Chapter 76 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Tolling the Summons.

We return to Costal. We have seen the Zapoteque making his way through the sedge, and boldly launching himself into the muddy waters of the lake—his blind fatalism rendering him regardless of the voracious alligators of the Ostuta, as he had already shown himself of the sharks of the Pacific. Could the eye of Don Cornelio have followed him under the gloomy shadow which the enchanted hill projected over the lake, it would have seen him emerge from the water upon the shore of the sacred Cerro itself, his black-skinned associate closely following at his heels.

The mountain Monopostiac is neither more nor less than a gigantic rock of obsidian, of a dark greenish hue, having its flanks irregularly furrowed by vertical fissures and ridges. This peculiar kind of rock, under the sun, or in a very bright moonlight, gives forth a sort of dull translucence, resembling the reflection of glass. The vitreous glistening of its sides, taken in conjunction with the mass of thick white fog which usually robes the summit of the mountain, offers to the eye an aspect at once fantastic and melancholy.

At certain places, of which Costal had a perfect knowledge, are huge boulders of obsidian, resting along the declivities of the Cerro, and which, when struck by a hard substance, gives forth a sonorous ring, having some resemblance to the sound of a bell.

After climbing some way up the steep declivity of the mountain, Costal and his neophyte halted by one of these boulders. Now apparently absorbed in profound meditation, now muttering in a low tone, and in the language of his fathers, certain prayers, the Zapoteque awaited that hour when the moon should reach its meridian, in order to come to the grand crisis of his invocation.

It would be a tedious detail were we to describe the many absurd ceremonials practised by Costal to induce the genius of the waters to appear before him, and make known the means by which he might restore the ancient splendours of his race. Certainly, if perseverance and courage could have any influence with the Indian divinities, Costal deserved all the favours they could lavish upon him.

Although up to this moment neither Tlaloc nor Matlacuezc had given the least sign of having heard his prayers, his countenance exhibited such hopeful confidence, that Clara, gazing upon it, felt fully convinced that upon this occasion there was not the slightest chance of a failure.

Up to the time of the moon reaching her meridian—the moment so eagerly expected—more than an hour was spent in every sort of preparation for the grand crisis. Up to that moment, moreover, Costal had preserved a grave and profound silence, enjoining the same upon Clara. This silence related only to conversation between them. Otherwise Costal had from time to time, as already stated, given utterance to prayers, spoken, however, in a low muttered voice.

The moment had now arrived when the dialogue of the two acolytes was to be resumed.

“Clara,” said the Zapoteque, speaking in a grave tone, “when the gods of my ancestors, invoked by a descendant of the ancient Caciques of Tehuantepec, who has seen fifty seasons of rains—when they hear the sounds which I am now about to make, and for which they have listened in vain for more than three centuries, some one of them will appear beyond any doubt.”

“I hope so,” responded Clara.

“Certain they will appear,” said Costal; “but which of them it may be, I know not; whether Tlaloc or his companion Matlacuezc.”

“I suppose it makes no difference,” suggested the negro.

“Matlacuezc,” continued Costal, “would be easily known. She is a goddess; and, of course, a female. She always appears in a white robe—pure and white as the blossom of the floripondio. When her hair is not wound around her head, it floats loosely over her shoulders, like the mantilla of a señora of high degree. Her eyes shine like two stars, and her voice is sweeter than that of the mocking-bird. For all that, her glance is terrifying to a mortal, and there are few who could bear it.”

“Oh, I can bear it,” said the negro; “no fear of that.”

“Tlaloc,” continued Costal, “is tall as a giant. His head is encircled with a chaplet of living serpents, that, entwined among his hair, keep up a constant hissing. His eye is full of fire, like that of the jaguar; and his voice resembles the roaring of an angry bull. Reflect, then, while it is yet time, whether you can bear such a sight as that.”

“I have told you,” replied Clara, in a resolute tone, “that I wish for gold; and it matters little to me whether Tlaloc or his wife shows me the placer where it is to be found. By all the gods, Christian and pagan! I have not come thus far to be frightened back without better reason than that. No!”

“You are firmly resolved, comrade? I see you are. Now, then—I shall proceed to invoke my gods.”

On saying these words, the Indian took up a large stone, and advancing to the boulder of obsidian, struck the stone against one of its angles with all his might. The collision produced a sound resembling that of a brazen instrument; in fact, like the stroke of a bell.

Twelve times did Costal repeat the stroke, each time with equal force. The sounds echoed over the waters of the lake, and through the aisles of the forest on its shores; but their distant murmurings had scarce died upon the air, when a response came from the woods. This was given in a series of the most frightful howlings—the same which had terrified Captain Lantejas upon his tree, and which Don Mariano had found himself unable to explain.

Clara partook of a terror almost equal to that of Don Cornelio, but it arose from a different cause. He had no other belief, but that the howling thus heard was the response vouchsafed by the pagan gods to the invocation of his companion. After a moment his confidence became restored, and he signed to Costal to continue.

“Sound again!” said he, in a low but firm voice, “it is Tlaloc who has responded. Sound again!”

The Indian cast a glance upon his companion, to assure himself that he was in earnest. The moon showed his face of a greyish tint; but the expression of his features told that he spoke seriously.

“Bah!” exclaimed Costal, with a sneer, “are you so little skilled in the ways of the woods, as to mistake the voice of a vile animal for that of the gods of the Zapoteque?”

“What an animal to make a noise like that?” interrogated Clara, in a tone of surprise.

“Of course it is an animal,” rejoined Costal, “that howls so. Sufficiently frightful, I admit—to those who do not know what sort of creature it is; but to those who do, it is nothing.”

“What kind of animal is it?” demanded Clara.

“Why, an ape; what else? A poor devil of a monkey, that you could knock over with a bit of a stick; as easily as you could kill an opossum. Ah, hombre! the voice of the great Tlaloc is more terrible than that. But see! what have we yonder?”

As Costal spoke, he pointed to the shore of the lake whence they had come, and near the point where they had left their horses. It was in this direction, moreover, the howlings of the ape had been heard.

Clara followed the pointing of his companion, and both now saw what gave a sudden turn to their thoughts—a party of horsemen carrying torches, and scouring the selvage of the woods, as if in search of something they had lost.

The two worshippers watched until the torches were put out, and the horsemen passing round the shore disappeared under the shadows of a strip of forest.

Costal was about to resume his invocations; when, with his eyes still turned towards the point where the horsemen had left the shore of the lake, he beheld an apparition that caused even his intrepid heart to tremble. By the thicket of reeds, and close to the water’s edge, a white form appeared suddenly, as if it had risen out of the lake. It was the same which had been seen by Don Cornelio from his perch upon the tree.

It was not fear that caused the Zapoteque to tremble. It was an emotion of exulting triumph.

“The time is come at last!” cried he, seizing the arm of his companion. “The glory of the Caciques of Tehuantepec is now to be restored. Look yonder!”

And as he spoke he pointed to the form, which, in the clear moonlight, could be distinguished as that of a woman, dressed in a robe as white as the floripondio, with long dark tresses floating over her shoulders like the mantilla of some grand señora.

“It is Matlacuezc,” muttered the negro, in a low, anxious tone, and scarce able to conceal the terror with which the apparition had inspired him.

“Beyond doubt,” hurriedly replied Costal, gliding down towards the water, followed by the negro.

On arriving at the beach, both plunged into the lake, and commenced swimming back towards the shore. Although the white form was no longer visible to them from their low position in the water, Don Cornelio could still see it glancing through the green stems of the reeds, but no longer in motion.

Costal had taken the bearings of the place before committing himself to the water; and, swimming with vigorous stroke, he soon reached the shore several lengths in advance of his companion.

Don Cornelio could see both of the adventurers as they swam back, and perceived, moreover, that the white form had been seen by them, and it was towards this object that Costal was steering his course. He saw the Indian approach close to it; and was filled with surprise at beholding him stretch forth his arms, as if to grasp the goddess of the waters, when all at once a loud voice sounded in his ears, crying out the words—

“Death to the murderer of Gaspacho!”

Along with the voice a light suddenly flashed up among the bushes, and the report of a carbine reverberated along the shores of the lake.

Costal and Clara were both seen to dive at the shot; and for a time Don Cornelio could not see either of them.

The white form had also sunk out of sight, but near the spot which it had occupied, the long reeds were seen to shake in a confused manner, as if some one was struggling in their midst.

Don Cornelio could hear their stems crackle with the motion; and he fancied that a low cry of agony proceeded from the spot; but the moment after all was silent; and the lake lay glistening under the pale silvery moonbeam, with nothing visible in its waters, or upon its shores, to break the tranquil stillness of its repose.