Charles Brockden Brown (17711810). Edgar Huntley; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker. 1857.
I MOVED forward with as quick a pace as my feeble limbs would permit. I did not allow myself to meditate. The great object of my wishes was a dwelling where food and repose might be procured. I looked earnestly forward, and on each side, in search of some token of human residence; but the spots of cultivation, the well-pole, the worm fence, and the hayrick, were nowhere to be seen. I did not even meet with a wild hog or a bewildered cow. The path was narrow, and on either side was a trackless wilderness. On the right and left were the waving lines of mountainous ridges, which had no peculiarity enabling me to ascertain whether I had ever before seen them.
At length I noticed that the tracks of wheels had disappeared from the path that I was treading; that it became more narrow, and exhibited fewer marks of being frequented. These appearances were discouraging. I now suspected that I had taken a wrong direction, and, instead of approaching, was receding from, the habitation of men.
It was wisest, however, to proceed. The road could not but have some origin as well as end. Some hours passed away in this uncertainty. The sun rose, and by noonday I seemed to be farther than ever from the end of my toils. The path was more obscure, and the wilderness more rugged. Thirst more incommoded me than hunger, but relief was seasonably afforded by the brooks that flowed across the path.
Coming to one of these, and having slaked my thirst, I sat down upon the bank, to reflect on my situation. The circuity of the path had frequently been noticed, and I began to suspect that, though I had travelled long, I had not moved far from the spot where I had commenced my pilgrimage.
Turning my eyes on all sides, I noticed a sort of pool, formed by the rivulet, at a few paces distant from the road. In approaching and inspecting it, I observed the footsteps of cattle, who had retired by a path that seemed much beaten: I likewise noticed a cedar bucket, broken and old, lying on the margin. These tokens revived my drooping spirits, and I betook myself to this new track. It was intricate, but, at length, led up a steep, the summit of which was of better soil than that of which the flats consisted. A clover-field, and several apple-trees,sure attendants of man,were now discovered. From this space I entered a corn-field, and at length, to my inexpressible joy, caught a glimpse of a house.
This dwelling was far different from that I had lately left. It was as small and as low, but its walls consisted of boards. A window of four panes admitted the light, and a chimney of brick, well burnt and neatly arranged, peeped over the roof. As I approached, I heard the voice of children and the hum of a spinning-wheel.
I cannot make thee conceive the delight which was afforded me by all these tokens. I now found myself, indeed, among beings like myself, and from whom hospitable entertainment might be confidently expected. I compassed the house, and made my appearance at the door.
A good woman, busy at her wheel, with two children playing on the ground before her, were the objects that now presented themselves. The uncouthness of my garb, my wild and weatherworn appearance, my fusil and tomahawk, could not but startle them. The woman stopped her wheel, and gazed as if a spectre had started into view.
I was somewhat aware of these consequences, and endeavoured to elude them by assuming an air of supplication and humility. I told her that I was a traveller, who had unfortunately lost his way and had rambled in this wild till nearly famished for want. I entreated her to give me some food; any thing, however scanty or coarse, would be acceptable.
After some pause she desired me, though not without some marks of fear, to walk in. She placed before me some brown bread and milk. She eyed me while I eagerly devoured this morsel. It was, indeed, more delicious than any I had ever tasted. At length she broke silence, and expressed her astonishment and commiseration at my seemingly-forlorn state, adding that perhaps I was the man whom the men were looking after who had been there some hours before.
My curiosity was roused by this intimation. In answer to my interrogations, she said that three persons had lately stopped, to inquire if her husband had not met, within the last three days, a person of whom their description seemed pretty much to suit my person and dress. He was tall, slender, wore nothing but shirt and trousers, and was wounded on the cheek.
He lived in Solesbury. He was supposed to have rambled in the mountains, and to have lost his way, or to have met with some mischance. It was three days since he had disappeared, but had been seen by some one, the last night, at Debs hut.
This woman originally belonged to the tribe of Delawares, or Lenni-lennapee. All these districts were once comprised within the dominions of that nation. About thirty years ago, in consequence of perpetual encroachments of the English colonists, they abandoned their ancient seats and retired to the banks of the Wabash and Muskingum.
This emigration was concerted in a general council of the tribe, and obtained the concurrence of all but one female. Her birth, talents, and age, gave her much consideration and authority among her countrymen; and all her zeal and eloquence were exerted to induce them to lay aside their scheme. In this, however, she could not succeed. Finding them refractory, she declared her resolution to remain behind and maintain possession of the land which her countrymen should impiously abandon.
The village inhabited by this clan was built upon ground which now constitutes my uncles barnyard and orchard. On the departure of her countrymen, this female burnt the empty wigwams and retired into the fastnesses of Norwalk. She selected a spot suitable for an Indian dwelling and a small plantation of maize, and in which she was seldom liable to interruption and intrusion.
Her only companions were three dogs, of the Indian or wolf species. These animals differed in nothing from their kinsmen of the forest but in their attachment and obedience to their mistress. She governed them with absolute sway. They were her servants and protectors, and attended her person or guarded her threshold, agreeably to her directions. She fed them with corn, and they supplied her and themselves with meat, by hunting squirrels, raccoons, and rabbits.
To the rest of mankind they were aliens or enemies. They never left the desert but in company with their mistress, and, when she entered a farm-house, waited her return at a distance. They would suffer none to approach them, but attacked no one who did not imprudently crave their acquaintance, or who kept at a respectful distance from their wigwam. That sacred asylum they would not suffer to be violated, and no stranger could enter it but at the imminent hazard of his life, unless accompanied and protected by their dame.
The chief employment of this woman, when at home, besides plucking the weeds from among her corn, bruising the grain between two stones, and setting her snares for rabbits and opossums, was to talk. Though in solitude, her tongue was never at rest but when she was asleep; but her conversation was merely addressed to her dogs. Her voice was sharp and shrill, and her gesticulations were vehement and grotesque. A hearer would naturally imagine that she was scolding; but, in truth, she was merely giving them directions. Having no other object of contemplation or subject of discourse, she always found, in their postures and looks, occasion for praise, or blame, or command. The readiness with which they understood, and the docility with which they obeyed, her movements and words, were truly wonderful.
If a stranger chanced to wander near her hut and overhear her jargon, incessant as it was, and shrill, he might speculate in vain on the reason of these sounds. If he waited in expectation of hearing some reply, he waited in vain. The strain, always voluble and sharp, was never intermitted for a moment, and would continue for hours at a time.
She seldom left the hut but to visit the neighbouring inhabitants and demand from them food and clothing, or whatever her necessities required. These were exacted as her due; to have her wants supplied was her prerogative, and to withhold what she claimed was rebellion. She conceived that by remaining behind her countrymen she succeeded to the government and retained the possession of all this region. The English were aliens and sojourners, who occupied the land merely by her connivance and permission, and whom she allowed to remain on no terms but those of supplying her wants.
Being a woman aged and harmless, her demands being limited to that of which she really stood in need, and which her own industry could not procure, her pretensions were a subject of mirth and good-humour, and her injunctions obeyed with seeming deference and gravity. To me she early became an object of curiosity and speculation. I delighted to observe her habits and humour her prejudices. She frequently came to my uncles house, and I sometimes visited her: insensibly she seemed to contract an affection for me, and regarded me with more complacency and condescension than any other received.
She always disdained to speak English, and custom had rendered her intelligible to most in her native language, with regard to a few simple questions. I had taken some pains to study her jargon, and could make out to discourse with her on the few ideas which she possessed. This circumstance, likewise, wonderfully prepossessed her in my favour.
The name by which she was formerly known was Deb; but her pretensions to royalty, the wildness of her aspect and garb, her shrivelled and diminutive form, a constitution that seemed to defy the ravages of time and the influence of the elements, her age, (which some did not scruple to affirm exceeded a hundred years,) her romantic solitude and mountainous haunts, suggested to my fancy the appellation of Queen Mab. There appeared to me some rude analogy between this personage and her whom the poets of old time have delighted to celebrate: thou perhaps wilt discover nothing but incongruities between them; but, be that as it may, Old Deb and Queen Mab soon came into indiscriminate and general use.
She dwelt in Norwalk upwards of twenty years. She was not forgotten by her countrymen, and generally received from her brothers and sons an autumnal visit; but no solicitations or entreaties could prevail on her to return with them. Two years ago, some suspicion or disgust induced her to forsake her ancient habitation and to seek a hew one. Happily she found a more convenient habitation twenty miles to the westward, and in a spot abundantly sterile and rude.
This dwelling was of logs, and had been erected by a Scottish emigrant, who, not being rich enough to purchase land, and entertaining a passion for solitude and independence, cleared a field in the unappropriated wilderness and subsisted on its produce. After some time he disappeared. Various conjectures were formed as to the cause of his absence. None of them were satisfactory; but that which obtained most credit was, that he had been murdered by the Indians, who, about the same period, paid their annual visit to the Queen. This conjecture acquired some force by observing that the old woman shortly after took possession of his hut, his implements of tillage, and his corn-field.
She was not molested in her new abode, and her life passed in the same quiet tenor as before. Her periodical rambles, her regal claims, her guardian wolves, and her uncouth volubility, were equally remarkable; but her circuits were new. Her distance made her visits to Solesbury more rare, and had prevented me from ever extending my pedestrian excursions to her present abode.
These recollections were now suddenly called up by the information of my hostess. The hut where I had sought shelter and relief was, it seems, the residence of Queen Mab. Some fortunate occurrence had called her away during my visit. Had she and her dogs been at home, I should have been set upon by these ferocious sentinels, and, before their dame could have interfered, have been, together with my helpless companion, mangled or killed. These animals never barked: I should have entered unaware of my danger, and my fate could scarcely have been averted by my fusil.
Her absence at this unseasonable hour was mysterious. It was now the time of year when her countrymen were accustomed to renew their visit. Was there a league between her and the plunderers whom I had encountered?
But who were they by whom my footsteps were so industriously traced? Those whom I had seen at Debs hut were strangers to me, but the wound upon my face was known only to them. To this circumstance was now added my place of residence and name. I supposed them impressed with the belief that I was dead; but this mistake must have speedily been rectified. Revisiting the spot, finding me gone, and obtaining some intelligence of my former condition, they had instituted a search after me.
But what tidings were these? I was supposed to have been bewildered in the mountains, and three days were said to have passed since my disappearance. Twelve hours had scarcely elapsed since I emerged from the cavern. Had two days and a half been consumed in my subterranean prison?
These reflections were quickly supplanted by others. I now gained a sufficient acquaintance with the region that was spread around me. I was in the midst of a vale included between ridges that gradually approached each other, and, when joined, were broken up into hollows and steeps, and, spreading themselves over a circular space, assumed the appellation of Norwalk. This vale gradually widened as it tended to the westward, and was, in this place, ten or twelve miles in breadth. My devious footsteps had brought me to the foot of the southern barrier. The outer basis of this was laved by the river; but, as it tended eastward, the mountain and river receded from each other, and one of the cultivable districts lying between them was Solesbury, my natal township. Hither it was now my duty to return with the utmost expedition.
There were two ways before me. One lay along the interior base of the hill, over a sterile and trackless space, and exposed to the encounter of savages, some of whom might possibly be lurking here. The other was the well-frequented road on the outside and along the river, and which was to be gained by passing over this hill. The practicability of the passage was to be ascertained by inquiries made to my hostess. She pointed out a path that led to the rocky summit and down to the rivers brink. The path was not easy to be kept in view or to be trodden, but it was undoubtedly to be preferred to any other.
A route somewhat circuitous would terminate in the river-road. Thenceforward the way to Solesbury was level and direct; but the whole space which I had to traverse was not less than thirty miles. In six hours it would be night, and to perform the journey in that time would demand the agile boundings of a leopard and the indefatigable sinews of an elk.
My frame was in a miserable plight. My strength had been assailed by anguish, and fear, and watchfulness, by toil, and abstinence, and wounds. Still, however, some remnant was left; would it not enable me to reach my home by nightfall? I had delighted, from my childhood, in feats of agility and perseverance. In roving through the maze of thickets and precipices, I had put my energies, both moral and physical, frequently to the test. Greater achievements than this had been performed, and I disdained to be outdone in perspicacity by the lynx, in his sure-footed instinct by the roe, or in patience under hardship, and contention with fatigue, by the Mohawk. I have ever aspired to transcend the rest of animals in all that is common to the rational and brute, as well as in all by which they are distinguished from each other.