Wacousta/Volume II/Chapter V
The week that intervened between the visit of the chiefs and the day appointed for their second meeting in council, was passed by the garrison in perfect freedom from alarm, although, as usual, in diligent watchfulness and preparations for casualties. In conformity with his promise, the Indian had despatched many of the Canadian settlers, with such provisions as the country then afforded, to the governor, and these, happy to obtain the gold of the troops in return for what they could conveniently spare, were not slow in availing themselves of the permission. Dried bears' meat, venison, and Indian corn, composed the substance of these supplies, which were in sufficient abundance to produce a six weeks' increase to the stock of the garrison. Hitherto they had been subsisting, in a great degree, upon salt provisions; the food furtively supplied by the Canadians being necessarily, from their dread of detection, on so limited a scale, that a very small portion of the troops had been enabled to profit by it. This, therefore, was an important and unexpected benefit, derived from the falling in of the garrison with the professed views of the savages; and one which, perhaps, few officers would, like Colonel de Haldimar, have possessed the forethought to have secured. But although it served to relieve the animal wants of the man, there was little to remove his moral inquietude. Discouraged by the sanguinary character of the warfare in which they seemed doomed to be for ever engaged, and harassed by constant watchings,--seldom taking off their clothes for weeks together,--the men had gradually been losing their energy of spirit, in the contemplation of the almost irremediable evils by which they were beset; and looked forward with sad and disheartening conviction to a fate, that all things tended to prove to them was unavoidable, however the period of its consummation might be protracted. Among the officers, this dejection, although proceeding from a different cause, was no less prevalent; and notwithstanding they sought to disguise it before their men, when left to themselves, they gave unlimited rein to a despondency hourly acquiring strength, as the day fixed on for the second council with the Indians drew near.
At length it came, that terrible and eventful day, and, as if in mockery of those who saw no beauty in its golden beams, arrayed in all the gorgeous softness of its autumnal glory. Sad and heavy were the hearts of many within that far distant and isolated fort, as they rose, at the first glimmering of light above the horizon, to prepare for the several duties assigned them. All felt the influence of a feeling that laid prostrate the moral energies even of the boldest: but there was one young officer in particular, who exhibited a dejection, degenerating almost into stupefaction; and more than once, when he received an order from his superior, hesitated as one who either heard not, or, in attempting to perform it, mistook the purport of his instructions, and executed some entirely different duty. The countenance of this officer, whose attenuated person otherwise bore traces of languor and debility, but too plainly marked the abstractedness and terror of his mind, while the set stiff features and contracted muscles of the face contributed to give an expression of vacuity, that one who knew him not might have interpreted unfavourably. Several times, during the inspection of his company at the early parade, he was seen to raise his head, and throw forward his ear, as if expecting to catch the echo of some horrible and appalling cry, until the men themselves remarked, and commented, by interchange of looks, on the singular conduct of their officer, whose thoughts had evidently no connection with the duty he was performing, or the spot on which he stood.
When this customary inspection had been accomplished,--how imperfectly, has been seen,--and the men dismissed from their ranks, the same young officer was observed, by one who followed his every movement with interest, to ascend that part of the rampart which commanded an unbroken view of the country westward, from the point where the encampment of the Indians was supposed to lie, down to the bridge on which the terrible tragedy of Halloway's death had been so recently enacted. Unconscious of the presence of two sentinels, who moved to and fro near their respective posts, on either side of him, the young officer folded his arms, and gazed in that direction for some minutes, with his whole soul riveted on the scene. Then, as if overcome by recollections called up by that on which he gazed, he covered his eyes hurriedly with his hands, and betrayed, by the convulsed movement of his slender form, he was weeping bitterly. This paroxysm past, he uncovered his face, sank with one knee upon the ground, and upraising his clasped hands, as if in appeal to his God, seemed to pray deeply and fervently. In this attitude he continued for some moments, when he became sensible of the approach of an intruder. He raised himself from his knee, turned, and beheld one whose countenance was stamped with a dejection scarcely inferior to his own. It was Captain Blessington.
"Charles, my dear Charles!" exclaimed the latter hurriedly, as he laid his hand upon the shoulder of the emaciated De Haldimar, "consider you are not alone. For God's sake, check this weakness! There are men observing you on every side, and your strange manner has already been the subject of remark in the company."
"When the heart is sick, like mine," replied the youth, in a tone of fearful despondency, "it is alike reckless of forms, and careless of appearances. I trust, however," and here spoke the soldier, "there are few within this fort who will believe me less courageous, because I have been seen to bend my knee in supplication to my God. I did not think that YOU, Blessington, would have been the first to condemn the act."
"I condemn it, Charles! you mistake me, indeed you do," feelingly returned his captain, secretly pained at the mild reproach contained in the concluding sentence; "but there are two things to be considered. In the first instance, the men, who are yet in ignorance of the great evils with which we are threatened, may mistake the cause of your agitation; you were in tears just now, Charles, and the sentinels must have remarked it as well as myself. I would not have them to believe that one of their officers was affected by the anticipation of coming disaster, in a way their own hearts are incapable of estimating. You understand me, Charles? I would not have them too much discouraged by an example that may become infectious."
"I DO understand you, Blessington," and a forced and sickly smile played for a moment over the wan yet handsome features of the young officer; "you would not have me appear a weeping coward in their eyes."
"Nay, dear Charles, I did not say it."
"But you meant it, Blessington; yet, think not,"--and he warmly pressed the hand of his captain,--"think not, I repeat, I take your hint in any other than the friendly light in which it was intended. That I have been no coward, however, I hope I have given proof more than once before the men, most of whom have known me from my very cradle; yet, whatever they may think, is to me, at this moment, a matter of utter indifference. Blessington," and again the tears rolled from his fixed eyes over his cheek, while he pointed with his finger to the western horizon, "I have neither thought nor feeling for myself; my whole heart lies buried there. Oh, God of Heaven!" he pursued after a pause, and again raising his eyes in supplication, "avert the dreadful destiny that awaits my beloved sister."
"Charles, Charles, if only for that sister's sake, then, calm an agitation which, if thus indulged in, will assuredly destroy you. All will yet be well. The delay obtained by your father has been sufficient for the purpose proposed. Let us hope for the best: if we are deceived in our expectation, it will then be time enough to indulge in a grief, which could scarcely be exceeded, were the fearful misgivings of your mind to be realised before your eyes."
"Blessington," returned the young officer,--and his features exhibited the liveliest image of despair,--"all hope has long since been extinct within my breast. See you yon theatre of death?" he mournfully pursued, pointing to the fatal bridge, which was thrown into full relief against the placid bosom of the Detroit: "recollect you the scene that was acted on it? As for me, it is ever present to my mind,--it haunts me in my thoughts by day, and in my dreams by night. I shall never forget it while memory is left to curse me with the power of retrospection. On the very spot on which I now stand was I borne in a chair, to witness the dreadful punishment; you see the stone at my feet, I marked it by that. I saw you conduct Halloway to the centre of the bridge; I beheld him kneel to receive his death; I saw, too, the terrible race for life, that interrupted the proceedings; I marked the sudden upspring of Halloway to his feet upon the coffin, and the exulting waving of his hand, as he seemed to recognise the rivals for mastery in that race. Then was heard the fatal volley, and I saw the death-struggle of him who had saved my brother's life. I could have died, too, at that moment; and would to Providence I had! but it was otherwise decreed. My aching interest was, for a moment, diverted by the fearful chase now renewed upon the height; and, in common with those around me, I watched the efforts of the pursuer and the pursued with painful earnestness and doubt as to the final result. Ah, Blessington, why was not this all? The terrible shriek, uttered at the moment when the fugitive fell, apparently dead, at the feet of the firing party, reached us even here. I felt as if my heart must have burst, for I knew it to be the shriek of poor Ellen Halloway,--the suffering wife,--the broken-hearted woman who had so recently, in all the wild abandonment of her grief, wetted my pillow, and even my cheek, with her burning tears, while supplicating an intercession with my father for mercy, which I knew it would be utterly fruitless to promise. Oh, Blessington," pursued the sensitive and affectionate young officer, "I should vainly attempt to paint all that passed in my mind at that dreadful moment. Nothing but the depth of my despair gave me strength to support the scene throughout. I saw the frantic and half-naked woman glide like a phantom past the troops, dividing the air with the rapidity of thought. I knew it to be Ellen; for the discovery of her exchange of clothes with one of the drum boys of the grenadiers was made soon after you left the fort. I saw her leap upon the coffin, and, standing over the body of her unhappy husband, raise her hands to heaven in adjuration, and my heart died within me. I recollected the words she had spoken on a previous occasion, during the first examination of Halloway, and I felt it to be the prophetic denunciation, then threatened, that she was now uttering on all the race of De Haldimar. I saw no more, Blessington. Sick, dizzy, and with every faculty of my mind annihilated, I turned away from the horrid scene, and was again borne to my room. I tried to give vent to my overcharged heart in tears; but the power was denied me, and I sank at once into that stupefaction which you have since remarked in me, and which has been increasing every hour. What additional cause I have had for the indulgence of this confirmed despondency you are well acquainted with. It is childish, it is unsoldierlike, I admit: but, alas! that dreadful scene is eternally before my eyes, and absorbs my mind, to the exclusion of every other feeling. I have not a thought or a care but for the fate that too certainly awaits those who are most dear to me; and if this be a weakness, it is one I shall never have the power to shake off. In a word, Blessington, I am heart-broken."
Captain Blessington was deeply affected; for there was a solemnity in the voice and manner of the young officer that carried conviction to the heart; and it was some moments before he could so far recover himself as to observe,--
"That scene, Charles, was doubtless a heart-rending one to us all; for I well recollect, on turning to remark the impression made on my men when the wretched Ellen Halloway pronounced her appalling curse to have seen the large tears coursing each other over the furrowed cheeks of some of our oldest soldiers: and if THEY could feel thus, how much more acute must have been the grief of those immediately interested in its application!"
"THEIR tears were not for the denounced race of De Haldimar," returned the youth,--"they were shed for their unhappy comrade--they were wrung from their stubborn hearts by the agonising grief of the wife of Halloway."
"That this was the case in part, I admit," returned Captain Blessington. "The feelings of the men partook of a mixed character. It was evident that grief for Halloway, compassion for his wife, secret indignation and, it may be, disgust at the severity of your father, and sorrow for his innocent family, who were included in that denunciation, predominated with equal force in their hearts at the same moment. There was an expression that told how little they would have pitied any anguish of mind inflicted on their colonel, provided his children, whom they loved, were not to be sacrificed to its accomplishment."
"You admit, then, Blessington, although indirectly," replied the young De Haldimar in a voice of touching sorrow, "that the consummation of the sacrifice IS to be looked for. Alas! it is that on which my mind perpetually lingers; yet, Heaven knows, my fears are not for myself."
"You mistake me, dearest Charles. I look upon the observations of the unhappy woman as the ravings of a distracted mind--the last wild outpourings of a broken heart, turning with animal instinct on the hand that has inflicted its death-blow."
"Ah, why did she except no one member of that family!" said the unhappy De Haldimar, pursuing rather the chain of his reflections than replying to the observation of his captain. "Had the weight of her malediction fallen on all else than my adored sister, I could have borne the infliction, and awaited the issue with resignation, if not without apprehension. But my poor gentle and unoffending Clara,--alike innocent of the cause, and ignorant of the effect,--what had she done to be included in this terrible curse?--she, who, in the warm and generous affection of her nature, had ever treated Ellen Halloway rather as a sister than as the dependant she always appeared." Again he covered his eyes with his hands, to conceal the starting tears.
"De Haldimar," said Captain Blessington reprovingly, but mildly, "this immoderate grief is wrong--it is unmanly, and should be repressed. I can feel and understand the nature of your sorrow; but others may not judge so favourably. We shall soon be summoned to fall in; and I would not that Mr. Delme, in particular, should notice an emotion he is so incapable of understanding."
The hand of the young officer dropped from his face to the hilt of his sword. His cheek became scarlet; and even through the tears which he half choked himself to command, there was an unwonted flashing from his blue eye, that told how deeply the insinuation had entered into his heart.
"Think you, Captain Blessington," he proudly retorted, "there is an officer in the fort who should dare to taunt me with my feelings as you have done? I came here, sir, in the expectation I should be alone. At a fitting hour I shall be found where Captain Blessington's subaltern should be--with his company."
"De Haldimar--dear De Haldimar, forgive me!" returned his captain. "Heaven knows I would not, on any consideration, wantonly inflict pain on your sensitive heart. My design was to draw you out of this desponding humour; and with this view I sought to arouse your pride, but certainly not to wound your feelings. De Haldimar," he concluded, with marked expression, "you must not, indeed, feel offended with one who has known and esteemed you from very boyhood. Friendship and interest in your deep affliction of spirit alone brought me here--the same feelings prompted my remark. Do you not believe me?"
"I do," impressively returned the young man, grasping the hand that was extended to him in amity. "It is I, rather, Blessington, who should ask you to forgive my petulance; but, indeed, indeed," and again his tone faltered, and his eye was dimmed, "I am more wretched even than I am willing to confess. Pardon my silly conduct--it was but the vain and momentary flashing of the soldier's spirit impatient of an assumed imputation, and the man less than the profession is to be taxed with it. But it is past; and already do you behold me once more the tame and apprehensive being I must ever continue until all is over."
"What can I possibly urge to console one who seems so willing to nurse into conviction all the melancholy imaginings of a diseased mind," observed Captain Blessington, in a voice that told how deeply he felt for the situation of his young friend. "Recollect, dearest Charles, the time that has been afforded to our friends. More than a week has gone by since they left the fort, and a less period was deemed sufficient for their purpose. Before this they must have gained their destination. In fact, it is my positive belief they have; for there could be nothing to detect them in their disguise. Had I the famous lamp of Aladdin," he pursued, in a livelier tone, "over the history of which Clara and yourself used to spend so many hours in childhood, I have no doubt I could show them to you quietly seated within the fort, recounting their adventures to Clara and her cousin, and discoursing of their absent friends."
"Would I to Heaven you had the power to do so!" replied De Haldimar, smiling faintly at the conceit, while a ray of hope beamed for a moment upon his sick soul; "for then, indeed, would all my fears for the present be at rest. But you forget, Blessington, the encounter stated to have taken place between them and that terrible stranger near the bridge. Besides, is it not highly probable the object of their expedition was divined by that singular and mysterious being, and that means have been taken to intercept their passage? If so, all hope is at an end."
"Why persevere in viewing only the more sombre side of the picture?" returned his friend. "In your anxiety to anticipate evil, Charles, you have overlooked one important fact. Ponteac distinctly stated that his ruffian friend was still lying deprived of consciousness and speech within his tent, and yet two days had elapsed since the encounter was said to have taken place. Surely we have every reason then to infer they were beyond all reach of pursuit, even admitting, what is by no means probable the recovery of the wretch immediately after the return of the chiefs from the council."
A gleam of satisfaction, but so transient as to be scarcely noticeable, passed over the pale features of the youthful De Haldimar. He looked his thanks to the kind officer who was thus solicitous to tender him consolation; and was about to reply, when the attention of both was diverted by the report of a musket from the rear of the fort. Presently afterwards, the word was passed along the chain of sentinels, upon the ramparts, that the Indians were issuing in force from the forest upon the common near the bomb-proof. Then was heard, as the sentinel at the gate delivered the password, the heavy roll of the drum summoning to arms.
"Ha! here already!" said Captain Blessington, as, glancing towards the forest, he beheld the skirt of the wood now alive with dusky human forms: "Ponteac's visit is earlier than we had been taught to expect; but we are as well prepared to receive him now, as later; and, in fact, the sooner the interview is terminated, the sooner we shall know what we have to depend upon. Come, Charles, we must join the company, and let me entreat you to evince less despondency before the men. It is hard, I know, to sustain an artificial character under such disheartening circumstances; still, for example's sake, it must be done."
"What I can I will do, Blessington," rejoined the youth, as they both moved from the ramparts; "but the task is, in truth, one to which I find myself wholly unequal. How do I know that, even at this moment, my defenceless, terrified, and innocent sister may not be invoking the name and arm of her brother to save her from destruction."
"Trust in Providence, Charles. Even although our worst apprehensions be realised, as I fervently trust they will not, your sister may be spared. The Canadian could not have been unfaithful, or we should have learnt something of his treachery from the Indians. Another week will confirm us in the truth or fallacy of our impressions. Until then, let us arm our hearts with hope. Trust me, we shall yet see the laughing eyes of Clara fill with tears of affection, as I recount to her all her too sensitive and too desponding brother has suffered for her sake."
De Haldimar made no reply. He deeply felt the kind intention of his captain, but was far from cherishing the hope that had been recommended. He sighed heavily, pressed the arm, on which he leaned, in gratitude for the motive, and moved silently with his friend to join their company below the rampart.