Chapter 72 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Enchanted Lake.

It is ten o’clock at night, and a starry heaven is extended over a large expanse of level country—here clothed with virgin forests—there with broad, almost treeless savannas, now and then partaking of the character of marshes and covered with tall reeds. In the midst of this landscape a large lake opens to the view. Its aspect is sombre and sad—its dark, turbid waters scarce reflecting the stars that shine so brilliantly over it; while the waves beating against its sedge-encircled shores, utter only the most lugubrious sounds.

Near the centre of this lake rises a mountain of dark, greenish colour, resembling an immense cairn constructed by the hands of Titans. Upon its summit rests a cloud of white fog collected by evaporation from the surrounding water, which has been condensed by the freshness of the night. The numerous dark fissures distinguishable along the sides of this gigantic hill give it the appearance of being a mass of lava—the débris vomited forth by some extinct volcano—and at night, when the moon’s rays fall obliquely upon its flanks, it presents a vague resemblance to the scales of an alligator. At the same time that this fancy is suggested, the huge saurian itself may be heard, plunging among the reeds at its foot, and causing their culms to rattle against the rhomboid protuberances of his hideous carapace.

The mournful and desolate aspect of this lake, as well as of the shores that surround it—the eternal silence that reigns over it—the bleak, lonely appearance of its island mountain—all combine to produce upon the spectator an irresistible impression of melancholy; and a spirit of superstitious inclinings cannot help giving way to thoughts of the supernatural. No wonder that in such a place the ancient Aztec priests should have erected an altar for their sanguinary sacrifices; and so strong is tradition, that even in modern times the lake of Ostuta and the mountain of Monopostiac, are invested with supernatural attributes, and regarded by the vulgar with feelings of awe.

It was to the shores of this lake that the domestic of Don Mariano de Silva had conducted his master, certain of finding there a secure resting-place for the night. He knew that the country surrounding the lake was entirely uninhabited; and the brigands of Arroyo would scarce extend their excursions to such an unprofitable foraging ground. The southern end of the lake was bordered by a strip of forest; and it was in this forest that Don Mariano had determined to make halt for the night.

A small glade surrounded by trees of many species was chosen by the travellers as a place of their bivouac. The ground was covered with a carpet of soft grass, and many flowering shrubs and blossoming llianas, supported by the trees that grew around, yielded to the night an odorous incense that was wafted over the glade. It was, in fact, a bower made by the hand of nature, over which was extended the dark blue canopy of the sky, studded with its millions of scintillating stars.

Don Mariano had selected this lovely spot with a design—that of distracting his daughter’s spirit from the sad reflections which the more gloomy portions of the forest might otherwise have called up.

Shortly after halting, Doña Gertrudis had fallen asleep in her litera—through the curtains of which, only half closed, might be seen her soft cheek, white almost as the pillow upon which it lay.

Nature had almost repaired the outrage she had voluntarily committed on her long dark tresses; but the life within her seemed fast hastening to an end, and her breathing told how feeble was the spirit that now animated her bosom. She appeared like one of the white passion-flowers growing near, but more like one that had been plucked from the stem which had been the source of its life and sweetness.

Don Mariano stood near the litera—gazing upon the pale face of his child with feelings of sad tenderness. He could not help calling up this very comparison—although it was torture to his soul; for he knew that the flower once plucked must irrevocably wither and die.

At some distance from the litera, and nearer the edge of the lake, three of the attendants were seated together upon the grass. They were conversing, in low tones, for the purpose of passing the time. The fourth, who was the guide already mentioned, had gone forward through the woods—partly to search for the crossing, but also to reconnoitre the path, and find out whether the road to San Carlos was clear of the guerilleros.

Through a break in the forest that surrounded the glade, the enchanted mountain was visible—its sombre silhouette outlined against the blue background of the sky.

In all countries, every object that appears to vary from the ordinary laws of nature, possesses, for the vulgar imagination, a powerful interest; and the servants of Don Mariano were no exception to the rule.

“I have heard it said,” whispered one of them, “that the waters of this lake now so muddy, were once as clear as crystal; and that it was only after they were consecrated to the devil, that they became as they are now.”

“Bah!” rejoined another, “I don’t believe what they say about the devil living up there upon the Cerro encantado. He would choose a more pleasant place for his residence, I should fancy.”

“Well,” said the first speaker, who was named Zefirino, and who was better acquainted with the locality than either of his companions, “whether the devil dwells there or not, some terrible things have taken place on that mountain; and it is said, still happen there. I have heard that the fog which you see upon its summit, and which always rests there at night, is extended over it by the god of the Indians—who is only the devil himself. He does that to hide what goes on up there. There’s one strange story the Indians themselves tell.”

“What is it? Let us hear it, Zefirino.”

“Well, you’ve heard how in old times the Indian priests had an altar up yonder—upon which they used to sacrifice scores of human beings—so that the blood ran down the fissures of the rock like water after a shower of rain. Their plan was to cut open the breast of the victim, and tear out his heart while still alive. But why need I frighten you with a story that, by my faith, is fearful enough?”

“No—no—never mind! Go on, Zefirino.”

“Stay!” cried the other domestic. “Did you not hear a noise—just down there by the edge of the lake?”

“Bah! it’s only an alligator snapping his jaws together. Go on, Zefirino!”

“Well, comrades—the story is, that about five hundred years ago, one of the unfortunate victims was about to be sacrificed in this manner as usual. The cruel priest had opened his breast and taken out the heart; when, to the astonishment of all around, the Indian seized hold of his own heart, and endeavoured to put it back in its place. His hand, however, trembled, and the heart slipping from his grasp, rolled down the mountain side and into the lake. The Indian, uttering a terrible howl, plunged in after for the purpose of recovering his heart from the water, and was never seen again. Of course, a man like that could not possibly die; and for five hundred years the Indian has been wandering round the shores of the lake searching for his heart, and with his breast cut open, just as the priest had left it. It’s not more than a year ago that some one saw this Indian, and just about here, too, on the southern shore of the lake.”

As Zefirino finished his narration, his two companions involuntarily cast glances of terror towards the gloomy waters of the lake, as if in dread that the legendary Indian might suddenly show himself. Just at that moment, a rustling among the leaves caused all three of them to start to their feet, and stand trembling with fear.

Their alarm did not last long; for almost immediately after they perceived that the noise had been caused by Castrillo, the guide—who, in the next moment, stepped forward into the glade.

“Well, Castrillo! what have you seen?” demanded his fellow-servants.

“Enough to make it necessary that I should at once communicate with our master,” and Castrillo passed on towards the litera, leaving his companions to form their conjectures about what he had seen as best they might.