Chapter 24 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Lovers alone.

It may be that the haciendado had reasons for thus leaving his daughter alone with Don Rafael, during the few short moments that should elapse previous to the departure of the young officer.

The voices of the muleteers, who were busily lading the recua of Don Valerio, scarce reached the ears of the lovers, who were now embarrassed by the profound silence that reigned in the sala. It was the first time they had found themselves alone, since the arrival of the officer at the hacienda.

The sun was gilding the tops of the pomegranate trees, where the parroquets were joyously performing their gymnastic exercises; and the breeze which caressed the plants in the garden, wafted into the saloon the perfumes of a thousand flowers. It was a solemn and decisive moment. Gertrudis, happy, yet trembling for the words of love she expected to hear, sat with her face partially concealed behind the folds of her silken reboso. In her fingers she still held the scarf she had been embroidering; but, seeing that this betrayed the trembling of her hand, she placed it on a table by her side, lest Don Rafael might observe the emotion of which he was the author. It was the last effort of virgin pride—its last attempt at resistance before avowing itself overcome.

“Gertrudis!” said Don Rafael, endeavouring to stifle the pulsations of his heart, “I have spoken to your father. I wish to consecrate these few moments—the last I may ever pass in your presence—to an explanation between us. I implore you, then, to speak, as I intend speaking myself, without reserve—without ambiguity.”

“I promise you that, Don Rafael,” responded Gertrudis; “but what mysterious secret have you been communicating to my father?” added she, in a tone of gentle raillery.

“I told him,” replied the lover, “that I had come hither with my heart full of you; that my father’s message summoning me to his presence had been received by me as a voice calling me to bliss: since it gave me this opportunity of once more being near you. I told him how I had hurried over the immense distance that separated us; and how, in order that I might see you an hour sooner, I had disregarded the howling of the jaguars, and the threatening voice of the inundation—”

Don Rafael became silent, perhaps from embarrassment, while Gertrudis still remained in a listening attitude. It was a melody to which she could have listened for ever!

“And when you told my father,” said she, after a pause of silence, “that—that—you loved me—did he exhibit any astonishment at the unexpected revelation?”

“No, not any,” replied the officer, himself a little surprised at the question thus put to him.

“That, then, must have been because I had already told him,” said the young beauty, with a smile as sweet as her voice. “But my father—what answer did he give you?”

“‘My dear Don Rafael,’ said he to me, ‘I would be most happy to see our families united. But this can only be with the consent of Gertrudis, and the free wish of her heart; and I have no reason to think that her heart is yours.’ Those were the terrible words that proceeded from the lips of your father. Gertrudis, do your lips confirm them?”

The voice of Don Rafael quivered as he spoke; and this trembling of a strong man—who never trembled in the presence of danger—was so delicious to the heart of her who loved him, as to hinder her from hastening to make reply.

On hearing the answer which her father had given to Don Rafael, the carnation upon her lips became of a deeper hue. She was biting them to restrain a smile. Assuming an air of gravity, however, which had the effect of rendering her lover still more anxious, she at length made reply—

“Don Rafael!” said she, “you have appealed to my candour, and I shall speak frankly to you. But swear to me that you will not regard my sincerity as a crime.”

“I swear it, Gertrudis! Speak without fear, though your words should crush a heart that is entirely your own.”

“Only on one condition can I speak freely.”

“Name it! it shall be observed.”

“It is, that—while I am making my confession to you, you will keep your eyes fixed upon the tops of those pomegranate trees. Without doing that you might risk not hearing certain things—in short, an avowal—such as you might wish.”

“I shall try to obey you,” answered Don Rafael, turning his gaze towards the tops of the trees, as if about to study the domestic habits of the parroquets, that still continued their evolutions among the branches.

In a timid and trembling voice, Gertrudis commenced—

“One day,” said she, “not very long ago—a young girl made a vow to the Virgin, to save the man she loved from fearful danger that threatened him. Don’t you think, Don Rafael, that that man was dearly loved?”

“That depends upon the nature of the vow,” replied the officer.

“You shall hear it. The young girl promised to the Virgin, that if her lover should escape from the danger, she would cause him to cut the hair—Oh! if you look at me I cannot go on—she would cause him to cut the hair from her head with his own hands—the long tresses which she herself highly valued, and which he had so passionately admired. In your opinion, was that man beloved?”

“Oh! who would not be proud to be so loved?” cried Don Rafael, casting a glance at his questioner that moved her to the depths of her soul.

“I have not yet finished,” said she. “Turn your eyes upon the trees, or perhaps you may not hear the end of my tale, and that might vex you. When this young girl, who had not hesitated to sacrifice her hair—the object of her constant care—the long silken tresses that encircled her head like the diadem of a queen, and which, perhaps, were, in her lover’s eyes, her greatest embellishment—when this poor girl will have cut—had cut them off, I should say—do you believe that her lover—you may look at me now, Don Rafael—I give you permission—do you believe that he would still love her as before?”

Don Rafael faced round suddenly at the question; not that he yet comprehended its import; but the tone of melancholy in which Gertrudis was speaking had profoundly moved him.

A tender tear—a tear of envy for the lot of this unknown, so passionately loved—glistened in his eye, as he made reply—

“Oh, Gertrudis!” said he, “no devotion could repay such a sacrifice as that; and the young girl you speak of, however beautiful she might be, could not be otherwise than an angel in the eyes of her lover.”

Gertrudis pressed her hand over her heart, to stay the flood of joyful emotion that was rushing through it.

After a pause she continued, her voice quivering as she spoke—

“Once more, and for the last time, I desire you to raise your eyes towards heaven. We have reason to be thankful to it.”

While Don Rafael obeyed the direction, Gertrudis permitted the reboso to fall from her shoulders; and with her fingers she removed the comb that imprisoned her shining hair, which, coiled up in two long plaited tresses, encircled her crown like a diadem. These she allowed to drop down at will, until they hung far below her waist. Then seizing in one hand the scissors she had just been using at her work, and with the other covering the crimson blush upon her cheek, she held forth the instrument, at the same time crying out—

“Now, Don Rafael! aid me in keeping my vow, by cutting for me the hair from my head.”

“I?” exclaimed Don Rafael, in whose ear her voice had sounded like the voice of an angel. “I?” repeated he, astounded at the proposal. “Gertrudis! Gertrudis!”

“I have promised it to the Virgin for saving you last night. Now do you comprehend, Don Rafael—my dearly beloved Rafael?”

“Oh, Gertrudis!” cried the lover, in an ecstasy of joy, “you should have prepared me more gradually for so much happiness.”

And kneeling in front of the young girl, he eagerly took hold of her hand, which no longer refused to let him touch it, but, on the contrary, was rather advanced to meet his lips.

“Is it my fault?” said Gertrudis, in a tone of sweet playfulness. “Is it my fault if men are slow at taking a hint? Santissima! for a full quarter of an hour, shameful as it may appear, have I been endeavouring to prepare you for what you call your happiness.” Then suddenly laying aside her playful tone, she continued—“But now, my dear Rafael, I must remember my vow. I have made it, and you must assist me in its accomplishment.”

“But why did you promise your hair?” inquired the lover, with a slight air of chagrin.

“Because I had nothing more valuable to offer in exchange for your life—mine perhaps as well. Oh! I am well repaid for the sacrifice by knowing that you love me. Come, Rafael! take the scissors.”

“Oh! I could never manage with that weak instrument,” said Don Rafael, speaking merely to gain time.

“Ah! are you going to complain of the trouble it will give you?” inquired Gertrudis, bending down towards her lover, who was still kneeling before her—“Come, my brave Rafael! Use these scissors. I command you.”

Don Rafael took the shining instrument in his trembling hand, but still hesitated to use them—like the woodman, who, with his axe raised against some noble tree of the forest he has been ordered to cut down, hesitates before striking the first blow. Gertrudis would have smiled to encourage him, but at that moment, as she looked upon those gorgeous tresses, so long and carefully guarded, and which, if unfolded, would have covered her like a shawl, the poor young girl could not hinder a tear from escaping her.

“Stay, my Rafael—a moment yet,” cried she, while the crimson blush mantled higher upon her cheeks. “I have long desired—dreamt of it as a supreme felicity—to entwine in these poor tresses the man whom I should one day love, and—and—”

Before she could finish speaking, Don Rafael had caught the perfumed tresses between his fingers, and rapturously kissing them, passed them around his neck.

“Now I am ready,” continued she, raising the long plaits that encircled her lover’s cheeks, and setting the captive free. “Go on, Rafael! I am ready.”

“I should never have the courage to commit such a fearful act,” cried the officer, flinging the scissors upon the floor, and crushing them under his heel.

“It must be done, Rafael; it must be done. God will punish me else. Perhaps He may punish me by taking away from me your love.”

“Well, I shall do it,” rejoined the reluctant lover, “but not yet awhile. On my return, Gertrudis. For my sake, leave it over till then.”

The passionate appeal of Don Rafael at length obtained a respite, until the time fixed for his return; which was to be on the morrow—as soon as he should have assured himself of the safety of his father.

While their next meeting was being arranged between the two lovers, Gertrudis suddenly started up, like a young doe that springs from its perfumed lair at the first sound of the hunter’s horn.

“Surely I heard a noise?” said she; “a strange noise. What could it mean?”

Don Rafael, whose senses had been entirely absorbed by his new-found happiness, sprang also to his feet, and stood listening.

They had scarce listened for a dozen seconds, when a well-known sound fell upon the ears of both—though well-known, a sound significant and ominous. It was the report of a gun, quickly followed by several others as if fired in fusillade.

At the same moment, Don Mariano and his daughter Marianita rushed into the room. They, too, had heard the reports, which were in the direction of the hills, and were proceeding to the rear of the hacienda to inquire the cause.

All remained listening and alarmed—Don Rafael, more than even the young girls: for too much happiness has the effect of weakening the heart. The most profound silence reigned throughout the building; for the firing, heard by the servants of the hacienda, had inspired one and all of them with the same mute alarm; just as pigeons asleep upon the tree aroused by the first scream of the kite, remain for some moments terrified and motionless in their places.