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Chapter 13 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

A Subterranean Drawing-Room

The mystery of the drawing-room, and the servants, and the dishes, was soon over. A descending stairway explained the enigma.

“Let me conduct you to my cave, gentlemen,” said the Spaniard: “I am half a subterranean. In the hot weather, and during the northers, we find it more agreeable to live under the ground. Follow me, Señores.”

We descended, with the exception of Oakes, who returned to look after the men.

At the foot of the staircase we entered a hall brilliantly lighted. The floor was without a carpet, and exhibited a mosaic of the finest marble. The walls were painted of a pale blue colour, and embellished by a series of pictures from the pencil of Murillo. These were framed in a costly and elegant manner. From the ceiling were suspended chandeliers of a curious and unique construction, holding in their outstretched branches wax candles of an ivory whiteness.

Large vases of waxen flowers, covered with crystals, stood around the hall upon tables of polished marble. Other articles of furniture, candelabra, girandoles, gilded clocks, filled the outline. Broad mirrors reflected the different objects; so that, instead of one apartment, this hall appeared only one of a continuous suite of splendid drawing-rooms.

And yet, upon closer observation, there seemed to be no door leading from this hall, which, as Don Cosmé informed his guests, was the ante-sala.

Our host approached one of the large mirrors, and slightly touched a spring. The tinkling of a small bell was heard within; and at the same instant the mirror glided back, reflecting in its motion a series of brilliant objects, that for a moment bewildered our eyes with a blazing light.

“Pasan adentro, Señores,” said Don Cosmé, stepping aside, and waving us to enter.

We walked into the drawing-room. The magnificence that greeted us seemed a vision—a glorious and dazzling hallucination—more like the gilded brilliance of some enchanted palace than the interior of a Mexican gentleman’s habitation.

As we stood gazing with irresistible wonderment, Don Cosmé opened a side-door, and called aloud, “Niñas, niñas, ven aca!” (Children, come hither!)

Presently we heard several female voices, blending together like a medley of singing birds.

They approached. We heard the rustling of silken dresses, the falling of light feet in the doorway, and three ladies entered—the señora of Don Cosmé, followed by her two beautiful daughters, the heroines of our aquatic adventure.

These hesitated a moment, scanning our faces; then, with a cry of “Nuestro Salvador!” both rushed forward, and knelt, or rather crouched, at my feet, each of them clasping one of my hands and covering it with kisses.

Their panting agitation, their flashing eyes, the silken touch of their delicate fingers, sent the blood rushing through my veins like a stream of lava; but in their gentle accents, the simple ingenuousness of their expressions, the childlike innocence of their faces, I regarded them only as two beautiful children kneeling in the abandon of gratitude.

Meanwhile Don Cosmé had introduced Clayley and the major to his señora, whose baptismal name was Joaquina; and taking the young ladies one in each hand, he presented them as his daughters, Guadalupe and Maria de la Luz (Mary of the Light).

“Mama,” said Don Cosmé, “the gentlemen had not quite finished their cigars.”

“Oh! they can smoke here,” replied the señora.

“Will the ladies not object to that?” I inquired.

“No—no—no!” ejaculated they simultaneously.

“Perhaps you will join us?—we have heard that such is the custom of your country.”

“It was the custom,” said Don Cosmé. “At present the young ladies of Mexico are rather ashamed of the habit.”

“We no smoke—Mamma, yes,” added the elder—the brunette—whose name was Guadalupe.

“Ha! you speak English?”

“Little Englis speak—no good Englis,” was the reply.

“Who taught you English?” I inquired, prompted by a mysterious curiosity.

“Un American us teach—Don Emilio.”

“Ha! an American?”

“Yes, Señor,” said Don Cosmé: “a gentleman from Vera Cruz, who formerly visited our family.”

I thought I could perceive a desire upon the part of our host not to speak further on this subject, and yet I felt a sudden, and, strange to say, a painful curiosity to know more about Don Emilio, the American, and his connection with our newly-made acquaintance. I can only explain this by asking the reader if he or she has not experienced a similar feeling while endeavouring to trace the unknown past of some being in whom either has lately taken an interest—an interest stronger than friendship?

That mamma smoked was clear, for the old lady had already gone through the process of unrolling one of the small cartouche-like cigars. Having re-rolled it between her fingers, she placed it within the gripe of a pair of small golden pincers.

This done, she held one end to the coals that lay upon the brazero, and ignited the paper. Then, taking the other end between her thin, purlish lips, she breathed forth a blue cloud of aromatic vapour.

After a few whiffs she invited the major to participate, offering him a cigarrito from her beaded cigar-case.

This being considered an especial favour, the major’s gallantry would not permit him to refuse. He took the cigarrito, therefore; but, once in possession, he knew not how to use it.

Imitating the señora, he opened the diminutive cartridge, spreading out the edges of the wrapper, but attempted in vain to re-roll it.

The ladies, who had watched the process, seemed highly amused, particularly the younger, who laughed outright.

“Permit me, Señor Coronel,” said the Dona Joaquina, taking the cigarrito from the major’s hand, and giving it a turn through her nimble fingers, which brought it all right again.

“Thus—now—hold your fingers thus. Do not press it: suave, suave. This end to the light—so—very well!”

The major lit the cigar, and, putting it between his great thick lips, began to puff in a most energetic style.

He had not cast off half a dozen whiffs when the fire, reaching his fingers, burned them severely, causing him to remove them suddenly from the cigar. The wrapper then burst open; and the loose pulverised tobacco by a sudden inhalation rushed into his mouth and down his throat, causing him to cough and splutter in the most ludicrous manner.

This was too much for the ladies, who, encouraged by the cachinnations of Clayley, laughed outright; while the major, with tears in his eyes, could be heard interlarding his coughing solo with all kinds of oaths and expressions.

The scene ended by one of the young ladies offering the major a glass of water, which he drank off, effectually clearing the avenue of his throat.

“Will you try another, Señor Coronel?” asked Dona Joaquina, with a smile.

“No, ma’am, thank you,” replied the major, and then a sort of internal subterraneous curse could be heard in his throat.

The conversation continued in English, and we were highly amused at the attempts of our new acquaintances to express themselves in that language.

After failing, on one occasion, to make herself understood, Guadalupe said, with some vexation in her manner:

“We wish brother was home come; brother speak ver better Englis.”

“Where is he?” I inquired.

“In the ceety—Vera Cruz.”

“Ha! and when did you expect him?”

“Thees day—to-night—he home come.”

“Yes,” added the Señora Joaquina, in Spanish: “he went to the city to spend a few days with a friend; but he was to return to-day, and we are looking for him to arrive in the evening.”

“But how is he to get out?” cried the major, in his coarse, rough manner.

“How?—why, Señor?” asked the ladies in a breath, turning deadly pale.

“Why, he can’t pass the pickets, ma’am,” answered the major.

“Explain, Captain; explain!” said the ladies, appealing to me with looks of anxiety.

I saw that concealment would be idle. The major had fired the train.

“It gives me pain, ladies,” said I, speaking in Spanish, “to inform you that you must be disappointed. I fear the return of your brother to-day is impossible.”

“But why, Captain?—why?”

“Our lines are completely around Vera Cruz, and all intercourse to and from the city is at an end.”

Had a shell fallen into Don Cosmé’s drawing-room it could not have caused a greater change in the feelings of its inmates. Knowing nothing of military life, they had no idea that our presence there had drawn an impassable barrier between them and a much-loved member of their family. In a seclusion almost hermetical they knew that a war existed between their country and the United States; but that was far away upon the Rio Grande. They had heard, moreover, that our fleet lay off Vera Cruz, and the pealing of the distant thunder of San Juan had from time to time reached their ears; but they had not dreamed, on seeing us, that the city was invested by land. The truth was now clear; and the anguish of the mother and daughters became afflicting when we informed them of what we were unable to conceal—that it was the intention of the American commander to bombard the city.

The scene was to us deeply distressing.

Dona Joaquina wrung her hands, and called upon the Virgin with all the earnestness of entreaty. The sisters clung alternately to their mother and Don Cosmé, weeping and crying aloud, “Pobre Narcisso! nuestro hermanito—le asesinaran!” (Poor Narcisso, our little brother!—they will murder him!)

In the midst of this distressing scene the door of the drawing-room was thrown suddenly open, and a servant rushed in, shouting in an agitated voice, “El norté! el norté!”

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