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   Chapter 10 No.10

Through stained glass By George Agnew Chamberlain Characters: 7672

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Lewis traveled toward the ancient town of Oeiras. He had cast about in his mind for some means of livelihood and had decided to become a goatskin-buyer. He was hoping to come to an arrangement with some merchant in Oeiras.

One morning as he jogged along, his eyes on the ground, his thoughts far away, he heard the patter of many hoofs on the hard clay trail. A pack-train was coming toward him. At its head rode a guide. The guide stopped upon meeting Lewis, and immediately every mule behind him stopped, too.

"The blessing of God be upon you, friend!" he drawled. "Whence do you come and whither do you go?"

"God's blessing be praised," answered Lewis. "I come from the hills. I go to Oeiras."

"To Oeiras? We come thence. It is a long road, Oeiras."

"I go to seek a merchant who will start me as a goat-skin-buyer. Do you know of any such?"

"A goatskin-buyer? Friend, for almost every goat there is a goatskin-buyer. My brother is one, my father-in-law another. I myself shall become one after this trip is over. You would do well to choose some other occupation."

Lewis did not smile at the man's guile, though it had not escaped him. He was gazing open-mouthed at a horseman who was forcing his way past the laden mules. From some distance the horseman yelled in English:

"What the devil's the matter now? Ye gods and little fishes! what are you stopping for now?"

The guide shrugged his shoulders and tapped his head.

"Mad," he said; "an idiot. Imagine! He thinks those are words!"

The horseman drew up beside them, wrath in his face.

"Sir," said Lewis, "your guide stopped to greet me. It is the custom of the country."

Lewis and Natalie spoke English with the precision of the adults from whom they had learned it. They had never heard the argot of American childhood, but from mammy and from the tongue of their adopted land they had acquired a soft slurring of speech which gave a certain quaintness to their diction.

It was the turn of the stranger to stare open-mouthed. Lewis wore the uniform of the local cow-boy: a thick, wide-brimmed leather hat, fastened under the chin with a thong; a loose deerskin jumper and deerskin breeches that fitted tightly to the leg and ended in a long flap over the instep. On his feet were sandals and grotesque, handwrought spurs. His red bundle was tied to the cantle of his saddle. At hearing precise English from such a source, the stranger felt an astonishment almost equal to Balaam's surprise on hearing his ass speak.

No less was Lewis's wonder at the stranger's raiment. A pith helmet, Norfolk jacket, moleskin riding-breeches, leather puttees, and stout, pigskin footwear-these were strange apparel.

The stranger was not old. One would have placed him at forty-five. As a matter of fact, he was only forty. He was the first to recover poise. He peered keenly into Lewis's face.

"May I ask your name?"

"My name is Lewis Leighton. And yours?"

The stranger waved his hand impatiently.

"Where are you going?"

"I am on my way to Oeiras to seek employment," said Lewis.

"To seek employment, eh?" said the stranger, thoughtfully. "Will you tell this misbegotten guide that I wish to return to the water we passed a little while ago? I should like to talk to you, if you don't mind."

Lewis translated the order.

"So they are words, after all," said the guide. He shook his head from side to side, as one who suspects witchcraft.

When the pack-train was headed back on the road it had come, Lewis turned to the guide.

"Whither was your master bound?" he asked.

"Him?" said the guide, with a shrug of his shoulder. "Who knows? No sooner does he reach one town than he is off for another. It is his life, the madman, to bore a hole through this world of Christ. Just now we were headed for the ranch of Dom Fr

ancisco. After that, who knows? But he pays, friend. Gold oozes from him like matter from a sore."

They came to a spring. The stranger ordered up the fly of a tent. From his baggage he took two wonderful folding-chairs and a folding-table, opened them, and placed them under the fly. "Sit down," he said to Lewis.

The stranger took off his helmet and tossed it on the ground. Lewis pulled off his hat hurriedly and laid it aside. The stranger looked at him long and earnestly.

"Are you hungry?"

Lewis shrugged his shoulders.

"One can always eat," he said.

"Good," said the stranger. "Please tell these loafers to off-load the mules and set camp. And call that one here-the black fellow with a necklace of chickens."

Lewis did as he was bidden. The man with the chickens stood before the stranger and grinned.

The stranger raised his eyes on high.

"Ah, God," he said, "I give Thee thanks that at last I can talk to this low-browed, brutal son of a degenerate race of cooks." He turned to Lewis. "Tell him," he continued-"tell him that I never want to see anything boiled again unless it's his live carcass boiling in oil. Tell him that I hate the smell, the sight, and the sound of garlic. Tell him that jerked beef is a fitting sustenance for maggots, but not for hungering man. Tell him there is a place in the culinary art for red peppers, but not by the handful. Tell him, may he burn hereafter as I have burned within and lap up with joy the tears that I have shed in pain. Tell him-tell him that."

For the first time in the presence of the stranger Lewis smiled. His smile was rare and, as is often the case with a rare smile, it held accumulated charm.

"Sir," he said, "let me cook a meal for you."

While Lewis cooked, the stranger laid the table for two. In less than an hour the meal was ready. A young fowl, spitchcocked, nestled in a snowy bed of rice, each grain of which was a world unto itself. The fowl was basted with the sovereign gravy of the South; thick, but beaten smooth, dusted with pepper and salt, breathing an essence of pork. Beside the laden platter was a plate of crisp bread-bread that had been soaked into freshness in a wet cloth and then toasted lightly. Beside the bread lay a pat of fresh butter on a saucer. It was butter from the tin, but washed white in the cool water of the spring, and then sprinkled with salt.

The stranger nodded approval as he started to eat.

"A simple meal, my accomplished friend," he said to Lewis, "but I know the mouths of the gods are watering."

When nothing was left of the food, the stranger, through Lewis, ordered the table cleared, then he turned to his guest.

"You have already had occasion to see how useful you would be to me," he said. "I propose that you seek employment no further. Join me not as cook, but as interpreter, companion, friend in very present trouble. I will pay you a living wage."

Lewis's eyes lighted up. What wage should he demand for accompanying this strange man, who drew him as Lewis himself drew shy, wild creatures to his knee? No wage. No wage but service. "I will go with you," he said.

"Good!" said the stranger. "Now-where shall we go?"

"Where shall we go?" repeated Lewis, puzzled.

"Yes. Where shall we go?"

"That is for you to say," said Lewis, gravely, fearing a joke.

"Not at all," said the stranger. "To me it is a matter of complete indifference. Of all the spots on the face of the earth, this is the last; no game, no water, no scenery, no women, no food. And having seen the last spot on earth, direction no longer interests me. What would you like to see?"

Lewis felt himself inside a book of fairy-tales.

"I?" he said, smiling shyly. "I should like to see the sea again."

"Right you are!" said the stranger. "Tell the guide to start for the sea."

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