Elsie Venner/Chapter XXIII

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The young master had not forgotten the old Doctor's cautions. Without attributing any great importance to the warning he had given him, Mr. Bernard had so far complied with his advice that he was becoming a pretty good shot with the pistol. It was an amusement as good as many others to practise, and he had taken a fancy to it after the first few days.

The popping of a pistol at odd hours in the backyard of the Institute was a phenomenon more than sufficiently remarkable to be talked about in Rockland. The viscous intelligence of a country-village is not easily stirred by the winds which ripple the fluent thought of great cities, but it holds every straw and entangles every insect that lights upon it. It soon became rumored in the town that the young master was a wonderful shot with the pistol. Some said he could hit a fo'pence-ha'penny at three rod; some, that he had shot a swallow, flying, with a single ball; some, that he snuffed a candle five times out of six at ten paces, and that he could hit any button in a man's coat he wanted to. In other words, as in all such cases, all the common feats were ascribed to him, as the current jokes of the day are laid at the door of any noted wit, however innocent he may be of them.

In the natural course of things, Mr. Richard Venner, who had by this time made some acquaintances, as we have seen, among that class of the population least likely to allow a live cinder of gossip to go out for want of air, had heard incidentally that the master up there at the Institute was all the time practising with a pistol, that they say he can snuff a candle at ten rods, (that was Mrs. Blanche Creamer's version,) and that he could hit anybody he wanted to right in the eye, as far as he could see the white of it.

Dick did not like the sound of all this any too well. Without believing more than half of it, there was enough to make the Yankee schoolmaster too unsafe to be trifled with. However, shooting at a mark was pleasant work enough; he had no particular objection to it himself. Only he did not care so much for those little popgun affairs that a man carries in his pocket, and with which you could n't shoot a fellow,--a robber, say,--without getting the muzzle under his nose. Pistols for boys; long-range rifles for men. There was such a gun lying in a closet with the fowling-pieces. He would go out into the fields and see what he could do as a marksman.

The nature of the mark which Dick chose for experimenting upon was singular. He had found some panes of glass which had been removed from an old sash, and he placed these successively before his target, arranging them at different angles. He found that a bullet would go through the glass without glancing or having its force materially abated. It was an interesting fact in physics, and might prove of some practical significance hereafter. Nobody knows what may turn up to render these out-of-the-way facts useful. All this was done in a quiet way in one of the bare spots high up the side of The Mountain. He was very thoughtful in taking the precaution to get so far away; rifle-bullets are apt to glance and come whizzing about people's ears, if they are fired in the neighborhood of houses. Dick satisfied himself that he could be tolerably sure of hitting a pane of glass at a distance of thirty rods, more or less, and that, if there happened to be anything behind it, the glass would not materially alter the force or direction of the bullet.

About this time it occurred to him also that there was an old accomplishment of his which he would be in danger of losing for want of practice, if he did not take some opportunity to try his hand and regain its cunning, if it had begun to be diminished by disuse. For his first trial, he chose an evening when the moon was shining, and after the hour when the Rockland people were like to be stirring abroad. He was so far established now that he could do much as he pleased without exciting remark.

The prairie horse he rode, the mustang of the Pampas, wild as he was, had been trained to take part in at least one exercise. This was the accomplishment in which Mr. Richard now proposed to try himself. For this purpose he sought the implement of which, as it may be remembered, he had once made an incidental use,--the lasso, or long strip of hide with a slip-noose at the end of it. He had been accustomed to playing with such a thong from his boyhood, and had become expert in its use in capturing wild cattle in the course of his adventures. Unfortunately, there were no wild bulls likely to be met with in the neighborhood, to become the subjects of his skill. A stray cow in the road, an ox or a horse in a pasture, must serve his turn,--dull beasts, but moving marks to aim at, at any rate.

Never, since he had galloped in the chase over the Pampas, had Dick Venner felt such a sense of life and power as when he struck the long spurs into his wild horse's flanks, and dashed along the road with the lasso lying like a coiled snake at the saddle-bow. In skilful hands, the silent, bloodless noose, flying like an arrow, but not like that leaving a wound behind it,--sudden as a pistol-shot, but without the telltale explosion,--is one of the most fearful and mysterious weapons that arm the hand of man. The old Romans knew how formidable, even in contest with a gladiator equipped with sword, helmet, and shield, was the almost naked retiarius, with his net in one hand and his three-pronged javelin in the other. Once get a net over a man's head, or a cord round his neck, or, what is more frequently done nowadays, bonnet him by knocking his hat down over his eyes, and he is at the mercy of his opponent. Our soldiers who served against the Mexicans found this out too well. Many a poor fellow has been lassoed by the fierce riders from the plains, and fallen an easy victim to the captor who had snared him in the fatal noose.

But, imposing as the sight of the wild huntsmen of the Pampas might have been, Dick could not help laughing at the mock sublimity of his situation, as he tried his first experiment on an unhappy milky mother who had strayed from her herd and was wandering disconsolately along the road, laying the dust, as slue went, with thready streams from her swollen, swinging udders. "Here goes the Don at the windmill!" said Dick, and tilted full speed at her, whirling the lasso round his head as he rode. The creature swerved to one side of the way, as the wild horse and his rider came rushing down upon her, and presently turned and ran, as only cows and it would n't be safe to say it--can run. Just before he passed,--at twenty or thirty feet from her,--the lasso shot from his hand, uncoiling as it flew, and in an instant its loop was round her horns. "Well cast!" said Dick, as he galloped up to her side and dexterously disengaged the lasso. "Now for a horse on the run!"

He had the good luck to find one, presently, grazing in a pasture at the road-side. Taking down the rails of the fence at one point, he drove the horse into the road and gave chase. It was a lively young animal enough, and was easily roused to a pretty fast pace. As his gallop grew more and more rapid, Dick gave the reins to the mustang, until the two horses stretched themselves out in their longest strides. If the first feat looked like play, the one he was now to attempt had a good deal the appearance of real work. He touched the mustang with the spur, and in a few fierce leaps found himself nearly abreast of the frightened animal he was chasing. Once more he whirled the lasso round and round over his head, and then shot it forth, as the rattlesnake shoots his head from the loops against which it rests. The noose was round the horse's neck, and in another instant was tightened so as almost to stop his breath. The prairie horse knew the trick of the cord, and leaned away from the captive, so as to keep the thong tensely stretched between his neck and the peak of the saddle to which it was fastened. Struggling was of no use with a halter round his windpipe, and he very soon began to tremble and stagger,--blind, no doubt, and with a roaring in his ears as of a thousand battle-trumpets,--at any rate, subdued and helpless. That was enough. Dick loosened his lasso, wound it up again, laid it like a pet snake in a coil at his saddle-bow, turned his horse, and rode slowly along towards the mansion-house.

The place had never looked more stately and beautiful to him than as he now saw it in the moonlight. The undulations of the land,--the grand mountain screen which sheltered the mansion from the northern blasts, rising with all its hanging forests and parapets of naked rock high towards the heavens,--the ancient mansion, with its square chimneys, and bodyguard of old trees, and cincture of low walls with marble-pillared gateways,--the fields, with their various coverings,--the beds of flowers,--the plots of turf, one with a gray column in its centre bearing a sundial on which the rays of the moon were idly shining, another with a white stone and a narrow ridge of turf,--over all these objects, harmonized with all their infinite details into one fair whole by the moonlight, the prospective heir, as he deemed himself, looked with admiring eyes.

But while he looked, the thought rose up in his mind like waters from a poisoned fountain, that there was a deep plot laid to cheat him of the inheritance which by a double claim he meant to call his own. Every day this ice-cold beauty, this dangerous, handsome cousin of his, went up to that place,--that usher's girl-trap. Everyday,--regularly now,--it used to be different. Did she go only to get out of his, her cousin's, reach? Was she not rather becoming more and more involved in the toils of this plotting Yankee?

If Mr. Bernard had shown himself at that moment a few rods in advance, the chances are that in less than one minute he would have found himself with a noose round his neck, at the heels of a mounted horseman. Providence spared him for the present. Mr. Richard rode his horse quietly round to the stable, put him up, and proceeded towards the house. He got to his bed without disturbing the family, but could not sleep. The idea had fully taken possession of his mind that a deep intrigue was going on which would end by bringing Elsie and the schoolmaster into relations fatal to all his own hopes. With that ingenuity which always accompanies jealousy, he tortured every circumstance of the last few weeks so as to make it square with this belief. From this vein of thought he naturally passed to a consideration of every possible method by which the issue he feared might be avoided.

Mr. Richard talked very plain language with himself in all these inward colloquies. Supposing it came to the worst, what could be done then? First, an accident might happen to the schoolmaster which should put a complete and final check upon his projects and contrivances. The particular accident which might interrupt his career must, evidently, be determined by circumstances; but it must be of a nature to explain itself without the necessity of any particular person's becoming involved in the matter. It would be unpleasant to go into particulars; but everybody knows well enough that men sometimes get in the way of a stray bullet, and that young persons occasionally do violence to themselves in various modes,--by firearms, suspension, and other means,--in consequence of disappointment in love, perhaps, oftener than from other motives. There was still another kind of accident which might serve his purpose. If anything should happen to Elsie, it would be the most natural thing in the world that his uncle should adopt him, his nephew and only near relation, as his heir. Unless, indeed, uncle Dudley should take it into his head to marry again. In that case, where would he, Dick, be? This was the most detestable complication which he could conceive of. And yet he had noticed--he could not help noticing--that his uncle had been very attentive to, and, as it seemed, very much pleased with, that young woman from the school. What did that mean? Was it possible that he was going to take a fancy to her?

It made him wild to think of all the several contingencies which might defraud him of that good-fortune which seemed but just now within his grasp. He glared in the darkness at imaginary faces: sometimes at that of the handsome, treacherous schoolmaster; sometimes at that of the meek-looking, but no doubt, scheming, lady-teacher; sometimes at that of the dark girl whom he was ready to make his wife; sometimes at that of his much respected uncle, who, of course, could not be allowed to peril the fortunes of his relatives by forming a new connection. It was a frightful perplexity in which he found himself, because there was no one single life an accident to which would be sufficient to insure the fitting and natural course of descent to the great Dudley property. If it had been a simple question of helping forward a casualty to any one person, there was nothing in Dick's habits of thought and living to make that a serious difficulty. He had been so much with lawless people, that a life between his wish and his object seemed only as an obstacle to be removed, provided the object were worth the risk and trouble. But if there were two or three lives in the way, manifestly that altered the case.

His Southern blood was getting impatient. There was enough of the New-Englander about him to make him calculate his chances before he struck; but his plans were liable to be defeated at any moment by a passionate impulse such as the dark-hued races of Southern Europe and their descendants are liable to. He lay in his bed, sometimes arranging plans to meet the various difficulties already mentioned, sometimes getting into a paroxysm of blind rage in the perplexity of considering what object he should select as the one most clearly in his way. On the whole, there could be no doubt where the most threatening of all his embarrassments lay. It was in the probable growing relation between Elsie and the schoolmaster. If it should prove, as it seemed likely, that there was springing up a serious attachment tending to a union between them, he knew what he should do, if he was not quite so sure how he should do it.

There was one thing at least which might favor his projects, and which, at any rate, would serve to amuse him. He could, by a little quiet observation, find out what were the schoolmaster's habits of life: whether he had any routine which could be calculated upon; and under what circumstances a strictly private interview of a few minutes with him might be reckoned on, in case it should be desirable. He could also very probably learn some facts about Elsie, whether the young man was in the habit of attending her on her way home from school; whether she stayed about the schoolroom after the other girls had gone; and any incidental matters of interest which might present themselves.

He was getting more and more restless for want of some excitement. A mad gallop, a visit to Mrs. Blanche Creamer, who had taken such a fancy to him, or a chat with the Widow Rowens, who was very lively in her talk, for all her sombre colors, and reminded him a good deal of same of his earlier friends, the senoritas,--all these were distractions, to be sure, but not enough to keep his fiery spirit from fretting itself in longings for more dangerous excitements. The thought of getting a knowledge of all Mr. Bernard's ways, so that he would be in his power at any moment, was a happy one.

For some days after this he followed Elsie at a long distance behind, to watch her until she got to the schoolhouse. One day he saw Mr. Bernard join her: a mere accident, very probably, for it was only once this happened. She came on her homeward way alone,--quite apart from the groups of girls who strolled out of the schoolhouse yard in company. Sometimes she was behind them all,--which was suggestive. Could she have stayed to meet the schoolmaster?

If he could have smuggled himself into the school, he would have liked to watch her there, and see if there was not some understanding between her and the master which betrayed itself by look or word. But this was beyond the limits of his audacity, and he had to content himself with such cautious observations as could be made at a distance. With the aid of a pocket-glass he could make out persons without the risk of being observed himself.

Mr. Silos Peckham's corps of instructors was not expected to be off duty or to stand at ease for any considerable length of time. Sometimes Mr. Bernard, who had more freedom than the rest, would go out for a ramble in the daytime, but more frequently it would be in the evening, after the hour of "retiring," as bedtime was elegantly termed by the young ladies of the Apollinean Institute. He would then not unfrequently walk out alone in the common roads, or climb up the sides of The Mountain, which seemed to be one of his favorite resorts. Here, of course, it was impossible to follow him with the eye at a distance. Dick had a hideous, gnawing suspicion that somewhere in these deep shades the schoolmaster might meet Elsie, whose evening wanderings he knew so well. But of this he was not able to assure himself. Secrecy was necessary to his present plans, and he could not compromise himself by over-eager curiosity. One thing he learned with certainty. The master returned, after his walk one evening, and entered the building where his room was situated. Presently a light betrayed the window of his apartment. From a wooded bank, some thirty or forty rods from this building, Dick Venner could see the interior of the chamber, and watch the master as he sat at his desk, the light falling strongly upon his face, intent upon the book or manuscript before him. Dick contemplated him very long in this attitude. The sense of watching his every motion, himself meanwhile utterly unseen, was delicious. How little the master was thinking what eyes were on him!

Well,--there were two things quite certain. One was, that, if he chose, he could meet the schoolmaster alone, either in the road or in a more solitary place, if he preferred to watch his chance for an evening or two. The other was, that he commanded his position, as he sat at his desk in the evening, in such a way that there would be very little difficulty,--so far as that went; of course, however, silence is always preferable to noise, and there is a great difference in the marks left by different casualties. Very likely nothing would come of all this espionage; but, at any rate, the first thing to be done with a man you want to have in your power is to learn his habits.

Since the tea-party at the Widow Rowens's, Elsie had been more fitful and moody than ever. Dick understood all this well enough, you know. It was the working of her jealousy against that young schoolgirl to whom the master had devoted himself for the sake of piquing the heiress of the Dudley mansion. Was it possible, in any way, to exasperate her irritable nature against him, and in this way to render her more accessible to his own advances? It was difficult to influence her at all. She endured his company without seeming to enjoy it. She watched him with that strange look of hers, sometimes as if she were on her guard against him, sometimes as if she would like to strike at him as in that fit of childish passion. She ordered him about with a haughty indifference which reminded him of his own way with the dark-eyed women whom he had known so well of old. All this added a secret pleasure to the other motives he had for worrying her with jealous suspicions. He knew she brooded silently on any grief that poisoned her comfort,--that she fed on it, as it were, until it ran with every drop of blood in her veins,--and that, except in some paroxysm of rage, of which he himself was not likely the second time to be the object, or in some deadly vengeance wrought secretly, against which he would keep a sharp lookout, so far as he was concerned, she had no outlet for her dangerous, smouldering passions.

Beware of the woman who cannot find free utterance for all her stormy inner life either in words or song! So long as a woman can talk, there is nothing she cannot bear. If she cannot have a companion to listen to her woes, and has no musical utterance, vocal or instrumental,--then, if she is of the real woman sort, and has a few heartfuls of wild blood in her, and you have done her a wrong,--double-bolt the door which she may enter on noiseless slipper at midnight,--look twice before you taste of any cup whose draught the shadow of her hand may have darkened!

But let her talk, and, above all, cry, or, if she is one of the coarser-grained tribe, give her the run of all the red-hot expletives in the language, and let her blister her lips with them until she is tired, she will sleep like a lamb after it, and you may take a cup of coffee from her without stirring it up to look for its sediment.

So, if she can sing, or play on any musical instrument, all her wickedness will run off through her throat or the tips of her fingers. How many tragedies find their peaceful catastrophe in fierce roulades and strenuous bravuras! How many murders are executed in double-quick time upon the keys which stab the air with their dagger-strokes of sound! What would our civilization be without the piano? Are not Erard and Broadwood and Chickering the true humanizers of our time? Therefore do I love to hear the all-pervading tum tum jarring the walls of little parlors in houses with double door-plates on their portals, looking out on streets and courts which to know is to be unknown, and where to exist is not to live, according to any true definition of living. Therefore complain I not of modern degeneracy, when, even from the open window of the small unlovely farmhouse, tenanted by the hard-handed man of bovine flavors and the flat-patterned woman of broken-down countenance, issue the same familiar sounds. For who knows that Almira, but for these keys, which throb away her wild impulses in harmless discords would not have been floating, dead, in the brown stream which slides through the meadows by her father's door,--or living, with that other current which runs beneath the gas-lights over the slimy pavement, choking with wretched weeds that were once in spotless flower?

Poor Elsie! She never sang nor played. She never shaped her inner life in words: such utterance was as much denied to her nature as common articulate speech to the deaf mute. Her only language must be in action. Watch her well by day and by night, old Sophy! watch her well! or the long line of her honored name may close in shame, and the stately mansion of the Dudleys remain a hissing and a reproach till its roof is buried in its cellar!