Charles Brockden Brown (17711810). Edgar Huntley; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker. 1857.
I REACHED without difficulty the opposite bank, but the steep was inaccessible. I swam along the edge in hopes of meeting with some projection or recess where I might, at least, rest my weary limbs, and, if it were necessary to recross the river, to lay in a stock of recruited spirits and strength for that purpose. I trusted that the water would speedily become shoal, or that the steep would afford rest to my feet. In both these hopes I was disappointed.
There is no one to whom I would yield the superiority in swimming; but my strength, like that of other human beings, had its limits. My previous fatigues had been enormous, and my clothes, heavy with moisture, greatly encumbered and retarded my movements. I had proposed to free myself from this imprisonment; but I foresaw the inconveniences of wandering over this scene in absolute nakedness, and was willing therefore, at whatever hazard, to retain them. I continued to struggle with the current and to search for the means of scaling the steeps. My search was fruitless, and I began to meditate the recrossing of the river.
Surely my fate has never been paralleled! Where was this series of hardships and perils to end? No sooner was one calamity eluded, than I was beset by another. I had emerged from abhorred darkness in the heart of the earth, only to endure the extremities of famine and encounter the fangs of a wild beast. From these I was delivered only to be thrown into the midst of savages, to wage an endless and hopeless war with adepts in killing, with appetites that longed to feast upon my bowels and to quaff my hearts blood. From these likewise was I rescued, but merely to perish in the gulfs of the river, to welter on unvisited shores, or to be washed far away from curiosity or pity.
Formerly water was not only my field of sport but my sofa and my bed. I could float for hours on its surface, enjoying its delicious cool, almost without the expense of the slightest motion. It was an element as fitted for repose as for exercise; but now the buoyant spirit seemed to have flown. My muscles were shrunk, the air and water were equally congealed, and my most vehement exertions were requisite to sustain me on the surface.
At first I had moved along with my wonted celerity and ease, but quickly my forces were exhausted. My pantings and efforts were augmented, and I saw that to cross the river again was impracticable. I must continue, therefore, to search out some accessible spot in the bank along which I was swimming.
Each moment diminished my stock of strength, and it behooved me to make good my footing before another minute should escape. I continued to swim, to survey the bank, and to make ineffectual attempts to grasp the rock. The shrubs which grew upon it would not uphold me, and the fragments which, for a moment, inspired me with hope, crumbled away as soon as they were touched.
At length I noticed a pine which was rooted in a crevice near the water. The trunk, or any part of the root, was beyond my reach; but I trusted that I could catch hold of the branch which hung lowest, and that, when caught, it would assist me in gaining the trunk, and thus deliver me from the death which could not be otherwise averted.
The attempt was arduous. Had it been made when I first reached the bank, no difficulty had attended it; but now to throw myself some feet above the surface could scarcely be expected from one whose utmost efforts seemed to be demanded to keep him from sinking. Yet this exploit, arduous as it was, was attempted and accomplished. Happily the twigs were strong enough to sustain my weight till I caught at other branches and finally placed myself upon the trunk.
This danger was now past; but I admitted the conviction that others, no less formidable, remained to be encountered, and that my ultimate destiny was death. I looked upward. New efforts might enable me to gain the summit of this steep, but perhaps I should thus be placed merely in the situation from which I had just been delivered. It was of little moment whether the scene of my imprisonment was a dungeon not to be broken, or a summit from which descent was impossible.
The river, indeed, severed me from a road which was level and safe, but my recent dangers were remembered only to make me shudder at the thought of incurring them a second time by attempting to cross it. I blush at the recollection of this cowardice. It was little akin to the spirit which I had recently displayed. It was, indeed, an alien to my bosom, and was quickly supplanted by intrepidity and perseverance.
I proceeded to mount the hill. From root to root, and from branch to branch, lay my journey. It was finished, and I sat down upon the highest brow to meditate on future trials. No road lay along this side of the river. It was rugged and sterile, and farms were sparingly dispersed over it. To reach one of these was now the object of my wishes. I had not lost the desire of reaching Solesbury before morning, but my wet clothes and the coldness of the night seemed to have bereaved me of the power.
I traversed this summit, keeping the river on my right hand. Happily, its declinations and ascents were by no means difficult, and I was cheered, in the midst of my vexations, by observing that every mile brought me nearer to my uncles dwelling. Meanwhile I anxiously looked for some tokens of a habitation. These at length presented themselves. A wild heath, whistled over by October blasts, meagrely adorned with the dry stalks of scented shrubs and the bald heads of the sapless mullein, was succeeded by a fenced field and a corn-stack. The dwelling to which these belonged was eagerly sought.
I was not surprised that all voices were still and all lights extinguished, for this was the hour of repose. Having reached a piazza before the house, I paused. Whether, at this drowsy time, to knock for admission, to alarm the peaceful tenants and take from them the rest which their daily toils and their rural innocence had made so sweet, or to retire to what shelter a haystack or barn could afford, was the theme of my deliberations.
Meanwhile, I looked up at the house. It was the model of cleanliness and comfort. It was built of wood; but the materials had undergone the plane, as well as the axe and the saw. It was painted white, and the windows not only had sashes, but these sashes were supplied, contrary to custom, with glass. In most cases the aperture where glass should be is stuffed with an old hat or a petticoat. The door had not only all its parts entire, but was embellished with mouldings and a pediment. I gathered from these tokens that this was the abode not only of rural competence and innocence, but of some beings raised by education and fortune above the intellectual mediocrity of clowns.
Methought I could claim consanguity with such beings. Not to share their charity and kindness would be inflicting as well as receiving injury. The trouble of affording shelter, and warmth, and wholesome diet, to a wretch destitute as I was, would be eagerly sought by them.
Still, I was unwilling to disturb them. I bethought myself that their kitchen might be entered, and all that my necessities required be obtained without interrupting their slumber. I needed nothing but the warmth which their kitchen-hearth would afford. Stretched upon the bricks, I might dry my clothes, and perhaps enjoy some unmolested sleep, in spite of presages of ill and the horrid remembrances of what I had performed and endured. I believed that nature would afford a short respite to my cares.
I went to the door of what appeared to be a kitchen. The door was wide open. This circumstance portended evil. Though it be not customary to lock or to bolt, it is still less usual to have entrances unclosed. I entered with suspicious steps, and saw enough to confirm my apprehensions. Several pieces of wood, half burned, lay in the midst of the floor. They appeared to have been removed hither from the chimney, doubtless with a view to set fire to the whole building.
The fire had made some progress on the floor, but had been seasonably extinguished by pailfuls of water thrown upon it. The floor was still deluged with wet: the pail, not emptied of all its contents, stood upon the hearth. The earthen vessels and plates, whose proper place was the dresser, were scattered in fragments in all parts of the room. I looked around me for some one to explain this scene, but no one appeared.
The last spark of fire was put out, so that, had my curiosity been idle, my purpose could not be accomplished. To retire from this scene, neither curiosity nor benevolence would permit. That some mortal injury had been intended was apparent. What greater mischief had befallen, or whether greater might not, by my interposition, be averted, could only be ascertained by penetrating farther into the house. I opened a door on one side which led to the main body of the building and entered to a bedchamber. I stood at the entrance and knocked, but no one answered my signals.
The sky was not totally clouded, so that some light pervaded the room. I saw that a bed stood in the corner, but whether occupied or not its curtains hindered me from judging. I stood in suspense a few minutes, when a motion in the bed showed me that some one was there. I knocked again, but withdrew to the outside of the door. This roused the sleeper, who, half groaning, and puffing the air through his nostrils, grumbled out, in the hoarsest voice that I ever heard, and in a tone of surly impatience, Who is there?
I hesitated for an answer; but the voice instantly continued, in the manner of one half asleep and enraged at being disturbed, Ist you, Peg? Damn ye, stay away, now! I tell ye, stay away, or, by God, I will cut your throat!I will! He continued to mutter and swear, but without coherence or distinctness.
These were the accents of drunkenness, and denoted a wild and ruffian life. They were little in unison with the external appearances of the mansion, and blasted all the hopes I had formed of meeting under this roof with gentleness and hospitality. To talk with this being, to attempt to reason him into humanity and soberness, was useless. I was at a loss in what manner to address him, or whether it was proper to maintain any parley. Meanwhile, my silence was supplied by the suggestions of his own distempered fancy. Ay, said he; ye will, will ye? Well, come on; lets see whos the better at the oak stick. If I part with ye before I have bared your bones!Ill teach ye to be always dipping in my dish, ye devils dam ye.
So saying, he tumbled out of bed. At the first step, he struck his head against the bedpost, but, setting himself upright, he staggered towards the spot where I stood. Some new obstacle occurred. He stumbled and fell at his length upon the floor.
To encounter or expostulate with a man in this state was plainly absurd. I turned and issued forth, with an aching heart, into the court before the house. The miseries which a debauched husband or father inflicts upon all whom their evil destiny allies to him were pictured by my fancy, and wrung from me tears of anguish. These images, however, quickly yielded to reflections on my own state. No expedient now remained but to seek the barn and find a covering and a bed of straw.
I had scarcely set foot within the barnyard when I heard a sound as of the crying of an infant. It appeared to issue from the barn. I approached softly and listened at the door. The cries of the babe continued, but were accompanied by the entreaties of a nurse or a mother to be quiet. These entreaties were mingled with heart-breaking sobs, and exclamations of, Ah, me, my babe! Canst thou not sleep and afford thy unhappy mother some peace? Thou art cold, and I have not sufficient warmth to cherish thee! What will become of us? Thy deluded father cares not if we both perish.
A glimpse of the true nature of the scene seemed to be imparted by these words. I now likewise recollected incidents that afforded additional light. Somewhere on this bank of the river there formerly resided one by name Selby. He was an aged person, who united science and taste to the simple and laborious habits of a husbandman. He had a son who resided several years in Europe, but on the death of his father returned home, accompanied by a wife. He had succeeded to the occupation of the farm, but rumour had whispered many tales to the disadvantage of his morals. His wife was affirmed to be of delicate and polished manners, and much unlike her companion.
It now occurred to me that this was the dwelling of the Selbys, and I seemed to have gained some insight into the discord and domestic miseries by which the unhappy lady suffered. This was no time to waste my sympathy on others. I could benefit her nothing. Selby had probably returned from a carousal, with all his malignant passions raised into frenzy by intoxication. He had driven his desolate wife from her bed and house, and, to shun outrage and violence, she had fled, with her helpless infant, to the barn. To appease his fury, to console her, to suggest a remedy for this distress, was not in my power. To have sought an interview would be merely to excite her terrors and alarm her delicacy, without contributing to alleviate her calamity. Here, then, was no asylum for me. A place of rest must be sought at some neighbouring habitation. It was probable that one would be found at no great distance: the path that led from the spot where I stood, through a gate, into a meadow, might conduct me to the nearest dwelling; and this path I immediately resolved to explore.
I was anxious to open the gate without noise, but I could not succeed. Some creaking of its hinges was unavoidably produced, which I feared would be overheard by the lady and multiply her apprehensions and perplexities. This inconvenience was irremediable. I therefore closed the gate and pursued the footway before me with the utmost expedition. I had not gained the farther end of the meadow when I lighted on something which lay across the path, and which, on being closely inspected, appeared to be a human body. It was the corpse of a girl, mangled by a hatchet. Her head, gory and deprived of its locks, easily explained the kind of enemies by whom she had been assailed. Here was proof that this quiet and remote habitation had been visited, in their destructive progress, by the Indians. The girl had been slain by them, and her scalp, according to their savage custom, had been torn away to be preserved as a trophy.
The fire which had been kindled on the kitchen-floor was now remembered, and corroborated the inferences which were drawn from this spectacle. And yet that the mischief had been thus limited, that the besotted wretch who lay helpless on his bed and careless of impending danger, and that the mother and her infant, should escape, excited some degree of surprise. Could the savages have been interrupted in their work, and obliged to leave their vengeance unfinished?
Their visit had been recent. Many hours had not elapsed since they prowled about these grounds. Had they wholly disappeared, and meant they not to return? To what new danger might I be exposed in remaining thus guideless and destitute of all defence?
In consequence of these reflections, I proceeded with more caution. I looked with suspicious glances before and on either side of me. I now approached the fence which, on this side, bounded the meadow. Something was discerned, or imagined, stretched close to the fence, on the ground, and filling up the pathway. My apprehensions of a lurking enemy had been previously awakened, and my fancy instantly figured to itself an armed man lying on the ground and waiting to assail the unsuspecting passenger.
At first I was prompted to fly, but a second thought showed me that I had already approached near enough to be endangered. Notwithstanding my pause, the form was motionless. The possibility of being misled in my conjectures was easily supposed. What I saw might be a log, or it might be another victim to savage ferocity. This track was that which my safety required me to pursue. To turn aside or go back would be merely to bewilder myself anew.
Urged by these motives, I went nearer, and at last was close enough to perceive that the figure was human. He lay upon his face. Near his right hand was a musket, unclenched. This circumstance, his deathlike attitude, and the garb and ornaments of an Indian, made me readily suspect the nature and cause of this catastrophe. Here the invaders had been encountered and repulsed, and one at least of their number had been left upon the field.
I was weary of contemplating these rueful objects. Custom, likewise, even in so short a period, had inured me to spectacles of horror. I was grown callous and immovable. I stayed not to ponder on the scene, but, snatching the musket, which was now without an owner, and which might be indispensable to my defence, I hastened into the wood. On this side the meadow was skirted by a forest; but a beaten road led into it, and might therefore be attempted without danger.