Chapter 12 The Journey in the wilderness (continued)
Mountain's story, as it was laid before Sir William Johnson and my lord, wa_horn, of course, of all the earlier particulars, and the expedition describe_o have proceeded uneventfully, until the Master sickened. But the latter par_as very forcibly related, the speaker visibly thrilling to his recollections; and our then situation, on the fringe of the same desert, and the privat_nterests of each, gave him an audience prepared to share in his emotions. Fo_ountain's intelligence not only changed the world for my Lord Durrisdeer, bu_aterially affected the designs of Sir William Johnson.
These I find I must lay more at length before the reader. Word had reache_lbany of dubious import; it had been rumoured some hostility was to be put i_ct; and the Indian diplomatist had, thereupon, sped into the wilderness, eve_t the approach of winter, to nip that mischief in the bud. Here, on th_orders, he learned that he was come too late; and a difficult choice was thu_resented to a man (upon the whole) not any more bold than prudent. Hi_tanding with the painted braves may be compared to that of my Lord Presiden_ulloden among the chiefs of our own Highlanders at the 'forty-five; that i_s much as to say, he was, to these men, reason's only speaking trumpet, an_ounsels of peace and moderation, if they were to prevail at all, must prevai_ingly through his influence. If, then, he should return, the province mus_ie open to all the abominable tragedies of Indian war - the houses blaze, th_ayfarer be cut off, and the men of the woods collect their usual disgustin_poil of human scalps. On the other side, to go farther forth, to risk s_mall a party deeper in the desert, to carry words of peace among warlik_avages already rejoicing to return to war: here was an extremity from whic_t was easy to perceive his mind revolted.
"I have come too late," he said more than once, and would fall into a dee_onsideration, his head bowed in his hands, his foot patting the ground.
At length he raised his face and looked upon us, that is to say upon my lord, Mountain, and myself, sitting close round a small fire, which had been mad_or privacy in one corner of the camp.
"My lord, to be quite frank with you, I find myself in two minds," said he. "_hink it very needful I should go on, but not at all proper I should an_onger enjoy the pleasure of your company. We are here still upon the wate_ide; and I think the risk to southward no great matter. Will not yourself an_r. Mackellar take a single boat's crew and return to Albany?"
My lord, I should say, had listened to Mountain's narrative, regarding hi_hroughout with a painful intensity of gaze; and since the tale concluded, ha_at as in a dream. There was something very daunting in his look; something t_y eyes not rightly human; the face, lean, and dark, and aged, the mout_ainful, the teeth disclosed in a perpetual rictus; the eyeball swimming clea_f the lids upon a field of blood-shot white. I could not behold him mysel_ithout a jarring irritation, such as, I believe, is too frequently th_ppermost feeling on the sickness of those dear to us. Others, I could not bu_emark. were scarce able to support his neighbourhood - Sir William eviting t_e near him, Mountain dodging his eye, and, when he met it, blenching an_alting in his story. At this appeal, however, my lord appeared to recover hi_ommand upon himself.
"To Albany?" said he, with a good voice.
"Not short of it, at least," replied Sir William. "There is no safety neare_and."
"I would be very sweir to return," says my lord. "I am not afraid - o_ndians," he added, with a jerk.
"I wish that I could say so much," returned Sir William, smiling; "although, if any man durst say it, it should be myself. But you are to keep in view m_esponsibility, and that as the voyage has now become highly dangerous, an_our business - if you ever had any," says he, "brought quite to a conclusio_y the distressing family intelligence you have received, I should be hardl_ustified if I even suffered you to proceed, and run the risk of some obloqu_f anything regrettable should follow."
My lord turned to Mountain. "What did he pretend he died of?" he asked.
"I don't think I understand your honour," said the trader, pausing like a ma_ery much affected, in the dressing of some cruel frost- bites.
For a moment my lord seemed at a full stop; and then, with some irritation, "_sk you what he died of. Surely that's a plain question," said he.
"Oh! I don't know," said Mountain. "Hastie even never knew. He seemed t_icken natural, and just pass away."
"There it is, you see!" concluded my lord, turning to Sir William.
"Your lordship is too deep for me," replied Sir William.
"Why," says my lord, "this in a matter of succession; my son's title may b_alled in doubt; and the man being supposed to be dead of nobody can tel_hat, a great deal of suspicion would be naturally roused."
"But, God damn me, the man's buried!" cried Sir William.
"I will never believe that," returned my lord, painfully trembling. "I'l_ever believe it!" he cried again, and jumped to his feet. "Did he LOOK dead?"
he asked of Mountain.
"Look dead?" repeated the trader. "He looked white. Why, what would he be at?
I tell you, I put the sods upon him."
My lord caught Sir William by the coat with a hooked hand. "This man has th_ame of my brother," says he, "but it's well understood that he was neve_anny."
"Canny?" says Sir William. "What is that?"
"He's not of this world," whispered my lord, "neither him nor the black dei_hat serves him. I have struck my sword throughout his vitals," he cried; "_ave felt the hilt dirl on his breastbone, and the hot blood spirt in my ver_ace, time and again, time and again!" he repeated, with a gestur_ndescribable. "But he was never dead for that," said he, and I sighed aloud.
"Why should I think he was dead now? No, not till I see him rotting," says he.
Sir William looked across at me with a long face. Mountain forgot his wounds, staring and gaping.
"My lord," said I, "I wish you would collect your spirits." But my throat wa_o dry, and my own wits so scattered, I could add no more.
"No," says my lord, "it's not to be supposed that he would understand me.
Mackellar does, for he kens all, and has seen him buried before now. This is _ery good servant to me, Sir William, this man Mackellar; he buried him wit_is own hands - he and my father - by the light of two siller candlesticks.
The other man is a familiar spirit; he brought him from Coromandel. I woul_ave told ye this long syne, Sir William, only it was in the family." Thes_ast remarks he made with a kind of a melancholy composure, and his time o_berration seemed to pass away. "You can ask yourself what it all means," h_roceeded. "My brother falls sick, and dies, and is buried, as so they say; and all seems very plain. But why did the familiar go back? I think ye mus_ee for yourself it's a point that wants some clearing."
"I will be at your service, my lord, in half a minute," said Sir William, rising. "Mr. Mackellar, two words with you;" and he led me without the camp, the frost crunching in our steps, the trees standing at our elbow, hoar wit_rost, even as on that night in the Long Shrubbery. "Of course, this i_idsummer madness," said Sir William, as soon as we were gotten out o_earing.
"Why, certainly," said I. "The man is mad. I think that manifest."
"Shall I seize and bind him?" asked Sir William. "I will upon your authority.
If these are all ravings, that should certainly be done."
I looked down upon the ground, back at the camp, with its bright fires and th_olk watching us, and about me on the woods and mountains; there was just th_ne way that I could not look, and that was in Sir William's face.
"Sir William," said I at last, "I think my lord not sane, and have lon_hought him so. But there are degrees in madness; and whether he should b_rought under restraint - Sir William, I am no fit judge," I concluded.
"I will be the judge," said he. "I ask for facts. Was there, in all tha_argon, any word of truth or sanity? Do you hesitate?" he asked. "Am I t_nderstand you have buried this gentleman before?"
"Not buried," said I; and then, taking up courage at last, "Sir William," sai_, "unless I were to tell you a long story, which much concerns a noble family (and myself not in the least), it would be impossible to make this matte_lear to you. Say the word, and I will do it, right or wrong. And, at an_ate, I will say so much, that my lord is not so crazy as he seems. This is _trange matter, into the tail of which you are unhappily drifted."
"I desire none of your secrets," replied Sir William; "but I will be plain, a_he risk of incivility, and confess that I take little pleasure in my presen_ompany."
"I would be the last to blame you," said I, "for that."
"I have not asked either for your censure or your praise, sir," returned Si_illiam. "I desire simply to be quit of you; and to that effect, I put a boa_nd complement of men at your disposal."
"This is fairly offered," said I, after reflection. "But you must suffer me t_ay a word upon the other side. We have a natural curiosity to learn the trut_f this affair; I have some of it myself; my lord (it is very plain) has bu_oo much. The matter of the Indian's return is enigmatical."
"I think so myself," Sir William interrupted, "and I propose (since I go i_hat direction) to probe it to the bottom. Whether or not the man has gon_ike a dog to die upon his master's grave, his life, at least, is in grea_anger, and I propose, if I can, to save it. There is nothing against hi_haracter?"
"Nothing, Sir William," I replied.
"And the other?" he said. "I have heard my lord, of course; but, from th_ircumstances of his servant's loyalty, I must suppose he had some nobl_ualities."
"You must not ask me that!" I cried. "Hell may have noble flames. I have know_im a score of years, and always hated, and always admired, and alway_lavishly feared him."
"I appear to intrude again upon your secrets," said Sir William, "believe me, inadvertently. Enough that I will see the grave, and (if possible) rescue th_ndian. Upon these terms, can you persuade your master to return to Albany?"
"Sir William," said I, "I will tell you how it is. You do not see my lord t_dvantage; it will seem even strange to you that I should love him; but I do, and I am not alone. If he goes back to Albany, it must be by force, and i_ill be the death-warrant of his reason, and perhaps his life. That is m_incere belief; but I am in your hands, and ready to obey, if you will assum_o much responsibility as to command."
"I will have no shred of responsibility; it is my single endeavour to avoi_he same," cried Sir William. "You insist upon following this journey up; an_e it so! I wash my hands of the whole matter."
With which word, he turned upon his heel and gave the order to break camp; an_y lord, who had been hovering near by, came instantly to my side.
"Which is it to be?" said he.
"You are to have your way," I answered. "You shall see the grave."
The situation of the Master's grave was, between guides, easily described; i_ay, indeed, beside a chief landmark of the wilderness, a certain range o_eaks, conspicuous by their design and altitude, and the source of man_rawling tributaries to that inland sea, Lake Champlain. It was therefor_ossible to strike for it direct, instead of following back the blood-staine_rail of the fugitives, and to cover, in some sixteen hours of march, _istance which their perturbed wanderings had extended over more than sixty.
Our boats we left under a guard upon the river; it was, indeed, probable w_hould return to find them frozen fast; and the small equipment with which w_et forth upon the expedition, included not only an infinity of furs t_rotect us from the cold, but an arsenal of snow-shoes to render trave_ossible, when the inevitable snow should fall. Considerable alarm wa_anifested at our departure; the march was conducted with soldierl_recaution, the camp at night sedulously chosen and patrolled; and it was _onsideration of this sort that arrested us, the second day, within not man_undred yards of our destination - the night being already imminent, the spo_n which we stood well qualified to be a strong camp for a party of ou_umbers; and Sir William, therefore, on a sudden thought, arresting ou_dvance.
Before us was the high range of mountains toward which we had been all da_eviously drawing near. From the first light of the dawn, their silver peak_ad been the goal of our advance across a tumbled lowland forest, thrid wit_ough streams, and strewn with monstrous boulders; the peaks (as I say) silver, for already at the higher altitudes the snow fell nightly; but th_oods and the low ground only breathed upon with frost. All day heaven ha_een charged with ugly vapours, in the which the sun swam and glimmered like _hilling piece; all day the wind blew on our left cheek barbarous cold, bu_ery pure to breathe. With the end of the afternoon, however, the wind fell; the clouds, being no longer reinforced, were scattered or drunk up; the su_et behind us with some wintry splendour, and the white brow of the mountain_hared its dying glow.
It was dark ere we had supper; we ate in silence, and the meal was scarc_espatched before my lord slunk from the fireside to the margin of the camp; whither I made haste to follow him. The camp was on high ground, overlooking _rozen lake, perhaps a mile in its longest measurement; all about us, th_orest lay in heights and hollows; above rose the white mountains; and highe_et, the moon rode in a fair sky. There was no breath of air; nowhere a twi_reaked; and the sounds of our own camp were hushed and swallowed up in th_urrounding stillness. Now that the sun and the wind were both gone down, i_ppeared almost warm, like a night of July: a singular illusion of the sense, when earth, air, and water were strained to bursting with the extremity o_rost.
My lord (or what I still continued to call by his loved name) stood with hi_lbow in one hand, and his chin sunk in the other, gazing before him on th_urface of the wood. My eyes followed his, and rested almost pleasantly upo_he frosted contexture of the pines, rising in moonlit hillocks, or sinking i_he shadow of small glens. Hard by, I told myself, was the grave of our enemy, now gone where the wicked cease from troubling, the earth heaped for ever o_is once so active limbs. I could not but think of him as somehow fortunate t_e thus done with man's anxiety and weariness, the daily expense of spirit, and that daily river of circumstance to be swum through, at any hazard, unde_he penalty of shame or death. I could not but think how good was the end o_hat long travel; and with that, my mind swung at a tangent to my lord. Fo_as not my lord dead also? a maimed soldier, looking vainly for discharge, lingering derided in the line of battle? A kind man, I remembered him; wise, with a decent pride, a son perhaps too dutiful, a husband only too loving, on_hat could suffer and be silent, one whose hand I loved to press. Of a sudden, pity caught in my windpipe with a sob; I could have wept aloud to remember an_ehold him; and standing thus by his elbow, under the broad moon, I praye_ervently either that he should be released, or I strengthened to persist i_y affection.
"Oh God," said I, "this was the best man to me and to himself, and now _hrink from him. He did no wrong, or not till he was broke with sorrows; thes_re but his honourable wounds that we begin to shrink from. Oh, cover them up, oh, take him away, before we hate him!"
I was still so engaged in my own bosom, when a sound broke suddenly upon th_ight. It was neither very loud, nor very near; yet, bursting as it did fro_o profound and so prolonged a silence, it startled the camp like an alarm o_rumpets. Ere I had taken breath, Sir William was beside me, the main part o_he voyagers clustered at his back, intently giving ear. Methought, as _lanced at them across my shoulder, there was a whiteness, other tha_oonlight, on their cheeks; and the rays of the moon reflected with a sparkl_n the eyes of some, and the shadows lying black under the brows of others (according as they raised or bowed the head to listen) gave to the group _trange air of animation and anxiety. My lord was to the front, crouching _ittle forth, his hand raised as for silence: a man turned to stone. And stil_he sounds continued, breathlessly renewed with a precipitate rhythm.
Suddenly Mountain spoke in a loud, broken whisper, as of a man relieved. "_ave it now," he said; and, as we all turned to hear him, "the Indian mus_ave known the cache," he added. "That is he \- he is digging out th_reasure."
"Why, to be sure!" exclaimed Sir William. "We were geese not to have suppose_o much."
"The only thing is," Mountain resumed, "the sound is very close to our ol_amp. And, again, I do not see how he is there before us, unless the man ha_ings!"
"Greed and fear are wings," remarked Sir William. "But this rogue has given u_n alert, and I have a notion to return the compliment. What say you, gentlemen, shall we have a moonlight hunt?"
It was so agreed; dispositions were made to surround Secundra at his task; some of Sir William's Indians hastened in advance; and a strong guard bein_eft at our headquarters, we set forth along the uneven bottom of the forest; frost crackling, ice sometimes loudly splitting under foot; and overhead th_lackness of pine-woods, and the broken brightness of the moon. Our way le_own into a hollow of the land; and as we descended, the sounds diminished an_ad almost died away. Upon the other slope it was more open, only dotted wit_ few pines, and several vast and scattered rocks that made inky shadows i_he moonlight. Here the sounds began to reach us more distinctly; we could no_erceive the ring of iron, and more exactly estimate the furious degree o_aste with which the digger plied his instrument. As we neared the top of th_scent, a bird or two winged aloft and hovered darkly in the moonlight; an_he next moment we were gazing through a fringe of trees upon a singula_icture.
A narrow plateau, overlooked by the white mountains, and encompassed neare_and by woods, lay bare to the strong radiance of the moon. Rough goods, suc_s make the wealth of foresters, were sprinkled here and there upon the groun_n meaningless disarray. About the midst, a tent stood, silvered with frost: the door open, gaping on the black interior. At the one end of this smal_tage lay what seemed the tattered remnants of a man. Without doubt we ha_rrived upon the scene of Harris's encampment; there were the goods scattere_n the panic of flight; it was in yon tent the Master breathed his last; an_he frozen carrion that lay before us was the body of the drunken shoemaker.
It was always moving to come upon the theatre of any tragic incident; to com_pon it after so many days, and to find it (in the seclusion of a desert) still unchanged, must have impressed the mind of the most careless. And yet i_as not that which struck us into pillars of stone; but the sight (which ye_e had been half expecting) of Secundra ankle deep in the grave of his lat_aster. He had cast the main part of his raiment by, yet his frail arms an_houlders glistered in the moonlight with a copious sweat; his face wa_ontracted with anxiety and expectation; his blows resounded on the grave, a_hick as sobs; and behind him, strangely deformed and ink-black upon th_rosty ground, the creature's shadow repeated and parodied his swif_esticulations. Some night birds arose from the boughs upon our coming, an_hen settled back; but Secundra, absorbed in his toil; heard or heeded not a_ll.
I heard Mountain whisper to Sir William, "Good God! it's the grave! He'_igging him up!" It was what we had all guessed, and yet to hear it put i_anguage thrilled me. Sir William violently started.
"You damned sacrilegious hound!" he cried. "What's this?"
Secundra leaped in the air, a little breathless cry escaped him, the tool fle_rom his grasp, and he stood one instant staring at the speaker. The next, swift as an arrow, he sped for the woods upon the farther side; and the nex_gain, throwing up his hands with a violent gesture of resolution, he ha_egun already to retrace his steps.
"Well, then, you come, you help - " he was saying. But by now my lord ha_tepped beside Sir William; the moon shone fair upon his face, and the word_ere still upon Secundra's lips, when he beheld and recognised his master'_nemy. "Him!" he screamed, clasping his hands, and shrinking on himself.
"Come, come!" said Sir William. "There is none here to do you harm, if you b_nnocent; and if you be guilty, your escape is quite cut off. Speak, what d_ou here among the graves of the dead and the remains of the unburied?"
"You no murderer?" inquired Secundra. "You true man? you see me safe?"
"I will see you safe, if you be innocent," returned Sir William. "I have sai_he thing, and I see not wherefore you should doubt it."
"There all murderers," cried Secundra, "that is why! He kill - murderer,"
pointing to Mountain; "there two hire-murderers," pointing to my lord an_yself - "all gallows - murderers! Ah! I see you all swing in a rope. Now I g_ave the sahib; he see you swing in a rope. The sahib," he continued, pointin_o the grave, "he not dead. He bury, he not dead."
My lord uttered a little noise, moved nearer to the grave, and stood an_tared in it.
"Buried and not dead?" exclaimed Sir William. "What kind of rant is this?"
"See, sahib," said Secundra. "The sahib and I alone with murderers; try al_ay to escape, no way good. Then try this way: good way in warm climate, goo_ay in India; here, in this dam cold place, who can tell? I tell you prett_ood hurry: you help, you light a fire, help rub."
"What is the creature talking of?" cried Sir William. "My head goes round."
"I tell you I bury him alive," said Secundra. "I teach him swallow his tongue.
Now dig him up pretty good hurry, and he not much worse. You light a fire."
Sir William turned to the nearest of his men. "Light a fire," said he. "My lo_eems to be cast with the insane."
"You good man," returned Secundra. "Now I go dig the sahib up."
He returned as he spoke to the grave, and resumed his former toil. My lor_tood rooted, and I at my lord's side, fearing I knew not what.
The frost was not yet very deep, and presently the Indian threw aside hi_ool, and began to scoop the dirt by handfuls. Then he disengaged a corner o_ buffalo robe; and then I saw hair catch among his fingers: yet, a momen_ore, and the moon shone on something white. Awhile Secundra crouched upon hi_nees, scraping with delicate fingers, breathing with puffed lips; and when h_oved aside, I beheld the face of the Master wholly disengaged. It was deadl_hite, the eyes closed, the ears and nostrils plugged, the cheeks fallen, th_ose sharp as if in death; but for all he had lain so many days under the sod, corruption had not approached him, and (what strangely affected all of us) hi_ips and chin were mantled with a swarthy beard.
"My God!" cried Mountain, "he was as smooth as a baby when we laid him there!"
"They say hair grows upon the dead," observed Sir William; but his voice wa_hick and weak.
Secundra paid no heed to our remarks, digging swift as a terrier in the loos_arth. Every moment the form of the Master, swathed in his buffalo robe, gre_ore distinct in the bottom of that shallow trough; the moon shining strong, and the shadows of the standers- by, as they drew forward and back, fallin_nd flitting over his emergent countenance. The sight held us with a horro_ot before experienced. I dared not look my lord in the face; but for as lon_s it lasted, I never observed him to draw breath; and a little in th_ackground one of the men (I know not whom) burst into a kind of sobbing.
"Now," said Secundra, "you help me lift him out."
Of the flight of time, I have no idea; it may have been three hours, and i_ay have been five, that the Indian laboured to reanimate his master's body.
One thing only I know, that it was still night, and the moon was not yet set, although it had sunk low, and now barred the plateau with long shadows, whe_ecundra uttered a small cry of satisfaction; and, leaning swiftly forth, _hought I could myself perceive a change upon that icy countenance of th_nburied. The next moment I beheld his eyelids flutter; the next they ros_ntirely, and the week-old corpse looked me for a moment in the face.
So much display of life I can myself swear to. I have heard from others tha_e visibly strove to speak, that his teeth showed in his beard, and that hi_row was contorted as with an agony of pain and effort. And this may hav_een; I know not, I was otherwise engaged. For at that first disclosure of th_ead man's eyes, my Lord Durrisdeer fell to the ground, and when I raised hi_p, he was a corpse.
Day came, and still Secundra could not be persuaded to desist from hi_navailing efforts. Sir William, leaving a small party under my command, proceeded on his embassy with the first light; and still the Indian rubbed th_imbs and breathed in the mouth of the dead body. You would think such labour_ight have vitalised a stone; but, except for that one moment (which was m_ord's death), the black spirit of the Master held aloof from its discarde_lay; and by about the hour of noon, even the faithful servant was at lengt_onvinced. He took it with unshaken quietude.
"Too cold," said he, "good way in India, no good here." And, asking for som_ood, which he ravenously devoured as soon as it was set before him, he dre_ear to the fire and took his place at my elbow. In the same spot, as soon a_e had eaten, he stretched himself out, and fell into a childlike slumber, from which I must arouse him, some hours afterwards, to take his part as on_f the mourners at the double funeral. It was the same throughout; he seeme_o have outlived at once and with the same effort, his grief for his maste_nd his terror of myself and Mountain.
One of the men left with me was skilled in stone-cutting; and before Si_illiam returned to pick us up, I had chiselled on a boulder this inscription, with a copy of which I may fitly bring my narrative to a close: