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Sketch of Connecticut, Forty Years Since/Chapter IX

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[107]
CHAPTER IX.

            "See! See! his face is black, and full of blood,
            His eye-balls further out, than when he liv'd,
            Staring full ghastly, like a strangled man."
                                                           2nd part of Henry 6th. [1]

THE severity of the wintry season had apparently subsided. The frosts had begun to evacuate their strong holds, and through the intervals of dissolving snow, tufts of soft green were visible. But, by one of those sudden revolutions, to which the climate of New-England is subject, the approaches of spring were checked by the returning ravage of winter. A violent storm from the northeast arose, attended with great quantities of sleet and snow. The trees bent heavily beneath their load, while huge drifts covered the fences, and lay in banks against the walls of houses. In some instances, much toil was required, ere the inmates could remove the rampart from their doors and windows, and emerge into the light of day. Heavy sleds, with each a score of oxen, traversed the roads, to beat a path for the imprisoned inhabitants.

In Mohegan, most of the wigwams, which stood within range of the winds, were hidden. Yet, in a few instances, the cone of the arbour-like dwelling, thatched with matting, was seen like a dark hillock, breaking the dazzling and dreary surface. The habitants forcing their way from their buried abodes, surveyed the change, which [120] the tempest of night had wrought, with that equanimity which distinguishes the North American Indian. To testify surprise, they consider as betraying weakness.

An instance of this was exhibited among one of the tribes in the vicinity of Niagara, during the total eclipse of the Sun, in the summer of 1806. As they had heard no prediction of the event, and a similar one had not occurred for several centuries, it was believed that they would scarcely be able to refrain from expressions of astonishment. When the sky suddenly became dim, and the stars appeared at noon-day, they were observed by some travellers, viewing the progress of the phenomenon with great attention; but at the same time remarking, with their usual apathy, that "they had seen such things before."

On the present occasion, those natives of Mohegan, who obtained egress most easily from their partially encumbered cells, were moved by sympathy to lend assistance to their less fortunate neighbours. Night was approaching, ere this labour, with their insufficient implements, had been successfully accomplished. A party of these pioneers met their minister, who had left his abode with the same benevolent intention.

"My children, he said, we must force our way to the cave of old Maurice. Who knows that he perished not, amid the storm, and cold of the past night?"

Animated by the words and example of their guide, they commenced the difficult course. Often they struggled through deep mounds, as the swimmer breasts the [121] wave, ere they saw the still distant pile of rock, rising like the white turrets of a castle. Mr. Occom, though less athletic than most of his companions, was the first to lay his hand upon the stone door of the recluse, inquiring in a gentle voice, "Maurice, may your friends come in to you?"

Precautions had been necessary at entering the cavern when the door was closed, as it usually irritated the austere hermit. Thrice the question was repeated, and at each interval the speaker betrayed emotion. Perchance thus the Median king trembled, when listening at the den of lions, he feared that the prisoner had become a victim to their rage.[2] No sound was heard, and the minister, extending his hand toward the closed entrance, said "who shall roll us the stone, from the door of the sepulchre?"[3]

Robert Ashbow, and John Cooper instantly advanced, and removed the heavy fragment of the rock. The shock brought a weight of snow from the roof of the cavern. They forced their way through the low aperture, which admitted scarcely a ray of light. Groping amid the gloom, they perceived something like a low statue of stone, with a hand resting against the wall. It was rigid, and motionless as the rock, upon which it reclined. It was in a kneeling posture. Robert raised it in his arms, and with the aid of his companion, bore it from its dismal abode. The glassy and immoveable eyes, seemed to have started from their sockets, and their stony glare was awful. The hand, in its stiffen'd grasp, enclosed a [122] crucifix, and the joints of the bended knees were firm as adamant.

"He has kept his Lent with such strictness," said John Cooper, "that the feeble spark of life was almost smothered before this storm blew upon it."

"The dark Angel, who demands the spirit," said Robert Ashbow, "saw it in devotion, as the altar from whence incense rises."

"Happy is that servant," replied Mr. Occom, "whom his Lord when he cometh, shall find watching."

Zachary, who, notwithstanding his age, had been moved by warmth of heart, to join the search for the desolate hermit, anxiously surveyed the body, pressing his hand alternately upon the temples and the bosom. He then wrapped it closely in the skins, which had formed its miserable bed, and directed it to be borne with care to the nearest habitation.

"Know ye, how deep is the dwelling of the soul?" he exclaimed. "How long it may linger within its dark house, when lips of clay pronounce it gone to the shades of its fathers?"

The body was borne to the house of John Cooper, and laid upon the bed. Zachary chafed the temples with vinegar, immersed the limbs in cold water to expel the frost, and rubbed them for a long time with an animal oil to soften their rigidity of fibre. At short intervals, he endeavoured to pass through the lips the decoction of a [123] powerful plant, styled in the nomenclature of the natives, "life to the dead."

A convulsive motion of the eye-lids, and at length a deep, tremulous sob confirmed the hopes of the aged warriour. Warmth, friction, and the exhibition of cordials recalled the wandering spirit to its earthly abode, just as the morning dawned. During the night, broken exclamations attested the return of life, and his hands grasped at something above his head, as if the flitting visions of a disordered intellect encompassed him.

"I know ye!" at length he uttered in a hollow voice, rolling his eyes upward, "I know ye. That head was cleft many a year since. Why have ye not healed the wound? Ye bid it gape to torment me. Those locks are bright. Why do ye shake them at me? They drop hot blood upon my soul. Oh! here are hundreds of accursed spirits, reeking from the eternal lake. Avaunt! I go not your way! Satan I know, but who are ye?"

During the agonies of resuscitation, his cries were frequent, "Go your way! I know ye!" with menacing gestures of the hands.

At length, Mr. Occom bending over him, said tenderly "do you know me, Maurice?"

After a short pause, a hoarse voice replied "yes, I know thee too, a blind leader of the blind. Thinkest thou to be within the pale of salvation? Thou! an alien iioin the holy mother church. Thou! who leadest thy silly flck among pit-falls, where is no shelter in the day [124] of wrath." Soon, he made an ineffectual effort to kneel, and was observed, by the motion of his lips, and occasional elevation of the crucifix, to be in deep prayer. Afterwards, he lay more calmly, as if in meditation, but resolutely refused the cordials which they presented to him.

"No! No!" he vociferated, Maurice hath vowed, that nothing but water should pass his polluted lips, until that glorious day, when Jesus brake the strong bars of the tomb."

"What you call Easter has nearly arrived," said John Cooper. "Unless you take something to support your weakness, you will never again rejoice at the anniversary of the rising of your Lord."

The ascetic, fixing his withering eyes on the speaker, said, "thou thinkest Maurice such a blasted tree that he cannot compute times, and seasons. Know I not that seventeen days of the period of humiliation yet remain? Maurice will keep his vow. If he enter into heaven ere it be accomplished, he will fast and mourn there until Lent be past. He will not taste the new wine of the kingdom, until the voices and thunderings around the throne proclaim, Christ is risen, is risen."

Observing the children of John Cooper, to speak in low voices of his recovery, he addressed them in a milder tone.

"To your young eyes Maurice seems as the dry tree, whose roots quit the earth, that its head may rest there [125] Yet has he numbered fewer years than many, whose hairs are not white like his. He was young and full of vigour, when Braddock, and his soldiers strewed the earth, like autumn leaves. He saw Washington lay that proud warriour in his lowly grave—Washington, who was then preparing like a bold, broad river, to run his course toward a sea of glory. Maurice was then called the warriour Kehoran. It was said of him, his eye is bright in battle, and his foot fleet in the chase, like the deer upon the mountain-tops. Kehoran drew his first breath in this valley, and he loved it when his heart was young. He thought not then, to die like the miserable Maurice. But he has grown old before his time. Sorrow and penance have wasted his strength. Yet in his bosom hath been a goad, sharper than that of famine. Ask ye, what bows the body sooner than age? what traces deeper furrows on the forehead than care? what sheds snows upon the temples, whiter than the frost of grief? I tell ye—it's guilt."

Mr. Occom, with that majesty which he well knew how to assume, standing near the bed of the sufferer, said,

"Maurice! I adjure thee by the living God, before whom thou art about to appear, and by thy hope of heaven, to confess the sin which lieth upon thy conscience, while there is space for repentance."

"Canst thou absolve me from my sin?" inquired a deep voice, as if from the recesses of the tomb.

"There is none," replied the Pastor, who hath power on earth, to forgive sins, save God only." [126]

"Thou art weak as thy faith!" exclaimed the recluse with scorn upon every feature. "How feeble would be the penitence, thou shouldst prescribe! As miserable as the hope, which thou canst offer. Holy Mother of God! Would that Father Paul were near me. Oh! that my soul may behold him, where he standeth amid the seraphim, when she shall have past the fires of purgatory."

He lay for some time exhausted, as if in slumber, then starting, said, "I know thee! Thou art Death! Maurice hath never turned from thee in battle. He will go with thee. Thou art sweeter than this mortal life. Ha! whom bringest thou? His dark wings overshadow thee, He desireth to rend my soul in pieces! Is there none to deliver? I see a fair woman! She stretcheth her hand to save me. Take that hatchet from her head! alas! I planted it deep there. She mocks at me. She is gone. I sink in a sea of blood."

Again he became absorbed in devotion, praying to the holy Saints, and entreating the blessed Virgin to intercede with her Son in his behalf. A sun-beam fell through the casement upon his bed. "This," he said, more calmly, "is my last morning upon the earth. A hand that ye cannot see, beckons me away. Still it waits a little. Know ye wherefore? That I may pour out the dregs of my guilt. So shall the soul travel lighter upon her dreary passage. Heard ye ever the name of M'Rae? Yes! M'Rae! M'Rae! For years I have not dared to pronounce that name. Even now, the demons shriek it in my ears. They write it in flame upon tho walls. It scorches [127] my heart. Avaunt! Avaunt! I tell ye, I will unburden my soul, though ye bid the heavens cleave above, and the earth beneath me."

Pressing his hands upon his temples, he remained motionless for a short interval, apparently seeking to recover strength for some great effort, and then proceeded.

"Before the war between these colonies, and the mother who planted them, I led a wandering life, visiting the tribes of Indians, who were scattered throughout the Canadas. At length, I became stationary in one of the towns near the frontier. Here, I was found by Father Paul, a priest of the most holy order of the Jesuits. Moved by Christian compassion, he had for many years endeavoured to pour the light of heavenly truth upon the benighted natives of this country. Such benevolence had he, that the soul of an Indian was precious in his eyes, as that of a prince upon the throne. Grateful for his instructions, I daily attended the mass. His eloquence was more than mortal. He received me as his son in the most holy faith. When the cloud of war arose, I wished to return to my kindred, and join the standard of my tribe. He said, "God commandeth thee to lift thy sword for the people, among whom thou hast beheld the light from heaven." I obeyed, and went forth in battle for England, though often with a heavy heart. Sometimes, at midnight, stood beside me the form of my deceased king. Bending his, dark brows, he would upbraid me as a traitor. Cold dews hung upon my forehead, and I lay trembling, and sleepless till [128] the morn. But the terrour of that unearthly frown was forgotten, when the voice of Father Paul repeated, "God commandeth thee." When Burgoyne with his troops began to enter the provinces, I was placed with a band of natives, under a young British officer, Proud of my strength and valour, I sought the front of danger, and his eye distinguished me. Once, at the dawn of day, he sent for me to his tent. He, whose heart was a stranger to fear, trembled as he spoke—"Maurice, thou hast a true heart. I adjure thee to keep secret what I intrust to thee, and to lend me thine aid." I promised to be his friend; and often his tongue faultered with emotion, as he proceeded." We are within a league of Fort Edward, It is to be attacked. The inhabitants have fled,—all, save one whom I hold dearer than life. I loved her, long ere this war made intercourse with the Provincials, rebellion. My residence was near hers, when the mother-country, and her children were at peace. She waits me there, though all her household have departed. Such faith hath she in my truth. But when the ravage commences, how can I save her? She must be brought hither, and the priest must unite us, ere we depart hence. Were I to go for her, I should be condemned as a traitor to my king. Thou mayest go with safety. I have chosen thee for this embassy, so dear to my soul, because thy heart is true. Take with thee ten associates, whom I will amply reward. Lead for her my own horse. Give her this letter, and she will put herself under thy care. She hath the heart of a [129] lion, theugh the glance of her eye is like that of the dove. I will meet thee at the door of my tent with a holy man, who, in making us both one, shall remove from my soul every earthly fear. Have I said that her name is M'Rae? And now wilt thou be faithful to my trust?"—I replied, "The Holy Mother of God be my witness, that no hand but mine shall present her unto thee."

"My heart was proud at this confidence of my chief. Instantly I prepared to execute his orders. Ten trusty natives accompanied me. We soon arrived at the house of the fair-one, which was forsaken by all but her, and one servant maid. I held up the letter, as she first perceived us, that the hand-writing of her lover might remove the dread of our countenances. Her maiden shrieked, and fled, when she saw us painted, and attired for war. But that beautiful maiden, pressing to her lips the letter, and taking from it a lock of his hair which it contained, waited only to throw on her veil, and came forth to meet us. I lifted her upon the noble steed, which curved his neck, and moved more gently, as if he knew that he bore the treasure of his master. Her long hair, black as the raven's wing, was folded in braids around her head; and her full eye, of the same colour, was perpetually looking out for the tent of her lover. Her lips smiled fearlessly when she spoke, and on her cheek trembled something, like the glow of the morning sky when it expects the Sun. I beheld her, and exulted in the joy of my commander. Half our journey was already achieved. I led on slowly, lest [130] weariness should cast a shade over the tender, and beautiful. Suddenly, issuing from the woods, a party of Canadian Indians intercepted our path. They had learnt, from the imprudence of one of my followers, the armple reward which had been promised for slight service, and determined themselves to obtain it. Cutlasses clashed, and blood flowed upon the earth. Foemen fell, with their hatchets each in the other s head. All my party, but two, were slain. More had fallen of the enemy, yet they still outnumbered us. Their chief took the bridle of the maiden, to lead her away. My blood boiled that he should win the prize, which I had vowed to deliver myself. She had fainted, and her face, like marble, lay upon the neck of the animal who bore her. The rage of hell inspired me, I cleft that beautiful head with my hatchet. The light grey of the horse was stained with blood, and he fled. affrighted, dragging the body. My opponent pursued him, and tore off the scalp of the victim, with its shining tresses. I fought with him a long, and furious contest. My blood flowed, but I snatched the trophy from his dying hand, and turned not away until I had cut him in pieces. I seemed to accomplish the remainder of my journey in an instant. The flames of passion consumed thought, and bore me forward as on eagle's wings.

The sun arose as I returned to the camp. The morning was bright, as the hopes of the bridegroom. I met him, coming from his tent with the priest who was to sanction his vows. Ere he could speak, I held the scalp [131] before him. He knew those dark locks, and fell to the earth, as if in death. I was hurried to prison by enraged soldiers, who wished to tear me to pieces on the spot. So blinded had I been in the heat of battle, that I had expected my chief would commend me for courage, and firmness in his cause, even amid his disappointment. I believed that I had done my duty in being faithful to my vow, that no hand but mine should bring the maiden, whether living or dead. Thus an apostle thought he was doing God service, by persecuting and destroying the saints. But, in my miserable dungeon, I had leisure for reflection. There, I learned that General Burgoyne had condemned to death all the survivers of both parties, and that our execution was delayed only till two of the fugitives were found, who had concealed themselves in the forests. Two dreary nights passed over me in my loathsome cell. On the third, Father Paul stood beside me. The terrible deed had reached him, and he travelled over the space that divided us, to visit a wretch in bonds. I prostrated myself upon the earth before him, and made my confession. "Knowest thou," he said, "that the next sun will rise upon thy corpse, hanging disgracefully be tween the earth and heaven? It must not be, that a son of the holy Church, should thus be a spectacle for the scorn of heretics. She commands thy rescue. I have achieved it. With me is a Canadian native, an obstinate scoffer at the high mysteries of our faith. He is to enter thy cell, and assume thy garb. Thou art to pass outward [132] in his. His size, and appearance are favourable to the stratagem. The goaler is bribed to my interest, and ere morning thou mayest be far from the steps of thy pursuers." "Life is sweet," I answered,—ashamed of my own weakness." But holy Father, what service have I rendered this man, that he should willingly give his life for mine?" "He knows nothing of my purpose." said Father Paul. "He is my servant, I have required him to remain in this cell, all night, that thou mayest go forth with me to perform a vow. He thinks that, ere morning, I shall liberate him. Long have I laboured for his conversion in vain. The Holy Inquisition would condemn him to the rack, for blasphemies against the mass. Mercifully I substitute a milder death. Thy execution is appointed at the hour, when the murder was committed. At this early season, it is possible that the deception may pass unnoticed. I have given him a stupifying drug, so that he will be unable to make protestations of innocence, perhaps will be unconscious of the scene. At any rate thou must escape as far as possible, under cover of the night. I shall commence, with equal speed, a tour of instruction among the uncivilized natives. Turn thy steps towards thy kindred, and native country. And now," he added, with a deep solemnity, "kneel, and receive the doom of penance, with which thine absolution is purchased. Throughout this war, lift thy hand upon neither side. Seek out some lonely cell, and live like the imprisoned monk. Every year, come to me as a pilgrim, with thy [133] feet uncovered, and make thy confession, and I will pardon thy sins." I departed, but my heart accused me, for leaving behind the unsuspicious Canadian. Yet I knew that Father Paul would command nothing but what was right, and he was to me in the place of God. Every autumn, when the harvest moon lifted her horn, I have gone to him with my bleeding feet, beseeching him to absolve me, and have returned to my cave when the white man traces his first furrow on the earth. My last pilgrimage was performed with difficulty. Thorns mangled my feet, and the stormy blasts scattered my few white hairs. I arrived, but he whom I sought was not there. Three days and nights I lay upon his grave, until I saw high visions, and heard voices which I may not utter. Methought I stood in the midst of a pale assembly, and was about to speak. Chilling eyes gazed on me, and I saw that I was surrounded by the dead. Yet they clamoured with hollow voices "he is one of us," and a fearful tone from beneath said,—"Come!" Then I knew I was to die. I returned to my cavern, and increased my penance. Withered roots, and water were my sustenance, and every hour in the day, and night, I told my beads. Ah! little do ye know the torments of a sinful soul, propitiating its Maker. I have prayed, until my cavern was thick set with faces, and with fiery eyes; so that midnight was light about me. Sometimes they have deafened me with peals of hellish laughter, but when they have tried to rivet their burning [134] chains upon me, I have shaken the crucifix at them and conquered."

Maurice relapsed into deep silence, but resolutely refused whatever they held to his lips. Mr. Occom lifted his voice in earnest prayer for the sinful, and apparently departing soul. His auditors pressed near to him, as the flock in fear or danger surround their shepherd. During the orison, the features of Maurice were convulsed, and vehement, but unintelligible exclamations burst from his quivering lips. Soon after its close, he started up in the bed, throwing his hands into violent action, as if contending with enemies in the air. His eyes flamed with rage, even when they were frozen in their sockets by the ice of death. Large drops started over his distorted forehead, but the horrible convulsion was short. Sinking down, he set his teeth firmly, as if in mortal combat, and clenching the crucifix in his rigid hand—expired.

Notes[edit]

  1. Second Part of King Henry the Sixth, Act III, Scene ii. The Duke of Warwick is describing to the King the murdered body of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. In the play, Warwick himself arranged the murder. The first word of this quotation generally appears as "but."
  2. Daniel 6. The "Median king" is referred to as Darius the Mede in the Book of Daniel. According to Daniel 6, Darius was tricked into making a law against prayer and forced to punish his friend Daniel for breaking this law. They put Daniel into the den of lions, and closed it with a large stone. Darius fasted, spending a sleepless night, and early in the morning hurried to the den. Once the stone had been removed, he called into the den, "O Daniel, servant of the living God, is thy God, whom thou servest continually, able to deliver thee from the lions?" Daniel's reply was, "O king, live for ever. My God hath sent his angel, and hath shut the lions' mouths, that they have not hurt me...."
  3. It is appropriate that a Christian minister would use the metaphor of a tomb for a cave. Although this is easily understood literally, removing a stone from a sepulchre is clearly a reference to Jesus' burial in a cave covered by a stone and the removal of the stone at the time of his resurrection. Theis is recounted in Matthew 27:59-60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53; and John 19:39-42.