As the ship approached the Venezuelan port of La Guaira, the Princes, the Britts, and I began making plans for our day ashore.
‘Let’s drive to Caracas,’ said Mr. Prince.
‘That would be fun. Is it far?‘
‘Not very. I think it’s only six miles as the crow flies, but the road winds a good deal.’
Why does a road wind? Unfortunately, I never asked myself that question. Nor did the topless peaks of coastal Venezuela convey any warning. As for guidebooks, in my eagerness to avoid being a tourist on a tour, I was far too supercilious to read them. A casual glance at any of them would have showed that this was not the ride for me. I have speed-phobia and height-phobia.
I was tired of shipboard, and the prospect of a leisurely drive through the broad tropical savannas lulled me into pleasant anticipation. Besides — I suddenly remembered.
‘There’s a charming young couple I met on Martha’s Vineyard two years ago,’ I said, ‘and they spend their winters in Caracas. They told me to be sure to look them up if ever I came to Venezuela. Of course at that time I did n’t think it very likely.’
‘Great!’ said Mr. Britt. ‘That gives us an objective and we’ll see the town from the inside.’
‘Not too far inside, I hope,’ Mrs. Prince remarked thoughtfully. ‘Eleven were shot at La Guaira last night, including the governor.’
‘It’s open season on politicians now that Gomez is dead.’ Mrs. Britt, who boasted a steel nervous system, seemed amused at the possibility of being caught in a revolution. ‘You ought to have heard that Indian who came on board this morning. “Gomez no good. Now he dead, we have revolution again. Wait till April, you’ll see. Ah! Bang, bang! You wait till April!’”
‘If only they will,’ I murmured.
But I was reassured, when we landed, by the placidity of the little port. An eagerness to please on the part of the natives seemed the reflection of the rich sunshine that billowed through the air. Mr. Prince, who had conducted negotiations, led us to a long Packard car, manned by a Negro driver.
’This is the best chauffeur in town,’ he announced. ‘He’ll take us there and back for two dollars apiece. That’s what the head man told me. He’s the only one who knows any English.’
’Does n’t the driver speak any English?’ Mr. Britt asked.
‘Not a word.’
A premonition chilled me and I asked rather nervously if any of us spoke Spanish. Mrs. Prince, without answering me directly, engaged the driver in a conversation which seemed to me rather at cross-purposes.
And so we drove off.
The road followed the sea for a while, and I was interested in a row of pretty villas which apparently had been sacked and quitted. Our driver, who kept more of an eye on his passengers than on the road, lifted both hands from the steering wheel and gesticulated toward these buildings.
‘I think he says,’ interpreted Mrs. Prince, ‘that these were once the homes of Gomez’s mistresses, but now that the revolution has come the poor live in the houses of the rich.’ As a row of woolly heads appeared at a broken window I wondered what the advantage was.
Just as I was falling into a contemplative mood, the driver became tense, pressed the accelerator down to the floor, and the car shot forward — and upward. Even as the mariner, safely home from the sea, feels terra firma heaving beneath his feet, so do I now, in this quiet room, feel the dizzy horror I experienced as our ear pranced up those narrow angles folded back and forth like a piece of string against the towering mountains.
Oh, the memory of that zigzag road, carefully graded with the turns sloping downward at the edge! Thirty miles of it, up and up, clinging to the edge of precipices, bending back on itself every hundred feet, not in curves, but in the acutest of angles. Faster and faster we climbed, in high gear all the way, the outside tires screeching as we slewed round an angle on two wheels and within two inches of a mile drop.
‘My God, Mrs. Prince,’ I groaned. ‘Have you forgotten your Spanish? Don’t you know the word for “slow”?’
‘Despacio!’ she screamed, and tore vainly at her hat as it was ripped off her head by the mountain wind and sent spinning down among the eagles that wheeled a thousand feet below us.
‘ Despacio! ’
The driver redoubled his speed.
‘Perhaps in the Venezuelan dialect the word means “with dispatch,’” I suggested.
At frequent intervals along the road are white crosses marking the spots where parties of motorists have plunged over the edge. They went by so fast I thought they were a white wooden fence.
After an hour and a half of this living death, we reached Caracas and I settled back to salvage the shattered remnant of my nerves. But our mountain climber had his town tricks as well. Plunging down the wrong side of narrow streets, he would sight the densest knot of human beings and aim for them at top speed. Lost in this inglorious sport, he twice mounted the sidewalk in pursuit.
‘Of course,’said Mrs. Prince hopefully, ‘if we kill too many we may spend some months in a Venezuelan jail.‘
Suddenly Mrs. Britt, who had hitherto admitted to no nervousness at all, spoke out in the same trumpet-like tones with which Columbus’s lookout announced land. ‘The Plaza Bolivar! Let’s get out.’
We got out and paid off the driver.
‘I’d like to sign your death warrant,’ said Mrs. Prince.
‘May you be elected President of Venezuela,’ said Mr. Britt.
‘If your tires burst it’s just too bad,’ said Mr. Prince.
‘I wish you would shout, “Long live the Dictator!”’ said Mrs. Britt.
‘May your homeward journey be marked with a white cross,’ said I.
Bowing and smiling at each compliment, the driver climbed back into his seat. He has not been heard from since.
‘And now,’ said Mrs. Prince, ‘let us look up those friends of yours, the charming young couple. I feel just like a charming young couple, several cocktails, and an easy chair. Incidentally, I think it will be just as well if we return by railroad.’
We all agreed.
‘Well, shall we set off to the —’ I began.
‘Let’s,’ said Mrs. Britt.
‘Shall we set off to the —’ I repeated mechanically.
Suddenly I knew I had forgotten the name. Terror had frozen their name in the depths of my memory. We never called on the ―. Nor could I call on them now. Every time I prod my memory I have the sensation of dropping five thousand feet.