Harper's Round Table, June 2, 1896
Copyright, 1896, by Harper & Brothers. All Rights Reserved.
|published weekly.||NEW YORK, TUESDAY, JUNE 2, 1896.||five cents a copy.|
|vol. xvii.—no. 866.||two dollars a year.|
CRISTOBAL THE CATALAN.
BY WILLIAM DRYSDALE.
cell in the great Morro Castle of Havana was a strange place for a boyof fourteen; but there sat young Cristobal Nunez on the cold stonefloor, his face hidden in his hands, and bitter tears trickling betweenhis fingers. He was a small boy for fourteen, and not dark, like theCubans, but fair as any sunburnt American boy.
He was not alone in the cell, for it was a great damp vault twenty feetwide by a hundred feet long, with an arched roof of stone, the lowerpart of a storehouse standing just within the outer wall of thefortress. He was only one of the 108 political prisoners confined inthat unhealthy vault, where was not a cot for them to lie upon, nor achair or bench to sit upon.
"Cheer up, my son," said a well-dressed elderly gentleman, one of hisfellow-prisoners, stooping beside him, and laying his hand kindly onCristobal's shoulder; "these dark days must have an end; and tears, atany rate, will do no good. You are young to be engaged in thisbusiness."
"I am not engaged in this business, seŮor," Cristobal quickly answered,brushing his hand across his eyes and looking up. "I am no insurgent; Iam a Spaniard, a Catalan, and know nothing about rebellions. And it isnot for myself that I shed tears, but for my young sister, who is aloneon this strange island, with no one to take care of her."
As he spoke of his sister the young Catalan again buried his face in hishands, and his little frame shook.
"This is strange," said the gentleman; and he seated himself on thefloor beside Cristobal, and kindly drew the young Spaniard's smoothcheek against his shoulder. "If you are a Catalan, and no insurgent, howdo you come to be here?"
Though the cell was crowded with prisoners, there was no danger ofinterruption, for each was amusing himself in his own way. Some playedgames with strange Spanish cards, on which were pictures of swords andmen and horses; some read books, for no newspapers were allowed them;some sang brave songs to keep their spirits up; and others, sickened bythe bad air and bad food, lay stretched upon the stones, groaning.
"They have made a mistake," Cristobal answered, as soon as he was ableto speak. "I am only a poor boy from Barcelona, trying to take my youngsister to our uncle in Cienfuegos. But they have arrested me for aninsurgent, and what is to become of my poor sister? We were in acane-field only twenty-five miles from Cienfuegos, when they tore meaway from her; and there I had to leave her, without a friend on theisland, unless she finds our uncle. Oh, seŮor, what is to become ofher?"
"They have made many mistakes," the kindly old gentleman replied,ignoring Cristobal's last question. "Here in this miserable cell are oldmen and young—merchants, professional men, clerks, laborers, and whatnot—at least half of whom are entirely innocent. It is one of themisfortunes of war that the innocent must suffer with the guilty. But ifyou are a Catalan from Barcelona, tell me how you come to be in Cuba,and at such a time."
"My mother knew nothing about the troubles in Cuba," Cristobal answered."She died in Barcelona four months ago, telling us to come to herbrother, our uncle, in Cienfuegos. There was barely enough money left tobring us in a sailing vessel to Havana, and from here I wrote and wroteto our uncle, but received no answer, so I am afraid he must be in thefield. We started to walk—"
"To walk to Cienfuegos!" the gentleman exclaimed; "a hundred and twentymiles! How old is your sister?"
"She is only twelve," Cristobal answered, sadly; "but she has the senseof a grown woman—a great deal more than I have."
"And then?" the old man said, encouragingly.
"We walked as far as Ysabel," Cristobal went on, "seventy-five milesfrom here, and there, by accident, I got a situation in a small store.For nearly three months I was able to take care of my sister; but thenmy employer was arrested for a rebel, and we started on for Cienfuegos."
"Poor little chaps!" exclaimed the old gentleman; "fourteen and twelve;in a strange country; no money or friends! Well?"
"There is not much more," the young Catalan answered. "We were withintwenty-five miles of Cienfuegos, and at noon we went into a small patchof cane for our dinner, for sugar-cane was almost our only food. It waspart of a great field, but all the cane had been burned but one littlecorner. We made a spark of fire to boil our coffee, and while it boiledthere came along a squad of Spanish troops. They saw the smoke, andaccused me of firing the field, and in a minute they had handcuffs on meand tore me away. They took me to Sagua la Grande, and in a few days Iwas brought here in a steamer. But what they did with me is nothing.What can have become of my poor sister?"
"My son," said the old gentleman, devoutly making the sign of the crossupon his forehead, "your sister is in stronger hands than yours. TheFriend of the Fatherless will take care of her. And mark my words, mypoor boy, it will be through your sister that you will be released fromthis unjust imprisonment. For yourself you can do nothing, nor can I aidyou in any way. But she is your sister, and at liberty. She will go onfoot to the Governor-General, perhaps; perhaps she will besiege everypublic office in Havana. I cannot say what course she will take; but ifshe has the wisdom you give her credit for, she will never rest till shesets you free. You Catalans are called 'the Yankees of Spain,' and aCatalonian girl will never desert her brother."
"Every Sunday and Wednesday," he continued, "the friends of prisonersare permitted to visit them here. It may not be next Sunday or nextWednesday, but on some Sunday or some Wednesday you will hear from yoursister."
As he arose from his uncomfortable seat the old gentleman laid his handupon the young prisoner's forehead, and muttered a few words that ledCristobal to believe him a priest in disguise, as in fact he was.
But Wednesdays and Sundays came and went, and Cristobal heard no tidingsof his sister. The coming of the visitors, however, made an agreeablebreak in the terrible monotony. On visiting-days the prisoners' friendswere carried across the harbor from Havana in row-boats, and afterlanding on the pebble-paved road at the base of the fortress, went upthrough the great portal, where a hundred Spanish soldiers wereconstantly on guard. There they were formed in line, only one at a timebeing allowed to approach the barred front of the vault.
Cristobal had spent three weeks of misery in his dismal cell, and oneWednesday afternoon he lay half stretched out on the cold floor watchingthe visitors and listening to their conversation. They brought all thecomforts to their friends that the guards would allow—baskets of food,blankets to lie upon, books, clean linen, medicines—and every packagewas carefully examined by the guard before it was passed into the cell.He saw a well-dressed young Cuban step up in turn behind the bar withnothing in his hands but three long stalks of sugar-cane tied together.He could hardly believe his ears when the guard called,
Cristobal sprang to his feet, and made his way up to the front. He wassure that he had never seen his visitor before, and he could notunderstand why the Cuban, instead of speaking to him at once, stoodlooking him straight in the eyes, as if he would look through him, andthen looked intently at the sugar-canes—at the top cane, Cristobalthought, the one that was gnarled and bent.
"Your sister sends you these," the young Cuban said at length, handingthe bundle to the guard for examination. "And be careful of your teeth,Cristobal. Our Cuban cane is tough and hard to bite in March."
The guard twirled the bundle of canes in his hand, and laughedderisively at the meanness of the gift as he passed it through the barsto the prisoner. Even some of the other prisoners laughed to think thatone of their number was so poor that his friends could send him nothingbut a few canes.
Being one of "the Yankees of Spain," Cristobal knew on the moment thathis sister had not sent him sugar-canes merely for the sake of thesweet.
"Be careful of my teeth!" he repeated to himself, with the canes lyingacross his lap. "That means something, for Maria knows my teeth are allright, and able to chew most anything. And it was this top cane theCuban looked at so hard—the crooked one."
After a few moments' thought he took out his knife and cut a piece abouta foot long from the larger end of the crooked cane, intending, at anyrate, to eat it, or to solve the mystery if there was a mystery.
At almost the first bite the cane cracked like a hollow reed, showingthat the interior had been cut out—for sugar-cane in its natural stateis very hard and solid.
Watching his chance when no one was observing him, he split the hollowedcane open with his hands, and saw in the cavity a small packet wrappedin paper. Quick as a flash he slipped the bit of cane into his pocket,and worked with his fingers to release the packet. It was heavy when hegot it loose, and was evidently a roll of coins—gold coins, the weighttold him. He was afraid to take them out to look, but he hurriedlyremoved the wrapping, sure of finding a message upon it. And he was notdisappointed, for upon the inner side of the little paper he found thisnote:
"Dear Kit,—Here are five American gold eagles to help you out ofprison.
"I am with kind friends—Americanos—on the Buena Vista plantation,near La Flora, district de Cienfuegos. They have furnished themoney. Our uncle has been shot.
"When you get out go to Numero 19, Calle O'Reilly, Havana, and askfor Pedro. He will help get you here.
"Your loving Sister."
Cristobal could hardly help shouting when he finished[Pg 743] reading the note;his sister safe, money to help him, and a friend in Havana to help himthrough the lines! For many days after the arrival of the sugar-cane itwas a mystery to Cristobal how his sister had found friends so quicklyin a strange country; but now it is a mystery no longer.
When her brother was dragged away and she was left alone in thecane-field, little Maria Nunez first shed tears, and then stamped herfeet with rage. Then she took counsel with herself. She could not staythere alone in the cane-field; she could not travel alone in roadsfilled with soldiers and lawless men. Surely there must be some goodChristian on that island who would give her shelter; and she droppeddown upon her knees in the muddy field and fingered the cheap beads thathung about her neck, and made many signs of the cross upon her littlechest and forehead.
Far away across the blackened fields she saw a roof of red tiles. Theremust be a house, she knew, under the roof, and she started in thatdirection.
On the broad front gallery of the house sat SeŮor Walter Pickard, ofOhio, the owner of the seven thousand acres of land comprising the BuenaVista plantation, which, in times of peace, produces its fifteenthousand hogsheads of sugar