"Let her pulse beat a stroke the more or less
Leaving Singleton, as we have seen, as soon as the absence of Goggle from the camp was certainly known, Humphries hurried on his returning route to the village of Dorchester. Cool and calcuiating, but courageous, the risk which he ran was far from inconsiderable. How could he be sure he was not already suspected; how know that some escaping enemies had not seen and given intelligence of his presence among the rebels; and why should not the fugitive be already in the garrison with Proctor preparing the schemes which were to wind about and secure him? These questions ever rose in his mind as he surveyed his situation and turned over his own intentions; but, though strong enough as doubts, they were not enough as arguments, to turn him from a purpose which he deemed good and useful, if not absolutely necessary. He dismissed them from his thoughts, therefore, as fast as they came up. He was a man quite too bold, too enterprising to be discouraged and driven from his plans by mere suggestions of risk; and whistling as he went a merry tune, he dashed forward through the woods, and was soon out of the bush and on the main road of the route—not far from the spot where, in the pause of the storm, they had stumbled upon the half-blood, Blonay.
The tree which the lightning had stricken just beside the path, was still in flame. The rain could not quench it, as the rich lightwood, traced through every cavity of the bark by the greedy fire, furnished a fuel not easily extinguishable. The flame licked along the sides, at intervals, up and down, from top to trunk; at one moment, lost from one place—the next, furiously darting upon another. Its blaze showed him the track through the hollow to old Mother Blonay's, and, as he beheld it, a sudden desire prompted him once more to look into the dwelling of the old woman. He was strangely fascinated in this direction, particularly as he remembered the equivocal nature of the threat which she had screamed in his ear in regard to his sister. "Goggle, Goggle, Goggle!" But that he already entertained much anxiety in respect to the girl, he would have attached no importance to the unmeaning syllables. But now, a shiver ran through his frame while he thought upon them!
"She shall tell me what she means!" he muttered as he went.
Alighting from his horse, he approached the hovel, hitched the animal to a hanging bough, and, with as light a footstep as possible, quietly approached the entrance. Peeping through an aperture between the loose logs he gazed upon the inmate. There, still in her seat beside the fireplace, she kept up the same croning movement, to and fro, maintaining her balance perfectly, yet fast asleep all the while. Sometimes her rocking would be broken with a start, but sleep had too far possessed her; and though her dog barked once or twice at the approach of the stranger, the interruption in her seesaw was but for a moment, and an incoherent murmur indistinctly uttered, only preceded her relapse into silence and slumber as before. Beside her lay her twin cats—twin in size though not in colour—a monstrous pair, whose sleep emulated that of their mistress. On a bench before her, clearly distinguishable in the firelight, Humphries noted her travelling bundle with a staff run through it. This indicated her itinerant habits, and his conclusion was, that the old hag, who wandered usually from plantation to plantation, from hovel to hovel, pretending to cure or charm away disease, and taking large collections in return from the charitable, the ignorant, and superstitious alike—had made her preparations for an early journey in the morning. While he looked, his own superstitious fancies grew active; and, a cold shiver which he could not escape, but of which he was heartily ashamed, came over him, and, with a hurried step, he darted away from the contemplation of a picture he could not regard in any other light than as one horrible and unholy.
Humphries was not the slave of a feeble and childish superstition; but the natural influences which affect the uneducated mind commonly, had their due force on his. The secret cause is always mysterious, and commonly produces enervating and vague fears in the bosoms of all that class of people who engage in no thoughts beyond those called for by their everyday sphere and business. So with him. He had doubts, and in proportion with his ignorance were his apprehensions. Ignorance is of all things the most apprehensive in nature. He knew not whether she had the power that she professed, or that any one could possess such power, and his active imagination gave her all the benefit of his doubt. Still he did not fear. No one who knew his usually bold character, his recklessness of speech and action, would deem him liable to any fear from such influences as were supposed to belong to the withered tenant of that isolated hovel. And yet, when he thought upon the cheerless life which she led and seemed to love—when he asked himself what might be its pleasures or its solace—he could not avoid feeling that in its anti-social evidences lurked the best proof of its evil nature. Wherefore should age, poverty, and feebleness, fly so far, and look so harshly upon, the whole world around it? Why refuse its contiguity?—why deny, why shrink away from the prospect of its comforts and its blessings? Why? unless the mood within was hostile—unless its practices were unfriendly to the common good, as they were foreign to the common habit, of humanity? He knew, indeed, that poverty may at all times sufficiently account for isolation—that an acute sensibility may shrink from that contact with the crowd which may, and does, so frequently betray or wound it; and he also well knew that there is no sympathy between good and bad fortune, except as the one is apt to desire that survey of the other which will best enable it to comprehend the superior benefits of its own position. But that old woman had no such sensibilities, and her poverty was not greater—not so great, indeed, as that of many whom he knew besides, who yet clung to, and sought to share some of the ties and regards of society, though unblessed by the world's goods, and entirely out of the hope of a redeeming fortune. Did he not also know that she exulted in the thought that she was feared by those around her, and studiously inculcated the belief among the vulgar, that she possessed attributes which were dangerous and unholy? Her very pride was an abomination to humanity, as her chief source of satisfaction seemed to lie in the exercise of powers unwholesome and annoying to man. No wonder the blood grew cold and curdled in the veins of the blunt countryman as he thought upon these matters. No wonder that he moved away to his horse, with a rapidity he would not his enemy should see, from a spot over which, as his mind dwelt upon the subject, such an infernal atmosphere seemed to brood and gather. The bark of the dog as the hoofs of his charger beat upon the ground while he hurried along his path, startled more completely the old hag, who half rose from her seat, threw up her head to listen, then, pushing the dismembered brands of her fire together, composed herself once more in her chair to sleep.
The evening of the day upon the history of which we have been engaged, had been rather remarkable in the annals of the "Royal George." There had been much to disturb the waters, and, we may add, the spirits in that important domain. There had been a partial sundering of ancient ties—a violation of sometime sacred pledges, an awkward collision of various interests.
On the ensuing Monday, Sergeant Hastings, of whom we have already seen either too much or too little, was to take his departure with the notorious Captain Huck to join Tarleton on the Catawba. The interval of time between the present and that fixed for this, so important, remove, was exceedingly brief; but a day, and that a holiday, intervened—and then farewell to the rum punch, the fair coquette, and the pleasant company of the "Royal George."
The subject was a melancholy one to all parties. The sergeant preferred the easy life, the good company, the cheering liquor of the tavern, and there were other and less honourable objects yet in his mind, unsatisfied, and as far from realization as ever. Bella Humphries had too little regard for him really to become his victim, though he had spared no effort to that end. On the contrary, the girl had latterly grown peevish in some respects, and he could clearly perceive, though the cause remained unknown, that his influence over her was declining. His assumption of authority, his violence, and perhaps his too great familiarity, had wonderfully lessened him in her regard; and, if the truth must be known, John Davis was in reality more potent in her esteem than she had been willing to acknowledge either to that personage or to herself.
While Davis kept about the tavern, a cringing and peevish lover, contributing to her conceit while acknowledging her power, she was not unwilling, with all the thoughtlessness of a weak girl, to trifle with his aftections; but now that he had absented himself, as it seemed for ever, she began to comprehend her own loss and to lament it. Such a consciousness led her to a more close examination of Hastings's pretensions, and the result of her analysis was quite unfavourable to that worthy. His many defects of disposition and character, his vulgarity, his impudence, all grew remarkably prominent in her eyes, and he could now see that, when he would say, in a manner meant to be alluring:—
"Hark'ee, Bell, my beauty—get us a swig, pretty particular, and not too strong o' the lemon, and not too weak o' the Jamaica, and not too scant considering the quantity"—there was no sweet elasticity in the utterance of—
"Yes, sergeant, certainly,—you shall have it to your liking;" coupled with a gracious smile and a quickness of movement that left the time between the order and its instant execution a space not perceptible even to that most impatient person, himself. He could feel the change now, and as the time allowed him was brief, and opportunities few, he hurried himself in devising plans for the better success of a design upon her, long entertained, of a character the most vile and nefarious.
But his bill remained unpaid; and this was the worst feature in the sight of our landlord. That evening (Saturday) the worthy publican had ventured to suggest the fact to the disregarding memory of the sergeant, who had, with the utmost promptness, evaded the demand. Some words had passed between them—old Humphries had been rather more spirited, and Hastings rather more insolent than usual; and the latter, in search of consolation, made his way into the inner room where Bella officiated. To crown his discontent, his approach was utterly unnoticed by that capricious damsel. He dashed away in dudgeon from the house at an early hour, certainly less regretted by the maid than by the master of the inn. Such had been the transactions of the evening of that night, when, at a late hour, Humphries approached the dwelling of his father. The house lay in perfect shadow as he drew nigh the outer buildings, in the rear of one of which he carefully secured his horse. The moon, obscured during the early part of the evening, and dim throughout the night, had now sunk westering so far, that it failed to touch entirely the close and sheltered court in front of the house. As he drew nigh, moving along in the deeper shadow of the fence to the rear of the dwelling, for which he had a key, he started. Was it a footstep that reached his ear? He squatted to the ground and listened. He was not deceived. The indistinct outline of a man close under the piazza, was apparent. He seemed busied in some labour which he pursued cautiously, and in perfect silence. Humphries could see that he stooped to the ground, and that in the next moment, his arms were extended. A few seconds after and the person of the man seemed to rise in air. The watcher could no longer be mistaken. Already had the nightstalker taken two steps upon the ladder which he had placed against the house, when Humphries bounded forward from his place of watch. His soul was on fire, for he saw that the object of the stranger was the chamber of his sister, the windows of which looked out upon the piazza, and were all open, as was usual in the summer nights.
The look of the old hag, her strange words uttered as a threat, grew strong in his mind, and he now seemed to understand them. Drawing his dirk from his bosom, the only weapon he had ventured to bring with him from the stable, in the fodder of which he had hidden his sabre and pistols, he rushed furiously towards the burglar. But his movement had been too precipitate for success; and with the first sound of his feet, the marauder had dropped from the ladder, and taken to his heels. The start in his favour being considerable, gave him a vast advantage over his pursuer, for, though swift of foot, active, and spurred on by the fiercest feelings, Humphries failed to come up with him. A moment after the fugitive had leaped the fence, the dirk of the former was driven into that part of it over which his body had passed. The villain had escaped.
Gloomy and disappointed, the brother returned to the spot, and calmly inspected the premises. Painfully and deeply apprehensive were his thoughts, as he surveyed the ladder, and the open windows above. But for his timely arrival there would have been little or no difficulty in effecting an entrance. Did the wretch seek to rob? That was the hope of Humphries. Could it be possible that his sister had fallen? was she a victim, privy to the design of the felon? or did he only now, for the first time, seek her dishonour? He knew that she was weak and childish, but he also believed her innocent. Could she have looked for the coming of a paramour? The unobstructed windows, the unbroken silence, the confident proceeding of the man himself—all would seem to strengthen the damning idea which now possessed his mind; and when his perpetually recurring thought brought to him the picture of the old hag, her hellish glare upon him, and her mysterious threat—a threat which now seemed no longer mysterious—the dreadful apprehensions almost grew into certainty. There was but one, and that a partial mode, of ascertaining how far the girl was guilty of participation in the design of the stranger; and, with the thought, Humphries at once ascended the ladder which he threw down after him. From the piazza he made his way to the girl's chamber.
A light was burning in the fireplace, dimly, and with no power to serve him where it stood. He seized it, almost convulsively, in one hand, while the uplifted dagger was bare in the other; and thus he approached the couch where she lay. He held the light above, so that its glare touched not her eygs, and he looked down into her face. She lay sleeping, soundly, sweetly, with a gentle respiration like a sigh swelling equably her bosom. There was no tremor, no start. Her round, fair face wore a soft, smiling expression, showing that the consciousness within was not one of guilt. One of her arms hung over the pillow, her cheek resting upon it; the other pressed slightly her bosom, as naturally as if there had been a throbbing and deeply feeling heart under it. The brother looked, and as he looked, he grew satisfied. He could not doubt that sleep; it was the sleep of innocence. A weight of nameless, of measureless terror, had been taken from his soul in that survey; and nature claimed relief in a flood of tears. The drops fell on the cheek of the sleeper, and she started. With the movement, he put aside the dagger, not, however, before her eyes had beheld it. "Oh, William! brother, dear brother! is it you? and—the knife?"
She had caught his hand in her terror, and amaze and bewilderment overspread her features.
"Sleep on, Bell, sleep on; you are a good girl, and needn't fear."
He kissed her as he spoke, and, with the fondness of a sister, and the thoughtlessness of a girl, she began to prattle to him; but he bade her be quiet, and, taking the light with him, descended to the lower apartment, adjoining the bar-room, where his father usually slept. To his surprise he was not there, but a gleam through the door led the son to the place where the old man usually served his customers. The picture that met his eye was an amusing one. There, at length upon the floor, the landlord lay. A candle placed beside him, with a wick doubled over and blazing into the tallow, lacked the friendly aid of the snuffers. The old man was too deeply engaged in his vocation to notice this. His head, resting upon one hand, was lifted upon his elbow, and before him were sundry shingles, covered with tallies in red chalk and in white, against his sundry customers. The landlord was busily engaged in drawing from these chronicles, the particular items in the account of Sergeant Hastings, which he transcribed upon a sheet of paper which lay before him. A tumbler of Jamaica, of especial body, stood conveniently close, from which he occasionally drew strong refreshment for his memory. He was too earnest in his labour, to notice the entrance of his son at first; but the other had too little time to spare, to scruple much at disturbing his father at his unusual labour.
"Ah, bless me. Bill—that you? Why, what's the to-do now? What brings you so late?"
"Business, business, father, and plenty of it. But get up, rouse you and bustle about, and get away from these scores, or you won't understand a word I tell you."The landlord rose immediately, put his shingles aside, picked up the sheet containing the amount in gross charged against Sergeant Hastings, which he sighed deeply to survey, and, in a few moments, was prepared to listen to what his son could say. He heard the narrative with horror and astonishment.
"God bless us aud preserve us, Bill! but this is awful hard; and what are we to do—where shall we run—how?—"
"Run nowhere, but listen to what I tell you. You can't help it now, but you may make something out of it. If Proctor must hear the truth, he may as well hear it from you."
"From me!—bless me, Bill, my boy—from me?"
"Yes, from you. Set off by daypeep to the fort, and see Proctor yourself. Tell him of your loyalty, and how you love the king; and you can cry a little all the time, if it comes easy to you. I don't want you to strain much about it. Tell him that you have an unworthy son, that's not of your way of thinking. Say he's been misguided by the rebels, and how they've inveigled him, till he's turned rebel himself; and how he's now out with Marion's men, in Major Singleton's squad. When you've done this, you can cry again, and do any thing to throw dust in his eyes. Say it's all owing to your loyalty that you expose your own flesh and blood, and mind you don't take any money for telling."
"Bless me, my dear boy, but this is awful to think on."
"It must be thought on, though, and the sooner the better. Coming from you, it will help you; coming from that skunk. Goggle, and you silent, and they pack you off to the Charleston provost, or maybe draw you over the swinging bough. Tell Proctor our force is thirty; that we lay at Slick pond last night, and that we push for Black river by daypeep, to join with the Swamp Fox. This, you see, will be a truer story than Goggle can tell, for if he sends Proctor after us to Slick pond, he'll have a journey to take back."
"Bless me, what's to become of us all, Bill, I don't see. I am all over in a fever now, ever since you tell'd me your story."
"Shake it off and be comfortable, as you can be. Thinking about it never cured the shaking ague yet, and never will. You must try."
"And I will try—I will, boy; but bless me. Bill, wouldn't it be better for us all to take to the swamp—eh?""No—stay where you are; there's no need for you to go out, and you can do good where you are. Besides, there's Bell, you know."
"Lead out trumps, that's the way, and mind how you play 'em; that's all you've got to do now, and if so be you try, you can do it. Don't burn daylight, but be with Proctor as soon as sunrise lets you. Don't stop to talk about Edisto catfish, or what's for dinner, and whether it's like to rain or shine, but push through the crowd, and don't mind your skirts. All depends on you, now."
"Bless us, bless us! what times, what times! Oh, Bill, my boy, what's coming to us! Here was Huck, to-day, and says Continental Congress is to make peace with Great Britain, and to give up Carolina and Georgia."
"Oh! that's all a fool notion, for it's no such thing. That's all a trick of the tories, and you needn't mind it. But what of Huck?"
"He goes a-Monday to join Tarleton."
"Good!—and now I must leave you. I've got a mighty deal to see to afore daylight, and I won't see you for a smart spell, I reckon, as I shall have to hug the swamp close after this. Don't be slow now, father, 'cause every thing hangs on your shoulders, and you must tell your story straight."
In their dialogue the son had taken care to omit nothing which a shrewd, thinking mind might suggest, as essential to the successful prosecution of the plan advised. This done, he took his way to the dwelling of old Pryor, and tapping with his knife-handle thrice upon one of the small, but ostentatious, pine pillars of the portico, the door was unclosed, and he was at once admitted, as one who had been waited for. There we shall leave him, conferring closely with a select few, busy, like himself, in preparations for a general uprising of the people.