Harold Bindloss.

For Jacinta



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The two naval officers acknowledged the introduction with characteristic brevity. Their eyes were fixed on the arena, and the scene was probably worth their attention, for there are parts of a bull fight which cannot be termed revolting, at least, by those who have actually witnessed them.

A lithe, well-favoured man, picturesquely attired, skipped into the ring, holding a crimson cape in one hand, and a couple of little decorated darts in the other. It was his business to strike them into the neck or shoulder of the bull, but nowhere else, while their points were calculated to do no more than exasperate it. The beast watched him savagely, pawing up the sand, and the chances appeared somewhat against the man, since to reach its neck he must approach his silk-covered breast within an inch or two of the gleaming horns, one of which was suspiciously reddened.

Austin could not quite see how he did it, for his motions were bewilderingly rapid, but he saw the wave of the gaudy cloak and heard its crisp rustle that was lost in the roar. Then the man was running round the ring for his life, and the bull thundering along with lowered head and a dart bristling in its neck, a yard or two behind him. He had no time to swing himself over the barricade, as hard pressed banderilleros now and then did, for the deadly horns were almost in the small of his back. It was a frantic test of speed, highly trained human agility and endurance against the strength of the beast, and there was dead silence while they went round the arena once, the man running desperately, with tense, set face, while Austin fancied he could hear his gasping breath through the roar of the hoofs. Then, with a splendid bound, he drew a yard ahead, and another man with a green cape hurled himself through the opening. Somehow he escaped destruction, and the bull slid onward with hoofs ploughing up the sand, and the gaudy silk fluttering about its head. There was a roar of plaudits that could have been heard miles away at sea, and while from tiers of benches the hats came sailing down, the bull, which shook the cape off, tore the coloured rags to fragments.

"That fellow has good nerves," said one of the navy men. "I don't see anything very brutal in it, after all. They both start level, and take their chances, you know."

Jacinta looked at Austin over her fan, and there was a faint flush in as much of her face as he could see, as well as a little gleam in her eyes.

"I'm afraid it – is – a little barbarous," she said. "Everybody says so. Still, wasn't that banderillero splendid! You see, I have put on Castilian notions with my clothes. Of course, as an Englishwoman, I could never venture here."

Austin was a little annoyed to feel that he was smiling sardonically. "Well," he said, "I should almost have fancied that you were too super-refined and ethereal to admire that kind of thing, but I really believe you do."

Jacinta waved her fan. "Do not be deceived, my friend.

There is a good deal of the primitive in us all, and it shows up now and then." Then she laughed. "I wonder how they all get their right hats back again."

Austin could not tell her, for it was a thing he could never understand; but while the attendants were still flinging the black sombreros into the air another banderillero approached the bull. He planted one dart and then dashed across the ring, but either his nerve failed him, or he could not trust his speed, for he grasped the top of the barricade and swung himself over. In another moment the bull struck it with a crash, and then stood still, half stunned, apparently endeavouring to make out where the man had gone. There was a storm of hisses and opprobrious cries.

"That banderillero," said Jacinta, sweetly, "should have been driven out of the ring. He ought never to have undertaken a thing that was too big for him."

"Isn't that a little hard upon the man?" said Austin. "He probably didn't know it was too big until he had undertaken it."

"That's sensible, Miss Brown," said one of the navy men. "When he found he couldn't run as fast as the bull could what was he to do?"

"What did a certain gunboat's men do when they found themselves quite unexpectedly in front of the African headman's battery?"

The navy man flushed a little, for he was young. "Oh," he said, "that was different. They set their lips and went in, though I don't suppose any of them liked it. Still, you see, that was what they were there to do."

"Exactly!" and Jacinta laughed a little, though there was still a gleam in her eyes, and it was Austin she looked at. "They did the obvious, as well as the most artistic thing. It fortunately happens that they're often very much the same."

"I'm not quite sure I understand you," said the young officer. "People who want me to have to talk plain. Still, I suppose one has always a certain sympathy for the fellow who gets himself killed decently."

Then, for a time, they became absorbed in the play of the banderilleros, who, flashing here and there, with cloaks of red, and gold, and green, passed the bull from one to another up and down the trampled arena. Now, one of them escaped annihilation by a hairsbreadth, while the thundering vivas went up to the glaring sky, and a comrade turned the tormented beast again. Now, a silk-clad athlete swept through the two-foot gap between deadly horns and flying man, and the bull swung round with a bellow to pursue him, or stood still, temporarily blinded with the gaudy cloak about its horns. It was a fascinating exhibition of human nerve and skill, and Austin saw that Jacinta watched it with slightly parted lips and a gleam in her eyes, until at last the bugles rang, and most of the men withdrew, leaving the bull alone in the middle of the arena, with the foam flakes dripping from its muzzle and its brawny neck bristling with the little darts. Then there was a general movement and a great hum of voices rose from the close-packed benches. Jacinta waved her fan, and touched Austin's arm as she looked about her.

"Surely that is Macallister. But whatever is he doing there?" she said.

Austin looked up across the long rows of faces, and saw his comrade sitting, spick and span in the blue Spanish mail uniform, among the brilliant officers of the Governor's staff. Macallister was a big man, with a commanding appearance, when he had for the time being done with the engine room, and Austin, who knew that he could make friends with anybody, was not astonished to notice that he seemed very much at home.

"It is rather more than I know," he said. "Still, I should fancy he was telling them something amusing in execrable Castilian, by the way they are laughing. I believe Macallister could get anywhere he wanted. He has, as a matter of fact, dragged me into somewhat astonishing places."

"I shouldn't wonder," said one of the navy men. "George, isn't that big fellow in the uniform yonder the one we saw the other night at the opera?"

"It is," said his comrade, with a little soft laugh, as though he remembered something that had afforded him considerable pleasure.

Jacinta touched Austin with her fan. "I presume you know what he is referring to?"

"Well," said Austin, "what I do know is this. Mack and I went to see the Italian company the other night, and because he, of course, knew everybody about the place, we went behind the scenes. He, unfortunately, became interested in the stage machinery, and when he had made spirited attempts to pull some of it to pieces, I and the improvisatore beguiled him to a chair in the wings. We gave him a cigar to keep him quiet, as well as the libretto, which he could not read, and, as he seemed somewhat sleepy, I was thankful to leave him there. I didn't care about that opera. He never told me what happened after."

The young officer laughed again. "I daresay I can enlighten you. In the middle of the last act one of the wings collapsed, and everybody saw a big Englishman, who had apparently just kicked it over, sitting, half asleep, in a folding chair. He didn't appear to have any legitimate connection with the drama, but he brought the house down when he got up in a hurry and fell over his chair."

Then the shrill call of the bugles rang through the great building, and a tall man, with a scarred face, gorgeously dressed, walked into the arena, holding a three-cornered hat and a long, straight sword. He stood still a moment, an imposing and curiously graceful figure, with bright blade lowered, while a tumultuous shout of "M?stro!" filled the building; and then, taking a cloak from an attendant, approached the bull. It was freely smeared with blood, and as it stood, bellowing, and pawing the sand in murderous rage, it was evident that the M?stro's task was not a particularly pleasant one. There was only one way in which he could kill the bull, and that was to pass his sword over the horns and down into the brawny chest, near the base of the neck. Should he strike elsewhere it was probable that the vast assembly would descend and trample on him, for this was a duel to the death between man and beast, in which the latter was secured what seemed an even chance by punctilious etiquette. The Spaniard displays a good deal of sympathy with a gallant bull.

The beast seemed to understand that this man was different from the banderilleros who had previously tormented it, and backed away from him until he smote it lightly on the nostrils. Then it swept forward in a savage rush but though the man's movements were so quick that one scarcely noticed them, he was not quite where he had been a moment earlier, when the bull thundered past him. Still, one horn had ripped a strip of silk from him. He followed the beast, and struck it with his hand, and for five or six frenzied minutes the vast audience roared. This man never ran. He stepped backwards, or twisted, always with grave gracefulness, in the nick of time, until at last the bull stood still, as though stupefied with rage or uncertain how to attack its elusive persecutor.

Then, as the man walked up to it very quietly and unconcernedly, it seemed to hump itself together for a furious bound and rush with lowered head, and there was no sound in the great building until the bright steel flashed. Man's breast and gleaming horns seemed to meet, but apparently in the same second the gorgeously clad figure had stepped aside, and in the next the bull plunged forward and came down upon its knees.

There was another roar, and once more from all the close-packed benches came the rain of hats, cigars, and bundles of cigarettes.

"Ah," said Jacinta, with a little gasp, "I think I have seen enough. There will be another bull and more picadores now. I never could stand that part of it. Besides, I have done my duty, and patronised the show."

They made their way out while the audience waited for another bull, and certain leather-swathed picadores rode in on decrepit, blindfolded horses, brought there to be killed; and it was an hour later when, as they stood beneath the oleanders in a fonda garden looking down upon the white-walled town, Jacinta mentioned the affair again.

"Of course, it is a little cruel; but, after all, it appeals to rather more than the lower passions and lust of slaughter, don't you think?" she said.

"I never saw anything to equal that M?stro's play in my life," said one of the young officers. "It was cool daring in the superlative degree."

"I fancy," said Austin, "you want us to make excuses for your being there."

Jacinta laughed. "Not exactly! I am rather proud of being a law to myself – and others – you know. Now, I really think that the qualities the M?stro possessed appealed to me, though I naturally mean some and not all of them. I am, after all, as I admitted, a little primitive in some respects."

"You mean that you like a man to be daring?" asked the other officer.

"Of course!" and once more it was Austin Jacinta looked at. "Still, I don't necessarily mean that everybody should go bull-fighting. There are other things more worth while."

"Even than sailing round the Canaries and painting little pictures?" said Austin.

Jacinta glanced at him with a curious smile. "Well," she said, "since you ask me, I almost think there are." Then she stopped a moment, and stood looking out from among the oleanders towards the glittering heave of the Atlantic across the white-walled town. Once more a faint gleam crept into her eyes.

"I wonder," she added, "what Jefferson is doing – out yonder in Africa."

CHAPTER VIII
JEFFERSON FEELS THE STRAIN

The afternoon was wearing through, but it was still almost insufferably hot when Jefferson stood with his hand upon the valve of the Cumbria's forward winch. She lay with her bows wedged into the mangrove forest, which crawled on high-arched roots over leagues of bubbling mire to the edge of one of the foulest creeks in Western Africa. It flowed, thick and yeasty, beneath the steamer's hove-up side, for she lay with a list to starboard athwart the stream. There was a bend close by, and her original crew had apparently either failed to swing her round it, which is an accident that sometimes happens in that country, or driven her ashore to save her sinking.

Her iron deck was unpleasantly hot, and the negroes who crossed it between hatch and surfboat hopped. They, of course, wore no boots, and, indeed, very little of anything at all beyond a strip of cotton round their waists. There was not a breath of wind astir, and the saturated atmosphere, which was heavy with the emanations of the swamps, seemed to seal the perspiration in the burning skin. Jefferson felt the veins on his forehead swollen to the bursting point when he stopped the winch and looked about him while the Spaniards slipped a sling over a palm-oil puncheon in the hold below.

He could see nothing but a strip of dazzling water, and the dingy, white-stemmed mangroves which stretched away farther than the eye could follow, and sighed as he glanced back at the Cumbria. She lay with deck unpleasantly slanted and one bilge in the mire, a rusty, two-masted steamer, with the blistered paint peeling off her, and the burnt awnings hanging from their spars. He did not expect much water in that creek until the wet season, and in the meanwhile it was necessary to heave the coal and cargo out of her and send it down stream to a neighbouring beach. It was very slow work with the handful of men he had, and those few weeks had set their mark on Jefferson.

He had never been a fleshy man, and long days of feverish toil under a burning sun and in the steamy heat of the flooded holds had worn him to skin and bone. His duck garments hung with a significant slackness about his gaunt frame, and they were rent in places, as well as blackened and smeared with oil. His face was grim and hollow, but there was a fierce steadfastness in his eyes, which seemed filled with curious brilliancy.

"Are you going to sleep down there? Can't you send up another cask?" he said.

A voice came up from the dusky hatch, out of which there flowed a hot, sour smell of palm oil and putrefying water. "The next tier's jammed up under the orlop beams," it said. "We might get on a little if we could break a puncheon out."

Jefferson laid his hands upon the combing of the hatch and swung himself over. It was a drop of several yards, and he came down upon the slippery round of a big puncheon, and reeling across the barrels, fell backwards against an angle-iron. He was, however, up again in a moment, and stood blinking about him with eyes dazzled by the change from the almost intolerable brightness above. Blurred figures were standing more than ankle deep in water on the slanted rows of puncheons, and Jefferson, who could not see them very well, blinked again when an Englishman, stripped to the waist, moved towards him. The latter was dripping with yellow oil and perspiration.

"It's this one," he said, and kicked a puncheon viciously. "The derrick-crabs have pulled the tops of the staves off her. They're soaked an' soft with oil. The water underneath's jamming them up, an' you'll see how the tier's keyed down by the orlop-beams."

Jefferson wrenched the iron bar he held away from him and turned to the rest.

"There's a patch of the head clear. Two or three of you get a handspike on to it," he said. "No, shove it lower down. Mas abajo. Now, heave all together. Vamos. Toda fuerza!"

They were barefooted Canary Spaniards, of an astonishing ignorance, but excellent sailormen, and they understood him. Lean, muscular bodies strained and bent, the dew of effort dripped from them; and, as he heaved with lips set, the hollows grew deeper in Jefferson's grim face. No one spoke; there was only a deep, stertorous gasping, until the puncheon moved a little, and Jefferson, stooping, drove his bar a trifle lower. Then, while he strained every muscle and sinew in strenuous effort, the great, slimy barrel rose again, tilted, and rolled out on its fellows. For a moment it left a space of oily black water where it had been, and then the puncheons closed in with a crash again. Jefferson flung the bar down and straightened himself.

"Now," he said wearily, "you can get ahead."

He crawled up the ladder with a curious languidness, and while one of the Englishmen apostrophised the puncheons the Spaniards went back to their task. The Castilian is not supposed to be remarkable for diligence, but there is, at least among the lower ranks of men in whom the Iberian blood flows, a capacity for patient toil and uncomplaining endurance which, while not always very apparent, nevertheless shows itself unmistakably under pressure of circumstances. These were simple men, who had never been encouraged to think for themselves, and were, therefore, like other Spaniards of their degree, perhaps, incapable of undertaking anything on their own initiative, but they could do a great deal under the right leader, and they had him in Jefferson.

One of the Englishmen, however, was not quite satisfied. He had been in the tropics before, and did not like the curious flush in Jefferson's face or the way the swollen veins showed on his forehead, so he climbed the ladder after him and leaned upon the winch-drum looking at him meditatively. The man was very ragged as well as very dirty, and altogether disreputable, so far as appearance went, while it is probable that in several respects his character left a good deal to be desired.

"Here's your hat. It's wet, but that's no harm," he said. "You forgot it. Hadn't you better put it on quick?"

Jefferson, who recognised the wisdom of this, did so.

"That's all right! Well, what – are – you stopping for?" he said.

The other man still regarded him contemplatively. "I know my place – but things isn't quite the same aboard this 'ooker as they would be on a big, two-funnel liner. You couldn't expect it. That's why I come up just now to speak to you. You're not feelin' well to-day?"

"It's not worth worrying about. I guess nobody but a nigger ever does feel well in this country."

The other man shook his head. "You go slow. I've seen it comin' on," he said. "You oughtn't to 'a' had your hat off a minute. You see, if you drop out, how's Bill an' me to get the bonus you promised us?"

Jefferson laughed, though he found, somewhat to his concern, that he could not see the man very well.

"I'm going to hold up until I knock the bottom of this contract out," he said, good-humouredly. "I can't do it if I stop and talk to you. Get a move on. Light out of this!"

The man went back. He had done what he felt was his duty, though he had not expected that it would be of very much use, and Jefferson started the winch. It hammered and rattled, and the barrels came up, slimy and dripping, with patches of whitewash still clinging to them. The glare of it dazzled Jefferson until he could scarcely see them as they swung beneath the derrick-boom, but he managed to drop them into the surfboat alongside and pile the rest on deck, when she slid down the creek with a row of negroes paddling on either side. The steamer had struck the forest at the time of highest water, and it was necessary to take everything out of her if she was to be floated during the coming rainy season.

He toiled on for another hour, with a racking pain in his head, and the Canarios toiled in the stifling hold below, until there was a jar and a rattle, and a big puncheon that should have gone into the surfboat came down with a crash amidst them, and, bursting, splashed them with yellow oil. Then the man who had remonstrated with Jefferson went up the ladder in haste. The winch had stopped, and Jefferson lay across it, amidst a coil of slack wire, with a suffused face. The man, who stooped over him, shouted, and the rest who came up helped to carry him to his room beneath the bridge. The floor was slanted so that one could scarcely stand on it, and as the berth took the same list, they laid him where the side of it met the bulkhead. He lay there, speechless, with half-closed eyes, and water and palm oil soaking from him.



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