold-mounted revolver, a gem, a toy, but a toy of deadly purpose. Enough! I lay them apart, ready for the night. I go to my stepmother, I smile, I make submission. I will do all she wishes; I am a child; her age impresses me with the truth that I should not set my will against hers. Concepcion is thirty on her next birthday; she tells the world that she is twenty, but I know! it grinds her bones when I remind her of her years, as they were revealed to me by a member of her family. So! She is pleased, we embrace, the volantes are commanded, all goes smoothly. I demand permission to take my parrot to the convent; it is, to my surprise, accorded; I know she thought those savage sisters would kill him the first time he uttered his noble and inspiring words.
The night comes, the hour of the departure. To accompany us goes my good Don Miguel, the dear old man of whom I have told you, whom I revere as my grandfather. My heart yearns to tell him all, to cast myself on his venerable bosom and cry, "Come with me; take me yourself to my brother; share with us the perils and glories of the tented field!" But no! he is old, this dear friend; his hair is the snow, his step is feeble. Hardships such as Rita must now endure would end his feeble life. I speak no word; a marble smile is all I wear, though my heart is rent with anguish. The carriages are at the door. Concepcion would have me ride in the first, that she may have her eyes on me at each instant. She suspects nothing, no; it is merely the base and suspicious nature which reveals itself at every occasion. I refuse, I prodigate expressions of my humility, of my determination to take the second place, leaving the first to her; briefly, I take the second volante, Manuela springing to my side. After some discontent, appeased by dear Don Miguel, who is veritably an angel, and wants but death to transport him among the saints, Concepcion mounts in the first volante. I have seen that Pasquale is on the box of mine; I possess my soul, I lean back and count the beats of my fevered pulse, as we ascend the steep road, winding among hills and forests. The convent is at the top of a long, long hill, very steep and rugged; the horses pant and strain; humanity demands that they slacken their pace, that the carriages are slowly, slowly, drawn up the rugged track. The night descends, I have told you, swiftly in our southern climate; already it is dark. On either side of the road are tall shrouded forms, which Manuela takes for sentinels, for Spanish soldiers drawn up to watch, perhaps to arrest us. I laugh; I see they are the aloes only, planted here in rows along the road. Presently, at a turn of the road, a light! a fire burning by the roadside, and soldiers running, real ones this time, to the horses' heads. "Alerta! quien va?" It is the Spanish challenge, Marguerite; it is a piquette of the Gringos, of the hated Spaniards. They peer into the carriages, faces of savages, of brutes, devils; I feel their glances like poisoned arrows. They demand, Don Miguel makes answer, shows his papers. Of the instant these slaves are cringing, are bowing to the earth. "Pass, most honourable and illustrious Senor Don Miguel Pietoso, with the heavenly ladies under your charge!" It is over. The volantes roll on. I clasp Manuela in my arms and whisper, "We are free!" We mingle our tears of rapture, but for a moment only. We approach the steepest pitch of the long hill (it is veritably a mountain), a place beyond conception rugged and difficult. The horses strain and tug; they are at point of exhaustion. I look at Pasquale; Pasquale has served me since my cradle. Does his head move, a very little, the least imaginable motion? It is too dark to see; the moon is not yet risen. But I feel the horses checked, I feel the carriage pause, an instant, a breath only. I step noiselessly to the ground; the volante is low, permitting this without danger. Manuela follows. There is not a sound, not a creak, not the rustle of a fold. Again it is over. The volante rolls on. Manuela and I are alone, are free in the mountains of Cuba Libre.
I have but one thought: my country, my brother! Behold me here, in the society of one, prepared to shed my blood for the other. You would never guess who else is with us; Chiquito, our poor old friend the parrot, the sacred legacy of that white saint, our departed aunt. Could I leave him behind, to unfriendly, perhaps murderous, hands? Old Julio is a Spaniard at heart; Chiquito is a Cuban bird; his very soul—do you doubt that a bird has a soul, when I tell you that I have seen it in his eyes, Marguerite?—his very soul speaks for his country. If you could hear him cry, "Viva Cuba Libre!" The camp is on fire when they hear him. Ah, they are such brave fellows, our soldiers! poor, in rags, half-fed—it matters not! each one is a hero, and all are my brothers. Marguerite, sleep hangs at last upon me. Good-night, beloved; good-night, cool white soul of ivory and silver. I love thee always devotedly. Have no fear for me. It is true that the Spaniards are all about us in these mountains, that at any moment we may be attacked. What of that? If the daughter of Cuba dies by her brother's side, in her country's cause, my Marguerite will know that it is well with her. You will shed a tear over the lonely grave among the Cuban hills; but you will plant a wreath for Rita, a wreath of mingled laurel and immortelle, and it will bloom eternally.
Ever, and with a thousand greetings to my honoured and admired uncle, your
MARGARITA DE SAN REAL MONTFORT.
IN THE NIGHT.
Rita drew a long breath as she folded her letter. She was in a fine glow of mingled affection and patriotic fervour; it had been a great relief to pour it all out in Margaret's sympathetic ear, though that ear were a thousand miles away. Now she really must go to bed. It was one o'clock, her watch told her. It seemed wicked, profane, to sleep under such moonlight as this; but still, the body must be preserved.
"But first," she said to herself, "I must have a drop of water; writing so long has made me thirsty."
She took up the earthen water-jar, but found it empty. Pepe had for once been faithless; indeed, neither he nor Manuela had escaped the witchery of the full moon, and she had had little good of them that whole evening. She glanced at the corner where Manuela lay; the light, regular breathing told that the girl was sound asleep. It would be a pity to wake her from her first sweet sleep, poor Manuela. A year, perhaps a month ago, Rita would not have hesitated an instant; but now she murmured, "Sleep, little one! I myself will fetch the water."
She stepped out into the moonlight, with the jar in her hand. All was still as sleep itself. No sound or motion from huts or tent. Under the palms lay a number of brown bundles, motionless. Dry leaves, piled together for burning? no! soldiers of Cuba, wrapped in such covering as they could find, taking their rest. Alone, beside a little heap of twigs that still smouldered, the sentry sat; his back was turned to her. Should she speak to him, and ask him to go to the spring for her? No; how much more interesting to go herself! Everything looked so different in this magic light; it was a whole new world, the moon's fairyland; who knew what wonderful sights might meet her eyes? Besides, her old nurse used to say that water drawn from a pure spring under the full moon produced a matchless purity of the complexion. Her complexion was well enough, perhaps, but still—and anyhow, it would be an adventure, however small a one.
The girl's feet, in their soft leather slippers, made no sound on the bare earth. The sentry did not turn his head. Silent as a cloud, she stole across the little glade, and passed under the trees at the farther end. Here the ground broke off suddenly in a rocky pitch, down which one scrambled to another valley or glen lying some hundred feet lower; the cliff (for it was steep enough to merit that name) was mostly bare rock, but here and there a little earth had caught and lodged, and a few seeds had dropped, and a tuft of grass or a little tree had sprung up, defying the gulf below. A few feet only from the upper level, just below a group of palms that nodded over the brink, the stream gushed out from the face of the rock, clear and cold. The soldiers had hollowed a little trough to receive the trickling stream, and one had only to hold one's pitcher under this spout for a few minutes, to have it filled with delicious water. Rita had often come hither in the daytime, during the week that had now passed since her arrival at the mountain camp. It was a wild and picturesque scene at any time, but now the effect of the intense white light, falling on splintered rock, hanging tree, and glancing stream was magical indeed. Rita lay down on her face at the edge of the precipice, as she had seen the soldiers do, and lowered her jar carefully. As the water gurgled placidly into the jar, her eyes roved here and there, taking in every detail of the marvellous scene before her. Never, she thought, had she seen anything so beautiful, so unearthly in its loveliness. Peace! silver peace, and silence, the silence of—hark! what was that?
A crack, as of a twig breaking; a rustling, far below in the gorge; a shuffling sound, as of soft shod feet pressing the soft earth. Rita crouched flat to the ground, and, leaning over as far as she dared, peered over the precipice. The bottom of the gorge was filled with a mass of tall grasses and feathery blossoming shrubs, with here and there a tree rising tall and straight. The leaves were black as jet in the strong light. Gazing intently, she saw the branches tremble, wave, separate; and against the dark leaves shone a gleam of metal, that moved, and came nearer. Another and yet another; and now she could see the dark faces, and the moon shone on the barrels of the carbines, and made them glitter like silver.
Swiftly and noiselessly the girl drew back from the brink, crouching in the grass till she reached the shadow of the grove. Then she rose to her feet, still holding her jar of water carefully,—for there was no need of wasting that,—and ran for her life.
A whispered word to the sentry, who sprang quickly enough from his reverie beside the fire; then to the General's tent, then to Carlos, with the same whispered message. "The Gringos are here! Wake, for the love of Heaven!"
In another moment the little glade was alive with dusky figures, springing from their beds of moss and leaves, snatching their arms, fumbling for cartridges. The General was already among them. Carlos and the other officers came running, buckling their sword-belts, rubbing their eyes.
"Where are they?" all were asking in excited whispers. "Who saw them? Is it another nightmare of Pepe's?"
"No! no!" murmured Rita. "I saw them, I tell you! I saw their faces in the moonlight. I went to get some water. They are climbing up the cliff. I did not stop to count, but there must be many of them, from the sound of their feet. Oh, make haste, make haste!"
The General gave his orders in a low, emphatic tone. Twenty men, with Carlos at their head, glided like shadows across the glade, and disappeared among the trees. Rita's breath came quick, and she prepared to follow; but the old General laid a kind hand on her arm. "No, my child!" he said. "You have done your country a great service this night. Do not imperil your life needlessly. Go rather to your room, and pray for your brother and for us all."
But prayer was far from Rita's thoughts at that moment. "Dear General," she implored, with clasped hands, the tears starting to her eyes, "Let me go! let me go! I implore you! I will pray afterward, I truly will. I will pray while I am fighting, if you will only let me go. See! I have come all this way to fight for my country; and must I stay away from the first battle? Look, dear Senor General! Look at my machete! Isn't it beautiful? it is the sword of a hero; I must use it for him. Let me go!" The beautiful face, upturned in the moonlight, the dark eyes shining through their tears, might have softened a harder heart than that of General Sevillo. He opened his lips to reply, his fatherly hand still on her arm, when suddenly a sharp report was heard. A single shot, then a volley, the shots rattling out, struck back and forth from cliff to cliff, multiplying in hideous echoes. Then broke out cries and groans; the crash of heavy bodies falling back among the trees below, and shouts of "Viva Cuba;" and still the shots rang out, and still the echoes cracked and snapped. Rita turned pale as death, and clasped her hands on her bosom. "Ah! Dios!" she cried. "I had forgotten; there will be blood!" and rushing into her hut, she flung herself face downward on her leafy bed.
The perplexed General looked after her for a moment, pulling his grizzled moustache. "Caramba!" he muttered. "To understand these feminines? Decidedly, this charming child must be sent into safety to-morrow." And shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders, he strode in the direction of the firing.
Ten minutes' sharp fighting, and the skirmish was over. The Spanish "guerilla" was scattered, many of the guerilleros lying dead or wounded at the foot of the precipice, the others scrambling and tumbling down as best they might. Carlos and his men had so greatly the advantage in position, if not in numbers, that not a single Cuban was killed, though two or three were more or less seriously wounded. Among these was the unfortunate Pedro Valdez, who had only that evening returned to camp, having left his child and his old mother in a place of safety. His wife had been allowed to remain for a short time in camp, at the request of the surgeon, as she had had some experience in nursing. Now he was shot in the arm, and his comrades lifted him gently, and carried him back. His wife was waiting for him. She seemed to have expected something of the kind, for she made no outcry; she followed quietly to the clump of trees distant a little way from the rest of the camp, where good Doctor Ferrando had the solitary rancho, the case of surgical instruments and the few rolls of bandages that constituted his field hospital. A rough table had been knocked together for operations; otherwise the sick and wounded fared much as the rest did, sleeping on beds of leaves and dry grass, and fighting the mosquitoes as best they might. Here the bearers laid Pedro down, and Dolores took her place quietly at his side, fanning away the insects that hovered in clouds about the wounded man, holding the poor arm while the doctor dressed it, and behaving as if her life had been spent in a hospital.
Doctor Ferrando spoke a few words of approval, but the woman heeded them little; it was a matter of course that where there was suffering, she should be at work. So, when Pedro presently dropped off to sleep, she moved softly about among the wounded men, smoothing a blanket here, changing a ligature there, doing all with light, swift fingers whose touch healed instead of hurting.
She was sitting beside a lad, the last to be brought in from the scene of the skirmish, when the screen of bushes by the rancho was parted, and Rita appeared. Slowly and timidly she drew near; her face was like marble; her eyes looked unnaturally large and dark. Dolores made a motion to rise, but a gesture bade her keep her place.
"Hush!" said the young girl. "Sit still, Dolores! I have come—to—to learn!"
"To learn, senorita?" repeated the woman, humbly. The senorita was in her grateful eyes a heaven-descended being, whose every look and word must be law; this new bearing amazed and puzzled her.
"What can this poor soul teach the noble and high-born lady?" she asked, sadly. "I know nothing, not even to read; I am a poor woman merely. The senor doctor is this moment gone to take his distinguished siesta; do I call him for the senorita?"