Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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The quick rattle of a volley of small-arms rang out, and with a whir of wings a score of zopilotes, or black vultures, deserted their duty as scavengers and rose in grave disapproval to the flat roofs of the houses. It was a familiar sound in the streets of Salvatierra, the capital of the little Central American republic which (for diplomatic reasons) we shall call by the same name: familiar alike to the dirty, ungainly birds now settling on the parapets and to the inhabitants in whom a too frequent repetition had long since bred contempt. To the wiser of both species it gave the same warning—the one to keep out of the way in the seclusion of their courtyards, the other to await on the house-tops the passing of the storm. For it only meant that another 'revolution' was in progress; and in Salvatierra revolution vies with bull-fighting as a favourite and engrossing amusement of the populace. It has the advantage over the latter that it is slightly more dangerous.
To one man, however, the sound had a stranger significance. At that moment Mr Leslie Rutherford, an English traveller, was reclining lazily in the interior veranda of the Casa Americana, one of the houses facing the main street, and barely a stone's-throw from the Plaza. He had arrived in the city on the previous evening, and had been tempted by the advertisement of the hotel—it claimed, with trans-Atlantic modesty, to be the only house out of the United States 'replete with every American home-comfort, and managed entirely by Americans'—to make it the starting-point of his present travels. Having had some experience of the States, he had not been unduly disappointed. Now, as preparation for the sight-seeing of the day, he was digesting his breakfast with the help of a cigarette. Leslie looked more than his age of twenty-four or twenty-five years. He had the resolute air of a man who knows his own mind and is not afraid of following its counsels; and with his tall and well-knit figure, blonde hair and moustache, clean-cut features, and eyes that allowed little to escape their eager, intelligent scrutiny—eyes, nevertheless, which at times betrayed the imaginative reflections of the day-dreamer—he could scarcely have been mistaken for a native—for other, indeed, than a type of the race which governs India and has colonised two continents. As the ominous rattle reached his ears and startled him out of vagrant thoughts of his Scots home, and of one whom he had left in the old country, he jumped briskly to his feet.
'What on earth?—'
Crack! Crack! Crack!
He glanced round. For a moment he was alone on the veranda. Tossing his cigarette aside, he picked up his hat and ran across the patio to the open gateway. A minute before the long street, lined in sombre uniformity by the gray, one-storied, flat-roofed houses for which Spanish taste and the fear of earthquakes are equally responsible, had been deserted save by the wrinkle-necked vultures; but now it was echoing to the patter of panic-driven feet and the din of a hundred tongues; and before Rutherford's eyes passed in review an epitome (as it were) of the inhabitants of the republic—Indians in their striped serapes of gay-coloured cloths, mestizos, a few women of the lower class, and last and most significant of all, a ragged company of the native soldiery. More than the exclamations of the crowd, it was the sight of these warriors, fleeing in hot haste from the Plaza, which told the Englishman the truth: not only that a rebellion had broken out, but that in its first steps it had been successful.
In the Plaza the rifle-fire had been followed by round after round of cheering, varied by an occasional revolver-shot. The soldiers were not pursued; and, while the passing mob tailed off with an undecided straggler or two, Leslie Rutherford hesitated whether to seek refuge indoors or venture into the midst of the uproar. He had learned enough about Salvatierran politics to have good cause for hesitation. The day was one sacred to these manifestations of public feeling: the anniversary of that on which the little republic, one of the smallest and most turbulent on the Pacific coast, had—in the noble words of the first pronunciamento—taken her place among the great nations of the earth. True that hitherto she had not quite succeeded in establishing her claim to the satisfaction of the Great Powers; but perhaps that was less by reason of her pretensions than the jealousy of the older and more effete states. For a dozen years past, when not engaged in contracting loans which were afterwards repudiated, she had indulged herself in a quick succession of Presidents, all more or less dishonest, and each as incapable as the others. The present ruler, General Alcazar, had, on the strength of some influence with the army and a saving faith in gunpowder, managed to establish a record of fifteen months' sway. The wiseacres hinted that his time was nearly up. It was rumoured that he had quarrelled with his Minister of War, General Barros Romero, who had also some influence with the soldiers; and as latterly he had become less popular with the fickle mob, developments were hopefully expected. Only the occasion was wanting, and Independence Day invariably gave rise to an ebullition of patriotic excitement. The clamour in the Plaza on this October morning seemed to show that the occasion had not been lost.
Leslie's decision was soon taken. The more prudent part was certainly to stay in the hotel. But he had come to Central America in search of adventures, and his desire to be witness of a revolutionary outbreak was quite enough in itself to outweigh the warnings of discretion. He listened eagerly. A comparative quietness had again fallen on the city; only the low hum of many voices was to be heard, and even the bolder of the zopilotes were returning to their self-imposed duties on the streets.
'I'll do it!' he said to himself; and, running indoors, he armed himself with a revolver and made some hasty changes in his dress. He was recrossing the patio on his way to the street, when he noticed that his host—Isa B. Gray hailed from Hartford, Conn., and had divers lucrative occupations in addition to that of hotel-keeper—was leisurely closing the gate. A little crowd of servants and others had gathered inside.
'A minute, please!' cried Leslie.
The American looked round. 'Oh! it's you,' he said. 'Not going out, eh? Shouldn't advise it, sir. The atmosphere's not very healthy for foreigners this morning.'
'I was thinking of it. There's a shindy on, isn't there? What's it all about?'
'Guess it's only their way of celebrating Thanksgiving Day—with considerable variations. The old story; some racket about knocking under to the Britishers—no offence, sir—any excuse is good enough here for pop-gun practice. This is the way of it. Plaza packed all morning with howling mob—official orators stoned—escort fired upon, and when they retaliated with a couple of volleys, chased from the square. Then the mob appointed orators of their own, and now they are working themselves red-headed against the President. It means trouble, of course. Shouldn't wonder if Alcazar finds some use for those ancient guns of his before he's an hour older.'
'Oh, there's no saying. I'll be considerably surprised if General Romero hasn't a hand in this game, and in that case it's a toss-up. Anyhow, there's bound to be shooting. Take my advice, Mr Rutherford, and lie low. Listen to that! No, sir; the Plaza isn't exactly a healthy spot at this moment.'
'I think I'll risk it,' said Leslie quietly.
Gray shrugged his shoulders. 'Please yourself, but don't blame me if you get a ball through your head. It's no use arguing with a Britisher. Me? Not if I know it, thanks! I've seen seven revolutions, and I expect that's about enough for a respectable Christian. In fact, it's time the gate was barred. They've got to make a rush for the palace sooner or later, and this is their direction. Come, you won't he persuaded?'
'Oh, I'll take good care of myself, never fear,' returned Leslie. 'Now that I'm here, I don't want to miss any of the regular sights. And it isn't every day you have the chance to take part in a revolution.'
'Well, it's your own affair,' said the American, opening the gate. 'Good luck! I'll keep a man here to let you in when you've had your fill of it.'
Nodding his acknowledgments, Leslie passed out and turned quickly in the direction of the Plaza. It was not more than a hundred yards distant. He had almost reached the corner when a new sound reached his ears—or, rather, a medley of sounds, confusing at first, but every moment waxing louder and more distinct. Then the truth struck him: the crowd was breaking from the square. It was even so. As he paused irresolutely, doubtful whether to go on or retire, the advance-guard swept round the corner and was upon him. He had no time for retreat. Before he could realise the full peril of the situation—certainly before he could take the smallest step to avert it—he found himself in the midst of a mob of frantic mestizos, his head ringing with the cries of 'To the palace! to the palace!' 'Down with Alcazar!' 'Viva la Libertád!' 'Down with the English!' and a score of others, shouted out in a hundred discordant and menacing tones. A single attempt did he make, almost instinctively, to draw aside into the shadow of the wall. It was useless. He was completely surrounded by the rioters, carried forward by them in their wild rush as resistlessly as a piece of driftwood by a stream in flood, fearful that recognition of his nationality meant the immediate diversion of his companions' fury to himself. And then?
The emergency demanded the boldest course. Hands had not yet been laid upon him, but there were too many rifles and revolvers around for comfort, and those in his vicinity were glancing at him with curiosity and distrust as they moved onward along the street. He saw that something must be done to disarm suspicion, and saw also that it must be done before the rebels had an opportunity to translate their vague doubt into action. But what could he do?
While he was racking his brain for an idea he felt a touch on his arm.
'Shout!' said a voice in his ear, in good English. 'Shout like fury, sir!'
Looking over his shoulder, he recognised in the speaker one with whom he had exchanged a few remarks on the previous evening in the patio of the Casa Americana. He was a little, wiry, dark-complexioned man, with exceedingly bright eyes, in age between thirty and forty, and apparently a Spaniard or of Spanish descent.
'Shout!' he repeated, crushing to the Englishman's side.
The advice was excellent, and Leslie took it at once. In a minute he was shouting as loudly as any for the downfall of President Alcazar and the English; and, instead of allowing himself to be carried passively on, he was pressing forward with an affectation of zeal that surprised himself. He did not like it, of course; but one does not stick at trifles when one's life may be at stake; and if he must pose as a revolutionary at all, he preferred to act the part to the best of his ability. And he acted it with sufficient vigour to deceive his neighbours. The ruse served its purpose; he had become an unit in the crowd, and was no longer marked out from the others. For the time being he was safe from molestation.
'That's right!' said his new friend. 'You're out of danger now—for the present.'
'Thanks to you, señor.'
'Oh, I am in the same boat myself—caught in the crowd, and couldn't get away. We'll hold together, if you have no objection. Two are always better than one in a fight.'
'Only too pleased,' said Leslie. 'But wouldn't it he safer to speak Spanish?'
'You know it?'
'Then by all means. . . . There, shout again.'
Thus, almost in the forefront of the mob, they swept down the long Calle Mayor, past the American hotel, towards the national palace. Here and there a head showed itself behind a grated window, but save for these occasional appearances the rebels had the street to themselves. As yet no sign of opposition was visible. Gradually the Englishman gained confidence, and began to take stock of his involuntary associates. Two things were obvious at first sight. Without exception they were mestizos; and a few had rifles, many more had pistols, and all were armed with the machete, or long knife of the country. Their determination was beyond question. Evidently their feelings of bigotry, patriotism—call it what you like—had been worked upon to the utmost, and for the moment they were bent on mischief with all the impulsive impetuosity of their race. The outburst might not be lasting, but there was no saying what it might do while it was still at white-heat. Even Leslie, inexperienced in such crises as he was, recognised their spirit as dangerous.
Meanwhile he felt a certain enjoyment in the position. It had a touch of incongruity that appealed to his sense of humour. Yet this did not make him forget the peril before them; he had no wish to he in the front when the shooting came off. He whispered his fear to his companion.
'Right,' he replied; 'but how are we to get out?'
'Keep cool—look out for the first chance.'
'If we can't?'
'At the worst. ... I suppose so.'
They were interrupted by an unexpected stoppage on the part of those in advance, and looked round to discern the cause. A significant glance passed between them.
'Why, it's your consulate!' cried the Spaniard, louder than was prudent.
'Gently. . . . Got a shooter?'
'Yes; my Smith-and-Wesson.'
'Have it ready, then. Take care.'
There was a minute or two's jostling and agitation, and then the crowd came to a standstill. The reason was apparent—they had at last found something on which to vent their patriotic spleen. For over one of the houses in the street a Union-jack was flapping lazily against its staff, and it seemed that the mere sight of it had sufficed to redouble the rioters' ardour. For a little the hubbub was deafening. If uproar could have accomplished the death of all the Englishmen in Salvatierra, and pulled down the obnoxious flag, and sacked the consulate—it was for these that the mob clamoured—they would have been done twenty times over. As it was, it was fortunate for those within the building that they kept themselves hidden. Presently words were followed by action; a shower of stones fell pattering against the walls and windows; and then, by way of variety, some of the wilder spirits took to firing at the ensign.
Hitherto Leslie had managed to remain pretty quiet, though not without the exercise of a little self-control. But the last insult was too much for his equanimity.
'This is getting beyond a joke!' he cried, and made as if he would personally chastise the nearest of the rioters.
His companion gripped his arm. 'Is it worth while, my friend?' he asked.
Leslie hesitated, and then laughed. 'Thanks; I dare say you're right. The old country has no need for martyrs while it has a good Foreign Office. To-morrow will bring an apology—and perhaps another indemnity. All the same,' he said, 'I don't know that I can stand much more of this. They're such a lot of unwashed ruffians!'
Luckily, his patience was put no further to the proof. They had already noticed an undersized, agile man in the front rank, conspicuous not less by a brilliant red scarf thrown over his shoulder than by his energy and the war-like manner in which he flourished his rifle. The fellow seemed to regard himself, and be regarded by the others, as a leader; and now he was to be heard alternately commanding and entreating his comrades to waste no more precious time there, but to follow him to the palace before the soldiers were upon them. Leslie was near enough to hear his reasoning: that the consulate could wait until the more important business (whatever it might be) was settled. In the end he had his way, and again the van of the procession started on its march. It was somewhat significant, however, that the previous impetuosity had given place to a steadier and more deliberate advance, as if the gravity of the enterprise had become better understood with the approach to their destination.
And still, to Leslie's surprise, the road remained clear. He could not fathom it. Why had the President made no attempt ere this to suppress a rising of which he could not be ignorant?
He had soon an answer to his question. In two minutes more they would reach the side street which led to the palace; insensibly the pace quickened; in the rear the shouting broke out anew; and then, led by the little man in the red scarf, the vanguard swung round the corner into full view of what awaited them. There was an instantaneous change. Leslie, on his part, had just a glimpse of cannon and soldiery before other matters claimed his attention. Plainly the sight not approve itself to the rioters, for a sudden shiver ran along their ranks, and they looked as if they would have given much to be able to stop or to retrace their steps. But by the impetus of those behind they were pressed forward until the little street was completely filled with the surging mob. It was every man for himself, and for the moment Leslie and his companion had quite sufficient to do in keeping together and preventing themselves from being knocked down. This, while all was confusion—
While those behind cried 'Forward,'
And those before cried 'Back'—
was surely the opportunity of the authorities. It was not taken. When at last the mad jostling and pushing ceased the pair were abreast of a large church—the church of Santa Catarina de Sienna, Leslie learned afterwards—in the fourth or fifth row of the crowd, and the crowd itself was confronting the soldiers at a distance of not more than fifty yards.
A glance gave them their bearings. Leslie's friend freed his right hand, in which he held his revolver.
'Into the church when the firing begins!' he whispered.
Leslie nodded assent. 'If we can!' said he.
'We must! It's that—or go under!'
And in truth, on summing up, neither was too confident of his chances. On the one side, they were still hemmed in; on the other, the square in front of the palace was occupied by several battalions of infantry and one of cavalry (so called), while the street in which the assailants were massed was commanded by a pair of forty-pound cannon of the period of the Crimean war—doubtless the 'ancient guns' mentioned by Mr Isa B. Gray. Insignificant as the Salvatierran troops might be as troops, they were at least superior to a half-armed rabble; and, at the best, cannon-shot and bullets are no respecters of persons. One consolation there was—both parties seemed equally reluctant to begin hostilities. It was as if they were under some spell.
For fully a minute the strange scene was continued, and soldiers and citizens stared at each other, silent and inactive. Behind the former rose the grim pile of the national palace, one of the few imposing edifices in the capital, with walls of a tremendous thickness, and every window loopholed and heavily grated. Originally the college of the Holy Inquisition, it had latterly been in the occupation of the Society of Jesus, and, after the declaration of independence, had been chosen as the presidential residence on account of its strength and possibilities of defence. Opposite was the large church dedicated to Santa Catarina; and, for the rest, the square was flanked by two rows of dingy barracks, recent and infinitely more flimsy buildings.
At length the spell was broken. A mounted officer, after consulting with some of his comrades, rode forward alone towards the crowd; and the hum of amazement with which the action was greeted showed that this was an innovation in the established procedure of Salvatierran revolutions. What it portended remained to be seen.
THE officer pulled up ten yards or so from the front rank, and for a second smilingly surveyed the crowd.
'Who is he?' whispered Leslie to his companion.
The attitude of the rioters (that alone) showed that he was no common messenger—that this was no ordinary occasion. He was a man of middle age, with the agile form and skin and features of an Indian, and nothing in his appearance to tell of Spanish blood except his moustache, and perhaps his quick, restless eyes. Yet he claimed descent from one of the Conquistadores—everybody does in Spanish America—and himself was indeed no other than General Barros Romero, Minister of War, and reputed to have an ambition to supplant President Alcazar in the highest office of the state.
When he spoke it was in the most conciliatory tones. 'And what is the meaning of this, my friends?' he asked.
The leader—he of the red scarf—stepped out, and in answer poured forth, with many gesticulations, a fiery denunciation of the administration's misdeeds, spoke of the increasing power of the foreigners: how they flourished while natives were starving, their perfidy and intention (well known to everybody) to annex the country, and so on, and so on; and, in conclusion, demanded either that the evil should cease, that there should be no more truckling to the faithless Anglo-Saxon, or that Alcazar should make place for wiser and better patriots. 'And if not—we are the people—it is for us to use our remedy!' he cried. He turned to his followers: 'You are ready, comrades—is it not so?'
The speech—it was really an eloquent speech, most eloquently punctuated by the exclamations of the crowd—was finished to quite a chorus of the old shouts. The rioters were ready; they had recovered voice and boldness under the intoxicating influence of their spokesman's oratory.
Romero listened attentively and without remark, and at the end raised his hand for quietness.
'So that is all, my children?' he inquired, in the same suave accent. 'Believe me, it is nothing. Listen to me!'—this as a clamour of dissent broke out. 'Am I known to you for a traitor? And if what you fear were true, believe that the first man in Salvatierra to join you, to help you, would be Juan Barros Romero! But I do not know it to be true; if it is, you have my word that I am ignorant of it. I cannot believe it'—here he was interrupted by some shouts of 'Death to Alcazar!' 'Down with the President!'—and continued quickly: 'Ah, you doubt the President—is it so, my friends? (Sí! Sí!) Listen to me again! What if I can prove that you are mistaken, that there has been some misunderstanding? Surely it is folly for patriots to kill each other when a minute may settle the matter. I will do this, then—remain quiet for a little while, and I will bring his Excellency the President here to speak with you face to face, to tell you himself that it is all a mistake, to show you that he has no thought of selling our country! I can trust you, señores,' he said, with his bravest air. 'I ask you to trust me. If I am wrong I give you full liberty to do with me as you please. I put myself freely in your hands.'
He did not await a reply—several cries of 'Viva Barros Romero!' there were, to be sure—but wheeled at once and rode to the great gateway of the palace. The mob, confounded by the strange turn events had taken, unable, apparently, to comprehend it, stood passive until he had dismounted and disappeared within. And amongst them, not the least astonished (to judge from his face) was Leslie Rutherford's new friend.
'This is beyond me,' he confessed. 'What's his game, I wonder? Where does the President come in? He has something up his sleeve—sí—but what? I don't understand!'
'Watch!' said the other.
Just as he spoke the next move was made. It was bold, unexpected—and successful. From the red-scarfed leader came a quick word of command; the crowd dashed forward, breaking away to this side and that to avoid the guns; for a few minutes our friends had to undergo a repetition of their former experience; and then they found themselves stranded near one of the cannon, with the rioters swarming in front of the palace, and all around and amongst the soldiers. Those, on their part, had done nothing; that they had not was, from their demeanour, not altogether against their inclination. How it was perhaps too late.
Leslie and his companion edged closer to the gun, round which the officer in charge—who was doubtless an adherent of Alcazar—had drawn his men in some order, swearing in an undertone the while. The Spaniard, recognising him as an acquaintance, greeted him sympathetically.
'You here, Don Gaspar? cried he, and expressed his surprise at seeing him in the midst of the turmoil. 'But you are everywhere! You are wonderful!'
'A mere accident, Señor Capitán. But tell me, why on earth didn't you clear the square?'
The officer shrugged his shoulders. 'A soldier must obey orders, señor,' he replied.
'Orders! You had orders not to fire?'
'On no account.'
'From whom? . . . Pardon me, but it seems strange. From his Excellency, I presume?'
'Oh no! The General had the supreme command to-day, and doubtless he has his reasons.'
'That is so, señor.'
Don Gaspar—as it appeared his Christian name was—whistled softly under his breath. 'I think I can see daylight now,' he confided to Leslie, reverting to English. 'It's a deep game that Romero's playing; but what I don't understand yet is the President's part. He's not usually a fool. However, another minute should bring the crisis,' he said; and with that he took the Englishman's arm to draw him away.
'Why, what now?' asked Leslie.
'Only a fancy. I am going to keep my eyes on Red Scarf,' answered the other.
They perceived the little leader, after a few seconds' search, standing in the midst of a group of his men right opposite the great gateway, between the soldiers and the palace. The intervening crowd, though still swaying hither and thither, was not so dense as to preclude them from approaching pretty closely; and they had just reached the outskirts of Red Scarf's circle, and (on Gaspar's initiative) were trying to edge still nearer, when a loud roar from the mob, dying gradually away in a hum of expectancy, warned them of a new development. They looked up. Above the gateway were two windows, and through one of these, at this moment, a man had stepped out upon the balcony commanding the square—a tall, soldierly man, with grizzled hair and moustache. He was in undress uniform, bareheaded, and apparently unattended.
The words ran from mouth to mouth; there was an instant's stir as each individual in the square craned forward to gain a better view at his neighbour's expense; and then silence unbroken and complete. And President Alcazar, with one hand upon the stone balustrade, looked down upon the crowd of intermingled soldiers and citizens, and calmly bided his time. Whatever his other faults might he, he had the bearing of a brave man and a cool-headed soldier.
And at last he spoke.
He got no further than that one word. The quietness had become profound as the clear and sonorous voice rang out over the square; but the President hesitated—his power of speech seemed to fail him—he stared straight down as if fascinated, incapable of using voice or limb. Almost involuntarily Leslie also dropped his eyes; and there, not five yards from him, he saw that a little circle had somehow been cleared, and that in the middle of it stood the man with the red scarf, rifle to shoulder. And even as he looked—before he could have raised a finger to prevent it—the catastrophe had befallen. There was the report of a single shot, and, without a groan, President Alcazar pitched forward on the balustrade—dead. The instigator and hero of one revolution was the first victim of another.
For a second, in common with those around, Leslie appeared scarcely to realise what had happened. Then he felt himself gripped by a mad, irresistible impulse. To this day he cannot account for his actions; all that he knows is that he was impelled to do it. He could not refuse. He did not try. Raising his revolver, he took a deliberate aim at the assassin—and fired. The man dropped.
It had been left to a stranger and an alien to send the murderer to his account with his crime still hot upon him.
Simultaneously with the second report the crowd found articulate voice and surged forward. But, before the puff of smoke had blown away, Leslie's arm was seized by his companion, and he was being haled through the breaking mass. It seemed, however, as if in the tension of the moment their share in the tragedy had altogether escaped notice. At the worst, nobody deemed it his duty to stop them. Doubtless the death of the President prevented interest in an event so comparatively insignificant as that of his assassin: it would not be until afterwards that the question would be asked how it had happened. Whether it would remain unanswered was for the future to decide. In the meantime luck was with them. After the passing of the first shock of stupefaction chaos prevailed. Populace and soldiers were pressing this way and that like sheep without a leader, no man knowing what to do, each man waiting for the next move. In this confusion it was easy for the fugitives to make their escape from the square without attracting undue attention. Leslie followed his guide with commendable docility, and at length was brought in safety to the lane running behind the church of Santa Catarina. It was deserted, and so they could now talk freely.
'By the skin of our teeth!' cried Gaspar, dancing a step or two. 'But what on earth induced you to do such a madcap thing, man? You might have got a dozen bullets in you for your pains!'
'I really can't say,' admitted Leslie. 'It was all done on the spur of the moment. I didn't think.'
'But I didn't know you cared a red cent whether Alcazar or Romero was uppermost.'
'I don't. It was all one to me. Only, I suppose, I have a natural dislike for cold-blooded murder. Most Scotsmen have; it's a part of our religion.'
'Knowing nothing of the merits of the case?'
'Wrong-doing can't excuse assassination.'
'Oh, don't let us argue about ethics. They are singly a question of nationality. There! listen to the result of the morning's work'—this as the echo of loud cheering came to their ears from the square. 'Le roi est mort; vive le roi! Exit Alcazar—enter Romero. They may change the figurehead every month, but it won't matter a cuartillo to the country except for the worse. More important just now, there is yourself to consider, Mr Rutherford. I have your name, you see.'
'And that reminds me that I haven't thanked you yet,' said Leslie, offering his hand.
The other took it frankly. 'You will thank me best by saying no more about such a trifling affair,' he replied. 'It was the least I could do for a countryman—partly at least.'
'A countryman! But'—
'My name, at your service, is Gaspar O'Driscoll,' said he, laughing at Leslie's expression of surprise.
'Then you are an Irishman?'
'My grandfather was. But our respective histories can wait until later. Just at present we have to consider the probable consequences of this escapade. There mayn't be much time to lose.'
'That's just what I want to find out,' interposed O'Driscoll quickly; 'and also, if you were seen, what is likely to happen. By good luck, I have friends at court—it will be easy to get the truth. And I have one or two points of my own to settle. For you, Mr Rutherford, the best plan will be to get back to the hotel as quickly as possible—I will put you on the way to do so—and stay indoors until I return. You have no objection?'
'None whatever. I am entirely in your hands.'
'Then that is a bargain. For my own part, I will promise to relieve your anxiety at the earliest moment. And now, if you are ready, we'll go on.'
O'Driscoll seemed to have a perfect familiarity with the city, for he led Leslie through quite a labyrinth of narrow streets and lanes before bringing him out finally in the Calle Mayor within a short distance of the hotel. There, repeating his warning to remain within for the present, he left him. Leslie walked slowly to the Casa Americana, cogitating over many things.
His host admitted him in person. From his first words it was evident that he had already heard the news, and was full of it—too full of it, fortunately for Leslie, to be particularly curious concerning his guest's adventures.
'Glad to see you back with a whole skin, sir!' he remarked pleasantly. 'You've had better luck than most. Guess it isn't often that we get our revolutions over so nicely.'
Leslie hinted that he had been a little disappointed.
'I dare say. But it looks as if we were civilising some, don't it? The bother here, you see, is to persuade our Presidents to demit office fast enough to give all the claimants a show. Well, sir, I must say I fancy Romero's way. Seems reasonable to begin at the top, and kill only one man instead of a hundred or two, as in the old days.'
'Then the affair's over, you think?'
'Trust Romero for that! If this is his shout, I'm rather Inclined to put my money on him. For one thing, he's shown originality—which means brains. Not that I can quite follow his play all through, but I suppose it's right. I'll take a walk round presently, when they've stopped making history, and ferret out the essential facts. It'll go hard if I don't.'
'Let me know the result,' said Leslie, moving away. The American's point of view, if he were serious, was rather interesting. Morality had certainly not much to do with it. But was the question of ethics, as O'Driscoll had said, one of nationality?
This reminded him of his late companion.
'By the way, Mr Gray,' he said, turning back, 'you have a gentleman called O'Driscoll staying here, I believe?'
'That's so, sir.'
'Who is he? Do you know anything about him? . . . I met him this morning,' he explained.
'I don't know much. Only that he's been staying here a week, and appears to find his way about. Hails Guatemala way, I'm told. The only thing Irish about him is his name. For the rest, he's a Don, and a good sort at that.'
Leslie ascended to the roof, which had been laid out with some taste. Taking a chair to the parapet, he sat down to watch the scene below. The street was again becoming animated; groups of people, deep in talk, were flocking in the direction of the Plaza; the women and Indians were reappearing in their holiday finery; and occasionally a more war-like company went past, shouting the name of General Barros Romero. Presently a patrol of cavalry turned up, and were heartily cheered. Mine host was evidently right: the revolution was over.
Confirmation came in the course of the forenoon from the same source. Somehow or other the landlord had managed to get his 'essential facts'—he was as fond of the phrase as if it were his own copyright—and from them he constructed a complete and cocksure history of the affair. The late President (according to his information) had recently effected a reconciliation with General Romero on the basis that the latter should succeed him on the expiry of his term of three years, that in the interval they should work together, and that at the end of it Romero should have the assistance of Alcazar's influence. Trusting in the War Minister's honour, therefore, the President had imagined that he could afford to disregard any hostile demonstration. That morning, being somewhat indisposed, he had left him in full command. The rest was easy. After his speech to the mob he had induced Alcazar—on the ground that the citizens merely wished his word that nothing derogatory to their sensitive amour propre was intended—to show himself on the balcony. One point was in dispute. The friends of Romero strenuously denied that the President's assassin was an accomplice, and had their story of private revenge to account for the incident. But nobody believed them—assuredly Mr Isa Gray did not. It was very significant, in his opinion, that the troops in the square should be those attached to Alcazar, while Romero's adherents were massed in readiness at various strategic spots. To Leslie the most remarkable aspect of the matter was this: nobody in Salvatierra seemed to think a penny the worse of Romero for his treachery.
He had an inquiry of his own to make. 'What of the man who shot down the assassin?' he asked.
'They're looking for him yet,' replied Isa. 'Some say it was an officer of Alcazar's party—some that Romero had fixed it up beforehand. It's a bit of a mystery.'
'And if he's caught?'
'Leave Romero to settle the matter quietly—with a file of his soldiers. It wouldn't do to have awkward questions cropping up the first day of office. The council's sitting just now at the palace, and the General has a regiment outside to make certain they vote the right way.'
And, sure enough, General Don Juan Barros Romero was, less than three hours later, proclaimed provisional President of the Republic of Salvatierra, in room of Don Calisto Alcazar, deceased. From his post on the roof of the Casa Americana, Leslie heard the salutes of the army and the loud acclamations of the mob, and formed his views concerning the democratic institutions of Central America accordingly.
As the hours passed, and still O'Driscoll failed to return, Leslie Rutherford's curiosity—he could hardly call it anxiety—regarding the upshot of his adventure grew rather more acute. So, after dinner, he betook himself again to his old position, for it was quieter on the roof than in the patio, where the foreign residents were wont to gather of a night for a gossip with stray visitors. There was also more to be seen—even if it were only, as now, the home-going of tipsy Indians or the sedate rejoicings of the mestizo. Apparently Alcazar was entirely forgotten. But his successor was too wise to leave anything to chance; his soldiers patrolled the streets continually, and gently hut firmly discountenanced the least inclination to form a crowd.
As Leslie's cigar burned down he fell into a half-dreamy state. It was his first visit to Central America, and yet much seemed familiar to him in a strange, half-forgotten way—as if in days long past he had been acquainted with the country and with its two races, conquerors and conquered. And, dreaming on, a very different scene from that in the city beneath—different also from the scene of the morning—rose before him. He saw a vast number of natives and white men, the latter clad in quaint, seventeenth-century costumes, fleeing in panic before a little company of ragged, bearded, fierce-eyed mariners; he heard the shrill cries of the one, the oaths and terrifying shouts and musketry-fire of the other; and in imagination he took part in the pursuit and carnage—he, a stalwart man with flaxen hair and beard. He could see it all: the plundering of churches and houses, the torturing of prisoners, and the trail of fire and smoke that rose from the sacked town as the little band of adventurers defiantly retreated, laden with booty. How real it was to him! An ancestor of his, as he well knew, had been one of that later brotherhood of buccaneers who had, for more than a decade, been the terror of the South seas—had captured fortified cities with a handful of daring men, had engaged the great war-vessels of Spain in mere cockle-shells, had earned the curses of all the Spanish colonies—themselves had indulged in wild orgies and deeds of cruelty and infamy almost incredible, and yet had performed miracles of bravery and endurance. Were these imaginings and recollections, so vivid and real to him, but the result of some strange hereditary freak? Or could the cause be traced to something else, still more strange and inexplicable?
Then the scene changed. It was the gray of the dawn; and the dreamer saw a tiny rocky islet, over which the tide was breaking in spray, and, clinging to it like limpets, the same hand of weather-beaten, truculent adventurers; and amongst them was again his alter ego, naked to the waist, his wet hair plastered to his face, encouraging his comrades with heartsome voice. And at that moment the sun rose out of the waters and showed a land-locked bay or estuary, the shores lined with people, a town nestling amongst its orange-groves not a gunshot from the little rock; and, surrounding the rock on every side, albeit at a respectful distance, a flotilla of boats full of armed men. And for a space the two parties stared at each other and bandied words, the assailants mocking yet afraid to strike, those at bay contemptuous and defiant. Then at length one boat darted forth from the circle, and in the bow stood a warrior in half-armour, and in form and countenance he was the counterpart—of whom but Don Gaspar O'Driscoll! But before the boat had gained the rock—while he, the flaxen-haired leader, was poising himself on the slippery foothold to meet the onset—there came, of a sudden, the report of a big gun from seaward. ...
Leslie's mind returned to the nineteenth century with something of a shock. For O'Driscoll himself was standing by his side, regarding him with a curious, puzzled expression in his eyes.
THE two looked at each other for a full minute, and then Leslie recollected himself.
'I beg your pardon,' he said. 'I didn't hear you coming up.'
O'Driscoll drew up a chair, and seated himself with his feet comfortably placed on the parapet. 'I've interrupted your nap, I'm afraid,' he said, smiling. 'My excuse must be that I have some good news for you.'
'You would be welcome in any case, Don Gaspar.' He passed over his cigar-case. 'Help yourself.'
'Thanks,' said O'Driscoll, choosing one and lighting it. 'I should apologise for keeping you on the rack so long, but I wished to make absolutely certain of my ground. Well, this is the net result of my investigation, Mr Rutherford: you needn't trouble yourself about this morning's work. There are all sorts of rumours about your identity—except the real one. That isn't even suspected. There's no reason why it should. You, for good reasons of your own, will hold your tongue about it as long as you 're here'—
'Or anywhere else,' said Leslie.
'That's for yourself, of course. Elsewhere it has merely the interest of a traveller's tale. As regards our friend Romero, it's not his policy to be too inquisitive. Indeed, from what can gather, you've done him an excellent turn. Quite sufficient of the plot has leaked out already for his comfort. It's whispered, for instance, that the assassin was no stranger to him—at all events, the fellow lived at a little village about half-a-dozen miles west of the city, and not two from Romero's hacienda, and was well known for a dead shot. With the information I have ferreted out, the whole intrigue is as plain as daylight;' and he went on to unfold a story that in its 'essential facts' differed very little from that told by the perspicacious Isa B. Gray. 'But enough of this, Mr Rutherford!' he concluded. 'You are right: it is pretty sordid, and must seem worse to you than to a native like myself. But if there is one thing I pride myself upon, it is that I have kept myself clear, in spite of every temptation to do otherwise, of Central American politics. I dare say, if I had cared, I might have been a President long ago. I preferred to remain a gentleman. ... To get back to business, however. You are safe enough here, as I've said; but in case of the unexpected that sometimes happens, I shouldn't advise you to stay too long in Salvatierra—especially as there's nothing to be seen or done. You are travelling for pleasure, I suppose?'
Leslie nodded. 'I have a fancy to cross the country to the Caribbean coast,' he said.
'From this point?'
'Well, not exactly,' said Leslie, with some hesitation. 'Farther south, perhaps. My idea, in fact, was to start from Fonseca Bay, and cut across to the Mosquito Reservation. But it's only an idea as yet.'
'Ah! ... It's a very difficult country, Mr Rutherford.'
'You know it?'
'Intimately. Indeed, there's scarcely a part of the continent, from Mexico to Chili, that I don't know well—and Nicaragua rather better than the rest. In this case, then, I may be able to be of some service to you. You see, Mr Rutherford, I have been a wanderer all my life. It's a legacy from my Irish ancestors, no doubt. Rut there!' he cried, throwing back his head, 'tell me, at first sight, to what nationality you would say I belonged.'
Leslie scrutinised the keen, dusky-skinned face, with its closely-cropped beard and lively eyes—a handsome and engaging face it was, frank and open in expression—and replied at once:
'Spanish—except for the eyes.'
O'Driscoll gave a hearty laugh. 'You're right, of course—so far. Nothing else?'
'Well, I can hardly say—unless (you'll forgive me) there's a strain of Indian blood to account for the darker tinge. But I dare say that is only the sun.'
'Not at all: you're right again. My blood is, I believe, half-Spanish, and for the rest Irish and Indian in equal degrees. Oh, you needn't have been afraid to mention it, Mr Rutherford. I am not in the least ashamed of my native ancestry. Why should I be, when I am probably descended on that side from a race that was highly civilised when my other ancestors—and yours—were little more than barbarians? They have fallen far, but what of that? The root is still there. Anyhow, you'll agree that it's a curious blend. And the result? I can give you my history in a few words: I'm a nomad. I was born in Guatemala—where I have still a small plantation, which affords me the means of a precarious livelihood—educated in the States and England, was for a few years in the army, and ever since I have roamed all over the continent, usually on other people's business. You may think it a wasted life, Mr Rutherford'—
Leslie shook his head.
'At the least, I have managed to enjoy it as well as most men—more so, perhaps—and in a humble way may have done a little good in my generation.'
'I have my own case as witness, Don Gaspar,' said Leslie cordially; 'although, to be candid, I can't see for what reason you bothered to interest yourself in me at all. Not many fellows would have run the risk. I shan't forget it in a hurry.'
'Oh, it was really from no motive of general benevolence. Shall I tell you the truth? When I spoke to you in the patio last night, your face struck me as being very familiar, but I could not for the life of me recall why. You and I had never met: I was sure of that. Well, it was the same this morning; I was haunted all day with a fancy that I couldn't trace, and it was not until I came up here, and—and, in fact,' he said, hunting for a phrase, 'had a good look at your face in repose—it wasn't until then that I suddenly remembered. It was the expression more than anything else that settled it, I think.'
Leslie reddened a little. 'I was dreaming at the time—not exactly asleep—a had habit I've got into,' he explained.
'Well, you reminded me of one I had met some years ago, in rather queer circumstances,' O'Driscoll went on, 'and so strongly that I'm only surprised I failed to see it sooner.'
'On this side?'
'Then it must have been merely a chance resemblance,' said Leslie indifferently. 'I have no near relatives abroad—none at all, indeed, except my little half-brother, who is fifteen years younger than myself.'
'A chance resemblance—most certainly, considering the circumstances,' agreed the other. 'But, all the same, the resemblance is so close as to be quite remarkable. The more I think of it, the more I am staggered. If the type had been a common one, now—But it isn't, over here at least; and in this case, making allowance for the difference in sex'—
'It was a woman, then?'
'Didn't I say so? Yes, and a pretty one, too. What was more, she saved my life. And, barring the difference in age, one would assuredly have taken her for your twin-sister! Strange? Why, the whole affair was a mystery—it is a mystery to me to this day.' He mused for a little, puffing hard at his cigar. Then, tossing the stump over the parapet, he resumed: 'The circumstances, as I have said, were most peculiar in every respect. It was down in the back-country of Nicaragua'—
From Leslie came a quick exclamation. For the first time his interest was thoroughly roused.
'In Nicaragua,' repeated the other. 'But perhaps you would like to have the yarn from the beginning, Mr Rutherford? If it does no more, it will help to pass the half-hour until sunset.'
'By all means!' said Leslie. 'I should like nothing better.'
He settled himself easily in his chair, prepared to give the narrative his best attention. For he was now full of eager curiosity: some instinct told him that the story would he well worth hearing. And O'Driscoll, having fortified himself for the task by lighting another cigar, plunged at once into his yarn.
'When was it?' he began. 'Let me see—yes! it was four years ago this fall. You must know, Mr Rutherford, that I had a commission from a friend of mine, a German zoologist of good repute, to make a complete collection for him of the snakes of Central America, paying special regard to the scarcer varieties. It would not interest you to go into details; but there was one snake in particular of which he was anxious to secure a specimen. It was a variety of the corali, very venomous, and from a peculiar combination of colour on the back is commonly called the Purple Cross. By that name it is often mentioned in the ancient records of New Spain, and it seems to have been hunted down by the early settlers with unusual hatred. Perhaps for this reason it has become very scarce—indeed, it is popularly supposed to be extinct—and there are only two specimens of it in the museums of the world. So you may imagine my friend's desire—and my own—to settle the point one way or the other.
'I had started early in the year from Truxillo, on the Bay of Honduras, and had worked with moderate success across country to Jutecalpa. There I spent the rainy season arranging and classifying my collection—it was fairly good in all the ordinary varieties—and then sent it down to the coast under charge of one of my men. By the end of September I was ready to start again. I had two Indians with me, Ramon and Tomas, both very capable and intelligent men; and my purpose was now to round off my work by a thorough search for the scarcer and new varieties, and particularly for the wonderful snake of the Purple Cross, of which I had hitherto failed to find the least trace. With this end in view, I meant to cross into Nicaragua, and cut in a transverse direction from the Rio Coco to the Mosquito Territory—across a tract of country, in fact, that was unexplored and practically unknown.
'Well, the adventure happened about the middle of October. We had crossed the Coco a fortnight before, and for fully a week had left the inhabited parts behind us—had been feeling our way step by step through the jungle of a pathless, mountainous region, in which there was no sign of the presence of man. Except for certain indications, we might have been the first persons who had ever penetrated into these wilds. And these indications were few and harmless enough—in one place the ruins of an aqueduct, in another those of a great temple—only the ineffaceable marks of a long-forgotten civilisation that doubtless had once spread its network from one ocean to the other, and, having conquered Nature for a time, had again been conquered by her in turn. It was a hard life, but not unpleasant. Food was plentiful—and so were the snakes.' Breaking off: 'I don't know if you have ever tried the excitement of snake-hunting, Mr Rutherford?' he asked.
Leslie laughingly shook his head.
'Oh! it has a fascination of its own—especially when the odds are about level whether the man or the snake is to have the chance of striking first. Only, in this case it was rather disappointing. I had set my heart on the Purple Cross; all other varieties had lost their attractions for me. But no Purple Cross was to be seen. And when at last I did see it—but there! that brings me back to my yarn. One morning, then, I set out alone on a ramble. I left Tomas and Ramon in the camp, which had been fixed the previous evening in a little dale by the side of a stream; and as the country was becoming more and more broken and difficult, it was my intention to climb as high as I could get, and try to map out the easiest course. For two hours or so I steadily ascended, cutting my way through the tangle of undergrowth with my machete, and blazing the trees as I walked along—and always, of course, keeping my eyes wide open. And then, as luck would have it, I found my upward progress blocked by a steep ravine, wooded on both banks. I hesitated for a little whether to return or descend to the bottom in the forlorn hope of some discovery. The latter, by means of the trees, seemed a matter of possibility; and finally I decided to risk it. So I slung my Winchester across my back, and began to swing myself cautiously downward from tree to tree. At first everything went well. I had accomplished a good half of the descent in safety, and may have been tempted by my success to be less careful—at any rate, the accident took place. I must have missed my footing, or slipped in some fashion—I really can't explain how it was—but down I crashed through the bushes that grew outward from the rock, grabbing wildly at them as I fell. Then I was brought up again with a sudden jerk. Somehow or other my gun had caught between the trunk of a cedar sapling and one of the branches, and so had saved me—for the moment. Reaching up, I caught the trunk with my hands. But it was only when I glanced beneath that I realised the full peril of my situation. For here the side of the ravine shelved inwards, and below me was a clear drop of perhaps a hundred feet. If the sapling gave way—it was already swaying uncomfortably under my weight—or if my strength proved unequal to the task of pulling myself up, my chances of escaping death were of the smallest. And there I hung for a second, suspended between heaven and earth.
'Would the cedar hold? The whole question hinged upon that, and it must be settled first. I stole a half-fearful look at the roots of the sapling, and as I looked I perceived something which almost caused me to let go my grip of the tree in sheer terror. It was not that the roots were gradually being dragged from the cleft in the rock—though that, in all conscience, was serious enough—but that amongst them, scarcely two feet from my face, a pair of small, glittering eyes were fixed intently upon mine. God help me! I knew at once what it meant. I had no need to see the forked tongue, and the triangular-shaped head swaying this way and that as it moved nearer and nearer to me, and the dull metallic lustre of the skin—I had no need of these proofs to convince me of the terrible truth. I had disturbed the snake in its retreat; I was utterly powerless to protect myself against it; I could only watch my fate creeping nearer inch by inch—watch it as if fascinated. And yet, with death staring me in the face—you will hardly believe it, Mr Rutherford—I had the instinctive curiosity of the collector as to what branch of the species my enemy belonged. Then, as I discovered it, my head seemed to whirl round. I could have no doubt, the fact was so palpable—for there, on its back, were the two interwoven hands of dark purple, standing out distinct from the surrounding black and yellow and red—I could even trace the slight differences, in shape of the head and such-like, between it and the related genera—yes! I had found the Purple Cross at last!
'Found it? I could have laughed aloud, Mr Rutherford, at the irony of the encounter. Rather, it had found me. The hunter had become the hunted; instead of the Purple Cross falling a victim to me, it was plain that I was marked out for its victim.
'All this, you must remember, had passed in less than a minute. The end must now he a matter of seconds. I could do nothing to avert it—do nothing at all but hang on, waiting for the reptile's forward dart. And the end did come, but not as I had expected. There was a sudden rending sound above me; the rocky side of the ravine flew upwards; my breath seemed to leave my body; I was conscious only that I was falling down—down—for miles and miles, as it appeared to me; and then—utter oblivion.
'I don't know how long I lay insensible—for many hours, I dare say. When at length I came to myself, it was to feel a sensation of sickening pain all down my left side. I was lying among the brushwood beneath a dwarf evergreen oak, through which I had doubtless crashed in my descent, and which by breaking the fall had perhaps saved my life. It had also, I feared, broken my arm and several of my ribs—indeed, the feeling was just as if the whole of my left side had been smashed with a hammer. The slightest movement caused me the most frightful agony. Yet I managed—how I cannot realise—to raise myself on my right hand to look around. The first object I saw was my rifle, with the leather sling hanging loose; the second was the sapling, lying a little beyond. The rifle wasn't three yards away, but it took me all my strength and resolution to crawl towards it. I thought I should faint again every moment. What I had first to do, however, was clear enough. My boys, as soon as they missed me, would have no difficulty in following my track to the edge of the ravine: it was my part to guide them to this spot. So (to be brief) I cleared a circle in the undergrowth, made a pile of the wood, and set it alight, fired my repeater thrice in rapid succession, waited a minute, and fired again; and then, leaving the rest to the smoke and the signal, swooned right away. But as to the pain which I had endured while I was doing this—why, to this day I cannot think of it without shuddering, and when I dream of it at nights I wake up with, the sweat running from every pore in my body.'
Here O'Driscoll stopped; and at that moment, in truth, the sweat was standing in great heads on his forehead at the mere recollection. His listener was scarcely less moved. He had held his breath in excitement as the story culminated; it was thrilling in itself, and, helped out by the expressive voice and dramatic gestures of the narrator, it had assuredly lost nothing in the telling. For the man was a born artist; he had the power to bring the scene before one with a vividness as of actual experience, and in this case with some of the pain as well. Leslie felt both.
'It must have been terrible,' he said, shivering.
Don Gaspar admitted that he should not care to go through it all a second time. 'And the worst was still to come,' he added, 'though, luckily for me, I was too bad to realise it fully. What I did realise was, Heaven knows, quite sufficient.'
FOR a few minutes the two men smoked on in silence. Below, in the city, the near approach of evening was heralded by the flickering glimmer of the oil-lamps in the Calle Mayor; the hum of the populace was dying down; the sun had already disappeared from sight behind the houses; but there, on the roof of the hotel, it was still daylight. In a little the night would have fallen.
'And the story?' suggested Leslie at last.
O'Driscoll started. 'You'll excuse me, Mr Rutherford,' he said, with contrition; 'but in going over these days again I'm afraid I forgot you altogether. Where was I? Oh yes! . . . I was brought out of my second faint by a recurrence of the intolerable pain in my side. It couldn't have been long afterwards, for my fire was still smoking. I had been pulled roughly to my feet by a couple of men, who were now supporting me—the agony of the action must have roused me—and perhaps a dozen others were standing around, staring at me curiously. The strangers were certainly Indians, but of a tribe unknown to me, being of a finer physique than most, somewhat lighter in complexion, and dressed differently from any whom I had ever seen. Then, looking down, I noticed Ramon and Tomas lying bound on the earth at my feet. What could it mean? To be made prisoners by the docile natives, in this latter end of the nineteenth century: surely it was beyond the range of possibility! They were jabbering away amongst themselves; and although my acquaintance with the various dialects of the isthmus is fairly extensive, I could not recognise a single word of their talk. But I hadn't much opportunity for investigation. Following a sudden order from one of the bystanders, my guards started to drag me forward, ignorant or heedless of the torture to me. I bore it for a second, and then was forced to cry out; the next, I had mercifully succumbed once more.
'My recollections of the next stage are of the haziest kind. I must have been unconscious most of the time. But in a dim, far-off way I can recall two awakenings—one in daylight, the other when it was dark—and in both the outstanding impression was that of being carried in a litter of some sort, over rough ground, and of my own sufferings as the result of the jolting. As to the distance, and the nature of the country, and the number of hours or days occupied in the journey, frankly, Mr Rutherford, I can tell you nothing whatever. It is all a blank to me.
'Let me hurry on. I can understand that you're growing impatient for the appearance of the lady, but of course I must take the events in the proper order. The strangest part is now to come; and, to enable you to follow it—to form a right judgment upon it—I must trouble you for another minute with my own sensations. As I have said, I don't know how long I was in this state of insensibility. Curiously enough, the first of my senses to recover seemed—to be that of smell; for, before anything else, I think I became conscious of a pungent, aromatic odour, not unlike incense. Then I was aware of the sound of music, of people singing to the accompaniment of instruments, in which the drum predominated; but at first it appeared distant. So soothing was the influence of these combined that for a little I lay in a sort of dream. I did not feel the pain of my injuries; I had no curiosity; and in fact, at this moment and throughout all the wonderful doings which ensued, I must have been light-headed—conscious, but little more. And at last my eyes began to see, or at least to convey to my brain some idea of what they saw. True, it was only the ruin of a high roof of gray stone, through which the blue sky was visible and the sunshine was striking in vertical lines; and about the same time I recognised that the music was really at my ears. Then my mind resumed its work. Slowly, and with an effort, I realised the facts: that I was lying prone upon my back, that I was in a building of some kind, that there were many people around. I struggled into a sitting posture, careless of the renewed pain in my shoulder and side. And this, to be brief, is what I discovered concerning my position. I was in the middle of a vast, bare hall; in front of me, at no great distance, a crowd of many hundreds of Indians, men and women, were standing in a semicircle round a fire, from which rose clouds of aromatic smoke; and behind them, towering above them, was a colossal stone statue or idol in the image of a man. The idol fascinated me. It was rudely done; but somehow the sculptor had managed to give the face an expression of frightful, diabolical cruelty. It seemed to be looking straight at me, and a shiver of downright fear ran up the small of my back. Dragging my eyes from it, I was able to take in the other details of the scene—the light complexions (comparatively speaking) of the Indians, their strange dress, the drum-like instruments to which they accompanied their chant, their absorption in the music. And it was a wonderful scene, Mr Rutherford: I can see it all, but I despair of bringing it before anybody in an adequate way.'
'I think I can see it too,' said Leslie Rutherford slowly. His voice had a queer impersonal ring about it, just as if he were trying to speak in the half-remembered tones of another; but the darkness had now settled down, and O'Driscoll could not watch the expression on his countenance. 'Listen! It is a long, rectangular building, partly in ruins; there are no windows on the side-walls, which are ornamented with curious sculptures of men and beasts; and the floor-space is quite bare, excepting only for the statue and a row of stone slabs facing it'—
'Eh?' O'Driscoll was startled into the exclamation.
'And at each end,' Leslie went on, unheeding, 'there is a great archway, and through the eastern one you have a view across a stretch of green to a lake—and the lake is spanned by a broad causeway or bridge—and on the other side the ground rises in successive terraces, where huge buildings alternate with clumps of verdure half-way to the summit of a peculiar-looking, double-coned hill—and over-topping it all, catching the eye at once, is a pyramidal-shaped edifice that stands isolated above the other structures, and the apex of it seems to be of some burnished metal, for it throws back the rays of the sun. . . . And that is all, Don Gaspar; my imagination can carry me no further,' he concluded, breaking off rather suddenly.
But O'Driscoll had jumped to his feet, and was pacing to and fro on the roof in manifest agitation of spirit.
'Imagination!' he cried, stopping in front of the other. 'No! no! You have been there, Mr Rutherford; you must have been there! It is the very scene—Dios mío! I had almost forgotten the lake and the pyramid and the ruins on the hillside; now I remember them! and the stone slabs—oh! it is impossible that it can be imagination. Tell me, how do you know it all?'
Leslie did not reply for a moment. Then: 'Really, I can hardly say,' he acknowledged. 'I have never been there, of course; and unless I have read the description somewhere'—
'That, too, is impossible!' interrupted O'Driscoll, with conviction.
'Perhaps. If I did, I don't remember of it. And yet the place is before me, as clearly as if I had seen it with these eyes. That is what I feel; but how to explain it, more especially as the description seems to be accurate—well,' he said, 'I have one theory to account for it, and even that is too far-fetched—too inconceivable, in a word—for ordinary mortals to swallow. What is it? I'm afraid it would take too long to tell. Besides, you have your story to finish; I've interrupted you too often already. Pray, go on, Don Gaspar; afterwards, if you like, we can discuss the other matter.'
Don Gaspar paid no attention. He had not yet succeeded in overcoming his amazement, and for a little longer he paced the roof, revealing by his ejaculations in Spanish and English that his companion's strange interposition was more in his mind than his own adventures.
'It is altogether beyond me!' he cried at last.
'And me also—barring the theory,' said Leslie, laughing. 'But won't you take pity on me, señor? I'm dying to hear about my mysterious savage twin-sister.'
Don Gaspar sat down again, and complied; yet not, it was evident, without a great effort of will. 'It is marvellous!' he repeated, for perhaps the twentieth time. 'These stone slabs alone, Mr Rutherford—why, on my word, it was on one of those very stone slabs that I was lying at that moment! I discovered the fact as I turned away my eyes from the crowd. There was a row of five or six of them in all, raised four feet or so from the floor, each long and broad enough to hold a man, and each with a shallow depression extending from the sides to the middle; and it was on the one at the extreme left that I lay. At the same instant I discovered also that my two servants were on the adjoining tables, Tomas next to me, Ramon on the third. Both were still bound hands and feet with lianas—those, I suppose, with which they had been tied on their capture. My own limbs were free, thanks, no doubt, to my helpless condition. I realised all this; then my eyes caught those of Tomas. Never to my dying day shall I forget the look of abject, unutterable terror on the poor fellow's face—he was a good lad, who had served me well and faithfully—never can I forget his appealing, hopeless cry when he saw that I recognised him. It rings in my ears now:
'"Save me, patron! Par el amor de Dios—save me! save me!"
'"What is it, Tomas?' I whispered back. 'Where are we? What has happened?"
'But he seemed distracted, able only to repeat his cry: "Save me, señor! They are savages—man-eaters—they are going to kill us—for the love of the Holy Virgin, save me!" His voice rose to a scream; there was an answering cry from Ramon. For myself, I had a stupid inclination to laugh. Somehow, all my fear was gone; I was indifferent: the fever was in my head, and I had no sense of the gravity of our peril. Then a sudden weakness came over me, and I fell back. Presently the singing stopped, and I looked up again. An Indian was standing over me, impassive as a statue; he had a long machete in his hand; his arm was raised. Suddenly the music broke out again, and again stopped; then there was a frightful scream—it was in Ramon's voice—and in a kind of dream I heard a clamour of sounds—a louder outburst of the music, and amidst it Tomas's harrowing tones as he alternately plead for mercy and pattered incoherent prayers to his saints. The sickening horror of it! The scene was repeated: this time the cry was from Tomas himself. I knew what had taken place as surely as if I had seen it: that my poor servants had been butchered in cold blood. And my own turn was next. I closed my eyes, awaiting the stroke; I could do nothing to prevent it: I am not certain that I wished. If only it came quickly!
'A full minute passed—you may imagine the fearful suspense—then another, and I was aware of a low hum as of surprise from the crowd. What could it be? I wondered. I could endure it no longer. The executioner still stood above me, with his arm upraised, but his attention was elsewhere. I sat up. The cause of my reprieve was now evident. A new-comer had arrived upon the stage, and one plainly of some importance, for the semicircle of Indians had parted in two, leaving a clear lane from the great archway, and, men and women alike, they were bending nearly to the ground in obeisance to a woman—a young woman—who was slowly advancing up the hall, followed at a distance by a little group of attendants. At first I distrusted the evidence of my eyes. In appearance, in demeanour, the girl—her age could have been no more that sixteen or seventeen—was a European: the mere fact of her presence there amongst that mob of bloodthirsty Indians was astounding. She was so different from them in every essential: like an angel amongst savages. Yet there, beyond all doubt, she was. How can I describe her? It can only be in conventional terms, for no words can do her justice. She was clad in a long robe of some white stuff, caught at the waist and shoulder by slim golden ornaments; her arms and head were bare; she was above the average height, and carried herself like a queen. Her whole appearance, as I have said, was that of a European. Her skin was no darker than a pure-bred Spaniard's, and in everything else—features and eyes and hair—she looked every inch the part. The hair of a flaxen colour, with just a touch of gold in it; the blue eyes; the broad, low brow, the long and straight nose, the short upper lip, the well-rounded chin—but to you, Mr Rutherford, I need detail these no farther. Allowing for the differences of sex, you have only to glance in a mirror to see them all. Her expression, too—it was the recollection of that, as I've told you, which reminded me of her when I noticed a similar one on your face. For the rest, enough that I thought her the loveliest woman I had ever seen. No, that isn't meant for flattery, delicately applied—it is the bald truth. I saw her twice, and no more. And I think so still.'
'Go on!' said Leslie breathlessly.
'Well, I didn't speculate much about the effect of her arrival upon my own fate. For one thing, I hadn't the time to recover from my astonishment before it was over. Having reached the end of the lane, she turned at once and addressed the crowd; and although, of course, I could not follow the remarks, it was pretty obvious from her tone that she was lecturing them very heartily. At least they attempted no reply; and presently, turning again, she came straight towards me. She threw a single glance at the horrible sight on the neighbouring slabs, and shuddered; and then she stopped in front of mine. For a moment we looked at each other. It did not strike me until afterwards that, to put it mildly, I could scarcely have made the best show possible; but just then I saw nothing except the womanly expression of pity on her face; and when she spoke—very slowly and distinctly—the same quality was (or so I believed) perceptible in her voice. For me, I could only shake my head. I understood not a word. Then she gave a quick command, and the three executioners—two of them with their blood-stained swords—marched off at the double-quick; another, and immediately four men advanced from the crowd, and under her directions raised me very gently from the slab. And with that the reaction came. Throughout the whole adventure it had been my bad luck to faint away at the most inopportune times. Now I did so again.
'I have little more to tell. The fever must have gripped me almost at once. One more recollection of her I have, indeed—not so distinct as the other, but to me more precious. The scene is all jumbled in my head; I had a sense of great relief and freedom from pain, of the scent of flowers, of people moving noiselessly about; but the outstanding impression was that of the girl herself bending over me, with her cool hand on my brow—a ministering angel, if ever there was one. And it is so that I like to recall her. She had certainly saved my life in the temple; I have not the least doubt myself that she saved it a second time during my illness. But that illness now closed down upon me. The rest is darkness.
'And there for me, as far as she was concerned, the experience ended. For when I finally struggled back to consciousness, I was an inmate of a miserable Indian hut near the mouth of a small river on the Mosquito coast, about fifty miles to the south of Cape Gracias à Dios. From the natives, who did what they could for me, I learned that I had been found one morning three or four days previously, lying on the bank, my rifle beside me, raving in high fever. There was no canoe, no indication how I had got there. And, by the lowest calculation, I was at least a hundred miles from the spot at which I had met my accident—a hundred miles, mind you, of country unknown and unexplored, and supposed to be practically impassable! More than that, it was (as I discovered afterwards) nearly three months since that event—was, in fact, well on in January of the following year. I was still as weak as water; but, strangely enough, my arm and side were quite healed, and from various indications it was quite evident that the injuries had been treated with some skill. It was another month before I was able to travel, and during that time the friendly Mosquitoes did everything in their power—it wasn't much—to make me comfortable. At length, with their assistance, I managed to reach Blewfields, where I was able to repay them to some extent for their kindness. Thence I went on to Greytown, and then by the San Juan and the Lakes to Granada, and so by slow stages home to Guatemala. My health was shattered: it was long months before I was completely myself. At first I told my story to many people, but it was invariably received with so much polite disbelief—put down, by the most charitable, as a mere hallucination of the fever—that I soon learned to keep it to myself. In my own mind, I have never wavered for an instant. There are points, as you have heard, that cannot be explained by any such theory. There are others, of course—a score of others—that want clearing up. And to settle these, I have always intended to make another journey across country, but hitherto have been prevented by a series of accidents which it wouldn't interest you to detail. But I still intend to do it, whatever the trouble and dangers—and as early as I possibly can. . . . And that, Mr Rutherford,' he concluded, 'is the true yarn of my adventure. It is strange, in some respects almost incredible; I acknowledge that; and I don't know that I have the right to ask you, a foreigner, to believe what my countrymen won't. At the least, you may have found it amusing.'
'I believe every word of it, Don Gaspar,' said Leslie, speaking with unusual seriousness. 'And I will tell you why. All the circumstances of our meeting—our presence in this city at the same time, the revolution, your recognition of me—all these go to form a wonderful coincidence. Either that, or Providence has designedly brought us together—perhaps the only men in the world who can help each other in a certain enterprise. For I think I can give you the clue to the mysterious points in your story; I think you have found the clue to mine. Not my own exactly, but one in which I am concerned, although it began more than two centuries ago. But first,' said he, 'I have a question for you. There is nothing else that you can remember about this strange girl—nothing that struck you in particular?'
O'Driscoll thought not. 'But wait!' he cried, after a second's deliberation. 'Did I mention the ring?'
'The ring? No!'
'I can't understand why I forgot it—it was perhaps as strange as anything. She wore it on the thumb of her right hand: a man's signet ring of heavy gold, by the shape and appearance very ancient, and most undoubtedly of European design, for the seal was a crest—an heraldic animal of some kind. I am too ignorant of those things to say what.'
'Ah!' A trace of strong excitement was evident in Leslie's voice as he asked: 'Would you recognise it again?'
'Then I'll ask you to strike a match, if you please.' He did so, and Leslie took a ring from his finger. 'Now, is that it?' he inquired, passing it over.
O'Driscoll examined it carefully, and declared emphatically that it was not. The other slipped a seal from his watch-chain.
O'Driscoll jumped up at the first glance, ejaculating in Spanish: it was a habit of his when he was moved. The match spluttered out.
'Well?' asked Leslie.
'Santissima! It is the same—there is no doubt! Where did you get it, Mr Rutherford?'
Leslie Rutherford rose. 'It is the crest of the Leslies, from whom I am descended—a griffin's head erased. As to what it means—well, the evening is growing chilly, and if you don't mind we'll finish the talk in my room. And it strikes me, Don Gaspar, that I have a yarn to tell fully as marvellous as your own.'
AND this, in a connected form, is what Leslie Rutherford told his new friend when they were settled (as they were presently) in his room in the Casa Americana. The exterior and immaterial circumstances of the tale, and the comments and interjections of the excitable Don Gaspar, may safely be left to the imagination of the intelligent reader.
Leslie came of a good stock. For many centuries his ancestors had been 'ken't folk' in the kingdom of Scotland. His estate of Easter Bavelaw, on the Fifeshire shore of the Firth of Forth, which had been in the possession of a branch of the great family of Leslie since the days of the Douglas wars, had passed in 1820 to a Rutherford through the marriage of his grandmother, the last of the line, with one of that name—a cadet of the house of Tushielaw, in Ettrick. His father, as he was wont to boast, had more of the Leslie than of the Rutherford in his blood. They had usually been a cautious and home-staying race, these old Leslies, finding their occupation in cherishing their estate and the family pride, and in their leisure more given to learned discussions in the pends of St Andrews than to meddling with the politics and active life of their times. Their characteristics, indeed, were so well marked that they had become crystallised into a local saying—'As canny as a Leslie.' But there were exceptions to the rule; and the exceptions, as is often the case, were the more interesting. Once in two generations, perhaps, a more adventurous strain would crop out; and the annals of Easter Bavelaw for two hundred years held record of some half-dozen individuals who had distinguished themselves (or the opposite) by running counter to hereditary principles, and in divers ways—one or two in their country's service, some in the by-paths of adventure, the others in a manner less reputable—had shown high spirit and the instincts of the wanderer. It was the habit of the home-keeping Leslies to trace the descent of these 'black sheep' from one Gavin or Gawain Leslie, who, having startled and shocked his grave contemporaries by a meteor-like career in the later part of the seventeenth century, had long since come to be regarded as a hero. One at least of the essentials which, in common estimation, go to make the hero he had undoubtedly possessed—namely, intrepid courage. It was the quality which had redeemed a wild and godless youth, culminating in an escapade that had forced him to flee the country, and for fifteen years to work out his destiny in the waste places of the earth—for half of that time as one of the band of buccaneering outlaws whose name to this day is a synonym for combined bravery and cruelty. There were several portraits of this worthy at Bavelaw; and it is a fact of some interest to the student of heredity that those of his descendants who had inherited much of his nature had also inherited something of his personal appearance—resembled him in form and feature.
Thus they were all big men and fair, while the others—the ruck of the Leslies—were mostly dark-haired and dark-eyed.
Leslie Rutherford's father was of the latter type. He was a recluse and a scholar, deep-versed in archaeology and heraldry, addicted to the trout-rod and the golf-club rather than to gun and saddle—withal a man of an inquiring mind, with a tincture of humorous contempt for the world and its ways. His only inconsistency, although he did not admit it to himself, was a tender regard for the great Gavin and those bolder members of the family whose exploits he had no wish to emulate. It was a hobby of his to burrow into the details of their lives, and his persevering researches had made him acquainted with many strange adventures of theirs at home and abroad. So it is probable that he was not altogether sorry when his son showed promise of 'taking after' the fair Leslies. Somewhat whimsically, he gave him the name of Leslie without any prefix: he had a theory of nomenclature, and would raise no false expectations. As time went on the boy's resemblance to the portraits of Gavin did not fail to cause remark. There were, as I have mentioned, several of these in existence—three, to be precise—and the earliest was a miniature, depicting him at the age of eight or nine years, standing by his mother's side; and, save for the dress, it might have been a portrait of Leslie Rutherford at the same age.
Mr Rutherford, comparing the two, was wont to comment upon the fact to his wife.
'We'll have to put up the storm-signal, my dear,' he would say. 'Look at that! This boy of ours is old Gavin in the flesh again—and you know what that means. The family destiny!'
Woman-like, she hoped not.
'Nonsense!' said he. 'We've been in the groove too long. It's time we were shaken out of it, and Leslie ought to do it if there's anything in heredity. But we'll see.'
Of the other portraits it need only be said here that one was a masterpiece by Lely, and showed a gallant youth in the bravery of the later Restoration period, handsome, debonair, with a great breadth of shoulder; the third was that of a middle-aged, careworn, weather-beaten man, grizzled in hair and beard; and by the keen, wide-open eyes alone could they be identified as presentments of the same person.
Young Leslie's nature as a boy gave confirmation to his father's ideas and expectations, although to other people he seemed like most boys. That is, he was not too fond of his studies; he had more inclination for open-air sports; he was never out of hot water; he was perfectly fearless and always likeable—a favourite with both old and young. For himself, his particular hero was his roving ancestor, Gavin. He scarcely knew when he had not had some knowledge of his life. Certainly he had begun to canonise him at a very early age. His mother died when he was nine or ten years old; and thereafter, until his second marriage four years later, Mr Rutherford had made him more of a companion than a pupil, and not infrequently their conversation was of the old buccaneer. So, as it appeared to him, Gavin's adventures had always been familiar. How he had been the third son and the scapegrace of a respectable Covenanting family; how he had allied himself with the persecutors, and run his course as a gallant among the enemies of his father's faith; how he had been cast out by his people; of his career and successes at the courts of Holyrood House and Whitehall; and how at length, following a brawl in the Canongate of Edinburgh and the slaying of a notable man, he had been compelled to betake himself furth of Scotland—all this Leslie knew, but dismissed as merely the preface to his progenitor's other and more satisfactory exploits. Gavin's doings for some time after his disappearance were a mystery. Then, in 1683 or 1684, he had turned up in the West Indies, and for a little while had played a humble part in the history of these islands. There he had joined the buccaneers —not the earlier buccaneers, whose ravages had worn at least a semblance of honest warfare, but the brotherhood of desperate and lawless men which had stepped into their shoes, and waged war against Spain without countenance from England or France, and in defiance of the warnings of these nations. With them, and as one of them, he had forced his way across the mountains and through the forests of Darien to the South Sea, as the Pacific was then called. It was already infested by large numbers of like-minded adventurers, and had been so for some years. For the Caribbean Sea was no longer safe for them, while the Pacific still offered an irresistible temptation: no European vessels except those of Spain sailed its waters, and its coasts were lined with cities waiting to be plundered. So, for nearly ten years in all, the buccaneers fought the colonial empire of Spain, paralysed her trade, captured her ships, and struck terror into her soldiers; all this in the pursuit of booty and against the utmost odds. During that time they were supreme. They ravished the coast from Chili to California without let or hindrance. They did not hesitate to penetrate far inland if the gain promised to balance the risk. They parleyed on equal terms with the proud Governor of Panama, and brought him to his knees. Incidentally, their wanderings—and especially the voyages of such of them as, tiring of piracy, wished to return home without encountering the Spaniards—were of the greatest service to geography and navigation: witness Dampier's first circumnavigation of the globe. And ever and always they showed a courage and resource worthy of a better cause, and a barbarity that cannot be excused even by the plea of stern necessity.
In all their enterprises Gavin was (as became one of his name) well to the front. He was with them at the capture of the great cities of León and Granada in Nicaragua, and Guayaquil in Peru. He was at the blockade of Panama, and helped to defeat the powerful Spanish fleet that blockaded them in turn. He acted with the English section of the brotherhood, under Edward Davis and Swan, as long as they remained in these latitudes; and when they left he joined his fortunes with those of the French adventurers commanded successively by Grogniet and Le Picard. He shared in their dangers and privations: which were many. He shared also in their triumphs: which were not few. And for four years he led this life, among men deficient for the most part in every quality that makes existence tolerable—he, a gentleman by birth and training, who had held his own in the court of the Merry Monarch. One would like to know what his secret thoughts and inclinations were during these weary years.
But this was a point of view that never occurred to young Leslie. He saw only the brighter side of the picture. These years made up the portion of his ancestor's life that appealed most vividly to his imagination; and then it was the physical virtues of the man and his comrades, their continual struggles against great odds, the fruits of victory snatched when defeat seemed inevitable, the difficulties met merely to be overcome—it was of these, and not of their manifold sins and crimes, that the lad dreamed as he lay on the slope of Bavelaw Hill, and watched the ships passing up and down the broad Forth. In those days he might almost be said to live in the seventeenth century. No other period of history had the least interest for him; his mind dwelt on it by day and night. He knew the geography of Spanish America better than that of England. Every headland and inlet from Chiloe to Acapulco had its story for him. He read and studied every book on the subject on which he could place hands—and there were few that Mr Rutherford did not possess. As a matter of course, all his sympathies were with the buccaneers, represented in his eyes by the redoubtable Gavin. For his sake he hated the very name of Spaniard. His boyish ambition was to emulate the deeds of his progenitor; his regret was that his lot was cast in more degenerate times; and, as it was, these old-world adventurers were more real to him than the people of flesh and blood around. It may have been thus that he came at last to feel as if he himself were a survival from that distant epoch. He was too young to analyse his impressions, or even to speculate concerning them. He was only aware that sometimes a passage of description, a chance word or thought, would bring a scene before him with the verity of life. He neither knew nor cared why it was so; he dreamed on—and believed in his dreams. Explanation and inquiry were for the future.
It was, as I have said, with Gavin's adventures as a buccaneer that his descendant chiefly concerned his boyish mind. His subsequent wanderings, as far as they were on record, had less interest for him. Truth to tell, not much was known—only that the old pirate had remained in the South Sea until the final dispersal of the brotherhood, and had taken part with the remnant in the marvellous feat with which they had worthily closed their history. This was in the beginning of 1688. At the end of the previous year the various companies of freebooters in the Pacific—consisting principally of Frenchmen, with a sprinkling of English to leaven the mass—had rendezvoused in the Bay of Amapala or Fonseca, and, recognising that the game was played out in those regions, had determined to force their way across the province of Nicaragua to the Caribbean coast. It was a daring enterprise, but they had no alternative; their vessels were utterly worthless for the long voyage by sea. Burning their boats, they started on the first day of the year (new style) from Amapala, designing to steer by New Segovia to the watershed, and then descend one of the rivers to the Mosquito shore. They were a little band of two hundred men, laden with the accumulated plunder of years. Opposed to them were a province in arms and physical obstacles scarcely less stupendous. This is not the place to relate the story of that march, one of the most thrilling in the annals of desperate undertakings—how at first they felt their road step by step through the hostile country, outwitted and defeated entrenched armies that outnumbered them by fifty to one, and overcame a thousand difficulties and ambushes that the ingenuity of the Spaniards invented for their undoing; and how, when the human enemies were left behind, they had to encounter famine and the passive resistance of Nature, and find a path to the sea across an uninhabited and unexplored region, through virgin forests, and down rivers which were little better than a series of dangerous rapids. But at the sea, in the vicinity of Cape Gracias à Dios, they arrived at last, albeit sadly reduced in number by the misadventures and incredible hardships which they had undergone. It was their last exploit, and not the least brilliant on the long roll; and there separating, they passed as an associated body from the pages of history.
There, too, ended all knowledge of Gavin's personal adventures. From that moment—sooner, indeed, for it was only known for certain that he was with the buccaneers when they started from Amapala Bay—the record was a blank. It was so for some eight years afterwards. He had not returned to Scotland until 1696, the battered and weather-beaten man of the latest portrait: returned to find his father and elder brothers dead, and himself the head of the family. Tradition gave no assistance regarding these lost years. Gavin had married, lived in a seemly manner for the remainder of his life, and died (in 1714) without apparently leaving an effective clue for his curious successors to follow. Mr Rutherford had spared no effort to clear up the mystery, and failed. For a mystery there was: he had not the least doubt of it. Perhaps he had more reason for the belief than he cared just then to impart to his son.
So the years of Leslie's boyhood passed away. His father married again. In due course the lad entered the Royal Navy, and for seven years had other matters to engage his thoughts. It was only occasionally, at home and in the Eastern seas—his wish to serve on the Pacific coast of America was never gratified—that his mind recurred to the old dreams and speculations. Then a change came. When he was about twenty-two, and rising in his profession, he was recalled to England by an imperative summons from his father. Mr Rutherford was at Bournemouth, utterly broken in health; his second wife had died suddenly; he was compelled to await the end in exile from his beloved Bavelaw; and, at his urgent request, Leslie sent in his papers, and undertook the care of the property and of his little half-brother, Allan. It was at this time that, as young men will, he fell in love. The story of his courtship has nothing to do, except indirectly, with this narrative, and here it is sufficient to say that the luck of his family did not desert him. He became engaged.
Eighteen months later Mr Rutherford insisted on being removed to Easter Bavelaw. He would take no denial; he was at death's door, and the end was a matter of days; and he wished to breathe his last, like his father before him, in the home of his race. And at last he had his way.
On the second evening after their arrival Leslie was called to his room, where, to his surprise, he found him up and dressed. The butler was with him, and Leslie glanced from one to the other for an explanation. He could not understand it.
'Only a sudden freak of mine, Leslie!' said his father, laughing. 'Dalgety and I arranged it between us. Look at that!' He pointed to the bed, on which lay a suit of ancient finery, apparently in the utmost fashion of the period of Charles II. It was complete, from embroidered shoes to feathered hat; even the sword had not been forgotten. 'We have been ransacking the costume wardrobe, you see,' he explained, nodding sagely. 'And it should fit you—it belonged to an ancestor of yours. Would you mind trying it on?'
'If you care. I have a fancy to see you in it.'
Leslie fell in with his humour. 'Certainly, sir,' he said. 'I have the same fancy myself.'
As it happened, the suit—the gay colours were faded, but otherwise it was in wonderful preservation—fitted him to a nicety. When he returned to his father's room Mr Rutherford surveyed him critically, and again chuckled as if well pleased.
'You will do, Leslie,' he remarked. 'Yes, I really think you will do. Now, will you give me your arm downstairs?'
'Downstairs, sir! But the doctor'—
'Hang the doctor! I am going downstairs to the hall, in spite of all the doctors in Fife! There! no objections, if you please. I want to follow up this fancy of mine.' Laughingly: 'Even cavaliers used to obey their parents—sometimes.'
Leslie made no further demur—it would merely have irritated the invalid—but with the assistance of Dalgety got him safely to the old hall, where the portraits of many generations of Leslies looked down on these latest representatives of their family. Mr Rutherford went straight to the upper end; and then, as he stopped in front of Lely's portrait of Gavin, and the butler threw the light upon it, Leslie began to comprehend the meaning of the strange freak. But at first—for the moment—his thoughts were of his father rather than of the picture.
Mr Rutherford stood there in silence for perhaps five minutes, glancing alternately at Leslie and at the portrait. He seemed to be comparing them point by point.
'Just as I thought!' he cried at length. Then to Leslie: 'Don't you see it, man? The mirror—there's one just behind you. Throw the light a little this way, Dalgety—that! It's wonderful! There, Leslie, what do you think of it for a resemblance?'
One look was enough for Leslie. He drew a long breath. He had, of course, seen the portrait often, and recognised that he bore some likeness to it; but it was only now, as he stood before it clad in a similar costume—perhaps the identical costume—that he realised the marvellous nature of the resemblance.
In every respect, save the fashion of dressing the hair, it might have been one of himself: and good at that. And as he gazed from it to his own reflection in the mirror and back again, and tried in vain to discover more than the single point of difference, a rush of old thoughts (or were they memories?) surged through his mind, and in spirit he was back in the seventeenth century—now dancing at Whitehall, revelling and playing high with wild gallants in the taverns of Westminster, cracking a jest with the king, riding hard on the track of hunted Covenanters—now fleeing, himself a fugitive, from the vengeance of the Scots Council—and now, in expiation of his sins, condemned to sail and fight and riot on the South Sea, and share as an equal in the rude pleasures of the scum of the earth. All these thoughts—the thoughts and dreams of his youth in a new form—came rushing back, as if some long-closed floodgate of memory had suddenly been opened: he forgot where he was, everything except the handsome, reckless face smiling down upon him from the canvas: he was no longer Leslie Rutherford, a respectable young man of to-day, but Gavin Leslie, court gallant, renegade, pirate—and gentleman.
The mood lasted for a minute or two, although to him it seemed an hour; for thought is swift. Then he was brought back to earth by the sound of his father's voice. He was watching him curiously.
'And the expression too!' he cried. 'There's no doubt, laddie: you are old Gavin come to life again! I said so fifteen years ago—and now it's more evident than ever.'
'Without his blood-thirsty nature, we'll hope,' said Leslie, recovering.
'A matter of training!' said the old man.
Once more in his room, and the servant dismissed, he recurred to the subject. Leslie was not averse; his head was still whirling with the sensation.
'It's extraordinary—almost uncanny,' remarked Mr Ruth-Dr ford, harping on the same string. 'If it means anything at all—But you remember our talks about Gavin when you were a boy? Well, I'm not sure if you ever asked me how I happened to know so much about our respectable ancestor's adventures as a buccaneer. You were young enough to accept them without explanation. If you have any curiosity about him'—
'I think I have always had,' replied Leslie. 'It is particularly strong at this moment.'
'In that case I can't do better than let you satisfy it for yourself. Here is the key of the small charter-box; you'll find all the papers there. And ring the bell, please; I'm feeling a bit tired. You can let me know the result in the morning.'
Leslie bade his father good-night, and, still clad in his Carlovian bravery—for he had a fancy to act the play out in character—repaired with the charter-box to the library. He had no difficulty in unearthing the documents. It had always been the custom at Easter Bavelaw to preserve with Mohammedan-like fidelity every scrap of paper relating to the family; and those in question were tied together and neatly labelled and inscribed: Gavin Leslie, 1658-1714. Leslie began his examination with eager expectation. Besides a number of loose papers, yellow and frayed with age, there was a fat little hook bound in stiff parchment; and this he reserved to the last. The papers, with two exceptions, were of slight importance. They had reference chiefly to Gavin's earlier life: a few letters home from Edinburgh College, one or two tavern bills, a copy of the proclamation offering a reward of £500 Scots for his apprehension, and such-like. A hurried scrutiny was sufficient to assure him that he need expect to learn nothing from them.
The exceptions were of more interest. A glance at the first told him that he was on the right track. It was a letter from Gavin to his father, dated from Port Royal on the 20th day of June 1683, asking in brief and stilted terms that he would send to him, under the assumed name of Chisholm, a sum of money—'having now a goodly chance of entering into a promising Adventure to the South Sea, with divers others'—and giving his word that if he did so he should hear no more from his 'unworthy but loving son.' The missive was curtly docketed in another handwriting: 'Sent 50 guineas.—A.L.'
The other document was not less significant. It was a copy of Gavin's last testament; and, after the usual declaration of faith and disposition of his property to his wife and only son, it ended with these words:
And Him, my son Archibald Lesly aforesaid, and those who shall succeed in the Barony of Easter Bavelaw, I hereby charge and command, as they shall cherish the Honour and Goodly Repute of the Family, and by their Hope of a Glorious Immortality, that if in times to come there shall repair to the House of Easter Bavelaw certain Person or Persons from overseas, bringing with them Sure tokens and signs of their Good Faith—therefore, they shall be welcomed and treated as become such as are duly entitled to the Name and Honour of Leslys of Easter Bavelaw, and due Provision shall be made for them accordingly. This, for the relieving of mine own Conscience, I enjoin upon them under pain of my Dying Curse; yet in full assurance of the Love and Filial Obedience of Archibald Lesly aforesaid and his proper Heirs and Successors. And so, albeit the greatest of mortal sinners, I commend my soul to Almighty God, in the sure and certain hope of Everlasting Life through Jesus Christ His Son. Amen.
That was all. Leslie read it over and over again, as if he could thus ferret out the hidden meaning. At last he threw it down in disgust.
'The old beggar might have been more precise,' he grumbled to himself. 'At any rate, he made an edifying end. Peace to his soul! And now for the last.'
He opened the little parchment-bound book, and saw at once from the appearance of the leaves that it was quite modern. The heading—'The Adventures of Gavin Leslie in the South Sea, 1684-1688,' in his father's fine calligraphy—sufficiently explained its scope. But there was also a prefatory note to the effect that he (the editor), acting upon the clues afforded by his ancestor's letter from Port Royal, and family tradition, had taken the trouble to collect and collate from the various memoirs and histories of the buccaneers, published and in manuscript, French, English, and Dutch, every reference to the said ancestor. They were not too many, but they afforded, by direct allusion and inference, a fairly complete history of his doings for the four years ending in January 1688. Leslie skimmed quickly over the fifty or sixty pages of the book. The extracts were from all sources—now a mere mention of Gavin's name, now a commendation of some daring action, and now a description of his work while holding some temporary command—and were, indeed, the barest bones of a 'complete history.' Yet to Leslie, as he read on, they were enough. They recalled to him every incident of the familiar story: he required no other aid to enable him to clothe the skeleton anew.
He pondered longer over the last two entries. The penultimate—an excerpt from the memoir of Ravenneau de Lussan, himself one of the adventurers—described a skirmish that took place in January 1688, a few days after the departure from Amapala Bay on the memorable march across the continent, between a body of the enemy and the advance-guard of the buccaneers, the latter being commanded by 'the Scot Lesly or Chisholm, his real name being doubtful; but a gentleman and good comrade.' And here Mr Rutherford had made the comment: 'This proves that Gavin Leslie started with the pirates on their march across Nicaragua. But I have hitherto failed to discover any further reference to him in the contemporary memoirs or elsewhere. He returned to Scotland in 1696, apparently not empty-handed, for he added considerably to the family estates during his tenure.'
There was, however, still another extract. It had evidently been copied long after the others, and was prefaced thus: 'Translated from the MS. Diary of Giles Thévenet, recently unearthed, and now in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris—contemporary, and undoubtedly genuine.' It was as follows:
[February 7, 1688.]
Now another misfortune befell us. This morning we discovered that one of the most brave and capable of our officers, a gentleman-adventurer out of Scotland named Chisholm or Lesly, was missing from the roll-call, along with other four Englishmen and two native prisoners. It is supposed they were cut off by the enemy, although there are some (knowing that Lesly had lately lost his money in play) who hold that he had privy information of an Indian city in the mountains, with great treasure therein, and so has been tempted to steal away in search. But the majority think not so, and in any event he cannot well escape the Spaniards.
'This,' wrote Mr Rutherford in conclusion, 'takes us little farther. One fears, every effort having been made, that there is now little hope of filling up the blank of eight years in Gavin Leslie's life.'
Leslie was not so sure. His ancestor had not died: had he, then, been for these eight years a prisoner in the hands of the Spaniards? It was an obvious explanation; but somehow he was certain it was not the true one. If so, why had some tradition of the fact not descended to them? And what of the mysterious invocation in the will? In it, and in the last extract, the clue was to be found. It was for him to find it. The hours fled; he thought and thought, poring over the papers; he was back again in the past, but now his mind was in a fog; and if sometimes he felt that he was on the verge of discovery, that the mist was about to lift, still the final result was naught. Sleep was impossible; he could not rest. For the old glamour was upon him again—stronger, because founded on better knowledge than in the days of his boyhood.
He was interrupted about midnight by a knock at the door. Following his invitation, his father's nurse appeared.
'Never mind this masquerade!' he cried, as she broke off to stare at his strange rig-out. 'What is it, nurse?'
'Will you come to Mr Rutherford's room, sir? He seems much worse.'
He jumped up. 'Is the doctor there?'
'A groom has just been sent for him.'
He accompanied her upstairs; but his father was unconscious. The doctor, on his arrival, could do nothing for him. He was passing gently away. He spoke only once, and then his mind was wandering; for, looking at Leslie in his cavalier costume, he confused him with the original owner.
'So that's you, Gavin?' he said, smiling. 'You were a sad dog; but—well, I dare say you had your good points. And I always liked you, man. Speak!'
Leslie bent down.
'Say, where were you those missing eight years?' he asked.
Then he shut his eyes. And the end came in the early hours of the morning.
In the three or four months that ensued, when the natural feeling of sorrow had abated and he had become accustomed to his new circumstances, Leslie's thoughts were more and more frequently with the mystery of the old buccaneer. His father's last words, random as they were, had their effect. It almost seemed to him that he had a parental command to take up the problem which his elder had failed to solve. He grew restless under the burden. Ever and again he had a provoking premonition of a revelation that never came: as if the truth were locked up in some chamber of his memory, and yet he could not reach it. At last he could endure the strain no longer; and with the assent of his fiance, he determined to settle the matter once and for all—to lay the ghost of his ancestor—before marrying and settling down. His plan was to follow in Gavin's probable footsteps across Nicaragua—with what hope of a successful result he alone could tell. And thus it was that we find him in Central America.
Was there a destiny in it? His opportune meeting with Don Gaspar O'Driscoll almost convinced him that there was.
ONE o'clock had struck before Leslie's narrative was finished; but you may he sure that neither he nor his listener had noticed the speedy passage of the hours. Certainly not Don Gaspar. How he was ready with a score of eager questions.
One was uppermost. 'And your theory?' he cried. 'How do you account for it?'
'Those glimpses into the past—your strange affinity with the old pirate—whatever you like to call it.'
'Yes; that bothers me,' confessed Leslie. 'At first I fancied that it might be only a vivid imagination acting upon what I had read and assimilated in boyhood. But that doesn't explain it all. There was that incident of the temple to-night, for instance.'
'I was thinking of that,' said O'Driscoll.
'The worst of it is, every theory has its weak points. This is my own suggestion—and it's no more than a suggestion, mind. We know that the corporeal nature of man descends through generation after generation; that the physical appearance, and even the individual traits, of one may crop out in a remote descendant. Am I not a standing proof of it? Well, why may not his memory—all those unknown forces, mental, spiritual, that go to make up his inner nature? Everybody has felt something of the kind now and again—a hint of it, say—fleeting impressions of events and places that he had been familiar within a previous state of existence. The power may be latent—is bound, indeed, to be more or less so. In many ways, perhaps, that's just as well'—
O'Driscoll laughed. 'Or some of the histories would require to be revised?' he asked.
'I'm afraid so. Then, of course, there's the theory of the ancients—a sort of family translation of soul. But I don't think, honestly, I've got my ancestor's soul. If I have, it's with modern improvements. And there we are, in a bog!' he exclaimed. 'What's the good of discussing it at all? Like the old farmer and the champagne, we get no forrarder!'
But O'Driscoll demurred. 'Oh, I don't know,' he said. 'It's very interesting; and we might make a discovery.'
'It isn't likely. What's more interesting to me just at present is your information about the strange tribe in the interior. We get to solid facts there—and that's exactly what I want. I'm rather tired of theories.'
'So you think you're on the right track?'
'Well . . . don't you?'
'Frankly, there doesn't seem to be much doubt.'
'That's what I mean to find out. What with the resemblance, and the signet ring, and one or two other things—anyhow, it's at least worth investigating.' He spoke with native caution; but his tone betrayed him as being considerably more confident than the words implied. 'Even if a man had no motive of his own, your story would be quite enough. I should have gone through with my plan in any case. Now you've given me additional grounds for persevering—with some chance of success, too. That's why I spoke of Providence, Don Gaspar; and, Providence or not, you'll believe that I'm glad to have met you?'
'Not more than I am, Mr Rutherford,' said O'Driscoll heartily. 'If I can be of any further assistance to you'—
'Thanks; you can. In one way, particularly. It will help me very much if you can give me the approximate position of the place where the Indians captured you. In that event, you see, I should modify my plan by making straight towards that spot, fixing a camp in some central position, and then exploring the country around until I was successful, whether it took me one month or twelve. It strikes me as the best idea. What do you think, Don Gaspar?'
'I think it is; in fact, it can scarcely fail,' returned Don Gaspar.
'And you can give me the bearings?'
'I can do more, if you like. I can lead you to the spot.' He looked over to his companion, doubtful how he would receive the proposal, but eagerly, almost appealingly. 'That is, Mr Rutherford,' he added, 'if you have no objection to a companion.'
'Objection! I should think not!' cried Leslie quite as eagerly. 'I should like nothing better. But I didn't care to propose it, in case the claims of your business'—
'Oh, my business is not of much account. As it is, I meant to leave for Corinto to-morrow forenoon—or this forenoon, rather—and a day there will easily settle it. Then I am free; and Corinto will do for a starting-place as well as another—better, perhaps. That, however, is a detail. The truth is, I should willingly throw the most important business to the winds rather than miss the chance of seeing your—your relative, shall we call her?—of seeing her again.'
'So! In the name of my savage relative, I thank you for the compliment,' said Leslie jestingly. 'My belief is, Don Gaspar, you're half in love with her.'
'Not half,' said O'Driscoll. 'Entirely! I don't deny it.'
'Is that the state of affairs? Well, I don't know if family influence will go for much in that quarter—that remains to be seen. If it does, you may depend upon me.'
Don Gaspar shook his head sadly. 'There's trouble in front,' he replied, with the air of a prophet. 'You haven't seen her yet—and, what's worse for me,' he said, with a whimsical glance at the other's goodly proportions, 'she hasn't seen you! So, all things considered, we'd better wait a bit before disposing of her.'
'And get there first? You're right. To come back to our muttons, then: I shall be glad to accept your proposal, Don Gaspar—on one condition.'
'That you allow me to pay the cost of the expedition, and contribute your experience and knowledge of the country as your share. It is only just. And if there is any tangible result—I don't suppose there will be, in spite of the mention of treasure in my yarn—but if there is, we shall, of course, share and share alike. For the rest, I dare say we'll manage to knock it off together. Now, is it a bargain?'
O'Driscoll took not a minute to consider. 'It is,' said he; 'although I should prefer to share in the expenses.'
'Not at all!' cried Leslie decisively. 'It wouldn't be fair.'
'Have it your own way, Mr Rutherford. I am only too pleased to go on any conditions.'
They shook hands upon it.
'And,' said Leslie, 'we'll start as soon as we can—to-day if you like—for Corinto and the wilds.'
Some ten days later, while Leslie Rutherford was busy over his correspondence in his room at the European hotel in León, dustiest and dullest of Nicaraguan cities, he was interrupted by a shout from the adjacent veranda:
'Hullo, Rutherford! Not done yet?'
'A minute. I'm just finishing,' he answered.
'I'm at my last letter.'
O'Driscoll appeared in the open doorway, hands in pockets, and stood smilingly watching him. He had no correspondence.
'Is that the important one?' he asked.
'Oh no! It was written long ago. This is to my solicitor; and as I mayn't have another chance, I am giving him full details of our plans. In case of accidents, you know.'
'Go ahead!' said O'Driscoll, seating himself. 'There's no particular hurry. The advance-guard is about to start; but we can leave it to the admiration of the populace for a few minutes.'
It was the eve of their departure. A week previously they had arrived at León from the port of Corinto—a miserable place, chiefly noted for dirt and malaria, and as having been occupied for a few days by a force of British blue-jackets in the interests of international courtesy—and they had since been engaged in the necessary preparations for the expedition, and in becoming better acquainted with each other. As regards the latter, they were already excellent friends; they had developed few points of difference; and there was thus every prospect that they would pull well together through the jars and trials of their future intercourse. The preparations had lain in the capable hands of Don Gaspar. Knowing the ropes well, he had found little difficulty. Perhaps the most important question was that of attendants, and in this he had been lucky enough to secure the services of an old peon of his own, an honest and capable Ladino named Ignacio; and this man, along with his brother Francisco and themselves, made up the total of the party. Horses for themselves, mules for the servants and baggage, arms and ammunition, hammocks, a small medicine chest, one or two scientific instruments, changes of clothing, some provisions, and other requisites for comfortable travel—all these had been duly bought and packed. Now everything was ready. The natives, who would naturally make slower progress, were to go on that evening; they would follow the next morning. Leslie was not sorry. There is not much to tempt one to linger in the city of León.
'There! That's over, thank goodness!' he cried, sealing and addressing the last letter. 'Now I'm at your service, O'Driscoll.'
O'Driscoll jumped to his feet. 'Come on, then! And bring the letters with you; we'll post them presently.'
They passed through the patio of the hotel, brilliant with its many-coloured flowers—roses, jessamine, cockscombs, tuberoses, and a dozen others—to the street, where a little crowd of cotton-clad, barefooted idlers, cigarettes in mouth, were surveying three laden mules and a couple of Ladino arrieros with indolent curiosity—a curiosity which they transferred at once to Leslie's stalwart figure. The two guides doffed their hats in salute.
'Everything right, Ignacio?' inquired O'Driscoll.
'Sí, patron,' he replied, showing his white teeth in a broad smile. He was a typical half-breed of the better class, open-faced and humorous in expression, and decidedly more intelligent-looking than his brother. Plainly, he was accustomed to think and speak for both.
'You won't forget your instructions, and lose the way?'
'Is it likely, señor?'
'Nor allow yourselves to be robbed?'
'With these?' he asked, pointing significantly to the pistol and machete in his sash. 'No, no! The señores may depend upon us; we shall be waiting for them at Zapata to-morrow evening.'
'Good! A pleasant journey to you!'
So they went on their way, the bells on the mules' necks tinkling merrily. Leslie and his companion watched them until they were out of sight; they felt that the first definite step towards the realisation of their hopes had been taken, and were glad.
They themselves were off before sunrise next morning. It was the fag-end of the rainy season, and they wished to cover as much ground as possible before the heat of the day began. They spoke little as they rode briskly through the overgrown suburbs of León, with their fences of pine-apple and cactus enclosing the Indian huts and little patches of garden ground: each had his own thoughts. Then, as the day broke, they pulled up for a moment on the summit of an eminence to breathe the horses. The city lay widespread behind them, the twin-towers of the cathedral of St Peter dominating the houses; to the south the great plain stretched away to the Lake of Managua, while to the north the eye was caught by the volcanic cone of Yiejo; and before them was an undulating country of alternating wood and savannah, rising to the blue mountains of New Segovia. It was thither that, in the first instance, they were bound.
Leslie drew a long breath of relief. For the knowledge that they were in motion at last, aided, perhaps, by the cool morning air, was very pleasant.
'Forward!' he cried, in highest spirits, 'on the track of the Lost Adventurers—for the laying of my ancestor's wandering soul—for the solving of the mystery of two hundred years—for the hidden city in the mountains, with its temples and palaces and Aztec treasures!'
'And its white princess. You must not forget her,' supplemented Don Gaspar. 'So forward, by all means!'
They spurred on, chatting and laughing gaily. Their enterprise had begun. What would be the issue?
THE first fortnight of the journey, across the western or inhabited parts of Nicaragua, was devoid of exciting incident. The route lay north-east to the town of Xinotega, and thence due east to the valley of the Rio Coco. For a few days, as they rode through the thinly-populated plains—given up, where there was any cultivation at all, to small plantations of cotton, indigo, and coffee—there was little to remind Leslie of the seventeenth-century descriptions of the country. It was not what he had expected; and perhaps he felt much as an Elizabethan wanderer might do if he were restored to life in the England of to-day. Only, it is doubtful whether Nicaragua or the Nicaraguans have made any advance in civilisation since the time of the buccaneers.
O'Driscoll, noticing his abstraction, was tempted to rally him. 'Still disappointed at finding no trace of your ancestor?' he would ask.
'I suppose that's it—for want of a better reason.'
'Patience! These attempts at coffee-planting are innovations—and poor at that. Wait till we get up-country, my friend. There the old style flourishes, and you can pick up the threads.'
And presently, indeed, they ascended into a more pleasant region; hills covered with forests of evergreen oak and pine, fertile valleys dotted with great herds of horned cattle, scenery that occasionally approached the majestic, picturesque villages and farms—picturesque, that is to say, from a distance—and a temperature not hotter than that of Central Europe. Leslie's imagination woke again. It was over these mountain-ridges and through these valleys that the two hundred had fought their way inch by inch in the face of overwhelming odds; here it was, perhaps, that Gavin's outpost had encountered the enemy, and repulsed them nobly; and there, perhaps, that in the evening watches he had staked his hard-gained booty at hazard, and won or lost to the music of an incessant musketry-fire. Thus O'Driscoll and he amused themselves by recounting the familiar incidents, and day by day giving them a local habitation.
It was the most enjoyable stage of the journey. Both had seen much life, and with reminiscence and story and joke, and now and then a shot at a monkey or deer, the leagues sped quickly away. They passed from one hacienda to another, and in all of them Don Gaspar's happy manners (and their ready money) made them welcome. And if no house was near, they were quite as well pleased to sling their hammocks in a grove of trees and spend the night under the stars. The inhabitants were a never-failing source of amusement to Leslie. They were a well-mixed race—white, negro, and Indian, the last predominating—and were a delightfully simple and ignorant folk. Even the better educated (comparatively speaking) had the fixed idea that England was a part of the United States, and could not be got to understand that many thousand miles of sea separated the two countries. Then it must be a province of Spain! For to most of them Spain and the Old World meant the same thing. They did not show much curiosity regarding their guests' purpose in travelling. When they did, it was easily satisfied—without revealing any secrets.
The party did not hurry. The slower progress of the mules allowed Leslie and O'Driscoll to make detours to visit any sights of interest near their route—principally remains of a former civilisation, such as monumental ruins and colossal monolithic statues of men and gods. There were many of both; and invariably they filled O'Driscoll with a momentary sadness, and inspired him to lecture fluently on the ancient virtues of his ancestors (Indian branch). On all sides, in fact, they saw proofs that in those days, before the Spanish conquest, the country had been densely populated. It was very different now, when they might travel for twelve hours (and often did) without meeting a single person. And on this point Don Gaspar waxed prophetic.
'The mixed race is decreasing in number every year,' he said. 'Why it's hard to say—some blame republican government, some the Divine judgment—but decreasing it is. In a century, perhaps in less, it will be extinct.'
'And then?' asked Leslie.
'Then—what but the invasion of the Anglo-Saxon—the Americano del Norte? Do you think, when they have covered the prairies of the States and Canada, they won't swoop down on these magnificent plains with a rush? Of course they will! Neither they nor we can help it. It's a law of Nature.'
'You don't seem to regret the possibility, O'Driscoll.'
'I do, partly—on my Spanish side,' he returned, laughing. 'But on my Irish, even on my Indian, I can see the benefit. It will be entirely for the good of the country; they will open it up, develop its mineral wealth, plant fifty people where one is now, turn it into an earthly Paradise—like Pennsylvania or Illinois! And for the Indians, if any are left, there will be another chance.'
'May we live to see it!' cried Leslie.
'Amen!' said Don Gaspar.
So far it had been a kind of holiday excursion. The only drawbacks were the minor discomforts caused at night by bloodthirsty insects and howling monkeys; and in spite of these they managed, from the chiefs down to the meanest mule, to reach Xinotega in capital condition. There they rested for two days, and on leaving were escorted for three leagues, as a tribute to their merits, by a cavalcade composed of most of the adult males of the place!
Their real difficulties were now to begin. Every mile that they advanced took them deeper into the wilds. The country was more broken and rugged; the forests bore more and more a primeval appearance; the vegetation was more luxuriant and the fauna less scarce. Herds of wild cattle and horses roamed at will through the valleys, untroubled by the fear of stock-whip and lasso. Everywhere Nature was resuming her own. Most of the inhabitants had probably migrated westward, and the few who still kept an occasional outpost against her encroaches were purely Indian in type. Soon even these exceptions were to seek. They had, in a word, crossed the border-line; and eastward to the Atlantic was an unknown and unexplored tract of mountainous region—a land of plateaux and virgin forest, infested by the jaguar and puma, and populated (if populated at all) by a few widely-scattered tribes of aboriginal natives. Yet somewhere in the heart of it, as our adventurers believed, the secret of Gavin Leslie was hidden.
Let us join them a week later. They are threading a narrow, thickly-wooded ravine, by the side of an inconsiderable stream. Ignacio is in front, clearing a path with his machete through the tangle of undergrowth and creeping plants. The others follow in single file, leading the horses and mules. They have been at it for eight hours, taking turn about as pioneers, and in that time have scarcely made as many miles; and for three days they have not seen a human being save themselves. Now they are becoming somewhat anxious. Night is approaching, and a suitable spot for camping has yet to be found. At last the guide pulls up, and the leaders draw together for consultation with him.
'Not room for a cat to turn!' cried O'Driscoll, glancing around him dubiously. 'And damp as the grave! Surely we can't be far from the end of the ravine, Ignacio? Anything rather than this!'
'It seems to have no end, señor.'
'Can't we climb the sides?'
'The patron can see for himself. . . . And the horses?'
'You're right. Then I suppose there's nothing for it but to camp here and take our chance?'
'As the señor pleases. But, with his permission, I don't like it. Look! the flood-mark is high above our heads, and if a thunderstorm comes in the night—hoof! there is no hope of escape! The river is very low just now, but it may be full in half-an-hour.'
'It's a risk, certainly—and a big one,' said O'Driscoll. 'But I'm afraid we must run it. What do you say, Rutherford?'
'Go on,' replied Leslie shortly. He had been rather thoughtful all afternoon, and now he spoke with an unusual air of decisiveness. As a rule, he left the details of the march to his companion.
Gaspar looked at him in some surprise.
'Let's try it, at any rate,' he went on. 'I have an idea that this ravine will broaden out presently.'
'But it will be dark in half-an-hour,' objected O'Driscoll.
Here Ignacio chimed in: 'The señor will pardon me; he forgets there is a moon at ten o'clock.'
'Why, so there is! That settles it. We can rest here till ten—we all need it, horse and man—and then have another try at it for an hour or two. Will that do, Rutherford?'
'Right!' said Leslie.
So the animals were tethered and the packs removed, supper was prepared and eaten, and tired muscles rested as well as the untoward circumstances permitted; and at ten o'clock they were all ready for another spell of work in the glorious moonlight of the tropics—and tropical moonlight (be it said) is not a bad substitute for daylight, while it has distinct advantages of its own. It soon appeared that Leslie was not far wrong in his conjecture. The bottom of the ravine began to open out and became more easy for passage, and the sides to recede; before long they were able to make their way along the stony bed of the stream, which, if somewhat rough, was at least free from obstructive vegetation; and then, about midnight, they heard a sound as of a distant waterfall. They hastened on. The sound grew louder and louder; suddenly the prospect, which had hitherto been bounded by the trees, seemed to widen; and from O'Driscoll, who was leading, came a quick exclamation of delight. Leslie ran up.
'You're a true prophet, Rutherford!' cried Don Gaspar, pointing downward, and shouting so as to be heard above the roar of the falling water. 'Look at that! Isn't it magnificent?'
And it was. Where they stood the ground dropped in a sheer escarpment for fifty feet or so, and the little stream leaped down in a series of sparkling, moonlit cascades to the valley below. But it was the latter that held their attention. It was a fine stretch of park-like savannah, of level grass-land broken by islets of wood, with the water meandering through it, and the whole enclosed like an amphitheatre by the darker ridges of tree-clad hills. There was no sign of human habitation; but as they looked a herd of animals—of what kind they could not distinguish—emerged from the shadow of one of the clumps, and scampered away in panic. In the bright moonlight the whole scene was as clearly visible as by day, and infinitely more beautiful.
They regarded it for five minutes, too much fascinated to speak. Then the more matter-of-fact Ignacio broke in upon their thoughts with a question of practical moment:
'And how are we to get down, señores?'
O'Driscoll roused himself from his artistic reverie. 'That we must find out,' he said. 'There's bound to be some means.'
It was presently discovered that, a little to the left, the cliff was not quite so steep as elsewhere; and there, in the guide's view, it might be practicable to descend—with the utmost care. It was decided to attempt it. The enterprise proved to be a hazardous one, especially as concerned the horses; but in the end, after much hard work and anxiety, it was accomplished in safety; and, not without satisfaction, they fell into order once more in an open country.
'Where now?' asked O'Driscoll.
'I feel inclined for a scamper,' said Leslie, surveying the valley. 'Do you see that low hillock—there, by the waterside, about a quarter of a mile away?'—indicating a clump of wood which was conspicuous by reason of one gigantic tree that towered above its neighbours.
'Then let us bivouac there, if you don't mind. The mules can follow at their own pace.'
'By all means,' said the other.
The orders were given, and they dashed off. After all, the mules were not much behind them. The grass was too long for quick riding, and they had just had time for a cursory inspection of the place when they came up. It was a very gentle eminence indeed, on two sides bounded by the stream, and on the others clothed with a growth of young rosewood and cedar. The feature of it was the great coyal-palm that rose in solitary state on the summit—really a grand specimen, with leaves not less than twenty feet in length, and a true crown of glory. Altogether an ideal spot. Here the beasts were tethered, and a fire lit for the benefit of the guides; while the chiefs slung their hammocks side by side at some little distance, between two sturdy cedar-trees, and turned in to enjoy the fruits of a good day's labour well done.
Then followed an interval of peace and contentment too deep for words, while the aromatic fumes of tobacco ascended to the dome of the coyal. Notwithstanding the fatigues of the journey, neither was sleepy. For a while they lay and smoked; and then, growing tired of silence, they talked; and O'Driscoll, eschewing idle gossip, led the conversation round to their plans for the immediate future. He was convinced that, to reach the district with which he was familiar from his former visit, they should strike more to the northward; and in this way, he believed, they would have a better chance of achieving their purpose speedily. Only let him get his bearings, and the first of the obstacles was overcome.
'If you like,' said Leslie, but in rather an ambiguous tone. 'Mind, I don't doubt that you're right—not in the least. 'But, all the same'—
'It sounds foolish, but—well, I should like if you would give me my head for a day or two—for two days, say. I mean, O'Driscoll, to let me try my 'prentice hand as guide, with supreme control.'
'Why, what's your idea?' demanded O'Driscoll.
'Frankly, I scarcely know myself. A kind of fancy, I suppose. But if you think it idiotic'—
'Not a bit! Perhaps, though, we'd better wait until the morning before settling definitely. We'll see the lie of the country then.'
So it was agreed, and again silence fell. The only sounds were the gentle plash of the burn and the echo of the distant waterfall, the munching of the horses and mules as they cropped the sweet grass around the coyal, and a faint rustling in the tree-tops. The fire was burning with a great glow, and the brothers lay in its glare fast asleep, each wrapped in his capacious serape. The two friends smoked on, swinging in their hammocks, and were happy.
Leslie broke the spell. 'Shouldn't we keep a watch, O'Driscoll?' he asked.
'Is it worth while?' replied the other lazily. 'There are no natives about, and they wouldn't hurt us if there were; and the fire will frighten away any prowling animals. Another reminiscence, Rutherford? Remembering that your friends the buccaneers wouldn't have been so lax? I was thinking of them myself.'
'So was I. Somehow, I've been imagining all day that we were following up their track.'
'Wherefore your proposal?'
'You've hit it.'
'Then, if you are right,' conjectured O'Driscoll, 'perhaps they encamped on this very spot—who knows?'
'I believe they did,' said Leslie, in his quiet way. 'Here is the scene, as I see it. There is one camp-fire on this knoll, which was then bare of wood—from its position, it would naturally be the headquarters—and the others are grouped around in a semicircle near the water. They have outposts at the mouth of the ravine and other convenient points; the camp is ringed with sentinels. Supper has just been finished, and a clamour of tongues rises from the various fires—from one a rude and vigorous chorus, from another the cries of the gamesters as they call the different casts. For no danger, however great, deterred these men from enjoying themselves. Here, at the central post, there is a comparative quietness. Five or six men are sitting or lying near the fire, intent upon the dice; several others stand behind, watching them; and all are deeply absorbed in the play—too much so to speak, when speech is necessary, louder than a whisper. Evidently they are men to whom the business of gambling is a very serious one.'
'And Gavin Leslie is amongst them, I'll wager!' interrupted O'Driscoll, entering into the spirit of the narrative.
'Not at first,' the other continued. 'He strolls up later—probably he has been visiting the sentries—and looks on for a little, eyeing the piles of money which lessen or increase as the dice go round. Compared with his associates, and in spite of his well-worn clothes and unkempt appearance, he has the air and bearing of a gentleman—at least I like to think so. Invited at last by name to join the players, he seats himself with a boisterous laugh.
'"What! will the luck change, comrades?" he cries. "Vogue la galère! There is yet a hundred pieces: let to-night decide whether I am to be a rich man or a beggar!"
'At first he wins, but presently fortune goes against him, and with every throw his pile diminishes. His face never loses its smile; there is always a merry jest on his lips—until the pile has almost vanished. Then he counts the money, and laughs again.
'"Down to twenty!" cries he. "Shall we give the jade another and a last chance, gentlemen? In one stake?"
'"Agreed! agreed!" they shout.
'One by one they throw, while the spectators crane forward, holding their breaths. Gavin alone is perfectly cool. He takes his turn, last of all: carelessly, as if nothing depended on it; and then a murmur—of sympathy, regret—breaks forth as he withdraws the box. For his is the lowest cast: he has lost.
'"So ends the play, comrades—for Gavin Leslie," he says, still smiling; and leisurely rises, the dice in hand. "What, would you? But after four years of it—four years with you and such as you—and to begin again from the beginning, with empty pocket and good sword! And for this—bah!"—and with that, flinging the dice in the fire, he claps his hand to his sword-hilt as they face him, some enraged by his contemptuous words and action, others striving to make peace. "Well, my friends, what is it to be?" he asks. "Are you ready for a new game? The money is gone: shall we stake on lives instead? Here I am, for my part, ready to fight one or to fight all—one down, one on—and the devil take the losers!" Then he drew his sword. "The play is made, gentlemen! Will you oblige me by beginning?"
'He stands on guard waiting. For an instant it looks as if they will accept the challenge, and only hesitate regarding the champion by whom the fight will he opened. Then, while they are squabbling, comes the noise of an uproar from a neighbouring fire, followed at once by several shots and the invasion of a crowd of shouting, excited men.' . . . Suddenly Leslie stopped. 'Hullo! didn't you hear that?' he cried, in quite another tone.
'No—what is it?' inquired O'Driscoll.
'A sound of some kind—down there, in the bushes.'
They listened intently, but at first heard nothing except the usual noises of the night.
'Go ahead,' said O'Driscoll. 'It must have been imagination'—
'Hist! there it is again!'
This time there could be no doubt: the sound was certainly that of somebody or something moving warily amongst the trees in their close vicinity. They peered into the wood, but the fire had died down, and in the shadow they could see nothing. But the noise still continued. More: it seemed to be approaching.
'We'll soon settle it!' cried Don Gaspar, springing from his hammock.
Somewhat recklessly, he plunged straight into the brushwood. Next moment there was the sound of a scuffle and heavy fall, and then—a smothered ejaculation from the foolhardy O'Driscoll. Leslie, shouting lustily, was after his comrade in a second, halting only to kick the embers into a blaze and seize his gun. He was just in time. As he ran up a dark body rose in front of him, and with a growl tried to slink away. He saw two gleaming eyes, and fired—and not without some effect, as the crash of breaking twigs and a sudden splash told him.
O'Driscoll was on the ground, breathing hard. He bent over him.
'Hurt, old man?'
'Thanks—only shaken. The brute has a piece of my jacket, though. What a weight it was!
'What was it?'
'Jaguar, I think. Did you hit it?'
'I hope so. How did it happen?'
'It was on me before I knew—I had never the ghost of a chance. I couldn't even get at my knife.' Rising, he held out his hand. 'And it was as well for me you weren't far off, Rutherford. Another minute would have finished me.'
Here Ignacio and his brother appeared, in great alarm, carrying brands from the fire, and were forthwith despatched to learn the intruder's fate. They found it lying in the bottom of the stream, shot clean through the head—a male jaguar (or tigré, as they called it) of splendid proportions. O'Driscoll had indeed made a lucky escape; for, although it is seldom that these animals attack man, they are very formidable when brought to bay. In this case perhaps our travellers had encroached upon its particular preserves.
The incident had one good effect: it induced O'Driscoll to revise his opinion concerning the necessity for a watch. Accordingly, the night was divided into four spells of two hours each; and of these, with the ostensible object of soothing his nerves, he volunteered to take the first himself. There were no objections.
'And Gavin?' he asked when the excitement had died down.
'You must conclude the story for yourself,' said the other. 'I can't—the mood is gone for to-night. Besides, I'm sleepy.'
There was quietness for a little. Then:
'I think we must really give you your head for the next two days, after all!'
SO Leslie had his way. His idea was to hear straight to the east; and to this his companion had the less objection when it was discovered next morning that progress seemed more practicable in that direction than to the northward, where it was blocked by a jumble of peaks and ravines. It was agreed between them that, if nothing came of the move after two days' trial, O'Driscoll should then have his turn. One does not know what result Leslie expected to ensue, or if (in his calmer moments) he expected any. At least he did not specify it. The influence of his ancestor was never quite so potent in the morning hours.
All that day the country remained fairly open. For the most part their route followed the course of the little stream, which ran on through a succession of level savannahs, broken here and there by a mountain ridge; and their chief difficulties were those of passing the cañons by which it pierced the latter. Fortunately none of them was very long. Towards evening, however, they entered a thick forest of primeval trees—chiefly mahogany, ironwood, and cedar, though caoutchouc, gum-copal, and many other kinds were occasionally to be seen; while the creeping plants or lianas with which they were festooned and interwoven, and the luxuriant undergrowths of brush, went to make up an effective barrier to rapid travelling. They had literally to cut a path for the beasts with their machetes. Animal life, if abundant enough, was not of the most pleasant variety. Overhead, the discords of howling monkeys drowned the singing of the birds. Underfoot were endless species of reptiles, from the harmless boba to the venomous coral-snake: they disturbed them at every step. Most trying to the temper were the insects, which were of all sizes and every capacity of annoyance. There were many beauties, of course; but one is afraid that the party were more concerned with the darker side. A little of it, at any rate, was sufficient. They camped rather early, in less agreeable surroundings than on the previous evening.
'Looks as if we had struck a bad seam, doesn't it?' suggested Leslie on the following morning.
'I'm afraid so,' agreed O'Driscoll, glancing round. 'It's not promising. In my opinion, we're on the verge of the great forest that extends from the Lakes right through the province of Chontales to the Mosquito coast.'
'And should cut farther north?'
But Leslie had a reserve of obstinacy. 'To-morrow, if you like,' he said. 'For to-day, I'm going through with this.'
O'Driscoll laughingly assented. 'It's your shout,' he replied. 'For myself, I like hard work—in moderation.'
He got it—without the moderation. For three hours they struggled on. Then, as they were beginning to feel the effects of their severe exertions, an unexpected discovery by Ignacio brought them a measure of relief. While they halted for a minute to rest, he had pushed on in advance; and now a joyful shout from him brought them up hotfoot, to find him staring at a beaten track that intersected the forest north and south. It was narrow, and perhaps not so well defined as a turnpike-road; but indubitably it was a path—and that was much.
'Cattle?' asked O'Driscoll after a hurried examination.
The guide nodded. 'And the trail has been used lately, señor,' he added. 'See! the marks are quite fresh.'
'But perhaps they were wild cattle?' remarked Leslie.
'Not so,' said Ignacio. 'Observe the lianas, señor. They are not broken: they have been cut with a machete. And here—are these not the tracks of a horse?'
O'Driscoll drew Leslie aside.
'It's a trail, sure enough,' he said, 'and so must lead somewhere. The question is—are we to follow it?'
'Certainly,' said Leslie, without the least hesitation.
'You 're right, I think. I must say I have some curiosity to find out where it ends.'
'North, I suppose?'
'Of course. Southward, it can only lead to the inhabited parts of Chontales. The mystery of it lies the other way, among the mountains—for you must remember we've seen nobody for days, and to find a hacienda hereabouts would be a bit surprising. Yet, that's what it seems to indicate.'
'North be it, then!' cried Leslie.
The choice was unanimously approved. From any point of view, and particularly from those of speed and comfort, it seemed to be a good one. In an hour they had covered as much ground as in the first three. Minor mishaps and annoyances were not wanting, indeed; but after their recent experiences they were not disposed to be too fastidious. Soon the path began to rise, and thereafter rose gradually but steadily for the remainder of the journey—winding often, but keeping consistently in a northerly direction. And as they went on their spirits rose also; for now they had not the continual struggle with the forest to ruffle their tempers and monopolise their attention, and so could appreciate more fully the many beauties of the woodland scenery. It changed in character as they ascended: oaks and the hardier varieties made their appearance; the jostling and crowding together of the great trees, as if in a perpetual fight for existence, became less marked; occasionally a blink of sunshine found its way through the thick roof of foliage; and at last, after fifteen or sixteen miles' ride, the leaders could no longer doubt that they were approaching the outskirts of the forest. This was in the early afternoon, and the pair were a considerable distance in front of the mules. Now they were able to advance still faster. They did so, eager to learn the best; and then, turning a corner, they emerged from the gloom into the broad glare of daylight, and therewith gained welcome confirmation of O'Driscoll's supposition. And, pulling up on the fringe of the wood, they gazed their fill at the scene so suddenly spread before them.
This is what they saw. They were at the lower extremity of a long, narrow valley, and looked across undulating savannahs, on which a great herd of horned cattle and some horses were browsing, to a good-sized adobe-built house near the banks of a stream; and beyond the house to a little hamlet of Indian huts, surrounded by fields of maize and beans, and plantations of fruit-trees; and beyond that again to the high hills which shut in the glen on both sides, and were covered to the summit with dark pine-woods. The odour from the latter pervaded the atmosphere of the valley, and came gratefully to their nostrils.
'There's a health-giving air for you!' cried O'Driscoll, sniffing. 'Why, a man might live in a spot like this for ever!'
But Leslie's eyes were fixed on the gray walls of the house. It seemed quite deserted: not a soul was within sight. With some apprehension, he called his companion's notice to the fact.
'Oh, that's nothing,' said he. 'Probably it is only the hour of the siesta.'
'Shall we go on?'
'Better wait for the mules, I think: it will he more imposing. Besides, I have some instructions to give to the boys—in case there's anything to learn from the Indians. There should be here, if anywhere.'
They had half-an-hour to wait before the rear-guard joined them, and spent the time in observation and speculation—and, on Leslie's part, in some impatience. He had the old feeling that he was on familiar ground, and grudged the waste of a minute. Then, at last, the others came up. They had already, to some extent, been taken into their chief's confidence regarding the object of the expedition; and now O'Driscoll impressed upon them the necessity of discovering from the Indians whether they had any knowledge, actual or traditionary, of strange tribes in the interior. He spoke particularly to Ignacio, directing him first to ingratiate himself with his hosts, and thereafter to find out all that they had to divulge.
Ignacio nodded: it was a task perfectly to his taste. 'If they have any secrets,' he said, 'the señores may depend upon us to get them. They are a simple people.'
These preliminaries being settled, they moved up the valley towards the house, the cattle scattering and galloping off at their approach. Before they were half-way there were signs that they were observed. From the Indian huts came the sound of a bell and a chorus of shouts; then, nearer at hand, several people showed themselves, and after staring at the new-comers for a moment, disappeared indoors; and finally, as they drew close, a man emerged alone from the gateway of the house—a little, old, white-haired man, barefooted, and clad in a ragged and dirty suit of cotton. In every respect he seemed a typical Indian—there was nothing to hint that he was otherwise—and yet he greeted them with a bow worthy of the proudest grandee of Spain.
They returned it, and rode forward. He signed to them to dismount. They did so.
'The caballeros are very welcome to the hacienda of San Luis de los Altos,' he said, in excellent Spanish. 'My name, at your service, is Nicolas Maria de Mocada.'
His old-world airs of courtesy, and even his name, were so incongruous with his appearance that they could scarcely forbear from smiling. Instead O'Driscoll thanked him, and in due form presented himself and Leslie. He shook hands, repeating the unfamiliar names the while—and doing it very badly. But it was on the Scotsman's great figure and blonde hair—for Leslie, since his departure from León, had allowed his beard to grow—that his look rested most curiously.
'The señores are not of this country?' he suggested.
'My friend is a foreigner—an Englishman,' replied O'Driscoll. 'Myself, Don Nicolas, I am of Guatemala. We were travelling through the forest, and struck your trail by chance.'
'It was a fortunate chance for me,' he said, bowing again. 'I have to beg that you will honour my poor house by making it your own. And, if you will pardon me—' He whistled, and several Indians ran up. Into their care he gave the guides and the five animals, and then led his guests across the courtyard to a dark, cool room opening from it. It was barely furnished with a table and three or four chairs, all rudely made; and the whole place, house and furniture, had the appearance of considerable age. Also, it was not too clean. And here Don Nicolas left them, excusing himself on the plea of seeing about dinner.
'A queer old fellow!' remarked Leslie.
'A survival, like the ranch itself, perhaps,' said O'Driscoll. 'He has some Spanish blood, although it doesn't show much. The Indian mixture has swamped it; but you would mortally offend him by suggesting that he had even a drop. He's too proud of the other.'
'Which comes out in the grand manner.'
'And in his hospitality. His is the old ideal of the colonies, which has been steadily dying out for half-a-century.'
They had soon further proof of it. He returned within ten minutes, having dressed himself in a clean suit for the occasion, and the meal was immediately served up. It was simple enough, consisting merely of jerked beef with hot tortillas (maize-flour cakes) and frijoles (baked beans) and some fruit; but Don Nicolas did the honours with a ceremonious politeness befitting a banquet. And not by word or look did he evince the least curiosity regarding his guests. It was sufficient for him that they were his guests.
'You have few visitors here, I suppose?' said Leslie during dinner.
'Too few, señor,' he replied. 'We have had three in twenty years. But what would you? It is a fortnight's ride to the next hacienda. In my grandfather's time it was different. Then there were many people to the west and south, but now they are all gone, and the great forest has swallowed up the clearings. Before long—quien sabe?—it will be the same with San Luis. I am the last of the family, and when I am dead'—A sad headshake finished the sentence.
'And to the north and east?' pursued Leslie. It was in these directions that he was most interested.
'Only the mountains and the forest.'
'They have never been settled, Don Nicolas?'
'Not since the Conquest, when,' said he, with an air of pride, 'my ancestor, Don Garcia de Mocada, got a grant of this hacienda—it was much larger then—for his services in subduing the Indians. We have remained here ever since.'
'Since the Conquest!' repeated O'Driscoll, amazed.
'That is so, señor.'
The man was evidently sincere, and himself not only believed in the suprising fact, but found nothing surprising in it: that in this outlandish spot one of the Conquistadores had settled, and that here his descendants had taken root and had vegetated for nearly four centuries. Probably, if he were right, he was the representative of the oldest white family on the American continent! Unfortunately, in his case, it did not lead to much. Some eager questions from O'Driscoll—Leslie was busy with his own thoughts—promptly revealed the truth that Don Nicolas's knowledge of his forefathers was practically limited to what he had already stated.
Presently the conversation veered round to the visitors themselves. O'Driscoll, interpreting his host's glances, presumed that he had not met many Englishmen in his day.
'Once only, in the city of Granada; for I travelled much when I was a young man, señor,' he explained simply; 'indeed, I was twice at Granada, and once as far as León; and in Granada, as I have said, I met the señor's countryman. But, if I remember, they called him un Americano del Norte. Is it the same?'
'They are the same race,' said O'Driscoll. It would only have confused Don Nicolas to explain.
'Sí. And sometimes they are named Frances (French) too—is it not so? I have heard of them—a brave people, but mostly heretics. Long ago, I am told, they made war on this country, and a body of them even visited San Luis.'
'What!' Leslie laid down his knife and leaned eagerly forward: he and O'Driscoll exchanged a significant look. 'When was this, Don Nicolas?' he asked, trying hard to keep down his excitement.
'Very long ago—many generations.'
'Two hundred years?'
'It may be. I have heard the story often, but forget. My father knows it well; he had it from his grandfather, and he had spoken, when a boy, with one who remembered the visit of the heretics.'
'Your father knows it!' cried O'Driscoll. 'But surely, señor, your father is not alive?'
'Yes—the saints be thanked!'
It was scarcely credible, for Don Nicolas himself could not have been less than seventy years old, and might have been eighty. Their first idea was that he was mad.
'Perhaps the señores would like to see him?' he said, smiling benignly at their expressions of astonishment. 'He is very old and sleeps much—ca! he is always asleep! But if we can rouse him he may tell the señores the story of their countrymen. I have forgotten it.'
'Let us go!' cried Leslie, getting on his feet.
'We shall be happy to pay our homage to your father, Don Nicolas,' added O'Driscoll more soberly.
So, dinner being over, they were conducted at once along the veranda to another room; and in one corner of it, lying huddled on a pallet, was indeed a man of patriarchal years, with withered and wrinkled skin, and hair white as the snow. He might well have been any age, and certainly he had long passed the scriptural limit; but through the mask which an over-lengthened life had drawn across his features they could still trace more of the Spaniard than was revealed in those of his son. Leslie's excitement rose higher; here was his opportunity of learning something definite at last, if only they could induce the patriarch to speak. But could they? It seemed doubtful, for although Don Nicolas shook him gently, there was no sign of intelligence in his wide-open eyes.
'Waken up, padre mío!' he said in his ear. 'See! I have brought two noble caballeros to visit you. Waken up!'
There was no response.
'Is he always so?' asked O'Driscoll after a little.
'For weeks together, señor; it is only at long intervals that he recognises one. To-day, I fear, it is useless.'
They were about to turn away, one of them in deepest disappointment, when Leslie had an inspiration. By good luck he had his brandy-flask in his pocket; and now, with the consent of Don Nicolas, he poured a dram down the old man's throat. The effect was immediate; a gleam of light flickered in the lack-lustre eyes, and he looked from one to other of them in a dazed manner. Then he called upon his son by name.
'I am here, padre,' he replied.
'Sí! sí! But who are these?'
Don Nicolas repeated his statement that they were noble travellers—Frenchmen, he said; and they did not contradict him—who had honoured San Luis with a visit; and thereupon the patriarch, with the instincts of his race, made an effort to rise in his bed to greet them in proper form. But he was too weak, and fell back. Then, after a moment's rest, he gripped Leslie's arm with his lean, shrivelled hand, and the stranger, glancing down, saw that his eyes were fixed greedily on the flask.
'More!' he cried; and got it. 'Ugh! it is good—gracias, it is very good! And you,' he went on, with more animation, and gazing hard in Leslie's face—'so you are un Francescito, señor?'
Leslie thought it best to assent. 'You have heard of my nation, señor?' he hazarded, coming straight to the point. 'Some of my countrymen have been here before?'
'They have been here before, sí! But that was long ago—seven generations ago—before the War of Liberation! My grandfather told me, and it was long before he was born.'
'The señores would like to hear the story, padre mío,' suggested Don Nicolas.
'It was very long ago,' he repeated. 'Warning was sent from the west that an army of them was marching from the sea, burning and plundering everything—even the churches, the holy saints forgive them! Perhaps it was not true, for the army did not come here—only a small company of them, five or six. And they did not slay or plunder, but merely killed a few cattle for food, and demanded guides into the mountains. But they threatened that if the secret of their route was told to any one they would surely return and slay every man and woman in the valley without mercy. They were very fierce, and the people were afraid, and so kept the secret well. And then they departed. But one of them died on the first day's journey—so I was told—and was buried under the great carved stone at the foot of the Peña Blanca, on the southern side. It is so; I have seen the place.'
'And the Peña Blanca—where is it?' asked O'Driscoll, speaking for the first time.
'To the north-east, nearly a day's march.'
Leslie gave the old man another drink. 'So they departed,' he said. 'Where, señor? What was their purpose?'
'Quien sabe?' he replied, somewhat querulously. 'They did not return; doubtless they perished among the mountains. The good God knows. But they were of your nation. That is all I have to tell.'
He closed his eyes again, as if weary. Then Leslie realised that he must play his last card—and play it boldly. He did not hesitate.
'Think for a moment, señor,' he said. 'Were they not in search of a great city in the mountains, inhabited by the Indians who were driven back by your valiant ancestors—a city filled with the treasures of the old races? Yourself, padre, have you never heard the tradition of such a city?'
Mocada's eyes brightened for an instant with the flash of a sudden recollection. 'It is so,' he cried; 'now I remember! It was a story among the Indians when I was a boy—a story made to be laughed at! But they believed it: this story of a savage tribe in the mountains, beyond the Monte del Diablo, who guarded a city of their religion. Yet it was only a story, for nobody has ever crossed the mountains—nobody can live there. . . . Lies! lies! . . . There were other stories, too.'
He babbled for a little longer of his early days, his mind wandering, and then relapsed once more into his normal state of lethargy. So they left him, and softly passed from the room.
The centenarian had spoken, and spoken to some purpose. Wherefore our travellers had much to discuss when they had a few minutes to themselves later in the evening. Before long they had more; for the astute Ignacio had not been idle, and had managed to elicit some information not less valuable than that acquired by his masters.
THE guide was waiting for them at the Indian huts when they returned from a gallop round the valley with their host, during which (as in duty bound) they had taken the opportunity of telling him that their purpose was to explore the mountains in search of the strange tribe mentioned by his father. He expressed astonishment, and urged them most earnestly to abandon the project; pooh-poohed the tradition, of which he had never heard until that day; dwelt on the dangers and hardships of such a journey; and finally, finding them obdurate, appealed to them to stay at San Luis for a few weeks, and consider the matter well before setting out on their foolhardy enterprise. They were still in the heat of the argument when they pulled up at the hamlet, and Ignacio ran forward to hold their stirrups.
'One moment, señor,' he said in O'Driscoll's ear.
So, while Don Nicolas dilated at large to Leslie on the laziness and other bad qualities of 'his children,' as he called the natives—a group of whom watched the strangers with curious eyes—the two stepped aside and conversed for a little in undertones. To judge from Don Gaspar's countenance, the guide's report was very satisfactory.
'He said so? You're sure of that, Ignacio?' he cried.
'Certain, señor. He was off his guard, but was perfectly honest. I have no doubt of it whatever.'
'Good! Is the man here?'
O'Driscoll started when Ignacio pointed out a young fellow who stood apart from the others, regarding Leslie with a most intent stare. But it was not that which struck him: Leslie never failed to monopolise the attention of the natives. It was the man's own appearance. He was at least a head taller than any of his companions, and of a much finer physique; and his complexion, too, seemed to Don Gaspar to be a shade lighter than theirs. He was convinced that he had seen his like before, but just then he could not recollect when or where.
Here Don Nicolas and Leslie strolled up, and in a word he informed them that Ignacio had discovered a man who might he able to assist them. Should he speak to him?
'Who is he?' asked Don Nicolas.
He was told.
'Not Guatúsa?' he cried, apparently surprised; and then, after a minute's scrutiny: 'But perhaps it is so—quien sabe? For he is a heathen; he has no Christian name, and so we call him Guatúsa.'
'He is not one of your own people, then?' said O'Driscoll.
Don Nicolas shook his head. 'He is from the south, so he says himself. But who knows? He came to San Luis six years ago with some of the men who were returning home from Libertád after selling the cattle. He joined them on the way. He is a strange man—he speaks little, and has taken no wife, and sometimes he will leave the hacienda for weeks and weeks together.'
'Indeed?' Both O'Driscoll and his companion pricked up their ears. 'And where does he go, señor?' inquired the former.
'How can one tell? he answered indifferently.
'Perhaps he will. I have your permission to try, Don Nicolas?'
'He is quite at the señor's service. You may take him with you, if you please, and if he will go,' he said, laughing. 'He is a surly dog, and there are plenty to fill his place.'
He called the man forward, and informing him that his noble friends wished to interrogate him, commanded him to speak the truth. He bowed, saying nothing, but kept his eyes fixed on Leslie. His features, on a closer view, were rather prepossessing, or would have been but for an habitual expression of sulkiness or discontent, which was accentuated just then by a degree of suspicion. Evidently he was on his guard, for the examination did not begin too well.
'I am told that you know the mountains over there, Guatúsa?' said O'Driscoll, indicating the north-east.
'That may be, señor,' was the cautious reply.
'You have travelled through them?'
'That may be, señor.'
'The country is very difficult?'
'I have heard so.'
'Yet a man may pass through it?'
'That may be, señor.'
'So! And you have heard, perhaps,' O'Driscoll went on patiently, 'of a nation of Indians who inhabit one of the valleys, and have never been the slaves of the white men?'
He hesitated for an instant, glancing from one to the other of the travellers. At last: 'I have heard the story,' he admitted.
'It is true, then?'
'That may be, señor'—still the same evasion! 'How should I know? No man has ever seen the valley.'
O'Driscoll decided to heat about the bush no longer. 'It is true, Guatúsa,' he said, in his most impressive tones. 'Listen to me! There is such a nation among the mountains, beyond the Monte del Diablo, and they have their chief village in the great city of your fathers by the side of the lake, and' (here he played his boldest stroke) 'they are ruled over by a woman, who is fair like my friend'—
A sudden exclamation came from Guatúsa. Watching him, they saw that his expression of unconcern had changed at last to one of wonder.
'How does the señor know this?' he cried, taken aback.
O'Driscoll smiled. 'What if I have seen it, Guatúsa? . . . And so it is true?' he repeated.
'If the señor pleases,' he answered, recovering. 'The señores are doubtless very wise.'
He tried to assume his old attitude, but in the face of his involuntary confession it did not impose upon his listeners, and least of all upon Don Gaspar. All through his questioning, a certain conviction had been growing in his mind; and, having gained an advantage, he was not the man to throw it away.
'You see we are not talking idly, Guatúsa,' he said. 'Now, what would you think if I told you that we mean to visit this valley beyond the Monte del Diablo?—that we have come here for that purpose?'
'It is a matter for the señores themselves,' he retorted.
'And that we want you to be our guide to it?' O'Driscoll continued quietly. Then he pulled a handful of gold from his pocket. 'You will be well paid—if you are faithful; you will have money to buy a horse, guns, whatever you like. Consider it. It is for yourself to decide.'
The Indian had his answer ready:
'If the señores know so much about this valley and its people, they must know the way to it, and have no need of my poor guidance. How should I know it? And I have no wish to be killed,' he added, as if by an afterthought.
'To be killed?' repeated O'Driscoll significantly. 'What do you mean?'
'Oh, it is said they are a very fierce people; that is all, señor,' he replied.
'Yet they will not kill us,' said Don Gaspar. 'For we are certainly going there; and all that we require of you, Guatúsa, is to guide us by the easiest route to the Monte del Diablo—no more. The rest you may leave to us. But be assured we shall not only not be killed, but made very welcome. My friend here,' he said, nodding to the silent but attentive Leslie, 'will see to that.'
It was a chance shot, but it told. Guatúsa thought hard for a minute or two, his lips working and his eyes cast to the ground. Then all at once he seemed to make his decision; and, turning his back unceremoniously upon his master and O'Driscoll, he appealed directly to Leslie.
'The illustrious señor is determined to go on this journey?' he asked, speaking with more deference and respect than he had hitherto shown.
'Quite, Guatúsa,' said Leslie.
'But there will be many dangers'—
'Which, with your help, we hope to overcome.' Smiling, he held out his hand. 'You will not refuse it, Guatúsa?'
And then, much to the surprise of everybody, the Indian suddenly capitulated. The method was as unexpected as the act itself. Dropping on one knee, he bent his head almost to the ground, and, raising it again, placed Leslie's hand upon it in token of his willing consent.
'I am the señor's humble slave,' he said. 'And I will guide him faithfully through the mountains to the Monte del Diablo, but no farther. And for witness'—Here he recited some words in a language unknown to either Don Nicolas or O'Driscoll; and, having done so, jumped up. 'I have but one request to make,' he went on. 'The señor in his generosity will give me a gun?'
'You shall have it, Guatúsa,' he promised. If it had been necessary he would gladly have given much more for his assistance.
'Good!' said he; and bowing once more to Leslie, and utterly ignoring the presence of the others, he turned on his heel, and without another word stalked away to his hut. They followed him with their eyes, thinking each his own thoughts.
Don Nicolas was the first to express his opinion. He had been most commendably quiet throughout the interview—probably because he did not understand one-half of it—but could restrain himself no longer.
'But you will not trust him, señores?' he cried eagerly. 'Why, the man is mad!'
O'Driscoll smiled to his comrade. 'Well, mad or not, he's worth a thirty-dollar rifle and the risk!' he said. 'Eh, Leslie?'
'I think so,' said Leslie.
Don Nicolas shrugged his shoulders and said no more. He had done his duty towards those headstrong strangers; he had warned them: the rest was their own affair. They were quite of the same mind.
On the following morning Leslie had a long consultation with the new recruit; and, as the result, the day was spent at San Luis in preparing for the second stage of the enterprise. The conditions were entirely different. The country, according to Guatúsa, was altogether impassable for animals; and accordingly the horses and mules had to be left behind in the charge of Don Nicolas, who shook his head portentously when they spoke of returning for them in the course of a month or two, and such articles as were absolutely necessary (and no others), made up into five packs convenient for carrying. Fortunately, they had no anxiety regarding food: both game and fruit, said the guide, were plentiful on the route. They would have to rough it, indeed, more than had been the case so far; but neither Leslie nor his companion minded doing so in view of the object to be attained. Of their success they had not much doubt: the sanguine O'Driscoll rather less than the other. He had his own theory to account for Guatúsa's conduct. His idea—suggested first by the man's resemblance, as he had remembered, to the Indians by whom he had been captured four years before—was that he really belonged to the unknown tribe, and for some reason or other had been cast out. Everything, he declared, went to confirm this view. As for their meeting with him, it was doubly providential. How could they fail when even circumstances were fighting for them?
Don Nicolas, realising that all efforts to induce them to prolong their visit were useless, was prolific in suggestions and offers of help; and if they had accepted a tithe of either they would have had to engage a regiment of carriers. But they were none the less grateful for his whole-hearted kindness, and touched by his genuine sorrow at parting. His father, in spite of many attempts to rouse him, remained in his normal state. They had to give it up at last: the medicinal brandy was too precious to be diminished without good and sufficient cause.
They started early on the third morning, leaving the valley by the northern end, and thence striking across the pine-clad heights more to the east. For the first few hours the journey was uneventful. As long as they were amongst the pines it was comparatively easy; the growth was not too thick, and not unduly encumbered by brush; the air was cool and sweet-smelling; the packs did not as yet weigh too heavily upon their shoulders; and (in a word) they had less occasion to miss the beasts of burden than they had feared. They felt it more as the day progressed, and they had to cross one ravine after another—now descending to the bed of a stream or climbing to the summit of the opposite bank, now following their guide along the ridge or across a well-wooded plateau—on through a country hilly rather than mountainous, and everywhere covered with forest. Although there was not the semblance of a path, Guatúsa never seemed to hesitate for an instant, but kept on with unerring instinct along the line of the least resistance.
Leslie had many talks with him throughout the day. He was a strange fellow in some of his ways. While to the others he was laconic to the verge of rudeness, with him he conversed quite freely. He was ready enough to describe the route that lay before them, or to discuss the passing incidents, his experiences at the hacienda of San Luis, his opinion (which was not flattering) of Don Nicolas and his servants—everything except that in which Leslie had most interest. On the great subject he withstood both open appeals and evasions artfully designed to trap him, parrying the one with some skill, and pleading ignorance in regard to the other. After half-a-dozen trials Leslie had reluctantly to confess that he was beaten. If the guide knew anything about their wished-for destination and its inhabitants, plainly he had no intention of divulging it.
'And I believe he does, O'Driscoll!' Leslie confided to his friend. 'But what can you do with a beggar like that?'
'Keep at it!' counselled O'Driscoll. 'He has a liking for you, and it may come out accidentally. As for me, it's no use trying. He'll scarcely speak to me, and treats the boys with positive disdain.'
'Well, we'll see,' said Leslie, not very hopefully.
It was well on in the afternoon before they caught sight of the first prominent landmark. Suddenly, on surmounting a thinly-wooded ridge, they perceived through the trees, across a broad valley, a conical-shaped peak rising high above the surrounding forest, its steep sides bare for four or five hundred feet from the summit, and weathered to a whitish colour. They turned to the guide for information.
'It is called La Peña Blanca,' he explained.
'La Peña Blanca!' Leslie recalled the centenarian's reference to it, and to his ancestor's connection with the spot, and wondered if there was any truth in the story. 'Do you know the south side of it, Guatúsa?' he asked.
He shook his head.
'Nor whether, at the foot of the peak on that side, there is a great sculptured stone?'
He shook his head again, looking curiously at the questioner.
'Yet so I have been told; and that there a white stranger, like myself, was buried. So let us get on before evening,' he said. 'We can have a glance at the place in passing.'
'But our way lies to the north of the Peña,' objected Guatúsa.
'What does it matter?' cried Leslie, a trifle impatiently. 'I have a fancy to see it, and it is only a question of a few hours.'
Guatúsa bowed. 'At the señor's command,' he said, and at once began the descent into the valley.
Before following, Leslie and O'Driscoll took a hasty observation of the position of the Peña, which would doubtless become invisible as soon as they entered the belt of thick forest below; and, having rejoined the others, they steered straight for the southern side of the rock. It was nearly three hours before they saw it again. Then, after some stiff work over broken ground, they emerged upon a naked, uneven plateau of considerable extent; and there, on the farther side, the Peña Blanca raised its grayish-white face in a sheer precipice—a welcome sight. They surveyed the scene with eager interest. All over the plateau were scattered little hillocks or mounds, covered with a scanty vegetation; otherwise it was quite bare; and only here and there on the lower part of the rock itself a patch of green showed itself against the white. But of the 'great carved stone' they could perceive no vestige. Leslie was disappointed. Somehow, he had expected to behold it stark before his eyes.
'There's no mistake about the directions, I suppose?' remarked O'Driscoll—'"under the great carved stone at the foot of the peak, on the southern side," wasn't it? Where on earth is it, then?'
'Let us get forward to the rock,' said Leslie.
But even there, notwithstanding their vigilance, nothing that answered the description came within their view: the huge wall rose high above them; the plateau stretched unbroken behind and around them to the verge of the forest. Leslie, however, was not the man to abandon the quest without a thorough investigation; and, on his suggestion, they threw off their packs and separated to make a more systematic inspection along the whole line of the cliff. Nor was it long in bearing fruit.
'Here, señores! come here!'
The cry was from Ignacio's brother, Francisco. Hacking with his machete at a clump of verdure that apparently grew outward from a fissure in the rock, he had found that in reality it covered an excrescence of some kind; and a few strokes more had revealed a stone of a darker colour than that of the mountain—quite sufficient to tell even him that he had stumbled upon a discovery of importance.
'Well, what's to be done?' said O'Driscoll when they were gathered together at the spot.
Leslie looked up, and saw that the vegetation—on a nearer examination it proved to be all of one variety of creeping-plant—extended from the ground to the height of twelve feet or so, and in breadth to three or four. 'We must strip off that stuff,' he said promptly. 'I believe we've struck it—at any rate we'll make sure.'
They set about the task at once, beginning at the base, around which a shallow bed of mould had accumulated, and the vegetation was consequently thicker than it was higher up. They did the work thoroughly, but when about one-half of the space had been cleared it was interrupted by an exciting incident. Leslie happened to turn his head, intending to address a remark to O'Driscoll, who was next to him; and as he did so his eyes fell on something that sent the blood rushing to his heart. For there, gliding amongst the cut brushwood, within twenty inches of his comrade's foot—and towards him—he saw the bright-coloured metallic skin of a coral snake shining through the green. There could be no doubt, and for half-a-moment, forgetful and yet conscious of O'Driscoll's imminent danger, he watched the reptile crawling nearer and yet nearer. He was fascinated; the bands of yellow and black and crimson on the creature's back seemed to swim before him and grow larger; and then, all at once, he recovered his senses.
'For God's sake, O'Driscoll, don't move!' he cried, trying hard to steady his voice.
O'Driscoll had the nerve to obey; his arm dropped to his side and his body became rigid in a second. 'What is it?' he inquired.
'Snake ... at your foot. . . . Don't move, for your life!'
Leslie himself dared do nothing: the snake was already within striking-distance of his friend, and the least motion might cause the catastrophe. On the other hand, if it were not alarmed it might pass harmlessly away. For a few terrible moments they waited. Then came a sudden flash of light and the sound of a quick blow, and, before they could realise what had happened, Guatúsa was standing between them, swinging the decapitated reptile contemptuously by the tail! He had noticed it from behind, and, with a promptitude and quietness that did him much credit, had ended its career with a sweep of his machete.
'And saved my life, perhaps!' cried O'Driscoll, shaking his hand gratefully, somewhat to the guide's discomposure. 'But it was rather near to be pleasant. It's a coral, too!'
'Not the Purple Cross?' asked Leslie.
'No, worse luck! But quite as deadly.'
After this interlude the work was continued with more caution but without further incident. They had soon accomplished enough to convince them that it was not in vain; for, when some three feet of the stone had been stripped, they were able to recognise the handiwork of man in divers rude attempts at chiselling. The stone itself was apparently one huge block of hard, tough trachyte: a noteworthy fact, because they had seen none in the vicinity. The marks of manipulation became more numerous and observable as they wrought upwards, the most prominent being the carving of a broad belt, ornamented with alternated crosses and circles. This was at the height of six feet; thereafter Ignacio, as the most agile, had to complete the task alone; and, taking advantage of the various inequalities of the stone to mount higher and higher, he had little difficulty in laying bare the whole surface. And at length it stood fully revealed before them as the statue of a man, double life-size. The head, surrounded like a halo by the tendrils of the creeping-plant, was in a good state of preservation: the eyes full and prominent, with protruding balls; the nose long and straight, but somewhat chipped at the point; the mouth and chin heavy and projecting—altogether, considering its origin, a wonderfully faithful presentment. Between the neck and the ornamented belt there was less elaboration. The shoulders and arms were merely suggested, but the breast had been smoothed, and upon it could vaguely be traced numerous lines and hieroglyphic figures, now almost illegible. It was to these that, displacing Ignacio, Leslie directed his attention. For a little, although he followed them laboriously line by line, he could make nothing of the meaningless twists and curves. Then an exclamation burst from him: he had come at last upon a figure that was familiar.
'What is it?' O'Driscoll called up.
'One minute!' he said, and for a time was too busy scratching at the stone with his knife to reply. 'Now, see for yourself!' he cried excitedly, jumping down.
And O'Driscoll, looking, saw this legend cut out boldly on the breast of the statue:
A.S. ┼ 1688.
The letters and figures were roughly and quaintly fashioned, but their meaning was clear: they told their own story; they proved indisputably that the centenarian was right. The statue itself had lost interest for the pair: the inscription claimed it all.
'The date disposes of all doubt,' said Leslie, breaking silence. 'This is the route the adventurers took—here, perhaps, they met their first mishap. Poor A. S.! I wonder who he was? Doubtless he had a stormy and adventurous life—and to be buried here, covered by an inch or two of mould! Dust long ago!'
'Well, at least he has a respectable tombstone,' said O'Driscoll.
'How it smacks of Gavin—to make this vestige of a former age the monument to his dead follower! How did he die, I wonder—from natural causes?'
'Or the bite of a coral snake?'
'No—these are too tame—somehow, they don't seem to fit in with my ancestor's character. What if the man was mutinous, discontented with the hardships of the life, anxious to get back to the main body—and Gavin, afraid of the effect of his grumbling on the success of his project, picked a quarrel with him—with that result? Isn't it a likely supposition?'
'Or recollection, shall we say?'
'Not in this case. It isn't awake yet. But let us camp here for the night; perhaps the evening—and the surroundings—may have some effect upon it.'
They got their chance; but Leslie, tired out by the exertions and excitements of the day, slept a deep and dreamless sleep beneath the shadow of the white-fronted cliff and the great statue, and his ancestor's spirit troubled him not.
LOOK, señores!' cried Guatúsa. 'There it is—the Monte del Diablo!'
It was five days later. Daily, since leaving the Peña Blanca behind, they had penetrated deeper and deeper into the mountains—into a region of frowning precipices and sunless gorges, of headlong torrents and forests that apparently had never been trodden by the foot of man. Daily their difficulties had increased and adventures thickened. Of the latter, indeed, they had had enough and to spare. Not one of them but had escaped death by a miracle. Once, by the slipping of a fallen tree by which they were crossing a narrow ravine, O'Driscoll and Francisco had been thrown into the river beneath, and had only managed to save themselves by the skin of their teeth. Several times it was through a stumble on the edge of the cliff, where a false step meant destruction, or while climbing by a precarious path the escarpment of a cañon. Leslie, for one, is not likely to forget the terrible five minutes when he clung to a projecting ledge six hundred feet above a cataract, fifty below the spot on which his companions stood, and there awaited the fate that seemed inevitable—until a rope had been made of belts and straps, and, as his strength was beginning to fail, he had been plucked back from the very threshold of the gates of judgment.
And through all these perils, as through the manifold hardships and discomforts of the journey, Guatúsa had borne himself with the same grave, impassive reticence. Save that, they had no fault to find with him. He was a perfect bush-man; twenty times a day he was of service to them; he did his work willingly and well; but from the first he had evinced not the least interest in the expedition, conducting himself always as if his part was that rather of an outsider than of one who had a share in its fortunes. And his gloom deepened as they advanced, until even Leslie could scarcely extract a word from him. Plainly, the nearer they approached the goal of their hopes, the greater became his doubts and forebodings; and the fact, for which they knew no reason, was too obvious not to cause them some uneasiness. They had one consolation. By O'Driscoll's calculations and observation of the country, they could not now be far from the district in which he had been made prisoner on his former visit—if, indeed, they had not already reached it. Thus, if Guatúsa proved a broken reed, they had still something definite on which to depend.
This day, the sixth from San Luis, had been the worst of all. For nine hours they had been steadily climbing, in the later portion toiling painfully upwards far above the line of forest, under a broiling sun, and upheld only by the expectation of what awaited them on the top. And, gaining the crest at last, they were not disappointed. They were between four and five thousand feet above sea-level; a cool breeze was blowing in their faces; all around them were rugged peaks of a hundred forms and shapes: beneath, masses of vegetation of every shade of green covered the lower slopes and ran in irregular lines across the valleys; while opposite to them, directly in front, a great double-peaked mountain towered a thousand feet above its neighbours, its twin summits veiled by a light cloud, and its tremendous flanks looming dark and forbidding in the late afternoon sunshine. And, hearing Guatúsa's quiet remark, they forgot their weariness and fatigue and the innumerable grumblings of the day.
'Yes,' he repeated. 'It is the Monte del Diablo.'
Well, it looked the name; and, unless appearances were deceptive, it offered an obstacle to their progress greater than they had yet surmounted.
'Why is it called so?' asked O'Driscoll.
'Who knows, señor?' he replied. 'It is the Castilian name for it, and was given many, many generations ago. Perhaps some of them perished in trying to cross it in those old days, when they were brave men and great travellers. It is visible from a distance of many miles—even from the hills above San Luis, on a clear day—and the white cap is always there on the summit. And it is said,' he added after a minute, 'that no white man has ever seen the other side.'
'Is that so? Then we must hope for better luck in our case,' said Leslie, smiling. 'How far is it from here to the foot?'
'About three leagues.'
'A day's journey! And beyond it?'
Guatúsa retired at once into his shell. 'That the señor must discover for himself,' he answered. 'Meanwhile, if he wishes to reach camp before nightfall, we must go on.'
The hint was too timely to be neglected. It wanted only a few hours of sunset, and they had two reasons for speed: the one that it would be uncomfortable to camp on these heights on account of the cold and exposure, and the other that their stock of food was almost exhausted, and they could scarcely hope to shoot anything for the pot before gaining the wooded slopes below. Fortunately the declivity of the mountain was gentler towards the Monte del Diablo than on the other side, and the difficulties fewer; and so the descent was accomplished at a good pace and without incident, and before long they were amongst the pines once more. Here O'Driscoll knocked over a brace of mountain hares; and, being hungry, they took advantage of the first suitable spot—a small, well-sheltered glade by the side of a tiny spring—to pitch their camp for the night.
A surprise awaited them in the morning. Leslie happened to waken a little after sunrise, and, throwing off his blanket, glanced lazily around. The fire had burned down; O'Driscoll and the two peons were snoring in their places; but of Guatúsa, whose watch it was, there was not a sign. It was a minute or two before the full significance of his absence struck Leslie. Then, troubled by an uneasy suspicion, he got up. A hurried search of the wood around was without result. He shouted: there was no response. Gradually the truth forced itself upon his mind—that the guide had taken French leave!
The others, roused by his cries, ran forward to learn the cause. Two words were sufficient.
'Guatúsa gone!' repeated O'Driscoll. 'But why? What does it mean? Not for good, surely?'
'It looks very like it, I'm afraid,' returned Leslie. 'Everything points to that. And don't you remember his promise—that he would guide us to the Monte del Diablo, but no farther? It's confoundedly awkward!'
'And where can he have gone?'
Leslie shook his head lugubriously; he had no idea.
'Has he taken anything with him?'
'I had forgotten that!' he cried. 'Let us see. Ah! here's his pack at any rate.'
It lay amongst the rest, seemingly intact; and a brief examination revealed the fact that the runaway had carried off nothing except his rifle and a single packet of cartridges. Whereat O'Driscoll, ever sanguine, professed to this gleam of hope: that perhaps Guatúsa, concerned at the scarcity of provisions, had merely slipped away to do a little hunting. Leslie tried in vain to convert himself to the same view: it had too many flaws in it to convince him. But O'Driscoll stuck to his theory, and presently it had an apparent confirmation from Ignacio, who had been scouting around, and now turned up with the news that he had discovered traces of the fugitive leading downhill to the valley—not, as might have been expected, towards the route by which they had come. He had followed them for some distance, and then lost them in the bush.
'It's all right: that proves it!' cried O'Driscoll gaily.
'Otherwise, why should he choose that direction? It's as clear as daylight, Rutherford!'
Leslie was not so sure. He was puzzled, indeed, to know why the man had gone in the direction of the Monte del Diablo; there was more in it than he could fathom at the moment; but, for the present, he deemed it wiser to keep these thoughts to himself.
'Well, what's to be done?' he asked.
'Have breakfast, of course! We'll give Guatúsa an hour or two, and if he isn't back then—But there! I'm open to wager you an even sovereign that he is!'
'I feel inclined to take you,' said Leslie.
Nevertheless, he agreed to the plan. All things considered, it seemed the most sensible; for O'Driscoll might happen to be right, and it was worth while delaying on the off-chance. Both of them had conceived a respectful admiration for the Monte del Diablo; they had been relying upon Guatúsa's knowledge to smooth their path to it and over it; and they had no wish to attempt its conquest single-handed as long as there was the faintest hope that the errant guide would return. So they made a frugal breakfast off wild fruit and the remains of their overnight banquet, and then sat down to await in impatience and the consumption of much tobacco whatever the gods might send. They sent nothing. Hour succeeded hour; and with the passage of each, and still the non-arrival of Guatúsa, O'Driscoll's face lengthened and his remarks became more pessimistic. But, even yet, he would not acknowledge defeat.
'Let him have some rope,' he said. 'The country may be difficult—he may be detained—a hundred things may have happened! Depend upon it, he'll be here presently—he must be!'
'And if not?'
'Oh, we must strike out for ourselves, I suppose.'
The situation, in truth, did not commend itself to them on a better acquaintance. They had depended so much on Guatúsa's guidance that they missed him at every turn. Also, there was the question of food. Ignacio and his brother spent the morning in beating the woods around the camp, and the net result of their labours was another hare, two diminutive monkeys, and a few edible lizards. Of other game—civilised game, as O'Driscoll put it, though he did not disdain to dine off roast lizard and monkey when the alternative was not to dine at all—there was a remarkable scarcity. This gave Leslie a new idea. He was tired of inaction; he had, besides, a fancy to have a little reconnoitring on his own account; and so, when the midday meal was over, he proposed that Ignacio and he should make a longer excursion—descend, in fact, into the valley in search of deer, wild hog, or other 'civilised game'—while O'Driscoll and Francisco kept camp in case the wanderer did return. If he did, it was as well to be there when he came; and if not, they could settle their plan of campaign on the morrow in the light of accomplished facts and a fuller knowledge of the ground.
Plainly Don Gaspar did not like the project overmuch, but he was barred by his own utterances from objecting.
'As you please,' he said. 'You will be back before nightfall, of course?'
'Of course—saving accidents.' And, as it proved, it was a wise reservation.
The details were soon arranged. They were not to venture too far, and were to blaze the trees on their line of march; and if they failed to appear that evening, O'Driscoll and his servant were to strike camp at daybreak next morning, and follow up their trail until they overtook them. The last condition was added by way of precaution: the contingency was not expected to arise.
Leslie and Ignacio set out immediately. For some distance the work was easy enough, and nowhere was the undergrowth of the forest so thick or the descent so steep as to cause them inconvenience and serious delay. Here pine and evergreen oak still predominated; but after half-an-hour's walk the conditions began to change, and soon they found themselves traversing a series of low foot-hills, broken by deep ravines and densely covered with vegetation of a more tropical character. The latter notwithstanding, they could not complain of their rate of progress; for long practice enabled them instinctively to pick the least troublesome routes through the labyrinth of rock and coppice, and at the same time to hold generally in the desired direction—namely, towards the Monte del Diablo. The compass was their guide, of course; their view, it is needless to say, being restricted to the trees surrounding them. What surprised them most was the continued scarcity of game in a country where it might reasonably be supposed to abound, and where there was no lack of animal life of the lower kinds. As regards these—the smaller birds, snakes, insects, and the like—the forest differed in no respect from the normal. It was only the 'civilised' varieties, and such bigger game as the puma and tapir, that were conspicuously wanting.
'What do you make of it, Ignacio?' inquired Leslie.
'It is very strange, patron,' he returned. 'Why, it looks just as if the valley had been hunted over for many years, and very often, and the game killed off—and that, of course, is impossible.'
The same idea had occurred to Leslie. 'Yet it would explain it all,' he said, and dropped the subject.
They persevered thus for about three hours. Latterly the ground was less hilly and broken, and rivulets were more frequent. Then, as they were bethinking themselves of turning back, empty-handed and in disgust, they came upon a larger stream than they had hitherto encountered. It flowed in a shallow, rocky bed between high banks, but at present the water was very low; and Ignacio, observing that in all probability it rose on the Monte del Diablo—certainly its trend was from that direction—suggested that they should follow the channel upwards for some distance.
'Is it worth while?' asked Leslie, somewhat doubtfully.
'For half-an-hour, señor. See! The channel is quite dry in many parts. After the bush, it will he easy walking. And we shall still have time to return before sunset.'
Leslie acquiesced. For their own guidance or that of O'Driscoll—but chiefly, as they thought, for their own—a prominent arrow-mark was blazed on the largest tree on the river-bank at the point of divergence, and as they advanced they took the same precaution where opportunity offered. Progress was now faster, albeit the walking proved to be less pleasant than Ignacio had imagined. There was, indeed, more of jumping than walking; for the bed of the stream was stony and uneven, and here and there was obstructed by great boulders and outcrops of rock. In the heat of the afternoon the exertion soon told upon them. Fifteen minutes of it was enough for Leslie, seeing that any practical result was apparently hopeless; and he was about to call a halt accordingly, when the choice was taken from him in a most startling and unexpected manner. It befell thus. Ignacio was leading by a few yards, and had just reached a spot where the river took a sharp bend from the right. Suddenly he drew back, and dropped on hands and knees in the shallow water. Instinctively, not knowing why, Leslie followed his example. Then, obeying a motion of the guide's hand, he crept cautiously forward until he was beside him, just behind the turn.
Ignacio laid a finger on his lips in warning. 'Hush, señor!' he said, in his lowest whisper.
Leslie listened for a full minute. Not a sound was to be heard except the gentle ripple of the stream, and a still gentler sighing in the tree-tops.
'What is it?' he asked, in the same careful tones.
'Hist! . . . Indians, señor!'
'Indians!' Leslie wondered if he had heard aright. 'Here? You're sure, Ignacio?'
The guide nodded emphatically.
'Fifty yards away—not more, señor.'
'Nine or ten.'
'They did not see you?'
He shook his head. 'They are asleep, I think perhaps it is the hour of the siesta. But I did not look for long. . . . Quietly, señor, for your life! They are armed—they seem heathens!'
This as Leslie, resolved to discover the truth for himself, was rising with infinite caution for a glance round the corner. And this, as he gained his purpose, is what he saw. The left-hand bank receded a little, forming a charming dell by the water-side—doubtless covered by the river in times of flood, but now a patch of the greenest sward, bounded by great trees and clumps of brush—and therein, as the guide had said, nine men lay supine in the shade. The one glance showed him that they were certainly natives, and as certainly were armed. It was enough for the moment. . . . And then, as he dropped back to think out his course of action, there was a shout—a beam of light seemed to flash past him—from Ignacio came an exclamation—and, looking up, he perceived a man standing erect on the high bank opposite, with a long tube at his mouth.
'Run, señor—run!' cried the guide eagerly. 'They have discovered us. Run! It is our only chance!'
'Too late, I'm afraid. And perhaps they're friendly. But what—Hullo! you be wounded, Ignacio!'
'It is nothing—a scratch, señor,' he replied, and pulled a short, copper-headed arrow from his right shoulder as he spoke; 'unless—unless it is poisoned. Run, patron!' he entreated once more. 'They are savages; they will be here in a minute!'
Leslie jumped to his feet, gun to shoulder. But it was not to flee. The other side had begun hostilities: the opportunity for thought was gone; it was a time for prompt and energetic action.
THE situation was critical. In front, in the little glade, the whole party of Indians were now on their feet; on the opposite bank, high above them all, their comrade stood motionless as a statue, with his eyes fixed on the two intruders and the blow-gun still at his mouth. It was from that, no doubt, that the missile had come, and from it that another (for all that they knew) might be expected at any moment. Something must be done at once. Yet for a minute Leslie hesitated.
Ignacio, who had also arisen, touched him on the arm and repeated his appeal.
'No, no!' he said hastily. 'I have no wish to get an arrow in the back, Ignacio. . . . Can you use your revolver? Well, keep your eye on that fellow opposite, and shoot him down if he makes the least sign of being dangerous again.'
'Good, señor!' replied the guide, with the obedience of his race.
Leslie turned towards the main body. They, on their part, were still inactive. They had drawn together, at the first alarm, in a compact mass; the nine pairs of eyes were fixed upon him in a concentrated stare that had much of amazement, and perhaps something of fear, in it: plainly they were utterly taken aback by an apparition so unexpected and startling, and for the moment the advantage was with the stranger. He was quick to make use of it. One outstanding fact claimed immediate attention—namely, that in several respects the Indians differed from those with whom he had become familiar in his travels. It was notably so in physique and in colour, and in the fashion of their garments. Yet, as regards the former, he had a fleeting idea that the type was not unknown to him. The men were taller and of a more robust build than the average native of the plains; their colour was a shade lighter, and their features struck him as being more regular and pleasing. It was not until afterwards that the resemblance to the errant Guatúsa, and to certain descriptions of O'Driscoll's, occurred to him. The difference was more marked in the clothing. It consisted of a simple tunic of some cotton substance, falling from the shoulders to the knees, and was held at the waist by a belt of hide; at the left-hand side a quiver of blow-pipe missiles depended from this belt; leggings and sandals of deerskin were worn; and in a few instances the costume was completed by a shoulder-cape of skins, and in all by a head-dress of feathers in shape resembling a Roman helmet. The cape-wearing Indians, three in number, seemed to be the more elderly; these carried long spears in addition to their blow-guns. The others, who were all young men, were armed only with the latter. One man alone—and he a broad-shouldered warrior of middle age, with grizzled hair—carried a machete. The sunlight was glancing from it, and somehow it caught and held the observer's notice above all else.
And the result upon Leslie's mind of this hurried but comprehensive survey? For a little, as he confronted them silently, his thoughts were chaotic. Who were they? What should he do? . . . Then, as by a flash of intuition, he gained his conclusion. Were he right or wrong, it was for the future to decide. For himself, he had not the slightest doubt. All that he knew was that he had reached the turning-point of the adventure, and saw his course clear before him. To him there was only one.
'I'm going on, Ignacio,' he said quietly. 'Keep close behind me, but no shooting until I give the word. Sabe?'
He was quite cool as he waded through the shallow water towards the bank, the guide close at his heels. The movement, however, had its effect on the Indians. It broke the spell. There was a low chorus of exclamations from them; one or two fell back a little; the others looked as if they would prefer to do so did not pride forbid. But they showed no signs of active hostility; and, heedless of anything short of that, Leslie continued his deliberate advance to the river-side. Jumping ashore, he gave them greeting in Spanish. Not more than three yards separated him from the nearest of the party—the man with the machete.
There was no reply—nothing but a fixed, wondering stare at the great form and strange garments of the newcomer. Plainly they did not understand.
'Try them in your language, Ignacio.' he said.
As the peon did so he took a few steps forward, hand outstretched. Still no response. A cursory glance was all that they vouchsafed to Ignacio, and again bent their eyes on the chief figure. And now, more strongly, it was borne upon him that their intentness of gaze had more in it than mere astonishment at his appearance: it had something, he was half inclined to think, of downright awe. It was also becoming rather embarrassing, especially as he was at a loss what to do next. A few moments of suspense followed, and then, to his relief, the initiative was taken at last by the other side. The move came from the man with the machete, who was evidently the leader of the company. Having consulted in a whisper with his comrades, and apparently gained their consent to his proposal, he advanced a step and addressed Leslie in a language unknown to him—unknown also, as a quick look assured him, to Ignacio. He tried to gather from the speaker's countenance some hint of his meaning, but (except that he was thoroughly in earnest) failed to grasp it—until, before he could guess what was to happen, the man had dropped on one knee in front of him, seized his hand, placed it on his bent head, and was reciting some formula (surely not unfamiliar) in a low voice—and all this so suddenly as to test his control to the utmost. It was not without a strong effort of will, indeed, that he prevented himself from starting back. His mind flew back to the hacienda of San Luis, and to the similar scene that had been enacted there. Then he perceived daylight.
Meanwhile the leader remained in his recumbent position; his followers were anxiously watching: some action was obviously expected on his own part. But what? It was a ticklish point, but he did what seemed natural to him. Raising the Indian, he shook him gravely by the hand. The impulse was the right one. Much to his gratification, it served; a smile passed over the man's face, and was reflected on those of his companions. Thereafter he harangued them at some length, and they came forward in order of seniority, and one by one went through the same ceremony. Leslie was not sorry when it was over. More than ever—a hundredfold more, in the light of present facts—he regretted Guatúsa's departure. He would have given much to know precisely what the ceremony meant. In his heart he was quite sure—why he could scarcely explain—that it was more than a mere act of courtesy and friendly greeting towards a stranger, that behind it there was some cause more potent. But at the least friendship was established, and that in itself was much.
This result was at once seen. The tension was relieved. True that the Indians still held somewhat aloof, surveying him from head to foot with curious eyes—his fair hair and bearded face, his clothes, his rifle and revolver—and now and again comparing notes in a whisper. It was not an unnatural curiosity withal, and in the absence of vocal intercourse they could do little else. Presently their good feeling was shown more conclusively. Convinced by the progress of the ceremony that hostilities were averted, and seeing perhaps that he was to have no part in it, Ignacio had retired to the water-side; and now, having doffed his serape and shirt, he was engaged in washing his wound. Turning, Leslie happened to notice him—he had forgotten him for the moment—and ran to his side.
'Much hurt, boy?' he asked remorsefully.
'It is nothing, señor. See! the skin is hardly broken. If it is not poisoned'—
'It isn't likely, or you would have felt it before this. Here! let me look at it—so! it is only a scratch—you will be able to use your gun to-morrow, Ignacio.'
The wound was indeed a trivial one, for the missile had been turned aside by a fold of the guide's serape, and so had merely grazed his shoulder. The leader of the Indians, who came up while Leslie was binding his handkerchief round it, seemed to be puzzled; but just then, as luck would have it, the author of the mischief crossed the stream and joined the group. He pointed to Ignacio, and exchanged a few words with his commander. All at once the attitude of the latter changed. As if suddenly realising the truth, he glanced first at Leslie, and then spoke to his zealous follower in a tone which could not be mistaken for other than one of wrathful upbraiding. It was only too evident from the demeanour of the culprit. The poor fellow—he was quite a youth, and in face had a strong resemblance to the man now scolding him so heartily—cowered as if being thrashed, and said not a word in reply until the leader was finished. Then, with a quick movement, he knelt before Leslie, unloosed his girdle, laid his blow-gun and quiver at his feet, and bowed his head: all this with the air of a condemned criminal awaiting the extreme penalty in the knowledge that the sentence was just, and expecting no mercy. Leslie, again at a loss, looked to the leader for guidance; and he, with a gesture that was grimly suggestive, offered him his machete.
'Ugh! he means you to kill him, señor!' cried Ignacio eagerly. He was a savage, and his wound was still smarting.
Plainly enough, it was the expectation of the whole party. Leslie, of course, had no intention of doing anything of the kind. Instead, lifting the culprit's weapons, he returned them to him, and at the same time signed him to rise. The chief, gesticulating vehemently, seemed to be expostulating. For answer, Leslie smilingly shook hands with the boy, and the expressions of gratitude on his face and the leader's, and of relief on those of their comrades, told him that again he had done the right thing. Here, for him, the incident ended. But the leader had still a long and serious address to give to the lad; and, having listened to it with deepest attention, the latter renewed his homage to Leslie, waved his hand to his companions, and then cut across the glade at a run, and disappeared from view amongst the trees on the other side.
'He has gone to warn the tribe, doubtless,' suggested Ignacio as he adjusted his cloak.
Leslie paid no attention; he was thinking of other matters. And surely he had food for thought in the willingness of the Indians to sacrifice one of themselves in expiation of a venial offence, and in their desire thus to remedy the grievance that he might be supposed to entertain against them.
'It's very strange, ca!' continued the guide after a bit. Having nothing better to do, he had been forming his own conclusions.
'What is?' asked Leslie, starting.
'Their likeness to Guatúsa, señor. Perhaps that is why he left us this morning—quien sabe?'
'But he isn't here,' said Leslie, divining his suspicion.
'Perhaps he was sent to warn the tribe—he also. Sí, it is strange! And it explains the scarcity of the game, señor; for beyond doubt they are a hunting party. .. . What does the patron think, if I may ask?' he went on. 'Are they of the people that he and Señor O'Driscoll are searching for?'
'It may be, Ignacio—time will tell,' replied Leslie, with native caution. 'For the present, we may thank the saints that they're friendly. These blow-guns are ugly toys.'
'Have we not our guns?' Then he lowered his voice: 'They are heathens, señor—I am sure of it; and what if they are keeping us for something worse? They say the heathens eat men's flesh. And it would be better to fight here, when they are few.'
Leslie laughed at the idea. 'I am not afraid of that, boy,' he said. 'If we only knew their language! But what we must try now is to get them to go back to the camp with us, and pick up Señor O'Driscoll and your brother. After that—well, we shall see in good time.'
'I am the patron's servant,' returned Ignacio.
As it happened, Leslie found it impossible to carry out his plans. He exhausted his ingenuity in trying to make his hosts understand by signs what he wanted, but all his efforts were fruitless. He pointed down-river, and made as if to go in that direction—they barred his way, and indicated the opposite. Their attitude was so apologetic and beseeching, and yet so insistent, that he scarcely liked to test the fact whether they were prepared to use force to prevent his departure or would follow him. After half-an-hour of it he gave up the struggle. In any case, he told himself, a night did not matter; they could either meet O'Driscoll half-way on the morrow, or await his arrival at the dell—that was, if the Indians intended to remain there, and there were no signs that they did not.
They did. The rest of the afternoon passed somehow. It was slow work, although the Indians spared no pains to make them comfortable. They were conducted to the shade of the trees, and food placed before them—dried venison and thick cakes of maize-bread, wrapped in cool leaves, and wild fruit in abundance—and their hosts would not eat until Leslie was satisfied. Then they squatted round him in a variety of picturesque positions, smoking stumpy little rolls of rank tobacco with great enjoyment, and noting every movement that he made. He tried one of their cigars, but was glad to fall back on his pipe; and as he lay on his side in their midst, lazily smoking, his eyes and ears were not idle. It was to their conversation that he devoted most attention. He could not understand a single word of it; but, listening, the conceit cropped up in his brain that, somehow or other, he ought to understand it—the idea that he had known the language once, and had entirely forgotten it. Just then, however, he did not trouble to analyse the half-formed impression. One fact he did discover—that the leader was always addressed by his companions as Acoya. The other word that he caught most often—it was used continually—sounded like 'Ayatepec,' but he did not realise until later that it was their name for himself. And thereby, as shall be told, hung a story.
So the evening drew on. With the approach of sundown the Indians began to bestir themselves, and one by one, at the command of the leader, glided silently into the woods surrounding the little dell, each taking a different direction. At last only Acoya and two others were left with the strangers. Leading them across the sward, explaining volubly the while, the headman pointed out some marks on the ground, and by signs and speech strove to enlighten them on some important point.
'What is it, I wonder?' cried Leslie. 'I can't make it out. Can you, Ignacio?'
'It is very plain, señor,' he replied, after a moment's examination on his knees. 'It is the track of big game—deer, I think.'
'Deer?' Leslie was no wiser than before.
'Sí. And the marks are quite fresh, patron—certainly not later than yesterday.'
'All very well; but what does our friend mean?'
Ignacio had an explanation ready. Doubtless the deer, as their habit is, came out at night to browse on the sweet grass; and the Indians, having waited all day for an opportunity, had now gone to occupy the most favourable positions for circumventing them when they appeared. If this theory were correct—and, as it proved, it was—Acoya's meaning was evident. He wished them to understand the situation, and follow the example of the others.
So Leslie, as best he could, expressed his acquiescence; and ten minutes later he and Acoya and the guide were lying hidden in the brush, within a stone's-throw of the stream, and in full view of the deserted glade. The remaining two had vanished elsewhere. The sun went down, and gradually the sounds of the day-world gave place to those of the night. To those who had ears to hear, the forest was alive with voices which spake—the eerie hootings of the night-jar and the owl, the rustle and scurrying of myriads of foul insects and reptiles that hate the face of the sun, the breaking of a distant twig that might mean the passage of a jaguar or a puma, slinking about in search of its prey—these and a hundred other noises broke the silence. But custom had robbed them of their novelty to our three watchers, and they were more concerned to make themselves as comfortable as the circumstances would permit, each in his own fashion. Ignacio, like a wise man, fell asleep. Acoya, having pressed his shoulder-cape—a fine puma-skin—upon Leslie without success, wrapped it round his own body and also lay down, and only an occasional movement of his head showed that he was awake and vigilant. And Leslie himself, sitting with his back against a fallen trunk and his rifle between his legs, gave free rein to his thoughts. They were many and varied—first of the camp on the hill-side, and O'Driscoll awaiting him in alternate hope and fear—of Guatúsa, and his influence upon these happenings—of the events of the day in all their bearings, possible and impossible, and of what they might portend—and, chief of all, of their effect on the elucidation of the story of old Gavin Leslie. In this, when it was most needed, he had no help from the past. The curtain would not rise.
It was near midnight before the moment for action came. Three owl-hoots were heard in succession, so naturally imitated that Leslie suspected nothing until Acoya got noiselessly upon his feet and repeated the cries. Then he knew them for a signal. A minute passed; and he and Ignacio, who had been roused from slumber at the first alarm by the strange instinct of the bushman, held themselves ready to follow Acoya's lead. There was no moon, but the part of the glade beyond the shadow of the trees was less dark than the rest; and upon this, as they watched intently, they saw presently some moving objects still darker. And then, following a shrill whistle from their companion, the wood echoed to a medley of noises—the whir of missiles, the calls (almost human in their agony) of the wounded animals, and the snapping of branches as the hidden hunters rushed forth to complete their work. Next moment they too had broken cover.
'Look, señor—there!' excitedly cried Ignacio.
Suddenly a dark body had darted past in front of them and taken boldly to the water—the sole survivor, apparently, of the herd. They pulled up, listening to the splashing.
'Shoot, señor—quick! quick!'
Leslie threw up his gun. The animal had again appeared on the opposite bank, and for an instant a black patch was silhouetted against the gray. Scarcely stopping to take aim, he fired. The crashing of the brushwood as the body rolled back down the bank told him that, more by fortune than desert, he had been successful.
'A good shot, patron!' said Ignacio, with approval: he was a marksman himself.
But the effect of the shot was not confined to the slaying of the deer. The Indians seemed so thoroughly startled that, in Leslie's judgment, firearms were unknown to them. Their consternation wore off after a little, and they resumed the work that had been interrupted by his interposition, but even then they held aloof from him as one possessing uncanny powers. The bag was an excellent one. The whole herd had fallen—six deer in all, five of them to the blow-gun. It bespoke great expertness with a weapon so rude and primitive.
All was now hustle and animation. Wood was quickly collected, a fire built, and one of the deer cut up with Acoya's machete; and presently they were enjoying a supper of venison and maize-cakes in the consciousness that it had been well earned. Then another smoke, and to sleep.
LESLIE awoke next morning, after a sound and dreamless sleep, to be confronted by a dilemma. It was just after sunrise, but already the Indians were afoot; the deer had been skinned and cut up; and by the time his ablutions were made—a ceremony that was regarded by them with great wonder and some amusement—breakfast was ready. It soon became evident that they meant to lose no time. The food having been hurriedly swallowed, the skins and the best parts of the deer were divided into packs, and the other preparations for an immediate departure completed. This, of course, did not suit Leslie's plan; he had O'Driscoll to consider; but it was not until the vanguard of four men had shouldered their loads and struck into the forest in the direction of the Monte del Diablo that he saw his way to interpose. Then, jumping up, he endeavoured once more by signs to make Acoya understand his objections. Acoya did not, or would not, and, believing perhaps that his guest wished to leave him altogether, was eloquent in gesticulations and in mute appeals to him to accompany the party. Leslie realised that a stronger course must be tried. He turned to the guide.
'Follow me, Ignacio,' he said. 'We must see if they will really stop us.'
'And if they do, señor?'
'Leave that to me, and do as I do.'
Breaking away from the circle of Indians, they marched straight for the lower end of the glade. The question was settled before they reached it. Acoya did not hesitate; at a command from him the retreat was cut off, and a moment later a whistle brought back the vanguard at the double-quick. Their attitude plainly showed their intentions. It was respectful, almost apologetic, and yet full of determination to prevent their escape at whatever cost to themselves—or to Leslie.
'Fire, señor?' asked Ignacio laconically.
'A minute! We must not be too hasty, boy.'
It was not, in truth, a point to be settled off-hand. At the most, their lives might depend on the decision—at the least, their future relations with the Indians and the success of the expedition. This on the one side, while on the other was their obligation to O'Driscoll. Either of two courses seemed open—to go with Acoya, leaving O'Driscoll to his own resources, or to risk everything to join him. Between the two, Leslie was not the man to waver for a single instant. His first duty was to his comrade. But was there no third course? Suddenly he had an idea. O'Driscoll could not be more than three or four hours behind them: was it not possible to leave a message bidding him follow at his utmost speed along their path, which they would blaze for his guidance, while they, on their part, did all in their power to retard the Indians' progress? The plan struck Leslie as feasible, although in his heart he had perhaps a doubt whether he was morally justified in adopting it. He sketched it to Ignacio.
'It is good,' said he slowly, 'unless—
'Unless they do not permit us to blaze the trees. And then, señor?'
'Then, my lad, we must fight it out,' said Leslie. 'At any rate we'll give it a trial.'
Thus a compromise between duty and interest was adopted, the consequences of which he did not foresee, nor that in days to come it was to cause him the keenest remorse.
For the time being, at least, it served. He signed to Acoya that he gave in; the Indians, comprehending, appeared duly gratified; and then, tearing a leaf from his note-book, he wrote his message—informing his comrade briefly of what had happened and of his present position, mentioning his presumption as to their destination, and directing him what to do in order to overtake them. This done, he possessed himself of an arrow from one of the quivers—none objecting—and pinned the letter therewith to the trunk of the most prominent tree in the dell. The natives watched him the while with the wondering and benevolent curiosity with which they honoured all his actions—in this case, indeed, with rather more than usual. His object was beyond them, but apparently it never occurred to them to interfere. Then, good relations having been restored, the journey was begun at once.
The first part may be described in a few words. The route was again through dense forest, over ground fairly level, and by a path so narrow that they were forced to walk in single file. Four of the Indians were in front, their loads strapped on their backs with lengths of liana; then came Acoya, Leslie, and Ignacio in turn; and last of all the remainder of the party. From the number of streams and watercourses which they crossed, it was evident that they were traversing the bed of the valley; the general direction, by the compass, was towards the Monte del Diablo; and here the pace was easy, as if the men were reserving their strength for greater exertions. Leslie's one idea was to make the trail plain for O'Driscoll. The natives, still benevolently inclined, offered no objections—though possibly it was because they did not understand—and he and Ignacio, taking each a side, did the work so thoroughly that (as the guide put it) a blind man could hardly miss their track. It relieved Leslie's conscience somewhat.
About two hours after the start the path began to rise— gradually at first, then more and more steeply. A little later Ignacio called his master's attention to the fact—a very significant one—that, while hitherto the track had barely been visible to the naked eye, it was now much better marked; also, that those in advance were stepping out with the free swing of men to whom the ground is familiar.
'When did you notice it first, Ignacio?' he asked.
'At the beginning of this hill, señor; but I was not sure.'
'And what do you make of it?'
'It has been used often, beyond doubt, or otherwise it would be quite overgrown. And by large parties, señor.'
'Then perhaps it is a regular road across the Monte del Diablo; who knows?' said Leslie, musingly. 'Unless I am mistaken, we are on the lower slopes now.'
The latter surmise was evidently right, for all forenoon they climbed steadily upwards. The path was always there, but as often as not they had to pull themselves up by means of trees and shrubs, while in many places steep and bare outcrops of rock and stony 'slides' had to be scaled with due precaution. They had five hours of this hot and exhausting labour, relieved only by an occasional rest for a few minutes, and that apparently for the benefit of the strangers—for the Indians, even loaded as they were, never seemed to flag. And these halts, in the execution of his plan, Leslie did not scruple (within bounds) to prolong. The solitary incident was when, to the huge delight of the natives, he brought down a pair of too inquisitive monkeys with a single shot. And so they ascended higher and ever higher, until at length, having penetrated the belt of odorous pines, they reached the limit of forest vegetation. Here, as it was now past noon, a halt was made for dinner.
It was not too soon. Loads were thrown down with alacrity and tired limbs relaxed. Then the meal was cooked and eaten in the shade of a little clump of stunted pines—the last outpost of the forest. The view was somewhat restricted. Beneath them it was bounded by the line of greenery; above rose a gentle slope of thin, coarse grass, contracting into a funnel-shaped ravine that was bounded on either side by black, precipitous, unclimbable cliffs, and ended five hundred feet up in a narrow gap. Thither their route must lie; there was no other; and, unless appearances were deceptive, that which they had already accomplished was but child's-play in comparison with what awaited them. Plainly the natives thought likewise, for, dinner over, they lay down at once for a siesta, and the strangers were not slow to follow their admirable example.
Leslie was roused about an hour later by Ignacio. The Indians, without exception, were still fast asleep.
'What is it? Anything wrong?' he demanded.
'About Señor O'Driscoll and my brother, patron.'
'We did not hurry, and if they have made good speed, they cannot be far below. And if so, señor,' he said, 'I was thinking that perhaps we might let them know we are near.'
'Could we not fire our rifles, señor? Sound travels far on the mountains, and they may he within hearing.'
Leslie considered for a moment. 'It's worth trying, Ignacio,' he said at last, 'and if we had only half a pretext'—
'There, señor! Look up!' cried the guide, snatching up his gun and jumping to his feet.
Looking, Leslie did the same. The cause was the opportune appearance—it could not have been more opportune had it been providential—of a flight of large-beaked birds of the toucan species flying lazily across their line of sight towards the woods. The shot was an easy one; the chance one not to be missed.
'Now!' he cried.
The two reports rang out together, and reverberated for fully a minute from the rocks around. Three of the birds dropped; and the natives, rudely awakened from slumber, leaped up hastily and in alarm, but were reassured when they discovered that it was only another proof of the white man's magic. They were becoming used to it, and it was not unwelcome while it had such excellent effects in supplying the larder. On this occasion, however, Leslie gave them scant attention, for he was listening with all his might for his comrade's reply. But no reply came.
'They are still far behind us, señor,' said Ignacio, shaking his head.
'I'm afraid so,' returned Leslie. 'All we can do now is to leave another message. We've gone too far to retreat.'
So the second letter was hastily scribbled, giving first the hour of writing, and then enjoining O'Driscoll, in case (as was not unlikely on the treeless higher slopes) he missed their track, to hold straight across the mountain by any route that he might find practicable. By the time it was finished Acoya was ready to go on. A new disposition had been made, and the men's weapons were now strapped on their backs as well as their loads—an earnest, in Leslie's opinion, of some stiff work in front.
But in this, at the outset, he was agreeably disappointed. The ravine up which they had now to clamber was steep enough, but offered no great difficulty to men sound of limb and wind; the surface was rough and broken, and thus there was no lack of footholds; and at the worst parts, indeed, these were so regular that it almost seemed as if they had been artificially made. Forty minutes' scrambling brought them to the gut of the pass, and the suspicion became a certainty. Here the walls of the ravine were not more than two yards apart, and the first thing that caught Leslie's eye, startling him into a sudden exclamation, was a series of drawings deeply engraved upon the smooth rock on both sides—pictures of men and of animals, curious hieroglyphics and segments of astronomical signs and circles, all sculptured with marvellous force and freedom. Who the artists had been, except that in all probability they were the pioneers of this path across the mountain—when they had wrought, except that assuredly it was in ages long past—these, of course, were questions that Leslie could not answer. Still, as he stood there inspecting their handiwork, he could not help speculating.
But he was not allowed much time for wonder and admiration. Acoya was obviously impatient to get on; and, seeing that he was stopping the advance against the leader's will, he had reluctantly to drag himself away. It may he said here, to avoid repetition, that he noticed several more sculptures of the same character, and apparently by the same hands, in the course of the afternoon.
He had other and more practical grounds for admiration as the day wore on. The long-dead engineers of the road had known their business well. Time and again Leslie had cause to marvel at their skill and daring; no inequality of the physical contour, no deviation that could lessen the difficulty of the ascent, had been missed; and although it became steeper as they climbed towards the clouds, and the obstacles more and more numerous, it was seldom absolutely dangerous. Not that it was all plain sailing. But for this route the crossing of the Monte del Diablo might have been impossible without guides; even by its help it was a hard nut to crack. Leslie did not care to think what it would be for poor O'Driscoll if he lost the trail.
It was within an hour of sunset when at length they came in view of the summit, and in view also of the greatest obstacle they had yet encountered. The last three hours' labour had been the stiffest of the day. They had been working their way round the face of the mountain inch by inch, for the most part through a drizzle of small rain that did not make progress safer or more pleasant—hurried always by Acoya, who, for some reason, seemed to be troubled by a feverish anxiety. Now, after a tough scramble up a saddle of rock as steep as the roof of a house, they found themselves on an irregular plateau some thirty or forty feet broad, and for a moment paused to take breath and survey the scene. They had passed beyond the rain-belt; below them everything was blotted out by banks of cloud; around, on three sides, were space and blue sky; and on the fourth, joined to the plateau by a ridge of the narrowest width, rose for three hundred feet a smooth, rounded mass of black cliff—the real summit of the Monte del Diablo. It was the ridge that claimed attention. It was perhaps a hundred yards from point to point, but never more than two feet in breadth—sometimes less than a foot—and on both sides it sheered straight down to the clouds: how much farther one had not much curiosity to know. Heaven help the man who lost his head and his footing on that precarious bridge! Yet it was plain that they must cross it—plain, too, that it must be crossed at once. For here was the explanation of Acoya's haste: it was essential to reach the other side before darkness fell. It would be madness to attempt to spend the night on an exposed mountain-top six thousand feet above sea-level.
'Have we to cross that, señor?' said Ignacio in a tone that was not unduly sanguine.
'It seems like it, boy. There is no other way.'
'But how, señor?'
And Leslie, looking the difficulty in the face, wondered himself how it was to be overcome. 'We shall see in a moment,' he said. 'Others have done it, and surely'—
The words died away on his lips. Suddenly, for an instant, the curtain of clouds beneath him had been parted, and his eyes followed the precipitous flank of the ridge downwards until, a thousand feet below, it merged in the line of vegetation—and then passed swiftly across the lower slopes, and over mile after mile of tree-tops, levelled by distance into uniformity—and were brought up at last by a break in the greenery ten miles (or it might be twenty miles) away, where the late sunshine was falling upon the waters of a great lake, and was reflected by a single point of light high upon a peak in its midst. This he saw, and no more, for in a moment the clouds had again rolled together, and the vision was screened from his sight.
It was only a glimpse, but it needed no magician to tell him that it was a glimpse of the Promised Land.
BUT now Leslie had a matter of more practical moment to consider. None of the natives seemed to have noticed the cause of his abstraction, or even the abstraction itself; they were all too busily engaged in preparations for the crossing of the ridge. These were simple enough. The men lined up in order on the edge of the plateau, and each unwound a length of liana, twisted into a rope of considerable strength, from his pack, and, having tied one end round his waist, proceeded to attach the other to that of the man behind him. Acoya, who had thoughtfully provided himself with several lengths, signed to the strangers to take their places in the middle of the line. He himself was first.
Leslie, however, shook his head. Another glance at the ridge, while it did not lessen his sense of its difficulty, convinced him that with proper care it was practicable without the ropes, and the temptation suddenly assailed him to dispense with the natives' assistance. It might be foolhardy—indeed it was—but the natural impulse of the Briton is to risk the odds if by doing so he gains a chance to prove his superiority to other races; and Leslie had too much belief in the race-spirit (and in himself) to refuse the opportunity.
Not so Ignacio. 'You will not try it, señor?' he pleaded, when he had realised his master's intentions.
'I mean to, Ignacio,' he replied.
'But it is not safe—it is folly, patron!'
Leslie moved towards the ridge. 'All the same, I mean to do it,' he replied. 'But there is no reason why you should, boy. Acoya will give you a rope.'
'I will follow the señor,' said the guide simply—even to certain death, his expression implied.
Leslie wasted no more time. The leader, in ignorance of his purpose, had evinced some impatience at the delay in forming the line; but now, comprehending it, he placed his hand on his guest's shoulder to detain him, remonstrating earnestly. But Leslie had made up his mind to be the first man to cross, and to cross unaided, and smilingly shook him off. Heedless of anything but his own determination, he faced the chasm. A quick survey told him, limited as his experience of mountaineering was, that there was only one way to pass the ridge safely. Next moment he was upon hands and knees, and had begun the perilous journey. A hum of amazement rose behind him.
It was work of the slowest and most perilous. The ridge at its broadest was not more than two feet across and far from smooth; and the sweat broke out on his brow as he crept along with infinite care, inch by inch and foot by foot, keeping his eyes fixed always on the rock immediately in front. He dared not do otherwise. Once only he chanced to look below, and the mere sight of the clouds swimming beneath him was sufficient: he felt for all the world as if he were swaying upon an aerial bridge suspended by the slightest of threads, which the least action of his own would snap. For an instant his head whirled, and he had an inclination that was almost irresistible to let himself drop into the depths. But the warning served. Truth to tell, he had need of all his nerve—the smallest stumble, the least miscalculation, and no power on earth could have saved him.
Setting his teeth, he kept steadily on and on. Presently the ridge began to narrow, and narrowed until, about half-way over, it was scarcely eight inches broad, and in formation could be compared to nothing better than the rounded back of a razor. It was the worst part; for here progress was only possible by allowing his legs to dangle on either side, and, thus astride, to work himself forward by sheer strength of muscle. He did it, there being no alternative; but the experience is not one that, short of the most absolute necessity, he is ever likely to repeat. He had nearly accomplished the task, and the ridge was again broadening to the opposite mountain-side—now barely seventy feet distant—when he had a new cause for apprehension. From his rear, very close behind, came suddenly a muffled cry. The voice was Ignacio's, and it was the first intimation to him that the guide had really followed his example. Now something had evidently befallen the devoted fellow—and he was powerless. He dared not even turn his head; he could only grip harder with hands and knees, and leave the upshot to Providence.
'What is it, Ignacio? Anything wrong?' he shouted.
'Help, señor—help, for the love of the Virgin! I cannot go on—I am falling—I cannot keep my hold—help!' It was only too plain from his tone that he was in mortal terror, that for the moment his nerve had completely failed him.
'Courage, man!' replied Leslie cheerily. 'There is no danger—you will be all right in a second. Keep your eyes on me—don't think about it—and for Heaven's sake don't look down!'
'You won't move, señor?'
'Not till you're ready. Give me the word when you are.'
It was the greatest ordeal of all—to hang there helpless, with the momentary fear of a misadventure to his faithful servant, and at the same time to preserve his own balance, physical and mental. Fortunately it was not prolonged. Within a minute Ignacio had given the word.
'You're sure you can do it, boy?' he cried.
'I think so, señor—I will try.'
Then he went on, again on hands and knees. In other five minutes he had reached the extremity of the ridge, where it merged in a broad ledge, and with a pardonable feeling of satisfaction had scrambled to his feet—safe once more on solid ground. Turning, he was just in time to assist Ignacio to a place beside him. The guide was shivering like an ague-stricken man in the reaction of his fright, and threw himself down on the ledge with a little sob of relief. Yet his first instinct was to excuse himself.
'Your pardon, patron,' he said. 'It was foolish to break down, but the precipice—oh! it was terrible! And then my wound began to ache, and I thought I must give way.'
'There is nothing to pardon, Ignacio,' said Leslie. 'It might have happened to anybody. And at least we have beaten our friends at their own game.'
'That is so, señor,' he replied, with proper gratification.
Meanwhile Leslie's gaze was fixed on the ridge. It was from this point of vantage, with Acoya and his followers as object-lesson, that the full danger of the passage came home to him. The natives were already half-way across, and were making fair speed; and, watching them with a kind of fascination as they crawled like flies along the narrow parapet, he wondered how he and Ignacio had managed to do it at all. Now it seemed to him every moment that the next must bring a mishap. Once, indeed, there was a halt—how caused he could not perceive—and his heart was in his mouth until, after some shouting from the leader, they came on again. And at length Acoya gained the ledge and clasped his outstretched hand, and he felt inclined to waken the echoes of the Monte del Diablo with a British hurrah in honour of the achievement. The headman himself appeared to be not less gratified. Instinctively Leslie knew that he had risen higher in the old native's esteem.
One by one the others followed; but Acoya, permitting no stoppage for rest, led the way at once along the ledge, from which the mountain sheered up in a straight, black precipice to the summit. Presently they saw a series of similar ledges or terraces stretching beneath them like a gigantic staircase, the steps of which were three and sometimes four feet in height. Down these they descended faster than was altogether safe, and in the failing light—for the sun was now hidden by the mountain behind, and in a little it would be dark—it was a miracle that no accident occurred. But somehow, just as the darkness fell, they reached a little plateau above which the rock bulged outwards and formed a shallow cave, and the strangers learned with thankfulness that they had arrived at the destination for the night. It was not too soon.
The spot was apparently in constant use for the same purpose, for somewhere from the farther recesses twigs and faggots of pine were immediately forthcoming, and in a few minutes the venison-steaks were frizzling merrily over the fire. And you may be sure that, after the risks and privations of a toilsome day, they were enjoyed by none more than our adventurers. The single drawback was the absence of water. Then, supper over, the pair took the opportunity over their pipes to hold a council of war.
'To-morrow will decide it, Ignacio,' said Leslie, when he had related what he had seen from the lower summit, and given his views regarding their position. 'For ourselves, however, I don't suppose we have much to fear.'
'And the Señor O'Driscoll, patron?'
'I have been thinking of him. We can do nothing more just now—that is certain. But to-morrow I hope to find Guatúsa with the tribe, and then it will he easy to talk with them, and get a party to accompany us to search for him and your brother. It is all we can do.'
Ignacio agreed that it was the only plan. 'But what if the tribe is hostile, señor?' he asked.
'It is hardly likely. But in case—well, let us see how we stand for ammunition.'
Examination showed that they had rather more than eighty rounds of Winchester cartridges between them, and that, in addition, Leslie had about fifty rounds for the revolvers. The great bulk of the ammunition had, of course, been left at the camp.
'It is enough—for the present,' said Leslie. 'All the same, boy, we must be very careful of it. For the rest, we must be guided by our reception. What we want now is some sleep.'
And sleep they did, with the soundness of the seven ancients out of Ephesus.
Next morning the journey down the eastern side of the mountain was resumed, and for the first hour or two the descent proved scarcely less arduous than the climbing had been, and quite as difficult. Then the slope became gentler, and progress correspondingly better. Leslie had one great disappointment. He had been looking forward in expectation of another glimpse of the valley and its lake as soon as they got below the clouds, but all morning the prospect was hidden by light mists, and it was not until they were well within the belt of forest that the day cleared. Here the limit of vegetation seemed to him to be considerably higher than on the western side, and later observation convinced him that such was indeed the case.
During the whole forenoon, while they pressed steadily and without incident through the thick bush of the lower slopes, Leslie had the old indefinite feeling that he was on the threshold of some discovery. The midday meal was past, however, before he had further food for his imagination. Then Acoya, leaving his men to their siesta, invited him by signs to accompany him. With Ignacio at his heels, he did so. The route taken was at a right angle to their previous course, and lay first across a stretch of rough ground, broken by several streams; thereafter (somewhat to Leslie's surprise) they had a stiff climb for perhaps half-an-hour, cutting a path for themselves through the jungle of undergrowth; and at last they came out upon a steep, bare ridge—plainly a spur of the great mountain—and scrambled to the summit. Gaining it, an exclamation burst from Ignacio:
'Santissima!' he cried.
For there, spread beneath them like a panorama, lay the whole expanse of the valley. It was for this, then, that Acoya had brought them hither. Leslie's heart thumped faster as he took in the scene—from the forest, tailing away below them, across a broad tract of park-like and well-wooded savannah, watered by many streams, to the mountains on the opposite side, looming blue and indistinct in the far distance. To north-west and south-east the ends of the valley were lost in the haze; but it was in the latter direction that all Leslie's attention was concentrated. There, before his eyes, was the spot of which he had dreamed. He could not doubt it: that, in very truth, he was in sight of the goal of his hopes. It was ten or twelve miles away, but in that clear air, although the details were indistinguishable, the essentials were distinctly enough to be perceived—first, the beautiful extent of the lake; and, rising from it, separated from the nearer shore by a narrow strip of water, a rocky island culminating in a double-coned peak; and upon the isle, climbing the sides in successive terraces, what seemed to be the streets of a stone-built city; and above the houses, two hundred feet or so from the crest of the peak, the sun-reflecting pyramid that had been his beacon on the previous evening. How strangely familiar it all was! It was only a distant view, and really his first; miles of bush and savannah had still to be traversed; but somehow he felt, and was glad to feel, as if he had come home to his kingdom.
Acoya tapped him on the shoulder. 'Oyalapa!' he said, pointing to the city.
'Oyalapa!' He repeated the word aloud, lingering over it; it seemed to touch to life some long-neglected chord of his memory. Somewhere, at some time, he had heard the name. What were the associations that (he was sure) it ought to awaken—and as yet did not? Oyalapa! ... He looked his fill at it, and could not answer.
'Vaya! it is like León!' cried Ignacio, roused for once from the passive indifference of his race.
'And perhaps it is a city of your ancestors, Ignacio,' returned Leslie.
'Santissima!' said the guide again. It was the ejaculation by which he expressed his utmost astonishment.
As Leslie accompanied the others back to the temporary camp, his thoughts were far removed from present circumstances; and they were still wool-gathering during the next few hours' weary tramp across the foot-hills. But by five o'clock they had indubitably left these behind, and were at length in the valley; and soon afterwards, following the path along the right bank of a large stream, they saw a man rapidly approaching them. As he came nearer they made him out to be no other than the youth who had wounded Ignacio at their first meeting.
The party stopped as he ran up, and, having paid his homage to Leslie, drew Acoya aside and conversed with him for some minutes. As the result, the order was given for a rest. Leslie could not understand why, naturally imagining that everybody was as eager as himself to get on; but nevertheless he seized the chance to remove (as far as possible) the traces of the two days' travelling from his clothes, and to make some kind of a toilet. The natives, as usual, watched his proceedings with smiles of indulgent amusement. Plainly they had no great love for water.
The remainder of the journey was leisurely undertaken. The country, after what they had experienced, was easy enough; and Leslie's impatience at the delays and dilatoriness of his hosts grew almost unbearable, so incomprehensible did they appear—unless it was that the messenger had brought word of a certain time fixed for the strangers' reception, and Acoya was bound thereby. Yet there was now much to interest one less absorbed in his own anticipations than he. Their course was still that of the river, which increased in volume of water as it received numerous tributaries; but the view was restricted by the thick belts of wood that lined both banks. Signs of human habitation soon became frequent. Many by-tracks joined the path; and here and there they passed a home-like clearing, divided into patches of maize and cotton and fruit, and more rarely a house embowered in cacao-trees. The houses were all of wattled cane, thatched with grass, and apparently differed little except in size—being much larger, and invariably surrounded by a veranda—from those of the Indians of Nicaragua. There was ground for cogitation in this, and also in the fact that not a single native did they see throughout the march.
With the near approach of sundown, Leslie began to fear that his curiosity was to be baffled for that day. Hitherto, by reason of the route chosen, no further glimpse of Oyalapa had been vouchsafed to him. Now, if his calculations were right, the lake could not be far distant. But Acoya had his own purposes to serve. Presently a man was despatched in advance, the speed mended somewhat, and soon thereafter they crossed the river by a wooden bridge—a rude construction of pine logs bound by lianas to a couple of felled trunks; and then they cut through the wood on the other side and emerged into the open—and Leslie had his desire.
Lake and city lay before him at not more than a quarter of a mile's distance; but the sun had already climbed past the pyramidal-shaped edifice overtopping the houses, and rested only on the higher slopes of the summit. Still there was light to perceive the terraced hillside beyond the strip of water, with its gray buildings alternating with greenery—to perceive also that, to all appearance, it was a city in ruins. One illusion was roughly dispelled: Oyalapa, the great Indian city of his dreams, was a city merely in name.
There was matter of more immediate interest close at hand. To the right, stretching from the river-mouth along the shore of the lake, was a large village of cane-houses; to the left, a building of stone—the only one visible on the mainland—stood in solitary state on a slight eminence; and, of most interest, between them and Leslie's present position was massed a dense crowd of white-garmented natives, six or seven hundred of them in all—men, women, and children. A moment sufficed for him to grasp these details. Then he was observed, and his appearance greeted with a tremendous clamour of drum-beating and horn-blowing. His escort fell behind, all except Acoya and Ignacio—and they too, as they drew nearer, dropped a few paces to the rear. He did not altogether like the situation, but there was nothing for it but to go through with it with the dignity at his command. But his eyes roamed over the crowd as he advanced, searching he scarcely knew for what, and involuntarily noticed several little facts—the comeliness of the women in their long robes of white cotton, that the heads of the elder men were shaved, leaving only a wisp of hair along the edge of the forehead from ear to ear, and such-like. And above the din of the unmusical instruments a single word, repeated by scores of voices, caught his ear. It was 'Ayatapec!'
He was within five yards of the front rank when the clamour stopped suddenly, the people parted to this side and that, and from the midst of them a girl stepped forth to meet the stranger. Leslie pulled up dead, and instinctively doffed his hat. For surely (it was his first thought) this was no Indian maiden—form and skin and features had surely no affinity with those of the silent watchers around—the unconscious air of command, the grace and dignity of bearing, had surely never been learned in a native village. His second impression was one which time but served to confirm. It was that she was a woman of surpassing beauty—but it was beauty, not of an Indian, but distinctively of a European type. She was taller by a head than any other woman there; her figure was fuller and more rounded; and in dress alone she resembled her companions. She had the same long garment of white cotton, but in her case it was of finer substance, and was caught at the waist by a thin band of gold shaped like a serpent; her feet were shod in sandals of doeskin, daintily embroidered; on both arms, which were bare, were gold bracelets; and round her shoulders a soft scarf, dyed crimson, was held by another ornament of the same metal. A simple costume, but Leslie could not conceive one that would better have become her. Her hair, which was uncovered except for a few blossoms, was as fair as his own, and curled back from her forehead to her neck, where it was bound in a knot. For the rest, save that her skin had a dusky tinge, although it was no darker than that of many a Spanish or Italian beauty, what more need be said than that there were portraits in the hall of Easter Bavelaw of ladies of the Leslie family for which she might have sat? Only, to his mind, she was far more lovely than the loveliest of them all. Contour of face, and eyes, and features were his own, softened and refined. O'Driscoll, then, had not lied. His comrade's description came back to his memory, and he realised how well he had painted the siren who had taken his heart captive. And it was much that this, at least, had proved to be no illusion.
So these two met, the queenly savage and the Scots gentleman who had perhaps a little of the same blood in their veins; and for two minutes they looked each other straight in the eyes.
In the blue depths of hers he saw wonder and curiosity chasing doubt, and at last an expression which he could not fathom. Then she spoke to him in a low, musical voice. Smiling, he shook his head. And with that, quite unexpectedly, she bent her knee and made to pay him the obeisance which lie had accepted without compunction from Acoya and his followers. This, however, was other guesswork. Recovering at once, he raised her to her feet, and, on the impulse of the moment, kissed her solemnly on the brow with the kiss of kinship.
There was a rosy flush on her countenance as she took his proffered hand.
THE darkness fell like a curtain while they stood there hand-in-hand; but one by one points of light began to appear amongst the crowd, and in a little the scene was illuminated by the glare of a hundred pine-torches. The clamour of the horns and drums broke out anew as they moved together towards the shore through the lane of people, who bowed almost to the ground as they passed, and then formed up behind and around them. Leslie would have been more than human if he had not been touched. It was a hearty and spontaneous welcome, and he is not likely to forget its picturesque details—the waving lights reflected from the water as they skirted the lake to the village, the shouting of the men, the children strewing flowers in their path, and, in the centre of it all, the stately, white-robed figure by his side.
He was not to see much more of her that evening. Halting presently before one of the houses, she called Acoya forward and gave him some instructions—doubtless, as was shown by subsequent events, charging him with the care of the stranger. To him she bowed low, and forthwith turned away in the direction of the shore, followed by several attendants bearing torches. The natives made room for her with the same demonstrations of respect as before; and a minute or two later a couple of canoes put off from the bank and were swiftly rowed across the lake. Leslie eagerly watched their progress, marked by the flickering lights. Had Oyalapa its inhabitants after all? He had his answer in the affirmative; the lights reached the shore of the island and disappeared from his sight within the ruined city; and not until he had thus been satisfied did he accompany the impatient Acoya indoors.
There supper was waiting for him. The house, which seemed to be of a fair size, was divided by partitions of cane into several chambers. That into which he was ushered opened back and front to the veranda, the doorways being screened with woven mats; the floor was of beaten earth; couches of skins occupied two of the corners; light was given by torches; and the only surprising thing about the interior was a table in the middle, flanked by a row of stools—surprising, primitive as their construction was, by reason of being there at all. Their arrival had been timed well, for the table was loaded with smoking viands—fish, venison and other game, along with excellent maize-bread and a variety of fruits; while for liquids there were cocoa and a peculiar kind of sweet-tasting wine (made, as Leslie afterwards discovered, from a species of plum), all served in curiously fashioned vessels of earthenware. Acoya did not sit down with his guest, but with two others attended to his wants, and for company Leslie had to content himself with Ignacio. They made a hearty meal to the accompaniment of the noise outside, where the natives were still holding high revel, and thereafter—the night being warm and the room very close—they removed their couches to the front veranda, and presently were left to themselves.
For a little while they smoked on in silence, and when at length Ignacio spoke it seemed that their thoughts had been running in the same groove.
'It is not a dream, señor?' he asked softly. 'She is not like an Indian, the señorita; and yet'—
'It is very strange—and she has something of the look of the señor himself—just now, for example—and, Dios mío!' he burst out, with a fervour unusual with him, 'she is very beautiful! She is an angel! But she is not an Indian, patron, and how she is here, among these heathen—that I cannot understand.'
Leslie had no inclination to explain his theories to the peon, the rather that they would simply have mystified the honest fellow. So, 'All in good time, Ignacio,' he said.
'If the saints will, señor,' he replied. 'But it may not be easy.'
'I did not see Guatúsa in the crowd, señor.'
'Eh? No more did I, now that I think of it.' To confess the truth, he had forgotten all about his expectation of meeting his old guide at the village, and the hopes he had built thereon. What if he were disappointed? He did not like to consider the possibility.
'But perhaps he was afraid—who knows?' suggested Ignacio. 'With the patron's permission I will make certain in the morning. Meanwhile, if he has no commands'—
He had none; and so, after an exchange of buenas noches, Ignacio wrapped his serape round his head and went peacefully to sleep.
It was hours later before his master could do likewise. Long after the uproar of the rejoicing villagers had died down, and the whole place was quiet as the grave, he was lying awake and straining his eyes through the darkness to the mysterious island which he could not discern, his brain busy with a medley of conflicting thoughts—now of O'Driscoll and his own blameworthy conduct, now of his wandering ancestor, chiefly of her who had welcomed him that evening. There was much to puzzle him: this welcome most of all. How was he to account for his friendly reception, first at Acoya's hands, then at those of the natives—and at hers? He recollected the fate that O'Driscoll had narrowly escaped, and his wonder was not less. In the end he could only trust to the morrow (albeit not with confidence) for a solution of one or other of his doubts.
Even when he did fall asleep his slumber was neither restful nor continuous. All night he was troubled by ugly dreams, wherein Gavin Leslie was ever prominent—once he woke up just as the old buccaneer was running O'Driscoll through the body, again when he was heartlessly preparing to immolate himself upon a stone slab within a great temple, and at another time (and the last) when he was strolling amongst ruins hand-in-hand with a tall, beautiful damsel robed in white. After that he could sleep no more.
Striking a lucifer, he saw by his watch that it was still an hour from sunrise. The night was clear and starry, and not too dark; he could just perceive the gleam of the water, and (or it was imagination) the shadow of the island looming beyond. Ignacio was snoring melodiously on his couch of skins; save that, not a sound broke the stillness; the air smelt delightfully cool and fresh. Then it was that an impulse which he could not resist—perhaps it was Gavin's restless spirit working within him—impelled him to rise and go forth to explore. He did not try to resist it, but went. By sheer force of habit he took his rifle with him.
His steps led him first to the lake-side, here banked to the height of three feet or so, and then along it to the left, past the silent houses and the enclosures of fruit and cacao trees, until he was brought up by a dark mass that towered high above him. Plainly it was the great stone building which he had already noticed, and with a sudden flash of intuition he realised that it could be no other than the temple described by O'Driscoll. So he climbed the side of the hillock, only to come upon a palisade of logs some seven or eight feet high; and this he skirted right round, but discovered no opening—it surrounded the edifice completely, concealing it effectually from the sight of one so near as he was, and was quite unclimbable. Convinced of this, and having completed the circuit, he descended again to the shore.
Somehow he was not astonished to find there a flight of stone steps leading down to the lake; it seemed to him that it was to be expected. Now he had a new idea. The influence of his dreams had not yet entirely disappeared; Gavin Leslie was more in his mind than his own affairs; and it struck him that a bathe was exactly the thing to drive away his more morbid thoughts and brace him for the events of the day. Besides, he might not have another chance for some time. Stripping, he ran down the steps and waded cautiously into the water. To his amazement it scarcely reached his calves. He advanced a yard—five yards—twenty—and still it did not deepen. What did it mean? Then he heard a ripple as of a slight current lapping against an obstacle, and forthwith took a few paces to his right—to be plunged at once, without warning, over the head in twenty feet of water! It was as if he had walked over a precipice. He rose spluttering to the surface, and for some distance swam along the edge of the obstacle, feeling that it was smooth and level; then he climbed upon it once more, crossed it, and fell into the depths on the other side. It was forty feet broad. And again he asked himself what it was—what it meant.
And all at once he remembered his first vision of the scene—the vision that he had so marvellously dreamt on the roof of the Casa Americana at Salvatierra—and that in it the lake had been spanned by a broad causeway or bridge. Was this the explanation?
He did not wait to think it out, but immediately swam ashore; he had now another object in view. Hastily he donned his clothes, all except his boots and stockings; and, carrying these, he waded boldly out along the submerged causeway (if such it were), and so across the lake straight towards the island. He encountered no obstacle, except, perhaps, a little slipperiness underfoot; the water appeared not to deepen by a single inch; and in ten minutes he had accomplished the passage, and was standing irresolute on the topmost step of another flight of stairs, with the black shapes of the ruined city above and around him, and a sneaking feeling in his heart that he had no right whatever to be there.
For a minute he hesitated, peering into the darkness. There was a perfume of flowers in the air, but he could distinguish nothing save that a terraced path seemed to stretch on each side of him. Now that he had actually set foot in Oyalapa, his first inclination was to turn back. He sat down on the step instead, and leisurely drew on his stockings and boots. The day broke while he was so engaged. Gradually the sky lightened to the dawn, and the arrows of the rising sun chased the shadows westward, and one by one the features of the valley were unveiled before him—lake and village and temple in the foreground, surrounded by the cultivated fields, and beyond them the swelling expanse of savannah and the long lines of wood that marked the watercourses, and so to the mountains which bounded the prospect, the lofty summit of the Monte del Diablo overtopping them all. And truly it was a magnificent prospect, seen thus in the earliest flush of the morning sunshine. He forgot himself, his present object, in admiring it. His thoughts leaped back two centuries. Here it was, in this secluded spot, that Gavin Leslie had perhaps found a port of refuge after the storm and stress of five years' sailing and pirating, a resting-place in his full and adventurous life. Here, for want of a bigger stage, he had perhaps fought and intrigued and ruled. And here, too, he had perhaps loved—perhaps (who knew?) had crossed the causeway that was now sunk below the waters of the lake to woo some daughter of the ancient race.
He dreamed on, and might have dreamed all morning had he not been roused by a sound behind him, and a stone rattled past and splashed into the water. Jumping to his feet, he turned. The ruined city was still in the shade, the sun being behind the hill; before him a broad stairway led from one terrace to the other, broken in many parts, encroached upon everywhere by vegetation, and flanked on either side by the massive walls of two roofless houses; and at the top of the stairs, looking down upon him with wondering eyes, stood the goddess of the island herself. She was dressed as on the previous evening; two other maidens, both of the Indian type, but not uncomely, were with her. Leslie, on his part, was doubtful what to do—but only until she began to descend towards him, smiling in welcome. Then he went to meet her.
A quick sense of her charms filled him again, and, more than ever, he felt how much she was at variance with her environment. He was almost carried away by her beauty, the proud poise of her head, the grace of her movements—a grace unknown in London drawing-rooms, because unrestrained and natural. But there was one drawback to his satisfaction. He could not talk with her. It was a drawback which he had soon cause to regret more deeply.
They met midway on the stairs, the attendant damsels holding discreetly aloof; looked the greetings they could not speak; and then, in the act of taking her outstretched hands, he had a new surprise. For—it was the first thing that he noticed—the thumb of her right hand was adorned with a heavy signet-ring of gold. That it was there should have been no matter of surprise to him; but she had not worn it, he was certain, at their earlier meeting; and now, bending over it, he saw that which he had expected to see—that the crest was indeed the griffin's head erased of the Leslies, while the pattern of the ring itself was undoubtedly of the seventeenth century. Here at last, then, was a tangible proof of the truth of his theories.
Meanwhile he had retained possession of his companion's hand, and presently a glance at her face warned him that he was trying her curiosity. So, by way of excuse, he drew a seal (engraved with the same crest) from his pocket, and passed it to her. She gave a little cry of recognition, and, beckoning him to follow, turned at once and swiftly retraced her steps to the terrace above, and thence along it to the right. On the lower side it was on a level with the roofs (only there was little of them remaining) of the first tier of houses; on the higher, the walls of the second tier were struggling for existence with the bushes and creeping plants that grew from every crevice and cranny, and prevented the slightest glimpse of the interiors. Everywhere were ruin and decay; everywhere was nature prevailing against the ancient handiwork of man. It was with absolute relief that Leslie, at the heels of his fair guide, came ultimately to a spot—it might he the only one on the island—where the latter seemed at least to be holding its own.
This oasis in the surrounding desolation consisted of two houses which stood isolated upon the terrace, here somewhat broader. Both were apparently in good preservation, unencumbered with parasite vegetation, and showed signs of human habitation; around were plants and flowers in abundance, growing in a trim orderliness that told of careful gardening; and from the larger of them, a building of great extent, another flight of stairs descended to the water. Several boats were moored upon it at this moment; and right across the lake Leslie had a view of the village, just awakening into life.
All this he took in at a glance; for the girl, after whispering some directions to her attendants, who immediately retired, led him directly towards the smaller of the houses. It was a low, plain edifice of undressed stone, having no windows in front, and was entered by a square doorway. Thence a short passage brought them to a flagged quadrangle, from which many rooms opened; and, halting on the threshold of one on the farther side, she motioned to him to pass in. With expectation at its highest pitch, he obeyed. The room was of a goodly size, lit by a single aperture on the outside wall, and lit very badly thereby; and when his eyes became accustomed to the semi-darkness, he perceived that it was empty except for one object at the far end. Towards this his guide pointed, but herself remained by the doorway, in an attitude that seemed to have something of awe in it, and assuredly had much of devotion: the attitude of one in a sacred place. Wondering, Leslie went forward.
The light (such as it was) fell full upon the object, but it was not until he was within a few yards of it that he could make it out. Then he started back in utter amazement. For there, unless his eyes deceived him—there, standing upon a great block of gray stone—was a piece of statuary in marble, fashioned with a skill and vraisemblance that would have done no discredit to the Salon: a life-sized bust of a bearded man that in every line, down to the minutest detail of feature, might have been that of himself! In presence of the marvellous fidelity of the likeness—and nobody who had once seen it, and afterwards saw him, could mistake the fact—all else failed to strike him. How, there of all unlikely spots, such a work of art had been conceived and executed, and by whom—these, for the moment, were questions which did not interest him. It was enough that it was there—and that, beyond a doubt, it was the presentment of his buccaneering progenitor. It could not be other. And it explained much that had hitherto puzzled him.
Presently, advancing to make a closer inspection, he was aware of some other objects that lay beside the statue on the top of the stone pedestal. They were three in number, and their evidence was entirely convincing. In a kind of dream, he lifted them one by one. The first was an ancient flint-lock musket, ponderous and ungainly in make, the barrel red with rust, the stock worm-eaten and falling to pieces; the others were a pair of long, heavy pistols of elegant shape, with butts mounted in some metal (evidently silver) that was now black and tarnished. It was to this mounting that he directed his attention, and not in vain. For on one, as he examined it, he discerned some markings showing faintly through the discolouration. For five minutes he rubbed it hard, his excitement rising as the metal began to wear its proper appearance, and at last success was his.
A griffin's head was engraved on the silver, and below it the letters G. L. were entwined.
He pulled himself together and tried to think. But his mind had room for but the one idea—that on the chief count of his quest supposition had turned to knowledge; that he had solved, beyond the possibility of question, the mystery of Gavin Leslie and his Lost Adventurers.
HALF-AN-HOUR had passed before Leslie rejoined his companion at the doorway. Outwardly he was calm enough; but his brain was still wrestling with the thoughts and problems to which the strange discoveries of the morning had given birth. She, on her part, had watched him intently, missing none of his movements, but otherwise had made no sign.
Together they returned to the open air, whence she led him across the terrace to the larger of the houses. Compared with the other, it had almost a home-like appearance. As it was probably a model of what its ruined neighbours had been like in the days of their inhabitation, a short description may be interesting. It was built round two courtyards, one within the other, and from these the various rooms opened; the exterior architecture was plain to severity, but inside there were many carvings and similar ornamentation; the roof was flat; and windows there were none, their purpose being served by square apertures in the massive walls. Within, the impression was one of some gloom, but doubtless the whole building had been designed to keep out the heat and glare of the tropics. The outer courtyard and its adjuncts seemed to be occupied entirely by the attendants, of whom a considerable number, both men and women, were to be seen—the men armed with spears and blow-guns. It was to the inner that Leslie was now conducted. Here were evidently the quarters of his guide herself, and they showed her tastes (or so he liked to believe) in the abundance of brilliantly-coloured flowers all around, in the doorways hung with cotton curtains dyed red with cochineal, and in divers minor details. Presently he found himself in a room furnished with some degree of comfort, with table and stool and couches, and with innumerable skins of puma and jaguar and deer on the floor; and in this, after an interval, a meal similar to that of the previous evening was served by the two damsels whom he had already met. His hostess did the honours with the grace and absence of embarrassment which characterised all her actions.
After all, the breakfast was not eaten in silence. Leslie had his first lesson in the language during its course. The girl named each object on the table and in the room, and Leslie repeated the words after her until he had mastered them; and the musical laughter with which she greeted his efforts to pronounce the more difficult—notwithstanding her attempts to suppress it—was so infectious that he was forced to join her, and one is afraid both lesson and meal were unduly prolonged. Long before they were ended, at any rate, they were excellent friends.
The events of the next few hours made it plain to Leslie that something important was in the air. His fair teacher busied herself in giving orders and receiving reports; there were continual comings and goings between the island and the village; and latterly, fearing that he might be in the way, he betook himself to the lake-side to smoke his morning pipe. Many of the elders of the tribe had already crossed, bringing with them large quantities of maize, fruits, and other produce—for what purpose he was at a loss to conceive—and many more joined them as he sat on the broken parapet of the lower terrace, idly watching the boats plying to and fro. Rather to his surprise, nobody used the sunken causeway. Then, just as he was getting tired of acknowledging the low obeisance which the passers-by never failed to pay him, he observed the approach of a canoe carrying Acoya, Ignacio, the youth who had wounded the latter, and another Indian—an old, gray-haired warrior, whose aspect might have been venerable if he had been cleaner.
The boat ran in, and the three first-named saluted him in their respective fashions. He returned the compliment in his.
'Well, Ignacio, what news?' he cried
'So you are there, señor?' asked the peon, mounting the steps to his side. 'I thought something had happened to you when I woke this morning, but only until I saw that your rifle was gone too. And there is good news for the patron.'
'Not so. He is not in the village—that is certain, for I have searched it through. Where he can be, señor'—
'Never mind that just now. The news!'
'It is this, señor—that they have found a man who can speak a Christian tongue.'
'They have—eh?' cried Leslie, getting to his feet. 'Spanish?'
'Only the tongue of the Chontal Indians, but I have the good luck to understand it well. He speaks it very badly, señor. That is the man,' he said, pointing to the tattered veteran. 'It seems he lived for some years in Chontales long ago.'
'You have spoken with him?'
'He has spoken with me,' replied Ignacio dryly. 'He had so many questions to ask that I have had no chance to learn anything. If the patron wishes me to talk to him now, I am quite at his service.'
As it was, they had no opportunity. Just then the party was joined from above by a youth wearing the red scarf that seemed to be the distinctive badge of the personal attendants of the lady of the island, and by him a message was delivered to Acoya. He in turn spoke to the old interpreter, and through his servant Leslie heard that his presence was requested by the said lady.
'And he calls you the Lord Ayatepec,' added Ignacio. 'One name is as good as another,' said he indifferently. 'Probably they have some reason for giving me that one.'
Following the youth to the outer courtyard of the larger house, they were ushered immediately into a room entering therefrom—a room stranger in appearance than those which Leslie had hitherto seen. It was quite bare of furniture; the walls were panelled with curious carvings; and at the upper end was a low dais, and upon it, between two huge statues cut in marble—one representing a woman with water-jar on head, the other a man in the act of throwing a spear—was a throne-shaped seat of stone, having as supporters a pair of beautifully sculptured animals of the puma species. His fair kinswoman was installed in state upon it; several of her maidens stood behind; while in front of the dais the shaven-pated elders* of the village faced her in two lines, each with his cotton bag of maize or fruit on the floor beside him.
(*The shaving of the head was, as Leslie learned afterwards, a mark of distinction confined to such of the elders as had acquired a reputation for wisdom or bravery. These men were, in fact, the council of the tribe.)
At a sign from Acoya, Leslie and the two interpreters took up their positions between the natives and the dais, and its occupant at once addressed herself earnestly to the ragged ancient, who passed on the message in due course to Ignacio. Listening, Leslie could make out no more than the recurrence of the word 'Ayatepec.' He saw also that his servant seemed somewhat puzzled, and when the other had finished speaking, hesitated as if in doubt.
'Well, what does he say?' he demanded impatiently. 'Don't you understand him?'
'Not altogether, señor—it is so strange.'
'Translate it as best you can.'
'I will try,' replied Ignacio. 'Thus the señorita, if I comprehend this perro rightly—for he speaks the language vilely, patron—that rains without number have come and gone since the wise Ayatepec took upon himself the form of man, and married the daughter of the house of Chacuarama, the keepers of the sacred city of Oyalapa, and abode for a little time with the people of this valley; and many generations have lived and died since he left Oyalapa, promising that as surely as the sun rose behind the mountains and crossed the lake, so surely would he return; and from mother to daughter the story of his coming and of his going has been handed down, and the tale told of his wisdom and bravery and wonderful powers; and his house has been kept ready for his coming, and the tokens that he left behind him, and the head that was made in his likeness, have been preserved always by the Keepers of the City, that when, in his own time, Ayatepec returned—for had he not promised to return?—he would be known by the people. And now Chiatapua, daughter of the houses of Chacuarama and Ayatepec, and Keeper of the City—I think these are the names, patron—gives greeting to the señor who comes to Oyalapa in the form of Ayatepec, and would know if he be truly Ayatepec, that due honour may he done to him. . . . And that is all, señor,' he concluded. 'It is what he said, I am almost sure; but what it means—vaya! it is beyond me!'
To Leslie, at least, it was clear enough. In Ayatepec his ancestor was easily recognisable; it was equally plain that if he chose to personate him there would he nobody to gainsay him. For a moment he was strongly tempted. He had the excuse in his own theories, but a single glance at the winsome face and honest eyes of Chiatapua—he repeated the name to himself until it came glibly to his tongue—was sufficient to induce him to take the more obvious (and more honest) course. So he gave this answer through the two interpreters, the natives listening with eager interest:
'Tell Chiatapua that I am no god; that, like her, I am the descendant of Ayatepec; and that, having heard of the sacred city of Oyalapa, I have come hither to see the place wherein Ayatepec dwelt for a time, and to eat the bread of friendship with its people.'
He could not decide whether the effect of his statement was favourable or the reverse, but very evidently it was the cause of some excitement, and after a good deal of discussion between Chiatapua and the elders she turned to him again.
'She wishes to know if Ayatepec has sent the señor to Oyalapa,' said Ignacio.
'Tell her that Ayatepec is no longer in this world,' he replied, in his gravest manner.
'That he is dead, señor?'
'As I put it.'
Ignacio did so, and the answer seemed to be accepted without surprise. Another question followed: she wished to know the señor's name. It was given, but after several vain attempts to pronounce the words she laughingly desisted.
'She says that the señor's name is too hard,' repeated Ignacio, who himself, indeed, had the same difficulty with it, 'and so she will call you Meyam-Ayatepec instead. It means "the son of Ayatepec," this old man tells me.'
'Let it be so,' said Leslie; and as Meyam-Ayatepec—soon contracted by the natives into Ayatepec, itself meaning literally 'the god from beyond the mountains'—he was known accordingly during his stay in the valley.
Then there was another consultation, and as the result Chiatapua held forth in a long speech, the gist of which (as translated) was that he was made heartily welcome by her and by the elders of the valley, for it could not be doubted that he was really of the blood of Ayatepec; that they hoped he would remain long amongst them, and when he had learned their language, would teach them his wisdom and tell them of the wonders of the land from which he came; that meanwhile he would be treated as befitted his rank, and the honours due to him paid; and that the valley and all that was in it were at his command, its produce was his, the men and women were his slaves. Finally, as one of the said honours that were his due, he was invited by Chiatapua to take his place beside her on the throne-shaped seat between the great statues; and, having made a suitable response, he did so amid a murmur of approbation from the council of natives.
How he was to see the meaning of the bags of maize and fruit. They were, in fact, offerings to him from the elders; and one by one they advanced to the dais, paid him homage, and presented each his tribute. Acoya was amongst the first, and with him was the youth who had accompanied him in the boat.
'This is Mezrac, my son,' he said in effect. 'His life was forfeited to Meyam-Ayatepec, for he had raised his hand against him and his servant; but his life was spared by my lord's goodness, and his father is very grateful. Now Mezrac is my lord's slave, and his life is still my lord's.'
'Both Acoya and Mezrac are my friends,' returned Leslie.
'And Mezrac is pardoned?' asked Acoya.
For answer Leslie shook hands with them both; and then, voluntarily, and as if by right, Mezrac took charge of the offerings for him, and so installed himself as his major-domo—greatly to his relief, be it said, for otherwise he would scarcely have known what to do with the stuff. But it was not until later that he learned how completely he had gained the devotion of father and son by his clemency—which had seemed so small a thing to him—at their first meeting beyond the Monte del Diablo.
At last the ceremony was over, and he had an opportunity to achieve the purpose that had been uppermost in his mind all through the proceedings—namely, to ensure the safety of O'Driscoll and Francisco. So he instructed Ignacio to tell Chiatapua that, owing to his ignorance of the language, the remainder of his party had been left on the other side of the mountains, and to beg the guidance of Acoya or another of the villagers to the little glade. The ghost of a frown formed on her brow as she listened.
'My lord is not tired of Oyalapa already?' she demanded.
'Tell her it will be only for a day or two, Ignacio—probably they have followed our track so far across the mountain. And in any case we must return for them.'
'These men are my lord's slaves?' she asked.
'Say that one is your brother—the other my friend, and very dear to me. And stay!' he cried, as an idea struck him. 'Ask her if she remembers a white man who was brought into the valley four rains ago, and whose life she saved in the temple beyond the lake.'
There was a chorus of exclamations from the natives: the question had gone home.
'What of it?' she said after a little pause. 'He was a stranger, and the law is that all strangers who are not of the blood of Chacuarama or Ayatepec shall die. And I saved him from the sacrifice only because he was a white man, even as my fathers were, and I wished to hear from him whence he came. But he was dying, and for long he lay here and spoke not, and then I had him carried out of the valley, because the people murmured that the law was broken, and a famine would surely rise. So he was sent down to the great river, and doubtless he died on the way. What does my lord know about the stranger?'
'That he did not die,' was the answer, 'for it was he who led us to the other side of the great mountain, and there we left him on the day that we met Acoya.'
Evidently the news was not altogether to the liking of some of the council, and a brisk exchange of opinions followed. Leslie awaited the decision in considerable suspense, for the whole question of his future relations with his hosts might depend upon it. Fortunately it was favourable. As announced by Chiatapua, it was this: that, although it was contrary to their custom, the strangers would he brought in and welcomed for the sake of Meyam-Ayatepec. But there was one condition. She saw no reason why Leslie himself should undergo the trouble of crossing the mountains again, and proposed instead that a fleet runner should he sent off at once, and that Acoya, having rested until the next morning, should then proceed with a party to carry the matter through. Leslie, after a moment's consideration, assented to this proposal. He would infinitely have preferred to go in person, but as Chiatapua seemed inclined to make a point of his continued presence in Oyalapa, he did not see his way to hold out. After all, his object would he attained as effectually by the one method as by the other.
'But my servant may go with the messenger?' he asked.
'My lord forgets that we can only speak through his tongue,' was the shrewd reply. 'Can he not send a token to his friend, to let him know that the messenger comes in good faith?'
And again he gave in, and for 'token' wrote a brief note as follows, using the head of one of the pumas as desk:
'Have arrived at our destination—reception most satisfactory. The bearer is sent to bring you in, and you may trust him. Hurry.—L. R.'
This he delivered to Acoya—who took it somewhat gingerly, as if afraid that there might he magic in it—and left him to make the necessary arrangements for its immediate despatch by one of his young men. He went off forthwith to do so.
Then, rising, Chiatapua suggested that he should accompany her in a walk through the sacred city. With such a guide, he was nothing loath. So the council broke up, the majority of the elders betaking themselves off; but a few of them, with the pair of interpreters and Chiatapua's damsels, trooped into the open air in the wake of the principals. They had the courtesy, however, to keep at a respectful distance—not near enough to be obtrusive, but sufficiently near to watch all the doings of the interesting stranger.
The walk lasted for two hours, and during its progress Leslie's attention was not allowed to wander. Apparently the city had extended along the entire western side of the island, and the ruins (it may he repeated) rose in successive terraces half-way to the summit of a gently-sloping hill. In all there were fifteen tiers, one above the other, but now the terraces were so much overgrown with vegetation that he could not decide whether they were natural or artificial, although they were rather too regular to be altogether the former. The outstanding impression of the interminable rows of ruined edifices, tenanted only by the birds and crumbling gradually away, while preserving something of their air of massive strength, was one of utter desolation. Yet more than enough remained to show that, considering its origin, the city had been a marvel of constructive genius. The houses were closely packed, and varied little in external appearance. Leslie did not attempt to inspect the interiors; there was time for that in the future. Through the double translation—a clumsy medium, but vastly better than nothing at all—he had some curious discourse with Chiatapua as they climbed from one terrace to the next, and heard much to astonish him. What he learned, then and afterwards, will be related in its proper place.
Holding steadily upwards, they came at length to the topmost terrace, and emerged upon the bare hillside. Beneath, the full extent of Oyalapa was now to be seen, and beyond it a magnificent view of the whole western stretch of the valley from the lake right to the mountains. Above, the hill rose more steeply to the crest, and was unrelieved except by a strangely-shaped monument that stood by itself twenty feet or so above them—the pyramidal building which had already attracted Leslie's notice. Towards this Chiatapua and he ascended alone, all the others (for some reason) remaining where they were. It had seemed a remarkable structure from below, and its fascination for him did not disappear when he had gained the ledge from which it sprang. At the base it was triangular, each of the sides being fifty feet long; it was surrounded by a shallow, semicircular platform of flagged stones; one of the sides was built against the rock, here perpendicular to the height of perhaps thirty feet; and thence, the rock again sloping, it tapered gradually to the apex for other forty. And it was this latter part that reflected the sun's rays. What the burnished surface was composed of—save that to all appearance it was metal of some kind, and might be gold—he could not tell, nor could he imagine how it retained its lustre in face of the elements. For, very plainly, it owed nothing to man's present handiwork; the base of the pyramid, constructed of huge blocks of dressed stone, was absolutely smooth: neither on it nor on the adjoining precipice was there foothold even for a goat. Later inquiries of the natives failed to elucidate the mystery. It had always been there; it had always been so. The secret had died with the authors of the edifice. And what their purpose had been in erecting it, there was nothing in itself to give a hint. Marvelling greatly, he put the question to Chiatapua when they had rejoined the interpreters.
'We will speak of it when my lord has learned the language of his servants,' she replied, with some reserve.
And Leslie, inferring therefrom that she had something to reveal that was not for the ears of the crowd, forbore to press her further on the subject—and thought the more. But he did not guess how strangely it was to be bound up with his own fate and hers.
Leaving this spot, they began to climb the peak—not directly upwards to the double-coned summit, but by a path which zigzagged in easy gradients across the north-eastern shoulder. More than once during the ascent Leslie, who was no geologist, noted little details that seemed to him to imply a volcanic origin for the island. He had soon proof of it. Suddenly, surmounting a low ridge, they were pulled up on the brink of a depression—a vast, deep, gloomy cavity in the very middle of the mountain. It could not be mistaken: crater was written on every feature of it. The eastern rim, peculiarly enough, was considerably lower than that on which they stood—nearly a hundred feet, to be precise—and beyond it they could see the waters of the lake stretching for miles, studded here and there with green islets. Loosening a mass of rock, Chiatapua sent it voyaging down the precipitous slope, and they listened to its rumbling until the sound was lost in the bottomless depths of the volcano.
'A wicked god lives below,' she explained; 'but he is asleep. Some day, perhaps, he will throw it out again.'
'It is not always like this, then?'
'It has been so for many, many rains now. But our fathers heard him, and were afraid. Once, in his anger, he destroyed part of the city. Come! I will show my lord his work.'
Again they struck downhill, keeping still to the eastward, and in a little while Leslie had convincing proof of her veracity. From the brow of the hill above them, which at this point dipped lower than at any other, a steep, unbroken incline of lava clinker led straight down to the edge of the lake; and the border of the ruined city beneath was marked by a line as straight as if it had been drawn by rule. That line told its own story. On the one side were the silent ruins, untouched; on the other, they had been swept away and the terraces obliterated by some terrible eruption of the now-dormant giant behind.
'Is it long since this happened?' he asked.
'It was in the time of my mothers mother,' she replied. 'For the space of a moon, it is said, the devil of the mountain was angry, and the stream of melted rock poured into the lake—until even the river which runs from it was stopped, and the water rose so high that men feared it would overflow the banks and destroy the village. Then he slept again, and the river made another outlet; but where before the boats had passed into it from the lake there was now a great fall.'
'It was then that the water covered the stone bridge?'
'It is so,' she said, evincing no wonder at the question. 'And he has slept ever since. Perhaps he is dead,' she added hopefully.
Then they descended to the lake-side, and returned homeward by the lowermost terrace. By the way Leslie contributed to their entertainment and love of the wonderful, and added to his own reputation, by giving them several choice exhibitions of marksmanship with his rifle.
During their absence the smaller of the two houses had been prepared for his reception; the various rooms, except that which contained the shrine of his venerable ancestor, had been made reasonably habitable; and there he was duly installed after dinner, with Mezrac, the old interpreter, and a few other attendants to wait upon his pleasure. Looking round him, he decided that but one thing was wanted to complete his satisfaction—namely, the presence of O'Driscoll.
Acoya and a small party, having been primed by Leslie with full instructions, set out soon after sunrise on the following morning to find him. In two days at the soonest, at the latest in five, they might be expected back.
THE days that followed were not idle ones for Leslie Rutherford. Had he not the valley to explore from end to end and the acquaintance of its people to make, and his investigations into the history of Oyalapa and the connection of Gavin Leslie therewith to pursue? And, above all, there was Chiatapua.
It was a pleasant friendship that sprung up at once between these two. From the beginning there was no constraint between them. Chiatapua was Leslie's guide and companion in all his wanderings, she was his instructor in the ways and customs of the natives, and it was from her that he heard the legends of the country. At first, of course, the cumbrous method of interpretation was a drawback. But this Leslie set himself strenuously to overcome. The language, in truth, proved not to be a difficult one. It was not akin to any with which he was acquainted, and he was too little of a philologist to be able to study it scientifically. But in structure it was simple; and with such opportunities and inducements to learn it, and with such a tutor, his progress was rapid. Within a week he could make himself understood, albeit somewhat haltingly, and in another he was fairly fluent.
In the interval his eyes were not shut. It was the hidden past of Oyalapa that chiefly interested him. Here was a city which had been built by a race that had plainly known a high degree of civilisation. Doubt on this point was impossible; the city spoke for itself: it was assuredly no tribe of savages that had erected those massive buildings rising in successive terraces from the lake-side, and adorned them with capable sculptures. Throughout the valley, too, there were many traces of cultivation and engineering skill—ruins of wells and irrigation works, for instance, far beyond the capacity of its present inhabitants.
Who the designers and builders of those monuments had been, when they had flourished, what was known of them—these were the questions which faced Leslie. From the various evidences that remained—Chiatapua's legacy of traditions, the legends of the valley, and the silent vestiges of the city—he was able to learn much. Here, for the sake of convenience, the result may be briefly summarised.
Tradition gave no clue to the origin of the city. All that it said was that it had been built many ages ago, 'when the world was young,' by a people who had ruled, not the valley alone, but also the country beyond the mountains—and that this race had been a white one. So far, the tradition was too clear for uncertainty. But it went no farther back. A race rising slowly from barbarism to civilisation through these lost epochs of the far-distant past, mighty in war, mightier in the arts of peace, its dominion extending perhaps from ocean to ocean—this is what Leslie's imagination pictured.
Doubtless in those days Oyalapa had been one city among many raised and inhabited by this unknown people. Its courtyards and terraces had been filled with eager life. It had seen war and love and busy industry. Doubtless, too, it had held communication across the mountains with other centres which had long passed away, or now lay hidden, like the ruined cities of Yucatan, in the impenetrable bush.
And so, perhaps, for centuries. Annals were entirely lacking, yet one could guess the story of rise, prosperity, and decay—for it is the story of all civilisations. Then came the downfall. Here again tradition lent its aid. It told of a deadly and long-continued struggle between the white race and hordes of fierce, dark-skinned savages who swept down from the north,* and of the inevitable consequence. Finally, a great battle had been fought on the plains far to the west; and there, in a last supreme effort to stem the tide, all had been lost. Empire and civilisation had ceased to exist, while the race that gave them birth had almost perished with them.
(* In all probability the invaders were of Toltec or Aztec stock. The discoveries of Mr Rutherford may explain much that is mysterious in Central American history prior to the Spanish Conquest. —Editor.)
For, according to the legend, only a small remnant had escaped the massacre of men, women, and children that followed. These, fleeing across the mountains, had sought refuge in Oyalapa. Even then it was by superhuman agency that they were saved. In their despair they would have made no further stand against the enemy had it not been that their gods—here the marvellous crept into the story—felt pity for them in their dire plight, and sent one of their number in the form of a woman to encourage and help them. The goddess was Chacuarama, the founder of the ruling house of Oyalapa, 'whose beauty and wisdom were beyond the wisdom and beauty of the daughters of men.' And by her they were heartened to resistance, and the valley (as Leslie was to see for himself) being superlatively easy of defence, the savages had been beaten back again and again, until at last the attempt to enter it was abandoned, and the little community was left to itself.
Goddess or none, Chacuarama was one of two personages who bulked largely in the traditions of Oyalapa. From her, for instance, had sprung its outstanding peculiarity—namely, that the descent of its governing family had been by females and not by males. She was the first of an unbroken line of female rulers: daughter had succeeded mother, each choosing her own consort, who held his influence solely through his wife, and in the event of her death gave place at once to his daughter or to the next heiress. Leslie was disposed to think that the system had its advantages.
It was also with Chacuarama, it was said, that the law against strangers had originated. Her will was that those who entered the valley, or were made captive without, should die in a manner duly ordained; and she charged her people for all time to remain apart from other races, to preserve the arts and customs of their fathers, and to hold sacred the city; so that, when it pleased the gods to remove the curse from them, they might rise to their former strength and power.
Leslie heard all this from Chiatapua, in those early days of their friendship when the two interpreters were still necessary; and at the same time he heard incidentally of a great treasure that had been saved from the clutches of the invaders, and committed by Chacuarama to the care of her descendants. He pricked up his ears at the hint.
'Of what kind was this treasure?' he asked, in the innocence of his heart.
Chiatapua, however, seemed somewhat disinclined to answer. 'It is an old story, my lord,' she said.
'It is not known, perhaps?' he persisted.
'It is said there was much of this yellow metal,' she replied, touching her girdle of gold—'that and other things. It was very long ago,' she repeated after a little. 'No man is alive who has seen it.'
'But it is still in the valley?'
'Who would take it from the strong place where it was left by Chacuarama?' she asked. Then she was silent for a time, while Leslie hesitated (for the moment) to press the matter further. 'Let not my lord speak of it,' she went on at last. 'The secret of the place is known only to the Keeper of the City, and by her it can be told to none save the man whom she chooses to be her husband. Such is the law.'
So Leslie said no more just then. In any case, he had no wish to share the secret with Ignacio and the tattered veteran. But the subject was interesting, and he was fully determined to have another conversation about it with Chiatapua at a more convenient season.
He reverted to the traditional history of the valley. It was uneventful for long after Chacuarama's time—how long there were no means of judging. Then the law regarding strangers, which had hitherto been strictly observed, was broken in a notable manner. A large band of dusky fugitives of the race that had destroyed the old civilisation, driven in turn from their homes in the west by the stress of war—could it have been, Leslie wondered, by the coming of the Spanish conquerors?—had strayed to the borders of the valley. Thence they would have been beaten back but that they were willing to submit to any fate rather than go forth again upon their wanderings. And the Keeper of the City, being tender-hearted and tired of slaughtering the unresisting, had decreed at length that the survivors should he allowed to settle in the valley and become hewers of wood and drawers of water to the ancient race.
It was undoubtedly from these new-comers that the bulk of the present inhabitants were descended. For the two races, it seemed, had never mixed. They had kept their own places, the dominant caste and its slaves—the one hedged round by a sort of divinity, preserving the arts and graces of the past, and although perhaps dwindling in numbers, ever holding aloof in obedience to the command of the dead; the others cultivating the land for their masters and multiplying fast. And, strangely enough, both races must have been content. There was no mention of any discord between them.
This was the first exception to Chacuarama's law. Two hundred years may have passed before the next was permitted. It was no less an event than the appearance of Gavin Leslie. Again the curtain rose after an interval of darkness, and the old buccaneer stepped upon the scene—a full-sized and heroic figure. For tradition had treated Gavin well. He shared the honours with Chacuarama.
And how strange the scene must have appeared to the wanderer, accustomed as he was to strange scenes! The mystery of the past was doubtless not less a mystery in the seventeenth century. Yet there was still the remnant of the white aborigines, cherishing their heritage in the ruined city—and cherishing it still to some purpose, as his own presentment in marble went to prove. And, in contrast, there were the industrious, dark-skinned helots of the valley.
It was on this stage that Gavin had played his part. He must have played it well. He loomed big through all the legends of Oyalapa; his figure had captured the imagination of its people through, the generations that had elapsed. The tales were handed down from parents to children (and probably lost nothing in the telling) of his great stature and marvellous strength, of his skill and magical powers, and of his wisdom; while the knowledge of his personal appearance was kept alive by the 'head that was made in his likeness.'
Such was the first Ayatepec, according to the tradition. The outline was bold enough, and easily recognisable: it was the buccaneer to the life. Unfortunately, authentic details of his career in Oyalapa were to seek. And it was in these that his descendant was most interested. He wished to know how Gavin had reached the valley, how he had been received, and (above all) how he had induced the natives to break the law in his favour and accept him as a god. But on these points all his inquiries failed to elicit the least information. To a man like Gavin the rest was easy. He had gained an overwhelming influence in the country; he had married one who was (or became) the Keeper of the City; through her he had ruled for a time, firmly and wisely, as all accounts agreed; and then he had departed, leaving children to carry on the new dynasty of Chacuarama and Ayatepec. So much was known. The daring, masterfulness, and fertility of resource that must have gone to make up the result were part of his character.
Leslie Rutherford liked to think of it as the story of a rude and fiery-tempered adventurer mellowed into a benevolent despot by prosperity and the sense of power. Gavin had, of course, lorded it over his simple-minded subjects. All the evidence, however, showed that he had not abused his position. Otherwise his memory (as god or man) would not have been kept green to that day.
In minor ways Gavin had made his influence felt. To him was imputed—to give a single instance—the introduction of the tables and stools which were used in every house throughout the valley, as well as many improvements of a similar kind.
And he had lived this life, so different from that which had preceded it, for seven or eight years. Then he had disappeared from the scene. Perhaps the old itching spirit of wandering and adventure had broken out, or perhaps he was sick with longing for a glimpse of the home-land and the gray, kindly shores of Fife. But before his departure he had given his solemn promise that he would return, and he had also left the prophecy that when he did so it would be to restore the fortunes of his adopted people and the glory of their ancient dominion. Leslie wondered what was in his mind. Was it an idle boast, or had he really a bold plan to bring in a body of his countrymen or of his buccaneering comrades, and by their help to strike a deadly blow from Oyalapa at the Spanish colonies?
So he had gone, and doubtless his wife had waited and watched for his return, and her people had hoped in vain for the great day when the prophecy should be fulfilled. They had not forgotten it through two centuries, nor ceased to expect the god from beyond the mountains.
This, and no more, was Leslie able to discover concerning his ancestor's stay in Oyalapa. Was it all that he was to learn? The blanks were still to fill; and, curiously, he failed to receive any further assistance from his own consciousness—or imagination. For, from the moment of his first meeting with Chiatapua, the restless spirit of Gavin had forborne to visit him.
Here the history of Oyalapa ended for Leslie. The little that remained to be told was not too pleasant. The only incident was the steady diminution of the dominant race, doubtless through close intermarriage. It was with some pathos that Chiatapua related how its numbers had decreased generation by generation, until at her birth not a score were left. These, too, had fallen under the blight. One by one, in her girlhood, they had died. The last, six years before, was her own mother. Now she was alone—in all probability the sole representative of a race that had once been so powerful.
It was a strange and touching position for a girl of twenty, but it was not without its compensations. Chiatapua was surrounded by the love and devotion, amounting almost to worship, of the dark-skinned people of the valley. Her word was law to them. It did not seem that, in general, she took an active part in the government—that was done by the council of old men; but still, her authority was very real. She had but to express a wish to have it obeyed.
Much of the same feeling was transferred to Leslie. Everywhere he was received by the natives with unbounded respect and warmth, not unmingled (at first) with a little awe. They were a kind-hearted, contented, likeable folk, with many simple virtues, and in most respects were far above the Indians of the plains in intelligence. Their lot was cast in pleasant places. The climate was healthy and agreeable, the soil fertile, and the valley could not be said to suffer from the evils of over-population. In all it did not contain more than fifteen hundred inhabitants, clustered mostly in the village opposite the city, and in others dotted round the lake. It could easily have supported many times the number.
The standard of comfort in the houses was high. Perhaps this was because the women exercised an influence unusual in native tribes. Monogamy was practised, and although much of the field-work was done by them, they were treated as equals, and not as slaves or beasts of burden. The chief fault that Leslie found in them was that they had the inquisitiveness of the sex strongly developed.
Around the villages the ground was well cultivated. Maize and cotton were the principal crops, and some attention was also given to cochineal, tobacco, cacao, and a variety of fruits. From the latter several different kinds of beverages were made.
Fish and game were abundant. The wooded parts of the valley were the haunts of the deer, the tapir, and the wild boar, while a peculiar species of goat frequented the lower slopes of the mountains. That these animals were not long ago extinct was due to the fact that they were strictly preserved. It was only at certain seasons that hunting was permitted within the valley; at other times the hunters had to go farther afield. For the law did not cross the Monte del Diablo: which explains the scarcity of game on the other side, and the appearance there of Acoya's party.
All things considered, it was a happy and prosperous little community that was settled around Oyalapa, cut off from the great world by the rugged, frowning, inaccessible cliffs. They towered up on all sides, save where, to the east and west, the barrier was pierced by narrow gaps. That to the east was a cañon formed by the river which, issuing from the lake over a beautiful fall, carried off the surplus waters. Here, high above the stream that tumbled and foamed in its narrow channel beneath, a precarious ledge wound through the mountains—one of the three pathways from Oyalapa to the world without. Like that over the Monte del Diablo, it could have been defended by a few men against an army; and it was, as Leslie was told, but the beginning of a terrible journey through an uninhabited and inhospitable country.
Through the gap to the west the valley opened into another, and thence the third road crossed the mountain barrier by a route not less difficult. And in this second valley, it seemed, a branch of the tribe was settled. It was stronger in numbers than that round Oyalapa, and was separated from it by three days' march through thick bush. Perhaps for this reason, perhaps for others, there appeared to be little communication between them. Leslie learned only that these 'outlanders' had the same customs as their kinsfolk, and owed the same allegiance to Chiatapua. But he was soon, as shall be related in its proper place, to learn more—and to learn it by his own experience.
Secluded as it was, the valley was not altogether without intercourse with the world. True that it was but a shadow, caused in a curious way. It existed, in short, because of a custom of banishment that prevailed, as the punishment of certain crimes. Those who were cast forth were permitted to return to the valley for a space at stated periods, and thus an elementary traffic was carried on with the outside—whence, for example, the machetes worn by some of the people, and also the old interpreter's knowledge of the Chontal tongue. The veteran admitted the fact with glee, and assuredly it was easy of belief. He looked villainous enough for any crime.
Leslie asked if there were any of these exiles at present.
'One or two, it may be,' was the guarded reply.
'Where?' he went on.
'It is not known.'
As for the duration of the sentence, it seemed to vary: the matter was decided by the council. But some never came back, and in these cases the bush-vultures had doubtless spoken the last word.
Then Leslie asked if they were not afraid that the exiles would betray the secret of the valley to those amongst whom they lived. Mezrac, who was his informant, shook his head vigorously.
'They dare not,' he said. Certainly none, as far as was known, had ever done so.
This led Leslie to speak of a suspicion that was in his mind—namely, concerning Guatúsa. Was it possible that he was one of the exiles? Yet the guide was not in the valley: so much was evident from the observation of Ignacio and himself. Now he described him to Mezrac, in the hope of getting some clue to his disappearance. But the attempt was fruitless. Either Mezrac could not or would not comprehend him.
'I know him not,' was all he would say. 'And no stranger except my lord and his servant has come to the valley. Would not my lord have seen him?'
So, having no alternative, Leslie gave up the problem as being beyond present solution. Before long he had another and a more troublesome one to keep it company.
And at this point—not too soon, perhaps—we must take up again the threads of our story.
ALL this time there was the gnawing suspense at Leslie's heart regarding the fate of his comrade. It was the fly in the ointment of his enjoyment; and when three days had passed without the return of Acoya—then four—the suspense began to give way to indefinite fears. During the fifth day, the most miserable of all, it was the same. Chiatapua and Mezrac, by way of comfort, pointed out to him that for two days black clouds had hidden the summit of the Monte del Diablo, a sure sign of rain on the other side, and that consequently the crossing might have been delayed. But somehow the comfort lacked substance.
It was noon on the sixth day before the news came. Chiatapua and Leslie were sitting at the midday meal in her house, with her maidens in attendance and the two interpreters close at hand—for as yet Leslie's knowledge of the language was somewhat limited. To them Mezrac entered, bowed respectfully, and stood at attention until Chiatapua had given him permission to speak.
It was only a few words that he said, but they brought Leslie hurriedly to his feet. He had caught the word 'Acoya.'
'Quick! Ask him if they have come, Ignacio,' he cried. 'Acoya is now crossing the water,' said Chiatapua, answering.
The look on Mezrac's countenance arrested Leslie as he was about to rush out, all excitement, to meet the new-comers. He pulled himself up, a sudden pain at his heart.
'Ask if he is alone, Ignacio.'
'Acoya is alone,' replied the girl gravely.
Alone! Then where were O'Driscoll and Francisco?—what had befallen them?
'Come!' said Chiatapua, giving him her hand. 'My lord will hear of his friend from Acoya himself.'
Not without a faint hope still, Leslie passed out with her and descended the steps to the lake-side, the others following. They reached it just as the skiff ran in. Acoya stepped ashore, and bent his head in salutation. But it was Leslie's eyes that he sought, and for him a glance at the headman's face was enough: it told him all.
'What of the strangers?' demanded Chiatapua. 'The lord Ayatepec waits to hear how Acoya has done his work.'
'There is ill news,' was the reply. 'Acoya found the place of which my lord spoke, and the strangers were not there. And for two days he searched round the place, and thence to the great mountain, and saw no traces of them.'
That was the gist of his story; the details told how he had been able without the least difficulty to follow Leslie's trail from the little glade, and on the afternoon of the second day's journey had reached the camp at which O'Driscoll had been left, only to find it deserted. There was nothing, indeed, to show that it had been recently used except the blackened circle of the fire. O'Driscoll and the peon had disappeared, baggage and all, and the keenest search of Acoya and his young men had failed to discover in what direction they had gone. Rain had fallen, and although they had followed up every semblance of a track leading from the spot—and there were several of them—one and all had been lost in the bush. Finally they had to retire baffled, yet continuing their hopeless quest on the way back to the Monte del Diablo.
It need not be said how eagerly Leslie listened while the story of these five days was being translated to him. When it was finished his first thought was for Ignacio. He remembered that one of the lost men was his brother.
'Well, what do you think of the business, boy?' he asked.
'It is very strange,' said Ignacio. 'They must have wandered, and yet our trail was a good one. And these men found it! Sí; it is very strange!'
'It is worse than that! What if they are—But what's to be done now?'
'It is for the señor to say,' returned Ignacio.
Chiatapua was questioning Acoya closely, but Leslie scarcely heeded. His eyes were fixed on the sombre outline of the mountains flanking the Monte del Diablo, while his mind pictured the perils of O'Driscoll on these inaccessible heights, his despairing efforts to effect a crossing, and even a tragic ending to his troubles at the foot of some lonely precipice.
He was suddenly recalled to attention. Acoya handed three pieces of paper to him—the first his message to O'Driscoll, the others blurred and weather-discoloured. They were the notes of direction which he had pinned to the trees in the glade and on the upper slopes of the mountain respectively.
'What's this? Ask where he got these!' he cried.
'Where the señor left them, he says.'
'He is sure of that?'
Acoya was certain. Had he not seen them affixed?
'And they had not been touched?'
He was equally certain that they had not. And if it were indeed so, the fact was very significant. It proved that O'Driscoll had never followed their track, or had missed it between the camp and the glade—assuredly that he had never reached the latter. Leslie tried to think what this meant, but all that he realised just then was that it did not make matters more clear. It merely limited the mystery as regarded time and space.
Chiatapua noticed his abstraction, and suggested gently that there might still be hope. If Leslie pleased, she would send another and larger party to search the valley thoroughly.
But Leslie shook his head. He had made up his mind that there was but one course to pursue.
'Say that we must see into the matter for ourselves, and ask for a guide—Mezrac will do,' he instructed Ignacio. 'Then get our things ready. We'll start at once.'
'Yes—the sooner the better. Too much time has been lost already, and every minute is valuable.'
They had still, however, to reckon with Chiatapua. Plainly she did not like the idea, and by every argument in her power she strove to change Leslie's purpose. The reason emerged presently: she seemed to be afraid that if she allowed her guest to go be would not appear again at Oyalapa. Not until Leslie had asseverated his intention to return, whether his search ended in success or in failure, would she grant her sanction to the excursion. Even then it was with reluctance.
After all, they did not start that afternoon. Acoya was the stumbling-block. The sturdy old headman, notwithstanding that he had already crossed the pass four times within ten days, plead hard for permission to accompany the party; and Leslie had not the heart to refuse him, lest by doing so he might seem to throw a doubt on his previous conduct. And, impatient as he was, he could not, in common humanity, deprive him of one night's rest in his own house.
The journey was begun early on the following morning. Although it was still within an hour of sunrise, Chiatapua was up to see them off. Her last words as she parted from Leslie on the outskirts of the village were wishes for his success and prompt return; the last sight that he saw before the village was hidden from him was her white-robed figure.
Besides Leslie and Ignacio, and Acoya and his son, the party comprised half-a-dozen carriers—ten in all. It was a silent march. Leslie was preoccupied with his own thoughts and conjectures, and the others had too much courtesy to intrude upon him. There was also the difficulty of language, for the process of talking to the men in their own tongue was still rather slow and tedious. During the next few days, however—thrown on his own resources—he improved rapidly in fluency.
Good progress was made across the valley to the Monte del Diablo, and during the toilsome ascent of the mountain; the midday repast was eaten high on its slopes; and at length, late in the afternoon, the precarious bridge in mid-air was passed in safety. On this occasion, having no purpose to serve, Leslie did not disdain the help of the rope—and perhaps Ignacio, for one, was not sorry. Then the descent began. The belt of trees was gained before darkness fell, and camp was pitched for the night on the spot at which they had taken their siesta on Leslie's previous journey, and where the second message for O'Driscoll had been left. Next morning they descended the lower slopes, and so without incident to the glade. The scene of their first encounter with Acoya was reached early in the forenoon.
Their work was now to commence in earnest. There was no more hurry. From the glade they followed the stream downwards to the point at which Leslie and Ignacio had struck it, and thence retraced their former route across the foot-hills and upward through the bush to the old camp. Every inch of the ground was carefully scrutinised; not a sign could possibly have escaped them. But it was a hopeless quest, and they knew it; the trail of blazed trees was too plain for error; and it was perfectly evident that, short of a miracle, the missing men could not have strayed.
What, then, had become of them? The camp itself, at which they arrived long before sundown, gave no clue. The scorched circle of the fire, a few skins and other débris—nothing else was to be seen. Leslie turned to his servant in despair.
'Not a sign, Ignacio!' he cried. 'The only thing certain is that they did not follow us.'
'That is quite certain, señor.'
'And they should have done so next morning. Whatever has taken place, it must have been that night. But what on earth could it have been?'
Ignacio put the thoughts of both into words. 'There is no appearance of a struggle, señor,' he said.
He was right, and so far the fact was consoling. True that it did not advance matters greatly. With whom, in any event, could a struggle have taken place?
'Well, we must see if to-morrow brings any light,' concluded Leslie.
It did not. On the morrow, and on the two days succeeding, everything was done that ingenuity could suggest and the zeal of the ten accomplish. The valley was scoured, the tracks even of animals were followed up, the rifles fired at intervals—and all without the least avail. Not a trace of the missing men was found.
At length Leslie was forced to give in.
'I'm afraid it's no use, Ignacio,' he said as they lay smoking round the camp-fire on the third evening of the search—the strangers a little apart from the eight natives.
'We can do no more, patron,' answered the guide in a tone of utter hopelessness. 'Whether the Señor O'Driscoll and my brother are alive or dead—ca! we know not. It is in the hands of the saints.'
Could they do no more? Again Leslie pondered over the mystery, reviewing their experiences down to that moment from the morning of Guatúsa's disappearance. For the first time, the idea struck him that the two events might somehow be connected. Then, as he was about to dismiss it as being too improbable, he remembered suddenly what he had heard about the branch of Acoya's tribe settled in the valley to the west of Oyalapa. Was it a faint glimmering of hope at last?
He beckoned to Acoya and Mezrac, and with some difficulty made them understand, in his broken lingo, what he wished to learn. But Acoya was unmoved.
'It cannot he,' he said decisively. 'Their hunting-grounds are far from here—I have never known them to hunt in this valley. The game is too scarce. It would all be eaten long before they got back.'
'But this man of mine who ran away—what if he led them to this place?'
'He could not have gone and come back with them in one day—nay, not in four.'
'Still, it may be so,' Leslie persisted, for it seemed the only chance. 'Let us visit these people before we return to Oyalapa, Acoya. Then we shall know.'
Acoya exchanged a quick glance with his son. 'No, no!' he cried. 'My lord must not go there.'
Mezrac echoed his words, and the dismay of both at the suggestion was obviously genuine. The reason for it, however, was less evident. Either they did not explain it satisfactorily or Leslie failed to grasp their meaning; but he gathered that they were determined not to consent—until, at least, Chiatapua had been consulted. This being so, Leslie saw nothing for it but to get back to Oyalapa as quickly as possible. Probably not one of the party was sorry.
Next morning, accordingly, the camp was struck; and on the afternoon of the seventh day after their departure from it the gray walls of the ancient city were sighted once more.
A warm welcome awaited them, but Leslie had too serious a task on hand to respond. Most of the elders of the village, as a special mark of honour, insisted on accompanying him across the lake to Chiatapua's house, where the girl received him with a pleasure that she did not try to hide. He lost little time in preliminary courtesies. As best he could, not troubling the interpreters, he told her of the result of the expedition, of his conjectures and fears, and of his last hope; and finally he begged her permission to visit those of her people who dwelt in the distant valley, and an escort thither. Her face grew very grave as he went on, but she heard him to the end in silence. Then her answer came. It was bold, uncompromising, unhesitating—a point-blank refusal.
'It cannot be!' she said, speaking slowly so that he might comprehend her. More softly: 'Surely my lord is not tired already of his stay in Oyalapa, and—and Chiatapua?'
'Not so,' said Leslie; 'but I must think of my friend. Chiatapua would not wish it otherwise?'
'I am sorry for my lord's friend, yet it cannot be,' she repeated; 'for it is thus: not a man will leave this valley to go with my lord, and he cannot go himself.'
There was a murmur of assent from the natives, and Leslie turned swiftly to them.
'Will no man go with me?' he asked.
Mezrac—he alone—took a step forward, as if to volunteer, but Chiatapua held up her hand.
'No man will go, because I forbid it,' she said. Her tone was quiet, but there was a glint in her eyes that was altogether new to Leslie. And Mezrac stepped back.
Still Leslie's resolution was not shaken. 'Then I must go myself—I and my servant,' he said.
'It need not be,' the girl answered. 'Listen, my lord. The moon is now new, and when it has been full, and is again like the half of a circle'—which meant, by Leslie's calculation, in about three weeks—'there will be a great festival to the gods in the temple across the water, and the people from the west will be there, and my lord will see them then. And his friend—if he is now with them—he also will be brought hither at that time. It is not long,' she continued pleadingly. 'Will not my lord, for the sake of those who are his friends here, have patience for but a little time?'
It was hard to resist her appeal, and Leslie had not the words to explain that it was the uncertainty and suspense that galled him. There was also another consideration.
'He is a stranger—may he not be slain?' he asked.
'My lord need have no fear of that,' she replied promptly. 'The law can only be fulfilled here. And here, if my lord consents, his friend and the other stranger will be under the protection of Chiatapua.'
Then why should he not visit these people? He put the question, and Chiatapua was obviously confused. Reddening a little, she said:
'The reason cannot be told to my lord—now.'
There was silence for a few minutes, while Leslie wondered what else he could say, and Chiatapua awaited his decision.
'Meyam-Ayatepec will stay?' she said at last, softly.
'I must go.' It was the only answer he could give.
The red spots on her cheeks deepened in colour. 'It is well,' she said in quite a different tone. 'My lord chooses to throw away the friendship of those who would serve him, and he has wisdom beyond that of Oyalapa. He will have his will.'
It was a new reading of the girl's character, and what could Leslie do? Must he abandon all that he had gained, perhaps for a phantom? His better judgment, his sense of duty, pulled him one way—his inclinations another. The struggle was sharp, but in the end—he could not help himself—he chose the easier path.
'I will stay,' he said simply.
No more was said. The elders received the announcement with every symptom of glee, and one by one, after saluting the pair, filed out. Leslie was about to follow, heavy at heart, when Chiatapua stopped him. Her demeanour was timid, almost imploring.
'My lord is not angry with Chiatapua?' she asked. 'We two, alone in this country, are of the blood of Ayatepec, and it would be ill to cherish evil in our minds, the one against the other.'
Leslie assured her with truth that he was not offended. Only, his comrade was also very dear to him.
'It is for the best,' she said. 'My lord will believe it? Now I cannot tell him why it is so, but some day I may tell him—perhaps soon.'
And with that, for the time, he had perforce to remain content.
BUT, as it happened, it was not from Chiatapua that Leslie was to learn the reason of the interdict. It came out one evening, about ten days later, as he and Acoya were smoking a pipe together on a pile of ruined masonry on the terrace by the lake-side. He had been incessantly occupied in the meanwhile: exploring and investigating; gaining the hearts of the natives by beating them at their own athletic exercises, of which wrestling was the chief; perfecting himself in the language; and in other ways striving, not too successfully, to forget his anxiety and smother the reminders of his conscience.
It was a perfect evening. The water was rippled by a gentle, cooling breeze; and to the west, where the sun was dropping behind the mountains, wood and plain and hill were all merged in a blue, hazy indistinctness. In the foreground, right across the lake, stood the great ruined temple, surrounded by its high palisade of stakes. It reminded Leslie that much was still hidden from him. Thus he had only a faint idea of the religion of the country; but he knew generally that the inhabitants worshipped certain deities, of whom the sun, the moon, the elements, lightning, etc. were the manifestations, and that at fixed periods festivals in their honour were held. At other times they seemed to him to be somewhat neglected.
To-night Acoya was in a garrulous mood, and Leslie took fair advantage of the fact. First he asked concerning the palisade, 'Was it ever removed?'
'The temple is sacred,' said the old headman, 'and the children of men may not enter it except to worship the gods. So it is only at the seasons of festival that the wall is taken down.'
Then Leslie remembered the experience of O'Driscoll, and suddenly realised how it was that the law regarding strangers was fulfilled.
'It is then that strangers are slain?' he inquired, to make sure.
'It is the law,' returned Acoya. 'But it is not often there are prisoners, and in my life I have seen it but twice'—this, as Leslie thought, with some regret. 'The last time was'—
'It was when my friend was saved by Chiatapua, after his servants had been sacrificed? quietly added Leslie, as the native hesitated.
'And what is done when there are no prisoners?'
'The blood of animals is offered to the gods,' said Acoya.
Leslie deemed it worth while to extend the scope of his questions. Beginning diplomatically, he asked if it was only at the seasons of festival that Acoya's people and those from the west met.
'Yes,' replied Acoya. 'But it was not always so—it would not be so now but for Adana.'
'Adana!' Leslie repeated the name: it was the first mention of it to him. 'And who is Adana, Acoya?'
'My lord has not heard of Adana in his country?' said he, in a tone that bespoke little love for that personage. 'Truly he is a mighty man—far mightier than his fathers. He has made himself the chief man among his own people, and it is said that he wishes to be the chief man in the land. Yet,' he said, touching his machete significantly, 'he may find that the old boar has still tusks. Why should there not be friendship in the two valleys, as there was until Adana had his way?'
'And why is it not so?'
The headman glanced keenly at him, and then pulled gravely at his tobacco for a minute or two. 'Can my lord not guess the reason?' he asked.
Leslie shook his head.
'Then perhaps it is well that my lord should hear,' said Acoya, after another pause. 'He knows of the law that the people of the city must not wed with the people of the valley? Good! Doubtless it was a wise law, and it has never been broken. But now, of the great race of Chacuarama, Chiatapua alone is left. Had one man remained, him she must have chosen for husband. It is the will of the gods that there is not one. But what of that? Adana is a mighty man—was not Adana ready?'
'Go on, Acoya,' said Leslie, who began to understand.
'Oh! he is a wise man, and he said it was not well that the Keeper of the City should have no husband, and as Chiatapua could not wed with a man of her own race—well, whom should she choose but Adana himself? First he spoke with the old men. He has a loud voice, and they were afraid—all except one or two. So they went to Chiatapua with Adana's commands.'
'And Chiatapua? What was her answer?' asked Leslie, although he could guess it.
'Could there he but one answer? The old men will not forget it! Yet, because she hated the thought of bloodshed, she said to Adana that she had no wish to choose a husband then—she was too young—would Adana wait? And, for the time, he was content. This was three rains ago, and at every festival since Adana has got the same answer, and his voice has become louder and fiercer. So it was until the last festival. Then the storm came, and Adana swore that he would wait no longer, and demanded a yea or nay from Chiatapua—he, a son of the wild pig! Still Chiatapua did not speak. Perhaps, my lord, an old servant spoke for her.'
'That may be, my lord. Then Adana departed, with wild words in his mouth. He said that there was no longer peace in the land; that if any man from Oyalapa visited his valley, him would he slay like the cunning jaguar; but that at the next festival he would come again for his answer; and let us beware if it was not to his mind! And his people will surely support him. For us—are we not Chiatapua's slaves? . . . Now, my lord,' concluded Acoya, 'it is not long until the festival, when Adana will be here again, he and his people—and perhaps my lord's friend.'
For a little they were silent, while the shadows stole across the plain, and Leslie digested the old headman's intelligence. Then: 'What will happen, Acoya?' he asked.
'The gods have been kind,' was the reply.
'But—I do not understand.'
'Have they not sent Chiatapua one of her own race—one of the house of Ayatepec?'
'Eh—what's that?' came involuntarily from Leslie, in English; followed by a low whistle as he caught his companion's meaning. Again, for a time, his thoughts held possession. 'But what of Adana?' he inquired, coming back to earth.
'Doubtless there will be trouble,' said Acoya, rather grimly. 'Adana likes not to be laughed at. But not at the festival, for he dare not offend the gods—and, besides, the women and children will be there. But afterwards, unless Chiatapua chooses him—yes! They are stronger than we are, and it may go hard with us. Yet we are ready to fight, if we must fight, for Chiatapua and the old law. It is in the hands of the gods. Perhaps, with my lord on our side, and with his wonderful magic'—
But here Acoya was interrupted. Suddenly a shower of small stones rattled past them, followed by a crash as of something falling. Turning quickly, the pair were just in time to see a head disappearing behind the pile of masonry on which they were seated.
'Olenhé!' cried the headman, as he sprang up and leaped the obstacle with an agility surprising in one of his age.
There was a moment's scuffle behind the stones. Then Acoya reappeared, dragging a slim youth unceremoniously by the slack of his cotton doublet. He was a lad of seventeen or eighteen, not ill-looking, and he wore the red scarf which was the distinctive badge of Chiatapua's attendants. Leslie recognised him as one whom he had often seen about her house. Now he looked rather sullen, as if ashamed of being discovered, but otherwise bore himself well.
Acoya, on his part, seemed ill at ease. 'What shall we do with him, my lord?' he asked.
'Who is he, Acoya?'
'T'lapa. He is the brother of Adana.'
'The brother of Adana!' repeated Leslie.
'It is so, my lord. He was given to Chiatapua as her servant when he was a boy, five or six rains ago—he has been here ever since. And this is why!' he cried, shaking the lad—'that he might listen to the talk of the people, and tell it again to Adana. Is it my lord's wish to kill him?' he demanded.
'As Adana will kill Acoya, old boar as he is!' retorted T'lapa with some spirit.
'It will be safer, my lord,' continued Acoya, paying no heed to him. 'And surely he has deserved death!'
Leslie roused himself. 'It will be enough to teach T'lapa a lesson, Acoya,' he said; and with that he caught the youth by the girdle, and stepped across the terrace to the parapet. Putting forth his strength, he raised him with his right hand and held him dangling above the lake for a moment or two, while T'lapa, breaking down, howled for mercy. Then he dropped him into the water.
'It is good!' said Acoya, laughing heartily. 'My lord is as strong as his father, the great Ayatepec.'
'I hope he can swim,' said Leslie, a little anxiously.
T'lapa rose spluttering to the surface, and himself answered the question by striking out at once for the opposite shore. Acoya, still grinning, hailed him.
'Listen, T'lapa!' he cried. 'My lord Ayatepec is pleased to spare you now, but if you listen again to his talk or to mine—and be sure he will find out—he will change you by his magic into a wild duck. So be warned, O T'lapa!'
But T'lapa merely swam the faster. They watched him until he had reached the bank, and then turned away. Presently the view of temple and plain was blotted out by the sudden darkness of those latitudes; and as they climbed to the second terrace the stars were coming out one by one, while little points of light glowed like rival stars from the houses of the village, and both were reflected in the dancing waters of the lake.
All that evening Leslie was very thoughtful. Was it that he foresaw awkward complications?
'Well, we'll see,' he said to himself at length. 'Anyhow, it looks precious like having a tumble with that fellow Adana! What I want now is a straight talk with Chiatapua.'
For a little longer, however, Leslie's tongue was tied. Chiatapua herself had not yet given him her confidence, and until she did so he could not speak. But he was certain that, sooner or later, the revelation would come.
He was right. Three or four days later the revelation came. Chiatapua chose her own time and opportunity, and, with the artistic instinct of her sex, chose them well. For again it was the evening; and under the glorious light of the full moon, scarcely less bright, but infinitely softer and more beautiful than that of day, the two were being paddled lazily over the lake by a couple of the girl's attendants. It was she who had proposed the excursion; but for a space, as they sat together in the stern of the little canoe, the conversation was of other things than those which concerned the community around them. They talked of the great world outside, and especially of England, and Leslie tried to give her some idea of its throbbing life—speaking, of necessity, as he might speak to an intelligent child of the unknown and marvellous. She, on her part, questioned him with eager simplicity, striving to comprehend the wonders of which she was never tired of hearing. Much, of course, was beyond her. But her interest was unfailing, and her faith—in Leslie—boundless. Never had man a better or more unquestioning listener.
So, this evening, the canoe floated quietly towards the lower end of the lake, and the talk ran unceasingly on until the sound of the waterfall and the quickening current warned them that it was time to turn the prow homewards. They did so. Then, somehow, a silence fell between them. Leslie's thoughts were far away. He had called up a picture of the old country; and there his mind lingered; and for the moment he forgot the moonlit valley and lake, and the woman who was seated beside him. His fancy painted a very different scene. He saw a cosy, lamp-lit drawing-room. The roar of the London streets came faintly to him from beyond the curtained windows. Outside, perhaps, the yellow street-lights glimmered through the London fog. And he saw, in a low chair by the fire, the figure of one who was very dear to him; and in her hand was a letter that had been written in the European Hotel at León. She was not reading it: her eyes were on the glowing coals, as if they sought to conjure therefrom the secret of the Nicaraguan forest, and glean some nearer hint of the writer....
The greater part of the homeward stretch had been covered, and the black mass of the sacred island was rising high in front of them, before the silence was broken. It was Chiatapua who spoke at last. Had she, too, been dreaming dreams?
'It is wonderful!' she said, almost to herself. 'Yet my lord must tell me no more about his land.'
'Why so, Chiatapua?' he asked.
'For I know now why our father, Ayatepec, left Oyalapa, and never came back!' she went on. 'But for me—is not my place here among my own people? Yet sometimes I have strange thoughts when my lord speaks—that some day, if the gods will, I may see this great country beyond the mountains, with my lord by my side to guide and protect me.'
Her companion recollected the last command of Gavin Leslie to his descendants, and wondered if the part were to be his, two hundred years after it was written, to carry it into execution. There were difficulties in the way, but—
Then he realised, as the girl continued, that she had also difficulties to surmount—and these more immediate.
'But it may never be,' she was saying, with a new tone of sadness in her voice. 'There will soon be trouble in the valley, and who knows what the end may be? For in six days the festival will begin, and the people from the west will be here.' She stopped for a moment, and then turned to him with a pretty touch of appeal. 'Tell me, I may trust in my lord's friendship?'
For answer he took her hand. 'To the end!' he said. 'Chiatapua cannot doubt it.'
'No,' she said simply. 'So the time has come for my lord to hear why it was that he could not visit these people to search for his friend. I have not told it before because it was hard to tell. Now I must speak.'
She did so, lowering her voice so that her attendants should not overhear. It was the confidence for which Leslie had been waiting; and his vagrant thoughts, recalled effectually from England, wandered no more that evening. Chiatapua's story was related with simple directness. In essence it was that of Acoya, and if there were parts indicated with more reserve, the cause was one that called forth all the chivalry of the man's nature on behalf of this lonely and friendless girl, confronted by a dilemma so terrible—outrage to her own feelings of race and womanhood on the one hand, or bloodshed and ruin to her faithful people on the other.
The canoe was running between the island and the mainland when Chiatapua finished. Thus they were in the shadow, and Leslie was not sorry. He was more moved than he cared to show.
'Now my lord knows everything,' said the girl, in conclusion—'everything, except the answer that Adana will get. The time for peaceful words is past, and his answer is this—that before the white race mates with the brown, and the daughter of Chacuarama and Ayatepec with the son of slaves, not a man will be left in the valley to fight for the old law—and, even then, that the last Keeper of the City will choose the lake for her husband rather than Adana! Whether for good or ill, that is the answer. Afterwards war may come, and much blood will be shed, and the women and children will suffer. It is of them that I think, and if I could do it—But not even for them can there be any other answer.'
And Leslie, carried away by her earnestness, swore to himself that there should be no other; while to her his assurance was given that, whatever befell, she could rely upon his help to the last. In honour he could do no less, even had he wished—which, of course, he did not—and his warm words seemed to bring a gleam of hope to Chiatapua. Her tone brightened at once.
'Surely the gods sent my lord to me in my trouble,' she said. 'If he speaks from his heart, and will truly stand by his servant'—
'I have sworn it, Chiatapua.'
'Then there may yet be a way,' she said. 'And if not'
But here the boat ran alongside the landing-steps, and at the moment she could say no more. They leaped ashore, and the two attendants ascended to the house. Chiatapua tarried for a few minutes on the terrace, looking silently across the dark water to the village and the shimmering plain. Then, turning, she held out her hands to Leslie.
'My lord has made me very happy,' she said, with a quiver in her voice. 'Sometimes, when I was alone, and thought of the burning houses and the people who might be slain for me, my heart failed me, and I prayed to the gods that I might die. Then they sent my lord. Perhaps it is their will that through him all will be well. But if the worst should come, he has given me back my courage, and now I will fight the battle of my race to the end, as a daughter of Chacuarama should!'
'We will fight it together, Chiatapua,' said Leslie. 'More: we'll win it between us!'
'Grant that it be so!' cried she.
The compact was sealed with another hand-clasp, and then they climbed through the shadows to the patch of light that shone from the outer doorway of Chiatapua's house. There several of her retinue were in waiting, and Leslie thought he caught a glimpse of T'lapa scampering within. That wise youth had avoided him ever since the little adventure by the lake-side.
'There is only one other secret between us,' said Chiatapua as they parted, 'and that my lord must know also. It is the secret of the treasure-house of Oyalapa.'
'I am content to wait Chiatapua's pleasure,' he said.
'And it will not be for long,' she replied.
Then they said good-night; and Leslie's first step, when he had gained his own quarters, was to take stock of his remaining ammunition. It might all be needed soon.
SO Adana and his people must be on their way to Oyalapa now?' asked Leslie.
'And when will they arrive?'
'It may he to-night—it will not be later than to-morrow. Let my lord have patience; he will soon know about his friend.'
They were resting during the midday heat in a grove of cedar and rosewood trees some ten miles west of the city. At a little distance a number of Acoya's young men were busily occupied in skinning and cutting up the deer and other game that had fallen to their blow-guns and spears throughout the morning. For in three days the festival would begin; and for a week, in view of the pending incursion of so many strangers, the restriction upon hunting in the valley had been removed. The party had been hard at work since sunrise, and the size of the 'bag' was witness to their industry and good fortune.
Leslie had scarcely been himself all morning. He had his own anxieties as well as Chiatapua's to bear. They had had many consultations since the memorable evening on the lake, but had been unable to strike out a definite plan—and any plan, indeed, must depend upon Adana's attitude. In the valley, however, a more hopeful feeling prevailed. Somehow it had leaked out that 'Ayatepec' was pledged to support Chiatapua, and the honest hero-worshipping villagers seemed convinced that he would pull them through the threatened troubles.
At present it was with O'Driscoll's fate that Leslie was chiefly concerned. The time was near when he would learn the truth, and with its approach his fears were again uppermost. Acoya's advice, so kindly meant, was not easy to follow, but fortunately it proved to be superfluous. For even then, as it happened, they were on the brink of momentous events.
The first intimation came with all the force of a surprise. They owed it to Mezrac, who had wandered farther afield than his companions. Suddenly, while his father and Leslie were speaking, he appeared before them, hot-faced and spent with running.
'News for my lord!' he cried breathlessly. 'Adana is nigh at hand—he and his people—I have seen them—my lord's friend is with him!'
Leslie was instantly on his feet. 'With Adana?' he asked, hardly believing that the good news could be true. 'Where are they? You are sure—you saw him?'
'I saw a stranger, dressed like my lord.'
'That I could not see. Adana's men were round him.'
Leslie drew a long breath; but Ignacio, who had pressed forward to listen, touched his arm. He understood at once.
'Was there one only, Mezrac?' he asked.
'One white man. But there was another stranger, who had the face of my lord's servant.'
'Our Lady he praised!' came fervently from Ignacio; and Leslie echoed the thanksgiving in his heart. The last shadow of doubt—if doubt there could have been—was gone, and he was all impatience to join his comrade. Picking up his gun, he adjured Mezrac to lead on at his best pace.
But Acoya had several questions to ask his son; and not until he had heard that Adana's party, which was encamped at no great distance, included the women and children, and that Mezrac had spied upon them unperceived, was the word given. Only the four set out, the others being ordered to return immediately to the village with their game and the intelligence.
Fifteen minutes' brisk walking through the bush that covered the undulating floor of the valley brought them to their destination; and Mezrac, signalling caution, dropped upon his knees and crept forward. Presently he stopped in the shelter of a thick clump of wood; and Leslie, joining him there, saw that they were on the verge of a more open part of country, and that it seemed to be entirely filled by a vast company of white-robed natives. In all, they could hardly have numbered less than three thousand—men, women, and children. They were divided into many groups, and lay or sat in every conceivable attitude, with packages and loads scattered around them, just as they had been thrown down when the command to halt for the noontide siesta was heard. The nearest group, one of armed men, was not sixty yards distant from Leslie's hiding-place. But, after the first glance, he had little attention to spare for the general scene. His eyes had picked out another group, clustered beneath a big cedar about two hundred yards away, and had distinguished one figure that was differentiated from the ruck by its costume. It was enough for him. He was about to make his way thither by the shortest route, when Mezrac interposed.
'Not that way!' he whispered, detaining him.
'It will be better not. Let my lord follow me—it is only a minute more.'
And, fuming at the delay, Leslie followed while the lad retraced his steps for a little, and then led them by a detour until a broad trail was struck. Reaching it, he surrendered his post to his father, and fell back with Ignacio.
'Adana is full of vanity, and, if my lord pleases, it will be wise to speak with him first,' suggested Acoya.
Leslie impatiently agreed. 'Only get on, Acoya!' he cried.
So they proceeded, and in a few minutes emerged in view of Adana's outpost. They were observed by a wakeful warrior; a loud shout from him roused his companions; and the alarm was at once taken up and repeated by others, until it was echoing through the encampment. Acoya saluted the first group and passed. No attempt was made to stop them; the tribesmen seemed to be too much astounded by Leslie's appearance for action of any kind. But now men were running up from all directions—for the women and children were mostly in the rear—and it was through a lane of staring, wonder-stricken faces that the four pressed on towards the company under the big cedar. They were within a stone's-throw of it, when a joyful cry fell on Leslie's ears, and he caught sight, among the throng of dusky natives, of O'Driscoll himself—O'Driscoll, looking almost as neat and trim as of old—O'Driscoll, with a world of emotions flitting across his countenance!
At the same moment, the crowd opening up somewhat, a tall man was to be seen advancing towards them. Him Acoya greeted with some deference, and then turned to Leslie. But Leslie was no longer at his side. Unconscious that the newcomer was no other than Adana—heedless, indeed, of any consequences—he was making straight for his friend, and that with scant ceremony to those in his path. They did not resent it, probably because they were too much surprised.
So the two comrades were again face to face—at last.
'O'Driscoll, old man!'
'Rutherford! Thank God you 're safe! But I can't shake hands—I 'in tethered to these beggars here.'
Then Leslie noticed that his arms were bound with liana ropes to those of a couple of natives, one on each side. 'That's soon put right!' he cried, and in an instant his knife was out and the bonds were severed—the guards still making no move to prevent him. 'There! that's better, old fellow!' he said, as their hands met in a hard grip.
'You don't know how much!' said O'Driscoll.
The voice of neither was very steady, but before they could say more another chimed in:
'The señor has not forgotten his servant?'
It was Francisco, sure enough: liberated in like manner by his brother, who had followed closely at Leslie's heels. Whereupon there was more hand-shaking.
Now all this was extremely gratifying; but other and more serious work awaited Leslie. He had forgotten Adana—had, in fact, never thought of him at all. A sudden quietude caused him to glance up. The tribesmen, probably in obedience to some signal, had fallen back, and were now gathered in a great semicircle around the cedar-tree, while their number was being augmented every moment. And in the circle, facing our adventurers, the tall man stood with Acoya and Mezrac—stood, with his eyes fixed intently on Leslie. The latter, on his part, had no need to be told that it was Adana who thus confronted him.
Yet Leslie was astonished, so different was the chief from the picture that his imagination had drawn of him. Physically he was the finest man he had seen in the country. He was within an inch of his own height, and magnificently proportioned; in the prime of his best manhood, for his years were still well short of thirty; not ill-looking, with pride showing in his expression rather than any less ignoble feeling; and withal he carried himself with dignity and a certain air of command. Plainly, too, he was a man who believed in himself and his powers, and that doubtless with good reason—one, therefore, not to be despised as an antagonist.
So, for a minute or two, eye met eye boldly, while each tried to read the character of the other, and decide what it might mean to himself. Then the chief spoke.
'Greeting to the son of Ayatepec,' he said in a deep voice, but offered no other salutation.
'Greeting, Adana,' replied Leslie.
'The slave did not lie, then,' he went on—a remark that was to remain enigmatical yet awhile—'and truly the stranger has the form of his father. Ayatepec was a great man. His son has made free these men, who are the prisoners of Adana. Will he try his strength against Adana's for their lives and freedom?'
Leslie's respect for Adana increased. It was an invitation to wrestle, and, as he knew, the result must be of the highest importance—if only as a portent to the natives. He did not take long to decide.
'Not for these men,' he said, 'because they are the friends of one of the blood of Ayatepec, and it is the will of Chiatapua that they shall be free of the valley. But for his own sake, if Adana pleases, I will put my strength against his.'
'It is well,' said Adana shortly. 'Let it be now—and here. Acoya will give the signal.'
A stir of expectancy ran through the crowd of natives as the preparations were made. These were few and simple. The ground was fairly level; and when Adana had doffed his upper garment, and Leslie his jacket—which, with his gun, he handed to O'Driscoll—the pair were ready to engage. Next moment, following Acoya's word, they were in grips.
Now, the art of wrestling, as it was practised in the valley, was not too highly developed. Barring a few primitive tricks, it was purely a matter of brute strength. Leslie knew this by experience, and hitherto he had encountered no serious rival. Here, however, the first tussle warned him that he had met one at last—one, too, with courage and some skill. Twice in as many seconds was he almost overborne; it was as much as he could do to keep his feet and hold his own against Adana's impetuous efforts.
Presently the contest settled down. The two were evenly matched; minute succeeded minute in their strenuous endeavours to gain the advantage; and still the advantage was to neither. Now and again, over his opponent's shoulder, Leslie caught the encouraging smiles of Acoya and Mezrac, the anxious looks of O'Driscoll, and the eager curiosity of Adana's people. The only sound was the quick breathing of the combatants. So, for a time, the struggle of giants went on. Then Leslie changed his tactics. So far he had been acting on the defensive, but now he felt that he was slowly wearing clown Adana's strength, and pressed accordingly. He was foiled for a little, but at each attempt it was with less ease. The end was near, and came at length. Putting his back into a last effort, he lifted the chief from his feet and threw him heavily to the ground.
There was a murmur of admiration from the onlookers, who were a fair-minded folk; and Adana himself, as he rose panting, indicated that the contest was over. He had been beaten squarely, and—well, Leslie had drawn first blood.
'Capital, amigo mío!' cried O'Driscoll as he helped him on with his jacket. 'But I was in a deadly funk all the time. It might have been a bad thing for us if you had gone under.'
'I meant to win,'he replied. 'All the same, I had about enough of it. I'm not sure, as it is, if I have a whole rib in my body.'
'I dare say Adana feels rather worse,' retorted O'Driscoll.
If the chief had any ill-feeling in the matter he concealed it well. He congratulated Leslie gravely on his strength—which, he said, was surely that of Ayatepec—and was about to turn away, dignified and impassive as ever, when Acoya struck in with a suggestion. It was that he and his late prisoners should accompany Leslie and himself to Oyalapa at once, rather than lag behind in the slower progress of the whole tribe. Adana hesitated, but finally agreed. The necessary orders were issued, and it was while they were being obeyed that Leslie, looking carelessly about him, espied another old friend—Guatúsa, also a prisoner. The guide seemed inclined to avoid his notice, but Leslie, going up, hailed him cheerily in Spanish.
'Hullo, Guatúsa! how's this?' he asked.
'So the señor crossed the Monte del Diablo safely?' said Guatúsa, evading the question.
'Never mind that! Here! we must get you free somehow.'
He shook his head. 'The señor must hear Don Gaspar's story first,' he said.
'In good time!' said O'Driscoll, somewhat hastily.
But Leslie was not to be balked. Addressing Adana, who had been watching the incident closely, he pointed out that one of his men was yet in captivity, and asked his release. The answer was a prompt and decided negative.
'It cannot be,' he declared. 'The man is my slave, one of my people. He has broken the law, and according to the law he must be punished. Therefore it cannot be.'
'Yet it was he who led us to the mountains,' urged Leslie.
'It matters not,' returned Adana; and perhaps, to him, it was an additional reason for punishing Guatúsa.
Leslie would still have persevered, but Acoya was at his ear with good advice. 'Let my lord wait until he has seen Chiatapua,' he whispered. 'It is useless for him to ask Adana, and doubtless she will be glad to do his will.'
So he contented himself with speaking a word of kindly encouragement to Guatúsa—which, be it said, was but indifferently received—and then, all being ready, a start was made for Oyalapa. Adana, who was preceded by an escort of a dozen men, had the benefit of Acoya's company. Doubtless the wily old headman found pleasure in imparting to the chief a full and highly-coloured account of Leslie's doings in the valley.
Leslie, of course, walked with his newly-found comrade.
'Now for your story, O'Driscoll!' he said, when the humming encampment had been left behind.
'Mine first?' he asked. 'All right. It's Guatúsa we've to thank for the whole trouble—although, after all, he had some excuse. But here goes from the beginning.'
His story, briefly told, was this. On the day of their separation, after the departure of Leslie and Ignacio from the camp, nothing whatever happened to disturb Francisco and himself. They felt no great anxiety even when they did not return. But sometime during the night, when O'Driscoll should have been on watch—he admitted that he had fallen asleep—they were rudely awakened, to find themselves in the hands of a large body of natives. It was a complete surprise; their weapons were out of reach; resistance was hopeless; and so, after a struggle of the briefest, they were overcome and bound. Only then did O'Driscoll notice that Guatúsa was of the party. Presently a heated altercation arose between him and the Indians; and as the upshot, after another struggle, he was also tied up and placed beside them. In this position the rest of the night was passed. They could not understand what had occurred, and neither threats nor persuasions would induce the guide to explain.
At dawn next morning they were searched, and everything taken from them; their baggage was shouldered; and after breakfast the whole company, captives and captors, set out for the west. For three days they held on in this direction, hunting as they went; and two more were occupied in crossing the mountains by a pass that must have been as precarious as the Monte del Diablo. The only incidents of these days was Guatúsa's confession. The prisoners were permitted to be together one evening, and in some fashion—perhaps by a touch of remorse—he was led to unbosom himself to O'Driscoll.
It seemed that Guatúsa belonged to Adana's branch of the tribe—that, in fact, he and Adana were cousins. Eight years before, while he was yet a youth, he had quarrelled with one of the chief's brothers, and had killed him in a burst of temper. Adana's vengeance fell heavily upon him; for, although he had not then gathered to himself the supreme power, his influence was sufficient to have the lad banished from the country for life. Only at intervals of five years, on pain of death, was he to be allowed to visit his home. Thus cast out, he had wandered aimlessly on for weeks, and at last had come to a Chontal village. There he had stayed for a couple of years, picking up Spanish the while, and had then moved on to San Luis—whence, on a good day, he could at least see the mountain-peaks that guarded his old home. And at San Luis he had remained for six years, eating out his heart with vain longing, and cheered only by the single visit that his sentence had permitted him to make. He had made it, and found Adana all-powerful, and his own hopes of ultimate pardon rather less than they had been.
Leslie's arrival at San Luis had seemed to offer him the chance of his life. In his youth he had often seen the statue of old Gavin, and he recognised the likeness at once; he knew the legend; he had no doubts regarding Leslie's identity with Ayatepec, and the welcome that he would receive; and he had no hesitation, therefore, in accepting the opportunity to become guide—as far as the Monte del Diablo. Beyond that point he had his own plans.
We are aware how Guatúsa fulfilled his promise, and then disappeared. He had, in fact, gone off to warn Adana of Leslie's approach. His only object, according to himself, was to gain his pardon by announcing the return of the great Ayatepec. But Leslie was inclined to wonder if he had any cognisance of the chief's ambitions, and hoped by betraying a possible rival to serve his own purposes. Otherwise, why had he not gone straight to Chiatapua?
Be that as it might—and, in the end, Leslie gave him the benefit of the doubt—Guatúsa's evil fortune was not done with him. A few hours after taking French leave he had fallen in with a hunting-party of his own people, who had penetrated much farther to the east than usual. He had brought them by night, as we know, to the camp. But no Ayatepec was there; and when O'Driscoll chanced presently to be recognised by some of them as the wounded stranger who had already visited the country, and been saved from the sacrifice by Chiatapua, they turned upon Guatúsa. They refused to believe his story—to listen to him at all, indeed—and the consequence was that he had found himself in the same plight as those he had lately served. He spoke bitterly of their captors' stupidity, and assured O'Driscoll that everything would be put right when he saw Adana, and explained to him what had really happened.
Here again Guatúsa was mistaken. Adana's village was reached on the sixth day, and from that time until a few days previously O'Driscoll had seen no more of the guide. It appeared that the chief, accepting his men's version, had flatly declined to have any communication whatever with him. He had broken the law of banishment; he must suffer in due course; and meanwhile he would be held in the most rigorous confinement.
The fate of O'Driscoll and Francisco was little different. True that they had an interview with Adana, but in the absence of an interpreter it availed nothing. They were not badly treated as regards food; but, for the rest, they were guarded night and day to prevent the possibility of an escape.
O'Driscoll would not dwell on the weary weeks that ensued. They were like a nightmare to him, and not the least cause of his unrest of mind was the uncertainty as to what had befallen Leslie.
So the time had dragged painfully on until the week before, when the preparations for the march to Oyalapa brought some relaxation of the strictness of their captivity. They took advantage of it to attend to their appearance, which had become rather disreputable. The march itself seemed a pleasing change to them—until, during the first day's stage, O'Driscoll was able to have a few words with Guatúsa. Then he learned the reason of the exodus, and (what was more disturbing) that they were all destined by Adana to be sacrificed at the approaching festival! Guatúsa had no hope. O'Driscoll was hardly more sanguine, and he was preparing himself to face the worst when his winter of depression was turned to glorious summer by Leslie's advent.
'And all's well that ends well!' he concluded gaily. 'It has been a terrible time, but it was worth it to meet you again, and to know that you're all right!'
Five or six hours later the two comrades stood together in front of the bust of Gavin Leslie.
It had been an afternoon of revelations to O'Driscoll, and even yet he had scarcely recovered from his surprise—first at Leslie's outline of his adventures and discoveries, and then at what he had witnessed himself on their arrival at Oyalapa. From his first view of the sacred city onwards his amazement had steadily grown. It had culminated in his meeting with the girl who had once befriended him in his peril, and who had been almost a dream to him since—Chiatapua. It was in the council-hall, where she had awaited the party, with the elders of the village around her; and he had been so intent in watching her that he had missed the swift change in Adana's countenance when she motioned to Leslie to take his usual place beside her on the dais. But neither Leslie nor Acoya had missed it. The subsequent ceremony, however, had passed well enough—when Adana and she greeted each other in form, and through Leslie she welcomed O'Driscoll to Oyalapa, and hoped that his present sojourn would be more pleasant than his former one; and afterwards, when they ate a meal at her table. Through it all, debarred from conversation, O'Driscoll had used his eyes to some purpose. Later, when Chiatapua and the natives had departed with Adana to receive his people, and he had crossed with Leslie to the latter's house, he was unwontedly silent. Now not even the sight of Gavin's shrine, and the particulars that Leslie had collected concerning his ancestor, moved him to a show of interest.
'There he is, and an end to an old story!' cried Leslie, pointing to the statue. 'It's all we are likely to learn about him, at any rate—and at the best it's half legend.'
'And your visions, Rutherford?'
'Gone!' Laughingly: 'Chiatapua has frightened them away, I think.'
'It is wonderful!' said O'Driscoll, as if to himself. 'But so is everything here—Chiatapua most of all.'
Leslie laughed again. 'So that is how you feel, old fellow?' he asked. 'I believe you're in love with her already!'
'Already? Why, I've been in love with her ever since she saved my life! . . . No, I'm not joking. It's deadly earnest, Rutherford—or it would be if it was any use. But it isn't.'
'Never despair, man! Let things settle down a bit, and when she comes to know you better'—
But O'Driscoll interrupted. 'She might know me till doomsday, and it would make no difference!' he cried. 'Can't you see that she is head over ears in love?'
'She! With whom, in the name of goodness?'
'Honestly, you don't know?' asked O'Driscoll, looking hard at him.
'Honestly, I don't.'
He whistled softly. 'Well, some people are blind,' he said. 'I saw it at once—so did Adana, unless I'm much mistaken. It's in her eyes—there's no doubt whatever—she can't keep them off a certain person, and that person is—yourself.'
'What!' Leslie turned upon him like a shot. 'Me! You can't be serious, O'Driscoll!'
'I was never more serious in my life,' he assured him.
There was silence for a little, while Leslie tried to think it out. Then, with a whimsical glance at the bust, he took O'Driscoll's arm.
'Come on to my room,' he said. 'Old Gavin was all very well, but he can give us no assistance in this mess. It was bad enough before, O'Driscoll, and now—On my honour, I had not the least suspicion of it. I hope yet you may be wrong. If you 're not—But there! you know my own position. I never thought of her in that way—not for a moment. And if you are right, it makes matters worse than ever. For you haven't heard everything yet—you may see a way out of it when you have. I wish I could.'
Presently, over a pipe, O'Driscoll was put in possession of all the difficulties confronting them in relation to Adana.
'It is bad,' he confessed. 'Not so much as regards Adana—there's one sure method of settling him. In that you may depend upon me, of course. But it's not for him I care, and—you'll excuse me, Rutherford—it's not for you or myself I am most sorry. It's for that poor girl.'
'Don't, O'Driscoll!' cried Leslie. 'Do you imagine that I don't think of her—first of all, above all?'
LESLIE had a confidential talk with Chiatapua early next morning—not, it is needless to say, upon the subjects that had been discussed between O'Driscoll and himself—and its result was seen presently in the restoration of the baggage that had been captured with Don Gaspar. Except for a machete and several other steel articles, the retention of which was perhaps excusable, it was intact. It was pleasant to have a change of clothing once more; and certainly, in view of the future, the redemption of the arms and ammunition was not less welcome.
Nor was this the only effect of the conversation. Later in the day Guatúsa appeared—a free man—to thank Leslie for his intercession; and he seemed really grateful both to him and to Chiatapua.
'But surely you have to thank Adana too, Guatúsa?' asked Leslie when he had congratulated him.
'Not so, señor. Chiatapua herself could have pardoned me for the deed that was done years ago; but she begged my life from Adana as a boon to herself. At first he refused, and then he gave me to her to be her slave. So it was from her that I got back my freedom—for the sake of the señor, and because I had guided him to the mountains. To Adana I owe no thanks.'
'And you are completely pardoned?'
'The word is passed, and not even Adana can bring it back,' he replied. 'But he does not love me—we do not love each other, señor. My own people have forgotten me, and I am a stranger among them.'
'Had you not better stay here, then?'
'The señor is kind; but Acoya has offered me the shelter of his house. It will serve me until the festival is past. After that, let the gods tell.'
Leslie noticed that he had managed to regain possession of his rifle, and remarked upon the fact. He smiled rather grimly.
'Adana is a wise man, but he has yet to learn much,' he said. 'Perhaps my gun will teach him. He knows nothing of the white man's magic, and—I do, señor.'
Then, still smiling, he took his leave.
'I wonder what he is up to,' said Leslie.
'It strikes me,' answered O'Driscoll, 'that he also has a long account to settle with Adana—and means to do it. But it will be with caution. He has had enough of banishment, I fancy; and he was too near death yesterday to risk it again. I dare say we'll see in time.'
'And other things as well,' said Leslie.
That day and the earlier hours of the next passed with much feasting and junketing, comings and goings betwixt the island and the mainland, sports ashore and on the water, and no outward sign of trouble. Adana's branch of the tribe was camped on the far side of the temple, and between it and the village lay those of the other branch—Acoya's—who had arrived from the outlying parts of the valley for the festival. The two sections mixed freely enough, and no constraint or unfriendliness was to be observed in their intercourse. Perhaps, however, that was merely on the surface.
Adana, meanwhile, did nothing. The situation between him and Leslie might be described as one of armed neutrality. They met often, but, beyond exchanging salutations, held no communication. Yet each knew that the other was watching every movement of the game with unceasing vigilance.
Leslie himself was probably the most moody and uneasy individual in Oyalapa during these two days, with O'Driscoll as a good second. It was not only the suspense—it was the necessity to behave exactly as before—that worried the former.
'It is getting on my nerves,' he declared. 'If something doesn't happen soon I'll break out—I can't help it.'
'Some shooting would clear the air,' the other agreed.
This was on the afternoon of the second day—the day, that is, preceding the festival—and Leslie had his wish before many hours were gone. Sundown that evening saw the beginnings.
Already, one could not doubt that some event beyond the common was pending. In anticipation of the morrow, the palisade around the temple had been removed; excitement was in the air; and in a score of ways the natives betrayed themselves. Most significant of all, to Leslie's mind, was what was occurring in Chiatapua's house. There a council of the whole tribe—Adana and his chief men, and the elders of the village—had been assembled for an hour past, and was still sitting. Leslie, however, had not been invited. Thus he was on tenterhooks; for he could make a shrewd guess at the nature of the business, and his anxiety concerning the upshot was great. It meant, in all probability, that affairs had reached their turning-point.
At length, when darkness had settled down, O'Driscoll and he betook themselves to the terrace above the lake. Here the scene that faced them across the water was sufficiently distracting. Hundreds of camp-fires gleamed on each side of the temple, and around them moved and danced an interminable throng of dusky figures; and to their ears came the deafening, confused din of singing and beaten drums and voices shouting—the holiday jubilation of three or four thousand people. The swift and never-ending changes of the groups, the shifting lights, the unusual clamour of merrymaking—these combined to form a wonderful picture, and for a little they were content to remain distant spectators. Then the desire for a nearer view gripped O'Driscoll.
'Let us cross over, Rutherford,' he suggested.
Leslie was not unwilling, but some instinct warned him in time to veto the idea. It was just as well. Presently they saw a canoe crossing to the island, and in a few minutes were joined by Ignacio and his brother, who had been investigating on their own account. Their explanation of the tumult was startling. It was that the natives, men and women alike, were imbibing freely of some kind of intoxicating drink—that, in fact, they were quickly becoming drunk. At present they were simply merry, but apparently worse was expected; for the peons had met Mezrac, and by him they had been entreated to return at once, and to tell their masters not to venture over that evening on any consideration whatever.
Hitherto Leslie had seen nothing of the kind in the valley, and he could hardly bring himself to credit it. But Ignacio had tasted the liquor, which he pronounced vile; and they learned afterwards that it was a concoction fermented from the juices of certain fruits, indulged in only at the seasons of festival.
They were still discussing its possible effects on this occasion, and watching the scene opposite with a new interest, when one of Chiatapua's boy-attendants hailed them. His message was for Leslie: his presence was required in the council-hall.
'Now?' he asked.
'Chiatapua waits for my lord,'
His heart went a little faster. 'Close grips at last!' he said to O'Driscoll. 'Wish me luck, old man. Better still—won't you come up with me?'
'Oh, I think not—I am not asked, you see—but of course you have my best wishes.'
'Thanks. I'll find you here?'
'Or in the house. Good luck again!'
Leslie nodded and followed the boy. He felt strangely excited as he mounted the steps in his wake—as if, somehow, he were on the threshold of big events—and he wished more than ever that he had O'Driscoll's company. The lad left him at the gateway of the outer courtyard, about which a number of Chiatapua's girls were clustered. Laughing and whispering, they drew aside to allow him to pass to the council-chamber. The door was kept by two of Acoya's men with torches; and they, too, stood aside. A hum of voices came from behind the curtain; and for a moment, before entering, he halted on his foot to pull himself together. And at that same moment the curtain was suddenly lifted, and two figures dashed out—so suddenly, indeed, that Leslie had no time to make way for them, and the leader collided violently with him. He recognised him at once, and almost involuntarily his hand sought the revolver in his pocket. For the man was Adana—Adana, with all his impassiveness gone, and a look of evil passion and vindictiveness upon his countenance that was not pleasing to see. The other was his brother, the youth T'lapa.
They stared at each other; and Leslie knew that he had to deal now with the naked savage—and with the savage at his worst. The hatred in the chief's eyes, his malevolence, his desire to do him an injury, could not he mistaken. He expected nothing less than an immediate onslaught, and was on his guard accordingly.
This for a second, and then Adana controlled himself sufficiently to find his voice. But it was with an effort.
'Why does the son of Ayatepec stay?' he demanded, speaking low and hoarsely. 'The path is clear; and Chiatapua calls for my lord—perhaps she needs his wise counsel.'
'Has Adana no words to say to me first?' asked Leslie coolly. 'If his haste is too great'—Then he threw up his arm as the chief took a quick step forward.
'Have no fear, my lord!' cried Adana, interpreting the movement rightly. 'The time has not come yet—and Chiatapua is waiting. But let me say this word to the son of Ayatepec—if he be the son of Ayatepec,' he said, his anger flashing out. 'He is a stranger in the land; and by his white face and his magic he has won the ear of Chiatapua; and he has made himself my enemy and done me evil in her eyes. It is well for him—to-night. Is not Chiatapua waiting? But let him not think that to-night is the end—no! not even if he were Ayatepec himself. . . . My lord has heard me, and now he may enter. Chiatapua will tell him the rest.'
Before Leslie could reply he had passed him and was striding across the courtyard, with T'lapa at heel. Leslie, on his part, lost not an instant in accepting his hint; he was too eager to discover what had happened to linger. His curiosity was not lessened by the commotion that had been going on meantime in the council-hall.
The commotion dropped just as he stepped within the room, and was succeeded by a dead stillness—the stillness of expectation that succeeds a stormy scene which is likely to be renewed. But his entrance was not the cause. It was not even noticed; for the attention of everybody was fixed upon Chiatapua, who had risen from her seat in the throne-like chair between the carved pumas and begun to speak. The slender figure was clearly outlined against the glare of half-a-dozen torches that were held aloft behind her, and cast their light upon the dais and a narrow space in front of it. Beyond this circle—between it and the door—the room was in semi-darkness; and here the mass of the council stood, divided into two distinct, and perhaps antagonistic, groups. One was to be distinguished as composed of the villagers, while in the other and larger group Adana's men had evidently drawn together. All alike, however, were listening intently to Chiatapua.
Leslie stopped at the door and did likewise. The girl's face was in shadow, but there was a tone in her clear voice that he had never heard in it before—the tone of the dominant race when it speaks to its subjects and means to be obeyed. Plainly threats had been bandied, for her audience was soundly reproved; she reminded both sections of the purpose for which they had met; and, addressing herself particularly to Adana's following, she warned them with much emphasis against any course that might interrupt the festival.
'Ye are here to pay sacrifice to the gods, and to worship them,' she continued; 'ye are not here to fight one against another; and the curse of the gods will be on every man who raises his hand in anger—their vengeance will surely fall upon him and his family, and evil will follow him all his days. Adana himself cannot escape the curse if he offend them. Therefore, take this my message to him. And for ye,' she concluded, 'see that it is so until the festival is over, as every man shall answer for it. It is the word of Chiatapua, the daughter of Chacuarama. Let it be obeyed.'
She sat down, beckoning to Leslie (whom she was the first to observe) as she did so; and in a hush that showed how much her listeners had been impressed, he walked forward to the dais between the rows of silent, rather awe-stricken elders. Her own face expressed no emotion, but as he took his place beside her he saw that her hand was trembling a little.
'I am very glad that my lord has come,' she whispered quickly in his ear. 'The trouble has begun, for Adana would not wait until the festival was past, and angry words have been said.'
'I know,' replied Leslie. 'I have spoken with Adana. His heart is full of bitterness,' she went on, 'and what we have to do must be done at once. The time is short, but it may yet be done if my lord is ready to do it for the sake of Chiatapua. This night, if it be so, he must learn the secret of the treasure-house.'
Leslie did not quite understand the connection, but a glance at the ring of dusky faces confronting them in the obscurity forbade him to ask an explanation just then. He would risk it.
'I will do whatever Chiatapua bids me,' he said.
She thanked him with a look, and rose once more. 'Listen again, elders of the land!' she said. 'Ye heard my answer to Adana. Now here is he of whom I spoke—the white man whom the gods have sent to Oyalapa—one of the blood of Ayatepec, as all may see, and of my own kin. So him have I chosen to learn the secret of the hidden treasure-place of my race, that none may know except the Keeper of the City and one other. And to-night, according to the custom that has been since the days of my mother, Chacuarama, he will learn it. What say the elders?'
Judging from its reception, the announcement was of the utmost importance—although, even yet, Leslie could not guess why; and the elders were silent until Acoya took it upon himself to return that, as long as it was good in Chiatapua's eyes, they were all content. Nobody contradicted him.
Then she turned to Leslie. 'And the son of Ayatepec?' she inquired.
'I am ready,' he said promptly.
'It is well,' she said. 'To-night, then, the island is sacred—until the sun rises, no man except those who are my guests must put foot on it on pain of death. Acoya will attend to it. Now,' she added, 'the council is ended. In two days, when the festival is over, it will meet again.'
It broke up at once, and the elders came forward to take leave of Chiatapua. While they were doing so with due ceremony, Leslie had the chance of a word with Acoya.
'What will Adana do, Acoya?' he asked.
He shook his head doubtfully. 'Who knows?' he replied—'except that he will surely make trouble.'
'During the festival?'
'There is the fear of the gods—Yet Adana's heart is black against Chiatapua and my lord, and it may be. To-night, therefore, it will be well to keep a watch upon him.'
'You will do so, Acoya?'
He nodded gravely; but the room was emptying fast, and they had no opportunity for further discussion; and Acoya himself, having received a whispered injunction from Chiatapua, left at the tail of the departing throng. Then, except for the torch-bearers, she and Leslie were alone. They had a quarter of an hour's earnest conversation together. Before he parted from her he had gained some idea of the nature of the adventure that was before him; he knew what he must do; and it was with a thoughtful countenance that he returned to the open air and again sought out O'Driscoll.
Don Gaspar and the peons were still on the terrace. The clamour around the camp-fires opposite seemed louder than ever; and the boats were plying to and fro between the mainland and the landing-steps, where a crowd of the elders and of Chiatapua's attendants waited their turn to be ferried over. O'Driscoll hailed him eagerly.
'Look at that, Rutherford!' he cried. 'Is the whole population deserting the island? What has happened?'
'A sort of tabu, I imagine,' said Leslie. 'In an hour or so, at least, the four of us and Chiatapua will have the place to ourselves, and not a soul will dare to venture upon it until daylight. Even you and the boys must promise to stay indoors.'
'But what on earth does it mean?'
Leslie, in reply, related everything that had occurred.
'And that is all you know, Rutherford?'
O'Driscoll gazed at the water for a minute or two, considering. 'I don't like it, old man,' he declared at length. 'We'll leave Adana out of account for the moment. But here you are committed to some strange adventure—we don't know exactly what, nor how long you will be away, nor why you must see this treasure-room at this particular moment, and with all these ceremonies. It means something, of course, but there's too much mystery about it for my taste.'
'It's an old custom, and that may explain it,' said Leslie, albeit without much conviction. 'Anyhow, I have promised Chiatapua. Whatever it is, I've got to go through with it.'
O'Driscoll was unconvinced, but he realised that there was no more to be said.
'When do you start?' he asked.
'We have a couple of hours yet. "When the night is half-done," she said—which means about midnight, I suppose.'
The intervening time passed very slowly. They remained on the terrace for half-an-hour longer; and as they went indoors the contrast between the scene of bustling life across the water and the solitude of the city struck them with a sense of foreboding. Thus it was not in the highest spirits that they partook of their supper of cold venison and maize-cakes; and when a plan of campaign had been arranged—that, during Leslie's absence, a constant watch should be kept by O'Driscoll or one or other of the peons—there was nothing to do but await Chiatapua's coming with ever-growing impatience.
It was close upon midnight when at last her light step was heard in the paved courtyard, and they ran out to meet her. Her white dress was hidden by a dark-coloured robe that covered her from head to foot, and in one hand she carried a pine-torch ready lit and a bundle of these excellent illuminants in the other. Leslie, after they had exchanged a quick glance, hastened to relieve her of the latter.
'They will be needed,' she said, 'so my lord must be careful of them. But first let him light one.' Then she turned to O'Driscoll—perhaps because she guessed his doubt. 'Tell him that he may trust his friend to me,' she instructed Leslie, 'and in the morning, if the gods please, all will be well. But until the morning he must not leave this place—neither he nor the two servants.'
'All right,' replied O'Driscoll. 'Say to her that I'll stay here until you return. And for Heaven's sake, Rutherford, take care of yourself—don't run yourself into any dangers!'
It was with this message in his ears that Leslie set forth upon his adventure—not, be it admitted, without misgivings of his own. Chiatapua, on her part, appeared to have none.
As soon as they were outside she led the way briskly uphill, speaking little, for her breath was required for other purposes, but holding steadily on. Leslie's wonder increased as they climbed from one terrace to another between the ruined houses of the old city and among the débris of a long-dead civilisation—higher and higher, until at length they came out upon the bare hill, and saw above them in the clearer light the dark mass of the pyramidal-shaped building that had so often tickled our adventurer's curiosity. It seemed as if that curiosity was now to be satisfied. Certainly Chiatapua was making straight for it—indeed, she did not halt until they had reached the edge of the semicircular stone platform that surrounded it.* Was this, then, their destination? Her first words told him.
(* See Chapter XV.)
'Thither lies the way to the treasure-house,' she said, pointing to the pyramid. 'Is it not a goodly door, my lord? Doubtless it was built when the city was full of life, that thieves might not enter. But the secret has been passed down, and now it is known but to me. In a moment the door will be open for my lord. Then we must part for a time—it will not be for long—and be must go the rest of the journey alone, and alone he must see the treasures of my race. For that is the custom—it has always been so. Now, if my lord is ready'—
He was, and said so; he might even have added truthfully that he was now eager.
'Then, watch!' she cried.
She handed her torch to him, and disappeared from his sight behind the edifice. He waited, regarding its smooth sides with a sort of fascination, speculating by what strange means he was to find an entrance to the treasure-chamber that lay beyond the massive structure. Little did he dream of the reality! A minute passed. The darkness hid the burnished apex of the pyramid and the steep hillside that towered above to the summit; below was the stretch of the sacred city; and beyond it could be seen—if he had looked—the farthermost of the camp-fires, not yet deserted by the revellers. But he did not look. Another minute passed. Then he heard a curious grinding sound at his feet, and—next moment he had jumped back with a sudden cry.
The whole huge mass of the pyramid, many hundred tons in weight, was swinging slowly back from the face of the mountain as upon a pivot!
At first Leslie was simply dumbfounded: he dared not believe the evidence of his eyes: his senses refused to grasp it. But it was no illusion. He could not perceive (and he never discovered) by what marvellous process of mechanism, by what secret of dynamics—known, it might be, to the ancient race of Oyalapa and now lost—the feat was accomplished. The fact, at least, was patent: the building swung round upon the base of the shallow platform until the side that had stood against the rock was presented to him, and where it had been he saw a black cavity cutting into the hill. Thither, it was plain, lay the road to the treasure-chamber.
He was roused by a touch on his arm from Chiatapua, who had returned unseen by him.
'Quick, my lord!' she cried, taking her torch—'quick, before it moves back and the way is closed again!'
'But yourself, Chiatapua?'
'Have no fear for me!' she said, more impatiently. 'Courage, my lord! It is only for a little—I will come before the night is done. How go—quick! quick!'
Leslie hesitated no longer. In truth, there was no time to lose. The grinding noise had begun again; the pyramid was swinging back on its axis; it was now or not at all; and so, setting his teeth together, he sprang across the platform to the cavity beyond. Turning, he waved his hand to Chiatapua. Her pale face, outlined against the darkness in the light of her torch, was seen for an instant. In another, it was hidden: the opening was closed: he was cut off from the world by those hundreds of tons of solid masonry—entombed, as it were, in the heart of the mountain.
FOR once Leslie was caught unawares. He had obeyed Chiatapua in the impulse of the moment; and the pyramid had swung back to its place, where its smooth side of dressed stone fitted as closely to the rock as if it were really a door—so closely, in fact, that in the dim light of the torch the lines of division were hardly perceptible—before he realised his position. It meant, in effect, that his retreat was effectually barred: he was a prisoner until Chiatapua chose to relieve him.
Just then he did not trouble himself about her reasons, for a mad thought had flashed into his mind. What if, by any accident, she were unable to return? The mere possibility was enough to send a cold shiver through him, and although he tried to dismiss it, the feeling of uneasiness remained.
'Come! this won't do, my boy,' he told himself. 'You've got to see the end of it, and time enough then for funk! Now for the treasure!'
But, all the same, his heart was not in the adventure. He was depressed at the beginning by the utter absence of sound—by a silence that seemed almost unearthly in its profoundness. Fortunately his nerves were well under control, and after a minute, taking his courage in his hands, he went manfully to work. It was one consolation that his torch burned with a clear and steady light; for the atmosphere, although heavy and oppressive, was apparently quite fresh.
When Leslie got his hearing he found himself on the threshold of a passage some twenty feet wide, and so high that the roof was invisible. The floor and both sides were wonderfully smooth, and the latter was ornamented at the height of five or six feet with friezes of hieroglyphic sculptures, somewhat similar to those which he had noticed while crossing the Monte del Diablo. For thirty yards it was straight and uninterrupted; then it took a sharp turn; and thereafter it was intersected at intervals by narrower passages running in all directions—like nothing more than the workings of a mine, of which that followed by Leslie was the central gallery. Whether these passages were natural or were the work of man, he could not decide with any certainty. His own impression was that human agency was only responsible for some assistance in the way of widening what had already existed.
He advanced with due caution—keeping always to the central passage and examining every step—until, perhaps a hundred yards farther on, he reached another bend. Then, as he rounded this, he was startled into an exclamation as something white glimmered out of the darkness. But a second glance reassured him, for it showed him that the object was a life-sized figure in marble. The same movement of the torch revealed another that faced it from the opposite side—and revealed also what lay beyond, and caused him to hurry forward with quick-heating pulses.
Next moment, passing between the statues, he stood in the treasure-chamber of Oyalapa.
He swept his torch round, and an eerie feeling came over him as he looked. The place seemed to him, in that first swift survey, to he peopled with phantoms. Little twinkling points of fire, many-coloured, sparkled and shone where the light fell, and strange figures took form and shape in the obscurity. It was a full minute before he could pull himself together for a closer inspection. Then he saw at once that the figures were harmless enough. They were simply images—inanimate things. But such a collection! He was surrounded by scores of them; they were of all sizes, from a few inches to as many feet; some were fashioned to represent men, others animals, and others curious monstrosities of the imagination; and all of them were evidently made of solid gold, while most were studded with precious stones. It was the latter, of course, that reflected the light.
To say that Leslie was astounded does not give an adequate notion of his state of mind. Not at first did he grasp the significance of it all: he thought neither of the history of these relics of the past, that had lain hidden for so many years, nor that here, within his reach, was wealth probably beyond computation.
But his amazement wore off by degrees, and he was able to make a systematic examination of the chamber. It was, as nearly as he could judge, a hundred feet square. It had only the one entrance, and the walls were of masonry—not the natural rock, as he had expected. On three sides the images were arrayed; while the fourth was lined to the height of four feet with rough bars, arranged crosswise, of some metal—doubtless silver, although it was now black and unrecognisable to Leslie's unskilled eyes—each bar being about a foot long and six inches thick. Everything was covered with a fine, powdery dust, which showed that the air penetrated freely into the room in some manner or other—as was proved, indeed, by the comparative freshness of the atmosphere.
Leslie's attention was not given for long to the silver. The images were decidedly more interesting, and it was to them that he returned presently. Not two were alike; many were grotesque in conception; but he could not but marvel at the exquisite workmanship of one and all. As specimens of the goldsmith's art, it is a question if they could be bettered to-day—and yet they belonged to a civilisation that must have preceded that of the Incas or the Aztecs! So much of their story was written upon them—or so Leslie read it—that, namely, they dated from the palmiest days of the Oyalapan race, when it had governed the isthmus of Central America from sea to sea, and must have had the mineral wealth of the whole hemisphere at its command. Hither, no doubt, they had been collected from all parts when the last fight of the old order was fought—and lost. He could not guess, of course, what particular purpose they had served. Obviously it was one of some importance, else they would never have been preserved with such care in the moment of downfall—one, that is, beyond their intrinsic value. And how great that was—the mere value of the mass of gold and of the jewels with which it was encrusted—he did not like to estimate.
With regard to the precious stones, he was quick to remark one peculiarity. In most of the figures they were meant to represent eyes, although they were studded with greater profusion on a few of the larger (and especially the human) images. In scarcely an instance, however, was the picture complete. Either the figure had but a single eye, or (in the other case) several stones were missing. Nor, as he conceived at first, was this by design. Looking closer, he could distinguish the marks and scratchings of a sharp instrument. Certain jewels, in short, had been forcibly removed from their setting. The point was—by whom?
A minute or two afterwards, when his investigations brought him to the corner farthest from the door, he had a surprising answer to the question. There, his eye was caught by the glitter of some object upon the floor. He stooped carelessly to pick it up, but his indifference vanished when he saw that what he held was a long, slim knife with a buck-horn handle, such as sailors were (and are) wont to use. His mind leaped instantly to a conclusion.
The plunder of the images had been the work of Gavin Leslie!
Nothing, in truth, was more likely. He knew that his ancestor had not returned from his travels empty-handed—and here was the explanation! His years of power in Oyalapa had not conquered his buccaneering proclivities, and there was even a smack of his grim humour in the fact that he had despoiled none of the figures entirely, but had left them with an eye apiece.
The discovery of the knife impelled Leslie to make a farther search of the floor, and he was soon rewarded by another, vastly more important. At a few yards' distance, in front of the stack of bars, his foot happened to strike against something that yielded. This, too, he picked up: to find, when he had brushed the dust from it, that it was a small, dingy, leather-bound volume—and, at the moment, no more. For, in his haste and astonishment, the torch dropped from his hand and was extinguished.
Luckily he had some matches in his pocket; but a minute or two elapsed before he could get them out and the torch lit again; and the interval was sufficient to allow him to control his excitement. It was with deliberate method that he now proceeded. He took another torch from the bundle, lighted it, managed to secure them both among the bars in such a way that his hands were free, and seated himself on the floor with his back to the pile. Then he opened the volume with trembling fingers. The first glance told him that it was a printed book, sure enough, and was in Latin; the second (which was at the title-page) that it was a Horace, printed in Amsterdam by the Elzevirs—one of the few existing copies, as he learned later, of a very rare and remarkable edition, and itself worth many 'pieces of eight.'
But these facts went unheeded in view of another that he perceived in the same glance. It was that the two fly-leaves at the beginning of the volume were closely covered on both sides with writing! True, it seemed almost illegible; the faded, reddish ink scarcely showed on the yellow pages; but, nevertheless, he turned to the study of the minute and crabbed characters with the keenest expectation, and the first words he was able to make out convinced him that he was not to be disappointed. For the words were these:
This, writ by me, Gavin Lesly, cadet of the house of Bavelaw, in the shire of Fife and kingdom of Scotland—
Reading them, he forgot his surroundings; he had no other thought than to decipher the manuscript there and then. It was no idle task; for Gavin, whatever his merits as man of action, did not shine as a penman. Every word, almost every letter, was a puzzle. Yet Leslie set himself to accomplish it; and before long he gathered sufficient of the purport of the document to know that here, in his ancestor's own hand, was the story of the Lost Adventurers at last. He was quite content at the time to have the gist of the matter, and it was not until long afterwards—and, even then, not without the assistance of others—that he succeeded in preparing the exact copy which is now given:
This, writ by me, Gavin Lesly, cadet of the house of Bavelaw, in the shire of Fife and kingdom of Scotland, a loyal subject of King James,* is a true record (but brief) of the divers fortunes that have befallen me in the discovering of the city of Oyalapa, and after: the which had their beginning in the month of February, A° 1688, when I first heard of the said city, reputed to be hid in the mountains of Nicaragua, from the mouth of an Indian guide; and being then on the march across that province from Amapala to the country of the Moskitoes, with a company of adventurers, French and English, I had the fancy to mend my state (if it might be) by a journey thither; and having opened the plan to four others, all Englishmen or Scots—to wit, Alex. Swinhoe, of Deal in Kent; Rob. Lowson, of Aberbrothock in Angus; Joseph Maverick; a native of Jamaica, and one Hubback, of London—these agreed forthwith, and chose me for captain. Taking with us the Indian guide and one other, we stole privily from the camp, and so set out upon the adventure; coming, after some days, to the hacienda of S. Luis of the Hills, and there abiding for a time; and, going thence towards the mountains, had many mishaps in the wilderness (where Swinhoe did perish of a fever, and was buried beneath a great stone at the foot of a white hill), but at last reached the high peak called the Devil's Mountain, beyond which, according to the Indians, was the city.
(* King James must have been at St Germains when this was written (circa 1695), but of course Gavin was ignorant of the events of the Great Revolution.)
Now began our troubles in the crossing of the mountain; for the Indians lost heart, saying that they would surely be slain by the inhabitants; and one deserted by night; and the other, being mutinous, died incontinently of a gunshot wound. And for nigh upon two weeks, finding no way to cross, we did suffer the most extraordinary hardships both of famine and danger—whereby our company was reduced to three through the death of Hubback, a good comrade—and were in despair concerning the upshot, when (by a lucky chance) the path that leads across the mountain was discovered; and, following it, we passed into a valley that was wondrous beautiful and fertile: where presently we did encounter a number of the natives, and at first were hostilely received by them; but, having shot several, we found them afterwards most kindly; for, so great was their surprise (knowing nothing of firearms) that they took us for gods, and as such carried us to a wonderful city of stone in the midst of a lake. And this city, called Oyalapa, was the dwelling of a people different from the men of the valley; for whereas the former were white and the descendants of the race which had built the city—albeit now they numbered not more than four hundred souls, but were yet skilled in sculpture and many arts—the latter (of whom were some thousands) were Indians and slaves to the others. And these white folk, believing me to be a god (for I gainsaid them not), made us welcome to the country, and gave us a house in the city until we should learn their tongue, and it is therein that I write this.
Especially were we made welcome by Khalama, who, though a young woman and exceeding fair, ruled the whole land and its two peoples by the right of descent; and, with her, after a time, 'twas my good fortune to wed after the custom of the place; and here I have sojourned peacefully with Rob. Lowson and Joseph Maverick these seven years past, to mine own content and the great pleasure of the people. But of them, and of my doings, I will not write (through lack of space), save to tell that two children, a daughter and a son, have been born unto me.
Now, in these later days, I have found a new way out of the valley to the east, that may lead to the North Sea somewhere about Cape Gracias à Dios; and the desire having come to me to visit Scotland and mine old home, 'tis my purpose to attempt it with Lowson: to which I have gotten the consent of Khalama, albeit not without many tears and the promise that I will soon return. So, in honour, I hope to do, if my life be spared through the perils that lie before me.
Therefore, on the eve of departing from Oyalapa, I make shift to write this record with blood (having no ink), and leave the book wherein it is writ to the care of Joseph Maverick, he being resolved to stay behind; and this I do with the design that, in the event....
Here the manuscript practically ended; for, of the few lines that remained, only three or four words were legible. But Leslie could guess what Gavin's design had been. That which he had done himself was not impossible to others; the Spaniards were still a power; and perhaps, fearing an invasion of the valley, he had sought in this manner to gain protection for those of his own blood if such were ever needed. That the contingency (remote as it might seem) had occurred to his mind was proved, at any rate, by the terms of his last testament.
There was one question, however, to which Leslie could find no answer. How came the book in the treasure-chamber at all? Gavin made no mention of the place, and assuredly it had not been his intention to leave it there. Could it be that, visiting the room for the last time and with a certain purpose, he had been compelled by some cogent reason to depart in the utmost haste, and had inadvertently gone without either the book or his knife?
Yet there it was—the little pocket-edition of the heathen poet that the old buccaneer had carried about with him through all his vicissitudes and changes of fortune, to leave it at last where it was discovered by his descendant two centuries afterwards—and within its boards was the story which that descendant had dared so much to learn. And as he pored over it the hours fled unregarded. More than once the torches burned down, and were mechanically replaced by others; and it was not until he happened to look at his watch that he was recalled from his contemplation of the past. It was almost six o'clock, and long after sunrise. Realising this, he was rudely awakened to the pressing realities of the moment.
The time at which Chiatapua had promised to come back for him was past, and she had not appeared. His belief in her good faith was too strong to be shaken. But there was the ugly alternative: that she had been forcibly prevented from returning. Remembering Adana and his warning, he could not reject the idea as improbable.
All his old fears and suspicions revived with doubled force. He could not rest. The chamber seemed to stifle him, and so he retraced his steps along the passage to make another examination of the sealed entrance—without much hope of success, however, for he did not even know if the mechanism that moved the pyramid could be worked from within. It was as he thought: the most searching inspection failed to reveal the secret. Then, baffled in one direction, he hurried to the exploration of the intersecting passages. But this was equally futile. They ran into each other, and crossed and recrossed in the most perplexing fashion; and he was afraid to venture too far into the labyrinth lest he should lose himself altogether, and his last state be worse than the first.
He went back at length to the treasure-room with the conviction that (short of Chiatapua's return) he was trapped beyond all possibility of escape. Even then the grim irony of the position struck him. Had he solved the mystery of his ancestor's life only to this purpose, that he himself should be the victim?
To do him justice, he did not entertain despair all at once. But when one hour had dragged slowly past—then another—and finally it was drawing towards nine o'clock, he could shirk the facts no longer, and found himself wondering when the end would come to him—in two days or in three. He had no food, and already felt the pangs of hunger, and the bundle of torches had dwindled to one. As he lighted the last he thought with a shiver of the darkness in which the tragedy must he played out—if Chiatapua did not return soon.
THE last torch was more than half-consumed, and Leslie had almost abandoned hope, when his ears caught a low, rumbling sound—the first sound that he had heard for nine long hours. For an instant he listened, holding his breath. Then, as the light was nearly extinguished by a sudden draught of air, he jumped eagerly to his feet. It could mean but one thing.
The next moment there was the shimmer of a white robe in the doorway of the treasure-chamber.
'Chiatapua!' He ran forward to meet her with out-stretched hands; and, in the greatness of his relief, he did not notice that her face was pale and troubled. 'So you have come at last!'
'Surely my lord did not doubt that I would come?' she asked, a little reproachfully.
'No,' he replied honestly, 'unless some evil had befallen you. That was what I feared, Chiatapua—perhaps from Adana—and all morning I have been wishing that he was here instead of me.'
Chiatapua walked across the room to the light, and meanwhile the noise began again. She did not speak until it had ceased, and the dead stillness fell once more—the stillness to which no sound of the outer world could penetrate.
'My lord will believe that the blame is not mine,' she said. 'I could not come earlier, and presently I will tell him why. Now there is no time, for we must be gone from this place quickly.'
'At once, if Chiatapua pleases!' cried Leslie, who was quite willing to see the last of it.
'But first we must'—Then she broke off. 'My lord has not told me yet what he thinks of the treasures of my forefathers.'
'They are wonderful!'
'For ages they have been hidden here,' she continued slowly, not looking at him—'for long ages, and except us twain no man or woman is alive who has seen them. They were wrought in the days when my people were great and powerful, before the curse of the gods fell upon them; and since the time of Chacuarama the secret of this place has been kept by each ruler of the city, and by her it has been shown but to one person. And now,' she said, 'my lord has seen it, and perhaps he can guess why I brought him hither.'
Leslie was not certain if he could, and so awaited her explanation. Many indications in the past, her present demeanour, the unusual tone of constraint in her voice—all these should have warned him of what was coming. But, strangely enough, he had no suspicion.
'For the law is this,' she went on, still speaking with averted head, 'that the secret shall only be shown to him whom the Keeper of the City chooses for her husband—and that here, in the treasure-house, she shall choose him.'
Even yet he did not quite comprehend—until, suddenly, she turned her face toward him, and he detected the tell-tale crimson in her cheeks and the light in her eyes. And then, with an impulsive movement, she held out her hands. He took them instinctively.
'And thus, according to the law, do I choose my husband,' she said softly. 'The gods sent my lord to me when all was dark, and whom else should I choose? To you, the son of Ayatepec, the daughter of Chacuarama gives herself—freely, with all her heart; and these figures made by my fathers are witness. For all my love is yours, my lord—it has been so from the beginning. It will always be so.'
And Leslie could find no answer. He saw that the whole soul of the girl was in the simple words, and the knowledge struck him with a sense of the deepest pain. The full meaning of what had occurred on the previous evening was now made clear. Not Chiatapua alone, but Adana and the elders and all the people of the valley, expected that this thing should be. And himself? The face of another, one who was perhaps thinking of him at that moment in far-off England, rose before him; and dear as Chiatapua had become to him, it was not—it could never be—as that other. Yet how was he to tell her so, when he knew that the truth would wound her more than a blow from his hand? Yet tell her he must. . . . And Chiatapua, suspecting nothing, ran on gaily. She had done her part; and the love-glint was shining in her eyes, and her voice had a new note of happiness in it.
'How we must go,' she said, 'for we cannot delay here while Adana is working evil. He was not idle in the night, and already much has happened. But with the help of my lord's magic his plans will be brought to nothing, and he will be punished for the breaking of my commands. There is yet time if we make haste, and we can speak of it as we go.'
She was turning to lead the way, but Leslie, who had still her hands, detained her. Now or not at all, he realised at once, must the plunge be taken.
She turned again, smiling. 'Quick!' she said. 'We have much to do, and see! the torch is burning low.'
'Chiatapua, I did not know—I had no thought of this—I hoped that'—Then, in despair, he blurted it out: 'It cannot be—it is impossible, Chiatapua!'
'It cannot be, my lord?' Her eyes sought his, and she repeated the words as if she failed to understand them.
He could scarcely find courage to begin; but somehow, because it had to be done, he managed to tell her all that was in his mind—to explain, as gently as he could, his reasons. It was a terrible experience, and never had he felt more like a heartless brute than he did now, as he watched the quick changes in her expressive countenance—the first surprise giving place to a glimmering of doubt, the ebbing of her colour, and then the drawn, helpless pain in her eyes when at last she grasped the effect of his statement. Before he had finished the perspiration was standing in beads upon his forehead.
She heard him patiently to the end, in a stony silence that was very hard to bear, and in which (as it seemed to him) his vindication sounded curiously incomplete and his protestations insincere. Then she spoke.
'And that is all?' she asked quickly.
He could only assent.
'And my lord has no love to give me?'
'Not in that way,' he replied, with a groan. 'But Chiatapua will believe me'—
She withdrew her hands from his, with a swift gesture, and a look came into her face that he had seen there but once before—and that upon the previous evening in the council-hall. Sorely smitten as she was, the pride of race upheld her in that moment of misery.
'The son of Ayatepec is pleased to mock me,' she said; 'and perhaps it is well. But why has he chosen this time to do it? He has soon forgotten the promises that he made to me upon the lake, when I opened my heart to him. But has he also forgotten what, not many hours ago, he said before all the elders of my people? Was it but to see this treasure that he came hither?'
'No, Chiatapua,' he replied; 'but I swear to you that I knew not what it meant. If I had known I would have spoken then. But I have forgotten nothing, and the help that I promised is still yours—even to my life. Chiatapua, you will let me give that help now?'
She did not appear to hear him. 'Does my lord think, then, that I would have asked him thus if I had not believed from his words that his love was mine?' she continued, more passionately. 'Does he think so little of me? I believed it, for we were happy together—we, who are of the same blood. And now he speaks of a maiden in his own land . . . and it is she whom he loves, and has always loved. What is that to me?' she burst out. 'Does he expect that, for her sake whom I have never seen—of whom I never heard until now—I will go back with him to be held up to the scorn of the valley? . . . But doubtless it is my lord's will that we should return so. For me, what matter? He can still leave me to Adana.'
'Oh! he has indeed chosen well,' she went on, unheeding him in the vehemence of her anger. 'But has he not forgotten one thing? The secret of the door is not his, and what if the Keeper of the City should prefer to stay here rather than go back to suffer the shame which he has prepared for her? Has my lord thought of that? Look! the last torch is almost burnt. Rather the darkness, rather the hunger and thirst, and the slow death that will come, than to live such a life! . . . My lord does not believe me. But he does not know what is in a woman's heart, else he would not have done this. And he will be with me himself . . . and it was for him to choose, and as he has chosen'—
Then, all at once, she broke down. Hitherto her pride had kept her up, but she had strained nature to the utmost, and now her real feelings showed themselves. She strove to compose herself, to force back the tears; and, failing, she flung herself on the floor beside the pile of silver in an uncontrollable outburst of sobbing. It was no longer the expression of anger or resentment, far less of wounded vanity; it was the great and whole-hearted grief of a sensitive woman who sees all her hopes dashed suddenly to the ground and the edifice of her life in ruins.
And Leslie, for one, was not the man to witness such a grief unmoved. It was his work—involuntarily enough, but still his work. In face of that, the tenderness and compassion that he felt seemed almost impertinent, and the words of comfort that, kneeling beside her, he tried to frame altogether inadequate. But he thought solely of the stricken woman, and not for an instant of her threat—although, beyond a doubt, she meant it.
At first, however, his efforts met with no apparent result. Still he persevered, and after a little the violence of the paroxysm abated; and at last she withdrew her hands from her tear-dimmed face and turned to him with a pathetic touch of appeal.
'Oh, my lord! my lord!' she cried, 'it is not too late to blot out what has been said, to forget it all, to tell me that it is a bad dream! And if not for my sake'—
'Would that I could, Chiatapua!' cried Leslie, from the depth of his heart.
'So that is my lord's last word?' she said, in the old tone of hopelessness. 'Not for my sake—not for the sake of his friend and servants who are in Adana's hands, and will soon be sacrificed to the gods'—
'In Adana's hands! What is this, Chiatapua? Surely you cannot mean that they are his prisoners again?'
She had risen by this time, and now stood toying with the torch, of which a couple of inches were all that remained. She answered Leslie's eager questions over her shoulder.
'It was that which kept me, and that, too, was why I urged haste. But what matters it—now?'
'Quick! tell me everything—it may matter very much!'
'When my lord has chosen his path?'
He gripped her by the wrists. 'Tell me!' he repeated. 'Come, Chiatapua; you must tell me at once!'
She tried to free herself, and for a moment her attitude was defiant. Then the man's mastery prevailed, her eyes dropped before his, and with a half-sob she submitted to his stronger will.
'I will tell my lord everything,' she said.
And, in broken sentences, she did so. She told how, an hour before sunrise, when she was about to start on her return to the treasure-chamber, the courtyard of her house was taken possession of by a company of Adana's men. They were inflamed by drink, and, notwithstanding her commands and threats, refused to allow her either to see Adana or to leave, and finally detained her by force in her room. Then, a little later, she heard the sound of shots from the house opposite. She suspected what had occurred, but had to wait in fear and suspense for two hours longer, when her guards disappeared as suddenly as they had come. It was now broad daylight; and as soon as she was free she ran across to Leslie's house—only to find, as she had anticipated, that O'Driscoll and the two servants were gone. But several corpses were there to show that they had not succumbed without a struggle. Her next step was to seek out Acoya. Luckily, she met him at the landing-stage, on his way to see her; and from him she learned all that had passed. He himself had been on guard at the boats; his party had been surrounded by a superior force, but no violence offered; and then Adana had crossed by the sunken causeway with another body, sequestered Chiatapua, and attacked and captured the strangers. The plan was a bold one, conceived and carried out with consummate skill. For Adana knew that it was the custom to visit the treasure-house only by night, and doubtless he hoped thus to isolate Leslie until he had accomplished his will upon his three companions. There was, unfortunately, no question as to his purpose. Confronted by Acoya as he returned to the mainland with his prisoners, he had openly avowed it. It was their fate to be sacrificed at the festival that was about to begin; and let Chiatapua and the son of Ayatepec—even Acoya and all his men—prevent it if they could! What, then, could Chiatapua do? Acoya had no suggestion. He was afraid that his people would not fight in Leslie's absence—for Leslie himself it might have been different—and there was her own command against it while the festival lasted. And, even if they fought, what chance had they against Adana's big battalions? One thing, however, she did: she saw Adana. But she did not dwell upon the interview, which could not have been a pleasant one. It was enough that it was futile. There remained but the one loophole that Adana, with a strange want of foresight, had left to her—to release Leslie, and trust the rest to his resource. And this, after giving certain instructions to Acoya, she had hastened to do.
Leslie, when she was done, had a single question to ask: 'When does the festival begin?'
'It has already begun,' she replied.
'Already! Then it may be too late?'
'The sacrifice is not made until midday. That is the old custom, unless Adana has changed it. But what matters it?' she asked again, although now it was with a furtive glance at Leslie. 'Their death will be a quick and easy one.'
Her meaning could not be mistaken. There was still a chance: the choice was his, and it was now such that his duty seemed very plain. In reality, it was not easy to decide. If it had been only the sacrifice of his own hopes and happiness for the lives of his companions, he would not have hesitated. But there were other considerations; and, the word once spoken, there was no possibility in honour of drawing back. As it was, he did not hesitate for long. In less than two minutes his resolution was taken, were it for good or ill.
'I will do as you wish, Chiatapua,' he said, 'and give up my own land and my people to abide here in Oyalapa.'
She turned upon him quickly. 'Then it is because my lord loves his friend more than he loves Chiatapua?' she demanded.
'It is not that—but his life and the lives of my servants are in danger—perhaps, even now, they have been sacrificed! Let us go at once, Chiatapua!'
'Yes,' she said; 'let us go at once.'
No more was said. She walked immediately to the doorway, with Leslie at her side. It was like an age since she had entered; but the torch that was then half-consumed was just flickering out as he turned for a last look at the treasure-chamber of Oyalapa. He was not destined to see it again; and all that he carried from it was his ancestor's knife and the little Elzevir Horace.
JOINING hands, they groped their way cautiously along the dark passage until the second bend was reached.
'Wait here!' said Chiatapua, leaving him.
In a minute she was at his side again, and simultaneously he heard the now-familiar sound of the moving masonry. Then a welcome streak of daylight appeared, widening gradually; the great mass swung slowly back; and, following his companion, he passed through the opening and across the platform, and stood once more in God's fresh air—with what unbounded relief and thankfulness, after the experience of the night, one need not tell.
Without a moment's pause—not even staying until the pyramid had moved back, or sparing another glance behind—Chiatapua hurried him downhill. They were already within the city before his eyes became accustomed to the glare of the sun. There was no speech between them; and she, by keeping always a pace or two in front, seemed almost anxious to avoid it. As for him, absorbed as his mind was in the question if they would be in time, he could not help noticing the change that the agitation of the morning had wrought in her countenance.
A hum as of distant music rose to them as they descended the slope, and made them run still faster. Then, half-way down, Chiatapua stopped.
'That is our road,' she said, pointing along one of the terraces; 'for the boat lies at the end of the city, out of sight of the temple. But first my lord must get his magic shooting-tube—he will need it. I will await him here.'
Leslie required no second bidding. He covered the remaining distance to his house at his best speed, dashed into the outer courtyard, and was brought up somewhat suddenly at the door of his room by a figure that lay there stark across the threshold with a bullet-wound in the forehead. It was that of a handsome youth, whose face was unknown to him. He stepped over it, only to see that, inside, four others were stretched out where they had fallen, and that beside them was the revolver—O'Driscoll's—by which they had met their death. Their presence there within the room explained everything to him. The watch had been loose, his comrade and the peons had been surprised, and one at least had fought well before he was overpowered. For the rest—well, he found his Winchester, and grimly assured himself that the magazine was full and all was in order. He had also his own revolver; and now, as an added precaution, he loaded O'Driscoll's and slipped it into the pocket beside the other. All this was done thoroughly and quickly, for he had stern work before him—to rescue his companions or to avenge them if he were too late.
In three minutes he had rejoined Chiatapua, and they were again on their way. No time was lost. They descended to the lake-side at the extremity of the lowermost terrace, where the boat was moored in readiness; crossed the water; landed at a point about five hundred yards from the native village, which lay between them and the temple; and then, instead of making straight for the latter, struck to the rear of the houses. Chiatapua, who led, explained her reasons for choosing this roundabout route as they proceeded.
'Adana must not suspect our coming,' she said, 'and probably he has a watch in front of the temple. Therefore, my lord, we must reach it from the back. If we can surprise him, and it be not too late, all may yet be well.'
And what if it were too late? Leslie, with the doubt for incentive, pressed on.
Every bit of cover was taken advantage of, and no precaution to escape observation was neglected. But they saw not a soul. The village appeared to be absolutely deserted by its inhabitants, and the only sound was that which came from the temple, and grew louder as they drew nearer—the sound of many voices blended in a kind of rude chant, with a low accompaniment of drums and horns. And presently, the cover ending, they came in full view of the temple itself. They were in rear, and some fifty yards of open ground separated them from the great archway that broke the back wall; but this had evidently been long unused, for it was blocked to the height of nine or ten feet by a dense growth of vegetation. Chiatapua glanced round her. Fortunately, nobody was in sight.
'Come!' she whispered.
They made a quick dash across the open, and then halted for a second in the shadow of the wall, listening. Within, the chant rose and fell steadily. So far, they were apparently safe. But now their difficulties began. To gain a glimpse of the interior, they must force a way through the thick tangle of greenery that concealed the archway, and do so without the least noise. The task was, of course, one for Leslie; and with such patience and skill as he had at command he set himself to accomplish it. To a man so eager as he was to learn the best or worst, it was terribly slow work; but at length it was done without misadventure; and, kneeling amid the rank vegetation, he was able to see through an interstice (himself hidden) the whole inside of the temple.
It was a wonderful scene that was before him, but the first glance gave him merely the general effect—the vast oblong hall, with its blank, sculptured walls and absence of roof— the nearer half-empty, the other packed to its utmost capacity with a surging mass of many thousands of natives—the five sacrificial slabs of stone in the middle of the vacant space, and beyond them several fires, from which arose clouds of pungent-smelling smoke—and, over all, the incessant clamour of the music.
Gradually, as he looked, the details of the picture became distinct—and, most prominently, the five slabs. No obstacle intervened between them and his hiding-place. And three of the slabs were occupied; a man stood beside each, machete in hand; and he could even distinguish (by the dress) the identity of the figures that lay stretched upon them—O'Driscoll in the middle, the peons to right and left. To his profound joy, he recognised immediately that they were alive. After all, he was in time. He was soon to discover, however, that it was not by too adequate a margin.
Next he made out Adana, who was standing with T'lapa at the base of a huge statue, just behind the fires. He had (he was glad to know) a clear aim at the chief's head; for the pair were a few paces in advance of the front rank of the crowd, which seemed to be entirely composed of armed men. Doubtless they were retainers of his own, placed in that position to prevent interference with his design; and among them, holding his precious gun, Guatúsa was to be perceived. Leslie had more trouble in picking out Acoya. Not for a little did he notice that he was posted far back in the crowd, near the entrance-arch, and was surrounded by a compact body of his villagers. As for the crowd itself, the divisions between the two branches of the tribe, and between the men and women of each, were well marked.
Just as Leslie had mastered these facts he felt a touch on his arm. Turning his head, he saw that Chiatapua had quietly followed him. For a few minutes they passively watched the picturesque scene, while the worshippers surged backward and forward, the chant went unceasingly on, and the clouds of incense rose and dissipated.
Then, suddenly, there was a change. Adana, stepping forward, signalled with his spear; the music swelled into a louder burst; a tremor of expectation ran through the crowd; and, to Leslie's horror, the man who stood by Ignacio's slab raised his machete to strike. Leslie realised his purpose instantaneously—it could not be mistaken—and acted as promptly. Pushing aside the screen of vegetation, he threw up his rifle and took a quick aim.
The shot rang out while the man's arm was descending, and he fell in a heap across the body of his intended victim.
A shrill scream went up from hundreds of women's voices, the music stopped, and then—dead silence. But only for a second. Leslie and Chiatapua jumped to their feet, and at sight of them a medley of inarticulate cries broke forth.
'Now, my lord—quick!' urged Chiatapua.
And, at the same moment, an encouraging shout came from the heart of the temple:
'That you, Rutherford?' Here, pot Adana for me!'
So he darted forward, but pulled up before he had gone ten yards, and again lifted the gun to his shoulder. Adana himself, spear in hand, was making for the middle slab—was even now within a few feet of it! It was a difficult shot, for he had no time to aim, but he had perforce to risk it. The rifle cracked, and the chief pitched forward on his face, with the ball through his brain. Leslie had 'potted' him most effectually.
Then ensued an interval of the wildest commotion. The crowd broke this way and that in utter confusion; the two remaining executioners, perhaps fearing that their turn was next, sought refuge in a discreet retiral; and Acoya and Mezrac, foreseeing trouble, pushed to the front through the excited throng, their men following. Only Adana's warriors remained inactive—and these not for long. Then, at a command from T'lapa, they rushed to meet Leslie.
Here, however, a new factor—to wit, Chiatapua—entered into the situation. Passing Leslie, she boldly confronted the advancing men.
'Back!' she cried in her most imperious tones. 'Will ye defy the gods? Are ye mad not to see that it is thus the law is fulfilled? The gods have claimed their sacrifice—not these men, but Adana and that other, because they laid hands on those who were my guests, and broke the command that I gave! And will ye bring their curse upon yourselves also?'
Her words had their effect both upon the crowd and upon the men themselves. They drew back abashed, leaving a clear space around the three slabs; and Leslie seized the chance to liberate the prisoners by a few cuts with the dead executioner's machete.
'Again!' said O'Driscoll, as he slid lightly to the ground. 'You are my good angel, Rutherford!'
'Well, it was a narrower shave this time!'
'Too narrow to be pleasant. But you haven't a spare revolver, have you?'
'There you are!' he said, handing it over. 'See to the boys, will you? I'm afraid there's going to be trouble.'
Even as Leslie spoke it came—without warning, grievous in its result. Suddenly Chiatapua leaped before him, and a low cry of pain burst from her; and, turning swiftly, he was just in time to catch her in his arms as she staggered back, with a spear sticking in her breast. Not five yards distant stood the youth T'lapa, Adana's brother, his arm still raised. It was he who had thrown it, meaning it for Leslie, and Chiatapua had seen the action—too late to warn him, not too late to frustrate it, perhaps at the expense of her own life.
She was not long unavenged. There were two reports together—one from O'Driscoll's revolver, the other from the rifle of Guatúsa—and T'lapa paid the penalty.
Leslie, meanwhile, had gently supported Chiatapua to the floor, and was now doing the little that was possible for her. She was quite conscious, but a moment's examination had shown him that her right lung was pierced: the end was merely a question of minutes. Acoya, who had come up, would have pulled out the spear, but she feebly motioned him away.
'It does not hurt much—and it will not be for long.' Then her eyes sought Leslie's. 'I am glad my lord is safe. But he must not grieve for me—perhaps it is best thus—perhaps we shall meet again, in the home of the gods, and he will love me.'
'Chiatapua, can you forgive me?'
'Kiss me, my lord,' she said simply. 'The gods are wise—it would never have been. Now there will be peace in the valley.... Are the people gone?' she asked, as the deep, awed silence of the crowd seemed to strike her. 'Tell them how I loved them—ask them not to forget Chiatapua. And you will not forget her, my lord? . . . Hold me—the end comes—oh! my lord! my lord!....'
There was a rush of blood from her lips, she gasped once or twice, and then her head sank back on Leslie's lap. Acoya lifted his hand, and a loud wail of lamentation went up from the great multitude within the temple.
'Come, Rutherford, it is all over,' said O'Driscoll after a little. 'You can do no more for her.'
He rose as if dazed. 'Dead! . . . and it is I who have killed her!' he cried.
She was buried that evening by torchlight, with many strange ceremonies that had come down from the race that ended with her. But neither Leslie nor O'Driscoll was present—the former because he was tossing in a high fever, and his comrade because he was nursing him. For three days he was very ill, and it was not until the fourth that O'Driscoll dared to give him Gavin's signet-ring. The warm-hearted fellow had taken it from her finger on the afternoon of the fatal day, when he had gone to see the last of the woman who had saved his life, and who had sacrificed hers for his friend.
'I thought you would like to have it as a memento of—of her,' he said.
'So I am, but God knows I don't need that—I don't need anything—to remind me of her!'
O'Driscoll laid his hand gently on his shoulder. 'There! you must not take it too much to heart, old man,' he said. 'We mortals can't always see why these things are so arranged. And perhaps, as she said, it was all for the best.'
'If you knew the whole story, O'Driscoll—But why shouldn't you? You have the right to it, if any man has.'
Then, for the first time, he told him what had passed in the treasure-chamber, and there was a suspicious moisture in the eyes of both before it was concluded.
'And, after it all,' cried Leslie, 'she gave her life for mine! How can I help feeling it—that I was not worth the price?'
'It was a noble ending,' said O'Driscoll softly. 'God grant that we make an ending like it! I loved her too, Rutherford; but what need of useless regrets? Are we not both the richer for the memory of a good and noble woman?'
Let Don Gaspar's words be the epitaph of Chiatapua!
WHEN Leslie was fully recovered, there was nothing to detain them longer in Oyalapa. Their own inclination, as may be imagined, was to get away as speedily as possible.
Short of discourtesy, however, they found it impossible to leave just at once. For, a week later, Leslie was waited upon by a deputation from both sections of the tribe, headed by Acoya and Guatúsa—the latter of whom had already been chosen by his people to succeed Adana, partly as being the deceased chiefs nearest blood-relation, and partly (it was said) from a wholesome fear of the magic that he had acquired in the country of the white men—and was formally invited to become their ruler, and to fill Chiatapua's place as Keeper of the City. The old race was no more, and to whom should they look up and pay their allegiance but the son of Ayatepec? Put thus, the compliment was a high one; but of course it had to be declined—firmly enough to end the matter for good, but otherwise as gently and easily as might be. He added a word or two of his own to enforce Chiatapua's last message. All cause of enmity between the two branches had ceased with Adana's death; and he asked their promise that in the future, when he was gone, there should be peace in the land.
'It shall he so,' said Acoya, who was spokesman. 'And the city shall be kept, although the race that built it is no more; and for my lord's sake we will welcome any strangers that may cross the mountains, and no longer sacrifice them at the festival.'
'Except that they come in war,' interposed Guatúsa. 'Then the passes will be held, and they will be beaten back.'
And, in return, the headmen pleaded so earnestly with him to stay yet awhile in the valley that he had not the heart to refuse. He had one good reason for lingering, for it seemed that Acoya's favourite daughter had found favour in Guatúsa's eyes, and with commendable promptitude their marriage had already been arranged. It would take place soon, and Leslie's presence and countenance were declared to be essential. How could he decline to give his blessing to such an excellent pledge of peace?
So they stayed on, and among their distractions to pass the time were several attempts to discover the secret of the pyramid. They were altogether without avail; it had perished with the last descendant of the race which had invented it. Doubtless, with the resources of modern science and sufficient dynamite, the way into the chamber could be opened again and its treasures brought forth into the world; but Leslie was resolved that it should not be through his instrumentality. He, for one, was quite content to leave them undisturbed.
At last, with the new year, they made ready for their departure. They had paid a visit to Guatúsa's country to say farewell to him and his newly-wedded wife, and had found him happily settled, governing his people as to the manner born. The route to be taken had caused them much consideration, but finally they had decided upon that followed by Gavin Leslie—namely, the course of the river which left the valley to the east. Mezrac and three guides were to accompany them, and the party—eight in all—were to trust themselves to the mercies of a couple of light birch canoes.
One lovely morning, shortly after sunrise, they started. The final good-byes had been spoken on the previous evening, but the whole population of the village was congregated to speed them on their journey. There were tears in Acoya's eyes as he saluted Leslie for the last time.
'We can never forget my lord, and the days that he has spent with us,' he said. 'In his own land, let him sometimes remember his servants. And perhaps, if it be the will of the gods, we may see my lord again.'
'Farewell, Acoya. Some day, perhaps, I will come back to Oyalapa.'
They pushed off amid the cheers and good wishes of the crowd; and before evening they were many miles from the valley.
The incidents and adventures of the journey need not be recorded here. It was one of many vicissitudes and not a little peril, and for ten days they may he said to have carried their lives in their hands. The river cut its way through a mountainous and inhospitable country; dangerous rapids alternated with cañons scarcely less dangerous; for three-fourths of the distance the boats had to be transported on their passengers' heads by paths that were known only to the natives, and seemed sometimes to be hardly passable for a goat; and even when there was a stretch of navigable water, all was not smooth sailing. Mishaps were not rare, but were luckily unattended by any serious accident.
In due time, however, the worst was past, and they parted from Mezrac and his companions at a point where the river joined a broader stream. The rest, according to their guides, was child's work. They left them one of the boats, and themselves returned in the other.
O'Driscoll guessed (and rightly) that the new river was the Wanks, or Rio Coco, which empties itself into the Caribbean Sea about latitude 15°. A few days later, when it had emerged from the mountains and entered the forest-belt that stretches inland from the sea, they were lucky enough to encounter a party of rubber-searchers, and from them learned their exact position. Learning also that the rubber-searchers had a schooner at the mouth of the river, they induced them (for a proper consideration) to descend with them immediately, and then to carry them to the port of Blewfields, on the Mosquito coast. There, in short, they arrived safely in the course of the next week.
Leslie's first visit was to the British vice-consul, who told him that a tramp-steamer was about to leave for Colon, where he would be able to catch the English mail-boat.
'You will go, of course?' said O'Driscoll.
'I think so,' he replied. 'It might be a week or two before I got another, and I am anxious to be home. But look here, O'Driscoll! Why not come with me?'
'Thanks; but somehow I don't feel up to festivities just yet. I have a fancy for home, too—for my little hacienda in Guatemala. You can leave the boys to me, Rutherford. I'll drop them at León on my way, and see that your intentions are carried out.'
Leslie hesitated for a moment. 'Perhaps it's better,' he said; 'although it seems ungrateful to leave you so quickly, after—after all we've gone through together. But you will promise to visit me in the old country, O'Driscoll?'
'Be sure of that!' cried O'Driscoll heartily. 'We have been good comrades, haven't we? And we mustn't lose sight of each other.'
They shook hands upon the compact.
'Only, let it he soon!' said Leslie.
'As soon as you are settled, old man. Now go and get your things ready.'
So, that afternoon, they parted. Few words passed; but neither was ever likely to forget their travels together, and the memories, both sad and pleasant, that they had in common. One of them, at least, felt as if he had left a part of himself in that secluded valley amongst the mountains of Nicaragua.
O'Driscoll and the two peons saw their companion off. The last farewells were shouted from boat to steamer; and ten minutes later the vessel had crossed the bar and was picking its way through the shallows of the outer estuary. Leslie did not move until the low, swampy shores of the Mosquito Reservation had dropped below the horizon. Then, with the conviction that here at last was the ending to the strange story that had begun more than two centuries before—perhaps, too, with a sigh that it was indeed so—he turned and went below.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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