Charles Brockden Brown (17711810). Edgar Huntley; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker. 1857.
THINK not that I relate these things with exultation or tranquillity. All my education and the habits of my life tended to unfit me for a contest and a scene like this. But I was not governed by the soul which usually regulates my conduct. I had imbibed, from the unparalleled events which had lately happened, a spirit vengeful, unrelenting, and ferocious.
There was now an interval for flight. Throwing my weapons away, I might gain the thicket in a moment. I had no ammunition, nor would time be afforded me to reload my piece. My antagonist would render my poniard and my speed of no use to me. Should he miss me as I fled, the girl would remain to expiate, by her agonies and death, the fate of his companions.
These thoughts passed through my mind in a shorter time than is demanded to express them. They yielded to an expedient suggested by the sight of the gun that had been raised to destroy the girl, and which now lay upon the ground. I am not large of bone, but am not deficient in agility and strength. All that remained to me of these qualities was now exerted; and, dropping my own piece, I leaped upon the bank, and flew to seize my prize.
It was not till I snatched it from the ground, that the propriety of regaining my former post rushed upon my apprehension. He that was still posted in the hovel would mark me through the seams of the wall, and render my destruction sure. I once more ran towards the bank, with the intention to throw myself below it. All this was performed in an instant; but my vigilant foe was aware of his advantage, and fired through an opening between the logs. The bullet grazed my cheek, and produced a benumbing sensation that made me instantly fall to the earth. Though bereaved of strength, and fraught with the belief that I had received a mortal wound, my caution was not remitted. I loosened not my grasp of the gun, and the posture into which I accidentally fell enabled me to keep an eye upon the house and a hand upon the trigger. Perceiving my condition, the savage rushed from his covert in order to complete his work; but at three steps from the threshold he received my bullet in his breast. The uplifted tomahawk fell from his hand, and, uttering a loud shriek, he fell upon the body of his companion. His cries struck upon my heart, and I wished that his better fortune had cast this evil from him upon me.
Thus I have told thee a bloody and disastrous tale. When thou reflectest on the mildness of my habits, my antipathy to scenes of violence and bloodshed, my unacquaintance with the use of fire-arms and the motives of a soldier, thou wilt scarcely allow credit to my story. That one rushing into these dangers, unfurnished with stratagems or weapons, disheartened and enfeebled by hardships and pain, should subdue four antagonists trained from their infancy to the artifices and exertions of Indian warfare, will seem the vision of fancy, rather than the lesson of truth.
I lifted my head from the ground and pondered upon this scene. The magnitude of this exploit made me question its reality. By attending to my own sensations, I discovered that I had received no wound, or, at least, none of which there was reason to complain. The blood flowed plentifully from my cheek, but the injury was superficial. It was otherwise with my antagonists. The last that had fallen now ceased to groan. Their huge limbs, inured to combat and war-worn, were useless to their own defence, and to the injury of others.
The destruction that I witnessed was vast. Three beings, full of energy and heroism, endowed with minds strenuous and lofty, poured out their lives before me. I was the instrument of their destruction. This scene of carnage and blood was laid by me. To this havoc and horror was I led by such rapid footsteps!
My anguish was mingled with astonishment. In spite of the force and uniformity with which my senses were impressed by external objects, the transition I had undergone was so wild and inexplicable; all that I had performed, all that I had witnessed since my egress from the pit, were so contradictory to precedent events, that I still clung to the belief that my thoughts were confused by delirium. From these reveries I was at length recalled by the groans of the girl, who lay near me on the ground.
I went to her and endeavoured to console her. I found that, while lying in the bed, she had received a blow upon the side, which was still productive of acute pain. She was unable to rise or to walk, and it was plain that one or more of her ribs had been fractured by the blow.
I knew not what means to devise for our mutual relief. It was possible that the nearest dwelling was many leagues distant. I knew not in what direction to go in order to find it, and my strength would not suffice to carry my wounded companion thither in my arms. There was no expedient but to remain in this field of blood till the morning.
I had scarcely formed this resolution before the report of a musket was heard at a small distance. At the same moment, I distinctly heard the whistling of a bullet near me. I now remembered that, of the five Indians whom I saw in the cavern, I was acquainted with the destiny only of four. The fifth might be still alive, and fortune might reserve for him the task of avenging his companions. His steps might now be tending hither in search of them.
The musket belonging to him who was shot upon the threshold was still charged. It was discreet to make all the provision in my power against danger. I possessed myself of this gun, and, seating myself on the ground, looked carefully on all sides, to descry the approach of the enemy. I listened with breathless eagerness.
Presently voices were heard. They ascended from that part of the thicket from which my view was intercepted by the cottage. These voices had something in them that bespoke them to belong to friends and countrymen. As yet I was unable to distinguish words.
Presently my eye was attracted to one quarter, by a sound as of feet trampling down bushes. Several heads were seen moving in succession, and at length the whole person was conspicuous. One after another leaped over a kind of mound which bordered the field, and made towards the spot where I sat. This band was composed of ten or twelve persons, with each a gun upon his shoulder. Their guise, the moment it was perceived, dissipated all my apprehensions.
They came within the distance of a few paces before they discovered me. One stopped, and, bespeaking the attention of his followers, called to know who was there. I answered that I was a friend, who entreated their assistance. I shall not paint their astonishment when, on coming nearer, they beheld me surrounded by the arms and dead bodies of my enemies.
I sat upon the ground, supporting my head with my left hand, and resting on my knee the stock of a heavy musket. My countenance was wan and haggard, my neck and bosom were dyed in blood, and my limbs, almost stripped by the brambles of their slender covering, were lacerated by a thousand wounds. Three savages, two of whom were steeped in gore, lay at a small distance, with the traces of recent life on their visages. Hard by was the girl, venting her anguish in the deepest groans, and entreating relief from the new-comers.
The company, attracted by this dialogue, crowded round the girl, whom her father, clasping in his arms, lifted from the ground, and pressed, in a transport of joy, to his breast. This delight was succeeded by solicitude respecting her condition. She could only answer his inquiries by complaining that her side was bruised to pieces. How came you here?Who hurt you?Where did the Indians carry you?were questions to which she could make no reply but by sobs and plaints.
My own calamities were forgotten in contemplating the fondness and compassion of the man for his child. I derived new joy from reflecting that I had not abandoned her, and that she owed her preservation to my efforts. The inquiries which the girl was unable to answer were now put to me. Every one interrogated me who I was, whence I had come, and what had given rise to this bloody contest.
I was not willing to expatiate on my story. The spirit which had hitherto sustained me began now to subside. My strength ebbed away with my blood. Tremors, lassitude, and deadly cold, invaded me, and I fainted on the ground.
Such is the capricious constitution of the human mind. While dangers were at hand, while my life was to be preserved only by zeal, and vigilance, and courage, I was not wanting to myself. Had my perils continued, or even multiplied, no doubt my energies would have kept equal pace with them; but the moment that I was encompassed by protectors, and placed in security, I grew powerless and faint. My weakness was proportioned to the duration and intensity of my previous efforts, and the swoon into which I now sunk was, no doubt, mistaken by the spectators for death.
On recovering from this swoon, my sensations were not unlike those which I had experienced on awaking in the pit. For a moment a mistiness involved every object, and I was able to distinguish nothing. My sight, by rapid degrees, was restored, my painful dizziness was banished, and I surveyed the scene before me with anxiety and wonder.
I found myself stretched upon the ground. I perceived the cottage and the neighbouring thicket, illuminated by a declining moon. My head rested upon something, which, on turning to examine, I found to be one of the slain Indians. The other two remained upon the earth, at a small distance, and in the attitudes in which they had fallen. Their arms, the wounded girl, and the troop who were near me when I fainted, were gone.
My head had reposed upon the breast of him whom I had shot in this part of his body. The blood had ceased to ooze from the wound, but my dishevelled locks were matted and steeped in that gore which had overflowed and choked up the orifice. I started from this detestable pillow, and regained my feet.
That I should be abandoned in this forlorn state by these men seemed to argue a degree of cowardice or cruelty of which I should have thought them incapable. Presently, however, I reflected that appearances might have easily misled them into a belief of my death. On this supposition, to have carried me away, or to have stayed beside me, would be useless. Other enemies might be abroad; or their families, now that their fears were somewhat tranquillized, might require their presence and protection.
I went into the cottage. The fire still burned, and afforded me a genial warmth. I sat before it, and began to ruminate on the state to which I was reduced, and on the measures I should next pursue. Daylight could not be very distant. Should I remain in this hovel till the morning, or immediately resume my journey? I was feeble, indeed; but, by remaining here, should I not increase my feebleness? The sooner I should gain some human habitation the better; whereas watchfulness and hunger would render me, at each minute, less able to proceed than on the former.
This spot might be visited on the next day; but this was involved in uncertainty. The visitants, should any come, would come merely to examine and bury the dead, and bring with them neither the clothing nor the food which my necessities demanded. The road was sufficiently discernible, and would, unavoidably, conduct me to some dwelling. I determined, therefore, to set out without delay. Even in this state I was not unmindful that my safety might require the precaution of being armed. Besides, the fusil which had been given me by Sarsefield, and which I had so unexpectedly recovered, had lost none of its value in my eyes. I hoped that it had escaped the search of the troop who had been here, and still lay below the bank in the spot where I had dropped it.
In this hope I was not deceived. It was found. I possessed myself of the powder and shot belonging to one of the savages, and loaded it. Thus equipped for defence, I regained the road, and proceeded, with alacrity, on my way. For the wound in my cheek, nature had provided a styptic, but the soreness was extreme, and I thought of no remedy but water, with which I might wash away the blood. My thirst likewise incommoded me, and I looked with eagerness for the traces of a spring. In a soil like that of the wilderness around me, nothing was less to be expected than to light upon water. In this respect, however, my destiny was propitious. I quickly perceived water in the ruts. It trickled hither from the thicket on one side, and, pursuing it among the bushes, I reached the bubbling source. Though scanty and brackish, it afforded me unspeakable refreshment.
Thou wilt think, perhaps, that my perils were now at an end; that the blood I had already shed was sufficient for my safety. I fervently hoped that no new exigence would occur compelling me to use the arms that I bore in my own defence. I formed a sort of resolution to shun the contest with a new enemy, almost at the expense of my own life. I was satiated and gorged with slaughter, and thought upon a new act of destruction with abhorrence and loathing.
But, though I dreaded to encounter a new enemy, I was sensible that an enemy might possibly be at hand. I had moved forward with caution, and my sight and hearing were attentive to the slightest tokens. Other troops, besides that which I encountered, might be hovering near, and of that troop I remembered that one at least had survived.
The gratification which the spring had afforded me was so great, that I was in no haste to depart. I lay upon a rock, which chanced to be shaded by a tree behind me. From this post I could overlook the road to some distance, and, at the same time, be shaded from the observation of others.
My eye was now caught by movements which appeared like those of a beast. In different circumstances, I should have instantly supposed it to be a wolf, or panther, or bear. Now my suspicions were alive on a different account, and my startled fancy figured to itself nothing but a human adversary.
A thicket was on either side of the road. That opposite to my station was discontinued at a small distance by the cultivated field. The road continued along this field, bounded by the thicket on the one side and the open space on the other. To this space the being who was now described was cautiously approaching.
He moved upon all fours, and presently came near enough to be distinguished. His disfigured limbs, pendants from his ears and nose, and his shorn locks, were indubitable indications of a savage. Occasionally he reared himself above the bushes, and scanned, with suspicious vigilance, the cottage and the space surrounding it. Then he stooped, and crept along as before.
I was at no loss to interpret these appearances. This was my surviving enemy. He was unacquainted with the fate of his associates, and was now approaching the theatre of carnage to ascertain their fate.
Once more was the advantage afforded me. From this spot might unerring aim be taken, and the last of this hostile troop be made to share the fate of the rest. Should I fire, or suffer him to pass in safety?
My abhorrence of bloodshed was not abated. But I had not foreseen this occurrence. My success hitherto had seemed to depend upon a combination of fortunate incidents, which could not be expected again to take place; but now was I invested with the same power. The mark was near; nothing obstructed or delayed; I incurred no danger, and the event was certain.
Why should he be suffered to live? He came hither to murder and despoil my friends; this work he has, no doubt, performed. Nay, has he not borne his part in the destruction of my uncle and my sisters? He will live only to pursue the same sanguinary trade; to drink the blood and exult in the laments of his unhappy foes and of my own brethren. Fate has reserved him for a bloody and violent death. For how long a time soever it may be deferred, it is thus that his career will inevitably terminate.
While hastily revolving these thoughts, I was thoroughly aware that one event might take place which would render all deliberation useless. Should he spy me where I lay, my fluctuations must end. My safety would indispensably require me to shoot. This persuasion made me keep a steadfast eye upon his motions, and be prepared to anticipate his assault.
It now most seasonably occurred to me that one essential duty remained to be performed. One operation, without which fire-arms are useless, had been unaccountably omitted. My piece was uncocked. I did not reflect that in moving the spring a sound would necessarily be produced sufficient to alarm him. But I knew that the chances of escaping his notice, should I be perfectly mute and still, were extremely slender, and that, in such a case, his movements would be quicker than the light: it behooved me, therefore, to repair my omission.
The sound struck him with alarm. He turned and darted at me an inquiring glance. I saw that forbearance was no longer in my power; but my heart sunk while I complied with what may surely be deemed an indispensable necessity. This faltering, perhaps, it was that made me swerve somewhat from the fatal line. He was disabled by the wound, but not killed.
He lost all power of resistance, and was, therefore, no longer to be dreaded. He rolled upon the ground, uttering doleful shrieks, and throwing his limbs into those contortions which bespeak the keenest agonies to which ill-fated man is subject. Horror, and compassion, and remorse, were mingled into one sentiment, and took possession of my heart. To shut out this spectacle, I withdrew from the spot, but I stopped before I had moved beyond hearing of his cries.
The impulse that drove me from the scene was pusillanimous and cowardly. The past, however deplorable, could not be recalled; but could not I afford some relief to this wretch? Could not I at least bring his pangs to a speedy close? Thus he might continue, writhing and calling upon death, for hours. Why should his miseries be uselessly prolonged?
There was but one way to end them. To kill him outright was the dictate of compassion and of duty. I hastily returned, and once more levelled my piece at his head. It was a loathsome obligation, and was performed with unconquerable reluctance. Thus to assault and to mangle the body of an enemy, already prostrate and powerless, was an act worthy of abhorrence; yet it was, in this case, prescribed by pity.
My faltering hand rendered this second bullet ineffectual. One expedient, still more detestable, remained. Having gone thus far, it would have been inhuman to stop short. His heart might easily be pierced by the bayonet, and his struggles would cease.
This task of cruel lenity was at length finished. I dropped the weapon and threw myself on the ground, overpowered by the horrors of this scene. Such are the deeds which perverse nature compels thousands of rational beings to perform and to witness! Such is the spectacle, endlessly prolonged and diversified, which is exhibited in every field of battle; of which habit and example, the temptations of gain, and the illusions of honour, will make us, not reluctant or indifferent, but zealous and delighted actors and beholders!
Thus, by a series of events impossible to be computed or foreseen, was the destruction of a band, selected from their fellows for an arduous enterprise, distinguished by prowess and skill, and equally armed against surprise and force, completed by the hand of a boy, uninured to hostility, unprovided with arms, precipitate and timorous! I have noted men who seemed born for no end but by their achievements to belie experience, and baffle foresight, and outstrip belief. Would to God that I had not deserved to be numbered among these! But what power was it that called me from the sleep of death just in time to escape the merciless knife of this enemy? Had my swoon continued till he had reached the spot, he would have effectuated my death by new wounds and torn away the skin from my brows. Such are the subtle threads on which hang the fate of man and of the universe!
While engaged in these reflections, I perceived that the moonlight had begun to fade before that of the sun. A dusky and reddish hue spread itself over the east. Cheered by this appearance, I once more resumed my feet and the road. I left the savage where he lay, but made prize of his tomahawk. I had left my own in the cavern; and this weapon added little to my burden. Prompted by some freak of fancy, I stuck his musket in the ground, and left it standing upright in the middle of the road.