“Yours, senhor?” thecomandante inquired politely.
“I’ve never seen it before in my life.”
He opened the bag, peered inside briefly, then poured a stream of uncut diamonds into his left palm.
There was a terrible inevitability to it all after that, but I didn’t go down without a struggle. Thecomandante didn’t ques-tion me himself – not at first. I told my story from beginning to end and exactly as it had happened, to a surprisingly polite young lieutenant who wrote it all down and made no comment.
Then I was taken downstairs to a cell that was almost a parody of what you expected to find up-country in backward South American republics. There were at least forty of us crammed into a space fit for half that number. One bucket for urine, another for excrement and a smell that had to be ex-perienced to be believed.
Most of the others were the sort who were too poor to buy themselves out of trouble, Indians in the main, of the kind who had come to town to learn the white man’s big secret and who had found only poverty and degradation.
I pushed towards the window and most of them got out of my way respectfully out of sheer habit. A large, powerful-looking Negro in a crumpled linen suit and straw sombrero sat on a bench against the wall. He looked capable of most things and certainly when he barked an order, the two Indians sitting beside him got out of the way fast enough.
He smiled amiably. “You have a cigarette for me, senhor?”
As it happened, I had a spare packet in one of my pockets and he seized them avidly. I had a distinct feeling I had made the right gesture.
He said, “What have they pulled you in for, my friend?”
“A misunderstanding, that’s all,” I told him. “I’ll be released before the day’s out”
“As God wills, senhor.”
“I killed a man. They called it manslaughter because my wife was involved, you understand? That was six months ago. I was sentenced by the court yesterday. Three years at hard labour.”
“I suppose itcould have been worse,” I said. Better than hanging.”
“It is all one in the end, senhor,” he said with a kind of in-difference. “They are sending me to Machados.”
I couldn’t think of a thing to say, for the very name was enough to frighten most people locally. A labour camp in the middle of a swamp two or three hundred miles from nowhere on the banks of the Negro. The sort of place from which few people seemed to return.
I said, “I’m sorry about that.”
He smiled sadly, tilted his hat over hiseyes and leaned back against the wall.
I stood at the window which gave a ground-level view of the square at the front of the building. There weren’t many people about, just a couple of horse-drawn cabs waiting for custom, drivers dozing in the hot sun. It was peaceful out there. I de-cided this must all be a dream, that I’d waken very soon and then the Crossley tender from the airstrip pulled up at the bottom of the steps and Hannah got out.
They came for me about two hours later, took me upstairs and left me outside thecomandante’s office with a couple of guards. After a while, the door opened and Hannah and thecomandante emerged, shaking hands affably.
“You have been more than helpful, my friend,” thecom-andante said. “A sad business.”
Hannah turned and saw me. His face looked worse than ever for the bruising had deepened, but an expression of real concern appeared for all to see and he strode forward, ignoring thecomandante’s hand on his shoulder.
“For God’s sake, kid, why did you do it?”
I tried to take a swing at him and both guards grappled with me at once. “Please, Captain Hannah,” thecomandante said. ‘”etter to go now.”
He took him firmly to the outer door and Hannah, a look of agony on his face now, called, “Anything, kid – anything I can do. Just ask.”
Thecomandante returned to his office, leaving the door ajar. After a couple of minutes, he called for me and the guards took me in. He sat at his desk examining a typed document for a while.