Chapter 74 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

An Aerial Couch.

After escaping from the company of Arroyo and his bandits, Don Cornelio mechanically followed the guidance of Costal—who was now aiming to reach the lake of Ostuta as soon as possible, in order that he might commence his incantations before the rising of the moon.

Don Cornelio knew that it would be breath thrown away to attempt persuading the Indian to abandon his absurd and superstitious design; and to propose accompanying him, and becoming either actor or spectator in the pagan ceremony, would be equally against the wishes of Costal.

After they had ridden for some distance towards the lake, the Captain admonished his companions of his intention to stay behind and wait for their return, after they should have accomplished their purpose, and had their interview with Tlaloc and his wife Matlacuezc. Costal was only too glad to agree to this proposition; and promised to find a proper halting-place for Don Cornelio at some distance from the shores of the lake. There was no house of any kind in the vicinity, not even the meanest hut. This, Costal, from his perfect knowledge of the locality, was aware of; but the night was a pleasant one, and a few hours might be passed in the open air without any great inconvenience.

Shortly after, the cool freshness of the breeze proclaimed that the lake was not far off; and a pleasant grove of shady palm-trees offered an inviting shelter to Don Cornelio. It was the spot which Costal had designed for his halting-place; and here, parting from the two acolytes, the Captain dismounted, and prepared to make himself as comfortable as possible during their absence. Meanwhile Costal and Clara kept on towards the lake, and were soon lost to view under the shadows of the forest.

Don Cornelio had not been long left to himself, ere he began to rue the disposition thus made of him. It now occurred to him, and not without reason, that the comrades of Gaspacho might fancy to avenge the brigand’s death, and for that purpose follow him and his two attendants through the forest. Arroyo would now be absent from the hacienda; Don Cornelio had heard him proclaim his intention of going in search of its mistress; and his subalterns might pay less respect to the emissary of Morelos than their chief.

These considerations influencing the spirit of Don Cornelio, produced within him a certain degree of uneasiness—sufficient to make him discontented with the position he had chosen.

Determined to get nearer to Costal—whom he looked upon almost as his natural protector—he remounted his horse, and continued along the path that had been taken by the other two.

After riding a few hundred yards, he discerned rising up before his face a high hill crowned with mist; and shortly after, the woods becoming more open, he was enabled to perceive that this hill was surrounded by a large lake of dark, sombre aspect. Though he now looked upon both the lake and mountain for the first time, he had no difficulty in identifying them as the Lake Ostuta and the sacred mountain of Monopostiac.

A belt of forest still lay between him and the lake, extending around its southern end. Entering into the timber, he rode nearly across it, until the reedy shore of the lake came in view through the openings between the trees. Here he again halted, and after a moment’s reflection, dismounted.

Although the change of locality might make it more difficult for the brigands of Arroyo to discover his retreat, he was still not so certain of being free from danger. To render his situation more secure, he determined upon climbing into a tree, and concealing himself among the branches.

He had another motive for freeing himself. At a short distance from the spot he saw the horses of Costal and Clara, standing tied to some bushes; and he knew that their owners could not be far off. No doubt it was there they intended to go through their absurd rites; and all at once Don Cornelio had become inspired with a curiosity to witness them. His Christian conscience slightly reproached him, for thus assisting, as it were, at a pagan ceremony; but he ended by persuading himself that there would be something meritorious in his being a witness to the confusion of the infidel.

A tree near at hand offered him a favourable point of observation. From its higher branches he could command a full view of the lake and its shores to a considerable distance on each side of him, and also the sacred mountain in its midst.

Securing his horse below, he ascended the tree, and seated himself among its topmost branches. He had taken the precaution to carry up his carbine along with him, which was hanging from his shoulders upon its sling.

He had just fixed himself commodiously upon his perch, when the full moon appeared, at once lighting up the waters of the lake with her most brilliant beams.

He looked to discover the whereabouts of Costal and the negro; but for some time he could see nothing of either. The enchanted hill, glistening with a vitreous translucence under the white moonbeams, presented a wild, weird aspect; and, from time to time, strange unearthly sounds appeared to proceed from it, as also from the woods around.

The nerves of the ex-student were at no time of the strongest; and he had not long occupied his elevated post before he began to rue his rashness, in having trusted himself alone in a place which seemed to be the abode of the supernatural.

All at once a sound reached him, proceeding from the margin of the lake; and, turning his eyes in that direction, he beheld the figure of a naked man moving among the reeds. It was the same apparition that had caused such alarm among the domestics of Don Mariano, who, although unseen by the Captain, were at that moment only fifty paces distant, screened behind the bushes that grew around the glade in which they had encamped.

The apparition, although it at first startled Don Cornelio, did not frighten him so much as it had the domestics; for, by the light of the moon, he was enabled to recognise the figure as that of his attendant, Costal. The Captain, moreover, saw—what, from their position, was invisible to the people in Don Mariano’s camp—another human figure, naked like the first, but differing from it in the colour of the skin, which was black as ebony.

Both having passed through the reeds, plunged at once into the open water of the lake; and, swimming off towards the enchanted mountain, were soon lost to the eyes of Don Cornelio, as well as to those of the affrighted attendants of Don Mariano.

While the latter remained under the full conviction that they had seen the Indian who, for five hundred years, had been vainly searching for his heart, Don Cornelio knew that the two adventurers were his own followers, Costal and Clara.

From the direction they had taken through the water, he divined that it was their object to reach the mountain island, there, no doubt, to practise their superstitious ceremonial.

Although somewhat disappointed at being deprived of a spectacle he had felt curious to witness, he still remained on his perch upon the tree. His apprehension of being pursued by the bandits of Arroyo had not yet forsaken him; and in such a contingency, he believed that he would be safer among the branches than upon the ground. He could watch for Costal and Clara coming back through the water, and then rejoin them as they returned to take possession of their horses, which were still visible to him upon his elevated post.

For a short time he remained in his position without hearing any noise in particular, or seeing anything calculated to alarm him. Then a sound reached his ears that came from a direction opposite to that in which lay the lake. It was a booming sound, like the report of a cannon—shortly after followed by another and another of precisely similar intonation.

Don Cornelio had no suspicion that at that very moment the hacienda of San Carlos was being attacked by the garrison of Del Valle, and that the noise he heard was the report of the howitzer battering in the gates of the building.

Although at first rendered uneasy by these inexplicable sounds, as they soon after ceased to be repeated, Don Cornelio no longer troubled himself to explain them. He had heard so many others, as mysterious as they, that he despaired of finding an explanation. As time passed, however, and neither Costal nor Clara showed themselves, the Captain began to feel a strong desire to sleep, and his eyelids every moment grew heavier, until at length he felt that he could no longer resist the desire. Like Colonel Tres-Villas, on the preceding night, he took the precaution, before committing himself to slumber, of making secure against a fall; and for this purpose he attached himself with his sash to one of the branches. In another minute he was in the land of dreams, unconscious of the singularity of the couch on which he was reclining.