Chapter 11 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

A Ludicrous Spectacle.

Amid the vapoury mist that soared above the foaming torrent, the tops of the two ahuehuetes could be seen only indistinctly, but the trunks and lower limbs were more palpably visible. On one of these, that projected obliquely over the water, the dragoon fancied he could perceive the figure of a man. On closer scrutiny he became certain it was the figure of a man, and the bronze-coloured skin told him the man was an Indian.

Looking further, he observed another apparition equally singular. Through the fork of the second ahuehuete, appeared a face with a complexion black as ebony. It could be no other than the face of a negro.

Here, then, were three distinct types of the human race met in this wild spot. Why he was himself there, Don Rafael knew well enough; but what had brought the Indian and negro into such a place, and at such an hour, was what was now puzzling him.

Without saying a word, he stood watching the movements of the two men, in hopes that the event would furnish him with an explanation. Soon the entire bodies of both negro and Indian appeared in sight, as the two men crawled outward on the overleaning limbs of the trees; but still more plainly, as, hanging by the branches, they let themselves down till their feet dipped in the foam; and swinging there, appeared to go through a series of the most grotesque contortions! The sight made the head of the officer to swim, as if suddenly struck with vertigo.

Thus engaged, neither of the two perceived Don Rafael, though he was standing upon a spot of open ground immediately below them.

For his life, the officer could not guess the nature of these singular proceedings. He concluded that some object—unseen to him—was engaging their attention; and he could not help fancying that it was some nymph of the waters, whom the negro appeared to be wooing, to judge by his impassioned gestures and animated physiognomy.

The large mouth of the darkey was open from ear to ear, displaying his double row of white teeth set in the most winning smile; while ever and anon he stretched his neck out over the water, as if the object of his regards was hid under the shining sheet of foam!

The Indian was acting in a similar fashion, but with a more serious expression of countenance, and greater dignity of manner.

The officer carefully scrutinised the whole surface of the cascade; but he could see nothing but the glistening sheen of the water, and the mass of white foam where it broke over the rock.

At that moment the Indian made a sign to the black to cease from his grimaces; and, letting go his hold with one hand, he swung his body wholly upon the other over the fearful abyss.

The recklessness of the action caused a renewed surprise to the spectator standing below, amounting almost to a feeling of awe. Before he had time to reflect upon it, a human voice reached his ears, rising high above the roaring of the torrent. It was the voice of the Indian, who, with outstretched arm, was chaunting a solemn invocation to the spirit of the waters. The words could not be distinguished, but Don Rafael saw, by the muscular play of the man’s lips, that he was singing with all the strength of his lungs.

Curiosity might have prompted the dragoon captain to watch these strange proceedings to the end, but the desire of learning something about his route influenced him to act otherwise. He fancied that by waiting longer the opportunity might be lost. The two persons might disappear in a manner as mysterious as was their behaviour.

To attract their attention, therefore, he shouted, and at the top of his voice; but to no purpose. The deafening roar of the cataract hindered him from being heard; and partly, perhaps, the engrossing occupation in which the two men were engaged.

Failing to attract their notice, he resolved upon ascending the side of the ravine, and going round to the place where they were. For that purpose he retraced his steps through the thicket; and after a difficult climb he reached the top of the cliff, at the point where the ahuehuetes formed the arcade over the water. The two personages had disappeared!

Curious as to the object of their ludicrous proceedings, the dragoon climbed up one of the trees, and from a commanding point carefully scrutinised the water underneath. He there perceived nothing more than he had seen already—nothing to justify the strange conduct he had witnessed.

While in the tree, he looked down into the ravine below; first upon the frothing river, and then over the tops of the bushes that grew upon its bank. In an instant he perceived that some of these were in motion, as if some one was making way through the thicket which he had himself traversed.

Presently two men emerged from the cover, and stepped out upon the open bank, at the spot where but the moment before Don Rafael had stood. A glance satisfied him that they were the same he had seen upon the ahuehuetes—the negro and Indian.

The sun had already set, but there was still light enough, even in the bottom of the ravine, for Don Rafael to distinguish, not only the movements of the men, but the expression upon their features. Both wore a solemn cast, but those of the negro exhibited evidence of his being influenced by a secret fear.

Near the bank, and where the stream was shallow, a large round boulder of rock stood up out of the water. Towards this the two were directing their steps.

At a signal from the Indian, the negro collected a number of dry sticks; and having piled them upon the flat top of the rock, set them on fire.

In a short time the blaze shot up, and cast its red glare over the stream, tinging with purple flakes the foam of the cataract.

The negro, after kindling the fire, seated himself on the bank, and appeared to contemplate the blaze and its reflections with a feeling of awe. The Indian, on the other hand, threw off his hat, and untwined the plaits of his hair—black as the wing of the raven—whose age he expected to attain. Leaving the long tresses to fall wildly over his shoulders, he walked out into the water, and halted by the side of the rock. The dragoon now saw for the first time a huge sea-shell—a conch—in the hands of the Indian, which had hitherto hung by his side suspended in a string. Placing the conch to his month, he blew several loud, prolonged notes upon it, as if with the intention of arousing the spirit of the waters. Then suffering the shell to fall back upon its string, he commenced leaping around the rock in a sort of grotesque dance, splashing and plunging through the water until the spray rose up and wetted him over the crown of the head.

The whole spectacle was at once ludicrous and imposing. The stoical composure of the negro, who sat perfectly silent upon the bank watching with a solemn air the grotesque capers of his companion—the red light reflected upon the savage figures of the two men—reflected also upon the foaming cataract, which appeared to roll over the cliff like an avalanche of fire—all combined to form a scene in which the ludicrous and the sublime were singularly commingled.

Don Rafael might have desired to witness the finale; but time was pressing, and he had a strong motive urging him to proceed upon his journey.

“Santos Dios!” cried he, in an impatient tone, “I should like very well to wait and see what pagan divinity these droll savages are invoking; but it will not do to tarry longer here. I must onwards; and to find my way it will be necessary to interrupt their proceedings.”

Saying this, the officer raised his voice and shouted “Hola!” with all the strength of his lungs.

The hail was not heeded: it was not heard.

“Maldito!” exclaimed he, “I must try some other means of drawing their attention.”

A method at once suggested itself; and stooping, the officer took up a handful of small pebbles, and launched them down upon the two adorers of the demon.

So far as drawing their attention went, the means proved efficacious; for the instant that the pebbles fell upon the water, the Indian, with a stroke of his hand, swept the fire from the rock, and the ravine became instantaneously as dark as Erebus. The forms of the two water-worshippers disappeared in the gloom; and Don Rafael found himself alone in the presence of the foaming cataract.