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long hill (it is veritably a mountain), a place beyond conception rugged
and difficult. The horses strain and tug; they are at point of
exhaustion. I look at Pasquale; Pasquale has served me since my cradle.
Does his head move, a very little, the least imaginable motion? It is
too dark to see; the moon is not yet risen. But I feel the horses
checked, I feel the carriage pause, an instant, a breath only. I step
noiselessly to the ground; the volante is low, permitting this without
danger. Manuela follows. There is not a sound, not a creak, not the
rustle of a fold. Again it is over. The volante rolls on. Manuela and I
are alone, are free in the mountains of Cuba Libre.

I have but one thought: my country, my brother! Behold me here, in the
society of one, prepared to shed my blood for the other. You would never
guess who else is with us; Chiquito, our poor old friend the parrot, the
sacred legacy of that white saint, our departed aunt. Could I leave him
behind, to unfriendly, perhaps murderous, hands? Old Julio is a Spaniard
at heart; Chiquito is a Cuban bird; his very soul - do you doubt that a
bird has a soul, when I tell you that I have seen it in his eyes,
Marguerite? - his very soul speaks for his country. If you could hear him
cry, "_Viva Cuba Libre!_" The camp is on fire when they hear him. Ah,
they are such brave fellows, our soldiers! poor, in rags, half-fed - it
matters not! each one is a hero, and all are my brothers. Marguerite,
sleep hangs at last upon me. Good-night, beloved; good-night, cool white
soul of ivory and silver. I love thee always devotedly. Have no fear for
me. It is true that the Spaniards are all about us in these mountains,
that at any moment we may be attacked. What of that? If the daughter of
Cuba dies by her brother's side, in her country's cause, my Marguerite
will know that it is well with her. You will shed a tear over the lonely
grave among the Cuban hills; but you will plant a wreath for Rita, a
wreath of mingled laurel and immortelle, and it will bloom eternally.

Ever, and with a thousand greetings to my honoured and admired uncle,




Rita drew a long breath as she folded her letter. She was in a fine glow
of mingled affection and patriotic fervour; it had been a great relief
to pour it all out in Margaret's sympathetic ear, though that ear were a
thousand miles away. Now she really must go to bed. It was one o'clock,
her watch told her. It seemed wicked, profane, to sleep under such
moonlight as this; but still, the body must be preserved.

"But first," she said to herself, "I must have a drop of water; writing
so long has made me thirsty."

She took up the earthen water-jar, but found it empty. Pepe had for once
been faithless; indeed, neither he nor Manuela had escaped the witchery
of the full moon, and she had had little good of them that whole
evening. She glanced at the corner where Manuela lay; the light, regular
breathing told that the girl was sound asleep. It would be a pity to
wake her from her first sweet sleep, poor Manuela. A year, perhaps a
month ago, Rita would not have hesitated an instant; but now she
murmured, "Sleep, little one! I myself will fetch the water."

She stepped out into the moonlight, with the jar in her hand. All was
still as sleep itself. No sound or motion from huts or tent. Under the
palms lay a number of brown bundles, motionless. Dry leaves, piled
together for burning? no! soldiers of Cuba, wrapped in such covering as
they could find, taking their rest. Alone, beside a little heap of twigs
that still smouldered, the sentry sat; his back was turned to her.
Should she speak to him, and ask him to go to the spring for her? No;
how much more interesting to go herself! Everything looked so different
in this magic light; it was a whole new world, the moon's fairyland; who
knew what wonderful sights might meet her eyes? Besides, her old nurse
used to say that water drawn from a pure spring under the full moon
produced a matchless purity of the complexion. Her complexion was well
enough, perhaps, but still - and anyhow, it would be an adventure,
however small a one.

The girl's feet, in their soft leather slippers, made no sound on the
bare earth. The sentry did not turn his head. Silent as a cloud, she
stole across the little glade, and passed under the trees at the farther
end. Here the ground broke off suddenly in a rocky pitch, down which one
scrambled to another valley or glen lying some hundred feet lower; the
cliff (for it was steep enough to merit that name) was mostly bare rock,
but here and there a little earth had caught and lodged, and a few
seeds had dropped, and a tuft of grass or a little tree had sprung up,
defying the gulf below. A few feet only from the upper level, just below
a group of palms that nodded over the brink, the stream gushed out from
the face of the rock, clear and cold. The soldiers had hollowed a little
trough to receive the trickling stream, and one had only to hold one's
pitcher under this spout for a few minutes, to have it filled with
delicious water. Rita had often come hither in the daytime, during the
week that had now passed since her arrival at the mountain camp. It was
a wild and picturesque scene at any time, but now the effect of the
intense white light, falling on splintered rock, hanging tree, and
glancing stream was magical indeed. Rita lay down on her face at the
edge of the precipice, as she had seen the soldiers do, and lowered her
jar carefully. As the water gurgled placidly into the jar, her eyes
roved here and there, taking in every detail of the marvellous scene
before her. Never, she thought, had she seen anything so beautiful, so
unearthly in its loveliness. Peace! silver peace, and silence, the
silence of - hark! what was that?

A crack, as of a twig breaking; a rustling, far below in the gorge; a
shuffling sound, as of soft shod feet pressing the soft earth. Rita
crouched flat to the ground, and, leaning over as far as she dared,
peered over the precipice. The bottom of the gorge was filled with a
mass of tall grasses and feathery blossoming shrubs, with here and there
a tree rising tall and straight. The leaves were black as jet in the
strong light. Gazing intently, she saw the branches tremble, wave,
separate; and against the dark leaves shone a gleam of metal, that
moved, and came nearer. Another and yet another; and now she could see
the dark faces, and the moon shone on the barrels of the carbines, and
made them glitter like silver.

Swiftly and noiselessly the girl drew back from the brink, crouching in
the grass till she reached the shadow of the grove. Then she rose to her
feet, still holding her jar of water carefully, - for there was no need
of wasting that, - and ran for her life.

A whispered word to the sentry, who sprang quickly enough from his
reverie beside the fire; then to the General's tent, then to Carlos,
with the same whispered message. "The Gringos are here! Wake, for the
love of Heaven!"

In another moment the little glade was alive with dusky figures,
springing from their beds of moss and leaves, snatching their arms,
fumbling for cartridges. The General was already among them. Carlos and
the other officers came running, buckling their sword-belts, rubbing
their eyes.

"Where are they?" all were asking in excited whispers. "Who saw them? Is
it another nightmare of Pepe's?"

"No! no!" murmured Rita. "I saw them, I tell you! I saw their faces in
the moonlight. I went to get some water. They are climbing up the cliff.
I did not stop to count, but there must be many of them, from the sound
of their feet. Oh, make haste, make haste!"

The General gave his orders in a low, emphatic tone. Twenty men, with
Carlos at their head, glided like shadows across the glade, and
disappeared among the trees. Rita's breath came quick, and she prepared
to follow; but the old General laid a kind hand on her arm. "No, my
child!" he said. "You have done your country a great service this night.
Do not imperil your life needlessly. Go rather to your room, and pray
for your brother and for us all."

But prayer was far from Rita's thoughts at that moment. "Dear General,"
she implored, with clasped hands, the tears starting to her eyes, "Let
me go! let me go! I implore you! I will pray afterward, I truly will. I
will pray while I am fighting, if you will only let me go. See! I have
come all this way to fight for my country; and must I stay away from the
first battle? Look, dear Señor General! Look at my machete! Isn't it
beautiful? it is the sword of a hero; I must use it for him. Let me go!"
The beautiful face, upturned in the moonlight, the dark eyes shining
through their tears, might have softened a harder heart than that of
General Sevillo. He opened his lips to reply, his fatherly hand still on
her arm, when suddenly a sharp report was heard. A single shot, then a
volley, the shots rattling out, struck back and forth from cliff to
cliff, multiplying in hideous echoes. Then broke out cries and groans;
the crash of heavy bodies falling back among the trees below, and shouts
of "_Viva Cuba_;" and still the shots rang out, and still the echoes
cracked and snapped. Rita turned pale as death, and clasped her hands
on her bosom. "_Ah!_ _Dios!_" she cried. "I had forgotten; there will be
blood!" and rushing into her hut, she flung herself face downward on her
leafy bed.

The perplexed General looked after her for a moment, pulling his
grizzled moustache. "_Caramba!_" he muttered. "To understand these
feminines? Decidedly, this charming child must be sent into safety
to-morrow." And shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders, he strode
in the direction of the firing.

Ten minutes' sharp fighting, and the skirmish was over. The Spanish
"guerilla" was scattered, many of the guerilleros lying dead or wounded
at the foot of the precipice, the others scrambling and tumbling down as
best they might. Carlos and his men had so greatly the advantage in
position, if not in numbers, that not a single Cuban was killed, though
two or three were more or less seriously wounded. Among these was the
unfortunate Pedro Valdez, who had only that evening returned to camp,
having left his child and his old mother in a place of safety. His wife
had been allowed to remain for a short time in camp, at the request of
the surgeon, as she had had some experience in nursing. Now he was shot
in the arm, and his comrades lifted him gently, and carried him back.
His wife was waiting for him. She seemed to have expected something of
the kind, for she made no outcry; she followed quietly to the clump of
trees distant a little way from the rest of the camp, where good Doctor
Ferrando had the solitary rancho, the case of surgical instruments and
the few rolls of bandages that constituted his field hospital. A rough
table had been knocked together for operations; otherwise the sick and
wounded fared much as the rest did, sleeping on beds of leaves and dry
grass, and fighting the mosquitoes as best they might. Here the bearers
laid Pedro down, and Dolores took her place quietly at his side,
fanning away the insects that hovered in clouds about the wounded man,
holding the poor arm while the doctor dressed it, and behaving as if her
life had been spent in a hospital.

Doctor Ferrando spoke a few words of approval, but the woman heeded them
little; it was a matter of course that where there was suffering, she
should be at work. So, when Pedro presently dropped off to sleep, she
moved softly about among the wounded men, smoothing a blanket here,
changing a ligature there, doing all with light, swift fingers whose
touch healed instead of hurting.

She was sitting beside a lad, the last to be brought in from the scene
of the skirmish, when the screen of bushes by the rancho was parted, and
Rita appeared. Slowly and timidly she drew near; her face was like
marble; her eyes looked unnaturally large and dark. Dolores made a
motion to rise, but a gesture bade her keep her place.

"Hush!" said the young girl. "Sit still, Dolores! I have come - to - to

"To learn, señorita?" repeated the woman, humbly. The señorita was in
her grateful eyes a heaven-descended being, whose every look and word
must be law; this new bearing amazed and puzzled her.

"What can this poor soul teach the noble and high-born lady?" she asked,
sadly. "I know nothing, not even to read; I am a poor woman merely. The
señor doctor is this moment gone to take his distinguished siesta; do I
call him for the señorita?"

Rita shook her head, and crept nearer, gazing with wide eyes of fear at
the prostrate form beside which Dolores was sitting.

[Illustration: "'HUSH!' SAID THE YOUNG GIRL. 'SIT STILL.'"]

"See, Dolores!" she said; and her tone was as humble as the woman's own.
"I must learn - to take care of him - of them!" She nodded at the
sufferer. "All my life, you see, I could never bear the sight of blood.
To cut my finger, I fainted at the instant. Always they said, 'Poor
child! it is her delicacy, her sensibility;' they praised me; I thought
it a fine thing, to faint, to turn pale at the word even. Now - oh,
Dolores, do you see? I desire to help my country, my brother, all the
heroes who are risking their life, are shedding their - their blood - for
Cuba. I think I can fight; I forget; I see only the bright shining
blades, the victorious banners; I forget that these heroes must bleed,
that this horrible blood must flow in streams, in torrents, that oceans
of it must overwhelm us, the defenders of my country. _Ay de mi!_ I
begged the General even now to let me fight, to let me stand beside my
Carlos, and wield my beautiful machete. Suddenly, Dolores - I heard the
shots; I heard - terrible sounds! screams - oh, Dios! - screams of men,
perhaps of my own brother, in anguish. All at once it came over me - I
cannot tell you - I saw it all, the blood, the wounds, the horror to
death. I awoke from my dreams; I was a child, do you see, Dolores? I
was a child, playing at war, and thinking - thinking the thoughts of a
silly, silly child. Now I am awake; now I know - what - what war means.
So - I am foolish, but I can learn; I think I can learn. You are a brave
woman; I have been watching you through the leaves for half an hour. I
saw you - I saw you change those cloths; those terrible bloody cloths on
that poor man's head. At first my eyes turned round, I saw black only;
but I opened them again, I fixed them on what you held, I watched. Now I
can bear quite well to look at it. Help me, Dolores! teach me - to help
as you help; teach me to care for these brothers, as you do."

Dolores looked earnestly in the beautiful young face. In spite of the
deadly pallor, she saw that the girl was fully herself, was calm and
determined. With a simple, noble gesture she lifted Rita's slender hand
to her lips, saying merely: "This hand shall bring blessing to many!
come, my señorita, and see! it is so easy, when once one knows the way
of it."

Very gently the poor peasant's wife showed the rich man's daughter the A
B C of woman's work among the sick and suffering. At first Rita could do
little more than control her own nerves, and fight down the faintness
that came creeping over her at sight of the bandaged faces, ghastly
under the brown, of the torn flesh and nerveless limbs. Gradually,
however, she began to gain strength. The rough brown hand moved so
easily, so lightly; it laid hold of those terrible bandages as if they
were mere ordinary bits of linen. Surely now, she, Rita, could do that
too. As Dolores took a cloth from her husband's head, the girl's hand
was outstretched, took it quietly, and handed a fresh one to the nurse.
The cloth she took was covered with red stains. For a moment Rita's head
swam, and the world seemed to turn dark before her eyes; but she held
the thing firmly, till her sight cleared again; then dropped it in the
tub of water that stood ready, and taking up the fan of green palm-leaf,
swept it steadily to and fro, driving the clouds of flies and mosquitoes
away from the sufferer.

Coming back from his siesta half an hour later, good Doctor Ferrando
paused a moment at the entrance of the hospital grove. There were two
nurses now; the good man gazed in astonishment at the slender figure
kneeling beside one of the rough cots, fanning the wounded man, and
singing in a low, sweet voice, a song of Cuba. Several of the men were
awake, and gazing at her with delight. Dolores, with a look of quiet
happiness on her face, sat beside the bed where her husband was sleeping
peacefully. "Come!" said the doctor, "war, after all, has its beauty as
well as its terror. Observe this heavenly sight, you benevolent saints!"
he waved his cigar upward, inviting the attention of all attendant
spirits. "Consider this lovely child, awakened to the holiness of
womanhood! and the General will destroy all this to-morrow, from respect
for worldly conventions! He is without doubt right; yet, what a pity!"



"If I must, dear Señor General - I will be good, I will, indeed; but my
heart will break to leave Carlos, and the camp, and you, Señor General."

"My dear child, - my dear young lady, what pleasure for me to keep you
here! the first sunshine of the war, it came with you, Señorita
Margarita. Nevertheless, duty is duty; I should be wanting in mine, most
wofully and wickedly wanting, if I allowed you to remain here, in hourly
danger, when a few hours could place you in comparative safety. Perfect
safety, I do not promise. Where shall we find it, even for our nearest
and dearest, in this poor distracted country? But with Don Annunzio and
his family you will be safe at least for a time; whereas here - " The
General looked around, and shrugged his shoulders, spreading his hands
out with a dramatic gesture. "The Gringos have learned the way to our
mountain camp; they will not forget it. Another attack may come any
night; our camp is an outpost, placed of purpose to guard this position,
which must of necessity be one of danger. To have women with us - it is
not only exposing them to the terrible possibilities of war, but - "

He paused. "I see!" cried Rita. "I see! you are too kind to say it, but
we are a burden upon you. We make harder the work; we are an
encumbrance. Dear Señor General, I go! I fly! Give me half, a quarter of
an hour, and I am gone. Never, never, will I be in the way of my
country's defenders; never! Too long we have stayed already; Manuela
shall make on the instant our packets, and in a little hour you shall
forget that we were here at all."

The good General cried out, "No! no! my dear child, my dear señorita;
cease these words, I implore you. You cut me to the heart. Consider the
help that you have brought to us; consider the nursing, the tender care
that you and the wife of Valdez have given to our sufferers, in the
rancho there. Never will this be forgotten, rest assured of that.
But - it is true that you must go; yet not too soon. This evening, when
the coolness falls, Don Carlos, with a chosen escort, will conduct you
to the residence of Don Annunzio. There, I rejoice to think that you
will find, not luxury, but at least some few of the comforts of ordinary
life. Here you have suffered; your lofty spirit will not confess it, but
you have - you must have suffered, delicate and fragile as you are, in
the rough life of a Cuban camp. Enough! The day is before you, dearest
señorita. I pray you, while it lasts, make use of me, of all that the
camp contains, in whatever way you can imagine. I would make the day a
pleasant one, if I might. Command me, dear señorita, in anything and
everything. The camp is yours, with all it contains."

He bowed with courtly grace, and Rita courtsied and then turned quickly
away, to hide the tears that would come in spite of her. It was a keen
disappointment. When Carlos told her that morning that she must leave
the camp, she had refused pointblank. A stormy scene followed, in which
the old Rita was only too much in evidence. She raged, she wept, she
stamped her little foot. She was a Cuban, as much as he was; she was a
nurse, a daughter of the army; no human power should drive her from the
ground where she was prepared to shed her last drop of blood for the
defenders of her country. Now - a few kind, grave words from a
gray-haired man, and all was changed. She was not a necessity, she was a
hindrance; she saw that this must be so; the pain was sharp, but she
would not show it; she would never again lose her self-control, never.
Carlos should see that she was no longer a child. He had called her a
child, not half an hour ago, a naughty child, who was making trouble for
everybody. Well - Rita stood still; the thought came over her
suddenly, - it was true! she had been childish, had been naughty. Suppose
Margaret or Peggy should behave so, stamping and storming; how would it
seem? Oh, well, that was different. Their blood was cool, almost cold.
It flowed sluggishly in their veins. She was a child of the South; it
was not to be expected that she should be like Margaret. Yes! but - the
thought would come, troubling all her mind; suppose Margaret were here,
with her calm sense, her cheerful face, and tranquil voice; would not
she be of more use, of more help, than a girl who could not help
screaming when she was in a passion?

These thoughts were new to Rita Montfort. Full of them, she walked
slowly to her hut, with bent head, and eyes full of unshed tears.
Meanwhile, the good General went back to his tent, where Carlos awaited
him with some anxiety.

"Well?" he asked, as the gray head bent under the tent-flaps.

"Well," responded his commander. "It is very well, my son. The
señorita - she is adorable, do you know it? Never have I seen a more
lovely young person! The señorita is most reasonable. She comprehends;
she understands the desolation that it is to me to send away so
delightful a visitor; nevertheless - she accepts all, with her own
exquisite grace."

Carlos shrugged his shoulders; that same exquisite grace had flashed a
dagger in his eyes not ten minutes before, vowing that it should be
sheathed in the owner's heart before she left the camp; but it was not
necessary to say this to the General. Carlos was an affectionate
brother, and was honestly relieved and glad to find that Rita had come
to her senses. He thanked General Sevillo warmly for his good offices,
and, being off duty, went in search of his sister, determining that he
would make her last day in camp a pleasant one, so far as lay in his
power. He found Rita sitting sadly in the door of her hut, watching
Manuela, who was packing up their belongings, unwillingly enough.
Manuela had enjoyed her stay in camp greatly, and thought life would be
very dull, in comparison, at Don Annunzio's cottage; but there was no
escape, and the white silk blouse and the swansdown wrapper went into
the bag with all the other fineries.

"Come, Rita," said Carlos, taking his sister's hand affectionately;
"come with me, and let me show you some things that you have not yet
seen. You must not forget the camp. Who knows? Some day you may come
back to pay us a visit."

Rita shook her head, and the tears came to her eyes again; but she drove
them back bravely, and smiled, and laid her hand in her brother's; and
they passed out together among the palm-trees.

Manuela looked after them, and laid her hand on her heart; it was a
gesture that she had often seen her mistress use, and it seemed to her
infinitely touching and beautiful. "_Ohimé_," sighed Manuela. "War is
terrible, indeed! To think that we must go away, just when we are so
comfortable. But where, then, is this idiot? Pepe! When I call you, will
you come, animal? Pepe!"

The thicket near the rancho rustled and shook, and Pepe appeared. This
young man presented a different figure from the forlorn one that had
greeted the two girls on their first arrival at the camp. His curly hair
was now carefully brushed and oiled. The scarlet handkerchief was still
tied about his head, but it was tied now with a grace that might have
done credit to the most dandified matador in the Havana ring. His jacket
was neatly mended; altogether, Pepe was once more a self-respecting,
even a self-admiring youth. Also, he admired Manuela immensely, and lost
no opportunity of telling that she was the light of his eyes and the
flower of his soul. He was now beginning some remarks of this
description, but Manuela interrupted him, laying her pretty brown hand
unceremoniously on his lips.

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Online LibraryLaura Elizabeth Howe RichardsRita → online text (page 4 of 9)