The Salvation of Pisco Gabar
BY GEOFFREY HOUSEHOLD
THE Santa Juana glided towards the equator with the overpowering coast of Peru five miles to port. The setting sun rested neatly on the tangent of the horizon as if an almighty sextant were about to shoot it. To the east the vast yellow foothills of the Andes turned green and purple where the level rays dug into scattered deposits of copper and gold. From his deck chair on the after verandah Manuel Gabar watched the metallic immensities of the coast. His pleasure was calm and reflective, for he was used to having beauty spread for him on enormous canvases.
His origin was unknown and of no great interest to himself or to his friends. His passport declared him Ecuadorian; but that he knew was untrue, since he himself had bought the document from a friendly official in Guayaquil. His native language was Spanish. His name was one of his earliest recollections, and he was sure it was his; but it gave no definite clue to his ancestry. Nor did his appearance. He was a shortish, powerful man with slightly bandy legs and a snub nose. High cheekbones and wide mouth were evidence of some Indian blood on the mother’s side. Gray eyes, thick dark hair on head, hands, and chest, suggested a Central European immigrant as father. A charity school had picked him off the streets of Buenos Aires, taught him to read, and given him to the sea. The sea taught him self-reliance and socialism and cast him up again in South America. Since then he had been a good citizen of the five Andean republics, courteous to all men, breaking only such laws as were meant to be broken, and employing his rough energy and his capital (when he had any) in developing odds and ends of trade that nobody else had thought of.
Gabar had an inquiring mind and was well able to divert himself by elementary speculations on man, his surroundings, and the reasons for both. At the moment it was geology that interested him. He wondered whether the Andes were still pushing westwards into the Pacific. They gave so definite an impression of an advancing wave topped by all the mineral débris of a continent. He also wondered if schools of mining could teach one to spot an exploitable quantity of precious metal by its appearance under the horizontal rays of the setting sun. He had an exaggerated respect for secular schools of all sorts, never realizing that they could but analyze and express the accumulated experience of such adventurers in life as he himself.
Copyright 1936, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.
His reverie was broken by a pleasant but too determined voice.
‘If the señor permits, I will join him for a moment.’
Gabar looked round. The setting sun was blotted out by a tall pyramid of black cassock. Almost startled by the silence of the priest’s approach and the blackness of him at close quarters, he followed the pyramid to its apex and met the commanding eyes of Don Jesús.
Manuel Gabar welcomed companionship; he was entirely without prejudice against human beings of any color or class, of any degree of virtue or criminality. But he could not abide priests. To him they were enemies of the intellect, moneygrubbers, hypocrites, and buffoons in the fancy dress of piety. Being naturally courteous, he was even more resentful of the intrusion than a ruder man would have been. But he said nothing. There was nothing to say. It was obvious that Don Jesús intended to sit down with or without his permission. He was a magnificent blue-jowled Basque in the flower of middle age. He joined in the deck games and would certainly become a bishop.
‘The señor will pardon my interruption,’ said Don Jesús, ‘but am I right in supposing that he lands tomorrow morning at Mollendo?’
‘I have a great favor to ask you, if you would be so kind.’
‘At your complete service,’ replied Gabar with conventional politeness, adding, with detestation of himself and the title, ‘reverend padre.’
After all, he argued, what did it matter? One said ‘friend’ to cutthroats, ‘chief’ to naked savages, ‘caballero’ to gringo oil drillers — why not ‘reverend’ to a priest?
‘My friend, Don José-Maria, also lands at Mollendo,’ the priest said. ‘He is an old man and before this journey he had never left the plateau. Might I ask you to see him through customs and as far as Arequipa by the train ? ’
‘Yes, but —’
‘You yourself, I suppose, are going to Arequipa?’
‘I am,’ said Gabar.
He would have dearly loved to say he was not. But all the trains from Mollendo passed through Arequipa. It was also certain that he and this José-Maria would leave Mollendo together by the first train after the arrival of the Santa Juana. Nobody ever left Mollendo by any but the first train.
‘In that case you and he will be traveling companions. I commend him to your courtesy.’
‘Very well,’ said Gabar. ‘Very well. I shall be delighted. But I am not a wet nurse, you understand. I won’t take any responsibility for him. You had better know that I am not fond of the Church.’
‘You will like Don José-Maria. He is only a child. So pious, so simple, an angel among Indians! He understands them very well — too well, perhaps. But there! He is left to himself and we cannot blame him if he takes his own line.’
‘I blame nobody,’ said Gabar. ‘We are animals. Will you have a pisco?’
For the first time in his life he had invited a priest to have a drink. It was not that he liked Don Jesüs. He detested him. But it was Gabar’s fixed habit to drink while talking. His friends had nicknamed him Pisco Gabar — not that he drank more than was reasonable, but he considered the delectable Peruvian grape spirit a necessary prelude to conversation. Even in the Montaña, — the network of valleys that ran down from the Andes to become the Amazon, — where he traveled with only such essentials as could be carried on his back, he was never without a tepid half litre of pisco to celebrate the improbable meeting of another white man.
Don Jesús was flattered when laymen invited him to have a drink. He seldom refused, but never took more than one. Gabar ordered two piscosours. They drank them while Don Jesús talked with worldly and accomplished ease. Gabar answered him chiefly with scowls. He was slightly, and inconsistently, shocked by the priest. At last he made an effort at politeness.
‘Have you come from Europe, reverend padre?’
‘No, no, my dear sir! From Buenos Aires, from the Eucharistic Congress. A stupendous spectacle! A hundred thousand of the faithful of all nations attending open-air Mass! A supreme affirmation of the faith of America!’
‘The opium of the people,’ grumbled Pisco Gabar.
‘I said religion was the opium of the people,’ repeated Gabar, with the determination of a martyr before his judge.
‘I have heard,’ said Don Jesús, unruffled, ‘that, opium is very comforting. Are you a communist, señor?’
‘I think for myself and I do not believe all I am told. I am a human being, a worker!’
Pisco Gabar was eager for battle, and rapidly mustering his antireligious munitions, which included Marx, Paine, Ingersoll, some Mexican pronunciamentos, and the invincible materialism of his own spirit. But Don Jesús had no difficulty in perceiving his intention, and avoided engagement. He would willingly have tackled a heretic, but with an atheist there was no common ground for discussion.
‘A worker?’ asked Don Jesús. ‘A miner, I believe?’
‘I am against the whole rotten system,’ began Gabar excitedly. ‘Now take the Mexican Church, for example —‘
‘ Gold! ’ Don Jesús interrupted dreamily. ‘Gold! A fascinating subject! You should ask Don José-Maria about gold. Of course his parish is a little difficult to reach.’
‘Where gold is, it is always difficult to reach,’ said Gabar. ‘But it can be done.’
‘The spirit of the conquistadores! You should have been born four hundred years ago!’
‘In my way I follow their tradition,’ said Gabar, flattered. ‘In my way!’
It was true. For several years Pisco Gabar had been engaged in a trade of his own invention as profitable and uncomfortable as any in Latin America. The streams of the Montaña were full of alluvial gold. They paid to wash, but did not pay to work intensively. The cost of transporting machinery was prohibitive. Some of the valleys were earthly paradises, but only a mule could reach them. Others were drenched in summer by the steady purposeful rains of the Amazon, and in winter by the steady purposeful rains of the Pacific. Even the English went mad after 365 continual days and nights of rain. The Indians worked intermittently at panning the inaccessible streams, but the gold dust had small value to them. A day spent in hunting or cultivation was more productive. Sometimes a trusted fellow tribesman would set off with the communal bag of gold to Cuzco or the nearest mine and return, if he were neither robbed nor tempted to drink, with such goods as he could carry on his back. It was hardly worth while carrying the gold to a market.
Pisco Gabar hit on the idea of carrying a market to the gold. He established small depots of cotton and leather goods, nails, tools, beads, and whatever was light to carry and considered by primitive minds to be either useful or decorative. At these depots he loaded his back and that of a mule and vanished into the tumbled forests. Weeks later he appeared at the edge of civilization alone and on foot, having given his goods, his animal, and sometimes his coat and shirt in exchange for the ounces of gold dust at his belt. The profit, Gabar explained to Don Jesús, was considerable, but so was the benefit to the Indians. He was, he admitted, a parasite, although a useful one. He compared his function in the Montaña to that of a waste-paper merchant (a profession which he had also followed) in a town. He called as regularly as he could, took away an unwanted commodity, and gave unexpected value in return.
At seven the following morning the Santa Juana lay two miles off Mollendo. A string of barges, loaded with copper and alpaca, undulated towards her over the long Pacific swell. The tender heaved up and down alongside, her gunwale at one moment below the foot of the gangway and, at the next, ten steps up. The brown boatmen fended her off skillfully while with lazy patience they watched Don José-Maria saying his farewells. Gabar, already seated in the tender, began to look at his watch. He was not in a hurry, nor indeed did he ever allow hurry to afflict him, but he objected to being kept waiting by a priest.
José-Maria insisted on saying goodbye to all the passengers who were up, and was only with difficulty restrained from waiting to say good-bye to those who were still in their bunks. He was seven-eighths pure Indian, yellow and fat and given to simple ecstasies. Since Buenos Aires he had lived in a pious daze. The Congress and the journeying by rail and water had opened the gates of the world to him. He who had never been off the highlands of Peru in his life had dwelt in a modem city, had heard the Holy Father speak over the radio, had realized the true meaning of distance and seas and lands beyond them, had found to his amazement that there were actually Christians who spoke neither Spanish nor Quechua; it was difficult to understand how they could say their prayers. He believed that death would be something like his voyage to Buenos Aires — a stupendous experience shattering all preconceived ideas and startling him with the truth of angels, as had the truth of automobiles.
In his sadness at the end of this adventure he lost count and bade farewell to captain, officers, and passengers over and over again. This done, he lingered at the gangway making a third interminable speech of thanks to Don Jesús. Gabar cut it short by pressing the button of the tender’s siren. The sudden and commanding growl brought Don José-Maria hastily down the gangway.
The boatman, settling his straw hat firmly on his head, extended his hand and told the priest to jump. JoséMaria bent his knees, prepared, but hesitated. The boat sunk far below him. He regarded the rise and fall of the swell in benevolent surprise. With his almond eyes and yellow beaming countenance he resembled a rotund Chinese statuette. The boat rose again and he grasped the outstretched wrist, but still he did not jump. Nor did he let go. The tender sunk from under the boatman, who squirmed and kicked in mid-air like a hooked fish. Don JoséMaria, having hung on at first from terror and now hanging on lest the boatman should drop, tried to get both hands to the job and overbalanced.
Gabar hurled himself forward to break their fall. José-Maria landed safely cushioned on him and the unfortunate boatman. While they extricated themselves indignantly, he remained in an unwieldy black ball, his eyes shut and his lips moving in prayer. As no one was hurt, the tender chugged off towards Mollendo.
‘I have more luck than I merit,’ murmured José-Maria. ‘I am always in peril by land and sea, yet mercifully delivered.’
‘You try your pet saint too far,’ said Gabar coldly.
‘Impossible; especially when he works through such kindly instruments as yourself, Don Manuel. I am very grateful to you.’
‘No reason to be! I’d have done the same for anyone,’ Gabar answered ungraciously. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Yes, yes, Don Manuel! A little bruised, a little shaken, but I only need a glass of spirits.’
‘I can offer you some pisco.’
‘Thank you. Thank you. You are very kind.’
Gabar drew out a half litre of pisco, conveniently placed among his pyjamas at the top of his bag, and offered it to Jose-Maria. The priest put it to his lips and drank three quarters of the contents.
‘Thank you. You are very kind,’ he repeated. ‘I was in great need. Don Jesús did not wish me to drink on board. He is a stern man. Very stern.’
‘He certainly gets his own way,’ said Gabar resentfully.
“So clear! So knowledgeable in this world! He told me there were four things I was not to do. Let me see! Four things. I was not to drink — that was one. And second — he said I was not to let you leave me till we got to Arequipa.’
‘The hell he did! ’
‘And there were two more. I was not to forget’—let me see! My glasses? No, I have them. My trunk? No, it was not that. It contains all I possess, Don Manuel, for I thought I might be years on the road. And then there is a present in it for one much greater than I. No, I could never forget my trunk. Let me see! What was it I must not forget? . . . Ah, my passport!’
Don José-Maria began to search through his pockets. He looked at Gabar with the simplicity of a child.
‘I have forgotten it,’ he said.
Gabar with unconcealed disgust told the boatman to put back to the ship. He silently consigned Don Jesús to the deepest pit of hell and Don José-Maria to a lunatic asylum, with the added hope that each of them would meet his destiny before there was time for him to deliver the old fool at Arequipa.
‘I will go and get it,’said José-Maria, jumping up energetically as soon as they lay alongside the Santa Juana.
Gabar hastily got between the priest and the gangway. He did not dread the difficulty of reëmbarking the old gentleman so much as the lengthy good-byes which he was certain to say all over again. He hailed Don Jesús, asking him to search José-Maria’s cabin for the passport.
‘It would be so much better if I went myself,’suggested José-Maria appealingly.
In a few minutes Don Jesús returned with the passport. He handed it to a steward, waved good-bye curtly, and turned away with a certain air of annoyance as the man brought it down to the tender.
‘He is angry with me,’ José-Maria sighed.
‘It does n’t matter if he is.’
‘Oh, not about the passport. No! But he must have seen the empty bottles.’
‘The empty bottles?’
‘ Yes, Don Manuel. You see, I felt seasick, and as Don Jesús did not like me to drink and as I needed a little cheer for my stomach’s sake . . .’
Pisco Gabar began to choke with laughter. José-Maria’s besetting sin was obvious. Hypocrites! What hypocrites! He did his best to feel indignant, but was overcome by amusement. He began to like José-Maria, chiefly because the old man had annoyed Don Jesús. And then it was really impossible to dislike anyone so simple.
‘What was the fourth thing Don Jesús told you to remember?’ he asked.
‘ I forget,’ answered José-Maria humbly. ‘Ay! It is hard to remember so many things. I am no traveler, Don Manuel. Once a week I go from Huanca del Niño to Chiquibamba — twenty kilometres, Don Manuel — and that is all the traveling I have done since I left the seminary at Cuzco.’
‘Huanca del Niño? I have seen a track that leads there. It starts from the valley of the Inambari.’
‘Our only road, Don Manuel. A devil of a road! But it matters little, since it is seldom trodden.’
‘ Is n’t there a fort or temple up at Huanca?’
‘There are great walls, and within them was once a temple. But it is now a church, Don Manuel — my church.’
Gabar, whose memory was crisscrossed by the lines of obscure pathways, knew the lower end of the track that wound up to Huanca del Niño from the valley of the Inambari. His Indian friends had told him that it was one of the ancient roads from the Montaña to the altiplano, and that up on the bare hillsides, where vegetable growth was slow to cover, it was still paved. This he doubted. Huanca he knew only by name as one of the towering bluffs thrown out by the Andes towards the Amazon, and by a solitary glimpse of it from ten thousand feet below. On the distant sky line had been a straight line of somewhat paler yellow than the yellow flanks of the mountain, which suggested that the summit was crowned by prehistoric masonry.
The tender drew alongside the jetty and Don José-Maria hastily followed his black tin trunk ashore and into the customs shed. Gabar went in search of the inspector, for he never paid customs duties on his own west coast. He would have indignantly denied that he bribed, but he took great satisfaction in being on friendly — genuinely friendly — terms with all those in authority. He especially liked to give christening presents to their children. As he seldom entered any port more than once in nine months, he was sure to find that the inspector’s señora was either expecting or recovering.
The inspector, with tears in his eyes and gestures of arms and shoulders which violently suggested the upward movement of a corkscrew, was explaining to Gabar the latest obstetrical problem when a customs officer saluted and interrupted them.
‘There’s a priest,’ he said. ‘A mad priest! He put a curse on me in Quechua. Not, of course, that I believe in such nonsense, being an educated man and a servant of the republic. Still, it is an insult to the uniform and one is not comfortable —’
‘One is not,’ said Gabar, instantly making a friend for life. ‘And so I will remove the curse.’
He pronounced an impressive blessing in the Indian language.
‘ You all know that I am no friend of the Church,’ Gabar went on. ‘It does not fit into our system. But this old fool is in my charge.’
‘In that case, friend Pisco, it is different,’ said the inspector cordially.
They found José-Maria sitting broodily on his tin trunk and glaring, so far as it was possible for his eyes to glare, at an interested crowd of idlers.
‘He shall not touch it, Don Manuel! He asked me to open it and I opened it, but he shall not put his hands inside. It is sacrilege. I cannot allow it!’
‘You see, Señor Pisco, he is mad! I said so!’ exclaimed the customs officer triumphantly. ‘My hands are clean — look at them! And I am always ready to use discretion. I would never embarrass a traveler by exposing to the public what he would rather they did not see!’
‘I am sure of it,’ said Gabar solemnly. ‘But the reverend padre is very obstinate, and we do not want discussions.’
The inspector, for the sake of the onlookers, sternly ordered José-Maria’s trunk to be carried to his office, and from there sent it through the gates with Pisco’s baggage, which naturally was not examined. On the way to the station the priest overwhelmed Pisco with thanks, which he waved aside with the remark that, had he known Don José-Maria did not wish to expose the contents of his trunk, it could have been arranged without so much fuss.
‘What have you got there?’ he asked. ‘More empty bottles?’
‘Don Manuel,’ replied José-Maria, ‘if I had not received so many favors from you, I should not forgive that question. I am a sinner, but not so wretched that I would pack the signs of my folly next to a sacred garment.’
Gabar was so surprised by this answer that he apologized. The old man had suddenly and unexpectedly put on the full authority of the Church. JoséMaria retreated into a dignified silence, while Gabar let himself go in mental abuse of priests in general and this particular nuisance that had been inflicted on him. It occurred to him, however, that he only really liked José-Maria when he was a nuisance. His theory was promptly proved right at the station, for there the priest discovered that he had forgotten the fourth essential which Don Jesús had told him not to forget. It was his return ticket. As José-Maria had only a few centavos in his pocket, Gabar paid his fare to Arequipa. Don Jose-Maria, who had no idea of how to get money from Arequipa to Mollendo and had had gloomy indefinite visions of sleeping on the streets and growing his own maize on the rubbish heaps, was correspondingly grateful.
Gabar’s gold peddling had not yet been discussed. José-Maria had heard of it from Don Jesús and wished to invite the trader to bring a stock of goods to Huanca del Niño. He hesitated to do so because he did not consider a few ounces of gold worth weeks of traveling, and, feeling very dependent on Gabar’s kindliness, did not wish to abuse it. Pisco, on his part, had given little thought to Don Jesús’ advice to ask José-Maria about gold, believing it on later reflection to be a Jesuitical lie.
Now that the train was climbing fussily up into the desert foothills and no further difficulties immediately threatened, José-Maria asked Gabar what route he would take on his next journey.
‘To Cuzco and north,’ answered Gabar, ‘unless anything offers at this end of the country.’
José-Maria was silent for a minute or two while he considered whether or not he should accept, without further polite preliminaries, this invitation to talk.
’It’s very hot in the train,’ Gabar said, taking down from the rack a fresh bottle of pisco which he had bought on the way to the station and handing it to José-Maria. The priest said a short grace and applied his lips to the bottle. He decided that he might take courage.
‘How much gold would you expect, Don Manuel, to make it worth your while, if you were to take a long, a very difficult journey to a very distant pueblo?’
‘As much as a man can carry and still carry his food,’ Gabar replied.
‘Hombre! I’ve seldom got so much!’
‘I think if you came to Huanca and Chiquibamba,’ said José-Maria timidly, ‘we could trade you all you could carry. That is — if you stayed a little while.’
Gabar took a pull at the bottle.
‘Where do your people get their gold?’ he asked. ‘Have you found an Inca treasure or do you pan streams?’
‘ Neither one nor the other, Don Manuel. There is a bank of pebbles, and when we have enough water in the stream we wash them down a trough and a little gold remains behind at the bottom.’
‘Good God! But with pumps and hoses you could get millions out of those gravel beds!’
‘It may be so, Don Manuel. I know nothing of that. But there is hardly enough water for ourselves, and none for the troughs except in the two months of rain.’
‘In that case it looks like my usual business,’ said Gabar calmly — he was used to having his dreams of instant wealth swiftly shattered. ‘How do I get to Huanca? Is n’t there a road from the altiplano without going down to the Inambari?’
‘Ay! If only there were! There was such a road in colonial days. But many years ago, before my time, perhaps two hundred years ago, the western side of the hill was washed away. And now a man must go down from Cuzco to the Montaña and up again to Huanca. But you will travel with me, Don Manuel, and a guide will show us the way,’
‘Another pisco?’ suggested Gabar, avoiding the invitation.
‘Thank you, Don Manuel. It is indeed hot in the train.’
‘I know the way to the foot of your mountain,’ Gabar said. ‘But what happens then?’
‘You follow the track up, always up, till you come to a steep gully which cuts a line of cliffs. Here one must turn right or left along the foot of the cliffs. The right path leads to Huanca and the left to Chiquibamba. There is a patch of bog below the fork.’
‘What would you like me to bring your people?’
‘Some tools and rough steel for working, Don Manuel, and a few pretty things for the women. I like to see them look well at Mass. And some images. Saint Joseph, I advise.’
‘I will not encourage superstition,’ declared Gabar firmly. ‘No saints!’
‘ What a pity you do not believe! It is a shame that so good a man should be a heathen! But do not be angry with me if I ask you to bring some little Saint Josephs. Quite little ones, Don Manuel. The Child and His Blessed Mother can never feel neglected by us, but my parishioners have so little to put them in mind of poor Saint Joseph. And they will pay you well, Don Manuel. Gold for little Saint Josephs that only cost you a sol apiece at Cuzco! ’
‘It’s against my principles,’ said Gabar. ‘ I can’t be bought. And I will not be a party to perpetuating the present system! ’
‘I do not understand,’ said Don José-Maria unhappily. ‘ How is it possible that you can hate what is so simple and good? I will pray for you, Don Manuel.’
‘If it gives you any pleasure,’ remarked Gabar, shrugging his shoulders, ‘you can add the other hundred million workers who don’t believe fairy tales.’
At Arequipa, Gabar handed over Don José-Maria to a bevy of local churchmen who were at the station to meet him. The priest intended to stay there for a week or two while he made arrangements for a guide and transport to take him home. Gabar, although he had developed a toleration for JoséMaria, had no intention of being his companion on a journey which would certainly last ten days and possibly more. When he saw the old man again, he pleaded urgent business in the north and roundly declared that if he were to go to Huanca at all it must be immediately. He made a selection of the goods he had in store at Arequipa and took them by rail to Cuzco, where he bought two llamas and a mule. Within a week he was on his way to the upper Inambari.
It needed a fine eye for country to cross half a dozen of the great herringbones of ravines and ridges lying with their heads up against the main range and their tails in the Brazilian forest. Pisco Gabar traveled partly by instinct and partly by inquiry from occasional Indians. A compass was useless, since most of the time he was traveling in the only direction allowed by the ribs of the herring, which was never at any given moment the direction in which he wanted to go. The going for man and animals was appallingly hard. A day’s march was a scramble up from a gorge; a laborious working in zigzags through semitropical forest, where the mincing steps and high-carried heads of the llamas well expressed their distaste for such vulgar luxuriance; rough trampling over the scrub above the tree line; and a rush over the barren hilltop in order to get out of the wind and down into shelter for the night’s camp — twenty miles across country from the previous camp, but not more than three by the straight line of an imaginary tunnel.
There were, however, few serious discomforts, for that part of the Montaña was a paradise of trees, flowers, and running water. Even the insects were more spectacular than bloodthirsty. Pisco was accustomed to the utter loneliness of the Montaña, and loved it. His religious emotions — he himself would never have called them such — were satisfied by the worship of nature. He delighted to muse by his campfire on the curious habits of orchids, pumas, caverns, and storms, and to find explanations. But he was unaware that his own appreciation of them also demanded an explanation.
On the evening of the eighth day he camped on the upper Inambari at the foot of the track which led to Huanca del Niño. He was up before dawn, and two hours later on top of the ridge that bordered the river. A close-set group of conical mountains faced him, their peaks rising to an average height of 16,000 feet. This was the eastern rampart of the main range. The high points which appeared to be peaks were not really such, but bluffs rising comparatively little from the altiplano beyond. On one of them he saw again the straight yellowish-white line of a preInca wall, flattening the top of the escarpment and marking the site of Huanca del Niño.
The track dived off the ridge into a last valley and then began to climb the irregular ravine that separated the height of Huanca from its neighbor, which was, he supposed, Chiquibamba. The llamas quickened their pace towards the undecorated horizon of their desires.
Pisco, plodding ahead of his animals, was fascinated by the track. What the Indians had told him about it was true. It had a purposefulness lacking in the familiar paths of the Montaña. The latter scuttered from cover to cover like the savages who had made them. They had been widened and deepened by arrieros and their pack animals, but they preserved their inconsequential lines. The track which he now followed was narrow and rough, but it struck out boldly along the contour lines and had a certain air of triumph in surmounting rather than circumventing the minor obstacles in its path. Pisco was aware of pride in it. It was not the absurd self-satisfaction with which an American arrogates to himself, merely by virtue of living on the same continent, the achievements of a people without the remotest relationship to him in blood or culture, but a pride of closer parentage. Pisco was unconscious of his Indian blood when he was dealing with white civilization or forest savages, yet he felt a community of thought and interest, which did not at all fit his habitual conception of himself, with the builders of this road.
The trees had given place to low scrub when he came to the little patch of bog which José-Maria had described. He was right up against the main escarpment. The ravine rose sharply ahead of him in a tumble of rocks. A natural platform which the hand of man had certainly aided by leveling and facing overhung the bog, and two paths led off it at right angles to the track up which he had come.
The right-hand path, leading to Huanca, looked a hair-raising piece of mountaineering. It followed the foot of the cliff, while the slope beneath it grew steeper and steeper until the path was a mere ledge on a sheer face of rock. Pisco decided to tackle it in the morning and camped on the platform.
With the rising sun throwing its angle into stronger relief, the path clung more firmly to the mountain side. It was definitely, though primitively, engineered, paved here and there with massive stones, and cut a little back into the cliffs where the natural slopes and ledges were not wide enough for easy passage. After leading him up for some two thousand feet, the track turned on to the northern shoulder of the mountain. At the bend was a niche in the rock, marked, so that no traveler should miss it, with a black cross. A three-foot cow’s horn hung from a hook within the niche. Pisco Gabar had seen a similar horn in the Argentine Andes and knew its use. It invited the passer-by to give warning of his approach, since the path was about to become so narrow that two mules could not pass abreast. He put it to his lips and blew a doleful blast that might have proceeded from the cow itself. Then he waited twenty minutes, in case an arriero should be already on the path, meanwhile tightening the girths of his three animals.
Gabar found the track spectacular rather than alarming, for he had as good a head for heights as his own llamas. It was about three feet wide, with a slope on the inner side which, while not quite perpendicular, was quite unclimbable, and a sheer drop on the outer side. The path, varying little in width, clung to the edge of this precipice for a full mile. Then it opened out, passed another horn for the use of descending travelers, and wound up a wind-swept slope of scanty turf and gravel which continued as far as the wall of Huanca del Niño.
There were no pure whites in Huanca, though half the population of the pueblo had a little white blood. They preferred to speak Quechua, but, if Spanish were required, they spoke it with a perfect accent, an archaic diction, and a very limited vocabulary. Gabar was welcomed with grave, unquestioning hospitality, and then, when he said he had come by invitation of Don José-Maria, with frank curiosity and good-fellowship.
(Continued on page 114)
THE SALVATION OF PISCO GABAR
(Continued from page 10)
There was a drink-shop which called itself an inn and was used as one when an occasional trader or arriero visited Huanca. Gabar was given the room of honor which had been prepared for the diocesan inspector a year earlier with furniture lent by the whole pueblo. Since they were not a little proud of the room and it was easier to leave the furniture where it was than to take it back, the place had remained a permanent exhibition of their treasures. It would have been pretty clean had not the chickens adopted two Tarragona chamber pots as nesting places.
Every evening the patio of the inn became a shop where all the inhabitants congregated whether or not they had gold to sell. Business was accompanied by leisurely drinking and interminable stories. There was plenty of gold. Tiny quantities of dust were even used as an internal currency, as small change to adjust the equitable exchange of commodities. After a week Gabar had traded goods worth about £40 in Arequipa, including one of his llamas, for over a pound and a half of gold dust — which meant that he had more than trebled his outlay. Finding that he had then exhausted the market, he decided to try his luck at Chiquibamba. He left Huanca in the early afternoon, intending to camp at the natural platform above the bog.
Pisco Gabar swung down the path in an excellent humor. Huanca del Niño could make him a nice little fortune, especially if he visited it after the rainy season, when the inhabitants would work their gravel bank intensively and hold the proceeds for his coming. At the same time he was treated by the pueblo as a benefactor and even as an easy mark for keen traders, for he haggled no more than was necessary to gain their respect. He had not a care in the world. All of three senses were thoroughly satisfied. The smell of the animals, of leather, and mountain air tickled his nostrils. His belly regurgitated a pleasing flavor of rice, roast kid, and alcohol. His fingers toyed with the wash-leather bags in his belt, squeezing the soft, heavy dust. The mule and the llama tripped confidently after him. At this moment, rounding a bend in the path, he came face to face with Don José-Maria.
‘Padre de mi alma! How are you?’
José-Maria looked at him with mingled fear and pleasure.
‘Don Manuel! I am glad to see you! That goes without saying. But what are we going to do? How was I to know you were on the way down? ’
Gabar awoke to his surroundings.
‘Condenado that I am! I forgot to blow the horn!’
He strung together some blazing jewels of oaths which ended before completing their rhythmical pattern, partly from respect for Don José-Maria and partly because Gabar suddenly looked down past his left knee and became aware of the emptiness beyond.
‘And you, padre! You did not blow the horn either!’
‘ I blew it, my son. But it was not very loud. I have been so long in the lowlands that my breath does not come as easily as it did. Yet you would have heard had you waited and listened.’
‘The fault is mine,’ admitted Gabar. ‘And now, how are we going to pass?’
They stood facing one another like a metope carved on the face of the rock. The two men formed the high and central point of the design. Behind José-Maria were a mule, carrying his tin trunk, and a donkey for riding; behind Gabar, his packmule and the remaining llama.
‘We cannot pass,’ answered Jose-Maria.
‘Let us sit down,’ Gabar said. ‘There is nothing impossible.’
The two sat down on the path with their backs against the rock and their heels overhanging two hundred feet of sheer cliff. Ten thousand feet below, the Montaña spread out its tumble of hills mapped into orderliness by the occasional gleaming threads of water. In the far distance the green of the forest faded away into the blue of tropical haze. It was utterly silent except for the tinkle of bridles and bits and the occasional snatches of wind that sung and stabbed like giant insects.
‘A cigarette?’ suggested Gabar.
‘Thank you, my son.’
‘And a pisco, perhaps?’
‘With pleasure. I have not eaten nor drunk since morning.’
Gabar stood up to fetch a bottle from the mule’s pack. The full realization of their position came to him when he found that he could not get at the straps. The inner pack was jammed against the rock, and the mule refused to be forced any closer to the edge. The outer pack could be reached by pushing the mule’s head to the rock and standing alongside its neck. But it was by no means a healthy position. One’s life depended on the uncertain patience of the mule.
‘It seems we must go thirsty, padre.’
Gabar pulled his heavy poncho over his head and wrapped himself in its folds before sitting down again. He looked perfectly prepared to spend the night where he was, and thus in the master position for any bargaining there might be. Both knew that the only solution was for one of them to sacrifice his mule. But neither was yet ready to admit it. There was no hurry.
‘How is it you are alone, padre?’
‘I hired my guide only as far as the Inambari, Don Manuel. He was a Montaña man and did not wish to climb to the altiplano.’
‘And the animals are yours?’
‘They belong to the Church, Don Manuel, and were lent to me in Cuzco. I have become very fond of them. This one,’ — he reached up and stroked the mule’s muzzle, —‘is almost a Christian.’
‘This one,’ said Gabar, waving a hand at his mule, ‘ has a soul like mine. He eats when there is food and fasts when there is none.’
Don José-Maria also drew on his poncho and made no reply. For half an hour they sat side by side without a word. Finally the priest said reproachfully: —
‘ You did not blow the horn, Don Manuel.’
‘I did not blow the horn,’ Gabar agreed, stating it as a matter of fact without a shade of guilt or regret in his voice. ‘Shall I roll you another cigarette?’
‘Thank you, Don Manuel. You are very courteous.’
José-Maria preserved silence till he had smoked it. Then he murmured: —
‘It is a shame you are not a Christian.’
‘Because,’ — José-Maria hesitated, feeling that he had been forced on to dangerous ground, — ‘because you would give way to a priest.’
‘Equally I might cut his throat,’ said Gabar, ‘and give him a little push and a little push to each of his animals. There are plenty of Christians who would do so.’
‘But you would not,’ answered JoseMaria calmly.
‘You are right. Instead of that, I shall offer to buy your mule.’
‘It is not mine to sell. It belongs to the Church.’
‘Then give the money to the Church.’
‘I have no authority, Don Manuel. And I love this mule like a son. You must give way to me, for you did not blow the horn. Kill your own mule.’
‘I will not. I should lose half my goods with him. You saw for yourself that I could not get the pack off. Sell me your mule and name your price.’
‘ No,my son. God will decide between us.’
The pack animals pawed and fussed impatiently. The sun had passed westwards over the brow of the mountain and it was turning cold. Gabar got up and endeavored to force his mule back along the path, though he knew it was a hopeless task. The mule backed three yards willingly, two resentfully, put down a hind leg in space, kicked, and refused to budge. Gabar sat down again, rolling more cigarettes.
‘Reverend padre,’ he said, ‘when I was at school the priests taught me that Christians should sacrifice themselves.’
Don Jose-Maria groaned.
‘So I have said to myself for two hours past. But I find that I am not a saint.’
‘I will pay well for your mule. To you or to the Church, as you wish.’
‘Well, perhaps I will let you buy him. But, Don Manuel, all I possess is in that trunk. All I have ever possessed. You must get it off first.’
‘I doubt if I can.’
‘ Then — nothing! ’
‘I will see,’ said Gabar.
He edged past José-Maria and seized the mule by the bridle. He had to brace one leg firmly against the rock in order to send mule and trunk over the precipice, and the movement was enough to show José-Maria his intention. The priest with astonishing swiftness snatched his other leg from under him, leaving him hanging to the mule’s neck for support.
‘Do not fear! I have you fast, Don Manuel,’ he said quickly. ‘But you must not throw my trunk over!’
‘Let me go!’ yelled Gabar. ‘I swear I will not!’
‘It is well,’ said the priest, allowing him to recover his balance. ‘And now stand aside and let me unrope the trunk!’
‘You can’t, priest of the devil! ’ exclaimed Gabar. ‘It’s suicide.’
‘At least I will try,’ José-Maria answered. ‘I am in my own country now, Don Manuel. I shall do what I like! ’
He stood on the foot of ground between the mule’s neck and empty air, holding the bridle with his right hand and casting off the lashings with his left. The trunk slipped downwards and outwards, supported only by the prominence of José-Maria’s stomach. Gabar caught his bridle hand and hung on.
‘Everything is lost,’ said José-Maria mildly, resigning himself to the inevitable. ‘If I move, it will fall. Bueno! Then we shall be content to save what is not mine. Hold me fast, Don Manuel!’
Gabar, amazed at his obstinacy, tautened his grip on the priest’s right hand. With his left, José-Maria felt for the catch, opened the trunk, and extracted a flat cardboard box marked with the name of a Buenos Aires department store. As soon as he stepped back, the trunk slid off the mule’s back, hit the edge of the path with one corner, and vanished into space. José-Maria sadly leaned over the cliff to watch the funeral of all his transportable possessions.
‘After all, you are a saint, padre,’ said Gabar consolingly.
‘ I do not want flattery, my son — especially from you who would not know a saint if he stood before you in the very robes of Heaven. We will now speak of the price of my mule. How much is it worth in Cuzco?’
Gabar opened the animal’s mouth and felt its forelegs.
‘It’s a very poor mule,’ he said. ‘For ten libras one could buy two such in Cuzco. But I will give you eight.’
‘It will cost you sixteen,’ said JoséMaria.
Gabar from sheer habit had offered rather more than half the real value of the mule. José-Maria knew this, and Gabar, aware that he knew, suddenly felt ashamed of himself.
‘ I will pay you sixteen,’ he said apologetically. ‘Will you have it in goods or gold?’
‘Neither. You will pay it to the Archdeacon of Cuzco when you next go there.’
‘How do you know I will pay?’
‘You are honest.’
‘Many thanks! Then it’s a deal?’
‘Not yet. I have sold you the mule at a fair price, but now I want the price of my trunk. It held things I have treasured since childhood, Don Manuel.’
‘You will say, padre.’
‘To-morrow is the fiesta of our Child, the Niño of Huanca. You will attend the Mass, and you will help to carry the image. He is a very ancient Niño and he will be more beautiful to-morrow than he has ever been. This’ — Don José-Maria held up the cardboard box as if it were the Host — ‘ is for him.’
Gabar considered the condition. He did not like it. He was enraged by the superstitions of the average pueblo, and nauseated at the thought of his own pious assistance at the midsummer festival of Christmas Day.
‘I offer you another sixteen libras,’ he said.
‘I am not interested, Don Manuel.’
‘I won’t accept,’ said Gabar furiously.
‘Then we will stay here.’
‘But I don’t believe in your miserable Niño! I should be out of place. It would be an indecency!’
Don José-Maria said nothing.
‘It’s a joke!’ shouted Gabar. ‘Think of me carrying an image!’
Josñ-Maria still said nothing. He drew his poncho round him, carefully keeping between Gabar and the mule.
‘Very well! ’ said Gabar, beaten. ‘Then I accept! I go to Mass and I carry the image. But that is all.’
‘That is all I ask of you, my son.’
José-Maria turned on his heel, inserted his bulk between the mule’s neck and the rock, and heaved forwards. The beast reared up and then set forth on its last and swiftest journey to the Inambari. The priest unconcernedly walked through the space it had occupied and patted the shivering donkey. He persuaded it, not without difficulty, to turn round, and the little procession marched downwards towards the widening of the path. Gabar, his mule, and the donkey were shaken and ill at ease. Don José-Maria and the llama, since they had lived their lives in closer touch with the law of gravity, were less disturbed by its pitiless violence. At the niche where hung the lower horn there was room to turn. They re-formed the caravan and retraced their steps.
José-Maria had a triumphal entry into Huanca del Niño. As soon as his people saw him toiling up the last slope, the town, perched on its isolated promontory, awoke like a colony of sea gulls. Strident voices of women called to their children. The church bell clanged with the irregular speed of a fire alarm. Men shouted their welcome. The feet of excited animals clattered on hard stone. The inhabitants crowded round their priest, kissing his hand and asking innumerable questions. Gabar’s unexpected return was accepted without comment. Except for a swift and kindly greeting here and there, he was ignored. Stabling his two animals at the inn, he climbed to the top of the wall and sat down to watch the hubbub in the plaza at his feet.
The wall was an integral part of the town rather than a fortification. The outer face, crowning and continuing the escarpment, was well preserved. The irregular polygons of the Cyclopean masonry fitted one another as precisely as the cells of a honeycomb. Since he contemptuously dismissed all legends, Pisco Gabar did not believe the Indian tradition that the builders had known how to liquefy stones and pour them together, but he had no alternative explanation to offer. On the inner side the masonry merged into the existing town, forming the foundations for houses and lanes. The plaza itself was a stone terrace within the prehistoric building. One side of the square was occupied by the sixteenthcentury church. The colonial architects had evidently added nothing but a tower, a roof, and some upper courses of masonry to a temple already in existence. The church lamps were lit as he watched, and the dusky plaza began to wink with candles and torches. José-Maria was being escorted to his church. It was clear that the priest was the temporal and spiritual ruler of his people with an absolutism that his Indian ancestors, however powerful, might have envied.
The spontaneous show of affection for and pride in the priest filled Pisco with disgust. If only these Peruvian Indians could see what had been accomplished by their cousins in Mexico! If only they would unite against priests and landlords, and organize a state which should preserve the best of the ancient culture and reject the alien influence of the Church! Pisco Gabar identified himself with the Indians and mestizos, since they were the true proletariat; and his reverence for their great civilizations, first felt on the way up from the Inambari, had increased during his stay at Huanca.
He saw José-Maria cross the plaza between ranks of frankly worshiping men. Pisco swore aloud. One could have understood it had they been women; but that these men, faced day and night with the barren realities of their cruel plateau, should believe in infantile superstitions — santisima virgen! In what was this folly any better than the old religions? José-Maria might have been a feather-crowned priest of the sun, going to the same temple from the same house with the same adoring crowds believing in the same fairy tales! Pisco Gabar got up angrily from his perch, aware that somewhere in his line of thought there was a contradiction. It made him uneasy, for his wonted thoughts on religion were simple enough to be crystal clear.
He returned to the inn. It was completely deserted. His room was exactly as he had left it that morning, except that the hens had returned to their favorite nesting place. He boiled three new-laid eggs on his spirit lamp, ate them, and lay down on the unmade bed. He was awakened about three hours later by José-Maria and a party of his parishioners.
‘Where were you, Don Manuel? We looked for you. My friends want to thank you for all you did for me. I told them how you saved me in the boat and how you would not let me be left behind at Mollendo. Get up and join us! You must eat and drink before midnight. To-morrow, remember, you have to fast till after Mass!’
Gabar was touched by the welcome extended to him by Don José-Maria and his boon companions. It had seemed to him that he had been cordially received before, but there was now an extra warmth in their hospitality which made him feel as if he himself were a son of the pueblo. He had expected a lessening of his popularity owing to the inconvenience he had caused their beloved priest on the road. But this episode had run widely and humorously from mouth to mouth until Gabar appeared in it as a comic hero rather than the villain.
‘Would you all believe,’ roared JoséMaria, ‘that this man, this friend, is a heathen?’
‘Let us take him to see the Niño!’ exclaimed one of the men. ‘Then he must believe. Our Niño is so pretty — so divine a child!’
‘It is good,’ said José-Maria. ‘Let us drink a last copa and all go to see the Niño.’
Gabar’s protests were overruled. They treated him as a curiosity, as a fellow whose education had been oddly neglected, and they were all sure that the fault could be quickly remedied. He joined good-humoredly in the procession to the church.
As far as the door it was a carousal which then instantly changed into a pilgrimage. The men entered silently and reverently and knelt before the famous Niño.
The head of the image was a splendid piece of portrait pottery, brought up from the coast by the Incas or their conquerors. It was the head of a gentle child, the sensitive lips caught at the beginning of a laugh. Two emeralds had been set deep in the painted eyes, giving a curious effect of unworldly life, and changing expression with the moving lights. The fine hawk nose and high cheekbones were hardly formed, but promised the later beauty of a true Child of the Sun. It was robust and living portraiture — the face of a child compelling obedience because so happy and so sure that its innocent desires would be granted.
The body was hidden under a stiffly embroidered surplice of linen. Round its neck and pinned to its smock were the offerings of the faithful; a pearl necklace, some silver spurs, earrings of all sorts, and many little crudely moulded shapes of pure gold. In this it was no different from the average image in any poor Peruvian church. But the head was an astonishing and accidental conception of an Indian Christ.
‘Is n’t he pretty?’ asked Don José-Maria proudly.
‘He is very original,’ Gabar admitted.
This remark was taken as high praise, for had not Don Manuel traveled all over the world and seen many much more splendid images? The men nodded their heads wisely, implying that they had known all along that their Niño would compel this heathen’s admiration.
‘Since we are here,’ said José-Maria, ‘I wilt show you what I have brought him for to-morrow’s fiesta.’
He disappeared into the sacristy and came back with the cardboard box which he had saved from his falling trunk.
‘When I was in Buenos Aires,’ he explained, ‘I saw so many rich. There must be more rich people there than in all the rest of the world. And so well dressed! I would never have believed it! So I thought I would buy a new garment for our Niño. I went to a shop — such a shop, as big as a town and with all the goods in it brought from Europe, they say! There was a shopman — most courteous, altogether a Caballero — who asked me what I wanted. I told him there was a child in my pueblo whom I loved, and I wished to buy for him a very rich, very simple dress. I asked him to give me what the Buenos Aires children would wear on a Sunday, the wealthiest, noblest children! This’ — he reverently opened the box — ‘is what he sold me.’
It was a white sailor suit — blouse, trousers, blue collar, black scarf, and a jaunty little cap with H.M.S. Triumph embroidered in gold across the ribbon.
Don José-Maria’s parishioners gasped with delight. It was so white, so little, so beautiful. And was that really what rich children wore? Vaya! Vaya! How proud they would be of the Niño! Gabar hastily sat down behind a pillar, exploding with laughter. Incredible José-Maria! Amazing superstition! He looked at the image and his laughter changed to indignation. It was such an exquisite head. It ought to be in the Lima Museum. And they were going to put a carnival hat on it and double their prayers! The men, chattering excitedly, began to disperse. Gabar composed his face, slipped away unnoticed, and made his way back to the inn.
The following morning the lanes of Huanca del Niño were packed. Many of the inhabitants of Chiquibamba had come in for the day, and there were some solemn semi-Christian Indians from the Montaña. Pisco Gabar attended Mass in accordance with his promise and, when it was over, took his place in the procession with the three other bearers who were to carry the Niño. The image was mounted on a solid stage carried by four poles projecting from the corners. The beauty of the face was actually set off by the cap across the terracotta forehead. The Niño looked like a small boy laughing in joy at his new suit. The crowd was charmed by this realism. The image had not and had never had any legs, — a fact that had escaped notice under the surplice, — but José-Maria had got over the difficulty by stuffing the white sailor trousers with straw. Nobody but Gabar seemed to see anything odd in that. If God had no legs it was obviously their duty to supply them.
The procession left the churchyard and started slowly round the plaza. It was led by riders, shouting, letting off firearms, and mounted insecurely on the only horses the two pueblos possessed. Then followed Don José-Maria and his acolytes; then the Niño on the shoulders of the four bearers; then the faithful, carrying candles in their hands — some of them with a candle between each pair of fingers, thereby obliging friends and relatives who had vowed to bear a candle in the procession but had been prevented from attending.
Pisco soon realized that Don José-Maria had not only wished him to perform a religious penance, but had deliberately chosen him as a porter because of his strength and steadiness. All the people thronged around the image, praying, kneeling, dancing, offering drink to the thirsty bearers. His three colleagues were soon none too steady on their feet and yielding to the small excitable sea of human beings which washed against them. He found himself in command of the party and entirely responsible, by quick anticipation of their erratic movements, for keeping the Niño in a fairly perpendicular position.
Every few minutes the procession stopped at a house or corner, a patch of cultivation or a water channel, which José-Maria blessed in Latin, afterwards freely and fervently translating the blessing into Quechua. He used the correct words of power, and thus delivered his hearers from any temptation they might have to employ occasional pagan rites of their own. Pisco’s shoulder, though protected by a leather pad, ached abominably from the continual raising up and setting down of the image. He was still fasting and very thirsty. He began to accept some of the cups of maize spirit proffered to him on all sides.
Up to the wall went the procession, with José-Maria almost dancing ahead. The crowd chanted whatever came into their heads, and sudden tenor voices threw their impromptu poems into the thin mountain air. Pisco cursed his companions, adjuring them for their pride in the Niño to stop trying to dance. He was completely absorbed by his job, a little affected by the prevailing hysteria, and gathering an obscure and obstinate affection for the Niño, which any man is bound to feel for an object he is struggling to save from destruction.
At last the procession returned to the church. The faithful dispersed to their houses and to food. The other three bearers and a few of his favorite parishioners went into the sacristy with José-Maria. Pisco was momentarily left alone in the church. He sat down on the altar steps and rubbed his shoulder.
‘You,’ he said to the Niño, ‘should be very grateful to me.’
The exquisite little face laughed at him. The sailor cap was awry, and the Niño looked as if he had been enjoying the fun.
‘You ought to be ashamed of that suit,’ said Pisco solemnly. ‘You are of the people. You have nothing to do with the present system. You understand us.’
The Niño continued to smile. His face was nobly unconscious of the suit. He seemed to Pisco to be returning a diviner pity for his human one. Pisco felt very weary and very much alone.
‘You,’ he said, ‘have nothing to do with the Church. They put things into your mouth that you never thought. I’ve seen the same thing myself. The priests and politicians and philosophers make us all say what we don’t really think.’
The tears came up into his eyes. On a sudden impulse he rolled over on to his knees before the image, and whispered: —
‘O Son of God, help us to make the earth as you would have it be.’