The Cordon Bleu of the Sierra
THE journey from Barrios to Agua Caliente is, at its best, a test of endurance. At its worst, which is at the close of the rainy season, when the roads are officially declared passable for the mail-coach, it is a twelve hours' torture. It was at the termination of the initial trip of the diligencia that I staggered into the "Inn of the Three Friends," utterly worn out. I was battered and bruised from head to foot; my right arm was stiffening rapidly, partly the result of assisting progress by throwing stones at the foremost pair of the six-mule team, partly from the impetus with which I had struck terra firma at our second spill. I was so tired that I really did not care where the affable proprietor bunked the high-born señor, or what his intentions were with regard to food; though the thought of chile con carne and frijoles was distinctly distasteful, and iguana steak only mildly alluring. The posada was unusually clean. That was heaven, and nothing else mattered.
Señor Montojo, the host, conducted me ceremoniously across the court, through a vociferating crowd of Indians, Spaniards, half-breeds, and Germans, up an elaborately carved staircase to red-flagged galleries, thence to the palatial apartments assigned me. There I flung myself upon a narrow cot, and, stupefied with weariness, stared at the leoparded ceiling. In my eyes there lingered a vision of the marvelous landscape through which we had come, a panorama of awe-inspiring vistas, mammoth trees, plunging waterfalls, and sheer crags. I shivered as I remembered that the jolting, banging stage, caught among ruts and washed-down boulders, might at any moment have been part of the distant scenery, thousands of feet below.
I was roused from my reverie by a tap upon the door. It swung slowly wide, revealing a charming picture—a girl of seventeen, as pretty as Central American girls can be in their very early youth, bearing a tray with bottles and glasses. She smiled shyly.
"From the Señor Montojo," she mured, setting down the tray on the battered table. "There is much excitement to-night for the opening of communication with the capital. There will be a fandango; but the señor is too weary—no? If he will drink this, he will feel better; and when he has dined—ah, then—" She kissed her fingers airily toward the window.
My weariness lessened as she talked, and when I had swallowed the fiery liquor she handed me it changed to genial lassitude.
"Señorita," I exclaimed, "my life is saved! I am revived as if I had partaken of the miracle-waters of Santa Ana. Permit me to extend my everlasting gratitude."
She leaned, laughing, against the white-washed wall. She was slim, yet rounded, supple, and slow of movement. In repose her attitudes were singularly picturesque. Heavy wreaths of blue-black hair crowned her head, in which a cheap Amapalan shell-comb, studded with gilt stars, hung at a precarious angle. Her eyes were long, full, and dark, her "lips a thread of scarlet," her smooth skin a curious lavender color from the quantities of rice powder with which she had endeavored, Spanish fashion, to hide its tawny bronze.
"I'm very glad I came," said I, reflectively.
"Good!" She refilled my glass.
"To your eyes!" I bowed gallantly.
With a toss of her pretty head, she gathered the bottles and glasses upon her gaudy red-and-purple tray, and turned to the door.
"Dinner soon," she said over her shoulder, with a flash of eyes and teeth. "Pierre will be happy to have a foreign gentleman to cook for. It will be an event."
With this enigmatic statement, she left me to digest the aguardiente and listen to the band in the square.
I was awakened from a gentle doze by the coming of an Indian servant, who spread the table with a red-and- white cloth and set the cover for the promised meal. He disappeared and, a moment later, returned, bearing a steaming bowl. As a distinguished guest, it was evidently expected that I would dine alone in my room. I took my place, cast a questioning glance at the creamy liquid set before me, and tasted. It was a positive shock, and my gastronomic angel made a large entry in his book of events. Such savor! Such perfume! Such delicate pampering of the palate! What could it mean—that delicious, appetizing after-taste that left the excited esophagus clamoring for more? Could this be the culinary transport of a Central American carne-stewing cook? Never! I tasted again, and with half-closed eyes sat back in my chair. A picture disclosed itself to my inner vision—a picture of the little front room of the "Tour d' Argent" on the quai in Paris, with that magician Frédérique bending above a pressoir where the succulent carcasses of freshly carved ducks exuded priceless juices under his knowing hand. So vivid was the impression that when I unclosed my eyelids I felt surprised at my surroundings. Once more I addressed myself to the soup. No, I was not mistaken; there lingered the true Frédéérique touch—the nameless signature of the great artist. Chicken timbales followed. Those astonished and grateful Israelites of the wilderness, miraculously fed upon manna from heaven, could not have experienced greater wonder and delight than. I, or more truly given thanks. Then came a roast—a roast in this land of pans and pots! And a salad—a salad in which the garlic was but a dreamy suspicion of that misused vegetable, and the oil mixed just in the right proportion with the gold and verdant meat of the alligator-pear. To crown all, a soufflé,—a soufflé au confitures,—a yellow flower as light as a puff of swansdown, a delicate morsel of exquisitely flavored sunset cloud!
"It will be an event," had said the señorita. She was right. It had been an event, and more. But how, in the name of all that was marvelous, could such a feast of the gods appear in Agua Caliente, a little Central American town a hundred miles from the coast, eight thousand feet up in the Sierra, cut off, for six months of the year, from all save difficult mule-back communication with even the spavined, one-horse, tumble-down, dictator-ridden capital? Little, sleepy Agua Caliente, known only to coffee-merchants and tax-gatherers—Agua Caliente, three hundred years behind all the civilized world, and sheltering a chef, a cordon bleu, a genius!
"I will investigate at once," I resolved, and stepped out upon the gallery encircling the court. I paused a moment. No one with a sense of color, a single throb of romance, or a corpuscle of adventurous blood, can ever become quite oblivious to the great variety of Central American life. Below, in the lantern-lighted court, a laughing crowd of picturesquely dressed men and women lounged and smoked. From beneath the arcade on the left a stream of lamplight, a chatter of voices, and a tinkle of glasses indicated the bar. On the right opened the big sala, from which the beat and twang of music rang out with savage emphasis. Overhead, in the square of violet sky inclosed by the heavy tiled roof, the great Southern stars burned with a still glory of which the Northern world only dreams.
I lighted my cigarette, and was content for the moment to let my curiosity mellow. The groups in the court dispersed and reformed. The hollow thump of dancing feet upon the inevitable wooden platform added its note to the bell tones of the merimba and the warm resonance of guitars. What was that they were playing? The "Marseillaise." I laughed aloud. What a transformation, with its martial fervor transposed to a voluptuous dance movement, through which the merimba thrilled and warbled its graceful arabesques with the rapidity and fire of the Hungarian caimnbalom! It was both exasperating and laughable—Bellona turned bayadere. "Ah, but it must be a link in the chain of evidence that will lead me to the inspired and doubtless Gallic genius of whom I am in search," thought I.
Gathering the folds of my poncho about me, for at that altitude the nights are chill, I made my way to the ground floor, and taking a place on a worn bench by the sala entrance, settled myself and looked within. The room was vast and bare, with sepia shadows crowding the corners. From the ceiling a primitive chandelier depended—a simple disk upon which a dozen candles stood in their own grease. The musicians were in the farther portion of the hall, playing upon a double merimba, two guitars, and an instrument that puzzled me until I perceived it to be a common Italian harp, laid flat upon its back, operated by a musician, who played the strings, and two Indians, who, crouching on their haunches, beat time upon the wide, sonorous base. The total effect was inspiriting.
On the elevated stage a man and woman were performing a chiléna with solemn intensity. The lady, whose grave, almost mournful face was half clouded by a black riboso, calmly smoked a large cigar, while she waved a beckoning handkerchief at her cavalier, who, in response, threw himself into a frenzy of side steps and snapping fingers.
The changeling "Marseillaise" continued. I chuckled and watched. Presently some one seated himself beside me with an irritated sigh.
"Ah, Dieu de Dieu!"
I turned. The light fell full upon my companion's face—the dark, handsome face of a man of forty, whose white skin and stiff pompadour proclaimed him foreign among this people. I made my guess and addressed him in French.
"Quelle Marseillaise extraordinaire!"
"Ah," cried the man, excitedly—"French! Monsieur speaks French! Your hand! You are—you must be—the celebrated representative of the new Coffee Association who arrived to-night. And you speak French! What happiness! Tell me—do not think me crazy—but have you been in Paris, my beloved Paris, recently? Tell me—it is the same? Not changed?" Tears gathered in his snapping black eyes. "It is ten long, terrible, exiled years since I left it—for this—mon Dieu, for this!" He spread wide his hands in a gesture of despair.
"You are," said I—"you must be—the genius who prepared my dinner. Believe me, I have been wondering ever since how a cordon bleu, such as you are, should be here. I should never have believed it possible. You are a master! Ah, to whom do I say it? Does not the artist realize his excellence, feel his inspired power? Never shall I forget the surprise, the delight, of that first spoonful of soup. I closed my eyes and exclaimed, 'Am I not at the Tour d' Argent? Is this not the unsurpassed touch of Frédérique?'"
The man seized me by the shoulders, and, turning me to the light, scrutinized my face, his own contorted with excitement.
"You guessed it yourself? She did not divulge it to you? Ah, tell me the truth!"
I was bewildered. "No one has told me anything of you; but—you are not Frédérique—how, then?"
He interrupted me by clasping his hands in an ecstasy of delight. "Ah, it is too good, too much to hope, that my hand has not lost its cunning, my talent has not failed. Monsieur, you are sent to me by my good angel to keep me from despair. Oui, voyez vous, I had feared the worst. And this—this rabble here, what do they know, what can they understand? To cast my pearls before swine—I will not! I am buried alive—alive, and—ah, forgive me!"
He turned aside to hide tears of real emotion. With an effort he recovered his self-control. "As you see me," he said, "I—I—was sous-chef at the Tour d' Argent. I was the pupil of Frédérique."
"Then I was not mistaken," I exclaimed, quite as pleased with my own powers of gastronomic discrimination as was he to tell me of his high tutelage. "I should know that savor had I met it in the moon. But how—how come you here—lost, buried in Agua Caliente—in this miserable posada, among half-breeds, Spaniards, and sullen Indians?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "That is my story—a sad story enough, and a sad example of a great sin. Pride—pride brought me here. Pride keeps me prisoner—tenez! I will tell you. You have revived me with your praise, encouraged a poor artist who felt the world slipping from under his feet. Ah, I feared this environment had made of me what they have made of the 'Marseillaise' I taught them that I might ease my homesickness. Listen to it! It breaks my heart. But you have told me my art is not lost. Heaven bless you!"
A sob caught his utterance, and he paused, just as the music ceased and the entire company, with a surprising coincidence of movement, turned toward the adjoining room and the bar.
"Ten years ago," he went on, his voice dropping almost to a whisper, "if any one had told me I should be—this—what I am, I should have laughed, I should have derided. After all, that is life, is it not, monsieur,—to do that which we despise, to become what we scorn in our youth? It is the one history of all, whether he be the statesman, the man of the world, or a poor cook like me. It is to make a veil for this that philosophy was invented. The opiate of the heart! Alas! there are pains which even that gentle medicine cannot deaden; and homesickness and ambition thwarted are both unsleeping."
Thoughtfully I rolled a cigarette. Let him call the cause paltry, who does not realize the effect? The man's experience had struck deep—to the root of things. The great throes of human anguish have a common stratum of spirit, whether the agony rises from some Calvary of sacrifice, or in the meanest, humblest, half-ridiculous wreck of life. For the moment the man's suffering appeared to me with the dignity of genius denied expression, of exile, of high hopes crushed to sordid acceptance of daily bread.
For a moment we sat silent, staring at the uneven flagging.
"I shall never forget," he began abruptly, "the first night I saw them. My master came for me, smiling in his peculiar courtly manner. 'Pierre,' he said, 'we have distinguished guests to-night—the president of a Central American republic and his wife. It was for them you made the sole Marguéry and the tortille panachée. They are people of refinement and discernment. They wish to see you, to thank you. Come, my friend.'
"I was proud. It was with a dignified step that I passed my confrères, and followed Frédérique to the dining-room. I was aware that my cap and apron were spotless, that I had myself well in hand. Then I found myself bowing before a little man, dark and thin, with shifty eyes and a nervous contraction of the lids—the President Cadriga. Beside him sat the señora. Ah, could you have seen her then—the eyes of a saint, the lips of a sinner, the shoulders of a goddess! She was dressed in black, and loaded with diamonds—necklaces and rings and brooches and ear-rings—till she glistened like a living prism. But even the diamonds could not dull the brightness of her eyes.
"They smiled and complimented me, and I bowed and thanked them in my best manner, neither arrogant nor yet humble. Then I found myself back in my laboratory, and it was the beginning of the end. They came often, and on each occasion sent for me to consult their tastes and my aptitudes. And once, for her fête day, they brought their little daughter—Annunciata. In my vanity I lorded it over every one. I spoke familiarly of my connection with the President Cadriga, his señora, and their beautiful child. I boasted of my successful efforts. I invented dishes which I named for them. The 'melon ice Cadriga,' the 'pêche flambée àà la señora,' 'la glacée rosée Annunciata.' One night they sent for me as usual, and as I stood before his Excellency, he addressed me thus: 'Pierre, I return shortly to my country. In leaving Paris, my greatest regret is the Tour d'Argent and you.' I bowed. 'I have a proposition to make, about which I have already consulted Frédérique. He will accept an indemnity for your loss, and to you I offer the post of chef of the palace. Your salary shall be princely. You shall have as many under-servants as you see fit, your own apartments, your special corps of attendants, your private equipage. Furthermore, I will confer upon you the order of Santa Rosa.'
"I was bewildered and stammered my thanks. 'My secretary will wait upon you to-morrow,' he continued. 'Give him your answer, and the formal papers may be signed.' He nodded dismissal. The señora smiled, and I went away, my imagination on fire, my head awhirl.
"The following day I signed the contract, my appointment was confirmed, the order of Santa Rosa, glistening in gold and red enamel, lay in its case upon my bureau, and I dreamed Arabian Nights' dreams. I could talk of nothing else. I told of my future, my house, my private carriage, my personal retinue. I wore the red-and-white rosette of Santa Rosa in my buttonhole, while my friends congratulated and envied. All my savings I expended upon a wardrobe befitting my new station and such utensils as I feared I might not be able to procure in the new land. I was in the clouds.
"Six weeks later we were in Barrios. I was installed in the palace—and I had awakened. My attendants were Indians and half-breeds, my apartments were—but you know. Yet work I must. Cadriga was dictator, and I soon learned by what despotic cruelty he held sway. I knew better than to incur his displeasure. Of my princely salary not a piaster was forthcoming. But I dared not appeal to the French minister. I saw others 'retired,' and I knew myself watched and guarded. Besides, I would not go back to France and show myself—a fool, a dupe of my greed and vanity. I could not face the thought. I might assume another name, and begin anew in some provincial city; but to be near Paris, and not in it, would have been worse for me than my present position.
"My only solace in all this time was Cadriga's little daughter, seven years old. She was then a jewel of a child, a madcap, a tease, a loving little heart. She would steal from her Indian nurse, and, sitting by my carving-table, gravely watch me work and ask me questions.
"'Pierre,' she would say, 'I'm afraid of papa, and mama is always crying. I like you better than any one in the whole world. Now, are n't you glad that you came with us from France?' And, though my heart was breaking, I would tell her, 'Yes, Niña, I am glad, if I am any comfort to you.' Then she would put pepper in the dessert and salt in my sugar-shaker, and laugh at me."
"Just like a grown-up woman," I observed.
He shot a quick, questioning glance at me. "Yes," he acquiesced; "just like a woman grown."
"And then?" I questioned.
"Then came the revolution. Ah, monsieur, it was fearful, sudden, a bolt from the clear heavens!
"We had a great dinner that night for the cabinet and the chiefs of the army and navy. So secretly had the plot matured that no one dreamed of treachery till the blow fell. I had just sent in the fish course when I heard a cry from the sentry at the rear entrance of the patio, then a detonation and a crash. The revolutionists had dynamited the gate. Then it was a matter of minutes, the massacre in the palace. My one thought was for Annunciata. I rushed across the court and up the stone stairs to the second story. I caught her from her bed and held her fast. As I turned to flee, I ran against a man at the door. Fortunately, I recognized his silhouette against the light. It was José, the head coachman.
"'You have her!' he gasped. 'Hurry! There is an underground exit from the stables, if we can reach it.'
"The palace was pandemonium—cries, smashing of wood and glass, shots, the sound of running feet on the marble floors, the thud and rattle of heavy falls. Smoke billowed along the corridors. We made our way through it, running bent double. Suddenly we came out upon the head of the grand staircase, brilliantly lighted by hundreds of candles. The fighting below was at its height, and the noise was deafening. I caught a glimpse of the señora, dressed in black, as I had first seen her, and blazing with diamonds. Her face was as white as death, and blood darkened her neck and cheek. She was on her knees on the top step, crawling. 'Drop!' yelled José in my ear. I fell forward, protecting Annunciata with my body.
"A volley of shots went over our heads. José rose to his knees, pushed open a door, and we flung ourselves into the room. Glancing over my shoulder for one last look at the señora, I saw her lying still, her face upturned. A soldier, one of the president's own body-guard, was breaking the necklace from her throat. I closed the door and slipped the bolt. We fled along passages, through deserted rooms and cold, musty-smelling corridors. How José found the way I do not know. At length we reached the carriage-house, then the stables. Jose pushed back a panel, we passed through an opening, and fled on through an underground passage till further progress was barred.
"Jose turned to me. 'The President had this built in case of revolution, and the masons were put to death; but it is just possible that the insurrectionists know. In that case, when we open this door it is the end.'
"We listened long, straining minutes. Then, with a jerk, he flung the door wide open. All was still. The moonlight lay blinding white upon the gravestones. We were in the cemetery back of the cathedral, and the doorway through which we had emerged was that of a vault—one of the many in a row beneath the galleries of the 'ovens.'
"We hurried on, our steps ringing loud on the flags. Even now I can smell that odor of stale and fading flowers and damp mold; even now I can see the moonlight sparkle as with frost upon the countless funeral wreaths of head-work.
"José opened another door in the farther wall of what seemed a gardener's tool-house. We were in the deserted street. In the distance the sounds of fighting went on. In the direction of the palace and government buildings the sky glowed red with flames. We turned toward the mountains—and liberty."
"A terrible experience," said I, slowly. "And Annunciata?"
"We have brought her up, José and I. He owns the 'Tres Amigos' now."
"So! Montojo is—"
"Evidently," he smiled.
"And Annunciata?" I repeated.
"You have seen her. She brought you the aguardiente."
"Oh!" I exclaimed.
"You see, monsieur, how it is. I am too proud to go back—and—ah, well—it is too late."
The music in the sala struck up once more the world-worn air of "La Paloma."
Down the carved stair tripped Annunciata. The lantern-light fell full upon her Madonna face and laughing mouth, and I thought of Pierre's description of her murdered mother: "The eyes of a saint, the lips of a sinner, the shoulders of a goddess." She leaned over the balustrade and called softly, "Pierre!"
He sprang to his feet, his face transfigured.
"Pardon," he said quickly, "she is calling me; à bientôt, monsieur."
I watched them as they crossed the court, oblivious of the swaying, laughing crowd. In his eyes was the glow of a devotion that rarely comes to a man, but when it does, remains forever; and I knew, with a pang of envy in my empty heart, that it was not pride alone that had kept the pupil of Frédérique a captive in an alien land.