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Chapter 10 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

Adventure with a Cayman

The lane suddenly opened upon a pasture, but within this a thick hedge of jessamines, forming a circle, barred the view.

In this circle was the house, whose roof only could be seen from without.

Not finding any opening through the jessamines, I parted the leaves with my hands, and looked through. The picture was dream-like; so strange, I could scarcely credit my senses.

On the crest of the little hillock stood a house of rare construction—unique and unlike anything I had ever seen. The sides were formed of bamboos, closely picketed, and laced together by fibres of the pita. The roof—a thatch of palm-leaves—projected far over the eaves, rising to a cone, and terminating in a small wooden cupola with a cross. There were no windows. The walls themselves were translucent; and articles of furniture could be distinguished through the interstices of the bamboos.

A curtain of green barège, supported by a rod and rings, formed the door. This was drawn, discovering an ottoman near the entrance, and an elegant harp.

The whole structure presented the coup-d’oeil of a huge birdcage, with its wires of gold!

The grounds were in keeping with the house. In these, the evidence of neglect, which had been noticed without, existed no longer. Every object appeared to be under the training of a watchful solicitude.

A thick grove of olives, with their gnarled and spreading branches and dark-green leaves, stretched rearward, forming a background to the picture. Right and left grew clumps of orange and lime trees. Golden fruit and flowers of brilliant hues mingled with their yellow leaves; spring and autumn blended upon the same branches!

Rare shrubs—exotics—grew out of large vessels of japanned earthenware, whose brilliant tints added to the voluptuous colouring of the scene.

A jet d’eau, crystalline, rose to the height of twenty feet, and, returning in a shower of prismatic globules, stole away through a bed of water-lilies and other aquatic plants, losing itself in a grove of lofty plantain-trees. These, growing from the cool watery bed, flung out their broad glistening leaves to the length of twenty feet.

So signs of human life met the eye. The birds alone seemed to revel in the luxuriance of this tropical paradise. A brace of pea-fowl stalked over the parterre in all the pride of their rainbow plumage. In the fountain appeared the tall form of a flamingo, his scarlet colour contrasting with the green leaves of the water-lily. Songsters were trilling in every tree. The mock-bird, perched upon the highest limb, was mimicking the monotonous tones of the parrot. The toucans and trogons flashed from grove to grove, or balanced their bodies under the spray of the jet d’eau; while the humming-birds hung upon the leaves of some honeyed blossom, or prinkled over the parterre like straying sunbeams.

I was running my eye over this dream-like picture, in search of a human figure, when the soft, metallic accents of a female voice reached me from the grove of plantains. It was a burst of laughter—clear and ringing. Then followed another, with short exclamations, and the sound of water as if dashed and sprinkled with a light hand.

What must be the Eve of a paradise like this! The silver tones were full of promise. It was the first female voice that had greeted my ears for a month, and chords long slumbering vibrated under the exquisite touch.

My heart bounded. My first impulse was “forward”, which I obeyed by springing through the jessamines. But the fear of intruding upon a scene à la Diane changed my determination, and my next thought was to make a quiet retreat.

I was preparing to return, and had thrust one leg back through the hedge, when a harsh voice—apparently that of a man—mingled with the silvery tones.

“Anda!—anda!—hace mucho calor. Vamos á volver.” (Hasten!—it is hot. Let us return.)

“Ah, no, Pepe! un ratito mas.” (Ah, no, Pepe! a little while longer.)

“Vaya, carrambor!” (Quick, then!)

Again the clear laughter rang out, mingled with the clapping of hands and short exclamations of delight.

“Come,” thought I, once more entering the parterre, “as there appears to be one of my own sex here already, it cannot be very mal à propos to take a peep at this amusement, whatever it be.”

I approached the row of plantain-trees, whose leaves screened the speakers from view.

“Lupé! Lupé! mira! que bonito!” (Lupé! Lupé! look here! What a pretty thing!)

“Ah, pobrecito! echalo, Luz, echalo.” (Ah! poor little thing! fling it back, Luz.)

“Voy luego,” (Presently.)

I stooped down, and silently parted the broad, silken leaves. The sight was divine!

Within lay a circular tank, or basin, of crystal water, several rods in diameter, and walled in on all sides by the high screen of glossy plantains, whose giant leaves, stretching out horizontally, sheltered it from the rays of the sun.

A low parapet of mason-work ran around, forming the circumference of the circle. This was japanned with a species of porcelain, whose deep colouring of blue and green and yellow was displayed in a variety of grotesque figures.

A strong jet boiled up in the centre, by the refraction of whose ripples the gold and red fish seemed multiplied into myriads.

At a distant point a bed of water-lilies hung out from the parapet; and the long, thin neck of a swan rose gracefully over the leaves. Another, his mate, stood upon the bank drying her snowy pinions in the sun.

A different object attracted me, depriving me, for awhile, of the power of action.

In the water, and near the jet, were two beautiful girls clothed in a sort of sleeveless, green tunic, loosely girdled. They were immersed to the waist. So pellucid was the water that their little feet were distinctly visible at the bottom, shining like gold.

Luxuriant hair fell down in broad flakes, partially shrouding the snowy development of their arms and shoulders. Their forms were strikingly similar—tall, graceful, fully developed, and characterised by that elliptical line of beauty that, in the female form more than in any other earthly object, illustrates the far-famed curve of Hogarth.

Their features, too, were alike. “Sisters!” one would exclaim, and yet their complexions were strikingly dissimilar. The blood, mantling darker in the veins of one, lent an olive tinge to the soft and wax-like surface of her skin, while the red upon her cheeks and lips presented an admixture of purple. Her hair, too, was black; and a dark shading along the upper lip—a moustache, in fact—soft and silky as the tracery of a crayon, contrasted with the dazzling whiteness of her teeth. Her eyes were black, large, and almond-shaped, with that expression which looks over one; and her whole appearance formed a type of that beauty which we associate with the Abencerrage and the Alhambra. This was evidently the elder.

The other was the type of a distinct class of beauty—the golden-haired blonde. Her eyes were large, globular, and blue as turquoise. Her hair of a chastened yellow, long and luxuriant; while her skin, less soft and waxen than that of her sister, presented an effusion of roseate blushes that extended along the snowy whiteness of her arms. These, in the sun, appeared as bloodless and transparent as the tiny gold-fish that quivered in her uplifted hand.

I was riveted to the spot. My first impulse was to retire, silently and modestly, but the power of a strange fascination for a moment prevented me. Was it a dream?

“Ah! que barbara! pobrecito—ito—ito!” (Ah! what a barbarian you are! poor little thing!)

“Comeremos.” (We shall eat it.)

“Por Dios! no! echalo, Luz, ó tirare la agua en sus ojos.” (Goodness! no! fling it in, Luz, or I shall throw water in your eyes.) And the speaker stooped as if to execute the threat.

“Ya—no,” (Now I shall not), said Luz resolutely.

“Guarda te!” (Look out, then!)

The brunette placed her little hands close together, forming with their united palms a concave surface, and commenced dashing water upon the perverse blonde.

The latter instantly dropped the gold-fish, and retaliated.

An exciting and animated contest ensued. The bright globules flew around their heads, and rolled down their glittering tresses, as from the pinions of a swan; while their clear laughter rang out at intervals, as one or the other appeared victorious.

A hoarse voice drew my attention from this interesting spectacle. Looking whence it came, my eye rested upon a huge negress stretched under a cocoa-tree, who had raised herself on one arm, and was laughing at the contest.

It was her voice, then, I had mistaken for that of a man!

Becoming sensible of my intrusive position, I turned to retreat, when a shrill cry reached me from the pond.

The swans, with a frightened energy shrieked and flapped over the surface, the gold-fish shot to and fro like sunbeams, and leaped out of the water, quivering and terrified, and the birds on all sides screamed and chattered.

I sprang forward to ascertain the cause of this strange commotion. My eye fell upon the negress, who had risen, and, running out upon the parapet with uplifted arms, shouted in terrified accents:

“Valgame Dios—niñas! El cayman! el cayman!”

I looked across to the other side of the pond. A fearful object met my eyes—the cayman of Mexico! The hideous monster was slowly crawling over the low wall, dragging his lengthened body from a bed of aquatic plants.

Already his short fore-arms, squamy and corrugated, rested upon the inner edge of the parapet, his shoulders projecting as if in the act to spring! His scale-covered back, with its long serrated ridge, glittered with a slippery moistness; and his eyes, usually dull, gleamed fierce and lurid from their prominent sockets.

I had brought with me a light rifle. It was but the work of a moment to unsling and level it. The sharp crack followed, and the ball impinged between the monster’s eyes, glancing harmlessly from his hard skull as though it had been a plate of steel. The shot was an idle one, perhaps worse; for, stung to madness with the stunning shock, the reptile sprang far out into the water, and made directly for its victims.

The girls, who had long since given over their mirthful contest, seemed to have lost all presence of mind; and, instead of making for the bank, stood locked in each other’s arms terrified and trembling.

Their symmetrical forms fell into an agonised embrace; and their rounded arms, olive and roseate, laced each other, and twined across their quivering bodies.

Their faces were turned to heaven, as though they expected succour from above—a group that rivalled the Laocoon.

With a spring I cleared the parapet, and, drawing my sword, dashed madly across the basin.

The girls were near the centre; but the cayman had got the start of me, and the water, three feet deep, impeded my progress. The bottom of the tank, too, was slippery, and I fell once or twice on my hands. I rose again, and with frantic energy plunged forward, all the while calling upon the bathers to make for the parapet.

Notwithstanding my shouts, the terrified girls made no effort to save themselves. They were incapable from terror.

On came the cayman with the velocity of vengeance. It was a fearful moment. Already he swam at a distance of less than six paces from his prey, his long snout projecting from the water, his gaunt jaws displaying their quadruple rows of sharp glistening teeth.

I shouted despairingly. I was baffled by the deep water. I had nearly twice the distance before I could interpose myself between the monster and its victims.

“I shall be too late!”

Suddenly I saw that the cayman had swerved. In his eagerness he had struck a subaqueous pipe of the jet.

It delayed him only a moment; but in that moment I had passed the statue-like group, and stood ready to receive his attack.

“A la orilla! á la orilla!” (To the bank! to the bank!) I shouted, pushing the terrified girls with one hand, while with the other I held my sword at arm’s-length in the face of the advancing reptile.

The girls now, for the first time awaking from their lethargy of terror, rushed towards the bank.

On came the monster, gnashing his teeth in the fury of disappointment, and uttering fearful cries.

As soon as he had got within reach I aimed a blow at his head; but the light sabre glinted from the fleshless skull with the ringing of steel to steel.

The blow, however, turned him out of his course, and, missing his aim, he passed me like an arrow. I looked around with a feeling of despair. “Thank heaven, they are safe!”

I felt the clammy scales rub against my thigh; and I leaped aside to avoid the stroke of his tail, as it lashed the water into foam.

Again the monster turned, and came on as before.

This time I did not attempt to cut, but thrust the sabre directly for his throat. The cold blade snapped between his teeth like an icicle. Not above twelve inches remained with the hilt; and with this I hacked and fought with the energy of despair.

My situation had now grown critical indeed. The girls had reached the bank, and stood screaming upon the parapet.

At length the elder seized upon a pole, and, lifting it with all her might, leaped back into the basin, and was hastening to my rescue, when a stream of fire was poured through the leaves of the plantains: I heard a sharp crack—the short humming whiz of a bullet—and a large form, followed by half a dozen others, emerged from the grove, and, rushing over the wall, plunged into the pond.

I heard a loud plashing in the water—the shouts of men, the clashing of bayonets; and then saw the reptile roll over, pierced by a dozen wounds.

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