Charles James Lever.

[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 5) online

. (page 33 of 50)
Online LibraryCharles James Lever[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 5) → online text (page 33 of 50)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


or that asses' flesh (of which, from their "hocks and hind
quarters generally, he freely partook) disagreed with him, the
animal sickened and died, leaving the poor Mulero to his own
unaided devices to drive the donkeys round the charmed
circle. I believe that he did all that mere man was capable
of in fact, in everything, save using his teeth, he imitated
closely the practices of the illustrious defunct. But asses
though they were, they soon discovered that the " great
motive principle" was wanting, and betook themselves to
a far easier and more congenial mode of doing the day's

Now the Mulero was a man of thought and reflection, and
it occurred to him that if asses, however inadequately, could
yet, in some sort, perform the functions of mules, there was
no reason why a man, even a very poor-looking and ragged
one, should not replace a bull-dog. There was that hungry,
half-starved look about me, too, that vouched my temper
would not be of the sweetest : and he eyed me with the
glance of a connoisseur. At last JMijo for such was he
called made the proposal to me in all form: explaining that
my predecessor had had his rations allowed him like a colon-
ist, and was entitled to sleep under cover at the house of his
former mistress, La Senhora Dias, " who," he added, with a
sly wink, " was my countrywoman." "Well knowing a
Mexican never boggles at a lie, no matter how broad and
palpable, I took no notice of what I at once concluded
to be impossible ; but proceeded to inquire as to the precise
functions I might be expected to perform in my canine

"'A mere nothing," said he, with a shrug of his shoulders :
" we harness the beasts at daybreak, say three o'clock ; by
eight the water is all up ; then you can sleep or amuse
yourself till four of the afternoon, when the Commandant
Salezar likes to have cool water for his bath ; that only takes
an hour ; then you are free again till night closes in."

" And what then ? " asked I, impatiently.

" You have your rounds at night."

" My rounds ! where, and what for ? "

" Against the prairie wolves, that now and then are daring
enough to come down into the very settlement, and carry off
kids and lambs ; ay, and sometimes don't stop there."

He winked with a terrible significance at the last words.

" So, then, I am not only to bark at the asses all day, but
I am to bay the wolves by night ?" said I, half indignantly.

" Lupo did it," responded he, with a nod.


" He was a dog, Senhor Mijo," said I.

" Ah, that he was ! " added he, in a tone very different from
my remark, accompanying it with a most disparaging glance
at my ragged habiliments. I read the whole meaning of the
look at once, and hung my head, abashed at the disparaging

He waited patiently for my reply, and perceiving that I
was still silent, he said, " Well, is it a bargain ? "

"Agreed," said I, with a sigh; and wondering if Fortune
had yet any lower depths in store for me, I followed him to his
hut. Mijo proceeded to acquaint me with all the details of
my office, and also certain peculiarities of the two beasts for
whose especial misery I was engaged. If compassion could
have entered into my nature, it might have moved me at sight
of them. Their haunches and hocks were notched and scored
with the marks of teeth, while their tails were a series of
round balls, like certain old-fashioned bell-ropes, the result of
days of suffering.

" I am so accustomed to the name, I must call you ' Lupo,' "
said Mijo ; "you have no objection ? "

" Not in the least," said I ; " if a ' dog in office,' why not
a dog in name ? "

That same day I was conducted to the " Tienda del Gato,"
the shop of " The Cat," at the sign of which animal La
Senhora Dias resided. It wag a small cottage at the very
extremity of the village, in a somewhat pretty garden, and
here a kind of canteen was held, at which the settlers pro-
cured cigars, brandy, and other like luxuries, in exchange for
their " tickets of labour."

Of the Senhora, some mystery existed : the popular rumour
was, that she had been the favourite mistress of Santa Anna,
whose influence, however, could not rescue her from the fate
of a convict, to which she was sentenced for forgery. Her
great patron contrived, however, to release her from the
indignity of a penal settlement, and placed her at " La Noria,"
where she had resided two years. Some said that it was to
conceal herself from the prying curiosity of the vulgnr :
another, that it was to hide the brand of the letter " F,"
burned with a hot iron in her forehead : others, again, that it
was by Santa Anna's express order (but what the reason ?)
she always wore a black velvet mask, which, since her arrival
at the village, none had seen her remove.

A hundred stories, one more absurd than another, were
circulated about her high birth and condition, and the vast
wealth she had once possessed. The only real clue I could


discover to these narratives, being the simple fact that her
dog, a fierce English bull-dog my own predecessor, and who
by peculiar favour was pei'mitted to accompany her used to
wear a massive silver collar, richly chased and ornamented :
fiction, indeed, had invested it with precious stones and gems,
but these were purely imaginative ornaments. Even devoid
of jewels, such was deemed an unequivocal proof of riches
among those \vhose poverty was of the very lowest order,
and La Seiihora Bias bought her " millionaire" character at
a cheap price. To me, the most interesting part in her story
was that which called her my countrywoman, and yet this
seemed so unlikely, and was coupled with so much that I
knew to be impossible, that I did not venture to believe it.

]t was the hour of the siesta when we reached " the Cat,"
so that I had no opportunity of seeing the Senhora. Mijo
conducted me to a little building in the garden, oi'iginally
built as a hut for a man who watched the fruit, but latterly
inhabited by Lupo. There I was installed at once. Some
chestnut leaves were my bed, a small spring afforded me
water ; I was to receive eight ounces of maize bread each
day, with half an ounce of coffee Lupo had "taken" the
latter "out" in sausages. Of the fruit of the garden, con-
sisting of limes, oranges, peaches, and mangoes, I was free
of whatever fell to the ground a species of black mail that
never failed me at the dessert. These were my perquisites,
my duties I already knew ; and so Mijo left me, to recruit
myself by one day's rest, and on " the morrow," to begin my

I shall never forget the strange melange of feelings, plea-
surable and the reverse, which came over me as I first found
myself alone, and had time to think over my condition.
Many would perhaps have said that the degradation would
have mastered all other thoughts, and that the life to which
I was reduced would have tended to break down all self-
respect and esteem. Whether to my credit or otherwise,
I know not, but I did not feel thus- nay, I even went so far
as to congratulate myself that a source of livelihood was
open to me, which did not involve me in forced companion-
ship, and that I might devote so many hours of each day to
my own undisturbed thoughts, as I wandered about that vast
garden, in which no other than myself appeared ever to set

Culture it had none, nor seemed to need it : one of my
duties was, to pluck the ripe fruit every day, ere I issued
forth to the " Well," and place the baskets at the Serihora's


door ; and save this, I believe, all was left to Nature. What
a wilderness of rank luxuriance it was ! The earth had be-
come so fertilized by the fallen fruit left to rot as it fell, that
the very atmosphere was loaded with the odour of peaches, and
oranges, and pomegranates. A thousand gaudy and brilliant
flowers too glittered among the tall grass that tried to overtop
them: and insects and creatures, of colours still more beau-
teous, fluttered and chirped among the leaves, making a little
chorus of sounds, that mingled deliciously with the rippling
stream that murmured near.



To this very hour I am unable to say how long I remained
at the village of La Noria. Time slipped away unchronicled ;
the seasons varied little, save for about two winter months,
when heavy snows fell, and severe cold prevailed ; but spring
followed these with a suddenness that seemed like magic,
and then came summer and autumn, as it were, blended into
one, all the varied beauties of the one season vicing with the
other. This was all that was wanting to complete the illu-
sion which the monotony of my daily life suggested : for me
there was no companionship no link that bound me to my
fellow-men; the " Sunday," too, "shone no Sabbath-day for
me." The humble range of my duties never varied ; nor,
save with Mijo, did I ever exchange even a passing word.
Indeed, the hours of mij labour were precisely those when all
others slept ; and whether I tracked the wayworn asses at
their dreary round, or pursued my solitary path at night, my
own was the only voice I ever heard. It was the "life of a
dog ; " but after all, how many states of existence there are far
less desirable ! I had always wherewithal to subsist upon ; I
had no severe labour, nor any duty incompatible with health ;
and I had greatest blessing of all time for self-com-
muning and reflection : that delicious leisure, in which the
meanest hovel ever raised by hands becomes one's " HOME."


I was happy, then, after my own fashion : various little con-
trivances to lighten my tasks amused and occupied my
thoughts. To bring the garden into order was also a passion
with me ; and although necessitated to invent and fashion the
tools to work with, I was not deterred by this difficulty, but
manfully overcame it. I greatly doubted if "Watt ever gazed
at a new improvement in steam machinery with half the
delight I looked upon my first attempt at a rake. Then what
pleasure did I experience as I saw the trim beds covered with
blooming flowers, the clearly-raked walks, the grass-plots
close shaven and weedless ! How the thoughts of changes
and alterations filled my mind, as I wandered in the dreary
night ! What trellices did I not invent ! what festoons of
the winding vine-branches ! what bowers of the leafy banana !
Like the old gardener, Adam, I began at last to think that
all these things were too beautiful for one man's gaze ; that
such ecstasies as mine deserved companionship, and that the
selfishness of my enjoyment was the greatest blot upon its
perfection. When this notion caught hold of me, I wandered
away in fancy to the " Donna Maria de los Dolores ; " and
how fervently did I believe that, with her to share it, my
present existence had been a life of Paradise !

These thoughts at last exhausted themselves, and I fell a
thinking why the Senhora Dias never had the curiosity to
visit her garden, nor see the changes I had wrought in it.
To be sure, it was true, she knew nothing of them : how then
was I to make the fact reach her ears ? The only hours that
I was at liberty were those when every close-drawn curtain
and closed shutter proclaimed the " siesta."

It was clear enough that a whole life might slip over in
this fashion without my ever seeing her. There was some-
thing in the difficulty that prompted a desire to overcome it ;
and so I set myself to plan the means by which I might make
her acquaintance. Of the windows which looked towards
the garden, the blinds were always closed : the single door
that led into it as invariably locked ; I bethought me of
writing a humble and most petitionary epistle, setting forth
my utter solitude and isolation ; but where were pen and ink
and paper to come from ? these were luxuries the Governador
himself alone possessed. My next thought was more prac-
ticable ; it was to deposit each morning upon her basket of
fruit a little bouquet of fresh flowers. But, then, would they
ever reach her hands ? would not the servant purloin and
intercept my offering? ay, that was to be thought of.

By most assiduous watching, 1 at last discovered that her

Y a


bedroom looked into the garden by a small grated window,
almost hidden by the gnarled branches of a wild fig-tree.
This at once afforded me the opportunity I desired, and up
the branches of this I climbed each morning of my life, to
fasten to the bars my little bouquet of flowers.

With what intense expectancy did I return home the first
morning of my experiment ! what vacillations of hope and
fear agitated me as I came near the garden, and looking up,
saw to my inexpressible delight that the bouquet was gone !
I could have cried for very joy ! At last I was no longer an
outcast, forgotten by my fellows. One, at least, knew of my
existence, and possibly pitied and compassionated my deso-

I needed no more than this to bind me again to the love of
life ; frail as was the link, it was enough whereupon to hang
a thousand hopes and fancies, and it suggested matter for
cheering thought, where before the wide waste of existence
stretched pathless and purposeless before me. How I longed
for that skill by which I might mako the flowers the inter-
preters of my thoughts ! I knew nothing of this, however ;
I could but form them into such combinations of colour and
order as should please the senses, but not appeal to the heart ;
and yet I did try to invent a language, forgetting the while
that the key of the cipher must always remain with myself.

It chanced that one night, when on my rounds outside the
village, I suddenly discovered that I had forgotten the caps
for my rifle. I hastened homeward to fetch them, and en-
tered the garden by a small door, which I had myself mado,
and of which few were cognizant. It was a night of bright
moonlight ; but the wind was high, and drifted large musses
of cloud across the sky, alternately hiding and displaying the
moon. Tracking, with an instinct too well trained to be-
come deceptive, the walks of the garden, while a dark mass
shut out the " lamp of night," I reached my hut, when sud-
denly, on a little stone-bench beside the door, I beheld a
female figure seated. She was scarcely four yards from
where I stood, and in the full glare of the moonlight, as pal-
pable as at noon-day. She was tall and elegantly formed ;
her air and carriage, even beneath the coarse folds of a com-
mon dress of black serge, such as bespoke condition ; her
hands, too, were white as marble, and finely and delicately
formed ; in one of them she held a velvet mask, and 1 watched
with anxiety to see the face from which it had been removed,
which was still averted from me. At last she turned slowly
round, and I could perceive that her features, although \vuru


\3y evident suffering and sorrow, had once been beautiful ;
the traits were in perfect symmetry; the mouth alone had a
character of severity, somewhat at variance with the rest, but
its outline was faultless the expression only being unpleasing.
The dark circles around the eyes attested the work of years
of grief bitter and corroding.

What should I do ? advance boldly, or retire noiselessly
from the spot? If the first alternative presented perhaps
the only chance of ever speaking to her, it might also prevent
her ever again visiting the garden. This was a difficulty,
and ere I had time to solve it, she arose to leave the spot.
I coughed slightly she halted and looked around, without
any semblance of terror or even surprise, and so we stood face
to face.

"You should have been on your rounds on this hour!"
said she, with a manner of almost stern expression, and using
the Spanish language.

" So I should, Senhora ; but having forgot a part of my
equipment, I returned to seek it."

" They would punish you severely if it were known," said
she, in the same tone.

" I am aware of that," replied I, " and yet I would incur the
penalty twice over to have seen one of whom my thoughts
for every hour these months past have been full."

" Of me ? you speak of me ? "

" Yes, Senhora, of you. I know the presumption of my
words ; but bethink you that it is not in such a spirit they
are uttered, but as the cry of one humbled and humiliated
to the very dust, and who, on looking at you, remembers the
link that binds him to his fellows, and for the instant rises
above the degradation of his sad condition."

" And it is through me by looking at me such thoughts
are inspired ! " said she, in an accent of piercing anguish.
" Are you an English youth : "

"Yes, Senhora, as much as an Irishman can call him-

" And is this the morality of your native land," said she,
in English, " that you can feel an elevation of heart and
sentiment from the contemplation of such as I am? Shame,
sir shame upon your falsehood, or worse shame upon your

" I only know you as my day and night dreams have ruado
you, lady as the worshipper creates his own idol."

" But you have heard of me ? " said she, speaking with a
violence and rapidity that betokened a disordered mind.


" All the world has heard of me, from the Havannah to Gua-
jaqualla, as the poisoner and the forger !"

I shook my head, dissentingly.

" It is then because you are less than human ! " said she,
scoffingly, " or you had heard it ; but mind, sir, it is untrue.
I am neither." She paused, and then, in a voice of terrible
emotion, said, "There is enough of crime upon this poor
head, but not that ! And where have you lived, not to
have heard of La Senhora Dias ? " said she, with an hysteric

In a few words I told her how I had made part of a great
gold-searching expedition, and been utterly ruined by the
calamity which destroyed my companions.

" You would have sold yourself for gold wherewith to buy
pleasure ! " muttered she to herself.

"I was poor, lady I must needs do something for my

" Then why not follow humble labour ? What need of
wealth '<? Where had you learned its want or acquired the
taste to expend it ? You could only have imitated rich
men's vices, not their virtues that sometimes ennoble them."

The wild vehemence of her manner, as with an excessive
rapidity she uttered these words, convinced me that her
faculties were not under the right control of reason, and I
followed her with an interest even heightened by that sad

" You see no one you speak to none," said she, turning
round, suddenly, " else I should bid you forget that you have
ever seen me."

"Are we to meet again, Senhora?" said I, submissively,
as I stood beside the door of which she held the key in her

"Yes perhaps I don't know;" and so saying, she left

Two months crept over, and how slowly they went ! with-
out my again seeing the Senhora. Were it not that the
bouquets which each morning I fastened to the window-bars
were removed before noon, I could have fancied that she had
no other existenoe than what my dreamy imagination gave
her. The heavy wooden "jalousies " were never opened
the door remained close locked not a foot-tread marked the
gravel near it. It was clear to me she had never crossed the
threshold since the night I first saw her.

I fell into a plodding, melancholy mood. The tiresome
routine of my daily life its dull unvarying monotony began


to wear into my soul, and I ceased either to think over the
past, or speculate on the future ; but would sit for hours long
in a moody reverie, actually unconscious of everything.

Sometimes I would make an effort to throw off this de-
spondency, and try, by recollection of the active energy of my
own nature, to stir up myself to an effort of one kind or
other ; but the unbroken stillness the vast motionless soli-
tude around me the companionless isolation in which I lived,
would resume their influence, and with a weary eigh I would
resign myself to a hopelessness that left no wish in the heart
save for a speedy death.

Even castle-building the last resource of imprisonment
ceased to interest. Life had also resolved itself into a succes-
sion of dreary images of which the voiceless prairie, the
monotonous water-wheel, the darkened path of my midnight
patrol were the chief: and I felt myself sinking day by day,
hour by hour, into that resistless apathy through which no
ray of hope ever pierces.

At last I ceased even to pluck the flowers for the Senhora's
window. I deemed any exertion which might be avoided,
needless ; and taxed my ingenuity to find out contrivances to
escape my daily toil. The garden I neglected utterly, and in
the wild luxuriance of the soil the rank weeds soon effaced
every sign of former culture. What a strange frame of mind
was mine ! even the progress of this ruin gave me a
pleasure to the full as great as that once felt in witness-
ing the blooming beauty of its healthful vegetation. I used
to walk among the rank and noisome weeds, with the savage
delight of some democratic leader who saw his triumph, amid
the downfall of the beautiful, the richly-prized and the valued,
experiencing a species of insane pleasure in the thought of
some fancied vengeance.

How the wild growth of the valueless weed overtopped the
tender excellence of the fragrant plant how the noisome
odour overpowered its rich perfume how, in fact, barbarism
lorded it over civilization, became a study to my distorted
apprehension ; and I felt a diabolical joy at the victory.

A little more, and this misanthropy had become madness ;
but a change was at hand. I was sitting one night in the
garden it was already the hour when my " patrol " should
have begun, but latterly I had grown indifferent to the call of
duty : as Hope died out within me, so did Fear also, and I
cared little for the risk of punishment ; nay, more, a kind of
rebellious spirit was gaining upon me, and I wished for some
accident which might bring me into collision with some one.


As I sat thus, I heard a footstep behind me : I turned, and saw
the Senhora close to me. I did not rise to salute her, but
gazed calmly, and sternly, without speaking.

" Has the life of the dog imparted the dog's nature ? " said
she, scoffingly. "Why don't you speak ? "

" I have almost forgotten how to do so," said I, sulkily.

" You can hear, at least ? "

I nodded assent. .

" And understand what you hear ? "

I nodded again.

" Listen to me, then, attentively, for I have but a short time
to stay, and have much to tell you ! and first of all, do you
wish to escape from hence ? "

" Do I wish it ! " cried I ; and in the sudden burst, long
dried-up sources of emotion opened out afresh, and the heavy
tears rolled down my cheeks.

" Are you willing to incur the danger of attempting it ? "

" Ay, this instant ! "

" If so, the means await you. I want a letter conveyed to
a certain person in the town of Guajuaqualla, which is about
two hundred miles distant."

" In which direction ? " asked I.

" You shall see the map for yourself; here it is," said she,
giving me a small package, which contained a map and a
mariner's compass ; " I only know that the path lies over the
prairie, and by the banks of a branch of the Red River.
There are villages and farmhouses when you have reached
that region."

" And how am I to do so, unmolested, Senhora ? a foot-
traveller on the prairie must be overtaken at once."

"You shall be well mounted on a mustang worth a thou-
sand dollars ; but ride him without spurring. If he bring
you safe to Guajuaqualla he has paid his price." She then
proceeded to a detail, which showed how well and maturely
every minute circumstance had been weighed and considered.
The greatest difficulty lay in the fact that no water was to be
met with nearer than eighty miles, which distance I should
be compelled to compass on the first day. If this were a
serious obstacle on one side, on the other it relieved me of
all apprehension of being captured after the first forty or
fifty miles were accomplished, since my pursuers would
scarcely venture farther.

The Senhora had provided for every thing. My dress, which
would have proclaimed me as a runaway " settler," was to be
exchanged for the gay attire of a Mexican horse-dealer ; a


preen velvet jacket and hose, all slashed and decorated with
jingling silver buttons, pistols, sabre, and rifle to suit. The
mustang, whose saddle was to be fitted with the usual accom-

Online LibraryCharles James Lever[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 5) → online text (page 33 of 50)