II. Spanish Gold
 

The twins were seven years old when Dona Isabel's schemes bore their first bitter fruit, and the occasion was a particularly uproarious night when Don Esteban entertained a crowd of his Castilian friends. Little Rosa was awakened at a late hour by the laughter and shouts of her father's guests. She was afraid, for there was something strange about the voices, some quality to them which was foreign to the child's experience. Creeping into her brother's room, she awoke him, and together they listened.

Don Mario de Castano was singing a song, the words of which were lost, but which brought a yell of approval from his companions. The twins distinguished the voice of Don Pablo Peza, too--Don Pablo, whose magnificent black beard had so often excited their admiration. Yes, and there was Col. Mendoza y Linares, doubtless in his splendid uniform. These gentlemen were well and favorably known to the boy and girl, yet Rosa began to whimper, and when Esteban tried to reassure her his own voice was thin and reedy from fright.

In the midst of their agitation they heard some one weeping; there came a rush of feet down the hallway, and the next instant Evangelina flung herself into the room. A summer moon flooded the chamber with radiance and enabled her to see the two small white figures sitting up in the middle of the bed.

Evangelina fell upon her knees before them. "Little master! Little mistress!" she sobbed. "You will save me, won't you? We love each other, eh? See then, what a crime this is! Say that you will save me!" She was beside herself, and her voice was hoarse and cracked from grief. She wrung her hands, she rocked herself from side to side, she kissed the twins' nightgowns, tugging at them convulsively.

The children were frightened, but they managed to quaver: "What has happened? Who has harmed you?"

"Don Pablo Peza," wept the negress. "Your father has sold me to him--lost me at cards. Oh, I shall die! Sebastian won't believe it. He is praying. And Asensio--O God! But what can they do to help me? You alone can save me. You won't let Don Pablo take me away? It would kill me."

"Wait!" Esteban scrambled out of bed and stood beside his dusky nurse and playmate. "Don't cry any more. I'll tell papa that you don't like Don Pablo."

Rosa followed. "Yes, come along, brother," she cried, shrilly. "We'll tell Don Pablo to go home and leave our Evangelina."

"My blessed doves! But will they listen to you?" moaned the slave.

"Papa does whatever we ask," they assured her, gravely. "If he should growl we'll come back and hide you in the big wardrobe where nobody will ever find you." Then hand in hand, with their long nightgowns lifted to their knees, they pattered out into the hall and down toward the living-room, whence came the shouting and the laughter.

Don Mario de Castano, who was facing the door, stopped in the midst of a ribald song to cry: "God be praised! What's this I see?"

The others looked and then burst into merriment, for across the litter of cards and dice and empty glasses they saw a dimpled girl and boy, as like as two peas. They were just out of bed; they were peering through the smoke, and blinking like two little owls. Their evident embarrassment amused the guests hugely.

"So! You awaken the household with your songs," some one chided Don Mario.

"Two cherubs from heaven," another exclaimed.

And a third cried, "A toast to Esteban's beautiful children."

But the father lurched forward, a frown upon his face. "What is this, my dears?" he inquired, thickly. "Run back to your beds. This is no place for you."

"We love Evangelina," piped the twins. "You must not let Don Pablo have her--if you please."

"Evangelina?"

They nodded. "We love her. ... She plays with us every day. ... We want her to stay here. ... She belongs to us."

Accustomed as they were to prompt compliance with their demands, they spoke imperiously; but they had never seen a frown like this upon their father's face, and at his refusal their voices grew squeaky with excitement and uncertainty.

"Go to your rooms, my sweethearts," Don Esteban directed, finally.

"We want Evangelina. She belongs to us," they chorused, stubbornly.

Don Pablo shook with laughter. "So! She belongs to you, eh? And I'm to be robbed of my winnings. Very well, then, come and give me a kiss, both of you, and I'll see what can be done."

But the children saw that Don Pablo's face was strangely flushed, that his eyes were wild and his magnificent beard was wet with wine; therefore they hung back.

"You won your bet fairly," Esteban growled at him. "Pay no heed to these babies."

"Evangelina is ours," the little ones bravely repeated.

Then their father exploded: "The devil! Am I dreaming? Where have you learned to oppose me? Back to your beds, both of you." Seeing them hesitate, he shouted for his wife. "Ho, there! Isabel, my love! Come put these imps to rest. Or must I teach them manners with my palm? A fine thing, truly! Are they to be allowed to roam the house at will and get a fever?"

Mere mention of their stepmother's name was enough for Rosa and Esteban; they scuttled away as fast as they could go, and when Dona Isabel came to their rooms, a few moments later, she found them in their beds, with their eyes deceitfully squeezed shut. Evangelina was cowering in a corner. Isabel had overheard the wager, and her soul was evilly alight; she jerked the slave girl to her feet and with a blow of her palm sent her to her quarters. Then she turned her attention to the twins. When she left them they were weeping silently, both for themselves and for Evangelina, whom they dearly loved.

Meanwhile Don Mario had resumed his singing.

Day was breaking when Esteban Varona bade his guests good-by at the door of his house. As he stood there Sebastian came to him out of the mists of the dawn. The old man had been waiting for hours. He was half crazed from apprehension, and now cast himself prone before his master, begging for Evangelina.

Don Pablo, in whom the liquor was dying, cursed impatiently: "Caramba! Have I won the treasure of your whole establishment?" he inquired. "Perhaps you value this wench at more than a thousand pesos; if so, you will say that I cheated you."

"No! She's only an ordinary girl. My wife doesn't like her, and so I determined to get rid of her. She is yours, fairly enough," Varona told him.

"Then send her to my house. I'll breed her to Salvador, my cochero. He's the strongest man I have."

Sebastian uttered a strangled cry and rose to his feet. "Master! You must not--"

"Silence!" ordered Esteban. Wine never agreed with him, and this morning its effects, combined with his losses at gambling, had put him in a nasty temper. "Go about your business. What do you mean by this, anyhow?" he shouted.

But Sebastian, dazed of mind and sick of soul, went on, unheeding. "She is my girl. You promised me her freedom. I warn you--"

"Eh?" The planter swayed forward and with blazing eyes surveyed his slave. Esteban knew that he had done a foul thing in risking the girl upon the turn of a card, and an inner voice warned him that he would repent his action when he became sober, but in his present mood this very knowledge enraged him the more. "You warn me? Of what?" he growled.

At this moment neither master nor man knew exactly what he said or did. Sebastian raised his hand on high. In reality the gesture was meant to call Heaven as a witness to his years of faithful service, but, misconstruing his intent, Pablo Peza brought his riding-whip down across the old man's back, crying:

"Ho! None of that."

A shudder ran through Sebastian's frame. Whirling, he seized Don Pablo's wrist and tore the whip from his fingers. Although the Spaniard was a strong man, he uttered a cry of pain.

At this indignity to a guest Esteban flew into a fury. "Pancho!" he cried. "Ho! Pancho!" When the manager came running, Esteban explained: "This fool is dangerous. He raised his hand to me and to Don Pablo."

Sebastian's protests were drowned by the angry voices of the others.

"Tie him to yonder grating," directed Esteban, who was still in the grip of a senseless rage. "Flog him well and make haste about it."

Sebastian, who had no time in which to recover himself, made but a weak resistance when Pancho Cueto locked his wrists into a pair of clumsy, old-fashioned manacles, first passing the chain around one of the bars of the iron window-grating which Esteban had indicated. Sebastian felt that his whole world was tumbling about his ears. He thought he must be dreaming.

Cueto swung a heavy lash; the sound of his blows echoed through the quinta, and they summoned, among others, Dona Isabel, who watched the scene from behind her shutter with much satisfaction. The guests looked on approvingly.

Sebastian made no outcry. The face he turned to his master, however, was puckered with reproach and bewilderment. The whip bit deep; it drew blood and raised welts the thickness of one's thumb; nevertheless, for the first few moments the victim suffered less in body than in spirit. His brain was so benumbed, so shocked with other excitations, that he was well-nigh insensible to physical pain. That Evangelina, flesh of his flesh, had been sold, that his lifelong faithfulness had brought such reward as this, that Esteban, light of his soul, had turned against him--all this was simply astounding. More his simple mind could not compass for the moment. Gradually, however, he began to resent the shrieking injustice of it all, and unsuspected forces gathered inside of him. They grew until his frame was shaken by primitive savage impulses.

After a time Don Esteban cried: "That will do, Cueto! Leave him now for the flies to punish. They will remind him of his insolence."

Then the guests departed, and Esteban staggered into the house and went to bed.

All that morning Sebastian stood with his hands chained high over his head. The sun grew hotter and ever hotter upon his lacerated back: the blood dried and clotted there; a cloud of flies gathered, swarming over the raw gashes left by Cueto's whip.

Before leaving for Don Pablo's quinta Evangelina came to bid her father an agonized farewell, and for a long time after she had gone the old man stood motionless, senseless, scarcely breathing. Nor did the other slaves venture to approach him to offer sympathy or succor. They passed with heads averted and with fear in their hearts.

Since Don Esteban's nerves, or perhaps it was his conscience, did not permit him to sleep, he arose about noon-time and dressed himself. He was still drunk, and the mad rage of the early morning still possessed him; therefore, when he mounted his horse he pretended not to see the figure chained to the window-grating. Sebastian's affection for his master was doglike and he had taken his punishment as a dog takes his, more in surprise than in anger, but at this proof of callous indifference a fire kindled in the old fellow's breast, hotter by far than the fever from his fly- blown scores. He was thirsty, too, but that was the least of his sufferings.

Sometime during the afternoon the negro heard himself addressed through the window against the bars of which he leaned. The speaker was Dona Isabel. She had waited patiently until she knew he must be faint from exhaustion and then she had let herself into the room behind the grating, whence she could talk to him without fear of observation.

"Do you suffer, Sebastian?" she began in a tone of gentleness and pity.

"Yes, mistress." The speaker's tongue was thick and swollen.

"La! La! What a crime! And you the most faithful slave in all Cuba!"

"Yes, mistress."

"Can I help you?"

The negro raised his head; he shook his body to rid himself of the insects which were devouring him.

"Give me a drink of water," he said, hoarsely.

"Surely, a great gourdful, all cool and dripping from the well. But first I want you to tell me something. Come now, let us have an understanding with each other."

"A drink, for the love of Christ," panted the old man, and Dona Isabel saw how cracked and dry were his thick lips, how near the torture had come to prostrating him.

"I'll do more," she promised, and her voice was like honey. "I'll tell Pancho Cueto to unlock you, even if I risk Esteban's anger by so doing. You have suffered too much, my good fellow. Indeed you have. Well, I can help you now and in the future, or--I can make your life just such a misery as it has been to-day. Will you be my friend? Will you tell me something?" She was close to the window; her black eyes were gleaming; her face was ablaze with greed.

"What can I tell you?"

"Oh, you know very well! I've asked it often enough, but you have lied, just as my husband has lied to me. He is a miser; he has no heart; he cares for nobody, as you can see. You must hate him now, even as I hate him." There was a silence during which Dona Isabel tried to read the expression on that tortured face in the sunlight. "Do you?"

"Perhaps."

"Then tell me--is there really a treasure, or--?" The woman gasped; she choked; she could scarcely force the question for fear of disappointment. "Tell me there is, Sebastian." She clutched the bars and shook them. "I've heard so many lies that I begin to doubt."

The old man nodded. "Oh yes, there is a treasure," said he.

"God! You have seen it?" Isabel was trembling as if with an ague. "What is it like? How much is there? Good Sebastian, I'll give you water; I'll have you set free if you tell me."

"How much? I don't know. But there is much--pieces of Spanish gold, silver coins in casks and in little boxes--the boxes are bound with iron and have hasps and staples; bars of precious metal and little paper packages of gems, all tied up and hidden in leather bags." Sebastian could hear his listener panting; her bloodless fingers were wrapped tightly around the bars above his head.--

"Yes! Go on."

"There are ornaments, too. God knows they must have come from heaven, they are so beautiful; and pearls from the Caribbean as large as plums."

"Are you speaking the truth?"

"Every peso, every bar, every knickknack I have handled with my own hands. Did I not make the hiding-place all alone? Senora, everything is there just as I tell you--and more. The grants of title from the crown for this quinta and the sugar-plantations, they are there, too. Don Esteban used to fear the government officials, so he hid his papers securely. Without them the lands belong to no one. You understand?"

"Of course! Yes, yes! But the jewels--God! where are they hidden?"

"You would never guess!" Sebastian's voice gathered strength. "Ten thousand men in ten thousand years would never find the place, and nobody knows the secret but Don Esteban and me."

"I believe you. I knew all the time it was here. Well? Where is it?"

Sebastian hesitated and said, piteously, "I am dying--"

Isabel could scarcely contain herself. "I'll give you water, but first tell me where--where! God in heaven! Can't you see that I, too, am perishing?"

"I must have a drink."

"Tell me first."

Sebastian lifted his head and, meeting the speaker's eyes, laughed hoarsely.

At the sound of his unnatural merriment Isabel recoiled as if stung. She stared at the slave's face in amazement and then in fury. She stammered, incoherently, "You--you have been--lying!"

"Oh no! The treasure is there, the greatest treasure in all Cuba, but you shall never know where it is. I'll see to that. It was you who sold my girl; it was you who brought me to this; it was your hand that whipped me. Well, I'll tell Don Esteban how you tried to bribe his secret from me! What do you think he'll do then? Eh? You'll feel the lash on your white back--"

"You fool!" Dona Isabel looked murder. "I'll punish you for this; I'll make you speak if I have to rub your wounds with salt."

But Sebastian closed his eyes wearily. "You can't make me suffer more than I have suffered," he said. "And now--I curse you. May that treasure be the death of you. May you live in torture like mine the rest of your days; may your beauty turn to ugliness such that men will spit at you; may you never know peace again until you die in poverty and want--"

But Dona Isabel, being superstitious, fled with her fingers in her ears; nor did she undertake to make good her barbarous threat, realizing opportunely that it would only serve to betray her desperate intentions and put her husband further on his guard. Instead she shut herself into her room, where she paced the floor, racking her brain to guess where the hiding-place could be or to devise some means of silencing Sebastian's tongue. To feel that she had been overmatched, to know that there was indeed a treasure, to think that the two who knew where it was had been laughing at her all this time, filled the woman with an agony approaching that which Sebastian suffered from his flies.

As the sun was sinking beyond the farther rim of the Yumuri and the valley was beginning to fill with shadows. Esteban Varona rode up the hill. His temper was more evil than ever, if that were possible, for he had drunk again in an effort to drown the memory of his earlier actions. With him rode half a dozen or more of his friends, coming to dine and put in another night at his expense. There were Pablo Peza, and Mario de Castano, once more; Col. Mendoza y Linares, old Pedro Miron, the advocate, and others of less consequence, whom Esteban had gathered from the Spanish Club. The host dismounted and lurched across the courtyard to Sebastian.

"So, my fine fellow," he began. "Have you had enough of rebellion by this time?"

"Why did you have him flogged?" the advocate inquired.

Esteban explained, briefly, "He dared to raise his hand in anger against one of my guests."

Sebastian's face was working as he turned upon his master to say: "I would be lying if I told you that I am sorry for what I did. It is you have done wrong. Your soul is black with this crime. Where is my girl?"

"The devil! To hear you talk one would think you were a free man." The planter's eyes were bleared and he brandished his riding-whip threateningly. "I do as I please with my slaves. I tolerate no insolence. Your girl? Well, she's in the house of Salvador, Don Pablo's cochero, where she belongs. I've warned him that he will have to tame her unruly spirit, as I have tamed yours."

Sebastian had hung sick and limp against the grating, but at these words he suddenly roused. It was as if a current of electricity had galvanized him. He strained at his manacles and the bars groaned under his weight. His eyes began to roll, his lips drew back over his blue gums. Noting his expression of ferocity, Esteban cut at his naked back with the riding-whip, crying:

"Ho! Not subdued yet, eh? You need another flogging."

"Curse you and all that is yours," roared the maddened slave. "May you know the misery you have put upon me. May you rot for a million years in hell." The whip was rising and falling now, for Esteban had lost what little self-control the liquor had left to him. "May your children's bodies grow filthy with disease; may they starve; may they--"

Sebastian was yelling, though his voice was hoarse with pain. The lash drew blood with every blow. Meanwhile, he wrenched and tugged at his bonds with the fury of a maniac.

"Pablo! Your machete, quick!" panted the slave-owner. "God's blood! I'll make an end of this black fiend, once for all."

Esteban Varona's guests had looked on at the scene with the same mild interest they would display at the whipping of a balky horse: and, now that the animal threatened to become dangerous, it was in their view quite the proper thing to put it out of the way. Don Pablo Peza stepped toward his mare to draw the machete from its scabbard. But he did not hand it to his friend. He heard a shout, and turned in time to see a wonderful and a terrible thing.

Sebastian had braced his naked feet against the wall; he had bowed his back and bent his massive shoulders--a back and a pair of shoulders that looked as bony and muscular as those of an ox--and he was heaving with every ounce of strength in his enormous body. As Pablo stared he saw the heavy grating come away from its anchorage in the solid masonry, as a shrub is uprooted from soft ground. The rods bent and twisted; there was a clank and rattle and clash of metal upon the flags; and then--Sebastian turned upon his tormentor, a free man, save only for the wide iron bracelets and their connecting chain. He was quite insane. His face was frightful to behold; it was apelike in its animal rage, and he towered above his master like some fabled creature out of the African jungle of his forefathers.

Sebastian's fists alone would have been formidable weapons, but they were armored and weighted with the old-fashioned, hand- wrought irons which Pancho Cueto had locked upon them. Wrapping the chain in his fingers, the slave leaped at Esteban and struck, once. The sound of the blow was sickening, for the whole bony structure of Esteban Varona's head gave way.

There was a horrified cry from the other white men. Don Pablo Peza ran forward, shouting. He swung his machete, but Sebastian met him before the blow could descend, and they went down together upon the hard stones. Again Sebastian smote, with his massive hands wrapped in the chain and his wrists encased in steel, and this time it was as if Don Pablo's head had been caught between a hammer and an anvil. The negro's strength, exceptional at all times, was multiplied tenfold; he had run amuck. When he arose the machete was in his grasp and Don Pablo's brains were on his knuckles.

It all happened in far less time than it takes to tell. The onlookers had not yet recovered from their first consternation; in fact they were still fumbling and tugging at whatever weapons they carried when Sebastian came toward them, brandishing the blade on high. Pedro Miron, the advocate, was the third to fall. He tried to scramble out of the negro's path, but, being an old man, his limbs were too stiff to serve him and he went down shrieking.

By now the horses had caught the scent of hot blood and were plunging furiously, the clatter of their hoofs mingling with the blasphemies of the riders, while Sebastian's bestial roaring made the commotion even more hideous.

Esteban's guests fought as much for their lives as for vengeance upon the slayer, for Sebastian was like a gorilla; he seemed intent upon killing them all. He vented his fury upon whatever came within his reach; he struck at men and animals alike, and the shrieks of wounded horses added to the din.

It was a frightful combat. It seemed incredible that one man could work such dreadful havoc in so short a time. Varona and two of his friends were dead; two more were badly wounded, and a Peruvian stallion lay kicking on the flagging when Col. Mendoza y Linares finally managed to get a bullet home in the black man's brain.

Those who came running to learn the cause of the hubbub turned away sick and pallid, for the paved yard was a shambles. Pancho Cueto called upon the slaves to help him, but they slunk back to their quarters, dumb with terror and dismay.

All that night people from the town below came and went and the quinta resounded to sobs and lamentations, but of all the relatives of the dead and wounded, Dona Isabel took her bereavement hardest. Strange to say, she could not be comforted. She wept, she screamed, she tore her hair, tasting the full nauseousness of the cup her own avarice had prepared. Now, when it was too late, she realized that she had overreached herself, having caused the death of the only two who knew the secret of the treasure. She remembered, also, Sebastian's statement that even the deeds of patent for the land were hidden with the rest, where ten thousand men in ten thousand years could never find them.

Impressed by her manifestations of grief, Esteban's friends reasoned that the widow must have loved her husband dearly. They told one another they had wronged her.