"A hag that hell has work for—a born slave
The troopers had not been well gone, before the fugitive they had so vainly pursued stood upon the very spot which they had left. He rose from the mire of the pond, in which he had not paused to imbed himself when the search was hottest and close upon him. The conjecture of Humphries was correct, and Goggle or Blonay was the person they had chased. He had left his post in the bivouac when the storm came on, and was then upon his way to his mother's cabin. From that spot his farther course was to the British garrison with his intelligence. His determination in this respect, however, underwent a change, as we shall see in the progress of the narrative.
Never had better knowledge of character been shown than in the estimate made by Humphries of that of the deserter. Goggle was as warped in morals as he was blear in vision; a wretch aptly fitted for the horse-thief, the tory, and murderer. His objects were evil generally, and he had no scruples as to the means by which to secure them. Equally indifferent to him what commandment he violated in these practices; for, with little regard from society, he had no sympathy with it, and only obeyed its laws as he feared and would avoid their penalties. He hated society accordingly as he was compelled to fear it. He looked upon it as a power to be destroyed with the opportunity, as a spoil to be appropriated with the chance for its attainment; and the moods of such a nature were impatient for exercise, even upon occasions when he could hope no addition to his pleasure or his profit from their indulgence.
Squat in the ooze and water of the creek, while the horse of Singleton at one moment almost stood over him, he had drawn breathwith difficulty through the leaves of a bush growing upon the edge of the ditch in which his head had found concealment; and in this perilous situation his savage spirit actually prompted him to thrust his knife into the belly of the animal. He had drawn it for this purpose from his belt, while his hands and body were under water. Its point was already turned upward, when Singleton moved away from the dangerous proximity. Here he listened to the dialogue which the two carried on concerning him; and, even in that predicament of dirt and danger in which he lay, his mind brooded over a thousand modes by which he should enjoy his malignant appetite, that craved for revenge upon them both. When they were fairly gone, he rose from the mire and ascended cautiously to the bank; shook himself like a water-dog, while he almost shivered in the saturated garments which he wore; then rubbed and grumbled over the rifle which he had taken with him into the mire, and which came out as full of its ooze and water as himself.
"So ho!" said he, as he shook himself free from the mud—"So ho! they are gone to old Moll's to look after me, eh! Now would I like to put this bullet into that Dorchester skunk, Humphries, d—n him. I am of bad blood, am I!—my father a horse-thief and a mulatto, and I only fit for hanging! The words must be paid for; and Moll must answer for some of them. She is my mother, that's clear—she shall tell me this night who my father is; for, Blonay, or Goggle, or the devil, I will know. She shall put me off no longer. No! though she tells me the worst—though she tells me that I am the spawn of Jack Drayton's driver, as once before I've heard it."
Thus muttering, he looked to his flint and inspected the priming of his rifle. With much chagrin he found the powder saturated with water, and the charge useless. He searched his pockets, but his flask was gone. He had purposed the murder of Humphries or Singleton had this not been the case. He now without hesitation took the track after them, and it was not long before he came in sight of the miserable clay and log hovel in which his mother, odious and dreaded as she was, passed fitly her existence. This spot was dreary in the extreme: an old field; a few cheerless pines rose around it, and the thick broom straw waved its equally bald, though more crowded forms in uncurbed vegetation among them. Thehovel stood in a hollow, considerably below the surrounding level, and the little glimmer of light, stealing from between the logs, only made its location seem more cheerless to the observer.
Blonay—or, as we shall hereafter call him, according to the fashion of the country, Goggle—cautiously approached a jungle, in which he hid himself, about a stone's throw from the hovel. There he watched, as well as he might, in the imperfect light of the evening, for the appearance of the troopers. Though mounted, they had not yet succeeded in reaching the spot, which, familiar to him from childhood, he well knew to find in the darkest night, and by a route the most direct. He was there before them, snug in his cover, and coolly looking out for their coming. More than once he threw up the pan of his rifle, carefully keeping it from its usual click by the intervention of his finger, and cursed within himself his ill fortune, as he found the powder saturated with water, a soft paste beneath his touch. He thrust his hand into his pocket, seeking there for some straggling grains, of which in the emergency he might avail himself; but he looked fruitlessly, and was compelled to forego the hope of a shot, so much desired, at one or other of the persons now emerging from the wood before him.
The barking of a cur warned the indweller of visiters, but without offering any obstacle to their advance. Humphries proceeded first, and motioning his companion to keep his saddle, fastened his horse to a bough, and treading lightly, looked through the crevices of the logs upon the old crone within. Though in June, a warm season at all times in Carolina, the old woman partook too much of the habits of the very poor in that region to be without a fire; and with the taste of the negro, she was now bending over a huge light wood blaze, with a pipe of rude structure and no small dimensions in her mouth, from which the occasional puff went forth, filling the apartment with the unpleasant effluvia of the vilest leaf-tobacco; while her body and head swung ever to and fro, with a regular seesaw motion, that seemed an habitual exercise. Her thin, shrivelled, and darkly yellow features, were hag-like and jaundiced. The skin was tightly drawn across the face, and the high cheek-bones and the nose seemed disposed to break through the slender restraints of their covering. Her eves were small and sunken, of alight grey, and had a vicious twinkle, that did not accord with the wretched and decayed aspect of her other features. Her forehead was small, and clustered with grisly hair of mixed white and black, disordered and unbound, but still short, and with the appearance of having but lately undergone clipping at the extremities. These features, repulsive in themselves, were greatly heightened in their offensive expression by the severe mouth and sharp chin below them. The upper lip was flat, undeveloped entirely, while the lower was thrust forth in a thick curl, and, closely rising and clinging to the other, somewhat lifted her glance into a sort of insolent authority, which, sometimes accompanying aroused feeling, or an elevated mood of mind, might look like dignified superiority. The dress which she wore was of the poorest sort, the commonest white homespun of the country, probably her own manufacture, and so indifferently made, that it hung about her like a sack, and gave a full view of the bronzed and skinny neck and bosom, which a regard to her appearance might have prompted her to conceal. Beside her a couple of cats of mammoth size kept up a drowsy hum, entirely undisturbed by the yelping of the cur, which, from his little kennel at one end of the hovel, maintained a continuous clamour at the approach of Humphries. The old woman simply turned her head, for a moment, to the entrance, took the pipe from her mouth, and discharging the volume of smoke which followed it, cried harshly to the dog, as if in encouragement. Her call was answered by Humphries, who, rapping at the door, spoke civilly to the inmate.
"Now open the door, good woman. We are friends, who would speak with you. We have been caught in the storm, and want you to give us house-room till it's over."
"Friends ye may be, and ye may not. Down by the dry branch, and through the old road to mother Blonay's, is no walk that friends often take; and if ye be travellers, go ye on, for there's no accommodation for ye, and but little here ye would eat. It's a poor country y'are in, strangers, and nothing short of Dorchester, or it may be Rantowle's, will serve your turn for a tavern."
"Now, out upon you, mother! would you keep a shut door upon us, and the rain still pouring?" cried Humphries, sharply.
"Ye have been in it over long to mind it now, I'm thinking, and ye'd better ride it out. I have nothing for ye, if ye would rob. I'm but a lone woman, and mighty poor; and have no plate, no silver, no fine watch, nor rings, nor anything that is worth your taking. Go to 'The Oaks,' or Middleton Place, or the old hall at Archdale, or any of the fine houses; they have plenty of good picking there."
"Now," said Humphries to his superior—"how pleasantly the old hag tells us to go and steal, and she looking down, as a body may say, into the very throat of the grave that's gaping after her."
The old woman, meanwhile, as if satisfied with what she had done, resumed her pipe, and recommenced her motion, to and fro, over the blaze. Humphries was for a smart application of the foot to the frail door that kept him out, but to this his companion refused assent.
"Confound the old hag, major; she will play with us after this fashion all the night. I know her of old, and that's the only way to serve her. Nothing but kicks for that breed; civility is thrown away upon them."
"No, no—you are rash; let me speak. I say, my good woman, we are desirous of entrance; we have business, and would speak with you."
"Business with me! and it's a gentleman's voice too! Maybe he would have a love-charm, since there are such fools; or he has an enemy, and would have a bad mouth put upon him, shall make him shrivel up and die by inches, without any disease. I have worked in this business, and may do more. Well, there's good wages for it, and no danger. Who shall see, when I beg in the rich man's kitchen, that I put the poison leaf in the soup, or stir the crumbs with the parching coffee, or sprinkle the powder with the corn flour, or knead it up with the dough? It's a safe business enough, and the pay is good, though it goes over soon for the way it comes."
"Come, come, my good woman," cried Singleton impatiently, as the old beldam thus muttered to herself the various secrets of her capacity, and strove to conjecture the nature of the business which her visiters had with her. "Come, come, my good woman, let us in; we are hurried, and have no little to do before daylight."
"Good woman, indeed! Well, many's the one has been called good with as little reason. Yes, sir, coming: my old limbs are feeble; I do not move as I used to when I was young."
Thus apologizing, with her pipe in one hand, while the other undid the entrance, Mother Blonay admitted her visiters.
"So, you have been young once, mother?" said Humphries, while entering.
The old woman darted a glance upon him—a steadfast glance from her little grey eyes, and the stout and fearless trooper felt a chill go through his veins on the instant. He knew the estimate put upon her throughout the neighbourhood, as one possessed of the evil eye, or rather the evil mouth; one whose word brought blight among the cattle, and whom the negroes feared with a superstitious dread, as able to bring sickness and pestilence—a gnawing disease that ate away silently, until, without any visible complaint, the victim perished hopelessly. Their fears had been adopted in part by the whites of the lower class in the same region, and Humphries, though a bold and sensible fellow, had heard of too many dreadful influences ascribed to her, not to be unpleasantly startled with the peculiar intensity of the stare which she put upon him. Though a soldier, and like his fellows, without much faith of any kind, he had not altogether survived his superstitions.
"Young!" she said, in reply; "yes, I have been young, and I felt my youth. I knew it, snd I enjoyed it. But I have outlived it, and you see me now. You are young, too, Bill Humphries; may you live to have the same question asked you which you put to me."
"A cold wish. Mother Blonay; a bitter cold wish, since you should know, by your own feelings, how hard it will be to outlive activity and love, and the young people that come about us. It's a sad season that, mother, and may I die before it comes. But, talking of young people, mother, reminds me that you are not so lonesome as you say. You have your son, now, Goggle."
"If his eye is blear, Bill Humphries, it's not the part of good manners to speak of it to his mother. The curse of a blear eye, and a blind eye, may fall upon you yet, and upon yours—ay, down to your children's children—for any thing we know."
"That's true, mother—none of us can say. I meant no harm, but as everybody calls him Goggle—"
"The redbug be upon everybody that so calls him! The boy has a name by law."
"Well, well, mother, do not be angry, and wish no sores upon your neighbours' shins that you can't wish off. The redbugs and the June-flies are bad enough already, without orders; and people do say you are quite too free in sending such plagues upon them, for little cause, or for no cause at all."
"It's a blessing that I can do it, Bill Humphries, or idle rowdies, such as yourself, would harry the old woman to death for their sport. It's a blessing and a protection that I can make the yellow jacket and the redbug leave their poison stings in the tender flesh, so that the jester that laughs at the old and suffering shall learn some suffering too."
"Quite a hard punishment for such an offence. But, mother, they say you can do more; that you have the spell of the bad mouth, that brings long sickness and sudden death, and many awful troubles; and some that don't wish you well, say you love to use it."
"Do they say so?—then they say not amiss. Think you, Bill Humphries, that I should not fight with him who hates me, and would destroy me if he could? I do; and the bad mouth of Mother Blonay upon you, shall make the bones in your skin ache for long months after, I tell you."
"I beg, for God's sake, that you will not put your bad mouth upon me then, good mother," exclaimed Humphries, with ludicrous rapidity, as if he half feared the immediate exercise of her faculty upon him.
The old woman seemed not displeased with this tacit acknowledgment of her power, and she now twisted her chair about so as to place herself directly in front of Singleton. He, meanwhile, had been closely scrutinizing the apartment, which was in no respects better than those of the commonest negro-houses of the low country. The floor was the native soil. The wind was excluded by clay, loosely thrust between the crevices of the logs; and an old scaffolding of poles, supporting a few rails crossing each other, sustained the mattress of moss, upon which the woman slept. She dwelt unassisted, seemingly, and entirely alone. A few gourds, or calabashes, hung from the roof, which was scantily shingled: these contained seeds of various kinds, bunches of dried thyme, sage, and other herbs and plants; and some which, by a close analysis of their properties, would be found to contain a sufficient solution of the source from whence came her spells of power over her neighbours, whether for good or evil.
Singleton had employed himself in noticing all these several objects, and the probability is, that the quick eye of the old woman had discovered his occupation. She turned her chair so as to place herself directly before him, and the glance of her eye confronting his, compelled him to a similar change of position. The docile cats, with a sluggish effort, changed their ground also; and after circling thrice about their new places of repose, before laying themselves down upon it, they soon resumed their even and self-satisfied slumberous hum, which the movement of their mistress had interrupted. A moment of silence intervened, during which Dame Blonay employed herself in examining Singleton's person and countenance.
He was, of course, quite unknown to her, and a curious desire to make the acquaintance of new faces is, perhaps, as much the characteristic of age as its garrulity. Memory, in this way, becomes stirred up actively, and the decaying mind delights in such a survey, that it may liken the stranger to some well known individual of former days. It is thus that the present time continually supplies with aliment the past from which it receives so much of its own. The close survey of the woman did not please Singleton, who at length interrupted it by resuming the subject where Humphries had discontinued it. With becoming gravity, he asked her the question which follows, in respect to the extent of her powers—
"And so, dame, you really believe that you possess the power of doing what you say you can do?"
"Ay, sir, and a great deal more. I can dry up the blood in the veins of youth; I can put the staggering weakness into the bones and sinews of the strong man; I can make the heart shrink that is brave—I can put pain there instead of pleasure."
"Indeed! if you can do this, dame, you can certainly do muchmore than most of yonr neighbours. But is it not strange, mother, that these powers are all for evil ? Have you no faculty for conferring good—for cheering the heart instead of distressing it, and giving pleasure instead of pain?"
"Ay! I can avenge you upon your enemy!" As she spoke, her form suspended its waving motion, was bent forward in eagerness, and her eye glistened, while her look seemed to say, "Is not that the capacity you would have me serve you in?"
"That, also, is a power of evil, dame, and not of good. I spoke of good, not evil."
"Not that!" she muttered, with an air of disappointment, while drawing herself back and resuming her croning movement.
"Not that! is not revenge sweet, young master—very sweet, when you have been robbed and wronged for years; trampled in the dust; laughed and sneered at; hunted and hated: is not the moment of revenge sweet? When you see your enemy writhing in pain, you put your ear down and listen to his suffering, and your heart, that used to beat only with its own sorrow, you feel is throbbing with a strange, sweet joy at his—is it not sweet, my master?"
"Ay, sweet perhaps to many, dame, but I fear me, still evil; still not good; still harmful to man. Have you no better powers in your collection? none to give strength and youth, and bring back health?"
She pointed to a bunch of the smaller snake-roots which lay in the corner, but with much seeming indifference, as if the cure of disease formed but an humble portion of her mystery and labours.
"And your art gives you power over affections, and brings pleasure sometimes, mother?"
"Is it love?—the love of the young woman—hard to please, difficult to soothe, cold to sweet words—that you would win, my young master?"
She again bent her head towards him, and suspended her motion, as if now hopeful that, in this reference, she had found out the true quest of the seeker. A warm glow overspread the cheek of Singleton, as, in answering the inquiry correctly, he must necessarily have confessed that such a desire was in his bosom,though certainly without any resort to such practices as might be looked for in her suggestion.
"Ay, indeed, such an art would be something to me now, could it avail for any purpose—could it soften the stern, and warm the cold, and make the hard to please easy—but I look not for your aid, mother, to do all this."
"I can do it—fear me not," said the old woman, assuringly.
"It may be, but I choose not that thou shouldst. I must toil for myself in this matter, and the only art I may use must be that which I shall not be ashamed of. But we have another quest, dame; and upon this we would have you speak honestly. You have a son?"
The old woman looked earnestly at the speaker; and, as at that moment the sabre swung off from his knee, clattering with its end upon the floor, she started apprehensively, and it could be seen that she trembled. She spoke after the pause of an instant:
"Sure, captain—Ned, Ned Blonay is my son. What would you tell me? He has met with no harm?"
"None, mother—none that I can speak of," said Humphries quickly; "not that he may not happen upon it if he does not mind his tracks. But tell us—when was he here last, mother? Was he not here to-night? and when do you look for him again?"
The apprehensions of the woman had passed off; she resumed her seesaw motion, and answered indifferently:
"The boy is his own master, Bill Humphries; it is not for an old woman like me to answer for Ned Blonay."
"What! are you not witch enough to manage your own son? Tell that to them that don't know you both better. I say to you, Mother Blonay, that story wont pass muster. You have seen Goggle to-night."
"And I say, Bill Humphries, that the tongue lies that says it, though it never lied before. Go—you're a foul-spoken fellow, and your bones shall ache yet for that same speech. Goggle—Goggle—Goggle! as if it wasn't curse enough to be blear-eyed without having every dirty field-tackey whickering about it."
"Our object is not to offend, my good woman," said Singleton, interposing gently; "but to ask a civil question. My companiononly employs a name by which your son is generally distinguished among the people. You must not allow him to anger you, therefore, but answer a question or two civilly, and we shall leave you."
"You have smooth words, captain, and I know what good-breeding is. I have lived among decent people, and I know very well how to behave like one if they would let me; but when such ill-spoken creatures as Bill Humphries ask me questions, it's ten to one I don't think it worth while to answer them; and answer I will not, except with curses, when they speak nicknames for my child. I know the boy is ugly and blear-eyed. I know that his skin is yellow and shrivelled like my own, but he has suckled at these withered paps, and he is my child; and the more others hate and abuse him, the more I love him—the more I will take up for him."
"Now, Mother Blonay, you needn't make such a fuss about the matter. You know I meant no harm. Confound the fellow, I don't care whether he has eyes or not; sure I am, I know the name which people give him without minding the blear. I only want you to say what you've done with him—where he is now?"
"You are too quick—too violent, Humphries, with the old woman," said Singleton in a whisper.
"Major, don't I know her? The old hag—I see through her now, jist as easy as I ever saw through any thing in my life. I'll lay now she knows all about the skunk."
"Perhaps so, but if she does, this is not the way to get at her information."
"But little hope of that now, since she's got her back up. Confound Goggle! if I had him under a stout hickory I reckon I'd make her talk to another tune."
This was loud enough for the old woman, who replied:—
"Yes—you'd beat with blows and whips a far better man than yourself. But go your ways, and see what will come of this night's work. I have curses, have I?—if I have, you shall hear them. I have a bad mouth, have I?—you shall feel it. Hearken, Bill Humphries! I am old and weak, but I am strong enough to come to you where you are, and whisper in your ears. As what I say will do you no pleasure, you shall hear it."
And, tottering forward from her seat, she bent down to the chair upon which he sat, and though he moved away in an instant, he was not quick enough to avoid the momentary contact of her protruded and hag-like lip with his ear, that shrunk from the touch as with an instinct of its own. She whispered but two words, and they were loudly enough uttered for Singleton to hear as well as Humphries.
"Your sister—Bella Humphries!"
The trooper started up as if he had been shot; staggered he certainly was, and his eyes glared confusedly upon those which she piercingly fixed upon him with a fiendish leer. She shook her long bony finger at him, and her body, though now erect, maintained its waving motion just as when she had been seated. Recovering in a moment, he advanced with threatening action, exclaiming:—
"You old hag of hell! what do you mean by that? What of Bella? what of my sister?"
"Goggle—Goggle—Goggle—that of her! that of her!" was all the reply; and this was followed by a low chuckling laugh, which had in it something exceedingly annoying even to Singleton himself. The trooper was ferocious, and with clenched fist seemed about to strike. This, when she saw, seemed to produce in her even a greater degree of resolution. Instead of shrinking, she advanced, folded her arms upon her breast, and there was a deep concentrated solemnity in her tone as she exclaimed:—
"Now may the veins dry up, and the flesh wither, and the sinews shrink, and the marrow leave the bones! Strike the old woman, now. Bill Humphries—strike, if you dare!"
Singleton had already passed between the parties, not, however, before he had been able to see the prodigious effect which her adjuration had produced upon the trooper. His form was fixed in the advancing position in which he stood when she addressed him. His lips were colourless, and his eyes were fastened upon her own with a steadiness which was that of paralysis, and not of decision. She, on the other hand, seemed instinct with life—a subtle, concentrated life. The appearance of decrepitude had gone, the eye had stronger fire, the limbs seemed firm on the instant, and there wassomething exceedingly high and commanding in her position. A moment after, she sank back in her chair almost exhausted—the two cats anxiously purring about her, having stood at her side, as if bent to co-operate in her defence, on the first approach of Humphries. He now recovered from the superstitious awe which had momentarily possessed him; and heartily ashamed of the show of violence to which her mysterious speech had provoked him, began to apologize for it to Singleton.
"I know it's wrong, major, and I wasn't exactly in my sober senses, or I wouldn't have done it. But there's no telling how she provoked me; and the fact is, what she said worries me no little now; and I must know what she meant. I say, mother—Mother Blonay!"
Her eyes now were fixed upon his with a dull, inexpressive glare, that seemed to indicate the smallest possible degree of consciousness.
"She is now exhausted, and cannot understand you; certainly not to satisfy your inquiries," said Singleton.
The trooper made one or two efforts more, but she refused all answer, and showed her determination to be silent by turning her face from them to the wall. Finding nothing was to be got out of her, Singleton placed beside her upon the chair a note of the continental currency, of large amount but for its depreciated value; then, without more words, they left the hovel to its wretched tenant, both much relieved upon emerging into the open air. The severity of the storm had now greatly subsided; the rain still continued falling, however, and, hopeless of any farther discoveries of the fugitive they had pursued, and as ignorant of his character as at first, they moved onward, rapidly pushing for their bivouac upon the Ashley.