Chapter XIII. Letters from Home
 

There was some little discussion over the amount of supplies that it would be necessary to purchase.

"Travelling quietly, the journey will not occupy over fourteen days," Harry said. "Do not get anything more than is absolutely necessary. It is evident that the whole country is in a disturbed state, and it is as well to have nothing to lose. We can buy nearly everything we want in the way of meat and flour at villages we pass through. Therefore, if we have enough tea, coffee, and sugar there will be really no occasion to buy anything more. We have still two or three bottles of spirits left, and you can buy pulque everywhere. There is a proverb two or three thousand years old, 'The empty traveller can sing before the robber'. We are reduced to that condition, except for our tents, bedding, and blankets, and they have done good service and would not cost much to replace. There remain, then, only the animals. They would certainly be a serious loss to us."

"Brigands would not want to take them. They would not be of the least use to them in the mountains. I would not say the same of parties of disbanded soldiers making their way down to Lima or Callao, who might prefer riding to travelling all that distance."

"The brigands might take our rifles and pistols, Dias."

"Yes, they would be sure to do that, senor. But we have had more than our share of bad luck already, what with the brigands in the Cerro pass, and these rascals we have just had to do with. I will enquire when the last silver convoy went down. If one has gone during the past five or six days, we could overtake it soon, for we can do two days' journey to its one. If no convoy has gone forward later, and there is one starting shortly, it might be worth our while to wait for it, for by all accounts the road down to Lima is infested by discharged soldiers, and ruffians of all kinds from Callao and Lima."

"Have the convoys an escort?"

"Yes, senors. The silver mines have always a considerable force in their pay. They used to have troops from the division stationed here, but what with the constant revolutions, and the fact that more than once the escort, instead of protecting the convoys, mutinied and seized them, they found it better to raise a force themselves. They do not take Creoles, preferring pure-bred Indians, who are just as brave as the Creoles, if not braver, and can be relied upon to be faithful to their trust. The consequence is that, in spite of the disturbed state of the country, it is a long time now since one of their escorts has been attacked, especially as the robbers would find great difficulty in disposing of the silver, as each ingot is marked with the name of the mine it comes from.

"They might, of course, melt it up again; but even then there would be a difficulty, as the law is very strict as to the sale of silver, and a certificate has to be obtained from the local authorities in every case, stating where it was obtained. This is hard upon the natives, for many of the little mines are worked among the mountains, and the rascals, to whom all official positions are given in reward for services done to the party which happens to be in power for the time, take good care to fleece the Indians heavily before they will give them the necessary documents. Nothing can be done here, senors, without greasing the palms of two or three people, and the grease has to be pretty heavily laid on."

Dias went out and made enquiries. "There will be no convoy for another fortnight. One went down ten days ago."

"I certainly shall not wait another fortnight, Dias. As to an escort, less than a dozen men would be useless, and as they would be a fortnight at least going down, and as much returning, even if you could get twelve men who could be relied upon, it would be a very expensive job. We might as well risk losing our baggage, and even our guns. The great thing will be to reduce the weight as much as possible. Four cotton beds take up a lot of space, and I think in any case I should have bought new ones at Lima; at any rate they can go. The blankets and ponchos we could, of course, carry behind us. So that practically there are only the two tents, cooking utensils, and the stores, which will not weigh many pounds, to carry, and with our clothes the whole will make a ridiculously small load even for one mule. We had better get rid of the pickaxes and shovels, they would fetch pretty nearly as much here as we should give for new ones at Lima.

"Thus, then, with Donna Maria riding one of the mules, there would be our five selves and three led mules, of which only one would be laden. That would offer no great temptation to plunderers; and as we shall all have guns across our shoulders, they would see that it would not be worth while to interfere on the very slight chance that the one laden mule might be carrying anything valuable."

"I agree with you, senor. Our appearance would be that of a party of travellers who have been exploring the old ruins, or, as has been done before, endeavouring to ascertain whether the rivers on the east are navigable down to the Amazon. Besides, the bulk of the people here do not forget what they owe to Englishmen, and the fact that you are of that nation would in itself secure good treatment for you among all except desperate men."

Accordingly they started the next morning. Maria rode, in Amazon fashion, on a mule between her husband and Harry. Bertie followed with Jose, to whose saddle the three baggage mules were attached in single file. They were undisturbed on their journey. Three or four times they were hailed by men on the rocks above as they went through difficult points of the pass. The reply of Dias, that the two gentlemen with him were Englishmen who had been exploring the ruins and doing a little shooting among the hills, generally satisfied them. One or two, however, who enquired what the mule was carrying, were invited by him to come down and see, though at the same time they were informed that the load contained nothing but blankets and cooking vessels, and enough provisions to last them on the way.

When, within two days' journey from Lima, a party of rough men came down into the road, Dias rode forward to meet them and repeated his usual story. "You can examine the mule if you like," he said, "but I warn you not to interfere with us; the English senors are not men to be meddled with. They are armed with rifles, and each carries a brace of double- barrelled pistols. They are dead shots, too, and you may reckon that it will cost you over a dozen lives were you to interfere with them. Moreover, the other muleteer and myself could give a fair account of ourselves. Rather than have trouble, however, two of you can come forward and see that my statement as to what the mule carries is correct. Its burden would not fetch fifty dollars at Lima."

Two of the men came forward and examined the mule's burden, and felt the saddles of the others to see that nothing was concealed there. When they rejoined their party one who appeared to be their leader came forward.

"Senors," he said, "I regret that we have stopped you; but we are poor men, and are obliged to take to the road to live. Perhaps your honours would not mind giving us ten dollars to buy food at the next village."

"I have not many dollars left," Harry said, "but if you really need food you are welcome to ten of them, for we shall need nothing more than what we carry till we arrive at Lima." He handed him the ten dollars, and then, showing him his purse, said, "You see there are but five others."

With many thanks the man retired, and he and his companions took off their hats as Harry and his party rode through them.

"Another such stoppage," Harry said with a laugh, "and we shall have to fall back upon our little stock of gold-dust."

However, they met with no more trouble, and on the following evening rode into Lima and took up their quarters at the hotel. Dias asked that he might go on with the mules to his home.

"In the first place, senor, we want to know how things have gone on in our absence. We had arranged with neighbours to look after the garden and the house. They were glad to do so, as the garden was a fruitful one. They were to take all they could raise and keep it well planted, so that whenever we might return we should find our usual supply of fruits and vegetables. In the next place, Maria is nervous about my staying here after what happened last time. We may take it as certain that the friends of the men we hurt will take the chance of paying off the score if they can find an opportunity. I shall come in each day to see if you have any orders for me."

"There will be no occasion for that, Dias. We have quite made up our minds to wait here for a week before starting on our next expedition, so if you will come over in four days that will be quite soon enough. You can overhaul the blankets and bags, and see that those good enough to keep are put in good repair, and those worn out replaced. We shall want quite as many stores as those we took last time, for there are very few villages except on the sea-shore, and we shall find difficulty in replenishing our stock. We shall have to buy double-barrelled guns in place of those we lost, but that we shall do ourselves. We have plenty of ammunition and cartridges for the rifles and pistols, but we had only a few shot cartridges left when we lost the guns."

As soon as Dias had gone on with the mules Harry went to the British consul's and found three letters waiting there for him, two from Miss Fortescue and one from Mr. Barnett. He put the former into his pocket to be read and enjoyed privately, but opened that of Mr. Barnett at once. It was in answer to that Harry had written at Cuzco.

"My dear Harry," he said,

"Your first letter was quite satisfactory. I was glad to find that you had reached Lima without encountering more than a stiffish gale, which was as well as you could have expected. I was still more glad that you had found Dias alive and willing to accompany you. Your letter from Cuzco has now reached me. I think you were extremely lucky to get through that street broil without any damage to either of you. It was certainly a hazardous business to interfere in an affair of that kind without having any weapons except the sticks you carried. Still, I can well understand that, as you would certainly have lost the services of Dias had you not done so, it was worth running a good deal of risk; and, as you say, it had the natural effect of binding him to you heart and soul.

"I feel very uneasy about you both, and have blamed myself many a time for suggesting this scheme to you. I can only say that it is really the only possible way in which it seemed to me you could carry out the task set you. In fairy stories it is, so far as I can remember, a not uncommon thing for a king to set some task, that appears absolutely hopeless, to the suitors for his daughter's hand, and the hero always accomplishes the impossible. But this is always done with the assistance of some good fairy, and unfortunately good fairies are not to be met with in the present day. I have great faith in Dias, but fear that he is a very poor substitute for a fairy godmother. Still, I am convinced that he will do all in his power, and will even strain his conscience severely, by conducting you to places where his traditions lead him to believe that gold, either in the shape of mines or hidden treasure, is to be found.

"Your search will not improbably lead you into places where the Indians have won back their own from the civilization introduced by the Spaniards, and I have always heard that on the eastern side of the Cordilleras the natives entertain a deadly hatred for whites, and attack all who endeavour to penetrate into the forest. Don't be too rash, lad. Remember that it will not add to your lady-love's happiness to learn that you have been massacred in your attempt to carry out your knight-errant adventure, and if you are careless about your own life, don't forget that its loss will probably entail the loss of your brother's also. Dangers, of course, you must meet and face, but remember that prudence is a valuable aid to bravery.

"I am glad to know that Dias has taken his wife with him. A woman is a very useful adjunct to an expedition such as yours. Of course in some ways she is necessarily a trouble, and always a responsibility. Still, if, as you say is the case with her, she is a good cook, this makes a wonderful difference in your comfort, and certainly adds to the chance of your preserving your health. And in the next place, should you fall ill, or be mauled by a tiger or puma, she will make a far better nurse than Dias himself would be. Now that you are cutting yourself adrift from civilization, I shall not expect to hear from you again for a long time. I shall try and not be uneasy; but really, Harry, I do feel that I have incurred a very heavy responsibility, and may, with the best intentions in the world, have sent you and Bertie to your death. I have, as you directed me, addressed this to the care of our consul, and it must be many months before you receive it, many months more before I again hear from you. Should you require more money, draw upon me. I have always a good balance standing at the bank, therefore do not hesitate to draw, in case the amount sent out to you quarterly does not prove sufficient to carry out any scheme you may have in hand.

"With all good wishes for your own and Bertie's welfare,

"I remain,

"Your affectionate guardian,

"JAMES BARNETT."

When he returned to the hotel he handed Mr. Barnett's letter to Bertie to read, and said:

"Stop down here in the patio, Bertie; I have two letters that I want to read quietly."

Bertie laughed.

"All right, Harry; take your time over them; I won't disturb you."

It was dusk now, and when Harry went to his room he lit a couple of candles and seated himself in a large cane arm-chair and opened his letters.

The first one consisted chiefly of expressions of pleasure at his arrival at Callao, of remarks upon the voyage, of complaints as to the long time that had passed without news of him, and of assurances of affection.

The second was, like Mr. Barnett's, in reply to his letter from Cuzco.

"My dearest Harry,

"After reading your letter I have been more and more impressed with my heartlessness in allowing you to undertake such a journey as you have before you. I ought to have been braver. I ought to have refused absolutely to allow you to go. The prospect of your being able to overcome my father's objections really amounts to nothing, and I ought to have said that I would not accept the sacrifice, and would not allow you to run such risks; that it would be better and kinder for both of us to accept the inevitable, and not enter upon such a struggle with fate.

"Do not think that I am already growing weary of waiting, and that my heart is in any way changed. It is not that. It is anxiety about you, and the feeling how wrong I was to let you go. Were there even a shadow of chance of your success I would wait patiently for years. I do not say that my life is a pleasant one. It is not. My father is still bitterly angry with me for, as he says, throwing away my chances; that is to say, of marrying a man I do not care for, simply because he is rich. But I can bear that. Mother is very very good, and does all in her power to cheer me; but, as you know, she has never been much more than a cipher, accustomed always to submit to my father's will, and it is wonderful to me that in our matter she has ventured, not openly to oppose him, but to give me what strength and comfort she can.

"I hardly know how I should have got on without her comfort. My father hardly speaks to me. He treats me as if I had been convicted of some deadly sin, and is only restrained from punishing me in some way because, by some blunder or other, contumacy against the will of a father has been omitted from the penal code. Seriously, Harry, it makes me unhappy, not only for myself but for him. Until I was unable to give in to him in this question he has always been the kindest of fathers. I am sure he feels this estrangement between us almost as much as I do, but believes that he is acting for my good; and it is a great pain to him that I cannot see the matter in the same light as he does. Of course to me it is most ridiculous that he should suppose that my happiness depends upon having a title, and cutting a figure at court, and that sort of thing; but there is no arguing over it, and I am as thoroughly convinced that my view is the correct one as he is that it is utter folly.

"However, I am almost as sorry for him as for myself, and would do almost anything short of giving you up to make him happy. However, do not think that I am very miserable, because I am not. Somehow, though I can't give any good reason for my belief, I do think you will succeed. I do not say that I think for a moment you are likely to come home with the sum my father named as necessary; that seems to be quite hopeless. But I think somehow you may succeed in doing well; and though some people might consider that he was justified in refusing his consent to what he might think was a bad match, he could not do so with any justice were I to determine upon marrying a gentleman with some fortune. He thinks a great deal of public opinion, and would know that even chat would be against him. But Indeed, Harry, I am beginning to doubt whether in the end I shall be able to sacrifice my life to his unfortunate mania, that I must marry what he calls well. I love you, and told him that if at the end of two years you were not in a position to claim my hand, I would give in to my father's wishes. I will keep my promise so far, that I will not run away with you or marry you in defiance of his command. But as I have agreed to wait for two years for you, I may ask you to wait another two years for me.

"When I think of you going through all sorts of dangers and hardships for my sake, I feel that it would be downright wickedness to turn against you if you find that you cannot perform an impossible task. Instead of this separation making you less dear to me, it is affecting me in quite the other way. My thoughts are always with you. How could it be otherwise? I have worked myself up to such a pitch that I have almost resolved that, when the two years are up, I will say to my father: 'I shall ask Harry to release me from my promise to him, and for two years, Father, I will go about and allow men a fair chance of winning my love. If at the end of that time I have met no one to whom I can give my heart, I will then go my own way, and if Harry will take me I will marry him.' It will require a great deal of courage to say so; but you are doing so much to try and win me, that it would be hard indeed if I were to shrink from doing a little on my part.

"Still, it would make it easier for me if you should have the good fortune to bring home something; not because, as I have told you many times, I should shrink for a moment from renouncing all the luxuries in which I have been brought up, and for which I care so little, but because it would, in his eyes, be a proof of how earnestly you have striven to do what you could to meet his requirements. I did not mean to say this when I began my letter, but it seems to me that it will give you heart and strength in your work, and that you will see from it that I, too, have taken my courage in my hand, and show you that your love and faithfulness shall some day have the reward they deserve.

"God bless you and keep you, dearest,

"Your loving HILDA."

Harry read the letter through again and again, and at last Bertie came in.

"What! at it still, Harry?" he said with a laugh. "You must have got your letters by heart by this time. I have been sitting in the patio by myself for two mortal hours expecting you to come down. At last I said to myself, 'This sort of thing will bring on madness. When a healthy sailor forgets that his brother is waiting for supper, to say nothing of himself, it is clear that there is something radically wrong.'"

"It is evident, Bertie, that at present you know nothing of human nature. If there had been anything radically wrong in this letter I should probably have been down long ago. It is just the contrary. Hilda says that if I don't succeed here, she will give herself, or rather her father, two years, and at the end of that time, if she doesn't find someone she likes better, she will marry me, whether he likes it or not--at least, that is what it comes to."

"I congratulate you, old boy. At the same time, it is evident that she would not have been worth her salt if she had arrived at any other conclusion. Now, having settled that comfortably, let us go and have something to eat. You appear to forget altogether that you have had nothing since breakfast, and it is now past eight o'clock."

"You boys think of nothing but eating," Harry grumbled.

"Well, up till now, Harry, from the time we started, I have observed that you have a very healthy appetite yourself, and I can tell you it has cost me half a dollar in bribing the cook to stay on beyond his usual hour. I did not like to tell him that you were engaged in reading a love-letter fifty times, so I put it delicately and said that you were engaged in business of importance. It went against my conscience to tell such a buster."

"There, come on, Bertie. I had begun to hope that you were growing into a sensible fellow, but I am afraid that there is no chance of that now, and that you will continue to be a donkey to the end of your life."

Harry had told Dias that they had better take two or three days at home before they came into Lima again, but to his surprise the muleteer came in at ten o'clock next morning.

"Well, Dias, I did not expect to see you again so soon. You have found everything right at home, I hope?"

"No, senor, I am sorry to say I did not. Three days after we left here our house was burnt down."

"Burnt down, Dias! I am sorry indeed to hear that. How did it happen? I thought you said that you had locked it up, and left no one there."

"That was so, senor. The people who took over the garden were to go into the house once a week to see that everything was in order; but as this fire broke out only three days after I left, they had not entered it. Everyone says that it must have been fired on purpose, for the flames seem to have burst out in all parts at once. No one in the town thought that I had an enemy in the world, and all have been wondering who could have had a grudge against me. Of course we need not go very far to guess who was at the bottom of it."

"I suppose not, Dias. It must have been those scoundrels we gave such a thrashing to."

"There is no doubt of that, senor. But this time they have got the best of me, for they know very well that I have no proof against them, and that it would be useless to lodge any complaint."

"I am afraid it would, Dias. Is it quite burnt down?"

"The walls are standing, senor. It takes a good deal to burn adobe."

"What do you suppose it would cost to put it in the same condition as before, with the furniture and everything?"

"No great thing, senor; two hundred or two hundred and fifty dollars. It would not be as much as that if it hadn't been that Maria had left her festa dresses and her silver trinkets behind. There was not much furniture in the house; but I think I could replace everything for about two hundred dollars, and I have a good deal more than that laid by."

"I shall certainly make that up to you, Dias. It was entirely your kindness in deciding to take us on Mr. Barnett's recommendation, and to undertake this journey, that brought the ill-will of these scoundrels upon you. Of course it is of no use doing anything now, but when our search is over I shall certainly see that you are not in any way the loser."

"No, senor; if I could not replace it myself I might accept your kind offer, but I can do it without breaking very heavily into my savings. And indeed their attack on me was the outcome of an old grudge. I have been long regarded as a fortunate man, and truly I have been so. If there was a job for five mules, and I was disengaged, I always had the first offer."

"But that was not fortune, Dias; that was because you were known to be wholly trustworthy."

"There are few muleteers who are not so, senor; it is rarely indeed that muleteers are false to their trust. I can scarce remember an instance. We Indians have our faults, but we are honest."

"Well, perhaps your getting the first job to go with foreign travellers may have been a piece of good fortune, but it is because these were so well satisfied with you that others engaged you. Trustworthiness is not the only thing wanted in a muleteer; willingness, cheerfulness, and a readiness to oblige are almost as important for the comfort of travellers. Well, do you think these fellows will try and play you another trick, Dias?"

"I hope they will," Dias said savagely, "that is, if they don't have too much odds against me. I owe them a big score now, for twice they have got the better of me. I should like to get even with them."

"Well, Dias, I hope they won't try anything of the sort. If anything should happen to you, I should not only be extremely sorry for your sake and your wife's, but it would destroy the last chance I have of carrying out my search for treasure. Do you think that if I were to go to the consul and lay a complaint against them, on the ground, in the first place, of their attack on you, and now of burning your house, it would have any effect?"

"If you were to make a complaint it might do, senor; it certainly would not were I to do so. A little bribe would, of course, be necessary; you cannot do anything without that. The officials here are all Gamarra's men, and there is not one of them who would not take a bribe. But would it be worth while, as we are only going to stay here a week? And if you got them imprisoned they would be out again before I came back, and would be more anxious than ever to get rid of me."

"There is a good deal in that, Dias. As, of course, we shall be away, and starting for home again as soon as we return here, their spite would be directed entirely against you."

"I hope, senors, that while you stop here you will never go out without your pistols. It is against you they have a grudge now more than me; it was owing to you that they failed in killing me."

"We will do so; and we won't carry sticks this time, so that if they see us going along they will think we are unarmed."

Whenever they went out after dark, indeed, Harry and Bertie had an idea that they were followed, and on their way home each invariably carried a cocked pistol in his pocket, ready for instant use. It was well that they did so, for on returning late one evening from Senor Pasquez, four men suddenly sprang out upon them.

They were on their guard, and their arms went up in an instant, and two shots were fired. As the pistols were almost touching the men's heads when the trigger was pulled, both the assailants dropped dead, and the others at once took to their heels.

"There are two of Dias's enemies wiped out," Harry said quietly. "I hope the others will give us a chance before we leave. Well, let us walk on before the watch comes along. It would ruin our plans altogether if we were kept here for an indefinite time while enquiries are being made."

The next morning they heard from their waiter at breakfast that two men had been found dead in the street.

"They are muleteers," he said, "but are known to be bad characters, and are suspected of having been concerned in several murders. It is evident that they made a mistake this time, and have got what they deserved. They are known to be associated with others. There were five of them; one was killed in a knife fight some months ago, and a search has been made for the others, but it is not likely that they will be caught. They were probably concerned in the affair, and knowing that they would be suspected of having a hand in this, and that their character will go against them, I expect they went off at once to the foot of the hills, and won't be heard of again for some time to come."

"I think it a pity they were not all shot. It is a shame that in a town like this people cannot walk in the streets after dark without the risk of being assassinated."

Dias was very pleased when, on coming up that morning, he heard of what had happened. He quite agreed that the other men would almost certainly have taken to the mountains.

"Even if they have not, senor, you are safe from another attack. Now they know that you carry pistols, and are prepared for them, they will let you alone."

"When we come back here, Dias, we will give you a brace of our pistols, and I trust you will carry them in your pocket ready for use after dark, whether you are in Lima or at Miraflores."

"Thank you, senor. I do not think they are likely to show their faces here again for a long time; but at any rate I will be on my guard, and will gratefully accept your offer of the pistols. Now, senors, I must set to work to-day to get in our stores for the next journey. I have made a list of what we shall want."

"Well, I have plenty of money, Dias, for I find two remittances from home awaiting me here. We have already bought two double-barrelled guns and a stock of ammunition, principally buck-shot, for we shall not be doing much big game shooting. We can always buy food at the sea-side villages."

Three days later all was in readiness. The mules were brought up from Miraflores by Jose, accompanied by Maria, and an early start was made on the following morning.