Wood Rangers, by Captain Mayne Reid.
PEPE, THE SLEEPER.
No landscape on the Biscayan coast, presents a more imposing and picturesque aspect than the little village of Elanchovi. Lying within an amphitheatre of cliffs, whose crests rise above the roofs of the houses, the port is protected from the surge of the sea by a handsome little jetty of chiselled stone; while the single street of which the village is composed, commencing at the inner end of the mole, sweeps boldly up against the face of the precipice. On both sides, the houses, disposed in a sort of echelon, rise, terrace-like, one above the other; so that viewed from a distance, the street presents the appearance of a gigantic stairway.
In these the common dwellings, there is not much variety of architecture; since the village is almost exclusively inhabited by poor fishermen. There is one building, however, that is conspicuous—so much so as to form the principal feature of the landscape. It is an old chateau—perhaps the only building of this character in Spain—whose slate roofs and gothic turrets and vanes, rising above the highest point of the cliffs, overlook the houses of the village.
This mansion belonged to the noble family of Mediana, and formed part of the grand estates of this ancient house. For a long period, the Counts of Mediana had not inhabited the chateau of Elanchovi, and it had fallen into a state of neglect and partial decay, presenting a somewhat wild and desolate aspect. However, at the beginning of the year 1808, during the troubles of the French invasion, the Count Don Juan, then head of the family, had chosen it as a safe residence for his young wife Dona Luisa, whom he passionately loved.
Here Don Juan passed the first months of his married life—a marriage celebrated under circumstances of sad augury. The younger brother of Don Juan, Don Antonio de Mediana, had also fervently loved the Dona Luisa; until finding her preference for his brother, he had given up his suit in anger, and quitted the country. He had gone, no one knew whither; and though after a time there came back a rumour of his death, it was neither confirmed nor contradicted.
The principal reason why the Count had chosen this wild spot as a residence for his lady was this:—He held a high command in the Spanish army, and he knew that duty would soon call him into the field. The alcalde of Elanchovi had been an old servant of the Mediana family, and had been raised to his present rank by their influence. Don Juan, therefore, believed he could rely upon the devotion of this functionary to the interests of his house, and that during his absence Dona Luisa would find security under the magisterial protection. Don Ramon Cohecho was the name of the chief magistrate of Elanchovi.
The Count was not permitted long to enjoy the happiness of his married life. Just as he had anticipated, he soon received orders to join his regiment; and parted from the chateau, leaving his young wife under the special care of an old and respectable domestic—the steward Juan de Dios Canelo. He parted from his home never more to return to it; for in the battle of Burgos, a French bullet suddenly terminated his existence.
It was sad tidings for the Dona Luisa; and thus to the joys of the first days of her married life succeeded the sorrows of a premature widowhood.
It was near the close of the year 1808, when the chateau was the sombre witness of Dona Luisa's grief, that our story commences, and though its scene lies in another land—thousands of leagues from, the Biscayan coast—its history is intimately woven with that of the chateau of Elanchovi.
Under ordinary circumstances, the village of Elanchovi presents a severe and dreary aspect. The silence and solitude that reigns along the summit of the cliffs, contrasted with the continuous roaring of the breakers against their base, inspires the beholder with a sentiment of melancholy. Moreover, the villagers, as already said, being almost exclusively fishermen, and absent during the whole of the day, the place at first sight would appear as if uninhabited. Occasionally when some cloud is to be observed in the sky, the wives of the fishermen may be seen at the door, in their skirts of bright colours, and their hair in long double plaits hanging below their waists. These, after remaining a while to cast anxious glances upon the far horizon, again recross the thresholds of their cottages, leaving the street deserted as before.
At the time of which we are writing—the month of November, 1808— Elanchovi presented a still more desolate aspect than was its wont. The proximity of the French army had produced a panic among its inhabitants and many of these poor people—forgetting in their terror that they had nothing to lose—had taken to their boats, and sought safety in places more distant from the invaders of whom they were in dread.
Isolated as this little village was on the Biscayan coasts, there was all the more reason why it should have its garrison of coast-guards; and such in reality it had. These at the time consisted of a company of soldiers—carabiniers, under the command of a captain Don Lucas Despierto—but the condition of these warriors was not one to be envied, for the Spanish government, although nominally keeping them in its pay, had for a long time neglected to pay them. The consequence was, that these poor fellows had absolutely nothing upon which to live. The seizure of smuggled goods—with which they might have contrived to indemnify themselves—was no longer possible. The contraband trade, under this system, was completely annihilated. The smugglers knew better than to come in contact with coast-guards whose performance of their duty was stimulated by such a keen necessity! From the captain himself down to the lowest official, an incessant vigilance was kept up—the result of which was that the fiscal department of the Spanish government was, perhaps, never so faithfully or economically served.
There was one of these coast-guards who affected a complete scepticism in regard to smuggling—he even went so far as to deny that it had ever existed! He was distinguished among his companions by a singular habit—that of always going to sleep upon his post; and this habit, whether feigned or real, had won for him the name of the Sleeper. On this account it may be supposed, that he was never placed upon guard where the post was one of importance.
Jose, or as he was more familiarly styled, Pepe, was a young fellow of some twenty-five years—tall, thin, and muscular. His black eyes, deeply set under bushy eyebrows, had all the appearance of eyes that could sparkle; besides, his whole countenance possessed the configuration of one who had been born for a life of activity. On the contrary, however—whether from a malady or some other cause—the man appeared as somnolent and immobile as if both his visage and body were carved out of marble. In a word, with all the exterior marks that denote the possession of an active and ardent soul, Pepe the Sleeper appeared the most inactive and apathetic of men.
His chagrin was great—or appeared to be so—when, upon the evening of the day in which this narrative commences the captain of the coast-guard sent a messenger to summon him to headquarters.
On receiving the unexpected order, Pepe rose from his habitual attitude of recumbence, stretched himself at his leisure, yawned several times, and then obeyed the summons, saying as he went out: "What the devil fancy has the captain got into his head to send for me?"
Once, however, on the way and alone, it might have been observed that the somnolent coast-guard walked with an energetic and active step, very unlike his usual gait!
On entering the apartment where the captain awaited him, his apathetic habit returned; and, while rolling a cigarette between his fingers, he appeared to be half asleep. The captain was buried in a profound meditation, and did not at first perceive him.
"Bueno! my captain," said the coast-guard, respectfully saluting his superior, and calling attention to his presence. "I am here."
"Ah! good! my fine fellow," began the captain, in a winning voice. "Well, Pepe!" added he more slowly and significantly, "the times are pretty hard with us—are they not?"
"Rather hard, captain."
"But you, hombre!" rejoined Don Lucas, with a laugh, "you don't appear to suffer much of the misery—you are always asleep I understand?"
"When I sleep, captain, I am not hungry," replied the coast-guard, endeavouring to stifle a yawn; "then I dream that the government has paid me."
"Well—at all events you are not its creditor for many hours of the day, since you sleep most of them. But, my fine fellow, it is not about this I desire to talk to you. I wish to give you a proof of my confidence."
"Ah!" muttered Pepe.
"And a proof of my regard for you," continued the officer. "The government has its eye open upon all of us; your reputation for apathy begins to be talked about, and you might be discharged one of these days as a useless official. It would be a sad affair if you were to lose your place?"
"Frightful! captain," replied Pepe, with perfect simplicity of manner; "for if I can scarce keep from dying of hunger in my place, what would be the result were I deprived of it? Frightful!"
"To prevent this misfortune, then," continued the captain, "I have resolved to furnish to those who calumniate you, a proof of the confidence which may be placed in you, by giving you the post of Ensenada—and this very night."
Pepe involuntarily opened his eyes to their fullest extent.
"That surprises you?" said Don Lucas.
"No," laconically replied the coast-guard.
The captain was unable to conceal from his inferior a slight confusion, and his voice trembled as he pronounced the interrogation:—
"What! It does not surprise you?"
"No," repeated Pepe, and then added in a tone of flattery: "The captain Despierto is so well-known for his vigilance and energy, that he may confide the most important post to the very poorest of his sentinels. That is why I am not astonished at the confidence he is good enough to place in me: and now I await the instructions your Honour may be pleased to give."
Don Lucas, without further parley, proceeded to instruct his sentinel in his duty for the night. The orders were somewhat diffuse—so much so that Pepe had a difficulty in comprehending them—but they were wound up by the captain saying to the coast-guard, as he dismissed him from his presence—
"And above all, my fine fellow, don't go to sleep upon your post!"
"I shall try not to do so, captain," replied Pepe, at the same time saluting his superior, and taking his leave.
"This fellow is worth his weight in gold," muttered Don Lucas, rubbing his hands together with an air of satisfaction; "he could not have suited my purpose better, if he had been expressly made for it!"
THE SENTINEL OF LA ENSENADA.
The little bay of Ensenada, thus confided to the vigilance of Pepe the sleeper, was mysteriously shut in among the cliffs, as if nature had designed it expressly for smugglers—especially those Spanish contrabandistas who carry on the trade with a cutlass in one hand and a carbine in the other.
On account of its isolation, the post was not without danger, especially on a foggy November night, when the thick vapour suspended in the air not only rendered the sight useless, but hindered the voice that might call for assistance from being heard to any distance.
In the soldier who arrived upon this post, advancing with head erect and light elastic tread, no one could have recognised Pepe the sleeper— Pepe, habitually plunged in a profound state of somnolence—Pepe, of downcast mien and slow dragging gait—and yet it was he. His eyes, habitually half shut, were now sparkling in their sockets, as if even the slightest object could not escape him even in the darkness.
After having carefully examined the ground around his post, and convinced himself that he was entirely alone, he placed his lantern in such a position that its light was thrown along the road leading to the village. Then advancing some ten or twelve paces in the direction of the water, he spread his cloak upon the ground, and lay down upon it—in such an attitude that he could command a view both of the road and the bay.
"Ah, my captain!" soliloquised the coast-guard, as he arranged his cloak around him to the best advantage, "you are a very cunning man, but you have too much faith in people who are always asleep; and devil take me! if I don't believe that you are interested in my sleeping most soundly on this particular night. Well, quien sabe? we shall see."
For about the period of half an hour Pepe remained alone—delivering himself up to his reflections, and in turns interrogating with his glance the road and the bay. At the end of that time a footstep was heard in the loose sand; and looking along the pathway, the sentinel perceived a dark form approaching the spot. In another moment the form came under the light of the lantern, and was easily recognised as that of Don Lucas, the captain of the coast-guard.
The officer appeared to be searching for something, but presently perceiving the recumbent sentinel, he paused in his steps.
"Pepe!" cried he, in a low mincing voice.
No reply came from Pepe.
"Pepe!" repeated the captain, in a tone a little more elevated.
Still no reply from the sentinel, who remained obstinately silent.
The captain, appearing to be satisfied, ceased calling the name, and shortly after retraced his steps towards the village. In a few seconds his form was lost in the distance.
"Good!" said Pepe, as his superior officer passed out of sight; "just as I expected. A moment ago I was fool enough to doubt it. Now I am sure of it. Some smuggler is going to risk it to-night. Well, I shall manage badly if I don't come in for a windfall—though it be at the expense of my captain."
Saying this, the sentinel with one bound rose erect upon his feet.
"Here I am no more Pepe the Sleeper," continued he stretching himself to his full height.
From this time his eyes were bent continually upon the ocean; but another half hour passed without anything strange showing itself upon the bosom of the water—nothing to break the white line of the horizon where sea and sky appeared to be almost confounded together. Some dark clouds were floating in the heavens, now veiling and now suddenly uncovering the moon, that had just risen. The effect was fine; the horizon was one moment shining like silver, and the next dark as funeral crape; but through all these changes no object appeared upon the water, to denote the presence of a human being.
For a long while the coast-guard looked so intently through the darkness, that he began to see the sparks flying before his eyes. Fatigued with this sustained attention, he at length shut his eyes altogether, and concentrated all his powers upon the organs of hearing. Just then a sound came sweeping over the water—so slight that it scarce reached him—but the next moment the land-breeze carried it away, and it was heard no more.
Fancying it had only been an illusion, he once more opened his eyes, but in the obscurity he could see nothing. Again he shut them closely and listened as before. This time he listened with more success. A sound regularly cadenced was heard. It was such as would be made by a pair of oars cautiously dipped, and was accompanied by a dull knocking as of the oars working in their thole-pins.
"At last we shall see!" muttered Pepe, with a gasp of satisfaction.
A small black point, almost imperceptible, appeared upon the horizon. Rapidly it increased in size, until it assumed the form and dimensions of a boat with rowers in it, followed by a bright strip of foam.
Pepe threw himself suddenly a plat ventre, in fear that he might be seen by those on the water; but from the elevated position which he occupied, he was able to keep his eye upon the boat without losing sight of it for a single instant.
Just then the noises ceased, and the oars were held out of water, motionless, like some sea-bird, with wings extended, choosing a spot upon which to alight. In the next instant the rowing was resumed, and the boat headed directly for the shore of the bay.
"Don't be afraid!" muttered the coast-guard, affecting to apostrophise the rowers. "Don't be afraid, my good fellows—come along at your pleasure!"
The rowers, in truth did not appear to be at all apprehensive of danger; and the next moment the keel of the boat was heard grinding upon the sand of the beach.
"Por Dios!" muttered the sentinel in a low voice; "not a bale of goods! It is possible after all, they are not smugglers!"
Three men were in the boat, who did not appear to take those precautions which smugglers would have done. They made no particular noise, but, on the other hand, they did not observe any exact silence. Moreover their costume was not that ordinarily worn by the regular contrabandista.
"Who the devil can they be?" asked Pepe of himself.
The coast-guard lay concealed behind some tufts of withered grass that formed a border along the crest of the slope. Through these he could observe the movements of the three men in the boat.
At an order from the one who sat in the stern sheets, the other two leaped ashore, as if with the design of reconnoitring the ground. He who issued the order, and who appeared to be the chief of the party, remained seated in the boat.
Pepe was for a moment undecided whether he should permit the two to pass him on the road; but the view of the boat, left in charge of a single man, soon fixed his resolution.
He kept his place, therefore, motionless as ever, scarce allowing himself to breathe, until the two men arrived below him, and only a few feet from the spot where he was lying.
Each was armed with a long Catalonian knife, and Pepe could see that the costume which both wore was that of the Spanish privateers of the time— a sort of mixture of the uniform of the royal navy of Spain, and that of the merchant service; but he could not see their faces, hid as they were under the slouched Basque bonnet.
All at once the two men halted. A piece of rock, detached by the knees of the coast-guard, had glided down the slope and fallen near their feet.
"Did you hear anything?" hastily asked one.
"No; did you?"
"I thought I heard something falling from above there," replied the first speaker; pointing upward to the spot where Pepe was concealed.
"Bah! it was some mouse running into its hole."
"If this slope wasn't so infernally steep, I'd climb up and see," said the first.
"I tell you we have nothing to fear," rejoined the second; "the night is as black as a pot of pitch, and besides—the other, hasn't he assured us that he will answer for the man on guard, who sleeps all day long?"
"Just for that reason he may not sleep at night. Remain here, I'll go round and climb up. Carramba! if I find this sleepy-head," he added, holding out his long knife, the blade of which glittered through the darkness, "so much the worse—or, perhaps, so much the better for him— for I shall send him where he may sleep forever."
"Mil diablos!" thought Pepe, "this fellow is a philosopher! By the holy virgin I am long enough here."
And at this thought, he crept out of the folds of his cloak like a snake out of his skin, and leaving the garment where it lay, crawled rapidly away from the spot.
Until he had got to a considerable distance, he was so cautious not to make any noise, that, to use a Spanish expression, the very ground itself did not know he was passing over it.
In this way he advanced, carbine in hand, until he was opposite the point where the boat rested against the beach. There he stopped to recover his breath,—at the same time fixing his eye upon the individual that was alone.
The latter appeared to be buried in a sombre reverie, motionless as a statue, and wrapped in an ample cloak, which served both to conceal his person and protect him from the humidity of the atmosphere. His eyes were turned toward the sea; and for this reason he did not perceive the dark form of the carabinier approaching in the opposite direction.
The latter advanced with stealthy tread—measuring the distance with his eye—until at length he stood within a few paces of the boat.
Just then the stranger made a movement as if to turn his face towards the shore, when Pepe, like a tiger hounding upon its prey, launched himself forward to the side of the boat.
"It is I!" he exclaimed, bringing the muzzle of his carbine on a level with the man's breast. "Don't move or you are a dead man!"
"You, who?" asked the astonished stranger, his eyes sparkling with rage, and not even lowering their glance before the threatening attitude of his enemy.
"Why me! Pepe—you know well enough? Pepe, the Sleeper?"
"Curses upon him, if he has betrayed me?" muttered, the stranger, as if speaking to himself.
"If you are speaking of Don Lucas Despierto," interrupted the carabinier, "I can assure you he is incapable of such a thing; and if I am here it is because that he has been only too discreet, senor smuggler."
"Smuggler!" exclaimed the unknown, in a tone of proud disdain.
"When I say smuggler," replied Pepe, chuckling at his own perspicuity, "it is only meant as a compliment, for you haven't an ounce of merchandise in your boat, unless indeed," continued he, pointing with his foot to a rope ladder, rolled up, and lying in the bottom, "unless that may be a sample! Santa Virgen! a strange sample that!"
Face to face with the unknown, the coast-guard could now examine him at his leisure.
He was a young man of about Pepe's own age, twenty-five. His complexion had the hale tint of one who followed the sea for a profession. Thick dark eyebrows were strongly delineated against a forehead bony and broad, and from a pair of large black eyes shone a sombre fire that denoted a man of implacable passions. His arched mouth was expressive of high disdain; and the wrinkles upon his cheeks, strongly marked notwithstanding his youth, at the slightest movement, gave to his countenance an expression of arrogance and scorn. In his eyes—in his whole bearing—you could read that ambition or vengeance were the ruling passions of his soul. His fine black curling hair alone tempered the expression of severity that distinguished his physiognomy. With regard to his costume, it was simply that of an officer of the Spanish navy.
A look that would have frightened most men told the impatience with which he endured the examination of the coast-guard.
"An end to this pleasantry!" he cried out, at length. "What do you want, fellow? Speak!"
"Ah! talk of our affairs," answered Pepe, "that is just what I desire. Well, in the first place, when those two fellows of yours return with my cloak and lantern—which they are cunning enough to make a seizure of— you will give them your commands to keep at a distance. In this way we can talk without being interrupted. Otherwise, with a single shot of this carbine, which will stretch you out dead, I shall also give the alarm. What say you? Nothing? Be it so. That answer will do for want of a better. I go on. You have given to my captain forty onzas?" continued the carabinier, with a bold guess, making sure that he named enough.
"Twenty," replied the stranger, without reflecting.
"I would rather it had been forty," said Pepe. "Well, one does not pay so high for the mere pleasure of a sentimental promenade along the shore of the Ensenada. My intervention need be no obstruction to it—provided you pay for my neutrality."
"How?" asked the unknown, evidently desirous of putting an end to the scene.
"Oh, a mere bagatelle—you have given the captain forty onzas."
"Twenty, I tell you."
"I would rather it had been forty," coolly repeated the carabinier, "but say twenty, then. Now I don't wish to be indiscreet—he is a captain, I am nothing more than a poor private. I think it reasonable therefore, that I should have double what he has received."
At this extortionate demand the stranger allowed a bitter oath to escape him, but made no answer.
"I know well," continued Pepe, "that I am asking too little. If my captain has three times my pay, of course he has three times less need of money than I, and therefore I have the right to triple the sum he has received; but as the times are hard, I hold to my original demand— forty onzas."
A terrible struggle betwixt pride and apprehension appeared to be going on in the bosom of the stranger. Despite the coldness of the night the perspiration streamed over his brow and down his cheeks. Some imperious necessity it was that had led him into this place—some strange mystery there must be—since the necessity he was now under tamed down a spirit that appeared untamable. The tone of jeering intrepidity which Pepe held toward him caused him to feel the urgency of a compromise; and at length plunging his hand into his pocket he drew forth a purse, and presented it to the carabinier.
"Take it and go!" he cried, with impatience.
Pepe took the purse, and for a moment held it in his hand as if he would first count its contents.
"Bah!" he exclaimed, after a pause, "I'll risk it. I accept it for forty onzas. And now, senor stranger, I am deaf, dumb, and blind."
"I count upon it," coldly rejoined the unknown.
"By the life of my mother!" replied Pepe, "since it's not an affair of smuggling I don't mind to lend you a hand—for as a coast-guard, you see, I could not take part in anything contraband—no, never!"
"Very well, then," rejoined the stranger, with a bitter smile, "you may set your conscience at rest on that score. Guard this boat till my return. I go to join my men. Only whatever happens—whatever you may see—whatever you may hear—be, as you have promised, deaf, dumb, and blind."
As he uttered these words the stranger sprang out of the boat, and took the road leading to the village. A turning in the path soon bid him from the sight of the coast-guard.
Once left to himself, Pepe, under the light of the moon, counted out the glittering contents of the purse which he had extorted from the stranger.
"If this jewel is not false," muttered he to himself, "then I don't care if the government never pays me. Meanwhile, I must begin to-morrow to cry like a poor devil about the back pay. That will have a good effect."
THE ALCALDE AND HIS CLERK.
It is not known how long Pepe remained at his post to await the return of the stranger: when the cock was heard to crow, and the aurora appeared in the eastern horizon, the little bay of Ensenada was completely deserted.
Then life began to appear in the village. The dark shadows of the fishermen were seen upon the stair-like street, descending to the mole; and the first beams of the morning lit up their departure. In a few minutes the little flotilla was out of sight; and at the doors of the cottages the women and children only could be seen, appearing and disappearing at intervals.
Among these wretched hovels of the village, there was one dwelling of greater pretensions than the rest. It was that of the alcalde, Don Ramon Cohecho of whom we have already spoken. It alone still kept its doors and windows closed against the morning light.
It was full day, when a young man, wearing a high-crowned beaver hat,— old, greasy and shining, like leather—walked up to the door of the alcalde's mansion. The limbs of this individual were scantily covered with a pair of pantaloons, so tightly fitting as to appear like a second skin to his legs, so short as scarce to touch his ankles, and of such thin stuff as to ill protect the wearer from the sharp air of a November morning. The upper half of this individual was not visible. A little cloak, of coarse shaggy cloth, known as an esclavina, covered him up to the very eyes. In the manner in which he so carefully guarded the upper part of his person with this pinched mantle, at the expense of his thighs and legs, an observer might have supposed that he was perfectly content with his pantaloons. Appearances, however, are often deceptive; for in truth the ambition of this youth; whose unsteady glance, miserable aspect, and a certain smell of old papers about him, proclaimed to be un escribano—his everyday dream was to have a pair of pantaloons entirely different from his own—in other words, a pair with long ample legs, of good wide waist, and made out of fine broadcloth. Such a pair would render him the most satisfied man in the world.
This young man was the right hand of the alcalde—his name Gregorio Cagatinta.
On reaching the door, he gave a modest knock with his horn ink-bottle, which he carried hanging to his button. The door was opened by an old housekeeper.
"Ah! it is you, Don Gregorio?" cried the housekeeper, with that superb courtesy so peculiar to the Spaniards—that even two shoeblacks on meeting lavish upon each other the epithet Don, as if each were a grand noble.
"Yes, it is I, Dona Nicolasa," replied Gregorio.
"Santisima Virgen!—since it is you, then I must be late, and my master will be waiting for his pantaloons that are not yet aired. Take a seat, Don Gregorio: he will soon be down."
The chamber into which the notary's clerk had been introduced would have been a large one, had it not been for the singular conglomeration of objects with which it was more than half filled. Nets of all sizes, masts, yards, and rudders of boats, oars, sails of every kind—both square and lateen—woollen shirts worn by sailors or fishermen, and a variety of other marine objects, were placed pellmell in every corner of the room. Notwithstanding, there was space enough left to hold three or four chairs around a large oaken table, upon which last stood a large cork ink-stand, with several goose-quill pens; with some sheets of half dirty paper placed ostentatiously around it to awe the visitors, who might have business with the alcalde.
The presence of this odd assortment of objects, it would have been difficult for a stranger to explain—though there was no mystery about it. The fact is, that besides his official character as first magistrate, the alcalde had another role which he played, of rather an unofficial character. He was the pawnbroker of the place—that is, he lent out money in small sums, charging a real for every dollar by the week—in other words, a simple interest of twenty per cent, by the month, or two hundred and fifty per cent, per annum! His clients being all fishermen, will account for the nautical character of the "pledges" that filled the chamber of audience.
Cagatinta scarce deigned to cast a look at this miscellaneous collection of objects. Had there been a pair of pantaloons among them, it might have been different; for to say the truth, the probity of Don Gregorio was scarce firm enough to have resisted so strong a temptation as this would have been. The notary's clerk was not exactly of that stuff of which honest men are composed. Nature, even in its crimes, does not leap to grand villainies at once; it proceeds from less to greater; and Cagatinta, though still but young, was yet capable of a little bit of "cribbing."
Don Ramon was not long in coming out of his sleeping-room. In a little while he showed his jovial face at the door of the audience chamber.
He was a person of portly and robust figure; and it was easily seen that one leg of his ample pantaloons would have been sufficient to have made a pair for the thin limbs and meagre body of the escribano.
"Por Dios! Senor alcalde," said the clerk, after having exchanged with his superior a profusion of matinal salutations, "what a splendid pair of pantaloons you have on!"
From the alcalde's answer, it was evident that this was not the first time that Cagatinta had made the remark.
"Ah! Gregorio, amigo!" replied he, in a tone of good-humour, "you are growing tiresome with your repetitions. Patience, patience, senor escribano! you know that for the services you are to render me—I say nothing of those already rendered—I have promised you my liver-coloured breeches, which have been only a very little used: you have only to gain them."
"But what services are to gain them, senor alcalde?" inquired the clerk, in a despairing tone.
"Eh—Dios!—who knows what—patience, amigo! Something may turn up all at once, that will give you that advantage over me. But come! let us to business—make out the deed of appropriation of the boat of that bad pay, Vicente Perez, who under pretence that he has six brats to feed, can't reimburse me the twenty dollars I have advanced him."
Cagatinta drew out from his little portfolio a sheet of stamped paper, and sitting down by the table proceeded to execute the order of the magistrate. He was interrupted by a hurried knocking at the outer door—which had been closed to prevent intrusion.
"Who dare knock in that fashion?" sharply inquired the alcalde.
"Ave Maria purisima!" cried a voice from without.
"Sin pecado concebida!" replied at the same time the two acolytes within.
And upon this formula, Gregorio hastened to the door, and opened it.
"What on earth can have brought you here at this hour, Don Juan de Dios Canelo?" inquired the alcalde in a tone of surprise, as the old steward of the Countess de Mediana appeared in the doorway, his bald forehead clouded with some profound chagrin.
"Ah, senor alcalde," replied the old man, "a terrible misfortune has happened last night—a great crime has been committed—the Countess has disappeared, and the young Count along with her!"
"Are you sure of this?" shouted the alcalde.
"Alas—you will only have to go up into the balcony that overlooks the sea, and there you will see in what state the assassins have left the Countess's chamber."
"Justice! justice! Senor alcalde! Send out your alguazils over the whole country; find the villains—hang them!"
This voice came from a woman still outside in the street. It was the femme de chambre of the Countess, who, to show a devotion which she very little felt, judged it apropos to make a great outcry as she precipitated herself into the chamber of audience.
"Ta-ta-ta, woman! how you go on!" interrupted the alcalde. "Do you think I have a crowd of alguazils? You know very well that in this virtuous village there are only two; and as these would starve if they didn't follow some trade beside their official one, they are both gone fishing hours ago."
"Ah, me!" cried the femme de chambre, with a hypocritical whine, "my poor mistress!—who then is to help her?"
"Patience, woman, patience!" said the alcalde. "Don't fear but that justice will be done."
The chamber-maid did not appear to draw much hope from the assurance, but only redoubled her cries, her excited behaviour strongly contrasting with the quiet manner in which the faithful old steward exhibited the sincerity of his grief.
Meanwhile a crowd of women, old men, and children, had gathered around the alcalde's door, and by little and little, were invading the sanctuary of the audience chamber itself.
Don Ramon advanced towards Cagatinta, who was rubbing his hands under his esclavina, charmed at the idea of the quantity of stamped paper he would now have an opportunity to blacken.
"Now, friend Gregorio," said the alcalde, in a low voice, "the time has come, when, if you are sharp, you may gain the liver-coloured breeches."
He said no more; but it was evident that the escribano understood him, at least, to a certain extent. The latter turned pale with joy, and kept his eye fixed upon every movement of his patron, determined to seize the first opportunity that presented itself of winning the breeches.
The alcalde reseated himself in his great leathern chair; and commanding silence with a wave of his hand, addressed his auditory in a long and pompous speech, with that profuse grandiloquence of which the Spanish language is so capable.
The substance of his speech was as follows:
"My children! We have just heard from this respectable individual, Don Juan de Dios Canelo, that a great crime has last night been committed; the full knowledge of this villainy cannot fail to arrive at the ears of justice, from which nothing can be kept hid. Not the less are we to thank Don Juan for his official communication; it only remains for him to complete the accusation by giving the names of the guilty persons."
"But, senor alcalde," interrupted the steward, "I do not know them, although, as you say, my communication may be official—I can only say that I will do all in my power to assist in finding them."
"You understand, my children," continued the alcalde, without taking notice of what the steward had said, "the worthy Canelo by his official communication asks for the punishment of the guilty persons. Justice will not be deaf to his appeal. I may now be permitted, however, to speak to you of my own little affairs, before abandoning myself to the great grief which the disappearance of the Countess and the young Count has caused me."
Here the alcalde made a sign to Cagatinta, whose whole faculties were keenly bent to discover what service was expected from him, by which he was to gain the object of his ambition—the liver-coloured breeches.
The alcalde continued:—
"You all know, my children, of my attachment to the family of Mediana. You can judge, then, of the grief which this news has given me—news the more incomprehensible, since one neither knows by whom, or for what reason such a crime should be committed. Alas, my children! I lose a powerful protector in the Countess de Mediana; and in me the heart of the old and faithful servant is pierced with anguish, while as a man of business I am equally a sufferer. Yes, my children! In the deceitful security, which I felt no later than yesterday, I was up to the chateau, and had an important interview with the Countess in regard to my rents."
"To ask time for their payment," Cagatinta would have added, for the clerk was perfectly acquainted with the alcalde's affairs. But Don Ramon did not allow him an opportunity of committing this enormous indiscretion, which would forever have deprived him of the promised breeches.
"Patience, worthy Cagatinta!" he exclaimed hastily, so as to prevent the other from speaking, "constrain this thirst for justice that consumes you!—Yes, my children!" he continued, turning to his auditory, "in consequence of this feeling of security, which I have now cause to regret, I placed in the hands of the unfortunate Countess,"—here the voice of Don Ramon quivered—"a sum equivalent to ten years of my rents in advance."
At this unexpected declaration, Cagatinta bounded from his chair as if stung by a wasp; and the blood ran cold in his veins when he perceived the grand blunder he had been so near committing.
"You will understand, then, my children, the terrible situation in which this disappearance of the Countess has placed me, when I tell you that I took no receipt from the lady, but this very morning was to have gone up for it."
This revelation produced a profound sensation among the auditory; and though perhaps not one of them really believed the story, no one dared to give utterance to his incredulity.
"Fortunately," continued the alcalde, "the word of persons worthy of credit may yet repair the mistake I have committed—fortunately there were witnesses of the payment."
Here Cagatinta—who like water that had been a long time dammed up and had now found vent—stretched out both his arms, and in a loud voice cried out:
"I can swear to it!"
"He can swear to it," said the alcalde.
"He can swear to it," mechanically repeated one or two of the bystanders.
"Yes, my friends!" solemnly added Cagatinta. "I swear to it now, and should have mentioned the matter sooner, but I was prevented by a little uncertainty. I had an idea that it was fifteen years of rent, instead of ten, that I saw the alcalde hand over to the unfortunate Dona Luisa."
"No, my worthy friend," interrupted the alcalde in a tone of moderation, likely to produce an effect upon his auditory. "It was only ten years of rent, which your valuable testimony will hinder me from losing."
"Yes, senor alcalde," replied the wily scribe, determined at all hazards to deserve the liver-coloured breeches, "I know it was ten years in advance, but there were also the two years of back rent which you paid— two years of arrears and ten in advance—twelve years in all. Por Dios! a large sum it would be to have lost!"
And with this reflection Cagatinta sat down again, fancying, no doubt, that he had fairly won the breeches.
We shall not detail what further passed during the scene in the alcalde's chamber of audience—where justice was practised as in the times of Gil Blas—long before and long after Gil Blas—for it is not very different in a Spanish law court at the hour in which we are writing.
Enough to say that the scene concluded, most of the dramatis personae, with the alcalde at their head, proceeded to the chateau, to inspect the chamber, and if possible find out some clue to the mysterious disappearance of the Countess.
THE FORSAKEN CHAMBER.
On arriving at the chateau, the alcalde ordered the door of the Countess's chamber to be burst in—for it was still bolted inside. On entering the apartment a picture of confusion was presented. Drawers empty, others drawn out, but only half sacked of their contents.
All this did not indicate precisely that there had been any violence. A voluntary but hurried departure on the part of the Countess might have left just such traces as were discovered. The bed was still undisturbed, as if she had not lain down upon it. This fact appeared to indicate a foreknowledge, on the part of the lady, of what was to happen—as if she had had the intention of going off, but had made no preparation until the moment of departure. The furniture was all in its place—the window curtains and those of the alcove had not been disarranged, and no traces of a struggle were to be discerned within the chamber, which contained many light fragile objects of furniture that could not fail to have been destroyed by the slightest violence.
The fetid odour of an oil lamp filled the apartment despite the cold air that came in through the open window. It was evident, therefore, that this lamp had been left alight, and had continued to burn until the oil had become exhausted.
It could not be a robbery either. A thousand articles of value, likely enough to have tempted the cupidity of robbers, were left behind both on the tables and in the drawers.
The conclusion then was that neither assassination nor burglary had taken place.
Notwithstanding all these deceptive appearances, the old steward shook his head doubtfully. The signs were sufficient to baffle his reason, which was none of the strongest, but the faithful servant could not bring himself to believe that his noble mistress would take flight in a manner so extraordinary—his good sense revolted at the thought. In his belief some crime had been committed, but how was it to be explained— since the assassin had left no traces of his guilt? The devoted Don Juan looked with a sad eye upon that desolate chamber—upon the dresses of his beloved mistress scattered over the floor; upon the cradle of the young Count, where he had so lately slept, rosy and smiling, under the vigil of his mother.
Suddenly struck with an idea, the steward advanced towards the iron balcony that fronted upon the sea—that where the window had been found open. With inquiring eye he looked to the ground below, which was neither more nor less than the beach of the sea itself. It was at no great depth below; and he could easily have seen from the balcony any traces that might have been there. But there were none. The tide had been in and out again. No trace was left on the sand or pebbles that had the slightest signification in regard to the mysterious event. The wind sighed, the waves murmured as always; but amid the voices of nature none raised itself to proclaim the guilty.
On the fair horizon only were descried the white sails of a ship, gradually passing outwards and fading away into the azure of the sea.
While the old steward watched the disappearance of the ship with a sort of dreamy regard, he sent up a silent prayer that his mistress might still be safe. The others, with the exception of the alcalde and his clerk, stood listening to the mournful howling of the wind against the cliffs, which seemed alternately to weep and sigh as if lamenting the sad event that had just transpired.
As regards the alcalde and his assistant, they were under the same conviction as Don Juan—both believing that a crime had been committed— though they did not care to avow their belief, for reasons known to themselves. The absence of any striking evidence that might lead to the discovery of the delinquents, but more especially the difficulty of finding some interested individual able to pay the expenses of justice (the principal object of criminal prosecutions in Spain), damped the zeal of Don Ramon and the scribe. Both were satisfied to leave things as they stood—the one contented with having gained the recompense so much coveted—the other with the twelve years of rents which he felt sure of gaining.
"Valga me Dios! my children," said the alcalde, turning toward the witnesses, "I cannot explain what fancy the Countess may have had in going out by the window—for the door of the chamber, bolted inside, leaves no room to doubt that she went that way. Some woman's caprice, perhaps, which justice has no business to meddle with."
"Perhaps it was to escape from giving the alcalde his receipt," suggested one of the bystanders to another, in an undertone of voice.
"But how, Don Juan," continued the magistrate, addressing himself to the old steward, "how did you know of the Countess's disappearance, since you could not get into the room?"
"That is simple enough," replied the old man. "At the hour in which the chamber-maid is accustomed to present herself before the senora, she knocked as usual at the door. No answer was given. She knocked louder, and still received no answer. Growing anxious, she came to me to tell me. I went to the door myself, first knocked and then called; and receiving no reply, I ran round to the garden and got the ladder. This I placed against the balcony, and mounted up in order to see through the window. On reaching the window I found it open, and the chamber in the condition you now see it."
When the steward had finished this declaration, Cagatinta whispered some words in the ear of the alcalde; but the latter only replied by a shake of the shoulders, and an expression of disdainful incredulity.
"Who knows?" answered the scribe in reply to this dumb show.
"It might be," muttered Don Ramon, "we shall see presently."
"I persist, gentlemen," continued the alcalde, "in my belief that the Countess has gone out by the window; and however singular it may appear, I believe the lady is free to her fancy to go out as she pleases—even though it be by a window."
Cagatinta, and some others, complimented, with a laugh, this little bit of magisterial facetiousness.
"But, senor alcalde," spoke out Don Juan, disgusted with this ill-timed pleasantry, "a proof that there has been a forced entry into the chamber is this broken glass of the window, of which you see some pieces still lying on the balcony."
"This old fool," muttered the alcalde to himself, "is not going to let me have any breakfast. By this time everything will be cold, and Nicolasa—What do these bits of glass prove?" he continued, raising his voice; "don't you think that the breeze which was blowing roughly last night might have caused this? The window was hanging open, and the wind clashing it violently against the frame, would readily cause the breaking of a pane?"
"But why is it," answered Don Juan, "that the broken pane is precisely the one adjacent to the fastening? It must have been knocked out to get the window open."
"Carramba! Senor Don Juan de Dios!" cried the alcalde, in a peevish tone—at the same time biting his gold-headed cane, the emblem of his office—"Is it you or I who have here the right to ask questions? Carrai! it appears to me that you make me cut a strange figure!"
Here Cagatinta interposed with a modest air—
"I shall answer our friend Canelo, if you permit me. If the window was open with the design he has stated, it must of course have been done from the outside. The pieces of glass then would have fallen into the chamber; but such is not the case—there they lie on the balcony! It has been the wind therefore, as his honour the alcalde has reasonably stated, that has done this business. Unless, indeed," added he, with a feigned smile, "some trunk carried incautiously past the window might have struck one of the squares. This may have been—since it appears the Countess intends a prolonged absence, judging from the effects— taken with her, as testified by the empty drawers."
The old steward lowered his head at this proof which seemed completely to falsify his assertion. He did not hear the last observation of Cagatinta, who was cogitating whether he ought not to exact from the alcalde something more than the liver-coloured breeches, as a recompense of this new service he had done him.
While the faithful Don Juan was busy with painful reflections that threw their shadows upon his bald forehead, the alcalde approached and addressed him in a voice so low as not to be heard by the others.
"I have been a little sharp with you, Don Juan—I have not sufficiently taken into account the grief, which you as a loyal servant must feel under such an unexpected stroke. But tell me! independent of the chagrin which this affair has caused you, are you not also affected by some fears about your own future? You are old—weak in consequence—and without resources?"
"It is just because I am old, and know that I have not long to live, that I am so little affected. My grief, however," added he with an air of pride, "is pure and free from all selfishness. The generosity of Count de Mediana has left me enough to pass the remainder of my days in tranquillity. But I should pass them all the more happily if I could only see avenged the lady of my old master."
"I approve of your sentiments, Senor Don Juan! you are doubly estimable on account of your sorrow, and as to your savings—Notary! Senor Cagatinta!" cried the alcalde, suddenly raising his voice so as to be heard by all present, "Make out a proces verbal—that the Senor Don Juan Dios Canelo, here present, will become prosecutor in this case. It cannot be doubted that a crime has been committed; and it is a duty we owe to ourselves as well as to this respectable man, to seek out and punish the authors of it."
"But, senor alcalde!" interposed the steward, perfectly stupefied with this unexpected declaration, "I did not say—I have no intention to become prosecutor."
"Take care, old man!" cried Don Ramon, in a solemn tone; "if you deny what you have already confided to me, grievous charges may be brought against you. As friend Cagatinta has just this minute observed to me, the ladder by which you scaled the balcony might prove sinister designs. But I know you are incapable of such. Rest contented, then, at being the accuser in place of the accused. Come, gentlemen! our duty calls us outside. Perhaps underneath the balcony we may find some traces of this most mysterious matter."
So saying, the alcalde left the chamber, followed by the crowd.
Poor Don Juan found himself thus unexpectedly between two horns of a dilemma, the result in either case being the same—that is, the spoliation of the little pecadillo he had put away against old age. He shook his head, and with a sublime resignation accepted the voice of iniquity for that of God—consoling himself with the reflection, that this last sacrifice might be of some service to the family whose bread he had so long eaten.
No trace was found under the balcony. As already stated the waves must have obliterated any footmarks or other vestiges that may have been left.
It was believed for a while that an important capture had been made, in the person of a man found lying in a crevice among the rocks. This proved to be Pepe the Sleeper. Suddenly aroused, the coast-guard was asked if he had seen or heard anything? No, was the reply, nothing. But Pepe remembered his full pockets; and fearing that the alcalde might take a fancy to search him, saw that some ruse was necessary to put an end to the scene. This he succeeded in doing, by begging the alcalde for a real to buy bread with!
What was to be done with this droll fellow? The alcalde felt no inclination to question him farther, but left him to go to sleep again and sleep as long as he pleased.
Any further investigation appeared to Don Ramon to be useless—at least until some order might be received from higher quarters—besides it would be necessary to graduate the expenses of justice to the means of the prosecutor; and with this reflection, the alcalde went home to his breakfast.
In the evening of this eventful day for the village of Elanchovi—when the twilight had fallen upon the water—two persons might have been seen wandering along the beach, but evidently desirous of shunning one another. Both appeared in grief, though their sorrows sprang from a very different cause.
One was a poor old steward, who, while heaving a sigh at the thought that his worldly store was about to be absorbed in the inexorable gulf of justice, at the same time searched for some trace of his lost mistress, praying for her and her child, and calling upon God to take them under his protection.
The other pensive wanderer was Cagatinta, of whom the alcalde had again taken the advantage. Profiting by the confidence of the scribe, Don Ramon had induced the latter to commit his oath to stamped paper; and then instead of the liver-coloured breeches had offered him an old hat in remuneration. This Cagatinta had indignantly refused.
He was now lamenting his vanished dreams of ambition, his silly confidence, and the immorality of false oaths—not paid for. Nevertheless, he was meditating whether it would not be more prudent to accept the old hat in lieu of the liver-coloured breeches, alas! so well earned!
When Pepe the Sleeper had made himself master of the secret of Captain Despierto—which he had found of such profitable service—he was not aware that the captain had held back another. Nevertheless, the coast-guard felt some kind of remorse of conscience—though he had as yet no idea of the terrible consequences that had resulted. His remorse was simply that he had betrayed his post of sentinel; and he determined that he would make up for it by a more zealous performance of duty whenever an opportunity should offer. To bring about this contingency, he went on the very next night, and requested to be once more placed on the post of Ensenada.
His wish was gratified; and while Don Lucas believed him asleep as usual, Pepe kept wide awake, as on the preceding night.
We shall leave him at his post, while we recount what was taking place off the coast not far from the Ensenada.
The night was as foggy as that which preceded it, when about the hour of ten o'clock a coaster was observed gliding in towards the cliffs, and entering among a labyrinth of rocks that lay near the mouth of the bay.
This vessel appeared well guided and well sailed. The shape of her hull, her rigging, her sails, denoted her to be a ship-of-war, or at the least a privateer.
The boldness with which she manoeuvred, in the middle of the darkness, told that her pilot must be some one well acquainted with this dangerous coast; and also that her commander had an understanding with some people on the shore.
The sea dashed with fury against both sides of the rocky strait, through which the coaster was making her way, but still she glided safely on. The strait once cleared, a large bay opened before her, in which the sea was more calm, and rippled gently up against a beach of sand and pebble.
The coaster at length succeeded in gaining this bay; and then by a manoeuvre directed by the officer of the watch she hove-to with a celerity that denoted a numerous crew.
Two boats were let down upon the water, and, being instantly filled with men, were rowed off in the direction of the upper end of the bay, where some houses, which could be distinguished by their whiteness, stood scattered along the beach.
To end the mystery, let us say that the little coaster was a French vessel—half-privateer half-smuggler—and had entered the bay with a double design—the disposing of merchandise and the procuring of provisions, of which the crew began to stand in need. Further we shall add, that the pilot was a skilful fisherman of Elanchovi, furnished by Don Lucas Despierto, captain of the coast-guard!
The officer of the watch silently walked the deck—now listening to the waves surging against the sides of the little vessel—now stooping a moment over the light of the binnacle—anon watching the sails that napped loosely upon the yards, now turned contrary to the direction of the wind.
An hour had been passed in this manner, when a brisk fusillade was heard from several points on the shore. Other reports of musketry appeared to respond and shortly after the two boats came hastening back to the coaster.
It was Pepe who had caused all this; Pepe, who, to the great chagrin of his captain, had given warning to the coast-guards. He had been too late, notwithstanding his zeal, for the boats came back laden with sheep and other provisions of every soft.
The last of the men who climbed over the gangway—just as the boats were being hoisted up—was a sailor of gigantic height, of colossal proportions, and Herculean vigour. He was a Canadian by birth. He carried in his arms a young child that was cold and motionless, as if dead. A slight trembling in its limbs, however, proclaimed that there was still life in it.
"What the deuce have you got there, Bois-Rose?" demanded the officer of the watch.
"With your leave, lieutenant, it's a young child that I found in a boat adrift, half dead with hunger and cold. A woman, quite dead, and bathed in her own blood, still held it in her arms. I had all the trouble in the world to get the boat away from the place where I found it, for those dogs of Spaniards espied it, and took it for one of ours. There was a terrible devil of a coast-guard kept all the while firing at me with as much obstinacy as awkwardness. I should have silenced him with a single shot, had I not been hindered in looking after this poor little creature. But if ever I return—ah!"
"And what do you intend to do with the child?"
"Take care of it, lieutenant, until peace be proclaimed, then return here and find out who it belongs to."
Unfortunately the only knowledge he was able to obtain about the infant was its name, Fabian, and that the woman who had been assassinated was its mother.
Two years passed during which the French privateer did not return to the coast of Spain. The tenderness of the sailor towards the child he had picked up—which was no other than the young Count Fabian de Mediana— did not cease for an instant, but seemed rather to increase with time. It was a singular and touching spectacle to witness the care, almost motherly, which this rude nurse lavished upon the child, and the constant ruses to which he had recourse to procure a supplement to his rations for its nourishment. The sailor had to fight for his own living; but he often indulged in dreams that some day a rich prize would be captured, his share of which would enable him to take better care of his adopted son. Unfortunately he did not take into his calculations the perilous hazards of the life he was leading.
One morning the privateer was compelled to run from an English brig of war of nearly twice her force; and although a swift sailer, the French vessel soon found that she could not escape from her pursuer. She disdained to refuse the combat, and the two vessels commenced cannonading each other.
For several hours a sanguinary conflict was kept up, when the Canadian sailor, dashed with blood, and blackened with powder, ran towards the child and lifting it in his arms, carried it to the gangway. There, in the midst of the tumult, with blood running over the decks, amidst the confusion of cries and the crash of falling masts, he wished to engrave on the child's memory the circumstance of a separation, of which he had a strong presentiment. In this moment, which should leave even upon the memory of an infant, a souvenir that would never be effaced, he called out to the child, while shielding it with his huge body, "Kneel, my son!"
The child knelt, trembling with affright.
"You see what is going on?"
"I am afraid," murmured Fabian, "the blood—the noise—" and saying this he hid himself in the arms of his protector.
"It is well," replied the Canadian, in a solemn tone. "Never forget, then, that in this moment, a sailor, a man who loved you as his own life, said to you—kneel and pray for your mother!"
He was not permitted to finish the speech. At that moment a bullet struck him and his blood spouting over the child, caused it to utter a lamentable cry. The Canadian had just strength left to press the boy to his breast, and to add some words; but in so low a tone that Fabian could only comprehend a single phrase. It was the continuation of what he had been saying—"Your mother—whom I found—dead beside you."
With this speech ended the consciousness of the sailor. He was not dead, however; his wound did not prove fatal.
When he came to his senses again he found himself in the fetid hold of a ship. A terrible thirst devoured him. He called out in a feeble voice, but no one answered him. He perceived that he was a prisoner, and he wept for the loss of his liberty, but still more for that of the adopted son that Providence had given him.
What became of Fabian? That the history of the "Wood-Rangers" will tell us; but before crossing from the prologue of our drama—before crossing from Europe to America—a few events connected with the tragedy of Elanchovi remain to be told.
It was several days after the disappearance of the Countess, before anything was known of her fate. Then some fishermen found the abandoned boat driven up among the rocks and still containing the body of the unfortunate lady. This was some light thrown upon the horrid mystery; but the cause of the assassination long remained unknown, and the author of it long unpunished.
The old steward tied black crape upon the vanes of the chateau, and erected a wooden cross on the spot where the body of his beloved mistress had been found; but, as everything in this human world soon wears out, the sea-breeze had not browned the black crape, nor the waves turned green the wood of the cross, before the tragic event ceased to cause the slightest emotion in the village—ay, even ceased to be talked of.
Sonora, naturally one of the richest provinces of Mexico, is also one of the least known. Vast tracts in this State have never been explored; and others have been seen only by the passing traveller. Nevertheless, Nature has been especially bountiful to this remote territory. In some parts of it the soil, scarce scratched by the plough, will yield two crops in the year; while in other places gold is scattered over the surface, or mixed with the sands, in such quantity as to rival the placers of California.
It is true that these advantages are, to some extent neutralised by certain inconveniences. Vast deserts extend between the tracts of fertile soil, which render travelling from one to the other both difficult and dangerous; and, in many parts, of the province the savage aborigines of the country are still masters of the ground. This is especially the case in those districts where the gold is found in placers.
Those placers are not to be approached by white men, unless when in strong force. The Indians repel all such advances with warlike fury. Not that they care to protect the gold—of whose value they have been hitherto ignorant—but simply from their hereditary hatred of the white race. Nevertheless, attempts are frequently made to reach the desired gold fields. Some that result in complete failure, and some that are more or less successful.
The natural riches of Sonora have given rise to very considerable fortunes, and not a few very large ones, of which the origin was the finding a "nugget" of virgin gold; while others again had for their basis the cultivation of the rich crops which the fertile soil of Sonora can produce.
There is a class of persons in Sonora, who follow no other business than searching for gold placers or silver mines, and whose only knowledge consists of a little practical acquaintance with metallurgy. These men are called gambusinos. From time to time they make long excursions into the uninhabited portions of the State; where, under great privations, and exposed to a thousand dangers, they hastily and very superficially work some vein of silver, or wash the auriferous sands of some desert-stream, until, tracked and pursued by the Indians, they are compelled to return to their villages. Here they find an audience delighted to listen to their adventures, and to believe the exaggerated accounts which they are certain to give of marvellous treasures lying upon the surface of, the ground, but not to be approached on account of some great danger, Indian or otherwise, by which they are guarded.
These gambusinos are to mining industry, what the backwoodsmen are to agriculture and commerce. They are its pioneers. Avarice stimulated by their wonderful stories, and often too by the sight of real treasure brought in from the desert—for the expeditions of the gambusinos do not always prove failures—avarice thus tempted, is ready to listen to the voice of some adventurous leader, who preaches a crusade of conquest and exploration. In Sonora, as elsewhere, there are always an abundance of idle men to form the material of an expedition—the sons of ruined families—men who dislike hard work, or indeed any work—and others who have somehow got outside the pale of justice. These join the leader and an expedition is organised.
In general, however, enterprises of this kind are too lightly entered upon, as well as too loosely conducted; and the usual consequence is, that before accomplishing its object the band falls to pieces; many become victims to hunger, thirst, or Indian hostility; and of those who went forth only a few individuals return to tell the tale of suffering and disaster.
This example will, for a while, damp the ardour for such pursuits. But the disaster is soon forgotten; fresh stories of the gambusinos produce new dreams of wealth; and another band of adventurers is easily collected.
At the time of which I am writing—that is, in 1830—just twenty-two years after the tragedy of Elanchovi, one of these expeditions was being organised at Arispe—then the capital of the State of Sonora. The man who was to be the leader of the expedition was not a native of Mexico, but a stranger. He was a Spaniard who had arrived in Sonora but two months before, and who was known by the name, Don Estevan de Arechiza.
No one in Arispe remembered ever to have seen him; and yet he appeared to have been in the country before this time. His knowledge of its topography, as well as its affairs and political personages, was so positive and complete, as to make it evident that Sonora was no stranger to him; and the plan of his expedition appeared to have been conceived and arranged beforehand—even previous to his arrival from Europe.
Beyond doubt, Don Estevan was master of considerable resources. He had his train of paid followers, kept open house, made large bets at the monte tables, lent money to friends without appearing to care whether it should ever be returned, and played "grand Seigneur" to perfection.
No one knew from what source he drew the means to carry on such a "war."
Now and then he was known to absent himself from Arispe for a week or ten days at a time. He was absent on some journey; but no one could tell to what part of the country these journeys were made—for his well-trained servants never said a word about the movements of their master.
Whoever he might be, his courteous manner a l'Espagnol, his generosity, and his fine free table, soon gave him a powerful influence in the social world of Arispe; and by this influence he was now organising an expedition, to penetrate to a part of the country which it was supposed no white man had ever yet visited.
As Don Estevan almost always lost at play, and as he also neglected to reclaim the sums of money which he so liberally lent to his acquaintances, it began to be conjectured that he possessed not far from Arispe some rich placer of gold from which he drew his resources. The periodical journeys which he made gave colour to this conjecture.
It was also suspected that he knew of some placer—still more rich—in the country into which he was about to lead his expedition. What truth there was in the suspicion we shall presently see.
It will easily be understood that with such a reputation, Don Estevan would have very little difficulty in collecting his band of adventurers. Indeed it was said, that already more than fifty determined men from all parts of Sonora had assembled at the Presidio of Tubac on the Indian frontier—the place appointed for the rendezvous of the expedition. It was further affirmed that in a few days Don Estevan himself would leave Arispe to place himself at their head.
This rumour, hitherto only conjecture, proved to be correct; for at one of the dinners given by the hospitable Spaniard, he announced to his guests that in three days he intended to start for Tubac.
During the progress of this same dinner, a messenger was introduced into the dining-room, who handed to Don Estevan a letter, an answer to which he awaited.
The Spaniard, begging of his guests to excuse him for a moment, broke the seal and read the letter.
As there was a certain mystery about the habits of their convivial host, the guests were silent for a while—all watching his movements and the play of his features; but the impassible countenance of Don Estevan did not betray a single emotion that was passing his mind, even to the most acute observer around the table. In truth he was a man who well knew how to dissemble his thoughts, and perhaps on that very occasion, more than any other, he required all his self-command.
"It is well," he said, calmly addressing himself to the messenger. "Take my answer to him who sent you, that I will be punctual to the rendezvous in three days from the present."
With this answer the messenger took his departure. Don Estevan, turning to his guests, again apologised for his impoliteness; and the dinner for an instant suspended once more progressed with renewed activity.
Nevertheless the Spaniard appeared more thoughtful than before; and his guests did not doubt but that he had received some news of more than ordinary interest.
We shall leave them to their conjectures, and precede Don Estevan to the mysterious rendezvous which had been given him, and the scene of which was to be a small village lying upon the route to the Presidio of Tubac.
The whole country between Arispe and the Presidio in question may be said to be almost uninhabited. Along the route only mean hovels are encountered, with here and there a hacienda of greater pretensions. These houses are rarely solitary, but collected in groups at long distances apart. Usually a day's journey lies between them, and, consequently, they are the stopping-places for travellers, who may be on their way towards the frontier. But the travellers are few, and the inhabitants of these miserable hovels pass the greater part of their lives in the middle of a profound solitude. A little patch of Indian corn which they cultivate,—a few head of cattle, which, fed upon the perfumed pastures of the plains, produce beef of an exquisite flavour,— a sky always clear,—and, above all, a wonderful sobriety of living,— enable these dwellers of the desert steppes of Sonora to live, if not in a state of luxury, at least free from all fear of want. What desires need trouble a man who sees a blue sky always over his head, and who finds in the smoke of a cigarette of his own making, a resource against all the cravings of hunger?
At one part of the year, however, these villages of hovels are uninhabited—altogether abandoned by their occupants. This is the dry season, during the greater portion of which the cisterns that supply the villages with water become dried up. The cisterns are fed by the rains of heaven, and no other water than this can be found throughout most tracts of the country. When these give out, the settlements have to be abandoned, and remain until the return of the periodical rains.
In a morning of the year 1830, at the distance of about three days' journey from Arispe, a man was seated, or rather half reclining, upon his serape in front of a rude hovel. A few other huts of a similar character were near, scattered here and there over the ground. It was evident, from the profound silence that reigned among these dwellings, and the absence of human forms, or implements of household use, that the rancheria was abandoned by its half nomad population. Such in reality was the fact, for it was now the very height of the dry season. Two or three roads branched out from this miserable group of huts, leading off into a thick forest which surrounded it on all sides. They were rather paths than roads, for the tracks which they followed were scarce cleared of the timber that once grew upon them. At the point of junction of these roads the individual alluded to had placed himself; and his attitude of perfect ease told that he was under no apprehension from the profound and awe-inspiring loneliness of the place. The croak of the ravens flitting from tree to tree hoarsely uttered in their flight; the cry of the chaculucas as they welcomed the rising sun, were the only sounds that broke the stillness of the scene.
Presently the white fog of the night began to rise upward and disappear under the strength of the sunbeams. Only a few flakes of it still hung over the tops of the mezquite and iron-wood trees that grew thickly around the huts.
Near where the man lay, there might be seen the remains of a large fire. It had been kindled no doubt to protect him from the chill dews of the night; and it now served him to prepare his breakfast. Some small cakes of wheaten meal, with few pieces of tasajo, were already placed upon the red embers of the fire; but notwithstanding that these would made but a meagre repast the man appeared eagerly to await the enjoyment of it.
Near at hand, with a frugality equal to that of his master, a horse was browsing upon the tufts of dry yellow grass, that grew thinly over the ground. This horse, with a saddle and bridle lying near, proved the solitary individual to be a traveller. Contrary to the usual custom of the country, the horse had no lazo, or fastening of any kind upon him; but was free to wander where he pleased.
The costume of the traveller consisted in a sort of jacket or vest of brick-coloured leather, without buttons or any opening in front, but drawn over the head after the manner of a shirt. Wide pantaloons of the same material, open from the knee downwards, and fastened at the waist by a scarf of red China crape. Under the pantaloons, and covering the calf of the leg nearly up to the knee, could be seen the botas of strong stamped leather, in one of which was stuck a long knife with a horn hilt—thus ready to the hand whether the owner was seated, standing, or on horseback. A large felt hat, banded with a toquilla of Venetian pearls, completed a costume sufficiently picturesque, the vivid colours of which were in harmony with that of the serape on which the traveller was reclining. This costume denoted one of those men accustomed to gallop among the thorny jungles that cover the desert steppes of North Mexico; and who in their expeditions, whether against Indian enemies, or for whatever purpose, sleep with indifference under the shadow of a tree, or the open heaven itself,—in the forest, or upon the naked plain.
There was in the features of this traveller a singular mixture of brutal ferocity and careless good-humour. A crooked nose, with thick bushy eyebrows, and black eyes that sparkled from time to time with a malicious fire, gave to his countenance a sinister aspect, and belied the expression of his mouth and lips, that presented rather a pleasant and smiling contour. But the man's features, when viewed as a whole, could not fail to inspire a certain feeling of repulsiveness mingled with fear. A short carbine that lay by his side, together with the long knife, whose haft protruded above the top of his boots, did not in any way tame down the ferocious aspect of his face. On the contrary they proclaimed him one whom it would not be desirable to have for a companion in the desert.
Despite the nonchalance of his attitude, it was evident that he awaited some one; but as everything in these countries is on a large scale, so also is the virtue of patience. This outlaw—for everything about him signified that he was one of some sort—this outlaw, we say, having made three days' journey before arriving upon the ground where he now was, thought nothing of a few hours, less or more, spent in expectation. In the desert, he who has travelled a hundred leagues, will consider it a mere bagatelle to wait for a hundred hours: unlike to him who keeps an appointment in the midst of a great city, where a delay of a quarter of an hour will be endured with feverish impatience.
So it was with our solitary traveller; and when the hoof-strokes of a horse were heard at some distance off in the forest, he did nothing more than to make a slight change in the attitude in which he had been reclining; while his steed, also hearing the same sounds, tossed up his head and neighed joyously. The hoof-strokes each moment were heard more distinctly; and it was evident that a horseman was galloping rapidly in the direction of the huts. After a little the strokes became more gentle, and the gallop appeared to be changed to a walk. The rider was approaching with caution.
A few seconds intervened, and then upon one of the roads—that leading to Arispe—the horseman was perceived coming on at a slow and cautious pace.
On perceiving the traveller, still half reclining upon his serape, the horseman drew his rein still tighter and halted, and the two men remained for some seconds regarding each other with a fixed and interrogative glance.
TWO HONEST GENTLEMEN.
The new-comer was a tall man with a dark complexion, and thick black beard, costumed very similarly to the other—in vest and pantaloons of brick-red leather, felt sombrero, sash, and boots. He was mounted upon a strong active horse.
It may appear strange that during the period of mutual examination, each of these two men made a very similar reflection about the other; but it was scarcely strange either, considering that both presented an equally suspicious aspect.
"Carramba!" muttered the horseman as he eyed the man on the serape, "if I wasn't sure that he is the gentleman I have been sent to meet, I should believe that I had chanced upon a very unlucky acquaintance."
At the same instant he upon the ground said to himself—
"Por Dios! if that infernal Seven of Spades had left any dollars in my purse, I should have considered them in danger of being taken out of it just now."
Despite the nature of his reflection, the horseman did not hesitate any longer, but spurring his horse forward to the edge of the fire, lifted his hat courteously from his head, and saluted him on the ground, at the same time saying interrogatively:—
"No doubt it is the Senor Don Pedro Cuchillo I have the honour to address?"
"The same, cavallero!" replied the other, rising to his feet, and returning the salute with no less politeness than it had been given.
"Cavallero! I have been sent forward to meet you, and announce to you the approach of the Senor Arechiza, who at this time cannot be many leagues distant. My name is Manuel Baraja, your very humble servant."
"Your honour will dismount?"
The horseman did not wait for the invitation to be repeated, but at once flung himself from the saddle. After unbuckling his enormous spurs, he speedily unsaddled his horse, fastened a long lazo around his neck, and then giving him a smart cut with the short whip which he carried, despatched the animal without further ceremony to share the meagre provender of his companion.
At this movement the tasajo, beginning to sputter over the coals, gave out an odour that resembled the smell of a dying lamp. Notwithstanding this, Baraja cast towards it a look of longing.
"It appears to me Senor Cuchillo," said he, "that you are well provided here. Carramba!—tortillas, of wheaten meal! tasajo!—it is a repast for a prince!"
"Oh, yes," replied Cuchillo, with a certain air of foppishness, "I treat myself well. It makes me happy to know that the dish is to your liking; I beg to assure you, it is quite at your service."
"You are very good, and I accept your offer without ceremony. The morning air has sharpened my appetite."
And saying this, Baraja proceeded to the mastication of the tassajo and tortillas. After being thus engaged for some time, he once more addressed himself to his host.
"Dare I tell you, Senor Cuchillo, the favourable impression I had of you at first sight?"
"Oh! you shock my modesty, senor. I would rather state the good opinion your first appearance gave me of you!"
The two new friends here exchanged a salute, full of affability, and then continued to eat, Baraja harpooning upon the point of his long knife another piece of meat out of the ashes.
"If it please you, Senor Baraja," said Cuchillo, "we may talk over our business while we are eating. You will find me a host sans ceremonie."
"Just what pleases me."
"Don Estevan, then, has received the message which I sent him?"
"He has, but what that message was is only known to you and him."
"No doubt of that," muttered Cuchillo to himself.
"The Senor Arechiza," continued the envoy, "started for Tubac shortly after receiving your letter. It was my duty to accompany him, but he ordered me to proceed in advance of him with these commands: 'In the little village of Huerfano you will find a man, by name Cuchillo; you shall say to him that the proposal he makes to me deserves serious attention; and that since the place he has designated as a rendezvous is on the way to Tubac, I will see him on my journey.' This instruction was given by Don Estevan an hour or so before his departure, but although I have ridden a little faster to execute his orders, he cannot be far behind me."
"Good! Senor Baraja, good!" exclaimed Cuchillo, evidently pleased with the communication just made, "and if the business which I have with Don Estevan be satisfactorily concluded—which I am in hopes it will be—you are likely to have me for a comrade in this distant expedition. But," continued he, suddenly changing the subject, "you will, no doubt, be astonished that I have given Don Estevan a rendezvous in such a singular place as this?"
"No," coolly replied Baraja, "you may have reasons for being partial to solitude. Who does not love it at times?"
A most gracious smile playing upon the countenance of Cuchillo, denoted that his new acquaintance had correctly divined the truth.
"Precisely," he replied, "the ill-behaviour of a friend towards me, and the malevolent hostility of the alcalde of Arispe have caused me to seek this tranquil retreat. That is just why I have established my headquarters in an abandoned village, where there is not a soul to keep company with."
"Senor Don Pedro," replied Baraja, "I have already formed too good an opinion of you not to believe that the fault is entirely upon the side of the alcalde, and especially on the part of your friend."