Chapter 17 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

A Creole Toilette.

It is customary in Europe to accuse the Creole ladies of tropical America of the crime of indolence. This custom is common with those who talk of woman and her political rights, and who believe that woman was created to share man’s labours instead of soothing them. He, however, who has looked upon these fair Creole women and observed their tranquil repose of spirit—perhaps a certain sensualism, which only adds to their beauty—he, I say, who has seen this, will be disposed to look with a more lenient eye upon their so-called indolence, and will scarce believe it a crime.

The two daughters of Don Mariano de Silva offered at this moment, though in degrees somewhat different, examples of this peculiar characteristic of their countrywomen. One of them, with her limbs crossed in the oriental fashion, was seated upon a Chinese mat. Her long black hair, that had been plaited in several tresses, and recently combed out, still preserved the wavy outlines of the plaits, as it fell profusely over her shoulders.

Perhaps there are no women in the world who take more pride in their hair than do the Creoles of Spanish-America. It is never desecrated by the touch of the scissors; and several hours of every day are bestowed upon the dressing of it. For all this, the young girl in question, as she sat with her head pensively inclined, seemed to give but little thought to those luxuriant tresses that, undulating over her white shoulders, lay in clusters upon the mat. She appeared rather to deliver them up mechanically to the hands of her attendant, who was occupied in arranging them.

The face encircled by these exuberant masses of glossy hair, possessed all the characteristics of the finest Creole beauty. Her features, at once proud and calm, denoted an ardent and enthusiastic spirit habitually hidden under an expression of indolent serenity. The elegance of the Spanish race was also manifest in her small white hands, and in those little feet possessed by Mexican and South American women of whatever class. Blue satin slippers covered those of the young girl, otherwise nude: for stockings are not a rigorous necessity of Creole costume.

The young lady thus described was Doña Gertrudis, the elder of the two daughters of Don Mariano.

The younger, Marianita, was scarce less beautiful, but her beauty was of a different style. Quick-witted, and prone to laughter, her sparkling glances formed a contrast to the calm yet brilliant gaze of her sister; while varying expressions passed as rapidly over her countenance as the fleeting shadows of an April sky. With Doña Gertrudis it was altogether different; she resembled the volcanoes of her country, with their perpetual fire hidden under a robe of snow.

Neither of the young girls had yet reached the age of womanhood. Gertrudis was only seventeen, while the other was a year and a half younger. Both, however, had acquired that full development of feminine beauty which a tropical climate often calls forth at a much earlier age.

While the hair of Gertrudis was being arranged by her waiting woman, Marianita was tying around her ankle the ribbons that were to confine the tiny slipper upon her pretty little foot.

The grand political events at this time occurring had disturbed the quietude of this family, as well as that of most others. There were some probabilities, too, of there being a difference of opinion among its members, for at the moment when our narrative commences, a marriage was on the tapis between a young Spaniard of the neighbourhood and Doña Marianita.

Previous to the Mexican revolution, the most ardent wish of a young Creole lady was to obtain for a husband some new arrival from the mother country—Spain. Gertrudis, nevertheless, had more than once declined this honour, which Marianita, as we have seen, had accepted. Why did the Doña Gertrudis form an exception to the general rule? The sequel will show.

We have presented these two young girls in the act of making their toilet; we may add, that these preparations were in view of the arrival of two gentlemen who were that evening expected. One was the young Spaniard, the betrothed lover of Marianita; the other Don Rafael Tres-Villas, Captain in the Queen’s Dragoons. The former lived within less than two leagues of the hacienda Las Palmas, and might be expected at any moment—the other, having two hundred to travel, could scarce be looked for with equal punctuality; for although he had sent positive word that he would arrive on that evening, it was reasonable to suppose that upon such a long journey some incident might arise to derange his calculations. Was this uncertainty the reason why Gertrudis had scarce commenced making her toilet, while Marianita had finished hers? Was Don Rafael the only man in whose eyes Gertrudis cared to appear beautiful? We shall presently know.

One of the daily cares of a young Creole lady is to take down the abundant plaits of her hair, and combing out the separate tresses, leave them hanging over her shoulders, so that the air may circulate freely among them. As soon as the attendant of Gertrudis, charged with this duty in the present instance, had accomplished her task, she passed out of the chamber, and the two sisters were left alone.

There are certain subjects of conversation which young girls, of whatever country, love only to talk of between themselves, and in their own private apartment.

Scarce had the servant closed the door behind her, than Marianita—who had just finished placing some pomegranate flowers behind her tortoiseshell comb—glided eagerly towards the window. On reaching it she stood for some moments with her eyes bent inquiringly on the plain. Gertrudis had changed her oriental posture for a seat upon a leathern fauteuil. After casting back, by an indolent movement of her arms, the dark masses of her hair, she delivered herself up to a silent reverie.

“I have examined the plain with all my eyes,” said Marianita after a while spent at the window; “it appears entirely deserted. I cannot see a human creature upon it, much less Don Fernando, or Don Rafael. Santissima! I fear I have had all this trouble for nothing; in half an hour it will be sunset.”

“You need not be uneasy. Don Fernando will come,” said Gertrudis, in a calm voice.

“Ah!” exclaimed Marianita, “one might tell by the tone in which you speak that you are not expecting your novio (betrothed), as I am. My very impatience makes me despair of seeing him. Ah! Gertrudis, you have never experienced the emotion of love.”

“Were I in your place I should feel more chagrin than impatience.”

“Chagrin, oh! no; if Don Fernando don’t choose to come this evening, he will lose the pleasure of seeing me in this beautiful white dress which he admires so much, and with these purple pomegranates in my hair, which I put in just to please him. For my part I prefer the white blossoms of the orange; but they say that a woman when married must make some sacrifices, and I may as well accustom myself to them.”

In saying these words the young girl snapped her fingers together till they cracked like castanets; while her countenance, instead of expressing any very painful emotion, exhibited an air of perfect contentment.

Gertrudis made no answer, except by a sigh, half-suppressed. She sat motionless, with the exception of her foot, which kept balancing upward and downward the little slipper of blue satin, while the fresh breeze of the evening blowing in from the window, caused a gentle tremulous movement among the tresses of her hair.

“It’s very tiresome—this country life,” continued Marianita; “it’s true one can pass the day by combing out one’s hair, and taking a siesta; but in the evening, to have nothing else to do but walk in the garden and listen to the sighing breeze, instead of singing and dancing in a tertulia! Oh, it is wearisome—very, very wearisome, I declare. We are here, like the captive princesses in an Eastern romance, which I commenced reading last year, but which I have not yet finished. Santa Virgen! I see a cloud of dust upon the horizon at last—a horseman! Que clicha! (what happiness!)”

“A horseman!—what is the colour of his steed?” inquired Gertrudis, suddenly aroused.

“Ha—ha! As I live his horse is a mule—what a pity it was not some knight-errant! but I have heard that these fine gentry no longer exist.”

Gertrudis again sighed.

“Ah! I can distinguish him now,” continued Marianita. “It is a priest who rides the mule. Well, a priest is better than nobody—especially if he can play as well on the mandolin as the last one that travelled this way, and stayed two days with us. He! He is coming on a gallop—that’s not a bad sign. But no! he has a very grave, demure look. Ah! he sees me; he is waving a salute. Well, I must go down and kiss his hand, I suppose.”

Saying these words, the young Creole—whose education taught her that it was her duty to kiss the hand of every priest who came to the hacienda—pursed up her pretty rose-coloured lips in a saucy mocking fashion.

“Come, Gertrudis!” continued she; “come along with me. He is just by the entrance gate!”

“Do you see no one upon the plain?” inquired Gertrudis, not appearing to trouble herself about the arrival of the priest. “No other horseman—Don Fernando, for instance?”

“Ah, yes!” answered Marianita, once more looking from the window. “Don Fernando transformed into a mule-driver, who is forcing his recua into a gallop, as if he wished the loaded animals to run a race with one another! Why, the muleteer is making for the hacienda, as well as the priest, and galloping like him, too! What on earth can be the matter with the people? One would think that they had taken leave of their senses!”

The clanging of bolts and creaking hinges announced the opening of the great gate; and this, followed by a confused clatter of hoof-strokes, told that the mule-driver with his train of animals was also about to receive the hospitality of the hacienda. This circumstance, contrary to all usage, somewhat surprised the young girls, who were wondering why the house was being thus turned into an hostelry. They were further surprised at hearing an unusual stir in the courtyard—the servants of the establishment talking in a clamorous medley of voices, and footsteps falling heavily on the pavements and stone stairs leading up to the azotéa of the building.

“Jesus!” exclaimed Marianita, making the sign of the cross; “is the hacienda going to be besieged, I wonder? Mercy on us! I hope the insurgent brigands may not be coming to attack us!”

“Shame, sister!” said Gertrudis, in a tone of calm reproach. “Why do you call them brigands?—these men who are fighting for their liberties, and who are led by venerable priests?”

“Why do I call them brigands?” brusquely responded Marianita. “Because they hate the Spaniards, whose pure blood runs in our veins; and because,” continued she—the impetuous Creole blood mounting to her cheek—“because I love a Spaniard!”

“Ah!” replied Gertrudis, in the same reproachful tone; “you perhaps only fancy you love him? In my opinion, sister, true love presents certain symptoms which I don’t perceive in you.”

“And what matters if I do not love him, so long as he loves me? Am I not soon to belong to him? And why, then, should I think different to what he does? No, no!” added the young girl, with that air of passionate devotion which the women of her country and race lavish without limits on those whom they love.

At this moment, the sudden and unexpected strokes of the alarm-bell breaking upon their ears interrupted the dialogue between the two sisters, putting an end to a conversation which promised to engender ill-feeling between them—just as the same topic had already caused dissension in more than one family circle, breaking the nearest and dearest ties of friendship and kindred.