One winter the Alcazar Opera Company of New Orleans made a speculative
trip along the Mexican, Central American and South American coasts.
The venture proved a most successful one. The music-loving,
impressionable Spanish-Americans deluged the company with dollars and
"vivas." The manager waxed plump and amiable. But for the
prohibitive climate he would have put forth the distinctive flower of
his prosperity--the overcoat of fur, braided, frogged and opulent.
Almost was he persuaded to raise the salaries of his company. But
with a mighty effort he conquered the impulse toward such an
unprofitable effervescence of joy.
At Macuto, on the coast of Venezuela, the company scored its greatest
success. Imagine Coney Island translated into Spanish and you will
comprehend Macuto. The fashionable season is from November to March.
Down from La Guayra and Caracas and Valencia and other interior towns
flock the people for their holiday season. There are bathing and
fiestas and bull fights and scandal. And then the people have a
passion for music that the bands in the plaza and on the sea beach
stir but do not satisfy. The coming of the Alcazar Opera Company
aroused the utmost ardour and zeal among the pleasure seekers.
The illustrious Guzman Blanco, President and Dictator of Venezuela,
sojourned in Macuto with his court for the season. That potent ruler
--who himself paid a subsidy of 40,000 pesos each year to grand opera
in Caracas--ordered one of the Government warehouses to be cleared
for a temporary theatre. A stage was quickly constructed and rough
wooden benches made for the audience. Private boxes were added for
the use of the President and the notables of the army and Government.
The company remained in Macuto for two weeks. Each performance filled
the house as closely as it could be packed. Then the music-mad people
fought for room in the open doors and windows, and crowded about,
hundreds deep, on the outside. Those audiences formed a brilliantly
diversified patch of colour. The hue of their faces ranged from the
clear olive of the pure-blood Spaniards down through the yellow and
brown shades of the Mestizos to the coal-black Carib and the Jamaica
Negro. Scattered among them were little groups of Indians with faces
like stone idols, wrapped in gaudy fibre-woven blankets--Indians
down from the mountain states of Zamora and Los Andes and Miranda to
trade their gold dust in the coast towns.
The spell cast upon these denizens of the interior fastnesses was
remarkable. They sat in petrified ecstasy, conspicuous among the
excitable Macutians, who wildly strove with tongue and hand to give
evidence of their delight. Only once did the sombre rapture of these
aboriginals find expression. During the rendition of "Faust," Guzman
Blanco, extravagantly pleased by the "Jewel Song," cast upon the stage
a purse of gold pieces. Other distinguished citizens followed his lead
to the extent of whatever loose coin they had convenient, while some
of the fair and fashionable senoras were moved, in imitation, to
fling a jewel or a ring or two at the feet of the Marguerite--who
was, according to the bills, Mlle. Nina Giraud. Then, from different
parts of the house rose sundry of the stolid hillmen and cast upon the
stage little brown and dun bags that fell with soft "thumps" and did
not rebound. It was, no doubt, pleasure at the tribute to her art
that caused Mlle. Giraud's eyes to shine so brightly when she opened
these little deerskin bags in her dressing room and found them to
contain pure gold dust. If so, the pleasure was rightly hers, for her
voice in song, pure, strong and thrilling with the feeling of the
emotional artist, deserved the tribute that it earned.
But the triumph of the Alcazar Opera Company is not the theme--it
but leans upon and colours it. There happened in Macuto a tragic
thing, an unsolvable mystery, that sobered for a time the gaiety of
the happy season.
One evening between the short twilight and the time when she should
have whirled upon the stage in the red and black of the ardent Carmen,
Mlle. Nina Giraud disappeared from the sight and ken of 6,000 pairs
of eyes and as many minds in Macuto. There was the usual turmoil and
hurrying to seek her. Messengers flew to the little French-kept hotel
where she stayed; others of the company hastened here or there where
she might be lingering in some tienda or unduly prolonging her bath
upon the beach. All search was fruitless. Mademoiselle had
Half an hour passed and she did not appear. The dictator, unused to
the caprices of prime donne, became impatient. He sent an aide from
his box to say to the manager that if the curtain did not at once rise
he would immediately hale the entire company to the calabosa, though
it would desolate his heart, indeed, to be compelled to such an act.
Birds in Macuto could be made to sing.
The manager abandoned hope for the time of Mlle. Giraud. A member of
the chorus, who had dreamed hopelessly for years of the blessed
opportunity, quickly Carmenized herself and the opera went on.
Afterward, when the lost cantatrice appeared not, the aid of the
authorities was invoked. The President at once set the army, the
police and all citizens to the search. Not one clue to Mlle. Giraud's
disappearance was found. The Alcazar left to fill engagements farther
down the coast.
On the way back the steamer stopped at Macuto and the manager made
anxious inquiry. Not a trace of the lady had been discovered. The
Alcazar could do no more. The personal belongings of the missing lady
were stored in the hotel against her possible later reappearance and
the opera company continued upon its homeward voyage to New Orleans.
* * * * *
On the camino real along the beach the two saddle mules and the four
pack mules of Don Senor Johnny Armstrong stood, patiently awaiting the
crack of the whip of the _arriero_, Luis. That would be the signal for
the start on another long journey into the mountains. The pack mules
were loaded with a varied assortment of hardware and cutlery. These
articles Don Johnny traded to the interior Indians for the gold dust
that they washed from the Andean streams and stored in quills and bags
against his coming. It was a profitable business, and Senor Armstrong
expected soon to be able to purchase the coffee plantation that he
Armstrong stood on the narrow sidewalk, exchanging garbled Spanish
with old Peralto, the rich native merchant who had just charged him
four prices for half a gross of pot-metal hatchets, and abridged
English with Rucker, the little German who was Consul for the United
"Take with you, senor," said Peralto, "the blessings of the saints
upon your journey."
"Better try quinine," growled Rucker through his pipe. "Take two
grains every night. And don't make your trip too long, Johnny,
because we haf needs of you. It is ein villainous game dot Melville
play of whist, and dere is no oder substitute. _Auf wiedersehen_, und
keep your eyes dot mule's ears between when you on der edge of der
The bells of Luis's mule jingled and the pack train filed after the
warning note. Armstrong, waved a good-bye and took his place at the
tail of the procession. Up the narrow street they turned, and passed
the two-story wooden Hotel Ingles, where Ives and Dawson and Richards
and the rest of the chaps were dawdling on the broad piazza, reading
week-old newspapers. They crowded to the railing and shouted many
friendly and wise and foolish farewells after him. Across the plaza
they trotted slowly past the bronze statue of Guzman Blanco, within
its fence of bayoneted rifles captured from revolutionists, and out
of the town between the rows of thatched huts swarming with the
unclothed youth of Macuto. They plunged into the damp coolness of
banana groves at length to emerge upon a bright stream, where brown
women in scant raiment laundered clothes destructively upon the rocks.
Then the pack train, fording the stream, attacked the sudden ascent,
and bade adieu to such civilization as the coast afforded.
For weeks Armstrong, guided by Luis, followed his regular route among
the mountains. After he had collected an arroba of the precious
metal, winning a profit of nearly $5,000, the heads of the lightened
mules were turned down-trail again. Where the head of the Guarico
River springs from a great gash in the mountain-side, Luis halted the
"Half a day's journey from here, Senor," said he, "is the village of
Tacuzama, which we have never visited. I think many ounces of gold may
be procured there. It is worth the trial."
Armstrong concurred, and they turned again upward toward Tacuzama.
The trail was abrupt and precipitous, mounting through a dense
forest. As night fell, dark and gloomy, Luis once more halted.
Before them was a black chasm, bisecting the path as far as they could
Luis dismounted. "There should be a bridge," he called, and ran along
the cleft a distance. "It is here," he cried, and remounting, led the
way. In a few moments Armstrong, heard a sound as though a thunderous
drum were beating somewhere in the dark. It was the falling of the
mules' hoofs upon the bridge made of strong hides lashed to poles and
stretched across the chasm. Half a mile further was Tacuzama. The
village was a congregation of rock and mud huts set in the
profundity of an obscure wood. As they rode in a sound inconsistent
with that brooding solitude met their ears. From a long, low mud hut
that they were nearing rose the glorious voice of a woman in song.
The words were English, the air familiar to Armstrong's memory, but
not to his musical knowledge.
He slipped from his mule and stole to a narrow window in one end of
the house. Peering cautiously inside, he saw, within three feet of
him, a woman of marvellous, imposing beauty, clothed in a splendid
loose robe of leopard skins. The hut was packed close to the small
space in which she stood with the squatting figures of Indians.
The woman finished her song and seated herself close to the little
window, as if grateful for the unpolluted air that entered it.
When she had ceased several of the audience rose and cast little
softly-falling bags at her feet. A harsh murmur--no doubt a
barbarous kind of applause and comment--went through the grim
Armstrong, was used to seizing opportunities promptly. Taking
advantage of the noise he called to the woman in a low but distinct
voice: "Do not turn your head this way, but listen. I am an American.
If you need assistance tell me how I can render it. Answer as briefly
as you can."
The woman was worthy of his boldness. Only by a sudden flush of her
pale cheek did she acknowledge understanding of his words. Then she
spoke, scarcely moving her lips.
"I am held a prisoner by these Indians. God knows I need help. In
two hours come to the little hut twenty yards toward the Mountainside.
There will be a light and a red curtain in the window. There is
always a guard at the door, whom you will have to overcome. For the
love of heaven, do not fail to come."
The story seems to shrink from adventure and rescue and mystery. The
theme is one too gentle for those brave and quickening tones. And yet
it reaches as far back as time itself. It has been named
"environment," which is as weak a word as any to express the
unnameable kinship of man to nature, that queer fraternity that causes
stones and trees and salt water and clouds to play upon our emotions.
Why are we made serious and solemn and sublime by mountain heights,
grave and contemplative by an abundance of overhanging trees,
reduced to inconstancy and monkey capers by the ripples on a sandy
beach? Did the protoplasm--but enough. The chemists are looking
into the matter, and before long they will have all life in the table
of the symbols.
Briefly, then, in order to confine the story within scientific bounds,
John Armstrong, went to the hut, choked the Indian guard and carried
away Mlle. Giraud. With her was also conveyed a number of pounds of
gold dust she had collected during her six months' forced engagement
in Tacuzama. The Carabobo Indians are easily the most enthusiastic
lovers of music between the equator and the French Opera House in New
Orleans. They are also strong believers that the advice of Emerson
was good when he said: "The thing thou wantest, O discontented man
--take it, and pay the price." A number of them had attended the
performance of the Alcazar Opera Company in Macuto, and found Mlle.
Giraud's style and technique satisfactory. They wanted her, so they
took her one evening suddenly and without any fuss. They treated her
with much consideration, exacting only one song recital each day. She
was quite pleased at being rescued by Mr. Armstrong. So much for
mystery and adventure. Now to resume the theory of the protoplasm.
John Armstrong and Mlle. Giraud rode among the Andean peaks, enveloped
in their greatness and sublimity. The mightiest cousins, furthest
removed, in nature's great family become conscious of the tie. Among
those huge piles of primordial upheaval, amid those gigantic silences
and elongated fields of distance the littlenesses of men are
precipitated as one chemical throws down a sediment from another.
They moved reverently, as in a temple. Their souls were uplifted in
unison with the stately heights. They travelled in a zone of majesty
To Armstrong the woman seemed almost a holy thing. Yet bathed in the
white, still dignity of her martyrdom that purified her earthly beauty
and gave out, it seemed, an aura of transcendent loveliness, in those
first hours of companionship she drew from him an adoration that was
half human love, half the worship of a descended goddess.
Never yet since her rescue had she smiled. Over her dress she still
wore the robe of leopard skins, for the mountain air was cold. She
looked to be some splendid princess belonging to those wild and
awesome altitudes. The spirit of the region chimed with hers. Her
eyes were always turned upon the sombre cliffs, the blue gorges and
the snow-clad turrets, looking a sublime melancholy equal to their
own. At times on the journey she sang thrilling te deums and
misereres that struck the true note of the hills, and made their
route seem like a solemn march down a cathedral aisle. The rescued
one spoke but seldom, her mood partaking of the hush of nature that
surrounded them. Armstrong looked upon her as an angel. He could not
bring himself to the sacrilege of attempting to woo her as other
women may be wooed.
On the third day they had descended as far as the _tierra templada_,
the zona of the table lands and foot hills. The mountains were
receding in their rear, but still towered, exhibiting yet impressively
their formidable heads. Here they met signs of man. They saw the
white houses of coffee plantations gleam across the clearings. They
struck into a road where they met travellers and pack-mules. Cattle
were grazing on the slopes. They passed a little village where the
round-eyed _ninos_ shrieked and called at sight of them.
Mlle. Giraud laid aside her leopard-skin robe. It seemed to be a
trifle incongruous now. In the mountains it had appeared fitting
and natural. And if Armstrong was not mistaken she laid aside with
it something of the high dignity of her demeanour. As the country
became more populous and significant of comfortable life he saw, with
a feeling of joy, that the exalted princess and priestess of the
Andean peaks was changing to a woman--an earth woman, but no less
enticing. A little colour crept to the surface of her marble cheek.
She arranged the conventional dress that the removal of the robe now
disclosed with the solicitous touch of one who is conscious of the
eyes of others. She smoothed the careless sweep of her hair. A
mundane interest, long latent in the chilling atmosphere of the
ascetic peaks, showed in her eyes.
This thaw in his divinity sent Armstrong's heart going faster. So
might an Arctic explorer thrill at his first ken of green fields and
liquescent waters. They were on a lower plane of earth and life and
were succumbing to its peculiar, subtle influence. The austerity of
the hills no longer thinned the air they breathed. About them was the
breath of fruit and corn and builded homes, the comfortable smell of
smoke and warm earth and the consolations man has placed between
himself and the dust of his brother earth from which he sprung.
While traversing those awful mountains, Mile. Giraud had seemed to
be wrapped in their spirit of reverent reserve. Was this that same
woman--now palpitating, warm, eager, throbbing with conscious life and
charm, feminine to her finger-tips? Pondering over this, Armstrong
felt certain misgivings intrude upon his thoughts. He wished he could
stop there with this changing creature, descending no farther. Here
was the elevation and environment to which her nature seemed to
respond with its best. He feared to go down upon the man-dominated
levels. Would her spirit not yield still further in that artificial
zone to which they were descending?
Now from a little plateau they saw the sea flash at the edge of the
green lowlands. Mile. Giraud gave a little, catching sigh.
"Oh! look, Mr. Armstrong, there is the sea! Isn't it lovely? I'm so
tired of mountains." She heaved a pretty shoulder in a gesture of
repugnance. "Those horrid Indians! Just think of what I suffered!
Although I suppose I attained my ambition of becoming a stellar
attraction, I wouldn't care to repeat the engagement. It was very
nice of you to bring me away. Tell me, Mr. Armstrong--honestly, now
--do I look such an awful, awful fright? I haven't looked into a
mirror, you know, for months."
Armstrong made answer according to his changed moods. Also he laid
his hand upon hers as it rested upon the horn of her saddle. Luis was
at the head of the pack train and could not see. She allowed it to
remain there, and her eyes smiled frankly into his.
Then at sundown they dropped upon the coast level under the palms and
lemons among the vivid greens and scarlets and ochres of the _tierra
caliente_. They rode into Macuto, and saw the line of volatile bathers
frolicking in the surf. The mountains were very far away.
Mlle. Giraud's eyes were shining with a joy that could not have
existed under the chaperonage of the mountain-tops. There were other
spirits calling to her--nymphs of the orange groves, pixies from the
chattering surf, imps, born of the music, the perfumes, colours and
the insinuating presence of humanity. She laughed aloud, musically,
at a sudden thought.
"Won't there be a sensation?" she called to Armstrong. "Don't I wish
I had an engagement just now, though! What a picnic the press agent
would have! 'Held a prisoner by a band of savage Indians subdued by
the spell of her wonderful voice'--wouldn't that make great stuff?
But I guess I quit the game winner, anyhow--there ought to be a
couple of thousand dollars in that sack of gold dust I collected as
encores, don't you think?"
He left her at the door of the little Hotel de Buen Descansar, where
she had stopped before. Two hours later he returned to the hotel. He
glanced in at the open door of the little combined reception room and
Half a dozen of Macuto's representative social and official
_caballeros_ were distributed about the room. Senor Villablanca, the
wealthy rubber concessionist, reposed his fat figure on two chairs,
with an emollient smile beaming upon his chocolate-coloured face.
Guilbert, the French mining engineer, leered through his polished
nose-glasses. Colonel Mendez, of the regular army, in gold-laced
uniform and fatuous grin, was busily extracting corks from champagne
bottles. Other patterns of Macutian gallantry and fashion pranced and
posed. The air was hazy with cigarette smoke. Wine dripped upon the
Perched upon a table in the centre of the room in an attitude of easy
preeminence was Mlle. Giraud. A chic costume of white lawn and cherry
ribbons supplanted her travelling garb. There was a suggestion of
lace, and a frill or two, with a discreet, small implication of
hand-embroidered pink hosiery. Upon her lap rested a guitar. In her
face was the light of resurrection, the peace of elysium attained
through fire and suffering. She was singing to a lively accompaniment
a little song:
"When you see de big round moon
Comin' up like a balloon,
Dis nigger skips fur to kiss de lips
Ob his stylish, black-faced coon."
The singer caught sight of Armstrong.
"Hi! there, Johnny," she called; "I've been expecting you for an
hour. What kept you? Gee! but these smoked guys are the slowest you
ever saw. They ain't on, at all. Come along in, and I'll make this
coffee-coloured old sport with the gold epaulettes open one for you
right off the ice."
"Thank you," said Armstrong; "not just now, I believe. I've several
things to attend to."
He walked out and down the street, and met Rucker coming up from the
"Play you a game of billiards," said Armstrong. "I want something to
take the taste of the sea level out of my mouth."