Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
A Womans Courage
By William Gilmore Simms (18061870)
[Born in Charleston, S. C., 1806. Died there, 1870. The Yemassee. 1835.Revised Edition. 1853.]
THEY lay in waiting for the favorable momentsilent as the grave, and sleeplessready, when the garrison should determine upon a sally, to fall upon their rear; and in the meanwhile quietly preparing dry fuel in quantity, gathering it from time to time, and piling it against the logs of the fortress, they prepared thus to fire the defences that shut them out from their prey.
There was yet another mode of finding entrance, which has been partially glimpsed at already. The scouts had done their office diligently in more than the required respects. Finding a slender pine twisted by a late storm, and scarcely sustained by a fragment of its shaft, they applied fire to the rich turpentine oozing from the wounded part of the tree, and carefully directing its fall, as it yielded to the fire, they lodged its extremest branches, as we have already seen, against the wall of the Block House and just beneath the window, the only one looking from that quarter of the fortress. Three of the bravest of their warriors were assigned for scaling this point and securing their entrance, and the attack was forborne by the rest of the band, while their present design, upon which they built greatly, was in progress.
Let us then turn to this quarter. We have already seen that the dangers of this position were duly estimated by Grayson, under the suggestion of Grangers wife. Unhappily for its defence, the fate of the ladder prevented that due attention to the subject, at once, which had been imperatively called for; and the subsequent excitement following the discovery of the immediate proximity of the Indians had turned the consideration of the defenders to the opposite end of the building, from whence the partial attack of the enemy, as described, had come. It is true that the workmen were yet busy with the ladder; but the assault had suspended their operations, in the impatient curiosity which such an event would necessarily induce, even in the bosom of fear.
The wife of Grayson, fully conscious of the danger, was alone sleepless in that apartment. The rest of the women, scarcely apprehensive of attack at all, and perfectly ignorant of the present condition of affairs, with all that heedlessness which marks the unreflecting character, had sunk to the repose (without an effort at watchfulness) which previous fatigues had, perhaps, made absolutely unavoidable. She, alone, sat thoughtful and silentmusing over present prospectsperhaps of the pastbut still unforgetful of the difficulties and the dangers before her. With a calm temper she awaited the relief which, with the repair of the ladder, she looked for from below.
In the mean time hearing something of the alarm, together with the distant war-whoop, she had looked around her for some means of defence, in the event of any attempt being made upon the window before the aid promised could reach her. But a solitary weapon met her eye, in a long heavy hatchet, a clumsy instrument, rather more like the cleaver of a butcher than the light and slender tomahawk so familiar to the Indians. Having secured this, with the composure of that courage which had been in great part taught her by the necessities of fortune, she prepared to do without other assistance, and to forego the sentiment of dependence, which is perhaps one of the most marked characteristics of her sex. Calmly looking round upon the sleeping and defenceless crowd about her, she resumed her seat upon a low bench in a corner of the apartment, from which she had risen to secure the hatchet, and, extinguishing the only light in the room, fixed her eye upon the accessible window, while every thought of her mind prepared her for the danger which was at hand. She had not long been seated when she fancied that she heard a slight rustling of the branches of the fallen tree just beneath the window. She could not doubt her senses, and her heart swelled and throbbed with the consciousness of approaching danger. But still she was firmher spirit grew more confirmed with the coming trial; and, coolly throwing the slippers from her feet, grasping firmly her hatchet at the same time, she softly arose, and keeping close in the shadow of the wall, she made her way to a recess, a foot or so from the entrance, to which it was evident some one was cautiously approaching along the attenuated body of the yielding pine. In a few moments and a shadow darkened the opening. She edged more closely to the point, and prepared for the intruder. She now beheld the head of the enemya fierce and foully painted savagethe war-tuft rising up into a ridge, something like a comb, and his face smeared with colors in a style the most ferociously grotesque. Still she could not strike, for, as he had not penetrated the window, and as its entrance was quite too small to enable her to strike with any hope of success at any distance through it, she felt that the effort would be wholly without certainty; and failure might be of the worst consequence. Though greatly excited, and struggling between doubt and determination, she readily saw what would be the error of any precipitation. But even as she mused thus apprehensively, the cunning savage laid his hand upon the sill of the window, the better to raise himself to its level. That sight tempted her in spite of her better sense to the very precipitation she had desired to avoid. In the moment that she saw the hand of the red man upon the sill, the hatchet descended, under an impulse scarcely her own. She struck too quickly. The blow was given with all her force, and would certainly have separated the hand from the arm had it taken effect. But the quick eye of the Indian caught a glimpse of her movement at the very moment in which it was made, and the hand was withdrawn before the hatchet descended. The steel sank deep into the soft woodso deeply that she could not disengage it. To try at this object would have exposed her at once to his weapon, and leaving it where it stuck, she sunk back again into shadow.
What now was she to do? To stay where she was would be of little avail; but to cry out to those below, and seek to fly, was equally unproductive of good, besides warning the enemy of the defencelessness of their condition, and thus inviting a renewal of the attack. The thought came to her with the danger; and without a word she maintained her position, in waiting for the progress of events. As the Indian had also sunk from sight, and some moments had now elapsed without his reappearance, she determined to make another effort for the recovery of the hatchet. She grasped it by the handle, and in the next moment the hand of the savage was upon her own. He felt that his grasp was on the fingers of a woman, and in a brief word and something of a chuckle, while he still maintained his hold upon it, he conveyed intelligence of the fact to those below. But it was a woman with a mans spirit with whom he contended, and her endeavor was successful to disengage herself. The same success did not attend her effort to recover the weapon. In the brief struggle with her enemy it had become disengaged from the wood, and while both strove to seize it, it slipped from their mutual hands, and sliding over the sill, in another instant was heard rattling through the intervening bushes. Descending upon the ground below, it became the spoil of those without, whose murmurs of gratulation she distinctly heard. But now came the tug of difficulty. The Indian, striving at the entrance, was necessarily encouraged by the discovery that his opponent was not a man; and assured, at the same time, by the forbearance on the part of those within to strike him effectually down from the tree, he now resolutely endeavored to effect his entrance. His head was again fully in sight of the anxious womanthen his shoulders; and at length, taking a firm grasp upon the sill, he strove to elevate himself by muscular strength, so as to secure him sufficient purchase for the entrance at which he aimed.
What could she doweaponless, hopeless? The prospect was startling and terrible enough; but she was a strong-minded woman, and impulse served her when reflection would most probably have taught her to fly. She had but one resource; and as the Indian had gradually thrust one hand forward for the hold upon the sill, and raised the other up to the side of the window, she grasped the one nighest to her own. She grasped it firmly with all her might, and to advantage, as, having lifted himself on tiptoe for the purpose of ascent, he had necessarily lost much of the control which a secure hold for his feet must have given him. Her grasp sufficiently assisted him forward to lessen still more greatly the security of his feet, while at the same time though bringing him still farther into the apartment, placing him in such a positionhalf in airas to defeat much of the muscular exercise which his limbs would have possessed in any other situation. Her weapon now would have been all-important; and the brave woman mentally deplored the precipitancy with which she had acted in the first instance, and which had so unhappily deprived her of its use. But self-reproach was unavailing now, and she was satisfied if she could be able to retain her foe in his present position; by which, keeping him out, or in and out, as she did, she necessarily excluded all other foes from the aperture which he so completely filled up. The intruder, though desirous enough of entrance before, was rather reluctant to obtain it now, under existing circumstances. He strove desperately to effect a retreat, but had advanced too far, however, to be easily successful; and, in his confusion and disquiet, he spoke to those below in his own language, explaining his difficulty and directing their movement to his assistance. A sudden rush along the tree indicated to the conscious sense of the woman the new danger, in the approach of additional enemies, who must not only sustain, but push forward, the one with whom she contended. This warned her at once of the necessity of some sudden procedure, if she hoped to do anything for her own and the safety of those around herthe women and the children, whom, amid all the contest, she had never once alarmed. Putting forth all her strength, therefore, though nothing in comparison with that of him whom she opposed, had he been in a condition to exert it, she strove to draw him still farther across the entrance, so as to exclude, if possible, the approach of those coming behind him. She hoped to gain timesufficient time for those preparing the ladder to come to her relief; and with this hope for the first time she called aloud to Grayson and her husband.
The Indian, in the meanwhile, derived the support for his person as well from the grasp of the woman as from his own hold upon the sill of the window. Her effort necessarily drawing him still farther forward, placed him so completely in the way of his allies that they could do him little service while things remained in this situation; and, to complete the difficulties of his predicament, while they busied themselves in several efforts at his extrication, the branches of the little tree, resting against the dwelling, yielding suddenly to the unusual weight upon ittrembling and sinking away at lastcracked beneath the burden, and snapping off from its several holds, fell from under them, dragging against the building in the progress down; thus breaking their fall, but cutting off all their hope from this mode of entrance, and leaving their comrade awkwardly poised aloft, able neither to enter nor to depart from the window. The tree finally settled heavily upon the ground; and with it went the three savages who had so readily ascended to the assistance of their comradebruised and very much hurt; while he, now without any support but that which he derived from the sill, and what little his feet could secure from the irregular crevices between the logs of which the house had been built, was hung in air, unable to advance except at the will of his woman opponent, and dreading a far worse fall from his eminence than that which had already happened to his allies. Desperate with his situation, he thrust his arm, as it was still held by the woman, still farther into the window, and this enabled her with both hands to secure and strengthen the grasp which she had originally taken upon it. This she did with a new courage and strength, derived from the voices below, by which she understood a promise of assistance. Excited and nerved, she drew the extended arm of the Indian, in spite of all his struggles, directly over the sill, so as to turn the elbow completely down upon it. With her whole weight thus employed, bending down to the floor to strengthen herself to the task, she pressed the arm across the window until her ears heard the distinct, clear crack of the boneuntil she heard the groan, and felt the awful struggles of the suffering wretch, twisting himself round with all his effort to obtain for the shattered arm a natural and relaxed position, and with this object leaving his hold upon everything, only sustained, indeed, by the grasp of his enemy. But the movement of the woman had been quite too sudden, her nerves too firm, and her strength too great, to suffer him to succeed. The jagged splinters of the broken limb were thrust up, lacerating and tearing through flesh and skin, while a howl of the acutest agony attested the severity of that suffering which could extort such an acknowledgment from the American savage. He fainted in his pain, and as the weight increased upon the arm of the woman, the nature of her sex began to resume its sway. With a shudder of every fibre, she released her hold upon him. The effort of her soul was overa strange sickness came upon her; and she was just conscious of a crashing fall of the heavy body among the branches of the tree at the foot of the window, when she staggered back fainting in the arms of her husband, who just at that moment ascended to her relief.