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THE LADY OF THE TERRACES
The Mark of the Caras
MODERATO E BEN MARCATO
If Colvin Barr had turned his head, he could have seen the summits of Los Cerros de la Cruz, and they are worth more than one glance. But he ignored them as, for the most part, he ignored all such things. While he sat on the shabby verandah over his drink, a not unpresentable damsel passed in company with a half-breed duenna, and the girl gave him a coy glance which might have been interpreted as an invitation, but Barr returned her one uninterested look, and no more. Not in his line, he would have said—if he had so far exerted himself as to say anything.
He faced southeast, and the long, dusty street went slightly downhill toward the quays of Guayaquil; between two box-like buildings a glimpse of water showed. There was enough of moon to make the passing of day a thing of little account, and on the crests of the Cerros the last light from the west still glowed, an echo of ended day—as might quiver on the air the last chord of a symphony finished.
From another tavern, higher up the street, came indications that the beverages of Guayaquil induced good cheer, and presently, when Barr had finished his solitary drink, and the last gleam of day had almost gone from the Cerros heights, emerged four men in file, like ducks coming out from water. They grouped, and turned down the street, so that they must pass by where Barr sat at his little round table by the wooden wall of the posada, and they talked all at once, their converse sounding a mere babble, to him. He signalled for another drink without speaking, and smiled to himself, the cynical and contemptuous smile of a man not overmuch in love with his fellows. The landlord’s second son hastened to bring the drink.
Again the damsel and her dusky companion passed, going toward the emerged revellers, and this time Barr was awarded a coquettish smile which said that, if he cared to follow, there might be developments. He gazed at his drink, and then down toward the quay. Neither the refilled glass nor the walk called for haste, it seemed, though the hour for dinner aboard his ship, the Mary Jeans, was imminent. Barr decided on dinner ashore, somewhere; it could not be worse than feeding on board.
On such trivialities as his decision are fates built. If he had finished his drink and set off toward the quay, he would not have heard the insult flung at the girl by one of the four men—a half-dozen words, in Spanish, such as no man would address to a woman worth the name. Barr saw how she and her companion hurried on, almost running, and he heard two of the four revellers laugh uproariously, as if it had been a very good joke indeed. They were near enough, now, for him to note the one who walked a little apart from the other three, and who did not laugh; he talked instead, and his words were unaccented English, singularly pure and somewhat unexpected, in such a locality.
“I regret” —Barr could hear it clearly— “that I should have associated with swine, with filthy swine who betray the fact that their mothers were sows of mongrel breed, cayman-snouted and beneath the contempt of an Auca. I am ashamed of myself—”
At that point one of his companions broke in, and in emphatic Spanish asked the speaker what he meant by talking in a foreign tongue, and also what he had said; thereupon the first speaker, who, Barr saw, limped slightly as he walked, began to tell them in Spanish the meaning of his English. When he had translated “sows of mongrel breed,” the fight began. They were ripe for it, all four of them.
A degenerate sort of fight, Barr judged. The man who spoke English closed with one of the three, a brawny ruffian with a knife in his hand, and inches taller than the lame man—but the hand that held the knife was gripped by the wrist as they closed, and the blade was futile, for the time. And, as he rushed at the man with the knife, the lame man had lashed out with a lightning blow at another of the three, who gathered himself rather reluctantly from the ground while the two struggled, and the fourth yelled, apparently to the large one, bidding him twist “Felipe” so that another knife could come into play. Barr could see that other knife, shining in the fourth man’s grasp.
When the one who had been felled had got on his feet again, Barr judged the time had come for him to take a hand. Apart from the fact that it was a three-to-one tussle, the three were in the wrong, and even his own detachedness from life would not permit Colvin Barr to see the one right overpowered and perhaps killed by the three wrong. He rose up out of the shadow of the overhanging verandah and moved swiftly, and presently the two smaller assailants of “Felipe” gathered themselves up out of the dust and fled, one toward the quay and one away from it. Then Barr turned to see how matters went with the lame man and his opponent.
Watching, he marvelled at the lightning-like swiftness of the lame man, and saw that his agility and muscle more than compensated for his lesser weight.
While Barr watched, the fighter shifted his grip on the other man’s knife hand ever so little, and gave that other’s left arm a half-jiu-jitsu wrench. As the bigger man flinched and gasped with the pain, the lame man turned his wrist and drove the knife in, through the muscle of the left shoulder. The stricken one tottered away, and dropped in a heap in the road.
“Very neat, and very effective,” said the victor coolly.
“Very,” Barr echoed.
The other man turned toward him with his curiously swift trick of movement—it was like a puma facing about on a branch. “English?” he asked, peering inquisitively.
“Mixed,” said Barr. “Part English, part old Virginia stock. Not that it is of any consequence. He has lamed you, I see.”
The other man shook his head, and his opponent rose and stumbled away. The landlord of the posada at which Barr had had his drinks, who had watched with his obese wife, and his two sons, faded away from the verandah—the fight was over, and conversation in a language they did not understand was of no interest to them.
“Señor,” said the lame man, very courteously, “he has not lamed me. A bull did that, for I am Felipe Gutierrez, better known as Felipe the Torero. If you will ask how it is that a Gutierrez speaks English—and I see that you desire to ask—I will tell you that my mother’s name was Smith. I have had little use for her language these past few years.”
“Excellent English,” Barr complimented him, gravely.
“I speak it better still when I am quite drunk,” Felipe explained. “Now, I am only nearly drunk, not quite—my legs are still steady, and I see only one of you. May I suggest that we have a drink?”
Barr nodded; there was something attractive as well as amusing about this Felipe the Torero. “But at my expense,” he suggested.
Felipe shook his head. “I owe you my life already, in all probability, since those sons of swine would not have scrupled over killing. So, as you would say, the drinks are on me. Observe, señor, the extent and perfection of my vocabulary!”
“I observe and admire,” Barr said, with grave irony.
“Señor,” Felipe questioned sharply, “do you jest at me?”
“Far from it,” Barr answered, and yawned slightly. “The man who will fight three for the sake of an unknown lady is no matter for jest.”
“One man—the other two were tailors,” Felipe corrected. “There is an English proverb on the point.”
He led the way, still limping slightly, on to the verandah, and when the landlord’s second son appeared in answer to his rap he ordered lime squashes, ignoring Barr’s half-empty glass still waiting.
“After a fight,” he said, “there is nothing quite so pleasing to the palate as a lime squash. After, one may drink.”
“The distinction is beyond me,” Barr confessed.
“It is simple,” Felipe explained. “God made the lime” (and he crossed himself), “but I have yet to learn that God built a distillery.”
With a slight bow Barr admitted the difference, and the landlord’s son brought the two long glasses. Disregarding the straws, Felipe drank half the contents of his glass, and put it down.
“Señor,” he said, “I owe you my life, and am in no way grateful for it. Yet if in any way I can serve you in return, all I am is at your service. I will not say all I have, for until I reach the upper waters of the Arauero—the northern branch—I have nothing.”
Barr made a gesture that disclaimed any worth in his aid. “I thank you, Señor Felipe,” he answered. “But why the head waters of the Arauero—the northern branch?”
“Gold,” said Felipe solemnly. “Gold for the washing from the sands of the northern arm of that river. Not a fortune, as they count fortunes in Bogota and Cartagena, but a competence, and since it seems that I am to live—”
He abandoned speech for reflection, and Barr considered him as he sat, a lean man of middle height, and even as he relaxed in his seat he gave an impression of great muscular strength and intense virility. Under the light of the one lamp with which the verandah was furnished, his skin showed no darker than Barr’s own, and the features were clean-cut, Caucasian in mould, lighted by eyes in whose deep brown depths shone ironic melancholy. It was the face of a dreamer, of a poet, belied by the challenging set of the head and the lie of his arms on the table, which labelled him a man of action rather than of thought.
“You are not in love with life, then?” Barr queried.
Felipe shrugged. “Life?” he echoed, with a touch of scorn. He leaned on his folded arms on the table and spoke earnestly. “Señor, I ceased to live three years ago, in Cartagena. If you speak of Felipe the Torero there in Cartagena, they will tell you that since the days of the great Guzman there have been none like me in the ring. And there, Señor, in Cartagena, I met Carmencita, whose like has not been seen on this earth, and I went to my last bull-fight knowing that she had been stricken with yellow fever. Because of that, Señor, the bull won that fight, and when my leg had healed again and I could walk—though always I shall walk lame—I went to put flowers on Carmencita’s grave. Since then I have ceased to live. I wait.”
Barr reached out a hand across the table without speaking, and Felipe unfolded his arms to grasp it.
“Thank you, Señor,” he said. “If I had been sober, I would not have told that story. Having told it, I will not get quite drunk to-night.”
“And I,” said Barr, “will get back to my ship.”
The idea of dinner in Guayaquil had ceased to appeal to him. He could get a bite and a drink on board, he knew.
“That is the Mary Jeans?” Felipe suggested.
Barr nodded assent. “She will not go out till ten to-morrow, but I sleep on board,” he explained. “Else, I might have seen more of you.”
“So!” Felipe mused on it awhile. “You are from the nitrate fields, Señor?” he asked suddenly.
“Tacna,” Barr confirmed, laconically.
“There is gold for the washing on the northern arm of the Arauero,” Felipe suggested, with a sideways glance. “I had determined on going alone, since there seemed no man in this place of heat and wood houses worthy of companioning me—observe yet again, Señor, the excellence of my English vocabulary! Again I tell you that my mother’s name was Smith, since you may have forgotten it. And it is essential that you sail by the Mary Jeans at ten to-morrow?”
Barr gave him a glance that said the implication was not lost on him, but at the same time it had no effect. “Essential,” he answered slowly, “in the sense that travelling on the Pacific coast is more expensive than anywhere else in the world, and either I sail by her or forfeit my passage to Panama—and probably beyond, for that matter, since I should miss the arranged bookings past that point.”
“One thing only is essential in life, and that is a meal when one is hungry,” said Felipe sententiously. “All the rest is relative.”
“You are a disciple of Einstein, perhaps,” Barr suggested.
“I do not know the man,” Felipe replied with dignity. “If I met him, I would spit in his face, for the name is German. The German has all the bad qualities of the English, and his own as well. I endure the bad qualities of the English because my mother’s name was Smith.”
Barr rose to his feet. “Since you will drink only lime squash, and already it grows late, I will return to the ship,” he said. “Thanks to the alteration of the load line, we draw seventeen feet, and on the word of the captain the water over the bar falls to twelve feet at low tide. Ten o’clock to-morrow is his latest hour for sailing.”
Felipe, also on his feet, bowed politely. “As you will, Señor. Seldom is it that I meet a man who can appreciate my English vocabulary, for this wooden town is a God-forsaken place, and on the uplands the Quitenos pray as much to the devil as to Saint Michael, when they regard their altar pieces. You will note, Señor, that from this verandah one has a clear view of the Gas Company’s wharf, where your vessel lies. I will sit here at ten o’clock to-morrow and lift a glass to you as you go.”
“That is very kind of you,” Barr assured him.
“If you go,” said Felipe.
“And why should I not go?” Barr inquired, with a smile.
“Well—” Felipe reflected. “You may have a wife and seven children in Panama, Señor, or a maiden waiting for them to signal your ship into Georgetown, or a wife to wave you to the quay when you go up the Bristol Channel—and observe, Señor, that my knowledge of ports and ocean routes is almost on a level with my extensive English vocabulary. But I think you have none of these things.”
“And what,” Barr asked, “has that to do with my sailing or not sailing on the Mary Jeans to-morrow?”
“Señor” —Felipe spoke slowly— “a nitrate ship is no fit habitation for a man of parts, and I judge you to be as others who come up from the oficinas of the nitrate fields, a landless man and a wanderer. Once, I was on the Madeira-Mamore construction work, and there a man—he was like you, in some measure—proposed to me that we should go across country to the Guaviare in Colombia, for the sake of some most excellent emeralds. I could not go, being at that time too newly recovered from my lameness to risk some fifteen hundred miles among savages and in untracked country. So he went alone, although he was being well paid on the construction work, and they say he was eaten somewhere south of the Jurupary, near the Brazilian border—very tough he must have been, too, for you cannot hang your meat long in that flooded forest country, and both the Jupuas and the Abanos are very bad cooks.”
Barr made a movement which signified a certain impatience. “All that has nothing to do with my sailing on the Mary Jeans to-morrow,” he said.
“Pardon me that I digress, Señor,” Felipe answered. “What I would have said was that you are like that man, whose name was Bill, and who judged it better to be eaten south of the Jurupary than to rust uneaten, but salaried and slave to custom. So, when the Mary Jeans swings out from the wharf and heads for Puna and Panama, I will lift a glass to her here, and if I lift it alone—”
“Well?” Barr asked.
“I will drink to you, Señor, whose name, even, I do not know, before I go to wash the sands for the gold that waits about the head waters of the Arauero. Señor, I bid you good-night, and wish you a journey in consonance with your desires. If my life had been of any worth to me, I would thank you for having saved it.”
Again he bowed gravely, and then, without waiting for reply, stepped down from the verandah and walked swiftly away up the street, in the opposite direction to that which Barr had to take. When the landlord’s son came out at the sound of movement on the board floor, Barr felt inclined to laugh as he realised that Felipe the Torero had left him to pay for the drinks, after all. But the encounter had been worth it, he decided.
Seldom was it that a man or woman could bring him out from his isolation, interest him as Felipe had interested him, and now, going back slowly, he pondered over Bill, who had thought it better to be eaten south of the Jurupary than to rust, uneaten but salaried and slave to custom. The description had a bite to it; there was an analogy—and Felipe had seen it! An odd, unusual character, this Felipe. Once before, Barr had called in at Guayaquil on his way down to the nitrate fields, and the fever-ridden, earthquake-shaken town had given no hint of such a find as this half-Spaniard with his quaint, precise English and his philosophy and insight into character. Barr pondered his adventure.
“Salaried and slave to custom.” He rolled the phrase over and over in his mouth, and tasted its bitterness. To escape that slavery he had fled from the ant-heap of London, its scurrying multitudes of bloodless workers, and had come out to Tacna, only to find that he was still salaried and slave to custom, no more free than before. All his life he had hated the crowd and its conventionalities, and now, in spite of his effort at escape, he went on leave like any other outland worker, to return at the appointed time, a tiny cog in the machine that ground out nitrate of soda and iodine for the world’s markets. Tied to the wheel that went round and round—there was no escape.
In thought he saw the boat train rocking up through Winchester and Woking, swinging through Surbiton and on to Waterloo, where his uncle (his English father and American mother had died in his childhood) would be waiting to take him up to the comfortable suburban home at Finchley—and they would have roast beef and roast potatoes for dinner that night, with pancakes to follow. As a boy, he had had a fondness for pancakes, and now, as a grown man, he knew he dared not tell his aunt that he loathed their greasy sweetness. She would be too badly hurt—the evening of his return, too! And she would explain how she had aired the sheets for him. . . .
After, music halls with his uncle, who would chuckle naughtily over the feebly risky jokes, away from aunt’s shepherding. Church on Sundays, and the curate would come to midday dinner and pump the returned wanderer for tales of the nitrate fields —such tales as he got would be retailed to a very bored Colvin Barr, together with the rest of the congregation, from the pulpit on the following Sunday. Evenings out alone, perhaps girls, invitations to neighbours of the Barrs of Finchley, and at the appointed time the send-off from Waterloo and return to Tacna to take up the threads of his task again. After years of this sort of thing, a transfer to the London office. Late marriage—not as a crown to romance, in all probability, but as a mere result of proximity, and almost inevitably to a Finchley girl. . . .
His allotted future unrolled itself as he went down toward the wharf, and he saw himself as one of millions bound to the mighty wheel that turned inexorably, grinding young men into middle-aged men, middle-aged men into old men, moulding them —here as much as in London—to a slavish pattern, that they might produce other men like themselves and weight the wheel for its continuance. He saw it all, and . . . the tropic night was fresh and sweet, in spite of its exceeding warmth, and away to eastward stretched the mighty heights and gorges of the Andes. Somewhere in their recesses were the head waters of the Arauero, and gold—not a fortune, as they count fortunes in Bogota and Cartagena, but a competence.
He went aboard, and Hawkins, homeward bound on his fourth leave, listened with interest to the brief story of Felipe the Torero and his intended search for gold. Hawkins was fat, and he puffed between sentences, because of the heat, sitting on the edge of his bunk with a tepid whisky and soda in the glass he held.
“Must be an interestin’ chap to know, ye know, Barr (puff). Some of these johnnies do get about a bit, and when you get the Anglo-Saxon strain in ’em, they ain’t half bad in their way (puff). Spoke good English, you say—there was a Gutierrez down at Iquique spoke English, but that was before I went home on my first leave, and thang God this is the last (puff). No more west coast for me, me boy, when I get home this time—Piccadilly Circus and the Strand’ll be about my mark, an’ the company do you well if you play the game by ’em (puff). Arauero, you said, didn’t you?”
Barr nodded and put down his glass, empty. He had forgotten his intention of getting some food aboard.
“Likely enough that johnny’ll never get back, unless it’s altered up that way from what it used to be (puff). It’s off the track, south of Sangai—where they tell of the terraced valley.”
“And what’s that?” Barr asked, uninterestedly.
“Survival (puff). Hell, but it’s hot in this hole, Barr! Survival of the old Quichuas, pre-Inca people, they say, keepin’ up the terrace agriculture of old times, an’ livin’ to themselves. Quito people reckon ’em Aucas—that’s savages, unchristian an’ worse’n mestizo, but they just keep ’emselves to ’emselves an’ I never heard that they did anybody any harm. Lots of things up in those mountains worth lookin’ into (puff). But thang God I’m for home, an’ so say all of us.”
He made a toast of it, and drained his glass. Since Barr’s glass was already empty, he could not respond, and the query grew in his mind as to whether he would have responded, even had the glass been full. For here, in the person of Hawkins, he saw his fate more clearly still: soon—terribly soon!—he would be going home on his last leave before taking up work in the London office, and he would puff, and perhaps tell youngsters of how he had met a man in Guayaquil, years ago, and watched a knife fight —taken a hand in it. And the Finchley curate, unless by that time he had a living of his own, would rejoice in the story of Felipe the Torero, and draw from it a moral for his congregation on Sunday.
“I think I’ll turn in,” Barr said abruptly. “I’ve wandered about Guayaquil quite a lot, and feel rather tired.”
“Toddle off by all means, chappie. Pleasant dreams—tube trains and the old Pavilion—supper at Scott’s—only another month, and we’ll be wonderin’ where the heat’s gone to. Don’t get summers in England now, they say, but it’ll be an English July for us, Barr.”
“Finchley July,” Barr thought, but did not say it.
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