Charles Brockden Brown (17711810). Edgar Huntley; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker. 1857.
NEVER was any delight worthy of comparison with the raptures which I then experienced. Life, that was rapidly ebbing, appeared to return upon me with redoubled violence. My languors, my excruciating heat, vanished in a moment, and I felt prepared to undergo the labours of Hercules. Having fully supplied the demands of nature in this respect, I returned to reflection on the circumstances of my situation. The path winding round the hill was now free from all impediments. What remained but to precipitate my flight? I might speedily place myself beyond all danger. I might gain some hospitable shelter, where my fatigues might be repaired by repose, and my wounds be cured. I might likewise impart to my protectors seasonable information of the enemies who meditated their destruction.
I thought upon the condition of the hapless girl whom I had left in the power of the savages. Was it impossible to rescue her? Might I not relieve her from her bonds, and make her the companion of my flight? The exploit was perilous, but not impracticable. There was something dastardly and ignominious in withdrawing from the danger, and leaving a helpless being exposed to it. A single minute might suffice to snatch her from death or captivity. The parents might deserve that I should hazard or even sacrifice my life in the cause of their child.
After some fluctuation, I determined to return to the cavern and attempt the rescue of the girl. The success of this project depended on the continuance of their sleep. It was proper to approach with wariness, and to heed the smallest token which might bespeak their condition. I crept along the path, bending my ear forward to catch any sound that might arise. I heard nothing but the half-stifled sobs of the girl.
I entered with the slowest and most anxious circumspection. Every thing was found in its pristine state. The girl noticed my entrance with a mixture of terror and joy. My gestures and looks enjoined upon her silence. I stooped down, and, taking another hatchet, cut asunder the deer-skin thongs by which her wrists and ankles were tied. I then made signs for her to rise and follow me. She willingly complied with my directions; but her benumbed joints and lacerated sinews refused to support her. There was no time to be lost; I therefore lifted her in my arms, and, feeble and tottering as I was, proceeded with this burden along the perilous steep and over a most rugged path.
I hoped that some exertion would enable her to retrieve the use of her limbs. I set her, therefore, on her feet, exhorting her to walk as well as she was able, and promising her my occasional assistance. The poor girl was not deficient in zeal, and presently moved along with light and quick steps. We speedily reached the bottom of the hill.
No fancy can conceive a scene more wild and desolate than that which now presented itself. The soil was nearly covered with sharp fragments of stone. Between these, sprung brambles and creeping vines, whose twigs, crossing and intertwining with each other, added to the roughness below, made the passage infinitely toilsome. Scattered over this space were single cedars with their ragged spines and wreaths of moss, and copses of dwarf oaks, which were only new emblems of sterility.
I was wholly unacquainted with the scene before me. No marks of habitation or culture, no traces of the footsteps of men, were discernible. I scarcely knew in what region of the globe I was placed. I had come hither by means so inexplicable as to leave it equally in doubt whether I was separated from my paternal abode by a river or an ocean.
I made inquiries of my companion, but she was unable to talk coherently. She answered my questions with weeping, and sobs, and entreaties to fly from the scene of her distress. I collected from her, at length, that her fathers house had been attacked on the preceding evening, and all the family but herself destroyed. Since this disaster she had walked very fast and a great way, but knew not how far or in what direction.
In a wilderness like this, my only hope was to light upon obscure paths, made by cattle. Meanwhile I endeavoured to adhere to one line, and to burst through the vexatious obstacles which encumbered our way. The ground was concealed by the bushes, and we were perplexed and fatigued by a continual succession of hollows and prominences. At one moment we were nearly thrown headlong into a pit. At another we struck our feet against the angles of stones. The branches of the oak rebounded in our faces or entangled our legs, and the unseen thorns inflicted on us a thousand wounds.
I was obliged, in these arduous circumstances, to support not only myself, but my companion. Her strength was overpowered by her evening journey, and the terror of being overtaken incessantly harassed her.
Sometimes we lighted upon tracks which afforded us an easier footing and inspired us with courage to proceed. These, for a time, terminated at a brook or in a bog, and we were once more compelled to go forward at random. One of these tracks insensibly became more beaten, and, at length, exhibited the traces of wheels. To this I adhered, confident that it would finally conduct us to a dwelling.
On either side, the undergrowth of shrubs and brambles continued as before. Sometimes small spaces were observed, which had lately been cleared by fire. At length a vacant space, of larger dimensions than had hitherto occurred, presented itself to my view. It was a field of some acres, that had, apparently, been upturned by the hoe. At the corner of this field was a small house.
My heart leaped with joy at this sight. I hastened towards it, in the hope that my uncertainties, and toils, and dangers, were now drawing to a close. This dwelling was suited to the poverty and desolation which surrounded it. It consisted of a few unhewn logs laid upon each other, to the height of eight or ten feet, including a quadrangular space of similar dimensions, and covered by a thatch. There was no window, light being sufficiently admitted into the crevices between the logs. These had formerly been loosely plastered with clay; but air and rain had crumbled and washed the greater part of this rude cement away. Somewhat like a chimney, built of half-burnt bricks, was perceived at one corner. The door was fastened by a leathern thong, tied to a peg.
All within was silence and darkness. I knocked at the door and called, but no one moved or answered. The tenant, whoever he was, was absent. His leave could not be obtained, and I, therefore, entered without it. The autumn had made some progress, and the air was frosty and sharp. My mind and muscles had been of late so strenuously occupied, that the cold had not been felt. The cessation of exercise, however, quickly restored my sensibility in this respect, but the unhappy girl complained of being half frozen.
Fire, therefore, was the first object of my search. Happily, some embers were found upon the hearth, together with potato-stalks and dry chips. Of these, with much difficulty, I kindled a fire, by which some warmth was imparted to our shivering limbs. The light enabled me, as I sat upon the ground, to survey the interior of this mansion.
Three saplings, stripped of their branches and bound together at their ends by twigs, formed a kind of bedstead, which was raised from the ground by four stones. Ropes stretched across these, and covered by a blanket, constituted the bed. A board, of which one end rested on the bedstead and the other was thrust between the logs that composed the wall, sustained the stale fragments of a rye-loaf, and a cedar bucket kept entire by withes instead of hoops. In the bucket was a little water, full of droppings from the roof, drowned insects, and sand. A basket or two neatly made, and a hoe, with a stake thrust into it by way of handle, made up all the furniture that was visible.
Next to cold, hunger was the most urgent necessity by which we were now pressed. This was no time to give ear to scruples. We, therefore, unceremoniously divided the bread and water between us. I had now leisure to bestow some regards upon the future.
These remnants of fire and food convinced me that this dwelling was usually inhabited, and that it had lately been deserted. Some engagement had probably carried the tenant abroad. His absence might be terminated in a few minutes, or might endure through the night. On his return, I questioned not my power to appease any indignation he might feel at the liberties which I had taken. I was willing to suppose him one who would readily afford us all the information and succour that we needed.
If he should not return till sunrise, I meant to resume my journey. By the comfortable meal we had made, and the repose of a few hours, we should be considerably invigorated and refreshed, and the road would lead us to some more hospitable tenement.
My thoughts were too tumultuous, and my situation too precarious, to allow me to sleep. The girl, on the contrary, soon sank into a sweet oblivion of all her cares. She laid herself, by my advice, upon the bed, and left me to ruminate without interruption.
I was not wholly free from the apprehension of danger. What influence this boisterous and solitary life might have upon the temper of the being who inhabited this hut, I could not predict. How soon the Indians might awake, and what path they would pursue, I was equally unable to guess. It was by no means impossible that they might tread upon my footsteps, and knock, in a few minutes, at the door of this cottage. It behooved me to make all the preparations in my power against untoward incidents.
I had not parted with the gun which I had first seized in the cavern, nor with the hatchet which I had afterwards used to cut the bands of the girl. These were at once my trophies and my means of defence, which it had been rash and absurd to have relinquished. My present reliance was placed upon these.
I now, for the first time, examined the prize that I had made. Other considerations had prevented me, till now, from examining the structure of the piece; but I could not but observe that it had two barrels, and was lighter and smaller than an ordinary musket. The light of the fire now enabled me to inspect it with more accuracy.
Scarcely had I fixed my eyes upon the stock, when I perceived marks that were familiar to my apprehension. Shape, ornaments, and ciphers, were evidently the same with those of a piece which I had frequently handled. The marks were of a kind which could not be mistaken. This piece was mine; and, when I left my uncles house, it was deposited, as I believed, in the closet of my chamber.
Thou wilt easily conceive the inference which this circumstance suggested. My hairs rose and my teeth chattered with horror. My whole frame was petrified, and I paced to and fro, hurried from the chimney to the door, and from the door to the chimney, with the misguided fury of a maniac.
I needed no proof of my calamity more incontestable than this. My uncle and my sisters had been murdered; the dwelling had been pillaged, and this had been a part of the plunder. Defenceless and asleep, they were assailed by these inexorable enemies, and I, who ought to have been their protector and champion, was removed to an immeasurable distance, and was disabled, by some accursed chance, from affording them the succour which they needed.
For a time, I doubted whether I had not witnessed and shared this catastrophe. I had no memory of the circumstances that preceded my awaking in the pit. Had not the cause of my being cast into this abyss some connection with the ruin of my family? Had I not been dragged hither by these savages and reduced, by their malice, to that breathless and insensible condition? Was I born to a malignant destiny never tired of persecuting? Thus had my parents and their infant offspring perished, and thus completed was the fate of all those to whom my affections cleaved, and whom the first disaster had spared.
Hitherto the death of the savage, whom I had dispatched with my hatchet, had not been remembered without some remorse. Now my emotions were totally changed. I was somewhat comforted in thinking that thus much of necessary vengeance had been executed. New and more vehement regrets were excited by reflecting on the forbearance I had practised when so much was in my power. All the miscreants had been at my mercy, and a bloody retribution might, with safety and ease, have been inflicted on their prostrate bodies.
It was now too late. What of consolation or of hope remained to me? To return to my ancient dwelling, now polluted with blood, or, perhaps, nothing but a smoking ruin, was abhorred. Life, connected with the remembrance of my misfortunes, was detestable. I was no longer anxious for flight. No change of the scene but that which terminated all consciousness could I endure to think of.
Amidst these gloomy meditations the idea was suddenly suggested of returning, with the utmost expedition, to the cavern. It was possible that the assassins were still asleep. He who was appointed to watch, and to make, in due season, the signal for resuming their march, was forever silent. Without this signal it was not unlikely that they would sleep till dawn of day. But, if they should be roused, they might be overtaken or met, and, by choosing a proper station, two victims might at least fall. The ultimate event to myself would surely be fatal; but my own death was an object of desire rather than of dread. To die thus speedily, and after some atonement was made for those who had already been slain, was sweet.
The way to the mountain was difficult and tedious, but the ridge was distinctly seen from the door of the cottage, and I trusted that auspicious chance would lead me to that part of it where my prey was to be found. I snatched up the gun and tomahawk in a transport of eagerness. On examining the former, I found that both barrels were deeply loaded.
This piece was of extraordinary workmanship. It was the legacy of an English officer, who died in Bengal, to Sarsefield. It was constructed for the purposes not of sport but of war. The artist had made it a congeries of tubes and springs, by which every purpose of protection and offence was effectually served. A daggers blade was attached to it, capable of being fixed at the end, and of answering the destructive purpose of a bayonet. On his departure from Solesbury, my friend left it, as a pledge of his affection, in my possession. Hitherto I had chiefly employed it in shooting at a mark, in order to improve my sight; now was I to profit by the gift in a different way.
Thus armed, I prepared to sally forth on my adventurous expedition. Sober views might have speedily succeeded to the present tempest of my passions. I might have gradually discovered the romantic and criminal temerity of my project, the folly of revenge, and the duty of preserving my life for the benefit of mankind. I might have suspected the propriety of my conclusion, and have admitted some doubts as to the catastrophe which I imagined to have befallen my uncle and sisters. I might, at least, have consented to ascertain their condition with my own eyes, and for this end have returned to the cottage, and have patiently waited till the morning light should permit me to resume my journey.
This conduct was precluded by a new incident. Before I opened the door I looked through a crevice of the wall, and perceived three human figures at the farther end of the field. They approached the house. Though indistinctly seen, something in their port persuaded me that these were the Indians from whom I had lately parted. I was startled but not dismayed. My thirst of vengeance was still powerful, and I believed that the moment of its gratification was hastening. In a short time they would arrive and enter the house. In what manner should they be received?
I studied not my own security. It was the scope of my wishes to kill the whole number of my foes; but, that being done, I was indifferent to the consequences. I desired not to live to relate or to exult in the deed.
To go forth was perilous and useless. All that remained was to sit upon the ground opposite the door, and fire at each as he entered. In the hasty survey I had taken of this apartment, one object had been overlooked, or imperfectly noticed. Close to the chimney was an aperture, formed by a cavity partly in the wall and in the ground. It was the entrance of an oven, which resembled, on the outside, a mound of earth, and which was filled with dry stalks of potatoes and other rubbish.
Into this it was possible to thrust my body. A sort of screen might be formed of the brushwood, and more deliberate and effectual execution be done upon the enemy. I weighed not the disadvantages of this scheme, but precipitately threw myself into this cavity. I discovered, in an instant, that it was totally unfit for my purpose; but it was too late to repair my miscarriage.
This wall of the hovel was placed near the verge of a sand-bank. The oven was erected on the very brink. This bank, being of a loose and mutable soil, could not sustain my weight. It sunk, and I sunk along with it. The height of the bank was three or four feet, so that, though disconcerted and embarrassed, I received no injury. I still grasped my gun, and resumed my feet in a moment.
What was now to be done? The bank screened me from the view of the savages. The thicket was hard by, and, if I were eager to escape, the way was obvious and sure. But, though single, though enfeebled by toil, by abstinence, and by disease, and though so much exceeded in number and strength by my foes, I was determined to await and provoke the contest.
In addition to the desperate impulse of passion, I was swayed by thoughts of the danger which beset the sleeping girl, and from which my flight would leave her without protection. How strange is the destiny that governs mankind! The consequence of shrouding myself in this cavity had not been foreseen. It was an expedient which courage and not cowardice suggested; and yet it was the only expedient by which flight had been rendered practicable. To have issued from the door would only have been to confront, and not to elude, the danger.
The first impulse prompted me to re-enter the cottage by this avenue, but this could not be done with certainty and expedition. What then remained? While I deliberated, the men approached, and, after a moments hesitation, entered the house, the door being partly open.
The fire on the hearth enabled them to survey the room. One of them uttered a sudden exclamation of surprise. This was easily interpreted. They had noticed the girl who had lately been their captive lying asleep on the blanket. Their astonishment at finding her here, and in this condition, may be easily conceived.
I now reflected that I might place myself, without being observed, near the entrance, at an angle of the building, and shoot at each as he successively came forth. I perceived that the bank conformed to two sides of the house, and that I might gain a view of the front and of the entrance, without exposing myself to observation.
I lost no time in gaining this station. The bank was as high as my breast. It was easy, therefore, to crouch beneath it, to bring my eye close to the verge, and, laying my gun upon the top of it among the grass, with its muzzles pointed to the door, patiently to wait their forthcoming.
My eye and my ear were equally attentive to what was passing. A low and muttering conversation was maintained in the house. Presently I heard a heavy stroke descend. I shuddered, and my blood ran cold at the sound. I entertained no doubt but that it was the stroke of a hatchet on the head or breast of the helpless sleeper.
It was followed by a loud shriek. The continuance of these shrieks proved that the stroke had not been instantly fatal. I waited to hear it repeated, but the sounds that now arose were like those produced by dragging somewhat along the ground. The shrieks, meanwhile, were incessant and piteous. My heart faltered, and I saw that mighty efforts must be made to preserve my joints and my nerves steadfast. All depended on the strenuous exertions and the fortunate dexterity of a moment.
One now approached the door, and came forth, dragging the girl, whom he held by the hair, after him. What hindered me from shooting at his first appearance, I know not. This had been my previous resolution. My hand touched the trigger, and, as he moved, the piece was levelled at his right ear. Perhaps the momentous consequences of my failure made me wait till his ceasing to move might render my aim more sure.
Having dragged the girl, still piteously shrieking, to the distance of ten feet from the house, he threw her from him with violence. She fell upon the ground, and, observing him level his piece at her breast, renewed her supplications in a still more piercing tone. Little did the forlorn wretch think that her deliverance was certain and near. I rebuked myself for having thus long delayed. I fired, and my enemy sunk upon the ground without a struggle.
Thus far had success attended me in this unequal contest. The next shot would leave me nearly powerless. If that, however, proved as unerring as the first, the chances of defeat were lessened. The savages within, knowing the intentions of their associate with regard to the captive girl, would probably mistake the report which they heard for that of his piece. Their mistake, however, would speedily give place to doubts, and they would rush forth to ascertain the truth. It behooved me to provide a similar reception for him that next appeared.
It was as I expected. Scarcely was my eye again fixed upon the entrance, when a tawny and terrific visage was stretched fearfully forth. It was the signal of his fate. His glances, cast wildly and swiftly round, lighted upon me, and on the fatal instrument which was pointed at his forehead. His muscles were at once exerted to withdraw his head, and to vociferate a warning to his fellow; but his movement was too slow. The ball entered above his ear. He tumbled headlong to the ground, bereaved of sensation though not of life, and had power only to struggle and mutter.