Chapter 48 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Morn of the Battle.

Not until several hours after the arrival of Don Cornelio did the insurgent Colonel warn his troops of the coming event. Then they were instructed to be ready at the first dawn of day, for a sortie against the Royalist camp—which at the same instant of time was to be attacked by Morelos on the opposite side.

While the shadows of night were still hanging above the beleaguered town, a singular noise was heard proceeding from the Piazza. It resembled the creaking of a watchman’s rattle, or rather half-a-dozen of these instruments that had been sprung together. Such in reality it was: for since the church bells had been converted into cannon, the rattles of the serenos had been substituted as a means by which to summon the inhabitants to prayers!

According to the monastic regulation, which Trujano had imposed upon the besieged, they were each day called together to oration. On this morning, however, their reunion was earlier than usual: since it had for its object not only the ordinary prayers, but preparation for the combat that was to decide the issue of a long and irksome siege.

At the same hour the Royalist camp was aroused by the beating of drums and bugles sounding the reveille; while behind the chain of hills that bounded the plain Morelos was silently setting his army in motion.

In a few minutes the Piazza of Huajapam was filled with citizens and soldiers, all armed for the fight. They stood in silent groups, awaiting the prayer that would endue them with the necessary energy and enthusiasm. The horsemen were dismounted—each man standing by the head of his horse, and in the order in which they were accustomed to range themselves.

Trujano appeared in his turn, his countenance solemn, yet smiling, with confidence in his heart as upon his lips. He was armed, according to his custom, with a long two-edged sword, which he had oft-times wielded with terrible effect. By his side marched Captain Lantejas, who for the time being was acting as an aide-de-camp. Behind them came a soldier, holding in hand two horses fully equipped for the field. One of these was the war-horse of Trujano himself; the other was intended for the aide-de-camp. Over the withers of the animal destined for the ex-student of theology rose a long lance, strapped to the stirrup and the pummel of the saddle.

Don Cornelio would have had a difficulty in declaring why he had armed himself in this fashion. In reality, the lance was not a weapon of his own choosing, since he had never had any practice in the handling of one; but the horse had been brought to him thus equipped, and he passively accepted the lance, for the same reason that he was allowing himself to be led into the fight:—because he could not help it.

The matin prayers were not extended to any great length of time. The dawn was already commencing to show itself in the east; and it would not be a great while before the sun would cast his golden bearing over the plains of Huajapam.

The religious insurgent was deeply versed in Scripture. Many portions of the Bible were so familiar to him, that he could correctly repeat them without referring to the sacred book. In a voice, every tone of which was heard to the most distant corner of the Piazza, he repeated the following verses—the meaning of which was rendered more solemn by the circumstances under which they were recited:—

“The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light. The dawn is come to those who dwell in the region of the shadow of death.”

“Lord, thou hast blessed thy land; thou hast delivered Jacob from captivity. Glory to the most high.”

A thousand voices repeated “Glory to the most high!”

By little and little the eastern horizon exhibited a brighter dawn; and the clouds that floated over the heads of those people so piously bent, becoming tinged with purple, announced the rising of the sun.

It will be remembered that, at the council of war, the Spanish general had decided not to make his attack till after the hour of noon. No preparations, therefore, had as yet been made in the Royalist camp.

As Bonavia was still ignorant both of the proximity of Morelos and Trujano’s intention to make a sortie, the double attack was likely to fall upon the Spanish camp with the suddenness of a thunderbolt.

The Spanish army was divided into three brigades, that might almost be said to occupy three separate encampments. The first, commanded by Regules, held position nearest to the walls of the town. The second, under the immediate orders of Bonavia himself, occupied the centre; while the third, in command of Caldelas, formed the rearguard.

According to this disposition, Trujano, in sallying from the town, would come immediately into collision with the brigade of Regules; while Morelos, approaching from the mountains, would direct his attack against that of Caldelas. In this case, Bonavia, from the centre, could march to the assistance of whichever of his two brigadiers should stand most in need of it.

The Colonel Tres-Villas was second in command in the brigade of Caldelas, and his tent was of course in the rear.

During the night he had slept but little.

Sometimes during a storm the thick mantle of clouds which covers the sky breaks suddenly apart, disclosing an almost imperceptible portion of the azure canopy. Only for a moment the blue spot is visible, after which the dull vapoury mass closes over it, and again hides it from view.

Such was the ray of hope that had lately shone into the heart of Don Rafael. His habitual melancholy had assumed the ascendant, and the cloud had returned.

The man who passionately loves, and he who scarce loves at all, are equally unable to tell when their love is reciprocated. His violent passion blinds the judgment of the one; while indifference renders the other inattentive. Neither is capable of perceiving the tokens of love which he may have inspired, and which pass unnoticed before his eyes.

In the former situation was Don Rafael. Despite the proofs which Gertrudis had given him, his thought was, not that he was no longer loved, but that he had never been loved at all! He, who had almost sacrificed his love to his pride, could not perceive that the pride of a woman may also have its days of revolt against her heart. Hence arose the profound discouragement which had taken possession of him, and extinguished the ray of hope that had gleamed for a moment in his breast.

Wearied with tossing upon a sleepless couch, he rose at the first call of the reveille bugle; and ordering his horse to be saddled, he rode forth from the camp, in hopes that a ride would afford some distraction to his thoughts.

The aspect of the desolated fields—from which every vestige of a crop had disappeared—reminded him of his own ruined hopes: like the bud of a flower plucked from its stem, before it had time to blossom.

Occupied with such reflections, he had ridden nearly a league beyond the lines of the camp, without taking note of the distance. In the midst of the deep silence which reigned around him, he all at once heard a noise—at first low, but gradually becoming louder. This instantly roused him from his reverie—causing him to draw bridle and listen.

During the different campaigns he had made, Don Rafael had learnt to distinguish all the sounds which indicate the march of a corps d’armée. The cadenced hoof-stroke, the distant rumbling of gun-carriages and caissons, the neighing of horses, and the clanking of steel sabres were all familiar to his ear—and proclaimed to him the movement of troops, as plainly as if they were passing before his eyes.

He had no doubt that what he now heard was the approach of a body of the insurgents, advancing to the relief of the town. The alarm given by the sentinels upon the preceding night—the death of one of the number—the vivas and other strange exclamations of the besieged, within the town—left him no room to question the correctness of his conjecture.

Sure of the fact—and not wishing to lose a moment by listening longer—he wheeled around; and, putting spurs to his horse, galloped back to the camp where, on his arrival, he at once gave the alarm.