l,y GEOFFREY HOUSEHOLD
THE death of General Covadillas? Yes, of course there was something that didn’t come out in the papers. He died of a fit of laughter. When five of his political opponents escaped from jail and forced a pilot to fly them out of the country and then shot him by mislake just as he had taken off, Covadillas was so amused that he had a stroke. That was the only fact which wasn’t public knowledge.
Assassination? Now look here, old man — I know who you are and all that, but I earn my living in this country and I don’t want to be expelled for offending the national dignity. If they like to say the general was murdered, it has nothing to do with us. The general was a cattleman, and he didn’t approve of the oil interests. And there’s the motive, and who am I to contradict the voice of the people? When North, South, or Central Americans decide that a myth is worth believing, you just have to let them believe it.
Good Lord, no! I don’t believe it! I know most of the oil executives out here, and in fact they rather admired the general. As dictators go, he was a gentleman. A trifle ruthless, of course. But most of his competitors turned up at his funeral, still alive, and dropped tears. (neof t hankfuitiess to one of sorrow. And that’s as much a^ any of us can expect.
The funeral was a wonderful show. There was the old boy laid out on ice in the cathedral — oldest Christian building on the American continent, they say — with eight tall lancers, all plumes and pennons, round the bier, like weeping willows providing shade for a horticultural exhibit.
I’m the resident correspondent for a group of British newspapers. It’s hard to get anything at all printed about this happy country, but just to please mv friends here I have to try. I was wandering round the cathedral after visiting hours, hoping to get a touch of atmosphere, when in came a newspaperman from New York insisting that he must take a few shots for the world.
It was the word “world” that flattered them — though it may have been the name of his paper. We feel a bit out of the world down here and, instead of thanking God for it, we take it as a reproach. So they propped Covadillas up for his photo and shoveled away some flowers and moved the candles. The dean told the lancers to look sorrowful, and preached them such an impromptu sermon on the nation’s loss that they wept buckets. Then the reporter flashed his shots and strolled out — whipping off his hat again when he suddenly remembered where he was — and the old boy was eased back to a more comfortable position on the ice. It takes an American to understand Americans.
Well, I couldn’t compete with that. A quarter inch of space was the utmost my papers would give to Covadillas’s funeral. It wasn’t news. After all, nobody can plant a statesman as magnificently as we can ourselves—as you’ll know very well if you’re ever buried in Westminster Abbey and have any bit of you left that isn’t too bewildered to be impressed.
So I decided that my only chance of persuading the Republic that we too knew it existed was to describe the quiet country ceremony. Editors would at least be interested. It’s a queer thing about the English — like the general, they all want to be planted in two different places, and one of them is usually in the country.
Covadillas had asked, you’ll remember, that whatever the politicians did with his body, his heart should be buried on the estancia at Manzanares where he was born. He had no illusions about all the pomposities of Church and State. That was why the people who loved him really did love him.
Manzanares is eight hours from the capital on a line that goes wandering up over the savanna to nowhere in particular. It has one train a day, and that I took, the morning before the ceremony, in order to avoid the crowd on the funeral special, which was traveling up that night with a load of bigwigs and personal friends, and leaving again in the afternoon.
Now that I’ve got as far as this, I’d better tell you the rest. After all, you’re sailing tomorrow. My dear fellow, the evidence for assassination was overwhelming! It’s a revolting story. Ha! Ha! Ha! Just plain revolting!
WHEN I got to Manzanares, I found that there was no village at all. There was a patch of dust on the plain, where stood the station, two iron huts, and the fonda, and no landmark but the railway which cut the visible world into two exact semicircles. It was obvious that no one could lose his heart to that station, so I made some inquiries. The estancia and its chapel turned out to be over that featureless horizon, and seven miles away. There must have been other estancias over other bits of horizon, for dirt tracks radiated away from the station into the purple haze of the evening.
The fonda was the usual drinkshop-cum-generalstore-cum-hotel. It was owned by the stationmaster, an old Hungarian immigrant called Timoteo who had been there for the last thirty years and made himself pretty comfortable. He had sunk an artesian well and installed some very classy pale-green sanitary ware — which must have been left on his hands when one of the local cattlemen went bust. In spite of the blowing dust and corrugated iron and the feeling of being all alone at the center of an invisible world, the fonda was an oasis of civilization. I gladly took a room for the night.
Timoteo was overpleased to see me. There was no doubt that he was harassed and in need of help, like those chaps in ghost stories who have been all alone till the stranger pulls the doorbell. At the time, I put down his manner to alarmed anticipation of the next day. The guests were to have a light breakfast on the train and start straightaway for the estancia, but Timoteo was sure to be overwhelmed by politicians demanding drinks in a pious whisper.
Well, I had a bath and an excellent meal, cooked and served by the mestiza staff, and shared by Timoteo’s tomcat: a great, friendly, short-haired beast who stood much higher on his forelegs than his hind, and looked like an amiable hyena. In a joint of that sort you’d have expected nothing but canned goods, but there were fresh fruit and vegetables and meat in plenty — good evidence that somewhere across the savanna was rich country which Covadillas could well have chosen as a resting place for his spare parts.
There was no one in the drinkshop. It was between paydays. So Timoteo and I took our glasses and settled down on the terrace. It was a night of black velvet, and there wasn’t a sound in the soft heat but the muffled thump of the electric power plant.
Timoteo felt he should apologize for making his home at the center of an empty circle. I asked who lived in the two iron huts. His staff. Two men in each hut. A stationmaster, he explained with patient dignity, could not be expected to load and unload trucks. I protested that such a thought had never occurred to me, that my question was more idle curiosity, that I had noticed there was no sign of life in the huts— no light, no guitar, no woman complaining of the universe. Oh, the four had gone off to collect the cars and buses from the neighborhood and see that they got to the station in good time. A stationmaster was a public servant; there could be no hitch in his arrangements. It was obvious that Timoteo, as a former subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, still considered he should set an example to the weaker Latin brother.
After a while the thump of the power plant seemed to me to have developed a disturbing echo.
I was about to suggest that we go and see if the big end had broken, when the thump became a gallop —a real gallop, though still very distant. Timoteo listened and cheered up at once. He put his glass under his chair and took out a comb and swept the drooping gray hairs out of his mouth until his mustache looked decently stationmasterish.
Four cavalrymen charged up into the light of the doorway, covered with dust and sweat and all in full-dress uniform, as if they’d just finished an oldfashioned battle. There were a captain, a sergeant, and two troopers, themselves and their horses bristling with firearms. So much lethal modernity was incongruous with all that pale blue and gold.
Timoteo trotted happily down the steps to meet them, end got a reception that startled him. The captain jumped off his horse and grabbed him by the shoulder.
“Are you mad?” he yelled. “ Is it all right? I hold you responsible. You are responsible towards the State.”
The captain feared he was going to be blamed for something, and was taking the initiative in shifting the blame onto Timoteo. Anyone who knows these people like I do could see that.
“Of course it’s all right,” Timoteo answered solidly. “You come a little late, Captain.”
“Late? By God, we knew nothing till a telegram two hours ago! How long have you had it?”
“Since the day before yesterday,” said Timoteo. “They sent it straight from the hospital.”
The captain delivered a really eloquent speech on surgeons and hospitals and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. He finished with a classic peroration on the virtues of General Covadillas — which gave me plenty of time to work out what had happened.
The hospital, told to send Covadillas’s heart to Manzanares, had simply and sensibly sent it there. Meanwhile the Ministers had been so intent on preparations for the cathedral ceremony, and on keeping their successors out of the treasury till the accounts had been cooked, that they forgot all about the heart; and when some wretched little clerk, probably, with a salary of forty bob a week, remembered the blessed thing and went round to the hospital to inquire, he found it had been sent off by the daily train to Manzanares like any other parcel. No guards of honor. No fuss and bother.
I repeat, it seemed to me remarkably sensible. But governments never like to do anything the obvious way.
I said so to the captain when Timoteo introduced me — as representative of all the chief papers of Europe — and the captain seemed to think my point of view fresh and delightful. “Governments never like to do anything the obvious way,” he kept on declaring and slapping his breeches. He changed over to the most complete geniality. That’s one reason why I love this country so much. They dramatize whatever they think they ought to feel; and then if you puncture the grand attitude — of course with the politest lace ruffles and the most delicate touch of the point — their Spanish horse sense gets the better of them and they roar with laughter. I don’t want my anatomy distributed. They can plant the lot right here where it has enjoyed itself, and good luck to it!
THERE we were, surrounded by nothingness and with a secret of our own. It was an excuse for a party. The captain, once he had cooled down, was a delightful chap, and turned out to be a greatnephew of Covadillas. He was full of yarns about the old boy, and they rang true. The general’s character was simply incrusted with stories— generally of his unusual punishments. That accounted for his power. Not the cruelty, I mean, but his perverted sense of humor. Be an original, and you can do anything with the Spanish-American!
The captain was patting Timoteo’s shoulder and telling him what a fine public official he was. And Timoteo liked it, and kept filling up their glasses. After thirty years in the country he still hadn’t got rid of his Central European conviction that a stationmaster is a long way below a cavalry officer. Then they decided all of a sudden that the world would be improved by imported lager, and went out to the refrigerator to collect bottles. The sergeant, the troopers, and I stuck to wine.
When the two came rolling back with their lager, their conversation was fragmentary. The captain asked if that was the way they had sent it up; and Timoteo replied that it was, and he had thought it best, the weather being warm, to keep it in the refrigerator. The captain said he didn’t think the surgeons had been complimentary to his greatuncle in using a plain wooden box, and Timoteo said a wooden box was all we got anyway, and no absorbent packing in it at that.
This aroused my curiosity, and when I went out to attend to the needs of nature I had a look at Timoteo’s refrigerator. The happy pair had left the door open. As I say, we were having quite a party. There was the wooden box, all right, just as it came from the hospital — except that Timoteo had wisely forced off the lid so that the cold could circulate round the contents. But what surprised me was that there were no contents.
On my return I told Timoteo I had shut the refrigerator door — just in case he had left it open for any particular reason — and asked him where was the object of his lonely vigil. I had a feeling that the captain might have taken it out in order to hold it in one hand for appropriate gestures while he made a speech to the empty kitchen.
“Hombre! In the box,” Timoteo replied.
“It isn’t,” I said.
The five men were on their feet in an instant, and all jammed in the doorway. Then they tumbled over their spurs into the kitchen and stared over each other’s shoulders into the refrigerator and swore that the heart must be in the box. But it wasn’t.
The captain called his sergeant to attention, and asked him why he had been sitting at drink when he should have been guarding the most precious possession of the nation. The sergeant saluted and turned to the troopers and insisted that they should repeat their orders — which, in loud military voices, they did. Timoteo, yielding to the Latin atmosphere, prophesied for us that he would no longer be stationmaster at Manzanares, but begging his bread and lifting loads among Negroes in intolerable swamps. He was still developing the intolerable swamps, when he suddenly shut up and went pale yellow.
He dropped on all fours, looking under the stove and the dressers, and calling: “Tsiu, Tsiu, Tsiu!”
We stared at each other. I could feel the cold sweat outside arid the wine inside trickling down, as it were, to my feet, and leaving me as sober as — as a man in a nightmare.
We swooped on the yard outside the kitchen window, and Timoteo snapped on the lights. The yard was empty; but in that tenth of a second before we realized its emptiness we were overtaken by infinity, by a vision of cause and complicated effect that could endure, I tell you, timelessly. We saw Timoteo’s tomcat vanish, quick as the movement of the switch itself, from light into darkness with a shadow in his mouth.
He had all the Americas before him, and night on his side. On the other hand, fine cat though he was, he couldn’t go very far with such a burden to carry.
You’ll understand that it was absolutely essential that Tsiu should not be allowed to settle down for a moment. We fanned out and advanced across the plain. We had four torches between us. They were good enough within friendly walls, but in a blank outdoors their beams were just pool after pool of dust and stones and waving grass. They merely limited our fantastic world
Timoteo managed to contact reality. His torch picked up a long tail, held straight and gripping the ground. Tsiu had crouched down and was about to get to business. Timoteo cautiously approached, offering a piece of prime liver that he had grabbed from the refrigerator as we dashed out. Tsiu was interested. There was no doubt he was interested. We stood still, waiting for our daily life to return.
Tsiu let his master come near enough to reach out a hand. Then he skipped out of the circle of light with a little kittenish wriggle and dance, and the nation’s most precious possession still in his mouth, saying as plainly as grace and muscle could put it: —
If hat I have stolen,I have stolen.
THE captain called us together to give a few swift orders, in a hoarse voice which kept choking on the word “desecration.”It was his duty to speak, and by speech he was able to relieve himself and us. He detailed the two troopers and the sergeant to keep Tsiu on the move, while the rest of us went back to the fonda for weapons. Action restored us to sanity. I could oven feel sorry for Tsiu, but he should not have taken upon himself the mischievousness of the immortals.
The captain chose two rifles for the troopers and one for himself. He murmured savagely that the only army equipment his sergeant could understand was the typewriter. He was whispering to himself all the time. Myself, I borrowed a .45 automatic — in an experienced fist there’s no more accurate weapon at close quarters — and Timoteo stuffed his pockets with fresh fish.
When we returned to the distant flicker of the torches, we found that the soldiery had successfully prevented Tsiu from breaking off the engagement. I think he didn t want to. This was a new and entertaining game, so he kept bobbing about just at the extreme range of vision.
At last the captain got him in the full, fair light of the sergeant’s torch, and let him have it. Tsiu sacrificed one of his nine lives then and there, and the bullet kicked up a spurt of dust exactly where he had been standing when the captain squeezed the trigger. He streaked for the Southern Cross, with nothing in his mouth, and we all ran forward to recover our trust. The beams of the torches were wavering, of course, all over the sky and then over segments of savanna that were quite indistinguishable one from the other, and we arrived at six different positions.
The captain — as is, after all, the right of captains— insisted that his position was correct; so we joined him and began to search. The sergeant, who should have known, had brandished his torch in excitement, and then directed it heaven knows where. I imotco was t he only one of us who had any sense. As soon as he saw that some of the party were wandering off, eyes on the ground, quarter of a mile of nothingness from the proper area, he sat down where he was, right or wrong, and told us whenever we got impossibly far away from him.
We went over that ground for two frantic hours.
I must have picked up and put down at least fifty stones, and when the battery began to run low I tried to pick up one of my own footprints. The only landmark was a little ditch or hollow that we all agreed was very near the right spot; but when the sergeant found a similar hollow two hundred yards away, and Timoteo was sitting right between the two, we were no longer sure which was the original.
Outside our own circle Tsiu was roaming about in one of his own. Every now and then, plaintively, as much as to say that he would like to call it all off and go home, he sung out ”Marow!” And his master would answer invitingly “Tsiu, Tsiu, Tsiu!”
At last Timoteo suggested that Tsiu was in tho mood ii we all lay down and staved quiet—to come back and find the Possession for us.
Patience was a lot to ask of desperate men, for we had little time. Dawn was not far away, and the special train from the capital would arrive soon after the sun. The captain, exhausted, lay down by my side. He asked me what I proposed to do in case we should not recover anything presentable.
I replied that I was going to hire at any price one of the cars that would be waiting for the guests, and drive straight for the nearest frontier. I meant it, too. Americans have a lamentable habit of blaming the first available foreigner for anything that goes wrong.
His voice moaned in the darkness: What can you be thinking of us?”
I said heartily that it might have happened anywhere, and then, more cautiously, that there was a certain element of comedy of which only our late and revered leader could be trusted to appreciate the full flavor —though possibly he would appreciate it more if the object of our search had belonged to someone else.
“That is unjust!” answered the captain severely, and stopped for thought. “Unjust!" he exclaimed. “My great-uncle was very much a man! My greatuncle, if he could but see us from purgatory,” — the captain began to make peculiar noises into a tult of grass, and I feared I should never reach that frontier
— “if he could see us at grips upon the empty
savanna with a cat, if he could read the agony in our hearts, my great-uncle would—he would O amigo mio, in all hell there never would have been heard such a shout of laughter!”
And the captain imitated it upon earth. Well, well, they all have a lot of Indian blood.
After that we lay still for about half an hour. The captain moved off somewhere along the line, and I was alone, with one of the two hollows to my immediate front. We formed more or less of a semicircle, Timoteo being out on the left wing. The sky hadn’t noticeably got any lighter, but I realized that at last I could distinguish, ten yards away, one piece of blackness from another piece of blackness.
Tsiu, too, lay still, wondering what we were up to. Occasionally he asked ’Morow’?' to let us know he was still about and ready to join the party if invited for any really practical purpose. Timoteo would answer “Tsiu, Tsiu, Tsiu! but he didn’t use his fish — for we wanted Tsiu, I remind you, to show us what he had done with the most precious possession of the nation. On the othei hand he could not be allowed to pick it up. Any deteimined move of his was certain to draw fire.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
“By God, look out!” yelled Timoteo. “I am over here. Me, Timoteo!”
I felt sure that the last shot was the captain s. There was a certain drillbook deliberation about it. It was an exhibition of the right way to shoot cats in the darkness. I don’t know how near the bullet went to Tsiu, but it continued through the grass about one foot from my ear. I took refuge in the ditch, calling “Tsiu, Tsiu!" very loudly to show that I was on the move.
After a bit something told me — as the big-game hunters say — that I was being stalked. The two troopers were in no mood for trifling. They didn’t care whether they killed or were killed. If the essential part were not in fit condition for the family ceremony, the captain and the sergeant would pass the blame downwards through the usual channels, and the troopers, I expect, were praying that half the party, including themselves, would be safe in hospital. So before they started to shoot imaginary cats in my hollow I chucked my hat up the bank and over as far as I could. Sure enough, the results were startling.
As soon as I heard them reloading with fresh clips, I cleared out to the left wing, well behind the present battle front. When I had settled down, I saw Tsiu’s head peering out from behind a tuft of grass. I was very careful. I had had enough of irresponsible firing. I rested my elbows fairly on the ground, and clasped my right wrist in my left hand. I could just see the foresight of the automatic, and I took my time.
Old Timoteo jumped up cursing. I had shot the heel off his boot at seven yards.
Then we all heard the cat purring and growling behind us. As we turned round, the names addressed to him and his mother showed that we had taken up a pretty straight line. Unconscious selfpreservation, I suppose.
“Don’t shoot!” Timoteo appealed. “I’ll get him! I’ll get him!”
And he crawled forward, murmuring “Tsiu, Tsiu, Tsiu!”
It was a gallant deed. He was fond of that cat. Up to now he had accepted insistent necessity, but at last there was a chance of recovering the stolen goods without slaughtering the thief.
Tsiu still didn’t understand that this was a serious crisis. He laughed. At least that’s the only way I can explain a soft, merry sound like eeyo, eeyo. Then he jumped into the air with the nation’s most precious possession in his mouth.
Timoteo had the sense to fall flat. The army were all round and all over the target. I got a clear shot and heard the bullet strike — though I’m never admitting that officially, mind you. Up to then Tsiu hadn’t realized that these noisy flying things were intended to hit him. People didn t shoot when he stole; they said “Tsiu, Tsiu.” You never saw such a surprised cat in your life. He bolted in the general direction of the railway. I wouldn’t put it past him to think of boarding the first familiar train that came along.
WE PICKED up what Tsiu had left us. It was in fairly good condition, except that it had a bullet hole slap through the middle. It also needed a wash.
There was much to do before that special train arrived, and the light was already gray as we hurried back to the fonda. The mestiza took and her maids were weeping and praying in the yard. The captain shoved the Possession under his tunic, and passionately explained that for the greater glory of the nation’s army, so dear to the heart of their late and revered leader, he had employed, while others rested, the idle hours of the night in giving his men some battle practice. You couldn’t have failed to believe him. Stern duty and military science shone through every word.
Timoteo again became the solid functionary. He told the captain to leave all arrangements to him, and surreptitiously took over the essential object.
Then he provided the cavalry with rooms, clothes brushes, petrol, hot water, and polishes, and he and I retired to my bedroom. He was solemnity itself, just as if he’d been trained as an undertaker.
Tsiu had left some dainty marks along the outer edges; but they might have been caused by anything, and a little crushed ice did wonders. The bullet hole was another matter. We couldn’t sew it up in case the stitches were noticed.
Manzanares station was beginning to fill with limousines, and the drivers were flicking the dust of the rough tracks off the coachwork and examining their springs. Timoteo summoned his two underlings, and called to them from the window to cut the flowers off every plant in the garden and every creeper in the patio, and to pile the lot in the dining room. Then, desperately against time, we set to work on carpentry. We took the hospital’s box to pieces, made it two inches narrower, and put it together again, so that it fitted tightly round the contents. The lips of that unfortunate wound disappeared in the crush.
Timoteo propped up two legs of a table in the dining room, covered it with a beautiful lace cloth, and tacked on a batten to prevent the box slipping down the slope. While I dealt with the ice and the flowers, he stuck up candles and all the religious emblems that he could find in the servants’ bedrooms. We heard the train in the distance, and he just had time to leap into his best uniform and lumber over to the station like a dignified butler a bit late with the drinks.
I stayed on guard, for the military were still before their mirrors. It was as well that I did, for who should drop in (through the window) but our old friend Tsiu. He was none the worse for his night’s adventure, and explained to me, with a great show of affection, that he was hungry. I shoved him through the service hatch and locked it.
The cortege of generals, family friends, politicians, and dear old boys from the Jockey Club was already at the front door when the cavalry, damning and blasting away, dashed into the dining room. They had taken the big black cloaks off their saddles and put them on. You could see just enough pale blue and gold underneath, but not too much. The captain drew his sword, took a swipe at the nearest trooper with it, and then, as the door opened, fell into an attitude of profound mourning
I skipped out by the door into the kitchen, and watched through the glass panel. The old boys were immensely impressed by the reverence and foresight of Timoteo and the glorious army.
“Qué expectáculo dignísimo! Qué hermoso! Qué noble!” they exclaimed, and all began to file past.
The guard of honor stood motionless. They were putting on a very good show indeed for scratch troops from provincial barracks, and they knew it. I felt that great-uncle, if he had stopped laughing, would approve.
The Jockey Club had provided a handsome little chest of gold and mahogany. When the time came for the transfer, Timoteo, who had been respectfully hovering in the foreground and had been accepted without question (since, as you’ve gathered, official organization was rather overlooked) as master of ceremonies, took the initiative, and tried to pop the hospital box, all complete, into the chest.
They weren’t having any. There was an aged cousin who had been detailed for that job. He leaned his ebony stick against the table, the starch of his linen creaking and scraping at every movement, and fluttered his hands. At the last moment he didn’t like the actual touch, and beckoned to Timoteo to act as his proxy.
Timoteo used the most firm and solemn care, but as soon as he laid the heart in its permanent home, it expanded a little. The captain, watching out of his downcast eyes, jumped in front of the table and saluted, and his chaps presented arms. It was an inspiration. All those cloaks, swirling in bull-ring verónicas, distracted attention just long enough for Timoteo to slap the lid on — but I’d seen the antique cousin adjusting his glasses as if he couldn’t believe his eyes; and the reporter from the Noticias de la Tarde, who was out at the side of the room and hadn’t got the captain between him and the table, started a little drawing in his notebook to refresh his memory. There may have been others who saw.
I don’t think there were. But those two were the biggest gossips in the capital.
Timoteo and the captain both received minor decorations from the President of the Republic — for Devotion to the National Honor. They aren’t likely to mention the refrigerator door. And, as for me, who am I that I should deny the assassination of Covadillas? Especially since I’m almost certain the bullet through his heart was mine.