The Partisan/VII

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The Partisan by William Gilmore Simms
Chapter VII


"Do I not live for it? I have no life,
 But in the hope that life may bring with it
 The bitter-sweet of vengeance."

The gloomy painter would have done much with the scene before us. The wild and mystic imagination would have made it one of supernatural terrors; and fancy, fond of the melancholy twilight, would have endowed the dim shadows, lurking like so many spectres between the bald cypresses, with a ghostly character, and most unhallowed purpose. Though familiar with such abodes, Singleton, as he looked upon the strange groupings thrown along the sombre groundwork, was impressed with a lively sense of its imposing felicity. They stood upon an island in the very centre of the swamp—one of those little islands, the tribute ooze of numerous minor watercourses, hardening into solidity at last. These, beating their feeble tides upon a single point, in process of time create the banner which is to usurp their own possessions. Here, the rank matter of the swamp, its slime and rubbish, resolving themselves by a natural but rapid decomposition into one mass, yield the thick luxuriance of soil from which springs up the overgrown tree, which throws out a thousand branches, and seems to have existed as many years—in whose bulk we behold an emblem of majesty, and, in whose term of life, standing in utter defiance of the sweeping hurricane, we have an image of strength which compels our admiration, and sometimes the more elevated acknowledgment of our awe. Thus, gathering on this insulated bed, a hundred solemn cypresses mingled their gaunt, spectral forms with the verdant freshness of the wateroak—the rough simplicity and height of the pine—all intertwined and bound together in the common guardianship of the spot, by the bulging body of the luxuriant grape-vine, almost rivalling in thickness, and far surpassing in strength, the trees from which itdepended—these formed a natural roof to the island, circumscribing its limits even more effectually than did the narrow creek by which it had been isolated, and through which the tribute waters of this wide estuary found their way, after a few miles of contracted journeying, into the bed and bosom of the Ashley.

A couple of huge fires, which our party had seen in glimpses while approaching, were in full blaze upon the island; one, the largest, near its centre; the other somewhat apart, upon a little isthmus which it thrust forth into the mouth of the creek. Around the former lay a singular assemblage of persons, single, or in groups, and in every position. These were not more than twenty in all, but so disposed as to seem much more numerous to the casual spectator. Three, in the glare of the fire, sat upon a log at cards, one at either end, and the third, squat upon the ground beside it. A few slept; some were engaged in conversation, while one, more musical than his neighbours, broke into a song of some length, in which the current situation of the things around him underwent improvisation. A stout negro prepared the evening meal, and passed between the card-players and the fire to their occasional inconvenience; their sharp but unheeded denunciations being freely bestowed at every repetition of the offence. The dress and accoutrements of this collection were not less novel, and far more outré, than their several positions and employments. Certainly, taste had but little share in their toilet arrangements, since the hair of some of them flew dishevelled in the wind, or lay matted upon their brows, unconscious of a comb. The faces generally of the party were smeared, and some of them absolutely blackened, by the smoke of the pine-wood fires which at night were kept continually burning around them. This had most effectually begrimed their features, and their garments had not failed to partake of the same colouring. These, too, were as various as the persons who wore them. The ragged coat, the round-jacket, and sometimes the entire absence of both, in the case of some individual otherwise conspicuous enough, destroyed all chance of uniformity in the troop. There was but one particular in which their garb seemed generally to agree, and that was in the coonskin cap which surmounted the heads of most of them—worn jauntily upon the side of the head,with slips that flapped over the ears, and the tail of the animal depending from front or rear, tassel-fashion, according to the taste of the wearer. Considering such an assemblage, so disposed, so habited, in connection with the (situation and circumstances in which we find them, and we shall form no very imperfect idea of the moral effect which their appearance must have had upon the new comers. The boisterous laugh, the angry, sharp retort, the ready song from some sturdy bacchanal, and the silent sleeper undisturbed amid all the uproar, made, of themselves, a picture to the mind not likely to be soon forgotten. Then, when we behold the flaming of the torch in the deep dark which it only for a moment dissipates, and which crowds back, as with a solid body, into the spot from which it has been temporarily driven—the light flashing along and reflected back from the sullen waters of the creek;—and listen, at the same moment, to the cry of the screech-owl as the intruder scares him from his porch—the plaint of the whippoorwill, in return, as if even the clamour of the obscene bird had in it something of sympathy for the wounded spirit,—these, with the croaking of the frogs in millions, with which the swamp was a dwelling-place among a thousand, were all well calculated to awaken the most indifferent spectator, and to compel a sense of the solemn-picturesque even in the mind of the habitually frivolous and unthinking.

With the repeated signals which they had heard from their sentries on the appearance of the new comers, the scattered groups had simultaneously started to their feet, and put themselves in a state of readiness. The signals were familiar, however, and spoke of friends in the approaching persons; so that, after a few moments of buzz and activity, they generally sank back sluggishly to their old occupations,—the card-players to finish their game, and the less speculative, their sleep. Their movement, however, gives us a better opportunity to survey their accoutrements. The long, cumbrous rifle seemed the favourite weapon, and in the hands of the diminutive, sallow, but black-eyed and venturous dweller in the swamps of the lowlands, across whose knee we may here and there see it resting, it may confidently be held as fatal at a hundred yards. A few of them had pistols—the common horse-pistol—a weapon of little real utility under any circumstances. But a solitary musket,and that, too, without the bayonet, was to be seen in the whole collection; and though not one of the party present but had his horse hidden in the swamp around him, yet not one in five of the riders possessed the sabre, that most effective weapon of cavalry. These were yet to be provided, and at the expense of the enemy.

The immediate appearance of Major Singleton, as he followed Humphries up the bank, once more called them to their feet. He had been expected, yet few of them personally knew him. They knew, however, that he was high in favour with Governor Rutledge, and bore his commission. Of this they had been apprised by Humphries, who had been the recruiting officer of the troop. They now crowded around him with a show of curious examination, which was narrow and close without being obtrusive.

With that manly, yet complaisant habit which distinguished him, he soon made himself known to them, and his opening speech won not a little upon their hearts. He unfolded his commission, delivered an address from the executive, in which a direct and warm appeal was made to their patriotism, and concluded with some remarks of his own to the same effect, which were all enthusiastically received. His frank, fearless manner, fine eye, and manly, though smooth and youthful face, took admirably with them, and at once spoke favourably to their minds in support of his pretensions to govern them. This command they at once tendered him; and though without the material for a force called for by the commission which he bore, yet, in those times, it was enough that they loved their leader and were not unwilling to fight with an enemy. Major Singleton was content to serve his country in an humbler command than that which his commission entitled him to hold. Acting, therefore, as their captain for the present, he made Humphries his lieutenant. Him they had long known, and he was a favourite among them. He, indeed, had been chiefly instrumental in bringing together their scattered elements, and in thus forming the nucleus of a corps, which, in the subsequent warfare, contributed in no slight degree to the release of the country from foreign thraldom. In Humphries they had a good officer and every confidence, though it was obvious enough, that, while full of courage, calm, collected, an not easily moved, he yet lackedmany of those essentials of superior education and bearing, without which militia-men are not often to be held in order. He was not sufficiently their superior to stand apart and to command them; and the inferior mind will never look to its equal in the moment of emergency. Though ready and acute enough in the smaller details of military adventure—the arrangement of the ambuscade, the rapid blow at the rear, or the plan for striking at the foragers of an enemy—he was yet rather apt to go forward with, than to command, his party. He trusted rather to his presence than to the superior force of his character, to urge upon them the performance of their duties; and, conscious of this, though ready at all times to lead, he yet shrank from the necessity of commanding. This capacity can only result successfully from an habitual exercise of authority. It was with no small satisfaction, therefore, that he placed his recruits under the control of Major Singleton, although, it may be said, that such a transfer of his command was rather nominal than real; Humphries still counselling, in great part, the particular business of adventure which Singleton was the better able to direct. The latter had yet to acquire a knowledge of localities and men, which could only be obtained by actual experience.

"And now, major, soldiers without arms are not apt to fight well. Come, sir, with me, and see our armory. It's a queer one, to be sure, to those used to a better; but it must serve where there's no choice. This way, sir—to the left. Here, Tom, bring a chunk."

The black led the way with a blazing brand, until their farther progress was arrested by the waters of the creek. In the centre of the stream grew a cypress of immense size, much larger than any of its surrounding companions. Motioning Singleton to wait, Humphries waded into the water almost up to his middle, until he reached the tree, into which, taking the blazing brand from the black, he entered, returning in a few moments with half a dozen fine sabres, which, one after the other, he threw from him to the bank.

"This is all our stock in trade, major; and you have your choice of them till we can get a better. This, if I know the signsof the weather, we shall do before long. Meanwhile, as the stuff's good, they will answer our present purpose."

Singleton pressed the points of the weapons severally to the earth, testing the elasticity of the steel, then accommodating the hilt to his grip, declared himself suited. Humphries made a selection after him, and the remaining four were subsequently distributed among chosen men, to whom commands in the little corps were assigned. As rebels, heretofore, the short-shrift and sure cord must have been their doom, if taken. The commission of the state, and a due register of their names in the books of the orderly, now secured them in the immunities of regular warfare, and made that comparatively innocent which before was obnoxious to doom and degradation.

We have spoken of two several fires as conspicuous upon the island at the approach of Singleton, the one upon the centre, the other, and smaller one, at its remotest extremity. Of the use made of the former, we have already seen something; the other, while it had caught the eye of Major Singleton, had been too remote to enable him to distinguish the employment or character of the various persons who yet closely encircled it. He could see that there were several figures sitting around the brands, which seemed to have been but loosely thrown together, as they had now fallen apart, and only gave forth a flickering blaze at intervals, denying that constant light, without which he could not hope to gain any knowledge of the persons, even at a far less distance. These persons had not moved at his approach, and had remained stationary all the while he was employed in making himself known to those who were to be his comrades. This alone would have been enough to attract his attention; and, in addition, he saw that those around him, when bending their glances off in the direction of his own, shook their heads with an air of solemnity, and, though saying nothing, were yet evidently influenced by a knowledge of some circumstances connected with the mysterious group, of a painful character. Observing the inquiring look of Major Singleton, Humphries approached, and whispered him that the party at the opposite fire consisted of Frampton, his two sons, and the deadbody of his wife, and proposed that they should go to him. The major at once consented.

"You'll see a sad sight, Major Singleton—a sad sight!—for the man is crazy, let them say what they may. He don't know half the time what he says or does, and he scarcely feels anything "

They moved over in the prescribed direction, and approached without disturbing the chief personage of the group. The elder son, a youth of twenty, looked up at their coming, but said nothing. It was evident that he, and he alone, had been weeping. The other son, a tall fine-looking lad of sixteen, seemed inspired with harsher feelings as his eye gazed from the face of the father to that of the mother, whose dead body lay between the two, her head on the lap of the elder son, over whose arms her hair streamed loosely—long, and delicately brown and glossy. She had evidently been a woman of some attractions. Her person was well formed and justly proportioned, neither masculine nor small. Her features were soft and regular. The face was smooth, but had been bruised, seemingly as if she had fallen upon it; and there were blotches upon the cheek and forehead, which may have been the consequence of blows, or might be the natural evidence of that decay which was now strongly perceptible. The face of the chief mourner, who sat silent at her feet, looking forward into her face, was a fine one, as well in its mould as in its expression. It was that of a splendid savage. There was enough of solemn ferocity in it for the murderer, enough of redeeming sensibility to soften, if not to subdue, the other more leading attributes of its character. His skin was dark like that of the people generally of that neighbourhood. His eyes were black and piercing; and a burning spot on each cheek seemed to have borrowed from the red glare of the fire at his side a corresponding intensity of hue. His lips were parted; and the lower jaw seemed to have been thrown and kept down spasmodically. Through the aperture glared the tips of the small and white teeth, sometimes closed together by a sudden convulsive jerk, but, immediately relaxing again and resuming their divided position.

He took no sort of notice of the new-comers, until, throwinghimself alongside of the younger boy, Humphries took the hand of the mother into his own, and gazed over upon her face. Frampton then gave him a look—a single look; and as their eyes met, those of Humphries intuitively filled with water. The bereaved wretch, as he saw this, laughed sneeringly and shook his head. There was no misunderstanding the rebuke. It clearly scorned the sympathy, and called for the sterner tribute of revenge. The elder son then carried on a brief conversation in an under tone with the lieutenant, which was only audible in part to Singleton, who sat on the root of a tree opposite. He gave the particulars of his mother's removal in this dialogue, and of the resolute doggedness with which his father had hitherto resisted the burial of the body.

"It must be buried at once," said Humphries more earnestly to the youth. The father heard him, and glaring upon him with the eye of a tiger, the desolate man bent forward and placed his hand resolutely upon the body, as if determined not to suffer its removal.

"Nay, but it must, Frampton;—there's no use in keeping it here: and, indeed, there's no keeping it much longer. Hear to reason, man, and be persuaded."

The person addressed shook his head, and maintained his hold upon the corse for a moment in silence; but all on a sudden, half rising to his feet, he shook his fists fiercely at the speaker, while his expression was so full of ferocity, that Humphries prepared for, and every moment expected, an attack.

"You have lied to me, Humphries!" he exclaimed with difficulty, as if through his clenched teeth.—"You have lied to me;—you said he should be here,—where is he? why have you not brought him?"

"Who? brought who?" demanded the other earnestly.

"Who!"—and as the maniac half shrieked out the word in sneering repetition, he pointed to the body, while he cried, with a fierce laugh, between each pause in his words—"who!—did he not strike her—strike her to the ground—trample upon her body—great God!—upon her—my wife?" And, as the accumulated picture of his wife's injuries rose up before his mind while he spoke, his speech left him, and he choked, till his face grew lividin their sight, and yet he had no tears. He soon recovered sufficiently to speak again with something like a show of calmness.

"You said you were my friend—that you would bring him to me—that I should kill him here—here, even while mine eyes yet looked upon her. Liar! where is he? Why have you not brought him?"

"I am no liar, Frampton, and you know it. I never promised to bring the dragoons to you; but I am willing to lead you to them."

"Do I want a leader for that?—you shall see:" and he relapsed, after this reply, into the same solemn stupor which had marked his looks at the first coming of the two. Humphries proceeded with temper and coolness—

"It is time, Frampton, to be a man—to bear up against your losses, and think how to have revenge for them."

"I am ready. Speak not to me of revenge—speak not; I am thirsting—thirsting for blood!" was the reply.

"Yet, here you sit moping over your losses, while the red-coats are in the swamp—ay, hunting us out in our own grounds—Huck's dragoons, with Travis at their head."

The man was on his feet in an instant. There was a wild glow now visible in his face, which completely superseded the sombre fixedness of its previous expression. All now was summary impatience.

"Come!" said he, waving his hand impatiently, and convulsively grasping his bosom with his fingers—"come!"

"It is well. I now see you are in the right mood for vengeance, and I have made all arrangements for it. Here is a sword; and this, Frampton, is our commander, Major Singleton. He is now our leader, and will put us on the dragoons' tracks in short order."

The maniac turned stupidly to Singleton, and bending his head with a strange simper on his lips, simply repeated the word "Come!" with which he showed his willingness for the adventure. Humphries whispered Major Singleton to take him at his word, and move him off to the rest of the party, while he gave directions for the interment of the body. Singleton did so, and without any show of reluctance, Frampton followed him. Once did he stopsuddenly, turn quickly round, and seem about to retrace his steps; but seeing it, Singleton simply observed, as if to himself—

"We shall soon be upon the dragoons, and then—"

The object was gained, and the distracted, desolate creature followed, like a tame dog, the lead of his commander. He listened in gloomy silence to the arrangements, as they were agreed upon, for the encounter with Travis. He knew enough of that sort of fighting to see that they were judiciously made; but for this he did not care. All plans are necessarily slow and tedious to the mood that craves for vengeance; and Frampton, satisfied with the promise which they conveyed to his mind of the revenge which he desired, offered no suggestion, nor interfered in the slightest degree with any of their plans. Still, not a word which had been uttered among them escaped his appreciation. He was now fully awakened to a single object, and the reasoning faculties grew tributary to the desire of his mood when that became concentrated. He saw that the proposed operations were the best that could be devised for the encounter, and he looked to that now for the full satisfaction of his thirst.

Humphries having given his directions duly for the interment of the body, now returned to join in the deliberations with the rest. His opinion was adopted by Major Singleton, who, giving orders that all things should be in readiness, himself saw to the execution of certain minor resolves; then, dispersing his sentries, he proceeded, with the coolness of an old soldier, to enjoy the three hours of slumber which had been allotted before the necessary start to intercept Travis.

It was an hour after midnight when the guards aroused them with the preparations for their movement. The night was still, clear, and calm. The winds were sleeping, or only strove with a drowsy movement along the tops of the trees, the highest above the swamp. Sweetly the murmurs of the creek around them, swollen by the influx of the tide from the sea, which is there quite perceptible, broke upon the ear, as the waters, in feeble ripples, strove against the little island, and brought with them a sense of freshness from the deep, which none feels more pleasantly than he who has been long wandering in the southern forests. Not a lip had yet spoken among the troops, and, save the slight cry of the capricious insect, and the sound produced by their own early movement in bustling into action, there was nothing in that deep stillness and depth of shadow calculated in the slightest degree to impair the feelings of solemnity which, in his own abode, Silence, the most impressive of all the forest divinities, exacts from his subjects. With a ready alacrity, obeying the command of their leader, the troopers were soon in saddle, forming a compact body of twenty men, Frampton and his two sons included; the very boys being thus early taught in the duties of the partisan. Following in such order as the inequalities of the swamp would permit, they were soon advanced upon their route through bog and through brier, slough, forest, and running water—a route, rugged and circuitous, and not always without its peril. In three hours, and ere the daylight yet dappled the dun east, they skirted the narrow ridge where the arrangement of Singleton placed them, and over which the scouting party of Travis was expected to pass. There, with hostile anxiety, and well prepared, they confidently awaited the arrival of the enemy.