The Dynamiter

Page 72

His absences from home had been frequent even in the old days, for he did business in precious gems in the city of Havana; they now became almost continuous; and when he returned, it was but for the night and with the manner of a man crushed down by adverse fortune.

The place where I was born and passed my days was an isle set in the Caribbean Sea, some half-hour's rowing from the coasts of Cuba. It was steep, rugged, and, except for my father's family and plantation, uninhabited and left to nature. The house, a low building surrounded by spacious verandahs, stood upon a rise of ground and looked across the sea to Cuba. The breezes blew about it gratefully, fanned us as we lay swinging in our silken hammocks, and tossed the boughs and flowers of the magnolia. Behind and to the left, the quarter of the negroes and the waving fields of the plantation covered an eighth part of the surface of the isle. On the right and closely bordering on the garden, lay a vast and deadly swamp, densely covered with wood, breathing fever, dotted with profound sloughs, and inhabited by poisonous oysters, man- eating crabs, snakes, alligators, and sickly fishes. Into the recesses of that jungle, none could penetrate but those of African descent; an invisible, unconquerable foe lay there in wait for the European; and the air was death.

One morning (from which I must date the beginning of my ruinous misfortune) I left my room a little after day, for in that warm climate all are early risers, and found not a servant to attend upon my wants. I made the circuit of the house, still calling: and my surprise had almost changed into alarm, when coming at last into a large verandahed court, I found it thronged with negroes. Even then, even when I was amongst them, not one turned or paid the least regard to my arrival. They had eyes and ears for but one person: a woman, richly and tastefully attired; of elegant carriage, and a musical speech; not so much old in years, as worn and marred by self-indulgence: her face, which was still attractive, stamped with the most cruel passions, her eye burning with the greed of evil. It was not from her appearance, I believe, but from some emanation of her soul, that I recoiled in a kind of fainting terror; as we hear of plants that blight and snakes that fascinate, the woman shocked and daunted me. But I was of a brave nature; trod the weakness down; and forcing my way through the slaves, who fell back before me in embarrassment, as though in the presence of rival mistresses, I asked, in imperious tones: 'Who is this person?'

A slave girl, to whom I had been kind, whispered in my ear to have a care, for that was Madam Mendizabal; but the name was new to me.

In the meanwhile the woman, applying a pair of glasses to her eyes, studied me with insolent particularity from head to foot.

'Young woman,' said she, at last, 'I have had a great experience in refractory servants, and take a pride in breaking them. You really tempt me; and if I had not other affairs, and these of more importance, on my hand, I should certainly buy you at your father's sale.'

'Madam--' I began, but my voice failed me.

'Is it possible that you do not know your position?' she returned, with a hateful laugh. 'How comical! Positively, I must buy her. Accomplishments, I suppose?' she added, turning to the servants.

Several assured her that the young mistress had been brought up like any lady, for so it seemed in their inexperience.

'She would do very well for my place of business in Havana,' said the Senora Mendizabal, once more studying me through her glasses; 'and I should take a pleasure,' she pursued, more directly addressing myself, 'in bringing you acquainted with a whip.' And she smiled at me with a savoury lust of cruelty upon her face.

At this, I found expression. Calling by name upon the servants, I bade them turn this woman from the house, fetch her to the boat, and set her back upon the mainland. But with one voice, they protested that they durst not obey, coming close about me, pleading and beseeching me to be more wise; and, when I insisted, rising higher in passion and speaking of this foul intruder in the terms she had deserved, they fell back from me as from one who had blasphemed.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Classic Literature Library

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