Chapter 75 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

The Goddess of the Waters.

For the first hour the sleep of Don Cornelio was undisturbed, even by dreams. With the second it was very different; for, scarcely had he entered upon it, when a noise sounded in his ears, singular as it was terrible. He awoke with a start, on hearing what appeared to be the loud clanging of a bell rung at no great distance off.

At first he fancied he was dreaming, and that what he heard in his dreams was the bell of his native village; but a moment’s reflection sufficed to convince him that he was awake, and couched in the fork of a tall tree.

The sounds that had ceased for a while, now recommenced; and Don Cornelio was able to count twelve strokes, clear and distinctly measured, as if some large clock was tolling the hour of midnight!

It was, in fact, just about that hour—as Don Cornelio could tell by the moon; but the observation did not hinder him from shuddering afresh at the mysterious sounds. From his elevated position he could see afar over both land and water; but no spire of village church or hacienda was visible—nothing but the sombre surface of the lake, the spray of the far-stretching forest, and the desert plains in the distance.

The tolling again vibrated upon the air; and Don Cornelio was now convinced that it was from the lake itself, or the enchanted mountain in its midst, that the sounds proceeded. It seemed as if it was a signal, to awaken the Indian divinities from their sleep of ages!

The moon was still rising higher in the heavens, and her brilliant beams broadly illumined the lake, even penetrating through the thickly-set stems of the reeds that bordered it.

Certain vague noises that had from time to time fallen upon the ear of Don Cornelio, while half slumbering, now that he was awake, were heard more distinctly; and after a little while these sounds became converted into prolonged and dismal howlings, such as he had never before heard in his life.

Upon just such another night he had been sorely frightened by the howling of jaguars; but all the tigers in the world could not have produced such a frightful noise as that with which his ears were now assailed. It was a chorus of voices entirely new to him, and that seemed to proceed from the powerful lungs of some gigantic creature hitherto unknown.

As thoughts of the supernatural came into his mind, the Captain shivered through his whole frame; and had he not been tied to its branches, he would certainly have fallen from the tree.

His horse, standing below, appeared fully to partake of his terror; for after dancing about, and causing the branches to crackle, the animal at length broke away from its fastenings, and, galloping off, joined company with the horses of Costal and Clara that stood nearer the edge of the water.

The terrible howlings, combined with the mysterious tolling of the bell, produced upon the mind of Don Cornelio other impressions besides those of mere dread. He began to believe in a supernatural presence; and that the sounds he heard were the voices of those pagan divinities whom Costal had the boldness to invoke.

Captain Lantejas was not the only person whom these strange noises had inspired with fear. At little more than gunshot distance from him, and hidden behind the trees, could be seen a number of men closely grouped together, and whispering their fears to one another. It need scarcely be said that they were the domestics of Don Mariano, who had counted with equal terror and astonishment the twelve strokes of the mysterious midnight bell.

Their master, too, had heard the tolling, and was vainly endeavouring to account for the singular phenomenon.

Just then the frightful howlings came pealing from the woods behind, awaking Gertrudis, and causing her to raise her head with a cry of terror. The seven sleepers themselves would have been awakened by such a terrible fracas of noises.

At this moment one of the domestics—Castrillo—appeared by the litera, his face blanched with affright.

“What misfortune have you to announce?” inquired Don Mariano, struck with the expression upon the servant’s countenance.

“Not any, Señor Don Mariano,” replied the domestic, “unless to say that we are here in some accursed place, and the sooner we get out of it the better.”

“Get your arms ready,” rejoined Don Mariano, “it must be the jaguars that are howling near us.”

“Ah! Señor master,” replied the domestic, with a shake of his head, “never did jaguar howl after that fashion; and all our weapons will be useless where the spirit of darkness is against us. Listen, there—again!”

Once more a series of prolonged vociferations came echoing through the forest, which certainly had but little resemblance to the voices either of jaguars or any other known animals.

“There have been many strange things during this night,” gravely continued Castrillo. “Everything in nature seems to be turned upside down. Dead men have been seen by us wandering about; bells have been heard tolling where there is neither church nor dwelling, and now the devil himself is howling in the depths of the forest. Oh, master, let us fly from this place while we may!”

“But where to? where can we go?” rejoined Don Mariano, casting an anxious glance towards the litera. “My poor child—she can scarce endure the fatigues of the journey.”

“Oh, father,” said Gertrudis, “do not think of me. I shall be able to go on; and I would rather go afoot, than remain longer in this frightful place.”

“Señor Don Mariano,” continued the domestic, “if you will pray God to protect us from the danger that threatens, I and the others will go after the mules, and we shall get ready for marching. Above all, we must leave this place at once; for if you stay I could not hinder the rest from running away.”

“Very well, then,” said Don Mariano, “be it as you wish. Harness the animals and let us start at once. We shall endeavour to reach San Carlos.”

That which Don Mariano and his people were about to make—a movement from the place apparently haunted—the Captain Lantejas would not have attempted for all the gold in Mexico. Glued by fear to the summit of his tree, and cursing the evil fortune that had conducted him thither—regretting, moreover, his foolish curiosity—he continued to listen, though almost mechanically, to what he believed to be a dialogue between some Indian divinity and his fearless worshipper, Costal.

All at once the noises came to a termination; and a profound silence succeeded, which was equally fearful to endure.

This was of short duration, however; for in a few moments the stillness of the night was once more interrupted by other and different noises, that resembled human voices uttered at a considerable distance from the spot.

Gradually the voices were heard approaching nearer, and Don Cornelio was under the impression that it was Costal and Clara returning to where they had left their horses. He was mistaken about this, however, and soon perceived his error. The voices proceeded from the direction he had himself followed in approaching the lake. Costal and Clara could not be coming that way. Moreover, he now saw lights that appeared to be torches carried by those who were talking; and from the rapidity with which the lights flitted from point to point, they could only be borne by men on horseback. The Indian and negro could not be mounted, since their horses were still standing tied where they had left them, along with his own steed, that had just taken refuge by their side. It could not be Costal and Clara who carried the torches.

“Who then?” mentally demanded Don Cornelio; “might it be Arroyo and his bandits?”

He had scarce given thought to the conjecture, when a troop of horsemen rode out upon the open ground near the edge of the lake; and two of them at the head of the others were instantly recognised by Don Cornelio. They were, in truth, Arroyo and his associate, Bocardo.

The horsemen carrying the torches were seen riding from one point to another, quartering the ground by numerous crossings, and exploring the thickets on every side, as if in search of some person that had escaped them.

On approaching the border of the lake, the horsemen turned off along the margin of reeds, without having perceived the three horses that stood under the trees.

The torches were now thrown away; and, riding off under the pale moonlight, the horsemen disappeared from the eyes of Don Cornelio.

He was not without uneasiness as to the peril in which his two companions would be placed, should they chance to fall once more into the hands of the bandits; and he would gladly have warned them of their danger, had he known how. But ignorant of the locality in which Costal and Clara were at that exact moment, he could do nothing more than hope that they might perceive the horsemen first, and conceal themselves while the latter were passing. From Costal’s habitual wariness, Don Cornelio felt confident, that the ex-tiger-hunter would be able to keep himself clear of this new danger.

The captain followed with anxious eyes the forms of the retreating horsemen; and his heart beat more tranquilly when he saw them turn round an angle of the lake, and disappear altogether from his sight.

The moon at this moment shining more brilliantly, enabled him to command a better view of the waters of the lake, and the selvage of reeds growing around it. Once more silence was reigning over the scene, when all at once Don Cornelio fancied he saw a movement among the sedge, as if some one was making his way through it. In another instant a form, at first shadowy and indistinct, appeared before his eyes. Presently it assumed the outlines of a human form, and what astonished Don Cornelio still more, it was the form of a woman! This he saw distinctly; and perceived also that the woman was dressed in a sort of white garment, with long dark hair hanging in disordered tresses over her shoulders.

A cold perspiration broke out upon the brow of Don Cornelio, as the female form was recognised; and his eyes became fixed upon it, without his having the power to take them off. He doubted not that he saw before him the companion of Tlaloc, the terrible Matlacuezc, who had just risen from her watery palace in the Lake Ostuta, whence she had been summoned by the invocations of Costal, the descendant of the ancient rulers of Tehuantepec!