The Tale of A Scorpion by Henry Seton Merriman

Spain is a country where custom reigns supreme. The wonder of to-day is by to-morrow a matter of indifference.

The man who came a second time to the Cafe Carmona in the Calle Velasquez in Seville must have known this; else the politely surprised looks, the furtive glances, the whisperings that met his first visit would have sent him to some other house of mild entertainment. The truth was that the Cafe Carmona was, and is still, select; with that somewhat narrow distinctiveness which is observed by such as have no friendly feelings towards the authorities that be.

It is a small Cafe, and foreigners had better not look for it. Yet this man was a foreigner—in fact an Englishman. He was one of those quiet, unobtrusive men, who are taller than they look, and more important than they care to be considered. He could, for instance, pass down the crowded Sierpe of an evening, without so much as attracting a glance; for, by a few alterations in dress, he converted his outward appearance into that of a Spaniard. He was naturally dark, and for reasons of his own he spared the razor. His face was brown, his features good, and a hat with a flat brim is easily bought. Thus this man passed out of his hotel door in the evening the facsimile of a dozen others walking in the same street.

Moreover, he had no great reason for doing this. He preferred, he said, to pass unnoticed. But at the Foreign Office it was known that no man knew Spain as Cartoner knew it. Some men are so. They take their work seriously. Cartoner had looked on the map of Europe some years before for a country little known of the multitude, and of which the knowledge might prove to be of value. His eye lighted on Spain; and he spent his next leave there, and the next, and so on.

Consequently there was no one at the Foreign Office who could hold a candle to Cartoner in matters Spanish. That is already something—to have that said of one. He is a wise man nowadays who knows something (however small it be) better than his neighbour. Like all his kind, this wise man kept his knowledge fresh. He was still learning—he was studying at the Cafe Carmona in the little street in Seville, called Velasquez.

When he pushed the inner glass door open and lounged into the smoke-filled room, the waiter, cigarette in mouth, nodded in a friendly way without betraying surprise. One or two old habitues glanced at him, and returned to the perusal of La Libertad or El Imparcial without being greatly interested. The stranger had come the night before. He liked the place—the coffee suited his taste—"y bien," let him come again.

The waiter came forward without removing the cigarette from his lips; which was already a step. It placed this new-comer on a level with the older frequenters of the Carmona.

"Cafe?" he inquired.

"Cafe!" replied the stranger, who spoke little.

He had selected a little table standing rather isolated at one end of the room, and he sat with his back to the wall. The whole Cafe Carmona lay before him, and through the smoke of his cigarette he looked with quiet, unobtrusive eyes, studying... studying.

Presently an old man entered. This little table was his by right of precedence. He had been sitting at it the night before when the Englishman had elected to sit beside him; bowing as he did so in the Spanish manner, and clapping his hands in the way of Spain, to call the waiter when he was seated.

It was this evening the turn of the old man to bow, and the Englishman returned his salutation. They sat some time in silence, but when Cartoner passed the sugar the innate politeness of the Spaniard perceived the call for conversation.

"His Excellency is not of Seville?" he said, with a pleasant smile on his wrinkled, clean-shaven face.

"No; I am an Englishman."

"Oh!"

The keen old face hardened suddenly, until the features were like the wrinkles of a walnut; and the Spaniard drew himself up with all the dignity of his race.

The quiet eyes of Cartoner of the Foreign Office never left his face. Cartoner was surprised; for he knew Spain—he was aware that the Peninsular War had not been forgotten. He had never, in whatsoever place or situation, found it expedient to conceal his nationality.

The old Spaniard slowly unfolded his cloak, betraying the shabbiness of its crimson plush lining. He lighted a cigarette, and then the national sense of politeness prevailed against personal feeling.

"His Excellency knows Gibraltar?"

"I have been there."

"Nothing more?"

"Nothing more."

"Pardon me," said the old man, with a grave bow. "I thought—the Spanish of His Excellency misled me."

The Englishman laughed quietly. "You took me for a scorpion," he said. "I am not that. I learnt your language here and in the mountains of Andalusia."

"Then, I beg the pardon of His Excellency."

Cartoner made a Spanish gesture with his hand and shoulders, indicating that no such pardon was called for.

"Like you," he said, "I do not love the Scorpion."

The Spaniard's eyes lighted up with a gleam which was hardly pleasant to look upon.

"I HATE them," he hissed, bringing his face close to the quiet eyes; and the Spanish word means more than ours.

Then he threw himself back in his chair with an upward jerk of the head.

"I have good reason to do so," he added. "I sometimes wonder why I ever speak to an Englishman; for they resemble you in some things, these Scorpions. This one had a fair moustache, blue eyes, clean-cut features, like some of those from the North. But he was not large, this one—the Rock does not breed a large race. They are mean little men, with small white hands and women's feet. Ah, God! how I hate them all!"

The Englishman took a fresh cigarette from a Russia leather case, and pushed the remainder across the table for his companion to help himself when he had finished mashing the crooked paper between his lips.

"I know your language," the Spaniard went on, "as well almost as you know mine. But I do not speak it now. It burns my throat—it hurts."

Cartoner lighted his cigarette. He betrayed not the smallest feeling of curiosity. It was marvellous how he had acquired the manner of these self-contained Sons of the Peninsula.

"I will tell it."

The Englishman leant his elbow on the table, and his chin within his hand, gazing indifferently out over the marble tables of the Cafe Carmona. The men seated there interchanged glances. They knew from the fierce old face, from the free and dramatic gestures, that old Pedro Roldos was already telling his story to the stranger.

"Santa Maria!" the old man was saying. "It is not a pleasant story. I lived at Algeciras—I and my little girl, Lorenza. Too near the Rock—too near the Rock. You know what we are there. I had a business—the contraband, of course—and sometimes I was absent for days together. But Lorenza was a favourite with the neighbours—good women who had known my wife when she was the beauty of St. Roque—just such a girl as Lorenza. And I trusted Lorenza; for we are all so. We trust and trust, and yet we know that love and money will kill honesty and truth at any moment. These two are sacred—more sacred than honesty or truth. Diavolo! What a fool I was. I ought to have known that Lorenza was too pretty to be left alone—ignorant as she was of the ways of the world.

"Then the neighbours began to throw out hints. They spoke of the English Caballero, who was so fond of riding round the Bay, and they hinted that it was not to see our old town of Algeciras that he came.

"One night I came home after a successful journey. I had been as far as Buceita with a train of five mules—a clear run. When I opened the door Lorenza was gone. Mother of God! gone—gone without a word! I went and fetched Nino—Nino, whose father had been my partner until he was shot by the Guardia Civile one night in the mountain behind Gaucin. There was no one like Nino for mule work in the mountains or for the handling of a boat when the west wind blew across the Bay. Nino, whom I wanted for a son-in-law, having no Nino of my own. I told him. He said nothing, but followed me to the quay and we got the boat out. In half an hour I was at the office of the Chief of the Police at Gibraltar. We sat there all night, Nino and I. By ten o'clock the next morning we knew that it was not one of the English officers—nor any civilian living on the Rock. 'It may,' said the Chief of Police, who seemed to know every one in his little district, 'be a passing stranger or—or a Scorpion. We do not know so much about them. We cannot penetrate to their houses.' I gave him a description of Lorenza; he undertook to communicate with England and with the Spanish police. And Nino and I went back to our work. It is thus with us poor people. Our hearts break—all that is worth having goes from our lives, and the end of it is the same; we go back to our work."

The old man paused. His cigarette had gone out long ago. He relighted it and smoked fiercely in silence for some moments. Cartoner made a sign to the waiter, who, with the intelligence of his race, brought a decanter of the wine which he knew the Spaniard preferred.

During all the above relation Cartoner had never uttered a syllable. At the more violent points he had given a sympathetic little nod of the head—nothing more.

"It was from that moment that I began to learn the difference between Englishmen and Scorpions," Pedro Roldos went on. "Up to then I had not known that it made a difference being born on the Rock or in England. I did not know what a Scorpion was—with all the vices of England and Spain in one undersized body. I haunted the Rock. I learnt English. All to no avail. Lorenza was gone. Nino never said anything—he merely stayed by my side—but I think that something—some fibre had broken within him while he held the sheet that first night, sailing across the Bay in a gale of wind.

"Thus—for a year. Then came a letter from Cadiz. Lorenza was there, alone with her child. Her husband had deserted her in England, and she had got back to Cadiz. We went to her, Nino and I, in our boat. We brought her back; but she was no longer Lorenza. Our grief, our love were nothing to her. She was like a woman hewn out of marble. Maria! how I hated that man! You cannot understand—you Englishmen. Though there is something in your eyes, senor, which makes me think that you too could have felt as I did.

"From Lorenza I learnt his name, and without telling her, I went across to Gibraltar. I inquired and found that he was there—there in Gibraltar. Almost within my grasp—think of that! At once I was cunning. For we are a simple people, except when we love or hate!"

"Yes," said Cartoner, speaking for the first time. "I know."

"In an hour I knew where he lived. His father was an English groom who had set up large breeding stables in Gibraltar, and was a rich man. The son had the pretension of being a gentleman. He had been in England they told me for a year, buying stud-horses—and—and something else. He was married. Ah-ha! He had been married three years before he ever saw Lorenza, and the ceremony which had been observed in the English Church at Seville was a farce. My heart was hot within me; hot with the hatred for this man, and I sat in the Cafe Universal, which you know! Yes, you know everything. I sat there thinking of how I should kill him—slowly, taking my own time—talking to him all the while.

"What I had learnt was no more than I expected. The woman (his wife), it appeared, was the daughter of a merchant at Gibraltar. They were a whole nest of Scorpions. I went back to Algeciras, and said nothing then to Lorenza. The next night I heard by chance that he and his wife and children had taken passage in a steamer that sailed for England in two days. Madre de Dio! he nearly slipped through our fingers. It was not a P. and O. ship: the passengers had to take a boat from the Old Mole, which is always crowded with Algeciras boats and others. Nino and I sailed across there and waited among the small craft. We saw the woman (his wife) and the children go on board in the afternoon. In the evening he came. I had arranged it with the licensed boatmen; a few pesetas did that. Our boat was nearest the steps. In the dim light of the quay lamp he noticed nothing, but stepped over the gunwale and mentioned the name of his steamer in a quick way, which he thought was that of the English.

"Nino took the oars, and when we were round the pier head we hoisted the sail. Then I spoke.

"'I am the father of Lorenza Roldos,' I said, 'and that man is Nino, her cortejo. We are going to kill you.'

"He started up, and was about to raise a cry, when Nino whipped out his country knife. We carry them, you know."

"Yes," said Cartoner, speaking for the second time, "I know."

He was watching the old man now beneath the shadow of his hand.

"'If you raise your voice,' I said, 'Nino will put his knife through your throat.'

"I saw him glance sideways at the water.

"'You would have no chance that way,' I said; 'I would turn the boat on you, and run you down.'

"He gave a sort of gasp, and I had the happiness of hearing his teeth chatter.

"'I have money,' he said, in his thin, weak voice; 'not here, on board.'

"We said nothing, but I hauled in the sheet a little, and ran for the Europa light.

"'We are going to kill you,' I said quietly, without hurry.

"We landed just beyond the lighthouse, where there are no sentinels, and we made him walk up the Europa Road past the Governor's house. Nino's knife was within two inches of his throat all the while. I think he knew that his end was near. You know the Third Europa Advance Battery?"

"Yes," answered Cartoner.

"The cliff recedes there. There is a drop of four hundred metres, and then deep water."

"Yes, I know."

"It was there," hissed the old Spaniard, with a terrible gleam in his eyes. "We sat there on the low walk, and I spoke to him. As we came along, Nino had said to me in our dialect: 'With a man like this, fear is better than pain;' and I knew that he was right.

"We did not touch him with our knives. We merely spoke to him. And then we began quietly making our arrangements. That man died a hundred times in the ten minutes wherein we ballasted him. We tied heavy stones upon his body—we filled his pockets with smaller ones. We left his arms free, but to the palm of each hand we bound a stone as large as my head. The same to each foot.

"Then I said, 'Lie down! Hands and legs straight out! It is only right that a Scorpion should die from his own rock, and taking some souvenirs with him.'

"I took his arms and Nino his feet. We swung him three times, and let him fly into the darkness.

"And Lorenza never forgave us. She told me that she loved him still. One never comes to understand a woman!"