Charles James Lever.

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obstinacy of resistance on my part. Some will doubtless say
that it argued very little pride, and a very weak self-esteem
in Con Cregan, to continue to impose his society where it
had been so peremptorily declined ; and so had it been, doubt-
less, had the scene been a great city, ruled and regulated by
its thousand-and-one conventionalities. But the prairies are
separated by something longer than mere miles from the land
of kid gloves and visiting tickets. Ceremonial in such lati-
tudes would be as unsuitable as a court suit.

Besides, I argued thus : " A very underdone slice of tough
venison, with a draught of spring water, constitute in these
regions a very appetizing meal ; and for the same reason, a
very morose friar, and a still sulkier servant, may be accepted
as very tolerable travelling companions. Enjoy better when
it can be had, Con ; but prefer even the humblest fare to a
famine." A rule more applicable to mental food than to

In a little self-colloquy after this kind, I crept stealthily
back, leading Charry by the bridle, and halting at intervals
to listen. What a triumph to my skill in divination as I
heard the Friar's loud voice overtopping the gushing flood,
while he exhorted his beasts in the most energetic fashion !

I advanced cautiously till I gained a little clump of brush-
wood, from which I could see the river and the group per-
fectly. The Friar had now mounted the waggon, and held the
reins ; the Mexican was, however, standing in the stream, and
leading the cattle, who appeared to have regained somewhat
more of their courage, and were slowly proceeding, sniffing
timidly as they went, and pawing the water fretfully.

s 2


The Mexican advanced boldly, till the water reached nigh
the top of his great lotas vaqueras, immense boots of buffalo
hide, which, it is said, resist the bite of either cayman or
serpent ; and so far the horses went, doubtless from the
encouragement. As soon, however, as the deepening flood
warned the man to mount the waggon, they halted abruptly,
and stood pawing and splashing the stream, while their ears
flattened back, and their drawn-in tails evinced the terror
that was on them.

Objurgations entreaties prayers curses menaces
were all in vain, a step farther they would not budge. All
that the Spanish contained of guttural was hurled at them
without success the cow-hide whip might welt their flanks
and leave great ridges at every stroke the huge pole of the
Mexican might belabour them, with a running accompani-
ment of kicks, but to no purpose. They cared as little for
the cow-hide as the " calendar," neither saints nor thrash-
ings could persuade them to move on. Saint Anthony
and Saint Ursula Saint Forimund of Cordova, with various
others, were invoked to no end. Saint Clement of Capua, to
whom all poisonous reptiles, from boas to whipsnakes, owe
allegiance, was called upon to aid the travellers ; but the
quadrupeds took no heed of these entreaties, but showed a
most Protestant contempt for the whole litany.

There was a pause : wearied with flogging, and tired out
with vain exhortations, both Friar and Mexican ceased ; and,
as if in compensation to their long pent-up feelings, vented
their anger in a very guttural round of maledictions upon
the whole animal creation, and in particular on that part of
it who would not be eaten by alligators without signs of re-
sistance and opposition. Whether this new turn of events
had any influence, or that the matter was more owing to
" natural causes," I cannot say ; but, just then, the horse
which had been already bitten, reared straight up, and with a
loud snort plunged forward, carrying with him the other.
By his plunge he had reached a deep part of the stream,
where the water came half way up his body. Another spring
smashed one of the traces, and left him free to kick violently
behind him a privilege he certainly hastened to avail him-
self of. His fellow, whether from sympathy or not, imitated
the performance, and there they were lashing and plunging
with all their might, while the waggon, against which the
strong current beat in all its force, threatened at every instant
to capsize. The Friar struggled manfully, as did his fol-
lower j but, unfortunately, one of the reins gave way, and by


the violent tugging at the remaining one, the animals were
turned out of their course, and dragged round to the very
middle of the sti'eam. About twenty yards lower down, the
river fell by a kind of cascade some ten or twelve feet, and
towards this spot now the infuriated horses seemed rushing.
Had it been practicable, a strong man might, by throwing
himself into the water, have caught the horses' heads and
held them back, but the stream swarmed with poisonous
reptiles, which made such an effort almost inevitable death.

It was now a scene of terrible and most exciting interest.
The maddened horses, alternately rising and sinking,
writhed and twisted in agonies of pain. The men's
voices mingled with the gushing torrent and the splash-
ing water, which rose higher and higher at each plunge,
while a shrill shriek from within the waggon topped all,
and in its cadence seemed to speak a heart torn with
terror. As I looked, the sun had set, and as speedily as
though a curtain had fallen, the soft light of evening gave
way to a grey darkness. I rode down to the bank, and as I
reached it, one of the horses, after a terrific struggle to
get free, plunged head foremost down and disappeared.
The other, unable by himself alone to resist the weight of
the waggon, which already was floating in the stream, swung
round with the torrent, and was now dragging along toward
the cataract. The dusky indistinctness even added to the
terror of the picture, as the white water splashed up on every
side, and at times seemed actually to cover the whole party in
its scattering foam. The Friar, now leaning back, tore open
one of the curtains, and at the same instant I saw a female
arm stretch out and clasp him, while a shrill cry burst forth
that thrilled to my very heart.

They were already within a few yards of the cataract : a
moment or two more they must be over it and lost ! I spurred
Gharry forward, and down we plunged into the water, without
the slightest thought of what was to follow. Half swimming,
half bounding, I reached the waggon, which now, broadside
on the falls, tottered with every stroke of the fast rolling
river. The Mexican was standing on the pole, and endea-
vouring to hold back the horse ; while the Friar, ripping
the canvas with his knife, was endeavouring to extricate
the female figure, who, sunk on her knees, seemed utterly
incapable of any effort for her own safety.

Whether maddened by the bite of some monster beneath
the water, or having lost his footing, I know not, but the
horse went over the falls, while the Mexican, vainly endea


vouringto hold him, was earned down with him ; the waggon,
reeling with the shock, heeled over to the side, and was fast
sinking, when I caught hold of the outstretched hand of the
woman, and drew her towards me. " Leap spring towards
him," cried the Friar; and she obeyed the words, and with a
bound, seated herself behind me.

Breasting the water bravely, Charry bounded on, and in
less than a minute reached the bank, which the Friar, by the
aid of a leaping-pole, had gained before us.

Having placed the half-lifeless girl on the sward, I hastened
to see after the poor Mexican. Alas ! of him and the horse
we never saw trace afterwards. We called aloud, we shouted,
and even continued along the stream for a considerable space,
but to no purpose : the poor fellow had evidently perished
perhaps by a death too horrible to think of. The Friar wrung
his hands in agony, and mingled his thanksgiving for his own
safety with lamentations for his lost companion ; and so intent
was he on these themes, that he never recognized me, nor,
indeed, seemed conscious of my presence. At last, as we
turned our steps towards where the girl lay, he said, " Is
it possible that you are the Caballero we parted with before
sunset ? "

" Yes," said I, "the same. You were loth to accept of my
company, but you see there is a fate in it, after all ; you
cannot get rid of me so readily."

"Nor shall we try, Senhor," said the girl, passionately, but
with a foreign accent in her words ; as she took my hands,
arid pressed them to her lips.

The Friar said something hastily in Spanish, which seemed
a rebuke, for she drew back at once, and buried her face in
her mantle.

" Donna Maria is my niece, Senhor, and has only just left
the convent of the ' Sacred Heart.' She knows nothing of
the world, nor what beseems her as a young maiden."

This the Friar spoke harshly, and with a manner that to me
sounded far more in need of an apology than did the young
girl's grateful emotion.

What was to be done became now the question. We were
at least thirty miles from Bexar, and not a village, nor even
a log-hut between us and that city. To go back was impos-
sible ; so that, like practical people, we at once addressed
ourselves to the available alternative.

" Picket your beast, and let us light a fire," said Fra Miguel,
with the air of a man who would not waste life in vain
regrets. Thank Providence, we have both grass and water ;


and although the one always brings snakes, and the other
alligators, it is better than to bivouac on the Bed River, with
iron ore in the stream, and hard flints to sleep on."

Fastening my beast to a tree, I unstrapped my saddle-bags,
and removed my saddle ; disposing which most artistically in
the fashion of an arm-chair for Donna Maria at the foot of a
stupendous beech, I set about the preparation of a fire. The
Friar, however, had almost anticipated me ; and with both
arms loaded with dead wood, sat himself down to construct
a species of hearth, placing a little circle of stones around in
such a way as to give a draught to the blaze.

"We must fast to-night, Senhor," said he; "but it will
count to us hereafter. Fan the fire with your hat, it will
soon blaze briskly."

" If it were not for that young lady," said I, " whose suffer-
ings are far greater than ours "

" Speak not of her, Senhor ; Donna Maria de los Dolores
was called after our Mother of Sorrows, and she may as well
begin her apprenticeship to grief. She is the only child of
my brother, who had sent her to be educated at New Orleans,
and is now returning home to see her father, before she takes
the veil of her noviciate."

A very low sigh so low as only to be audible to myself,
came from beneath the beech-tree, and I threw a handful of
dry chips upon the fire, hoping to catch a glimpse of the
features of my fair fellow-traveller. Fra Miguel, however,
balked my stratagem by topping the fire with a stout log, as
he said, " You are too spendthrift, Senhor, we shall need to
husband our resources, or we'll not have enough for the night

" Would you not like to come nearer to the blaze, Senhora ? "
said I, respectfully.

" Thanks, sir, but perhaps "

"Speak out, child," broke in the Father, "speak out, and
say that you are counting your rosary, and would not wish to
be disturbed. And you, Senhor, if I err not, in your eager-
ness to aid us, have forgotten to water your gallant beast
don't lead him to the stream, that would be unsafe ; take my
sombrero ; it has cften served a like purpose before now.
Twice full is enough for any horse in these countries." I
would have declined this offer, but I felt that submission
in everything would be my safest passport to his good opinion,
and so, armed with the " Friar's beaver," I made my way
to the stream.

Whatever his eulogies upon the pitcher-like qualities of his


head-piece to me they seemed most undeserved; for scarcely
had I filled it, than the water ran through like a sieve. The
oftener, too, was the process repeated, the less chance did
there appear of success ; for, instead of retaining the fluid at
all, the material became so saturated, that it threatened to
tear in pieces every time it was filled, and ere I could lift it
was totally empty. Half angry with the Friar, and still more
annoyed at my own ineptitude, I gave up the effort, and
returned to where I had left him, confessing my failure as I
came forward.

" Steep your 'kerchief in the stream, then, and wash the
beast's mouth," said he, upon his knees, where, with a great
string of beads, he was engaged with his devotions.

I retired, abashed at my intrusion, and proceeded to do as
I was directed.

" What, if all these cares for my horse, and all these devo-
tional exercises, were but stratagems to get rid of my com-
pany for a season ? " thought I ; as I perceived, that scarcely
had I left the spot, than the Friar arose from his knees, and
seemed to busy himself about something in the trees. Full
of this impression, I made a little circuit of the place ; and
what was my surprise to observe, that he had converted his
upper robe of coarse blanket-cloth into a kind of hammock
for Donna Maria, in which, fastened at either end to the
bough of a tree, she was now swinging to and fro, with
apparently all the pleasure of a happy child.

" Don't you like it, uncle, after all," said she, laughing ;
" it's exactly what one has read of in Juan Cordova's stories,
to be bivouacking in a great forest, with a great fire, to keep
away the jaguars."

" Hush ! and go to sleep, child. I neither like it for thee,
nor myself. There are more dangerous things than jaguars in
these woods."

" Ah ! you mean the bears, uncle ? "

" I do not," growled he, sulkily.

" As for snakes, one gets used to them ; besides, they go
into the tall grass."

" Ay, ay, snakes in the grass, just so ! " muttered the
Friar, " but this youth will be back, presently, and let him not
hear you talk such silly nonsense. Good night, good night."

" Good night," sighed she, " but I cannot sleep ; I love so
to see the fireflies dancing through the leaves, and to hear
that rushing river."

" Hush ! he's coming," said the Friar ; and all was still.

When I came up, " the Friar " was again sunk in holy


meditation, so that, disposing myself beside the fire, with my
rifle at one side, and my pistols at the other, I lay down to
sleep. Although I closed my eyes, and lay still, I did not
Bleep. My thoughts were full of Donna Maria, of whom I
weaved a hundred conjectures. It was evident she was
young; her voice was soft and musical too, and had that
pleasant bell-like cadence, so indicative of a light heart and
a happy nature. Why was she called the " Los Dolores "? I
asked myself again and again, what had she in her joyous-
ness to do with grief and care ? and why should she enter a
convent and become a nun ? These were questions there was
no solving, and apparently, if I might judge from the cadence
of her now deep sigh, no less puzzling to herself than to me.
The more my interest became excited for her, the stronger
grew my dislike to the Friar. That he was a surly old
tyrant, I perfectly satisfied myself. What a pity that I could
not rescue her from such cruelty as easily as I saved her from
the cataract !

Would that I could even see her ! There was something
so tormenting in the mystery of her concealment, and so, I
deemed, must she herself feel it. We should be so happy
together, journeying along day by day through the forest!
What tales would I not tell her of my wanderings, and how
I should enjoy the innocence of her surprise at my travelled
wonders ! And all the strange objects of these wild woods
how they would interest and amuse, were there " two " to
wonder at and admire them 1 How I wished she might be
pretty what a disappointment if she were not what a
total rout to all my imaginings if she were to have red hair
how terrible if she should squint ! These thoughts at last
became too tantalizing for endurance, and so I tried to fall
asleep and forget them, but in vain ; they had got too firm a
hold of me, and I could not shake them off.

It was now about midnight, the fire waxed low, and " the
Friar " was sound asleep. What connection was there be-
tween these considerations, and her of whom I was thinking ?
who knows ? I arose and sat up, listening with eager ear
to the low long breathings of the Friar, who, with his round
bullet-head pillowed on a pine-log, slept soundly ; the gentle
hum of the leaves, scarcely moved by the night wind, and
the distant sound of the falling water, were lullabies to his
slumber. It was a gorgeous night of stars the sky was
studded with bright orbs in all the brilliant lustre of a
southern latitude. The fireflies, too, danced and glittered
on every side, leaving traces of the phosphoric light on the


leaves as they passed. The air was warm and balmy with
the rich odour of the cedar and the acacia just such a night
as one would like to pass in "converse sweet" with some dear
friend, mingling past memories with shadowy dreams, and
straying along from by-gones to futurity.

I crept over stealthily to where the Friar lay : a lively fear
prevailed with me that he might be feigning sleep, and so I
watched him long and narrowly. No ! it was an honest
slumber the deep guttural of his mellow throat was beyond
counterfeiting. I threw a log upon the fire carelessly, and
with noise, to see if it would awake him ; but he only mut-
tered a word or two, that sounded like Latin, and slept on.
I now strained my eyes towards the hammock, of which,
under the shadow of a great sycamore tree, I could barely
detect the outline through the leaves.

Should I bo able to discern her features, were I to creep
over ? What a difficult question, and how impossible to
decide by mere reasoning upon it. What if I were to try?
It was a pure piece of curiosity curiosity of the most
harmless kind. I had been, doubtless, just as eager to scan
the Friar's lineaments, if he had taken the same pains to
conceal them from me. It was absurd, besides, to travel
with a person and not see their face. Intercourse was a poor
thing, without that reciprocity which looks convey I'll have
a peep, at all events, said I, summing up to myself all my
arguments ; and with this resolve I moved cautiously along,
and, making a wide circuit, came round to the foot of the
sycamore, at the side most remote from the Friar.

There was the hammock, almost within reach of my hand !
it seemed to swing to and fro. I cannot say if this were
mere deception; and so I crept nearer, just to satisfy my
doubts. At last I reached the side, and peeped in. All I
could see was the outline of a figure wrapped in a mantle,
and a mass of soft silky hair, which fell over and shaded the
face. It was some time before my eyes grew accustomed to
the deep shadow of the spot ; but by degrees I could perceive
the profile of a young and beautiful face, resting upon one
arm, the other hung negligently at one side, and the hand
drooped over the edge of the hammock. The attitude was
the very perfection of graceful ease, and such as a sculptor
might have modelled. What a study, too, that hand, whose
dimpled loveliness the star-light speckled ! How could I help
touching it with my lips ? the first time, with all the hallowed
reverence a worshipper would vouchsafe to some holy relic ;
the second, with a more fervent devotion ; the third, I ven-


tared to take the hand in mine and slightly press it. Did I
dream ? Could the ecstasy be no more than fancy ? I
thought the pressure was returned.

She turned gently around, and in a voice of surpassing
softness, whispered, " Tell me your name, Senhor Caballero r"
I whispered low, " Con Cregan."

" Yes, but what do your sisters call you ? "

" I have none, Senhora."

"Your brothers, then?"

" I never had a brother."

" How strange ! nor I either. Then how shall I call you ? "

" Call me your brother," said I, trying to repossess myself
of the hand she had gently withdrawn from my grasp.

" And will you call me Maria ?" said she, gaily.

"If you permit it, Maria. But how will Fra Miguel think
of it?"

" Ah ! I forgot that. But what can he say ? You saved
my life. I should have been carried away like poor Sancho,
but for you. Tell me how you chanced to be here, and where
you are going, and whence you come, and all about you.
Sit down there, on that stone. Nay, you needn't hold my
hand while talking."

" Yes, but I'm afraid to be alone here in the dark, Maria,"
said I.

" What a silly creature it is ! Now begin."

" I'd rather talk of the future, Maria, dearest. I'd rather
we should speak of all the happy days we may spend

" But how so ? Once at Bexar, I'm to wait at the monas-
tery till my father sends his mules and people to fetch me
home : meanwhile you will have wandered away Heaven
knows where."

" And where do you call home, Maria ? "

" Far away, beyond the Rio Grande, in the gold country,
near Aguaverde."

" And why should I not go thither? I am free to turn my
steps whither I will. Perhaps your father would not despise
the services of one who has some smattering of knowledge
upon many a theme."

"But a Caballero a real Senhor turn miner ! They are
all miners there."

" No matter : Fortune might favour me, and make me
rich, and then and then who is to tell what changes might
follow ? The Caballero might bid adieu to the ' Placftr,' and
the fair ' Donna Maria ' wave a good-bye to the nunnery


and, by the way, that is a very cruel destiny they intend for

" Who knows ? I was very happy in the ' Sacred

" Possibly, Maria ; but you were a child, and would have
been happy anywhere. But think of the future; think of the
time when you will be loved, and will love in turn ; think of
that bright world of which the convent-window does not
admit one passing glance. Think of the glorious freedom
to enjoy whatever is beautiful in Nature, and to feel sym-
pathies with all that is great and good ; and reflect upon the
sad monotony of the cloister its cold and cheerless existence,
uncared for, almost unfelt."

" And when the Superior is cross ! " cried she, holding up
her hands.

" And she is always cross, Maria. That austere habit
repels every generous emotion, as it defies every expansion of
the heart. No, no ; you must not be a nun."

" Well, I will not," said she.

" You promise me this, Maria ? "

"Yes, upon one condition: that you will come to the
' Placer,' and tell my father all that you have told to me.
Ho is so good and so kind, he'll never force me."

" But will he receive me ? Will your father permit me so
to speak ? "

"You saved my life, Sefihor," said she, half-proudly, "and
little as you reckon such a service, it is one upon which Don
Estavan Glares will set some store."

'* Ah ! '' said I, sighing, " how little merit had I in the feat!
It did not even cause me the slightest injury."

" I am just as gratified as though you had been eaten by
an alligator, Sefihor," said she, laughing with a sly malice
that made me half suspect that some, at least, of her inno-
cence was assumed.

From this we wandered on to speak of the journey for the
morrow, which I proposed she should make upon " Gharry,"
while Fra Miguel and myself accompanied her on foot. It
was also agreed between us, that we should preserve the
most rigid reserve and distance of manner in the Friar's pre-
sence, rarely noticing or speaking with each other. One
only difficulty existed, which was by what pretence I should
direct my steps to Aguaverde. But here again Donna Maria's
ready wit suggested the expedient, as she said, laughing,
" Are you not making a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our
Lady ' des los Dolores '? "


" So I am," said I. " Shame on me that I should have
forgotten it till now ! "

" Did you never tell me," said she, archly, " that you in-
tended to enter ' an order '?"

" Certainly," said I, joining the merry humour; "and so
will I, on the very same day you take the veil."

" And now, holy man," said she, with difficulty repressing
a fresh burst of laughter, " let us say, ' Good night.' Fra
Miguel will awake at daybreak, and I see that is already

" Good night, sweet sister," said I, once again pressing
her fingers to my lips, and scarcely knowing when to relin-
quish them. A heavy sigh from the Friar, however, ad-

Online LibraryCharles James Lever[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 5) → online text (page 27 of 50)