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Wednesday, March 10

From the Diaries of Peter M. Sexton ● Santiago de Cuba, 1920

Wednesday, March 10

Through my open window I feel the wind that blows across the city night. The gauze curtains flutter crosswise as the breeze wheels round, rushing to the East, carrying with it the stench of the bay. Then it turns again, combing the mountain for scents of leaves and grass. There is arguing in the streets below, and a dog, and somewhere a guitar, and a girl’s laughter, bright and hard like chimes. Tonight I feel far from home, farther than ever before, and the sky is new and strange. The stars hang down over the city just a stone’s throw away; I look at them and they seem to be the lights of a vanguard fleet from elsewhere, hovering, the travelers silent and unseen, watching from the bows.

Before me is the carved mahogany plain of this writing-desk, my raft, my asylum, my retreat. Everything of importance is here: my pen, my pocket watch, the handbook of the Company, my photograph of Mother, the Bible, coins, rubber bands, glass decanter of rainwater, a lime, this little diary. The desk is heavy and well-made, and of a pleasing size; even the very sound of it, when I rap it with a knuckle, is comforting and deep, the knock of a friend on a chamber door. I rap it again and the dollars ring, Mrs. Liberty and the man with the golden moustache.

Here too, stacked with care, are my volumes of Longfellow, his translation of the poet Dante and the tales of the other worlds. I had carried them here with me to Cuba in hopes of bettering myself and finally reaching Paradise, but, weary of Purgatory, I keep finding myself turning back to the Inferno. Who can resist peeping at the terrors of that great pit, with its rivers of boiling blood, its midnight cities, the titans in chains, and, at the nadir, the furious bat-winged beast? While wandering among the roster of devils and torments this evening I stumbled across a passage that struck the heart of me, namely that level of Hell where the cheap and greedy roll great weights before them and eternally clash with their neighbors. How much like my life today! I visit the offices of would-be sugar barons and watch scurrying inkstained clerks collide in the halls while hulking red-faced managers scream. Strange correspondences! Cuba today is mad with greed, of that there is no doubt, and if the Fourth Chasm were to be found anywhere on surface Earth surely it must be here. And what part do I play in that? What share of the blame is mine?

Young men in the street now, drunken, crooning, singsong Spanish, a rallentando of Os. From above I only see a brace of straw boaters golden in the lamplight, like a string of coins. The silhouette of the dark Cuban daughter across the way looks down from her bedroom window, fingers touching the glass, but they are already gone.

Ah, so I have strayed from the point, and just as the light of thought threatened to shine on my own affairs. How wriggly we are! No, I will say it: some share of the blame is mine, to be sure. Yes: I am here with the rest. The money beckons. And yet: a man has to make his way in the world and improve his station. He who does not move forward is falling behind; that is what my father said. Dante too is a pragmatic poet, and is forgiving of the man of business, I think. Fortune he describes as a blind and blissful agent in the Divine Machine:

That she might change at times the empty treasures

From race to race, from one blood to another,

Beyond resistance of all human wisdom.

Therefore one people triumphs, and another

Languishes, in pursuance of her judgment

Which hidden is, as in the grass a serpent.

Here, though, is my own small thought to add to Dante’s: beyond the fear of the pit there is something else which argues against greed, something which tears away at us in this life, for just as the chiefest sorrow of damnation is to be denied the presence of God, the sorrow of greed is to be denied the presence of thankfulness.

And what am I thankful for? Tonight I am thankful to be in my room, here at my desk, neither sickly full nor tipsy-weary. I had to beg off from yet another dinner with Hal C— of Cuban-American and his noisy flabfaced chummie from United Fruit. I could not take another night of excess for the sake of excess, third-rate champagne poured into the slops like sauce, cigars lit and thrown away. I knew too that they would look on me askance if I once more parted ways with them at the doorstep of their final destination, that place in the alley with the orange-shaded lamps and the vacant, slatternly girls.

No, tonight I dined here in the boarding house instead, or rather I should say I endeavored to dine, for the meal was rough going and an uphill climb. The maid Ayana was effecting a kind of revenge against me for something that had happened this morning: she had come into my room early to undertake some chore while I still lay in bed, and I had scolded her and pushed her back out into the hall like a sack of laundry; after all, she hardly knows what sort of character I might be, and if nothing else there would have been a world of trouble for her if Doña Calvo y Lopez had caught her in my quarters at that hour. So, for doing her the grave disservice of ejecting her from the bedroom of a half-clothed unmarried traveling man, my evening meal of pork chop had been grilled into a crispy bootsole, and it was only for my incisors and youthful vigor that I was able to make headway against my own dinner. Don Peppo, who had become accustomed to receiving the secondbest cut of meat at mealtimes, gave me puzzled and chuckling glances, and he was no doubt wondering how I had fallen so far from favor with the hired help.

And so it was in precisely this awkward state, with my mouth full of dry, intractable pig leather, that something rather extraordinary happened: here in the depths of the Caribbean I heard English being spoken in the adjoining room. A surprise, to be sure! I was at the one moment both delighted by the familiar cadence and on alert for business rivals, but before I could decide on the right attitude of welcome aloofness an exultant Doña Calvo y López whirled into the room with two young ladies in tow. The Don and I hastily stood in greeting, he silent because of his lack of English and I because of the impenetrable bolus in my mouth, and the Doña hastily introduced her two new American boarders, Miss Pulver and Miss Karas; such was her excitement that she failed to mention that I too was a citizen of the great country to the North. The newcomers politely returned our bows and sat down at the opposite end of the table while Ayana produced place settings and a meal. Our hostess then breezed back out to attend to their rooms, and Don Peppo and I were left alone with the females.

The two young ladies I judged to be in their early twenties, though both had the practiced poise of older women. Their appearance I assumed to be fashionable, if only because it was slightly outrageous: they both wore tube-like sheaths that missed the ankles by several inches and showed off pearl-colored stockings with serpentine archaeopteryx embroidery climbing up into the darkness. Miss Pulver’s blonde hair was fixed into rigid, improbable waves, crafted as if by a sculptor’s adze, while Miss Karas’s black hair was slightly longer and somehow less precise, straying this way and that as it saw fit. Their eyebrows had been all but removed and then reapplied with paint, for reasons which were as unknown and mysterious to me as the comings and goings of Venus and the tides.

Miss Pulver is a beauty, of that there is no question. Her face has an endearing sweetness to it, each element so finely drawn, and beneath the surface I could see gentleness and liveliness mixed in the proportions most pleasing to gentlemen, as sweetness with the salt, each element tiresome without the other but together more than the sum of the parts. Her eyes moved here and there, attending, distant, now hidden beneath lashes, now running and bright. I could see, however, that her mind was worried by some difficulty that weighed upon her, for her brows were knitted and her two white hands were restless, roughly choking her napkin or slowly breaking the back of a spoon.

Miss Karas is the mathematical opposite of Miss Pulver; where Miss Pulver’s cheeks are pink and plump, Miss Karas’s face is pale and angular. She keeps her mouth tightly closed to hide flat, ungainly teeth which seem too big for her mouth, and, in contrast to the lively eyes of her friend, Miss Karas’s eyes seem to slide away from the room, always evasive. Her face has a serious, almost mannish cast, though I would not say that it was unattractive—just unusual. Her voice is flat, artless and matter-of-fact, her speech dry and almost clownishly candid, but somehow I liked her for this, as one might find an awkward child more endearing than a clever one who has already tamed her masters.

I could not help but notice that Miss Pulver had a ring of engagement on her finger, though no accompanying wedding band, whereas Miss Karas was unencumbered by that sort of jewelry.

I had every intention of introducing myself as a fellow countryman the moment that my mouth was cleared of Ayana’s cooking, but, apparently assuming that no one could understand them, the two young women suddenly began speaking openly together as they ate, and I was so amazed by the strangeness of their conversation that I held my tongue so that they would continue and I could puzzle out what it was that they were talking about. It was wrong of me, to be sure—I admit it and regret it—but it was purely unpremeditated, for I truly was as if dumbstruck by the very oddness of it all. I will try to set it down as best as I recall it, though I will say that it is easier to remember sense than nonsense, and I may have not perfectly retained some of the more baffling utterances.

It was Miss Karas who had broken the silence: “This underwater city folderol, oh, I can’t understand it, Helen. Why would he make up such a story? Surely he must be mad. He ran amok, killed them, drowned them, oh, I don’t know. Why on Earth aren’t they questioning him further? Isn’t it clear that he has done something?” She rubbed a spot on the tablecloth with her finger. “There must be money involved in it somehow, that’s all it is, the usual baseness.”

“Well, which is it, money or the other?” asked Miss Pulver with an edge in her voice (which, I must interject, I found quite musical and pleasant, even in this moment of crossness).

“Oh, I don’t know. Both. Or one caused by the other.”

Miss Pulver addressed this with cool logic. “First of all, his crew is corroborating his story to a man, and while I don’t rule out the possibility that they are all working together for some purpose, even so, in a group of ten or twelve people there will always be one who is greedier than the rest, or one who has more of a conscience, or one who is simply too dim-witted to keep the story straight; it would be a solid miracle if ten men all lied in perfect concert, even for a good purpose. So, I find that far-fetched, to be frank. Second, if he had…”—here she glanced over to see if we were listening, and I hid behind a sip of water—”…you know….murdered the others, why bring back Mordecai? Surely he might come to his senses and tell what really happened.”

“Poor Mordecai,” said Miss Karas. “Poor Seagrave.”

Miss Pulver swallowed thickly and blinked, and two teardrops fell from her lashes onto the table before her. “I just don’t understand it. It just can’t be.” At this point there was a loud, honking sob from her quarter, which sent a previously oblivious Don Peppo rummaging through his pockets. I dumbfoundedly proffered a mostly clean handkerchief, but the young woman instead accepted a rather tattered one from Ayana, who began fussing over her in Spanish and who even went so far as to stroke the shining blonde hair which was clearly fascinating her. If Miss Pulver minded this imposition, she did not show it, and after collecting herself opened a little purse that had been sitting on her lap and extricated a compact mirror. In the course of digging this item out (I will make no jokes about women and their overloaded handbags) she removed and set aside an unusual object the likes of which I had never seen before.

“Ah, is that it?” asked Miss Karas in something akin to awe, and she took it up and held it in front of her. It was a thick black cylinder, perhaps four inches long and an inch and a half crosswise in diameter; it seemed to be made of stone, though some parts shone like glass, and there was a thick, flat loop on the end, almost like a handle. Beyond this it was devoid of any adornment except for a line or scoring that circled it a half inch from the end opposite the loop. Don Peppo gasped in admiration; he produced a pair of spectacles, leaned across the table, examined it briefly, and then pronounced the word “obsidiana” with satisfaction, nodding to each of us in turn. “De un volcán,” he added to Miss Karas dramatically. When she gave him a puzzled look he put his finger to his chin, looked at the ceiling, and then performed an elaborate flapping pantomime of an eruption with his hands. “Un volcán.”

“Ah,” said Miss Karas. “A volcano.”

Volcano,” beamed Don Peppo. He repeated the performance for Ayana, who chuckled and frowned at him. Miss Karas then handed the object to Ayana for her examination. Ayana hefted it and looked at every side, then held it at arm’s length and studied it with a cocked eyebrow, as if she were uncertain whether it was a thing of any worth. She held it to her breastbone like a pendant, thought for a second, looked at it again, and returned it to Miss Karas with a polite smile. Miss Karas handed it back to Miss Pulver, who put it on the table and regarded it sullenly.

“Do they have volcanoes underwater?” asked Miss Pulver.

“Of course they do, stupid, where do you think Bora Bora came from?”

“Witch,” said Pulver. She casually reached under the table and, it would seem, pinched Miss Karas, as the latter squeaked and bounced upon the chair and then glowered at the water jug in silence.

It was at that point that a hired wagon arrived with the young women’s traveling cases, and they skipped out to supervise the transfer of their belongings. Weary, bewildered, and gustatorially compromised, I chose that moment to excuse myself and retreat to my room. I lay on my couch listening to the laden tramp of feet up the stairs and wondered about underwater cities; before my mind’s eye I saw the face of Helen Pulver, young and bright, and her dark, strange friend. Even now I hear the padding of their feet as they move to and fro, and muffled words like ocean waves float down from above. I feel underwater and alone.

But enough of that. This country is restless, and loitering is forbidden.

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