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Inocencio
by [?]

I

Captain Inocencio prepared to let himself self over the side of the schooner. Outside, the Caribbean was all agleam, save where the coral-reef teeth gnashed it into foam; inside, a sand beach, yellow in the moonlight, curved east and west like a causeway until the distance swallowed it. Back of that lay the groves of cocoanut-trees, their plumes waving in the undying undulations that had never ceased since first the trade-winds breathed upon them. Beneath the palms themselves the jungle was ink-black, patched here and there with silver. The air was heavy with the slow rumble of an ever-restless surf and, all about, the sea was whispering, whispering, as if minded to tell its mysteries to the moon, not yet two hours high.

It was the sort of night that had ever wakened wild impulses in Captain Inocencio’s breast. It was on such a night that he had first felt the touch of a woman’s lips; it was on such another night that he had first felt a man’s warm blood upon his hands. That had been long ago, to be sure, in far Hayti, and since that time both of those sensations had lost much of their novelty, for he had lived fast and hard, and his exile had plunged him into many evils. It was on such a night, also, that he had begun his wanderings, fleeing southward between moonrise and moonset; southward, whither all the scum of the Indies floated. But, even to this day, when the full of a February moon came round with the fragrant salt trades blowing and the sound of a throbbing surf beneath it, the sated, stagnant blood of Captain Inocencio went hot, his thin mulatto face grew hard, and a certain strange exultance blazed within him.

His crew had long since come to recognize this frenzy, and had they now beheld him, poised half nude at the rail, his fierce eyes bent upon the forbidden shore, they would have ventured no remark. As it happened, however, they were all asleep, all three of them, and the captain’s lips curled scornfully. What could black men know about such subtleties as the call of moonlight? What odds to them if yonder palm fronds beckoned? They had no curiosity, no resentfulness; otherwise they, too, might have dared to break the San Blas law.

It was four years now since he had begun to sail this coast, and even though he was known on every cay and bay from Nombre de Dios to Tiburon, and even though it was recognized that the Senor “Beel Weelliams” paid proper price for cocoa and ivory nuts, his head trader had never beaten down the people’s distrust. On the contrary, their vigilance had increased, if anything, and now, after four years of scrupulous fair dealing, he, Captain Inocencio, was still compelled to sleep offshore and under guard, like any common stranger.

It had made the Haytian laugh at first; for who would wish to harm a San Blas woman, with the streets of Colon but a hundred miles to the west? Then, as the months crept into years, and for voyage after voyage he never saw a San Blas woman’s face, he became furious. Next he grew angry, then sullen, and a sense of injury burned into him. He set his wits against theirs; but invariably the sight of his schooner’s sails was a signal for the women to melt away–invariably, when night came, and he and his blacks had been herded back aboard their craft, the women returned, and the sound of their voices served to fan the flame within his breast.

Night after night, in sheltered coves or open river-mouths, the captain of the Espirita had lain, belly down, upon the little roof of the deck-house, his head raised serpent-wise, his gloomy eyes fixed upon the cook-fires in the distance. And when some woman’s figure suddenly stood out against the firelit walls, or when some maiden’s song came floating seaward, he had breathed curses in his bastard French, and directed a message of hate at the sentinel he knew was posted in the jungle shadows. At times he had railed at his crew of spiritless Jamaican “niggers,” and lusted for a following of his own kind–men with the French blood of his island in their veins, men who would follow where the moonlight flickered. He had even gone so far, at one time, as to search the water-fronts from Port Limon to Santa Marta in quest of such fellows; he had winnowed the off-scourings of the four seas gathered there, but without success. They were villainous chaps, for the main part, crossed with many creeds and colors, and ready for any desperate venture; but he could not find three helpers of sufficient hardihood to tamper with the San Blas virgins. Instead, they had retold him the tales he already knew by heart; tales of swift and sudden retribution overtaking blacks and whites; retribution that did not halt even at the French or the hated Americanos. They told him that, of all the motley races gathered here since earliest Spanish days, the San Blas blood alone retained its purity. It was his boss, the Senor Williams, who had gone back farthest into history, and it was he likewise who had threatened him with prompt discharge if he presumed to trespass. The Senor Williams was not one to permit profitable trade relations to be jeopardized by the whim of a Haytian mulatto.