I am not what I seem. My father drew his descent, on the one hand, from grandees of Spain, and on the other, through the maternal line, from the patriot Bruce. My mother, too, was the descendant of a line of kings; but, alas! these kings were African. She was fair as the day: fairer than I, for I inherited a darker strain of blood from the veins of my European father; her mind was noble, her manners queenly and accomplished; and seeing her more than the equal of her neighbours, and surrounded by the most considerate affection and respect, I grew up to adore her, and when the time came, received her last sigh upon my lips, still ignorant that she was a slave, and alas! my father’s mistress. Her death, which befell me in my sixteenth year, was the first sorrow I had known: it left our home bereaved of its attractions, cast a shade of melancholy on my youth, and wrought in my father a tragic and durable change. Months went by; with the elasticity of my years, I regained some of the simple mirth that had before distinguished me; the plantation smiled with fresh crops; the negroes on the estate had already forgotten my mother and transferred their simple obedience to myself; but still the cloud only darkened on the brows of Senor Valdevia. His absences from home had been frequent even in the old days, for he did business in precious gems in the city of Havana; they now became almost continuous; and when he returned, it was but for the night and with the manner of a man crushed down by adverse fortune.
The place where I was born and passed my days was an isle set in the Caribbean Sea, some half-hour’s rowing from the coasts of Cuba. It was steep, rugged, and, except for my father’s family and plantation, uninhabited and left to nature. The house, a low building surrounded by spacious verandahs, stood upon a rise of ground and looked across the sea to Cuba. The breezes blew about it gratefully, fanned us as we lay swinging in our silken hammocks, and tossed the boughs and flowers of the magnolia. Behind and to the left, the quarter of the negroes and the waving fields of the plantation covered an eighth part of the surface of the isle. On the right and closely bordering on the garden, lay a vast and deadly swamp, densely covered with wood, breathing fever, dotted with profound sloughs, and inhabited by poisonous oysters, man-eating crabs, snakes, alligators, and sickly fishes. Into the recesses of that jungle, none could penetrate but those of African descent; an invisible, unconquerable foe lay there in wait for the European; and the air was death.
One morning (from which I must date the beginning of my ruinous misfortune) I left my room a little after day, for in that warm climate all are early risers, and found not a servant to attend upon my wants. I made the circuit of the house, still calling: and my surprise had almost changed into alarm, when coming at last into a large verandahed court, I found it thronged with negroes. Even then, even when I was amongst them, not one turned or paid the least regard to my arrival. They had eyes and ears for but one person: a woman, richly and tastefully attired; of elegant carriage, and a musical speech; not so much old in years, as worn and marred by self-indulgence: her face, which was still attractive, stamped with the most cruel passions, her eye burning with the greed of evil. It was not from her appearance, I believe, but from some emanation of her soul, that I recoiled in a kind of fainting terror; as we hear of plants that blight and snakes that fascinate, the woman shocked and daunted me. But I was of a brave nature; trod the weakness down; and forcing my way through the slaves, who fell back before me in embarrassment, as though in the presence of rival mistresses, I asked, in imperious tones: ‘Who is this person?’
A slave girl, to whom I had been kind, whispered in my ear to have a care, for that was Madam Mendizabal; but the name was new to me.
In the meanwhile the woman, applying a pair of glasses to her eyes, studied me with insolent particularity from head to foot.
‘Young woman,’ said she, at last, ‘I have had a great experience in refractory servants, and take a pride in breaking them. You really tempt me; and if I had not other affairs, and these of more importance, on my hand, I should certainly buy you at your father’s sale.’
‘Madam —’ I began, but my voice failed me.
‘Is it possible that you do not know your position?’ she returned, with a hateful laugh. ‘How comical! Positively, I must buy her. Accomplishments, I suppose?’ she added, turning to the servants.
Several assured her that the young mistress had been brought up like any lady, for so it seemed in their inexperience.
‘She would do very well for my place of business in Havana,’ said the Senora Mendizabal, once more studying me through her glasses; ‘and I should take a pleasure,’ she pursued, more directly addressing myself, ‘in bringing you acquainted with a whip.’ And she smiled at me with a savoury lust of cruelty upon her face.
At this, I found expression. Calling by name upon the servants, I bade them turn this woman from the house, fetch her to the boat, and set her back upon the mainland. But with one voice, they protested that they durst not obey, coming close about me, pleading and beseeching me to be more wise; and, when I insisted, rising higher in passion and speaking of this foul intruder in the terms she had deserved, they fell back from me as from one who had blasphemed. A superstitious reverence plainly encircled the stranger; I could read it in their changed demeanour, and in the paleness that prevailed upon the natural colour of their faces; and their fear perhaps reacted on myself. I looked again at Madam Mendizabal. She stood perfectly composed, watching my face through her glasses with a smile of scorn; and at the sight of her assured superiority to all my threats, a cry broke from my lips, a cry of rage, fear, and despair, and I fled from the verandah and the house.
I ran I knew not where, but it was towards the beach. As I went, my head whirled; so strange, so sudden, were these events and insults. Who was she? what, in Heaven’s name, the power she wielded over my obedient negroes? Why had she addressed me as a slave? why spoken of my father’s sale? To all these tumultuary questions I could find no answer; and in the turmoil of my mind, nothing was plain except the hateful leering image of the woman.
I was still running, mad with fear and anger, when I saw my father coming to meet me from the landing-place; and with a cry that I thought would have killed me, leaped into his arms and broke into a passion of sobs and tears upon his bosom. He made me sit down below a tall palmetto that grew not far off; comforted me, but with some abstraction in his voice; and as soon as I regained the least command upon my feelings, asked me, not without harshness, what this grief betokened. I was surprised by his tone into a still greater measure of composure; and in firm tones, though still interrupted by sobs, I told him there was a stranger in the island, at which I thought he started and turned pale; that the servants would not obey me; that the stranger’s name was Madam Mendizabal, and, at that, he seemed to me both troubled and relieved; that she had insulted me, treated me as a slave (and here my father’s brow began to darken), threatened to buy me at a sale, and questioned my own servants before my face; and that, at last, finding myself quite helpless and exposed to these intolerable liberties, I had fled from the house in terror, indignation, and amazement.
‘Teresa,’ said my father, with singular gravity of voice, ‘I must make to-day a call upon your courage; much must be told you, there is much that you must do to help me; and my daughter must prove herself a woman by her spirit. As for this Mendizabal, what shall I say? or how am I to tell you what she is? Twenty years ago, she was the loveliest of slaves; to-day she is what you see her — prematurely old, disgraced by the practice of every vice and every nefarious industry, but free, rich, married, they say, to some reputable man, whom may Heaven assist! and exercising among her ancient mates, the slaves of Cuba, an influence as unbounded as its reason is mysterious. Horrible rites, it is supposed, cement her empire: the rites of Hoodoo. Be that as it may, I would have you dismiss the thought of this incomparable witch; it is not from her that danger threatens us; and into her hands, I make bold to promise, you shall never fall.’
‘Father!’ I cried. ‘Fall? Was there any truth, then, in her words? Am I— O father, tell me plain; I can bear anything but this suspense.’
‘I will tell you,’ he replied, with merciful bluntness. ‘Your mother was a slave; it was my design, so soon as I had saved a competence, to sail to the free land of Britain, where the law would suffer me to marry her: a design too long procrastinated; for death, at the last moment, intervened. You will now understand the heaviness with which your mother’s memory hangs about my neck.’
I cried out aloud, in pity for my parents; and in seeking to console the survivor, I forgot myself.
‘It matters not,’ resumed my father. ‘What I have left undone can never be repaired, and I must bear the penalty of my remorse. But, Teresa, with so cutting a reminder of the evils of delay, I set myself at once to do what was still possible: to liberate yourself.’
I began to break forth in thanks, but he checked me with a sombre roughness.
‘Your mother’s illness,’ he resumed, ‘had engaged too great a portion of my time; my business in the city had lain too long at the mercy of ignorant underlings; my head, my taste, my unequalled knowledge of the more precious stones, that art by which I can distinguish, even on the darkest night, a sapphire from a ruby, and tell at a glance in what quarter of the earth a gem was disinterred — all these had been too long absent from the conduct of affairs. Teresa, I was insolvent.’
‘What matters that?’ I cried. ‘What matters poverty, if we be left together with our love and sacred memories?’
‘You do not comprehend,’ he said gloomily. ‘Slave, as you are, young — alas! scarce more than child! — accomplished, beautiful with the most touching beauty, innocent as an angel — all these qualities that should disarm the very wolves and crocodiles, are, in the eyes of those to whom I stand indebted, commodities to buy and sell. You are a chattel; a marketable thing; and worth — heavens, that I should say such words! — worth money. Do you begin to see? If I were to give you freedom, I should defraud my creditors; the manumission would be certainly annulled; you would be still a slave, and I a criminal.’
I caught his hand in mine, kissed it, and moaned in pity for myself, in sympathy for my father.
‘How I have toiled,’ he continued, ‘how I have dared and striven to repair my losses, Heaven has beheld and will remember. Its blessing was denied to my endeavours, or, as I please myself by thinking, but delayed to descend upon my daughter’s head. At length, all hope was at an end; I was ruined beyond retrieve; a heavy debt fell due upon the morrow, which I could not meet; I should be declared a bankrupt, and my goods, my lands, my jewels that I so much loved, my slaves whom I have spoiled and rendered happy, and oh! tenfold worse, you, my beloved daughter, would be sold and pass into the hands of ignorant and greedy traffickers. Too long, I saw, had I accepted and profited by this great crime of slavery; but was my daughter, my innocent unsullied daughter, was SHE to pay the price? I cried out — no! — I took Heaven to witness my temptation; I caught up this bag and fled. Close upon my track are the pursuers; perhaps to-night, perhaps to-morrow, they will land upon this isle, sacred to the memory of the dear soul that bore you, to consign your father to an ignominious prison, and yourself to slavery and dishonour. We have not many hours before us. Off the north coast of our isle, by strange good fortune, an English yacht has for some days been hovering. It belongs to Sir George Greville, whom I slightly know, to whom ere now I have rendered unusual services, and who will not refuse to help in our escape. Or if he did, if his gratitude were in default, I have the power to force him. For what does it mean, my child — what means this Englishman, who hangs for years upon the shores of Cuba, and returns from every trip with new and valuable gems?’
‘He may have found a mine,’ I hazarded.
‘So he declares,’ returned my father; ‘but the strange gift I have received from nature, easily transpierced the fable. He brought me diamonds only, which I bought, at first, in innocence; at a second glance, I started; for of these stones, my child, some had first seen the day in Africa, some in Brazil; while others, from their peculiar water and rude workmanship, I divined to be the spoil of ancient temples. Thus put upon the scent, I made inquiries. Oh, he is cunning, but I was cunninger than he. He visited, I found, the shop of every jeweller in town; to one he came with rubies, to one with emeralds, to one with precious beryl; to all, with this same story of the mine. But in what mine, what rich epitome of the earth’s surface, were there conjoined the rubies of Ispahan, the pearls of Coromandel, and the diamonds of Golconda? No, child, that man, for all his yacht and title, that man must fear and must obey me. To-night, then, as soon as it is dark, we must take our way through the swamp by the path which I shall presently show you; thence, across the highlands of the isle, a track is blazed, which shall conduct us to the haven on the north; and close by the yacht is riding. Should my pursuers come before the hour at which I look to see them, they will still arrive too late; a trusty man attends on the mainland; as soon as they appear, we shall behold, if it be dark, the redness of a fire, if it be day, a pillar of smoke, on the opposing headland; and thus warned, we shall have time to put the swamp between ourselves and danger. Meantime, I would conceal this bag; I would, before all things, be seen to arrive at the house with empty hands; a blabbing slave might else undo us. For see!’ he added; and holding up the bag, which he had already shown me, he poured into my lap a shower of unmounted jewels, brighter than flowers, of every size and colour, and catching, as they fell, upon a million dainty facets, the ardour of the sun.
I could not restrain a cry of admiration.
‘Even in your ignorant eyes,’ pursued my father, ‘they command respect. Yet what are they but pebbles, passive to the tool, cold as death? Ingrate!’ he cried. ‘Each one of these — miracles of nature’s patience, conceived out of the dust in centuries of microscopical activity, each one is, for you and me, a year of life, liberty, and mutual affection. How, then, should I cherish them! and why do I delay to place them beyond reach! Teresa, follow me.’
He rose to his feet, and led me to the borders of the great jungle, where they overhung, in a wall of poisonous and dusky foliage, the declivity of the hill on which my father’s house stood planted. For some while he skirted, with attentive eyes, the margin of the thicket. Then, seeming to recognise some mark, for his countenance became immediately lightened of a load of thought, he paused and addressed me. ‘Here,’ said he, ‘is the entrance of the secret path that I have mentioned, and here you shall await me. I but pass some hundreds of yards into the swamp to bury my poor treasure; as soon as that is safe, I will return.’ It was in vain that I sought to dissuade him, urging the dangers of the place; in vain that I begged to be allowed to follow, pleading the black blood that I now knew to circulate in my veins: to all my appeals he turned a deaf ear, and, bending back a portion of the screen of bushes, disappeared into the pestilential silence of the swamp.
At the end of a full hour, the bushes were once more thrust aside; and my father stepped from out the thicket, and paused and almost staggered in the first shock of the blinding sunlight. His face was of a singular dusky red; and yet for all the heat of the tropical noon, he did not seem to sweat.
‘You are tired,’ I cried, springing to meet him. ‘You are ill.’
‘I am tired,’ he replied; ‘the air in that jungle stifles one; my eyes, besides, have grown accustomed to its gloom, and the strong sunshine pierces them like knives. A moment, Teresa, give me but a moment. All shall yet be well. I have buried the hoard under a cypress, immediately beyond the bayou, on the left-hand margin of the path; beautiful, bright things, they now lie whelmed in slime; you shall find them there, if needful. But come, let us to the house; it is time to eat against our journey of the night: to eat and then to sleep, my poor Teresa: then to sleep.’ And he looked upon me out of bloodshot eyes, shaking his head as if in pity.
We went hurriedly, for he kept murmuring that he had been gone too long, and that the servants might suspect; passed through the airy stretch of the verandah; and came at length into the grateful twilight of the shuttered house. The meal was spread; the house servants, already informed by the boatmen of the master’s return, were all back at their posts, and terrified, as I could see, to face me. My father still murmuring of haste with weary and feverish pertinacity, I hurried at once to take my place at table; but I had no sooner left his arm than he paused and thrust forth both his hands with a strange gesture of groping. ‘How is this?’ he cried, in a sharp, unhuman voice. ‘Am I blind?’ I ran to him and tried to lead him to the table; but he resisted and stood stiffly where he was, opening and shutting his jaws, as if in a painful effort after breath. Then suddenly he raised both hands to his temples, cried out, ‘My head, my head!’ and reeled and fell against the wall.
I knew too well what it must be. I turned and begged the servants to relieve him. But they, with one accord, denied the possibility of hope; the master had gone into the swamp, they said, the master must die; all help was idle. Why should I dwell upon his sufferings? I had him carried to a bed, and watched beside him. He lay still, and at times ground his teeth, and talked at times unintelligibly, only that one word of hurry, hurry, coming distinctly to my ears, and telling me that, even in the last struggle with the powers of death, his mind was still tortured by his daughter’s peril. The sun had gone down, the darkness had fallen, when I perceived that I was alone on this unhappy earth. What thought had I of flight, of safety, of the impending dangers of my situation? Beside the body of my last friend, I had forgotten all except the natural pangs of my bereavement.
The sun was some four hours above the eastern line, when I was recalled to a knowledge of the things of earth, by the entrance of the slave-girl to whom I have already referred. The poor soul was indeed devotedly attached to me; and it was with streaming tears that she broke to me the import of her coming. With the first light of dawn a boat had reached our landing-place, and set on shore upon our isle (till now so fortunate) a party of officers bearing a warrant to arrest my father’s person, and a man of a gross body and low manners, who declared the island, the plantation, and all its human chattels, to be now his own. ‘I think,’ said my slave-girl, ‘he must be a politician or some very powerful sorcerer; for Madam Mendizabal had no sooner seen them coming, than she took to the woods.’
‘Fool,’ said I, ‘it was the officers she feared; and at any rate why does that beldam still dare to pollute the island with her presence? And O Cora,’ I exclaimed, remembering my grief, ‘what matter all these troubles to an orphan?’
‘Mistress,’ said she, ‘I must remind you of two things. Never speak as you do now of Madam Mendizabal; or never to a person of colour; for she is the most powerful woman in this world, and her real name even, if one durst pronounce it, were a spell to raise the dead. And whatever you do, speak no more of her to your unhappy Cora; for though it is possible she may be afraid of the police (and indeed I think that I have heard she is in hiding), and though I know that you will laugh and not believe, yet it is true, and proved, and known that she hears every word that people utter in this whole vast world; and your poor Cora is already deep enough in her black books. She looks at me, mistress, till my blood turns ice. That is the first I had to say; and now for the second: do, pray, for Heaven’s sake, bear in mind that you are no longer the poor Senor’s daughter. He is gone, dear gentleman; and now you are no more than a common slave-girl like myself. The man to whom you belong calls for you; oh, my dear mistress, go at once! With your youth and beauty, you may still, if you are winning and obedient, secure yourself an easy life.’
For a moment I looked on the creature with the indignation you may conceive; the next, it was gone: she did but speak after her kind, as the bird sings or cattle bellow. ‘Go,’ said I. ‘Go, Cora. I thank you for your kind intentions. Leave me alone one moment with my dead father; and tell this man that I will come at once.’
She went: and I, turning to the bed of death, addressed to those deaf ears the last appeal and defence of my beleaguered innocence. ‘Father,’ I said, ‘it was your last thought, even in the pangs of dissolution, that your daughter should escape disgrace. Here, at your side, I swear to you that purpose shall be carried out; by what means, I know not; by crime, if need be; and Heaven forgive both you and me and our oppressors, and Heaven help my helplessness!’ Thereupon I felt strengthened as by long repose; stepped to the mirror, ay, even in that chamber of the dead; hastily arranged my hair, refreshed my tear-worn eyes, breathed a dumb farewell to the originator of my days and sorrows; and composing my features to a smile, went forth to meet my master.
He was in a great, hot bustle, reviewing that house, once ours, to which he had but now succeeded; a corpulent, sanguine man of middle age, sensual, vulgar, humorous, and, if I judged rightly, not ill-disposed by nature. But the sparkle that came into his eye as he observed me enter, warned me to expect the worst.
‘Is this your late mistress?’ he inquired of the slaves; and when he had learnt it was so, instantly dismissed them. ‘Now, my dear,’ said he, ‘I am a plain man: none of your damned Spaniards, but a true blue, hard-working, honest Englishman. My name is Caulder.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ said I, and curtsied very smartly as I had seen the servants.
‘Come,’ said he, ‘this is better than I had expected; and if you choose to be dutiful in the station to which it has pleased God to call you, you will find me a very kind old fellow. I like your looks,’ he added, calling me by my name, which he scandalously mispronounced. ‘Is your hair all your own?’ he then inquired with a certain sharpness, and coming up to me, as though I were a horse, he grossly satisfied his doubts. I was all one flame from head to foot, but I contained my righteous anger and submitted. ‘That is very well,’ he continued, chucking me good humouredly under the chin. ‘You will have no cause to regret coming to old Caulder, eh? But that is by the way. What is more to the point is this: your late master was a most dishonest rogue, and levanted with some valuable property that belonged of rights to me. Now, considering your relation to him, I regard you as the likeliest person to know what has become of it; and I warn you, before you answer, that my whole future kindness will depend upon your honesty. I am an honest man myself, and expect the same in my servants.’
‘Do you mean the jewels?’ said I, sinking my voice into a whisper.
‘That is just precisely what I do,’ said he, and chuckled.
‘Hush!’ said I.
‘Hush?’ he repeated. ‘And why hush? I am on my own place, I would have you to know, and surrounded by my own lawful servants.’
‘Are the officers gone?’ I asked; and oh! how my hopes hung upon the answer!
‘They are,’ said he, looking somewhat disconcerted. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘I wish you had kept them,’ I answered, solemnly enough, although my heart at that same moment leaped with exultation. ‘Master, I must not conceal from you the truth. The servants on this estate are in a dangerous condition, and mutiny has long been brewing.’
‘Why,’ he cried, ‘I never saw a milder-looking lot of niggers in my life.’ But for all that he turned somewhat pale.
‘Did they tell you,’ I continued, ‘that Madam Mendizabal is on the island? that, since her coming, they obey none but her? that if, this morning, they have received you with even decent civility, it was only by her orders — issued with what after-thought I leave you to consider?’
‘Madam Jezebel?’ said he. ‘Well, she is a dangerous devil; the police are after her, besides, for a whole series of murders; but after all, what then? To be sure, she has a great influence with you coloured folk. But what in fortune’s name can be her errand here?’
‘The jewels,’ I replied. ‘Ah, sir, had you seen that treasure, sapphire and emerald and opal, and the golden topaz, and rubies red as the sunset — of what incalculable worth, of what unequalled beauty to the eye! — had you seen it, as I have, and alas! as SHE has — you would understand and tremble at your danger.’
‘She has seen them!’ he cried, and I could see by his face, that my audacity was justified by its success.
I caught his hand in mine. ‘My master,’ said I, ‘I am now yours; it is my duty, it should be my pleasure, to defend your interests and life. Hear my advice, then; and, I conjure you, be guided by my prudence. Follow me privily; let none see where we are going; I will lead you to the place where the treasure has been buried; that once disinterred, let us make straight for the boat, escape to the mainland, and not return to this dangerous isle without the countenance of soldiers.’
What free man in a free land would have credited so sudden a devotion? But this oppressor, through the very arts and sophistries he had abused, to quiet the rebellion of his conscience and to convince himself that slavery was natural, fell like a child into the trap I laid for him. He praised and thanked me; told me I had all the qualities he valued in a servant; and when he had questioned me further as to the nature and value of the treasure, and I had once more artfully inflamed his greed, bade me without delay proceed to carry out my plan of action.
From a shed in the garden, I took a pick and shovel; and thence, by devious paths among the magnolias, led my master to the entrance of the swamp. I walked first, carrying, as I was now in duty bound, the tools, and glancing continually behind me, lest we should be spied upon and followed. When we were come as far as the beginning of the path, it flashed into my mind I had forgotten meat; and leaving Mr. Caulder in the shadow of a tree, I returned alone to the house for a basket of provisions. Were they for him? I asked myself. And a voice within me answered, No. While we were face to face, while I still saw before my eyes the man to whom I belonged as the hand belongs to the body, my indignation held me bravely up. But now that I was alone, I conceived a sickness at myself and my designs that I could scarce endure; I longed to throw myself at his feet, avow my intended treachery, and warn him from that pestilential swamp, to which I was decoying him to die; but my vow to my dead father, my duty to my innocent youth, prevailed upon these scruples; and though my face was pale and must have reflected the horror that oppressed my spirits, it was with a firm step that I returned to the borders of the swamp, and with smiling lips that I bade him rise and follow me.
The path on which we now entered was cut, like a tunnel, through the living jungle. On either hand and overhead, the mass of foliage was continuously joined; the day sparingly filtered through the depth of super-impending wood; and the air was hot like steam, and heady with vegetable odours, and lay like a load upon the lungs and brain. Underfoot, a great depth of mould received our silent footprints; on each side, mimosas, as tall as a man, shrank from my passing skirts with a continuous hissing rustle; and but for these sentient vegetables, all in that den of pestilence was motionless and noiseless.
We had gone but a little way in, when Mr. Caulder was seized with sudden nausea, and must sit down a moment on the path. My heart yearned, as I beheld him; and I seriously begged the doomed mortal to return upon his steps. What were a few jewels in the scales with life? I asked. But no, he said; that witch Madam Jezebel would find them out; he was an honest man, and would not stand to be defrauded, and so forth, panting the while, like a sick dog. Presently he got to his feet again, protesting he had conquered his uneasiness; but as we again began to go forward, I saw in his changed countenance, the first approaches of death.
‘Master,’ said I, ‘you look pale, deathly pale; your pallor fills me with dread. Your eyes are bloodshot; they are red like the rubies that we seek.’
‘Wench,’ he cried, ‘look before you; look at your steps. I declare to Heaven, if you annoy me once again by looking back, I shall remind you of the change in your position.’
A little after, I observed a worm upon the ground, and told, in a whisper, that its touch was death. Presently a great green serpent, vivid as the grass in spring, wound rapidly across the path; and once again I paused and looked back at my companion, with a horror in my eyes. ‘The coffin snake,’ said I, ‘the snake that dogs its victim like a hound.’
But he was not to be dissuaded. ‘I am an old traveller,’ said he. ‘This is a foul jungle indeed; but we shall soon be at an end.’
‘Ay,’ said I, looking at him, with a strange smile, ‘what end?’
Thereupon he laughed again and again, but not very heartily; and then, perceiving that the path began to widen and grow higher, ‘There!’ said he. ‘What did I tell you? We are past the worst.’
Indeed, we had now come to the bayou, which was in that place very narrow and bridged across by a fallen trunk; but on either hand we could see it broaden out, under a cavern of great arms of trees and hanging creepers: sluggish, putrid, of a horrible and sickly stench, floated on by the flat heads of alligators, and its banks alive with scarlet crabs.
‘If we fall from that unsteady bridge,’ said I, ‘see, where the caiman lies ready to devour us! If, by the least divergence from the path, we should be snared in a morass, see, where those myriads of scarlet vermin scour the border of the thicket! Once helpless, how they would swarm together to the assault! What could man do against a thousand of such mailed assailants? And what a death were that, to perish alive under their claws.’
‘Are you mad, girl?’ he cried. ‘I bid you be silent and lead on.’
Again I looked upon him, half relenting; and at that he raised the stick that was in his hand and cruelly struck me on the face. ‘Lead on!’ he cried again. ‘Must I be all day, catching my death in this vile slough, and all for a prating slave-girl?’
I took the blow in silence, I took it smiling; but the blood welled back upon my heart. Something, I know not what, fell at that moment with a dull plunge in the waters of the lagoon, and I told myself it was my pity that had fallen.
On the farther side, to which we now hastily scrambled, the wood was not so dense, the web of creepers not so solidly convolved. It was possible, here and there, to mark a patch of somewhat brighter daylight, or to distinguish, through the lighter web of parasites, the proportions of some soaring tree. The cypress on the left stood very visibly forth, upon the edge of such a clearing; the path in that place widened broadly; and there was a patch of open ground, beset with horrible ant-heaps, thick with their artificers. I laid down the tools and basket by the cypress root, where they were instantly blackened over with the crawling ants; and looked once more in the face of my unconscious victim. Mosquitoes and foul flies wove so close a veil between us that his features were obscured; and the sound of their flight was like the turning of a mighty wheel.
‘Here,’ I said, ‘is the spot. I cannot dig, for I have not learned to use such instruments; but, for your own sake, I beseech you to be swift in what you do.’
He had sunk once more upon the ground, panting like a fish; and I saw rising in his face the same dusky flush that had mantled on my father’s. ‘I feel ill,’ he gasped, ‘horribly ill; the swamp turns around me; the drone of these carrion flies confounds me. Have you not wine?’
I gave him a glass, and he drank greedily. ‘It is for you to think,’ said I, ‘if you should further persevere. The swamp has an ill name.’ And at the word I ominously nodded.
‘Give me the pick,’ said he. ‘Where are the jewels buried?’
I told him vaguely; and in the sweltering heat and closeness, and dim twilight of the jungle, he began to wield the pickaxe, swinging it overhead with the vigour of a healthy man. At first, there broke forth upon him a strong sweat, that made his face to shine, and in which the greedy insects settled thickly.
‘To sweat in such a place,’ said I. ‘O master, is this wise? Fever is drunk in through open pores.’
‘What do you mean?’ he screamed, pausing with the pick buried in the soil. ‘Do you seek to drive me mad? Do you think I do not understand the danger that I run?’
‘That is all I want,’ said I: ‘I only wish you to be swift.’ And then, my mind flitting to my father’s deathbed, I began to murmur, scarce above my breath, the same vain repetition of words, ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry.’
Presently, to my surprise, the treasure-seeker took them up; and while he still wielded the pick, but now with staggering and uncertain blows, repeated to himself, as it were the burthen of a song, ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry;’ and then again, ‘There is no time to lose; the marsh has an ill name, ill name;’ and then back to ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry,’ with a dreadful, mechanical, hurried, and yet wearied utterance, as a sick man rolls upon his pillow. The sweat had disappeared; he was now dry, but all that I could see of him, of the same dull brick red. Presently his pick unearthed the bag of jewels; but he did not observe it, and continued hewing at the soil.
‘Master,’ said I, ‘there is the treasure.’ He seemed to waken from a dream. ‘Where?’ he cried; and then, seeing it before his eyes, ‘Can this be possible?’ he added. ‘I must be light-headed. Girl,’ he cried suddenly, with the same screaming tone of voice that I had once before observed, ‘what is wrong? is this swamp accursed?’
‘It is a grave,’ I answered. ‘You will not go out alive; and as for me, my life is in God’s hands.’
He fell upon the ground like a man struck by a blow, but whether from the effect of my words, or from sudden seizure of the malady, I cannot tell. Pretty soon, he raised his head. ‘You have brought me here to die,’ he said; ‘at the risk of your own days, you have condemned me. Why?’
‘To save my honour,’ I replied. ‘Bear me out that I have warned you. Greed of these pebbles, and not I, has been your undoer.’
He took out his revolver and handed it to me. ‘You see,’ he said, ‘I could have killed you even yet. But I am dying, as you say; nothing could save me; and my bill is long enough already. Dear me, dear me,’ he said, looking in my face with a curious, puzzled, and pathetic look, like a dull child at school, ‘if there be a judgment afterwards, my bill is long enough.’
At that, I broke into a passion of weeping, crawled at his feet, kissed his hands, begged his forgiveness, put the pistol back into his grasp and besought him to avenge his death; for indeed, if with my life I could have bought back his, I had not balanced at the cost. But he was determined, the poor soul, that I should yet more bitterly regret my act.
‘I have nothing to forgive,’ said he. ‘Dear heaven, what a thing is an old fool! I thought, upon my word, you had taken quite a fancy to me.’
He was seized, at the same time, with a dreadful, swimming dizziness, clung to me like a child, and called upon the name of some woman. Presently this spasm, which I watched with choking tears, lessened and died away; and he came again to the full possession of his mind. ‘I must write my will,’ he said. ‘Get out my pocket-book.’ I did so, and he wrote hurriedly on one page with a pencil. ‘Do not let my son know,’ he said; ‘he is a cruel dog, is my son Philip; do not let him know how you have paid me out;’ and then all of a sudden, ‘God,’ he cried, ‘I am blind,’ and clapped both hands before his eyes; and then again, and in a groaning whisper, ‘Don’t leave me to the crabs!’ I swore I would be true to him so long as a pulse stirred; and I redeemed my promise. I sat there and watched him, as I had watched my father, but with what different, with what appalling thoughts! Through the long afternoon, he gradually sank. All that while, I fought an uphill battle to shield him from the swarms of ants and the clouds of mosquitoes: the prisoner of my crime. The night fell, the roar of insects instantly redoubled in the dark arcades of the swamp; and still I was not sure that he had breathed his last. At length, the flesh of his hand, which I yet held in mine, grew chill between my fingers, and I knew that I was free.
I took his pocket-book and the revolver, being resolved rather to die than to be captured, and laden besides with the basket and the bag of gems, set forward towards the north. The swamp, at that hour of the night, was filled with a continuous din: animals and insects of all kinds, and all inimical to life, contributing their parts. Yet in the midst of this turmoil of sound, I walked as though my eyes were bandaged, beholding nothing. The soil sank under my foot, with a horrid, slippery consistence, as though I were walking among toads; the touch of the thick wall of foliage, by which alone I guided myself, affrighted me like the touch of serpents; the darkness checked my breathing like a gag; indeed, I have never suffered such extremes of fear as during that nocturnal walk, nor have I ever known a more sensible relief than when I found the path beginning to mount and to grow firmer under foot, and saw, although still some way in front of me, the silver brightness of the moon.
Presently, I had crossed the last of the jungle, and come forth amongst noble and lofty woods, clean rock, the clean, dry dust, the aromatic smell of mountain plants that had been baked all day in sunlight, and the expressive silence of the night. My negro blood had carried me unhurt across that reeking and pestiferous morass; by mere good fortune, I had escaped the crawling and stinging vermin with which it was alive; and I had now before me the easier portion of my enterprise, to cross the isle and to make good my arrival at the haven and my acceptance on the English yacht. It was impossible by night to follow such a track as my father had described; and I was casting about for any landmark, and, in my ignorance, vainly consulting the disposition of the stars, when there fell upon my ear, from somewhere far in front, the sound of many voices hurriedly singing.
I scarce knew upon what grounds I acted; but I shaped my steps in the direction of that sound; and in a quarter of an hour’s walking, came unperceived to the margin of an open glade. It was lighted by the strong moon and by the flames of a fire. In the midst, there stood a little low and rude building, surmounted by a cross: a chapel, as I then remembered to have heard, long since desecrated and given over to the rites of Hoodoo. Hard by the steps of entrance was a black mass, continually agitated and stirring to and fro as if with inarticulate life; and this I presently perceived to be a heap of cocks, hares, dogs, and other birds and animals, still struggling, but helplessly tethered and cruelly tossed one upon another. Both the fire and the chapel were surrounded by a ring of kneeling Africans, both men and women. Now they would raise their palms half-closed to heaven, with a peculiar, passionate gesture of supplication; now they would bow their heads and spread their hands before them on the ground. As the double movement passed and repassed along the line, the heads kept rising and falling, like waves upon the sea; and still, as if in time to these gesticulations, the hurried chant continued. I stood spellbound, knowing that my life depended by a hair, knowing that I had stumbled on a celebration of the rites of Hoodoo.
Presently, the door of the chapel opened, and there came forth a tall negro, entirely nude, and bearing in his hand the sacrificial knife. He was followed by an apparition still more strange and shocking: Madam Mendizabal, naked also, and carrying in both hands and raised to the level of her face, an open basket of wicker. It was filled with coiling snakes; and these, as she stood there with the uplifted basket, shot through the osier grating and curled about her arms. At the sight of this, the fervour of the crowd seemed to swell suddenly higher; and the chant rose in pitch and grew more irregular in time and accent. Then, at a sign from the tall negro, where he stood, motionless and smiling, in the moon and firelight, the singing died away, and there began the second stage of this barbarous and bloody celebration. From different parts of the ring, one after another, man or woman, ran forth into the midst; ducked, with that same gesture of the thrown-up hand, before the priestess and her snakes; and with various adjurations, uttered aloud the blackest wishes of the heart. Death and disease were the favours usually invoked: the death or the disease of enemies or rivals; some calling down these plagues upon the nearest of their own blood, and one, to whom I swear I had been never less than kind, invoking them upon myself. At each petition, the tall negro, still smiling, picked up some bird or animal from the heaving mass upon his left, slew it with the knife, and tossed its body on the ground. At length, it seemed, it reached the turn of the high-priestess. She set down the basket on the steps, moved into the centre of the ring, grovelled in the dust before the reptiles, and still grovelling lifted up her voice, between speech and singing, and with so great, with so insane a fervour of excitement, as struck a sort of horror through my blood.
‘Power,’ she began, ‘whose name we do not utter; power that is neither good nor evil, but below them both; stronger than good, greater than evil — all my life long I have adored and served thee. Who has shed blood upon thine altars? whose voice is broken with the singing of thy praises? whose limbs are faint before their age with leaping in thy revels? Who has slain the child of her body? I,’ she cried, ‘I, Metamnbogu! By my own name, I name myself. I tear away the veil. I would be served or perish. Hear me, slime of the fat swamp, blackness of the thunder, venom of the serpent’s udder — hear or slay me! I would have two things, O shapeless one, O horror of emptiness — two things, or die! The blood of my white-faced husband; oh! give me that; he is the enemy of Hoodoo; give me his blood! And yet another, O racer of the blind winds, O germinator in the ruins of the dead, O root of life, root of corruption! I grow old, I grow hideous; I am known, I am hunted for my life: let thy servant then lay by this outworn body; let thy chief priestess turn again to the blossom of her days, and be a girl once more, and the desired of all men, even as in the past! And, O lord and master, as I here ask a marvel not yet wrought since we were torn from the old land, have I not prepared the sacrifice in which thy soul delighteth — the kid without the horns?’
Even as she uttered the words, there was a great rumour of joy through all the circle of worshippers; it rose, and fell, and rose again; and swelled at last into rapture, when the tall negro, who had stepped an instant into the chapel, reappeared before the door, carrying in his arms the body of the slave-girl, Cora. I know not if I saw what followed. When next my mind awoke to a clear knowledge, Cora was laid upon the steps before the serpents; the negro with the knife stood over her; the knife rose; and at this I screamed out in my great horror, bidding them, in God’s name, to pause.
A stillness fell upon the mob of cannibals. A moment more, and they must have thrown off this stupor, and I infallibly have perished. But Heaven had designed to save me. The silence of these wretched men was not yet broken, when there arose, in the empty night, a sound louder than the roar of any European tempest, swifter to travel than the wings of any Eastern wind. Blackness engulfed the world; blackness, stabbed across from every side by intricate and blinding lightning. Almost in the same second, at one world-swallowing stride, the heart of the tornado reached the clearing. I heard an agonising crash, and the light of my reason was overwhelmed.
When I recovered consciousness, the day was come. I was unhurt; the trees close about me had not lost a bough; and I might have thought at first that the tornado was a feature in a dream. It was otherwise indeed; for when I looked abroad, I perceived I had escaped destruction by a hand’s-breadth. Right through the forest, which here covered hill and dale, the storm had ploughed a lane of ruin. On either hand, the trees waved uninjured in the air of the morning; but in the forthright course of its advance, the hurricane had left no trophy standing. Everything, in that line, tree, man, or animal, the desecrated chapel and the votaries of Hoodoo, had been subverted and destroyed in that brief spasm of anger of the powers of air. Everything, but a yard or two beyond the line of its passage, humble flower, lofty tree, and the poor vulnerable maid who now knelt to pay her gratitude to heaven, awoke unharmed in the crystal purity and peace of the new day.
To move by the path of the tornado was a thing impossible to man, so wildly were the wrecks of the tall forest piled together by that fugitive convulsion. I crossed it indeed; with such labour and patience, with so many dangerous slips and falls, as left me, at the further side, bankrupt alike of strength and courage. There I sat down awhile to recruit my forces; and as I ate (how should I bless the kindliness of Heaven!) my eye, flitting to and fro in the colonnade of the great trees, alighted on a trunk that had been blazed. Yes, by the directing hand of Providence, I had been conducted to the very track I was to follow. With what a light heart I now set forth, and walking with how glad a step, traversed the uplands of the isle!
It was hard upon the hour of noon, when I came, all tattered and wayworn, to the summit of a steep descent, and looked below me on the sea. About all the coast, the surf, roused by the tornado of the night, beat with a particular fury and made a fringe of snow. Close at my feet, I saw a haven, set in precipitous and palm-crowned bluffs of rock. Just outside, a ship was heaving on the surge, so trimly sparred, so glossily painted, so elegant and point-device in every feature, that my heart was seized with admiration. The English colours blew from her masthead; and from my high station, I caught glimpses of her snowy planking, as she rolled on the uneven deep, and saw the sun glitter on the brass of her deck furniture. There, then, was my ship of refuge; and of all my difficulties only one remained: to get on board of her.
Half an hour later, I issued at last out of the woods on the margin of a cove, into whose jaws the tossing and blue billows entered, and along whose shores they broke with a surprising loudness. A wooded promontory hid the yacht; and I had walked some distance round the beach, in what appeared to be a virgin solitude, when my eye fell on a boat, drawn into a natural harbour, where it rocked in safety, but deserted. I looked about for those who should have manned her; and presently, in the immediate entrance of the wood, spied the red embers of a fire, and, stretched around in various attitudes, a party of slumbering mariners. To these I drew near: most were black, a few white; but all were dressed with the conspicuous decency of yachtsmen; and one, from his peaked cap and glittering buttons, I rightly divined to be an officer. Him, then, I touched upon the shoulder. He started up; the sharpness of his movement woke the rest; and they all stared upon me in surprise.
‘What do you want?’ inquired the officer.
‘To go on board the yacht,’ I answered.
I thought they all seemed disconcerted at this; and the officer, with something of sharpness, asked me who I was. Now I had determined to conceal my name until I met Sir George; and the first name that rose to my lips was that of the Senora Mendizabal. At the word, there went a shock about the little party of seamen; the negroes stared at me with indescribable eagerness, the whites themselves with something of a scared surprise; and instantly the spirit of mischief prompted me to add, ‘And if the name is new to your ears, call me Metamnbogu.’
I had never seen an effect so wonderful. The negroes threw their hands into the air, with the same gesture I remarked the night before about the Hoodoo camp-fire; first one, and then another, ran forward and kneeled down and kissed the skirts of my torn dress; and when the white officer broke out swearing and calling to know if they were mad, the coloured seamen took him by the shoulders, dragged him on one side till they were out of hearing, and surrounded him with open mouths and extravagant pantomime. The officer seemed to struggle hard; he laughed aloud, and I saw him make gestures of dissent and protest; but in the end, whether overcome by reason or simply weary of resistance, he gave in — approached me civilly enough, but with something of a sneering manner underneath — and touching his cap, ‘My lady,’ said he, ‘if that is what you are, the boat is ready.’
My reception on board the Nemorosa (for so the yacht was named) partook of the same mingled nature. We were scarcely within hail of that great and elegant fabric, where she lay rolling gunwale under and churning the blue sea to snow, before the bulwarks were lined with the heads of a great crowd of seamen, black, white, and yellow; and these and the few who manned the boat began exchanging shouts in some lingua franca incomprehensible to me. All eyes were directed on the passenger; and once more I saw the negroes toss up their hands to heaven, but now as if with passionate wonder and delight.
At the head of the gangway, I was received by another officer, a gentlemanly man with blond and bushy whiskers; and to him I addressed my demand to see Sir George.
‘But this is not —’ he cried, and paused.
‘I know it,’ returned the other officer, who had brought me from the shore. ‘But what the devil can we do? Look at all the niggers!’
I followed his direction; and as my eye lighted upon each, the poor ignorant Africans ducked, and bowed, and threw their hands into the air, as though in the presence of a creature half divine. Apparently the officer with the whiskers had instantly come round to the opinion of his subaltern; for he now addressed me with every signal of respect.
‘Sir George is at the island, my lady,’ said he: ‘for which, with your ladyship’s permission, I shall immediately make all sail. The cabins are prepared. Steward, take Lady Greville below.’
Under this new name, then, and so captivated by surprise that I could neither think nor speak, I was ushered into a spacious and airy cabin, hung about with weapons and surrounded by divans. The steward asked for my commands; but I was by this time so wearied, bewildered, and disturbed, that I could only wave him to leave me to myself, and sink upon a pile of cushions. Presently, by the changed motion of the ship, I knew her to be under way; my thoughts, so far from clarifying, grew the more distracted and confused; dreams began to mingle and confound them; and at length, by insensible transition, I sank into a dreamless slumber.
When I awoke, the day and night had passed, and it was once more morning. The world on which I reopened my eyes swam strangely up and down; the jewels in the bag that lay beside me chinked together ceaselessly; the clock and the barometer wagged to and fro like pendulums; and overhead, seamen were singing out at their work, and coils of rope clattering and thumping on the deck. Yet it was long before I had divined that I was at sea; long before I had recalled, one after another, the tragical, mysterious, and inexplicable events that had brought me where was.
When I had done so, I thrust the jewels, which I was surprised to find had been respected, into the bosom of my dress; and seeing a silver bell hard by upon a table, rang it loudly. The steward instantly appeared; I asked for food; and he proceeded to lay the table, regarding me the while with a disquieting and pertinacious scrutiny. To relieve myself of my embarrassment, I asked him, with as fair a show of ease as I could muster, if it were usual for yachts to carry so numerous a crew?
‘Madam,’ said he, ‘I know not who you are, nor what mad fancy has induced you to usurp a name and an appalling destiny that are not yours. I warn you from the soul. No sooner arrived at the island —’
At this moment he was interrupted by the whiskered officer, who had entered unperceived behind him, and now laid a hand upon his shoulder. The sudden pallor, the deadly and sick fear, that was imprinted on the steward’s face, formed a startling addition to his words.
‘Parker!’ said the officer, and pointed towards the door.
‘Yes, Mr. Kentish,’ said the steward. ‘For God’s sake, Mr. Kentish!’ And vanished, with a white face, from the cabin.
Thereupon the officer bade me sit down, and began to help me, and join in the meal. ‘I fill your ladyship’s glass,’ said he, and handed me a tumbler of neat rum.
‘Sir,’ cried I, ‘do you expect me to drink this?’
He laughed heartily. ‘Your ladyship is so much changed,’ said he, ‘that I no longer expect any one thing more than any other.’
Immediately after, a white seaman entered the cabin, saluted both Mr. Kentish and myself, and informed the officer there was a sail in sight, which was bound to pass us very close, and that Mr. Harland was in doubt about the colours.
‘Being so near the island?’ asked Mr. Kentish.
‘That was what Mr. Harland said, sir,’ returned the sailor, with a scrape.
‘Better not, I think,’ said Mr. Kentish. ‘My compliments to Mr. Harland; and if she seem a lively boat, give her the stars and stripes; but if she be dull, and we can easily outsail her, show John Dutchman. That is always another word for incivility at sea; so we can disregard a hail or a flag of distress, without attracting notice.’
As soon as the sailor had gone on deck, I turned to the officer in wonder. ‘Mr. Kentish, if that be your name,’ said I, ‘are you ashamed of your own colours?’
‘Your ladyship refers to the Jolly Roger?’ he inquired, with perfect gravity; and immediately after, went into peals of laughter. ‘Pardon me,’ said he; ‘but here for the first time I recognise your ladyship’s impetuosity.’ Nor, try as I pleased, could I extract from him any explanation of this mystery, but only oily and commonplace evasion.
While we were thus occupied, the movement of the Nemorosa gradually became less violent; its speed at the same time diminished; and presently after, with a sullen plunge, the anchor was discharged into the sea. Kentish immediately rose, offered his arm, and conducted me on deck; where I found we were lying in a roadstead among many low and rocky islets, hovered about by an innumerable cloud of sea-fowl. Immediately under our board, a somewhat larger isle was green with trees, set with a few low buildings and approached by a pier of very crazy workmanship; and a little inshore of us, a smaller vessel lay at anchor.
I had scarce time to glance to the four quarters, ere a boat was lowered. I was handed in, Kentish took place beside me, and we pulled briskly to the pier. A crowd of villainous, armed loiterers, both black and white, looked on upon our landing; and again the word passed about among the negroes, and again I was received with prostrations and the same gesture of the flung-up hand. By this, what with the appearance of these men, and the lawless, sea-girt spot in which I found myself, my courage began a little to decline, and clinging to the arm of Mr. Kentish, I begged him to tell me what it meant?
‘Nay, madam,’ he returned, ‘YOU know.’ And leading me smartly through the crowd, which continued to follow at a considerable distance, and at which he still kept looking back, I thought, with apprehension, he brought me to a low house that stood alone in an encumbered yard, opened the door, and begged me to enter.
‘But why?’ said I. ‘I demand to see Sir George.’
‘Madam,’ returned Mr. Kentish, looking suddenly as black as thunder, ‘to drop all fence, I know neither who nor what you are; beyond the fact that you are not the person whose name you have assumed. But be what you please, spy, ghost, devil, or most ill-judging jester, if you do not immediately enter that house, I will cut you to the earth.’ And even as he spoke, he threw an uneasy glance behind him at the following crowd of blacks.
I did not wait to be twice threatened; I obeyed at once, and with a palpitating heart; and the next moment, the door was locked from the outside and the key withdrawn. The interior was long, low, and quite unfurnished, but filled, almost from end to end, with sugar-cane, tar-barrels, old tarry rope, and other incongruous and highly inflammable material; and not only was the door locked, but the solitary window barred with iron.
I was by this time so exceedingly bewildered and afraid, that I would have given years of my life to be once more the slave of Mr. Caulder. I still stood, with my hands clasped, the image of despair, looking about me on the lumber of the room or raising my eyes to heaven; when there appeared outside the window bars, the face of a very black negro, who signed to me imperiously to draw near. I did so, and he instantly, and with every mark of fervour, addressed me a long speech in some unknown and barbarous tongue.
‘I declare,’ I cried, clasping my brow, ‘I do not understand one syllable.’
‘Not?’ he said in Spanish. ‘Great, great, are the powers of Hoodoo! Her very mind is changed! But, O chief priestess, why have you suffered yourself to be shut into this cage? why did you not call your slaves at once to your defence? Do you not see that all has been prepared to murder you? at a spark, this flimsy house will go in flames; and alas! who shall then be the chief priestess? and what shall be the profit of the miracle?’
‘Heavens!’ cried I, ‘can I not see Sir George? I must, I must, come by speech of him. Oh, bring me to Sir George!’ And, my terror fairly mastering my courage, I fell upon my knees and began to pray to all the saints.
‘Lordy!’ cried the negro, ‘here they come!’ And his black head was instantly withdrawn from the window.
‘I never heard such nonsense in my life,’ exclaimed a voice.
‘Why, so we all say, Sir George,’ replied the voice of Mr. Kentish. ‘But put yourself in our place. The niggers were near two to one. And upon my word, if you’ll excuse me, sir, considering the notion they have taken in their heads, I regard it as precious fortunate for all of us that the mistake occurred.’
‘This is no question of fortune, sir,’ returned Sir George. ‘It is a question of my orders, and you may take my word for it, Kentish, either Harland, or yourself, or Parker — or, by George, all three of you! — shall swing for this affair. These are my sentiments. Give me the key and be off.’
Immediately after, the key turned in the lock; and there appeared upon the threshold a gentleman, between forty and fifty, with a very open countenance, and of a stout and personable figure.
‘My dear young lady,’ said he, ‘who the devil may you be?’
I told him all my story in one rush of words. He heard me, from the first, with an amazement you can scarcely picture, but when I came to the death of the Senora Mendizabal in the tornado, he fairly leaped into the air.
‘My dear child,’ he cried, clasping me in his arms, ‘excuse a man who might be your father! This is the best news I ever had since I was born; for that hag of a mulatto was no less a person than my wife.’ He sat down upon a tar-barrel, as if unmanned by joy. ‘Dear me,’ said he, ‘I declare this tempts me to believe in Providence. And what,’ he added, ‘can I do for you?’
‘Sir George,’ said I, ‘I am already rich: all that I ask is your protection.’
‘Understand one thing,’ he said, with great energy. ‘I will never marry.’
‘I had not ventured to propose it,’ I exclaimed, unable to restrain my mirth; ‘I only seek to be conveyed to England, the natural home of the escaped slave.’
‘Well,’ returned Sir George, ‘frankly I owe you something for this exhilarating news; besides, your father was of use to me. Now, I have made a small competence in business — a jewel mine, a sort of naval agency, et caetera, and I am on the point of breaking up my company, and retiring to my place in Devonshire to pass a plain old age, unmarried. One good turn deserves another: if you swear to hold your tongue about this island, these little bonfire arrangements, and the whole episode of my unfortunate marriage, why, I’ll carry you home aboard the Nemorosa.’ I eagerly accepted his conditions.
‘One thing more,’ said he. ‘My late wife was some sort of a sorceress among the blacks; and they are all persuaded she has come alive again in your agreeable person. Now, you will have the goodness to keep up that fancy, if you please; and to swear to them, on the authority of Hoodoo or whatever his name may be, that I am from this moment quite a sacred character.’
‘I swear it,’ said I, ‘by my father’s memory; and that is a vow that I will never break.’
‘I have considerably better hold on you than any oath,’ returned Sir George, with a chuckle; ‘for you are not only an escaped slave, but have, by your own account, a considerable amount of stolen property.’
I was struck dumb; I saw it was too true; in a glance, I recognised that these jewels were no longer mine; with similar quickness, I decided they should be restored, ay, if it cost me the liberty that I had just regained. Forgetful of all else, forgetful of Sir George, who sat and watched me with a smile, I drew out Mr. Caulder’s pocket-book and turned to the page on which the dying man had scrawled his testament. How shall I describe the agony of happiness and remorse with which I read it! for my victim had not only set me free, but bequeathed to me the bag of jewels.
My plain tale draws towards a close. Sir George and I, in my character of his rejuvenated wife, displayed ourselves arm-in-arm among the negroes, and were cheered and followed to the place of embarkation. There, Sir George, turning about, made a speech to his old companions, in which he thanked and bade them farewell with a very manly spirit; and towards the end of which he fell on some expressions which I still remember. ‘If any of you gentry lose your money,’ he said, ‘take care you do not come to me; for in the first place, I shall do my best to have you murdered; and if that fails, I hand you over to the law. Blackmail won’t do for me. I’ll rather risk all upon a cast, than be pulled to pieces by degrees. I’ll rather be found out and hang, than give a doit to one man-jack of you.’ That same night we got under way and crossed to the port of New Orleans, whence, as a sacred trust, I sent the pocket-book to Mr. Caulder’s son. In a week’s time, the men were all paid off; new hands were shipped; and the Nemorosa weighed her anchor for Old England.
A more delightful voyage it were hard to fancy. Sir George, of course, was not a conscientious man; but he had an unaffected gaiety of character that naturally endeared him to the young; and it was interesting to hear him lay out his projects for the future, when he should be returned to Parliament, and place at the service of the nation his experience of marine affairs. I asked him, if his notion of piracy upon a private yacht were not original. But he told me, no. ‘A yacht, Miss Valdevia,’ he observed, ‘is a chartered nuisance. Who smuggles? Who robs the salmon rivers of the West of Scotland? Who cruelly beats the keepers if they dare to intervene? The crews and the proprietors of yachts. All I have done is to extend the line a trifle, and if you ask me for my unbiassed opinion, I do not suppose that I am in the least alone.’
In short, we were the best of friends, and lived like father and daughter; though I still withheld from him, of course, that respect which is only due to moral excellence.
We were still some days’ sail from England, when Sir George obtained, from an outward-bound ship, a packet of newspapers; and from that fatal hour my misfortunes recommenced. He sat, the same evening, in the cabin, reading the news, and making savoury comments on the decline of England and the poor condition of the navy, when I suddenly observed him to change countenance.
‘Hullo!’ said he, ‘this is bad; this is deuced bad, Miss Valdevia. You would not listen to sound sense, you would send that pocket-book to that man Caulder’s son.’
‘Sir George,’ said I, ‘it was my duty.’
‘You are prettily paid for it, at least,’ says he; ‘and much as I regret it, I, for one, am done with you. This fellow Caulder demands your extradition.’
‘But a slave,’ I returned, ‘is safe in England.’
‘Yes, by George!’ replied the baronet; ‘but it’s not a slave, Miss Valdevia, it’s a thief that he demands. He has quietly destroyed the will; and now accuses you of robbing your father’s bankrupt estate of jewels to the value of a hundred thousand pounds.’
I was so much overcome by indignation at this hateful charge and concern for my unhappy fate that the genial baronet made haste to put me more at ease.
‘Do not be cast down,’ said he. ‘Of course, I wash my hands of you myself. A man in my position — baronet, old family, and all that — cannot possibly be too particular about the company he keeps. But I am a deuced good-humoured old boy, let me tell you, when not ruffled; and I will do the best I can to put you right. I will lend you a trifle of ready money, give you the address of an excellent lawyer in London, and find a way to set you on shore unsuspected.’
He was in every particular as good as his word. Four days later, the Nemorosa sounded her way, under the cloak of a dark night, into a certain haven of the coast of England; and a boat, rowing with muffled oars, set me ashore upon the beach within a stone’s throw of a railway station. Thither, guided by Sir George’s directions, I groped a devious way; and finding a bench upon the platform, sat me down, wrapped in a man’s fur great-coat, to await the coming of the day. It was still dark when a light was struck behind one of the windows of the building; nor had the east begun to kindle to the warmer colours of the dawn, before a porter carrying a lantern, issued from the door and found himself face to face with the unfortunate Teresa. He looked all about him; in the grey twilight of the dawn, the haven was seen to lie deserted, and the yacht had long since disappeared.
‘Who are you?’ he cried.
‘I am a traveller,’ said I.
‘And where do you come from?’ he asked.
‘I am going by the first train to London,’ I replied.
In such manner, like a ghost or a new creation, was Teresa with her bag of jewels landed on the shores of England; in this silent fashion, without history or name, she took her place among the millions of a new country.
Since then, I have lived by the expedients of my lawyer, lying concealed in quiet lodgings, dogged by the spies of Cuba, and not knowing at what hour my liberty and honour may be lost.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13