Wacousta/Volume III/Chapter IV
The remainder of that night was passed by the unhappy De Haldimar in a state of indescribable wretchedness. After inspecting the relief, he had thrown himself on his rude guard-bed; and, drawing his cloak over his eyes, given full rein to the wanderings of his excited imagination. It was in vain the faithful old Morrison, who never suffered his master to mount a guard without finding some one with whom to exchange his tour of duty, when he happened not to be in orders himself, repeatedly essayed, as he sat stirring the embers of the fire, to enter into conversation with him. The soul of the young officer was sick, past the endurance even of that kind voice; and, more than once, he impetuously bade him be silent, if he wished to continue where he was; or, if not, to join his comrades in the next guard-room. A sigh was the only respectful but pained answer to these sharp remonstrances; and De Haldimar, all absorbed even as he was in his own grief, felt it deeply; for he knew the old man loved him, and he could not bear the idea of appearing to repay with slight the well-intentioned efforts of one whom he had always looked upon more as a dependant on his family than as the mere rude soldier. Still he could not summon courage to disclose the true nature of his grief, which the other merely ascribed to general causes and vague apprehensions of a yet unaccomplished evil. Morrison had ever loved his sister with an affection in no way inferior to that which he bore towards himself. He had also nursed her in childhood; and his memory was ever faithful to trace, as his tongue was to dwell on, those gentle and amiable qualities, which, strongly marked at an earlier period of her existence, had only undergone change, inasmuch as they had become matured and more forcibly developed in womanhood. Often, latterly, had the grey-haired veteran been in the habit of alluding to her; for he saw the subject was one that imparted a mournful satisfaction to the youth; and, with a tact that years, more than deep reading of the human heart, had given him, he ever made a point of adverting to their re-union as an event admitting not of doubt.
Hitherto the affectionate De Haldimar had loved to listen to these sounds of comfort; for, although they carried no conviction to his mind, impressed as he was with the terrible curse of Ellen Halloway, and the consequent belief that his family were devoted to some fearful doom, still they came soothingly and unctuously to his sick soul; and, all deceptive even as he felt them to be, he found they created a hope which, while certain to be dispelled by calm after-reflection, carried a momentary solace to his afflicted spirit. But, now that he had every evidence his adored sister was no more, and that the illusion of hope was past for ever, to have heard her name even mentioned by one who, ignorant of the fearful truth the events of that night had elucidated, was still ready to renew a strain every chord of which had lost its power of harmony, was repugnant beyond bearing to his heart. At one moment he resolved briefly to acquaint the old man with the dreadful fact, but unwillingness to give pain prevented him; and, moreover, he felt the grief the communication would draw from the faithful servitor of his family must be of so unchecked a nature as to render his own sufferings even more poignant than they were. Neither had he (independently of all other considerations) resolution enough to forego the existence of hope in another, even although it had passed entirely away from himself. It was for these reasons he had so harshly and (for him) unkindly checked, the attempt of the old man at a conversation which he, at every moment, felt would be made to turn on the ill-fated Clara.
Miserable as he felt his position to be, it was not without satisfaction he again heard the voice of his sergeant summoning him to the inspection of another relief. This duty performed, and anxious to avoid the paining presence of his servant, he determined, instead of returning to his guard-room, to consume the hour that remained before day in pacing the ramparts. Leaving word with his subordinate, that, in the event of his being required, he might be found without difficulty, he ascended to that quarter of the works where the Indian had been first seen who had so mysteriously conveyed the sad token he still retained in his breast. It was on the same side with that particular point whence we have already stated a full view of the bridge with its surrounding scenery, together with the waters of the Detroit, where they were intersected by Hog Island, were distinctly commanded. At either of those points was stationed a sentinel, whose duty it was to extend his beat between the boxes used now rather as lines of demarcation than as places of temporary shelter, until each gained that of his next comrade, when they again returned to their own, crossing each other about half way: a system of precaution pursued by the whole of the sentinels in the circuit of the rampart.
The ostensible motive of the officer in ascending the works, was to visit his several posts; but no sooner had he found himself between the points alluded to, which happened to be the first in his course, than he seemed to be riveted there by a species of fascination. Not that there was any external influence to produce this effect, for the utmost stillness reigned both within and around the fort; and, but for the howling of some Indian wolf-dog in the distance, or the low and monotonous beat of their drums in the death-dance, there was nought that gave evidence of the existence of the dreadful enemy by whom they were beset. But the whole being of the acutely suffering De Haldimar was absorbed in recollections connected with the spot on which he stood. At one extremity was the point whence he had witnessed the dreadful tragedy of Halloway's death; at the other, that on which had been deposited the but too unerring record of the partial realisation of the horrors threatened at the termination of that tragedy; and whenever he attempted to pass each of these boundaries, he felt as if his limbs repugned the effort.
In the sentinels, his appearance among them excited but little surprise; for it was no uncommon thing for the officers of the guard to spend the greatest part of the night in visiting, in turn, the several more exposed points of the ramparts; and that it was now confined to one particular part, seemed not even to attract their notice. It was, therefore, almost wholly unremarked by his men, that the heart-stricken De Haldimar paced his quick and uncertain walk with an imagination filled with the most fearful forebodings, and with a heart throbbing with the most painful excitement. Hitherto, since the discovery of the contents of the packet, his mind had been so exclusively absorbed in stupifying grief for his sister, that his perception seemed utterly incapable of outstepping the limited sphere drawn around it; but now, other remembrances, connected with the localities, forced themselves upon his attention; and although, in all these, there was nothing that was not equally calculated to carry dismay and sorrow to his heart, still, in dividing his thoughts with the one supreme agony that bowed him down, they were rather welcomed than discarded. His mind was as a wheel, embracing grief within grief, multiplied to infinitude; and the wider and more diffusive the circle, the less powerful was the concentration of sickening heart and brain on that which was the more immediate axis of the whole.
Reminded, for the first time, as he pursued his measured but aimless walk, by the fatal portrait which he more than once pressed with feverish energy to his lips, of the singular discovery he had made that night in the apartments of his father, he was naturally led, by a chain of consecutive thought, into a review of the whole of the extraordinary scene. The fact of the existence of a second likeness of his mother was one that did not now fail to reawaken all the unqualified surprise he had experienced at the first discovery. So far from having ever heard his father make the slightest allusion to this memorial of his departed mother, he perfectly recollected his repeatedly recommending to Clara the safe custody of a treasure, which, if lost, could never be replaced. What could be the motive for this mystery?--and why had he sought to impress him with the belief it was the identical portrait worn by his sister which had so unintentionally been exposed to his view? Why, too, had he evinced so much anxiety to remove from his mind all unfavourable impressions in regard to his mother? Why have been so energetic in his caution not to suffer a taint of impurity to attach to her memory? Why should he have supposed the possibility of such impression, unless there had been sufficient cause for it? In what, moreover, originated his triumphant expression of feature, when, on that occasion, he reminded him that HIS name was not Reginald? Who, then, was this Reginald? Then came the recollection of what had been repeated to him of the parting scene between Halloway and his wife. In addressing her ill-fated husband, she had named him Reginald. Could it be possible this was the same being alluded to by his father? But no; his youth forbade the supposition, being but two years older than his brother Frederick; yet might be not, in some way or other, be connected with the Reginald of the letter? Why, too, had his father shown such unrelenting severity in the case of this unfortunate victim?--a severity which had induced more than one remark from his officers, that it looked as if he entertained some personal feeling of enmity towards a man who had done so much for his family, and stood so high in the esteem of all who knew him.
Then came another thought. At the moment of his execution, Halloway had deposited a packet in the hands of Captain Blessington;--could these letters--could that portrait be the same? Certain it was, by whatever means obtained, his father could not have had them long in his possession; for it was improbable letters of so old a date should have occupied his attention NOW, when many years had rolled over the memory of his mother. And then, again, what was the meaning of the language used by the implacable enemy of his father, that uncouth and ferocious warrior of the Fleur de lis, not only on the occasion of the execution of Halloway, but afterwards to his brother, during his short captivity; and, subsequently, when, disguised as a black, he penetrated, with the band of Ponteac, into the fort, and aimed his murderous weapon at his father's head. What had made him the enemy of his family? and where and how had originated his father's connection with so extraordinary and so savage a being? Could he, in any way, be implicated with his mother? But no; there was something revolting, monstrous, in the thought: besides, had not his father stood forward the champion of her innocence?--had he not declared, with an energy carrying conviction with every word, that she was untainted by guilt? And would he have done this, had he had reason to believe in the existence of a criminal love for him who evidently was his mortal foe? Impossible.
Such were the questions and solutions that crowded on and distracted the mind of the unhappy De Haldimar, who, after all, could arrive at no satisfactory conclusion. It was evident there was a secret,--yet, whatever its nature, it was one likely to go down with his father to the grave; for, however humiliating the reflection to a haughty parent, compelled to vindicate the honour of a mother to her son, and in direct opposition to evidence that scarcely bore a shadow of misinterpretation, it was clear he had motives for consigning the circumstance to oblivion, which far outweighed any necessity he felt of adducing other proofs of her innocence than those which rested on his own simple yet impressive assertion.
In the midst of these bewildering doubts, De Haldimar heard some one approaching in his rear, whose footsteps he distinguished from the heavy pace of the sentinels. He turned, stopped, and was presently joined by Captain Blessington.
"Why, dearest Charles," almost querulously asked the kind officer, as he passed his arm through that of his subaltern,--"why will you persist in feeding this love of solitude? What possible result can it produce, but an utter prostration of every moral and physical energy? Come, come, summon a little fortitude; all may not yet be so hopeless as you apprehend. For my own part, I feel convinced the day will dawn upon some satisfactory solution of the mystery of that packet."
"Blessington, my dear Blessington!"--and De Haldimar spoke with mournful energy,--"you have known me from my boyhood, and, I believe, have ever loved me; seek not, therefore, to draw me from the present temper of my mind; deprive me not of an indulgence which, melancholy as it is, now constitutes the sole satisfaction I take in existence."
"By Heaven! Charles, I will not listen to such language. You absolutely put my patience to the rack."
"Nay, then, I will urge no more," pursued the young officer. "To revert, therefore, to a different subject. Answer me one question with sincerity. What were the contents of the packet you received from poor Halloway previous to his execution? and in whose possession are they now?"
Pleased to find the attention of his young friend diverted for the moment from his sister, Captain Blessington quickly rejoiced, he believed the packet contained letters which Halloway had stated to him were of a nature to throw some light on his family connections. He had, however, transferred it, with the seal unbroken, as desired by the unhappy man, to Colonel de Haldimar.
An exclamation of surprise burst involuntarily from the lips of the youth. "Has my father ever made any allusion to that packet since?" he asked.
"Never," returned Captain Blessington; "and, I confess, his failing to do so has often excited my astonishment. But why do you ask?"
De Haldimar energetically pressed the arm of his captain, while a heavy sigh burst from his oppressed heart "This very night, Blessington, on entering my father's apartment to apprise him of what was going on here, I saw,--I can scarcely tell you what, but certainly enough to convince me, from what you have now stated, Halloway was, in some degree or other, connected with our family. Tell me," he anxiously pursued, "was there a portrait enclosed with the letters?"
"I cannot state with confidence, Charles," replied his friend; "but if I might judge from the peculiar form and weight of the packet, I should be inclined to say not. Have you seen the letters, then?"
"I have seen certain letters which, I have reason to believe, are the same," returned De Haldimar. "They were addressed to 'Reginald;' and Halloway, I think you have told me, was so called by his unhappy wife."
"There can be little doubt they are the same," said Captain Blessington; "but what were their contents, and by whom written, that you deem they prove a connection between the unhappy soldier and your family?"
De Haldimar felt the blood rise into his cheek, at this natural but unexpected demand. "I am sure, Blessington," he replied, after a pause, "you will not think me capable of unworthy mystery towards yourself but the contents of these letters are sacred, inasmuch as they relate only to circumstances connected with my father's family."
"This is singular indeed," exclaimed Captain Blessington, in a tone that marked his utter and unqualified astonishment at what had now been disclosed to him; "but surely, Charles," he pursued, "if the packet handed me by Halloway were the same you allude to, he would have caused the transfer to have been made before the period chosen by him for that purpose."
"But the name," pursued De Haldimar; "how are we to separate the identity of the packets, when we recur to that name of 'Reginald?'"
"True," rejoined the musing Blessington; "there is a mystery in this that baffles all my powers of penetration. Were I in possession of the contents of the letters, I might find some clue to solve the enigma: but---"
"You surely do not mean this as a reproach, Blessington?" fervently interrupted the youth. "More I dare not, cannot say, for the secret is not my own; and feelings, which it would be dishonour to outrage, alone bind me to silence. What little I have revealed to you even now, has been uttered in confidence. I hope you have so understood it."
"Perfectly, Charles. What you have stated, goes no further; but we have been too long absent from our guard, and I confess I have no particular fancy for remaining in this chill night-air. Let us return."
De Haldimar made no opposition, and they both prepared to quit the rampart. As they passed the sentinel stationed at that point where the Indian had been first seen, their attention was directed by him to a fire that now suddenly rose, apparently at a great distance, and rapidly increased in volume. The singularity of this occurrence riveted the officers for a moment in. silent observation; until Captain Blessington at length ventured a remark, that, judging from the direction, and the deceptive nature of the element at night, he should incline to think it was the hut of the Canadian burning.
"Which is another additional proof, were any such wanting, that every thing is lost," mournfully urged the ever apprehensive De Haldimar. "Francois has been detected in rendering aid to our friends; and the Indians, in all probability, after having immolated their victim, are sacrificing his property to their rage."
During this exchange of opinions, the officers had again moved to the opposite point of the limited walk of the younger. Scarcely had they reached it, and before Captain Blessington could find time to reply to the fears of his friend, when a loud and distant booming like that of a cannon was heard in the direction of the fire. The alarm was given hastily by the sentinels, and sounds of preparation and arming were audible in the course of a minute or two every where throughout the fort. Startled by the report, which they had half inclined to imagine produced by the discharge of one of their own guns, the half slumbering officers had quitted the chairs in which they had passed the night in the mess-room, and were soon at the side of their more watchful companions, then anxiously listening for a repetition of the sound.
The day was just beginning to dawn, and as the atmosphere cleared gradually away, it was perceived the fire rose not from the hut of the Canadian, but at a point considerably beyond it. Unusual as it was to see a large fire of this description, its appearance became an object of minor consideration, since it might be attributed to some caprice or desire on the part of the Indians to excite apprehension in their enemies. But how was the report which had reached their ears to be accounted for? It evidently could only have been produced by the discharge of a cannon; and if so, where could the Indians have procured it? No such arm had recently been in their possession; and if it were, they were totally unacquainted with the manner of serving it.
As the day became more developed, the mystery was resolved. Every telescope in the fort had been called into requisition; and as they were now levelled in the direction of the fire, sweeping the line of horizon around, exclamations of surprise escaped the lips of several.
"The fire is at the near extremity of the wood on Hog Island," exclaimed Lieutenant Johnstone. "I can distinctly see the forms of a multitude of savages dancing round it with hideous gestures and menacing attitudes."
"They are dancing their infernal war dance," said Captain Wentworth. "How I should like to be able to discharge a twenty-four pound battery, loaded with grape, into the very heart of the devilish throng."
"Do you see any prisoners?--Are any of our friends among them?" eagerly and tremblingly enquired De Haldimar of the officer who had last spoken.
Captain Wentworth made a sweep of his glass along the shores of the island; but apparently without success. He announced that he could discover nothing but a vast number of bark canoes lying dry and upturned on the beach.
"It is an unusual hour for their war dance," observed Captain Blessington. "My experience furnishes me with no one instance in which it has not been danced previous to their retiring to rest."
"Unless," said Lieutenant Boyce, "they should have been thus engaged all night; in which case the singularity may be explained."
"Look, look," eagerly remarked Lieutenant Johnstone--"see how they are flying to their canoes, bounding and leaping like so many devils broke loose from their chains. The fire is nearly deserted already."
"The schooner--the schooner!" shouted Captain Erskine. "By Heaven, our own gallant schooner! see how beautifully she drives past the island. It was her gun we heard, intended as a signal to prepare us for her appearance."
A thrill of wild and indescribable emotion passed through every heart. Every eye was turned upon the point to which attention was now directed. The graceful vessel, with every stitch of canvass set, was shooting rapidly past the low bushes skirting the sands that still concealed her hull; and in a moment or two she loomed largely and proudly on the bosom of the Detroit, the surface of which was slightly curled with a north-western breeze.
"Safe, by Jupiter!" exclaimed the delighted Erskine, dropping the glass upon the rampart, and rubbing his hands together with every manifestation of joy.
"The Indians are in chase," said Lieutenant Boyce; "upwards of fifty canoes are following in the schooner's wake. But Danvers will soon give us an account of their Lilliputian fleet."
"Let the troops be held in readiness for a sortie, Mr. Lawson," said the governor, who had joined his officers just as the schooner cleared the island; "we must cover their landing, or, with this host of savages in pursuit, they will never effect it alive."
During the whole of this brief but exciting scene, the heart of Charles de Haldimar beat audibly. A thousand hopes and fears rushed confusedly on his mind, and he was as one bewildered by, and scarcely crediting what he saw. Could Clara,--could his cousin--could his brother--could his friend be on board? He scarcely dared to ask himself these questions; still it was with a fluttering heart, in which hope, however, predominated, that he hastened to execute an order of his captain, that bore immediate reference to his duty as subaltern of the guard.