Carmen Ariza Part 61

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"Up, man!" he shouted, seizing his hand. "Up! You are not sick! There is no cholera in Simiti! There is none in Bodega Central! Feliz did not bring it! He and Amado had only a touch of the flux, and they died of fear!"

The priest's ringing words acted upon the man like magic. He roused up from his lethargy and stared at the a.s.semblage. Don Jorge repeated the priest's words, and added his own laughing and boisterous comments.

Pedro rose from his bed, and stood staring.

Together, their little band augmented at every corner by the startled people, they hurried to the homes of all who lay upon beds of sickness, spreading the glad tidings, until the little town was in a state of uproar. Like black shadows before the light, the plague fled into the realm of imagination from which it had come. By night, all but Mateo Gil were up and about their usual affairs. But even Mateo had revived wonderfully; and Jose was confident that the good news would be the leaven of health that would work a complete restoration within him in time. The exiles left the hilltop and the old church, and returned again to their homes. Don Jorge took up his abode with Jose.

"_Bien_," he said, as they sat at the rear door of the priest's house, looking through the late afternoon haze out over the lake, "you have had a strange experience--_Caramba_! most strange!--and yet one from which you should gather an excellent lesson. You are dealing with children here--children who have always been rocked in the cradle of the Church. But--" looking archly at Jose, "do I offend? For, as I told you on the boat a year ago, I do not think you are a good priest." He laughed softly. "_Bien_," he added, "I will correct that.

You are good--but not a priest, is it not so?"

"I have some views, Don Jorge, which differ radically from those of the faith," Jose said cautiously.

"_Caramba!_ I should hope so!" his friend e.j.a.c.u.l.a.t.ed.

"But," interposed Jose, anxious to direct the conversation into other channels, "may I ask how and where you have occupied yourself since I left the boat at Badillo?"

"Ah, _Dios_!" said Don Jorge, shaking his head, although his eyes twinkled. "I have wandered ever since--and am poorer now than when I started. I left our boat at Puerto Nacional, to go to Medellin; and from there to Remedios and Guamoco. But while in the river town I met another _guaquero_--grave hunter, you know--who was preparing to go to Honda, to investigate the 'castles' at that place. There is a strange legend--you may have heard it--hanging over those rocks. It appears that a lone hermit lived in one of the many caverns in the great limestone deposits rising abruptly from the river near the town of Honda. How he came there, no one knew. Day after day, year after year, he labored in his cave, extending it further into the hillside. People laughed at him for tunneling in that barren rock, for gold has never been found anywhere in it. But the fellow paid them no attention; and gradually he was accepted as a harmless fanatic, and was left unmolested to dig his way into the hill as far as he would. Years pa.s.sed. No one knew how the fellow lived, for he held no human intercourse. Kind people often brought food and left it at the mouth of his cavern, but he would have none of it. They brought clothes, but they rotted where they were left. What he ate, no one could discover.

At last some good soul planted a fig tree near the cave, hoping that the fruit in time would prove acceptable to him. One day they found the tree cut down. _Bien_, time pa.s.sed, and he was forgotten. One day some men, pa.s.sing the cave, found his body, pale and thin, with long, white hair, lying at the entrance. But--_Caramba_! when they buried the body they found it was that of a woman!"

He paused to draw some leaves of tobacco from his wallet and roll a thick cigar. The sudden turn of his story drew an expression of amazement from the priest.

"_Bien_," he resumed, "where the woman came from, and who she was, never was learned. Nor how she lived. But of course some one must have supplied her with food and clothes all these years. Perhaps she was some grand dame, with a dramatic past, who had come there to escape the world and do penance for her sins. What sorrow, what black tragedy that cave concealed, no one may ever know! Nor am I at all interested in that. The point is, either she found gold there, or had a quant.i.ty of it that she brought with her--at least so I thought at the time.

So, when the _guaquero_ at Puerto Nacional told me the story, nothing would do but I must go with him to search the cave. _Caramba!_ We wasted three full months prying around there--and had our labor for our pains!"

He tilted his chair back and puffed savagely at his cigar.

"Well, then I got on the windy side of another legend, a wild tale of buried treasure in the vicinity of Mompox. Of course I hurried after it. Spent six months pawing the hot dirt around that old town. Fell in with your estimable citizen, Don Felipe, who swindled me out of a hundred good _pesos oro_ on a fraudulent location and a forged map.

Then I cursed him and the place and went up to Banco."

"Banco!" Jose's heart began beating rapidly. Don Jorge went on:

"Your genial friend Diego is back there. Told me about his trip to Simiti to see his little daughter."

"What did he say about her, _amigo_?" asked Jose in a controlled voice.

"Not much--only that he expected to send for her soon. You know, Rosendo's daughter is living with him. Fine looking wench, too!"

"But, Don Jorge," pursued Jose anxiously, "what think you, is the little Carmen Diego's child?"

"_Hombre!_ How should I know? He no doubt has many."

"She does not look like him," a.s.serted Jose, clinging to his note of optimism.

"No. And fortunate she is in that! _Caramba_, but he looks like an imp from sheol!"

Jose saw that little consolation was to be derived from Don Jorge as far as Carmen was concerned. So he allowed the subject to lapse.

"_Bien_," continued Don Jorge, whose present volubility was in striking contrast to his reticence on the boat the year before, "I had occasion to come up to Bodega Central--another legend, if I must confess it. And there Don Carlos Norosi directed me here."

"What a life!" exclaimed Jose.

"Yes, no doubt it appears so to you, _Senor Padre_," replied Don Jorge. "And yet my business, that of treasure hunting, has in times past proved very lucrative. The Indian graves of Colombia have yielded enormous quant.i.ties of gold. The Spaniards opened many of them; and in one, that of a famous chieftain, discovered down below us, near Zaragoza, they found a solid gold pineapple, a marvelous piece of workmans.h.i.+p, and of immense value. They sent it to the king of Spain.

_Caramba_! it never would have reached him if I had been there!

"But," he resumed, "we have no idea of the amount of treasure that has been buried in various parts of Colombia. This country has been, and still is, enormously rich in minerals--a veritable gold mine of itself. And since the time of the Spanish conquest it has been in a state of almost constant turmoil. Nothing and n.o.body has been safe.

And, up to very recent times, whenever the people collected a bit of gold above their daily needs, they promptly banked it with good Mother Earth. Then, like as not, they got themselves killed in the wars, and the treasure was left for some curious and greedy hunter like myself to dig up years after. The Royalists and Tories buried huge sums all over the country during the War of Independence. Why, it was only a year or so ago that two men came over from Spain and went up the Magdalena river to Bucaramanga. They were close-mouthed fellows, well-dressed, and evidently well-to-do. But they had nothing to say to anybody. The innkeeper pried around until he discovered that they spent much time in their room poring over maps and papers. Then they set off alone, with an outfit of mules and supplies to last several weeks. _Bueno_, they came back at last with a box of good size, made of mahogany, and bound around with iron bands. _Caramba!_ They did not tarry long, you may be sure. And I learned afterward that they sailed away safely from Cartagena, box and all, for sunny Spain, where, I doubt not, they are now living in idleness and gentlemanly ease on what they found in the big coffer they dug up near that old Spanish city."

Jose listened eagerly. To him, cooped up for a year and more in the narrow confines of Simiti, the ready flow of this man's conversation was like a fountain of sparkling water to a thirsty traveler. He urged him to go on, plying him with questions about his strange avocation.

"_Caramba_, but the old Indian chiefs were wise fellows!" Don Jorge pursued. "They seemed to know that greedy vandals like myself would some day poke around in their last resting places for the gold that was always buried with them--possibly to pay their freight across the dark river. And so they dug their graves in the form of an L, in the extreme tip of which the royal carca.s.ses were laid. In this way they have deceived many a grave-hunter, who dug straight down without finding the body, which was safely tucked away in the toe of the L. I have gone back and reopened many a grave that I had abandoned as empty, and found His Royal Highness five or six feet to one side of the straight shaft I had previously sunk."

"I suppose," mused Jose, "that you now follow this work because of its fascination--for you must have found and laid aside much treasure in the years that you have pursued it."

_"Caramba!"_ e.j.a.c.u.l.a.t.ed the _guaquero_. "I have been rich and poor, like the rising and setting of the sun! What I find, I spend again hunting more. It is the way of the world. The man who has enough money never knows it. And his greed for more--more that he needs not, and cannot possibly spend on himself--generally results, as in my case, in the loss of what he already has. But there are reasons aside from the excitement of the chase that keep me at it."

He fell strangely silent, and Jose knew that there were aroused within him memories that seared the tissues of the brain as they entered.

"_Amigo_," Don Jorge resumed. His voice was low, tense and cold.

"There are some things which I am trying to forget. This exciting and dangerous business of mine keeps my thought occupied. I care nothing now for the treasure I may discover. But I crave forgetfulness. Do you understand?"

"Surely, good friend," replied Jose quickly; "and I ask pardon for recalling those things to you."

_"De nada, amigo!"_ said Don Jorge, with a gesture of deprecation.

Then: "I told you on the boat that I had lost a wife and girl. The Church got them both. I tell you this because I know you, too, have grievances against her. _Caramba!_ Yet I will tell you only a part. I lived in Maganguey, where my wife's brother kept a store and did an excellent commission business. I was mining and hunting graves in the Cauca region, sometimes going up the Magdalena, too, and working on both sides of the river. Maganguey was a convenient place for me to live, as it stands at the junction of the two great rivers. Besides, my wife wished to remain near her own people. _Bien_, we had a daughter. She grew up fair and good. And then, one day, the priest told my wife that the girl was destined to a great future, and must enter a convent and consecrate herself to the Church. _Caramba!_ I am not a Catholic--was never one! My parents were patriots, and both took part in the great war that gave liberty to this country. But they were liberal in thought; and I was never confirmed to the Church. _Bien_, the priest made my life a h.e.l.l--my wife became estranged from me--and one day, returning from the Cauca, I found my house deserted. Wife and girl and the child's nurse had gone down the river!"

The man's face darkened, and hard lines drew around his mouth.

"They had taken my money chest, some thousands of pesos. I sought the priest. He laughed at me, and--_Caramba_! I struck him such a blow between his pig eyes that he lay senseless for hours!"

Jose glanced at the broad shoulders and the great knots of muscle on the man's arms. He was of medium height, but with a frame of iron.

"_Bien, Senor Padre_, I, too, fled wild and raving from Maganguey that night, and plunged into the jungle. Months later I drifted down the river, as far as Mompox. And there one day I chanced upon old Marcelena, the child's nurse. Like a _cayman_ I seized her and dragged her into an alley. She confessed that my wife and girl were living there--the wife had become housekeeper for a young priest--the girl was in the convent. _Caramba!_ I hurled the woman to the ground and turned my back upon the city!"

Jose's interest in the all too common recital received a sudden stimulus.

"Your daughter's name, Don Jorge, was--"

"Maria, _Senor Padre_."

"And--she would now be, how old, perhaps?"

"About twenty-two, I think."

"Her appearance?"

"Fair--complexion light, like her mother's. Maria was a beautiful child--and good as she was beautiful."

"But--the child's nurse remained with her?"

Carmen Ariza Part 61

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Carmen Ariza Part 61 summary

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