I put on my oilskin coat again and an old straw sombrero I found hanging behind the bedroom door. When I returned to the veranda he asked me if I was still carrying my revolver. As it happened, it was in one of my flying-jacket pockets.
He nodded in satisfaction. “You’ll find everybody goes armed here. It’s that kind of place.”
We plunged out into the rain and moved towards the town. I think it was one of the most depressing sights I have ever seen in my life. A scabrous rash of decaying wooden huts on stilts, streets which had quickly turned into thick, glutinous mud. Filthy, ragged little children, many of them with open sores on their faces, played listlessly under the huts and on the verandas above, people stared into the rain, gaunt, hope-less, most of them trapped in that living hell for what remained of their wretched lives, no hope on earth of getting out.
The church was more substantial and included a brick and adobe tower. I commented on that and Hannah laughed shortly. “They don’t even have a regular priest Old guy called Father Conte who works with the nuns up at Santa Helena drops in every so often to say a Mass or two, baptise the babies and so on. He’ll be coming back with us tomorrow, by the way.”
“You want me to go with you?”
“I don’t see why not.” He shrugged. “Its only a hundred-mile trip. Give you a chance to fly the Hayley. We’ll have a passenger. Colonel Alberto from Forte Franco. He’ll arrive about ten in the morning by boat”
“What’s he do? Some kind of regular inspection?”
“You could say that.” Hannah smiled cynically. “The nuns up there are American. Little Sisters of Pity and very holy ladies indeed. The kind who have a mission. Know what I mean? The government’s been trying to get them to move for a year or so now because of the way the Huna have been acting up, only they won’t go. Alberto keeps trying, though, I’ll say that for him.”
In the centre of the town, we came to the only two-storeyed building in the place. The board above the wide veranda saidHotel and two or three locals sat at a table with-out talking, staring lifelessly into space, rain blowing in on them.
“The guy who runs this place is important enough to be polite to,” Hannah observed. “Eugenic Figueiredo. He’s the government agent here so you’ll be seeing a lot of him. All mail and freight has to be channelled through him for the entire upper Mortes region.”
“Are they still keen on the diamond laws as they used to be?” I asked.
“And then some. Diamond prospectors aren’t allowed to work on their own up here. They have to belong to an organised group called agarimpa and the bossman holds a licence for all of them. Just to make sure the government gets its cut, every-thing they find has to be handed over to the local agent who issues a receipt and sends the loot down-river in a sealed bag. The pay-off comes later.”
“A hell of a temptation to hang on to a few.”
“And that draws you a minimum of five years in the penal colony at Machados which could fairly be described as an open grave in a swamp about three hundred miles up the Negro.”
He opened the door of the hotel and led the way in. I didn’t care for the place from the start. A long, dark room with a bar down one side and a considerable number of tables and chairs. It was the smell that put me off more than anything else, com-pounded of stale liquor, human sweat and urine in about equal proportions and there were too many flies about for my liking.
There were only two customers. One with his back against the wall by the door, glass in hand, the same vacant look on his face as I had noticed with the men on the veranda. His com-panion was sprawled across the table, his straw hat on the floor, a jug overturned, its contents dribbling through the bam-boo into a sizeable pool.