« IndietroContinua »
little longer and we could have eaten one of those mules that you, Colonel Rafael, saluted so feelingly with your sword scabbard at parting. Let us have food; and then we will sail — for the barracks at Alforan — no?"
The Caribs prepared a meal, to which the three passengers of El National set themselves with famished delight. About sunset, as was its custom, the breeze veered and swept back from the mountains, cool and steady, bringing a taste of the stagnant lagoons and mangrove swamps that guttered the lowlands. The mainsail of the sloop was hoisted and swelled to it, and at that moment they heard shouts and a waxing clamour from the bosky profundities of the shore.
"The butchers, my dear admiral," said the large man, smiling, "too late for the slaughter."
Further than his orders to his crew, the admiral was saying nothing. The topsail and jib were spread, and the sloop glided out of the estuary. The large man and his companions had bestowed themselves with what comfort they could about the bare deck. Belike, the thing big in their minds had been their departure from that critical shore; and now that the hazard was so far reduced their thoughts were loosed to the consideration of further deliverance. But when they saw the sloop turn and fly up coast again they relaxed, satisfied with the course the admiral had taken.
The large man sat at ease, his spirited blue eye engaged in the contemplation of the navy's commander. He was trying to estimate this sombre and fantastic lad, whose impenetrable stolidity puzzled him. Himself a fugitive, his life sought, and chafing under the smart of defeat and failure, it was characteristic of him to transfer instantly his interest to the study of a thing new to him. It was like him, too, to have conceived and risked all upon this last desperate and madcap scheme — this message to a poor, crazed fanatico cruising about with his grotesque uniform and his farcical title. But his companions had been at their wits' end; escape had seemed incredible; and now he was pleased with the success of the plan they had called crack-brained and precarious.
The brief, tropic twilight seemed to slide swiftly into the pearly splendour of a moonlit night. And now the lights of Coralio appeared, distributed against the darkening shore to their right. The admiral stood, silent, at the tiller; the Caribs, like black panthers, held the sheets, leaping noiselessly at his short commands. The three passengers were watching intently the sea before them, and when at length they came in sight of the bulk of a steamer lying a mile out from the town, with her lights radiating deep into the water, they held a sudden voluble and closeheaded converse. The sloop was speeding as if to strike midway between ship and shore.
The large man suddenly separated from his companions and approached the scarecrow at the helm.
"My dear admiral," he said, " the government has been exceedingly remiss. I feel all the shame for it that only its ignorance of your devoted service has prevented it from sustaining. An inexcusable oversight has been made. A vessel, a uniform and a crew worthy of your fidelity shall be furnished you. But just now, dear admiral, there is business of moment afoot. The steamer lying there is the Salvador. I and my friends desire to be conveyed to her, where we are sent on the government's business. Do us the favour to shape your course accordingly."
Without replying, the admiral gave a sharp command, and put the tiller hard to port. El National swerved, and headed straight as an arrow's course for the shore.
"Do me the favour," said the large man, a trifle restively, "to acknowledge, at least, that you catch the sound of my words." It was possible that the fellow might be lacking in senses as well as intellect.
The admiral emitted a croaking, harsh laugh, and spake.
"They will stand you," he said, "with your face to a wall and shoot you dead. That is the way they kill traitors. I knew you when you stepped into my boat. I have seen your picture in a book. You are Sabas Placido, traitor to your country. With your face to a wall. So, you will die. I am the admiral, and I will take you to them. With your face to a wall. Yes."
Don Sabas half turned and waved his hand, with a ringing laugh, toward his fellow fugitives. "To you, caballeros, I have related the history of that session when we issued that 0! so ridiculous commission. Of a truth our jest has been turned against us. Behold the Frankenstein's monster we have created!"
Don Sabas glanced toward the shore. The lights of Coralio were drawing near. He could see the beach, the warehouse of the Bodega Nacional, the long, low cuartel occupied by the soldiers, and, behind that, gleaming in the moonlight, a stretch of high adobe wall. He had seen men stood with their faces to that wall and shot dead.
Again he addressed the extravagant figure at the helm.
"It is true," he said, " that I am fleeing the country. But, receive the assurance that I care very little for that. Courts and camps everywhere are open to Sabas Placido. Vaya! what is this molehill of a republic — this pig's head of a country — to a man like me? I am a paisano of everywhere. In Rome, in London, in Paris, in Vienna, you will hear them say: 'Welcome back, Don Sabas.' Come! — tonto — baboon of a boy — admiral, whatever you call yourself, turn your boat. Put us on board the Salvador, and here is your pay — five hundred pesos in money of the Estados Unidos — more than your lying government will pay you in twenty years."
Don Sabas pressed a plump purse against the youth's hand. The admiral gave no heed to the words or the movement. Braced against the helm, he was holding the sloop dead on her shoreward course. His dull face was lit almost to intelligence by some inward conceit that seemed to afford him joy, and found utterance in another parrot-like cackle.
"That is why they do it," he said —" so that you will not see the guns. They fire — boom! —