DISTRACTED between doubts and hopes, dismayed by the sound of bells pealing out the arrival of Pedrito Montero, Sotillo had spent the morning in battling with his thoughts; a contest to which he was unequal, from the vacuity of his mind and the violence of his passions. Disappointment, greed, anger, and fear made a tumult, in the colonel’s breast louder than the din of bells in the town. Nothing he had planned had come to pass. Neither Sulaco nor the silver of the mine had fallen into his hands. He had performed no military exploit to secure his position, and had obtained no enormous booty to make off with. Pedrito Montero, either as friend or foe, filled him with dread. The sound of bells maddened him.
Imagining at first that he might be attacked at once, he had made his battalion stand to arms on the shore. He walked to and fro all the length of the room, stopping sometimes to gnaw the finger-tips of his right hand with a lurid sideways glare fixed on the floor; then, with a sullen, repelling glance all round, he would resume his tramping in savage aloofness. His hat, horsewhip, sword, and revolver were lying on the table. His officers, crowding the window giving the view of the town gate, disputed amongst themselves the use of his field-glass bought last year on long credit from Anzani. It passed from hand to hand, and the possessor for the time being was besieged by anxious inquiries.
“There is nothing; there is nothing to see!” he would repeat impatiently.
There was nothing. And when the picket in the bushes near the Casa Viola had been ordered to fall back upon the main body, no stir of life appeared on the stretch of dusty and arid land between the town and the waters of the port. But late in the afternoon a horseman issuing from the gate was made out riding up fearlessly. It was an emissary from Senor Fuentes. Being all alone he was allowed to come on. Dismounting at the great door he greeted the silent bystanders with cheery impudence, and begged to be taken up at once to the “muy valliente” colonel.
Senor Fuentes, on entering upon his functions of Gefe Politico, had turned his diplomatic abilities to getting hold of the harbour as well as of the mine. The man he pitched upon to negotiate with Sotillo was a Notary Public, whom the revolution had found languishing in the common jail on a charge of forging documents. Liberated by the mob along with the other “victims of Blanco tyranny,” he had hastened to offer his services to the new Government.
He set out determined to display much zeal and eloquence in trying to induce Sotillo to come into town alone for a conference with Pedrito Montero. Nothing was further from the colonel’s intentions. The mere fleeting idea of trusting himself into the famous Pedrito’s hands had made him feel unwell several times. It was out of the question — it was madness. And to put himself in open hostility was madness, too. It would render impossible a systematic search for that treasure, for that wealth of silver which he seemed to feel somewhere about, to scent somewhere near.
But where? Where? Heavens! Where? Oh! why had he allowed that doctor to go! Imbecile that he was. But no! It was the only right course, he reflected distractedly, while the messenger waited downstairs chatting agreeably to the officers. It was in that scoundrelly doctor’s true interest to return with positive information. But what if anything stopped him? A general prohibition to leave the town, for instance! There would be patrols!
The colonel, seizing his head in his hands, turned in his tracks as if struck with vertigo. A flash of craven inspiration suggested to him an expedient not unknown to European statesmen when they wish to delay a difficult negotiation. Booted and spurred, he scrambled into the hammock with undignified haste. His handsome face had turned yellow with the strain of weighty cares. The ridge of his shapely nose had grown sharp; the audacious nostrils appeared mean and pinched. The velvety, caressing glance of his fine eyes seemed dead, and even decomposed; for these almond-shaped, languishing orbs had become inappropriately bloodshot with much sinister sleeplessness. He addressed the surprised envoy of Senor Fuentes in a deadened, exhausted voice. It came pathetically feeble from under a pile of ponchos, which buried his elegant person right up to the black moustaches, uncurled, pendant, in sign of bodily prostration and mental incapacity. Fever, fever — a heavy fever had overtaken the “muy valliente” colonel. A wavering wildness of expression, caused by the passing spasms of a slight colic which had declared itself suddenly, and the rattling teeth of repressed panic, had a genuineness which impressed the envoy. It was a cold fit. The colonel explained that he was unable to think, to listen, to speak. With an appearance of superhuman effort the colonel gasped out that he was not in a state to return a suitable reply or to execute any of his Excellency’s orders. But to-morrow! To-morrow! Ah! to-morrow! Let his Excellency Don Pedro be without uneasiness. The brave Esmeralda Regiment held the harbour, held — And closing his eyes, he rolled his aching head like a half-delirious invalid under the inquisitive stare of the envoy, who was obliged to bend down over the hammock in order to catch the painful and broken accents. Meantime, Colonel Sotillo trusted that his Excellency’s humanity would permit the doctor, the English doctor, to come out of town with his case of foreign remedies to attend upon him. He begged anxiously his worship the caballero now present for the grace of looking in as he passed the Casa Gould, and informing the English doctor, who was probably there, that his services were immediately required by Colonel Sotillo, lying ill of fever in the Custom House. Immediately. Most urgently required. Awaited with extreme impatience. A thousand thanks. He closed his eyes wearily and would not open them again, lying perfectly still, deaf, dumb, insensible, overcome, vanquished, crushed, annihilated by the fell disease.
But as soon as the other had shut after him the door of the landing, the colonel leaped out with a fling of both feet in an avalanche of woollen coverings. His spurs having become entangled in a perfect welter of ponchos he nearly pitched on his head, and did not recover his balance till the middle of the room. Concealed behind the half-closed jalousies he listened to what went on below.
The envoy had already mounted, and turning to the morose officers occupying the great doorway, took off his hat formally.
“Caballeros,” he said, in a very loud tone, “allow me to recommend you to take great care of your colonel. It has done me much honour and gratification to have seen you all, a fine body of men exercising the soldierly virtue of patience in this exposed situation, where there is much sun, and no water to speak of, while a town full of wine and feminine charms is ready to embrace you for the brave men you are. Caballeros, I have the honour to salute you. There will be much dancing to-night in Sulaco. Good-bye!”
But he reined in his horse and inclined his head sideways on seeing the old major step out, very tall and meagre, in a straight narrow coat coming down to his ankles as it were the casing of the regimental colours rolled round their staff.
The intelligent old warrior, after enunciating in a dogmatic tone the general proposition that the “world was full of traitors,” went on pronouncing deliberately a panegyric upon Sotillo. He ascribed to him with leisurely emphasis every virtue under heaven, summing it all up in an absurd colloquialism current amongst the lower class of Occidentals (especially about Esmeralda). “And,” he concluded, with a sudden rise in the voice, “a man of many teeth —‘hombre de muchos dientes.’ Si, senor. As to us,” he pursued, portentous and impressive, “your worship is beholding the finest body of officers in the Republic, men unequalled for valour and sagacity, ‘y hombres de muchos dientes.’”
“What? All of them?” inquired the disreputable envoy of Senor Fuentes, with a faint, derisive smile.
“Todos. Si, senor,” the major affirmed, gravely, with conviction. “Men of many teeth.”
The other wheeled his horse to face the portal resembling the high gate of a dismal barn. He raised himself in his stirrups, extended one arm. He was a facetious scoundrel, entertaining for these stupid Occidentals a feeling of great scorn natural in a native from the central provinces. The folly of Esmeraldians especially aroused his amused contempt. He began an oration upon Pedro Montero, keeping a solemn countenance. He flourished his hand as if introducing him to their notice. And when he saw every face set, all the eyes fixed upon his lips, he began to shout a sort of catalogue of perfections: “Generous, valorous, affable, profound”—(he snatched off his hat enthusiastically)—“a statesman, an invincible chief of partisans —” He dropped his voice startlingly to a deep, hollow note —“and a dentist.”
He was off instantly at a smart walk; the rigid straddle of his legs, the turned-out feet, the stiff back, the rakish slant of the sombrero above the square, motionless set of the shoulders expressing an infinite, awe-inspiring impudence.
Upstairs, behind the jalousies, Sotillo did not move for a long time. The audacity of the fellow appalled him. What were his officers saying below? They were saying nothing. Complete silence. He quaked. It was not thus that he had imagined himself at that stage of the expedition. He had seen himself triumphant, unquestioned, appeased, the idol of the soldiers, weighing in secret complacency the agreeable alternatives of power and wealth open to his choice. Alas! How different! Distracted, restless, supine, burning with fury, or frozen with terror, he felt a dread as fathomless as the sea creep upon him from every side. That rogue of a doctor had to come out with his information. That was clear. It would be of no use to him — alone. He could do nothing with it. Malediction! The doctor would never come out. He was probably under arrest already, shut up together with Don Carlos. He laughed aloud insanely. Ha! ha! ha! ha! It was Pedrito Montero who would get the information. Ha! ha! ha! ha! — and the silver. Ha!
All at once, in the midst of the laugh, he became motionless and silent as if turned into stone. He too, had a prisoner. A prisoner who must, must know the real truth. He would have to be made to speak. And Sotillo, who all that time had not quite forgotten Hirsch, felt an inexplicable reluctance at the notion of proceeding to extremities.
He felt a reluctance — part of that unfathomable dread that crept on all sides upon him. He remembered reluctantly, too, the dilated eyes of the hide merchant, his contortions, his loud sobs and protestations. It was not compassion or even mere nervous sensibility. The fact was that though Sotillo did never for a moment believe his story — he could not believe it; nobody could believe such nonsense — yet those accents of despairing truth impressed him disagreeably. They made him feel sick. And he suspected also that the man might have gone mad with fear. A lunatic is a hopeless subject. Bah! A pretence. Nothing but a pretence. He would know how to deal with that.
He was working himself up to the right pitch of ferocity. His fine eyes squinted slightly; he clapped his hands; a bare-footed orderly appeared noiselessly, a corporal, with his bayonet hanging on his thigh and a stick in his hand.
The colonel gave his orders, and presently the miserable Hirsch, pushed in by several soldiers, found him frowning awfully in a broad armchair, hat on head, knees wide apart, arms akimbo, masterful, imposing, irresistible, haughty, sublime, terrible.
Hirsch, with his arms tied behind his back, had been bundled violently into one of the smaller rooms. For many hours he remained apparently forgotten, stretched lifelessly on the floor. From that solitude, full of despair and terror, he was torn out brutally, with kicks and blows, passive, sunk in hebetude. He listened to threats and admonitions, and afterwards made his usual answers to questions, with his chin sunk on his breast, his hands tied behind his back, swaying a little in front of Sotillo, and never looking up. When he was forced to hold up his head, by means of a bayonet-point prodding him under the chin, his eyes had a vacant, trance-like stare, and drops of perspiration as big as peas were seen hailing down the dirt, bruises, and scratches of his white face. Then they stopped suddenly.
Sotillo looked at him in silence. “Will you depart from your obstinacy, you rogue?” he asked. Already a rope, whose one end was fastened to Senor Hirsch’s wrists, had been thrown over a beam, and three soldiers held the other end, waiting. He made no answer. His heavy lower lip hung stupidly. Sotillo made a sign. Hirsch was jerked up off his feet, and a yell of despair and agony burst out in the room, filled the passage of the great buildings, rent the air outside, caused every soldier of the camp along the shore to look up at the windows, started some of the officers in the hall babbling excitedly, with shining eyes; others, setting their lips, looked gloomily at the floor.
Sotillo, followed by the soldiers, had left the room. The sentry on the landing presented arms. Hirsch went on screaming all alone behind the half-closed jalousies while the sunshine, reflected from the water of the harbour, made an ever-running ripple of light high up on the wall. He screamed with uplifted eyebrows and a wide-open mouth — incredibly wide, black, enormous, full of teeth — comical.
In the still burning air of the windless afternoon he made the waves of his agony travel as far as the O. S. N. Company’s offices. Captain Mitchell on the balcony, trying to make out what went on generally, had heard him faintly but distinctly, and the feeble and appalling sound lingered in his ears after he had retreated indoors with blanched cheeks. He had been driven off the balcony several times during that afternoon.
Sotillo, irritable, moody, walked restlessly about, held consultations with his officers, gave contradictory orders in this shrill clamour pervading the whole empty edifice. Sometimes there would be long and awful silences. Several times he had entered the torture-chamber where his sword, horsewhip, revolver, and field-glass were lying on the table, to ask with forced calmness, “Will you speak the truth now? No? I can wait.” But he could not afford to wait much longer. That was just it. Every time he went in and came out with a slam of the door, the sentry on the landing presented arms, and got in return a black, venomous, unsteady glance, which, in reality, saw nothing at all, being merely the reflection of the soul within — a soul of gloomy hatred, irresolution, avarice, and fury.
The sun had set when he went in once more. A soldier carried in two lighted candles and slunk out, shutting the door without noise.
“Speak, thou Jewish child of the devil! The silver! The silver, I say! Where is it? Where have you foreign rogues hidden it? Confess or —”
A slight quiver passed up the taut rope from the racked limbs, but the body of Senor Hirsch, enterprising business man from Esmeralda, hung under the heavy beam perpendicular and silent, facing the colonel awfully. The inflow of the night air, cooled by the snows of the Sierra, spread gradually a delicious freshness through the close heat of the room.
“Speak — thief — scoundrel — picaro — or —”
Sotillo had seized the riding-whip, and stood with his arm lifted up. For a word, for one little word, he felt he would have knelt, cringed, grovelled on the floor before the drowsy, conscious stare of those fixed eyeballs starting out of the grimy, dishevelled head that drooped very still with its mouth closed askew. The colonel ground his teeth with rage and struck. The rope vibrated leisurely to the blow, like the long string of a pendulum starting from a rest. But no swinging motion was imparted to the body of Senor Hirsch, the well-known hide merchant on the coast. With a convulsive effort of the twisted arms it leaped up a few inches, curling upon itself like a fish on the end of a line. Senor Hirsch’s head was flung back on his straining throat; his chin trembled. For a moment the rattle of his chattering teeth pervaded the vast, shadowy room, where the candles made a patch of light round the two flames burning side by side. And as Sotillo, staying his raised hand, waited for him to speak, with the sudden flash of a grin and a straining forward of the wrenched shoulders, he spat violently into his face.
The uplifted whip fell, and the colonel sprang back with a low cry of dismay, as if aspersed by a jet of deadly venom. Quick as thought he snatched up his revolver, and fired twice. The report and the concussion of the shots seemed to throw him at once from ungovernable rage into idiotic stupor. He stood with drooping jaw and stony eyes. What had he done, Sangre de Dios! What had he done? He was basely appalled at his impulsive act, sealing for ever these lips from which so much was to be extorted. What could he say? How could he explain? Ideas of headlong flight somewhere, anywhere, passed through his mind; even the craven and absurd notion of hiding under the table occurred to his cowardice. It was too late; his officers had rushed in tumultuously, in a great clatter of scabbards, clamouring, with astonishment and wonder. But since they did not immediately proceed to plunge their swords into his breast, the brazen side of his character asserted itself. Passing the sleeve of his uniform over his face he pulled himself together, His truculent glance turned slowly here and there, checked the noise where it fell; and the stiff body of the late Senor Hirsch, merchant, after swaying imperceptibly, made a half turn, and came to a rest in the midst of awed murmurs and uneasy shuffling.
A voice remarked loudly, “Behold a man who will never speak again.” And another, from the back row of faces, timid and pressing, cried out —
“Why did you kill him, mi colonel?”
“Because he has confessed everything,” answered Sotillo, with the hardihood of desperation. He felt himself cornered. He brazened it out on the strength of his reputation with very fair success. His hearers thought him very capable of such an act. They were disposed to believe his flattering tale. There is no credulity so eager and blind as the credulity of covetousness, which, in its universal extent, measures the moral misery and the intellectual destitution of mankind. Ah! he had confessed everything, this fractious Jew, this bribon. Good! Then he was no longer wanted. A sudden dense guffaw was heard from the senior captain — a big-headed man, with little round eyes and monstrously fat cheeks which never moved. The old major, tall and fantastically ragged like a scarecrow, walked round the body of the late Senor Hirsch, muttering to himself with ineffable complacency that like this there was no need to guard against any future treacheries of that scoundrel. The others stared, shifting from foot to foot, and whispering short remarks to each other.
Sotillo buckled on his sword and gave curt, peremptory orders to hasten the retirement decided upon in the afternoon. Sinister, impressive, his sombrero pulled right down upon his eyebrows, he marched first through the door in such disorder of mind that he forgot utterly to provide for Dr. Monygham’s possible return. As the officers trooped out after him, one or two looked back hastily at the late Senor Hirsch, merchant from Esmeralda, left swinging rigidly at rest, alone with the two burning candles. In the emptiness of the room the burly shadow of head and shoulders on the wall had an air of life.
Below, the troops fell in silently and moved off by companies without drum or trumpet. The old scarecrow major commanded the rearguard; but the party he left behind with orders to fire the Custom House (and “burn the carcass of the treacherous Jew where it hung”) failed somehow in their haste to set the staircase properly alight. The body of the late Senor Hirsch dwelt alone for a time in the dismal solitude of the unfinished building, resounding weirdly with sudden slams and clicks of doors and latches, with rustling scurries of torn papers, and the tremulous sighs that at each gust of wind passed under the high roof. The light of the two candles burning before the perpendicular and breathless immobility of the late Senor Hirsch threw a gleam afar over land and water, like a signal in the night. He remained to startle Nostromo by his presence, and to puzzle Dr. Monygham by the mystery of his atrocious end.
“But why shot?” the doctor again asked himself, audibly. This time he was answered by a dry laugh from Nostromo.
“You seem much concerned at a very natural thing, senor doctor. I wonder why? It is very likely that before long we shall all get shot one after another, if not by Sotillo, then by Pedrito, or Fuentes, or Gamacho. And we may even get the estrapade, too, or worse — quien sabe? — with your pretty tale of the silver you put into Sotillo’s head.”
“It was in his head already,” the doctor protested. “I only —”
“Yes. And you only nailed it there so that the devil himself —”
“That is precisely what I meant to do,” caught up the doctor.
“That is what you meant to do. Bueno. It is as I say. You are a dangerous man.”
Their voices, which without rising had been growing quarrelsome, ceased suddenly. The late Senor Hirsch, erect and shadowy against the stars, seemed to be waiting attentive, in impartial silence.
But Dr. Monygham had no mind to quarrel with Nostromo. At this supremely critical point of Sulaco’s fortunes it was borne upon him at last that this man was really indispensable, more indispensable than ever the infatuation of Captain Mitchell, his proud discoverer, could conceive; far beyond what Decoud’s best dry raillery about “my illustrious friend, the unique Capataz de Cargadores,” had ever intended. The fellow was unique. He was not “one in a thousand.” He was absolutely the only one. The doctor surrendered. There was something in the genius of that Genoese seaman which dominated the destinies of great enterprises and of many people, the fortunes of Charles Gould, the fate of an admirable woman. At this last thought the doctor had to clear his throat before he could speak.
In a completely changed tone he pointed out to the Capataz that, to begin with, he personally ran no great risk. As far as everybody knew he was dead. It was an enormous advantage. He had only to keep out of sight in the Casa Viola, where the old Garibaldino was known to be alone — with his dead wife. The servants had all run away. No one would think of searching for him there, or anywhere else on earth, for that matter.
“That would be very true,” Nostromo spoke up, bitterly, “if I had not met you.”
For a time the doctor kept silent. “Do you mean to say that you think I may give you away?” he asked in an unsteady voice. “Why? Why should I do that?”
“What do I know? Why not? To gain a day perhaps. It would take Sotillo a day to give me the estrapade, and try some other things perhaps, before he puts a bullet through my heart — as he did to that poor wretch here. Why not?”
The doctor swallowed with difficulty. His throat had gone dry in a moment. It was not from indignation. The doctor, pathetically enough, believed that he had forfeited the right to be indignant with any one — for anything. It was simple dread. Had the fellow heard his story by some chance? If so, there was an end of his usefulness in that direction. The indispensable man escaped his influence, because of that indelible blot which made him fit for dirty work. A feeling as of sickness came upon the doctor. He would have given anything to know, but he dared not clear up the point. The fanaticism of his devotion, fed on the sense of his abasement, hardened his heart in sadness and scorn.
“Why not, indeed?” he reechoed, sardonically. “Then the safe thing for you is to kill me on the spot. I would defend myself. But you may just as well know I am going about unarmed.”
“Por Dios!” said the Capataz, passionately. “You fine people are all alike. All dangerous. All betrayers of the poor who are your dogs.”
“You do not understand,” began the doctor, slowly.
“I understand you all!” cried the other with a violent movement, as shadowy to the doctor’s eyes as the persistent immobility of the late Senor Hirsch. “A poor man amongst you has got to look after himself. I say that you do not care for those that serve you. Look at me! After all these years, suddenly, here I find myself like one of these curs that bark outside the walls — without a kennel or a dry bone for my teeth. (Caramba!” But he relented with a contemptuous fairness. “Of course,” he went on, quietly, “I do not suppose that you would hasten to give me up to Sotillo, for example. It is not that. It is that I am nothing! Suddenly —” He swung his arm downwards. “Nothing to any one,” he repeated.
The doctor breathed freely. “Listen, Capataz,” he said, stretching out his arm almost affectionately towards Nostromo’s shoulder. “I am going to tell you a very simple thing. You are safe because you are needed. I would not give you away for any conceivable reason, because I want you.”
In the dark Nostromo bit his lip. He had heard enough of that. He knew what that meant. No more of that for him. But he had to look after himself now, he thought. And he thought, too, that it would not be prudent to part in anger from his companion. The doctor, admitted to be a great healer, had, amongst the populace of Sulaco, the reputation of being an evil sort of man. It was based solidly on his personal appearance, which was strange, and on his rough ironic manner — proofs visible, sensible, and incontrovertible of the doctor’s malevolent disposition. And Nostromo was of the people. So he only grunted incredulously.
“You, to speak plainly, are the only man,” the doctor pursued. “It is in your power to save this town and . . . everybody from the destructive rapacity of men who —”
“No, senor,” said Nostromo, sullenly. “It is not in my power to get the treasure back for you to give up to Sotillo, or Pedrito, or Gamacho. What do I know?”
“Nobody expects the impossible,” was the answer.
“You have said it yourself — nobody,” muttered Nostromo, in a gloomy, threatening tone.
But Dr. Monygham, full of hope, disregarded the enigmatic words and the threatening tone. To their eyes, accustomed to obscurity, the late Senor Hirsch, growing more distinct, seemed to have come nearer. And the doctor lowered his voice in exposing his scheme as though afraid of being overheard.
He was taking the indispensable man into his fullest confidence. Its implied flattery and suggestion of great risks came with a familiar sound to the Capataz. His mind, floating in irresolution and discontent, recognized it with bitterness. He understood well that the doctor was anxious to save the San Tome mine from annihilation. He would be nothing without it. It was his interest. Just as it had been the interest of Senor Decoud, of the Blancos, and of the Europeans to get his Cargadores on their side. His thought became arrested upon Decoud. What would happen to him?
Nostromo’s prolonged silence made the doctor uneasy. He pointed out, quite unnecessarily, that though for the present he was safe, he could not live concealed for ever. The choice was between accepting the mission to Barrios, with all its dangers and difficulties, and leaving Sulaco by stealth, ingloriously, in poverty.
“None of your friends could reward you and protect you just now, Capataz. Not even Don Carlos himself.”
“I would have none of your protection and none of your rewards. I only wish I could trust your courage and your sense. When I return in triumph, as you say, with Barrios, I may find you all destroyed. You have the knife at your throat now.”
It was the doctor’s turn to remain silent in the contemplation of horrible contingencies.
“Well, we would trust your courage and your sense. And you, too, have a knife at your throat.”
“Ah! And whom am I to thank for that? What are your politics and your mines to me — your silver and your constitutions — your Don Carlos this, and Don Jose that —”
“I don’t know,” burst out the exasperated doctor. “There are innocent people in danger whose little finger is worth more than you or I and all the Ribierists together. I don’t know. You should have asked yourself before you allowed Decoud to lead you into all this. It was your place to think like a man; but if you did not think then, try to act like a man now. Did you imagine Decoud cared very much for what would happen to you?”
“No more than you care for what will happen to me,” muttered the other.
“No; I care for what will happen to you as little as I care for what will happen to myself.”
“And all this because you are such a devoted Ribierist?” Nostromo said in an incredulous tone.
“All this because I am such a devoted Ribierist,” repeated Dr. Monygham, grimly.
Again Nostromo, gazing abstractedly at the body of the late Senor Hirsch, remained silent, thinking that the doctor was a dangerous person in more than one sense. It was impossible to trust him.
“Do you speak in the name of Don Carlos?” he asked at last.
“Yes. I do,” the doctor said, loudly, without hesitation. “He must come forward now. He must,” he added in a mutter, which Nostromo did not catch.
“What did you say, senor?”
The doctor started. “I say that you must be true to yourself, Capataz. It would be worse than folly to fail now.”
“True to myself,” repeated Nostromo. “How do you know that I would not be true to myself if I told you to go to the devil with your propositions?”
“I do not know. Maybe you would,” the doctor said, with a roughness of tone intended to hide the sinking of his heart and the faltering of his voice. “All I know is, that you had better get away from here. Some of Sotillo’s men may turn up here looking for me.”
He slipped off the table, listening intently. The Capataz, too, stood up.
“Suppose I went to Cayta, what would you do meantime?” he asked.
“I would go to Sotillo directly you had left — in the way I am thinking of.”
“A very good way — if only that engineer-in-chief consents. Remind him, senor, that I looked after the old rich Englishman who pays for the railway, and that I saved the lives of some of his people that time when a gang of thieves came from the south to wreck one of his pay-trains. It was I who discovered it all at the risk of my life, by pretending to enter into their plans. Just as you are doing with Sotillo.”
“Yes. Yes, of course. But I can offer him better arguments,” the doctor said, hastily. “ Leave it to me.”
“Ah, yes! True. I am nothing.”
“Not at all. You are everything.”
They moved a few paces towards the door. Behind them the late Senor Hirsch preserved the immobility of a disregarded man.
“That will be all right. I know what to say to the engineer,” pursued the doctor, in a low tone. “My difficulty will be with Sotillo.”
And Dr. Monygham stopped short in the doorway as if intimidated by the difficulty. He had made the sacrifice of his life. He considered this a fitting opportunity. But he did not want to throw his life away too soon. In his quality of betrayer of Don Carlos’ confidence, he would have ultimately to indicate the hiding-place of the treasure. That would be the end of his deception, and the end of himself as well, at the hands of the infuriated colonel. He wanted to delay him to the very last moment; and he had been racking his brains to invent some place of concealment at once plausible and difficult of access.
He imparted his trouble to Nostromo, and concluded —
“Do you know what, Capataz? I think that when the time comes and some information must be given, I shall indicate the Great Isabel. That is the best place I can think of. What is the matter?”
A low exclamation had escaped Nostromo. The doctor waited, surprised, and after a moment of profound silence, heard a thick voice stammer out, “Utter folly,” and stop with a gasp.
“Ah! You do not see it,” began Nostromo, scathingly, gathering scorn as he went on. “Three men in half an hour would see that no ground had been disturbed anywhere on that island. Do you think that such a treasure can be buried without leaving traces of the work — eh! senor doctor? Why! you would not gain half a day more before having your throat cut by Sotillo. The Isabel! What stupidity! What miserable invention! Ah! you are all alike, you fine men of intelligence. All you are fit for is to betray men of the people into undertaking deadly risks for objects that you are not even sure about. If it comes off you get the benefit. If not, then it does not matter. He is only a dog. Ah! Madre de Dios, I would —” He shook his fists above his head.
The doctor was overwhelmed at first by this fierce, hissing vehemence.
“Well! It seems to me on your own showing that the men of the people are no mean fools, too,” he said, sullenly. “No, but come. You are so clever. Have you a better place?”
Nostromo had calmed down as quickly as he had flared up.
“I am clever enough for that,” he said, quietly, almost with indifference. “You want to tell him of a hiding-place big enough to take days in ransacking — a place where a treasure of silver ingots can be buried without leaving a sign on the surface.”
“And close at hand,” the doctor put in.
“Just so, senor. Tell him it is sunk.”
“This has the merit of being the truth,” the doctor said, contemptuously. “He will not believe it.”
“You tell him that it is sunk where he may hope to lay his hands on it, and he will believe you quick enough. Tell him it has been sunk in the harbour in order to be recovered afterwards by divers. Tell him you found out that I had orders from Don Carlos Gould to lower the cases quietly overboard somewhere in a line between the end of the jetty and the entrance. The depth is not too great there. He has no divers, but he has a ship, boats, ropes, chains, sailors — of a sort. Let him fish for the silver. Let him set his fools to drag backwards and forwards and crossways while he sits and watches till his eyes drop out of his head.”
“Really, this is an admirable idea,” muttered the doctor.
“Si. You tell him that, and see whether he will not believe you! He will spend days in rage and torment — and still he will believe. He will have no thought for anything else. He will not give up till he is driven off — why, he may even forget to kill you. He will neither eat nor sleep. He —”
“The very thing! The very thing!” the doctor repeated in an excited whisper. “Capataz, I begin to believe that you are a great genius in your way.”
Nostromo had paused; then began again in a changed tone, sombre, speaking to himself as though he had forgotten the doctor’s existence.
“There is something in a treasure that fastens upon a man’s mind. He will pray and blaspheme and still persevere, and will curse the day he ever heard of it, and will let his last hour come upon him unawares, still believing that he missed it only by a foot. He will see it every time he closes his eyes. He will never forget it till he is dead — and even then —— Doctor, did you ever hear of the miserable gringos on Azuera, that cannot die? Ha! ha! Sailors like myself. There is no getting away from a treasure that once fastens upon your mind.”
“You are a devil of a man, Capataz. It is the most plausible thing.”
Nostromo pressed his arm.
“It will be worse for him than thirst at sea or hunger in a town full of people. Do you know what that is? He shall suffer greater torments than he inflicted upon that terrified wretch who had no invention. None! none! Not like me. I could have told Sotillo a deadly tale for very little pain.”
He laughed wildly and turned in the doorway towards the body of the late Senor Hirsch, an opaque long blotch in the semi-transparent obscurity of the room between the two tall parallelograms of the windows full of stars.
“You man of fear!” he cried. “You shall be avenged by me — Nostromo. Out of my way, doctor! Stand aside — or, by the suffering soul of a woman dead without confession, I will strangle you with my two hands.”
He bounded downwards into the black, smoky hall. With a grunt of astonishment, Dr. Monygham threw himself recklessly into the pursuit. At the bottom of the charred stairs he had a fall, pitching forward on his face with a force that would have stunned a spirit less intent upon a task of love and devotion. He was up in a moment, jarred, shaken, with a queer impression of the terrestrial globe having been flung at his head in the dark. But it wanted more than that to stop Dr. Monygham’s body, possessed by the exaltation of self-sacrifice; a reasonable exaltation, determined not to lose whatever advantage chance put into its way. He ran with headlong, tottering swiftness, his arms going like a windmill in his effort to keep his balance on his crippled feet. He lost his hat; the tails of his open gaberdine flew behind him. He had no mind to lose sight of the indispensable man. But it was a long time, and a long way from the Custom House, before he managed to seize his arm from behind, roughly, out of breath.
“Stop! Are you mad?”
Already Nostromo was walking slowly, his head dropping, as if checked in his pace by the weariness of irresolution.
“What is that to you? Ah! I forgot you want me for something. Always. Siempre Nostromo.”
“What do you mean by talking of strangling me?” panted the doctor.
“What do I mean? I mean that the king of the devils himself has sent you out of this town of cowards and talkers to meet me to-night of all the nights of my life.”
Under the starry sky the Albergo d’ltalia Una emerged, black and low, breaking the dark level of the plain. Nostromo stopped altogether.
“The priests say he is a tempter, do they not?” he added, through his clenched teeth.
“My good man, you drivel. The devil has nothing to do with this. Neither has the town, which you may call by what name you please. But Don Carlos Gould is neither a coward nor an empty talker. You will admit that?” He waited. “Well?”
“Could I see Don Carlos?”
“Great heavens! No! Why? What for?” exclaimed the doctor in agitation. “I tell you it is madness. I will not let you go into the town for anything.”
“You must not!” hissed the doctor, fiercely, almost beside himself with the fear of the man doing away with his usefulness for an imbecile whim of some sort. “I tell you you shall not. I would rather ——”
He stopped at loss for words, feeling fagged out, powerless, holding on to Nostromo’s sleeve, absolutely for support after his run.
“I am betrayed!” muttered the Capataz to himself; and the doctor, who overheard the last word, made an effort to speak calmly.
“That is exactly what would happen to you. You would be betrayed.”
He thought with a sickening dread that the man was so well known that he could not escape recognition. The house of the Senor Administrador was beset by spies, no doubt. And even the very servants of the casa were not to be trusted. “Reflect, Capataz,” he said, impressively. . . . “What are you laughing at?”
“I am laughing to think that if somebody that did not approve of my presence in town, for instance — you understand, senor doctor — if somebody were to give me up to Pedrito, it would not be beyond my power to make friends even with him. It is true. What do you think of that?”
“You are a man of infinite resource, Capataz,” said Dr. Monygham, dismally. “I recognize that. But the town is full of talk about you; and those few Cargadores that are not in hiding with the railway people have been shouting ‘Viva Montero’ on the Plaza all day.”
“My poor Cargadores!” muttered Nostromo. “Betrayed! Betrayed!”
“I understand that on the wharf you were pretty free in laying about you with a stick amongst your poor Cargadores,” the doctor said in a grim tone, which showed that he was recovering from his exertions. “Make no mistake. Pedrito is furious at Senor Ribiera’s rescue, and at having lost the pleasure of shooting Decoud. Already there are rumours in the town of the treasure having been spirited away. To have missed that does not please Pedrito either; but let me tell you that if you had all that silver in your hand for ransom it would not save you.”
Turning swiftly, and catching the doctor by the shoulders, Nostromo thrust his face close to his.
“Maladetta! You follow me speaking of the treasure. You have sworn my ruin. You were the last man who looked upon me before I went out with it. And Sidoni the engine-driver says you have an evil eye.”
“He ought to know. I saved his broken leg for him last year,” the doctor said, stoically. He felt on his shoulders the weight of these hands famed amongst the populace for snapping thick ropes and bending horseshoes. “And to you I offer the best means of saving yourself — let me go — and of retrieving your great reputation. You boasted of making the Capataz de Cargadores famous from one end of America to the other about this wretched silver. But I bring you a better opportunity — let me go, hombre!”
Nostromo released him abruptly, and the doctor feared that the indispensable man would run off again. But he did not. He walked on slowly. The doctor hobbled by his side till, within a stone’s throw from the Casa Viola, Nostromo stopped again.
Silent in inhospitable darkness, the Casa Viola seemed to have changed its nature; his home appeared to repel him with an air of hopeless and inimical mystery. The doctor said —
“You will be safe there. Go in, Capataz.”
“How can I go in?” Nostromo seemed to ask himself in a low, inward tone. “She cannot unsay what she said, and I cannot undo what I have done.”
“I tell you it is all right. Viola is all alone in there. I looked in as I came out of the town. You will be perfectly safe in that house till you leave it to make your name famous on the Campo. I am going now to arrange for your departure with the engineer-in-chief, and I shall bring you news here long before daybreak.”
Dr. Monygham, disregarding, or perhaps fearing to penetrate the meaning of Nostromo’s silence, clapped him lightly on the shoulder, and starting off with his smart, lame walk, vanished utterly at the third or fourth hop in the direction of the railway track. Arrested between the two wooden posts for people to fasten their horses to, Nostromo did not move, as if he, too, had been planted solidly in the ground. At the end of half an hour he lifted his head to the deep baying of the dogs at the railway yards, which had burst out suddenly, tumultuous and deadened as if coming from under the plain. That lame doctor with the evil eye had got there pretty fast.
Step by step Nostromo approached the Albergo d’Italia Una, which he had never known so lightless, so silent, before. The door, all black in the pale wall, stood open as he had left it twenty-four hours before, when he had nothing to hide from the world. He remained before it, irresolute, like a fugitive, like a man betrayed. Poverty, misery, starvation! Where had he heard these words? The anger of a dying woman had prophesied that fate for his folly. It looked as if it would come true very quickly. And the leperos would laugh — she had said. Yes, they would laugh if they knew that the Capataz de Cargadores was at the mercy of the mad doctor whom they could remember, only a few years ago, buying cooked food from a stall on the Plaza for a copper coin — like one of themselves.
At that moment the notion of seeking Captain Mitchell passed through his mind. He glanced in the direction of the jetty and saw a small gleam of light in the O.S.N. Company’s building. The thought of lighted windows was not attractive. Two lighted windows had decoyed him into the empty Custom House, only to fall into the clutches of that doctor. No! He would not go near lighted windows again on that night. Captain Mitchell was there. And what could he be told? That doctor would worm it all out of him as if he were a child.
On the threshold he called out “Giorgio!” in an undertone. Nobody answered. He stepped in. “Ola! viejo! Are you there? . . .” In the impenetrable darkness his head swam with the illusion that the obscurity of the kitchen was as vast as the Placid Gulf, and that the floor dipped forward like a sinking lighter. “Ola! viejo!” he repeated, falteringly, swaying where he stood. His hand, extended to steady himself, fell upon the table. Moving a step forward, he shifted it, and felt a box of matches under his fingers. He fancied he had heard a quiet sigh. He listened for a moment, holding his breath; then, with trembling hands, tried to strike a light.
The tiny piece of wood flamed up quite blindingly at the end of his fingers, raised above his blinking eyes. A concentrated glare fell upon the leonine white head of old Giorgio against the black fire-place — showed him leaning forward in a chair in staring immobility, surrounded, overhung, by great masses of shadow, his legs crossed, his cheek in his hand, an empty pipe in the corner of his mouth. It seemed hours before he attempted to turn his face; at the very moment the match went out, and he disappeared, overwhelmed by the shadows, as if the walls and roof of the desolate house had collapsed upon his white head in ghostly silence.
Nostromo heard him stir and utter dispassionately the words —
“It may have been a vision.”
“No,” he said, softly. “It is no vision, old man.”
A strong chest voice asked in the dark —
“Is that you I hear, Giovann’ Battista?”
“Si, viejo. Steady. Not so loud.”
After his release by Sotillo, Giorgio Viola, attended to the very door by the good-natured engineer-in-chief, had reentered his house, which he had been made to leave almost at the very moment of his wife’s death. All was still. The lamp above was burning. He nearly called out to her by name; and the thought that no call from him would ever again evoke the answer of her voice, made him drop heavily into the chair with a loud groan, wrung out by the pain as of a keen blade piercing his breast.
The rest of the night he made no sound. The darkness turned to grey, and on the colourless, clear, glassy dawn the jagged sierra stood out flat and opaque, as if cut out of paper.
The enthusiastic and severe soul of Giorgio Viola, sailor, champion of oppressed humanity, enemy of kings, and, by the grace of Mrs. Gould, hotel-keeper of the Sulaco harbour, had descended into the open abyss of desolation amongst the shattered vestiges of his past. He remembered his wooing between two campaigns, a single short week in the season of gathering olives. Nothing approached the grave passion of that time but the deep, passionate sense of his bereavement. He discovered all the extent of his dependence upon the silenced voice of that woman. It was her voice that he missed. Abstracted, busy, lost in inward contemplation, he seldom looked at his wife in those later years. The thought of his girls was a matter of concern, not of consolation. It was her voice that he would miss. And he remembered the other child — the little boy who died at sea. Ah! a man would have been something to lean upon. And, alas! even Gian’ Battista — he of whom, and of Linda, his wife had spoken to him so anxiously before she dropped off into her last sleep on earth, he on whom she had called aloud to save the children, just before she died — even he was dead!
And the old man, bent forward, his head in his hand, sat through the day in immobility and solitude. He never heard the brazen roar of the bells in town. When it ceased the earthenware filter in the corner of the kitchen kept on its swift musical drip, drip into the great porous jar below.
Towards sunset he got up, and with slow movements disappeared up the narrow staircase. His bulk filled it; and the rubbing of his shoulders made a small noise as of a mouse running behind the plaster of a wall. While he remained up there the house was as dumb as a grave. Then, with the same faint rubbing noise, he descended. He had to catch at the chairs and tables to regain his seat. He seized his pipe off the high mantel of the fire-place — but made no attempt to reach the tobacco — thrust it empty into the corner of his mouth, and sat down again in the same staring pose. The sun of Pedrito’s entry into Sulaco, the last sun of Senor Hirsch’s life, the first of Decoud’s solitude on the Great Isabel, passed over the Albergo d’ltalia Una on its way to the west. The tinkling drip, drip of the filter had ceased, the lamp upstairs had burnt itself out, and the night beset Giorgio Viola and his dead wife with its obscurity and silence that seemed invincible till the Capataz de Cargadores, returning from the dead, put them to flight with the splutter and flare of a match.
“Si, viejo. It is me. Wait.”
Nostromo, after barricading the door and closing the shutters carefully, groped upon a shelf for a candle, and lit it.
Old Viola had risen. He followed with his eyes in the dark the sounds made by Nostromo. The light disclosed him standing without support, as if the mere presence of that man who was loyal, brave, incorruptible, who was all his son would have been, were enough for the support of his decaying strength.
He extended his hand grasping the briar-wood pipe, whose bowl was charred on the edge, and knitted his bushy eyebrows heavily at the light.
“You have returned,” he said, with shaky dignity. “Ah! Very well! I——”
He broke off. Nostromo, leaning back against the table, his arms folded on his breast, nodded at him slightly.
“You thought I was drowned! No! The best dog of the rich, of the aristocrats, of these fine men who can only talk and betray the people, is not dead yet.”
The Garibaldino, motionless, seemed to drink in the sound of the well-known voice. His head moved slightly once as if in sign of approval; but Nostromo saw clearly that the old man understood nothing of the words. There was no one to understand; no one he could take into the confidence of Decoud’s fate, of his own, into the secret of the silver. That doctor was an enemy of the people — a tempter . . . .
Old Giorgio’s heavy frame shook from head to foot with the effort to overcome his emotion at the sight of that man, who had shared the intimacies of his domestic life as though he had been a grown-up son.
“She believed yon would return,” he said, solemnly.
Nostromo raised his head.
“She was a wise woman. How could I fail to come back ——?”
He finished the thought mentally: “Since she has prophesied for me an end of poverty, misery, and starvation.” These words of Teresa’s anger, from the circumstances in which they had been uttered, like the cry of a soul prevented from making its peace with God, stirred the obscure superstition of personal fortune from which even the greatest genius amongst men of adventure and action is seldom free. They reigned over Nostromo’s mind with the force of a potent malediction. And what a curse it was that which her words had laid upon him! He had been orphaned so young that he could remember no other woman whom he called mother. Henceforth there would be no enterprise in which he would not fail. The spell was working already. Death itself would elude him now. . . . He said violently —
“Come, viejo! Get me something to eat. I am hungry! Sangre de Dios! The emptiness of my belly makes me lightheaded.”
With his chin dropped again upon his bare breast above his folded arms, barefooted, watching from under a gloomy brow the movements of old Viola foraging amongst the cupboards, he seemed as if indeed fallen under a curse — a ruined and sinister Capataz.
Old Viola walked out of a dark corner, and, without a word, emptied upon the table out of his hollowed palms a few dry crusts of bread and half a raw onion.
While the Capataz began to devour this beggar’s fare, taking up with stony-eyed voracity piece after piece lying by his side, the Garibaldino went off, and squatting down in another corner filled an earthenware mug with red wine out of a wicker-covered demijohn. With a familiar gesture, as when serving customers in the cafe, he had thrust his pipe between his teeth to have his hands free.
The Capataz drank greedily. A slight flush deepened the bronze of his cheek. Before him, Viola, with a turn of his white and massive head towards the staircase, took his empty pipe out of his mouth, and pronounced slowly —
“After the shot was fired down here, which killed her as surely as if the bullet had struck her oppressed heart, she called upon you to save the children. Upon you, Gian’ Battista.”
The Capataz looked up.
“Did she do that, Padrone? To save the children! They are with the English senora, their rich benefactress. Hey! old man of the people. Thy benefactress . . . .”
“I am old,” muttered Giorgio Viola. “An Englishwoman was allowed to give a bed to Garibaldi lying wounded in prison. The greatest man that ever lived. A man of the people, too — a sailor. I may let another keep a roof over my head. Si . . . I am old. I may let her. Life lasts too long sometimes.”
“And she herself may not have a roof over her head before many days are out, unless I . . . What do you say? Am I to keep a roof over her head? Am I to try — and save all the Blancos together with her?”
“You shall do it,” said old Viola in a strong voice. “You shall do it as my son would have . . . .”
“Thy son, viejo! .. .. There never has been a man like thy son. Ha, I must try. . . . But what if it were only a part of the curse to lure me on? . . . And so she called upon me to save — and then ——?”
“She spoke no more.” The heroic follower of Garibaldi, at the thought of the eternal stillness and silence fallen upon the shrouded form stretched out on the bed upstairs, averted his face and raised his hand to his furrowed brow. “She was dead before I could seize her hands,” he stammered out, pitifully.
Before the wide eyes of the Capataz, staring at the doorway of the dark staircase, floated the shape of the Great Isabel, like a strange ship in distress, freighted with enormous wealth and the solitary life of a man. It was impossible for him to do anything. He could only hold his tongue, since there was no one to trust. The treasure would be lost, probably — unless Decoud. . . . And his thought came abruptly to an end. He perceived that he could not imagine in the least what Decoud was likely to do.
Old Viola had not stirred. And the motionless Capataz dropped his long, soft eyelashes, which gave to the upper part of his fierce, black-whiskered face a touch of feminine ingenuousness. The silence had lasted for a long time.
“God rest her soul!” he murmured, gloomily.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52