Chapter 29 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

A Course of Study Interrupted.

In the early part of January, 1812—about fifteen months after the scenes detailed as occurring near the hacienda Las Palmas—two men might have been seen face to face—one seated behind a rude deal table covered with charts and letters—the other standing in front, hat in hand.

This tableau was within a tent—the least ragged and largest, among a number of others that formed an encampment on the banks of the river Sabana, at a short distance from the port of Acapulco.

The person seated wore upon his head a checked cotton kerchief while his shoulders were covered with a jaqueta of white linen. It would have been difficult for any one not knowing him, to recognise in this plainly-dressed individual the commander-in-chief of the insurgent army encamped around, and still more difficult perhaps to have believed that he was the ci-devant “cura” of Caracuaro, Don José Maria Morelos y Pavon. And yet it was he.

Yes, the humble curate had raised the standard of independence in the southern provinces; had long been carrying it with success; and at this moment he was commander-in-chief of the insurgent forces besieging Acapulco—that very town he had been ironically empowered to take.

But notwithstanding the eccentric changes which civil war produces in the situations of men, the reader cannot be otherwise than greatly astonished when told, that the gentleman who stood in front of Morelos, encased in the somewhat elegant uniform of a lieutenant of cavalry, was the ci-devant student of theology—Don Cornelio Lantejas.

By what magical interference had the timid student of theology been transformed into an officer of dragoons—in the army of the insurgents, too, towards whose cause he had shown himself but indifferently affected?

To explain this unexpected metamorphosis, it will be necessary to enter into some details, continuing the history of the student from the time when we left him on a fevered couch in the hacienda of Las Palmas, till that hour when we find him in the marquee of the insurgent general.

It may be stated, in advance, however, that the extraordinary transformation which we have noticed, was entirely owing to a new act of parsimonious economy upon the part of Don Cornelio’s father, conducting him into a series of perilous mishaps and desperate dangers, to which his adventure with the jaguars and rattlesnakes, while suspended between the two tamarinds, was nothing more, according to the simile of Sancho Panza, than “tortus y pan pintado” (couleur de rose). To proceed, then, with the promised details.

On recovering from his temporary illness, the student travelled on to the dwelling of his uncle. He had been mounted in a more becoming manner, on a fine young horse, which Don Mariano—who owned some thousands of the like—had presented to him.

Having sounded the dispositions of the uncle, according to instructions, he made all haste in returning to his father’s house; which he reached in less than half the time he had employed upon his previous journey. Too soon, perhaps; for, had he been delayed, as before, two months upon the route, he might have escaped the series of frightful perils through which he was afterwards compelled to pass.

Before setting out on his mission to the bachelor uncle, he had finished his preliminary studies for the ecclesiastical calling; and it only remained for him to return to the college, and present his thesis before the faculty of examiners, to take out his orders. For this purpose it was necessary he should repair to Valladolid, where the university was. To make the journey, his father now provided him with an old she-mule of a most unamiable disposition, which he had obtained in exchange for the young horse—the gift of Don Mariano—with a goodly number of dollars in “boot.”

Thus mounted, the student started on his new journey—carrying with him the paternal blessing, and a long chapter of instructions, as to how he should manage his mule, and keep himself clear of all meddling with insurrectionary matters.

After journeying for two days along the route to Valladolid, he had arrived within sight of the straggling huts that compose the little pueblita of Caracuaro, when three horsemen appeared upon the road in front, and riding towards him.

The student was at the moment occupied in passing through his mind the rudiments of his theological education—which he had gained from a crowd of books; and which, with some uneasiness, he found had been well nigh driven out of his head by his late adventures in the South.

Just at that moment, when he was paying not the slightest attention to his mule, the skittish animal, frightened by the approach of the horsemen, threw up her hind quarters, and pitched her rider upon the road. As the latter fell, his head came in contact with a large stone, and with such violence as to deprive him of consciousness.

On coming to his senses again, he found himself seated against the bank of the causeway, his head badly bruised, and above all without his mule. The animal, profiting by the opportunity when the three horsemen had alighted to look after her spilt rider, had headed about, and taken the back track at full gallop!

Of the three horsemen, one appeared to be the master, and the other two his attendants.

“My son!” said the first, addressing the student, “your situation, without being dangerous, is nevertheless sufficiently serious. You will stand in need of that which you cannot obtain in the poor village of Caracuaro, which is, moreover, nearly two leagues distant. The best thing you can do is to mount behind one of my attendants, and ride back with us to the hacienda of San Diego, which we shall reach in an hour. Your mule has taken that direction; and I shall have her caught for you by the vaqueros of the hacienda. You will need a day or two of repose, which you can there obtain. Afterwards you can resume your route. Where were you going?”

“To Valladolid,” replied Lantejas. “I was on my way to the University, to enter into holy orders.”

“Indeed! then we are of the same robe,” rejoined the horseman with a smile. “I myself am the unworthy curate of Caracuaro—Don José Maria Morelos—a name, I presume, you have never heard before.”

In truth the afterwards illustrious Morelos was at this time entirely unknown to fame, and of course Don Cornelio had never heard his name.

The student was no little astonished at the appearance of the man who had thus announced himself as the cura of Caracuaro. For one of the clerical calling his costume was altogether singular—to say nothing of its being rather shabby. A double-barrelled gun, with one barrel broken, hung from his saddle-bow, and an old rusty sabre in a common leathern scabbard dangled against his horse’s side.

The two domestics were still more plainly attired; and each carried in his hand a huge brass blunderbuss!

“And you, Señor padre?” inquired the student in turn. “Where are you going, may I ask?”

“I? Well,” replied the cura, smiling as he spoke, “just as I have told you—to the hacienda of San Diego. After that to Acapulco—to capture the town and citadel in obedience to an order I have received.”

Such were at this time the equipment and warlike resources of the general, whose name afterwards obtained such heroic renown!

His response caused the candidate for holy orders to open his eyes to the widest. He fancied that in the confusion of his head he had not clearly comprehended the meaning of the cura’s speech; and he preferred this fancy to the alternative of supposing that the worthy priest of Caracuaro was himself suffering from mental aberration.

“What! you an insurgent?” inquired Lantejas, not without some apprehension.

“Very true. I am, and have been for a long time.”

As neither upon the head of the cura, nor yet of his two servants, there appeared those diabolical ornaments which had been promised them by the Lord Bishop of Oajaca, Don Cornelio began to think that perhaps all insurgents were not delivered over to the devil; and, as there was no alternative, he accepted the offer made to him, and mounted behind one of the attendants. He had made up his mind, however, not to accompany the curate of Caracuaro further than the hacienda of San Diego, and to make as short a stay as possible in such suspicious company. But he had scarcely completed this satisfactory arrangement with his conscience, when the burning rays of the sun shining down upon his head, caused a ferment in his brain of so strange a character—that not only did the idea of this insurrection, excited by priests, appear right and natural, but he commenced chanting at the top of his voice a sort of improvised war song, in which the King of Spain was mentioned in no very eulogistic terms!

From that time, till his arrival at the hacienda of San Diego, the student was altogether unconscious of what passed—and for several days after, during which he remained under the influence of a burning fever. He had only a vague remembrance of ugly dreams, in which he appeared constantly surrounded by armed men, and as if he was tossing about on a stormy sea!

At length his consciousness returned, and on looking around he was astonished to find himself in a small and poorly furnished chamber. He now remembered his tumble from the mule, and his encounter with the cura of Caracuaro. Finally, feeling himself strong enough to rise from his couch, he got up, and staggered towards the window—for the purpose of ascertaining the nature of a noisy tumult that was heard outside.

The courtyard under the window was filled with armed men—some afoot, others on horseback. Lances with gay pennons, sabres, guns, and other weapons were seen on all sides, glancing under the sunbeams. The horses were rearing and neighing—the men talking loudly—in short, the scene resembled the temporary halt of a corps d’armée.

His weakness soon compelled the invalid to return to his couch, where he lay awaiting impatiently—the more so that he was half-famished with hunger—the coming of some one who could give him an explanation of the strange circumstances by which he was surrounded.

Shortly after, a man entered the chamber, whom the student recognised as one of the attendants of the cura of Caracuaro. This man had come, on the part of his master, to inquire, the state of the invalid’s health.

“Where am I, friend? tell me that,” said Lantejas, after having answered the inquiries of the servant.

“At the hacienda of San Luis.”

The student summoned all his recollections; but these only carried him as far as the hacienda of San Diego.

“You must be mistaken?” said he. “It is the hacienda of San Diego, is it not?”

“Oh, no,” replied the domestic. “We left San Diego yesterday; we were no longer safe there. What folly of you, señor, to act as you did! No matter how good a patriot one may be, it’s not necessary to proclaim it from the housetops.”

“I do not comprehend you, my good friend,” said Lantejas. “Perhaps it is the fever that is still troubling my head.”

“What I have said is clear enough,” rejoined the domestic. “We were obliged to quit San Diego, where the royalist troops would have arrested us—on account of the loud declaration of his political opinions made by a certain Don Cornelio Lantejas.”

“Cornelio Lantejas!” cried the student, in a tone of anguish, “why that’s myself!”

“Por Dios! I well know that. Your honour took good care everybody should know your name: since out of the window of the hacienda you shouted with all your voice—proclaiming my master Generalissimo of all the insurgent forces; and we had the greatest difficulty to hinder you from marching upon Madrid.”

“Madrid—in Spain?”

“Bah! two hundred leagues of sea was nothing to you to traverse. ‘It is I!’ you cried, ‘I, Cornelio Lantejas, who take upon me to strike down the tyrant!’ In fine, we were obliged to decamp, bringing you with us in a litter—for my master would not abandon so zealous a partisan, who had compromised himself, moreover, in the good cause. Well, we have arrived here at San Luis; where, thanks to a strong body of men who have joined us, you may have an opportunity of proclaiming your patriotism as loudly as you please. For yourself, it can do no further harm, since, no doubt, there is a price placed upon your head before this time.”

The student listened with horror, and completely stupefied, to this account of his actions.

“And now, cavallero,” continued the domestic, “my master, whom you were the first to proclaim Generalissimo, has not permitted you to go without your reward. He has appointed you an alferez, and named you to be his aide-de-camp. You will find your commission under the pillow.”

Saying this, the servant left the room, leaving the unhappy alferez crushed beneath the weight of the astounding disclosures he had made to him.