The Mule by Henry Seton Merriman

     "Si je vis, c'est bien; si je meurs, c'est bien."

"Ai-i-ieah," the people cried, as Juan Quereno passed—the cry of the muleteers, in fact. And this was considered an excellent joke. It had been a joke in the country-side for nearly twenty years; one of perhaps half a dozen, for the uneducated mind is slow to comprehend, and slower to forget. Some one had nicknamed Juan Quereno the "Mule" when he was at school, and Spain, like Italy and parts of Provence, is a country where men have two names—the baptismal, and the so-called. Indeed, the custom is so universal, that official records must needs take cognizance of it, and grave Government papers are made out in the name of so-and-so, "named the monkey."

There were, after all, worse by-names in the village than the Mule, which is, as many know, a willing enough beast if taken the right way. If taken in the wrong—well, one must not take him in the wrong way, and there is an end of it! A mule will suddenly stop because, it would appear, he has something on his mind and desires to think it out then and there. And the man who raises a stick is, of course, a fool. Any one knows that. There is nothing for it but to stand and watch his ears, which are a little set back, and cry, "Ai-i-ieah," patiently and respectfully, until the spirit moves him to go on. And then the mule will move on, slowly at first, without enthusiasm, a quality which, by the way, is, of all the animals, only to be found in the horse and the dog.

The quick-witted who had dealings with Quereno knew, therefore, by his name what manner of man this was, and dealt with him accordingly. Juan Quereno was himself a muleteer, and in even such a humble capacity as scrambling behind a beast of burden over a rocky range of mountains and through a stream or two, a man may make for himself a small reputation in his small world. Juan Quereno was, namely, a Government muleteer, and carried the mails over nineteen chaotic miles of rock and river. When the mails were delayed owing, it was officially announced, to heavy snow or rain in the mountains, the delay never occurred on Quereno's etapa.

For nine years, winter and summer, storm and shine, he got his mails through, backwards and forwards, sleeping one night at San Celoni, the next at Puente de Rey. Such was Juan Quereno, "a stupid enough fellow," the democratic schoolmaster of San Celoni said, with a shrug of his shoulders and a wave of the cigarette which he always carried half-smoked and unlighted in his fingers.

The schoolmaster was, nevertheless, pleasant enough when the Mule, clean-shaven and shy, with a shrinking look in his steady, black eyes, asked one evening if he could speak to him alone.

"But yes—amigo!" he replied; "but yes." And he drew aside on the bench that stands at the schoolhouse door. "Sit down."

The Mule sat down, leant heavily against the wall, and thrust out first one heavy foot and then the other. Then he sat forward with his elbows on his knees, and looked at his dusty boots. His face was tanned a deep brown—a stolid face—not indicative of much intelligence perhaps, not spiritual, but not bad on the other hand, which is something in a world that abounds in bad faces. He glanced sideways at the schoolmaster, and moistened his lips with his tongue, openly, after the manner of the people.

"It is about Caterina, eh?" inquired the elder man.

"Yes," replied the Mule, with a sort of gasp. If the Mule had ever been afraid in his life, it was at that moment—afraid, if you please, of a little democrat of a schoolmaster no bigger than the first-class boys, blinking through a pair of magnifying spectacles which must have made the world look very large, if one could judge from the effect that they had upon his eyes.

The schoolmaster looked up towards the mountains, to the goats poised there upon the broken ground, seeking a scanty herbage in the crannies.

"How many beasts is it that you have—four or five?" he inquired kindly enough, after a moment, and the Mule drew a deep breath.

"Five," he replied; and added, after a minute's deep and honest thought, "and good ones, except Cristofero Colon, the big one. He eats much, and yet, when the moment comes"—he paused and looked towards the mountains, which rose like a wall to the south, a wall that the Mule must daily climb—"when the moment comes he will sometimes refuse—especially in an east wind."

The schoolmaster smiled, thinking perhaps of that other Cristofero Colon and the east wind that blew him to immortal fame.

"And Caterina," he asked. "What does she think of it?"

"I don't know."

The schoolmaster looked at his companion with an upward jerk of the head. It was evident that he thought him a dull fellow. But that assuredly was Caterina's affair. It was, on the other hand, distinctly the affair of Caterina's father to remember those five beasts of the Mule's, than which there were none better in the country-side—to recollect that the Mule himself had a good name at his trade, and was trusted by the authorities. There was no match so good in all the valley, and certainly none to compare with this dull swain in the accursed village of San Celoni. The schoolmaster never spoke of the village without a malediction. He had been planted there in his youth with a promise of promotion, and promotion had never come. For a man of education it was exile—no newspapers, no passing travellers at the Cafe. The nearest town was twenty miles away over the Sierra Nevada, and Malaga—the paved Paradise of his rural dreams—forty rugged miles to the south. No wonder he was a democrat, this disappointed man. In a Republic, now, such as his father had schemed for in the forties, he would have succeeded. A Republic, it must be remembered, being a community in which every man is not only equal, but superior to his neighbour.

"You don't know?"

"No," answered the Mule, with a dull look of shame at his own faint-heartedness. Moreover, he was assuredly speaking an untruth. The man who fears to inquire—knows.

As a matter of fact, he had hardly spoken to Caterina. Conversation was not the Mule's strong point. He had exchanged the usual greetings with her at the fountain on a fiesta day. He had nodded a good morning to her, gruff and curt (for the Mule had no manners), more times than he could count. And Caterina had met his slow glance with those solemn eyes of hers, and that, so to speak, had settled the Mule's business. Just as it would have settled the business of five out of six men. For Caterina had Moorish eyes—dark and solemn and sad, which said a hundred things that Caterina had never thought of—which seemed to have some history in them that could hardly have been Caterina's history, for she was only seventeen. Though, as to this, one cannot always be sure. Perhaps the history was all to come. Of course, the Mule knew none of these things. He was a hard-working, open-air Andalusian, and only knew that he wanted Caterina, and, as the saying is, could not live without her. Meantime he lived on from day to day without that which he wanted, and worked—just as the reader may be doing. That, in fact, is life—to live on without something or other, and work. Than which there is one thing worse, namely, to live on and be idle.

"But—" said the schoolmaster, slowly, for Andalusian tongues are slow, if the knives are quick—"but one may suppose that you would make her a good husband."

And a sudden gruff laugh was the answer. A woman would have understood it; but Caterina had no mother. And the schoolmaster was thinking of the five beasts and the postal appointment. The muleteer's face slowly sank back into stolidity again. The light that had flashed across it had elevated that dull physiognomy for a moment only.

"Yes," said the Mule slowly, at length.

"You can read and write?" inquired the man of education.

"Yes, but not quickly!"

"That," said the schoolmaster, "is a matter of practice. You should read the newspapers."

Which was bad advice, for the Mule was simple and might have believed what he read.

The conversation was a long one; that is to say, it lasted a long time; until, indeed, the sun had set and the mountains had faded from blue to grey, while the far-off snow peaks reared their shadowy heads into the very stars. The schoolmaster had a few more questions to ask, and the Mule answered them in monosyllables. He was tired, perhaps, after his day's journey; for he had come the northward trip, which was always the hardest, entailing as it did a rocky climb on the sunny side of the mountains. He had nothing to say in his own favour, which is not such a serious matter as some might suspect. The world does not always take us at our own valuation, which is just as well—for the world.

Indeed, the schoolmaster only succeeded in confirming his own suspicion that this was nothing but a dull fellow, and he finally had to dismiss the Mule, who had not even the savoir faire to perceive when conversation was ended.

"Vederemos," he said, judicially, "we shall see."

And the Mule went away with that heaviness of heart which must surely follow a mean action. For he knew that in applying to Caterina's father he had placed Caterina at a disadvantage. The schoolmaster, be it remembered, was a democrat, and such are usually autocrats in their own house. He was, moreover, a selfish man, and had long cherished the conviction that he was destined to be great. He thought that he was an orator, and that gift, which is called by those who do not possess it the gift of the gab, is the most dangerous that a man can have. There was no one in San Celoni to listen to him. And if Caterina were married and he were a free man, he could give up the school and go to Malaga, where assuredly he could make a name.

So the schoolmaster told Caterina the next morning that she was to marry the Mule—that the matter was settled. The dusky roses faded from Caterina's cheek for a moment, and her great dark eyes had a hunted look. That look had often come there of late. The priest had noticed it, and one or two old women.

"Almost as if she were in the mountains," they said, which is a local polite way of referring to those unfortunate gentlemen who, for some reason or another, do not desire to meet the Guardia Civil, and haunt the upper slopes of the Sierra Nevada, where they live, as live the beasts of the forest, seeking their meat from God, while the charitable, and, it is even whispered, the priest or the Alcalde himself, will at times lay an old coat or a loaf of bread at the roadside above the village, and never inquire who comes to take it.

The Mule himself, it is known, buys more matches than he can ever burn, so much as six boxes at a time, of those cheap sulphurous wooden matches that are made at Barcelona, and the next day will buy more. The Mule, however, is such a silent man that those who are "in the mountains" make no concealment with him, but meet him (wild, unkempt figures that appear quietly from behind a great rock) as he passes on his journeys, and ask him if he has a match upon him. They sometimes look at the mail-bags slung across the stubborn back of Cristofero Colon with eyes that have the hunted, hungry look which Caterina has.

"There is, perhaps, money in there," they say.

"Perhaps," answers the Mule, without afterthought.

"It may be a thousand pesetas."

"Perhaps."

And the Mule, who is brave enough where Caterina is not concerned, quietly turns his back upon a man who carries a gun, and follows Cristofero Colon. It sometimes happens that he trudges his nineteen miles without meeting any one, with no companion but his mules and his dog. This last-named animal is such as may be met in Spain or even in France at any street corner—not a retriever, nor a foxhound, nor anything at all but a dog as distinguished from a cat or a goat, living a troubled and uncertain life in a world that will always cringe to a pedigree, but has no respect for nondescripts. It was on these journeys that the Mule had so much leisure for thought. For even he could think, according to his dim lights. He was only conscious, however, of an ever-increasing feeling of a sickness—a physical nausea (for he was, of course, a mere earthy-creature)—at the thought of a possible life without Caterina. And it was at the end of a grilling day that the schoolmaster beckoned to him as he passed the school-house, and told him that it was settled—that Caterina would marry him.

"Would you like to see her? She is indoors," inquired the bearer of the tidings.

"No," answered the Mule, after a dull pause. "Not to-night. I have my mail-bags, as you see."

And he clattered on down the narrow street with a dazed look, as if the brightness of Paradise had flashed across his vision.

So it was settled. Caterina and the Mule were to be married, and there had been no love-making, the old women said. "And what," they asked, "is youth for, if there is to be no love-making?"

"And God knows they were right," said the priest who heard the remark, and who was a very old man himself.

Two days after that, the Mule met Caterina as she was going to the fountain. He said "Good morning." They both stopped, and the Mule looked into Caterina's eyes and had nothing to say. For he saw something there which he did not understand, and which made him feel that he was no better than Cristofero Colon, scraping and stumbling up the narrow street with the mail-bags, in such a vile temper, by the way, that the Mule had to hurry after him.

"It is a slow business," said the schoolmaster to Sergeant Nolveda, of the Guardia Civil, who lived in San Celoni and trained one young recruit after another according to the regulations of this admirable corps. For one never meets a Guardia Civil alone, but always in company—an old head and a pair of young legs. "A slow business. He is not a lover such as I should choose were I a pretty girl like Caterina; but one can never tell with women—eh?"

Indeed, matters did not progress very quickly. The Mule appeared to take so much for granted—to take as said so much that had not been said. Even the love-making seemed to him to have been understood, and he appeared to be quite content to go his daily journeys with the knowledge that Caterina was to be his wife. There were, of course, others in the valley who would have been glad enough to marry Caterina, but she had shown no preference for any of these swains, who knew themselves inferior, in a worldly sense, to the Mule. So the whole country-side gradually accustomed itself also to the fact that Caterina was to marry Quereno. The news even spread to the mountains. The Mule heard of it there one day when he had accomplished fourteen daily journeys to the accompaniment of this new happiness.

As he was nearing the summit of the pass he saw Pedro Casavel, who had been "in the mountains" three years, seated on a stone awaiting him. Pedro Casavel was a superior man, who had injured another in a dispute originating in politics. His adversary was an old man, now stricken with a mortal disease. And it was said that Pedro Casavel could safely return to the village, where his father owned a good house and some land. His enemy had forgiven him, and would not prosecute. But Casavel lingered in the mountains, distrusting so Christian a spirit.

He rose as the Mule slowly approached. He carried a gun always, and was more daring than his companions in retreat. The Mule mechanically sought in his jacket pocket for a box of matches, which he knew would be a welcome gift, and held them out silently as he neared Casavel. But Casavel did not take them.

"I hear that you are to marry Caterina," he said, with a half disdainful laugh. "Is it true?"

"It is true," answered the Mule.

"If you do," cried the other, passionately, with a bang on the stock of his gun that startled Cristofero Colon—"if you do, I will shoot you."

The Mule smiled slowly, just as he smiled when the people cried "Ai-i-ieah" as he passed them.

"I am going to marry her," he said, with a shake of the head. And mechanically he handed the other the box of matches, which Casavel took, though his eyes still flashed with anger and that terrible jealousy which flows in Southern blood. Then the Mule walked slowly on, while his dog shambled after him, turning back once or twice to glance apprehensively at the man left standing in the middle of the rocky path. Dogs, it is known, have a keener scent than human beings—perhaps, also, they have a keener vision, and see more written on the face of man than we can perceive.

The Mule turned at the summit of the pass, and looked down, as he always did, at the village where Caterina lived, before turning his face to the sunnier southern slope. He saw Casavel standing where he had left him, holding up the gun with a threatening gesture. The Mule had no eye for effect. He did not even shrug his shoulders.

It was finally the schoolmaster who hurried matters to their natural conclusion. By his advice, the Mule, who had hitherto lodged in the house of the postmaster, rented a cottage of his own and bought some simple furniture. He consulted Caterina on several points, and she was momentarily aroused from a sort of apathy which had come over her of late, by a very feminine interest in the kitchen fittings. The best that could be said for Caterina was that she was resigned. As for the Mule, like the animal from which he had acquired his habits of thought as well as his name, he seemed to expect but little from life. So, one morning before departing on his daily journey, the Mule was unobtrusively married to Caterina in the little pink stucco chapel that broods over the village of San Celoni like a hen over her chickens. And Cristofero Colon and the dog waited outside.

It was a commonplace ceremony, and at its conclusion the bridegroom trudged off up the village street behind his mail-bags. The Mule, it must be admitted, was a deadly dull person—y nada mas—and nothing more, as his fond father-in-law observed at the cafe that same morning.

But when he returned on the second evening, he made it evident that he had been thinking of Caterina in his absence, for he gave her, half shyly and very awkwardly, some presents that he had brought from a larger village than San Celoni, which he had passed on his way. There were shops in the village, and it was held in the district that articles bought there were of superior quality to such as came even from Granada or Malaga. The Mule had expended nearly a peseta on a coloured kerchief such as women wear on their heads, and a brooch of blue glass.

"Thank you," said Caterina, taking the presents and examining them with bright eyes. She stood before him in a girlish attitude, folding the kerchief across her hand, and holding it so that the light of their new lamp fell upon it. "It is very pretty."

The Mule had washed his face and hands at the fountain, as he came into San Celoni, remembering that he was a bridegroom. He stood, sleek and sunburnt, looking down at her, and, if he had only had the words, the love-making might have commenced then and there, at a point where the world says it usually ends.

"There was nothing," he said slowly at length, "in the shops that seemed to me pretty at all—" He paused, and turned away to lay his beret aside, then, with his back towards her, he finished the sentence. "Not pretty enough for you."

Caterina winced, as if he had hurt instead of pleased her. She busied herself with the preparations for their simple supper, and the Mule sat silently watching her—as happy, perhaps, in his dull way, as any king has ever been. Then suddenly Caterina's fingers began to falter, and she placed the plates on the table with a clatter, as if her eyes were blinded. She hesitated, and with a sort of wail of despair, sat down and hid her face in her apron. And the Mule's happiness was only human after all, for it was transformed in the twinkling of an eye into abject misery.

He sat biting his lip, and looking at her as she sobbed. Then at length he rose slowly, and, going to her, laid his great, solid, heavy hand upon her shoulder. But he could not think of anything to say. He could only meet this as he had met other emergencies, with that silence which he had acquired from the dumb beasts amid the mountains.

At length, after a long pause, he spoke. He had detected a movement, made by Caterina and instantly restrained, to withdraw from the touch of his hand, and this had set his slow brain thinking. He had dealt with animals more than with men, and was less slow to read a movement than to understand a word.

"What is it?" he asked. "Is it that you are sorry you married me?"

And Caterina, who belonged to a people saying yea, yea, and nay, nay, nodded her head.

"Why?" asked the Mule, with a deadly economy of words. And she did not answer him. "Is it because—there is another man?"

It was known in the valley that the Mule had never used his knife, not even in self-defence. Caterina did not dare, however, to answer him. She only whispered a prayer to the Virgin.

"Is it Pedro Casavel?" asked the Mule; and the question brought her to her feet, facing him with white cheeks.

"No—no—no!" she cried. "What made you think that? Oh—no!"

Woman-like, she thought she could fool him. The Mule turned away from her and sat down again. Woman-like, she had forgotten her own danger at the mere thought that Casavel might suffer.

"And he—in the mountains," said the Mule, thinking aloud. He was beginning to see now, at last, when it was too late, as better men than he have done before, and will continue to do hereafter. Caterina could not have held out as an objection to her marriage the fact that she loved a man who was in the mountains. The schoolmaster was not one to listen to such an argument as that, especially from a girl who could not know her own mind. For the schoolmaster was, despite his radical tendencies, bigoted in his adherence to the old mistakes.

Caterina might have told the Mule, perhaps, if he had asked her; for she knew that he was gentle even with the stubborn Cristofero Colon. But he had not asked her, failing the necessary courage to face the truth.

It was, of course, the woman who spoke first, in a quiet voice, with that philosophy of life which is better understood by women than by men.

"You must, at all events, eat," she said, "after your journey. It is a cocida that I have made."

She busied herself among the new kitchen utensils with movements hardly yet as certain as the movements of a woman, but rather those of a child, hasty and yet deft enough. The Mule watched her, seated clumsily, with round shoulders, in the attitude of a field labourer indoors. When the steaming dish, which smelt of onions, was set upon the table, he rose and dragged his chair forward. He did not think of setting a chair in place for Caterina, who brought one for herself, and they sat down—to their wedding feast.

They appeared to accept the situation, as the poor and the hard-worked have to accept the many drawbacks to their lot, without further comment. The Mule cultivated a more complete silence than hitherto; but he was always kind to Caterina, treating her as he would one of his beasts which had been injured, with a mutual silent acceptance of the fact that she had a sorrow, a weak spot as it were, which must not be touched. With a stolid tact he never mentioned the mountains, or those unfortunate men who dwelt therein. If he met Pedro Casavel he did not mention the encounter to Caterina. Neither did he make any reference to Caterina when he gave Pedro a box of matches. Indeed, he rarely spoke to Casavel at all, but nodded and passed on his way. If Casavel approached from behind he stopped without looking round, and waited for him just as his mules stopped, and as mules always do when they hear any one approaching from behind.

So time went on, and the schoolmaster, resigning his situation, departed to Malaga, where, by the way, he came to no good; for of talking there is too much in this world, and a wise man would not say thank you for the gift of the gab. The man whom Pedro Casavel had injured died quietly in his bed. Caterina went about her daily work with her unspoken history in her eyes, while Pedro himself no doubt ate his heart out in the mountains. That he ate it out in silence could scarcely be, for the tale got about the valley somehow that he and Caterina had been lovers before his misfortune.

And as for the Mule, he trudged his daily score of miles, and said nothing to any man. It would be hard to say whether he noticed that Pedro Casavel, when he showed himself now in the mountains, appeared rather ostentatiously without his gun—harder still to guess whether the Mule knew that as he passed across the summit Casavel would sometimes lie amid the rocks, and cover him with that same gun for a hundred yards or so, slowly following his movements with the steady barrel so that the mail-carrier's life hung, as it were, on the touch of a trigger for minutes together. Pedro Casavel seemed to shift his hiding place, as if he were seeking to perfect certain details of light and range and elevation. Perhaps it was only a grim enjoyment which he gathered from thus holding the Mule's life in his hand for five or six minutes two or three times a week; perhaps, after all, he was that base thing, a coward, and lacked the nerve to pull a trigger—to throw a bold stake upon life's table and stand by the result. Each day he crept a little nearer, grew more daring; until he noticed a movement made by the lank, ill-fed dog, that seemed to indicate that the beast, at all events, knew of his presence in the rocks above the footpath.

Then one day, when there was no wind, and the light was good and the range had been ascertained, Pedro Casavel pulled the trigger. The report and a puff of bluish smoke floated up to heaven, where they were doubtless taken note of, and the Mule fell forward on his face.

"I have it," he muttered, in the curt, Andalusian dialect. And then and there the Mule died.

It happened to be Cristofero Colon's day to do the southward journey, and despite the lank dog's most strenuous efforts, he continued his way, gravely carrying the dusty mail-bags to their destination. The dog remained behind with the Mule, pessimistically sniffing at his clothing, recognizing, no doubt, that which, next to an earthquake, is the easiest thing to recognize in nature. Then at length he turned homewards, towards San Celoni, with hanging ears and a loose tail. He probably suspected that the Mule had long stood between him and starvation—that none other would take his place or remember to feed a dog of so unattractive an appearance and no pedigree whatever.

Caterina did not expect the Mule to return that evening, which was his night away from home at Puente de Rey. She hurried to the door, therefore, when she heard, after nightfall, the clatter of hoofs in the narrow street, and the shuffling of iron heels at her very step. She opened the door, and in the bright moonlight saw the cocked-hats and long cloaks of the Guardia Civil. There were other men behind them, and a beast shuffled his feet as he was bidden to stand still.

"What is it?" she asked. "An accident to the Mule?"

"Not exactly that," replied the Sergeant, grimly, as he made way for two men who approached carefully, carrying a heavy weight. It was the Mule whom they brought in and laid on the table.

"Shot," said the Sergeant, curtly. He had heard the gossip of the valley, and doubted whether Caterina would need much pity or consideration. His companion-in-arms now appeared, leading by the sleeve one who was evidently his captive. Caterina looked up and met his eyes. It was Pedro Casavel, sullen, ill-clad, half a barbarian, with the seal of the mountains upon him. "The mail-bags are missing," pursued the Sergeant, who in a way was the law-giver of the valley. "Robbery was doubtless the object. We shall find the mail-bags among the rocks. The Mule must have shown fight; for his pistol was in his pocket with one barrel discharged."

As he spoke he laid his hand upon the Mule's broad chest without heeding the stained shirt. That stain was no new sight to an old soldier.

"Robbery," he repeated, with a glance at Casavel and Caterina, who stood one on each side of the table that bore such a grim burden, and looked at each other. "Robbery and murder. So we brought Pedro Casavel, whose hiding-place we have known these last two years, with us—on the chance, eh?—on the chance. It was the dog that came and told us. Whoever shot the man should have shot the dog too—for safety's sake."

As the Sergeant spoke, he mechanically made sure that the Mule's pockets were empty. Suddenly he stopped, and withdrew a folded paper from the inside pocket of the jacket. He turned towards the lamp to read the writing on it. It was the Mule's writing. The Sergeant turned, after a moment's thought, and faced Casavel again.

"You are free to go, Pedro," he said. "I have made a mistake, and I ask your pardon."

He held out the paper, which, however, Casavel did not take, but stood stupidly staring, as if he did not understand.

Then the Sergeant turned to the lamp again. He unfolded the paper, which was crumpled as if with long friction in the pocket, and read aloud—

"Let no one be accused of my death. It is I, who, owing to private trouble, shall shoot myself. Juan Quereno, so-called the 'Mule.'"