Chapter 73 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Invalid.

On perceiving the approach of the domestico, Don Mariano silently closed the curtains of the litera, in order that the slumbers of Gertrudis might not be disturbed.

“Speak softly!” said he to the man, “my daughter is asleep.”

The domestic delivered his report in an undertone.

“I have been almost as far as the hacienda of San Carlos,” said he. “The road to the house is clear; and I should have gone up to it, but for the strange sights which I saw there.”

“Strange sight! what sights, Castrillo?”

“Oh, master! I can hardly tell you what I saw—at least I cannot explain it. The windows were all lit up, but with such lights! They were blue and red, and of a purple colour, and they appeared to be changing every instant, and moving about in the most mysterious manner. While I stood looking at them, and trying to think what it could mean, I saw a figure in white gliding past me in the darkness, like some one not of this world.”

“My worthy Castrillo, fear was troubling your senses, I am afraid you only fancied these things?”

“Oh, my master! what I saw was but too real. If you had seen these lights as I, you could not have doubted it. May it please God that I may have been deceived!”

The tone of conviction in which the servant delivered his report produced its effect on Don Mariano; and he could not help feeling the unpleasant presentiment that some grand misfortune had happened to his daughter, Marianita, or her husband.

The information brought by Castrillo was only the reawakening of a doubt that had been already oppressing him.

A prey to afflicting thoughts, he remained for a while in that state of silent uncertainty which follows the receipt of calamitous news. The servant having finished his report had joined his three companions, and Don Mariano was alone.

Just then the curtains of the litera were drawn inside by a hand from within, and the voice of Gertrudis interrupted for the moment his gloomy reflections.

“My sleep has refreshed me,” said the young girl; “do you intend soon to continue your journey, father? It is near daybreak, is it not?”

“It is not yet midnight, niña. It will be long before the day breaks.”

“Then why do you not go to sleep, dear father? We are in safety here, I think; and there is no reason why you should keep awake.”

“Dear Gertrudis, I do not desire to sleep until we are under the roof of Marianita, and I can see you both together.”

“Ah! Marianita is so very happy,” sighed the invalid. “Her life has been like one of the flowery paths we have been following through the forest.”

“And so will yours be yet, Gertrudis,” rejoined Don Mariano, with an effort to console her. “It will not be long before Don Rafael comes to see you.”

“Oh, yes! I know he will come, since he has sworn it upon his word of honour. He will come, but what then?” murmured Gertrudis, with a melancholy smile.

“He will arrive to tell you that he still loves you,” said Don Mariano, affecting a conviction which, in reality, he did not feel. “It is only a misunderstanding,” he added.

“A misunderstanding that causes death, dear father,” rejoined Gertrudis, as she turned her head upon the pillow to conceal her tears.

Don Mariano was unable to reply, and an interval of silence succeeded.

Then Gertrudis, by one of those sudden reactions common to invalids, seemed all at once inspired with a fresh hope, and raising her head, she inquired—

“Do you think the messenger has had time to reach Don Rafael?”

“He would be three days in getting from Oajaca to the hacienda Del Valle; and if Don Rafael, as we have since heard, is at Huajapam, in two days more the messenger should reach him. He has been gone four days; therefore, in four more, at the most, Don Rafael should arrive at San Carlos, where he will know we are awaiting him.”

“Four days!” murmured Gertrudis. “Oh! it is a long, long time!”

Gertrudis did not dare to add, what she feared at the moment, that her life might not last so long.

After a moment of silence she continued—

“And besides, when, with a blush upon my cheeks, and my eyes turned away, I hear Don Rafael say to me, ‘You have sent for me, Gertrudis, I have come,’ what answer can I make? Oh, father! I shall die of grief and shame; for I shall then feel that he no longer loves me. He will see me as I am—a ruin—only the shadow of my former self, with my health gone, and my freshness faded. Likely enough, generosity will prompt him to feign a love which he does not feel, and which I could not believe in. What proof could he give that his words would only be spoken out of compassion for me?”

“Who can tell?” said Don Mariano. “Perhaps he may give you some proof that you cannot help believing in his sincerity.”

“Do not wish it, father, if you love me; for if he should offer a proof I cannot refuse to believe in, I feel that I should die of joy. Poor father!” continued she, with a choking sigh, and throwing her arms round his neck, “in either case you are likely soon to have but one daughter.”

At this mournful declaration Don Mariano could no longer restrain his grief; and returning the embrace of Gertrudis, he mingled his tears with hers. Both wept aloud, their voices being audible to the centzontlé, on a neighbouring tree—that catching up the mournful tones repeated them to the ear of night.

Just then the moon shot out from behind a thick mass of clouds, that had hitherto been shrouding her from the sight; and the landscape, illuminated by her silvery light, all at once assumed a less lugubrious aspect.

The lake, as well as the forest on its shores, appeared less sombre; and the corrugated flanks of the enchanted hill glanced with a vitreous reflection like the greenish waves of an agitated sea. Upon the surface of the water could be seen the dark, hideous forms of huge alligators moving along the edge of the reeds, and now and then giving utterance to their deep bellowing notes, as they disported themselves under the light of the moon.

The domestics of Don Mariano, seated close together, more than once fancied that they could distinguish the voices of human beings, and all shivered with fear as they recalled the legend which Zefirino had just related.

“I wish, comrades,” said one of them, speaking in a tone of subdued terror, “I wish that this night was well over. From the noises we have heard, and those strange lights that Castrillo has seen, one might fancy some terrible misfortune was to happen to-night! It only wants the scream of an owl from one of the trees around here, and then we may pray for the soul of our poor young mistress.”

At that moment a voice—this time certainly a human voice—proceeding from the direction of the lake, interrupted the speaker. It seemed to arise out of the bosom of the water.

The four domestics started, and sat regarding each other with looks of affright. There could be no doubt of its being a human voice which they had heard, as if intoning a song or chaunt, but uttered in some unknown tongue—such as that in which the ancient Indians used to converse with their divinities.

“Santissima madre!” muttered one of the domestics, “what if it should be the Indian who searches for his heart?”

His companions made no other answer than by nodding their heads to signify that such had been the thought of each.

At this moment another noise reached them. It was a rustling as of leaves, and almost simultaneously they saw the figure of a man making his way through the reeds that grew by the edge of the water.

In the clear light of the moon they could see that the man was completely naked, and that his skin was of a bronze or copper colour—in other words, that he was an Indian.

As he passed through the reeds he parted their stems with his outstretched arms—at the same time keeping his eyes bent downwards as if searching for something.

After reaching the edge of the open water, he plunged in; and, swimming vigorously out into the lake, appeared to direct himself towards the enchanted hill.

“God of heaven!” muttered Zefirino, in an accent of terror. “It is the Indian searching for his heart!”