Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley
Chapter XXV. How They Took the Gold-Train
"God will relent, and quit thee all thy debt, Who ever more approves, and more accepts Him who imploring mercy sues for life, Than who self-rigorous chooses death as due, Which argues over-just, and self-displeased For self-offence, more than for God offended." Samson Agonistes.
A fortnight or more has passed in severe toil, but not more severe than they have endured many a time before. Bidding farewell once and forever to the green ocean of the eastern plains, they have crossed the Cordillera; they have taken a longing glance at the city of Santa Fe, lying in the midst of rich gardens on its lofty mountain plateau, and have seen, as was to be expected, that it was far too large a place for any attempt of theirs. But they have not altogether thrown away their time. Their Indian lad has discovered that a gold-train is going down from Santa Fe toward the Magdalena; and they are waiting for it beside the miserable rut which serves for a road, encamped in a forest of oaks which would make them almost fancy themselves back again in Europe, were it not for the tree-ferns which form the undergrowth; and were it not, too, for the deep gorges opening at their very feet; in which, while their brows are swept by the cool breezes of a temperate zone, they can see far below, dim through their everlasting vapor-bath of rank hot steam, the mighty forms and gorgeous colors of the tropic forest.
They have pitched their camp among the tree-ferns, above a spot where the path winds along a steep hill-side, with a sheer cliff below of many a hundred feet. There was a road there once, perhaps, when Cundinamarca was a civilized and cultivated kingdom; but all which Spanish misrule has left of it are a few steps slipping from their places at the bottom of a narrow ditch of mud. It has gone the way of the aqueducts, and bridges, and post-houses, the gardens and the llama-flocks of that strange empire. In the mad search for gold, every art of civilization has fallen to decay, save architecture alone; and that survives only in the splendid cathedrals which have risen upon the ruins of the temples of the Sun, in honor of a milder Pantheon; if, indeed, that can be called a milder one which demands (as we have seen already) human sacrifices, unknown to the gentle nature-worship of the Incas.
And now, the rapid tropic vegetation has reclaimed its old domains, and Amyas and his crew are as utterly alone, within a few miles of an important Spanish settlement, as they would be in the solitudes of the Orinoco or the Amazon.
In the meanwhile, all their attempts to find sulphur and nitre have been unavailing; and they have been forced to depend after all (much to Yeo's disgust) upon their swords and arrows. Be it so: Drake took Nombre de Dios and the gold-train there with no better weapons; and they may do as much.
So, having blocked up the road above by felling a large tree across it, they sit there among the flowers chewing coca, in default of food and drink, and meditating among themselves the cause of a mysterious roar, which has been heard nightly in their wake ever since they left the banks of the Meta. Jaguar it is not, nor monkey: it is unlike any sound they know; and why should it follow them? However, they are in the land of wonders; and, moreover, the gold train is far more important than any noise.
At last, up from beneath there was a sharp crack and a loud cry. The crack was neither the snapping of a branch, nor the tapping of a woodpecker; the cry was neither the scream of the parrot, nor the howl of the monkey.
"That was a whip's crack," said Yeo, "and a woman's wail. They are close here, lads!"
"A woman's? Do they drive women in their gangs?" asked Amyas.
"Why not, the brutes? There they are, sir. Did you see their basnets glitter?"
"Men!" said Amyas, in a low voice, "I trust you all not to shoot till I do. Then give them one arrow, out swords, and at them! Pass the word along."
Up they came, slowly, and all hearts beat loud at their coming.
First, about twenty soldiers, only one-half of whom were on foot; the other half being borne, incredible as it may seem, each in a chair on the back of a single Indian, while those who marched had consigned their heaviest armor and their arquebuses into the hands of attendant slaves, who were each pricked on at will by the pike of the soldier behind them.
"The men are mad to let their ordnance out of their hands."
"Oh, sir, an Indian will pray to an arquebus not to shoot him; he sure their artillery is safe enough," said Yeo.
"Look at the proud villains," whispered another, "to make dumb beasts of human creatures like that!"
"Ten shot," counted the business-like Amyas, "and ten pikes; Will can tackle them up above."
Last of this troop came some inferior officer, also in his chair, who, as he went slowly up the hill, with his face turned toward the gang which followed, drew every other second the cigar from his lips, to inspirit them with those pious ejaculations to the various objects of his worship, divine, human, anatomic, wooden and textile, which earned for the pious Spaniards of the sixteenth century the uncharitable imputation of being at once the most fetish-ridden idolaters and the most abominable swearers of all Europeans.
"The blasphemous dog!" said Yeo, fumbling at his bow-string, as if he longed to send an arrow through him. But Amyas had hardly laid his finger on the impatient veteran's arm, when another procession followed, which made them forget all else.
A sad and hideous sight it was: yet one too common even then in those remoter districts, where the humane edicts were disregarded which the prayers of Dominican friars (to their everlasting honor be it spoken) had wrung from the Spanish sovereigns, and which the legislation of that most wise, virtuous, and heroic Inquisitor (paradoxical as the words may seem), Pedro de la Gasca, had carried into effect in Peru,--futile and tardy alleviations of cruelties and miseries unexampled in the history of Christendom, or perhaps on earth, save in the conquests of Sennacherib and Zingis Khan. But on the frontiers, where negroes were imported to endure the toil which was found fatal to the Indian, and all Indian tribes convicted (or suspected) of cannibalism were hunted down for the salvation of their souls and the enslavement of their bodies, such scenes as these were still too common; and, indeed, if we are to judge from Humboldt's impartial account, were not very much amended even at the close of the last century, in those much-boasted Jesuit missions in which (as many of them as existed anywhere but on paper) military tyranny was superadded to monastic, and the Gospel preached with fire and sword, almost as shamelessly as by the first Conquistadores.
A line of Indians, Negroes, and Zambos, naked, emaciated, scarred with whips and fetters, and chained together by their left wrists, toiled upwards, panting and perspiring under the burden of a basket held up by a strap which passed across their foreheads. Yeo's sneer was but too just; there were not only old men and youths among them, but women; slender young girls, mothers with children, running at their knee; and, at the sight, a low murmur of indignation rose from the ambushed Englishmen, worthy of the free and righteous hearts of those days, when Raleigh could appeal to man and God, on the ground of a common humanity, in behalf of the outraged heathens of the New World; when Englishmen still knew that man was man, and that the instinct of freedom was the righteous voice of God; ere the hapless seventeenth century had brutalized them also, by bestowing on them, amid a hundred other bad legacies, the fatal gift of negro-slaves.
But the first forty, so Amyas counted, bore on their backs a burden which made all, perhaps, but him and Yeo, forget even the wretches who bore it. Each basket contained a square package of carefully corded hide; the look whereof friend Amyas knew full well.
"What's in they, captain?"
"Gold!" And at that magic word all eyes were strained greedily forward, and such a rustle followed, that Amyas, in the very face of detection, had to whisper--
"Be men, be men, or you will spoil all yet!"
The last twenty, or so, of the Indians bore larger baskets, but more lightly freighted, seemingly with manioc, and maize-bread, and other food for the party; and after them came, with their bearers and attendants, just twenty soldiers more, followed by the officer in charge, who smiled away in his chair, and twirled two huge mustachios, thinking of nothing less than of the English arrows which were itching to be away and through his ribs. The ambush was complete; the only question how and when to begin?
Amyas had a shrinking, which all will understand, from drawing bow in cool blood on men so utterly unsuspicious and defenceless, even though in the very act of devilish cruelty--for devilish cruelty it was, as three or four drivers armed with whips lingered up and down the slowly staggering file of Indians, and avenged every moment's lagging, even every stumble, by a blow of the cruel manati-hide, which cracked like a pistol-shot against the naked limbs of the silent and uncomplaining victim.
Suddenly the casus belli, as usually happens, arose of its own accord.
The last but one of the chained line was an old gray-headed man, followed by a slender graceful girl of some eighteen years old, and Amyas's heart yearned over them as they came up. Just as they passed, the foremost of the file had rounded the corner above; there was a bustle, and a voice shouted, "Halt, senors! there is a tree across the path!"
"A tree across the path?" bellowed the officer, with a variety of passionate addresses to the Mother of Heaven, the fiends of hell, Saint Jago of Compostella, and various other personages; while the line of trembling Indians, told to halt above, and driven on by blows below, surged up and down upon the ruinous steps of the Indian road, until the poor old man fell grovelling on his face.
The officer leaped down, and hurried upward to see what had happened. Of course, he came across the old man.
"Sin peccado concebida! Grandfather of Beelzebub, is this a place to lie worshipping your fiends?" and he pricked the prostrate wretch with the point of his sword.
The old man tried to rise: but the weight on his head was too much for him; he fell again, and lay motionless.
The driver applied the manati-hide across his loins, once, twice, with fearful force; but even that specific was useless.
"Gastado, Senor Capitan," said he, with a shrug. "Used up. He has been failing these three months!"
"What does the intendant mean by sending me out with worn-out cattle like these? Forward there!" shouted he. "Clear away the tree, senors, and I'll soon clear the chain. Hold it up, Pedrillo!"
The driver held up the chain, which was fastened to the old man's wrist. The officer stepped back, and flourished round his head a Toledo blade, whose beauty made Amyas break the Tenth Commandment on the spot.
The man was a tall, handsome, broad-shouldered, high-bred man; and Amyas thought that he was going to display the strength of his arm, and the temper of his blade, in severing the chain at one stroke.
Even he was not prepared for the recondite fancies of a Spanish adventurer, worthy son or nephew of those first conquerors, who used to try the keenness of their swords upon the living bodies of Indians, and regale themselves at meals with the odor of roasting caciques.
The blade gleamed in the air, once, twice, and fell: not on the chain, but on the wrist which it fettered. There was a shriek--a crimson flash--and the chain and its prisoner were parted indeed.
One moment more, and Amyas's arrow would have been through the throat of the murderer, who paused, regarding his workmanship with a satisfied smile; but vengeance was not to come from him.
Quick and fierce as a tiger-cat, the girl sprang on the ruffian, and with the intense strength of passion, clasped him in her arms, and leaped with him from the narrow ledge into the abyss below.
There was a rush, a shout; all faces were bent over the precipice. The girl hung by her chained wrist: the officer was gone. There was a moment's awful silence; and then Amyas heard his body crashing through the tree-tops far below.
"Haul her up! Hew her in pieces! Burn the witch!" and the driver, seizing the chain, pulled at it with all his might, while all springing from their chairs, stooped over the brink.
Now was the time for Amyas! Heaven had delivered them into his hands. Swift and sure, at ten yards off, his arrow rushed through the body of the driver, and then, with a roar as of the leaping lion, he sprang like an avenging angel into the midst of the astonished ruffians.
His first thought was for the girl. In a moment, by sheer strength, he had jerked her safely up into the road; while the Spaniards recoiled right and left, fancying him for the moment some mountain giant or supernatural foe. His hurrah undeceived them in an instant, and a cry of "English! Lutheran dogs!" arose, but arose too late. The men of Devon had followed their captain's lead: a storm of arrows left five Spaniards dead, and a dozen more wounded, and down leapt Salvation Yeo, his white hair streaming behind him, with twenty good swords more, and the work of death began.
The Spaniards fought like lions; but they had no time to fix their arquebuses on the crutches; no room, in that narrow path, to use their pikes. The English had the wall of them; and to have the wall there, was to have the foe's life at their mercy. Five desperate minutes, and not a living Spaniard stood upon those steps; and certainly no living one lay in the green abyss below. Two only, who were behind the rest, happening to be in full armor, escaped without mortal wound, and fled down the hill again.
"After them! Michael Evans and Simon Heard; and catch them, if they run a league."
The two long and lean Clovelly men, active as deer from forest training, ran two feet for the Spaniard's one; and in ten minutes returned, having done their work; while Amyas and his men hurried past the Indians, to help Cary and the party forward, where shouts and musket shots announced a sharp affray.
Their arrival settled the matter. All the Spaniards fell but three or four, who scrambled down the crannies of the cliff.
"Let not one of them escape! Slay them as Israel slew Amalek!" cried Yeo, as he bent over; and ere the wretches could reach a place of shelter, an arrow was quivering in each body, as it rolled lifeless down the rocks.
"Now then! Loose the Indians!"
They found armorers tools on one of the dead bodies, and it was done.
"We are your friends," said Amyas. "All we ask is, that you shall help us to carry this gold down to the Magdalena, and then you are free."
Some few of the younger grovelled at his knees, and kissed his feet, hailing him as the child of the Sun: but the most part kept a stolid indifference, and when freed from their fetters, sat quietly down where they stood, staring into vacancy. The iron had entered too deeply into their soul. They seemed past hope, enjoyment, even understanding.
But the young girl, who was last of all in the line, as soon as she was loosed, sprang to her father's body, speaking no word, lifted it in her thin arms, laid it across her knees, kissed the fallen lips, stroked the furrowed cheeks, murmured inarticulate sounds like the cooing of a woodland dove, of which none knew the meaning but she, and he who heard not, for his soul had long since fled. Suddenly the truth flashed on her; silent as ever, she drew one long heaving breath, and rose erect, the body in her arms.
Another moment, and she had leaped into the abyss.
They watched her dark and slender limbs, twined closely round the old man's corpse, turn over, and over, and over, till a crash among the leaves, and a scream among the birds, told that she had reached the trees; and the green roof hid her from their view.
"Brave lass!" shouted a sailor.
"The Lord forgive her!" said Yeo. "But, your worship, we must have these rascals' ordnance."
"And their clothes too, Yeo, if we wish to get down the Magdalena unchallenged. Now listen, my masters all! We have won, by God's good grace, gold enough to serve us the rest of our lives, and that without losing a single man; and may yet win more, if we be wise, and He thinks good. But oh, my friends, remember Mr. Oxenham and his crew; and do not make God's gift our ruin, by faithlessness, or greediness, or any mutinous haste."
"You shall find none in us!" cried several men. "We know your worship. We can trust our general."
"Thank God!" said Amyas. "Now then, it will be no shame or sin to make the Indians carry it, saving the women, whom God forbid we should burden. But we must pass through the very heart of the Spanish settlements, and by the town of Saint Martha itself. So the clothes and weapons of these Spaniards we must have, let it cost us what labor it may. How many lie in the road?"
"Thirteen here, and about ten up above," said Cary.
"Then there are near twenty missing. Who will volunteer to go down over cliff, and bring up the spoil of them?"
"I, and I, and I;" and a dozen stepped out, as they did always when Amyas wanted anything done; for the simple reason, that they knew that he meant to help at the doing of it himself.
"Very well, then, follow me. Sir John, take the Indian lad for your interpreter, and try and comfort the souls of these poor heathens. Tell them that they shall all be free."
"Why, who is that comes up the road?"
All eyes were turned in the direction of which he spoke. And, wonder of wonders! up came none other than Ayacanora herself, blow- gun in hand, bow on back, and bedecked in all her feather garments, which last were rather the worse for a fortnight's woodland travel.
All stood mute with astonishment, as, seeing Amyas, she uttered a cry of joy, quickened her pace into a run, and at last fell panting and exhausted at his feet.
"I have found you!" she said; "you ran away from me, but you could not escape me!" And she fawned round Amyas, like a dog who has found his master, and then sat down on the bank, and burst into wild sobs.
"God help us!" said Amyas, clutching his hair, as he looked down upon the beautiful weeper. "What am I to do with her, over and above all these poor heathens?"
But there was no time to be lost, and over the cliff he scrambled; while the girl, seeing that the main body of the English remained, sat down on a point of rock to watch him.
After half-an-hour's hard work, the weapons, clothes, and armor of the fallen Spaniards were hauled up the cliff, and distributed in bundles among the men; the rest of the corpses were thrown over the precipice, and they started again upon their road toward the Magdalena, while Yeo snorted like a war-horse who smells the battle, at the delight of once more handling powder and ball.
"We can face the world now, sir! Why not go back and try Santa Fe, after all?"
But Amyas thought that enough was as good as a feast, and they held on downwards, while the slaves followed, without a sign of gratitude, but meekly obedient to their new masters, and testifying now and then by a sign or a grunt, their surprise at not being beaten, or made to carry their captors. Some, however, caught sight of the little calabashes of coca which the English carried. That woke them from their torpor, and they began coaxing abjectly (and not in vain) for a taste of that miraculous herb, which would not only make food unnecessary, and enable their panting lungs to endure that keen mountain air, but would rid them, for awhile at least, of the fallen Indian's most unpitying foe, the malady of thought.
As the cavalcade turned the corner of the mountain, they paused for one last look at the scene of that fearful triumph. Lines of vultures were already streaming out of infinite space, as if created suddenly for the occasion. A few hours and there would be no trace of that fierce fray, but a few white bones amid untrodden beds of flowers.
And now Amyas had time to ask Ayacanora the meaning of this her strange appearance. He wished her anywhere but where she was: but now that she was here, what heart could be so hard as not to take pity on the poor wild thing? And Amyas as he spoke to her had, perhaps, a tenderness in his tone, from very fear of hurting her, which he had never used before. Passionately she told him how she had followed on their track day and night, and had every evening made sounds, as loud as she dared, in hopes of their hearing her, and either waiting for her, or coming back to see what caused the noise.
Amyas now recollected the strange roaring which had followed them.
"Noises? What did you make them with?"
Ayacanora lifted her finger with an air of most self-satisfied mystery, and then drew cautiously from under her feather cloak an object at which Amyas had hard work to keep his countenance.
"Look!" whispered she, as if half afraid that the thing itself should hear her. "I have it--the holy trumpet!"
There it was verily, that mysterious bone of contention; a handsome earthen tube some two feet long, neatly glazed, and painted with quaint grecques and figures of animals; a relic evidently of some civilization now extinct.
Brimblecombe rubbed his little fat hands. "Brave maid! you have cheated Satan this time," quoth he; while Yeo advised that the "idolatrous relic" should be forthwith "hove over cliff."
"Let be," said Amyas. "What is the meaning of this, Ayacanora? And why have you followed us?"
She told a long story, from which Amyas picked up, as far as he could understand her, that that trumpet had been for years the torment of her life; the one thing in the tribe superior to her; the one thing which she was not allowed to see, because, forsooth, she was a woman. So she determined to show them that a woman was as good as a man; and hence her hatred of marriage, and her Amazonian exploits. But still the Piache would not show her that trumpet, or tell her where it was; and as for going to seek it, even she feared the superstitious wrath of the tribe at such a profanation. But the day after the English went, the Piache chose to express his joy at their departure; whereon, as was to be expected, a fresh explosion between master and pupil, which ended, she confessed, in her burning the old rogue's hut over his head, from which he escaped with loss of all his conjuring-tackle, and fled raging into the woods, vowing that he would carry off the trumpet to the neighboring tribe. Whereon, by a sudden impulse, the young lady took plenty of coca, her weapons, and her feathers, started on his trail, and ran him to earth just as he was unveiling the precious mystery. At which sight (she confessed) she was horribly afraid, and half inclined to run; but, gathering courage from the thought that the white men used to laugh at the whole matter, she rushed upon the hapless conjuror, and bore off her prize in triumph; and there it was!
"I hope you have not killed him?" said Amyas.
"I did beat him a little; but I thought you would not let me kill him."
Amyas was half amused with her confession of his authority over her; but she went on--
"And then I dare not go back to the Indians; so I was forced to come after you."
"And is that, then, your only reason for coming after us?" asked stupid Amyas.
He had touched some secret chord--though what it was he was too busy to inquire. The girl drew herself up proudly, blushing scarlet, and said:
"You never tell lies. Do you think that I would tell lies?"
On which she fell to the rear, and followed them steadfastly, speaking to no one, but evidently determined to follow them to the world's end.
They soon left the highroad; and for several days held on downwards, hewing their path slowly and painfully through the thick underwood. On the evening of the fourth day, they had reached the margin of a river, at a point where it seemed broad and still enough for navigation. For those three days they had not seen a trace of human beings, and the spot seemed lonely enough for them to encamp without fear of discovery, and begin the making of their canoes. They began to spread themselves along the stream, in search of the soft-wooded trees proper for their purpose; but hardly had their search begun, when, in the midst of a dense thicket, they came upon a sight which filled them with astonishment. Beneath a honeycombed cliff, which supported one enormous cotton-tree, was a spot of some thirty yards square sloping down to the stream, planted in rows with magnificent banana-plants, full twelve feet high, and bearing among their huge waxy leaves clusters of ripening fruit; while, under their mellow shade, yams and cassava plants were flourishing luxuriantly, the whole being surrounded by a hedge of orange and scarlet flowers. There it lay, streaked with long shadows from the setting sun, while a cool southern air rustled in the cotton-tree, and flapped to and fro the great banana-leaves; a tiny paradise of art and care. But where was its inhabitant?
Aroused by the noise of their approach, a figure issued from a cave in the rocks, and, after gazing at them for a moment, came down the garden towards them. He was a tall and stately old man, whose snow-white beard and hair covered his chest and shoulders, while his lower limbs were wrapt in Indian-web. Slowly and solemnly he approached, a staff in one hand, a string of beads in the other, the living likeness of some old Hebrew prophet, or anchorite of ancient legend. He bowed courteously to Amyas (who of course returned his salute), and was in act to speak, when his eye fell upon the Indians, who were laying down their burdens in a heap under the trees. His mild countenance assumed instantly an expression of the acutest sorrow and displeasure; and, striking his hands together, he spoke in Spanish:
"Alas! miserable me! Alas! unhappy senors! Do my old eyes deceive me, and is it one of those evil visions of the past which haunt my dreams by night; or has the accursed thirst of gold, the ruin of my race, penetrated even into this my solitude? Oh, senors, senors, know you not that you bear with you your own poison, your own familiar fiend, the root of every evil? And is it not enough for you, senors, to load yourselves with the wedge of Achan, and partake his doom, but you must make these hapless heathens the victims of your greed and cruelty, and forestall for them on earth those torments which may await their unbaptized souls hereafter?"
"We have preserved, and not enslaved these Indians, ancient senor," said Amyas, proudly; "and to-morrow will see them as free as the birds over our heads."
"Free? Then you cannot be countrymen of mine! But pardon an old man, my son, if he has spoken too hastily in the bitterness of his own experience. But who and whence are you? And why are you bringing into this lonely wilderness that gold--for I know too well the shape of those accursed packets, which would God that I had never seen!"
"What we are, reverend sir, matters little, as long as we behave to you as the young should to the old. As for our gold, it will be a curse or a blessing to us, I conceive, just as we use it well or ill; and so is a man's head, or his hand, or any other thing; but that is no reason for cutting off his limbs for fear of doing harm with them; neither is it for throwing away those packages, which, by your leave, we shall deposit in one of these caves. We must be your neighbors, I fear, for a day or two; but I can promise you, that your garden shall be respected, on condition that you do not inform any human soul of our being here."
"God forbid, senor, that I should try to increase the number of my visitors, much less to bring hither strife and blood, of which I have seen too much already. As you have come in peace, in peace depart. Leave me alone with God and my penitence, and may the Lord have mercy on you!"
And he was about to withdraw, when, recollecting himself, he turned suddenly to Amyas again--
"Pardon me, senor, if, after forty years of utter solitude, I shrink at first from the conversation of human beings, and forget, in the habitual shyness of a recluse, the duties of a hospitable gentleman of Spain. My garden, and all which it produces, is at your service. Only let me entreat that these poor Indians shall have their share; for heathens though they be, Christ died for them; and I cannot but cherish in my soul some secret hope that He did not die in vain."
"God forbid!" said Brimblecombe. "They are no worse than we, for aught I see, whatsoever their fathers may have been; and they have fared no worse than we since they have been with us, nor will, I promise you."
The good fellow did not tell that he had been starving himself for the last three days to cram the children with his own rations; and that the sailors, and even Amyas, had been going out of their way every five minutes, to get fruit for their new pets.
A camp was soon formed; and that evening the old hermit asked Amyas, Cary, and Brimblecombe to come up into his cavern.
They went; and after the accustomed compliments had passed, sat down on mats upon the ground, while the old man stood, leaning against a slab of stone surmounted by a rude wooden cross, which evidently served him as a place of prayer. He seemed restless and anxious, as if he waited for them to begin the conversation; while they, in their turn, waited for him. At last, when courtesy would not allow him to be silent any longer, he began with a faltering voice:
"You may be equally surprised, senors, at my presence in such a spot, and at my asking you to become my guests even for one evening, while I have no better hospitality to offer you."
"It is superfluous, senor, to offer us food in your own habitation when you have already put all that you possess at our command."
"True, senors: and my motive for inviting you was, perhaps, somewhat of a selfish one. I am possessed by a longing to unburthen my heart of a tale which I never yet told to man, and which I fear can give to you nothing but pain; and yet I will entreat you, of your courtesy, to hear of that which you cannot amend, simply in mercy to a man who feels that he must confess to some one, or die as miserable as he has lived. And I believe my confidence will not be misplaced, when it is bestowed upon you. I have been a cavalier, even as you are; and, strange as it may seem, that which I have to tell I would sooner impart to the ears of a soldier than of a priest; because it will then sink into souls which can at least sympathize, though they cannot absolve. And you, cavaliers, I perceive to be noble, from your very looks; to be valiant, by your mere presence in this hostile land; and to be gentle, courteous, and prudent, by your conduct this day to me and to your captives. Will you, then, hear an old man's tale? I am, as you see, full of words; for speech, from long disuse, is difficult to me, and I fear at every sentence lest my stiffened tongue should play the traitor to my worn-out brain: but if my request seems impertinent, you have only to bid me talk as a host should, of matters which concern his guests, and not himself."
The three young men, equally surprised and interested by this exordium, could only entreat their host to "use their ears as those of his slaves," on which, after fresh apologies, he began:
"Know, then, victorious cavaliers, that I, whom you now see here as a poor hermit, was formerly one of the foremost of that terrible band who went with Pizarro to the conquest of Peru. Eighty years old am I this day, unless the calendar which I have carved upon yonder tree deceives me; and twenty years old was I when I sailed with that fierce man from Panama, to do that deed with which all earth, and heaven, and hell itself, I fear, has rung. How we endured, suffered, and triumphed; how, mad with success, and glutted with blood, we turned our swords against each other, I need not tell to you. For what gentleman of Europe knows not our glory and our shame?"
His hearers bowed assent.
"Yes; you have heard of our prowess: for glorious we were awhile, in the sight of God and man. But I will not speak of our glory, for it is tarnished; nor of our wealth, for it was our poison; nor of the sins of my comrades, for they have expiated them; but of my own sins, senors, which are more in number than the hairs of my head, and a burden too great to bear. Miserere Domine!"
And smiting on his breast, the old warrior went on:
"As I said, we were mad with blood; and none more mad than I. Surely it is no fable that men are possessed, even in this latter age, by devils. Why else did I rejoice in slaying? Why else was I, the son of a noble and truthful cavalier of Castile, among the foremost to urge upon my general the murder of the Inca? Why did I rejoice over his dying agonies? Why, when Don Ferdinando de Soto returned, and upbraided us with our villainy, did I, instead of confessing the sin which that noble cavalier set before us, withstand him to his face, ay, and would have drawn the sword on him, but that he refused to fight a liar, as he said that I was?"
"Then Don de Soto was against the murder? So his own grandson told me. But I had heard of him only as a tyrant and a butcher."
"Senor, he was compact of good and evil, as are other men: he has paid dearly for his sin; let us hope that he has been paid in turn for his righteousness."
John Brimblecombe shook his head at this doctrine, but did not speak.
"So you know his grandson? I trust he is a noble cavalier?"
Amyas was silent; the old gentleman saw that he had touched some sore point, and continued:
"And why, again, senors, did I after that day give myself up to cruelty as to a sport; yea, thought that I did God service by destroying the creatures whom He had made; I who now dare not destroy a gnat, lest I harm a being more righteous than myself? Was I mad? If I was, how then was I all that while as prudent as I am this day? But I am not here to argue, senors, but to confess. In a word, there was no deed of blood done for the next few years in which I had not my share, if it were but within my reach. When Challcuchima was burned, I was consenting; when that fair girl, the wife of Inca Manco, was tortured to death, I smiled at the agonies at which she too smiled, and taunted on the soldiers, to try if I could wring one groan from her before she died. You know what followed, the pillage, the violence, the indignities offered to the virgins of the Sun. Senors, I will not pollute your chaste ears with what was done. But, senors, I had a brother."
And the old man paused awhile.
"A brother--whether better or worse than me, God knows, before whom he has appeared ere now. At least he did not, as I did, end as a rebel to his king! There was a maiden in one of those convents, senors, more beautiful than day: and (I blush to tell it) the two brothers of whom I spoke quarrelled for the possession of her. They struck each other, senors! Who struck first I know not; but swords were drawn, and-- The cavaliers round parted them, crying shame. And one of those two brothers--the one who speaks to you now--crying, 'If I cannot have her, no man shall!' turned the sword which was aimed at his brother, against that hapless maiden--and-- hear me out, senors, before you flee from my presence as from that of a monster!--stabbed her to the heart. And as she died--one moment more, senors, that I may confess all!--she looked up in my face with a smile as of heaven, and thanked me for having rid her once and for all from Christians and their villainy."
The old man paused.
"God forgive you, senor!" said Jack Brimblecombe, softly.
"You do not, then, turn from me, do not curse me? Then I will try you farther still, senors. I will know from human lips, whether man can do such deeds as I have done, and yet be pitied by his kind; that so I may have some hope, that where man has mercy, God may have mercy also. Do you think that I repented at those awful words? Nothing less, senors all. No more than I did when De Soto (on whose soul God have mercy) called me--me, a liar! I knew myself a sinner; and for that very reason I was determined to sin. I would go on, that I might prove myself right to myself, by showing that I could go on, and not be struck dead from heaven. Out of mere pride, senors, and self-will, I would fill up the cup of my iniquity; and I filled it.
"You know, doubtless, senors, how, after the death of old Almagro, his son's party conspired against Pizarro. Now my brother remained faithful to his old commander; and for that very reason, if you will believe it, did I join the opposite party, and gave myself up, body and soul, to do Almagro's work. It was enough for me, that the brother who had struck me thought a man right, for me to think that man a devil. What Almagro's work was, you know. He slew Pizarro, murdered him, senors, like a dog, or rather, like an old lion."
"He deserved his doom," said Amyas.
"Let God judge him, senor, not we; and least of all of us I, who drew the first blood, and perhaps the last, that day. I, senors, it was who treacherously stabbed Francisco de Chanes on the staircase, and so opened the door which else had foiled us all; and I-- But I am speaking to men of honor, not to butchers. Suffice it that the old man died like a lion, and that we pulled him down, young as we were, like curs.
"Well, I followed Almagro's fortunes. I helped to slay Alvarado. Call that my third murder, if you will, for if he was traitor to a traitor, I was traitor to a true man. Then to the war; you know how Vaca de Castro was sent from Spain to bring order and justice where was naught but chaos, and the dance of all devils. We met him on the hills of Chupas. Peter of Candia, the Venetian villain, pointed our guns false, and Almagro stabbed him to the heart. We charged with our lances, man against man, horse against horse. All fights I ever fought" (and the old man's eyes flashed out the ancient fire) "were child's play to that day. Our lances shivered like reeds, and we fell on with battle-axe and mace. None asked for quarter, and none gave it; friend to friend, cousin to cousin-- no, nor brother, O God! to brother. We were the better armed: but numbers were on their side. Fat Carbajal charged our cannon like an elephant, and took them; but Holguin was shot down. I was with Almagro, and we swept all before us, inch by inch, but surely, till the night fell. Then Vaca de Castro, the licentiate, the clerk, the schoolman, the man of books, came down on us with his reserve like a whirlwind. Oh! cavaliers, did not God fight against us, when He let us, the men of iron, us, the heroes of Cuzco and Vilcaconga, be foiled by a scholar in a black gown, with a pen behind his ear? We were beaten. Some ran; some did not run, senors; and I did not. Geronimo de Alvarado shouted to me, 'We slew Pizarro! We killed the tyrant!' and we rushed upon the conqueror's lances, to die like cavaliers. There was a gallant gentleman in front of me. His lance struck me in the crest, and bore me over my horse's croup: but mine, senors, struck him full in the vizor. We both went to the ground together, and the battle galloped over us.
"I know not how long I lay, for I was stunned: but after awhile I lifted myself. My lance was still clenched in my hand, broken but not parted. The point of it was in my foeman's brain. I crawled to him, weary and wounded, and saw that he was a noble cavalier. He lay on his back, his arms spread wide. I knew that he was dead: but there came over me the strangest longing to see that dead man's face. Perhaps I knew him. At least I could set my foot upon it, and say, 'Vanquished as I am, there lies a foe!' I caught hold of the rivets, and tore his helmet off. The moon shone bright, senors, as bright as she shines now--the glaring, ghastly, tell- tale moon, which shows man all the sins which he tries to hide; and by that moonlight, senors, I beheld the dead man's face. And it was the face of my brother!
. . . . . . .
"Did you ever guess, most noble cavaliers, what Cain's curse might be like? Look on me, and know!
"I tore off my armor and fled, as Cain fled--northward ever, till I should reach a land where the name of Spaniard, yea, and the name of Christian, which the Spaniard has caused to be blasphemed from east to west, should never come. I sank fainting, and waked beneath this rock, this tree, forty-four years ago, and I have never left them since, save once, to obtain seeds from Indians, who knew not that I was a Spanish Conquistador. And may God have mercy on my soul!"
The old man ceased; and his young hearers, deeply affected by his tale, sat silent for a few minutes. Then John Brimblecombe spoke:
"You are old, sir, and I am young; and perhaps it is not my place to counsel you. Moreover, sir, in spite of this strange dress of mine, I am neither more nor less than an English priest; and I suppose you will not be willing to listen to a heretic."
"I have seen Catholics, senor, commit too many abominations even with the name of God upon their lips, to shrink from a heretic if he speak wisely and well. At least, you are a man; and after all, my heart yearns more and more, the longer I sit among you, for the speech of beings of my own race. Say what you will, in God's name!"
"I hold, sir," said Jack, modestly, "according to holy Scripture, that whosoever repents from his heart, as God knows you seem to have done, is forgiven there and then; and though his sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow, for the sake of Him who died for all."
"Amen! Amen!" said the old man, looking lovingly at his little crucifix. "I hope and pray--His name is Love. I know it now; who better? But, sir, even if He have forgiven me, how can I forgive myself? In honor, sir, I must be just, and sternly just, to myself, even if God be indulgent; as He has been to me, who has left me here in peace for forty years, instead of giving me a prey to the first puma or jaguar which howls round me every night. He has given me time to work out my own salvation; but have I done it? That doubt maddens me at whiles. When I look upon that crucifix, I float on boundless hope: but if I take my eyes from it for a moment, faith fails, and all is blank, and dark, and dreadful, till the devil whispers me to plunge into yon stream, and once and for ever wake to certainty, even though it be in hell."
What was Jack to answer? He himself knew not at first. More was wanted than the mere repetition of free pardon.
"Heretic as I am, sir, you will not believe me when I tell you, as a priest, that God accepts your penitence."
"My heart tells me so already, at moments. But how know I that it does not lie?"
"Senor," said Jack, "the best way to punish oneself for doing ill, seems to me to go and do good; and the best way to find out whether God means you well, is to find out whether He will help you to do well. If you have wronged Indians in time past, see whether you cannot right them now. If you can, you are safe. For the Lord will not send the devil's servants to do His work."
The old man held down his head.
"Right the Indians? Alas! what is done, is done!"
"Not altogether, senor," said Amyas, "as long as an Indian remains alive in New Granada."
"Senor, shall I confess my weakness? A voice within me has bid me a hundred times go forth and labor, for those oppressed wretches, but I dare not obey. I dare not look them in the face. I should fancy that they knew my story; that the very birds upon the trees would reveal my crime, and bid them turn from me with horror."
"Senor," said Amyas, "these are but the sick fancies of a noble spirit, feeding on itself in solitude. You have but to try to conquer."
"And look now," said Jack, "if you dare not go forth to help the Indians, see now how God has brought the Indians to your own door. Oh, excellent sir--"
"Call me not excellent," said the old man, smiting his breast.
"I do, and shall, sir, while I see in you an excellent repentance, an excellent humility, and an excellent justice," said Jack. "But oh, sir, look upon these forty souls, whom we must leave behind, like sheep which have no shepherd. Could you not teach them to fear God and to love each other, to live like rational men, perhaps to die like Christians? They would obey you as a dog obeys his master. You might be their king, their father, yea, their pope, if you would."
"You do not speak like a Lutheran."
"I am not a Lutheran, but an Englishman: but, Protestant as I am, God knows, I had sooner see these poor souls of your creed, than of none."
"But I am no priest."
"When they are ready," said Jack, "the Lord will send a priest. If you begin the good work, you may trust to Him to finish it."
"God help me!" said the old warrior.
The talk lasted long into the night, but Amyas was up long before daybreak, felling the trees; and as he and Cary walked back to breakfast, the first thing which they saw was the old man in his garden with four or five Indian children round him, talking smilingly to them.
"The old man's heart is sound still," said Will. "No man is lost who still is fond of little children."
"Ah, senors!" said the hermit as they came up, "you see that I have begun already to act upon your advice."
"And you have begun at the right end," quoth Amyas; "if you win the children, you win the mothers."
"And if you win the mothers," quoth Will, "the poor fathers must needs obey their wives, and follow in the wake."
The old man only sighed. "The prattle of these little ones softens my hard heart, senors, with a new pleasure; but it saddens me, when I recollect that there may be children of mine now in the world-- children who have never known a father's love--never known aught but a master's threats--"
"God has taken care of these little ones. Trust that He has taken care of yours."
That day Amyas assembled the Indians, and told them that they must obey the hermit as their king, and settle there as best they could: for if they broke up and wandered away, nothing was left for them but to fall one by one into the hands of the Spaniards. They heard him with their usual melancholy and stupid acquiescence, and went and came as they were bid, like animated machines; but the negroes were of a different temper; and four or five stout fellows gave Amyas to understand that they had been warriors in their own country, and that warriors they would be still; and nothing should keep them from Spaniard-hunting. Amyas saw that the presence of these desperadoes in the new colony would both endanger the authority of the hermit, and bring the Spaniards down upon it in a few weeks; so, making a virtue of necessity, he asked them whether they would go Spaniard-hunting with him.
This was just what the bold Coromantees wished for; they grinned and shouted their delight at serving under so great a warrior, and then set to work most gallantly, getting through more in the day than any ten Indians, and indeed than any two Englishmen.
So went on several days, during which the trees were felled, and the process of digging them out began; while Ayacanora, silent and moody, wandered into the woods all day with her blow-gun, and brought home at evening a load of parrots, monkeys, and curassows; two or three old hands were sent out to hunt likewise; so that, what with the game and the fish of the river, which seemed inexhaustible, and the fruit of the neighboring palm-trees, there was no lack of food in the camp. But what to do with Ayacanora weighed heavily on the mind of Amyas. He opened his heart on the matter to the old hermit, and asked him whether he would take charge of her. The latter smiled, and shook his head at the notion. "If your report of her be true, I may as well take in hand to tame a jaguar." However, he promised to try; and one evening, as they were all standing together before the mouth of the cave, Ayacanora came up smiling with the fruit of her day's sport; and Amyas, thinking this a fit opportunity, began a carefully prepared harangue to her, which he intended to be altogether soothing, and even pathetic,--to the effect that the maiden, having no parents, was to look upon this good old man as her father; that he would instruct her in the white man's religion (at which promise Yeo, as a good Protestant, winced a good deal), and teach her how to be happy and good, and so forth; and that, in fine, she was to remain there with the hermit.
She heard him quietly, her great dark eyes opening wider and wider, her bosom swelling, her stature seeming to grow taller every moment, as she clenched her weapons firmly in both her hands. Beautiful as she always was, she had never looked so beautiful before; and as Amyas spoke of parting with her, it was like throwing away a lovely toy; but it must be done, for her sake, for his, perhaps for that of all the crew.
The last words had hardly passed his lips, when, with a shriek of mingled scorn, rage, and fear, she dashed through the astonished group.
"Stop her!" were Amyas's first words; but his next were, "Let her go!" for, springing like a deer through the little garden and over the flower-fence, she turned, menacing with her blow-gun the sailors, who had already started in her pursuit.
"Let her alone, for Heaven's sake!" shouted Amyas, who, he scarce knew why, shrank from the thought of seeing those graceful limbs struggling in the seamen's grasp.
She turned again, and in another minute her gaudy plumes had vanished among the dark forest stems, as swiftly as if she had been a passing bird.
All stood thunderstruck at this unexpected end to the conference. At last Aymas spoke:
"There's no use in standing here idle, gentlemen. Staring after her won't bring her back. After all, I'm glad she's gone."
But the tone of his voice belied his words. Now he had lost her, he wanted her back; and perhaps every one present, except he, guessed why.
But Ayacanora did not return; and ten days more went on in continual toil at the canoes without any news of her from the hunters. Amyas, by the by, had strictly bidden these last not to follow the girl, not even to speak to her, if they came across her in their wanderings. He was shrewd enough to guess that the only way to cure her sulkiness was to outsulk her; but there was no sign of her presence in any direction; and the canoes being finished at last, the gold, and such provisions as they could collect, were placed on board, and one evening the party prepared for their fresh voyage. They determined to travel as much as possible by night, for fear of discovery, especially in the neighborhood of the few Spanish settlements which were then scattered along the banks of the main stream. These, however, the negroes knew, so that there was no fear of coming on them unawares; and as for falling asleep in their night journeys, "Nobody," the negroes said, "ever slept on the Magdalena; the mosquitoes took too good care of that." Which fact Amyas and his crew verified afterwards as thoroughly as wretched men could do.
The sun had sunk; the night had all but fallen; the men were all on board; Amyas in command of one canoe, Cary of the other. The Indians were grouped on the bank, watching the party with their listless stare, and with them the young guide, who preferred remaining among the Indians, and was made supremely happy by the present of Spanish sword and an English axe; while, in the midst, the old hermit, with tears in his eyes, prayed God's blessing on them.
"I owe to you, noble cavaliers, new peace, new labor, I may say, new life. May God be with you, and teach you to use your gold and your swords better than I used mine.
The adventurers waved their hands to him.
"Give way, men," cried Amyas; and as he spoke the paddles dashed into the water, to a right English hurrah! which sent the birds fluttering from their roosts, and was answered by the yell of a hundred monkeys, and the distant roar of the jaguar.
About twenty yards below, a wooded rock, some ten feet high, hung over the stream. The river was not there more than fifteen yards broad; deep near the rock, shallow on the farther side; and Amyas's canoe led the way, within ten feet of the stone.
As he passed, a dark figure leapt from the bushes on the edge, and plunged heavily into the water close to the boat. All started. A jaguar? No; he would not have missed so short a spring. What, then? A human being?
A head rose panting to the surface, and with a few strong strokes the swimmer had clutched the gunwale. It was Ayacanora!
"Go back!" shouted Amyas. "Go back, girl!"
She uttered the same wild cry with which she had fled into the forest.
"I will die, then!" and she threw up her arms. Another moment, and she had sunk.
To see her perish before his eyes! who could bear that? Her hands alone were above the surface. Amyas caught convulsively at her in the darkness, and seized her wrist.
A yell rose from the negroes: a roar from the crew as from a cage of lions. There was a rush and a swirl along the surface of the stream; and "Caiman! caiman!" shouted twenty voices.
Now, or never, for the strong arm! "To larboard, men, or over we go!" cried Amyas, and with one huge heave he lifted the slender body upon the gunwale. Her lower limbs were still in the water, when, within arm's length, rose above the stream a huge muzzle. The lower jaw lay flat, the upper reached as high as Amyas's head. He could see the long fangs gleam white in the moonshine; he could see for one moment full down the monstrous depths of that great gape, which would have crushed a buffalo. Three inches, and no more, from that soft side, the snout surged up--
There was the gleam of an axe from above, a sharp ringing blow, and the jaws came together with a clash which rang from bank to bank. He had missed her! Swerving beneath the blow, his snout had passed beneath her body, and smashed up against the side of the canoe, as the striker, overbalanced, fell headlong overboard upon the monster's back.
"Who is it?"
"Yeo!" shouted a dozen.
Man and beast went down together, and where they sank, the moonlight shone on a great swirling eddy, while all held their breaths, and Ayacanora cowered down into the bottom of the canoe, her proud spirit utterly broken, for the first time, by the terror of that great need, and by a bitter loss. For in the struggle, the holy trumpet, companion of all her wanderings, had fallen from her bosom; and her fond hope of bringing magic prosperity to her English friends had sunk with it to the bottom of the stream.
None heeded her; not even Amyas, round whose knees she clung, fawning like a spaniel dog: for where was Yeo?
Another swirl; a shout from the canoe abreast of them, and Yeo rose, having dived clean under his own boat, and risen between the two.
"Safe as yet, lads! Heave me a line, or he'll have me after all."
But ere the brute reappeared, the old man was safe on board.
"The Lord has stood by me," panted he, as he shot the water from his ears. "We went down together: I knew the Indian trick, and being uppermost, had my thumbs in his eyes before he could turn: but he carried me down to the very mud. My breath was nigh gone, so I left go, and struck up: but my toes tingled as I rose again, I'll warrant. There the beggar is, looking for me, I declare!"
And, true enough, there was the huge brute swimming slowly round and round, in search of his lost victim. It was too dark to put an arrow into his eye; so they paddled on, while Ayacanora crouched silently at Amyas's feet.
"Yeo!" asked he, in a low voice, "what shall we do with her?"
"Why ask me, sir?" said the old man, as he had a very good right to ask.
"Because, when one don't know oneself, one had best inquire of one's elders. Besides, you saved her life at the risk of your own, and have a right to a voice in the matter, if any one has, old friend."
"Then, my dear young captain, if the Lord puts a precious soul under your care, don't you refuse to bear the burden He lays on you."
Amyas was silent awhile; while Ayacanora, who was evidently utterly exhausted by the night's adventure, and probably by long wanderings, watchings, and weepings which had gone before it, sank with her head against his knee, fell fast asleep, and breathed as gently as a child.
At last he rose in the canoe, and called Cary alongside.
"Listen to me, gentlemen, and sailors all. You know that we have a maiden on board here, by no choice of our own. Whether she will be a blessing to us, God alone can tell: but she may turn to the greatest curse which has befallen us ever since we came out over Bar three years ago. Promise me one thing, or I put her ashore the next beach, and that is, that you will treat her as if she were your own sister; and make an agreement here and now, that if the maid comes to harm among us, the man that is guilty shall hang for it by the neck till he's dead, even though he be I, Captain Leigh, who speak to you. I'll hang you, as I am a Christian; and I give you free leave to hang me."
"A very fair bargain," quoth Cary, "and I for one will see it kept to. Lads, we'll twine a double strong halter for the captain as we go down along."
"I am not jesting, Will."
"I know it, good old lad," said Cary, stretching out his own hand to him across the water through the darkness, and giving him a hearty shake. "I know it; and listen, men! So help me God! but I'll be the first to back the Captain in being as good as his word, as I trust he never will need to be."
"Amen!" said Brimblecombe. "Amen!" said Yeo; and many an honest voice joined in that honest compact, and kept it too, like men.