Chapter 80 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Matlacuezc a Mortal.

The shores of the Lake Ostuta, hitherto so solitary and silent, appeared upon this night to have become a general rendezvous for all the world. The litera of Gertrudis had scarce moved from the spot which Don Mariano had chosen for his bivouac, when another litera was seen entering the glade, and moving onward through it. This, however, was borne by men, and preceded by some half-dozen Indian peons with blazing torches of ocote wood carried in their hands.

On reaching the shore of the lake, the second litera with its escort made halt, while the Indians bearing the torches commenced searching for something among the reeds.

Costal and Clara, instead of accompanying the party of Don Mariano, had remained upon the ground, in hopes that they would now be left free to continue their pagan incantations, and once more behold the Syren of the dishevelled hair. Don Cornelio also lingered behind, not caring just then to encounter the victorious royalists.

As soon as Costal perceived the approach of this new party—once more interrupting his designs—his fury became uncontrollable; and, making towards it on horseback, he snatched a torch from the hands of one of the Indians who were in advance, and then rode straight up to the litera. The apparition of a gaunt horseman with a torch in one hand, and a bloody sword in the other, his countenance expressing extreme rage, produced an instantaneous effect on the bearers of the litera. Without waiting to exchange a word, they dropped their burden to the ground, and ran back into the woods as fast as their legs could carry them.

A stifled cry came from the interior of the litera; while Don Cornelio, who had followed Costal, hastened to open the curtains. By the light of the torch which the Zapoteque still carried, they now saw stretched inside the body of a man, with a face wan, pallid, and stained with blood. Don Cornelio at once recognised the young Spaniard—the proprietor of the hacienda San Carlos—the victim of Arroyo’s ferocity, and of the cupidity of his associate.

The dying man, on seeing Costal, cried out—

“Oh! do not harm me—I have not long to live.”

Lantejas made signs for this Zapoteque to step aside; and bending over the litera, with kind and affectionate speeches endeavoured to calm the apprehensions of the unfortunate sufferer.

“Thanks! thanks!” murmured the latter, turning to Don Cornelio with a look of gratitude. “Ah, Señor!” continued he, in a supplicating tone, “perhaps you can tell me—have you seen anything of her?”

The interrogatory caused a new light to break upon him to whom it was addressed. He at once remembered the phantom which he had seen while approaching the hacienda; the white form that had vanished into the woods, and again the same apparition just seen among the reeds. Both, no doubt, were one and the same unfortunate creature. Twice, then, had he seen living, one whom the young Spaniard was never likely to see again, except as a corpse.

“I have seen no one,” replied Don Cornelio, hesitating in his speech, and unwilling to make known his dread suspicions, “no one, except two brigands, who had hidden themselves in the thicket, and who are now—”

“Oh! Señor, for the love of God, search for her! She cannot be far from this place. I am speaking of my wife. We have found just now her silk scarf, and not far off this slipper. Both I know to be hers. She must have dropped, them in her flight. Oh! if I could only once more see her—embrace her—before I die!”

And so speaking the young man bent a look of suppliant anguish upon Don Cornelio, while exhibiting the two objects which his attendants had found upon the path, and which had served to guide them in their search.

Don Cornelio, unable longer to endure the painful interview, allowed the curtains of the litera to close over the wretched husband; and, stepping aside, rejoined the Zapoteque—who was still giving vent to his anger in strong and emphatic phraseology.

“Costal,” said the Captain, “I fear very much that the wife of this young Spaniard is no longer alive. I saw a woman robed in white down there among the reeds, just as the brigand fired his carbine; and from what I saw afterwards, I am afraid that she must have been hit by the bullet. Surely it must have been her that they are now searching for.”

“You are a fool!” cried Costal, in his ill-humour forgetting the respect due to his superior. “The woman you saw in white robes was no other than Matlacuezc, and I should have had her in my arms in another second of time but for that accursed coyote, who, by firing his carbine, caused her suddenly to disappear. Well! he has paid for his indiscretion: that’s some comfort, but, for all that—”

“It is you who are a fool, you miserable heathen,” said Don Cornelio, interrupting Costal in his turn. “The poor creature, who has no doubt been struck with the bullet, is no other than the wife of this young Spaniard! Do you hear that?”

This last interrogatory had relation to a cry that came up from the reeds, where the Indians with their torches were still continuing their search.

“Look yonder!” continued Don Cornelio, pointing to them, “they have stopped over the very spot, and that wail—that is significant.”

As Don Cornelio spoke a chorus of lamentations came back upon the breeze, uttered by the Indian searchers. It was heard by the dying man in his litera, and apprised him of that which Don Cornelio would otherwise have attempted to conceal from him. It was now too late, however, and the Captain ran towards the litera, in hopes of offering some words of consolation.

“Dead! dead!” cried the young Spaniard, wringing his hands in mortal anguish. “Oh God! she is dead!”

“Let us hope not,” faltered Don Cornelio; “these people may be mistaken.”

“Oh! no, no! she is dead! I knew it; I had a presentiment of it! O merciful Saviour! dead, my Marianita dead!”

After a moment, becoming more calm, the dying man continued:—

“What better fate could I have wished for her? She has escaped dishonour at the hands of these pitiless brigands, and I am about to die myself. Yes, friend! death is now sweeter to me than life: for it will bring me to her whom I love more than myself.”

And like those who, calmly dying, arrange everything as if for some ordinary ceremonial, the young man laid his head upon the pillow; and then stretching out his hands, composed the coverlet around him—leaving it open at one side, as if for the funereal couch of her whom he would never see more.

Don Cornelio, turning away from the painful spectacle, advanced towards the lake, making signs for Costal to follow him.

“Come this way,” he said, “and you shall see how much truth there is in your pagan superstitions.”

Costal made no objection: for he had already begun to mistrust the evidence of his own senses; and both proceeded together towards the spot where the torch-bearers had halted.

A white robe, torn by the thorns of the thicket, stained with blood, and bedraggled by the greenish scum of the water, enveloped the lifeless form of the young wife, whom the Indians had already deposited upon a couch of reeds. Some green leaves that hung over her head appeared to compose her last parure.

“She is beautiful as the Syren of the dishevelled hair,” said Costal, as he stood gazing upon the prostrate form, “beautiful as Matlacuezc! Poor Don Mariano!” continued he, recognising the daughter of his old master, “he is far from suspecting that he has now only one child!”

Saying this the Indian walked away from the spot, his head drooping forward over his breast, and apparently absorbed in painful meditation.

“Well,” said Don Cornelio, who had followed him, “do you still believe that you saw the spouse of your god Tlaloc?”

“I believe what my fathers have taught me to believe,” replied Costal, in a tone of discouragement. “I believe that the descendant of the Caciques of Tehuantepec is not destined to restore the ancient glories of his race. Tlaloc, who dwells here, has forbidden it.”

And saying this the Zapoteque relapsed into silence, and walked on with an air of gloomy abstraction that seemed to forbid all further conversation on the subject of his mythological creed.