I. The Valley of Delight
 

In all probability your first view of the valley of the Yumuri will be from the Hermitage of Montserrate, for it is there that the cocheros drive you. Up the winding road they take you, with the bay at your back and the gorge at your right, to the crest of a narrow ridge where the chapel stands. Once there, you overlook the fairest sight in all Christendom--"the loveliest valley in the world," as Humboldt called it--for the Yumuri nestles right at your feet, a vale of pure delight, a glimpse of Paradise that bewilders the eye and fills the soul with ecstasy.

It is larger than it seems at first sight; through it meanders the river, coiling and uncoiling, hidden here and there by jungle growths, and seeking final outlet through a cleft in the wall not unlike a crack in the side of a painted bowl. The place seems to have been fashioned as a dwelling for dryads and hamadryads, for nixies and pixies, and all the fabled spirits of forest and stream. Fairy hands tinted its steep slopes and carpeted its level floor with the richest of green brocades. Nowhere is there a clash of color; nowhere does a naked hillside or monstrous jut of rock obtrude to mar its placid beauty; nowhere can you see a crude, disfiguring mark of man's handiwork--there are only fields, and bowers, with an occasional thatched roof faded gray by the sun.

Royal palms, most perfect of trees, are scattered everywhere. They stand alone or in stately groves, their lush fronds drooping like gigantic ostrich plumes, their slim trunks as smooth and regular and white as if turned in a giant lathe and then rubbed with pipe- clay. In all Cuba, island of bewitching vistas, there is no other Yumuri, and in all the wide world, perhaps, there is no valley of moods and aspects so varying. You should see it at evening, all warm and slumberous, all gold and green and purple; or at early dawn, when the mists are fading like pale memories of dreams and the tints are delicate; or again, during a tempest, when it is a caldron of whirling vapors and when the palm-trees bend like coryphees, tossing their arms to the galloping hurricane. But whatever the time of day or the season of the year at which you visit it, the Yumuri will render you wordless with delight, and you will vow that it is the happiest valley men's eyes have ever looked upon.

Standing there beside the shrine of Our Lady of Montserrate, you will see beyond the cleft through which the river emerges another hill, La Cumbre, from which the view is almost as wonderful, and your driver may tell you about the splendid homes that used to grace its slopes in the golden days when Cuba had an aristocracy. They were classic Roman villas, such as once lined the Via Appia-- little palaces, with mosaics and marbles and precious woods imported from Europe, and furnished with the rarest treasures--for in those days the Cuban planters were rich and spent their money lavishly. Melancholy reminders of this splendor exist even now in the shape of a crumbled ruin here and there, a lichened pillar, an occasional porcelain urn in its place atop a vine-grown bit of wall. Your cochero may point out a certain grove of orange-trees, now little more than a rank tangle, and tell you about the quinta of Don Esteban Varona, and its hidden treasure; about little Esteban and Rosa, the twins; and about Sebastian, the giant slave, who died in fury, taking with him the secret of the well.

The Spanish Main is rich in tales of treasure-trove, for when the Antilles were most affluent they were least secure, and men were put to strange shifts to protect their fortunes. Certain hoards, like jewels of tragic history, in time assumed a sort of evil personality, not infrequently exercising a dire influence over the lives of those who chanced to fall under their spells. It was as if the money were accursed, for certainly the seekers often came to evil. Of such a character was the Varona treasure. Don Esteban himself was neither better nor worse than other men of his time, and although part of the money he hid was wrung from the toil of slaves and the traffic in their bodies, much of it was clean enough, and in time the earth purified it all. Since his acts made so deep an impress, and since the treasure he left played so big a part in the destinies of those who came after him, it is well that some account of these matters should be given.

The story, please remember, is an old one; it has been often told, and in the telling and retelling it is but natural that a certain glamour, a certain tropical extravagance, should attach to it, therefore you should make allowance for some exaggeration, some accretions due to the lapse of time. In the main, however, it is well authenticated and runs parallel to fact.

Dona Rosa Varona lived barely long enough to learn that she had given birth to twins. Don Esteban, whom people knew as a grim man, took the blow of his sudden bereavement as became one of his strong fiber. Leaving the priest upon his knees and the doctor busied with the babies, he strode through the house and out into the sunset, followed by the wails of the slave women. From the negro quarters came the sound of other and even louder lamentations, for Dona Rosa had been well loved and the news of her passing had spread quickly.

Don Esteban was at heart a selfish man, and now, therefore, he felt a sullen, fierce resentment mingled with his grief. What trick was this? he asked himself. What had he done to merit such misfortune? Had he not made rich gifts to the Church? Had he not gone on foot to the shrine of Our Lady of Montserrate with a splendid votive offering--a pair of eardrops, a necklace, and a crucifix, all of diamonds that quivered in the sunlight like drops of purest water? Had he not knelt and prayed for his wife's safe delivery and then hung his gifts upon the sacred image, as Loyola had hung up his weapons before that other counterpart of Our Lady? Don Esteban scowled at the memory, for those gems were of the finest, and certainly of a value sufficient to recompense the Virgin for any ordinary miracle. They were worth five thousand pesos at least, he told himself; they represented the price of five slaves--five of his finest girls, schooled in housekeeping and of an age suitable for breeding. An extravagance, truly! Don Esteban knew the value of money as well as anybody, and he swore now that he would give no more to the Church.

He looked up from his unhappy musings to find a gigantic, barefooted negro standing before him. The slave was middle-aged; his kinky hair was growing gray; but he was of superb proportions, and the muscles which showed through the rents in his cotton garments were as smooth and supple as those of a stripling. His black face was puckered with grief, as he began:

"Master, is it true that Dona Rosa--" The fellow choked.

"Yes," Esteban nodded, wearily, "she is dead, Sebastian."

Tears came to Sebastian's eyes and overflowed his cheeks; he stood motionless, striving to voice his sympathy. At length he said:

"She was too good for this world. God was jealous and took her to Paradise."

The widowed man cried out, angrily:

"Paradise! What is this but paradise?" He stared with resentful eyes at the beauty round about him. "See! The Yumuri!" Don Esteban flung a long arm outward. "Do you think there is a sight like that in heaven? And yonder--" He turned to the harbor far below, with its fleet of sailing-ships resting like a flock of gulls upon a sea of quicksilver. Beyond the bay, twenty miles distant, a range of hazy mountains hid the horizon. Facing to the south, Esteban looked up the full length of the valley of the San Juan, clear to the majestic Pan de Matanzas, a wonderful sight indeed; then his eyes returned, as they always did, to the Yumuri, Valley of Delight. "Paradise indeed!" he muttered. "I gave her everything. She gained nothing by dying."

With a grave thoughtfulness which proved him superior to the ordinary slave, Sebastian replied:

"True! She had all that any woman's heart could desire, but in return for your goodness she gave you children. You have lost her, but you have gained an heir, and a beautiful girl baby who will grow to be another Dona Rosa. I grieved as you grieve, once upon a time, for my woman died in childbirth, too. You remember? But my daughter lives, and she has brought sunshine into my old age. That is the purpose of children." He paused and shifted his weight uncertainly, digging his stiff black toes into the dirt. After a time he said, slowly: "Excellency! Now, about the--well--?"

"Yes. What about it?" Esteban lifted smoldering eyes.

"Did the Dona Rosa confide her share of the secret to any one? Those priests and those doctors, you know--?"

"She died without speaking."

"Then it rests between you and me?"

"It does, unless you have babbled."

"Master!" Sebastian drew himself up and there was real dignity in his black face.

"Understand, my whole fortune is there--everything, even to the deeds of patent for the plantations. If I thought there was danger of your betraying me I would have your tongue pulled out and your eyes torn from their sockets."

The black man spoke with a simplicity that carried conviction. "You have seen me tested. You know I am faithful. But, master, this secret is a great burden for my old shoulders, and I have been thinking--Times are unsettled, Don Esteban, and death comes without warning. You are known to be the richest man in this province and these government officials are robbers. Suppose--I should be left alone? What then?"

The planter considered for a moment. "They are my countrymen, but a curse on them," he said, finally. "Well, when my children are old enough to hold their tongues they will have to be told. If I'm gone, you shall be the one to tell them. Now leave me; this is no time to speak of such things."

Sebastian went as noiselessly as he had come. On his way back to his quarters he took the path to the well--the place where most of his time was ordinarily spent. Sebastian had dug this well, and with his own hands he had beautified its surroundings until they were the loveliest on the Varona grounds. The rock for the building of the quinta had been quarried here, and in the center of the resulting depression, grass-grown and flowering now, was the well itself. Its waters seeped from subterranean caverns and filtered, pure and cool, through the porous country rock. Plantain, palm, orange, and tamarind trees bordered the hollow; over the rocky walls ran a riot of vines and ferns and ornamental plants. It was Sebastian's task to keep this place green, and thither he took his way, from force of habit.

Through the twilight came Pancho Cueto, the manager, a youngish man, with a narrow face and bold, close-set eyes. Spying Sebastian, he began:

"So Don Esteban has an heir at last?"

The slave rubbed his eyes with the heel of his huge yellow palm and answered, respectfully:

"Yes, Don Pancho. Two little angels, a boy and a girl." His gray brows drew together in a painful frown. "Dona Rosa was a saint. No doubt there is great rejoicing in heaven at her coming. Eh? What do you think?"

"Um-m! Possibly. Don Esteban will miss her for a time and then, I dare say, he will remarry." At the negro's exclamation Cueto cried: "So! And why not? Everybody knows how rich he is. From Oriente to Pinar del Rio the women have heard about his treasure."

"What treasure?" asked Sebastian, after an instant's pause.

Cueto's dark eyes gleamed resentfully at this show of ignorance, but he laughed.

"Ho! There's a careful fellow for you! No wonder he trusts you. But do you think I have neither eyes nor ears? My good Sebastian, you know all about that treasure; in fact, you know far more about many things than Don Esteban would care to have you tell. Come now, don't you?"

Sebastian's face was like a mask carved from ebony. "Of what does this treasure consist?" he inquired. "I have never heard about it."

"Of gold, of jewels, of silver bars and precious ornaments." Cueto's head was thrust forward, his nostrils were dilated, his teeth gleamed. "Oh, it is somewhere about, as you very well know! Bah! Don't deny it. I'm no fool. What becomes of the money from the slave girls, eh? And the sugar crops, too? Does it go to buy arms and ammunition for the rebels? No. Don Esteban hides it, and you help him. Come," he cried, disregarding Sebastian's murmurs of protest, "did you ever think how fabulous that fortune must be by this time? Did you ever think that one little gem, one bag of gold, would buy your freedom?"

"Don Esteban has promised to buy my freedom and the freedom of my girl."

"So?" The manager was plainly surprised. "I didn't know that." After a moment he began to laugh. "And yet you pretend to know nothing about that treasure? Ha! You're a good boy, Sebastian, and so I am. I admire you. We're both loyal to our master, eh? But now about Evangelina." Cueto's face took on a craftier expression. "She is a likely girl, and when she grows up she will be worth more than you, her father. Don't forget that Don Esteban is before all else a business man. Be careful that some one doesn't make him so good an offer for your girl that he will forget his promise and--sell her."

Sebastian uttered a hoarse, animal cry and the whites of his eyes showed through the gloom. "He would never sell Evangelina!"

Cueto laughed aloud once more. "Of course! He would not dare, eh? I am only teasing you. But see! You have given yourself away. Everything you tell me proves that you know all about that treasure."

"I know but one thing," the slave declared, stiffening himself slowly, "and that is to be faithful to Don Esteban." He turned and departed, leaving Pancho Cueto staring after him meditatively.

In the days following the birth of his children and the death of his wife, Don Esteban Varona, as had been his custom, steered a middle course in politics, in that way managing to avoid a clash with the Spanish officials who ruled the island, or an open break with his Cuban neighbors, who rebelled beneath their wrongs. This was no easy thing to do, for the agents of the crown were uniformly corrupt and quite ruthless, while most of the native- born were either openly or secretly in sympathy with the revolution in the Orient. But Esteban dealt diplomatically with both factions and went on raising slaves and sugar to his own great profit. Owing to the impossibility of importing negroes, the market steadily improved, and Esteban reaped a handsome profit from those he had on hand, especially when his crop of young girls matured. His sugar-plantations prospered, too, and Pancho Cueto, who managed them, continued to wonder where the money went.

The twins, Esteban and Rosa, developed into healthy children and became the pride of Sebastian and his daughter, into whose care they had been given. As for Evangelina, the young negress, she grew tall and strong and handsome, until she was the finest slave girl in the neighborhood. Whenever Sebastian looked at her he thanked God for his happy circumstances.

Then, one day, Don Esteban Varona remarried, and the Dona Isabel, who had been a famous Habana beauty, came to live at the quinta. The daughter of impoverished parents, she had heard and thought much about the mysterious treasure of La Cumbre.

There followed a period of feasting and entertainment, of music and merrymaking. Spanish officials, prominent civilians of Matanzas and the countryside, drove up the hill to welcome Don Esteban's bride. But before the first fervor of his honeymoon cooled the groom began to fear that he had made a serious mistake. Dona Isabel, he discovered, was both vain and selfish. Not only did she crave luxury and display, but with singular persistence she demanded to know all about her husband's financial affairs.

Now Don Esteban was no longer young; age had soured him with suspicion, and when once he saw himself as the victim of a mercenary marriage he turned bitterly against his wife. Her curiosity he sullenly resented, and he unblushingly denied his possession of any considerable wealth. In fact, he tried with malicious ingenuity to make her believe him a poor man. But Isabel was not of the sort to be readily deceived. Finding her arts and coquetries of no avail, she flew into a rage, and a furious quarrel ensued--the first of many. For the lady could not rest without knowing all there was to know about the treasure. Avaricious to her finger-tips, she itched to weigh those bags of precious metal and yearned to see those jewels burning upon her bosom. Her mercenary mind magnified their value many times, and her anger at Don Esteban's obstinacy deepened to a smoldering hatred.

She searched the quinta, of course, whenever she had a chance, but she discovered nothing--with the result that the mystery began to engross her whole thought. She pried into the obscurest corners, she questioned the slaves, she lay awake at night listening to Esteban's breathing, in the hope of surprising his secret from his dreams. Naturally such a life was trying to the husband, but as his wife's obsession grew his determination to foil her only strengthened. Outwardly, of course, the pair maintained a show of harmony, for they were proud and they occupied a position of some consequence in the community. But their private relations went from bad to worse. At length a time came when they lived in frank enmity; when Isabel never spoke to Esteban except in reproach or anger, and when Esteban unlocked his lips only to taunt his wife with the fact that she had been thwarted despite her cunning.

In most quarters, as time went on, the story of the Varona treasure was forgotten, or at least put down as legendary. Only Isabel, who, in spite of her husband's secretiveness, learned much, and Pancho Cueto, who kept his own account of the annual income from the business, held the matter in serious remembrance. The overseer was a patient man; he watched with interest the growing discord at the quinta and planned to profit by it, should occasion offer.

It was only natural under such conditions that Dona Isabel should learn to dislike her stepchildren--Esteban had told her frankly that they would inherit whatever fortune he possessed. The thought that, after all, she might never share in the treasure for which she had sacrificed her youth and beauty was like to drive the woman mad, and, as may be imagined, she found ways to vent her spite upon the twins. She widened her hatred so as to include old Sebastian and his daughter, and even went so far as to persecute Evangelina's sweetheart, a slave named Asensio.

It had not taken Dona Isabel long to guess the reason of Sebastian's many privileges, and one of her first efforts had been to win the old man's confidence. It was in vain, however, that she flattered and cajoled, or stormed and threatened; Sebastian withstood her as a towering ceiba withstands the summer heat and the winter hurricane.

His firmness made her vindictive, and so in time she laid a scheme to estrange him from his master.

Dona Isabel was crafty. She began to complain about Evangelina, but it was only after many months that she ventured to suggest to her husband that he sell the girl. Esteban, of course, refused point-blank; he was too fond of Sebastian's daughter, he declared, to think of such a thing.

"So, that is it," sneered Dona Isabel. "Well, she is young and shapely and handsome, as wenches go. I rather suspected you were fond of her--"

With difficulty Esteban restrained an oath. "You mistake my meaning," he said, stiffly. "Sebastian has served me faithfully, and Evangelina plays with my children. She is good to them; she is more of a mother to them than you have ever been."

"Is that why you dress her like a lady? Bah! A likely story!" Isabel tossed her fine, dark head. "I'm not blind; I see what goes on about me. This will make a pretty scandal among your friends-- she as black as the pit, and you--"

"Woman!" shouted the planter, "you have a sting like a scorpion."

"I won't have that wench in my house," Isabel flared out at him.

Goaded to fury by his wife's senseless accusation, Esteban cried: "Your house? By what license do you call it yours?"

"Am I not married to you?"

"Damnation! Yes--as a leech is married to its victim. You suck my blood."

"Your blood!" The woman laughed shrilly. "You have no blood; your veins run vinegar. You are a miser."

"Miser! Miser! I grow sick of the word. It is all you find to taunt me with. Confess that you married me for my money," he roared.

"Of course I did! Do you think a woman of my beauty would marry you for anything else? But a fine bargain I made!"

"Vampire!"

"Wife or vampire, I intend to rule this house, and I refuse to be shamed by a thick-lipped African. Her airs tell her story. She is insolent to me, but--I sha'n't endure it. She laughs at me. Well, your friends shall laugh at you."

"Silence!" commanded Esteban.

"Sell her."

"No."

"Sell her, or--"

Without waiting to hear her threat Esteban tossed his arms above his head and fled from the room. Flinging himself into the saddle, he spurred down the hill and through the town to the Casino de Espanol, where he spent the night at cards with the Spanish officials. But he did not sell Evangelina.

In the days that followed many similar scenes occurred, and as Esteban's home life grew more unhappy his dissipations increased. He drank and gambled heavily; he brought his friends to the quinta with him, and strove to forget domestic unpleasantness in boisterous revelry.

His wife, however, found opportunities enough to weary and exasperate him with reproaches regarding the slave girl.