XVII. The City of Beggars
 

There were other Americans in Cubitas, as O'Reilly soon discovered. During his first inspection of the village he heard himself hailed in his own language, and a young man in dirty white trousers and jacket strode toward him.

"Welcome to our city!" the stranger cried. "I'm Judson, Captain of Artillery, Departmento del Oriente; and you're the fellow who came with that quinine lady, aren't you?"

O'Reilly acknowledged his identity, and Judson grinned:

"The whole camp is talking about her and those mangoes. Jove! It's a wonder she didn't die of fright. Something tells me you're Irish. Anyhow, you look as if you'd enjoy a scrap. Know anything about artillery?"

"Nothing whatever."

"I'm sorry. We need gunners. Still, you know as much as the rest of us did when we came."

"I'm not a fighter," Johnnie told him. "I'm here on--other business."

Captain Judson was plainly disappointed. Nevertheless, he volunteered to assist his countryman in any way possible. "Have you met the old man," he inquired--"General Gomez?"

"No, I'd like to meet him."

"Come along, then; I'll introduce you. This is about the right time of day for it; he'll probably be in good humor. He has dyspepsia, you know, and he's not always pleasant."

It was nearly sundown; the eastern slopes were in shadow, and supper was cooking. As the two men passed down the wide street between its rows of bohios the fragrance of burning fagots was heavy in the air--that odor which is sweet in the nostrils of every man who knows and loves the out-of-doors. To O'Reilly it was like the scents of Araby, for his hopes were high, his feet were light, and he believed his goal was in sight.

Gen. Maximo Gomez, father of patriots, bulwark of the Cuban cause, was seated in a hammock, reading some letters; O'Reilly recognized him instantly from the many pictures he had seen. Gomez was a keen, wiry old man; the color of his swarthy, sun-bitten cheeks was thrown into deeper relief by his snow-white mustache and goatee. He looked up at Judson's salute and then turned a pail of brilliant eyes, as hard as glass, upon O'Reilly. His was an irascible, brooding face; it had in it something of the sternness, the exalted detachment, of the eagle, and O'Reilly gained a hint of the personality behind it. Maximo Gomez was counted one of the world's ablest guerrilla leaders; and indeed it had required the quenchless enthusiasm of a real military genius to fuse into a homogeneous fighting force the ill-assorted rabble of nondescripts whom Gomez led, to school them to privation and to render them sufficiently mobile to defy successfully ten times their number of trained troops. This, however, was precisely what the old Porto- Rican had done, and in doing it he had won the admiration of military students. He it was, more than any other, who bore the burden of Cuba's unequal struggle; it was Gomez's cunning and Gomez's indomitable will which had already subjugated half the island of Cuba; it was Gomez's stubborn, unflagging resistance which was destined to shatter for all time the hopes of Spain in the New World.

With a bluntness not unkind he asked O'Reilly what had brought him to Cuba, Then before the young man could answer he gestured with a letter in his hand, saying:

"Major Ramos gives you splendid credit for helping him to land his expedition, but he says you didn't come to fight with us. What does he mean?"

When O'Reilly explained the reason for his presence the old fighter nodded.

"So? You wish to go west, eh?"

"Yes, sir. I want to find Colonel Lopez."

"Lopez? Miguel Lopez?" the general inquired, quickly.

"I believe that's his name--at any rate the Colonel Lopez who has been operating in Matanzas Province, You see, he knows the whereabouts of my--friends."

"Well, you won't have to look far for him." General Gomez's leathery countenance lightened into a smile. "He happens to be right here in Cubitas." Calling Judson to him, he said: "Amigo, take Mr. O'Reilly to Colonel Lopez; you will find him somewhere about. I am sorry we are not to have this young fellow for a soldier; he looks like a real man and--quite equal to five quintos, eh?"

It was the habit of the Cubans to refer to their enemies as quintos--the fifth part of a man! With a wave of his hand Gomez returned to his reading.

As Judson led his companion away he said: "When you have finished with Lopez come to my shack and we'll have supper and I'll introduce you to the rest of our gang. You won't get much to eat, for we're short of grub; but it's worse where Lopez comes from."

Col. Miguel Lopez, a handsome, animated fellow, took O'Reilly's hand in a hearty clasp when they were introduced; but a moment later his smile gave way to a frown and his brow darkened.

"So! You are that O'Reilly from Matanzas," said he. "I know you now, but--I never expected we would meet."

"Esteban Varona told you about me, did he not?"

The colonel inclined his head.

"I'm here at last, after the devil's own time. I've been trying every way to get through. The Spaniards stopped me at Puerto Principe--they sent me back home, you know. I've been half crazy. I--You--" O'Reilly swallowed hard. "You know where Esteban is? Tell me-"

"Have you heard nothing?"

"Nothing whatever. That is, nothing since Rosa, his sister--You understand, she and I are--engaged-"

"Yes, yes; Esteban told me all about you."

Something in the Cuban's gravity of manner gave O'Reilly warning. A sudden fear assailed him. His voice shook as he asked:

"What is it? My God! Not bad news?"

There was no need for the officer to answer. In his averted gaze O'Reilly read confirmation of his sickest apprehensions. The men faced each other for a long moment, while the color slowly drove out of the American's cheeks, leaving him pallid, stricken. He wet his lips to speak, but his voice was no more than a dry, throaty rustle.

"Tell me! Which one?" he whispered.

"Both!"

O'Reilly recoiled; a spasm distorted his chalky face. He began to shake weakly, and his fingers plucked aimlessly at each other.

Lopez took him by the arm. "Try to control yourself," said he. "Sit here while I try to tell you what little I know. Or, would it not be better to wait awhile, until you are calmer?" As the young man made no answer, except to stare at him in a white agony of suspense, he sighed: "Very well, then, as you wish. But you must be a man, like the rest of us. I, too, have suffered. My father"-- Lopez's mustached lip drew back, and his teeth showed through-- "died in the Laurel Ditch at Cabanas. On the very day after my first victory they shot him--an old man, Christ! It is because of such things that we Cubans fight while we starve--that we shall continue to fight until no Spaniard is left upon this island. We have all faced something like that which you are facing now--our parents murdered, our sisters and our sweethearts wronged. ..."

O'Reilly, huddled where he had sunk upon the bench, uttered a gasping, inarticulate cry, and covered his face as if from a lash.

"I will tell you all I know--which isn't much. Esteban Varona came to me soon after he and his sister had fled from their home; he wanted to join my forces, but we were harassed on every side, and I didn't dare take the girl--no woman could have endured the hardships we suffered. So I convinced him that his first duty was to her, rather than to his country, and he agreed. He was a fine boy! He had spirit. He bought some stolen rifles and armed a band of his own--which wasn't a bad idea. I used to hear about him. Nobody cared to molest him, I can tell you, until finally he killed some of the regular troops. Then of course they went after him. Meanwhile, he managed to destroy his own plantations, which Cueto had robbed him of. You knew Cueto?"

"Yes."

"Well, Esteban put an end to him after a while; rode right up to La Joya one night, broke in the door, and macheted the scoundrel in his bed. But there was a mistake of some sort. It seems that a body of Cobo's Volunteers were somewhere close by, and the two parties met. I have never learned all the details of the affair, and the stories of that fight which came to me are too preposterous for belief. Still, Esteban and his men must have fought like demons, for they killed some incredible number. But they were human--they could not defeat a regiment. It seems that only one or two of them escaped."

"Esteban? Did he--"

Colonel Lopez nodded; then he said, gravely: "Cobo takes no prisoners. I was in the Rubi hills at the time, fighting hard, and it was six weeks before I got back into Matanzas. Naturally, when I heard what had happened, I tried to find the girl, but Weyler was concentrating the pacificos by that time, and there was nobody left in the Yumuri; it was a desert."

"Then you don't know positively that she ... that she--"

"Wait. There is no doubt that the boy was killed, but of Rosa's fate I can only form my own opinion. However, one of Esteban's men joined my troops later, and I not only learned something about the girl, but also why Esteban had been so relentlessly pursued. It was all Cobo's doings. You have heard of the fellow? No? Well, you will." The speaker's tone was eloquent of hatred. "He is worse than the worst of them--a monster! He had seen Miss Varona. She was a beautiful girl. ..."

"Go on!" whispered the lover.

"I discovered that she didn't at first obey Weyler's edict. She and the two negroes--they were former slaves of her father, I believe--took refuge in the Pan de Matanzas. Later on, Cobo's men made a raid and--killed a great many. Some few escaped into the high ravines, but Miss Varona was not one of them. Out of regard for Esteban I made careful search, but I could find no trace of her."

"And yet, you don't know what happened?" O'Reilly ventured. "You're not sure?"

"No, but I tell you again Cobo's men take no prisoners. When I heard about that raid I gave up looking for her."

"This--Cobo"--the American's voice shook in spite of his effort to hold it steady--"I shall hope to meet him some time."

The sudden fury that filled Colonel Lopez's face was almost hidden by the gloom. "Yes. Oh yes!" he cried, quickly, "and you are but one of a hundred; I am another. In my command there is a standing order to spare neither Cobo nor any of his assassins; they neither expect nor receive quarter from us. Now, companero"--the Cuban dropped a hand on O'Reilly's bowed head--"I am sorry that I had to bring you such evil tidings, but, we are men--and this is war."

"No, no! It isn't war--it's merciless savagery! To murder children and to outrage women--why, that violates all the ethics of warfare."

"Ethics!" the colonel cried, harshly. "Ethics? Hell is without ethics. Why look for ethics in war? Violence--injustice--insanity- -chaos--that is war. It is man's agony--woman's despair. It is a defiance of God. War is without mercy, without law; it is--well, it is the absence of all law, all good."

There was a considerable silence. Then Lopez went on in another key.

"We Cubans carry heavy hearts, but our wrongs have made us mighty, and our sufferings have made us brave. Here in the orient we do well enough; but, believe me, you cannot imagine the desolation and the suffering farther west--whole provinces made barren and their inhabitants either dead or dying. The world has never seen anything like Weyler's slaughter of the innocents. If there is indeed a God--and sometimes I doubt it--he will not permit this horror to continue; from every pool of Cuban blood another patriot will spring up, until we drive that archfiend and his armies into the sea. Go back to your own country now, and if your grief has made you one of us in sympathy, tell the world what that black butcher in Havana is doing, and beg your Government to recognize our belligerency, so that we may have arms. Arms!"

It was some time before O'Reilly spoke; then he said, quietly: "I am not going back. I am going to stay here and look for Rosa."

"So!" exclaimed the colonel. "Well, why not? So long as we do not know precisely what has happened to her, we can at least hope. But, if I were you, I would rather think of her as dead than as a prisoner in some concentration camp. You don't know what those camps are like, my friend, but I do. Now I shall leave you. One needs to be alone at such an hour--eh?" With a pressure of his hand, Colonel Lopez walked away into the darkness.

Judson and his adventurous countryman did not see O'Reilly that night, nor, in fact, did any one. But the next morning he appeared before General Gomez. He was haggard, sick, listless. The old Porto-Rican had heard from Lopez in the mean time; he was sympathetic.

"I am sorry you came all the way to hear such bad news," he said. "War is a sad, hopeless business."

"But I haven't given up hope," O'Reilly said. "I want to stay here and--and fight."

"I inferred as much from what Lopez told me." The general nodded his white head. "Well, you'll make a good soldier, and we shall be glad to have you." He extended his hand, and O'Reilly took it gratefully.

The city of Matanzas was "pacified." So ran the boastful bando of the captain-general. And this was no exaggeration, as any one could see from the number of beggars there. Of all his military operations, this "pacification" of the western towns and provinces was the most conspicuously successful and the one which gave Valeriano Weyler the keenest satisfaction; for nowhere did rebellion lift its head--except, perhaps, among the ranks of those disaffected men who hid in the hills, with nothing above them but the open sky. As for the population at large, it was cured of treason; it no longer resisted, even weakly, the law of Spain. The reason was that it lay dying. Weyler's cure was simple, efficacious--it consisted of extermination, swift and pitiless.

Poverty had been common in Matanzas, even before the war, but now there were so many beggars in the city that nobody undertook to count them. When the refugees began to pour in by the thousands, and when it became apparent that the Government intended to let them starve, the better citizens undertook an effort at relief; but times were hard, food was scarce, and prices high. Moreover, it soon transpired that the military frowned upon everything like organized charity, and in consequence the new-comers were, perforce, abandoned to their own devices. These country people were dumb and terrified at the misfortunes which had overtaken them; they wandered the streets in aimless bewilderment, fearful of what blow might next befall. They were not used to begging, and therefore they did not often implore alms; but all day long they asked for work, for bread, that their little ones might live. Work, however, was even scarcer than food, and the time soon came when they crouched upon curbs and door-steps, hopeless, beaten, silently reproachful of those more fortunate than they. Their eyes grew big and hollow; their outstretched hands grew gaunt and skinny. The sound of weeping women and fretting babies became a common thing to hear.

In the suburbs, just within the ring of guardian forts, an "area of cultivation" was set aside, and here the prisoners put up huts of yagua--comfortless bark shelters, which were well enough, perhaps, in fair weather, but sadly ineffective against wind and rain. Here, housed with hunger and crowded together in indescribable squalor, they dwelt, seeking comfort in their common wretchedness. Since they had no farm implements, no seeds, no means whatever of cultivating this ground apportioned to their use, it remained untilled while they grew hungrier day by day. Outside the lines there were yams, potatoes, edible roots and such, for the Spaniards' work of desolation had not been quite complete, and no hand can rob the Cuban soil of all its riches; but the pacificos were not allowed to leave the city.

Fish were plentiful in the harbor, too, but to catch them was forbidden. Sentries were on guard with ready rifles and bared machetes; every morning through the filthy reconcentrado quarter guerrillas drove pack-mules bearing the mutilated bodies of those who had dared during the night to seek food surreptitiously. Sometimes they dragged these ghastly reminders at the ends of ropes; this, indeed, was a favorite way with them.

Dogs and cats became choice articles of diet, until they disappeared. The Government did supply one quality of food, however; at intervals, it distributed yucca roots. But these were starchy and almost indigestible. From eating them the children grew pinched in limb and face, while their abdomens bloated hugely. Matanzas became peopled with a race of grotesquely misshapen little folks, gnomes with young bodies, but with faces old and sick.

Of course disease became epidemic, for in the leaky hovels, dirt- floored and destitute of any convenience, there could be no effort at sanitation. Conditions became unspeakable. The children died first, then the aged and infirm. Deaths in the street were not uncommon; nearly every morning bodies were found beneath the portales. Starving creatures crept to the market in the hope of begging a stray bit of food, and some of them died there, between the empty stalls. The death-wagons, heavy with their daily freight, rumbled ceaselessly through the streets, adding to the giant piles of unburied corpses outside the city.

Typhoid, smallpox, yellow fever, raged unchecked. The hospitals were crowded, and even in them the commonest necessities were lacking. It is believed that men have returned from the grave, but no one, either Spaniard or Cuban, had ever been known to return from one of these pest-houses, and, in consequence, those who were stricken preferred to remain and to die among their dear ones.

Yes, Matanzas was pacified. Weyler's boast was true. Nowhere in the entire province was a field in cultivation; nowhere, outside the garrisoned towns, was a house left standing. Nor was the city of Matanzas the only concentration camp; there were others dotted through Santa Clara, Habana, and Pinar del Rio. In them half a million people cried for food. Truly no rebellious land was ever more completely pacified than this, no people's spirits ever more completely crushed. Voices no longer preached resistance; they prayed to "Our Lady of Pity" for a merciful conclusion of this misery. Hands were upraised, but only to implore. In leaky huts from Jucaro to Cape San Antonio the dead lay huddled thickly.

Into Matanzas, city of beggary and death, came Rosa Varona and her two negro companions, looking for relief. They made the journey without mishap, for they were too destitute to warrant plundering, and Rosa's disguise concealed what charms remained to her. But once they had entered the city, what an awakening! What suffering, what poverty, what rags they saw! The three of them grew weak with dismay at the horror of it all; but there was no retreat.

Asensio built a makeshift shelter close under La Cumbre--from it the ruins of the Quinta de Esteban were visible--and there they settled down to live. They had hoped to lose themselves among the other prisoners, and in this they were successful, for none of their miserable neighbors were in any condition to notice them, and there was nothing sufficiently conspicuous about two tattered blacks and their hunchbacked daughter to draw attention from the soldiers.

Asensio foraged zealously, and at first he managed somehow to secure enough food for his little family. He developed a real talent for discovering vegetables and fruits. He stole, he begged, and he found food where there was none. One day the soldiers seized him and put him to work on the fortifications along with a gang of other men who appeared strong enough to stand hard labor. Asensio was not paid for this, but he was allowed one meal a day, and he succeeded in bringing home each night a share of his allotment.

It is surprising how little nourishment will sustain life. Rosa and her two friends had long felt the pinch of hunger, but now they plumbed new depths of privation, for there were days when Asensio and his fellow-conscripts received nothing at all. After a time Evangelina began making baskets and weaving palm-leaf hats, which she sold at six cents each. She taught Rosa the craft, and they worked from dawn until dark, striving with nimble, tireless fingers to supplement Asensio's rations and postpone starvation. But it was a hopeless task. Other nimble fingers worked as tirelessly as theirs, and the demand for hats was limited.

Their hut overlooked the road to San Severino, that via dolorosa on which condemned prisoners were marched out to execution, and in time the women learned to recognize the peculiar blaring notes of a certain cornet, which signified that another "Cuban cock was about to crow." When in the damp of dewy mornings they heard that bugle they ceased their weaving long enough to cross themselves and whisper a prayer for the souls of those who were on their way to die. But this was the only respite they allowed themselves.

Rosa meditated much upon the contrast between her present and her former condition. Matanzas was the city of her birth, and time was when she had trod its streets in arrogance and pride, when she had possessed friends by the score among its residents. But of all these there was not one to whom she dared appeal in this, her hour of need. These were harsh times; Spanish hatred of the revolutionists was bitter, and of the Cuban sympathizers none were left. Moreover, Esteban's denouncement as a traitor had estranged all who remained loyal to the crown, and so far as Rosa herself was concerned, she knew that it would not matter to them that she had cleaved to him merely from sisterly devotion: by that act she had made herself a common enemy and they would scarcely sympathize with her plight. The girl had learned only too well what spirit was abroad. But even had she felt assured of meeting sympathy, her pride was pure Castilian, and it would never down. She, a Varona, whose name was one to conjure with, whose lineage was of the highest! She to beg? The thing was quite impossible. One crumb, so taken, would have choked her. Rosa preferred to suffer proudly and await the hour when hunger or disease would at last blot out her memories of happy days and end this nightmare misery.

Then, too, she dreaded any risk of discovery by old Mario de Castano, who was a hard, vindictive man. His parting words had shown her that he would never forgive the slight she had put upon him; and she did not wish to put his threats to the test. Once Rosa saw him, on her way to buy a few centavos' worth of sweet- potatoes; he was huddled in his victoria, a huge bladder of flesh, and he rode the streets deaf to the plaints of starving children, blind to the misery of beseeching mothers. Rosa shrank into a doorway and drew her tattered shawl closer over her face for fear Don Mario might recognize in this misshapen body and in these pinched, discolored features the beauteous blossom he had craved.

Nor did she forget Colonel Cobo. The man's memory haunted her, asleep and awake; of him she was most desperately afraid. When for the first time she saw him riding at the head of his cutthroats she was like to swoon in her tracks, and for a whole day thereafter she cowered in the hut, trembling at every sound.

In these dark hours she recalled the stories of the old Varona treasure and Esteban's interesting theory of its whereabouts, but she could not bring herself to put much faith in either. At the time of her brother's recital she had been swayed by his conviction, but now on cooler thought a dozen explanations of Dona Isabel's possession of that doubloon offered themselves, no one of which seemed less probable than Esteban's. Of course it was barely possible that there was indeed a treasure, and even that Esteban's surmise had been correct. But it was little more than a remote possibility. Distance lends a rosy color of reality to our most absurd imaginings, but, like the haze that tints a far-off landscape, it dissolves upon approach. Now that Rosa was here, in sight of the ruined quinta itself, her hopes and half-beliefs faded.

She wanted, oh, so desperately, to believe in it, but the grinding misery of her situation made it hard to do so. Wonders like that came true only in fairy stories, she told herself; and certainly she had no cause to consider herself a favorite of fortune.

More than once she was tempted to confide in Evangelina and Asensio, but she thought better of it. Although she put implicit faith in Evangelina's discretion, she knew that Asensio was not the sort of fellow to be trusted with a secret of great magnitude- -he was boastful, talkative, excitable; he was just the sort, to bring destruction upon all of them. Rosa had sufficient intelligence to realize that even if she found her father's riches they would only constitute another and a greater menace to the lives of all of them. Nevertheless, she wished to set her mind at rest once and for all. Taking Evangelina with her, she climbed La Cumbre one day in search of roots and vegetables.

It turned out to be a sad experience for both women. The negress wept noisily at the destruction wrought by Pancho Cueto, and Rosa was overcome by painful memories. Little that was familiar remained; evidence of Cueto's all-devouring greed spoke from the sprouting furrows his men had dug, from the naked trees they had felled and piled in orderly heaps, from the stones and mortar of the house itself. Tears blinded Rosa. After a time she left the black woman mourning among the ruins and stole away to the sunken garden. Here the marks of vandalism were less noticeable. Nevertheless, few signs of beauty remained. Neglected vines drooped spiritlessly from the ledges: such fruit-trees as had been spared were sickly and untended; time and the elements had all but completed the disheartening work.

The well remained, although it had been planked over, but it was partially filled up with rubbish, as Rosa discovered when she peered into it. Only a tiny pool of scum was in the bottom. After a long scrutiny the girl arose, convinced at last of her brother's delusion, and vaguely ashamed of her own credulity. This was about the last repository that such a man as Don Esteban, her father, would have been likely to select; for, after all, the most valuable part of his fortune had consisted of the deeds of title to the plantations. No, if ever there had been a treasure, it was hidden elsewhere; all of value that this well contained for Rosa was her memory of a happiness departed. Of such memories, the well, the whole place, was brimful. Here, as a child, she had romped with Esteban. Here, as a girl, she had dreamed her first dreams, and here O'Reilly, her smiling knight, had found her. Yonder was the very spot where he had held her in his arms and begged her to await the day of his return. Well, she had waited.

But was that Rosa Varona who had promised so freely and so confidently this pitiful Rosa whose bones protruded through her rags? It could not be. Happiness, contentment, hope--these were fictions; only misery, despair, and pain were real. But it had been a glorious dream, at any rate--a dream which Rosa vowed to cherish always.

Evangelina found the girl sitting in the sun, her thin face radiant, her great eyes wet but smiling.

"Come, little dove," said the negress, "there is nothing here to eat; we must get back to our weaving."