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Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Thirty One. A Stream Cleverly Crossed

The sagittary correspondence could not last for long. They are but lukewarm lovers who can content themselves with a dialogue carried on at bowshot distance. Hearts brimful of passion must beat and burn together—in close proximity—each feeling the pulsation of the other. “If there be an Elysium on earth, it is this!”

Maurice Gerald was not the man—nor Louise Poindexter the woman—to shun such a consummation.

It came to pass: not under the tell-tale light of the sun, but in the lone hour of midnight, when but the stars could have been witnesses of their social dereliction.

Twice had they stood together in that garden grove—twice had they exchanged love vows—under the steel-grey light of the stars; and a third interview had been arranged between them.

Little suspected the proud planter—perhaps prouder of his daughter than anything else he possessed—that she was daily engaged in an act of rebellion—the wildest against which parental authority may pronounce itself.

His own daughter—his only daughter—of the best blood of Southern aristocracy; beautiful, accomplished, everything to secure him a splendid alliance—holding nightly assignation with a horse-hunter!

Could he have but dreamt it when slumbering upon his soft couch, the dream would have startled him from his sleep like the call of the eternal trumpet!

He had no suspicion—not the slightest. The thing was too improbable—too monstrous, to have given cause for one. Its very monstrosity would have disarmed him, had the thought been suggested.

He had been pleased at his daughter’s compliance with his late injunctions; though he would have preferred her obeying them to the letter, and riding out in company with her brother or cousin—which she still declined to do. This, however, he did not insist upon. He could well concede so much to her caprice: since her staying at home could be no disadvantage to the cause that had prompted him to the stern counsel.

Her ready obedience had almost influenced him to regret the prohibition. Walking in confidence by day, and sleeping in security by night, he fancied, it might be recalled.

It was one of those nights known only to a southern sky, when the full round moon rolls clear across a canopy of sapphire; when the mountains have no mist, and look as though you could lay your hand upon them; when the wind is hushed, and the broad leaves of the tropical trees droop motionless from their boughs; themselves silent as if listening to the concert of singular sounds carried on in their midst, and in which mingle the voices of living creatures belonging to every department of animated nature—beast, bird, reptile, and insect.

Such a night was it, as you would select for a stroll in company with the being—the one and only being—who, by the mysterious dictation of Nature, has entwined herself around your heart—a night upon which you feel a wayward longing to have white arms entwined around your neck, and bright eyes before your face, with that voluptuous gleaming that can only be felt to perfection under the mystic light of the moon.

It was long after the infantry drum had beaten tattoo, and the cavalry bugle sounded the signal for the garrison of Fort Inge to go to bed—in fact it was much nearer the hour of midnight—when a horseman rode away from the door of Oberdoffer’s hotel; and, taking the down-river road, was soon lost to the sight of the latest loiterer who might have been strolling through the streets of the village.

It is already known, that this road passed the hacienda of Casa del Corvo, at some distance from the house, and on the opposite side of the river. It is also known that at the same place it traversed a stretch of open prairie, with only a piece of copsewood midway between two extensive tracts of chapparal.

This clump of isolated timber, known in prairie parlance as a “motte” or “island” of timber, stood by the side of the road, along which the horseman had continued, after taking his departure from the village.

On reaching the copse he dismounted; led his horse in among the underwood; “hitched” him, by looping his bridle rein around the topmost twigs of an elastic bough; then detaching a long rope of twisted horsehair from the “horn” of his saddle, and inserting his arm into its coil, he glided out to the edge of the “island,” on that side that lay towards the hacienda.

Before forsaking the shadow of the copse, he cast a glance towards the sky, and at the moon sailing supremely over it. It was a glance of inquiry, ending in a look of chagrin, with some muttered phrases that rendered it more emphatic.

“No use waiting for that beauty to go to bed? She’s made up her mind, she won’t go home till morning—ha! ha!”

The droll conceit, which has so oft amused the nocturnal inebriate of great cities, appeared to produce a like affect upon the night patroller of the prairie; and for a moment the shadow, late darkening his brow, disappeared. It returned anon; as he stood gazing across the open space that separated him from the river bottom—beyond which lay the hacienda of Casa del Corvo, clearly outlined upon the opposite bluff, “If there should be any one stirring about the place? It’s not likely at this hour; unless it be the owner of a bad conscience who can’t sleep. Troth! there’s one such within those walls. If he be abroad there’s a good chance of his seeing me on the open ground; not that I should care a straw, if it were only myself to be compromised. By Saint Patrick, I see no alternative but risk it! It’s no use waiting upon the moon, deuce take her! She don’t go down for hours; and there’s not the sign of a cloud. It won’t do to keep her waiting. No; I must chance it in the clear light. Here goes?”

Saying this, with a swift but stealthy step, the dismounted horseman glided across the treeless tract, and soon readied the escarpment of the cliff, that formed the second height of land rising above the channel of the Leona.

He did not stay ten seconds in this conspicuous situation; but by a path that zigzagged down the bluff—and with which he appeared familiar—he descended to the river “bottom.”

In an instant after he stood upon the bank; at the convexity of the river’s bend, and directly opposite the spot where a skiff was moored, under the sombre shadow of a gigantic cotton-tree.

For a short while he stood gazing across the stream, with a glance that told of scrutiny. He was scanning the shrubbery on the other side; in the endeavour to make out, whether any one was concealed beneath its shadow.

Becoming satisfied that no one was there, he raised the loop-end of his lazo—for it was this he carried over his arm—and giving it half a dozen whirls in the air, cast it across the stream.

The noose settled over the cutwater of the skiff; and closing around the stem, enabled him to tow the tiny craft to the side on which he stood.

Stepping in, he took hold of a pair of oars that lay along the planking at the bottom; and, placing them between the thole-pins, pulled the boat back to its moorings.

Leaping out, he secured it as it had been before, against the drift of the current; and then, taking stand under the shadow of the cotton-tree, he appeared to await either a signal, or the appearance of some one, expected by appointment.

His manoeuvres up to this moment, had they been observed, might have rendered him amenable to the suspicion that he was a housebreaker, about to “crack the crib” of Casa del Corvo.

The phrases that fell from his lips, however, could they have been heard, would have absolved him of any such vile or vulgar intention. It is true he had designs upon the hacienda; but these did not contemplate either its cash, plate, or jewellery—if we except the most precious jewel it contained—the mistress of the mansion herself.

It is scarce necessary to say, that the man who had hidden his horse in the “motte,” and so cleverly effected the crossing of the stream, was Maurice the mustanger.

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