We made a prosperous voyage up that fine river of the Hudson, the weathe_rateful, the hills singularly beautified with the colours of the autumn. A_lbany we had our residence at an inn, where I was not so blind and my lor_ot so cunning but what I could see he had some design to hold me prisoner.
The work he found for me to do was not so pressing that we should transact i_part from necessary papers in the chamber of an inn; nor was it of suc_mportance that I should be set upon as many as four or five scrolls of th_ame document. I submitted in appearance; but I took private measures on m_wn side, and had the news of the town communicated to me daily by th_oliteness of our host. In this way I received at last a piece of intelligenc_or which, I may say, I had been waiting. Captain Harris (I was told) with
"Mr. Mountain, the trader," had gone by up the river in a boat. I would hav_eared the landlord's eye, so strong the sense of some complicity upon m_aster's part oppressed me. But I made out to say I had some knowledge of th_aptain, although none of Mr. Mountain, and to inquire who else was of th_arty. My informant knew not; Mr. Mountain had come ashore upon some needfu_urchases; had gone round the town buying, drinking, and prating; and i_eemed the party went upon some likely venture, for he had spoken much o_reat things he would do when he returned. No more was known, for none of th_est had come ashore, and it seemed they were pressed for time to reach _ertain spot before the snow should fall.
And sure enough, the next day, there fell a sprinkle even in Albany; but i_assed as it came, and was but a reminder of what lay before us. I thought o_t lightly then, knowing so little as I did of that inclement province: th_etrospect is different; and I wonder at times if some of the horror of ther_vents which I must now rehearse flowed not from the foul skies and savag_inds to which we were exposed, and the agony of cold that we must suffer.
The boat having passed by, I thought at first we should have left the town.
But no such matter. My lord continued his stay in Albany where he had n_stensible affairs, and kept me by him, far from my due employment, and makin_ pretence of occupation. It is upon this passage I expect, and perhap_eserve, censure. I was not so dull but what I had my own thoughts. I coul_ot see the Master entrust himself into the hands of Harris, and not suspec_ome underhand contrivance. Harris bore a villainous reputation, and he ha_een tampered with in private by my lord; Mountain, the trader, proved, upo_nquiry, to be another of the same kidney; the errand they were all gone upo_eing the recovery of ill-gotten treasures, offered in itself a very stron_ncentive to foul play; and the character of the country where they journeye_romised impunity to deeds of blood. Well: it is true I had all these thought_nd fears, and guesses of the Master's fate. But you are to consider I was th_ame man that sought to dash him from the bulwarks of a ship in the mid-sea; the same that, a little before, very impiously but sincerely offered God _argain, seeking to hire God to be my bravo. It is true again that I had _ood deal melted towards our enemy. But this I always thought of as a weaknes_f the flesh and even culpable; my mind remaining steady and quite ben_gainst him. True, yet again, that it was one thing to assume on my ow_houlders the guilt and danger of a criminal attempt, and another to stand b_nd see my lord imperil and besmirch himself. But this was the very ground o_y inaction. For (should I anyway stir in the business) I might fail indeed t_ave the Master, but I could not miss to make a byword of my lord.
Thus it was that I did nothing; and upon the same reasons, I am still stron_o justify my course. We lived meanwhile in Albany, but though alone togethe_n a strange place, had little traffic beyond formal salutations. My lord ha_arried with him several introductions to chief people of the town an_eighbourhood; others he had before encountered in New York: with thi_onsequence, that he went much abroad, and I am sorry to say was altogethe_oo convivial in his habits. I was often in bed, but never asleep, when h_eturned; and there was scarce a night when he did not betray the influence o_iquor. By day he would still lay upon me endless tasks, which he showe_onsiderable ingenuity to fish up and renew, in the manner of Penelope's web.
I never refused, as I say, for I was hired to do his bidding; but I took n_ains to keep my penetration under a bushel, and would sometimes smile in hi_ace.
"I think I must be the devil and you Michael Scott," I said to him one day. "_ave bridged Tweed and split the Eildons; and now you set me to the rope o_and."
He looked at me with shining eyes, and looked away again, his jaw chewing, bu_ithout words.
"Well, well, my lord," said I, "your will is my pleasure. I will do this thin_or the fourth time; but I would beg of you to invent another task against to- morrow, for by my troth, I am weary of this one."
"You do not know what you are saying," returned my lord, putting on his ha_nd turning his back to me. "It is a strange thing you should take a pleasur_o annoy me. A friend - but that is a different affair. It is a strange thing.
I am a man that has had ill-fortune all my life through. I am still surrounde_y contrivances. I am always treading in plots," he burst out. "The whol_orld is banded against me."
"I would not talk wicked nonsense if I were you," said I; "but I will tell yo_hat I WOULD do - I would put my head in cold water, for you had more las_ight than you could carry."
"Do ye think that?" said he, with a manner of interest highly awakened. "Woul_hat be good for me? It's a thing I never tried."
"I mind the days when you had no call to try, and I wish, my lord, that the_ere back again," said I. "But the plain truth is, if you continue to exceed, you will do yourself a mischief."
"I don't appear to carry drink the way I used to," said my lord. "I ge_vertaken, Mackellar. But I will be more upon my guard."
"That is what I would ask of you," I replied. "You are to bear in mind tha_ou are Mr. Alexander's father: give the bairn a chance to carry his name wit_ome responsibility."
"Ay, ay," said he. "Ye're a very sensible man, Mackellar, and have been lon_n my employ. But I think, if you have nothing more to say to me I will b_tepping. If you have nothing more to say?" he added, with that burning, childish eagerness that was now so common with the man.
"No, my lord, I have nothing more," said I, dryly enough.
"Then I think I will be stepping," says my lord, and stood and looked at m_idgeting with his hat, which he had taken off again. "I suppose you will hav_o errands? No? I am to meet Sir William Johnson, but I will be more upon m_uard." He was silent for a time, and then, smiling: "Do you call to mind _lace, Mackellar - it's a little below Engles - where the burn runs very dee_nder a wood of rowans. I mind being there when I was a lad - dear, it come_ver me like an old song! - I was after the fishing, and I made a bonny cast.
Eh, but I was happy. I wonder, Mackellar, why I am never happy now?"
"My lord," said I, "if you would drink with more moderation you would have th_etter chance. It is an old byword that the bottle is a false consoler."
"No doubt," said he, "no doubt. Well, I think I will be going."
"Good-morning, my lord," said I.
"Good-morning, good-morning," said he, and so got himself at last from th_partment.
I give that for a fair specimen of my lord in the morning; and I must hav_escribed my patron very ill if the reader does not perceive a notable fallin_ff. To behold the man thus fallen: to know him accepted among his companion_or a poor, muddled toper, welcome (if he were welcome at all) for the bar_onsideration of his title; and to recall the virtues he had once displaye_gainst such odds of fortune; was not this a thing at once to rage and to b_umbled at?
In his cups, he was more expensive. I will give but the one scene, close upo_he end, which is strongly marked upon my memory to this day, and at the tim_ffected me almost with horror
I was in bed, lying there awake, when I heard him stumbling on the stair an_inging. My lord had no gift of music, his brother had all the graces of th_amily, so that when I say singing, you are to understand a manner of high, carolling utterance, which was truly neither speech nor song. Something no_nlike is to be heard upon the lips of children, ere they learn shame; fro_hose of a man grown elderly, it had a strange effect. He opened the door wit_oisy precaution; peered in, shading his candle; conceived me to slumber; entered, set his light upon the table, and took off his hat. I saw him ver_lain; a high, feverish exultation appeared to boil in his veins, and he stoo_nd smiled and smirked upon the candle. Presently he lifted up his arm, snapped his fingers, and fell to undress. As he did so, having once mor_orgot my presence, he took back to his singing; and now I could hear th_ords, which were those from the old song of the TWA CORBIES endlessl_epeated:
"And over his banes when they are bare The wind sall blaw for evermair!"
I have said there was no music in the man. His strains had no logica_uccession except in so far as they inclined a little to the minor mode; bu_hey exercised a rude potency upon the feelings, and followed the words, an_ignified the feelings of the singer with barbaric fitness. He took it firs_n the time and manner of a rant; presently this ill-favoured gleefulnes_bated, he began to dwell upon the notes more feelingly, and sank at last int_ degree of maudlin pathos that was to me scarce bearable. By equal steps, th_riginal briskness of his acts declined; and when he was stripped to hi_reeches, he sat on the bedside and fell to whimpering. I know nothing les_espectable than the tears of drunkenness, and turned my back impatiently o_his poor sight.
But he had started himself (I am to suppose) on that slippery descent of self- pity; on the which, to a man unstrung by old sorrows and recent potation_here is no arrest except exhaustion. His tears continued to flow, and the ma_o sit there, three parts naked, in the cold air of the chamber. I twitte_yself alternately with inhumanity and sentimental weakness, now half risin_n my bed to interfere, now reading myself lessons of indifference an_ourting slumber, until, upon a sudden, the QUANTUM MUTATUS AB ILLO shot int_y mind; and calling to remembrance his old wisdom, constancy, and patience, _as overborne with a pity almost approaching the passionate, not for my maste_lone but for the sons of man.
At this I leaped from my place, went over to his side and laid a hand on hi_are shoulder, which was cold as stone. He uncovered his face and showed it m_ll swollen and begrutten like a child's; and at the sight my impatienc_artially revived.
"Think shame to yourself," said I. "This is bairnly conduct. I might have bee_nivelling myself, if I had cared to swill my belly with wine. But I went t_y bed sober like a man. Come: get into yours, and have done with thi_itiable exhibition."
"Oh, Mackellar," said he, "my heart is wae!"
"Wae?" cried I. "For a good cause, I think. What words were these you sang a_ou came in? Show pity to others, we then can talk of pity to yourself. Yo_an be the one thing or the other, but I will be no party to half-way houses.
If you're a striker, strike, and if you're a bleater, bleat!"
"Cry!" cries he, with a burst, "that's it - strike! that's talking! Man, I'v_tood it all too long. But when they laid a hand upon the child, when th_hild's threatened" - his momentary vigour whimpering off - "my child, m_lexander!" - and he was at his tears again.
I took him by the shoulders and shook him. "Alexander!" said I. "Do you eve_hink of him? Not you! Look yourself in the face like a brave man, and you'l_ind you're but a self-deceiver. The wife, the friend, the child, they're al_qually forgot, and you sunk in a mere log of selfishness."
"Mackellar," said he, with a wonderful return to his old manner an_ppearance, "you may say what you will of me, but one thing I never was - _as never selfish."
"I will open your eyes in your despite," said I. "How long have we been here?
and how often have you written to your family? I think this is the first tim_ou were ever separate: have you written at all? Do they know if you are dea_r living?"
I had caught him here too openly; it braced his better nature; there was n_ore weeping, he thanked me very penitently, got to bed and was soon fas_sleep; and the first thing he did the next morning was to sit down and begi_ letter to my lady: a very tender letter it was too, though it was neve_inished. Indeed all communication with New York was transacted by myself; an_t will be judged I had a thankless task of it. What to tell my lady and i_hat words, and how far to be false and how far cruel, was a thing that kep_e often from my slumber.
All this while, no doubt, my lord waited with growing impatiency for news o_is accomplices. Harris, it is to be thought, had promised a high degree o_xpedition; the time was already overpast when word was to be looked for; an_uspense was a very evil counsellor to a man of an impaired intelligence. M_ord's mind throughout this interval dwelled almost wholly in the Wilderness, following that party with whose deeds he had so much concern. He continuall_onjured up their camps and progresses, the fashion of the country, th_erpetration in a thousand different manners of the same horrid fact, and tha_onsequent spectacle of the Master's bones lying scattered in the wind. Thes_rivate, guilty considerations I would continually observe to peep forth i_he man's talk, like rabbits from a hill. And it is the less wonder if th_cene of his meditations began to draw him bodily.
It is well known what pretext he took. Sir William Johnson had a diplomati_rrand in these parts; and my lord and I (from curiosity, as was given out) went in his company. Sir William was well attended and liberally supplied.
Hunters brought us venison, fish was taken for us daily in the streams, an_randy ran like water. We proceeded by day and encamped by night in th_ilitary style; sentinels were set and changed; every man had his named duty; and Sir William was the spring of all. There was much in this that might a_imes have entertained me; but for our misfortune, the weather was extremel_arsh, the days were in the beginning open, but the nights frosty from th_irst. A painful keen wind blew most of the time, so that we sat in the boa_ith blue fingers, and at night, as we scorched our faces at the fire, th_lothes upon our back appeared to be of paper. A dreadful solitude surrounde_ur steps; the land was quite dispeopled, there was no smoke of fires, an_ave for a single boat of merchants on the second day, we met no travellers.
The season was indeed late, but this desertion of the waterways impressed Si_illiam himself; and I have heard him more than once express a sense o_ntimidation. "I have come too late, I fear; they must have dug up th_atchet;" he said; and the future proved how justly he had reasoned.
I could never depict the blackness of my soul upon this journey. I have non_f those minds that are in love with the unusual: to see the winter coming an_o lie in the field so far from any house, oppressed me like a nightmare; i_eemed, indeed, a kind of awful braving of God's power; and this thought, which I daresay only writes me down a coward, was greatly exaggerated by m_rivate knowledge of the errand we were come upon. I was besides encumbered b_y duties to Sir William, whom it fell upon me to entertain; for my lord wa_uite sunk into a state bordering on PERVIGILIUM, watching the woods with _apt eye, sleeping scarce at all, and speaking sometimes not twenty words in _hole day. That which he said was still coherent; but it turned almos_nvariably upon the party for whom he kept his crazy lookout. He would tel_ir William often, and always as if it were a new communication, that he had
"a brother somewhere in the woods," and beg that the sentinels should b_irected "to inquire for him." "I am anxious for news of my brother," he woul_ay. And sometimes, when we were under way, he would fancy he spied a cano_ar off upon the water or a camp on the shore, and exhibit painful agitation.
It was impossible but Sir William should be struck with these singularities; and at last he led me aside, and hinted his uneasiness. I touched my head an_hook it; quite rejoiced to prepare a little testimony against possibl_isclosures.
"But in that case," cries Sir William, "is it wise to let him go at large?"
"Those that know him best," said I, "are persuaded that he should b_umoured."
"Well, well," replied Sir William, "it is none of my affairs. But if I ha_nderstood, you would never have been here."
Our advance into this savage country had thus uneventfully proceeded for abou_ week, when we encamped for a night at a place where the river ran amon_onsiderable mountains clothed in wood. The fires were lighted on a leve_pace at the water's edge; and we supped and lay down to sleep in th_ustomary fashion. It chanced the night fell murderously cold; the stringenc_f the frost seized and bit me through my coverings so that pain kept m_akeful; and I was afoot again before the peep of day, crouching by the fire_r trotting to and for at the stream's edge, to combat the aching of my limbs.
At last dawn began to break upon hoar woods and mountains, the sleepers rolle_n their robes, and the boisterous river dashing among spears of ice. I stoo_ooking about me, swaddled in my stiff coat of a bull's fur, and the breat_moking from my scorched nostrils, when, upon a sudden, a singular, eager cr_ang from the borders of the wood. The sentries answered it, the sleeper_prang to their feet; one pointed, the rest followed his direction with thei_yes, and there, upon the edge of the forest and betwixt two trees, we behel_he figure of a man reaching forth his hands like one in ecstasy. The nex_oment he ran forward, fell on his knees at the side of the camp, and burst i_ears.
This was John Mountain, the trader, escaped from the most horrid perils; an_is fist word, when he got speech, was to ask if we had seen Secundra Dass.
"Seen what?" cries Sir William.
"No," said I, "we have seen nothing of him. Why?"
"Nothing?" says Mountain. "Then I was right after all." With that he struc_is palm upon his brow. "But what takes him back?" he cried. "What takes th_an back among dead bodies. There is some damned mystery here."
This was a word which highly aroused our curiosity, but I shall be mor_erspicacious, if I narrate these incidents in their true order. Here follow_ narrative which I have compiled out of three sources, not very consistent i_ll points:
FIRST, a written statement by Mountain, in which everything criminal i_leverly smuggled out of view;
SECOND, two conversations with Secundra Dass; and
THIRD, many conversations with Mountain himself, in which he was pleased to b_ntirely plain; for the truth is he regarded me as an accomplice.
NARRATIVE OF THE TRADER, MOUNTAIN.
The crew that went up the river under the joint command of Captain Harris an_he Master numbered in all nine persons, of whom (if I except Secundra Dass) there was not one that had not merited the gallows. From Harris downward th_oyagers were notorious in that colony for desperate, bloody-minde_iscreants; some were reputed pirates, the most hawkers of rum; all ranter_nd drinkers; all fit associates, embarking together without remorse, upo_his treacherous and murderous design. I could not hear there was muc_iscipline or any set captain in the gang; but Harris and four others, Mountain himself, two Scotchmen - Pinkerton and Hastie - and a man of the nam_f Hicks, a drunken shoemaker, put their heads together and agreed upon th_ourse. In a material sense, they were well enough provided; and the Master i_articular brought with him a tent where he might enjoy some privacy an_helter.
Even this small indulgence told against him in the minds of his companions.
But indeed he was in a position so entirely false (and even ridiculous) tha_ll his habit of command and arts of pleasing were here thrown away. In th_yes of all, except Secundra Dass, he figured as a common gull and designate_ictim; going unconsciously to death; yet he could not but suppose himself th_ontriver and the leader of the expedition; he could scarce help but s_onduct himself and at the least hint of authority or condescension, hi_eceivers would be laughing in their sleeves. I was so used to see and t_onceive him in a high, authoritative attitude, that when I had conceived hi_osition on this journey, I was pained and could have blushed. How soon he ma_ave entertained a first surmise, we cannot know; but it was long, and th_arty had advanced into the Wilderness beyond the reach of any help, ere h_as fully awakened to the truth.
It fell thus. Harris and some others had drawn apart into the woods fo_onsultation, when they were startled by a rustling in the brush. They wer_ll accustomed to the arts of Indian warfare, and Mountain had not only live_nd hunted, but fought and earned some reputation, with the savages. He coul_ove in the woods without noise, and follow a trail like a hound; and upon th_mergence of this alert, he was deputed by the rest to plunge into the thicke_or intelligence. He was soon convinced there was a man in his clos_eighbourhood, moving with precaution but without art among the leaves an_ranches; and coming shortly to a place of advantage, he was able to observ_ecundra Dass crawling briskly off with many backward glances. At this he kne_ot whether to laugh or cry; and his accomplices, when he had returned an_eported, were in much the same dubiety. There was now no danger of an India_nslaught; but on the other hand, since Secundra Dass was at the pains to sp_pon them, it was highly probable he knew English, and if he knew English i_as certain the whole of their design was in the Master's knowledge. There wa_ne singularity in the position. If Secundra Dass knew and concealed hi_nowledge of English, Harris was a proficient in several of the tongues o_ndia, and as his career in that part of the world had been a great deal wors_han profligate, he had not thought proper to remark upon the circumstance.
Each side had thus a spy-hole on the counsels of the other. The plotters, s_oon as this advantage was explained, returned to camp; Harris, hearing th_industani was once more closeted with his master, crept to the side of th_ent; and the rest, sitting about the fire with their tobacco, awaited hi_eport with impatience. When he came at last, his face was very black. He ha_verheard enough to confirm the worst of his suspicions. Secundra Dass was _ood English scholar; he had been some days creeping and listening, the Maste_as now fully informed of the conspiracy, and the pair proposed on the morro_o fall out of line at a carrying place and plunge at a venture in the woods: preferring the full risk of famine, savage beasts, and savage men to thei_osition in the midst of traitors.
What, then, was to be done? Some were for killing the Master on the spot; bu_arris assured them that would be a crime without profit, since the secret o_he treasure must die along with him that buried it. Others were for desistin_t once from the whole enterprise and making for New York; but the appetisin_ame of treasure, and the thought of the long way they had already travelle_issuaded the majority. I imagine they were dull fellows for the most part.
Harris, indeed, had some acquirements, Mountain was no fool, Hastie was a_ducated man; but even these had manifestly failed in life, and the rest wer_he dregs of colonial rascality. The conclusion they reached, at least, wa_ore the offspring of greed and hope, than reason. It was to temporise, to b_ary and watch the Master, to be silent and supply no further aliment to hi_uspicions, and to depend entirely (as well as I make out) on the chance tha_heir victim was as greedy, hopeful, and irrational as themselves, and might, after all, betray his life and treasure.
Twice in the course of the next day Secundra and the Master must have appeare_o themselves to have escaped; and twice they were circumvented. The Master, save that the second time he grew a little pale, displayed no sign o_isappointment, apologised for the stupidity with which he had fallen aside, thanked his recapturers as for a service, and rejoined the caravan with al_is usual gallantry and cheerfulness of mien and bearing. But it is certain h_ad smelled a rat; for from thenceforth he and Secundra spoke only in eac_ther's ear, and Harris listened and shivered by the tent in vain. The sam_ight it was announced they were to leave the boats and proceed by foot, _ircumstance which (as it put an end to the confusion of the portages) greatl_essened the chances of escape.
And now there began between the two sides a silent contest, for life on th_ne hand, for riches on the other. They were now near that quarter of th_esert in which the Master himself must begin to play the part of guide; an_sing this for a pretext of persecution, Harris and his men sat with him ever_ight about the fire, and laboured to entrap him into some admission. If h_et slip his secret, he knew well it was the warrant for his death; on th_ther hand, he durst not refuse their questions, and must appear to help the_o the best of his capacity, or he practically published his mistrust. And ye_ountain assures me the man's brow was never ruffled. He sat in the midst o_hese jackals, his life depending by a thread, like some easy, witt_ouseholder at home by his own fire; an answer he had for everything - a_ften as not, a jesting answer; avoided threats, evaded insults; talked, laughed, and listened with an open countenance; and, in short, conducte_imself in such a manner as must have disarmed suspicion, and went near t_tagger knowledge. Indeed, Mountain confessed to me they would soon hav_isbelieved the Captain's story, and supposed their designated victim stil_uite innocent of their designs; but for the fact that he continued (howeve_ngeniously) to give the slip to questions, and the yet stronger confirmatio_f his repeated efforts to escape. The last of these, which brought things t_ head, I am now to relate. And first I should say that by this time th_emper of Harris's companions was utterly worn out; civility was scarc_retended; and for one very significant circumstance, the Master and Secundr_ad been (on some pretext) deprived of weapons. On their side, however, th_hreatened pair kept up the parade of friendship handsomely; Secundra was al_ows, the Master all smiles; and on the last night of the truce he had eve_one so far as to sing for the diversion of the company. It was observed tha_e had also eaten with unusual heartiness, and drank deep, doubtless fro_esign.
At least, about three in the morning, he came out of the tent into the ope_ir, audibly mourning and complaining, with all the manner of a sufferer fro_urfeit. For some while, Secundra publicly attended on his patron, who at las_ecame more easy, and fell asleep on the frosty ground behind the tent, th_ndian returning within. Some time after, the sentry was changed; had th_aster pointed out to him, where he lay in what is called a robe of buffalo: and thenceforth kept an eye upon him (he declared) without remission. With th_irst of the dawn, a draught of wind came suddenly and blew open one side th_orner of the robe; and with the same puff, the Master's hat whirled in th_ir and fell some yards away. The sentry thinking it remarkable the sleepe_hould not awaken, thereupon drew near; and the next moment, with a grea_hout, informed the camp their prisoner was escaped. He had left behind hi_ndian, who (in the first vivacity of the surprise) came near to pay th_orfeit of his life, and was, in fact, inhumanly mishandled; but Secundra, i_he midst of threats and cruelties, stuck to it with extraordinary loyalty, that he was quite ignorant of his master's plans, which might indeed be true, and of the manner of his escape, which was demonstrably false. Nothing wa_herefore left to the conspirators but to rely entirely on the skill o_ountain. The night had been frosty, the ground quite hard; and the sun was n_ooner up than a strong thaw set in. It was Mountain's boast that few me_ould have followed that trail, and still fewer (even of the native Indians) found it. The Master had thus a long start before his pursuers had the scent, and he must have travelled with surprising energy for a pedestrian so unused, since it was near noon before Mountain had a view of him. At this conjunctur_he trader was alone, all his companions following, at his own request, several hundred yards in the rear; he knew the Master was unarmed; his hear_as besides heated with the exercise and lust of hunting; and seeing th_uarry so close, so defenceless, and seeming so fatigued, he vain-gloriousl_etermined to effect the capture with his single hand. A step or two farthe_rought him to one margin of a little clearing; on the other, with his arm_olded and his back to a huge stone, the Master sat. It is possible Mountai_ay have made a rustle, it is certain, at least, the Master raised his hea_nd gazed directly at that quarter of the thicket where his hunter lay; "_ould not be sure he saw me," Mountain said; "he just looked my way like a ma_ith his mind made up, and all the courage ran out of me like rum out of _ottle." And presently, when the Master looked away again, and appeared t_esume those meditations in which he had sat immersed before the trader'_oming, Mountain slunk stealthily back and returned to seek the help of hi_ompanions.
And now began the chapter of surprises, for the scout had scarce informed th_thers of his discovery, and they were yet preparing their weapons for a rus_pon the fugitive, when the man himself appeared in their midst, walkin_penly and quietly, with his hands behind his back.
"Ah, men!" says he, on his beholding them. "Here is a fortunate encounter. Le_s get back to camp."
Mountain had not mentioned his own weakness or the Master's disconcerting gaz_pon the thicket, so that (with all the rest) his return appeared spontaneous.
For all that, a hubbub arose; oaths flew, fists were shaken, and guns pointed.
"Let us get back to camp," said the Master. "I have an explanation to make, but it must be laid before you all. And in the meanwhile I would put up thes_eapons, one of which might very easily go off and blow away your hopes o_reasure. I would not kill," says he, smiling, "the goose with the golde_ggs."
The charm of his superiority once more triumphed; and the party, in n_articular order, set off on their return. By the way, he found occasion t_et a word or two apart with Mountain.
"You are a clever fellow and a bold," says he, "but I am not so sure that yo_re doing yourself justice. I would have you to consider whether you would no_o better, ay, and safer, to serve me instead of serving so commonplace _ascal as Mr. Harris. Consider of it," he concluded, dealing the man a gentl_ap upon the shoulder, "and don't be in haste. Dead or alive, you will find m_n ill man to quarrel with."
When they were come back to the camp, where Harris and Pinkerton stood guar_ver Secundra, these two ran upon the Master like viragoes, and were amaze_ut of measure when they were bidden by their comrades to "stand back and hea_hat the gentleman had to say." The Master had not flinched before thei_nslaught; nor, at this proof of the ground he had gained, did he betray th_east sufficiency.
"Do not let us be in haste," says he. "Meat first and public speaking after."
With that they made a hasty meal: and as soon as it was done, the Master, leaning on one elbow, began his speech. He spoke long, addressing himself t_ach except Harris, finding for each (with the same exception) some particula_lattery. He called them "bold, honest blades," declared he had never seen _ore jovial company, work better done, or pains more merrily supported. "Well, then," says he, "some one asks me, Why the devil I ran away? But that i_carce worth answer, for I think you all know pretty well. But you know onl_retty well: that is a point I shall arrive at presently, and be you ready t_emark it when it comes. There is a traitor here: a double traitor: I wil_ive you his name before I am done; and let that suffice for now. But her_omes some other gentleman and asks me, 'Why, in the devil, I came back?'
Well, before I answer that question, I have one to put to you. It was this cu_ere, this Harris, that speaks Hindustani?" cries he, rising on one knee an_ointing fair at the man's face, with a gesture indescribably menacing; an_hen he had been answered in the affirmative, "Ah!" says he, "then are all m_uspicions verified, and I did rightly to come back. Now, men, hear the trut_or the first time." Thereupon he launched forth in a long story, told wit_xtraordinary skill, how he had all along suspected Harris, how he had foun_he confirmation of his fears, and how Harris must have misrepresented wha_assed between Secundra and himself. At this point he made a bold stroke wit_xcellent effect. "I suppose," says he, "you think you are going shares wit_arris; I suppose you think you will see to that yourselves; you woul_aturally not think so flat a rogue could cozen you. But have a care! Thes_alf idiots have a sort of cunning, as the skunk has its stench; and it may b_ews to you that Harris has taken care of himself already. Yes, for him th_reasure is all money in the bargain. You must find it or go starve. But h_as been paid beforehand; my brother paid him to destroy me; look at him, i_ou doubt - look at him, grinning and gulping, a detected thief!" Thence, having made this happy impression, he explained how he had escaped, an_hought better of it, and at last concluded to come back, lay the truth befor_he company, and take his chance with them once more: persuaded as he was, they would instantly depose Harris and elect some other leader. "There is th_hole truth," said he: "and with one exception, I put myself entirely in you_ands. What is the exception? There he sits," he cried, pointing once more t_arris; "a man that has to die! Weapons and conditions are all one to me; pu_e face to face with him, and if you give me nothing but a stick, in fiv_inutes I will show you a sop of broken carrion, fit for dogs to roll in."
It was dark night when he made an end; they had listened in almost perfec_ilence; but the firelight scarce permitted any one to judge, from the look o_is neighbours, with what result of persuasion or conviction. Indeed, th_aster had set himself in the brightest place, and kept his face there, to b_he centre of men's eyes: doubtless on a profound calculation. Silenc_ollowed for awhile, and presently the whole party became involved i_isputation: the Master lying on his back, with his hands knit under his hea_nd one knee flung across the other, like a person unconcerned in the result.
And here, I daresay, his bravado carried him too far and prejudiced his case.
At least, after a cast or two back and forward, opinion settled finall_gainst him. It's possible he hoped to repeat the business of the pirate ship, and be himself, perhaps, on hard enough conditions, elected leader; and thing_ent so far that way, that Mountain actually threw out the proposition. Bu_he rock he split upon was Hastie. This fellow was not well liked, being sou_nd slow, with an ugly, glowering disposition, but he had studied some tim_or the church at Edinburgh College, before ill conduct had destroyed hi_rospects, and he now remembered and applied what he had learned. Indeed h_ad not proceeded very far, when the Master rolled carelessly upon one side, which was done (in Mountain's opinion) to conceal the beginnings of despai_pon his countenance. Hastie dismissed the most of what they had heard a_othing to the matter: what they wanted was the treasure. All that was said o_arris might be true, and they would have to see to that in time. But what ha_hat to do with the treasure? They had heard a vast of words; but the trut_as just this, that Mr. Durie was damnably frightened and had several time_un off. Here he was - whether caught or come back was all one to Hastie: th_oint was to make an end of the business. As for the talk of deposing an_lecting captains, he hoped they were all free men and could attend their ow_ffairs. That was dust flung in their eyes, and so was the proposal to figh_arris. "He shall fight no one in this camp, I can tell him that," sai_astie. "We had trouble enough to get his arms away from him, and we shoul_ook pretty fools to give them back again. But if it's excitement th_entleman is after, I can supply him with more than perhaps he cares about.
For I have no intention to spend the remainder of my life in these mountains; already I have been too long; and I propose that he should immediately tell u_here that treasure is, or else immediately be shot. And there," says he, producing his weapon, "there is the pistol that I mean to use."
"Come, I call you a man," cries the Master, sitting up and looking at th_peaker with an air of admiration.
"I didn't ask you to call me anything," returned Hastie; "which is it to be?"
"That's an idle question," said the Master. "Needs must when the devil drives.
The truth is we are within easy walk of the place, and I will show it you to- morrow."
With that, as if all were quite settled, and settled exactly to his mind, h_alked off to his tent, whither Secundra had preceded him.
I cannot think of these last turns and wriggles of my old enemy except wit_dmiration; scarce even pity is mingled with the sentiment, so strongly th_an supported, so boldly resisted his misfortunes. Even at that hour, when h_erceived himself quite lost, when he saw he had but effected an exchange o_nemies, and overthrown Harris to set Hastie up, no sign of weakness appeare_n his behaviour, and he withdrew to his tent, already determined (I mus_uppose) upon affronting the incredible hazard of his last expedient, with th_ame easy, assured, genteel expression and demeanour as he might have left _heatre withal to join a supper of the wits. But doubtless within, if we coul_ee there, his soul trembled.
Early in the night, word went about the camp that he was sick; and the firs_hing the next morning he called Hastie to his side, and inquired mos_nxiously if he had any skill in medicine. As a matter of fact, this was _anity of that fallen divinity student's, to which he had cunningly addresse_imself. Hastie examined him; and being flattered, ignorant, and highl_uspicious, knew not in the least whether the man was sick or malingering. I_his state he went forth again to his companions; and (as the thing whic_ould give himself most consequence either way) announced that the patient wa_n a fair way to die.
"For all that," he added with an oath, "and if he bursts by the wayside, h_ust bring us this morning to the treasure."
But there were several in the camp (Mountain among the number) whom thi_rutality revolted. They would have seen the Master pistolled, or pistolle_im themselves, without the smallest sentiment of pity; but they seemed t_ave been touched by his gallant fight and unequivocal defeat the nigh_efore; perhaps, too, they were even already beginning to oppose themselves t_heir new leader: at least, they now declared that (if the man was sick) h_hould have a day's rest in spite of Hastie's teeth.
The next morning he was manifestly worse, and Hastie himself began to displa_omething of humane concern, so easily does even the pretence of doctorin_waken sympathy. The third the Master called Mountain and Hastie to the tent, announced himself to be dying, gave them full particulars as to the positio_f the cache, and begged them to set out incontinently on the quest, so tha_hey might see if he deceived them, and (if they were at first unsuccessful) he should be able to correct their error.
But here arose a difficulty on which he doubtless counted. None of these me_ould trust another, none would consent to stay behind. On the other hand, although the Master seemed extremely low, spoke scarce above a whisper, an_ay much of the time insensible, it was still possible it was a fraudulen_ickness; and if all went treasure-hunting, it might prove they had gone upo_ wild-goose chase, and return to find their prisoner flown. They concluded, therefore, to hang idling round the camp, alleging sympathy to their reason; and certainly, so mingled are our dispositions, several were sincerely (if no_ery deeply) affected by the natural peril of the man whom they callousl_esigned to murder. In the afternoon, Hastie was called to the bedside t_ray: the which (incredible as it must appear) he did with unction; abou_ight at night, the wailing of Secundra announced that all was over; an_efore ten, the Indian, with a link stuck in the ground, was toiling at th_rave. Sunrise of next day beheld the Master's burial, all hands attendin_ith great decency of demeanour; and the body was laid in the earth, wrappe_n a fur robe, with only the face uncovered; which last was of a wax_hiteness, and had the nostrils plugged according to some Oriental habit o_ecundra's. No sooner was the grave filled than the lamentations of the India_nce more struck concern to every heart; and it appears this gang o_urderers, so far from resenting his outcries, although both distressful and (in such a country) perilous to their own safety, roughly but kindl_ndeavoured to console him.
But if human nature is even in the worst of men occasionally kind, it i_till, and before all things, greedy; and they soon turned from the mourner t_heir own concerns. The cache of the treasure being hard by, although ye_nidentified, it was concluded not to break camp; and the day passed, on th_art of the voyagers, in unavailing exploration of the woods, Secundra th_hile lying on his master's grave. That night they placed no sentinel, but la_ltogether about the fire, in the customary woodman fashion, the head_utward, like the spokes of a wheel. Morning found them in the sam_isposition; only Pinkerton, who lay on Mountain's right, between him an_astie, had (in the hours of darkness) been secretly butchered, and there lay, still wrapped as to his body in his mantle, but offering above that ungodl_nd horrific spectacle of the scalped head. The gang were that morning as pal_s a company of phantoms, for the pertinacity of Indian war (or to speak mor_orrectly, Indian murder) was well known to all. But they laid the chief blam_n their unsentinelled posture; and fired with the neighbourhood of th_reasure, determined to continue where they were. Pinkerton was buried hard b_he Master; the survivors again passed the day in exploration, and returned i_ mingled humour of anxiety and hope, being partly certain they were now clos_n the discovery of what they sought, and on the other hand (with the retur_f darkness) were infected with the fear of Indians. Mountain was the firs_entry; he declares he neither slept nor yet sat down, but kept his watch wit_ perpetual and straining vigilance, and it was even with unconcern that (whe_e saw by the stars his time was up) he drew near the fire to awaken hi_uccessor. This man (it was Hicks the shoemaker) slept on the lee side of th_ircle, something farther off in consequence than those to windward, and in _lace darkened by the blowing smoke. Mountain stooped and took him by th_houlder; his hand was at once smeared by some adhesive wetness; and (the win_t the moment veering) the firelight shone upon the sleeper, and showed him, like Pinkerton, dead and scalped.
It was clear they had fallen in the hands of one of those matchless India_ravos, that will sometimes follow a party for days, and in spite o_ndefatigable travel, and unsleeping watch, continue to keep up with thei_dvance, and steal a scalp at every resting- place. Upon this discovery, th_reasure-seekers, already reduced to a poor half dozen, fell into mere dismay, seized a few necessaries, and deserting the remainder of their goods, fle_utright into the forest. Their fire they left still burning, and their dea_omrade unburied. All day they ceased not to flee, eating by the way, fro_and to mouth; and since they feared to sleep, continued to advance at rando_ven in the hours of darkness. But the limit of man's endurance is soo_eached; when they rested at last it was to sleep profoundly; and when the_oke, it was to find that the enemy was still upon their heels, and death an_utilation had once more lessened and deformed their company.
By this they had become light-headed, they had quite missed their path in th_ilderness, their stores were already running low. With the further horrors, it is superfluous that I should swell this narrative, already too prolonged.
Suffice it to say that when at length a night passed by innocuous, and the_ight breathe again in the hope that the murderer had at last desisted fro_ursuit, Mountain and Secundra were alone. The trader is firmly persuade_heir unseen enemy was some warrior of his own acquaintance, and that h_imself was spared by favour. The mercy extended to Secundra he explains o_he ground that the East Indian was thought to be insane; partly from the fac_hat, through all the horrors of the flight and while others were casting awa_heir very food and weapons, Secundra continued to stagger forward with _attock on his shoulder, and partly because, in the last days and with a grea_egree of heat and fluency, he perpetually spoke with himself in his ow_anguage. But he was sane enough when it came to English.
"You think he will be gone quite away?" he asked, upon their blest awakenin_n safety.
"I pray God so, I believe so, I dare to believe so," Mountain had replie_lmost with incoherence, as he described the scene to me.
And indeed he was so much distempered that until he met us, the next morning, he could scarce be certain whether he had dreamed, or whether it was a fact, that Secundra had thereupon turned directly about and returned without a wor_pon their footprints, setting his face for these wintry and hungry solitudes, along a path whose every stage was mile-stoned with a mutilated corpse.