Chapter 46 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

A Walking Corpse.

While the mass was being performed in the Piazza, the Spanish sentries, who guarded the trenches outside, could distinctly hear the voices of those who took part in it; and could even distinguish the words of the sacred song, which alone broke the silence of the night.

The sentinel whose post was nearest to the entrenchments of the town, had for his companions a number of dead bodies of the enemy, who had fallen during a sortie of the insurgents, and whose corpses their comrades had no opportunity of interring. These, as already mentioned, were all more or less mutilated by their cruel foes, who oft-times revenged themselves on the dead for defeats they had suffered from the living.

The sentry in question walked to and fro upon his prescribed rounds, alternately turning face and back upon the mangled corpses. On each occasion, as he faced round half mechanically he counted them, by way of killing the time, at the same time preserving between them and himself a respectable distance.

After a short while spent in this melancholy pastime, the sounds accompanying the ceremony of the mass attracted his attention; and, as a change, he commenced endeavouring to make out the words that were being spoken or chaunted.

A distant voice exclaimed—

“A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right-hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.”

“What the devil can it mean?” soliloquised the soldier. “Latin it must be! Some prayer for these dead rebels, I suppose!”

While thus alluding to the corpses that lay near, he once more glanced towards them. All at once it appeared to him that their number had increased!

“I must have made a mistake,” muttered he to himself; “I surely counted only nine of them a moment ago; and yet now there was surely ten—one, two, three—yes, ten!”

He again lent his ears to listen to the chaunting of the psalm—

“Thou shalt tread upon the lion and the adder; the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under foot.”

“Ah!” exclaimed the sentry, “they are talking of dragoons—the Queen’s dragoons, I suppose?”

On making this remark, he paused suddenly in his steps. He had been timing his paces with that regular tread habitual to sentries, and in such a fashion as to maintain the same distance between himself and the corpses—which he had no inclination to approach. This time, on turning his face, it appeared to him that he had got much nearer to one of them; and at the next turn nearer still! This induced him to count the steps he was taking; and though on each round he made exactly the same number, he could not resist the conviction that he was constantly approximating to the corpse. Either he must be mistaken, or the dead body must have moved from its place! The latter was, of course, the more probable supposition; but, to assure himself, he approached the corpse to examine it.

The dead man was lying upon his side; and a blotch of crimson colour conspicuous behind his cheek, marked the place where his ear had been cropped off.

A brief examination satisfied the sentry that the man was dead. It followed, therefore, that he himself must have been labouring under an illusion as to the distance. He almost gave way to an impulse to thrust his bayonet through the corpse; but a dead body, seen under the shadows of night, inspires a certain air of imposing solemnity, which repels profanation; and this, acting upon the spirit of the sentinel, hindered him from yielding to the temptation.

“If it were possible for dead men to get upon their legs and walk, I should say these fellows could do so. I am almost sure I counted only nine at first. Now there are ten; and devil take me if that fellow, whom I have examined, does not look as if he wished to have a chat with me, for the fun of the thing. Carrambo! the voices of those rebels in the town are not very gay at the best; but for all that they are pleasanter to bear than the silence of these companions here. There goes the sing-song again!”

The chaunt continued—

“Lift your hands through the night, and bless the Lord. His truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid of the terror by night!”

Although to the ears of the sentry the chaunting of the besieged was merry as a drinking song compared with the melancholy silence of the dead bodies, yet the time seemed long enough to him; and every now and then he looked towards the camp, in hopes of hearing some sound that would indicate the approach of the relief guard.

None was heard; and he continued to walk his round, as before measuring the ground with exact steps.

The dead body which was nearest appeared to remain in the same place; and the mind of the soldier was becoming gradually tranquillised, when all at once, on turning sharply round, he perceived that this corpse was no longer where he had last seen it. At the same instant his eye caught the shadow of an upright figure gliding rapidly off, in the direction of the town!

Terror at the unexpected resurrection hindered him for a while from making any movement; and when this had passed, and he was able to reflect more calmly, he comprehended all. He had simply been duped by an Indian ruse; which explained the mysterious addition to the number of the corpses, and the lessened distance between himself and that which had been lying nearest.

It was now too late to arrest the progress of the Indian by firing after him; and, as the giving an alarm would only be to disclose his own negligence, the sentry prudently maintained silence, and permitted the man to continue his course.

To account for the absence of ears, which had led the soldier to mistake the Indian for a corpse, it is necessary to mention an episode of the insurrectionary war, which had happened some weeks before. The scene of the episode was the village of Yanguitlan, where the cruel Spanish general, Regules, having captured a number of Indian insurgents, had caused the ears of a score of them to be cropped off, so close to their heads, that many of them died of the haemorrhage which followed. The others succeeded in making their way to Huajapam; and the Indian, who had so cleverly duped the Spanish sentry—and who was no other than the messenger whose return was at that moment being prayed for within the town—was one of the survivors of the horrible outrage.

It was to this affair that Caldelas had derisively alluded during the sitting of the war council.

“Mil Rayos!” hissed out the sentry, in a frenzy of rage and chagrin; “Demonios! there may be more of these fellows alive! I shall take care that no other gets to his feet, and runs off like the one who has so cleverly tricked me. Now, then!”

Saying these words the sentry turned his fusil in his hands; and, rushing towards the corpses, did not leave off thrusting till he had passed his bayonet two or three times through each of them.

Not one of the bodies showed the slightest signs of life; and the only sounds that troubled the tranquillity of the scene, were the angry breathings of the soldier, as he performed his ghastly work, and the chaunting of the besieged that still swelled in melancholy intonation upon the night air.

“Chaunt away, you cowardly devils,” cried the terrified soldier; “chaunt away! You have reason, if it were only to mock me for keeping such careful guard over you. Chingarito!”

And the Spaniard, as he uttered this emphatic shibboleth, gnashed his teeth with vexation.

Shortly after, the voices within the Piazza became hushed. As we have stated, the messenger had arrived, and delivered his welcome tidings to the insurgent leader.