Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/My brother's story
MY BROTHER’S STORY.
“Please, sir, the gentleman—rather a foreign looking party—says he must see you. He’d rather not give his name, but he’s uncommon positive.”
So said Gubbins, my clerk, holding the door ajar, and peering in, with a deprecatory expression on his sallow face.
“Tell him, Gubbins, that I am engaged, very particularly engaged. He must call again, or write, for I am busy now. You can shut the door,” answered I, somewhat testily. For I really was engaged, and I had been so short a time in real practice as a Chancery barrister, that the work I was deep in had the charm of novelty. I was half smothered in parchments, folios, and sheets of draught paper, ploughing my way through a most difficult abstract of title, which Neeld and Fusby, of Southampton Row, were clamorous for. Gubbins, the most obedient of clerks, did his best to comply with my commands, but a scuffle succeeded, open flew the inner door of my chambers, and in burst a wild hairy Orson of a man, in very loose clothes, and with a tremendous beard masking the lower part of his face.
“Really, sir, I must say—” I began, rising in wrath from my padded chair.
But this strange intruder caught me by both hands, held me at arm’s length, and fixed his quick bright hazel eyes on mine.
“Tom, old boy, don’t you know me?”
Bless my soul! Of course I did, though eleven years had passed since my brother Henry and I had met. Harry had been out of England, pushing his fortune, as he called it, and though he had written sometimes, and I more frequently, there had been great gaps in our correspondence. Harry was fresh from Spanish America, had landed at Southampton that very morning, in time for the London express, and had come straight to my den in the Temple. Of course I was glad to see him. The best proof of which was that I kicked the abstract aside, heedless of the wrath of Neeld and Fusby, that I closed my chambers, took Harry and his light luggage to my house in Kensington, and killed the fatted calf in honour of his return. After dinner, when my wife had left us to keep company with the decanters, my sun-burnt brother began as follows:
“You got my last letter from Valparaiso, I think you said? Well, Tom, I am really ashamed to own it was the last. You see at that time I was doing very well, and I began to think that the Will o’ the Wisp of fortune, that had led me such a dance for years, was within my grasp at last. You remember the sanguine, rose-coloured view I took of things, then? The fact is, I saw the world through the medium of the dollars in my purse, and still more of the brilliant prospects a-head. It all turned out moonshine, Tom. The Yankee speculator who had got me and other fools in tow proved himself as great a humbug as ever rigged a share market. We were thoroughly entrapped, lost all we had saved, and, for a long time, I was in such poverty, Tom, as I thank Heaven you and yours have never known, and of which you cannot guess the bitterness.”
“But why did you not—” I began, reproachfully; but Harry cut me short.
“Why did I not write to you for help, eh? Why not write whining accounts of my state to my relatives at home. Why, Tom, I was ashamed, after all my boasts and crowing. Besides, though I knew you’d bear a hand, dear old boy, to drag me out of the mire, I knew fees were not too plentiful with you, and begging doesn’t come natural to me, somehow.
“So I set my face against ill luck, fought the matter out, and after near a year’s toil and privations, I was able to leave the place, free of debt, but with just coin enough to pay my passage to another port. Well, I won’t weary you with descriptions of my doings for the next eighteen months; it’s enough to say that I was assistant to an architect at Buenos Ayres, and right-hand man to a cattle farmer in Brazil, and earned beef and bacallao, but not much beyond. At the end of that time I got a capital offer—that of the post of chief engineer of the Cerro Azul mining company, in Mexico. Don’t laugh, Tom; upon my word that was a bonâ fide, genuine concern. Most of the proprietors were English, with a sprinkling of Yankees and Mexicans. There was money enough—real paid-up capital; my salary was safe, and had been calculated on a liberal scale. Indeed, it was thought one of the prizes of our profession, out there, to get the place, and I should not have got it but for meeting old Captain Cooper, R.N., at Rio. He took a fancy to me, gave me a passage to Vera Cruz, and recommended me to his nephew, the resident director. So there I was, with close upon six hundred a-year, and a small percentage on the ore extracted.”
“Which turned out to be purely imaginary, no doubt;” said I. “Help yourself. That’s decent sherry, though I dare say the Dons have spoiled you in that respect.”
“You are mistaken, brother,” said Harry, “for the silver was real enough, and reasonably plentiful. The mine paid well, or would have paid well, after all expenses had been reckoned for, but for the bribes that we had to furnish under various pretexts. Such a corrupt government you never dreamed of, and the worst of it was, that Chihuahua—did I say that was the State we were in?—was always changing masters, and both factions pressed us for requisitions, mulcts, and taxes of all sorts. Still, the mine did its duty; we got out new pumping machinery from England, with Cornish engines, and Cornish miners, and a very tolerable staff of surveyors and engineers. I must tell you that Cerro Azul, or the Blue Mountain, is one of the rugged hills of the great Sierra de Carcay, the backbone of Mexico, and about fifty miles from the city of Chihuahua. The company had purchased a very extensive concession, and besides the main shaft and two smaller pits, there were many acres of argentiferous ground, to say nothing of copper, and of the gold which the miserable gambusinos washed by grains out of the half-dried beds of the torrents. Mines have always been a hobby of my own; if I know any one branch of my profession better than another, it is that which relates to lodes and smelting, and ventilation, and all that refers to subterranean work. So I fell to with a will, prospecting in my spare moments, analysing, sifting, and comparing specimens, and at the end of two months I could safely report to my employers that two, if not three, fresh veins, at a distance from the main shaft, might be opened with every hope of profit. The company responded, voted me their thanks, and sent out more machinery and capital. I was in high feather, and trusted to make our Blue Mountain mine as famous as any in Mexico. You will ask, Tom, or at least you will think the question, why did I not write? Often I have taken up my pen to begin, but something always checked me. You see, I remembered my confident predictions written from Valparaiso, and the end of them, and I was shy of becoming a false prophet once more. There is no such gambling, after all, as mining operations. My report was an honest and truthful one; practical men on the spot agreed in my estimate of the value of the new veins, and yet I did not want to reckon too much on what might prove a castle in the air. The veins might shrink to nothing, or dip down through the hard crystalline rock, and baffle us. Or the Church party, desperate for means to pay their troops, might confiscate the property of the company, for might is right in Mexico. So, as the Yankees say, I concluded to wait. It so happened, that among those in the employ of the company, and under my own immediate supervision, there was but one to whom I took a fancy. The others were, for the most part, honest fellows enough, but young Arthur Lake was the only member of the staff who had an idea of anything beyond the petty details of our profession. A smart lad, too, and well-grounded in the technical knowledge requisite for an engineer, but there were those who thought him too young for the post he held, and growled at the partiality of the directors. Young Lake was somehow connected with the Cooper family, and, as I told you, Mr. Cooper was our resident manager, though he lived in the city of Mexico, only visiting the mine at intervals.
“At the risk of tiring your patience, Tom, I must try and give you an idea of our life at Cerro Azul. Imagine a big, round-shouldered mountain, looking bluff and clumsy among the sharp serrated peaks that ran away to North and South in an irregular line. The hill that looked so blue through the distant haze turned out, when you got a closer view, to be of all sorts of blended colours, gray, and green, and red, and brown, like a dull tartan, only that the hues lay rather in stripes than chequers, after the fashion of serpentine rocks. There were a few large trees, and here and there a dense thicket of wild agave, cactus, and all manner of thorny shrubs and plants, but most of the mountain was bare, and the sides of it were seamed by ghastly ravines, which were spanned by those swinging bridges of twisted creepers and raw hide, peculiar to Spanish America. As for our settlement, there were two decent houses; they had been begun in stone, but the builder had changed his mind, or lost his workmen, and they had been coarsely finished with those sun-dried bricks which the Mexicans call adobés. There were two store-houses and a sort of wooden barrack, all made of jointed framework, sawn and shaped at a saw-mill belonging to two Americans near Chihuahua, and painfully carried up the hill on the backs of Indian porters. Besides these there were nine or ten cottages of adobé brick, roofed with leaves and twigs plastered over with mud, and twice as many huts of boughs, where our peons lived. There was a chapel, with a tin roof that glittered grandly in the sunbeams, as did also the tin roofs of the three timber buildings. And there were the smelting-houses and engine-sheds, of rough stone daubed with mud, that had been erected in the old days of the Spanish domination, when the mine was first opened. There was good water from a sort of natural rocky well that never ran dry, a great boon in those stony sierras. This well was in a kind of grotto, the coolest, darkest nook conceivable, and it was a real pleasure to pass at once from the white glare of the fierce sunshine into that moist, twilight cave, and hear the incessant drip and gurgle of the water as it flowed from the crevices of the rock into the shapeless basin below. Without this supply we could never have held our ground during the summer droughts, when the very pebbles in the beds of the exhausted torrents were glowing with heat, and the grass withered to brown threads, and the game deserted the country.
“As for the human population of the place, it was motley indeed, and it was only at the cost of infinite pains and patience that I could keep harmony amongst so many jarring nationalities. There were the sub-surveyors and inspectors, English, French and American; there were our Cornishmen, sober and steady enough, but full of scorn for the natives, and abhorred as heretics by the latter. Then we had a miscellaneous lot of Mexicans, half-breeds, and Indians, to do the rough work of the mine, to say nothing of an assayer from Germany, and a Pole for overlooker. The Indians I speak of were Manzos, or ‘tame Indians,’ as the whites call them, and were valuable to us, though they required much humouring. Such patient, gentle beasts of burden I never saw; there was no road by which mules could ascend to the pit mouth, and every thing, fuel, provisions, stores, silver, had to be carried up on men’s backs. When we received the steam-engines and machinery, there was a tough job of it to get them over the ravines, for of course the picturesque swinging-bridges could not bear the weight. But we did it, somehow, with cranes and guys and windlasses, after endless trials and trouble, while with ordinary packages our peons would come toiling, unmurmuringly, up the steep paths, like a line of laden ants.
“But with all their industry, they were ignorant and awkward, and their superstition was a sore stumbling-block to us. It was on their account that the company had built the chapel, and paid a salary to the priest, an oily, scowling Friar Tuck, from a monastery in the plains. That might be all very well, but there was no end to the red-letter days in their calendar; feasts, fasts, vigils, and eves were continually recurring, and the burden of the song was—no work. Besides, they had extraordinary notions of their own, and when, one day, we found a couple of Aztec skeletons, swathed in cottons like a ruder sort of Egyptian mummies, in turning up the ground, the peons went off like scared birds, and would not return for a week. We were obliged to bribe the priest, who bore us no good will, to sprinkle the place with holy water, before we could get our copper-coloured legion to lift pick or shovel in our cause. The priest, I often suspected, thwarted us as much as he dared. He was a half-taught man, dull and vicious, like most Mexican monks, and could hardly read the dog-Latin of his well-thumbed breviary, but he hated us cordially as foreigners and schismatics. As for the poor peons, he ruled them with a rod of iron, screwing fees out of them on every possible pretext, as of a wedding, christening, or burial, and they were all deep in his debt, and virtual slaves, as commonly happens in Mexico. Did I say that the Indians had brought their wives and children to the settlement? Such was the case, and the brown, soft-eyed women, with their lank black hair and high cheekbones, were always to be heard singing some plaintively monotonous ditty at the doors of the huts, as they kneaded the tortillas for the evening meal, and the children rolled in the dust around.
“The other workmen, the whites and half-breeds, though more intelligent, and fitter to be employed in difficult operations, gave us some trouble, though certainly not by over-attention to the religious observances of their church. They were a queer set, and I do not fancy that any one of them would have gained the Monthyon prize for virtue. Outlaws, broken adventurers, léperos who had made some city too hot to hold them, escaped felons, and Gambusinos out of luck, such were the recruits of our ragged army. They fought regular duels among themselves with the knife when they quarrelled, and they were always cheating and squabbling with each other over their greasy cards, a pack of which every ruffian of them carried, along with his rosary and clasp-dagger. Once we made a great effort at a reformation in morals; we had three wounded men in camp just then, in consequence of play disputes; and we burned every pack we could find, in spite of threats and muttered mutiny. It was strange how our scamps felt the deprivation; I saw more than one villanous looking rogue, whose unwashed face was scarred all over with hurts received in those affairs of honour I have mentioned, cry over the dirty cards we took from him, like a child over a damaged doll. But they proved too cunning for us; they made cards out of the most unlikely things; they constructed dice out of bones, and played at ‘buck! buck!’ with their fingers, like schoolboys in England; they encouraged a travelling gambler to come among us, and set up a public Monté table, and though we turned him out we were glad to compound for peace, and to let in king, knave, and queen once more. So with ardent spirits; we tried to keep aguardiente and pulque out of camp; it was of no use trying; they smuggled it in ways so ingenious that we could not but admire the craft they displayed in getting a daily supply of the ill-flavoured, fiery poisons. You may guess from what I have told you that it took a watchful eye and a tight hand to master them. It was necessary, too, that the workmen should be searched, on leaving the shaft. They always did attempt to conceal some fragments of silver under their rags, and sometimes the hidden treasure escaped detection; generally it was seized: not that detection abashed those rogues in the least. They knew that, as long as they worked, they would not be discharged; bad as they were, we could get no better labourers. Every week their wages were punctually paid them, and we were obliged to keep watch in turn, we Europeans, knowing that if it could be safely done, our Calibans would cut our throats to get at the cash-box and stores. So two of us kept guard, nightly, in a sort of block-house, armed to the teeth.
“I dare say, Tom, to your fancy all this sounds very unbearable and dismal—the record of a wretched existence. It was not so, however, for it had its own excitement and interests, even its own pleasures. The country swarmed with game, so long as grass and water abounded, and our guns procured many a welcome addition to the larder. We fished, too, catching quantities of odd-looking finned creatures, which, I must own, we seldom ventured to taste. Then there were our professional duties, the most stirring of which was the task of escorting the monthly yield of silver to Chihuahua, where it was to be coined into sparkling duros. This was often a service of some risk, for not only were the miserable roads rendered unsafe by broken soldiers and white highwaymen, but bands of the prowling Apaches were encouraged by the feebleness of the government to approach the very capital of the State, eager for scalps and plunder. It was needful, therefore, that six or eight well-armed men should accompany the Indian peons who carried the precious metal, and afterwards travel with the mule-train. We kept our mules, you understand, which were the property of the Company, as well as the private riding-horses of such as possessed those animals, at Quexhatepec, a large village that stood on the main road from the mountains. Here, too, were kept the sheep and bullocks which were necessary for the consumption of our colony; the Indians lived pretty much on beans and cakes, with melons and other fruit, but our Mexicans required regular rations like ourselves. These various four-footed creatures were under the care of an official of the Cerro Azul Mining Company, a native of old Spain, who was called the comprador, and who made all purchases of live stock and forage, sending his accounts to me, to be audited and transferred to the resident director. These expeditions, as I have said, were not without danger; and yet they were so popular with our little community, that, to avoid any semblance of partiality, I settled that our turns should come round in rotation, according to seniority. The fact was, that the journey formed an agreeable break in our ordinary routine, and also we usually contrived to spend two or three days in the city, where we met with much hospitality from the foreign residents.
“Lake was especially joyous whenever an opportunity of going to the town presented itself, and we had soon become sufficiently intimate for him to share with me what was as yet a secret from the rest, that he was engaged to be married. He had fallen in love with the belle of Chihuahua, pretty Jane Acworth, the eldest daughter of an English merchant, who had long lived, rich and respected, in Mexico. I think, but am not sure, that there was some distant tie of kindred between them; but, at any rate, old Mr. Acworth was a firm friend to the Coopers, to whose intercession both I and Arthur owed our preferment. Mr. Acworth was very rich; the shares he held in our company were but a modicum of his fortune, which was none the less safe for not being, for the most part, invested in the Republic of Mexico. The perfect immunity which the merchant had hitherto enjoyed from military exactions or insolence, was said to result from the fact of his having advanced large sums to Santa Anna and other chiefs. Be that as it may, it is certain that Mr. Acworth’s house and property had been respected by some of the most rapacious governors who ever swayed a city.
“And now let me come to the point as briefly as I may. The time for convoying a quantity of silver to the city had come round, and the yield having been larger than usual, there were several hundred ounces to be sent. It was my turn to go as head of the party, and that of Arthur as second in authority. The assayer and the head clerk were to remain in charge at the mine, with eleven trustworthy men. We were to take the rest, amounting to fourteen persons, not reckoning Indian porters or the muleteers from the village, neither class of whom could be expected to show fight in case of attack. And attack was probable, more than probable, for several parties of disbanded soldiers were robbing on the highways, while there were dark rumours of a foray, conducted with unusual boldness, on the part of the wild Apachés.
“We were mustering our forces for the start, when Herr Bergmann, the assayer, came to me with a very serious face. He had just heard a rumour, brought from the plains by an Indian woman, that a suspicious troop of horsemen, probably Apachés, had been seen hovering within a league of Quexhatepec. It was almost certain that we should fall into an ambush laid by these greedy and pitiless savages. Therefore honest M. Bergmann proposed that we should postpone our journey until the Governor could be solicited to send up a military guard from Chihuahua, under whose protection the silver could safely be removed.
“‘A guard!’ said I, rather scornfully; ‘who is to guard the treasure from the guard? Mexican soldiery are more formidable to friends than enemies; and your proposal, Meinherr, suggests the idea of giving the poultry into the safe-keeping of a fox.’
“But the assayer gravely proceeded to assure me that, although we should have to pay a heavy percentage on the specie, actual spoliation was not probable. The new Governor, he reminded me, was a stern disciplinarian. This was true. General Miguel Gomez, the new military governor of Chihuahua, was a man of energetic character, and was reported to keep great order among his troops. This was unusual in Mexico, and the more so as Gomez was in arms for the clerical party, and bore sway over the State in the names of Miramon and the Church. I think I should have given way to the assayer’s arguments, but for the extreme disappointment of poor Arthur, and the vigour with which he urged me on to adhere to our customary course. Of the savages he spoke with contempt, treating the report of their near neighbourhood as a mere chimera, and expressing his conviction that we could easily beat off a whole squadron of such foes. I knew pretty well why young Lake was so bent on the journey. He and I had received an invitation to spend as many days as we could spare from duty at Mr. Acworth’s house. To me, of course, the only temptations were the good table, the snug quarters, the priceless cellar, and the pleasant company sure to be found at the rich man’s board. To Arthur the attraction was different. His suit to Jane Acworth had been approved by the easy-tempered old widower, who could not make up his mind to thwart his darling child in anything, and who had a high opinion of Lake’s honour and cleverness. A long engagement was, to be sure, a stipulation with which the merchant had clogged his consent, but youthful hope leaps lightly over an intervening gulf of years. Arthur was wild to go, and I, perhaps weakly, yielded to his wishes. We got under arms. A number of Indian peons loaded themselves with the silver, carefully secured in skin packages, with provisions for the two days’ march, and with the light tents which were to screen us from the dews and night air in our temporary encampment. The fighting part of the contingent consisted of four Cornishmen, besides their “captain,” a giant in stature, graver and more sober than any one in our employ, and whose cool courage and mighty thews had earned him the enforced respect of the Mexicans. Besides these, we had four clerks or surveyors, one English, one French, and two Americans. A German and two Dutchmen, seafaring persons whose ship had been wrecked on the coast, and who had been recruited for work on dry land, made up, with Lake and myself, fourteen combatants. Each man had a rifle, with ball-pouch and powder-horn, a revolving pistol, and a bowie knife.
“After cautioning the assayer to keep a bright look-out in case of mutiny among our dissolute Mexican gang, and bidding farewell to the rest, I gave the word to ‘march.’
“To my astonishment, not a peon stirred. The usually submissive Indians stood still, their heavy loads strapped on their shoulders, and evidently awaited some indispensable preliminary.
“‘What is this?’ I called out. ‘Do you hear me, boobies?’
“The bronze statues remained motionless, with bowed heads and folded arms, their stolid faces turned towards the tin-roofed chapel and the adjoining house, where the priest lived.
“‘I think it is the padre they are waiting for,’ said young Lake, in a low voice: ‘he has not blessed our enterprise, and the simple creatures are reluctant to move without his sanction.’
“I muttered an angry comment on the personal character of the absent ecclesiastic, and then added:
“‘Pray go to Father Bartholomew, some of you, and beg his reverence to be quick. If he wants a fee, he must have one, for I see that these copper-coloured beauties of ours will not stir till he gives them leave.’
“‘The holy father has been busy all the morning, writing letters,’ said a Mexican, who stood by; ‘he had a visit from an Indian of the half-blood, a man of the plains, who came up here, panting and travel-stained. He has been shut up in his reverence’s dwelling ever since, and there I found him when I looked in, an hour ago, to speak about the indulgence to eat flesh on prohibited days. Carrajo! I’ve known our priest two years, and never saw him spoil white paper nor handle pen before this day.’
“At another time I dare say I should have attached more importance to this communication than I did; but now I only saw in it the reason of a vexatious delay which was wasting precious time. Already young Arthur Lake, quick and light of foot, had scampered across the open square to the priest’s abode, and presently arrived Father Bartholomew, hot and puffing, in full canonicals, and followed by a strange Indian, who bore a brush and a pot of holy water. The latter was a lean, muscular fellow, scantily dressed in cotton cloth, with a purple fillet of Maguey thread crossing his low forehead and circling his dull black hair, and with evident signs of travel on his sandaled feet and dusky limbs. The latter were scarred and bleeding, from the thorns of the mezquite bush through which he had forced his rapid way. It struck me that the fellow’s countenance was sly and sinister; but I had little time to observe him, for the ceremony commenced. Our porters and their loads were duly sprinkled with holy water: a few prayers, and a blessing, or something in barbarous Latin that represented one, were mumbled out, and the Church gave full sanction to our journey. We Protestants looked on with undisguised impatience, and even the French clerks sneered as they beat a tattoo with their boot-heels on the dusty ground; but the peons brightened up wonderfully, and they set off at a good round pace down the hill, as the monk concluded.
“‘Thank you, Father Bartholomew,’ said I, handing over a dollar to the chaplain, whose eyes twinkled as he received it; ‘you have done a miracle on our behalf, turned bronze men into living sentient creatures, and your fee is well earned.’
“‘Ah, Señor Inglese! ah, noble sir! don’t be too hard on our poor flock,’ said the monk, rolling his eyes and speaking in meek tones; ‘they are unlearned peasants, but the solace of the Church is very dear to them. I have a favour to beg of you. Please to permit yonder Indian, a good man, to travel home to the suburbs of the city under your valiant protection.’
“Well! this, you will say, Tom, was but a small boon to ask, but I own I hesitated. Some unerring instinct whispered to me that all was not right; that Father Bartholomew’s affected humility meant mischief. He was seldom commonly civil in his intercourse with us. In his cups—for his reverence had an unsaintly love for maize brandy and pulque—he was well known to rail bitterly at his heretic paymasters, and to gloat over the future torments which were destined for us all, and now he was cooing as gently as any sucking dove.
“Why, too, was this stranger in such an amazing hurry to get back to Chihuahua? He might well need a little repose after a march of fifty miles. It was odd, very odd. The monk had some experience in reading the human face,—a book he knew better than his manual. He saw my indecision, and began to whine out a long, rambling statement concerning the Indian: how he was one of the most pious and respectable of his old parishioners, whose affection for his former confessor had induced him to undertake this journey, all the way from the suburbs of Chihuahua, on purpose to relieve his tender conscience, by imparting his griefs and scruples to his favourite director. How he was now far from home, separated from his wife and babes, and in great peril from savages, jaguars, and broken soldiery, should he be compelled to return alone, and on foot. Lastly, how it would be so kind and generous, if my clemency would permit this interesting penitent to voyage under the guard of our invincible rifles.
“‘Hang it, Slingsby, the poor man can’t eat us!’ cried young Arthur Lake, always good-natured, as he noticed my hesitation; ‘let him come, and let’s be off, for look, the peons are already at the swinging-bridge.’
“I gave my consent. ‘March!’ was the word, and our men stepped gaily out, and descended the hill at double-quick, followed by the Indian protégé of Father Bartholomew. The latter snuffled out some valedictory words, and stood watching our start. It so happened that my own eyes were averted from the chaplain just then, for a pistol belonging to a clumsy German in front went off accidentally, causing some confusion, and inflicting a slight graze with its bullet on the man nearest him. The injury was only skin-deep, but a great deal of clamour ensued, and, what with rating Hans for his awkwardness, tying a silk handkerchief round the wounded man’s arm, and getting the party into order, I quite forgot the monk. When we were across the ravines, and had overtaken the porters, Arthur came to my side.
“‘Slingsby,’ said he, in a low voice, ‘that padre is a queer customer. You didn’t see the expression of his face as we started. I did, and if ever a face expressed malignant triumph, his did then. I hope he has no mischief in his head. You know he thinks it a moral duty to hate heretics.’
“‘Pshaw! what can Father Bartholomew do?’ answered I, with a laugh. ‘Nobody doubts how gladly the worthy man would see our schismatical flesh frizzling in the blaze of a good pile of tar-barrels; but his malice finds vent in impotent curses and black looks, and Britons, even in Mexico, can bid defiance to such enemies as he. I don’t half like the face of that demure Indian, whom his reverence recommended to us, and shall keep an eye on him till we are clear of the disturbed districts.’
“We found the village of Quexhatepec in an uproar. There was news from Chihuahua of another political outbreak. The comprador came bustling to meet us, with uplifted hands and eyes of tragic meaning. He informed us that a wicked conspiracy on the part of the Liberals—those fiends who longed to confiscate Church lands and melt down Church plate—had been discovered. General Gomez had put down an attempt at rising with a strong hand. Executions were frequent, and martial law proclaimed. Blood, added my imaginative informant, ran like water through the streets of the capital. Military detachments scoured the country in search of proscribed fugitives. Of course our excellencies would see that our journey was impossible!
“Our excellencies saw nothing of the kind. We were foreigners, in no way concerned with the domestic broils and massacres of the distracted country. We were subjects or citizens of states able and willing to protect or avenge us. We were bound on a lawful errand—why should we turn back?
“This was clear and logical, and yet the comprador groaned as he gave orders for the horses and mules to be equipped for the road, and the whole population followed us to the end of the straggling village, blessing themselves in the names of St. Antony of Italy and St. James of Spain, that such foolhardiness should be possible to men.
“We formed a tolerably imposing cavalcade, Arthur, myself, and two of the clerks, had good nags of our own; the rest were mounted on excellent mules, the property of the company. The silver had been transferred from the backs of the porters to the pack-saddles of a train of baggage-mules, and the peons, now transformed into muleteers, were to lead and tend these sure-footed creatures on the march. Our intention was to bring back stores, as usual, from Chihuahua. The low-country Indian, Father Bartholomew’s parishioner, was permitted to ride a spare mule, since it appeared inhuman to compel him to renew the toilsome tramp of fifty miles after such brief repose.
“The country, for some miles, was rather lonely and sterile, full of rocky ridges that were connected with the spurs of the grand sierra, and seamed with ghastly ravines, just the places best adapted for an ambush of lurking Indians. Yet we accomplished our day’s route of above thirty miles without any signs of the Apachés being visible. A few tattered scarecrows, dressed in the remains of military uniforms, and irregularly armed, we now and then met, and had little doubt that they were on the look out for unprotected travellers; but they slunk away at the sight of our formidable force. We encamped for the night. The place we selected was an open plateau, free from bush and brake, and where foes could not easily approach us unseen. There was good water within reach, and we had fuel on some of the pack-mules. Fires were kindled, tents pitched, the evening meal was cooked and despatched, and sentinels were posted and relieved at regular intervals. No attack took place. A few small wolves prowled about the camp, but a firebrand, flung among the pack, soon drove them howling into the darkness. In the morning a discovery was made, and one of by no means a pleasant nature.
“The strange Indian, Father Bartholomew’s model parishioner, was gone. He had slipped away during the night, and, unfortunately, Arthur Lake’s horse—a valuable animal of good Spanish breeding—was likewise missing. It was plain that the steed had been stolen, and that the copper-coloured deserter was the thief: but what could we do? We found that the picket-rope had been cut; the horse must have been gently and cautiously led away, for some faint marks of the trail were to be seen in the soft turf, and led towards the high road.
“There could be no doubt about it: the Indian was a rogue, but he was beyond pursuit, and, with muttered vows of vengeance on his tawny hide, if ever we set eyes on him again, we gave up the jennet as lost. Arthur, who was much annoyed at the loss of his favourite nag, was obliged to content himself with the mule previously ridden by the runaway, and we again started.
“‘This is some rascally trick of the monk’s,’ said one of the party, ‘and if I were Mr. Slingsby, I would pluck a crow with Father Bartholomew on the subject.’
“The captain of the Cornishmen presently came up to me with a very grave face.
“‘Them painted beggars are coming, sir.’ And he pointed to the blue line of the horizon, on which appeared a number of dark specks that rapidly grew larger.
“‘What makes you consider those objects to be Indians, Mr. Atkins?’ asked I dubiously, for, although the captain was famous for his powers of vision, I could hardly believe that the savages would venture so near a strongly garrisoned city.
“‘They are buffaloes,’ said one of the American surveyors, ‘some half-wild herd on their way to the southern markets.’
“‘I should take them for vultures, now;’ cried Arthur Lake, no less earnestly; ‘I feel sure that I see the flapping of their broad wings.’
“The captain shook his head.
“‘Indians, and on no honest errand,’ he repeated with dogged conviction; ‘it’s the flutter of their feathered head-dresses,’ Mr. Lake observed. ‘I can make out men and horses.’
“‘So can I,’ cried a young Frenchman, whose sight was nearly equal to that of the Cornishman, and directly afterwards the dusky peons set up a yell of dismay:
“‘Indios bravos! los Apachés—the saints defend us!’
“There was a moment of gabbling and confusion, but my voice was soon hearkened to, and we formed in good order to receive the expected charge. The armed men drew up in the form of an irregular square, with the mules and porters in the centre. By the advice of Atkins, who had been many years in Mexico, we all dismounted and hobbled the forelegs of the horses and mules, lest they should be stampedoed by the horrid Indian whoop. Very soon did the distant clump of specks develop itself into a long string of tawny horsemen, mounted on active little steeds, and coming over the plain at a headlong gallop. Presently they halted, formed into two squadrons, and came rushing down upon us, striking their mouths with the palm of the open hand as they uttered the fearful and unearthly war cry.
“‘Hia! hia! hia! hi—a!’ the last note prolonged into the melancholy fierceness of a wolf’s howl, rang over the wide plain; and as they came on I must own that their excited gestures, their faces and bodies smeared with paint of every colour, and the tossing and brandishing of lances, shields, bows, and plumed head-gear, had something terrific, especially when accompanied by that dreadful pealing cry, that seemed worthy of the throats of so many actual demons. They were about two hundred, as nearly as we could count. On our side no one flinched. Even the foreign seamen, who had never seen an Indian before, and who were quite inexperienced in the use of firearms, stood steadily and coolly in their allotted places, and handled their weapons with resolution. Don’t yawn, Tom; I have no battle to relate, for just as the wild riders drew near enough for the rifles to take effect, and as the word ‘fire’ was trembling on my lips, the savages gave a cry of disappointed rage, pulled up their foaming horses, huddled together in tumult, and then, shaking their clenched fists at us with many an insulting and wrathful gesture, wheeled round and galloped off. In a minute more we saw the reason for this apparently capricious movement in the appearance of a strong body of Mexican lancers, whose gay uniforms of blue and silver, sparkling lance-heads, and flaunting scarlet pennons, caught the eyes of some of our party. The Apachés had evidently no idea of coping with a force so superior in numbers and equipment, and they never turned again, but lashed on, till their fantastic troop vanished in the distance.
“‘Heaven be thanked!’ cried several of us by a common impulse, and instantly our martial array broke up, and we prepared to receive the advancing soldiery as friends. But, to our surprise, the lancers came forward at a brisk pace, wheeled, changed their formation from column to squadron, and brought their spears to the charge.
“‘Confound the fellows!’ said Lake; ‘what do they take us for? Slingsby, give them a hail. Your Spanish is the most intelligible that we can muster.’
“I called out accordingly, explaining in few words who we were, and claiming the character of friends. But no response was given, save that several officers rode to the front, and that among them, in eager converse with the commandant, was the Indian deserter of the previous night, mounted on the stolen horse.
“Arthur Lake uttered an angry exclamation, and stepped forward.
“‘Caramba!’ thundered the Mexican major, ‘keep back, you heretic dogs. Soldiers, arrest the traitors: forward!’
“And before we could close our ranks or make ready our guns, we were rudely charged, ridden down, and trampled under foot. When we scrambled, bruised and hurt, to our feet again, we were disarmed and secured by a number of dismounted troopers, who proceeded very composedly to tie our hands tightly together with scraps of rope or hide, answering our remonstrances with blows and curses. An indignant appeal which I made to the officer in command fared no better. He gruffly informed me that if I did not hold my tongue, I should be gagged; and added that I had better keep my oratory for the ears of my judges. My judges! but I had little time wherein to ponder on the matter, for we were singly placed between two mounted lancers, to whose saddle-bows our wrists were secured with cords, and in this ignominious manner we were half dragged, half driven over the eighteen miles that lay between us and the capital. Although we had been goaded to our utmost speed by the unscrupulous use of the spear-point and spear butt, our progress was necessarily slow, and it was late in the day when we arrived, dusty and exhausted, in Chihuahua.
“The silver was removed to the Governor’s palace; the peons were dismissed, the mules being detained, however, with the curt announcement that the property of the Cerro Azul Company was ‘confiscated for seditious offences.’ We heard this from a warder of the squalid jail into which we had been thrust, and were further informed that a detachment of infantry was about to set off for the sierra, to take possession of the mine and stores on behalf of government. The reason for this arbitrary proceeding we could not guess, nor could the warder—who gave us in pity a little water and fruit, heedfully emptying our pockets, at the same time, of every coin or valuable article they contained—give us any explanation of the crimes of which we were accused. After great importunity, however, we prevailed upon our guards to slacken the cords and thongs which bound us, since they had been drawn cruelly tight, lacerating the skin, and causing much suffering. Just before sunset we were conducted, under a strong guard, to a large whitewashed apartment in the principal barrack, where a drum-head court- martial, composed of seven officers, had assembled to try us. Don’t expect, Tom, that I should give you a detailed account of that most iniquitous mockery of justice. My blood boils when I think of it. We were accused of being mixed up in the recently detected conspiracy of the Mexican Liberal party. The accusation was especially strong against Lake and myself, but the only evidence, if evidence it may be called, seemed to be a rascally lying deposition on the part of our precious chaplain, Father Bartholomew. This had been despatched by his dark-skinned accomplice, the Indian deserter who had stolen Arthur’s horse. It was read aloud in court, and contained a tissue of the most barefaced falsehoods, hardly worth repeating. But we were not allowed to refute these statements. We were condemned beforehand, the manifest object of the authorities being to get possession of the rich mine of Cerro Azul, whose wealth rumour had exaggerated. Without being allowed to speak, we were removed from the court, and only brought back to hear our sentence. This was one worthy of its pronouncers. The mine, and all effects of the Company, were confiscated to the public use, a phrase pretty intelligible to Mexican ears. The subordinate agents and servants of the Company were to be set at liberty. But as some victims were necessary to give a colour to these infamous acts, Lake and I were doomed to—death! Ay, brother, you may start and look surprised—it’s Gospel truth, for all that. We were condemned to be shot within twenty-four hours, a respite granted us that we might be ‘reconciled to the Church,’ if our native obstinacy as ‘burros Ingleses,’ or English asses, a polite phrase of the president, permitted. We were then marched off under escort, ironed, and thrust into a cell. How we passed that night, I well remember. The rage, the stormy indignation, the half-incredulity,, the dull stupefaction of despair. Worn out with bodily fatigue and mental emotions, we slept at. last, upon the damp stone floor.
“Shall I ever forget how the next day dawned, how the light of the last sun we were ever to see, came sadly pouring into the dismal den where we lay in chains! I do not care to dwell on what we felt. Poor Arthur Lake suffered the most. He was a brave lad, but of a sensitive nature, and delicate in mind and body. The sudden, cruel blight to all his sweet hopes of a happy future with his darling Jane, half maddened him. I was obliged to rack my brains to find some consolation for him, but I tried in vain. As for myself, I thanked Heaven that no other heart was linked to mine on that dark day, to suffer with my suffering, to die with my death. I was alone, a rough stranger in the land, and I was glad to be spared that extra pang which my comrade had to endure. Still, Tom, it was a bitter pill to swallow. Disguise it as we may, we all shrink from the black shadow. They neglected us in that jail, as usual in Mexico, and it was not till noon that a surly mulatto brought us a few beans fried in oil, and, what we valued more, a pitcher of water. He shook his woolly head and declined to answer any of my questions.
“An hour afterwards arrived a priest, though not, as I at first conjectured, on a bootless and tormenting errand of conversion. He was of a gentle disposition and good repute, had often been a guest at the table of Mr. Acworth, and had come to visit us at the request of his Protestant friend. Father Diego, a very different sort of ecclesiastic from our chaplain in the mountains, spoke to us with great sympathy and kindness, and bade us be of good cheer. Mr. Acworth, roused to unwonted energy, was using in our behalf his whole interest with the authorities. He had already had an interview with the corregidor and the alcalde, and had seen the Governor, Don Miguel Gomez. The latter was the man on whose breath hung our lives. He was, as we knew, of a stern nature, an honest fanatic, full of fiery zeal for his Church and faction; but Mr. Acworth, who stood high in his esteem, hoped to mollify his determination.
“This was the padre’s first visit. He came again in two hours’ time, and his words and looks were less cheerful than before. The Governor, he said ambiguously, was a hard man; but even rocks might be melted. Mr. Acworth had gone a third time to his residence, and this time his daughter had accompanied him. She was a dear friend to Manuella and Inez, the Governor’s two children, and she had gone to petition them to kneel with her at their fierce father’s feet, and to beg our pardon. ‘May the blessed St. Iago, St. George, and Our Lady of the Pillar, soften his hard heart!’ said the old padre, shuffling out of the cell, evidently ill at ease. He came again, but by that time the afternoon was far spent, and there was an ominous change in his benevolent wrinkled face; he was pale, and his hand was cold and tremulous as he took mine.
“‘My son,’ said he, ‘we must all die one day. What matter a few brief hours in the account of our allotted pilgrimage?’
“My eye met his. I read our fate at a glance.
“‘Is there no hope?’
“‘None!’ said the old man, almost sobbing. He went on to say how Jane Acworth and the Governor’s daughters had knelt in vain at the great man’s feet, had implored mercy for us in vain.
“‘They wept, they pleaded and prayed,’ said the padre. ‘Oh! it would have melted a heart of marble; but his must be harder than marble. Prepare, my poor children, to die. If my spiritual ministry can avail—’
“‘Father Diego, we thank you, but we must pray alone,’ returned I; ‘the sentence stands, then, for sunset?’
“‘For sunset! An old man’s blessing will do you no harm—take it.’ And he made the sign of the cross, and left the cell with drooping head and slow step. The great golden sun was going down fast. The mellowing rays fell slanting upon the bare wall. About one hour, as near as I could guess, was the span between us and eternity.
“A dreadful hour, brother, in which the bitterness of death was drained to the dregs. But my own state of mind was peaceful, compared to Arthur’s. He showed no unmanliness, no actual fear, but he was in a febrile condition painful to mark, his nerves were strung to an unnatural tension, and he suffered cruelly from the blow that robbed him of love, and hope, and life, so young. ‘Poor Jane, this will kill her!’ he said, several times over. Once he grasped my hand as I tried to comfort him, and said:
“‘Bless you, old friend. I know you don’t think me a coward for making such a fuss about the matter. It’s not death alone—you’ve seen me in danger before, haven’t you? But Jane—and all our fond hopes—these bloody Mexican butchers—it’s hard to bear!’
“Just before sunset I heard the tramp of steps, the clank of muskets on the stones without. They had come to fetch us. I whispered in Arthur’s ear as he lay moodily musing, and he sprang up, his irons rattling, and prepared for the last. The door opened, and a subaltern and ten soldiers appeared, with the gaoler and a smith.
“‘Knock off their irons,’ said the officer, lighting a cigar. ‘Stand at ease, men.’
“The fetters were removed; we were placed between two files, and the march began. At the gate of the prison a crowd waited. There was a murmur as we appeared.
“‘Mueran los malditos!’ cried a few voices; but most of the people showed some signs of pity, mingled with curiosity.
“‘Poor boys!—so young! I wonder if they have mothers at home to mourn them?’ said one woman, aloud.
“‘Forward,’ said the officer, drawing his sword. We moved on, surrounded by the guard. Every balcony of the great street, every window in the Prado, were full of life, of rustling fans and fluttering veils and scarfs, as the dark-eyed ladies of the city looked out at the show. The streets contained large groups of gazers. At one corner we saw Father Diego, and bowed to him, and the old priest lifted his feeble hands, and blessed us as we passed. We neared the great square of the Parade, where we could discern a gay squadron of mounted lancers, escorting a number of officers on horseback, in rich uniforms—the Governor and his staff. Besides these, a body of infantry was drawn up, and a great crowd thronged as close as the sentries allowed. We were now under the windows of Mr. Acworth’s mansion, when I saw Arthur, who had till then walked calm and tranquil at my side, start and change colour. I looked up. Could it be! Yes, in the balcony stood Jane Acworth, fresh and radiant in her beauty, with bright eyes and flushed cheeks, waving her handkerchief to us. Lake groaned, and hid his face between his hands.
“‘She false!—she callous and careless! Oh, great Heaven!’ he muttered.
“In a minute more we were in the middle of the Plaza, kneeling before an open grave, close to which were two rough coffins of unpainted wood. These were to receive our quivering bodies. In front of us was drawn up a firing-party, who began to handle their pieces. Our eyes were bandaged, in spite of our expostulations. We shook hands once more. I said some words of farewell, but Arthur did not answer.
I heard the clatter of hoofs as the General and his staff approached. The officer in command called out his orders. I heard the muskets rattle. ‘Fire!’ was the word, and the report of the muskets followed. I knelt, unharmed. A long pause followed. Then my eyes were unbound, and I found some one supporting me—Mr. Acworth.
“‘It’s over now, Slingsby: the volley was but one of blank cartridge. When the General spared your lives it was on condition that you should suffer this cruel trick; but now it is over. Heavens! What has happened? Lake has fainted!’
“Worse than that—he was dead—stone dead, though not slain by bullets. The poor lad’s heart, overtortured, had given way. That is why I left Mexico—pah! I hate the very name of it. Tom, let’s go upstairs, and ask your wife for a cup of tea.”