Chapter 12 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Diadem.

Chagrined at the result, the traveller had no course left but to return to the place where he had left his horse. He was now in a worse predicament than ever; since it had become dark, and it would be difficult not only to find a path, but to follow it when found. The moon, however, had already risen, or rather had been all the while above the horizon, but hidden by a thick band of cumulus clouds that hung over the west. As the clouds did not cover the whole canopy, and it was likely that the moon would soon be visible, the traveller saw that he had no other resource than to wait: in hopes that by her light he might extricate himself from the difficulty into which his mischances had guided him.

On arriving where he had left his horse, Don Rafael sat down upon a fallen tree; and, lighting a cigar, awaited the appearance of the moon. He knew he should not have long to wait, for the yellow sheen, which betokened the situation of the luminary of night, was at no great distance from the edge of the cloud.

He had not been seated more than a few seconds, when a singular sound fell upon his ear. It was not the rushing noise of the cascade—for to that he had been accustomed for some time—but a sound that resembled the scream of some wild animal, ending in a hoarse and fiercely intoned roaring. He had heard it once or twice before; and although he could tell that it was not the howl of the coyote, he knew not what sort of creature was causing it.

Despite his ignorance of the cause, there was something in the sound that denoted danger; and, instinctively influenced by this idea, the young officer rose from his seat upon the log; and, untying his horse, leaped into the saddle. It was not with the intention of moving away from the spot—for the moon was not visible as yet—but with the knowledge that on horseback he would be the better prepared for any event that might arise. Still further to provide against possible danger, he unbuckled the strap of his carbine, and tried whether the piece was primed and in order. Don Rafael, although young, had seen some military service on the northern frontier of Mexico—where Indian warfare had taught him the wisdom of keeping habitually upon his guard.

Again he heard the wild lugubrious scream rising above the roar of the waters; and perceived that his horse, hearing it also, trembled between his thighs!

Coupling the sound with the strange spectacle to which he had just been a witness, the young officer could not help feeling a slight sensation of fear. He was a Creole, brought up consequently in the midst of ecclesiastical superstition, scarce less monstrous and absurd than that of pure paganism itself. He had heard in his youth how animals in presence of beings of the other world are seized with a shivering—such as that exhibited at the moment by his own horse—and he could almost fancy that the scene he had just witnessed was some evocation of the Prince of Darkness, to which the lugubrious sounds now reaching him were the response.

But Don Rafael was one of those bold spirits whom fear may visit but not subdue; and he remained immobile in his saddle, without showing any further symptoms of apprehension than by the twitching of his lips against his cigar, the light of which at intervals gleamed like a meteor through the darkness.

While thus patiently waiting the moonlight, the horseman fancied that he heard other sounds, and of a different import. Human voices they appeared to be; and it at once occurred to him, that it might be the two men whom he had disturbed and driven from their incantations. The voices were each moment more distinctly uttered; and it was evident that the speakers were approaching him. He perceived that it was probable they would come out somewhere near where he was stationed; and in order to have the advantage of a preliminary survey, in case they might turn out to be enemies, he drew his horse back under the darker shadow of the trees—placing himself in such a position that he commanded a view of the path.

The voices he heard were in reality those of the Indian and negro or Costal and Clara: for it need scarce be told that it was they who were the heroes of the mysterious spectacle of which Don Rafael had been the sole spectator.

The two worthies, on being interrupted in their pagan ceremony by the shower of pebbles, had given up the performance; and were now threading their way through the thicket to reach the road beyond it.

The Indian was venting his wrath against the unknown personage who had intruded upon their sacred devotions, and who had very probably hindered the Siren of the dishevelled hair from showing herself. The negro appeared to be equally indignant; but his anger was probably only pretended.

“Is it only at the first appearance of a new moon that the Siren shows herself?” inquired Clara, as if the opportunity for seeing her had escaped them.

“Of course,” replied Costal, “only then; but if there is a profane person in the neighbourhood—and by profane I mean a white—the spirit will not appear.”

“Perhaps she is afraid of the Inquisition?” naïvely suggested the negro.

“Bah! Clara, you’re a ninny! Why the devil should you suppose that the powerful divinity of the waters has any fear of long-robed monks? It is they, more likely, who would have cause to tremble in her presence, and prostrate themselves before her.”

“Carrambo! if she’s afraid to show herself before one white man, more reason why she should fear a whole host of monks—who, it must be confessed, are ugly enough to frighten anything.”

“May the devil drown the man who interrupted us!” cried Costal, rendered the more indignant by the justice of the negro’s reasoning. “A few minutes more, and I am certain the Siren would have showed herself.”

“Why did you extinguish the fire so soon? I think, friend Costal, you did wrong in that,” remonstrated Clara.

“I did it to hide from the eyes of the profane white man the mystery about to be accomplished. Besides, I knew after what happened there was no chance of her appearing.”

“So you really think it was some one who disturbed us?”

“I am sure of it.”

“And is that how you account for the shower of stones?”

“Of course.”

“By my faith, then,” said the negro in a serious tone, “I differ with you in opinion about that.”

“You do? And what is your opinion about it?” inquired Costal, stopping and turning his eyes upon his companion.

“I would stake my life upon it,” replied the negro, still speaking seriously, “that while you were dancing around the rock, I saw the Siren.”

“Saw the Siren?”

“Yes. Just where we had been—up by the ahuehuetes—I saw by the blaze of our fire a face, surrounded by a diadem of shining gold. What could that have been but the Siren?”

“You must have been mistaken, friend Clara.”

“I was not mistaken. I saw what I tell you, and I shouldn’t a bit wonder that what we took for pebbles were neither more nor less than a shower of pepitas (nuggets) of gold, which the spirit had thrown down to us.”

“Carajo! why did you allow us to leave the place without telling me of this?”

“Because it has just occurred to me now that it was pepitas, and not pebbles; besides, our touchwood is all gone, and we could not have kindled another fire.”

“We might have groped in the dark.”

“Nonsense, friend Costal! How could we tell grains of gold from gravel or anything else in the midst of such darkness as there is down here. Besides, if I came away, it was only with the thought of returning again. We can come back in the morning at daybreak.”

“Aha!” cried Costal, suddenly starting with an alarmed air, and striking his forehead with his hand. “We shan’t return here to-morrow morning. Carrai! I had forgotten; we shall do well to get out of this ravine as quickly as possible.”

“Why so?” hastily inquired the black, astounded beyond measure at the altered demeanour of his companion.

“Carrai! I had forgotten,” said Costal, repeating his words. “To-night is new moon; and it is just at this season that the rivers rise, break over their banks, and inundate the whole country. Yes! the flood will come upon us like an avalanche, and almost without warning. Ha! I do believe that is the warning now! Do you not hear a distant hissing sound?” And as he said this the Indian bent his head and stood listening.

“The cascade, is it not?”

“No—it is very different—it is a distant sound, and I can distinguish it from the roar of the river. I am almost certain it is the inundation.”

“Heaven have mercy upon us!” exclaimed the black. “What are we to do?”

“Oh! make your mind easy,” rejoined Costal in a consolatory tone. “We are not in much danger. Once out of the ravine, we can climb a tree. If the flood should find us here, it would be all over with us.”

“Por Dios! let us make haste then,” said Clara, “and get out of this accursed place, fit only for demons and tigers!”

A few steps more brought the two adventurers out into the open ground; and close to the spot where the dragoon captain was sitting silently on his horse. The red coal glowing at the end of his cigar shone at intervals in the darkness, lighting up his face, and the gold band of lace that encircled his hat. Clara was the first to perceive this unexpected apparition.

“Look, Costal!” said he, hastily grasping his companion by the arm, and whispering in his ear; “look there! As I live, the diadem of the Siren!”

The Indian turned his eyes in the direction indicated, and there, sure enough, beheld something of a circular shape, shining in the glow of a reddish-coloured spot of fire.

He might have been as much puzzled to account for this strange appearance as was his companion; but at that moment the moon shot up from behind the bank of clouds that had hitherto hindered her from being seen, and the figures of both horse and rider were brought fully into the light.