Charles Brockden Brown (17711810). Edgar Huntley; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker. 1857.
THE ROAD was intricate and long. It seemed designed to pervade the forest in every possible direction. I frequently noticed cut wood piled in heaps upon either side, and rejoiced in these tokens that the residence of man was near. At length I reached a second fence, which proved to be the boundary of a road still more frequented. I pursued this, and presently beheld before me the river and its opposite barriers.
This object afforded me some knowledge of my situation. There was a ford over which travellers used to pass, and in which the road that I was now pursuing terminated. The stream was rapid and tumultuous, but in this place did not rise higher than the shoulders. On the opposite side was a highway, passable by horses and men, though not by carriages, and which led into the midst of Solesbury. Should I not rush into the stream, and still aim at reaching my uncles house before morning? Why should I delay?
Thirty hours of incessant watchfulness and toil, of enormous efforts and perils, preceded and accompanied by abstinence and wounds, were enough to annihilate the strength and courage of ordinary men. In the course of them, I had frequently believed myself to have reached the verge beyond which my force would not carry me; but experience as frequently demonstrated my error. Though many miles were yet to be traversed, though my clothes were once more to be drenched and loaded with moisture, though every hour seemed to add somewhat to the keenness of the blast, yet how should I know, but by trial, whether my stock of energy was not sufficient for this last exploit?
My resolution to proceed was nearly formed, when the figure of a man moving slowly across the road at some distance before me was observed. Hard by this ford lived a man by name Bisset, of whom I had slight knowledge. He tended his two hundred acres with a plodding and money-doting spirit, while his son overlooked a grist-mill on the river. He was a creature of gain, coarse and harmless. The man whom I saw before me might be he, or some one belonging to his family. Being armed for defence, I less scrupled at meeting with any thing in the shape of man. I therefore called. The figure stopped and answered me without surliness or anger. The voice was unlike that of Bisset, but this persons information I believed would be of some service.
Coming up to him, he proved to be a clown belonging to Bissets habitation. His panic and surprise on seeing me made him aghast. In my present garb I should not have easily been recognised by my nearest kinsman, and much less easily by one who had seldom met me.
It may be easily conceived that my thoughts, when allowed to wander from the objects before me, were tormented with forebodings and inquietudes on account of the ills which I had so much reason to believe had befallen my family. I had no doubt that some evil had happened, but the full extent of it was still uncertain. I desired and dreaded to discover the truth, and was unable to interrogate this person in a direct manner. I could deal only in circuities and hints. I shuddered while I waited for an answer to my inquiries.
Had not Indians, I asked, been lately seen in this neighbourhood? Were they not suspected of hostile designs? Had they not already committed some mischief? Some passenger, perhaps, had been attacked, or fire had been set to some house? On which side of the river had their steps been observed or any devastation been committed? Above the ford or below it? At what distance from the river?
When his attention could be withdrawn from my person and bestowed upon my questions, he answered that some alarm had indeed been spread about Indians, and that parties from Solesbury and Chetasco were out in pursuit of them, that many persons had been killed by them, and that one house in Solesbury had been rifled and burnt on the night before the last.
I fixed my eyes upon the ground. An interval of gloomy meditation succeeded. All was lost! All for whose sake I had desired to live had perished by the hands of these assassins! That dear home, the scene of my sportive childhood, of my studies, labours, and recreations, was ravaged by fire and the sword,was reduced to a frightful ruin!
Not only all that embellished and endeared existence was destroyed, but the means of subsistence itself. Thou knowest that my sisters and I were dependants on the bounty of our uncle. His death would make way for the succession of his son, a man fraught with envy and malignity, who always testified a mortal hatred to us, merely because we enjoyed the protection of his father. The ground which furnished me with bread was now become the property of one who, if he could have done it with security, would gladly have mingled poison with my food.
All that my imagination or my heart regarded as of value had likewise perished. Whatever my chamber, my closets, my cabinets contained, my furniture, my books, the records of my own skill, the monuments of their existence whom I loved, my very clothing, were involved in indiscriminate and irretrievable destruction. Why should I survive this calamity?
But did not he say that one had escaped? The only females in the family were my sisters. One of these had been reserved for a fate worse than death; to gratify the innate and insatiable cruelty of savages, by suffering all the torments their invention can suggest, or to linger out years of weary bondage and unintermitted hardship in the bosom of the wilderness. To restore her to liberty, to cherish this last survivor of my unfortunate race, was a sufficient motive to life and to activity.
But soft! Had not rumour whispered that the captive was retaken? Oh! who was her angel of deliverance? Where did she now abide? Weeping over the untimely fall of her protector and her friend? Lamenting and upbraiding the absence of her brother? Why should I not haste to find her?to mingle my tears with hers, to assure her of my safety, and expatiate the involuntary crime of my desertion by devoting all futurity to the task of her consolation and improvement?
The path was open and direct. My new motives would have trampled upon every impediment and made me reckless of all dangers and all toils. I broke from my reverie, and, without taking leave or expressing gratitude to my informant, I ran with frantic expedition towards the river, and, plunging into it, gained the opposite side in a moment.
I was sufficiently acquainted with the road. Some twelve or fifteen miles remained to be traversed. I did not fear that my strength would fail in the performance of my journey. It was not my uncles habitation to which I directed my steps. Inglefield was my friend. If my sister had existence, or was snatched from captivity, it was here that an asylum had been afforded to her, and here was I to seek the knowledge of my destiny. For this reason, having reached a spot where the road divided into two branches, one of which led to Inglefields and the other to Huntlys, I struck into the former.
Scarcely had I passed the angle when I noticed a building on the right hand, at some distance from the road. In the present state of my thoughts, it would not have attracted my attention, had not a light gleamed from an upper window and told me that all within were not at rest.
I was acquainted with the owner of this mansion. He merited esteem and confidence, and could not fail to be acquainted with recent events. From him I should obtain all the information that I needed, and I should be delivered from some part of the agonies of my suspense. I should reach his door in a few minutes, and the window-light was a proof that my entrance at this hour would not disturb the family, some of whom were stirring.
Through a gate I entered an avenue of tall oaks, that led to the house. I could not but reflect on the effect which my appearance would produce upon the family. The sleek locks, neat apparel, pacific guise, sobriety and gentleness of aspect by which I was customarily distinguished, would in vain be sought in the apparition which would now present itself before them. My legs, neck, and bosom were bare, and their native hue was exchanged for the livid marks of bruises and scarifications. A horrid scar upon my cheek, and my uncombed locks; hollow eyes, made ghastly by abstinence and cold, and the ruthless passions of which my mind had been the theatre, added to the musket which I carried in my hand, would prepossess them with the notion of a maniac or ruffian.
I now reached the principal door of the house. It was open, and I unceremoniously entered. In the midst of the room stood a German stove, well heated. To thaw my half-frozen limbs was my first care. Meanwhile I gazed around me, and marked the appearances of things.
Two lighted candles stood upon the table. Beside them were cider-bottles and pipes of tobacco. The furniture and room was in that state which denoted it to have been lately filled with drinkers and smokers; yet neither voice, nor visage, nor motion, were anywhere observable. I listened; but neither above nor below, within nor without, could any tokens of a human being be perceived.
This vacancy and silence must have been lately preceded by noise, and concourse, and bustle. The contrast was mysterious and ambiguous. No adequate cause of so quick and absolute a transition occurred to me. Having gained some warmth and lingered some ten or twenty minutes in this uncertainty, I determined to explore the other apartments of the building. I knew not what might betide in my absence, or what I might encounter in my search to justify precaution, and, therefore, kept the gun in my hand. I snatched a candle from the table and proceeded into two other apartments on the first floor and the kitchen. Neither was inhabited, though chairs and tables were arranged in their usual order, and no traces of violence or hurry were apparent.
Having gained the foot of the staircase, I knocked, but my knocking was wholly disregarded. A light had appeared in an upper chamber. It was not, indeed, in one of those apartments which the family permanently occupied, but in that which, according to rural custom, was reserved for guests; but it indubitably betokened the presence of some being by whom my doubts might be solved. These doubts were too tormenting to allow of scruples and delay. I mounted the stairs.
At each chamber-door I knocked, but I knocked in vain. I tried to open, but found them to be locked. I at length reached the entrance of that in which a light had been discovered. Here it was certain that some one would be found; but here, as well as elsewhere, my knocking was unnoticed.
To enter this chamber was audacious, but no other expedient was afforded me to determine whether the house had any inhabitants. I therefore entered, though with caution and reluctance. No one was within, but there were sufficient traces of some person who had lately been here. On the table stood a travelling-escritoire, open, with pens and inkstand. A chair was placed before it, and a candle on the right hand. This apparatus was rarely seen in this country. Some traveller, it seemed, occupied this room, though the rest of the mansion was deserted. The pilgrim, as these appearances testified, was of no vulgar order, and belonged not to the class of periodical and every-day guests.
It now occurred to me that the occupant of this apartment could not be far off, and that some danger and embarrassment could not fail to accrue from being found, thus accoutred and garbed, in a place sacred to the study and repose of another. It was proper, therefore, to withdraw, and either to resume my journey, or wait for the strangers return, whom perhaps some temporary engagement had called away, in the lower and public room. The former now appeared to be the best expedient, as the return of this unknown person was uncertain, as well as his power to communicate the information which I wanted.
Had paper, as well as the implements of writing, lain upon the desk, perhaps my lawless curiosity would not have scrupled to have pried into it. On the first glance nothing of that kind appeared; but now, as I turned towards the door, somewhat, lying beside the desk, on the side opposite the candle, caught my attention. The impulse was instantaneous and mechanical that made me leap to the spot and lay my hand upon it. Till I felt it between my fingers, till I brought it near my eyes and read frequently the inscriptions that appeared upon it, I was doubtful whether my senses had deceived me.
Few, perhaps, among mankind, have undergone vicissitudes of peril and wonder equal to mine. The miracles of poetry, the transitions of enchantment, are beggarly and mean compared with those which I had experienced. Passage into new forms, overleaping the bars of time and space, reversal of the laws of inanimate and intelligent existence, had been mine to perform and to witness.
No event had been more fertile of sorrow and perplexity than the loss of thy brothers letters. They went by means invisible, and disappeared at a moment when foresight would have least predicted their disappearance. They now placed themselves before me, in a manner equally abrupt, in a place and by means no less contrary to expectation. The papers which I now seized were those letters. The parchment cover, the string that tied and the wax that sealed them, appeared not to have been opened or violated.
The power that removed them, from my cabinet, and dropped them in this house,a house which I rarely visited, which I had not entered during the last year, with whose inhabitants I maintained no cordial intercourse, and to whom my occupations and amusements, my joys and my sorrows, were unknown,was no object even of conjecture. But they were not possessed by any of the family. Some stranger was here, by whom they had been stolen, or into whose possession they had, by some incomprehensible chance, fallen.
That stranger was near. He had left this apartment for a moment. He would speedily return. To go hence might possibly occasion me to miss him. Here, then, I would wait, till he should grant me an interview. The papers were mine, and were recovered. I would never part with them. But to know by whose force or by whose stratagems I had been bereaved of them thus long, was now the supreme passion of my soul. I seated myself near a table and anxiously waited for an interview, on which I was irresistibly persuaded to believe that much of my happiness depended.
Meanwhile, I could not but connect this incident with the destruction of my family. The loss of these papers had excited transports of grief; and yet to have lost them thus was perhaps the sole expedient by which their final preservation could be rendered possible. Had they remained in my cabinet, they could not have escaped the destiny which overtook the house and its furniture. Savages are not accustomed to leave their exterminating work unfinished. The house which they have plundered they are careful to level with the ground. This not only their revenge, but their caution, prescribes. Fire may originate by accident as well as by design, and the traces of pillage and murder are totally obliterated by the flames.
These thoughts were interrupted by the shutting of a door below, and by footsteps ascending the stairs. My heart throbbed at the sound. My seat became uneasy and I started on my feet. I even advanced half-way to the entrance of the room. My eyes were intensely fixed upon the door. My impatience would have made me guess at the person of this visitant by measuring his shadow, if his shadow were first seen; but this was precluded by the position of the light. It was only when the figure entered, and the whole person was seen, that my curiosity was gratified. He who stood before me was the parent and fosterer of my mind, the companion and instructor of my youth, from whom I had been parted for years, from whom I believed myself to be forever separated,Sarsefield himself!