Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards.

Rita online

. (page 2 of 9)
Online LibraryLaura Elizabeth Howe RichardsRita → online text (page 2 of 9)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

forest, I have nothing to say. My fingers are so cramped from carrying
this detestable cage, I shall never recover the full use of them. But
the señorita must be obeyed."

"Assuredly she must be obeyed!" said Rita; and a flash of her eyes added
force to the words. "Could I have come away, I ask you, and left this
faithful, this patriot bird, to starve, or be murdered outright? Old
Julio would have wrung his neck, you know it well, Manuela, the first
time he spoke out from his heart, spoke the words of freedom and
patriotism that his mistress has taught him. Poor Chiquito! thou lovest
me? thou art glad that I brought thee away from that place of tyranny
and bloodshed? speak to thy mistress, Chico!"

But Chico's spirits had been ruffled, as well as Manuela's, by being
carried about in his cage, at unseemly hours, when he should have been
hanging quietly in the verandah, where he belonged. He looked sulky, and
only said, "_Caramba! no mi gusta!_"

"He is hungry! he starves!" cried Rita; "give me the seed!" Sitting down
on the rock, she proceeded to feed the parrot, as composedly as if they
were indeed on the wide shaded verandah, instead of on a wild hillside,
far from sight or sound of anything human.

"And the señorita's own breakfast?" said Manuela at last, when Chiquito
had had enough, and had deigned to relax a little, and even to mutter,
"_Mi gustan todas!_" "Is the señorita not also dying of hunger? for
myself, I perish, but that is of little consequence, save that my death
will leave the señorita alone - with the parrot."

Rita burst into merry laughter. "My poor Manuela!" she said. "Thou shalt
not perish. Breakfast? we will have it this moment. Where is the bag?"

The bag being produced, - it really was a heavy one, and it was hardly to
be wondered at that Manuela should be a little peevish about it, - Rita
drew from it a substantial box of chocolate, and a tin of biscuits. "My
child, we breakfast!" she announced. "If kings desire to breakfast more
royally, I make them my compliment. For free Cubans, bread and chocolate
is a feast. Feast, then, Manuela mine. Eat, and be happy!"

Bread - or rather, delicate biscuits, and chocolate, were indeed a feast
to the two hungry girls. They nibbled and crunched, and Manuela's
spirits rose with every bite. Rita's had no need to rise. She was
having a real adventure; her dreams were coming true; she was a
bona-fide heroine, in a bona-fide "situation." "What have we in the bag,
best of Manuelas?" she asked. "I told you in a general way; I even added
some trifles, for Carlos's comfort; poor dear Carlos! But tell me what
you put in, my best one!"

Manuela cast a rueful glance at the plump valise.

"The white silk blouse," she said; "the white peignoir with swansdown."

"In case of sickness!" cried Rita, interrupting. "You would not have me
ill, far from my home, and bereft of every slightest comfort, Manuela?
surely you would not; I know your kind heart too well. Besides, the
peignoir weighs nothing; a feather, a puff of vapour. Go on! what else?"

"Changes of linen, of course," said Manuela. "The gold-mounted
toilet-set; two bottles of eau de Cologne; cigarettes for the Señorito
Don Carlos; bonbons; the ivory writing-case; the feather fan; three
pairs of shoes - "

"Enough! enough!" cried Rita. "We shall do well, Manuela. You have been
an angel of thoughtfulness. You did not bring any jewels? no? I thought
perhaps the Etruscan gold set, so simple, yet so rich, might suit my
altered life well enough; but no matter. After all, what have I to do
with jewels now? The next question is, how are we to find Carlos?"

"To find Don Carlos?" echoed Manuela. "You know where he is, señorita?"

"But, assuredly!" said Rita, and she looked about her confidently. "He
is - here!"

"Here!" repeated Manuela.

"In the mountains!" said Rita, waving her hand vaguely in the direction
of the horizon. "It is a search; we must look for him, without doubt;
but he is - here - somewhere. Come, Manuela, do not look so despairing. I
tell you, we shall meet friends, it may be at any turn. The mountains
are full of the soldiers of Cuba; the first ones we meet will take us to

"Yes," said Manuela. "But what if we met the others, señorita? what if
we met the Spanish soldiers first? Hark! what was that?"

A sound was heard close behind them; a rustling, sliding sound, as if
something or somebody were making his way swiftly through the tall
grass. Manuela clutched her mistress's arm, trembling; Rita, rather
pale, but composed, looking steadily in the direction of the noise. It
came nearer - the grass rustled and shook close beside them; and out from
the tufted tangle came - three large land-crabs, scuttling along on their
ungainly claws, and evidently in a hurry. Manuela uttered a shriek, but
Rita laughed aloud.

"Good luck!" she said. "They are good Cubans, the land-crabs. Many a
good meal has Carlos made on them, poor fellow. If we followed them,
Manuela? They may be going - somewhere. Let us see!"

The crabs were soon out of sight, but the two girls, taking up their
burdens, followed in the direction they had taken, along the hillside,
going they knew not whither.

There seemed to be some faint suggestion of a path. The grasses were
bent aside, and broken here and there; something had trodden here,
whether feet of men or of animals one could not tell. But glad to have
any guide, however insufficient, the girls amused themselves by trying
to discover fresh marks on tree or shrub or grass-clump. It was a wild
tangle, palms and mangoes, coarse grass and savage-looking aloes, with
wild vines running riot everywhere. So far, they had seen no sign of
human life, and the sun was now well up, his rays beating down bright
and hot. Suddenly, coming to a turn on the hillside, they heard voices;
a moment later, and they were standing by a human dwelling.


At first sight it looked more like the burrow of some wild animal. It
was little more than a hole dug in the side of the clay bank. Some
boughs and palm-leaves were wattled together to form a rustic porch, and
under this porch three people were sitting, on the bare ground, - two
women, one young, the other old, and a little child, evidently belonging
to the young woman. They were clothed in a few rags; their cheeks were
hollow with famine, their eyes burning with fever. The old woman was
stirring a handful of meal into a pot of water; the others looked on
with painful eagerness. Rita recoiled with a low cry of terror. She had
heard of this; these were some of the unhappy peasants who had been
driven from their farms. She had never seen anything like it before.
This - this was not the play she had come to see.

The women looked up, and saw the two girls standing near. Instantly they
began to cry out, in wailing voices. "Go! go away! there is nothing for
you; nothing! we have not more than a mouthful for ourselves. Take
yourselves away, and leave us in peace."

Rita came forward, the tears running down her cheeks. "Oh, poor things!"
she cried. "Poor souls, I want nothing. I am not hungry! See! - I have
brought food for you. Quick, Manuela, the bag - the biscuits, child! Give
them to me! Here, thou little one, take this, and eat; there is plenty

The famished child looked from the biscuit to the glowing face that bent
over it. It made a feeble movement; then drew back in fear. The old
woman still clamoured to the girls to go away; but the younger snatched
the biscuit, and began feeding the child hastily, yet carefully.
"Mother, be still!" she said, imperiously. "Hush that noise! do you not
see this is no poor wretch like ourselves? This is a noble lady come
from heaven to bring us help. Thanks, señorita!" With a quick, graceful
movement, she lifted the hem of Rita's dress and pressed it to her lips.
"We were dying!" she said, simply. "It was the last morsel; we meant to
give it to the little one, and some one might find it when we were dead,
and keep the life in it."

"But, eat; eat!" cried Rita, filling the hands of both women with
chocolate and biscuits. "It is dreadful, terrible! oh, I have heard of
it, I have read of it, but I had not seen, I had not known. Oh, if my
cousin Margaret were here, she would know what to do! Eat, my poor
starving ones. You shall never be hungry again if I can help it."

The child pulled its mother's ragged gown.

"Is it an angel?" it asked, its mouth full of chocolate.

"Hear the innocent!" said the mother. "No, lamb, not yet an angel, only
a noble lady on the road to heaven. See, señorita! he was pretty, while
his cheeks were round and full. Still, his eyes are pretty, are they

"They are lovely! he is a darling!" cried Rita; and she took the child
in her arms, and bent over him to hide the tears. Was this truly Rita
Montfort? Yes, the same Rita, only awake now, for the first time now in
her pretty idle life. She felt of the little limbs. They were mere skin
and bone; no sign of baby chubbiness, no curve or dimple. Indeed, she
had come but just in time. "Listen!" she said, presently. "Where do you
come from? where is your home?"

The old woman made a gesture as wide and vague as Rita's own of a few
minutes before. "Our home, noble lady? the wilderness is our home
to-day. Our little farm, our cottage, our patch of cane, all gone, all
destroyed. Only the graves of our dead left."

"We come from Velaya," said the young woman. "It is miles from here; we
were driven out by the Spaniards. My father was killed before our eyes;
she is not herself since, poor soul; do we wonder at it? we have
wandered ever since. My husband - do I know if he is alive or dead? He
was with our men, he knows nothing of what has happened. If he returns,
he will think us all dead. Poor Pedro! These are the conditions of war,

She spoke very quietly; but her simple words pierced deeper than the
plaints of the poor old woman.

"Listen, again!" said Rita. "I am going to my brother; he also is with
our army; he is with the General. Do you know, can you tell me, in what
direction to look for them? When I find them, I will see; I will have
provision made for you. You must stay here now, for a few hours; but
have courage, help will come soon. My brother Carlos and the good
General will care for you. Only tell me where to find them, and all will
be well."

She spoke so confidently that hope and courage seemed to go from her,
and creep into the hearts of the forlorn creatures. The baby smiled, and
stretched out its little fleshless hands for more of the precious food;
even the old grandmother crept a little nearer, to kiss the hand of
their benefactress, and call on all the saints to bless her and bring
her to Paradise. The younger woman said there had been firing yesterday
in that direction, and she pointed westward over the brow of a hill.
They had seen no Cuban soldiers since they had been here, but a boy had
passed by this morning, on his way to join the General, and he took the
same westerly direction, and said the nearest pickets were not far

"And why did you not follow him?" asked Rita. "Why did you not go with
him, and throw yourself at the feet of our good General, as I will do
for you now? Yes, yes, I know; you were too weak, poor souls; you had no
strength to travel farther. But I am young and strong, and so is
Manuela; and we will go together, and soon we will come again, or send
help for you. Manuela, will you come with me? or will it be better for
you to stay and care for these poor ones while I seek Don Carlos?"

But Manuela was, very properly, scandalised at the thought of her young
lady's going off alone on any such quest. It appeared, she said, as if
the señorita had left her excellent intelligence behind in Havana. These
people would do very well now; they had food; they had, indeed, all
there was, practically, and the señorita might herself starve, if they
did not find Don Carlos soon. That was enough, surely; let them remain
as they were.

"You are right, Manuela!" said Rita, nodding sagely. "We must go
together. Your heart does not appear to be stirred as mine is; but never
mind - the hungry are fed, and that is the thing of importance. Farewell,
then, friends! How do they call you, that I may know how to tell those
whom I shall send?"

The younger woman was named Dolores, she said. Her husband was Pedro
Valdez, and this old one was his mother. If the señorita should see
Pedro - if by Heaven's mercy he should be with the General at this
moment, all would indeed be well. In any case, their prayers and
blessings would go with the señorita and her valued attendant.

Often and often, the soft Spanish speech of compliment and ceremony
sounded hollow and artificial in Rita's ears, even though she had been
used to it all her life; but there was no doubting the sincerity of
these earnest and heartfelt thanks. Her own heart felt very warm, as she
turned, with a final wave of the hands, to take a last look at the
little group by the earth-hovel.

"We have made a good beginning, Manuela," she said. "We have saved three
lives, I truly believe. Now we shall go on with new courage. I feel,
Manuela, that I can do anything - meet any foe. Ah! what is that? a
snake! a horrible green snake! I faint, Manuela! I die - no, I don't.
See, I am the sister of a soldier, and I am not going to die any more,
when I see these fearful creatures. Manuela, do you observe?
I - am - firm; marble, Manuela, is soft in comparison with me. Ah, he is
gone away. This is a world of peril, my poor child. Let us hasten on;
Carlos waits for us, though he does not know it."

Talking thus, with much more of the same kind, Rita pushed on, and
Manuela followed as best she might. Rita had left the parrot's cage
under charge of Dolores, and carried the bird on her shoulder, with only
a cord fastened to his leg. Chico was well used to this, and made no
effort to fly away; indeed, he had reached an age when it was more
comfortable to sit on a soft shoulder and be fed and petted, than to
flutter among strange trees and find his living for himself; so he sat
still, crooning to himself from time to time, and cocking his bright
yellow eye at his mistress, to see what she thought of it all.

It was hard work, pushing through the jungle. The girls' hands were
scratched and torn with brambles; Rita's delicate shoes were in a sad
condition; her dress began to show more than one jagged rent. Still she
made her way forward, with undaunted zeal, cheering the weary Manuela
with jest and story. Indeed, the girl seemed thoroughly transformed, and
her Northern cousins, who had known and loved her even in her wilful
indolence, would hardly have recognised their Rita in this valiant
maiden, who made nothing of heat, dust, or even scorpions, and pressed
on and on in her quest of her brother.

After an hour of weary walking, the girls came to a road, or something
that passed for a road. There was no sign of life on it, but there was
something that made them start, then stop and look at each other. Beside
the rough path, in a tangle of vines and thorny cactus, stood the ruin
of a tiny chapel. A group of noble palms towered above it; from the
stony bank behind it bubbled a little fountain. The door of the chapel
was gone; it was long since there had been glass in the windows, and the
empty spaces showed only emptiness within; yet the bell still hung in
the mouldering belfry; the bell-rope trailed above the sunken porch, its
whole length twined with flowering creepers. It was a strange sight.

"Manuela!" cried Rita; "do you see?"

"I see the holy chapel," said Manuela, who was a good Catholic. "Some
saintly man lived here in old times. Pity, that the altar is gone. It
must have been a pretty chapel, señorita."

"The bell!" cried Rita. "Do you see the bell, Manuela? what if we rang
it, to let Carlos know that we are near? It is a good idea, a superb

"Señorita, I implore you not to touch it! For heaven's sake, señorita!
Alas, what have you done?"

Manuela clasped her hands, and fairly wailed in terror, for Rita had
grasped the bell-rope, and was pulling it with right good will. Ding!
ding! the notes rang out loud and clear. The rock behind caught up the
echo, and sent it flying across to the hill beyond. Ding! ding! The
parrot screamed, and Rita herself, after sounding two or three peals,
dropped the rope, and stood with parted lips and anxious eyes, waiting
to see what would come of it.



A sound of voices! eager voices of men, calling to one another. The
tread of hasty feet, the noise of breaking bushes, of men sliding,
jumping, running, hurrying, coming every instant nearer and nearer. What
had Rita done, indeed? Manuela crouched on the mouldering floor at her
mistress's feet, too terrified even to cry out now; Rita Montfort drew
her dagger, and waited.

Next instant the narrow doorway was thronged with men; swarthy
black-browed men, ragged, hatless, shoeless, but all armed, all with
rifle cocked, all pressing forward with eager, wondering looks.

"Who rang the bell? what has happened?"

A babel of voices arose; Rita could not have made herself heard if she
would; and, indeed, for the moment no words came to her lips. But there
was one to speak for her. Chiquito, the old gray parrot, raised his head
from her shoulder, where he had been quietly dozing, and flapped his
wings, and cried aloud:

"_Viva Cuba Libre! viva Garcia! viva Gomez! a muerto Espana!_" There was
a moment's silence; then the voices broke out again in wild cries and

"Ah, the Cuban bird! the parrot of freedom! Welcome, señorita! You bring
us good luck! Welcome to the Cuban ladies and their glorious bird! _Viva
Cuba Libre! viva Garcia! viva el papageno!_ long life to the illustrious

Rita, herself again, stepped from the chapel, erect and joyous, holding
the parrot aloft.

"I thank you, brothers!" she said. "I come to seek freedom among you; I
am a daughter of Cuba. Does any among you know Don Carlos Montfort?"

The babel rose again. Know Don Carlos? but surely! was he not their
captain? Even now he was at the General's quarters, consulting him about
the movements of the next day. What joy! what honour for the poor sons
of Cuba to form the escort of the peerless sister of Don Carlos to
headquarters! But the distance was nothing. They would carry the
señorita and her attendant; they would make a throne, and transport them
as lightly as if swans drew them. Ah, the fortunate day! the lucky omen
of the blessed parrot!

They babbled like children, crowding round Chiquito, extolling his
beauty, his wisdom, the miracle of his timely utterance. Chiquito seemed
to think, for his part, that he had done enough. He paid no attention to
the blandishments of his ragged admirers, but turned himself upside
down, always a sign of contempt with him, said "Caramba!" and would say
nothing more.

A little procession was formed, the least ragged of the patriots leading
the way, Rita and Manuela following. The others crowded together behind,
exclaiming, wondering, pleased as children with this wonderful
happening. Thus they crossed a ragged hill, threaded a grove of palms,
and finally came upon an open space, roughly cleared, in the middle of
which stood a tent, with several rude huts around it. The soldiers
explained with eager gestures. Behold the tent of the illustrious
General. Behold the dwelling of Don Rodrigo, of Don Uberto, of Don
Carlos; behold, finally, Don Carlos himself, emerging from the General's
tent. The gallant ragamuffins drew back, and became on the instant
spectators at a play. A slender young man came out of the tent,
evidently to inquire the meaning of the commotion. At what he saw he
turned apparently to stone, and stood, cigarette in hand, staring at the
vision before him. But for Rita there was no hesitation now. Running to
her brother, she threw her arms around his neck with unaffected joy.

"Carlos!" she cried. "I have come to you. I had no one else to go to.
They were taking me to the convent, and I would have died sooner. I have
come to you, to live or die with you, for our country."

Manuela wept; the soldiers were moved to tears, and brushed their ragged
sleeves across their eyes. But Carlos Montfort did not weep.

"Rita!" he said, in English, returning his sister's caress
affectionately, but with little demonstration of joy. "What is the
meaning of this? what induced you - how could you do such a thing as
this? where do you come from? how did you find your way?" And he added
to himself, "And what the mischief am I to do with you now you are

Rita explained hastily; gave a dramatic sketch of her adventures, not
forgetting the unfortunate peasants, who must, she said, be rescued that
instant from their wretched plight; and wound up with a vivid
description of the bell-ringing, the gathering of the patriot forces,
and the magnificent behaviour of her beloved Chiquito.

"Good gracious! you have brought the parrot, too!" cried poor Carlos.
"Rita! Rita! this is too much."

At this moment a new person appeared on the scene. A tall old man,
stooping his head, came out from the tent, and greeted the wandering
damsel with grave courtesy.

Perhaps the General had seen too much of life and of war to be surprised
at anything; perhaps he was sorry for the embarrassment of his young
lieutenant, and wished to make things easier for him; however it was, he
apparently found it the most natural thing in the world for a young
lady and her maid to be wandering in the wilderness in search of the
Cuban army. The first thing, he said, was to make the señorita
comfortable, as comfortable as their limited powers would allow. She
would take his tent, of course; it was her own from that instant; but
equally of course neither Rita nor Carlos would hear of this. A friendly
dispute ensued; and it was finally decided that Rita and Manuela were to
make themselves as comfortable as might be in Carlos's own tent, while
he shared that of his commander. The General yielded only under protest
to this arrangement; yet he did yield, seeing that resistance would
distress both brother and sister. Since the señorita would not take his
tent, he said, the next best thing was that she should accept his
hospitality, such as he could offer her, within it; or rather, before
it, since the evening was warm. His men were even now preparing the
evening meal; when the señorita was refreshed and rested, he hoped she
and Don Carlos would share it with him.

Rita withdrew into the little hut, in a glow of patriotism and
enthusiasm. "Manuela," she cried, "did you ever see such nobleness, such
lofty yet gracious courtesy? Ah! I knew he was a man to die for. How
happy we are, to be here at last, after dreaming of it so long! I
thrill; I burn with sacred fire - what is the matter, Manuela? you look
the spirit of gloom. What has happened?"

Manuela was crouching on the bare earthen floor, her shoulders shrugged
up to her ears, her dark eyes glancing around the tiny room with every
expression of marked disapproval. It was certainly not a luxurious
apartment. The low walls were of rough logs, the roof was a ragged piece
of very dingy canvas, held in place by stones here and there. In one
corner was a pile of dried grass and leaves, with a blanket thrown over
it, - evidently Don Carlos's bed. There was a camp-stool, a rude box set
on end, that seemed to do duty both for dressing and writing table,
since it was littered with papers, shaving materials, cigarette-cases,
and a variety of other articles.

Manuela spread out her arms with a despairing gesture. Was this, she
asked, the place where the señorita was going to live? Where was she to
hang the dresses? where was she to lay out the dressing things? As to
making up the bed, - it would be better to die at once, in Manuela's
opinion, than to live - Here Manuela stopped suddenly, for she had seen
something. Rita, whose back was turned to the doorway of the hut, was
rating her severely. Was this Manuela's patriotism, she wished to know?
had she not said, over and over again, that she was prepared to shed the
last drop of blood for their country, as she herself, Rita, was longing
to do? and now, when it was simply a question of a little discomfort,
of a few privations shared with their brave defenders, here was Manuela
complaining and fretting, like a peevish child. Well! and what was the
matter now?

Manuela had risen from her despairing position, and was now bustling

2 4 5 6 7 8 9

Online LibraryLaura Elizabeth Howe RichardsRita → online text (page 2 of 9)