« IndietroContinua »
There was a shuffling sound, a great rattling of tin scabbard, and the admiral, prompt at his spot of waiting, leaped across the room to receive it.
The message was handed to him. Slowly spelling it out, he found it to be his first official order - thus running:
“ Proceed immediately with your vessel to mouth of Rio Ruiz; transport beef and provisions to barracks at Alforan.
Small glory, to be sure, in this, his country's first call. But it had called, and joy surged in the admiral's breast. He drew his cutlass belt to another buckle hole, roused his dozing crew, and in a quarter of an hour El Nacional was tacking swiftly down coast in a stiff landward breeze.
The Rio Ruiz is a small river, emptying into the sea ten miles below Coralio. That portion of the coast is wild and solitary. Through a gorge in the Cordilleras rushes the Rio Ruiz, cold and bubbling, to glide, at last, with breadth and leisure, through an alluvial morass into the sea.
In two hours El Nacional entered the river's mouth. The banks were crowded with a disposition of formidable trees. The sumptuous undergrowth of the tropics overflowed the land, and drowned itself in the fallow waters. Silently the sloop entered there, and met a deeper silence. Brilliant with greens and ochres and floral scarlets, the umbrageous mouth of the Rio Ruiz furnished no sound or movement save of the sea-going water as it purled against the prow of the vessel. Small chance there seemed of wresting beef or provisions from that empty solitude.
The admiral decided to cast anchor, and, at the chain's rattle, the forest was stimulated to instant and resounding uproar. The mouth of the Ric Ruiz had only been taking a morning nap. Parrots and baboons screeched and barked in the trees; a whirring and a hissing and a booming marked the awakening of animal life; a dark blue bulk was visible for an instant, as a startled tapir fought his way through the vines.
The navy, under orders, hung in the mouth of the little river for hours. The crew served the dinner of shark's fin soup, plantains, crab gumbo and sour wine. The admiral, with a three-foot telescope, closely scanned the impervious foliage fifty yards away.
It was nearly sunset when a reverberating “hallo-o-o!” came from the forest to their left. It was answered; and three men, mounted upon mules, crashed through the tropic tangle to within a dozen yards of the river's bank. There they dismounted; and one, unbuckling his belt, struck each mule a violent blow with his sword scabbard, so that they, with a fling of heels, dashed back again into the forest.
Those were strange-looking men to be conveying beef and provisions. One was a large and exceedingly active man, of striking presence. He was of the purest Spanish type, with curling, graybesprinkled, dark hair, blue, sparkling eyes, and the pronounced air of a caballero grande. The other two were small, brown-faced men, wearing white military uniforms, high riding boots and swords. The clothes of all were drenched, bespattered and rent by the thicket. Some stress of circumstance must have driven them, diable à quatre, through flood, mire and jungle.
“O-hé! Señor Almirante,” called the large man. “ Send to us your
boat.” The dory was lowered, and Felipe, with one of the Caribs, rowed toward the left bank.
The large man stood near the water's brink, waist deep in the curling vines. As he gazed upon the scarecrow figure in the stern of the dory a sprightly interest beamed upon his mobile face.
Months of wageless and thankless service had dimmed the admiral's splendour. His red trousers were patched and ragged. Most of the bright buttons and yellow braid were gone from his jacket. The visor of his cap was torn, and depended almost to his eyes. The admiral's feet were bare.
“Dear admiral,” cried the large man, and his voice was like a blast from a horn, “I kiss your hands. I knew we could build upon your fidelity. You had our despatch - from General Martinez. little nearer with your boat, dear Admiral. Upon these devils of shifting vines we stand with the smallest security.”
Felipe regarded him with a stolid face.
“ Provisions and beef for the barracks at Alforan," he quoted.
“ No fault of the butchers, Almirante mio, that the beef awaits you not. But you are come in time to save the cattle. Get us aboard your vessel, señor, at once. You first, caballeros — á priesa! Come back for me. The boat is too small.”
The dory conveyed the two officers to the sloop, and returned for the large man.
“ Have you so gross a thing as food, good admiral?” he cried, when aboard.
“ And, perhaps, coffee? Beef and provisions! Nombre de Dios! a
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 Nacional 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 deliver