Read CHAPTER X - A STORMY INTERVIEW of At the Point of the Sword , free online book, by Herbert Hayens, on ReadCentral.com.

On our march to the town, Santiago assumed a light-hearted carelessness that was far from his real feelings. He laughed merrily, made joking remarks, and behaved generally as if the prospect of a spell of prison life was most agreeable. This was, of course, mere outside show. He was too proud to let his captors see his real distress; but his acting did not deceive me.

We had reached the market-place, and I was wondering at the absence of the soldiers, when Jose suddenly appeared, coming from the governor’s house. On seeing us, he approached, saying, “You have been a long time. I began to think you had missed your way.”

“The guide was late in the first place, as the doctor would not take the nearest way, and we did not hurry. But where are the troops?”

“Off again!” said he, his eyes twinkling: “the colonel has gone for a little jaunt of ninety miles or so to intercept a Spanish column. Thank goodness, we have missed that! How did you leave your men, major?”

“One is dying, I fear,” replied Santiago; “but the others will soon be all right, unless your doctor kills them!”

“I was sorry to send him,” said Jose, “but I had no choice. He was the only one in the place available. He didn’t offer his services, I can assure you.”

“I can well believe it,” laughed the major. “The poor fellow was half dead with fright when he reached us, and vows he will never risk the danger of getting down again.”

“We must have him tied to the rope, and lowered like a sack of potatoes. Meanwhile, what is to be done with you?”

“The only suggestion I can make is that you set me free!”

“Perhaps I had better report to the governor,” observed Jose thoughtfully. “He is Colonel Miller’s representative. I daresay he will parole you till the chief comes.”

“No, no!” cried the major hastily; “I’ve done with paroles! From this moment I consider myself free to escape.”

“To try,” corrected Jose. “Well, the effort will fill up your time, and keep you from being idle. Of course,” he added, “it will change the position a little. We can still remain on friendly terms, only I must not forget to load my pistol. And now let us interview the governor.”

A sentry stood at the outside gate, and several soldiers were in the courtyard; but passing through, we entered the house, and found ourselves in the governor’s presence. He was a military-looking man, though holding no rank in the army a Spaniard who had recently come over from the enemy. Two or three officers were in the room, and a young man sat at a table, writing.

Jose told his story briefly, concluding with a proposal that the prisoner should be left in his charge until Colonel Miller’s return.

“There is a more agreeable way still,” observed the governor, with a bland smile. “Major Mariano, I am not unaware either of your name or your services. I know you for a dashing and brilliant officer, far and away superior to those nominally above you. I am not without the power to make you an offer. The Spanish cause is lost; in a few months your armies will be crushed; Peru will be independent. Until that time you will languish miserably in prison. Afterwards I cannot pretend to prophesy your fate; but I offer you an opportunity to escape from the wreck. Join the Patriot army, and I pledge my word that San Martin shall give you the rank of colonel at once. In a year it will be your own fault if you are not a general. Come, what do you say?”

Only a few hours previously I had seen an outburst of temper on Santiago’s part; now I beheld another, which by comparison made the first appear mild. His eyes literally blazed with anger; his face was red; he actually quivered with passion. Twice he endeavoured to speak, and the words choked in his throat. Jose laid a hand restrainingly on his shoulder; he flung it off passionately.

“Dog of a traitor!” cried he at last, “do you think the blood of Santiago Mariano is as base as yours? Do you imagine I am a rat like you to leave a sinking ship? What! lend my sword to a parcel of beggarly cutthroats and vagabonds? I would rather eat out my heart in the blackest dungeon of Peru!”

Once a flush of shame overspread the governor’s face, but he recovered himself promptly, and listened with a bitter smile till the end.

“You shall eat your words if not your heart,” he exclaimed brutally; and turning to an officer, he added, “Rincona, bring in your men and the heaviest irons that can be found in the prison.”

Santiago smiled scornfully; but Jose, pushing forward, said quietly, “You cannot do that, senor. This man is my prisoner, for whom I am responsible to Colonel Miller alone. Until the return of the colonel, therefore, I cannot let him go from my keeping.”

For a moment Rincona hesitated, but at the governor’s second command he left the room, while the other officers clustered round their chief.

Jose produced a pistol and cocked it, saying coolly, “The man who lays hands on my prisoner dies.”

Santiago turned to him with a pleasant smile. “Thanks, my friend,” he said, “but I cannot let you suffer on my behalf. Besides, there is Crawford to be considered. The consequences may be fatal to him, as he is sure to stand by you.”

“Don’t hesitate on my account, Jose,” said I. But the major’s words had made an impression, and a shadow of annoyance flitted across my companion’s brow.

However, there was little time for thinking. We heard the tramp, tramp of marching feet, and presently Rincona entered, followed by about a dozen soldiers.

“The irons!” roared the governor, beside himself with passion; “where are the irons?”

“I have sent for them, sir,” replied Rincona.

“You might have spared yourself the trouble,” remarked Jose; “they shall not be put on.”

“Yes, yes!” exclaimed Santiago; “what does it matter? Better so than that you two should lose your lives.”

I looked at Jose. His lips were set like a vice, and I knew that no power on earth could move him now. The situation was decidedly unpleasant, and unfortunately there seemed to be no way out. True, he might kill the governor, but that would only still further complicate matters.

The soldiers, as usual, stood with impassive faces; the affair was none of theirs, save so far as obeying orders went. The officers were restless and uneasy, and one of them kept up a whispered conversation with the governor, who listened impatiently, and from time to time shook his head.

At last two other men arrived, bearing a set of heavy irons, and once again Santiago turned appealingly, but without effect, to Jose.

One might have heard a pin drop when the governor, sheltering behind his officers, cried in a loud voice, “Put that man in irons!”

“Stand still!” said Jose, raising his pistol, and speaking in the Indian dialect.

How the dispute would have ended I cannot tell, but at that moment a happy inspiration flashed into my mind. The soldiers were all Indians, and judging by their appearance, Indians of the mountains. Was it possible that any of them acknowledged the authority of the Silver Key? If so, we were safe. It was a poor chance, but there seemed to be no other.

Trembling with impatience, I opened my shirt at the neck, and drew forth the brigand chief’s gift. At first no one took any notice; but when I held the key to view, the Indians raised a shout of mingled joy and surprise. Then I looked at Santiago and laughed, saying, “We are safe!”

The Indians jabbered away in their own language, talking with one another, and pointing to the emblem of authority which hung from my neck. The governor stood like a man in a dream; the officers gazed alternately at me and the native soldiers, as if doubting the evidence of their senses.

“How many of you are followers of the Silver Key, and of Raymon Sorillo?” I asked.

“All, all, master!” they cried.

“And those outside?”

“All, all!” they again shouted.

“I can trust you to help me?”

“To the death, master!” they cried with one voice.

At that I turned to the governor, saying with a smile, “The position is changed, senor. I have but to raise my hand, and you will feel the weight of your own irons. But there is no need to quarrel. Colonel Miller will be here in a few days, and he shall decide between us. Meanwhile we will guard the prisoner.”

The governor nearly choked with anger, and threatened violently that as soon as the colonel returned he would have us all shot. However, as it was evident that the soldiers would obey my orders, he raised no further objection to our taking Santiago away.

“By St. Philip,” exclaimed the major, “the room was hot! Are you a magician, Crawford?”

“Upon my word I begin to think so. At any rate, I possess a magical key.”

“Which has saved our lives,” observed Jose grimly.

“And I suspect,” laughed Santiago, “that once upon a time it unlocked the door of a prison cell! But won’t those natives suffer for this?”

“I don’t think so. They are too strong, and their chief has more power in Peru than the viceroy and San Martin combined.”

“You know him, then?”

“Yes, and so does Jose. He has done me good service, for which I am grateful, though I could never like the man. But here we are at the house. The good folk will wonder at our bringing an uninvited guest.”

Fortunately a room had been set apart for us, so we could talk at our ease. I was burning to tell Jose about my father, but first of all we had to come to an understanding with Santiago. This time he made no demur at giving his parole. “In fact,” said he gaily, “you have forced my hand, and I have no choice.”

“So much the better,” remarked Jose; “we may as well be comfortable together till the colonel arrives.”

“And after that we may be hanged comfortably together!” laughed the major. “How do you like the prospect?”

“I can trust Miller. He is an honourable man, and will do what is right. It is Crawford who will suffer for inciting the troops to mutiny.”

“Jose,” said I presently, “I haven’t told you that Major Mariano is an old friend of mine.”

“And at one time his jailer,” interrupted Santiago. “That ought to make him feel grateful.”

“Oh,” exclaimed Jose, “you are the captain Jack has often talked about! Well, I’m glad we have been able to do a little for you.”

“This morning while we were waiting for your precious doctor,” I continued, “he told me a very startling piece of news.”

“Yes?” said Jose.

“About my father.”

Jose sprang to his feet, demanding fiercely, “What do you know of Senor Crawford, major? Don Eduardo came to his end by foul means: he was not slain by the government, but by some one who hoped to profit by his death.”

“According to the major’s information, he was not slain at all,” I said, and proceeded to relate the story.

Jose listened attentively to every word, and then asked Santiago innumerable questions. Like myself, he displayed great excitement, but I judged from his expression that he entertained little hope of my father being still alive.

“The truth is,” said he, “Don Eduardo had made numerous powerful enemies both in public and private life; and as we all know, any stick is good enough to beat a dog with. Besides, he owned vast estates, and

“Go on!” laughed Santiago as Jose hesitated; “the king’s party put him to death in order to seize them!”

“No, no,” said Jose hotly; “I don’t tar all Spaniards with the same brush. Still, they aren’t all saints either, and I say some of them killed him under cloak of the government. And some day,” he added, “I will prove it. As to his being alive, I think there is small chance of it. And Jack, my boy, I would not mention the matter to your mother.”

“But,” said I, clinging to my shred of hope, “he was not killed in the mountains, and we have heard nothing since.”

Jose let me talk, and listened kindly to my arguments, but I noticed that none of them made any impression. At the best, he said, my father had been thrown into prison seriously hurt, and it was not likely that he had survived the confinement.

“Have you ever seen the casemates at Callao, major?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Santiago, “and very unhealthy places they are. But there are more prisons than those in Peru.”

It would be wearisome to repeat our conversation, for, after all, we were arguing in the dark, having only the major’s imperfect story to go by. Besides, as Jose said, many events had happened during the last two years, and my father was by no means the only noted man in Peru to disappear. So our talk travelled in a circle, leaving off at the starting-point, and for sole effect it extinguished the gleam of hope which the major’s story had kindled.

In the evening, at Jose’s suggestion, I went into the streets to pick up any information concerning the governor’s doings. Everything seemed quiet; the sentries were at their posts as usual, while the soldiers off duty wandered about the town.

They greeted me respectfully, raising their hands in salute and standing at attention, as if I had been an officer of high degree. Recognizing a sergeant who had been in the governor’s room, I stopped to ask a few questions. Greatly to my relief, I learned that, with the exception of a few Spanish officers, the troops in the town were all Indians from the mountains.

As the man seemed smart and intelligent, I told him how matters stood, and that we depended entirely upon him and his comrades until the coming of the English colonel.

“You can trust us, master,” he replied, and indeed his talk made it quite clear that the friend of Raymon Sorillo and the holder of the Silver Key might rely on the Indians in Moquegua even against Miller himself.

Jose, I think, felt rather relieved on hearing my news; while Santiago laughed heartily, prophesying that, if the Spaniards were defeated, I should in a few years be king, or at least president, of Peru.

“I had no idea,” said he, “that you were so important a person. No wonder Barejo wished to keep you shut up!”

That night we took it in turns to watch; but the governor attempted nothing against us, and the next day we walked openly in the street without molestation.

Colonel Miller had vanished into space, and for nearly a week we heard nothing of him; then one morning an Indian scout rode wearily into the town with the news that the Englishman was close at hand. Immediately the people rushed out in hundreds to line the street, and to cheer the returning warriors.

Jose stayed indoors with the major, but sent me out to get an early word with our leader. Bright, alert, and cheery as ever, he rode at the head of his troops, smiling and bowing to the inhabitants as they greeted him with rousing cheers. Then came the soldiers the cavalry on dead-tired horses, the infantry on jaded mules with a number of prisoners in the midst.

The animals were tired enough; but the men! I can hardly describe their condition. Their faces were haggard, their eyes heavy and bloodshot; some were nearly asleep, others had scarcely strength to sit upright. Very little grass had grown under their feet. As soon as they were dismissed, the citizens pounced on them, taking them into the houses, where food and drink were provided in abundance.

The governor had come out to meet the colonel, whom I expected to see return with him; but at the last moment he turned aside, and with a laughing exclamation went straight to his own quarters, whither I followed him.

“Hullo, Crawford!” cried he. “So you didn’t get La Hera?”

“No, sir; but we captured a major, and I wish to speak to you about him.”

“Won’t it wait?” he asked, with a comical expression.

“I am afraid not, sir. The truth is, we’ve had a quarrel with the governor, and

“You want to get in your version first! A very good plan. Well, fire away, but don’t make it long; I’ve a lot of things on hand.”

By this time we had entered his room, and going straight to the heart of the affair, I told my story in the fewest possible words. The colonel listened with rather a grave face, and when I had finished he said, “It’s an awkward mess, especially just now. It’s absolutely necessary to keep friends with the governor, and I don’t like this tampering with the troops. But, of course, I won’t have the prisoner put in irons or treated differently from the rest. Bring him here now, and I’ll settle the matter at once.”

“Yes, sir,” said I, thankful to get off so lightly.

The colonel had already begun some fresh work when I returned with Jose and the major, but he rose from his seat and saluted the Spaniard courteously.

“I understand it is useless to ask for your parole, major,” he said. “Your mind is quite made up on the point?”

“Yes, sir,” answered Santiago, smiling in his easy, graceful way. “An opportunity to escape may not arise but if it does, I shall certainly seize it.”

“Quite right!” exclaimed the colonel; “but I fear you will be disappointed. However, though guarding you rigidly, we shall put you to as little inconvenience as possible. You will find half a dozen companions in misfortune in the prison. Most of the captured rank and file have joined the Patriots.”

The major’s lip curled scornfully, but he only said, “I am obliged to you, colonel, for your kindness. Some day perhaps I may be able to return it.”

“Not in the same way, I hope,” laughed Colonel Miller. “I have had a taste of Spanish prison life already, major. But when the war is over I trust we may meet again.”

Then he sent for an officer and a file of soldiers, and Santiago turned to bid us a cheery farewell.

“Good-bye,” said he brightly; “I have had a pleasant time with you. If I do succeed in escaping, Crawford, I will inquire further into your father’s story. Ah, here is my escort!” and with a salute to the colonel and a nod to us, he took his place in front of the men, while the officer received his chief’s instructions.

“He’s a plucky fellow. I should have liked to set him free,” I said, as we strolled back to our quarters.

“To do more mischief!” growled Jose. “I’m sorry for him, in a way, but it’s better for us that he should be under lock and key. And that reminds me! How did Colonel Miller take the Silver Key business?”

“Very badly; called it tampering with the troops.”

“So it was, but it saved our lives, all the same. I shall be rather pleased when we leave this district; the governor won’t regard either of us too favourably.”

“He can’t hurt us now the colonel is here.”

“No,” replied Jose, with a curious smile “but we might meet with a nasty accident. Perhaps you remember my remark, made two years ago, that accidents are common in Peru. It’s as true now as then.”

As it chanced, Jose was shortly to have his wish; for although we did not know it then, the colonel had decided to abandon Moquegua. Many of the troops were down with the ague, the place was a difficult one to defend, unless against a weak attack, and La Hera was already on the march with a force far superior to ours. This, however, we did not learn till two days later.