Chapter 81 - The Tiger Hunter by Mayne Reid

Two Happy Hearts.

We have arrived at the final scene of our drama. The shores of the Lake Ostuta, which in so short a space of time had witnessed so many stirring events, are once more to relapse into their gloomy and mournful silence.

Already Don Cornelio and his two companions have disappeared from the spot, and taken the road for Oajaca.

The funeral cortège is moving off towards the hacienda of San Carlos—the Indians who carry the bier marching in solemn silence. On that bier two corpses are laid side by side—the Spaniard Don Fernando de Lacarra by the side of his youthful wife.

Don Mariano, accompanied by his attendants—to whom have been added Caspar and Zapote—follows at a short distance; and still further behind, the troopers of Don Rafael form a rearguard closing up the procession. The most profound and solemn silence is observed by all: as if all were alike absorbed by one common sorrow.

This, however, is only apparent; for there are two individuals in that procession whose hearts are not a prey to grief. On the contrary, both are at this moment in the enjoyment of the most perfect felicity which it is permitted for mortals to experience upon earth. Both are now assured of a mutual love, tried by long tortures, and scarce too dearly bought, since the past anguish has resulted in such delicious ecstasy.

At nearly equal distances from the escort of Don Mariano and the troopers forming the rearguard, these two personages appear: one borne in her litera, the other mounted upon horseback, and riding alongside. It need not be told who is the occupant of the litera, nor who the tall horseman who, bending down from his saddle, whispers so softly and gently, that no one may hear his words, save her for whom they are intended.

Absorbed with this interchange of exquisite emotions, both are still strangers to the sad event that has occurred within the hour. Don Mariano, devouring his grief in silence, has left them ignorant of the terrible misfortune. God has been merciful to him in thus fortifying his soul against sorrow at the loss of one child, by permitting him to behold the unspeakable happiness of the other, who is thus preserved to him as an angel of consolation. He well knows the strong affection of Gertrudis for her sister, and fearing in her feeble state to announce the melancholy event, lest the shock would be too much for her, he has carefully concealed the sad news, until some opportunity may arise of preparing her to receive it. A few hours of the happiness she is now enjoying may strengthen her long-tortured spirit, and enable her to bear up against this new and unexpected sorrow.

Still riding by the side of the litera, his eyes fervently glancing through the half-open curtains, his ear close to them lest he might lose a single word that falls from the lips of Gertrudis, Don Rafael devours the sweet speeches addressed to him, with the avidity of the thirsty traveller who has reached the pure and limpid fountain, so eagerly yearned for on his long and weary route.

As the moon is now low in the sky, and gleams with an uncertain light through the curtains of the litera, Don Rafael can only trace indistinctly the features of Gertrudis. This half-obscurity, however, favours the young girl, concealing at the same time her happiness and confusion, both of which are betraying themselves in full blush upon her cheeks, hitherto so wan and pale.

Impelled by the strength of her love, from time to time she casts a furtive glance upon the face of her lover. It is a glance of strange significance; its object being to discover whether upon his features the tortures of long absence have not also left their imprint.

But the passion which Don Rafael has suffered under, although as incurable as her own, has left no other trace upon his countenance than that of a profound melancholy, and at the moment, his heart filled with exquisite happiness, all traces of this melancholy have disappeared. Gertrudis only looks upon a countenance that shows not a souvenir of suffering.

Don Rafael no longer doubts the love of Gertrudis. She has given him proofs no more to be questioned. But of his? What proof has he offered in return? Gertrudis cannot yet hinder herself from doubting!

The young girl endeavours to conceal the sigh which these thoughts have summoned up, and though the moon is still bright enough for her to perceive upon the countenance of Don Rafael an expression of the most loyal love, she cannot rest satisfied. Unable to restrain herself, again and again she repeats the interrogatory, “Do you still love me, Rafael?” Again and again she receives the same affirmative answer without being assured!

“Oh, it is too much happiness!” cries she, suddenly raising her head from the pillow, “I cannot believe it, Rafael. As for the sincerity of my words, you could not doubt them. The messenger has told you—plainly, has he not?—that I could not live without you? Then you came to me—yes, you have come,” continues she, with a sigh that betokens the mingling of sorrow with her new-sprung joy; “but for all that, oh! Rafael, what can you say to me that will convince me you still love me?”

“What shall I say?” rejoins Don Rafael, repeating her words. “Only this, Gertrudis. I vowed to you that whenever I should receive this sacred message,” at this drawing the tress from his bosom, and pressing it proudly to his lips, “I vowed that though my arm at the moment might be raised to strike my deadliest enemy, it should fall without inflicting the blow. I have come, Gertrudis—I am here!”

“You are generous, Rafael. I know that. You swore it! and—oh! my God; what do I hear?”

The interruption was caused by a wild cry that seemed to rise out of the earth close to the path which the procession was following. It seemed like the voice of some one in pain, and calling for deliverance or mercy. Gertrudis trembled with affright as she nestled closer within the curtains of the litera.

“Do not be alarmed,” said Don Rafael; “it is nothing you need fear; only the voice of the monster Arroyo praying to be set free. He is lying over yonder upon the sand, bound hand and foot. He is still living; and to you, Gertrudis, does he owe his life. This assassin of my father—whom for two years I have pursued in vain—but a moment ago was about to receive death at my hands when your messenger arrived. I hesitated not, Gertrudis. It was but too much happiness to keep my oath. I cut the cords that attached him to the tail of my horse—in order that I should come to you the sooner.”

Gertrudis, almost fainting, allowed her head to fall back upon the pillow; and as Don Rafael, frightened at the effect of his communication, bent closer to the litera, he heard murmured in a low voice, the sweet words—

“Your hand, Rafael! Oh! let me thank you for the happiness you have given me, a happiness that no words can describe.”

And Don Rafael, his frame quivering with exquisite emotion, felt the soft pressure of her lips upon the hand which he had hastened to offer.

Then, as if abashed by this ardent avowal of her passion, the young girl suddenly closed the curtains of the litera, to enjoy in secret, and under the eye of God alone, that supreme felicity of knowing that she was beloved as she herself loved—a felicity that had, as it were, restored her life.

Like phantoms which have been called up by the imagination—like the unreal shadows in a dream, which one after another vanish out of sight—so the different personages in our drama, whose sufferings, whose loves, and whose combats we have witnessed, are all gradually disappearing from the scene where we have viewed them for the last time—Don Fernando and Marianita on their funereal bier; Gertrudis, in her litera, restored to new life; Don Rafael, Don Mariano, and his followers.

Don Cornelio, Costal, and Clara had already gone far from the spot; and soon the last horseman of the Colonel’s escort, forming the rearguard of the procession, had filed through the belt of cedrela trees—leaving the Lake Ostuta apparently as deserted as if human footsteps had never strayed along its shores.

And yet this desertion was only apparent. Upon the edge of the lake at that point where the chase of the bandits had terminated, two human bodies might, be seen lying along the ground. One was dead; and the other, though still living, was equally motionless. The former was the corpse of Bocardo, who in the mêlée had been despatched by the troopers of Don Rafael. The living body was that of Arroyo, who, still bound hand and foot with the lazo, was unable to stir from the spot. There lay he with no one to pity—no one to lend a helping hand; destined at no distant time to make a meal for the vultures, to perish by the poignard of some royalist, or to excite the compassion of an insurgent.

The moon had disappeared below the horizon, and the vitreous transparence which her light had lent to the enchanted hill, giving it a semblance of life, was no more to be observed. The lake no longer glittered under the silvery beam. Both Ostuta and Monopostiac had resumed the sombre aspect that usually distinguished them, with that mournful tranquillity that habitually reigned over the spot—interrupted only by the cry of the coyote, or the shrill maniac scream of the eagle preparing to descend to the banquet of human flesh!

The End.