The Warrior Maid of San Carlos by Robert Barr
The young naval officer came into this world with two eyes and two arms; he left it with but one of each--nevertheless the remaining eye was ever quick to see, and the remaining arm ever strong to seize. Even his blind eye became useful on one historic occasion. But the loss of eye or arm was as nothing to the continual loss of his heart, which often led him far afield in the finding of it. Vanquished when he met the women; invincible when he met the men; in truth, a most human hero, and so we all love Jack--the we, in this instant, as the old joke has it, embracing the women.
In the year 1780 Britain ordered Colonel Polson to invade Nicaragua. The task imposed on the gallant Colonel was not an onerous one, for the Nicaraguans never cared to secure for themselves the military reputation of Sparta. In fact, some years after this, a single American, Walker, with a few Californian rifles under his command, conquered the whole nation and made himself President of it, and perhaps would have been Dictator of Nicaragua to-day if his own country had not laid him by the heels. It is no violation of history to state that the entire British fleet was not engaged in subduing Nicaragua, and that Colonel Polson felt himself amply provided for the necessities of the crisis by sailing into the harbour of San Juan del Norte with one small ship. There were numerous fortifications at the mouth of the river, and in about an hour after landing, the Colonel was in possession of them all.
The flight of time, brief as it was, could not be compared in celerity with the flight of the Nicaraguans, who betook themselves to the backwoods with an impetuosity seldom seen outside of a race-course. There was no loss of life so far as the British were concerned, and the only casualties resulting to the Nicaraguans were colds caught through the overheating of themselves in their feverish desire to explore immediately the interior of their beloved country. "He who bolts and runs away will live to bolt another day," was the motto of the Nicaraguans. So far, so good, or so bad, as the case may be.
The victorious Colonel now got together a flotilla of some half a score of boats, and the flotilla was placed under the command of the young naval officer, the hero of this story. The expedition proceeded cautiously up the river San Juan, which runs for eighty miles, or thereabouts, from Lake Nicaragua to the salt water. The voyage was a sort of marine picnic. Luxurious vegetation on either side, and no opposition to speak of, even from the current of the river; for Lake Nicaragua itself is but a hundred and twenty feet above the sea level, and a hundred and twenty feet gives little rapidity to a river eighty miles long.
As the flotilla approached the entrance to the lake caution increased, for it was not known how strong Fort San Carlos might prove. This fort, perhaps the only one in the country strongly built, stood at once on the shore of the lake and bank of the stream. There was one chance in a thousand that the speedy retreat of the Nicaraguans had been merely a device to lure the British into the centre of the country, where the little expedition of two hundred sailors and marines might be annihilated. In these circumstances Colonel Poison thought it well, before coming in sight of the fort, to draw up his boats along the northern bank of the San Juan River, sending out scouts to bring in necessary information regarding the stronghold.
The young naval officer all through his life was noted for his energetic and reckless courage, so it was not to be wondered at that the age of twenty-two found him impatient with the delay, loth to lie inactive in his boat until the scouts returned; so he resolved upon an action that would have justly brought a court-martial upon his head had a knowledge of it come to his superior officer. He plunged alone into the tropical thicket, armed only with two pistols and a cutlass, determined to force his way through the rank vegetation along the bank of the river, and reconnoitre Fort San Carlos for himself. If he had given any thought to the matter, which it is more than likely he did not, he must have known that he ran every risk of capture and death, for the native of South America, then as now, has rarely shown any hesitation about shooting prisoners of war. Our young friend, therefore, had slight chance for his life if cut off from his comrades, and, in the circumstances, even a civilised nation would have been perfectly within its right in executing him as a spy.
After leaving the lake the river San Juan bends south, and then north again. The scouts had taken the direct route to the fort across the land, but the young officer's theory was that, if the Nicaraguans meant to fight, they would place an ambush in the dense jungle along the river, and from this place of concealment harass the flotilla before it got within gunshot of the fort. This ambuscade could easily fall back upon the fort if directly attacked and defeated. This, the young man argued was what he himself would have done had he been in command of the Nicaraguan forces, so it naturally occurred to him to discover whether the same idea had suggested itself to the commandant at San Carlos.
Expecting every moment to come upon this ambuscade, the boy proceeded, pistol in hand, with the utmost care, crouching under the luxuriant tropical foliage, tunnelling his way, as one might say, along the dark alleys of vegetation, roofed in by the broad leaves overhead. Through cross-alleys he caught glimpses now and then of the broad river, of which he was desirous to keep within touch. Stealthily crossing one of these riverward alleys the young fellow came upon his ambuscade, and was struck motionless with amazement at the form it took. Silhouetted against the shining water beyond was a young girl. She knelt at the very verge of the low, crumbling cliff above the water; her left hand, outspread, was on the ground, her right rested against the rough trunk of a palm-tree, and counter-balanced the weight of her body, which leaned far forward over the brink. Her face was turned sideways towards him, and her lustrous eyes peered intently down the river at the British flotilla stranded along the river's bank. So intent was her gaze, so confident was she that she was alone, that the leopard-like approach of her enemy gave her no hint of attack. Her perfect profile being towards him, he saw her cherry-red lips move silently as if she were counting the boats and impressing their number upon her memory.
A woman in appearance, she was at this date but sixteen years old, and the breathless young man who stood like a statue regarding her thought he had never seen a vision of such entrancing beauty, and, as I have before intimated, he was a judge of feminine loveliness. Pulling himself together, and drawing a deep but silent breath, he went forward with soft tread, and the next instant there was a grip of steel on the wrist of the young girl that rested on the earth. With a cry of dismay she sprang to her feet and confronted her assailant, nearly toppling over the brink as she did so; but he grasped her firmly, and drew her a step or two up the arcade. As he held her left wrist there was in the air the flash of a stiletto, and the naval officer's distinguished career would have ended on that spot had he not been a little quicker than his fair opponent. His disengaged hand gripped the descending wrist and held her powerless.
"Ruffian!" she hissed, in Spanish.
The young man had a workable knowledge of the language, and he thanked his stars now that it was so. He smiled at her futile struggles to free herself, then said:--
"When they gave me my commission, I had no hope that I should meet so charming an enemy. Drop the knife, senorita, and I will release your hand."
The girl did not comply at first. She tried to wrench herself free, pulling this way and that with more strength than might have been expected from one so slight. But finding herself helpless in those rigid bonds, she slowly relaxed the fingers of her right hand, and let the dagger drop point downward into the loose soil, where it stood and quivered.
"Now let me go," she said, panting. "You promised."
The young man relinquished his hold, and the girl, with the quick movement of a humming-bird, dived into the foliage, and would have disappeared, had he not with equal celerity intercepted her, again imprisoning her wrist.
"You liar!" she cried, her magnificent eyes ablaze with anger. "Faithless minion of a faithless race, you promised to let me go."
"And I kept my promise," said the young man, still with a smile. "I said I would release your hand, and I did so; but as for yourself, that is a different matter. You see, senorita, to speak plainly, you are a spy. I have caught you almost within our lines, counting our boats, and, perhaps, our men. There is war between our countries, and I arrest you as a spy."
"A brave country, yours," she cried, "to war upon women!"
"Well," said the young man, with a laugh, "what are we to do? The men won't stay and fight us."
She gave him a dark, indignant glance at this, which but heightened her swarthy beauty.
"And what are you," she said, "but a spy?"
"Not yet," he replied. "If you had found me peering at the fort, then, perhaps, I should be compelled to plead guilty. But as it is, you are the only spy here at present, senorita. Do you know what the fate of a spy is?"
The girl stood there for a few moments, her face downcast, the living gyves still encircling her wrists. When she looked up it was with a smile so radiant that the young man gasped for breath, and his heart beat faster than ever it had done in warfare.
"But you will not give me up?" she murmured, softly.
"Then would I be in truth a faithless minion," cried the young man, fervently; "not, indeed, to my country, but to your fascinating sex, which I never adored so much as now."
"You mean that you would be faithless to your country, but not to me?"
"Well," said the young man, with some natural hesitation, "I shouldn't care to have to choose between my allegiance to one or the other. England can survive without warring upon women, as you have said; so I hope that if we talk the matter amicably over, we may find that my duty need not clash with my inclination."
"I am afraid that is impossible," she answered, quickly. "I hate your country."
"But not the individual members of it, I hope."
"I know nothing of its individual members, nor do I wish to, as you shall soon see, if you will but let go my wrist."
"Ah, senorita," exclaimed the young man, "you are using an argument now that will make me hold you forever."
"In that case," said the girl, "I shall change my argument, and give instead a promise. If you release me I shall not endeavour to escape--I may even be so bold as to expect your escort to the fort, where, if I understand you aright, you were but just now going."
"I accept your promise, and shall be delighted if you will accept my escort. Meanwhile, in the interest of our better acquaintance, can I persuade you to sit down, and allow me to cast myself at your feet?"
The girl, with a clear, mellow laugh, sat down, and the young man reclined in the position he had indicated, gazing up at her with intense admiration in his eyes.
"If this be war," he said to himself, "long may I remain a soldier." Infatuated as he certainly was, his natural alertness could not but notice that her glance wandered to the stiletto, the perpendicular shining blade of which looked like the crest of a glittering, dangerous serpent, whose body was hidden in the leaves. She had seated herself as close to the weapon as possible, and now, on one pretext or another, edged nearer and nearer to it. At last the young man laughed aloud, and, sweeping his foot round, knocked down the weapon, then indolently stretching out his arm, he took it.
"Senorita," he said, examining its keen edge, "will you give me this dagger as a memento of our meeting?"
"It is unlucky," she murmured, "to make presents of stilettos."
"I think," said the young man, glancing up at her with a smile on his lips, "it will be more lucky for me if I place it here in my belt than if I allow it to reach the possession of another."
"Do you intend to steal it, senor?"
"Oh, no. If you refuse to let me have it, I will give it back to you when our interview ends; but I should be glad to possess it, if you allow me to keep it."
"It is unlucky, as I have said; to make a present of it, but I will exchange. If you will give me one of your loaded pistols, you may have the stiletto."
"A fair exchange," he laughed, but he made no motion to fulfil his part to the barter. "May I have the happiness of knowing your name, senorita?" he asked.
"I am called Donna Rafaela Mora," answered the girl, simply. "I am daughter of the Commandant of Fort San Carlos. I am no Nicaraguan, but a Spaniard And, senor, what is your name?"
"Horatio Nelson, an humble captain in His Majesty's naval forces, to be heard from later, I hope, unless Donna Rafaela cuts short my thread of life with her stiletto."
"And does a captain in His Majesty's forces condescend to play the part of a spy?" asked the girl, proudly.
"He is delighted to do so when it brings him the acquaintance of another spy so charming as Donna Rafaela. My spying, and I imagine yours also, is but amateurish, and will probably be of little value to our respective forces. Our real spies are now gathered round your fort, and will bring to us all the information we need. Thus, I can recline at your feet, Donna Rafaela, with an easy conscience, well aware that my failure as a spy will in no way retard our expedition."
"How many men do you command, Senor Captain?" asked the girl, with ill- concealed eagerness.
"Oh, sometimes twenty-five, sometimes fifty, or a hundred or two hundred, or more, as the case may be," answered the young man, carelessly.
"But how many are there in your expedition now?"
"Didn't you count them, Donna? To answer truly, I must not, to answer falsely, I will not, Donna."
"Why?" asked the girl, impetuously. "There is no such secrecy about our forces; we do not care who knows the number in our garrison."
"No? Then how many are there, Donna?"
"Three hundred and forty," answered the girl.
"Men, or young ladies like yourself, Donna? Be careful how you answer, for if the latter, I warn you that nothing will keep the British out of Fort San Carlos. We shall be with you, even if we have to go as prisoners. In saying this, I feel that I am speaking for our entire company."
The girl tossed her head scornfully.
"There are three hundred and forty men," she said, "as you shall find to your cost, if you dare attack the fort."
"In that case," replied Nelson, "you are nearly two to one, and I venture to think that we have not come up the river for nothing."
"What braggarts you English are!"
"Is it bragging to welcome a stirring fight? Are you well provided with cannon?"
"You will learn that for yourself when you come within sight of the fort. Have you any more questions to ask, Senor Sailor?"
"Yes; one. The number in the fort, which you give, corresponds with what I have already heard. I have heard also that you were well supplied with cannon, but I have been told that you have no cannonballs in Fort San Carlos."
"That is not true; we have plenty.
"Incredible as it may seem, I was told that the cannon-balls were made of clay. When I said you had none, I meant that you had none of iron."
"That also is quite true," answered the girl. "Do you mean to say that you are going to shoot baked clay at us? It will be like heaving bricks," and the young man threw back his head and laughed.
"Oh, you may laugh," cried the girl, "but I doubt if you will be so merry when you come to attack the fort. The clay cannon-balls were made under the superintendence of my father, and they are filled with links of chain, spikes, and other scraps of iron."
"By Jove!" cried young Nelson, "that's an original idea. I wonder how it will work?"
"You will have every opportunity of finding out, if you are foolish enough to attack the fort."
"You advise us then to retreat?"
"I most certainly do."
"And why, Donna, if you hate our country, are you so anxious that we shall not be cut to pieces by your scrap-iron?"
The girl shrugged her pretty shoulders.
"It doesn't matter in the least to me what you do," she said, rising to her feet. "Am I your prisoner, Senor Nelson?"
"No," cried the young man, also springing up; "I am yours, and have been ever since you looked at me."
Again the girl shrugged her shoulders. She seemed to be in no humour for light compliments, and betrayed an eagerness to be gone.
"I have your permission, then, to depart? Do you intend to keep your word?"
"If you will keep yours, Donna."
"I gave you no promise, except that I would not run away, and I have not done so. I now ask your permission to depart."
"You said that I might accompany you to the fort."
"Oh, if you have the courage, yes," replied the girl, carelessly.
They walked on together through the dense alleys of vegetation, and finally came to an opening which showed them a sandy plain, and across it the strong white stone walls of the fort, facing the wide river, and behind it the blue background of Lake Nicaragua.
Not a human form was visible either on the walls or on the plain. Fort San Carlos, in spite of the fact that it bristled with cannon, seemed like an abandoned castle. The two stood silent for a moment at the margin of the jungle, the young officer running his eye rapidly over the landscape, always bringing back his gaze to the seemingly deserted stronghold.
"Your three hundred and forty men keep themselves well hidden," he said at last.
"Yes," replied the girl, nonchalantly, "they fear that if they show themselves you may hesitate to attack a fortress that is impregnable."
"Well, you may disabuse their minds of that error when you return."
"Are you going to keep my stiletto?" asked the girl, suddenly changing the subject.
"Yes, with your permission."
"Then keep your word, and give me your pistol in return."
"Did I actually promise it?"
"You promised, Senor."
"Then in that case, the pistol is yours."
"Please hand it to me."
Her eagerness to obtain the weapon was but partially hidden, and the young man laughed as he weighed the fire-arm in his hand, holding it by the muzzle.
"It is too heavy for a slim girl like you to handle," he said, at last. "It can hardly be called a lady's toy."
"You intend, then, to break your word," said the girl, with quick intuition, guessing with unerring instinct his vulnerable point.
"Oh, no," he cried, "but I am going to send the pistol half-way home for you," and with that, holding it still by the barrel, he flung it far out on the sandy plain, where it fell, raising a little cloud of dust. The girl was about to speed to the fort, when, for the third time, the young man grasped her wrist. She looked at him with indignant surprise.
"Pardon me," he said, "but in case you should wish to fire the weapon, you must have some priming. Let me pour a quantity of this gunpowder into your hand."
"Thank you," she said, veiling her eyes, to hide their hatred.
He raised the tiny hand to his lips, without opposition, and then into her satin palm, from his powderhorn, he poured a little heap of the black grains.
"Good-bye, senor," she said, hurrying away. She went directly to where the pistol had fallen, stooped and picked it up. He saw her pour the powder from her hand on its broad, unshapely pan. She knelt on the sand, studied the clumsy implement, resting her elbow on her knee. The young man stood there motionless, bareheaded, his cap in his hand. There was a flash and a loud report; and the bullet cut the foliage behind him, a little nearer than he expected. He bowed low to her, and she, rising with an angry gesture, flung the weapon from her.
"Donna Rafaela," he shouted, "thank you for firing the pistol. Its report brings no one to the walls of San Carlos. Your fortress is deserted, Donna. Tomorrow may I have the pleasure of showing you how to shoot?"
The girl made no answer, but turning, ran as fast as she could towards the fort.
The young man walked toward the fort, picked up his despised weapon, thrust it in his belt, and went back to the camp. The scouts were returning, and reported that, as far as they could learn, the three hundred and forty Nicaraguans had, in a body, abandoned Fort San Carlos.
"It is some trick," said the Colonel. "We must approach the fortress cautiously, as if the three hundred and forty were there."
The flotilla neared the fort in a long line. Each boat was filled with men, and in each prow was levelled a small cannon--a man with a lighted match beside it--ready to fire the moment word was given. Nelson himself stood up in his boat, and watched the silent fort. Suddenly the silence was broken by a crash of thunder, and Nelson's boat (and the one nearest to it) was wrecked, many of the men being killed, and himself severely wounded.
"Back, back!" cried the commander. "Row out of range, for your lives!" The second cannon spoke, and the whole line of boats was thrown into inextricable confusion. Cannon after cannon rang out, and of the two hundred men who sailed up the river San Juan only ten reached the ship alive.
The Commandant of the fort lay ill in his bed, unable to move, but his brave daughter fired the cannon that destroyed the flotilla. Here Nelson lost his eye, and so on a celebrated occasion was unable to see the signals that called upon him to retreat. Thus victory ultimately rose out of disaster.
The King of Spain decorated Donna Rafaela Mora, made her a colonel, and gave her a pension for life. So recently as 1857, her grandson, General Martinez, was appointed President of Nicaragua solely because he was a descendant of the girl who defeated Horatio Nelson.