Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The unconscious body-guard
THE UNCONSCIOUS BODY-GUARD.
A TRAVELLER’S TALE.—BUT A TRUE ONE.
It was late in the autumn of 183—, that having finished my course at the University, I first crossed the Atlantic, with the intention of spending some years in the western part of Upper Canada. A succession of fierce gales, all in our teeth, kept us at sea for the unusual period of fifty-seven days, so that I reached New York too late to proceed to my destination by the Hudson and the Erie Canal, an early frost having put a stop to the navigation for the season. I felt very reluctant to undertake so long a journey in an American stage-coach, over roads suddenly converted from the deeply-rutted mud of the Fall, into “hubs” as hard as stone; and would fain have delayed setting out until the commencement of sleighing; but my engagements prevented my doing so. I paid my fare by a line of conveyances which undertook the transport of passengers from New York to Buffalo in a week; and reaching, at the end of the first day’s travel, the town of Newburg, on the right bank of the Hudson, gladly entered the principal hotel, to enjoy a night’s repose.
Owing to the badness of the roads, we did not arrive until after the usual hour for the table-d’hôte tea, or supper, as it was called, but a second table was spread for the few passengers by the stage, and one or two others as well. We were not more than six or seven in all. The conversation turned to the condition of the roads and the discomforts of travel at such a time; and I very naturally gave utterance to such sentiments as the prospect of a six days’ and six nights’ journey in such a vehicle and over such highways as I had that day experienced, could not fail to excite in an Englishman, accustomed to macadamized roads and four-inside coaches. I expressed great regret that, in my eagerness to reach my destination, I had paid my whole fare through, instead of breaking so murderous a journey into instalments, which would have allowed me two or three nights of sleep by the way. My complaint seemed to arrest the attention of the guest who sat opposite to me, a tall, well-built man, not quite forty years of age, with dark hair, eyes, and complexion, and regular features; but whose expression, when once it had engaged the eye, did not release it easily, while it set the mind upon a fruitless endeavour to determine what character it betokened. This person pointed out to me that, in selecting the route by which I was about to travel, I had involved myself in a journey of unnecessary length, and that I might greatly shorten it, if instead of travelling along the two sides of a right-angled triangle, as I must do, by proceeding first due north to Albany, and thence nearly due west to Buffalo, I should direct my course along the hypothenuse from Newburg, where we then were, to Rochester. The roads in this direction were, he admitted, inferior in summer to those of the great angular line which I had chosen, and which traversed the most populous parts of the country; but, at that season, he said, all the roads in the Northern States were alike bad, and the gain of time by the more direct line was such as to allow the passengers to spend every night of the journey, except the last, comfortably in bed. This only called forth, on my part, a fresh expression of regret that I had paid in advance for my whole passage by the ordinary line; but my informant, turning to the landlord, who sat at the head of the table, said he believed he was an agent for both lines, and suggested that he might, perhaps, exchange the ticket I had purchased, for one by the preferable route. The proposal appeared to me somewhat unreasonable; and, as I thought, also to the landlord; but about an hour after we had risen from table, he brought me, unexpectedly, a ticket for the shorter line, which he gave me in exchange for mine. He had found, he said, a person about to proceed from Newburg to Buffalo by the longer route, to whom he had disposed of my ticket. I went to bed delighted with my good luck, my last remembered thought being one of regret that I had not had an opportunity of thanking my unknown companion at supper for the suggestion to which I owed it. I had seen him for the last time in private conversation with the landlord, a few minutes after supper.
My sleep was of that kind which, at the age I had then reached, four or five and twenty, generally follows a day of fatigue. Scarcely a moment appeared to elapse between its beginning and its end, which was caused by a volley of taps at my bed-room door, and by the appearance of an object so much akin to my latest thoughts at night, that I thought I had not slept at all; yet so strange, that the next moment I thought I had not only slept but must be still dreaming. This was my adviser of the previous evening, who entered my room, clothed in an Indian coat, as it was then called, of the very thickest blanket-cloth, with a hood or capot of the same material between the shoulders, but which differed from any garment of the kind I had yet seen, in being of a bright grass-green colour, faced round the skirts with a list of brilliant white and scarlet. He had in his hand a lighted candle, which he set down on my dressing-table, with the words, “I was afraid you might oversleep yourself, and be too late for the stage,” and immediately left the room. My gratitude for his advice on the previous evening was at first a little impaired by this officious intrusiveness, for such, with my English ideas, I considered it, and by the sudden breaking of my comfortable slumber. But finding that I had little time to spare, I dressed hastily, and on going down stairs, found the stage prepared to start with a single inside passenger, who had already taken his place. I threw myself into the opposite seat, and we drove off.
Wrapping myself as warmly as I could in the buffalo robes, as they are,—or bison-skins, as they ought to be—called, with which all American carriages were at that time liberally furnished, I resumed my broken slumbers, until I was reawakened in about an hour by the increasing roughness of the road. Endeavouring, by the aid of the increasing light, to catch the appearance of my fellow-traveller, with whom I had not yet exchanged a word, I was considerably surprised to see his features gather themselves into a resemblance to those of my new acquaintance; and soon the rays of the sun, falling on the green blanket-coat, showed me that person sitting before me. I expressed, I believe, something of the surprise I felt, at his not having hinted that he was to be my fellow-traveller. To this he made no very distinct reply, but entered into a conversation on other subjects, which lasted until we reached the halting-place for breakfast. Here we were joined by one or two travellers proceeding a few stages along our route, and as far as I remember, we were not again entirely alone until we reached, late in the evening, the village of Monticello, where we were to pass the night. After supper, I was shown into a room containing two beds, and had hardly lain down to rest in one of them, when my companion entered, undressed in silence, and threw himself into the other. I wondered a little at this, for the inn in which we then were was a spacious one, of a superior class, containing, I knew, abundant accommodation, and for that night had few travellers to lodge.
Next morning we resumed our journey early, having the stage-coach entirely to ourselves. I observed that my companion was more communicative than he had been the day before in the presence of others, and seemed desirous to give me information of every kind which might be interesting to a foreigner newly arrived in the country. One thing I particularly remember. The products of the region through which we were passing formed one of our topics of conversation; and having mentioned buckwheat as one of them, he inquired if I had ever tasted slapjacks, a familiar designation, as he told me, on inquiry, for buckwheat-pancakes. I replied in the negative, when he said I should not long be unacquainted with what he termed the greatest of Yankee delicacies. Accordingly, on entering the inn at which we stopped to breakfast, he ordered some to be prepared for us, and we feasted on slapjacks and maple-molasses. This was only one of a series of similar marks of attention which he showed me during this day. I endeavoured, as politely as I could, to draw him into lines of conversation by which I hoped to elicit some particulars respecting himself, but in vain. He evaded, without any apparent effort, all my contrivances. Looking at him from time to time, when unobserved, I strove hard to form in my mind some idea of his history and occupation, but without success.
In one’s own country it is not difficult to draw from a fellow-traveller’s dress and bearing correct inferences as to his character and profession; but in a foreign land, and especially in America, it requires a residence of more than a few days to enable one do to so. He was evidently a man of limited education, although of great intelligence. This—and that he was a native of Connecticut—was all that I could ascertain. The expression of his face, and the features themselves, bore a sort of resemblance to those of Lord Byron: but whether they betokened deep anxiety or deep design, great mental suffering or great villainy, I could not make out. A mystery began to gather about the man. I felt what in Scotland is termed “eerie” in being alone with him, and was sensibly relieved, I remember, when an occasional traveller joined us in the stage for a few miles. On this, the second night of our journey, we stopped at a decent country inn at Coshecton, on the river Delaware, which separates the States of New York and Pennsylvania, and as on the previous night, were shown into a double-bedded room, although there was room to have lodged us separately.
The next day passed much as the preceding one had done, but as we were entirely alone until the evening, brought on a state of mind, arising from the mysterious expression of my fellow-traveller, which became extremely painful. Intense curiosity gave rise to a distressing nervousness, which was at length changed, by certain questions and observations of my companion, into a gloomy apprehension of impending evil. He inquired if I was accustomed to travel armed. On my giving an evasive answer, he observed that most Englishmen, he understood, were more or less skilled in boxing. He had once, he said, seen at New York an exhibition of boxing by English pugilists, and had been much struck by the amazing rapidity, dexterity, and power with which they wielded the weapons with which nature had furnished them.
“Had I learned to box?”
I replied that, at college, I had been a member of a gymnastic club, in which the practice of that art had formed one of our occasional exercises.
“Then, I expect,” he proceeded, “judging by the quickness of the boxers I saw at New York, that if a man were to fire a pistol at you and miss his mark, you could use him up before he had time to draw a second pistol.”
I could only answer that I should try to do so.
If anything had been wanting to confirm my growing fears, it was supplied by another conversation in which my companion soon afterwards engaged me; the object of which, it soon became evident, was to ascertain if I had any considerable sum of money on my person or in my baggage. Old-countrymen, he said, in coming to America, generally brought with them in sovereigns, the money which they intended to invest in the purchase of land; and this practice he thought judicious, as sovereigns stood at a premium both in the United States and in Canada. But he said that new comers seldom received the full amount of the advantage to which they were entitled. He added, that if I had any considerable number to dispose of, he could introduce me to a broker at Binghampton, through which we were to pass, who would deal fairly with me. I replied that I carried with me only a sufficient sum for the expenses of the journey. I had, in fact, only about ninety dollars, the remains of a hundred which I had drawn before leaving New York. I was about to tell him the amount, but in the state of mind to which I had been brought, it occurred to me that even that sum might be sufficient to tempt the cupidity of a dishonest man. During the silence which ensued, my fears soon assumed a definite shape. Could it be possible, I asked myself, that I was the fellow-traveller, in a lonely region of a strange country—of a robber, who wished, before executing his purpose, to ascertain the probable fruits of his crime and my capabilities of self-defence? This painful course of thought was interrupted by the entrance of a new passenger, who accompanied us to our halting-place for the night. A general conversation commenced, in the course of which my companion appeared less mysterious than before, and better disposed than I had thought him, and my fears were in some degree allayed.
I determined, however, this night, to secure for myself a separate bed-room; and accordingly, as soon as I had entered the inn, asked to be shown to one with a single bed, to which, although it was an ill-furnished and comfortless one, I ordered my luggage to be carried. When, after supper, I proceeded to occupy it, I found, to my surprise, that the bed was already tenanted by a person who was sound asleep. On inquiry, I was told that my travelling-companion had some time before asked to be shown the room assigned to me; that, as my friend, he had expressed displeasure at its imperfect accommodation, and observing that I was a foreign gentleman, accustomed to better lodging, had ordered my luggage to be transferred to another apartment, to which I was accordingly conducted. This, to my dismay, I found to be a double-bedded room, but I was told that the house contained no other, except the one I had originally been shown into, and which, when rejected on my behalf by my companion, had been assigned to another traveller. Here, then, I was again obliged to spend the night with the object of my dislike and dread, who evidently determined to keep me in his power, by compelling me to occupy the same apartment with himself. But I had no resource. Nothing had occurred which, without betraying unmanly and perhaps unjustifiable suspicion and dread, could warrant me in making a disturbance. I lay down only half-undressed, and had no sooner done so, than my persecutor entered the room, and claiming credit for the change of apartments he had made for me, a claim to which I had not the hypocrisy to respond, betook himself to bed. The night was to me one of terror and misery. The morning brought with it a slight return of cheerfulness and courage. It was only, however, after reflecting that I had lost much time at sea, and that my business in Canada did not admit of delay by the way, that I recovered self-control enough to proceed on my journey. We should that evening certainly reach Binghampton, a town of considerable size, where I could make arrangements for a private conveyance. To provide for the perils of the day, I felt a strong disposition to appropriate and conceal upon my person the carving-knife on the breakfast-table (for this morning we breakfasted before starting), and I should certainly have furnished myself with some weapon of defence, had it been in my power honestly to do so. As the best thing in the circumstances, as soon as we were seated in the stage, I secretly opened the large blade of my penknife, and held it in my hand, concealed in my great-coat pocket, during the day. Often, as I looked at the contracted brows and restless eyes of my companion, did I calculate whether, in the event of an attack, it could penetrate his blanket-coat so as to reach his heart. I surveyed him all over, and weighed the merits of twenty different thrusts at as many parts of his body.
The day was not of a complexion to raise my spirits. In fact, during a residence of some years on the other side of the Atlantic, I never saw a day of such perfect gloom. The weather for some time past had been clear, sharp, and frosty, with bright sunshine. The morning of this day was overcast and murky. An unearthly stillness reigned all round, and the atmosphere appeared thickening into darkness that might be felt. The region through which our journey lay—the north-eastern part of Pennsylvania—was dismal and uninhabited. We passed over miles of low barren rocky hillocks, thinly covered with scrubby oak and beech, diversified by an occasional descent into a morass or alluvial bottom, where the road, which was a mere track over the higher grounds, appeared for a few hundred yards like a deep narrow trench, cut through phalanxes of dark and gigantic swamp-elms. Nowhere, for miles, could be seen a clearance, or sign of habitation.
Soon after we had changed horses at a wretched tavern about noon, snow began to fall, as my companion had predicted in the morning, and although in small flakes, yet so thick and fast, that our pace became seriously affected. The quality of the vehicles and the horses had fallen off gradually as we had approached this desert part of the country, and both were now very bad. On and on we plodded, through weary miles of scrub-wood and desolation. As the snow began to fall, the death-like stillness of the air was broken, and a beeeze arose, which speedily increased to a gale, and by about three o’clock had become a violent tempest, drifting the thickly-falling snow from the north-west horizontally, so as almost to blind the driver and the horses, and wreathing it here and there so as completely to obliterate the track. It was quite clear, the driver said, that we could not hope to reach Binghampton that night. We might be thankful if we could get as far as the inn at Great-Bend—a hamlet so called from its position on a loop of the Susquehanna. It now began to grow dark, and he soon announced to us that he could not venture to proceed even to Great-Bend. He proposed to turn aside to a small country tavern, which he said lay upon the river about a mile from the point at which we then were. At this proposal my fears became terribly aroused. I remembered that this driver alone, of all the people at the various inns along our route, had seemed to be acquainted with my fellow-traveller, and yet they evidently wished to conceal their acquaintance, for I had seen them conversing earnestly together for a considerable time, in a remote corner of the stable-yard at the inn from which the driver had come. I felt that I was now approaching the awful crisis, the anticipation of which had so long afflicted me. Bad as the weather and roads had evidently become, they did not appear to me to afford sufficient reason for diverging from our route when so near a proper resting-place. My suspicions of a sinister design were further strengthened by the reflection, that in so desolate a region there could be no place of entertainment frequented by travellers, or deserving of the name—in fact, no tavern even of the lowest class. I stated this objection, being determined that, at all hazards, we should push on to Great-Bend. But it was answered, that the inn at which it was proposed we should stop, although little frequented during the greater part of the year, was the resort of lumberers at the proper season, and that we should there procure at least some food and shelter; whereas, by pushing on towards Great-Bend we might perish in the snow. It was impossible to resist or to escape; but the whole scheme was now clear. The driver was the accomplice of the villain who had marked me out four days before, at Newburg, as his victim. To have sprung out of the carriage, as I was more than once on the point of doing, would have been only to hasten the stroke of death, or at best to perish under the fury of the elements. I could do nothing but offer up a silent prayer, and resolve to sell my life as dearly as I could.
Much sooner than I had expected, we reached the proposed resting-place. It was more of a farmhouse than an inn, but its appearance and environs were dismal and squalid in the extreme. It stood on the brink of the Susquehanna, a stream here of no great width, partially frozen, but with here and there, where the water flowed more rapidly, an unfrozen pool, the Cimmerian darkness of which contrasted awfully with the universal white, and which I could not look at but as the probable hiding-place, after a few hours, of my murdered body. The house was so far a place of entertainment, that it contained a bar for the sale of liquor, at which, on entering, my fellow-traveller, for the first time during our journey, advised, or rather strongly pressed me, to drink, offering me some rum which he had caused to be poured into a small tumbler. I declined the offer, which only increased my suspicions. There were no inmates but the family, whose appearance did not reassure me. Vice and villainy were stamped on all their countenances. There were no young children among them. After some time, a more comfortable supper than might have been expected was provided, and I asked to be shown the place in which I was to pass the night. There was but one room for the use of all comers, containing four beds. I surveyed it as one might a grave into which he was about to be thrust alive; and yet I could devise no excuse for refusing to occupy it. I thought of pretending a fear of vermin, and proposing to sit by the fire in the bar-room all night; but I had by this time learnt that the bug, although believed to be a native of North America, and to have been imported from the New World into Europe, is rendered utterly powerless—in fact becomes torpid—during the terrible cold of an American winter, and I saw that the excuse would not avail me. I could assign no reason for declining to occupy, as before, the same apartment with my fellow-traveller, for, although circumstances left me no room to think of him otherwise than as a robber, he had shown me considerable kindness, and a readiness to do me, as a stranger, in his own way, the honours of his country. It is true that these marks of attention, and his occasional laboured pleasantries and evidently affected smiles, were only so many corroborations of my suspicions. But whatever I might believe, I could prove nothing. My perplexity was unspeakable. I could not think of sleeping. I sat down for a little beside a box-stove in the bed-room, in which, owing to the coldness of the weather, a fire had been lighted, and prepared my mind for the worst. I put into the stove two or three additional billets of wood, covered the fire with ashes, so that it might last till the morning, and resolved to sit beside it all night. My companion and the driver shortly afterwards entered the room, and threw themselves into two of the beds, where they soon appeared or feigned to fall into a sound sleep. The dreadful day I had spent was followed by a night of horror. The slightest sound made me clutch my knife and grasp firmly the tongs (there was no poker), which I constantly held in my hand. Exhausted as I was with fatigue and the watching of the previous night, even my awful fears could not keep me entirely awake. The struggle between terror and the craving for sleep was agonising, and almost maddened me. At last I fell asleep several times, but I verily believe I had not, on many of these occasions, spent fifteen seconds in the land of forgetfulness when I was driven back by visions of murderous assault to the horrors of my real situation. Under the promptings of the direst revenge, I could find it impossible to wish my worst enemy any greater suffering than I endured that night. At length, the room, which had been lighted only by a small chink of the stove-damper, which I had left open, began to be gradually illumined by the rays of the moon. It appeared that soon after our arrival the snow had ceased to fall; and now the moon and stars shone forth, a clear frost having succeeded. The room having become perfectly light, I at last ventured to lie down, but with no intention, no ability, as I imagined, to sleep. Some time, however, after the first unearthly crowing of the cock, tired nature exacted its rights. The bewildered mind could no longer agitate a healthy and vigorous frame; and I sank into slumber—the deepest, deadest sleep I ever knew.
When I awoke it was broad daylight. The sun, not the moon, was now pouring his rays into the apartment more brightly than in an English June. My fellow traveller stood by my side fully dressed; in fact, it was he who had awakened me. He informed me that the morning was far advanced, but that, knowing how much I needed rest, he had been unwilling to arouse me in order to proceed by the stage, which had started empty some hours before, to make its way to Great-Bend. Besides his wish that I should enjoy proper rest, he had, he said, another object. I had never yet made a trial of sleigh travelling, and, by way of affording me a treat, as well as of making the remainder of our journey more expeditiously and comfortably, he had engaged the sleigh and horses of our host to convey us, by a shorter road than could be travelled on wheels, across the country to Binghampton. The sleigh, which had been out of repair, had, he said, required a few hours’ labour before being fitted for the road, but it would be ready to start as soon as I had breakfasted. Although a sound sleep had restored the tone of my nerves, and, aided by the buoyancy and animal spirits of youth, had inspired me with coolness and resolution, I could not possibly see in his unexpected proposal anything but a new scheme, more cunning than any my enemy had yet contrived, for executing his nefarious purpose. I was to be carried, under pretence of kindness, to a distance from the usual route of travellers, into remote by-ways, where I might be more secretly robbed or murdered. So fully was I impressed with this idea, that I was on the point of availing myself of a circumstance which arrested my fellow traveller’s attention, and seemed to call for some explanation on my part, to tell him to his face of my suspicions and fears, and to offer him all I had—amounting, as I have said, to less than a hundred dollars—on condition of his ridding me of his hated company.
The circumstance was this. On my throwing off the coverlet, in getting out of bed, he gave a look of great surprise, of which a moment’s consideration showed me the cause. He saw that I had gone to bed dressed, and, what was more, his eye lighted on the tongs which lay beside me under the coverlet, with the two ends tied tightly together with a piece of tape, as I had arranged them during the night, in order to wield them more easily as a weapon of defence. He started, and expressed the surprise he felt, and I was on the point of coming at once to a full explanation with him. But the bare possibility (although I could scarcely admit it) of my being mistaken as to his intentions, and a feeling of shame, restrained me from this open declaration of fear. I stammered out something about somnambulism and strange things done by persons in sleep after fatigue or excitement. In utter perplexity as to what to do, I went to breakfast, and seeing no other resource, resolved to proceed, placing my trust in Providence. Thus I started on my first sleigh-ride,—which, before coming to America, I had looked forward to as a great and novel pleasure,—with an awful presentiment that it would probably be my last ride on earth. Travellers in North America descant gloriously on the joys of their first sleigh-ride—the bright day, the brilliant sky, the sparkling snow, the excitement of the delighted rider, shared by the equally delighted horse, who finds he has exchanged the heavy draught of the wheel carriage for the scarce perceptible weight of the skate-borne berline or cutter. All this is delightful in sensation and description; but he who, like me, has made his first sleigh-ride in the weird power of a murderer, who has sat during it with an open knife in his hand as his only hope of life, knows the power of a first impression to kill for years all enjoyment from such a source. I never entered a sleigh for many winters which did not conduct me in thought to the banks of the Susquehanna.
Our advance at first was extremely slow, for although the snow, when undrifted, or “on a level,” as it is called, as we found it in the shelter of the woods, was not much above a foot in depth, it was quite unbroken, and we ploughed our way at the rate of less than three miles an hour. During this time we passed through several dark tracts of woodland, and near many open pools of the river, along which our route lay, which seemed to invite my enemy to the execution, without further hesitation, of his horrid design. The driver—our host of the previous night—was, doubtless, an accomplice. What could be the cause of his delay? It could scarcely be fear, for although guilt is cowardly, two such men could have overmastered me with ease. Could it be that the untrodden snow, which covered every spot of ground, rendered it impossible that a murder or even a struggle could take place without traces which would infallibly betray the deed? Sitting on this occasion not opposite to my companion, as when we travelled in the stage, but side by side, I could not watch his eye and expression as I had done on former days, but I did not fail to observe that his mind was more upon the stretch and that he was more silent than before. More than once he expressed an impatience at the slowness of our pace, and urged the driver to greater speed.
After about two hours’ travel, we struck for the first time upon the track of another farm-sleigh, which had entered our line of road by a side-way, but had already passed on out of sight. This awakened within me a feeling of hope. In a few minutes we reached a road which had been broken that morning by several sleighs and teams, and along which we were able to advance more rapidly. As we proceeded, the road was found to be still better beaten, and our horses trotted out as if they really enjoyed their work. It was evident, the driver said, that the farmers of the more fertile region we had entered, who had long been expecting snow—or sleighing, as he termed it,—had lost no time in availing themselves of its arrival to carry their produce that morning to Binghampton, to which all the tracks tended. I began to breathe more freely as I felt myself approaching the abodes of men. We were now drawing near a considerable market-town, to which at least a hundred teams had preceded us that morning, and I could throw myself into the arms of a crowd of fellow creatures, as a refuge from the dark fiend whose presence had maddened me so long. My joy, alas! was of short duration. My companion was becoming restless; his brow began to knit; he looked at his watch; at length, springing forward to the driver’s seat, after a few observations regarding the road which I could not understand, he whispered something, through clenched teeth, convulsively into his ear. He had scarcely done this when the driver, all at once forsaking the beaten highway, drove into a narrow opening in a dense grove of swamp-elms through which we were passing, and urged his horses with savage strokes of the whip along a track by which it was evident no sleigh had yet passed since the fall of snow. Horror! On looking at my fellow traveller, I observed in his hand a large bowie-knife, which he had drawn from some place of concealment about his person. He tried quickly to hide it, but must have known that it had caught my eye. He looked round at me, as I thought, once or twice in a stealthy manner, and then, suddenly springing back, resumed his former place beside me. I involuntarily made an effort to throw myself out of the sleigh on my own side, and at the same time to draw from my great-coat pocket my right hand with the open knife which I had held in it since we started; but before I could do either, I was drawn back by the powerful arm of my assailant, who, to my surprise, apologised for his clumsiness, just as if he had not seen that my movement had been a voluntary effort to leap out, but regarded it as the result of his having stumbled against me in changing his seat. This was too much. Unable longer to endure the tension of mind which had kept me on the rack so long, I began to wish that the dreaded struggle should come and end my torture, when, all at once, making a sharp turn, we shot into a large expanse of cleared land, studded over with houses, traversed by a great road alive with flying teams and the merry jingle of a thousand sleigh-bells, and soon joining this road dashed at full gallop into the square of Binghampton, and pulled up at the door of the hotel.
“Strayinger!” exclaimed my companion, addressing me, as he sprung out of the vehicle, “come along here;” and grasping me by the arm like a vice, as soon as I had alighted, he dragged me into the hotel, up to the first-floor, and into a bed-room which fronted on the square. Astonished as I was, the presence of others, who had seen us enter, divested me of fear, although I saw that he still held the bowie-knife in his hand. Shutting the door with his elbow, as he flew through it, pushing me before him, he cast off, more rapidly by far than I can relate it, his green blanket garment, then his coat, then an outer waistcoat, which last he flung on the table before me along with the bowie-knife saying, “Strayinger!—no words—oblige me by unripping that parcel as fast as you can;” pointing to a flat package of something, like a diminutive pillow, about eight inches by five, enclosed in a bandana silk handkerchief, which was neatly sown by a hundred small stitches to the inside of the waistcoat behind. As he said this, he stripped off another waistcoat, and proceeded with another smaller knife to separate from the two sides of it two similar but smaller parcels. The whole was the work of a few seconds. Then, throwing on his green blanket coat, without any of the under-garments, he snatched up the parcels, and flew out of the room. Lost in wonder, with the bowie-knife still in my hand, I turned to the window just in time to see my companion in the act of entering a door on the opposite side of the square, over which were inscribed the words, “Chenango County Bank,” just as the clock above the entrance was pointing to four o’clock. What could this mean! Had he gone to deposit the proceeds of former villanies? It seemed probable; but I, at all events, could now rejoice that none of my money should be added to his store. In a few minutes he returned, with a smoothened brow and cheerful eye, and burst out into expressions of gratitude to Providence and to me, although for what I could not easily make out.
“Strayinger!” at length he exclaimed, “guess you was puzzled—guess you didn’t think there was 16,000 dollars (3200l. sterling) in them parcels, in 100 dollar notes.”
I certainly should not have supposed it; and beginning to get a glimmering of the state of the case, observed with a smile, grim enough, I dare say, that I was surprised he should have placed a bowie-knife in the hand of a stranger like myself, when exposing so much money to view.
“What,” said I, “if I had clutched the parcel you desired me to detach from your waistcoat, and returned your bowie-knife into your heart instead of your hand!”
“I had no fear of that,” he replied. “From the moment I saw you at Newburg, I saw by your face you was an honest man.”
“Most devoutly do I wish I could have seen the same by yours,” I cried out; “it would have saved me many an hour of wretchedness!”
We now entered upon an explanation. He called for some refreshment, and told me his story. It was briefly this:
His name, as I now learnt for the first time, was Peter Richards. Commencing life by opening a country store in a neighbouring county, he had been a prosperous man. Combining, like many Americans in country places, half-a-dozen different occupations—storekeeper, tanner, farmer, grist and saw miller—he at length, a year or two before I met him, purchased in partnership with a friend, from the Government of Pennsylvania, the right of cutting timber, or lumbering, over a vast tract of wild land in the northern part of that State. His partner had the immediate supervision of the lumberers, and resided on the spot. My companion’s own home was in the State of New York, which we had re-entered that morning, and not above twenty miles from where we then were; and it was his practice four times a year to visit the lumber district, carrying with him the pay earned by the numerous hands employed by the firm during the preceding quarter. He then proceeded to the maritime towns to which the timber was floated down, and having obtained payment for it from the purchasers, returned to his home in western New York, bringing with him a sufficient sum of money for the next quarter’s payment of the lumber-gangs, which he lodged in the bank I had seen him enter that day; until, after a few weeks’ rest at home, he should again set out on his quarterly round. He added, that on the afternoon on which we had met at Newburg, he had received a mysterious hint that he was known to travel with large sums of money, and that he might be waylaid, and perhaps murdered. Being naturally a fearless man, he resolved to proceed; and on seeing me had conceived the idea of making me his companion by the way, as a guard against nightly surprise—for he was a very sound sleeper—and as a help in case of attack. This explained his determination to have me always beside him at night. He accounted for his private conversation in the stable-yard with the driver who was to have taken us to Great-Bend, by saying that he had recognised in him the son of a neighbour of his, a wild youth, who had run away from his home, and to whom he embraced the opportunity of giving some information about his relatives, and some good advice. He had been glad of the excuse afforded by the snow storm for avoiding Great-Bend, near which he said he was most apprehensive of an attack; and the fall of snow had enabled him to travel by cross-paths, impassible except by sleighing, faster than if he had proceeded by the stage to Great-Bend. This was a matter of great importance to him, for he had that morning suddenly recollected, that a large bill, to the taking-up of which a portion of the money he carried was destined, would fall due at the bank that day; and he had never, he said, in all his life failed to meet at the proper time a commercial obligation. His questions as to arms, and his observations on boxing, were prompted by a desire to know the value of my aid if he should be attacked; and his allusion to travelling with money had naturally grown out of his own apprehensions. His taking out of the bowie-knife, which had caused me such alarm, he accounted for by saying that in his fear of not reaching the bank in time, he had thought for a moment of proceeding while in the sleigh, as we were flying along the short cut which at his request the driver had taken, to rip up his secret repositories, so as to be ready to drive at once to the bank on reaching Binghampton, with the money in his hand. He laughed heartily when told of the terror he had occasioned me in springing back to his seat.
All was now explained. The man I had dreaded was as fearful as myself; and had been relying on me for the protection of his life, while I thought he was thirsting for mine! I breathed more freely than I had done for the last three days.
By this time the stage, which we had outstripped by crossing the country, had arrived from Great-Bend, and I was to proceed by it on my journey; my companion’s route homeward lying in a different direction. He expressed very great regret for the misery he had caused me, and pressed me to accompany him to his home, and to accept of his hospitality for some days. But my engagements would not allow me to do so. And to tell the truth, although I had, of course, entirely changed my opinion of the man, and saw before we parted that he was well-known and esteemed at Binghampton, I could not all at once change the feelings with which for some days and nights I had regarded him. I was glad to separate from him. I gave a shudder of dread, or quiver of delight, I know not which to call it, as I shook hands with him; and often, for months thereafter, my sleep was haunted by visions of his tall form and mysterious countenance, his green blanket coat, and bowie-knife. If Peter Richards is still alive (and if so he cannot be very much above sixty), his eye may light on this narrative; and if he should think some portions of it too highly coloured, he will own that the revenge is slight for the misery I endured while serving as his unconscious body-guard through the wilds of the Susquehanna.
Lambert Coppel Cline.