Chapter 18 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Inundation.

Just as Marianita was about to open the door and inquire the cause of the tumult, the femme-de-chambre rushed into the room; and, without waiting to be questioned, cried out—

“Ave Maria, señoritas! the inundation is coming! A vaquero has just galloped in to say that the waters are already within a league or two of the hacienda!”

“The inundation!” echoed both the sisters in a breath; Marianita repeating the sign of the cross, while Gertrudis bounded up from the fauteuil, and, gathering her long hair around her wrists, rushed towards the window.

“Jesus! señorita,” cried the waiting-maid, addressing herself to Gertrudis, “one would think you were going to leap down to the plain, as if to save some one in danger.”

“Don Rafael, God have pity on him!” exclaimed Gertrudis in a state of distraction.

“Don Fernando!” cried Marianita, shuddering as she spoke.

“The plain will soon be one great lake,” continued the servant; “woe to them who may be caught upon it! But as for Don Fernando, you may make yourself easy, señorita. The vaquero who came in was sent by Don Fernando with a message to master, to say that he would be here in the morning in his boat.”

After delivering this intelligence the attendant retired, leaving the young girls once more alone.

“In a boat!” exclaimed Marianita, as soon as the servant had gone out. “Oh, Gertrudis!” she continued, suddenly passing from sadness to a transport of joy, “won’t that be delightful? We shall sail upon the water in our state barge crowned with flowers, and—”

As Marianita turned round, her transport of frivolous egotism was suddenly checked, as she saw her sister, with her long dark tresses hanging dishevelled around her, kneeling in front of an image of the Madonna. Giving way to a feeling of reproach, she also knelt down and mingled her prayers with those of Gertrudis, while the alarm-bell continued to peal forth to the four quarters of the compass its notes of solemn and lugubrious import.

“Oh, my poor Gertrudis!” said she, taking her sister’s hand in her own, while her tears fell fast upon the glistening tresses; “pardon me if, in the fulness of my own joy, I did not perceive that your heart was breaking. Don Rafael—you love him then?”

“If he die I shall die too—that is all I know,” murmured Gertrudis, with a choking sigh.

“Nay, do not fear, Gertrudis; God will protect him. He will send one of his messengers to save him,” said the young girl, in the simplicity of her faith; and then returning, she mingled her prayers with those of her sister, now and then alternating them with words of consolation.

“Go to the window!” said Gertrudis, after some time had passed. “See if there is yet any one upon the plain. I cannot, for my eyes are filled with tears. I shall remain here.”

And, saying these words, Gertrudis again knelt before the image of the Virgin.

Marianita instantly obeyed the request, and, gliding across the floor, took her stand by the open window. The golden haze that had hitherto hung over the plain was darkening into a purple violet colour, but no horseman appeared in the distance.

“The horse he will be riding,” said Gertrudis, at the moment interrupting her devotions, “will be his bay-brown. He knows how much I admire that beautiful steed—his noble war-horse that carried him through all his campaigns against the Indians. I have often taken the flowers from my hair to place them upon the frontlet of the brave bay-brown. Oh! Virgen Santissima! O Jesus! sweet Lord! Don Rafael! my beautiful! my loved! who will bring you to me?” cried the young girl—her wild, passionate ejaculations mingling with the words of her prayer.

The plain was every moment becoming less visible to the eye, as the twilight deepened into the shadows of night, when all at once it was re-illuminated by the pale rays of the moon. Still no horseman could be seen either near or afar off—nothing but the tall, dark palm-trees that stood motionless in the midst of the silent savanna.

“He has been warned in time,” suggested Marianita, in hopes of tranquillising her sister. “Most likely he will not have set out to-day.”

“Oh, no—no!” cried Gertrudis, wringing her hands in anguish; “you are wrong. I know Don Rafael too well. I judge his heart by my own. I am sure he would try to be here this very evening. Another day would be too long for him. He would brave every danger, if only to see me a few hours sooner—I know he would. I know he will be coming at this moment!”

Just then a noise as of distant thunder was heard mingling with the metallic notes of the bell; and simultaneous with this ominous dialogue, between the hoarse muffled rumbling of the waters and the lugubrious clanging, a sheen of reddish light was seen to gleam suddenly over the moon-whitened plain, and, as it glared far into the distance, illuminating the dark forms of the palm-trees. It was proceeding from the beacon fires which Don Mariano had caused to be kindled both on the platform of the hacienda and on the higher ridge behind it—in hopes that their light might serve as a guide to those who might be still wandering upon the plain.

Both the eye and the ear were thus warned of the threatening danger; and, as the people moved around the blazing fires, their shadows, magnified to gigantic proportions, were projected far out upon the savanna.

The moments passed slowly, amidst fearful and ominous sounds. The muffled roar of the inundation was every instant heard more distinctly, as the exasperated flood came rolling onward. Already it resembled the noise of the loudest thunder, when the mass of dense waters was seen glistening under the light of the fires, only a few hundred paces distant from the western wall of the hacienda!

“Oh, sister!” cried Gertrudis, in a voice of despair, “look again! Is no one in sight? O mercy!”

Marianita still stood by the window, eagerly directing her glance over the plain, and endeavouring to penetrate the obscure gleam outside the circle lighted by the glare of the fires.

“No—no one,” replied she; and then her tone suddenly changing into one of terror, she shrieked out—“O mercy! I see two horsemen—yes; they are horsemen. Madre de Dios! they are flying like the wind! Alas! alas! they will be too late!”

As she spoke, loud shouts were heard from above—from the azotéa of the house—to which Don Mariano and a crowd of servants had ascended. Other men, mounted on horseback, galloped along the terrace upon which the house stood, waving long lazoes around their heads, and ready to fling them out as soon as the two travellers should approach within reach. The men below were also uttering loud cries, unable to restrain their voices at the sight of the two horsemen thus desperately struggling to anticipate the approach of the mass of roaring waters. Already the flood was rushing forward upon the walls of the hacienda, approaching like waves of fire under the glare of the flaming beacons.

The sisters within the chamber heard the cries, without seeing those that gave utterance to them, or knowing aught of the movements that were being made for rescuing the two horsemen from their perilous position.

“Oh, Gertrudis!” cried Marianita, now leaning out from the window, and clinging convulsively to one of the iron bars, “come hither and see them! You can tell whether it be Don Rafael. I do not know him. If it be he, your voice might encourage him.”

“I cannot—I cannot!” replied Gertrudis, in a voice quivering with emotion. “Oh, sister! I dare not look upon such a spectacle. ’Tis he—too well my heart tells me it is he—oh, I can only pray for him!”

“They are both mounted on dark-coloured horses. One of them is a little man. He is in the costume of an arriero. That cannot be Don Rafael!”

“The other? the other?” cried Gertrudis in a low but anxious tone.

“The other,” answered Marianita, “is a head taller than the first. He sits his horse like a centaur. Now I can see his face distinctly. He has a fine noble countenance, with black moustaches. There is a band of gold lace on his hat. The danger does not appear to alarm him. Ah! he is a noble, handsome fellow.”

“It is he!” cried Gertrudis, in a voice that could be heard high above the mêlée of sounds. “Yes—it is Don Rafael!” she repeated, springing to her feet, as if with the intention of beholding him once more before he should be engulfed in the flood of waters. “Where, sister? where?” she continued, gliding towards the window; but before she had made three steps across the chamber, her strength failed her, and she sank half-fainting upon the floor.

“Mercy!” exclaimed Marianita, half stupified with terror. “Oh! Jesus Maria! another bound of their horses, and they will be safe! Valga me Dios! too late—too late! there are the waters. Oh! their wild roar! hear how they beat against the walls. Mother of God! shield these brave men! They hold one another by the hand! They bury their spurs in their horses’ flanks! They ride forward without fear! They advance upon the frothing flood, as if they were charging upon an enemy! Virgin of Paradise! one of them, the smaller, is actually chaunting a hymn!”

In effect, at that moment the voice of a man was heard above the rush of the water, crying out in measured accents—

“In manus tuas, Domine! commendo animam meam!”

“Merciful Father!” cried Marianita, “I see them no more, the waters are over them both!”

For a moment a death-like silence reigned in the apartment, broken only by the groaning of the waters, and the shouts of those clustering upon the azotéa without.

Gertrudis, prostrate amidst the tresses of her dishevelled hair, was no longer able to give utterance to a word even in prayer.

The voice of Marianita once more aroused her.

“Now I see them again,” continued she, “but no, only one! There is only one of them in the saddle. It is the taller one—he with the moustache. The other is gone. No! I see him, but he is dismounted, and borne off upon the flood. There! the other has seized hold of him! he raises him up, and draws him across his horse. What a powerful arm the brave man must have—he lifts the other like a child! The horse too appears strong as his master. How gallantly he breasts the flood with both men upon his back! What a strange sound comes from his nostrils! Now they are heading for the walls. Santissima Virgen! will you allow this brave cavalier to perish? he who overcomes that which has rooted up the trees of the forest?”

“Oh!” cried Gertrudis, recovering her strength, and speaking in a burst of passionate pride; “it is Don Rafael, I am sure! No other could perform such a deed!”

Her heart suddenly sank again, as she observed that her sister once more spoke in a tone of anguish.

“Alas, alas!” cried Marianita, “an enormous tree is drifting towards them! Oh! it will strike the horse! they will be overwhelmed by it.”

“Angel, whose name he bears!” shrieked Gertrudis, “angel, protect him! Virgin Mary, appease the rage of the waters, and shield him from destruction! Holy Virgin, save him, and I vow to sacrifice my hair for his life!”

This was the most precious offering the young Creole could think of making to the Virgin, and as if the vow had been accepted, the voice of Marianita was at that moment heard in a more cheerful tone.

“Blessed be God!” exclaimed she, “they will yet be saved! A dozen lazoes are around the tree. They have been thrown by people from the house. Good! the trunk no longer rolls onward. It is checked and held by the ropes. The brave horseman might easily mount upon it. But no! he will not abandon his noble horse, nor the man he is holding in his arms. See, he is riding around the tree, his brave steed plunging through the water with all his strength. Once more he is breasting the flood—on—on—ah! hear those shouts of triumph! He is up to the walls! he is saved!”

A loud triumphant cheer rising from below, and blending with a similar cry that pealed along the roof of the hacienda, confirmed the words of Marianita; and the two sisters rushing together became locked in a mutual embrace.

“Ah, Gertrudis!” said Marianita, after a moment, “you have vowed your hair to the Virgin? your beautiful hair, worth a kingdom!”

“Yes,” responded Gertrudis, “and, were it worth a world, I should have given it all the same for the life of my noble Don Rafael. Ah! yes; and he shall cut it from my head with his own hands!”