At that time he had little to do with his family, but spent most of his hours with the curious books he had brought from Europe, and the strange chemicals which came for him on ships from England, France, and Holland. Certain trips of his into the country were the objects of much local inquisitiveness, and were whisperingly associated with vague rumours of fires on the hills at night. With these men he was often seen in conference about the Common, and visits among them were by no means infrequent.
Hutchinson had a house well out toward the woods, and it was not altogether liked by sensitive people because of the sounds heard there at night. He was said to entertain strange visitors, and the lights seen from his windows were not always of the same colour. The knowledge he displayed concerning long-dead persons and long-forgotten events was considered distinctly unwholesome, and he disappeared about the time the witchcraft panic began, never to be heard from again.
At that time Joseph Curwen also departed, but his settlement in Providence was soon learned of. Simon Orne lived in Salem until , when his failure to grow visibly old began to excite attention. He thereafter disappeared, though thirty years later his precise counterpart and self-styled son turned up to claim his property.
The claim was allowed on the strength of documents in Simon Orne's known hand, and Jedediah Orne continued to dwell in Salem till , when certain letters from Providence citizens to the Rev. Thomas Barnard and others brought about his quiet removal to parts unknown. Certain documents by and about all of the strange characters were available at teh Essex Institute, the Court House, and the Registry of Deeds, and included both harmless commonplaces such as land titles and bills of sale, and furtive fragments of a more provocative nature.
There were four or five unmistakable allusions to them on the witchcraft trial records; as when one Hepzibah Lawson swore on July 10, , at the Court of Oyer and Terminer under Judge Hathorne, that: 'fortie Witches and the Blacke Man were wont to meete in the Woodes behind Mr. Ward had a photostatic copy of this manuscript made, and began to work casually on the cipher as soon as it was delivered to him. After the following August his labours on the cipher became intense and feverish, and there is reason to believe from his speech and conduct that he hit upon the key before October or November.
He never stated, though, whether or not he had succeeded. But of greatest immediate interest was the Orne material. It took Ward only a short time to prove from identity of penmanship a thing he had already considered established from the text of the letter to Curwen; namely, that Simon Orne and his supposed son were one and the same person. As Orne had said to his correspondent, it was hardly safe to live too long in Salem, hence he resorted to a thirty-year sojourn abroad, and did not return to claim his lands except as a representative of a new generation. Orne had apparently been careful to destroy most of his correspondence, but the citizens who took action in found and preserved a few letters and papers which excited their wonder.
There were cryptic formulae and diagrams in his and other hands which Ward now either copied with care or had photographed, and one extremely mysterious letter in a chirography that the searcher recognised from items in the Registry of Deeds as positively Joseph Curwen's. This Curwen letter, though undated as to the year, was evidently not the one in answer to which Orne had written the confiscated missive; and from internal evidence Ward placed it not much later than It may not be amiss to give the text in full, as a sample of the style of one whose history was so dark and terrible.
The recipient is addressed as "Simon", but a line whether drawn by Curwen or Orne Ward could not tell is run through the word. Providence, 1. I am just come upon That which you ought to knowe, concern'g the Matter of the Laste Extremitie and what to doe regard'g yt. I am not dispos'd to followe you in go'g Away on acct. I am ty'd up in Shippes and Goodes, and cou'd not doe as you did, besides the Whiche my Farme at Patuxet hath under it What you Knowe, and wou'd not waite for my com'g Backe as an Other.
But I am unreadie for harde Fortunes, as I haue tolde you, and haue longe work'd upon ye Way of get'g Backe after ye Laste. And of ye Seede of Olde shal One be borne who shal looke Backe, tho' know'g not what he seekes. Ye Process is plaguy harde to come neare; and it used up such a Store of Specimens, I am harde putte to it to get Enough, notwithstand'g the Sailors I haue from ye Indies. Ye People aboute are become curious, but I can stande them off.
Ye Gentry are worse that the Populace, be'g more Circumstantiall in their Accts. That Parson and Mr. Merritt haue talk'd Some, I am fearfull, but no Thing soe far is Dangerous. Ye Chymical Substances are easie of get'g, there be'g II. Whateuer I gette, you shal haue. And in ye meane while, do not neglect to make use of ye Wordes I haue here giuen. Saye ye Uerses euery Roodmas and Hallow's Eue; and if ye Line runn out not, one shal bee in yeares to come that shal looke backe and use what Saltes or Stuff for Saltes you shal leaue him.
Job XIV. I rejoice you are again at Salem, and hope I may see you not longe hence. I haue a goode Stallion, and am think'g of get'g a Coach, there be'g one Mr. Merritt's in Prouidence already, tho' ye Roades are bad. If you are dispos'd to Trauel, doe not pass me bye.
From Boston take ye Post Rd. Stop at Mr. Balcom's in Wrentham, where ye Beddes are finer than Mr. Hatch's, but eate at ye other House for their Cooke is better. Turne into Prou. Sayles's Tauern. My House opp. Distance from Boston Stone abt. XLIV Miles. Sir, I am ye olde and true Friend and Serut. Josephus C. To Mr. Simon Orne, William's-Lane, in Salem. This letter, oddly enough, was what first gave Ward the exact location of Curwen's Providence home; for none of the records encountered up to that time had been at all specific.
The discovery was doubly striking because it indicated as the newer Curwen house, built in on the site of the old, a dilapidated building still standing in Olney Court and well known to Ward in his antiquarian rambles over Stampers' Hill. The place was indeed only a few squares from his own home on the great hill's higher ground, and was now the abode of a negro family much esteemed for occasional washing, housecleaning, and furnace-tending services.
To find, in distant Salem, such sudden proof of the significance of this familiar rookery in his own family history, was a highly impressive thing to Ward; and he resolved to explore the place immediately upon his return. The more mystical phases of the letter, which he took to be some extravagant kind of symbolism, frankly baffled him; though he noted with a thrill of curiousity that the Biblical passage referred to - Job 14,14 - was the familiar verse, 'If a man die, shall he live again?
All the days of my appointed time will I wait, until my change come. The place, now crumbling with age, had never been a mansion; but was a modest two-and-a-half story wooden town house of the familiar Providence colonial type, with plain peaked roof, large central chimney, and artistically carved doorway with rayed fanlight, triangular pediment, and trim Doric pilasters.
It had suffered but little alteration externally, and Ward felt he was gazing on something very close to the sinister matters of his quest. The present negro inhabitants were known to him, and he was very courteously shewn about the interior by old Asa and his stout wife Hannah.
Here there was more change than the outside indicated, and Ward saw with regret that fully half of the fine scroll-and-urn overmantels and shell-carved cupboard linings were gone, whilst most of the fine wainscotting and bolection moulding was marked, hacked, and gouged, or covered up altogether with cheap wall-paper. In general, the survey did not yield as much as Ward had somehow expected; but it was at least exciting to stand within the ancestral walls which had housed such a man of horror as Joseph Curwen.
He saw with a thrill that a monogram had been very carefully effaced from the ancient brass knocker. From then until after the close of school Ward spent his time on the photostatic copy of the Hutchinson cipher and the accumulation of local Curwen data. The former still proved unyielding; but of the latter he obtained so much, and so many clues to similar data elsewhere, that he was ready by July to make a trip to New London and New York to consult old letters whose presence in those places was indicated.
This trip was very fruitful, for it brought him the Fenner letters with their terrible description of the Pawtuxet farmhouse raid, and the Nightingale-Talbot letters in which he learned of the portrait painted on a panel of the Curwen library. This matter of the portrait interested him particularly, since he would have given much to know just what Joseph Curwen looked like; and he decided to make a second search of the house in Olney Court to see if there might not be some trace of the ancient features beneath peeling coats of later paint or layers of mouldy wall-paper.
Early in August that search took place, and Ward went carefully over the walls of every room sizeable enough to have been by any possibility the library of the evil builder. He paid especial attention to the large panels of such overmantels as still remained; and was keenly excited after about an hour, when on a broad area above the fireplace in a spacious ground-floor room he became certain that the surface brought out by the peeling of several coats of paint was sensibly darker than any ordinary interior paint or the wood beneath it was likely to have been.
A few more careful tests with a thin knife, and he knew that he had come upon an oil portrait of great extent. With truly scholarly restraint the youth did not risk the damage which an immediate attempt to uncover the hidden picture with the knife might have been, but just retired from the scene of his discovery to enlist expert help. In three days he returned with an artist of long experience, Mr. Walter C. Dwight, whose studio is near the foot of College Hill; and that accomplished restorer of paintings set to work at once with proper methods and chemical substances.
Old Asa and his wife were duly excited over their strange visitors, and were properly reimbursed for this invasion of their domestic hearth. As day by the day the work of restoration progressed, Charles Ward looked on with growing interest at the lines and shades gradually unveiled after their long oblivion. Dwight had begun at the bottom; hence since the picture was a three-quarter-length one, the face did not come out for some time. It was meanwhile seen that the subject was a spare, well-shaped man with dark- blue coat, embroidered waistcoat, black satin small-clothes, and white silk stockings, seated in a carved chair against the background of a window with wharves and ships beyond.
When the head came out it was observed to bear a neat Albemarle wig, and to possess a thin, calm, undistinguished face which seemed somehow familiar to both Ward and the artist. Only at the very last, though, did the restorer and his client begin to grasp with astonishment at the details of that lean, pallid visage, and to recognise with a touch of awe the dramatic trick which heredity had played.
For it took the final bath of oil and the final stroke of the delicate scraper to bring out fully the expression which centuries had hidden; and to confront the bewildered Charles Dexter Ward, dweller in the past, with his own living features in the countenance of his horrible great-great-great-grandfather.
Ward brought his parents to see the marvel he had uncovered, and his father at once determined to purchase the picture despite its execution on stationary panelling. The resemblance to the boy, despite an appearance of rather great age, was marvellous; and it could be seen that through some trick of atavism the physical contours of Joseph Curwen had found precise duplication after a century and a half. Ward's resemblance to her ancestor was not at all marked, though she could recall relatives who had some of the facial characteristics shared by her son and by the bygone Curwen.
She did not relish the discovery, and told her husband that he had better burn the picture instead of bringing it home. There was, she averred, something unwholesome about it; not only intrinsically, but in its very resemblance to Charles. Ward, however, was a practical man of power and affairs - a cotton manufacturer with extensive mills at Riverpoint in the Pawtuxet Valley - and not one to listen to feminine scruples.
The picture impressed him mightily with its likeness to his son, and he believed the boy deserved it as a present. In this opinion, it is needless to say, Charles most heartily concurred; and a few days later Mr. Ward located the owner of the house - a small rodent-featured person with a guttural accent - and obtained the whole mantel and overmantel bearing the picture at a curtly fixed price which cut short the impending torrent of unctuous haggling. It now remained to take off the panelling and remove it to the Ward home, where provisions were made for its thorough restoration and installation with an electric mock-fireplace in Charles's third-floor study or library.
To Charles was left the task of superintending this removal, and on the twenty-eighth of August he accompanied two expert workmen from the Crooker decorating firm to the house in Olney Court, where the mantel and portrait-bearing overmantel were detached with great care and precision for transportation in the company's motor truck. There was left a space of exposed brickwork marking the chimney's course, and in this young Ward observed a cubical recess about a foot square, which must have lain directly behind the head of the portrait.
Curious as to what such a space might mean or contain, the youth approached and looked within; finding beneath the deep coatings of dust and soot some loose yellowed papers, a crude, thick copybook, and a few mouldering textile shreds which may have formed the ribbon binding the rest together. Blowing away the bulk of the dirt and cinders, he took up the book and looked at the bold inscription on its cover. It was in a hand which he had learned to recognise at the Essex Institute, and proclaimed the volume as the 'Journall and Notes of Jos: Curwen, Gent. Their testimony is absolute as to the nature and genuineness of the finding, and Dr.
Willett relies on them to help establish his theory that the youth was not mad when he began his major eccentricities. A third, and here the searcher rejoiced, seemed to be a key to the cipher; whilst the fourth and fifth were addressed respectively to:'Edw: Hutchinson, Armiger' and Jedediah Orne, esq. Upon his discovery the youth had looked immediately at a few of the inner pages of the book and manuscripts, and had evidently seen something which impressed him tremendously.
Indeed, in shewing the titles to the workmen, he appeared to guard the text itself with peculiar care, and to labour under a perturbation for which even the antiquarian and genealogical significance of the find could hardly account. Upon returning home he broke the news with an almost embarrassed air, as if he wished to convey an idea of its supreme importance without having to exhibit the evidence itself. He did not even shew the titles to his parents, but simply told them that he had found some documents in Joseph Curwen's handwriting, 'mostly in cipher', which would have to be studied very carefully before yielding up their true meaning.
It is unlikely that he would have shewn what he did to the workmen, had it not been for their unconcealed curiousity. As it was he doubtless wished to avoid any display of peculiar reticence which would increase their discussion of the matter. That night Charles Ward sat up in his room reading the new-found book and papers, and when day came he did not desist. His meals, on his urgent request when his mother called to see what was amiss, were sent up to him; and in the afternoon he appeared only briefly when the men came to install the Curwen picture and mantelpiece in his study.
The next night he slept in snatches in his clothes, meanwhile wrestling feverishly with the unravelling of the cipher manuscript. In the morning his mother saw that he was at work on the photostatic copy of the Hutchinson cipher, which he had frequently shewn her before; but in response to her query he said that the Curwen key could not be applied to it.
That afternoon he abandoned his work and watched the men fascinatedly as they finished their installation of the picture with its woodwork above a cleverly realistic electric log, setting the mock-fireplace and overmantel a little out from the north wall as if a chimney existed, and boxing in the sides with panelling to match the room's. Elizabeth acknowledged the salutations of the people who stood nearest her as she passed them, and having satisfied Miss Robinson's curiosity concerning Darcy's absence from church, and parried a question as to the nature of the business that had taken him to London, she entered the carriage.
Georgiana and Mortimer followed her. The drive back to the house passed without very much being said beyond observations on the fineness of the weather and the forwardness of the season. Mortimer was too much engaged in watching for a sign of relenting on the part of Georgiana to ask any questions of his own about Darcy's journey; but while they sat in the dining-parlour eating their cold meat, Elizabeth thought it only fair to give him a hint of what was impending.
He took it very quietly, without evincing surprise, and if his ingenuous countenance clouded a little, it was probably owing to the reflection that he would soon no longer come riding over to Pemberley so frequently as in the past month or two. His involuntary glance round the room showed what he was thinking. Elizabeth went on to give the account of Mr. Stephen Acworth she had received from Darcy. Mortimer listened dejectedly, no doubt comparing her summary of super-excellent attainments with his own shortcomings. He likes a man who can string together Latin tags by the dozen.
This was Georgiana's sole contribution to the conversation. After she had uttered it she cast down her eyes and appeared lost in thought. Mortimer looked dumbfounded. Elizabeth laughed and said immediately, "Mr. Darcy would never inflict too learned a theologian upon us, nor at least one who could not bring himself down to the level of our less instructed understandings; for we poor females, though without Latin or Greek, have also souls to be saved. I daresay that with all his learning this Mr. Acworth will not set himself up too much above the rest of us. After the meal was over and there was no further necessity for remaining at the table, Georgiana escaped to her own apartment and Elizabeth, maintaining the custom when Darcy was at home, went out with Mortimer on a tour of the gardens and stables.
Mortimer admired everything he saw, but especially the horses. Why don't he breed for racing? I should in his place. His mind is set on higher matters. You know, Mrs. Darcy, he used to be held up to us as a model of what a young man should be, and we didn't much like it. But he is vastly changed since he married, you wouldn't know him for the same. That is one of the effects of having a wife, I suppose. You can see without my telling you that I am an awkward, backward sort of man, and though you may not believe it, I often feel at a horrid disadvantage in the presence of ladies.
True, I am not uncomfortable with you, for you know how to put a man at his ease. But with others! Sometimes I have not a word to say for myself, and then when I do think of something that comes naturally, I am afraid to say it for fear of displeasing female ears. For men, I am sorry to tell you, Mrs. Darcy, talk very differently among themselves. When the wine goes round, out come words and expressions you would not like to hear. Now if a man has a wife, he will get into the way of accommodating his speech to her taste.
And then a wife orders the house in such a manner that her husband has to mind his behaviour, which is what he should do. When I go home after visiting at Pemberley where there is order and elegance in every part, I think what a difference a lady in the house would make. Darcy, for after Darcy I must seem monstrously stupid and countrified. I wish others could think so too. Truly sorry for his disappointment, she began to depict Georgiana as an extraordinary girl who cared for nothing but study and was indifferent to the society of any but the members of her own family.
By some exaggeration of these traits she hoped to convince him that he had fixed his heart upon a very unpromising object, in the belief that he was not the man to nurse for long a one-sided attachment. But Mortimer, who was of a sanguine temperament and rebounded from each blow with like force, began to argue his own case with more ardour than cogency, until his hostess, though still commiserating him, lost patience and longed for the seclusion of her dressing-room.
For in spite of all that the romantic novelists have written, nothing can be so dull to the onlooker as a respectable love. When the clock over the archway to the stables was heard striking the half-hour after two, a reminder that it was time to be preparing for the afternoon service, she felt an exquisite relief. The following Tuesday her impatience for news from her husband was at last satisfied. He had written on his arrival at Berkeley Square promising a further letter when he had seen Mr.
Acworth, and she came to breakfast from a survey of her flower garden to find it awaiting her. Eager to learn all that he had to tell she opened it forthwith, but saw that he had written at such length and so closely that a much more careful perusal would be required than was possible at the table. The first sentence informed her that he would reach home on the morrow, and this important question answered to her satisfaction, she cast a hurried glance over the rest of the page and then at the last one, and set the letter aside to be read in private and at leisure. Georgiana had likewise heard from her brother, though briefly, and she looked up from her own letter and said, "Fitzwilliam has found nearly all the music we asked for, and now he is to hunt the bookshops.
He says the spring fashions for women are ugly beyond words. Have you, too, a letter from him, Elizabeth? I collect, however, that he is returning tomorrow and bringing a visitor with him. But this is no ordinary visitor. I believe that the new Rector of Pemberley is to be introduced into our midst. There must be a new rector in any case, and we cannot escape his being introduced to us.
How I wish we could make the acquaintance of some person unlike any we have known before. If only Fitzwilliam would bring us a musician, or a poet, or an actor of genius. But he would never do it because such people are not of our station and cannot be admitted to our society. And yet I am sure they must be on the whole more interesting than the people who do stay here, or come calling.
But when he is here, you fly to the opposite opinion. If he had said that musicians and poets and actors lead disreputable lives, you would have maintained the contrary.
Besides, you are to remember that the simplest statement — as about the weather or somebody's taste in dress — is so highly controversial, and so many divergent opinions can be rationally advanced upon the same subject, that it is well nigh impossible to decide what is true. Elizabeth smilingly admitted the impeachment.
One must say something, so long as it is not instantly detected as nonsense. Breakfast over, the sisters separated, Georgiana to go to her sitting-room and her pianoforte, Elizabeth with her letter to the library. Here, sitting at the writing-table, with the letter pages spread out in front of her, she was soon immersed in what Darcy had to say. Her cursory survey, lighting upon a word or two here and there in his small and even handwriting, had by no means taught her what was to be unfolded, and she now learnt that she was not only to receive Mr.
Acworth, but another visitor as well. This is slow travelling for my natural impatience to be at home; but as I am bringing Mr. Acworth on his journey hither, it is not fair to one in his state of health to hasten the journey unduly. There will also be a third person in the carriage — Major Wakeford — whom I have induced to return with me to Pemberley for a long stay.
He is a cousin of ours on my father's side, and on several occasions spent his school holidays here. We were of the same age, shared the same tastes and became firm friends. After he entered the army we saw one another only infrequently, but this happened without any fault on either side. He subsequently went abroad with his regiment, and I ceased to hear from him, except once after my father's death. I replied, but never knew whether my letter had reached him.
Thus matters stood when two days ago I heard by mere chance that he was in town, in lodgings in Upper Seymour Street. My informant, a fellow officer of the same regiment, told me that he had been severely wounded in action, losing an arm, besides sustaining an injury to the left leg which rendered him very lame, and that in consequence he was invalided out of the army on half-pay. At the first opportunity I sought him out. His condition as described had in some measure prepared me for some change in him, apart from that wrought by the passage of time, but I must confess that on first seeing him he appeared so altered as almost to defy recognition.
At thirty-two he is prematurely grey, his face seamed with lines and bearing the stamp of all he has suffered. But there is always that in persons with whom we have been truly intimate which survives all physical change, and after we had been talking together a short while, the Francis Wakeford I had known as a young man returned once more to view. I asked him what he was doing in London among strangers when he could be better cared for in his father's house. He replied that his surroundings had most cruelly reminded him of tastes and pursuits he could no longer indulge, and that the commiseration his state excited in his mother and sisters, so far from soothing him, served only to augment his wretchedness and weaken his self-command.
When you have read thus far I know you will not blame me for pressing him to come to Pemberley and remain as our guest for as long as he chooses. He had not previously heard that I was married, and professed to be greatly surprised at the news, whereupon I told him that when he saw you he would no longer wonder. To conclude, I know that between us we shall find the means to rescue him from his present dejection of spirits and restore him to a happier frame of mind. I find it difficult to express in few words what I think of this man, or perhaps it would be truer to say that I am at a loss to know what I do think.
As you will recall, I was prepossessed in his favour by the good report I had of him formerly, the truth of which there was no reason to doubt since it came from those who had no motive for deception. Everyone at Mentmore spoke of him with praise and affection. Having now for the first time seen him in the flesh, I cannot say that he pleases me; but it may be that the discrepancy between the creature formed of my imagination and the actual man accounts for my disappointment.
It will not do to give way to first unfavourable impressions, for he may prove to be one of those men who never do themselves justice before strangers. We must not judge him, therefore, until closer acquaintance has revealed more of his character. I have always flattered myself on being able to form a tolerably correct estimate of a person at a first meeting, particularly when it has for its purpose some business which demands candour on both sides. Acworth had a great deal to say, he spoke well and his sentiments were all that they should be, yet I found myself at every turn questioning his sincerity.
Methought he did protest too much. Even if he had anything to gain in the pecuniary sense by exchanging the living of Mentmore for that of Pemberley, there could be no disgrace in avowing it; but he laboured the point that all he desired was a change of scene and a new direction to his thoughts. This is self-evident, and need only have been touched upon, instead of which he was copious in self-disclosure.
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That perhaps, Elizabeth, is at the bottom of my distrust. I cannot comprehend how he could speak of his inmost feelings to a man he had never seen before and can know next to nothing of, as he did to me. My original intention had been to allow a fortnight at most, on consideration of all the evils which a longer delay might produce, and had I consulted my own inclination it would have been strictly to adhere to it. But his request, though inconvenient, could not be judged unreasonable, and I agreed to a period of what might be called mutual probation, not to be extended beyond the six weeks desired, and terminable on his side beforehand on any new circumstance arising.
In this I was moved as much by a sense of obligation to his brother who had approached me in the name of friendship, as by his own unhappy situation. Whether I have acted wisely in my own interest time will show. Expediency might point to another course, but on the whole my conscience approves what I have done.
Could I have acted otherwise? At the worst some time will have been gained, for I shall not in the meanwhile give over enquiries in other quarters. Acworth will, of course, stay with us for the present, and you will have ample opportunities of studying his character in all its intricacy. It is doubtless as complicated as you could wish; but that will be all in its favour, for it will spur you on to solve the riddle, if such there be. The remainder of the letter dealt with purely personal matters.
At the end Darcy had added this postscript:. That may be the reason why I do not take to him. Having read all that her husband had written, Elizabeth knew not what to think except that uncertainty must continue — no very happy reflection. Francis Wakeford she was thoroughly disposed to welcome warmly. His character and disposition as portrayed by Darcy left no room for doubt and she was eager to play her part in his restoration to health and better spirits.
With regard to Stephen Acworth she was sensible of the misgivings imparted by Darcy, but also felt a lively curiosity. She knew her husband's mind too well to suppose for a moment that the several impressions made upon him by this man had not been long and carefully pondered before being committed to paper. He strove always to be generous, rather than exact and impartial in his estimate of any person, the more so as he knew himself prone to dislike a new acquaintance upon sight.
Yet that he should have gone to the interview with Stephen Acworth, prepossessed in his favour, prepared to be cordial, and came away dissatisfied was extraordinary upon any supposition save that of good reason. Her second reading of certain phrases in no way varied this conclusion. Such sentences as — "I find myself questioning his sincerity at every turn — he was copious in self-disclosure" — could admit of only one interpretation. The rest of the day was full of those occupations and engagements which hinder recollection. As on every Tuesday, soup and dumplings were dispensed to the sick and aged poor of Pemberley, and a cluster of men, women and children stood at a back door waiting for their empty basins to be replenished.
Reynolds, the housekeeper, and Baxter, the butler, were in attendance; Elizabeth moved among the people, talking to them, ascertaining their needs and their difficulties. Young as she was, and of a sphere beyond their knowledge, the villagers had discovered that however freely they spoke of their troubles, she never rebuked them, but understood immediately whatever they wished to say, even though words failed them. And when Mrs. Stone, a widow with a large family of children, said, "I ask your pardon, ma'am, but Miss Robinson have told my Rachel as she is to go into service with Mrs.
Bridges at Kympton," she comprehended without questioning that the poor woman was begging that Rachel should not go to Mrs. Bridges, but should be taken into service at the Great House where she herself had been a serving-maid. This indeed was what Mrs. Stone and the fourteen-year-old Rachel did hope for. Bridges had the reputation of being a very harsh, strict mistress, but how could they gainsay Miss Robinson?
When Elizabeth promised to speak to Miss Robinson herself, informing her that she considered she had a prior claim to Rachel's services, the poor woman could hardly express all her gratitude and went away overjoyed. This fresh instance of Miss Robinson's highhandedness made Elizabeth extremely indignant. That, as the late rector's eldest daughter, she should have assumed the airs and authority of a patroness during the many years Pemberley had been without a mistress was to be understood, though deplored; but that she should continue to give the law to the parishioners, when she no longer had any standing but that of sufferance, was intolerable.
Darcy determined to act in such a way that Miss Robinson should no longer remain under any misapprehension of her intention to put an end to this state of affairs. When all the people had gone away she had some conversation with Mrs. Reynolds about Rachel Stone. I hear Rachel is good with her needle, good for her age, that is, and she could be put to work in the linen-room. There was something in Mrs.
Reynold's aspect that spoke disapprobation, and Elizabeth said at once, "What else do you know of the girl? She is a fine well-grown girl of her age, and looks older and behaves older than she is. It is a pity, ma'am, that the children have no father. Sarah Stone is what I would call weak with them. Rachel must learn to mind her manners when she comes here.
It was thus settled that Rachel Stone was to enter service at Pemberley House as a serving-maid. Elizabeth awoke next morning with a sense of the liveliest expectation. Never before during the whole three and a half years of their married life had she and Darcy been separated for so long, and on this day of his return, the hours which must elapse before he came seemed insupportably slow. It struck her that he might arrive sooner than he had given her to expect, so although she had at first intended to call at the Parsonage during the morning and beard Miss Robinson upon the subject of Rachel Stone, she gave up the project and resolved not to go beyond the grounds immediately surrounding the house.
She kept, in fact, to the terrace where she spent some time with Richard and listened to some new words he had learnt to say. The child seemed well enough, but a rash on his neck and arms prompted her to consult Mrs. The housekeeper gave it as her opinion that the spots were an effect of the great heat they were having, and then, for it did not need much to set her off talking, she gave her mistress a history of all the complaints suffered by Darcy and Georgiana during their nursery years.
Coughs and colds and biliousness had afflicted them both, and at one time Miss Darcy had been a prey to constant sickness. Unripe apricots were the cause, and after the most minute enquiry it was discovered that they had been taken from the greenhouse by her brother, then a boy of twelve or thirteen, and conveyed to her secretly.
On being questioned he had confessed to it all. Darcy to tell a lie," declared Mrs. Reynolds, "and what he did was in ignorance and the affection of his heart for his little sister. But, oh, how relieved we all were! A little senna put everything right, and I would not wonder, ma'am, but what a small dose would be good for Master Richard.
At three o'clock, Elizabeth being then indoors, the arrival of a carriage was heard. But, alas, it brought callers — a mother and two daughters. They stayed fortunately but twenty minutes and then departed. Towards four o'clock she went into the breakfast-parlour to look for a book missing from the library which she thought might have been left lying on one of the window seats.
The book was not there, but she stood awhile at the window looking out, and her eyes roved over the prospect of lawn, and river, and wooded slopes beyond, and as far as the avenue of beech trees on the extreme left from which the carriage-road issued on its descent into the valley. In the same instant that her eyes reached this point, Darcy's carriage came into view and down the steep incline towards the river. Now it had crossed the bridge and, though she could see it no longer, as she darted into the hall she could hear its approach.
By the time it had drawn up with a clatter of hooves upon the gravel she was standing at the top of the flight of steps outside the entrance. Darcy got out first, but there was only time for a look and a smile before he turned to assist someone inside the carriage to alight. Elizabeth next saw a man, not much less tall than her husband, neither handsome nor plain, neither dark nor fair, but tanned by exposure to every sort of weather.
An empty sleeve was pinned to the breast of his coat; he mounted the steps to the door with a decided limp. His face was grave and careworn, but on being presented to her by her husband as Major Wakeford, his smile transformed as it illumined his countenance. She said a few words of cordial welcome to him and then turned to receive her second guest. Stephen Acworth stood before her, very dark, spare, of little more than middle height.
His darkness was indeed to the degree of swarthiness; as he removed his hat his hair was seen to be black and curly. His nose was large and aquiline, his mouth wide but not unhandsome in its curves. His dark, sunken eyes had a bright intensity of gaze. As Elizabeth gave him her hand, because she had given it to Major Wakeford, he bowed over it with an excessive gesture of gallantry.
She recalled afterwards that there had been the light either of curiosity or recognition in his eyes — she could not determine which — as he approached her. In the agitation of the arrival, of having to command the variety of emotions it called forth and to appear most completely mistress of the occasion, she did not discern it until later when she had time to think over every minute circumstance of the introduction. For what chiefly struck her at the moment of first beholding him was her instant conviction of having seen him before, though the when and the where escaped recollection, and try as she would, could not be brought to mind.
T HE late arrival of the travellers gave Elizabeth no opportunity for any private talk with her husband before they were all to meet at dinner. She was therefore unable to relate her astonishing conviction that Mr. Acworth's physiognomy was not that of a complete stranger.
The few minutes they might have had alone together on descending to the hall, there to await their guests, were interrupted by Georgiana who followed them almost immediately. In her shyness of the strangers she was about to meet, she kept as close to her brother and sister as possible. Darcy could only ask Elizabeth whether she had received his letter, and she could only reply with an expressive look that indeed she had, before Mr. Acworth also made his appearance from the staircase and came towards them.
She was then in a position to judge whether the long journey with its enforced intimacy, the opportunities it gave of close observation, and its leisure to discuss almost every subject under the sun, had in any degree softened Darcy's opinion of the young man. It was instantly apparent by the change in his demeanour from happy, domestic ease to dignified gravity that no such alteration had taken place.
At dinner, with Major Wakeford and Mr.
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Acworth on either side of her, so that she had continually to look from one to the other, she could not but mark the contrast between the two men, which was so complete that it could truly be said that whatever the one was, the other was not. Major Wakeford was serious and quiet; his expression varied little; he had the austere aspect of a man of action who is also a thinker. When he spoke it was in the fewest possible words and was directly intelligible, admitting of only one significance. He was as spare of movement as of speech; he made no fuss of his maimed condition, and showed no self-consciousness in accepting the assistance which the loss of an arm made necessary.
Acworth, on the other hand, was seen to be of a naturally vivacious temperament. He had a quick-glancing eye, a mobile mouth, and his whole countenance reflected every passing thought and emotion. Elizabeth had the continuous impression that every look, every movement, and that very many of his speeches were the result of previous deliberation and were so designed as to produce a certain effect upon those before him.
There was no doubt that he was trying to please. When, as not infrequently happened, he could take no direct part in the conversation, he fell into a drooping, moping silence, and then looked extremely melancholy. This would last until some chance remark, usually from Elizabeth herself, roused him and his face would instantly light up and his eyes sparkle with renewed animation. The talk ran at first upon the journey from town and then discussed travelling in general.
There was comparison of routes, roads and inns; everyone had some dire or amusing experience to relate. It was agreed that the route to Derbyshire through Oxford and Warwick was the pleasantest, though not the most direct. But immediately afterwards he exclaimed, "No, no, what am I saying? I was at Magdalen. To Elizabeth her husband appeared to be trying not to look surprised. The gentleman's consternation at being mistaken for a member of a college not his own struck her, however, as being merely laughable.
She knew that certain colleges at the University ranked higher in consequence than others, either from being considered more fashionable, or from having a greater reputation for learning, but there was no horrifying difference that she had ever heard of between the two that had been mentioned. Nevertheless there are sentiments harboured by the male heart that are forever incomprehensible to female intelligence, and this rivalry of scholastic institutions was undoubtedly one of them. Exerting herself to break the rather uncomfortable silence which followed, Elizabeth asked Major Wakeford whether in the course of his campaigning he had ever come so near Bonaparte as to be sensible of his proximity.
She was afraid the question might sound downright silly to a soldier of experience, but she knew that as a rule one had but to mention Bonaparte for all the gentlemen present to become loquacious. We soldiers have to think only of our immediate task, whatever it may be. His use of the arm was masterly. Whence his invincibility, if not from the fact that his uniform conceals the cloven hoof, not to mention the other distinguishing marks of a fiend — horns and tail? I defy anyone to be wicked without one redeeming trait. We look for a little leaven of wickedness, even in our dearest friends.
The man or woman whose conduct appears impeccable must come under suspicion of hypocrisy. It struck Elizabeth that this was a curious sentiment to come from a clergyman. She glanced at her husband and met his eye. Evidently the same thought had visited them both. She not only did that, but could stand and watch it struggle. Darcy turned towards her interrogatively, while Major Wakeford regarded her flushed face with interest.
Acworth with a moralising air. For the protection of the law is reserved for its framers and administrators — the rich and powerful. Darcy said nothing, but he looked indignant and his colour rose. The conversation had taken such a decidedly wrong turn that something must be done, and Elizabeth made haste to smooth all over. We all differ as much in our susceptibilities as in our aptitudes. What is tolerable to one is torture to another. If I were to confess to that which afflicts me most you would think it so unreasonable that I shall say nothing about it. But, Major Wakeford, I am sure that above all things you detest being questioned about your campaigns.
Darcy has discovered and published my weakness, it is surely very ungenerous in her to conceal her own. Elizabeth laughed and exclaimed, "As for Mr. Darcy, he says nothing about his own abhorrences because they are too many. Possibly there is an arch-abhorrence, but it has a hundred competitors in the field — all striving for first place. Acworth, "I would say that a woman who sings out of tune enrages me more than anything else in the world. You must have suffered very much, and on many occasions. Acworth appeared really delighted, but made a parade of his martyrdom.
He cast up his eyes in a very foreign fashion, and in fact many of his gestures, such as his manner of shrugging his shoulders, recalled the antics of a Frenchman. At this point Darcy launched forth somewhat abruptly on a totally different subject, and the conversation became more general though less animated. Soon afterwards Elizabeth and Georgiana withdrew, leaving the gentlemen to their wine.
In the drawing-room they discussed their new acquaintances, with more unanimity than is usual with ladies when the other sex come up for judgment. They agreed in approving of Major Wakeford and being dubious about Mr. As a state of doubt is more interesting than certainty, it is not surprising that the latter gentleman should receive the greater share of their attention. I can truly say that I have never seen anyone in the least like him before. I think his strangeness comes in part from his variability. His character appears to shift from moment to moment, making him oddly inconsistent.
One cannot in truth say what kind of a man he is, and for that reason should spare judgment until we know him better. He would not make a display of it before strangers.
Acworth is very much the creature of his surroundings, on which his humour will depend. If so, that would explain his apparent insensibility on first coming among us. I could not bring myself to look at him, Elizabeth. Is that wrong in me? The loss of an arm is indeed a calamity. But if he can bear it bravely, so can you. But the next moment Mr. Acworth and Major Wakeford were both forgotten.
On reaching the pianoforte Georgiana had found a parcel containing some music she had commissioned her brother to bring from town. Partly unwrapped, it lay surmounted by the list she had made out. An exclamation from her brought Elizabeth to her side. Together they went through the pile, and below the pianoforte music came upon some songs inscribed with Elizabeth's name in Darcy's handwriting.
Her voice was certainly very wonderful. But what does he propose by bringing it for me?
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Do try it, Elizabeth. There will be plenty of time before they come. Seating herself at the instrument, Georgiana began to play the accompaniment with inviting glances at her sister. The spell worked as it was intended, and Elizabeth first came to look over her shoulder and then began to hum the air. When she had gone through it in this manner, she was easily persuaded to go through it again, enunciating the words with a firmer command of her voice. A further repetition enabled her to give a rendering guided by her recollection of the Italian singer's performance. The melody had a simple plaintiveness which Elizabeth, happy by nature and situation alike, enjoyed to the full, and she sang it with all the sadness it could be made to express.
When she had come to the end, her voice held on the last soft note, she heard a man's 'Brava' behind her, and turned in astonishment to see that, all unnoticed, the three gentlemen had entered the room together. So quietly had they come that neither she nor Georgiana could know how long they had been there. Major Wakeford was seated in a chair, Darcy and Acworth were standing some distance apart. Acworth now approached the ladies. Darcy on a very delightful performance," he said.
You have indeed a charming voice, madam — not strong, perhaps, but perfectly musical; will you not give us the pleasure of hearing you again? Elizabeth was sensible of a tinge of patronage in his manner which surprised and displeased her. Happily she was saved from the necessity of deciding whether or not to comply by the diversionary entrance of tea. In the general conversation which ensued, Darcy asked Major Wakeford whether he was still as fond of card games as he used to be, probably with the intention of starting one later on.
Major Wakeford, speaking exactly as he thought, said that while abroad he had got into the habit of playing chess with a fellow officer at odd times, and had become extremely interested in it. Darcy," said Elizabeth. Darcy always took his wife's pleasantries at his expense in good part, and usually returned a rejoinder designed to provoke a fresh sally from her. This was so well understood between them that when no reply came she glanced at him with a challenging smile to see him gravely considering his teacup as if she had not spoken. A moment later he said to Major Wakeford, "My wife thinks we mean to desert to the library and is determined to prevent it.
In the presence of Mr. Acworth there was to be no levity; the domestic scene must be subdued to the hue of staidness and formality. This was a sobering reflection. She did not rebel, but she was silenced. Had she seen what had already caught Darcy's eye more than once that evening — Mr. Acworth's deeply admiring gaze turned upon her, she would have been more embarrassed than ever.
Acworth was seated beside her and she could not observe him unless by turning her head directly towards him, when he would either lower his eyes discreetly, or return her glance with a complaisance beaming in his countenance not so very much more than civil. That he did admire her she was aware, but most men did, and to this she was accustomed.
None of them had ever transgressed the bounds of propriety, nor had Darcy before found fault with such admiration. But then all the gentlemen who resorted to their society were his friends and well-wishers, and their harmless gallantry to his wife was meant and taken as in part a compliment to himself, whereas Acworth's goodwill towards him was by no means certain, and appeared to diminish as acquaintance lengthened, instead of increasing. When tea was over Darcy asked his sister to play to the company.
She went directly to the pianoforte, but sat there for some moments silently considering what piece to choose, and while the others waited for her to begin Darcy said to Acworth, "You are an amateur of music, I collect, and have some knowledge of the art.
Acworth gave his host an odd, sharp look as Elizabeth, who had moved to a seat near Georgiana, could not but see. The Acworths have always prided themselves on their noble indifference to the arts. Elizabeth said quietly, "I cannot conceive how the love or practice of art in any of its forms can be a matter for censure. There has been much talk about Indians—of a probability of their being encountered in this quarter.
Can it be the red-skinned marauders? Scarcely: the gestures of the overseer do not betray actual alarm. Is it on fire now? I see no smoke! I suppose we can travel over a black prairie, as safely as a green one? Lay the leather to your teams, and let the train proceed. Whip up! What are you raving about? I reckon we can cross a piece of scorched prairie, without wheel-marks to guide us?
The teams are again set in motion; and, after advancing to the edge of the burnt tract, without instructions from any one, are once more brought to a stand. The white men on horseback draw together for a consultation. There is need: as all are satisfied by a single glance directed to the ground before them. Far as the eye can reach the country is of one uniform colour—black as Erebus.
There is nothing green—not a blade of grass—not a reed nor weed! It is after the summer solstice. The ripened culms of the gramineae , and the stalks of the prairie flowers, have alike crumbled into dust under the devastating breath of fire. In front—on the right and left—to the utmost verge of vision extends the scene of desolation. Over it the cerulean sky is changed to a darker blue; the sun, though clear of clouds, seems to scowl rather than shine—as if reciprocating the frown of the earth.
The overseer has made a correct report—there is no trail visible. The action of the fire, as it raged among the ripe grass, has eliminated the impression of the wheels hitherto indicating the route. The planter himself put this inquiry, in a tone that told of a vacillating spirit. What else but keep straight on? The river must be on the other side? If we do go a little astray, we must come out somewhere—on one side, or the other. Drive on, niggers!
Keep straight after me. The ex-officer of volunteers, casting a conceited glance towards the travelling carriage—through the curtains of which appears a fair face, slightly shadowed with anxiety—gives the spur to his horse; and with confident air trots onward. A chorus of whipcracks is succeeded by the trampling of fourscore mules, mingled with the clanking of wheels against their hubs. The waggon-train is once more in motion.
The mules step out with greater rapidity. The sable surface, strange to their eyes, excites them to brisker action—causing them to raise the hoof, as soon as it touches the turf. The younger animals show fear—snorting, as they advance. In time their apprehensions become allayed; and, taking the cue from their older associates, they move on steadily as before. A mile or more is made, apparently in a direct line from the point of starting. Then there is a halt.
The self-appointed guide has ordered it. He has reined up his horse; and is sitting in the saddle with less show of confidence. He appears to be puzzled about the direction. The landscape—if such it may be called—has assumed a change; though not for the better. It is still sable as ever, to the verge of the horizon. But the surface is no longer a plain: it rolls. There are ridges—gentle undulations—with valleys between. They are not entirely treeless—though nothing that may be termed a tree is in sight.
There have been such, before the fire— algarobias, mezquites , and others of the acacia family—standing solitary, or in copses. Their light pinnate foliage has disappeared like flax before the flame. Their existence is only evidenced by charred trunks, and blackened boughs. It must lie in this direction—down that valley. Let them drive on. Once more in motion—adown the slope—then along the valley—then up the acclivity of another ridge—and then there is a second stoppage upon its crest.
No, no! The river must be in this direction. Come on! On goes the guide, evidently irresolute. On follow the sable teamsters, who, despite their stolidity, do not fail to note some signs of vacillation. They can tell that they are no longer advancing in a direct line; but circuitously among the copses, and across the glades that stretch between. All are gratified by a shout from the conductor, announcing recovered confidence.
In response there is a universal explosion of whipcord, with joyous exclamations. Once more they are stretching their teams along a travelled road—where a half-score of wheeled vehicles must have passed before them. And not long before: the wheel-tracks are of recent impress—the hoof-prints of the animals fresh as if made within the hour. A train of waggons, not unlike their own, must have passed over the burnt prairie! Like themselves, it could only be going towards the Leona: perhaps some government convoy on its way to Fort Inge? In that case they have only to keep in the same track.
The Fort is on the line of their march—but a short distance beyond the point where their journey is to terminate. Nothing could be more opportune. The guide, hitherto perplexed—though without acknowledging it—is at once relieved of all anxiety; and with a fresh exhibition of conceit, orders the route to be resumed. For a mile or more the waggon-tracks are followed—not in a direct line, but bending about among the skeleton copses.
The countenance of Cassius Calhoun, for a while wearing a confident look, gradually becomes clouded. It assumes the profoundest expression of despondency, on discovering that the four-and-forty wheel-tracks he is following, have been made by ten Pittsburgh waggons, and a carriole—the same that are now following him, and in whose company he has been travelling all the way from the Gulf of Matagorda! Beyond doubt, the waggons of Woodley Poindexter were going over ground already traced by the tiring of their wheels. What mean you, Cassius?
I do, uncle; that very thing. We must have made a complete circumbendibus of it. Besides, I can tell the ground. Hang the crooked luck! Embarrassment is no longer the only expression upon the face of the speaker. It has deepened to chagrin, with an admixture of shame. It is through him that the train is without a regular guide.
One, engaged at Indianola, had piloted them to their last camping place. There, in consequence of some dispute, due to the surly temper of the ex-captain of volunteers, the man had demanded his dismissal, and gone back. He feels it keenly as the carriole comes up, and bright eyes become witnesses of his discomfiture. Poindexter does not repeat his inquiry. That the road is lost is a fact evident to all. There is a general halt, succeeded by an animated conversation among the white men. The situation is serious: the planter himself believes it to be so.
He cannot that day reach the end of his journey—a thing upon which he had set his mind. That is the very least misfortune that can befall them. There are others possible, and probable. There are perils upon the burnt plain. They may be compelled to spend the night upon it, with no water for their animals. Perhaps a second day and night—or longer—who can tell how long? How are they to find their way? The sun is beginning to descend; though still too high in heaven to indicate his line of declination.
By waiting a while they may discover the quarters of the compass. But to what purpose? The knowledge of east, west, north, and south can avail nothing now: they have lost their line of march. Calhoun has become cautious. He no longer volunteers to point out the path. He hesitates to repeat his pioneering experiments—after such manifest and shameful failure. No one can suggest a feasible plan of proceeding. No one knows how to escape from the embrace of that dark desert, which appears to cloud not only the sun and sky, but the countenances of all who enter within its limits.
A flock of black vultures is seen flying afar off. They come nearer, and nearer. Some alight upon the ground—others hover above the heads of the strayed travellers. Is there a boding in the behaviour of the birds? Another ten minutes is spent in the midst of moral and physical gloom.
Then, as if by a benignant mandate from heaven, does cheerfulness re-assume its sway. The cause? A horseman riding in the direction of the train! An unexpected sight: who could have looked for human being in such a place? All eyes simultaneously sparkle with joy; as if, in the approach of the horseman, they beheld the advent of a saviour! The signal was superfluous. The stranger had already sighted the halted waggons; and, riding towards them at a gallop, was soon within speaking distance. He did not draw bridle, until he had passed the train; and arrived upon the spot occupied by the planter and his party.
Buenos dias, cavallero! Esta V. I can speak to you in Spanish, if you prefer it; but I dare say you will understand me better in English: which, I presume, is your native tongue? Calhoun, suspecting that he had spoken indifferent Spanish, or indifferently pronounced it, refrains from making rejoinder. You have lost your way? By the merest chance I came upon your trail, as I was crossing the prairie.
I saw you were going astray; and have ridden this way to set you right. We shall be most thankful, sir.
My name is Poindexter—Woodley Poindexter, of Louisiana. I have purchased a property on the Leona river, near Fort Inge. We were in hopes of reaching it before nightfall. Can we do so? On saying this, the stranger rode a few paces apart; and appeared to scrutinise the country—as if to determine the direction which the travellers should take.
Poised conspicuously upon the crest of the ridge, horse and man presented a picture worthy of skilful delineation. A steed, such as might have been ridden by an Arab sheik—blood-bay in colour—broad in counter—with limbs clean as culms of cane, and hips of elliptical outline, continued into a magnificent tail sweeping rearward like a rainbow: on his back a rider—a young man of not more than five-and-twenty—of noble form and features; habited in the picturesque costume of a Mexican ranchero —spencer jacket of velveteen— calzoneros laced along the seams— calzoncillos of snow-white lawn— botas of buff leather, heavily spurred at the heels—around the waist a scarf of scarlet crape; and on his head a hat of black glaze, banded with gold bullion.
Through the curtains of the travelling carriage he was regarded with glances that spoke of a singular sentiment. For the first time in her life, Louise Poindexter looked upon that—hitherto known only to her imagination—a man of heroic mould. Proud might he have been, could he have guessed the interest which his presence was exciting in the breast of the young Creole.
He could not, and did not. He was not even aware of her existence. He had only glanced at the dust-bedaubed vehicle in passing—as one might look upon the rude incrustation of an oyster, without suspecting that a precious pearl may lie gleaming inside. For all that, I can find the way myself. You will have to cross the Leona five miles below the Fort; and, as I have to go by the crossing myself, you can follow the tracks of my horse.
Good day, gentlemen! Thus abruptly bidding adieu, he pressed the spur against the side of his steed; and started off at a gallop. An unexpected—almost uncourteous departure! So thought the planter and his people. They had no time to make observations upon it, before the stranger was seen returning towards them!
In ten seconds he was again in their presence—all listening to learn what had brought him back. The mustangs have been this way, since the fire. They have made hoof-marks by the thousand. Mine are shod; but, as you are not accustomed to trailing, you may not be able to distinguish them—the more so, that in these dry ashes all horse-tracks are so nearly alike.
If you should lose my trail, keep the sun on your right shoulders: so that your shadows may fall to the left, at an angle of about fifteen degrees to your line of march. Go straight forward for about five miles. You will then come in sight of the top of a tall tree—a cypress. You will know it by its leaves being in the red. Head direct for this tree. It stands on the bank of the river; and close by is the crossing.
The young horseman, once more drawing up his reins, was about to ride off; when something caused him to linger. It was a pair of dark lustrous eyes—observed by him for the first time—glancing through the curtains of the travelling carriage. Their owner was in shadow; but there was light enough to show that they were set in a countenance of surpassing loveliness. He perceived, moreover, that they were turned upon himself—fixed, as he fancied, in an expression that betokened interest—almost tenderness!
He returned it with an involuntary glance of admiration, which he made but an awkward attempt to conceal. Lest it might be mistaken for rudeness, he suddenly faced round; and once more addressed himself to the planter—who had just finished thanking him for his civility. The despatch-bearer consulted his watch—as though not a little reluctant to travel alone. There are clouds looming up on the north. In an hour, the sun may be obscured—at all events, before you can get within sight of the cypress. It will not do. While speaking, he had lifted the coiled rope from his saddlebow, and flung the loose end to the earth—the other being secured to a ring in the pommel.
Then raising his hat in graceful salutation—more than half directed towards the travelling carriage—he gave the spur to his steed; and once more bounded off over the prairie. The lazo, lengthening out, tightened over the hips of his horse; and, dragging a dozen yards behind, left a line upon the cinereous surface—as if some slender serpent had been making its passage across the plain. Texas is full of such swells, who take new names when they get here—by way of improvement, if for no better reason. He appears to be educated—in fact, a gentleman—worthy of bearing the best of names, I should say.
Deuced unlikely: rigged out in that fanfaron fashion. During this brief conversation, the fair occupant of the carriole was seen to bend forward; and direct a look of evident interest, after the form of the horseman fast receding from her view. To this, perhaps, might have been traced the acrimony observable in the speech of Calhoun.
The young girl threw herself back upon the seat—evidently displeased, both by the speech and the tone in which it was delivered. But her displeasure, instead of expressing itself in a frown, or in the shape of an indignant rejoinder, was concealed under a guise far more galling to him who had caused it. A clear ringing laugh was the only reply vouchsafed to him.
I thought there must be something—by the way you behaved yourself in his presence. Taken with his stylish dress, I suppose? Fine feathers make fine birds. His are borrowed. To let your thoughts turn on a common scamp—a masquerading fellow like that! No doubt the letter carrier, employed by the officers at the Fort!
Oh, how I should like to get love letters by such a postman! My horse is at your service. What a simpleton you show yourself! At the rate he is going, he and his blood-bay will be out of sight before you could change saddles for me. Oh, no! I never told you I did—did I? You have no claim to be my counsellor. There is but one from whom I am in duty bound to take advice, or bear reproach. I therefore beg of you, Master Cash, that you will not again presume to repeat such sentiments—as those you have just favoured me with. I shall remain mistress of my own thoughts—and actions, too—till I have found a master who can control them.
It is not you! Having delivered this speech, with eyes flashing—half angrily, half contemptuously—upon her cousin, the young Creole once more threw herself back upon the cushions of the carriole. The closing curtains admonished the ex-officer, that further conversation was not desired. The travellers felt no further uneasiness about the route.
The snake-like trail was continuous; and so plain that a child might have followed it. It did not run in a right line, but meandering among the thickets; at times turning out of the way, in places where the ground was clear of timber. This had evidently been done with an intent to avoid obstruction to the waggons: since at each of these windings the travellers could perceive that there were breaks, or other inequalities, in the surface. If he belong to the Fort, we shall see him again. His daughter, reclining in shadow, overheard the conjectural speech, as well as the rejoinder.
She said nothing; but her glance towards Henry seemed to declare that her heart fondly echoed the hope. Cheered by the prospect of soon terminating a toilsome journey—as also by the pleasant anticipation of beholding, before sunset, his new purchase—the planter was in one of his happiest moods. His aristocratic bosom was moved by an unusual amount of condescension, to all around him. After all we have said and done to abolish it!
Oh, ye abolition fanatics! Know ye not that some must suffer—must work and starve—that others may enjoy the luxury of idleness? That some must be slaves, that others may be free? Such arguments—at which a world might weep—have been of late but too often urged. Woe to the man who speaks, and the nation that gives ear to them! They were reflected in the faces of his black bondsmen, who regarded him as the source, and dispenser, of their happiness, or misery—omnipotent—next to God.
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They loved him less than God, and feared him more; though he was by no means a bad master—that is, by comparison. He did not absolutely take delight in torturing them. He liked to see them well fed and clad—their epidermis shining with the exudation of its own oil. These signs bespoke the importance of their proprietor—himself. It was not destined that this joyfulness should continue to the end of their journey.
It was after a time interrupted—not suddenly, nor by any fault on the part of those indulging in it, but by causes and circumstances over which they had not the slightest control. As the stranger had predicted: the sun ceased to be visible, before the cypress came in sight. There was nothing in this to cause apprehension.
The line of the lazo was conspicuous as ever; and they needed no guidance from the sun: only that his cloud-eclipse produced a corresponding effect upon their spirits. Lucky the young fellow has left us such a sure guide. But for him, we might have floundered among these ashes till sundown; perhaps have been compelled to sleep upon them. I should have such ugly dreams, were I to sleep upon it. I hope it may be no worse. There may be more reasons than one. I think you might venture to try us.
We scarcely expect a false alarm from a soldier, as well as traveller, of your experience. Calhoun felt the taunt; and would probably have withheld the communication he had intended to make, but for Poindexter himself. For what reason should the young fellow be leading us astray? Travelling parties as strong, and stronger than we, have been attacked on these plains, and plundered of every thing—murdered. Sometimes it may be; and sometimes, too, they may be whites who play at that game—not all Mexican whites, neither.
It only needs a bit of brown paint; a horsehair wig, with half a dozen feathers stuck into it; that, and plenty of hullabalooing. We as good as half deserve it—for our greenness, in trusting too much to a stranger. Do you mean to say that the despatch-rider—if he be one—is leading us into—into an ambuscade? I pronounce them a calumny. Look there! The youth had reined up his horse, and was pointing to an object placed conspicuously by the side of the path; which, before speaking, he had closely scrutinised.
It was a tall plant of the columnar cactus , whose green succulent stem had escaped scathing by the fire. It was not to the plant itself that Henry Poindexter directed the attention of his companions; but to a small white disc, of the form of a parallelogram, impaled upon one of its spines. All eyes were instantly turned towards the quarter of the compass, indicated by the cipher on the card.
Had the sun been shining, the cypress might have been seen at the first glance. As it was, the sky—late of cerulean hue—was now of a leaden grey; and no straining of the eyes could detect anything along the horizon resembling the top of a tree. Calhoun disdained to take the opera glass from the hands of his cousin. He knew it would convict him: for he could not suppose she was telling an untruth. Poindexter availed himself of its aid; and, adjusting the focus to his failing sight, was enabled to distinguish the red-leafed cypress, topping up over the edge of the prairie.
He there! Mr Sansom! Direct your teamsters to drive on! Calhoun, not caring to continue the conversation, nor yet remain longer in company, spitefully spurred his horse, and trotted off over the prairie. Bring it away, brother: it can be of no further use where it is—now that we have sighted the tree. Am I to take it as a type of this still untraced destiny? For some seconds, after surrendering herself to the Sybilline thoughts thus expressed, the young lady sate in silence—her white hands clasped across her temples, as if her whole soul was absorbed in an attempt, either to explain the past, or penetrate the future.
Her reverie—whatever might be its cause—was not of long duration. She was awakened from it, on hearing exclamations without—mingled with words that declared some object of apprehension. I never heard of their occurring on the prairies. But for that, one might mistake them for huge obelisks of black marble! The ex-officer was only humorous with an effort. As well as the others, he was under the influence of an uneasy feeling. And no wonder. Against the northern horizon had suddenly become upreared a number of ink-coloured columns—half a score of them—unlike anything ever seen before.
They were not of regular columnar form, nor fixed in any way; but constantly changing size, shape, and place—now steadfast for a time—now gliding over the charred surface like giants upon skates—anon, bending and balancing towards one another in the most fantastic figurings! It required no great effort of imagination, to fancy the Titans of old, resuscitated on the prairies of Texas, leading a measure after some wild carousal in the company of Bacchus! In the proximity of phenomena never observed before—unearthly in their aspect—unknown to every individual of the party—it was but natural these should be inspired with alarm.
And such was the fact. A sense of danger pervaded every bosom. All were impressed with a belief: that they were in the presence of some peril of the prairies. A general halt had been made on first observing the strange objects: the negroes on foot, as well as the teamsters, giving utterance to shouts of terror. The animals—mules as well as horses, had come instinctively to a stand—the latter neighing and trembling—the former filling the air with their shrill screams. These were not the only sounds. From the sable towers could be heard a hoarse swishing noise, that resembled the sough of a waterfall—at intervals breaking into reverberations like the roll of musketry, or the detonations of distant thunder!
These noises were gradually growing louder and more distinct. The danger, whatever it might be, was drawing nearer! The ex-officer no longer pretended levity. The eyes of all were turned towards the lowering sky, and the band of black columns that appeared coming on to crush them! At this crisis a shout, reaching their ears from the opposite side, was a source of relief—despite the unmistakable accent of alarm in which it was uttered.
Turning, they beheld a horseman in full gallop—riding direct towards them. The horse was black as coal: the rider of like hue, even to the skin of his face. For all that he was recognised: as the stranger, upon the trail of whose lazo they had been travelling. The perceptions of woman are quicker than those of man: the young lady within the carriole was the first to identify him.
I did not anticipate it, as I passed you. It was only after reaching the river, I saw the sure signs of it. A norther is not always to be dreaded; but this one—look yonder! You see those black pillars? Look beyond! You have no chance to escape it, except by speed. If you do not make haste, it will be too late. Order your drivers to hurry forward as fast as they can!
The sky—heaven itself—commands you! The planter did not think of refusing compliance, with an appeal urged in such energetic terms. The order was given for the teams to be set in motion, and driven at top speed. Terror, that inspired the animals equally with their drivers, rendered superfluous the use of the whip. The travelling carriage, with the mounted men, moved in front, as before.
The stranger alone threw himself in the rear—as if to act as a guard against the threatening danger. At intervals he was observed to rein up his horse, and look back: each time by his glances betraying increased apprehension. Yonder it is blowing a hurricane, and this way too—direct.
By heavens! I doubt if we shall be able to clear the burnt track. As the speaker gave utterance to this gloomy conjecture, he reined round once more; and sate regarding the cloud columns—as if calculating the rate at which they were advancing. The lines, contracting around his lips, told of something more than dissatisfaction. There is no hope of our escaping them! Can we do nothing to avoid it?
The stranger did not make immediate reply. For some seconds he remained silent, as if reflecting—his glance no longer turned towards the sky, but wandering among the waggons. I did not think of it before. We cannot shun the storm—the danger we may. Quick, Mr Poindexter!
Order your men to muffle the mules—the horses too—otherwise the animals will be blinded, and go mad. Blankets—cloaks—anything will do. Let the tilts be closed at the ends. I shall myself look to the travelling carriage. Having delivered this chapter of instructions—which Poindexter, assisted by the overseer, hastened to direct the execution of—the young horseman galloped towards the front. Your coachman will have to get inside; and you, gentlemen! Inside, I beseech you! Lose no time. In a few seconds the storm will be upon us! In—in, I entreat you! Listen to that shriek!
Quick, or the dust-cloud will be around us! The planter and his son sprang together to the ground; and retreated into the travelling carriage. Calhoun, refusing to dismount, remained stiffly seated in his saddle. Why should he skulk from a visionary danger, that did not deter a man in Mexican garb? The latter turned away; as he did so, directing the overseer to get inside the nearest waggon—a direction which was obeyed with alacrity—and, for the first time, the stranger was left free to take care of himself.
With equal alertness he undid his scarf of China crape; and stretched it around his sombrero—fixing it in such a way, that one edge was held under the bullion band, while the other dropped down over the brim—thus forming a silken visor for his face. Before finally closing it, he turned once more towards the carriole; and, to his surprise, saw Calhoun still in the saddle.