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- The Belted Seas - 10/29 -


Titiaca's village in a catamaran rigged with a sprit-sail. Now, this is a business opening, Tommy. And look here! The old man's notions, as he put 'em to you, they're a good thing. I didn't know how he'd take it, but I guess we can fix it. You see, this section--why, Padre Filippo says it used to belong to that family more or less, but the titles were called off when the country set up for itself, and whether they'd collected rent up to that time he didn't know. He thought they hadn't regular or much. But the section's grown well-to-do lately on account of the cocoa trade, and I gather what the Injuns pay on it now is about ordinary taxes. Now, if the Injuns pay the old man a sort of blackmail to get him to moderate his earthquakes, and he calls it his proper rents, why, I say, a rose by any name'll smell as sweet, supposing the commission for collecting is the same. That's the idea. Why not? All he's got to do is to stay in his tower, or look like a cross between the devil and a prophet when he does show himself, same as usual, and leave us to work his tribute. It's what his tenth grandfather did. I guess it'll be mostly dried cocoa beans. The shed where the old man keeps his oil will do for a warehouse."

I says, "What's all this, anyway?"

"Oh," he says, "you'll see it's reasonable by-and-by. Why not? Why, the campaign's begun. Some of the stuff is coming in to-morrow. You've no notion how they cottoned to the idea. I says to 'em this way. 'Course,' I says, 'I'm a stranger, but it stands to reason the Don won't shake anybody out of bed nights that does his best to please him. Sure, he'd be reasonable. But here he's lived on the little end of this country now going on ten years, and what have you done? Nothing! Here he's been switching fire back and forth from the Andes,' I says, 'corking up one volcano and letting out another, and yet he ain't split a single plantation into ribbons so far. Has he, now? No. Well, ain't it astonishing? Why, he must have this whole territory riddled with pipe connections. Boys, I don't see how you can be so reckless,' I says, 'and ungrateful. How long do you expect him to look out for folks that don't appear to care whether they blow up or not? First you know, he'll get disgusted and turn the whole section into cinders. He must have been mighty cautious as it is. Shook you up a little now and then. Nothing to what he's liable to do. Suffering saints!' I says; 'can't you take a hint? What do you suppose he means when the ground wrinkles under your feet? Do you want him to pitch you all into the sea before you get his idea?' They said they hadn't thought of that before. Fact is, they surprised me. They must have some ancestral ideas of their own, so it comes natural to 'em to pay for their weather. Tell 'em they've got to bribe an earthquake, and they say, 'All right.' Queer, ain't it? 'Well, I says, 'tell you what I'll do. I'll arrange it with the Don.' You've no notion how they liked the idea, they're that scared of him. I guess they'll put up various amounts. They didn't understand a percentage. Maybe the details will be complicated. Let's go see the Don."

The keeper was in his lantern story, looking out over the sea very lonesome. Craney attacked the subject like a drummer selling a bill of goods, but the keeper didn't seem to understand. "Why," says Craney, "you see, these people have a sort of mysterious reverence for you. Maybe you have an idea of the reason." The keeper said it was probable that the peasantry were not unaware of his rank.

"Now, your ancestors employed agents, didn't they? Yes. Maybe they got about half the proceeds and the agents stole the rest." The keeper looked surprised, but thought that was probable too.

"Exactly. Now, we're offering, as a business proposition, to collect on the same antique terms, only we give you an itemized account this time. What do you say?"

"Senor Craney," said the keeper slowly, "are you asking me if I accept the acknowledgment of my rights? I do not understand a business proposition. I do not understand how the peasants have arrived suddenly, as you state, at this conviction of their obligations."

"Just so," says Craney. "That comes of having a capable agent. I talked to them and they saw reason. Fact is, though, the idea seems to have been growing on them for some years."

The keeper looked at me, and I was studying different sides of Craney's scheme. I began: "It might mean the vineyards of Aragon. All the same, it's a queer business."

He started and muttered, "The vineyards of Aragon! My Madrid!" and dropped his head.

Craney winked and we went down.

I've heard it said that Francisco Pizarro was surprised when he found he'd conquered Peru with only a few objections.

Well, if we had any trouble in this business, it was only Craney that had it from the start, and he appeared to enjoy himself. He was off most of the time, pattering around on his shaggy grey donkey, and left me to take in and stow away those bags of cocoa beans. I used to sit in front of the shed, which was close to the shore, and smoke and admire the world. Once a week Craney would come down the coast in a clumsy catboat, and we'd take a load up to the town, which was called "Corazon,"--a considerable town forty miles off, where were French and Spanish agencies in the cocoa trade.

Every day a cautious, stringy-haired Injun, with a loaded donkey, would come trotting out of the woods to the shed, or maybe several of them at odd times. They all acted shy, and kept as far from the Torre Ananias as the space allowed. Sometimes they wouldn't say anything, except to state that this bag came from such and such plantations, and to hope Himself would take, note of it. Then they'd look pleased and peaceful to have it all written down neatly, and maybe they'd want the item read out, and then they'd nod and smile and trot away contented. Sometimes they'd hope Himself was feeling good on the whole. It didn't seem to strike any of them that the keeper's position, as they understood it, wasn't right and reasonable.

I used to sit in front of the shed and admire the world. I thought about the primitive mind, and how the civilised was given to playing it low on the primitive. I seemed to get around part of their point of view after a while and see it was reasonable. For the Mituans had got it fixed before we came that the keeper was somehow mixed up in the earthquakes. And when they'd once taken that idea, it made no difference if they'd felt little motors every few days all their lives, and trembloritos and tremblors pretty frequent. As a specimen of authority, even a little motor earthquake is too much. They happen along in that neighbourhood every now and then, maybe once a month, and you grow used to them, but still, they're vivid. If you got it once in your mind that Himself in the lighthouse was fingering the bowels of the earth, and Himself was doing it when the jerks came under you, and your house walls creaked and swayed, you'd give something to keep Himself amiable. There was no doubt about that.

But then, what made it appear to them that the keeper was inside his rights to be bothering them that way? They seemed to think no less of him for it; but rather more. They thought he was a fine thing. It puzzled me, and I studied it. Then I seemed to get an understanding of the primitive mind that was surprising.

But then, how did the case stand with Craney and me? As often as that troubled me, I had only to go up to the lantern story, and hear the keeper talk about Madrid and the vineyards of Aragon, and about his longing and his pride. Then I felt better. If the keeper's income kept up that way it was clear he could go back to Spain by-and-by with stateliness pretty respectable, and I says to myself:

"Why, the Injuns are happy, and the keeper's going to be, and I'm a sinner, and Craney can look after his own conscience. Shucks! He hasn't got any."

It made me feel virtuous to think how Craney had no conscience. Maybe he hadn't. He was the busiest man in South America for a while. I never knew of another to make a business asset out of earthquakes nor his equal for seeing an opening for enterprise. He was a singular man, Craney, a shrewd one, and yet romantic and given to ingenious visions. And yet again, when he talked his wildest, you'd find he had his feet on some rocky facts, and his one good eye would be hard and bright as a new tack. We used to sit in front of the shed sometimes, looking down on the sea that was blue and shining like rumpled silk, Craney smoking cigars and I with my pipe.

"Tommy," he'd say, "the world lies open before us. Everywhere is chances for a soaring ambition, everywhere is harvests for the man that's got talents. There's diamonds in rocks, and there's pearls in oysters. Richness grows out of the ground, and glory drops out of the clouds. Me, I'm a man of ideals. Give me room to spread. Let me strike my gait and I'll make the continents sizzle, and governments have fits. Expand, Tommy! Expand your mind! Small men has small ambitions. Large men has wings. That's me."

There were a number of heavy shocks, about the time when the eastern Mituas districts were picking the trees, and some of the Mituans were mad about it, but they had a big harvest. They brought cocoa-beans in caravans and boatloads for a while, and they said it was many years since they'd had such a harvest, or such a tremblor, and Himself was a great magician.

The time went by. I heard in Corazon one day that Captain Rickhart had put into port there on his back voyage, and inquired some for us, but that was a month before. Later Craney had a contract offered by the French agencies, and had to buy up most of the North Mituas cocoa crop to fill it.

One day we sat together in front of the shed. He was laying out different schemes. He said this tribute business was too small, and there wasn't much enterprise in it. The Injuns were terrible set in their ideas. He had a number of schemes. One of them for putting up a supply store in Corazon, running accounts there on the crops, but I didn't take to it; I was no storekeeper, but a sailor, and getting nervous to go to Panama.

It was hot by the shed, and we were going up by the banana tree, when we saw a large catboat coasting down to the point, and by the hang of her sail it was Padre Filippo's.

The Padre was aboard, and the two Mituans that sailed for him, and two men besides, one in a cocked hat and uniform. So they came ashore. Padre Filippo chuckled, and shook his fat finger at Craney.

"Ah, senorito, little rogue!" he says. "Alas! what behaviour!" and he chuckled and patted Craney on the arm.

The official was sociable too. He took out a cigarette, and explained there had been a complaint lodged with the authorities against the keeper, that he'd been drawing illicit gains from the peasantry. In fact, Padre Filippo had complained. The Padre laughed again.


The Belted Seas - 10/29

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