"Why, sir, would you believe it? They fear this child — my granddaughter, seated there before you. A poor innocent girl of seventeen summers, a Christian who knows her Catechism, and would not harm the smallest thing that God has made — no, not a fly, which is not regarded on account of its smallness. Why, sir, it is due to her tender heart that you are safely sheltered here, instead of being left out of doors in this tempestuous night."
"To her — to this girl?" I returned in astonishment. "Explain, old man, for I do not know how I was saved."
"Today, senor, through your own heedlessness you were bitten by a venomous snake."
"Yes, that is true, although I do not know how it came to your knowledge. But why am I not a dead man, then — have you done something to save me from the effects of the poison?"
"Nothing. What could I do so long after you were bitten? When a man is bitten by a snake in a solitary place he is in God's hands. He will live or die as God wills. There is nothing to be done. But surely, sir, you remember that my poor grandchild was with you in the wood when the snake bit you?"
"A girl was there — a strange girl I have seen and heard before when I have walked in the forest. But not this girl — surely not this girl!"
"No other," said he, carefully rolling up another cigarette.
"It is not possible!" I returned.
"Ill would you have fared, sir, had she not been there. For after being bitten, you rushed away into the thickest part of the wood, and went about in a circle like a demented person for Heaven knows how long. But she never left you; she was always close to you — you might have touched her with your hand. And at last some good angel who was watching you, in order to stop your career, made you mad altogether and caused you to jump over a precipice and lose your senses. And you were no sooner on the ground than she was with you — ask me not how she got down! And when she had propped you up against the bank, she came for me. Fortunately the spot where you had fallen is near — not five hundred yards from the door. And I, on my part, was willing to assist her in saving you; for I knew it was no Indian that had fallen, since she loves not that breed, and they come not here. It was not an easy task, for you weigh, senor; but between us we brought you in."
While he spoke, the girl continued sitting in the same listless attitude as when I first observed her, with eyes cast down and hands folded in her lap. Recalling that brilliant being in the wood that had protected the serpent from me and calmed its rage, I found it hard to believe his words, and still felt a little incredulous.
"Rima — that is your name, is it not?" I said. "Will you come here and stand before me, and let me look closely at you?"
"Si, senor." she meekly answered; and removing the things from her lap, she stood up; then, passing behind the old man, came and stood before me, her eyes still bent on the ground — a picture of humility.
She had the figure of the forest girl, but wore now a scanty faded cotton garment, while the loose cloud of hair was confined in two plaits and hung down her back. The face also showed the same delicate lines, but of the brilliant animation and variable colour and expression there appeared no trace. Gazing at her countenance as she stood there silent, shy, and spiritless before me, the image of her brighter self came vividly to my mind and I could not recover from the astonishment I felt at such a contrast.
Have you ever observed a humming-bird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers — a living prismatic gem that changes its colour with every change of position — how in turning it catches the sunshine on its burnished neck and gorges plumes — green and gold and flame-coloured, the beams changing to visible flakes as they fall, dissolving into nothing, to be succeeded by others and yet others? In its exquisite form, its changeful splendour, its swift motions and intervals of aerial suspension, it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description. And have you seen this same fairy-like creature suddenly perch itself on a twig, in the shade, its misty wings and fan-like tail folded, the iridescent glory vanished, looking like some common dull-plumaged little bird sitting listless in a cage? Just so great was the difference in the girl as I had seen her in the forest and as she now appeared under the smoky roof in the firelight.
After watching her for some moments, I spoke: "Rima, there must be a good deal of strength in that frame of yours, which looks so delicate; will you raise me up a little?"
She went down on one knee and, placing her arms round me, assisted me to a sitting posture.
"Thank you, Rima — oh, misery!" I groaned. "Is there a bone left unbroken in my poor body?"
"Nothing broken," cried the old man, clouds of smoke flying out with his words. "I have examined you well — legs, arms, ribs. For this is how it was, senor. A thorny bush into which you fell saved you from being flattened on the stony ground. But you are bruised, sir, black with bruises; and there are more scratches of thorns on your skin than letters on a written page."
"A long thorn might have entered my brain," I said, "from the way it pains. Feel my forehead, Rima; is it very hot and dry?"
She did as I asked, touching me lightly with her little cool hand. "No, senor, not hot, but warm and moist," she said.
"Thank Heaven for that!" I said. "Poor girl! And you followed me through the wood in all that terrible storm! Ah, if I could lift my bruised arm I would take your hand to kiss it in gratitude for so great a service. I owe you my life, sweet Rima — what shall I do to repay so great a debt?"
The old man chuckled as if amused, but the girl lifted not her eyes nor spoke.
"Tell me, sweet child," I said, "for I cannot realize it yet; was it really you that saved the serpent's life when I would have killed it — did you stand by me in the wood with the serpent lying at your feet?"