The Vulture

A Tale of modern commerce

by Bassett Kendall


(A derelict inn in a desolate part of the N. Spanish coast. The chief feature of the room is a large fireplace with hooded mantle – open fire on the hearth. A large pot, almost a cauldron – hangs over it on a tripod. This accentuates the witchlike appearance of the only occupant of the room – a very ancient woman, with shrivelled face, deeply shrunken eyes and one tooth. She is stirring a stew in the pot and mumbling to herself. There is a common deal table and a few dilapidated chairs in the room. The only entrance is a door at the back, RC, leading to the cliffs above a narrow creek.)

Con. (Stops stirring and picks up a lump of wax from the hearth.) Almost gone – almost gone – and his life is going with it. (José enters. He is the innkeeper, a morose young man.) His life is going with it.

José. What are you mumbling about?

Con. The wax image is almost gone – melting right away.

José. Curse your wax image.

Con. (Chuckling.) That’s what I did two years ago, José. When your poor mother died – worn out by your father’s cruelty – I made a wax image of Miguel: it wasn’t much like him, but it was the best I could do with my old eyes. Then I uttered an ancient spell over it and cursed it – it stood for your father Miguel, you see. And then I laid it, as my grandmother taught me, at the corner of the hearth, where the warmth of the fire can only just reach it. And when the image melts right away, then Miguel’s soul goes with it – to hell.

José. Who believes in your witchcraft, anyway?

Con. You believe in it well enough, José. You know your old grandma’s a wise woman.

José. How’s your image getting on?

Con. Almost gone – almost gone – it’s take over two years, but it’s almost gone. He’ll die before the dawn.

José. It’s easy for you to say that, when we’ve heard nothing from him since he left us. Major Batista tells me he’s living in England – a rich man, curse him! Why should he be rich, when we’re starving?

Con. Never mind, José – he’ll get no good from his money. His image is almost gone and he’ll die tonight. And your old granny has killed him – killed the cruel husband of her daughter.

José. Well, have it your own way, if it makes you happy; we shall never know if you’re right.

Con. Yes we shall, José – yes we shall. He’ll die here – in the house where he killed your poor mother. I can feel him coming nearer – nearer. We shall see him die, José, you and I – and we won’t help him, will we, my boy? We want him to suffer, don’t we. As he made yourdear mother suffer.

José. If I saw him lying wounded by the roadside, I wouldn’t lift a finger to help him. I wouldn’t even put him out of his misery. I’d watch till the vultures tore his eyes from his living face.

Con. He’s like a vulture himself, José. Watchful and pitiless. But he can’t live through the night. His image is almost gone. (A knock at the door. José opens it. A man named Carlos comes in – roughly dressed – sea boots and big cloak.)

Car. It’s a rough night, José. Am I the first?

José. Yes. It’s not quite time yet.

Car. Evening, old Concha. How’s your image tonight?

Con. Melting nicely, Carlos. (Another knock – José opens. Pedro enters, muffled up.)

José. Who are you, stranger?

Ped. Is this where the arms are to be landed?

José. What’s that about arms? We’re not smugglers here.

Ped. Major Batista sent me along. Is this the place?

José. If the Major sent you, I suppose it’s all right. What do you say, Carlos?

Car. Bound to be.

José. Come in, friend.

Ped. The Major told me to watch the light. It’s a fresh night; the wind might blow it out. Is it set yet?

José. Ay. I put it on the reef myself, before nightfall. You can see it from here. Right at the far end of the rocks.

Ped. I’d better go to the rocks, then.

José. You’ll be cold out there tonight. Have a drop to keep you warm.

Ped. I’ve got a flask. See you later. (Exit Ped.)

José. You’ll have a glass, Carlos? (Handing it.)

Car. It’s good on a night like this. Why does the Major change his plans. He told me to watch the light.

José. So that’s why you’re drinking my rum by the fire.

Car. There’s no hurry yet. The ship’s not in sight. Besides, the other fellow’s there now. I suppose the Major thought I couldn’t be trusted, curse him.

José. He knew you enjoyed rum – and a good fire, I dare say!

(Enter Batista, well wrapped up.)

Bat. She’s just rounding the point; you can see her lights. She’ll be in in ten minutes. Only two of you here? Where are the others?

Car. Three are down on the shore, Major – and the man you sent is watching the light.

Bat. But I told you to watch the light.

Car. But the other fellow said you sent him.

Bat. I sent no one. Run out and see it’s all right. (Exit Carlos.)

José. Ramon and Juan are not here yet. (Enter Ramon and Tony disguised.)

Ramon. I hope we’re in time, Major; Juan can’t come; he’s sick. So I’ve brought this fellow; he’s from the South, from Seville, but he’s one of us.

Bat. You know what’s wanted?

Tony. Ay. Ramon’s given me the orders.

Bat. With this gale blowing, we shall have difficulty landing the stuff.

José. I hope the ship’s captain knows his job.

Bat. He’s a good man. I gave him his instructions myself.

Ramon. He understands about the light?

Bat. I showed him the exact spot at the end of the reef. How near’s the ship now?

José. (Going to door.) She’s nearing the reef – keeping very close in though. (Shouts.) Major – look. The light’s been moved. It’s at the shore end. She’s heading straight for the rocks.

Bat. Quick. Down to the reef. We must save what we can.

(Tony pushes past the others. All rush off. There is a moment’s silence while nothing but wind and breakers are heard. Then comes a sickening crash – a crunching and grinding of iron on rock – and confused shouting in the distance. Conch remains crouching over the fire, muttering to herself, intent only on the melting wax. After a long pause enter Carlos.)

Car. Where’s the Major? Where’s the Major, you old witch?

Con. Miguel’s very near home – very near home – and very near death.

Car. Leave off muttering and talk sense. Which way did the Major go?

Con. What is it you want, Carlos?

Car. Major Batista. I must see him. The light had been moved – fifty yards – to the shore end of the reef. That fellow who said he came from the Major – he must have been a traitor – one of the Reds.

Con. Reds and Browns, what does it matter? You’re all Spaniards, aren’t you? And all men? That’s what I say to José – (Car. runs out. She doesn’t see he’s gone.) Reds are men and Browns are men. One’s no better and no worse than the other. There’ll be good Reds and bad Reds, good Browns and bad Browns. Why can’t the good ones join against the bad – there would be sense in that – just as José and his granny join against his bad father. (Pause.) Aren’t you listening, Carlos? (Looks round and sees he’s gone.) That’s like José – he never listens to his old granny when she tells him the truth. Yes – the young folk think they know better than the old; but they don’t – they can’t see into the future like old Concha. Old Concha’s a hundred years old and her eyes are dim – but she can see what you can’t see, José – she can see what is to come. What do you see in the fire, granny? That’s what José says in fun. But it’s devil’s fun tonight – and one of them is Miguel. (She examines the wax.) Its melting away – melting away.

(Enter Tony carrying Jane.)

Tony. (Laying Jane down.) Here you, old lady – bring me some water.

Con. (Comes to where Jane is lying.) What is it? A maid – she’s like my Juanita, José’s mother. She was a fine girl, like this maid – before she married Miguel. What’s the matter with the maid?

Tony. She’s hurt; bring me some water, there’s a good soul.

Con. Ay, that I will. (She is getting water.) I mind when my Juanita hurt herself – fell down when she was climbing the cliff. My man brought her in, just like that. Here’s the water, sonny. Let me bathe her head. No – not like that. A man’s no good with sick folk. Leave it to old Concha. (She deftly attends to Jane, Tony looking on rather helpless.) That’s better my dearie; see, her eyelids are moving.

Tony. Jane! Jane! I’m here with you. It’s Tony.

Con. Don’t talk to her yet, silly boy. You’ll only excite her. I’ll fetch some brandy. (She moves to cupboard at back.) (Tony kneels by Jane. She opens her eyes.)

Jane. What’s the matter? Have I been doped again? Where’s Captain Jordon?

Tony. Jane – you’re safe – with me. Look at me, my dear. It’s Tony.

Jane. No – it can’t be Tony. He said he’d come back and he never came. (Starting up.) Is Cabaño here?

Tony. No, Jane; Cabaño’s drowned. At least I hope so.

Jane. Who are you? Why, it’s Tony. It is Tony, isn’t it? (Tony nods, speechless.)

Jane. I’m so glad you’ve come back, Tony. I’ve wanted you so.

Tony. Jane! My dear!

Con. (Bringing brandy.) I don’t know what you two are talking about: you’re foreigners, aren’t you? But you mustn’t talk toher now, young man. Here, drink some of this, my dear. That’ll put life into you. (Jane drinks and gradually revives during the next scene. Tony stays with her all the time and Concha hovers round. Enter meanwhile Jordon, furiously angry.)

Jor. Can’t anyone in the blasted hole talk English?

Tony. Yes, I’m English.

Jor. The deuce you are! Then why are you togged out like a blinking dago. This is the last time I ever carry goods for foreigners. Where’s that almighty fool of Major Batista?

Tony. Down on the shore, I expect. He was here when you ran aground.

Jor. Why did he tell me the light would be at the end of the reef? It was fifty or sixty yards inland. And the night as dark as hell and a terrific swell running in. I’d have made it alright if the fool hadn’t boshed the position of the light. Who’s that? Miss Jane? Well – thank the Lord for that. How did she get ashore.

Tony. Jumped on the reef when you struck – fell and hit her head on the rock. I carried her up here.

Jor. Is she all right?

Tony. A bit dazed. She’ll be herself in a minute.

Jor. Well, that’s one bit of luck in this blasted night. She’s a good lass. Got guts. Is that brandy? (He pours out half a glass and drinks it neat.) That’s better. Now for that blank blank Major. (He goes to door.) Oh curse! What’s the use? I’ll only have that crowd of dagoes swarming round me, jabbering their outlandish lingo. Why can’t they talk English, like blinking Christians? And I’d only murder that fool, if I did find him, and land myself in more of a mess. Well, what am I do now, with the “Pretty Polly” breaking herself to pieces on a foreign shore? How do I get home?

Tony. Are all your crew safe?

Jor. Oh, they saw to that, all right. All scrambled ashore and left me on the bridge. They’re all down on the beach drinking rum with the dagoes and roaring with laughter because they can’t understand a word they say. And the silly fools of dagoes can’t even understand good English – would you believe it. Can’t understand good English. Boil the lot of them, I say. There’s only one comfort. The whole blinking cargo of machine guns has gone to the bottom – and Cabaño with them, I hope.

Jane. Is Cabaño drowned?

Jor. Well, Miss, I can’t rightly say, not for certain, that is. But he’s not the sort of chap to jump – and if he can swim in this sea – well then he’s the Devil himself. But that wouldn’t surprise me – not with Cabaño.

Con. Cabaño – you said Cabaño?

Tony. Yes.

Con. Miguel Cabaño?

Tony. That’s the man.

Con. What did you say about him?

Tony. He may be drowned.

Con. No, he is not drowned. But he will die before dawn. He will be coming home to die.

Jor. What’s the old girl gassing about.

Tony. She seems to know Cabaño

Jor. Oh – she’s in luck.

Jane. Tony, can’t we go? Before he comes?

Tony. Are you feeling all right, Jane?

Jane. I’m all right. Do let us go.

Tony. Right. Then listen, Jane, and you too, skipper. I’ve got a plane parked in a field about three miles away. She’s full with petrol. I only came across to find you, my dear; there’s nothing I can do about Cabaño in this country; we must watch the ports at home in case he returns. All I want is to get back safely with you, Jane. Can you get to the car?

Jane. Yes – I think so. I’ll try, anyway.

Jor. That’s what I said, didn’t I? She’s got guts, that girl.

Tony. Are you coming with us, captain?

Jor. If there’s room for three, sir.

Tony. Lots of room. But it’s only fair to warn you I’m a detective. There’s a warrant out for your arrest. I promise I’ll do what I can for you – but it mayn’t be much. If you’d rather stop here –

Jor. What! Here, with the dagoes? No thank you, sir. Quod at home for me – every time.

Tony. Good man. But I hope it won’t come to that. Come on, Jane. (Jane tries to walk, but collapses. At this moment José enters.)

Tony. What’s to be done now? No, never mind, Jane. We’ll fix things somehow. See if there’s a car about, Captain.

Jor. (Going to door, sees José.) Here, you! Have you got a car here. (José shrugs.) All right, there’s no need to get huffy about it. (José shrugs again.) Oh, deaf are you? Car – C.A.R. – car. Oh curse! Another dago – the place is swarming with them. Here, sir, you’ll have to fix it.

Tony. This is an inn, isn’t it?

José. Yes.

Tony. Have you got a car for hire? Any old thing?

José. No.

Tony. Has anyone else got one?

José. I don’t know.

Tony. No cars, I’m afraid. Well, we must do the best we can. The Captain and I will have to carry you, Jane.

Jor. I’ll take her.

Tony. Oh, no, you don’t. Come along.

Jane. Tony, we must thank the old lady.

Tony. Hang it all – yes, I forgot. I was so worried about you, Jane.

Jane. Thank you a thousand times for your help – and God bless you.

Con. You are like my Juanita.

Tony. We are very grateful to you. Perhaps this may be useful. (Tries to give money.)

Con. Give it to José. I want nothing.

Tony. (Giving money to José.) Thank you for your hospitality.

José. (Opening eyes wide.) The Señor is very good. Thank you a million times, Señor.

Tony. You’re sure there is no car about, José?

José. Wait – wait – the Major came in a car. Can you drive it?

Tony. I should think so.

José. It is behind the house. I’ll say I know nothing.

Con. He will not need a car tonight.


Tony. (To Concha.) Goodbye. (Exeunt Tony and Jane with José.)

Jor. Well, ta-ta, old girl. You haven’t the sense to understand me, I know – but no matter. Well, that’s all – thank the Lord I’m through with dagoes. (Exit Jor.)

Con. When are you coming home, Miguel? She was like my Juanita – my Juanita that you killed. (Looking at image.) Almost gone – such a poor little piece left – a poor little piece of Miguel’s life – melting away – melting away. (Cab. and Bat. enter. They are disputing angrily.)

Bat. I tell you it’s not my fault, Cabaño. The light was at the end of the reef five minutes before. I saw it there myself.

Cab. Then how was it moved.

Bat. It must have been treachery – a Communist Spy. Probably your friend Ibanez.

Cab. Ibanez is in England. (Enter Ramon and Carlos at back.)

Bat. How can you know that? But if it wasn’t her it was one of his sort – a Red Spy. (Sound of car driving away outside.) What was that? Where’s José?

Ramon. He’s not up from the beach yet. (Enter José.)

Bat. José – who beside me came in a car?

José. No one else, Major.

Bat. There was no other car about?

José. I didn’t see one.

Bat. Go and see if mine’s still there. (Exit José.) That was probably the spy – the man who moved the light. And you fools have let him slip through your fingers. (Enter José.)

José. Your car’s gone, Major.

Bat. The spy’s got away in it. Quick, you fellows; we must see which way he’s gone.

(Exeunt Bat., Ramon and Carlos.)

Con. So you’ve come home again Miguel.

(Cab. throws hat and cloak on table. There is a sound of something heavy in the cloak; José notices it and turns quickly. Cab. walks to fire and stands back to room. José takes revolver from cloak pocket and in full view of audience extracts cartridges.)

Cab. Yes – I never thought I’d see this god-forsaken hole again.

Con. But it is your home, Miguel. Good men die in their homes, and sometimes bad men too.

Cab. Oh, stop croaking, you old hag. Don’t flatter yourself I’ve come home to die.

Con. Your men will die tonight, Miguel. And you are one of them. I have seen it in the embers; you are one of them, and your soul will go where it belongs.

Cab. You’re out of date, old woman. A hundred years out of date. No one believes in witchcraft now.

Con. That does not alter the powers of the witch. Why have you come home, Miguel. Was it your wish to come?

Cab. The last place on earth I wanted to see.

Con. Yes – but you had to come. It was I who brought you – your Juanita’s mother.

Cab. I’ve had enough of this folly. Give me some rum, José, you scoundrel.

(José gives it in silence. Cab. crosses to table. Enter Bat., Ram. and Car.)

Bat. No sign of the fellow – and £40,000 worth of arms gone to the bottom, Carlos!

Car. What is it, Major?

Bat. I ordered you to watch the light.

Car. But, Major, the man you sent –

Bat. I sent no man at all. Are you such an incompetent fool that you believe what every Red spy tells you?

Car. But, Major-

Bat. Your orders were to guard the light. You disobeyed them.

Car. Major, it was not my fault –

Bat. You forget we are at war – war with the Reds. In war, neglect of orders is punished with death. Ramon and José, take him outside, put him against the wall of the house, and shoot him.

(José and Ramon seize Car. who protests with terror and tears. They drag him out, followed by Bat.)

Con. Didn’t I say four men would die tonight; that’s the first.

Cab. Hold your tongue, if you don’t want me to break your neck.

Con. Not my neck, Miguel. It’s your neck that will be broken. Not many minutes more, Miguel. Make your peace with heaven.

Cab. Give me some more rum.

Con. (Hobbles over with bottle and pours it out. Two shots outside.) One man dead, Miguel; but four must die before dawn. You are the next, Miguel.

(Enter José. He carries a revolver.)

José. Carlos is finished. My best friend – dead. And I was made to shoot him. That’s war.

(He sits moodily by the fire. Enter Bat. and Ram.)

Bat. Waste, Ramon. A good man wasted. But what was I to do? In war orders must be obeyed. But all war is waste – waste of life, waste of money, waste of humanity.

José. And what’s it all about? Why have I joined you, Major? Because you offer me better pay than the Reds. And now I must kill a Red because he’s a Red – and I must kill by friend because he doesn’t kill a Red. It’s all futile. Poor old Carlos.

Bat. We have to do many things in life, José, which we don’t understand – many things we hate doing. I myself am tired, tired of slaughter – tired of everything. When will it all end?

Con. Very soon, young man – very soon for you.

Bat. Come, Ramon; back to duty. We must see the men on the beach. They may have seen the spy who stole my car.

(Exeunt Bat. and Ram.)

Cab. How can I get to Oviedo?

José. On your feet. There’s no other way.

Cab. You have no car – not even a pony.

José. We have nothing. You saw to that when you left us, taking my mother’s money with you.

Cab. Then I must sleep here.

Con. You will sleep here, Miguel. A long sleep.

Cab. I’ll sleep in my old room. Make up my bed, José.

José. I’ll do no such thing.

Cab. You won’t do that for your father?

José. Why do you remind me that you’re my father? You killed my mother; I hate you as I hate nothing on earth. I can’t bring myself to kill you, but if I saw you being strangled, I’d watch you die. I wouldn’t lift a finger to help you.

Cab. You are a dutiful son, José. Give me some more rum. (José does not move. Con. takes his glass, fills it and pours in something from another bottle.) Won’t even help me to drink myself to death, José? (Goes to sideboard at back.) Too slow and too pleasant an end, eh? Look, your grandmother hates me like poison – but she’s more considerate than you.

Con. (Handing glass.) Drink, Miguel. Drink a health to Juanita. (She has returned to the fire.)

Cab. (Putting down glass.) Why do you speak of Juanita?

Con. Look, José. Look at the image. The last spot of wax is melting.

(Enter Pedro. He speaks in the doorway.)

Ped. (Very quietly.) So, Cabaño; we meet once more.

Cab. I thought you were in England.

Ped. I was in England long enough, Cabaño – long enough to know that you had betrayed the workers of Spain – long enough to find my mother’s body.

(Cab. has taken the revolver from his cloak. Ped. advances a step.)

As I stood beside her, I took a vow. I would get my fingers on her murderer’s throat and choke the life out of him. I am here to fulfil my vow. (He has advanced step by step towards Cab. Cab. fires – the revolver is empty.)

Cab. (Fatalistically.) Who has tampered with my gun?

José. That was a son’s service to his father.

Cab. Then there’s a service I must do for you, my son. (He strides towards José, who remains sitting motionless, but Ped. is too quick for him. Ped. seizes Cab. by throat. They struggle.)

Cab. Help me – help me – José! You are my son! (José remains motionless. Ped. forces Cab. down on the table and strangles him. Just as it’s over, Bat. enters; he stands in doorway.)

Con. (Shrieks for first time.) José! José! The wax has melted.

Bat. (Speaks quietly and wearily in doorway.) Ibanez. (Ped. turns, hardly conscious of where he is.) You have rid the world of a monster. You are a brave man – and I love brave men. But you are a Red – the enemy of Spain. Spain demands your death. (He fires. Ped., without a word, topples forward.)

Con. Three men dead, José; only one more. Only one more.

Bat. (Still wearily.) More waste – waste of brave men. Why is duty so cruel? I am weary, José – weary of life – weary of duty – weary of killing. (Takes up Cabaño’s glass.) (Resolutely.) But when Spain calls me, I am ready (raises glass) Come, José. (José looks up, still seated.)

Con. (Who has been watching.) You said I could not see what is to come. Did I not say four men would die before dawn? I mixed that glass for Miguel, José. There was hemlock in it.

Bat. (Quietly) Poison?

Con. Poison, Señor – an old witch’s poison.

Bat. (Very quietly) Spain demands the death of her enemies. Am I an enemy to Spain? Who knows?

(Bat. waits, standing motionless. José smokes stolidly.)

Con. I am tired, José. I must try to sleep. (A pause.) She was like Juanita, that girl. She’ll be happier than Juanita. (She drops off to sleep.)

The Curtain Falls.