Ambush

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Ambush

BY PERCEVAL GIBBON

THROUGH a gap in the houses on the opposite side of the street, Anna, the ancient yellow woman, could see from her seat on her door-step the calm face of the harbor, with its strip of pale beach and its palms curving forth against the evening sky. It was the season which, in the little cities of Mozambique, atones for the day, composing earth and air to a mood of gentle and grateful repose after the long hours of stagnant heat. Old Anna, bunched in her doorway, lifted her face to the soft airs out of the east, fresh with coolness from the sea.

At her right side Domingos, the peddler, sat upon the ground with his back against the wall and drew gently at his cigarette. On her left, Gil, the grave-digger, squatted on his heels like a kaffir, yet preserved his mien of mild gravity and responsibility. The spell of the evening was over them all; they sat in a communion of ease and ruminative leisure, and watched the night rising into the sky.

Across the flat roofs and narrow, intricate streets there came to them at intervals the sound of a church bell, slow, single strokes whose music lingered on the air. Domingos, the peddler, cocked an ear.

"Some one is dying, then?" he inquired, languidly.

It was Gil's business to know such matters. "Yes," he answered. "A woman. Doña d'Ulloa her name is. I have been making ready for her in the church all the afternoon."

"Digging her grave, do you mean?" asked the peddler.

"Opening her grave," corrected Gil. "It is a family tomb, not a hole in the earth."

Domingos sniffed. "You all seem to have made very sure of her," he said. "You open her grave, you ring her bell, and she is not dead yet. In her place I should not like these attentions; they are an invitation to bad luck."

The ancient Anna stirred and removed her eyes from the contemplation of the distance and the approaching darkness. The face which she turned upon Domingos was covered with a lace of fine wrinkles, as though the passions and experiences of her life had written themselves in lines on her features.

"Somewhere," she said, in a voice surprisingly rich and full—"somewhere in this land there is a piece of earth which is your grave. Perhaps you tread upon it every day. What does it matter?"

"But when one is ill," protested Domingos, "one desires to get well, not to have grave-diggers and bell-ringers spoiling one's chances."

Gil smiled, leaving the matter to Anna.

"One's chances! There are no chances," said the old woman. "In some hour a moment lies in wait for you. I have seen a man when his moment came; he was not willing, but it had come. He had a wine-glass in his hand and a lady sat at the table with him. He was smiling at her when he saw, close by him, near and drawing nearer, his moment. I remember his face and how his smile fell to pieces like the glass that dropped from his fingers. It was his moment, and he had to go."

"Was it the plague?" asked Domingos.

"No, it was not the plague," replied Anna. "This dying woman of yours," she asked of the complacent Gil, "is she young?"

"Some eighty years old, I was told," answered the grave-digger.

"Eighty! Then it is not she who will be sorry, at all events," said the old woman. "The poor soul; may she have rest at last!"

Then a single stroke of the bell, as though to answer and confirm the wish. Domingos shuffled himself to a position of greater ease and lit a fresh cigarette from the butt of the last.

"If it was not plague, what was it, then?" he inquired.

P825, Harper's Magazine 1912--Ambush.jpg

Old Anna put out a hand from under her shawl and took the freshly lighted cigarette from his lips. Domingos let it go without protest, and felt in the bosom of his shirt for another.

"A woman who has memories instead of joys is no longer truly alive," said the old woman, letting the smoke trickle from her mouth as she spoke. "Such a one am I, but when I saw the thing of which I am telling you I was different. There was a taste in my mouth then, the strong flavor of life, and I had other concerns in the world than to sit on a doorstep and look at it.

"Those were the days of my service in the great stone house of Doña Fé at Sao Lourenço, down the Coast. Ah, but that was a house! In the evenings when we had dressed her, Doña Fé would come down to the patio, and the gate to the street would be set open, and there would come visitors, to sit about the little fountain in the mild light from the windows, with the sky like a gold-spangled roof above them, and make their court to Doña Fé. We girls had our place in the door of the house, to be ready if the Senhora should have need of any trifle, and we saw how the gentlemen strove against one another to take her eye. But there was no quarreling, and none disobeyed her."

"Was she old?" inquired Domingos.

"Old!" cried Anna. "Am I a grave-digger, to tell stories of old women? She was in the noon of her youth, a thing to look at with wonder when one came upon her suddenly. She was not tall, but there was a slenderness of her body and something darkling behind the quiet of her face which gave her power over God's creatures. And she was beautiful, a ripe and delicate piece of womanhood shaped to set men at enmity! Black was her wear—a gown of smooth, shimmering black always, with the shine and softness of her black hair. But there was also a scarf of red that went about her neck and hung down to her knees, with a fringe of gold at its ends. Often, when she came down to the patio where the officers were awaiting her, I, walking behind her with the other girls, have seen their faces as she came through the doorway to their view—quickening with a sort of exultation at her dark and wonderful beauty. Even the shabby little soldiers in the streets, sweating in their heavy clothes, adored her in the distance as they slouched past the open gate. There were always a few about in the afternoons, making compliments to us girls and telling us of their hardships under their captain. There was a corporal, I remember, to whom I used to give drink; he desired to marry me, he said.

"The captain of whom they spoke was the most constant of Doña Fé's visitors. Captain Boaventura de Sa was his name, and all the soldiers in Sao Lourenço were under his orders. A short, stout man he was, with the walk and manner of a tall man, slow eyes, and a harsh, sluggish face. I saw him once go along the street and pass a couple of little soldiers who were aware of him suddenly. They stood aside, saluting in haste, but Captain de Sa did not return the salute. His eyes dwelt on them arrogantly, and I saw how his mouth nickered with amusement as they cringed under his gaze. When he was gone, one turned to the other.

"'Last night,' he said, 'I dreamed I had him by the throat.' And he sighed."

"Was it this captain who died of the plague?" queried Domingos.

"There was no plague, son of a fool," retorted Anna. "Give me another cigarette and cease your 'plague, plague'!"

Domingos hastened to obey, and did not refuse one to Gil when that dignitary stretched a hand across Anna's knees. Poor Domingos had once had a wife among his few possessions; she had gone down in the open street as though she had been bludgeoned, the first to die in a town in which plague had appeared; and it was his only story. He surrendered his chances of telling it as meekly as he gave up his pungent, brown cigarettes.

"Remember, now, that there was no plague," commanded Anna, "and do not annoy me again. I was telling you about this tyrant, this Captain de Sa. Even with us he played the tyrant as far as he could. He was always finding duties for his lieutenants which would keep them away from our patio, rough work in the hills, where a man can be killed without credit. But there was one of our visitors whom he had no power to daunt or oppress. Stewart was his name, and his friends addressed him as 'Jock'—a young, tall man, very serious, making no show of manners and pretending to no valor, but dangerous for all that. He had affairs with ivory and gold-dust and such merchandise in the secret lands of the interior, where he broke many laws and made much wealth, and soon it was to be seen that when his blue eyes sought Doña Fé's face, her dark ones lit to meet them. Even to me it came as a surprise when I knew that Doña Fé counted the minutes till his coming and forgot them till his departure.

"There was an evening when the captain had to learn it, too. He and this Senhor Stewart were together in the patio with Doña Fé, and talk had languished. Only such a heavy animal as the captain could have failed to perceive that what was lacking was his absence; he talked on and on, babbling like the fountain, till at length the Senhora rose. It was thus she always gave the signal of dismissal. The two men rose also, and the captain, tight and formal in his uniform, with his great sword trailing at his heels, bent over her hand.

"'Senhora, for all your favors a thousand thanks,' he said, while the tall Stewart stood apart, with fingers to his little straw-colored mustache, and gazed across his bent back at Doña Fé.

"'Go with God, Senhor,' replied Doña Fé, and the captain straightened himself to strut forth. But he had not taken two paces before he stopped and looked doubtfully at Stewart.

"'You—you are coming, too?' he asked.

"The tall youth had not moved. 'No,' he answered.

"It seemed that the captain could not at first believe that he, Captain Boaventura de Sa, was dismissed while another was permitted to remain. He looked from Stewart to Doña Fé.

"'But,' he protested—'but I understand—the Senhora—'

"'Go with God, Senhor,' said Doña Fé again.

"She and the tall youth were still motionless; there was in their quietness a hint of patience, of forbearance with an intruder. The captain, I think, perceived it. There was light enough from the window of the salao to see his face, strained in a gigantic astonishment, with fury rising through it. He stood for a breathing-space, planted in stupefaction. Then, as though something had stung him, he jerked into the motion of a salute.

"'I will come back with the devil,' he said, and turned and marched forth. I looked to see Stewart go after him to have an explanation in the street of those words, but he waited till the captain had gone without a sign of having heard. Then he turned to Doña Fé and held out his arms.

"They had forgotten us girls, peering and nudging in the doorway; those high people who are served by such as we fall easily into a way of looking upon us as mere furniture. For them the patio was empty and blind; they were alone with the miracle of their love; she went to his arms, and her splendid head bent to his breast, and they spoke to each other, heart against heart. Ah, pitiful saints promenading in glory, but I am a very old woman, and the juice is dry in my body. But through the mist of my eyes I can see them yet, glowing together, melted into one, with their love burning in them like a flame."

Anna was silent upon a note of poignancy, and sat, her head sunk between her big shoulders, gazing before her. The evening hour was drawing to its close; over the harbor night stood in its fullness, upholding a sky full of bold, white stars. The church bell uttered its single, slow, resonant note.

The wretched Domingos judged that his opportunity had arrived. He sighed feelingly.

"Yes," he said. "When I was in love, I frequently felt a glow in me."

"Fool!" said Gil, softly. "Give her another cigarette and let us forget that you glowed. This is a very different affair from yours."

Anna, by good fortune, had not heard. She had dipped into the pit of years before Domingos was born to sorrows. Her fingers closed absently but accurately on the cigarette he had put in their way, and she came back to the present as he offered her a light in his cupped hands.

"There was never another woman like our Doña Fé," she said; "and there can not have been many men like that Senhor Stewart. Presently we heard them talking; it was of marriage they spoke. Nothing so easy as to bid me slip round the corner and fetch a priest; it would not have taken a minute; but no! He knew of some clerigo of his own queer kind, a missionary, and they were to wait till he turned up from his place among the wild kaffirs.

"'And till then I'll have to lie low,' he said. 'I've broken laws enough in the back country to hang me ten times over, and this is where my sins will find me out. That captain's going to make trouble.'

"'You shall be safe here,' said Doña Fé, opening her arms.

"He swept her off her feet like a child—her, our proud and languid lady! When he set her down again, she put a hand to her side.

"'Oh, Jock,' she said, 'you have something very hard in your pocket. What is it?'

"'Eh?' He smiled and put his hand to his pocket and drew forth the big pistol he had there, a great, blunt weapon, very clean, and yet appearing as though it had had much use.

"'It's just this,' he said. 'I'd not care to be without it in this country of yours. It's been a good friend to me.'

"She looked at it and flicked with her finger at its iron nose as it lay in the palm of his hand, and spoke in her pretty, halting English.

"'You leetle child,' she said. 'Put your ugly toy away. I—I am your friend, not that!'

"'You're a wonder and a glory,' he cried.

"Presently she put him from her again, and bade him talk soberly, and they sat down in their chairs close together, with her hands in his. Much of this talk was in murmurs and I could not hear it, and when they spoke aloud again it was still of Senhor Stewart's danger.

"'I must get out of the town,' he was saying. 'That captain means mischief, and I can't fight the whole garrison.'

"'I can,' said Doña Fé. 'Jock, stay here. The captain dines with me to-morrow night; he will not violate my house.'

"'I wouldn't trust him,' said Stewart.

"'But you will trust me,' she cried, quickly. 'Listen, Jock. To-morrow you come here again; you dine with us; and it is upon my life and my salvation that you shall be safe, Jock. Jock, it is when you go to guard yourself with your big pistol that I am sick with fear for you. You must do what I say; I ask this trust of you.'

"He could be gallant, too, that very serious young man, who would wait a month for a lady ready to marry him in an hour. I saw the glint of his white teeth in his brown face as he lifted his head and smiled.

"'Oh, if you ask it,' he answered, 'that's the end of the matter. I'll do it, of course.' And there they were embracing again.

"For my part, my mind was with Senhor Stewart. I did not trust Captain Boaventura de Sa, for I had eyes in my head and knew the shape of a traitor when I saw it, and it seemed to me possible that within twenty-four hours we might have an English corpse on our hands. The danger was the greater since both the captain's lieutenants were away fighting kaffirs in the bush, whither he had sent them, and there was none in all Sao Lourenco to put a check on what it should please him to do. But I did not fully know Doña Fé.

"It was while I was braiding her hair that night that I saw she was not without resource. She was smiling into her great mirror, and sometimes there came into her face a kind of anger.

"'Anna!' she said of a sudden, 'your corporal drinks a great deal.'

"I was taken by surprise, and gaped instead of answering. She laughed.

"'I am not blaming,' she said. 'Can you bring him to the gate to-morrow, so that I may speak to him? For I must speak to him.'

"'He shall be here, Senhora,' I said. 'I will attend to it.'

"She was looking at me in the big mirror, and now she nodded.

"'You must not forget,' she said, in the voice in which she gave her orders. 'And you must not fail. See to it, Anna.'

"My corporal, as Doña Fé called him, was a little, wiry son of misfortune, with a lively ape's face and a certain manner of gaiety not common among the soldiers in that town. He would come sweating and heartbroken from some grievous parade in the sun, where he had been sworn at and beaten with a sword, with tears on his face and bruises on his body; and within five minutes he would be kissing and drinking and laughing as though life were a festival. Only one thing he hated unswervingly, so that at its name he was narrow-eyed and tight-throated; and that was Captain de Sa. I have heard him so curse at that name that I looked up to see the sky open and let fall a judgment upon his feverish blasphemies.

"Of course, when I bade him come to the archway in the morning, and spoke a wise word concerning liquor, he came, and I gave him a cupful to occupy his mind. Then Doña Fé, with her morning flush on her face, came from the patio and stood smiling, and the little man jumped to salute. Doña Fé motioned me away, and stayed to speak to him alone. And afterward, when she left him, that little devil was stirred by pride to tell me nothing of what had passed.

"'This is an affair of your betters, my child,' he said, with an insufferable air. 'Ask me nothing, but go on fetching liquor till I tell you to stop.' And he winked his cunning eye at me.

"Later in the morning Doña Fé spoke also with two soldiers who competed for the favors of a girl named Brigida; and during the siesta my corporal returned with another corporal, and there was a further interview. But from the Senhora no word to explain till we were dressing her for the dinner. We built her hair on her head in gleaming coils like burnished black metal; we shod her with the little shoes of silk; we touched and settled to its place the great scarf of scarlet with its heavy gold fringe, against which her shoulders and her slender arms were like mellow old ivory. Then we stood aside that she might pass before her mirror in the light of the tall candles, as her use was, and see what we had made of her. She was never other than wonderful, but upon this night there was a spirit in her that made her vivid beyond the common, something quick and dangerous which I did not understand. There was a space in her belt, hidden by the scarf, where a dagger could lie concealed, and I thought it would be wanted. I found the weapon, a pretty thing of gold and steel, but she made me lay it down.

"'Not that,' she said. 'Listen, all of you, to what I say. To-night, while we dine, the gate will stand open, and men—soldiers—will come quietly into the patio. I have learned by chance'—she saw me smile at that—'by chance, that this is to happen; the Senhor Capitao de Sa has so ordered it. You will appear not to see it; you will make no sound; you will be passive while they do their business. See that you are obedient in this.'

"The girl Brigida, whose wits were like a tide of the sea, as heavy and as slow, spoke to me as we followed the Senhora down the stairs. 'Then Senhor Stewart is to be betrayed, after all!' she whispered.

"'You are an unprofitable cow,' I answered, in anger, but for my soul I could not see light in this business, and my temper was balanced on its edge.

"In the great salao, a room vast and echoing like a church, there awaited her the two men, under the lights of the tall candles. Senhor Stewart was in white, a slim and youthful figure; the captain wore his uniform, tight and trim, with its gleaming braids and buttons. The swarthy mask of his face was touched for once with a certain liveliness; there was humor and pleasure in it; before we reached the door I heard him babbling with a sort of amiability to Stewart. Mischief and sin were boiling over in the man.

"He greeted the Senhora with a bow—too deep a bow, as though he made a burlesque of courtesy, and printed a loud, gross kiss on the slender hand she gave him. While Stewart greeted her in his turn with formalities which his eyes dwarfed to nothing, the captain stood aside and twirled the end of his thick mustache. Then he pressed forward and offered her his arm.

"'The Senhora will do me so much honor?' he grinned, glancing sideways at Stewart.

"She nodded her head. 'So much, certainly,' she replied, and let her hand rest on his arm as far as the dining-room.

"It was an uneasy spectacle, that dinner, for us who had nothing to eat, but merely the office of looking on. Doña Fé sat at the end of the table; the captain faced the window that gave upon the patio, and opposite to him was Stewart, with his back to it. There was also present the captain's soldier-servant, as the custom was, to aid in waiting and lend the splendor of his uniform to the occasion. A slavish, mute, sidelong creature he was, a spy and a tale-bearer, a fit man for such a master. And when I saw him behind the Senhora's chair, with his mean snake's face and his restless, pale eyes, I thought of the dagger which she had not put in her belt, and I was disturbed; I am a believer in taking precautions when the wind smells of trouble.

The captain was full of talk.

"'I fear I detained the Senhora last evening,' he began. 'I stayed overlate; I omitted to consider that the Senhora might have other occupations. I am full of regrets.'

"Doña Fé smiled, her eyes very bright, her lips seeming to hold back mockery.

"'Regrets should not be wasted,' she replied. 'But you are forgiven.'

"'I breathe again,' he said, and laughed to himself. I saw how he glanced across the lighted, white table to the darkness of the patio.

"'You expect to make a long stay in Sao Lourenço?' he asked of Stewart next.

"'It is possible,' replied the young man. 'The place suits me very well.'

"He smiled at Doña Fé, and she colored and smiled back, all her face flying the flag of her heart. The captain's smile narrowed as he watched them.

"'Ye-es,' he said. 'It is my own belief that you will not go away for some time, Senhor.'

"Brigida nudged me with a thumb like the horn of a bull; in my agitation and annoyance I set my heel on her flat foot and shifted my weight to it. She had so little sense of what was due to the service of the Senhora that she vented a curious, short squeal.

"Presently the captain made lumbering talk of travel in the interior, of gold-hunting and adventure, and so rambled round to the affairs of Senhor Stewart. At a point, Stewart shook his head to deny something. The captain laughed.

"'Ah, Senhor, you are too modest,' he cried. 'You must not think we have not heard of you! The tale of your doings has spread even to headquarters; I have had many questions to answer about you.'

"'I hope you had the answers ready,' replied Stewart.

"'Not always,' said the captain. 'Sometimes the questions were so strange; one gathered that the Administration, which propounded them, had the most unflattering views of you.'

"Stewart was watching with cold,steady eyes and a little smile. 'Lucky for me, no doubt, that it was you they came to for information,' he said.

"'Oh, you must not thank me,' jeered the captain. 'I always told the truth. And now that I have you here, there will be an end to questions.'

"'Oh?' began Stewart, leaning forward. Doña Fé's hand touched his where it lay on the table, and she caught his eye, reminding him of her promise to hold him safe, possibly. He sat back, smiling.

"The captain glanced past him again at the patio through the open window. A strip of light traversed it from the candles within the room, and as my eyes followed his I saw what he was waiting for. Out of the blackness a soldier in uniform crossed the light, going noiselessly on bare feet, and vanishing again into the farther darkness. At my ear a breath taken harshly showed that the fool Brigida had likewise seen; I turned my head to snarl silently at her that she might not further disgrace herself. It was not that I was willing that Senhor Stewart should be dragged out and pounded to death with gun-butts in the caserne—not at all; he was a limber and lover-like man whose children I would have been glad to nurse; but I had my Senhora's orders, and there was no choice left to me. I will not say that there was no doubt in my mind; but it chanced that Senhor Stewart shifted his chair, and the hem of his white jacket swung away from his body, and I had a glimpse of something black projecting from a pocket on his hip, and remembered the big pistol. Thereafter I was more content to be passive.

"The captain talked on; Stewart continued to smile and watch him; Doña Fé' sat in her place, silent and serene. May I never attend upon such another dinner! It drew on, in this same barbarous fashion, to its moment of climax.

"'Senhora,' the captain was saying at last—his eyes were alight with malice—'I consider what this young gentleman stands for. A visitor, a guest, a new figure in our little town; to you, we will hope, an agreeable friend.'

'Oh yes,' returned Doña Fé.

But to me,' went on the captain, 'the obstacle to a dinner alone, tête-à-tête, with Doña Fé. How shall I feel affection for such a young gentleman? Who can expect it?'

"Stewart laughed. 'I am sorry for you,' he said.

"'Are you?' said the captain. 'You need not be. Such an obstacle is easy to remove.'

"His soldier-flunky was waiting for the nod he gave and went out at once. Stewart, a little puzzled, looked to Doña Fé, and received from her a glance of reassurance. The captain filled his glass, spilling wine on the table-cloth as he did so.

"'Oh, easy,' he repeated; 'most easy. Do not waste your sorrow, Senhor Stewart; you are about to have occasion for much sorrow.'

"His big face, with a shine of sweat on it and the light of an uneasy, embarrassed triumph in his cold eyes, was creased in mirth; it was so he would look, I heard, when he tormented his wretched men. He glanced at the door and laughed again. In the opening stood my corporal, grinning sheepishly, bare-headed and barefooted; and behind him, crowding the corridor, grinned perhaps a dozen other soldiers.

"Stewart uttered a noise like a short hiss, and his hand went back to his hip. Doña Fé leaned to him swiftly and whispered. He gave her a searching look; the fierce appeal of her face answered him; and he sat back in his chair, easy, unconcerned, as though nothing were happening.

"'Oh, quite easy,' crowed the captain. 'A trifle one blows out of one's way. Puff! and it is gone. You see? No? Then—obey your orders, corporal!'

"The corporal grinned afresh and came over the threshold, and after him crowded the shabby, dusty soldiers into that grave, ordered apartment, with its equivalent of luxury. Stewart and Doña Fé gave them no attention; they sat as though a pause in the conversation had left them thoughtful, without moving. The captain leaned over the table, his glass in his hand, and he was trembling with the stress of his emotions.

"'Ah, Senhor Stewart!' he began again, and stopped suddenly. The corporal had come round the table and was at his side, and he looked up into the little man's lively, brown face. The others closed in behind his chair, and suddenly he knew fear. It was terrible and funny at once to see how his countenance changed, and all the cruel joy in it went to ashes and left it the color of ashes—gray, aghast, twitching. The glass fell from his fingers and broke, and wine spread on the cloth like blood on a stabbed man's shirt. The soldiers waited, but some of their mouths were working as though they held themselves under a strain.

"It endured, this stillness, for nearly a minute. Then the captain tried to speak.

"'Corporal,' he began, 'what—'

"He got no further, for the corporal swung his bony hand and struck him on the mouth.

"It was then that Brigida, the she-baboon, began to cry, and I had to hold her and kick her ankles to save her from shaming us. So that I had but a glimpse of that bunch of men, with the limp, paralyzed captain in their midst, go bumping through the door and out to the patio and through the arch—only a glimpse, with nothing clearly seen but a round, staring face, with blood on the mouth, and eyes that saw, in their startled glare, that the moment—the great moment—had come. His lieutenants were away; there was none to question a tale of his death from sunstroke; there was none in all the city to raise a voice for him. All that he perceived; it was in his face; and Doña Fé and Stewart sat, without raising their eyes, as the men dragged him out."

The bell from the church sounded its distant note as Anna paused.

"And in due season they were married?" suggested Gil, amiably. The old woman shook her head in the darkness.

"No," she answered. "For them, too, a moment lay in wait. The missionary did not come, but instead of him there came to the city an affliction, a pestilence, and Doña Fé bowed her head in her chair one afternoon, and raised it no more upon this world of misfortunes."

Domingos roused. "Ah!" he said. "I know—the plague."

"Well, yes," admitted old Anna, unwillingly.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1926, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.