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   Chapter 9 THE EVER-FAITHFUL ISLAND

Under the Star-Spangled Banner By F. S. Brereton Characters: 20959

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Dressed in a clean suit of white, with wide-open waist-coat and expanse of glossy shirt, the whole set off by a black evening bow, Mr. Brindle stalked moodily up and down the deck for several minutes, his hands thrust into his pockets, and his chin resting upon his chest. He was evidently in deep thought, and Hal, with Dora and Gerald close at hand, watched him curiously, wondering when he would commence to speak.

"It is hard to know exactly where to start," he said at last, coming to a stop in front of them, where he leaned against the ship's rail, and producing a cigar, bit off the end with a nervous snap. "It is difficult, I confess, to fulfill my promise. To begin with, I am shaken by the horrible calamity we have witnessed to-night. My grief is great and heartfelt for those poor fellows who have been so ruthlessly slain, and loathing and contempt for the inhuman wretches who perpetrated the ghastly deed are so much in my thoughts that I find it difficult to fix my mind upon the subject before us, or grasp its details with sufficient clearness to narrate them to you in lucid form.

"Still, a promise is a promise, and I will therefore do my best to tell you why there is bad blood between Spain and America, and why I fear war in the immediate future.

"Just fancy, this, the most beautiful, and once the most prosperous, of Western isles, is still known in Spain as 'the ever-faithful island of Cuba'! And yet there is scarcely a single Spaniard who is not conversant with the true state of affairs, and is not very well aware that Cuba is in revolt, and has been so for close upon fifty years. Go to the country of the Dons and question her lower classes-I mean the poor people who exist by tilling the soil, or earn a livelihood in factories or workshops. I will answer for it that hundreds, aye, thousands even, curse this fair isle, curse the government that rules it so evilly, and the necessity that has called, and still calls, for their sons to go across the seas and die, in the depths of jungle and morass.

"Looking back as I do at this moment, I feel that all this suffering, all this misery and heart-ache, are Spain's just reward. The great man of Genoa, Christopher Columbus, who explored these Western seas in the fifteenth century, would have passed by the lovely shores of this gorgeous island and refused to annex it for his adopted king and queen, if he had foreseen the future.

"In those days a race of comely men and women, the Carib Indians, inhabited the land, and their descendants might be here to-day had not the lust for gold and riches led Spanish adventurers to disembark in the hopes of satisfying their greed. As might have been expected, trouble followed, and the better armed invaders hunted the Indians till they were exterminated. That unnecessary bloodshed has cost Spain dear. She occupied the island, and made it the headquarters of the African slave trade. Little by little other people and races were attracted here, till at the present moment the population amounts to about a million and a half. Of these a third are negroes, and the remainder anything you please to call them. You can pick from amongst the populace distinctive races, whose color ranges from negro black to almost pure white. Of the latter there are but few in the island, for even the proud old Castilian families which came here years ago, and throve and made money by the sweat of these imported negroes, are now no longer Spanish. Scarcely one of their descendants but has some trace of African blood.

"Of white inhabitants there are few, I said, and these are only temporary residents. They come across the seas to Cuba with one object in view, namely, to make money and return home at the earliest possible date. They are mainly the military and officials, and it is from this greed of theirs, from the careless, thoughtless rule which has allowed matters to go anyhow, and from the gradual fall from bad to worse, that the present trouble arises. Greed and the craving to be rich beyond the dreams of avarice, obtained for Spain this lovely island, to the misfortune of thousands of harmless Caribs; and the same vice has cost her dear already in lives and treasure, and will demand much more, even the loss of the land itself.

"What can you expect? Put a puppet in command, far from observation, and over a race which in his pride he deems utterly inferior to himself, and he becomes a jack in office and an oppressor. I do not say, mind you, Hal, that all rulers here have been unscrupulous; but many have, while others who have been honest in their dealings have failed to bring content to the people through sheer incompetence. You cannot satisfactorily rule a conquered people unless you study their prejudices. Give them some liberty, respect their customs if possible, and their religion, if not harmful and barbarous, and you will make them willing and contented subjects.

"But you have the facts; the Cubans have been misgoverned. They have been fleeced and ground down by their rulers, both civil and military, and, as a natural consequence, they have become rebellious.

"That was the position in 1850, when, following the example set by Mexico, Chili, and Peru, and other western colonies of Spain which had successfully revolted, the colored inhabitants of the island raised the standard of revolution. They attacked their white masters, and galled them by sudden and ugly rushes. When fighting in the forests and swamps which are to be found everywhere, they poured a scathing fire into bands of soldiers brought against them, and disappeared like ghosts, only to return and harass the foe at the next opportune moment.

"How long this particular revolt lasted it would be difficult to say, but no doubt it dragged on for many months, subsiding here only to burst forth elsewhere with redoubled fury. But end it did at length, and the island enjoyed peace for a time.

"Then once more the natives took up arms, and, while Spain strove to put down a rebellion at home, had things much their own way, for the mother country had her hands full. For ten long weary years that rebellion lasted, and many a conscript from the fair land stretching from Pyrenees to Mediterranean bit the dust in this far-away Spanish possession.

"It is, perhaps, a coincidence that America in those days came into conflict with Spain, so that war very nearly resulted, the cause of quarrel being then, as now, aggravated and brought to a climax by an act of peculiar cruelty. For in those days the condition of the poor natives aroused the sympathy of Americans, many of whom, moreover, had already settled in the island. Their pity took the form of substantial help, for they dispatched various filibustering expeditions to Cuba, and thus supplied the natives with arms and ammunition. Unhappily, a certain ship known as the Virginius was discovered attempting to land her cargo, and failed to make good her escape. Capture was inevitable, but before being taken by the Spanish gunboat, the Americans on board managed to get rid of all their warlike stores. It made no difference, however, for once landed at Santiago, little time was given for friends to intervene. All were condemned to death; and as a preliminary, a number of Cubans who formed part of the expedition were shot, their heads being severed from their bodies by the mob, and paraded round the town. Fourteen were executed on the following day, and others on the next, including the commander of the expedition and other Americans. Then the butchery was put a stop to by telegraphic orders.

"But the mischief was done, and I ask you to think how you would have felt had such a deed been perpetrated nowadays. I can assure you that America cried loudly for retaliation, and war was only narrowly averted.

"For ten years the insurrection flourished, subsiding in the winter to a mere nothing, for then the Spanish troops were able to take active measures to suppress it. In the summer, however, from May onwards, when the rainy season commences, the insurgents had the best of the fighting. Themselves immune from fever, and acclimatized, they could live and fight in the 'manigua,' as the bush and swamp in the interior are named, while the Spaniards were helpless. Drenched by constant tropical downpours, and plodding along a narrow, irregular track which was thick with mud, they were fired upon by unseen foes from the trees and jungle on either hand. What use to charge into the thickness of the vegetation? It was sheer suicide, for they were at once separated and split into small parties upon which the Cubans fell with unspeakable fury, armed always with a deadly chopping weapon, the 'machete.'

"Cold steel did the grewsome work silently and mercilessly, sending many a poor lad of Castile to his end.

"Imagine the conditions for a moment, Hal, and you too, Gerald and Dora. You all know what a thick forest is like, for the 'Barn' in Florida is built in the midst of the jungle. Think what it must be to be weary with trudging along a path thick with mud; to be footsore, drenched to the skin, and hungry; and then to be wounded by some unseen hand. No wonder that the Spanish troops died in their hundreds, poor lads! Scarcely able to crawl themselves, was it wonderful that the transport of food and ammunition was difficult? It was impossible, and I can tell you that, though the cruel machete accounted for many, exposure, want, and disease killed thousands more.

"It was a wearisome rebellion, and it, too, died a natural death in 1878.

"And now to bring you and my tale to more modern times. Following peace came renewed prosperity, and with it myself, for it was then that I purchased a plantation. As I became acquainted with the ins and outs of the island life, I learned that the appearance of tranquillity was false after all. Discontent was manifest everywhere, and matters were beginning to wear an ugly look. Factions were openly at work stirring up the people; and of these, one clamored for a system of home government under Spanish guidance, while the other would have none of it, and openly advocated a free Cuba-Cuba for its native people, exempt from all interference.

"I need not tell you that the haughty, careless officials who had come from the home country formed another party, which sneered at all things native, and, mindful of the fat purses to be made from their several appointments, cried l

oudly for military rule, less consideration and less conciliation, and, as a change, a tighter grip of the hand which had already cost Spain so dear.

"It is wasting breath to recount what happened. Of course, discontent grew to active rebellion, till the island was once more swept by fire and sword. To describe every detail of this new insurrection would be wearisome, for it has dragged on ever since, and not once has there been anything in the way of a battle. Minor skirmishes have been the order of the day; in fact, it has simply been guerrilla warfare.

"On the Spanish side the main scheme has been to divide the island into three parts, and so separate the rebels. For this purpose two continuous lines of forts, called 'trochas,' have been constructed. They stretch from north to south, cutting Cuba into three long strips. You will see one as we drive from Santiago to our destination, but I may tell you that they are of enormous strength, that a double fence of barbed wire protects a road cut through the jungle, and that along the latter innumerable forts have been erected, while a railway stretches from end to end.

"But these trochas have proved almost useless. The enormous force at the disposal of the general is swamped in garrisoning them, while the mortality is very high. And the insurgents are more active than ever. Trains are blown up with dynamite, the trochas cut, and the men in the forts forever harassed.

"And now I come to the stage in the rebellion which is the real cause of trouble with America. Determined to conquer, the insurgents have adopted the custom of burning the villages, so as to force those who were wavering, or who were faint-hearted, to throw in their lot with them. In addition, they have taken to destroying plantations, thus depriving the working classes of the means of livelihood. This naturally led to much misery and hardship, but the condition was as nothing when compared with that produced by the Spanish general, Weyler, who now came on the scene. Finding that the peaceful laborer of to-day was the insurgent of yesterday, he ordered all living in the country to come into the towns, a concentration order excellent in its intentions, but heartlessly carried out. Thousands were congregated together and starved-literally and actually starved. There was no method in feeding them and looking to their well-being. The Spanish authorities had made utterly inadequate provision for them, and as a consequence they sickened and died in their thousands.

"And there you have the cause of trouble between Spain and America. My adopted brethren have warm hearts beneath a calm exterior, and their sympathy for the poor Cubans is deep. They resent this perpetual bloodshed occurring so close to their coast as a slur upon their humanity; and they demand, for the sake of all, that it be put a stop to. Correspondence has passed between the governments, and seeing that America means business, Spain has promised to amend, and do her utmost to end the sad condition of affairs. As an assurance of the truth of her words and the honesty of her intentions, she has dispatched a warship to New York, and the unfortunate Maine was here on a similar friendly errand.

"And she was blown up by a mine. There were two definite and distinct explosions: the first produced beneath the keel of the ship, and the second in her forward magazine. That is my opinion, and others share it. I am sorry even to think it possible, and I say now, that it is my firm belief that Spaniards in general are too honorable, too chivalrous to attempt such a dastardly deed. But there are black sheep in every flock, and some inhuman scoundrel has this night sent numbers of his fellow-men to an untimely end, and at the same time has, in all probability, plunged two countries into war, the ultimate consequences of which one cannot even dream of."

"But why should you think so, Mr. Brindle?" Hal asked eagerly. "I know that the blowing up of a steamer is an unusual occurrence, but still it has happened before to-night, and why not again? Accidents come when least expected."

"True, Hal; but in the chapter of mishaps likely to befall a war-vessel, explosion of the magazine is almost unknown, save in battle-time. What are the conditions now? We are at peace, and I who know the spirit of discipline in the American Navy can tell you that the same careful look-out and the same precautions are taken in everyday life as during a war scare. It is a strict rule of the service that the officer on watch shall inspect the ship at a certain hour at night, and report all lights dowsed, and magazines in a safe condition. It was done this very night, you may be sure; and see what follows! The men we have rescued say that they were awakened by a violent shock, and that a second and more powerful one threw them from their hammocks. We, too, noticed the same, and I can swear to it that the first sent a column of water into the air, while the second shattered the forward portion of the Maine to fragments.

"I fear it must be the case," said Hal, after a few thoughtful minutes; "and I suppose that the next item of news will be that war is declared."

"Yes, almost without doubt; and it should be so, then all my plans will be altered. I must get through to Eldorado, to see that the plantation and hacienda are safe, and then I shall probably send Dora and Gerald back to Tampa. No, don't try to dissuade me," he cried, lifting a warning finger as they both began to expostulate. "I shall take time to come to a decision, and it must be considered as final.

"And now let me tell you of another matter which concerns you, Hal, more than the others. You bear the mark of a bullet on your shoulder, and shall learn what I have hitherto kept from you. The scoundrel whom you heard addressed as Se?or Capitan is no less a person than Captain José d'Arousta, a gentleman of very evil reputation. I may inform you that he came to the island many years ago-quite twenty, I should imagine-when only a lad; that his father had a position under the government; and that the man of whom we are speaking first disgraced him by his riotous living, and then broke his heart by marrying a half-breed girl. Poor thing! she was too good by far for such a reckless fellow. She owned a plantation, and I need scarcely tell you that he quickly ran through her ready money, and then all that could be possibly raised upon the estate. What happened to her later I do not know, but he became captain of an irregular Spanish band near Santiago, and rumor reports that his cruelties made him hated by insurgents and friends alike. I know that he burnt down plantations wholesale, and that if one wished to escape, it was necessary to bribe him with large sums of money. I paid heavily at first for my immunity, and then, tired of his constant threats, I one day horsewhipped him before all the hands, and afterwards defied him; but I was careful at once to organize a band of armed men, to keep a watch over the plantation and house.

"Money seems to José d'Arousta a dire necessity, for that is the class of man he is. He even thought it worth his while to come to Tampa, knowing well that he would not easily relieve me of my valuables in the island. You foiled him, and I warn you solemnly, Hal, beware of the fellow. He possesses that love of vengeance and ferocity common to his race, and he will surely repay you when he has an opportunity. Therefore take care, and as the times are unsettled I advise you to arm yourself at once with a revolver. Carry it in a hip pocket, and use it if your life is threatened."

"I will," Hal answered quietly. "I am not afraid of the fellow, but he looked a nasty customer, and it is always best to be on the safe side. If he happens to knock up against me, he will be less inclined to quarrel when he sees that I am armed."

"Quite so, and I am glad you fall in with my views," said Mr. Brindle. "Gerald, too, while at the hacienda, had better carry a weapon, while I am sure that the three of us will be easily able to defend Dora from all harm."

"That we will!" Hal blurted out enthusiastically; and then, seeing Mr. Brindle smother a knowing smile, he became suddenly silent.

But Dora heard, and presently, when her father's head was turned, she flashed our hero a grateful glance from her eyes, which seemed to say, "Yes, I am sure you would do all that was possible"; a message which Hal must have appreciated, for he tingled strangely from head to foot.

"By George!" he murmured, as he lay back in his chair and conjured up the dark, forbidding features of José d'Arousta, "I would smash the beggar into little pieces if he even attempted to harm one of my friends." Then his lips tightened, and his fingers gripped the arm of the chair.

"Thinking of our acquaintance, the railway thief, I'll be bound," said Mr. Brindle suddenly, looking critically at Hal. "All the better, my boy. Take my warning to heart, and beware of the Spaniard as you would of the plague. He is a rogue, and is not to be trusted. If you should chance to meet him, and see him put his hand in his pocket, cover him with your revolver. And if Pedro, his accomplice, is with him, be doubly cautious; for here, in Cuba, they are capable of any atrocity, knowing well that, owing to the unsettled condition of the island, they can defy the law. Indeed, I more than suspect that they are the head of a gang of desperadoes who rob both insurgents and Spaniards, and care for one side as little as they do for the other. But, dear me! this has been a very long yarn, and I am tired. What do you all say to a short rest in our bunks? Dawn will break in a couple of hours."

He yawned loudly and rubbed his eyes, as if to drive the sleep out of them.

"Come," he continued, "we have done all that is possible for these poor fellows from the man-o'-war. Let us sleep and prepare for to-morrow."

Hal, Dora, and Gerald also were feeling tired and sleepy; therefore, rising from their seats, they took another look at the wrecked and half-submerged Maine, which was now burned at the for'ard part to the water's edge, while sheets of flame still belched upwards from the after-decks, and sent columns of dark smoke into the air. Then, with a sigh for the poor lads who had met their fate that night, they shook hands silently and descended to their cabins, where all four were soon wrapped in sleep.

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