Chapter 23 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Honest Muleteer.

On the same day in which the student of theology arrived at the Hacienda las Palmas, and about four o’clock in the afternoon—just after the hour of dinner—the different members of the family, along with their guests, were assembled in one of the apartments of the mansion. It was the grand sala or reception room, opening by double glass doors upon a garden filled with flowering plants, and beautiful shade trees.

Two individuals, already known to the reader, were absent from this reunion. One was the student himself, who, notwithstanding that he was now in perfect security, had so delivered himself up to the remembrance of the dangers he had encountered while reclining under his terrible daïs of tigers and serpents, that he had been seized with a violent fever, and was now confined to his bed.

The other absentee was Marianita, who, on pretext of taking a look at the great ocean of waters—but in reality to ascertain whether the bark of Don Fernando was not yet in sight—had gone up to the azotéa.

Don Mariano, with that tranquillity of mind, which the possession of wealth usually produces—assuring the rich proprietor against the future—was seated in a large leathern fauteuil, smoking his cigar, and occasionally balancing himself on the hind legs of the chair.

Beside him stood a small table of ornamental wood, on which was placed a cup of Chinese porcelain containing coffee. It was of the kind known among Spanish-Americans as café de siesta; on the principle, no doubt, lucus a non lucendo: since it is usually so strong that a single cup of it is sufficient to rob one of the power of sleep for a period of at least twenty-four hours.

In the doorway opening into the garden stood Don Rafael, who appeared to be watching the evolutions of the parroquets, amidst the branches of the pomegranates, with all the interest of a naturalist.

Though his countenance was calm, his heart was trembling at the thought of the entretien he had proposed on bringing about.

Gertrudis, with head inclined, was seated near by, occupied with the embroidery of one of those scarfs of white cambric, which the Mexican gentlemen are accustomed to wear over their shoulders, after the fashion of the Arab burnouse, to protect them from the too fierce rays of the sun.

Despite the tranquil silence of the haciendado, at intervals a cloud might have been observed upon his brow; while the pale countenance of Don Rafael also exhibited a certain anxiety, belying the expression of indifference which he affected.

The spirit of Gertrudis in reality was not more calm. A secret voice whispered to her that Don Rafael was about to say something; and that same voice told her it was some sweet prelude of love. Nevertheless, despite the quick rush of her Creole blood, and the sudden quivering that rose from her heart to her cheeks, she succeeded in concealing her thoughts under that mask of womanly serenity which the eye of man is not sufficiently skilful to penetrate.

The only individual present whose countenance was in conformity with his thoughts, was the arriero—Don Valerio Trujano.

With hat in hand, and standing in front of the haciendado, he had come to say adios, and thank Don Mariano for the hospitality his house had afforded him.

To that easy gracefulness of manners common to all classes in Spanish-America, there was united in the person of the arriero a certain imposing severity of countenance, which, however, he could temper at will by the aid of a pair of eyes of mild and benevolent expression.

Notwithstanding that his social position was not equal to that of his host—for Mexico had not yet become republican—Valerio Trujano was not regarded as an ordinary guest either by Don Mariano or his daughters.

Independent of his reputation for honesty beyond suspicion—for profound piety as well—which he enjoyed throughout the whole country, he possessed other high qualities that had entitled him to universal esteem. The generosity and courage which he had exhibited on the preceding evening—when assisting a stranger at the risk of his own life—had only added to the great respect already entertained for him by the inmates of the Hacienda las Palmas.

Although the dragoon officer had in some measure requited the service, by afterwards snatching the arriero from the jaws of the devouring flood, he did not on that account feel a whit less grateful. Neither did Gertrudis, who with her thoughts of love had already mingled her prayers for him, who had a just title to be called the saviour of Don Rafael’s life.

The man, Valerio Trujano, whose nature at a later period became immortalised by the siege of Huajapam, was at this time about forty years of age; but his fine delicate features, overshadowed by an abundance of glossy black hair, gave him the appearance of being much younger.

“Señor Don Mariano,” said he, on coming into the presence of the haciendado, “I have come to bid adios, and thank you for your hospitality.”

“What!” exclaimed Don Mariano, “surely you are not going to leave us so soon? No, no.”

Gertrudis at the same time expressed her unwillingness that he should depart.

“I must leave you, Don Mariano,” answered the arriero. “The man who has business to attend to is not always his own master. When his heart impels him to turn to the right, his affairs often carry him to the left. He who is in debt, is still less master of himself.”

“You owe a sum of money, then?” said Don Rafael, interrogatively, at the same time advancing towards the arriero and offering him his hand. “Why could you not have told me of this? Whatever be the amount, I—”

“Ah! cavallero,” interrupted Trujano, with a smile, “it is a bad plan to borrow from one for the purpose of paying another. I could not think of accepting a loan. It is not from pride, but a sense of duty that I decline your generous offer; and I hope you will not be offended. The sum I owe is not a very heavy one—a few hundred dollars. Since it has pleased God that my mules should find a shelter in the stables of Don Mariano, and thus escape the inundation, I can now take the road through the mountains to Oajaca, where the money I shall receive for my recua will, I hope, entirely clear me from debt.”

“What!” cried Don Mariano, in a tone of surprise, “do you talk of selling your mules—the only means you have of gaining your livelihood?”

“Yes,” modestly replied the muleteer, “I intend selling them. I do so in order that I may be able to go where my vocation calls me. I should have gone already; but being in debt up to this time, my life belonged to my creditors rather than to myself, and I had not the right to expose it to danger.”

“To expose your life?” interrogated Gertrudis, with an accent that bespoke her interest in the brave man.

“Just so, Señorita,” responded the arriero. “I have seen the heads of Lopez and Armenta exposed upon the high road of San Luis del Rey. Who knows but that my own may soon figure beside them? I speak openly,” continued Trujano, looking round upon his audience, “and as if before God. I know that my host, no more than God himself, would betray a secret thus confided to him.”

“Of course not,” rejoined Don Mariano, with an air of hospitable simplicity such as characterised the earlier ages. “But here,” he continued, “we are one and all of us devoted to the cause of our country’s liberty; and we shall pray for those who aid her in obtaining it.”

“We shall do more than that,” said Tres-Villas in his turn; “we shall lend our help to her. It is the duty of every Mexican who can wield a sword and ride a horse.”

“May all those who raise an arm in favour of Spain!” cried Gertrudis, her eyes flashing with patriotic enthusiasm, “may they be branded with infamy and disgrace! may they find neither a roof to shelter them, nor a woman to smile upon them! may the contempt of those they love be the reward of every traitor to his country!”

“If all our young girls were like you,” said Trujano, looking gratefully towards Gertrudis, “our triumph would soon be attained. Where is the man who would not be proud to risk his life for one smile of your pretty lips, Señorita, or one look from your beautiful eyes?”

As the arriero said this, he glanced significantly towards the young officer. Gertrudis hung her head, happy at hearing this homage rendered to her beauty in presence of the man in whose eyes she alone cared to appear beautiful.

After a pause Trujano continued: “Dios y Libertad! (God and Liberty!) that is my motto. Had I been in a condition sooner to take up the cause of my country, I should have done so—if only to restrain the excesses that have already sullied it. No doubt you have heard of them, Señor Don Mariano?”

“I have,” replied the haciendado; and the shadow that at that moment passed over his brow told that the news had troubled him.

“The blood of innocent Spaniards has been shed,” continued the muleteer, “men who had no ill-will towards our cause; and, shame to say, the only one in this our province who now carries the banner of the insurrection is the worthless wretch, Antonio Valdez.”

“Antonio Valdez!” cried Don Rafael, interrupting him. “Do you mean Valdez, a vaquero of Don Luis Tres-Villas—my father?”

“The same,” replied Don Mariano. “May it please God to make him remember that his master always treated him with kindness!”

The air of uneasiness with which Don Mariano pronounced these words did not escape Don Rafael.

“Do you think, then,” said he, in a tone that testified his alarm, “do you think that my father, whose liberal opinions are known to every one, is in any danger from the insurgents?”

“No, I hope not,” replied Don Mariano. “Señor Valerio,” said Don Rafael, turning to interrogate the arriero; “do you know how many men this fellow, Antonio Valdez, may have under his command?”

“Fifty, I have heard; but I think it likely his band may have been greatly increased by accessions among the country-people—who have suffered even more than those of the town from the oppressions of the Spaniards.”

“Señor Don Mariano,” said the officer, in a voice trembling with emotion, “nothing less than news similar to what I have just now heard could have tempted me to abridge a sojourn under your roof, which I should have been only too happy to have prolonged; but when one’s father is in danger—even to the risk of life—his son’s place should be by his side. Is it not so, Doña Gertrudis?”

On hearing the first words of Don Rafael’s speech, which announced the intention of a precipitate departure, a cry of anguish had almost escaped from the lips of the young girl. With the heroism of a woman’s heart she had repressed it; and stood silent with her eyes fixed upon the floor.

“Yes, yes!” murmured she, replying to Don Rafael’s question in a low but firm voice.

There was an interval of silence, during which a sort of sinister presentiment agitated the spirits of the four personages present. The homicidal breath of civil war was already commencing to make itself felt within the domestic circle.

Trujano was the first to recommence the conversation—his eyes gleaming as he spoke like one of the ancient prophets moved by Divine inspiration.

“This morning,” said he, “an humble servant of the Most High, the obscure priest of a poor village, has left you to offer up his prayers for the insurgent cause. And now an instrument, not less humble, by the will of God takes leave of you to offer it his arm, and if need be, his life. Pray for them! good and beautiful Madonna!” he continued, addressing himself to Gertrudis, and speaking with that religious and poetical fervour which was the leading trait in his character; “pray for them; and perhaps it will please the Almighty to show that from the very dust He can raise the power that may hurl the tyrant from his throne.”

On saying these words, the arriero respectfully pressed the hands that were held out to him, and then walked out of the sala, followed by Don Mariano.