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   Chapter 51 LIFE IN THE PABA’S WORLD

The Fair God; or, The Last of the 'Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico By Lew Wallace Characters: 9544

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


When the page awoke, after a long, refreshing sleep, he saw the fountain first, and Tecetl next. She was sitting a little way off, upon a mat stretched on the floor. A number of birds were about her, whistling and coquetting with each other. One or two of very beautiful plumage balanced themselves on the edge of the basin, and bathed their wings in the crystal water. Through half-shut eyes, he studied her. She was quiet,-thinking of what? Of what do children think in their waking dreams? Yet he might have known, from her pensive look and frequent sighs, that the fountain was singing to deaf ears, and the birds playing their tricks before sightless eyes. She was most probably thinking of what he had so lately taught her, and nursed the great mystery as something past finding out; many a wiser head has done the same thing.

Now, Orteguilla was very sensible of her loveliness; he was no less sensible, also, that she was a mystery out of the common way of life; and had he been in a place of safety, in the palace of Axaya', he would have stayed a long time pretending sleep, in order to study her unobserved. But his situation presently rose to mind; the yellow glow of the lamps suggested the day outside; the birds, liberty; the fountain and shrubbery, the world he had lost; and the girl, life,-his life, and all its innumerable strong attachments. And so, in his mind, he ran over his adventures in the house. He surveyed all of the chamber that was visible from the bench. The light, the fountain, the vegetation, the decorated walls,-everything in view dependent upon the care of man. Where so much was to be done constantly, was there not something to be done at once,-something to save life? There were the lamps: how were they supplied? They might go out. And, Jesu Christo! the corpse of the paba! He sat up, as if touched by a spear: there it was, in all the repulsiveness of death.

The movement attracted the girl's attention; she arose, and waited for him to speak.

"Good morning,-if morning it be," he said.

She made no reply.

"Come here," he continued. "I have some questions to ask."

She drew a few steps nearer. A bird with breast of purple and wings of snow flew around her for a while, then settled upon her hand, and was drawn close to her bosom. He remembered, from Father Bartolomé's reading, how the love of God once before took a bird's form; and forthwith his piety and superstition hedged her about with sanctity. What with the white wings upon her breast, and the whiter innocency within, she was safe as if bound by walls of brass.

"Have no fear, I pray you," he said, misinterpreting her respectful sentiment. "You and I are two people in a difficult strait, and, if I mistake not, much dependent upon each other. A God, of whom you never heard, but whom I will tell you all about, took your father away, and sent me in his stead. The road thither, I confess, has been toilsome and dreadful. Ah me, I shudder at the thought!"

He emphasized his feelings by a true Spanish shrug of the shoulders.

"This is a strange place," he next said. "How long have you been here?"

"I cannot say."

"Can you remember coming, and who brought you?"

"No."

"You must have been a baby." He looked at her with pity. "Have you never been elsewhere?"

"No, never."

"Ah, by the Mother that keeps me! Always here! And the sky, and sun, and stars, and all God's glory of nature, seen in the valleys, mountains, and rivers, and seas,-have they been denied you, poor girl?"

"I have seen them all," she answered.

"Where?"

"On the ceiling and walls."

He looked up at the former, and noticed its excellence of representation.

"Very good,-beautiful!" he said, in the way of criticism. "Who did the work?"

"Quetzal'."

"And who is Quetzal'?"

"Who should know better than the god himself?"

"Me?"

"Yes."

Again he shrugged his shoulders.

"My name, then, is Quetzal'. Now, what is yours?"

"Tecetl."

"Well, then, Tecetl, let me undeceive you. In the first place, I am not Quetzal', or any god. I am a man, as your father there was. My name is Orteguilla; and for the time I am page to the great king Montezuma. And before long, if I live, and get out of this place, as I most devoutly pray, I will be a soldier. In the next place you are a girl, and soon will be a woman. You have been cheated of life. By God's help, I will take you out of this. Do you understand me?"

"No; unless men and gods are the same."

"Heaven forbid!" He crossed himself fervently. "Do you not know what men are?"

"All my knowledge of things is from the pictures on the walls, and what else you see here."

"Jesu Christo!" he cried, in open astonishment. "And did the good man never tell you of the wo

rld outside,-of its creation, and its millions upon millions of people?"

"No."

"Of the world in which you may find the originals of all that is painted on the walls, more beautiful than colors can make them?"

He received the same reply, but, still incredulous, went on.

"Who takes care of these plants?"

"My father."

"A servant brings your food to the door-may he do so again! Have you not seen him?"

"No."

"Where does the oil that feeds the lamps come from?"

"From Quetzal'."

Just then a lamp went out. He arose hastily, and saw that the contents of the cup were entirely consumed. "Tecetl, is there plenty of oil? Where do you keep it? Tell me."

"In a jar, there by the door. While you were asleep, I refilled the cups, and now the jar is empty."

He turned pale. Who better than he knew the value of the liquid that saved them from the darkness so horribly peopled by hunger and thirst? If exhausted, where could they get more? Without further question, he went through the chamber, and collected the lamps, and put them all out except one. Then he brought the jar from the door, and poured the oil back, losing not a drop.

Tecetl remonstrated, and cried when she saw the darkness invade the chamber, blotting out the walls, and driving the birds to their perches, or to the fountain yet faintly illuminated. But he was firm.

"Fie, fie!" he said. "You should laugh, not cry. Did I not tell you about the world above this, so great, and so full of people, like ourselves? And did I not promise to take you there? I am come in your father's stead. Everything must contribute to our escape. We must think of nothing else. Do you understand? This chamber is but one of many, in a house big as a mountain, and full of passages in which, if we get lost, we might wander days and days, and then not get out, unless we had a light to show us the way. So we must save the oil. When this supply gives out, as it soon will if we are not careful, the darkness that so frightens you will come and swallow us, and we shall die, as did your father there."

The last suggestion sufficed; she dried her tears, and drew closer to him, as if to say, "I confide in you; save me."

Nature teaches fear of death; so that separation from the breathless thing upon the couch was not like parting from Mualox. Whether she touched his hand or looked in his face now, "Go hence, go hence!" was what she seemed to hear. The stony repulsion that substituted his living love reconciled her to the idea of leaving home, for such the chamber had been to her.

Here I may as well confess the page began to do a great deal of talking,-a consequence, probably, of having a good listener; or he may have thought it a duty to teach all that was necessary to prepare his disciple for life in the new world. In the midst of a lecture, the tinkle of a bell brought him to a hasty pause.

"Now, O Blessed Mother, now I am happy! Thou hast not forsaken me! I shall see the sun again, and brave old Spain. Live my heart!" he cried, as the last tinkle trembled, and died in the silence.

Seeing that she regarded him with surprise, he said, in her tongue, "I was thanking the Mother, Tecetl. She will save us both. Go now, and bring the breakfast,-I say breakfast, not knowing better,-and while we eat I will tell you why I am so glad. When you have heard me, you will be glad as I am."

She went at once, and, coming back, found him bathing his face and head in the water of the basin,-a healthful act, but not one to strengthen the idea of his godship. She placed the tray upon the table, and helped him to napkin and comb; then they took places opposite each other, with the lamp between them; whereupon she had other proof of his kind of being; for it is difficult to think of a deity at table, eating. The Greeks felt the incongruity, and dined their gods on nectar and ambrosia, leaving us to imagine them partaken in some other than the ordinary, vulgar way. Verily, Tecetl was becoming accustomed to the stranger!

And while they ate, he explained his plans, and talked of the upper world, and described its wonders and people, until, her curiosity aroused, she plied him with questions; and as point after point was given, we may suppose nature asserted itself, and taught her, by what power there is in handsome youth, with its bright eyes, smooth face, and tongue more winsome than wise, that life in the said world was a desirable exchange for the monotonous drifting to which she had been so long subjected. We may also suppose that she was not slow to observe the difference between Mualox and the page; which was that between age and youth, or, more philosophically, that between a creature to be revered and a creature to be admired.

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