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Chapter 40 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

Maria de Merced

There was a deep ditch under the wall, filled with cactus-plants and dry grass. We lay in the bottom of this for some minutes, panting with fatigue. Our limbs were stiff and swollen, and we could hardly stand upright. A little delay then was necessary, to bring back the blood and determine our future course.

“We had best ter keep the gully,” whispered Lincoln. “I kum across the fields myself, but that ’ar kiver’s thin, and they may sight us.”

“The best route is the ditch,” assented Raoul: “there are some windows, but they are high, and we can crawl under them.”

“Forward, then!” I whispered to Raoul.

We crept down the ditch on all-fours, passing several windows that were dark and shut. We reached one, the last in the row, where the light streamed through. Notwithstanding our perilous situation, I resolved to look in. There was an impulse upon me which I could not resist. I was yearning for some clue to the mystery that hung around me.

The window was high up, but it was grated with heavy bars; and, grasping two of these, I swung myself to its level. Meanwhile my comrades had crept into the magueys to wait for me.

I raised my head cautiously and looked in. It was a room somewhat elegantly furnished, but my eye did not dwell long on that. A man sitting by the table engrossed my attention. This man was Dubrosc. The light was full upon his face, and I gazed upon its hated lines until I felt my frame trembling with passion.

I can give no idea of the hate this man had inspired me with. Had I possessed firearms, I could not have restrained myself from shooting him; and but for the iron grating, I should have sprung through the sash and grappled him with my hands. I have thought since that some providence held me back from making a demonstration that would have baffled our escape. I am sure at that moment I possessed no restraint within myself.

As I gazed at Dubrosc, the door of the apartment opened, and a young man entered. He was strangely attired, in a costume half-military, half-ranchero. There was a fineness, a silky richness, about the dress and manner of this youth that struck me. His features were dark and beautiful.

He advanced and sat down by the table, placing his hand upon it. Several rings sparkled upon his fingers. I observed that he was pale, and that his hand trembled.

After looking at him for a moment, I began to fancy I had seen the features before. It was not Narcisso; him I should have known; and yet there was a resemblance. Yes—he even resembled her! I started as this thought crossed me. I strained my eyes; the resemblance grew stronger.

Oh, Heaven! could it be?—dressed thus? No, no! those eyes—ha! I remember! The boy at the rendezvous—on board the transport—the island—the picture! It is she—the cousin—María de Merced!

These recollections came with the suddenness of a single thought, and passed as quickly. Later memories crowded upon me. The adventure of the morning—the strange words uttered at the window of my prison—the small hand! This, then, was the author of our deliverance.

A hundred mysteries were explained in a single moment. The unexpected elucidation came like a shock—like a sudden light. I staggered back, giving way to new and singular emotions.

“Guadalupe knows nothing of my presence, then. She is innocent.”

This thought alone restored me to happiness. A thousand others rushed through my brain in quick succession—some pleasant, others painful.

There was an altercation of voices over my head. I caught the iron rods, and, resting my toes upon a high bank, swung my body up, and again looked into the room. Dubrosc was now angrily pacing over the floor.

“Bah!” he ejaculated, with a look of cold brutality; “you think to make me jealous, I believe. That isn’t possible. I was never so, and you can’t do it. I know you love the cursed Yankee. I watched you in the ship—on the island, too. You had better keep him company where he is going. Ha, ha! Jealous, indeed! Your pretty cousins have grown up since I saw them last.”

The insinuation sent the blood in a hot stream through my veins.

It appeared to have a similar effect upon the woman; for, starting from her seat, she looked towards Dubrosc, her eyes flashing like globes of fire.

“Yes!” she exclaimed; “and if you dare whisper your polluting thoughts to either of them, lawless as is this land, you know that I still possess the power to punish you. You are villain enough, Heaven knows, for anything; but they shall not fall: one victim is enough—and such a one!”

“Victim, indeed!” replied the man, evidently cowed by the other’s threat. “You call yourself victim, Marie? The wife of the handsomest man in Mexico? Ha, ha!”

There was something of irony in the latter part of the speech, and the emphasis placed on the word “wife.”

“Yes; you may well taunt me with your false priest, you unfeeling wretch! Oh, Santisima Madre!” continued she, dropping back into her chair, and pressing her head between her hands. “Beguiled—beggared—almost unsexed! and yet I never loved the man! It was not love, but madness—madness and fascination!”

The last words were uttered in soliloquy, as though she regarded not the presence of her companion.

“I don’t care a claco,” cried he fiercely, and evidently piqued at her declaration; “not one claco whether you ever loved me or not! That’s not the question now, but this is: You must make yourself known to your Croesus of an uncle here, and demand that part of your fortune that he still clutches within his avaricious old fingers. You must do this to-morrow.”

“I will not!”

“But you shall, or—.”

The woman rose suddenly, and walked towards the door as if she intended to go out.

“No, not to-night, dearest!” said Dubrosc, grasping her rudely by the arm. “I have my reasons for keeping you here. I noted you to-day speaking with that cursed Yankee, and you’re just traitor enough to help him to escape. I’ll look to him myself, so you may stay where you are. If you should choose to rise early enough to-morrow morning, you will have the felicity of seeing him dance upon the tight-rope. Ha! ha! ha!”

And with a savage laugh the Creole walked out of the room, locking the door behind him.

A strange expression played over the features of the woman—a blending of triumph with anxiety. She ran forward to the window, and, pressing her small lips close to the glass, strained her eyes outward.

I held the diamond in my fingers, and, stretching up until my hand was opposite her face, I wrote the word “Gracias.”

At first seeing me she had started back. There was no time to be lost. My comrades were already chafing at my delay; and, joining them, we crept through the magueys, parting the broad, stiff leaves with our fingers. We were soon upon the edge of the chaparral wood.

I looked back towards the window. The woman stood holding the lamp, and its light was full upon her face. She had read the scrawl, and was gazing out with an expression I shall never forget. Another bound, and we were “in the woods.”

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