Chapter 26 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Vow Performed.

While these incidents were in course of occurrence, the two sisters had returned to their own chamber.

Alarmed by the coincidence, between the melancholy event that had just transpired and the procrastination of her vow, Gertrudis fancied she saw in it the finger of Providence; and, without further hesitation, she, with her own hands, completed the pious but painful sacrifice!

Shrouded under the folds of her reboso, her pale face appeared beneath a single band of hair that encircled her forehead—all that was left of that magnificent chevelure.

Marianita was in tears. It was she one would have thought that had suffered a misfortune; while Gertrudis, whose eyes shone with a sort of melancholy satisfaction for the act she had accomplished, appealed to be endeavouring to console her sister!

“Do not weep, my poor Marianita!” said she. “Perhaps, had it not been for my culpable weakness, in consenting to defer the fulfilment of my vow, this sad affair would not have arisen. Now I am more confident, that whatever danger he may run, God will restore Rafael safe to me. Go and tell him that I wait here to bid him adios. Bring him here, but stay with us yourself. Remember that, sister. Remain here along with us, for I cannot trust my strength. I might never allow him to leave me. Go, dearest, and return quickly!”

Marianita, covering her face with a kerchief, and endeavouring to dry her tears, hastened upon her errand.

Gertrudis, left alone, looked towards the two long plaits which she had placed beside her upon the table. The lips of Don Rafael had kissed them but the moment before; and, perhaps, influenced by this sweet souvenir, the young girl took them up and pressed them repeatedly to her own. Then laying them once more upon the table, she knelt down, to seek in prayer the strength of which she stood in need.

She was still upon her knees when Marianita, followed by Don Rafael, entered the chamber—that virgin sanctuary of the two sisters, where man, except their father, had never before penetrated.

A rapid glance told Don Rafael that the sacrifice had been accomplished. He was already too pale to change countenance.

Gertrudis rose and seated herself upon a fauteuil. Marianita also took a seat, but in a remote corner of the apartment. Don Rafael remained standing.

“Come here, Don Rafael!” said Gertrudis, “come near me. Kneel before me. No!—on one knee!—upon both only before God. So! Place your hands in mine! Look into my eyes.”

Don Rafael obeyed these gentle injunctions without resistance or reluctance. What more could he wish, than thus to bend before her whom he loved? To press those white delicate fingers between his own strong hands? To drink from those swimming eyes as from the fountain of love? What more could man desire?

“Do you remember what you just now said to me, Don Rafael? ‘Oh! Gertrudis, there is no love that could repay such a sacrifice! And however beautiful she might be, that young girl must appear in the eyes of her lover as beautiful as an angel!’ Are you still of the same opinion?” And with a sweet smile the questioner looked down in the face of her lover. “There, hush!” continued she, placing her little hand over his lips, “you need not make reply. Your eyes—you have beautiful eyes, my Rafael!—your eyes answer in the affirmative.”

The simple and tender homage, thus rendered to the personal appearance of her lover, may appear a little brave in the opinion of those who pretend to love a man for the qualities of his mind and heart. I shall not discuss the point. I only design to draw a faithful picture, and exhibit in all its simple exaltation the love of a Creole maiden under the ardent sky of the tropics.

Reassured that she was still beautiful as ever in the eyes of her lover, the young girl proceeded—

“Do not tell me, Rafael, that you will ever love me more than you do now. It is sweet for me to know that you cannot love me more. Now!” she continued with faltering voice—“now we are about to part. I do not know—when one loves one always has fear. Take one of these tresses. I have been so happy while decking it with flowers for you. Take it! Keep it as a token—a souvenir. It will remind you, that you should never cease to love a poor girl, who knew of nothing more precious to offer to God in exchange for your life. The other I shall keep myself, as a talisman. Oh! it is a fearful thing I am now going to say to you. If one day you should cease to love me—if I should know this beyond all doubt—swear to me, Rafael, that, no matter in what place you may be—no matter at what hour it may reach you—when you receive this tress from me, that you will instantly come to see me. This silent messenger will say to you, ‘The woman who sends you this token knows that you no longer love her; but, despite all, she cannot cease to love you, and she desires once more, only once more, to see you kneeling before her’—as you are now, Don Rafael!”

“I swear it,” cried the lover with emphasis. “I swear it; and though I were standing in front of my most mortal foe, with my sword raised to strike him, I should suspend the blow to obey that sacred message!”

“Your oath is registered in Heaven, Don Rafael,” said Gertrudis. “But now the time presses. Accept from me this sun-scarf, which I have embroidered for you. Each thread of the embroidery will recall a thought, a prayer, or a sigh, of which you have been the object. Adieu, my beloved Rafael! You must go; your father may stand in need of your help. What is a mistress when compared with one’s father?”

“It is time,” said Don Rafael, suddenly awakening to a sense of his filial duty, “I shall be gone.”

And yet he remained kneeling at the feet of Gertrudis, ever intending to go, and as often tarrying in his intent, adieu following adieu, like the eternal waves of the ocean!

“Say to him to go, Marianita,” said Gertrudis with a sweet smile, “I have not the courage to tell him. One more kiss, Don Rafael, ere we part! let it be the pledge—”

The ardent pressure of her lover’s lips interrupted her speech. One last fond embrace—a strange commingling of joy and sorrow—one wildly spoken “Adios!” and Don Rafael rushed from the apartment.

The clattering of hoofs, heard shortly after, told that he was galloping away from the hacienda.