Charles Brockden Brown (17711810). Edgar Huntley; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker. 1857.
I LIKEWISE burned with impatience to know the condition of my family, to dissipate at once their tormenting doubts and my own with regard to our mutual safety. The evil that I feared had befallen them was too enormous to allow me to repose in suspense, and my restlessness and ominous forebodings would be more intolerable than any hardship or toils to which I could possibly be subjected during this journey.
I was much refreshed and invigorated by the food that I had taken, and by the rest of an hour. With this stock of recruited force I determined to scale the hill. After receiving minute directions, and, returning many thanks for my hospitable entertainment, I set out.
The path was indeed intricate, and deliberate attention was obliged to be exerted in order to preserve it. Hence my progress was slower than I wished. The first impulse was to fix my eye upon the summit, and to leap from crag to crag till I reached it; but this my experience had taught me was impracticable. It was only by winding through gullies, and coasting precipices and bestriding chasms, that I could hope finally to gain the top; and I was assured that by one way only was it possible to accomplish even this.
An hour was spent in struggling with impediments, and I seemed to have gained no way. Hence a doubt was suggested whether I had not missed the true road. In this doubt I was confirmed by the difficulties which now grew up before me. The brooks, the angles, and the hollows, which my hostess had described, were not to be seen. Instead of these, deeper dells, more headlong torrents, and wider-gaping rifts, were incessantly encountered.
To return was as hopeless as to proceed. I consoled myself with thinking that the survey which my informant had made of the hill-side might prove inaccurate, and that, in spite of her predictions, the heights might be reached by other means than by those pointed out by her. I will not enumerate my toilsome expedients, my frequent disappointments, and my desperate exertions. Suffice it to say that I gained the upper space not till the sun had dipped beneath the horizon.
My satisfaction at accomplishing thus much was not small, and I hied, with renovated spirits, to the opposite brow. This proved to be a steep that could not be descended. The river flowed at its foot. The opposite bank was five hundred yards distant, and was equally towering and steep as that on which I stood. Appearances were adapted to persuade you that these rocks had formerly joined, but by some mighty effort of nature had been severed, that the stream might find way through the chasm. The channel, however, was encumbered with asperities, over which the river fretted and foamed with thundering impetuosity.
I pondered for a while on these stupendous scenes. They ravished my attention from considerations that related to myself; but this interval was short, and I began to measure the descent, in order to ascertain the practicability of treading it. My survey terminated in bitter disappointment. I turned my eye successively eastward and westward. Solesbury lay in the former direction, and thither I desired to go. I kept along the verge in this direction till I reached an impassable rift. Beyond this I saw that the steep grew lower; but it was impossible to proceed farther. Higher up the descent might be practicable, and, though more distant from Solesbury, it was better to reach the road even at that distance than never to reach it.
Changing my course, therefore, I explored the spaces above. The night was rapidly advancing; the gray clouds gathered in the southeast, and a chilling blast, the usual attendant of a night in October, began to whistle among the pigmy cedars that scantily grew upon these heights. My progress would quickly be arrested by darkness, and it behooved me to provide some place of shelter and repose. No recess better than a hollow in the rock presented itself to my anxious scrutiny.
Meanwhile, I would not dismiss the hope of reaching the road, which I saw some hundred feet below, winding along the edge of the river, before daylight should utterly fail. Speedily these hopes derived new vigour from meeting a ledge that irregularly declined from the brow of the hill. It was wide enough to allow of cautious footing. On a similar stratum, or ledge, projecting still farther from the body of the hill, and close to the surface of the river, was the road. This stratum ascended from the level of the stream, while that on which I trod rapidly descended. I hoped that they would speedily be blended, or, at least, approach so near as to allow me to leap from one to the other without enormous hazard.
This fond expectation was frustrated. Presently I perceived that the ledge below began to descend, while that above began to tend upward and was quickly terminated by the uppermost surface of the cliff. Here it was needful to pause. I looked over the brink, and considered whether I might not leap from my present station without endangering my limbs. The road into which I should fall was a rocky pavement far from being smooth. The descent could not be less than forty or fifty feet. Such an attempt was, to the last degree, hazardous; but was it not better to risk my life by leaping from this eminence than to remain and perish on the top of this inhospitable mountain? The toils which I had endured in reaching this height appeared, to my panic-struck fancy, less easy to be borne again than death.
I know not but that I should have finally resolved to leap, had not different views been suggested by observing that the outer edge of the road was, in like manner, the brow of a steep which terminated in the river. The surface of the road was twelve or fifteen feet above the level of the stream, which, in this spot, was still and smooth. Hence I inferred that the water was not of inconsiderable depth. To fall upon rocky points was, indeed, dangerous, but to plunge into water of sufficient depth, even from a height greater than that at which I now stood, especially to one to whom habit had rendered water almost as congenial an element as air, was scarcely attended with inconvenience. This expedient was easy and safe. Twenty yards from this spot, the channel was shallow, and to gain the road from the stream was no difficult exploit.
Some disadvantages, however, attended this scheme. The water was smooth; but this might arise from some other cause than its depth. My gun, likewise, must be left behind me; and that was a loss to which I felt invincible repugnance. To let it fall upon the road would put it in my power to retrieve the possession, but it was likely to be irreparably injured by the fall.
While musing upon this expedient, and weighing injuries with benefits, the night closed upon me. I now considered that, should I emerge in safety from the stream, I should have many miles to travel before I could reach a house. My clothes meanwhile would be loaded with wet. I should be heart-pierced by the icy blast that now blew, and my wounds and bruises would be chafed into insupportable pain.
I reasoned likewise on the folly of impatience and the necessity of repose. By thus long continuance in one posture, my sinews began to stiffen, and my reluctance to make new exertions to increase. My brows were heavy, and I felt an irresistible propensity to sleep. I concluded to seek some shelter, and resign myself, my painful recollections, and my mournful presages, to sweet forgetfulness. For this end, I once more ascended to the surface of the cliff. I dragged my weary feet forward, till I found somewhat that promised me the shelter that I sought.
A cluster of cedars appeared, whose branches overarched a space that might be called a bower. It was a slight cavity, whose flooring was composed of loose stones and a few faded leaves blown from a distance and finding a temporary lodgment here. On one side was a rock, forming a wall rugged and projecting above. At the bottom of the rock was a rift, somewhat resembling a coffin in shape, and not much larger in dimensions. This rift terminated, on the opposite side of the rock, in an opening that was too small for the body of a man to pass. The distance between each entrance was twice the length of a man.
This bower was open to the southeast, whence the gale now blew. It therefore imperfectly afforded the shelter of which I stood in need; but it was the best that the place and the time afforded. To stop the smaller entrance of the cavity with a stone, and to heap before the other branches lopped from the trees with my hatchet, might somewhat contribute to my comfort.
This was done, and, thrusting myself into this recess as far as I was able, I prepared for repose. It might have been reasonably suspected to be the den of rattlesnakes or panthers; but my late contention with superior dangers and more formidable enemies made me reckless of these. But another inconvenience remained. In spite of my precautions, my motionless posture and slender covering exposed me so much to the cold that I could not sleep.
The air appeared to have suddenly assumed the temperature of midwinter. In a short time, my extremities were benumbed, and my limbs shivered and ached as if I had been seized by an ague. My bed likewise was dank and uneven, and the posture I was obliged to assume, unnatural and painful. It was evident that my purpose could not be answered by remaining here.
I therefore crept forth, and began to reflect upon the possibility of continuing my journey. Motion was the only thing that could keep me from freezing, and my frame was in that state which allowed me to take no repose in the absence of warmth, since warmth was indispensable. It now occurred to me to ask whether it were not possible to kindle a fire.
Sticks and leaves were at hand. My hatchet and a pebble would enable me to extract a spark. From this, by suitable care and perseverance, I might finally procure sufficient fire to give me comfort and ease, and even enable me to sleep. This boon was delicious, and I felt as if I were unable to support a longer deprivation of it.
I proceeded to execute this scheme. I took the driest leaves, and endeavoured to use them as tinder; but the driest leaves were moistened by the dews. They were only to be found in the hollows, in some of which were pools of water and others were dank. I was not speedily discouraged; but my repeated attempts failed, and I was finally compelled to relinquish this expedient.
All that now remained was to wander forth and keep myself in motion till the morning. The night was likely to prove tempestuous and long. The gale seemed freighted with ice, and acted upon my body like the points of a thousand needles. There was no remedy, and I mustered my patience to endure it.
I returned again to the brow of the hill. I ranged along it till I reached a place where the descent was perpendicular, and, in consequence of affording no sustenance to trees or bushes, was nearly smooth and bare. There was no road to be seen; and this circumstance, added to the sounds which the rippling current produced, afforded me some knowledge of my situation.
The ledge along which the road was conducted disappeared near this spot. The opposite sides of the chasm through which flowed the river approached nearer to each other, in the form of jutting promontories. I now stood upon the verge of that on the northern side. The water flowed at the foot, but, for the space of ten or twelve feet from the rock, was so shallow as to permit the traveller and his horse to wade through it, and thus to regain the road which the receding precipice had allowed to be continued on the farther side.
I knew the nature and dimensions of this ford. I knew that, at a few yards from the rock, the channel was of great depth. To leap into it, in this place, was a less dangerous exploit than at the spot where I had formerly been tempted to leap. There I was unacquainted with the depth, but here I knew it to be considerable. Still, there was some ground of hesitation and fear. My present station was loftier, and how deeply I might sink into this gulf, how far the fall and the concussion would bereave me of my presence of mind, I could not determine. This hesitation vanished, and, placing my tomahawk and fusil upon the ground, I prepared to leap.
This purpose was suspended, in the moment of its execution, by a faint sound, heard from the quarter whence I had come. It was the warning of men, but had nothing in common with those which I had been accustomed to hear. It was not the howling of a wolf or the yelling of a panther. These had often been overheard by night during my last years excursion to the lakes. My fears whispered that this was the vociferation of a savage.
I was unacquainted with the number of the enemies who had adventured into this district. Whether those whom I had encountered at Debs hut were of that band whom I had met with in the cavern, was merely a topic of conjecture. There might be a half-score of troops, equally numerous, spread over the wilderness, and the signal I had just heard might betoken the approach of one of these. Yet by what means they should gain this nook, and what prey they expected to discover, were not easily conceived.
The sounds, somewhat diversified, nearer and rising from different quarters, were again heard. My doubts and apprehensions were increased. What expedient to adopt for my own safety was a subject of rapid meditation:whether to remain stretched upon the ground or to rise and go forward. Was it likely the enemy would coast along the edge of the steep? Would they ramble hither to look upon the ample scene which spread on all sides around the base of this rocky pinnacle? In that case, how should I conduct myself? My arms were ready for use. Could I not elude the necessity of shedding more blood? Could I not anticipate their assault by casting myself without delay into the stream?
The sense of danger demanded more attention to be paid to external objects than to the motives by which my future conduct should be influenced. My post was on a circular prefecture, in some degree detached from the body of the hill, the brow of which continued in a straight line, uninterrupted by this projecture, which was somewhat higher than the continued summit of the ridge. This line ran at the distance of a few paces from my post. Objects moving along this line could merely be perceived to move, in the present obscurity.
My scrutiny was entirely directed to this quarter. Presently the treading of many feet was heard, and several figures were discovered, following each other in that straight and regular succession which is peculiar to the Indians. They kept along the brow of the hill joining the promontory. I distinctly marked seven figures in succession.
My resolution was formed. Should any one cast his eye hither, suspect or discover an enemy, and rush towards me, I determined to start upon my feet, fire on my foe as he advanced, throw my piece on the ground, and then leap into the river.
Happily, they passed unobservant and in silence. I remained in the same posture for several minutes. At length, just as my alarms began to subside, the halloos, before heard, arose, and from the same quarter as before. This convinced me that my perils were not at an end. This now appeared to be merely the vanguard, and would speedily be followed by others, against whom the same caution was necessary to be taken.
My eye, anxiously bent the only way by which any one could approach, now discerned a figure, which was indubitably that of a man armed. None other appeared in company; but doubtless others were near. He approached, stood still, and appeared to gaze steadfastly at the spot where I lay.
The optics of a Lenni-lennapee I knew to be far keener than my own. A log or a couched fawn would never be mistaken for a man, nor a man for a couched fawn or a log. Not only a human being would be instantly detected, but a decision be unerringly made whether it were friend or foe. That my prostrate body was the object on which the attention of this vigilant and steadfast gazer was fixed could not be doubted. Yet, since he continued an inactive gazer, there was ground for a possibility to stand upon that I was not recognised. My fate therefore was still in suspense.
This interval was momentary. I marked a movement, which my fears instantly interpreted to be that of levelling a gun at my head. This action was sufficiently conformable to my prognostics. Supposing me to be detected, there was no need for him to change his post. Aim might be too fatally taken, and his prey be secured, from the distance at which he now stood.
These images glanced upon my thought, and put an end to my suspense. A single effort placed me on my feet. I fired with a precipitation that precluded the certainty of hitting my mark, dropped my piece upon the ground, and leaped from this tremendous height into the river. I reached the surface, and sunk in a moment to the bottom.
Plunging endlong into the water, the impetus created by my fall from such a height would be slowly resisted by this denser element. Had the depth been less, its resistance would not perhaps have hindered me from being mortally injured against the rocky bottom. Had the depth been greater, time enough would not have been allowed me to regain the surface. Had I fallen on my side, I should have been bereft of life or sensibility by the shock which my frame would have received. As it was, my fate was suspended on a thread. To have lost my presence of mind, to have forborne to counteract my sinking, for an instant, after I had reached the water, would have made all exertions to regain the air fruitless. To so fortunate a concurrence of events was thy friend indebted for his safety!
Yet I only emerged from the gulf to encounter new perils. Scarcely had I raised my head above the surface, and inhaled the vital breath, when twenty shots were aimed at me from the precipice above. A shower of bullets fell upon the water. Some of them did not fall farther than two inches from my head. I had not been aware of this new danger, and, now that it assailed me, continued gasping the air and floundering at random. The means of eluding it did not readily occur. My case seemed desperate, and all caution was dismissed.
This state of discomfiting surprise quickly disappeared. I made myself acquainted, at a glance, with the position of surrounding objects. I conceived that the opposite bank of the river would afford me most security, and thither I tended with all the expedition in my power.
Meanwhile, my safety depended on eluding the bullets that continued incessantly to strike the water at an arms-length from my body. For this end I plunged beneath the surface, and only rose to inhale fresh air. Presently the firing ceased, the flashes that lately illuminated the bank disappeared, and a certain bustle and murmur of confused voices gave place to solitude and silence.