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Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Ten. Casa Del Corvo

The estate, or “hacienda,” known as Casa del Corvo, extended along the wooded bottom of the Leona River for more than a league, and twice that distance southwards across the contiguous prairie.

The house itself—usually, though not correctly, styled the hacienda—stood within long cannon range of Fort Inge; from which its white walls were partially visible; the remaining portion being shadowed by tall forest trees that skirted the banks of the stream.

Its site was peculiar, and no doubt chosen with a view to defence: for its foundations had been laid at a time when Indian assailants might be expected; as indeed they might be, and often are, at the present hour.

There was a curve of the river closing upon itself, like the shoe of a racehorse, or the arc of a circle, three parts complete; the chord of which, or a parallelogram traced upon it, might be taken as the ground-plan of the dwelling. Hence the name—Casa del Corvo—“the House of the Curve” (curved river).

The façade, or entrance side, fronted towards the prairie—the latter forming a noble lawn that extended to the edge of the horizon—in comparison with which an imperial park would have shrunk into the dimensions of a paddock.

The architecture of Casa del Corvo, like that of other large country mansions in Mexico, was of a style that might be termed Morisco-Mexican: being a single story in height, with a flat roof—azotea—spouted and parapeted all round; having a courtyard inside the walls, termed patio, open to the sky, with a flagged floor, a fountain, and a stone stairway leading up to the roof; a grand entrance gateway—the saguan—with a massive wooden door, thickly studded with bolt-heads; and two or three windows on each side, defended by a grille of strong iron bars, called reja. These are the chief characteristics of a Mexican hacienda; and Casa del Corvo differed but little from the type almost universal throughout the vast territories of Spanish America.

Such was the homestead that adorned the newly acquired estate of the Louisiana planter—that had become his property by purchase.

As yet no change had taken place in the exterior of the dwelling; nor much in its interior, if we except the personnel of its occupants. A physiognomy, half Anglo-Saxon, half Franco-American, presented itself in courtyard and corridor, where formerly were seen only faces of pure Spanish type; and instead of the rich sonorous language of Andalusia, was now heard the harsher guttural of a semi-Teutonic tongue—occasionally diversified by the sweeter accentuation of Creolian French.

Outside the walls of the mansion—in the village-like cluster of yucca-thatched huts which formerly gave housing to the peons and other dependants of the hacienda—the transformation was more striking. Where the tall thin vaquero, in broad-brimmed hat of black glaze, and chequered serapé, strode proudly over the sward—his spurs tinkling at every step—was now met the authoritative “overseer,” in blue jersey, or blanket coat—his whip cracking at every corner; where the red children of Azteca and Anahuac, scantily clad in tanned sheepskin, could be seen, with sad solemn aspect, lounging listlessly by their jacalés, or trotting silently along, were now heard the black sons and daughters of Ethiopia, from morn till night chattering their gay “gumbo,” or with song and dance seemingly contradicting the idea: that slavery is a heritage of unhappiness!

Was it a change for the better upon the estate of Casa del Corvo?

There was a time when the people of England would have answered—no; with a unanimity and emphasis calculated to drown all disbelief in their sincerity.

Alas, for human weakness and hypocrisy! Our long cherished sympathy with the slave proves to have been only a tissue of sheer dissembling. Led by an oligarchy—not the true aristocracy of our country: for these are too noble to have yielded to such, deep designings—but an oligarchy composed of conspiring plebs, who have smuggled themselves into the first places of power in all the four estates—guided by these prurient conspirators against the people’s rights—England has proved untrue to her creed so loudly proclaimed—truculent to the trust reposed in her by the universal acclaim, of the nations.

On a theme altogether different dwelt the thoughts of Louise Poindexter, as she flung herself into a chair in front of her dressing-glass, and directed her maid Florinda to prepare her for the reception of guests—expected soon to arrive at the hacienda.

It was the day fixed for the “house-warming,” and about an hour before the time appointed for dinner to be on the table. This might have explained a certain restlessness observable in the air of the young Creole—especially observed by Florinda; but it did not. The maid had her own thoughts about the cause of her mistress’s disquietude—as was proved by the conversation that ensued between them.

Scarce could it be called a conversation. It was more as if the young lady were thinking aloud, with her attendant acting as an echo. During all her life, the Creole had been accustomed to look upon her sable handmaid as a thing from whom it was not worth while concealing her thoughts, any more than she would from the chairs, the table, the sofa, or any other article of furniture in the apartment. There was but the difference of Florinda being a little more animated and companionable, and the advantage of her being able to give a vocal response to the observations addressed to her.

For the first ten minutes after entering the chamber, Florinda had sustained the brunt of the dialogue on indifferent topics—her mistress only interfering with an occasional ejaculation.

“Oh, Miss Looey!” pursued the negress, as her fingers fondly played among the lustrous tresses of her young mistress’s hair, “how bewful you hair am! Like de long ’Panish moss dat hang from de cyprus-tree; only dat it am ob a diff’rent colour, an shine like the sugar-house ’lasses.”

As already stated, Louise Poindexter was a Creole. After that, it is scarce necessary to say that her hair was of a dark colour; and—as the sable maid in rude speech had expressed it—luxuriant as Spanish moss. It was not black; but of a rich glowing brown—such as may be observed in the tinting of a tortoise-shell, or the coat of a winter-trapped sable.

“Ah!” continued Florinda, spreading out an immense “hank” of the hair, that glistened like a chestnut against her dark palm, “if I had dat lubbly hair on ma head, in’tead ob dis cuss’d cully wool, I fotch em all to ma feet—ebbry one oh dem.”

“What do you mean, girl?” inquired the young lady, as if just aroused from some dreamy reverie. “What’s that you’ve been saying? Fetch them to your feet? Fetch whom?”

“Na, now; you know what dis chile mean?”

“’Pon honour, I do not.”

“Make em lub me. Dat’s what I should hab say.”

“But whom?”

“All de white gen’l’m. De young planter, de officer ob de Fort—all ob dem. Wif you hair, Miss Looey, I could dem all make conquess.”

“Ha—ha—ha!” laughed the young lady, amused at the idea of Florinda figuring under that magnificent chevelure. “You think, with my hair upon your head, you would be invincible among the men?”

“No, missa—not you hair alone—but wif you sweet face—you skin, white as de alumbaster—you tall figga—you grand look. Oh, Miss Looey, you am so ’plendidly bewful! I hear de white gen’l’m say so. I no need hear em say it. I see dat for masef.”

“You’re learning to flatter, Florinda.”

“No, ’deed, missa—ne’er a word ob flattery—ne’er a word, I swa it. By de ’postles, I swa it.”

To one who looked upon her mistress, the earnest asseveration of the maid was not necessary to prove the sincerity of her speech, however hyperbolical it might appear. To say that Louise Poindexter was beautiful, would only be to repeat the universal verdict of the society that surrounded her. A single glance was sufficient to satisfy any one upon this point—strangers as well as acquaintances. It was a kind of beauty that needed no discovering—and yet it is difficult to describe it. The pen cannot portray swell a face. Even the pencil could convey but a faint idea of it: for no painter, however skilled, could represent upon cold canvas the glowing ethereal light that emanated from her eyes, and appeared to radiate over her countenance. Her features were purely classic: resembling those types of female beauty chosen by Phidias or Praxiteles. And yet in all the Grecian Pantheon there is no face to which it could have been likened: for it was not the countenance of a goddess; but, something more attractive to the eye of man, the face of a woman.

A suspicion of sensuality, apparent in the voluptuous curving of the lower lip—still more pronounced in the prominent rounding beneath the cheeks—while depriving the countenance of its pure spiritualism, did not perhaps detract from its beauty. There are men, who, in this departure from the divine type, would have perceived a superior charm: since in Louise Poindexter they would have seen not a divinity to be worshipped, but a woman to be loved.

Her only reply vouchsafed to Florinda’s earnest asseveration was a laugh—careless, though not incredulous. The young Creole did not need to be reminded of her beauty. She was not unconscious of it: as could be told by her taking more than one long look into the mirror before which her toilet was being made. The flattery of the negress scarce called up an emotion; certainly not more than she might have felt at the fawning of a pet spaniel; and she soon after surrendered herself to the reverie from which the speech had aroused her.

Florinda was not silenced by observing her mistress’s air of abstraction. The girl had evidently something on her mind—some mystery, of which she desired the éclaircissement—and was determined to have it.

“Ah!” she continued, as if talking to herself; “if Florinda had half de charm ob young missa, she for nobody care—she for nobody heave do deep sigh!”

“Sigh!” repeated her mistress, suddenly startled by the speech. “What do you mean by that?”

“Pa’ dieu, Miss Looey, Florinda no so blind you tink; nor so deaf neider. She you see long time sit in de same place; you nebber ’peak no word—you only heave de sigh—de long deep sigh. You nebba do dat in de ole plantashun in Loozyanny.”

“Florinda! I fear you are taking leave of your senses, or have left them behind you in Louisiana? Perhaps there’s something in the climate here that affects you. Is that so, girl?”

“Pa’ dieu, Miss Looey, dat question ob youself ask. You no be angry case I ’peak so plain. Florinda you slave—she you lub like brack sisser. She no happy hear you sigh. Dat why she hab take de freedom. You no be angry wif me?”

“Certainly not. Why should I be angry with you, child? I’m not. I didn’t say I was; only you are quite mistaken in your ideas. What you’ve seen, or heard, could be only a fancy of your own. As for sighing, heigho! I have something else to think of just now. I have to entertain about a hundred guests—nearly all strangers, too; among them the young planters and officers whom you would entangle if you had my hair. Ha! ha! ha! I don’t desire to enmesh them—not one of them! So twist it up as you like—without the semblance of a snare in it.”

“Oh! Miss Looey, you so ’peak?” inquired the negress with an air of evident interest. “You say none ob dem gen’l’m you care for? Dere am two, tree, berry, berry, berry han’som’. One planter dar be, and two ob de officer—all young gen’l’m. You know de tree I mean. All ob dem hab been ’tentive to you. You sure, missa, tain’t one ob dem dat you make sigh?”

“Sigh again! Ha! ha! ha! But come, Florinda, we’re losing time. Recollect I’ve got to be in the drawing-room to receive a hundred guests. I must have at least half an hour to compose myself into an attitude befitting such an extensive reception.”

“No fear, Miss Looey—no fear. I you toilette make in time—plenty ob time. No much trouble you dress. Pa’ dieu, in any dress you look ’plendid. You be de belle if you dress like one ob de fiel’ hand ob de plantashun.”

“What a flatterer you are grown, Florinda! I shall begin to suspect that you are after some favour. Do you wish me to intercede, and make up your quarrel with Pluto?”

“No, missa. I be friend nebber more wid Pluto. He show hisseff such great coward when come dat storm on de brack prairee. Ah, Miss Looey! what we boaf do if dat young white gen’l’m on de red hoss no come ridin’ dat way?”

“If he had not, cher Florinde, it is highly probable neither of us should now have been here.”

“Oh, missa! wasn’t he real fancy man, dat ’ere? You see him bewful face. You see him thick hair, jess de colour ob you own—only curled leetle bit like mine. Talk ob de young planter, or dem officer at de Fort! De brack folk say he no good for nuffin, like dem—he only poor white trash. Who care fo’ dat? He am de sort ob man could dis chile make sigh. Ah! de berry, berry sort!”

Up to this point the young Creole had preserved a certain tranquillity of countenance. She tried to continue it; but the effort failed her. Whether by accident or design, Florinda had touched the most sensitive chord in the spirit of her mistress.

She would have been loth to confess it, even to her slave; and it was a relief to her, when loud voices heard in the courtyard gave a colourable excuse for terminating her toilette, along with the delicate dialogue upon which she might have been constrained to enter.

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