Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/The Queen's messenger in Mexico
THE QUEEN’S MESSENGER IN MEXICO.
“Why Hardy, old boy! is that you or your ghost? I thought you were in Australia still. Glad to see you!” cried a frank, cheery voice from among the crowd of passengers mounting the slimy seaward steps of the Admiralty Pier at Dover. The French packet, very full and rather late, had just come in, and was disgorging its passengers. A number of lookers-on had gathered, as usual, to scan the pale and rueful faces of the new arrivals, and I, a visitor at the Lord Warden Hotel, and much in want of occupation, had joined the lookers-on.
I turned to the left, and was confronted by a bronzed, soldierly-looking man in a laced cap and a cloak of foreign cut, and whose left hand was encumbered by a very diplomatic-looking despatch-box, while his right hand was extended towards me—a Queen’s messenger, evidently.
But so long a time had passed since our last meeting, and so many new faces had come under my notice, that my recognition of the stranger was not immediate, causing the latter to exclaim, rather reproachfully: “Hang it, man, you haven’t forgotten Dick Musgrave!”
Then, indeed, I heartily grasped the proffered hand, and warmly declared how glad I was to see my old friend again, the Dick Musgrave of early days at Sandhurst, now captain, unattached, and a Ganymede of the Foreign Office.
“Where are you from now, Dick?” I asked, as we moved along the pier together, followed by a porter carrying my friend’s valise and bags.
“Vienna. Tiresome work, that travelling by slow Austrian trains. I came by Prague, and shirked the regular Breslau and Berlin business. How did you like Australia? Any monster nuggets?”
By this time we were clear of the blocks of stone, the concrete, cranes, trucks, cables, and the other stumbling-blocks which the unfinished pier presents, and were close to the railway terminus, on the one hand, and the lofty hotel on the other.
“Where to, sir?” said the porter, touching his cap.
“The station,” said Musgrave. “You can put that portmanteau in the cloak-room; the bags I must keep. Come to the telegraph-office first. I must send a word or two to London. They’ll be glad in our shop to know the papers have arrived.”
“You have lost the train by half-an-hour,” observed I, consulting my watch. “I suppose you won’t take a special?”
Dick laughed drily.
“No, no; those days are gone. Swell the estimates too much, in these cheese-paring times. I shall wait for the mail, and send word to the sub’s private residence that I have done so.”
So saying, he dashed into the telegraph-office, wrote what he had to say, listened to the rapid click! click! of the instrument as the message was flashed off to town, and then came back and took my arm.
“Plenty of time, so let’s go together to the Lord Warden and dine, and have a good chat over old times.”
So we did, and it was in the course of conversation that I drew from my friend the following story.
It’s six years, now, since they sent me for the first time to Mexico. At that time, as I daresay you are aware, our salaries depended, as to amount, upon the number of our journeys, and we were naturally anxious to be as much employed as possible. I was then a raw member of the guild, and thought myself singularly lucky in being selected for this Mexican trip, especially as I had been hardly two years a messenger, and had been occupied in repeated expeditions during nearly the whole of that period.
“You speak Spanish, I believe, Captain Musgrave?” asked the under-secretary, when he gave me my instructions; “but this is, if I am not mistaken, your first visit to America?”
I modestly answered, that I spoke a little Spanish, which I had picked up during the months that they kept me hanging about the Legation at Madrid, but that I had not yet crossed the Atlantic.
“I need not tell you that the country is in a disturbed state, or that travelling requires caution and forethought,” rejoined the secretary, in his official manner; then relaxed into good nature, and added, “you are going among great scoundrels; don’t let them double upon you,” and the interview ended.
I was a younger man then by six years, and much more confident of my knowledge of the world than a longer experience has rendered me. I had been all over Europe, among some of its most roguish races, and through semi-savage provinces, without taking harm. In consequence, I made light of my chief’s warning, and prepared to traverse Mexico as unconcernedly as I should have scampered to Paris or Dresden. I had a very good passage to Vera Cruz, and there my troubles began. The diligences between the coast and the capital, as you probably know, are about on a par with the English stage-coach in the reigns of the later Stuarts. Besides being comfortless and ungainly machines, dragged by any number of mules and lean horses, they are irregular as to departure and arrival, slow of speed, and, what is worse, liable to be continually stopped by highwaymen. On the average, only fifty per cent. of the journeys are quite free from, at least, attempted robbery; and weeks often elapse before the caravan can venture to start, if civil war bar the road. All this, I am aware, Tom, is very stale intelligence. You can pick for yourself, out of the columns of the Times, as many lawless onslaughts and hair-breadth escapes as may satisfy you. I promise, for my part, not to inflict a banditti tale upon your friendship. Well, I had to wait some days before the diligence was ready to set forth, and when it did start, we had an escort of shabby soldiers on account of the disturbed condition of the country. Just then the eternal war which gnaws at the vitals of Mexico was raging somewhere else, but large bands of broken soldiers were roaming through the state of Puebla, and the native element of brigandage had been strongly reinforced. We were a motley company: French traders going back to their shops in the metropolis; a spectacled German who collected plants and insects, and who almost cried when he espied some rare cacti or curious heaths among the rocks and the conductor refused to stop; some English and Americans, all engaged in commerce; and a sprinkling of Mexicans, male and female. Beside our lumbering ark on wheels rode the lean Lancers in their threadbare blue jackets, but with an amount of martial swagger that amused me very much. It was a pleasure to see them twist their wiry moustaches, shake their red-pennoned spears, and amble alongside of us, curvetting, prancing, and taking a great deal out of their meagre but gallant little horses by the combined effect of a powerful bit and the terrible long-rowelled spur. All this show of exuberant valour and efficiency was designed, as I pretty well guessed, to draw forth a present at parting; but what mettle our protectors would have shown, had they been put to the test, can only be guessed. It so happened, however, that not a brigand came near us during the short journey which the old machine accomplished.
We had cleared the Tierra Caliente, or strip of sultry seaboard, and as we ascended the steep hills of the temperate region, or Tierra Templada, we congratulated ourselves at having left the yellow fever behind us. Up we went, up the rugged mountain road, with immense straining, tugging, and exertion; but our progress was slow, in spite of the oaths of the conductor and postillions, and the continual lashing of the heavy whips as they fell on the backs of the struggling cattle. We got up the ascent, tediously but successfully, and thought ourselves fortunate. Our confidence proved premature, for in crossing the high table-land near Xalapa, we came upon a piece of road far worse than any we had traversed. Indeed, there had been a fight between some wandering band of guerillas and the government troops, and the road had been torn up to render the transport of artillery difficult. It had been very imperfectly repaired, and there were holes of surprising depth, while broken gun-carriages and the wreck of mule-carts encumbered the way. We plunged into one of these holes, and it is no wonder that the diligence was upset, smashing one of the axles, staving in much of the woodwork, and causing no little pain and inconvenience to its human freight. It was not a very dreadful accident. No lives were lost: nor, beyond a sprained thumb, which injury fell to the lot of the German, were any bones broken or dislocated. But many of the company were severely bruised, though the contusions, as usually happens, were very unequally shared among the sufferers. Thus, I was scarcely the worse for the shock, while two or three of the party were sad objects, with bleeding and discoloured features. When we had extricated ourselves and the more feeble or injured of our fellow passengers from the shattered diligence, when the disaster had been commented on to a sufficient length, and the whole extent of it ascertained, a new question arose—
“What was to be done?”
The effort of righting the vehicle was beyond our united force, and even had we set the clumsy machine on its wheels again, the dilapidation of its panels and axle would have rendered it useless. The horses were cut adrift, and stood with heaving flanks, with their heads turned towards the cool breeze that came whispering through the pine trees. The conductor was like one distracted. In his gay dress of slashed jacket, morocco boots, and gaudy yellow sash, he strode up and down, cursing and abusing everybody and everything, from the poor nags to the Liberal Faction, as the cause of the mischief, and we had to wait until this storm of senseless rage had spent itself, before a council could be held. As for the postillions, wild, bare-legged boys from one of the mountain hamlets, they merely grinned and chuckled, and I believe were more amused at our rueful aspect than concerned at the catastrophe. After a long time, during which the conductor was absolutely raving against all heaven and earth, he calmed down enough to answer questions.
“Would the carriage serve for the rest of the journey, if repaired?”
“Caramba! who can tell? We are five good miles, my malediction upon them, from Xalapa. It is too bad! And after burning six pounds of candles, too, all good wax, before my patron St. Antonio! If ever he gets another candle from me, may I—”
“Hush! we’ve heard enough of your cussin’ for one while, mister,” growled a tall American, a teller in one of the foreign banking-houses at Vera Cruz, putting his broad hand very unceremoniously across the conductor’s open mouth; “jest keep a civil tongue, if you’d keep a whole skin, and let us know how we’re to git on. Tell the critter that in Spanish, will ye, some one?”
This reasonable request was complied with. The Yankee’s words were translated to the petulant native, who sullenly replied that “he did not know. We were in the country; who could tell how to get on?”
Here the corporal of the escort very opportunely interfered. He informed us that a capital blacksmith, a skilled workman, a “viejo Christiano,” and, to cap all, his own maternal uncle, resided in a neighbouring village. He would undertake to fetch that worthy man, as well as the carpenter, and as many stout young mozos as might be required to right the unlucky vehicle, and indeed, being stimulated by a dollar, he did set off at a brisk canter.
Some time elapsed before the blacksmith and carpenter came, guided by the corporal, and accompanied by eight or nine sturdy young peasants. To lift the diligence would now have been easy enough, but to mend it was more difficult, and the artisans we had called in to help us, after many exclamations, and much needless talk, made a demand of a hundred dollars, and three days, for the execution of the necessary repairs. Then there was a Babel of discord; the conductor, as representative of the coachowners, seemed disposed to leave the whole onus of paying for the injuries the vehicle had sustained, to the passengers, volubly observing that it was nothing to him when he saw Mexico, soon or late. The Anglo-Saxon part of the company, however, made common cause, and it was at length settled that the broken diligence was to be mended forthwith, that the sum of fifty dollars should be paid for the repairs, and that one-half of this expenditure should be defrayed by the passengers. The smith and carpenter now bustled off to fetch tools and materials, pledging themselves to work on by torchlight, and to cobble up the vehicle so as to enable it to bear the jolting, at any rate, as far as the city of Puebla, where more regular repairs could be executed.
It was then that I asked the tall American I have mentioned, and who was one of the most sensible men of the party, if he could point out to me any more speedy way of pushing on to the metropolis, even at some little personal risk. I was, indeed, already somewhat behind time with my despatches, and I was afraid that the Minister’s next missive might censure my tardiness. The Yankee’s deep-set eyes twinkled as he eyed me, and then glanced upwards at the fast declining sun.
“You’re not far wrong, mister, in reckoning our pro-gress. We shall go slow—’nation slow. First, those yeller skinned dawdlers won’t finish work till after midnight; then we must go on at a walk, I guess, to Puebla. If you’re in a hurry to git to your Legation, you must jest ride. No two words about it.”
“Ride!” said I, “with all my heart, but how am I to get a horse? There is no post in Mexico, at least not on the footing established in Europe, and I very much doubt my being able to procure a mount.”
“In Xalapa town you may, and arter that you’ll easy git another, only they’ll fleece you about hire,” answered Mr. Brandreth, knocking away the charred tip of his cigar; “money’ll do most everything in Mexico. But hadn’t you better think twice about it, sir?—there’s ugly customers to be met with long before you see the Prado, and mighty little lead will stop a chap’s galloping.”
But after a little more talk the goodnatured American came round to my way of thinking, saying that, after all, there was nearly as much peril to be incurred in the regular way of voyaging, as in that which I proposed, and that had he been ten years younger he would have gone with me. He further advised me to find out where the relays for the diligence were kept, and to make the best bargain I could for a horse, and a mounted guide. He gave me some valuable hints as to the most dangerous parts of the road, and recommended me to press on as rapidly as possible, but “always to keep a bit of speed in my nag, in case of a scurry.”
His last words were shrewd enough, and have often since then appeared to me to be almost prophetically true.
“Look’ee, Captain M——, I’ve been nine years in this country, and if I can’t chatter Spanish, I know a thing or two about the Dons. Don’t you trust ’em. They ain’t half so dangerous, in a fight, as when they make believe butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. Don’t trust ’em, or, if you do, you’ll have your eyeteeth stole, as sure as my name’s Nat Brandreth.”
So we shook hands and parted. I had a walk of five miles before me, but this, in the temperate region of Mexico, was no great hardship. And I had enlisted the services of an Indian peon to carry the bags and my own luggage, which was light and compact. The ground to be traversed was a sort of elevated terrace or high mountain plateau, reasonably fertile, though only cultivated in part. Still, great fields of barley and maize alternated with the dense woods of pine and live oak, the air was cool and agreeable, and I saw more wild flowers, and more pretty glimpses of scenery, than I had ever before encountered in so short a space. Far, far away, through the wondrously clear blue atmosphere, lay the hot country about the coast, a sort of white mist, thin as gossamer, hanging over its dangerous beauty, and the silvery sea glittering beyond. Nearer, were naked rocks of porphyry, quartz, sandstone, and serpentine, jumbled up as by volcanic agency, and mixed with huge trees, from whose boughs the fantastic grey moss hung like so much tapestry. To the west, the sun was going down, fiery red, and I saw the scarlet lustre through the deep green shadows of the woodland to my left. All these things, Tom, I saw and admired, that is, I took mental notes of them, and admired them afterwards; but just then my thoughts were busy with other matters. You know by personal experience, I dare say, that whatever highflown descriptions a traveller may pen in his diary, at the actual time he is apt to be more anxious about his breakfast, or his tight shoes and blistered feet, or some rascally imposition on the part of guide or landlord, than really studious of rosetints on the mountains and pearl-greys on the lake. And I was very hungry, and very unromantically eager for something to eat. Indeed, I am not absolutely sure that even my zeal for the speedy delivery of the Foreign Office despatches would have made me quit the caravan as I did, had not that zeal been supplemented by the hopes of supper. Well, my peon proved very bad company. He trudged along in the dust under his load, silent and patient as a camel, and was about as easily drawn into conversation. He understood Spanish, indeed, but his stock of words and of ideas was painfully limited, and I could draw no information from him as to the political feeling of the country. He seemed, indeed, to regard the Church Party and the Liberals with a kind of dull and timorous dislike, as pestilent folk who stole his fowls, impressed his cart and oxen to carry stores, and trampled over his maize-plot. But he was quite innocent of any notion respecting the cause of conflict, the future of Mexico, or the best theory of government, and I gathered that if he had a feeble preference for the clerical faction, it was because he owed the Cura nine piastres for masses, and had had some faint hopes that his debt might be commuted for partisanship.
But the poor fellow was very well disposed and industrious, as those of his colour are apt to be, and after a long interval of silence he looked up and showed his teeth in a pleasant smile as he said, “Behold, Señor, there lies Xalapa.”
There, sure enough, lay the town, its flat roofs, terraces, and church towers, mixed with trees and gardens fenced by gigantic hedges of the impenetrable thorny shrubs, reddening in the last flush of western light. I asked José—for so the Indian, like nearly half of his patient race, had been christened—if he knew where the diligence changed horses.
“No sabè!” replied the man, quite as a matter of course.
“The best inn, then?”
“Confound your ignorance,” said I, rather unjustly out of humour, “what do you know?” But it appeared poor José, though born and bred within an easy distance of Xalapa, knew little about it. He knew the market, whither he sometimes carried vanilla and other vegetable products, medicinal or perfume yielding, gleaned in the forests, and whither his wife more regularly went to sell eggs and fruit. He knew the café where the peasants of Indian race drank and smoked in company, and the café where the white rancheros met to drink, and game, and gash one another with knives. He also knew the garden where the tertulias were held, and twice in his life had entered the church of St. James, the “grandest church in the world,” and that was all. José could give me no further information.
Within half-a-mile of the town stands, or stood, a posada of the better class, more inn than tavern, but still of a very primitive sort, compared with similar houses of entertainment in Europe or the States. There was an immense yard, with a wall of adobé bricks, and some barn-like out-buildings, and the house itself was a queer flat-roofed affair, gaudily painted, and having heavy wooden balconies before the small windows, many of which were unglazed. At the gate of the yard, one angle of which, by the way, was formed by the inn, much as a bastion juts from a rampart, at the gate of the yard stood a stout man, in a flat white cap and a loose suit of white linen, the regular cook’s uniform, smoking a paper cigar. Directly over his head hung a withered pine branch, small and unobtrusive enough to warrant the supposition that good wine was to be had within, if the old proverb has two sides to it. The stout man turned at the sound of footsteps, and took off his flat cap with great politeness at the sight of a foreign traveller.
“Your servant, noble sir, if I were fortunate enough to be useful to your Grace!” He rolled out these words in the highflown yet obsequious Mexican manner, and with even more than the usual oily fulness. I thought I could not do better than ask him a question.
“Can you tell me,” I enquired, “whereabouts in Xalapa the diligence changes horses?”
“It is here, worthy Señor,” answered the man at once, and without the smallest hesitation.
“Here,” said I; “that is an odd coincidence:” and then it struck me that my interlocutor might be lying. The nation, I knew, had a reputation for that accomplishment. The fat man was a good physiognomist. He read my doubts as if they had been set before him in large print.
“Nay, Excellency,” said he, “if you disbelieve my humble statement, pray go round to the corral and judge for yourself. There you will see the beasts that are to be put to the diligence when it comes up, which will perhaps be to-morrow morning—who knows? There is my ostler, Diego,” (and he gave a shrill whistle) ready to show the horses to your worship.” He spoke in tones of injured innocence, and I began, with all a young man’s impulsiveness, to repent of having hurt his feelings. I civilly told him, therefore, that an accident had occurred to the diligence, that its further progress would most likely be tediously slow, and that my wish was to hire a horse and a mounted guide, to proceed rapidly on my journey. “Then, noble sir,” rejoined the innkeeper, with an oily smile and a peculiar action of rubbing together his fat hands, “you can be served to marvel. Your Grace shall have a horse that might serve the Conquistador himself, were he yet on earth, and a guide such as a guide should be—quick, clever, well acquainted with the road. Certainly, illustrious sir; certainly.”
“And the price?”
The innkeeper bowed deferentially. “We should not quarrel on that score,” he said; “he would leave the hire to my distinguished liberality.”
All this was very pleasant, too pleasant to be true, in fact; but it was also very plausible. I began to think I could not do better than take some refreshment and start afterwards. The landlord thought so too. His poor house and all it held were at my disposal, he said; the larder was not ill-provided, and he himself, Pedro Mendez, my unworthy servant, had been reckoned a tolerable cook, and had often been commended for his skill and attention by many noble caballeros and ladies of quality. Might he hope for my custom? Would I dismiss my mozo, and allow his ostler to carry in my effects?”
By this time the ostler had arrived—a swarthy, broad-breasted fellow, with a red handkerchief twisted round his head, gold rings in his ears, and a jacket and calconcillos of dirty white cotton. His short hair was crisp and woolly, his eyes fierce and restless, and his teeth, being filed to a sharp point, gave him anything but an agreeable expression when he smiled, while his complexion was nearly African. He was, indeed, a Zambo, or a half-breed between the negro and the Indian; and I had never seen one before. I suppose the host saw that his servant’s aspect had not produced a very favourable impression, for he instantly launched out into praises of Diego, speaking partly in Spanish and partly in broken French. Diego was an honest creature, the pearl of grooms, the gem of ostlers, the best soul in the world, a lamb, a real lamb. Well, the landlord ought to have known his own domestic’s character best; but I could not help thinking that, for a lamb, Diego looked uncommonly like a wolf, and a very grim wolf to boot. I paid the Indian and discharged him, and the patient fellow made his reverence and plodded off. But still I lingered in the gateway, gazing at the distant town, no longer reddened by the after-glow of the sinking sun, and I felt an instinctive temptation to bid Pedro Mendez good night, and trudge on to Xalapa. One word decided me.
“Would your Grace wish supper at once?”
I was very hungry, and, dismissing my fancies, I made a prompt reply in the affirmative. Diego, who had not spoken a word, now picked up my little portmanteau, and would have done as much for the bags, but I had a prejudice, in those early days, against letting them out of my sight for an instant. We had all kinds of traditions among us in the messengers’ room—Tom, about the wonderful tricks that had been played on couriers, and I believe some of us fancied that foreign governments employed agents little less adroit than Robert Houdin, in getting a peep at our prosy old protocols.
So I said I would carry the bags myself, and thus I entered the inn. There was a great kitchen on the ground floor, with a sort of parlour partitioned off it, or partly so, something like the coffee-room at one of those London chop-houses where you see your steak broiling on the gridiron as a whet to hunger. Besides kitchen and parlour there were several cupboards and store-rooms, with padlocked doors, and a narrow wooden stair led upwards to the sleeping apartments. In the parlour, when we entered, sat in a cushioned chair a fat comely woman, fast asleep, and on a stool drawn up to the long table sat a pale lad of sixteen, trying some manœuvre with a pack of cards, perhaps the famous old trick which French swindlers call saut du roi. I know he was doing this, because I was first in the room, and as my eyes were turned in the stripling’s direction, I distinctly saw the gay colours of the painted pasteboard. But the landlord, who came next, saw no such thing, for the pale lad with infinite skill slipped three large open books over the pack of cards, and bent over them in the most natural way in the world.
“My wife—Excellency—my son. He! Catrina, woman, awake!” And the housewife, thus adjured, rubbed her eyes, and awoke, yawning. Meanwhile Diego asked, in a sullen way, where he was to put my valise. I bade him set it down, adding that I should be ready to depart at moon-rise, and that I would therefore sup at once. I thought the dusky ostler grinned a very saturnine grin as I said this, but he said nothing, crossed himself before a large image that stood in a recess, with a feeble lamp burning before it, and went out. Meanwhile the mistress of the house had risen to drop me a curtsey, bobbing her long gold earrings, and adjusting her disordered mantilla and comb as she did so, and then turned to her son, who was apparently studying with most edifying absorption, and lovingly scolded him for “wearing out his poor dear eyes over the books,” quite as an English mother would have done. The landlord, who was vigorously bustling among his stewpans and spits, and under whose orders a dingy Indian Maritornes of a girl, with unkempt hair and kirtle of red cotton, was blowing up the charcoal fires of the great cooking braziers, whisked in, ladle in hand, at these words.
“Let the boy alone, dame. He picks up learning as easily as a vulture snuffs carrion. He’ll be a bishop, yet—an archbishop, and wear a grand rochet and alb, and give his poor parents absolution for all their—ahem!”
And Señor Mendez, who had begun warmly, and with a ring of genuine fatherly pride in his voice, stopped awkwardly, and gave a confused kind of cough. I hardly noticed this at the time. I was too much amused—wickedly amused, I fear—by the droll contrast between the exalted clerical dignity predicted for the boy, and the dubious occupation in which I had found him engaged. But politeness required that I should say something, and I asked the landlord if this were his only son, and if he were studying for the university.
“Our only son, our only child, and hope, and darling!” exclaimed the mother, fondly passing her plump hand over the lad’s dark hair; “he has been already for half a year at college in the capital, Excellency, and a brave scholar he is, and high honours he’ll win, only I’m always afraid he’ll dry up the very brains in his head with over much poring over St. Virgil and St. Cæsar, the dear, good, industrious boy.”
For my own part, I glanced at the demure student, and could not help entertaining a doubt as to whether his sickly pallor were wholly due to intense classical or theological researches, especially as I saw him, when neither father nor mother were looking, extract the cards from under the folios, and dexterously slip them into his bosom.
Señora Mendez had the help of an Indian girl, who might have been the twin sister of the one employed in blowing the fire, in arranging the table. This she covered with a cloth, not very clean indeed, but with a fringed border of crimson silk, much faded, but still handsome; the plates were of coarse earthenware, but the knives, spoons, and forks, had heavy handles of dull silver, and were stamped with armorial bearings, half effaced, in a rough fashion, as with a smith’s file. I guessed that they had been part of the plunder taken from the mansion of some rico by the robber-soldiery of one faction or other, and sold cheap to the innkeeper when fortune turned. Covers were laid for four. It was evident that I was not to sup alone, but that the hour of the usual family meal had been advanced to accommodate me. Meanwhile, the table having been cleared of the books, young Hopeful was necessarily disengaged, and I made one or two attempts to draw him into conversation. In vain. His was a stealthy, secretive nature, and in his sly eyes and the affected bashfulness of his brief answers I could read, what I already conjectured from the little episode of the cards, that the youth was on the high road towards graduating as a finished hypocrite. He had good features, in spite of his pasty complexion, and was inclined to be tall and stout, like his parents, but he soon inspired me with a feeling of actual disgust.
“So must Tartuffe have looked at sixteen,” was my inward soliloquy, while the lad’s mother set flasks and jugs upon the table, and lit the lamps, finding time ever and anon to bestow a kind word or a proud look upon her saintly son, of whom she and her husband were evidently immoderately fond and vain. As for the stripling himself, he seemed to take all this adoration as his due, and was as passive an idol as I ever looked upon, though the stolen glances he darted at me, when he thought my attention was elsewhere, were keen and inquisitive enough.
Presently in came the landlord, no longer in a cook’s white garb, but wearing his Sunday jacket of green velvet, splendid with silver bell-buttons, a purple scarf fringed with heavy gold bullion, and a yellow sash round his waist, hastily put on to make him worthy, as he said, of the honour to sit at meat with so noble an Englishman as myself. The supper was now brought in, smoking hot, by the two Indian handmaids, and I was ceremoniously requested to sit down to table. I complied, placing the Foreign Office bags, by force of habit, close to my chair, just as you see them now. The hostess glanced at the image of the Madonna, crossed herself, and sat down in a slow reluctant way, caused very likely by some twinge of conscience at sharing her meal with a heretic, and I was looking towards her end of the table when a mosquito, attracted by the lamps, flew humming up and bit me sharply in the cheek. I turned my head, and caught a glimpse of Señor Mendez, who was covetously ogling the bags, which, with their fine brass mountings, and the blaze of the English arms thereon engraved, no doubt impressed him much. For a moment it occurred to me, as I saw the man’s eyes sparkle, that I was in unscrupulous company, and that the landlord might very possibly suspect me of being the bearer of treasure, rather than of dry official papers; but Mendez had great command over his face, and it smoothed out again, fat, broad, and placid as a pond that a slight ripple had disturbed.
The supper was a good one. I am not going to bore you with a full list of its dishes; there was puchero, there were frijoles, of course, there were game birds from the mountain, there were stews, ollas, and many fruits and vegetables quite unknown to me. Barring a slight excess of garlic and bean oil, it was a plentiful and savoury, though somewhat greasy, repast, and I ate like a famished creature. As for liquids, there was coarse fiery pulque, more fiery corn brandy, as well as plenty of Albuquerque sherry and Paso champagne, the two best wines grown in Mexico. I have often wondered, since then, if my liquor were really drugged, or if it were only fatigue and long abstinence, followed by rather too much food and wine, which made me feel so sleepy and languid as I became. At any rate, I experienced a sense of lassitude so profound, that when the moon rose clear in the pure blue sky, without a cloud to intercept her light, I could hardly muster the moral courage to call for the bill and demand my horse and guide, saying aloud that I must set off at once.
And when Diego, after a long conference with the host, came in with a cock and-bull story about the lameness of one of the horses that had been kicked by an equine companion, and the consequent necessity (as the others were needed for the diligence) of postponing my journey until early morning, when a steed could be fetched from the corral of a farm two leagues off, I readily accepted the excuse. Indeed I felt rather glad of so good a reason for not making an exertion painful to me in the relaxed state of my nervous system. Had I been drugged? That is what I never knew, and probably it will never now be known.
“Excellency, you will sleep here? We can give you a capital bed, a bed for a prince, and early in the morning we will seek you a horse that shall carry you like a bird. You will not repent stopping with us. So—this way, noble sir—take care of that beam to your right.”
With these words the civil landlord lighted me up-stairs, carrying my valise in one hand and a lamp in the other. The room into which he ushered me was reached by passing through another, wholly unfurnished. It was an oblong, low-ceiled chamber, with bare floor and white-washed walls, and contained very little furniture beyond a bed and a single chair. One end of the room was occupied by a quantity of fresh husks of the Indian corn, from which the large grain had been lately separated by the usual process of picking, and for the presence of these husks the landlord apologised, and I listened to his apologies with drowsy impatience. Then, after a thousand speeches and proffers of service, Mendez left me, with a “buenos noches, nobile Señor,” and I remained in possession of the lamp and room.
Having satisfied myself that the sheets were clean,—no common matter in Mexico,—I proceeded lazily to undress. I opened the window, or, more correctly speaking, I left it open, an almost indispensable precaution against being stifled, for the roof was low and the night sultry. I ought to have told you, Tom, that the room I slept in was not the one generally assigned to guests of quality. That state room was pronounced uninhabitable for the moment, the ceiling having given way the day before: indeed the house was a rotten old barrack, tumbling to ruins as everything does in that country.
I went to bed, then, putting the bags, as well as my own purse and pocket-book, under the bolster, but rather in a mechanical way than from any prudential motives. Such had been my custom, and I adhered to it. As for the door, I certainly felt a languid surprise when I found it had no fastenings, no lock, no bolt, nothing but a simple latch; but I was too stupid at the moment to care much, and I sat for a little while dreamily puffing a cigar in the open window, and then extinguished the lamp and got into bed. The lamp was hardly needed, for there was no curtain or shutter, and the silvery moonlight poured in and seemed to veneer the dirty boards of the floor with mother of pearl. The light teased me, and I did not get off to sleep quite as easily as I wished. When I did fall asleep, after tossing and tumbling, I was awakened by a sensation which I should imagine was identical with that caused by the torture of being flayed alive. Fleas were the disturbers of my repose, but they were Mexican fleas, large and lively, and I suppose my Anglo-Saxon cuticle was a treat to them. At any rate they fell on their exotic banquet with a fury that banished every idea of sleep. I jumped up, and would have relighted the lamp, but could not find my lucifer matches, and as the moon had gone down, there was a very dim twilight in the chamber. Despairing of getting rid of my tiny tormentors, and unwilling to be devoured piecemeal, I groped for my clothes, and partly dressed myself, intending to spend the rest of the night on the one chair in the room, when I remembered the fresh, clean maize-husks at the other end of the apartment, and, feeling my way towards them, lay down upon them and found they made a tolerable couch.
“A great deal better than a Mexican bed,” I muttered, as I drew my poncho over me, and applied myself to the task of falling asleep. But sleep won’t come at command; and, in the course of an hour’s time, I gave up all hopes of a good night. I was restless, feverish, sensitively and distressingly awake. Perhaps I had really been drugged, and the narcotic had acted as a stimulant rather than a soporific, or the fleas may have done it all; but, at any rate, I was broad awake when I heard voices murmuring under my window. The sounds were smothered and indistinct, and were soon followed by a scuffling noise; and, to my surprise and, I own, dismay, the head and shoulders of a man were thrust in at the open casement.
All I had ever heard or read of lonely inns and treacherous innkeepers, of Mexican perfidy, of murders done for gold, flashed on my memory at once. The Yankee’s warning, too—I remembered it now, too late. I was quite unarmed. For aught I knew, there might be half-a-dozen ruffians without. Meanwhile the intruder was struggling to enter, evidently pushed up by unseen hands below, and awkwardly scrambling over the window-sill. To have sprung up, and hurled him backwards, would have been the work of a moment; but, strange as it may seem to you, Tom, I never thought of it till the fellow was fairly in the room, and on his feet. Then I rose to my hands and knees, resolved not to perish without a fight for life, when two circumstances checked me.
One was, that the persons without, whoever they were, withdrew with cautious but quite audible steps, instead of following their accomplice. The other was, that the invader, instead of assailing me, reeled up to the bed with a tipsy hiccough, flung off his upper garments, which he pitched into a corner, and, rolling into the bed, drew the coverings over him, and was soon breathing heavily in the deep but disturbed sleep of intoxication. I drew my own breath more freely. The intruder was no assassin then, but some drunken fellow who had mistaken the room, while I had wrongfully suspected the landlord. What was now to be done? Should I lie still, and share my chamber with this usurping Trinculo; or should I call up Señor Mendez, and have the man turned out? While I hesitated on this point, my doubts were cut short in a way I little looked for.
I heard a footfall, not outside, this time; but in the little antechamber. Then a board creaked, and a curse, low and deep, in the Spanish language, followed. Another step, and another, the dull, stealthy tread of bare feet, and I saw a ray of yellow light shine under the ill-fitting door. In the next instant the latch was slowly lifted, and the door opened so as to admit a broad band of light, across which could be plainly seen the shadow of a man’s hand, the outspread fingers of which tried to shade the glare.
“Asleep! of course he is—the heretic cur!” muttered a guttural voice, thick and fierce.
“Cautious, Diego! gently, my son. Put the lamp down in the room, behind us. We shall see well enough;” hissed out Señor Mendez, in a tone very unlike the oily accents of his usual utterance.
“He is but one. He is unarmed;” growled the sulky mulatto; “but I’ll set down the lamp if you are afraid, padron.”
Then I heard the lamp set gently down. It gave little light in the chamber, but I lay at the farther end, and my eyes were used to the darkness. I clearly saw the projecting shadows of two men. Who they were, I easily guessed, nor could I doubt their errand. My heart almost stopped, and a shiver ran through me, while my forehead was cold and clammy. I don’t think it was entirely fear that I felt, but horror, disgust—to die thus, butchered like a sheep, in a mean way-side inn, without hope of effectual resistance. Yet I braced my nerves for a hard contest, and resolved to sell my life dearly. In they came.
The landlord, and Diego, the coloured man. The latter had bared his muscular arms, dark as bronze, to the shoulder, and carried in his hand a long knife that glittered like silver, as a chance ray from the lamp fell upon it. The innkeeper was aimed with a heavy machete, one of those short swords of which the Mexicans are so fond. He looked pale, almost livid, but resolute, while the mulatto’s pointed teeth were displayed in a sort of grinning smile, like those of a snarling dog. Both were barefoot.
I crouched on the maize husks, ready for the worst. Mendez was the least robust of the villains, and him I might perhaps hope to overpower and disarm, though the chance seemed desperate, and I knew not how many confederates might be within call.
“Strike!” said the landlord, hoarsely.
Quick and stealthy as a panther, the mulatto bounded forward, not to where I lay, but to the bedside, and plunged his cruel knife through the coverings, which were instantly reddened with blood. Again, again, again, I saw the flash of the knife in the air, and heard the dull sound of its stroke, as it pierced the body of the victim, who had wakened, and, with a gurgling cry, seemed to attempt to rise. But so quickly was all this done, that I had not recovered from my surprise, before the treacherous landlord hurried up to help his black ally, and plunged his sword into the yet breathing body of the sufferer. I heard a deep groan, and a smothered sob, and all was still. The foul deed was done, and interference useless, worse than useless, for I could not doubt that the poor drunkard had been murdered by mistake, and that the ruffians believed the corpse before them to be mine.
“Vaya usted á los infiernos!” growled Diego, panting for breath.
“Are you sure?” asked Mendez, falteringly.
“Quite. The spine is limp, and the heart beats no more. The islander will never complain of his broken sleep, master. Here are his bags, purse, and pocket-book, under the bolster, just as I saw them placed when I peeped through the chink.”
Without another word, both murderers withdrew. I heard their receding steps: I saw the lamp shed its last ray into the room. My blood was icy cold in my veins. I had been mercifully preserved from a great peril, but at what a cost! Who was he that had died in my place? That I could not guess. But the thought occurred to me that the villains would doubtless return to fetch the body for burial, and the discovery, and a new crime, were certain. I would not await their return. Hastily I rose, put on my coat and boots, crossed the room on tip-toe, avoiding the gory bed and its ghastly tenant, and lowered myself out of the window to the full stretch of my arms, then dropped. The shock benumbed me for a moment, but I was unhurt. I found myself in a garden path, and there was light enough for me to find my way to a gate, to emerge into the high road, and to hurry towards the silent city of Xalapa.
I see by the clock that time is getting short, so I will not dwell upon my feelings, or the turmoil which arose when I made my way to the alcalde’s house, guided by a lantern-bearing watchman, whom I happened to meet, and aroused the magistrate from his slumbers. It so happened that the country was then under martial law, and that the party in power wished to stand well with foreign governments. A detachment of soldiers accompanied the police; and, led by me, hastened to the wayside inn. The yard gate was found closed. The officer gave the word, and it was instantly battered open with the stocks of the soldiers’ muskets. Two men were found, by the light of a lantern, digging a grave, no doubt intended to receive my remains, in a corner of the enclosure. They were surrounded and captured, and of course proved to be Diego and his master.
When the villains were arrested, they showed much dismay, but on catching sight of me, their superstitious dread overcame them. They fell flat on their faces, yelling to Heaven for mercy, and loudly and incoherently confessed their crime.
“Let them touch you,” said the Mexican captain: “they take you for a ghost. Caramba! they thought their job a finished one.”
But when the wretches were convinced that I was not only alive, but unhurt, their bearing changed, and they began to deny their late confession.
“We shall see about that!” said the officer, grimly; and by his orders the ruffians were led, under a strong guard, and bound, into the fatal chamber. There, on the bed, under the torn and blood-bespattered bed-clothes, lay the silent witness—the poor slaughtered man.
“Will you deny, now?” asked the officer, harshly.
The room was now flooded with bright torch-light. There the body lay, huddled up under the clothes, and with the face hidden by a pillow. The dark hair floated about it, dishevelled. Both ruffians trembled, but Diego first regained his audacity.
“Demonios! You have got us: can’t you hang us without all this fuss? For my part, I wish—”
He was cut short by an agonised scream. The landlord’s wife, disturbed by the noise, had entered, to find her husband a prisoner, and that a crime, of all knowledge of which she was innocent, had been committed. But worse still, in the mangled corpse before her, the mother’s eye recognised her son—her only son—slain by his father’s hands in the dark, and she rushed up, and clasped his cold form in her arms, with a cry that will haunt me to my dying day.
“Then the drunken intruder was the landlord’s son?”
“The same. The pale student. It was proved that the lad, a precocious debauchee and gambler, had the habit of stealing out at night to join his friends, who were the worst scamps in Xalapa. On this particular night, he had returned with some comrades, much intoxicated, and fearing to arouse his parents, who believed him quietly asleep hours before, had asked his friends to help him in through the open window of my room, which he imagined to be unoccupied; and therefore chose to stop there instead of stumbling to his own chamber. Hence the catastrophe.”
“The landlord? Diego?”
“Were hanged at daybreak, after a hasty shrift by a priest. Justice is summary in Mexico. The despatches and my purse were found concealed in a cupboard. But the poor mother—my heart ached for her, poor thing!—I heard afterwards that her reason had fled. By Jove! there’s but five minutes to catch the train. Good-bye, Tom, good-bye.”