Charles Brockden Brown (17711810). Edgar Huntley; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker. 1857.
IT was noonday before we reached the theatre of action. Fear and revenge combined to make the people of Chetasco diligent and zealous in their own defence. The havoc already committed had been mournful. To prevent a repetition of the same calamities, they resolved to hunt out the hostile footsteps and exact a merciless retribution.
It was likely that the enemy, on the approach of day, had withdrawn from the valley and concealed themselves in the thickets between the parallel ridges of the mountain. This space, which, according to the object with which it is compared, is either a vale or the top of a hill, was obscure and desolate. It was undoubtedly the avenue by which the robbers had issued forth, and by which they would escape to the Ohio. Here they might still remain, intending to emerge from their concealment on the next night and perpetrate new horrors.
A certain distribution was made of our number, so as to move in all directions at the same time. I will not dwell upon particulars. It will suffice to say that keen eyes and indefatigable feet brought us at last to the presence of the largest number of these marauders. Seven of them were slain by the edge of a brook, where they sat wholly unconscious of the danger which hung over them. Five escaped, and one of these secured his retreat by wresting your fusil from your uncle and shooting him dead. Before our companion could be rescued or revenged, the assassin, with the remnant of the troop, disappeared, and bore away with him the fusil as a trophy of his victory.
This disaster was deplored, not only on account of that life which had thus been sacrificed, but because a sagacious guide and intrepid leader was lost. His acquaintance with the habits of the Indians, and his experience in their wars, made him trace their footsteps with more certainty than any of his associates.
The pursuit was still continued, and parties were so stationed that the escape of the enemy was difficult, if not impossible. Our search was unremitted, but, during twelve or fourteen hours, unsuccessful. Queen Mab did not elude all suspicion. Her hut was visited by different parties, but the old woman and her dogs had disappeared.
Meanwhile your situation was not forgotten. Every one was charged to explore your footsteps as well as those of the savages; but this search was no less unsuccessful than the former. None had heard of you or seen you.
This continued till midnight. Three of us made a pause at a brook, and intended to repair our fatigues by a respite of a few hours; but scarcely had we stretched ourselves on the ground when we were alarmed by a shot which seemed to have been fired at a short distance. We started on our feet and consulted with each other on the measures to be taken. A second, a third, and a fourth shot, from the same quarter, excited our attention anew. Mabs hut was known to stand at the distance and in the direction of this sound, and thither we resolved to repair.
This was done with speed, but with the utmost circumspection. We shortly gained the road that leads near this hut, and at length gained a view of the building. Many persons were discovered, in a sort of bustling inactivity, before the hut. They were easily distinguished to be friends, and were therefore approached without scruple.
The objects that presented themselves to a nearer view were five bodies stretched upon the ground. Three of them were savages. The fourth was a girl, who, though alive, seemed to have received a mortal wound. The fifth, breathless and mangled, and his features almost concealed by the blood that overspread his face, was Edgar,the fugitive for whom I had made such anxious search.
About the same hour on the last night I had met you hastening into Norwalk. Now were you lying in the midst of savages, at the distance of thirty miles from your home, and in a spot which it was impossible for you to have reached unless by an immense circuit over rocks and thickets. That you had found a rift at the basis of a hill, and thus penetrated its solidities, and thus precluded so tedious and circuitous a journey as must otherwise have been made, was not to be imagined.
But whence arose this scene? It was obvious to conclude that my associates had surprised their enemies in this house, and exacted from them the forfeit of their crimes; but how you should have been confounded with their foes, or whence came the wounded girl, was a subject of astonishment.
You will judge how much this surprise was augmented when I was informed that the party whom we found had been attracted hither by the same signals by which we had been alarmed. That on reaching this spot you had been discovered, alive, seated on the ground, and still sustaining the gun with which you had apparently completed the destruction of so many adversaries. In a moment after their arrival you sunk down and expired.
This scene was attended with inexplicable circumstances. The musket which lay beside you appeared to have belonged to one of the savages. The wound by which each had died was single. Of the four shots we had distinguished at a distance, three of them were therefore fatal to the Indians, and the fourth was doubtless that by which you had fallen; yet three muskets only were discoverable.
The arms were collected, and the girl carried to the nearest house in the arms of her father. Her situation was deemed capable of remedy, and the sorrow and wonder which I felt at your untimely and extraordinary fate did not hinder me from endeavouring to restore the health of this unfortunate victim. I reflected, likewise, that some light might be thrown upon transactions so mysterious by the information which might be collected from her story. Numberless questions and hints were necessary to extract from her a consistent or intelligible tale. She had been dragged, it seems, for miles, at the heels of her conquerors, who at length stopped in a cavern for the sake of some repose. All slept but one, who sat and watched. Something called him away, and, at the same moment, you appeared at the bottom of the cave, half naked and without arms. You instantly supplied the last deficiency by seizing the gun and tomahawk of him who had gone forth, and who had negligently left his weapons behind. Then, stepping over the bodies of the sleepers, you rushed out of the cavern.
She then mentioned your unexpected return, her deliverance and flight, and arrival at Debs hut. You watched upon the hearth, and she fell asleep upon the blanket. From this sleep she was aroused by violent and cruel blows. She looked up: you were gone, and the bed on which she lay was surrounded by the men from whom she had so lately escaped. One dragged her out of the hut and levelled his gun at her breast. At the moment when he touched the trigger, a shot came from an unknown quarter, and he fell at her feet. Of subsequent events she had an incoherent recollection. The Indians were successively slain, and you came to her, and interrogated and consoled her.
I now had leisure to reflect upon your destiny. I had arrived soon enough on this shore merely to witness the catastrophe of two beings whom I most loved. Both were overtaken by the same fate, nearly at the same hour. The same hand had possibly accomplished the destruction of uncle and nephew.
Now, however, I began to entertain a hope that your state might not be irretrievable. You had walked and spoken after the firing had ceased and your enemies had ceased to contend with you. A wound had, no doubt, been previously received. I had hastily inferred that the wound was mortal, and that life could not be recalled. Occupied with attention to the wailings of the girl, and full of sorrow and perplexity, I had admitted an opinion which would have never been adopted in different circumstances. My acquaintance with wounds would have taught me to regard sunken muscles, lividness, and cessation of the pulse, as mere indications of a swoon, and not as tokens of death.
Perhaps my error was not irreparable. By hastening to the hut, I might ascertain your condition, and at least transport your remains to some dwelling and finally secure to you the decencies of burial.
Of twelve savages discovered on the preceding day, ten were now killed. Two at least remained, after whom the pursuit was still zealously maintained. Attention to the wounded girl had withdrawn me from the party, and I had now leisure to return to the scene of these disasters. The sun had risen, and, accompanied by two others, I repaired thither.
A sharp turn in the road, at the entrance of a field, set before us a startling spectacle. An Indian, mangled by repeated wounds of bayonet and bullet, was discovered. His musket was stuck in the ground, by way of beacon attracting our attention to the spot. Over this space I had gone a few hours before, and nothing like this was then seen. The parties abroad had hied away to a distant quarter. Some invisible power seemed to be enlisted in our defence and to preclude the necessity of our arms.
We proceeded to the hut. The savages were there, but Edgar had risen and flown! Nothing now seemed to be incredible. You had slain three foes, and the weapon with which the victory had been achieved had vanished. You had risen from the dead, had assailed one of the surviving enemies, had employed bullet and dagger in his destruction, with both of which you could only be supplied by supernatural means, and had disappeared. If any inhabitant of Chetasco had done this, we should have heard of it.
But what remained? You were still alive. Your strength was sufficient to bear you from this spot. Why were you still invisible? and to what dangers might you not be exposed before you could disinvolve yourself from the mazes of this wilderness?
Once more I procured indefatigable search to be made after you. It was continued till the approach of evening, and was fruitless. Inquiries were twice made at the house where you were supplied with food and intelligence. On the second call I was astonished and delighted by the tidings received from the good woman. Your person, and demeanour, and arms, were described, and mention made of your resolution to cross the southern ridge and traverse the Solesbury Road with the utmost expedition.
The greater part of my inquietudes were now removed. You were able to eat and to travel, and there was little doubt that a meeting would take place between us on the next morning. Meanwhile, I determined to concur with those who pursued the remainder of the enemy. I followed you, in the path that you were said to have taken, and quickly joined a numerous party who were searching for those who, on the last night, had attacked a plantation that lies near this, and destroyed the inhabitants.
I need not dwell upon our doublings and circuities. The enemy was traced to the house of Selby. They had entered, they had put fire on the floor, but were compelled to relinquish their prey. Of what number they consisted could not be ascertained; but one, lingering behind his fellows, was shot, at the entrance of the wood, and on the spot where you chanced to light upon him.
Selbys house was empty, and before the fire had made any progress we extinguished it. The drunken wretch whom you encountered had probably returned from his nocturnal debauch after we had left the spot.
The flying enemy was pursued with fresh diligence. They were found, by various tokens, to have crossed the river, and to have ascended the mountain. We trod closely on their heels. When we arrived at the promontory described by you, the fatigues of the night and day rendered me unqualified to proceed. I determined that this should be the bound of my excursions. I was anxious to obtain an interview with you, and, unless I paused here, should not be able to gain Inglefields as early in the morning as I wished. Two others concurred with me in this resolution, and prepared to return to this house, which had been deserted by its tenants till the danger was past, and which had been selected as the place of rendezvous.
At this moment, dejected and weary, I approached the ledge which severed the headland from the mountain. I marked the appearance of some one stretched upon the ground where you lay. No domestic animal would wander hither and place himself upon this spot. There was something likewise in the appearance of the object that bespoke it to be man; but, if it were man, it was incontrovertibly a savage and a foe. I determined, therefore, to rouse you by a bullet.
My decision was perhaps absurd. I ought to have gained more certainty before I hazarded your destruction. Be that as it will, a moments lingering on your part would have probably been fatal. You started on your feet, and fired. See the hole which your random shot made through my sleeve! This surely was a day destined to be signalized by hairbreadth escapes.
Your action seemed incontestably to confirm my prognostics. Every one hurried to the spot and was eager to destroy an enemy. No one hesitated to believe that some of the shots aimed at you had reached their mark, and that you had sunk to rise no more.
The gun which was fired and thrown down was taken and examined. It had been my companion in many a toilsome expedition. It had rescued me and my friends from a thousand deaths. In order to recognise it, I needed only to touch and handle it. I instantly discovered that I held in my hand the fusil which I had left with you on parting, with which your uncle had equipped himself, and which had been ravished from him by a savage. What was I hence to infer respecting the person of the last possessor?
My inquiries respecting you, of the woman whose milk and bread you had eaten, were minute. You entered, she said, with a hatchet and gun in your hand. While you ate, the gun was laid upon the table. She sat near, and the piece became the object of inquisitive attention. The stock and barrels were described by her in such terms as left no doubt that this was the fusil.
A comparison of incidents enabled me to trace the manner in which you came into possession of this instrument. One of those whom you found in the cavern was the assassin of your uncle. According to the girls report, on issuing from your hiding-place you seized a gun that was unoccupied, and this gun chanced to be your own.
Its two barrels were probably the cause of your success in that unequal contest at Mabs hut. On recovering from deliquium, you found it where it had been dropped by you, out of sight and unsuspected by the party that had afterwards arrived. In your passage to the river, had it once more fallen into hostile hands? or had you missed the way, wandered to this promontory, and mistaken a troop of friends for a band of Indian marauders?
Either supposition was dreadful. The latter was the most plausible. No motives were conceivable by which one of the fugitives could be induced to post himself here, in this conspicuous station; whereas, the road which led you to the summit of the hill, to that spot where descent to the river-road was practicable, could not be found but by those who were accustomed to traverse it. The directions which you had exacted from your hostess proved your previous unacquaintance with these tracts.
I acquiesced in this opinion with a heavy and desponding heart. Fate had led us into a maze which could only terminate in the destruction of one or of the other. By the breadth of a hair had I escaped death from your hand. The same fortune had not befriended you. After my tedious search, I had lighted on you, forlorn, bewildered, perishing with cold and hunger. Instead of recognising and affording you relief, I compelled you to leap into the river, from a perilous height, and had desisted from my persecution only when I had bereaved you of life and plunged you to the bottom of the gulf.
My motives in coming to America were numerous and mixed. Among these was the parental affection with which you had inspired me. I came with fortune, and a better gift than fortune, in my hand. I intended to bestow both upon you, not only to give you competence, but one who would endear to you that competence, who would enhance, by participating, every gratification.
My schemes were now at an end. You were gone, beyond the reach of my benevolence and justice. I had robbed your two sisters of a friend and guardian. It was some consolation to think that it was in my power to stand, with regard to them, in your place; that I could snatch them from the poverty, dependence, and humiliation, to which your death and that of your uncle had reduced them.
I was now doubly weary of the enterprise in which I was engaged, and returned with speed to this rendezvous. My companions have gone to know the state of the family who resided under this roof, and left me to beguile the tedious moments in whatever manner I pleased.
I have omitted mentioning one incident that happened between the detection of your flight and our expedition to Chetasco. Having formed a plausible conjecture as to him who walked in the long room, it was obvious to conclude that he who purloined your manuscript, and the walker, was the same personage. It was likewise easily inferred that the letters were secreted in the cedar chest or in some other part of the room. Instances similar to this have heretofore occurred. Men have employed anxious months in search of that which, in a freak of noctambulation, was hidden by their own hands.
A search was immediately commenced, and your letters were found, carefully concealed between the rafters and shingles of the roof, in a spot where, if suspicion had not been previously excited, they would have remained till the vernal rains and the summer heats had insensibly destroyed them. This packet I carried with me, knowing the value which you set upon it, and there being no receptacle equally safe but your own cabinet, which was locked.
Having, as I said, reached this house, and being left alone, I bethought me of the treasure I possessed. I was unacquainted with the reasons for which these papers were so precious. They probably had some momentous and intimate connection with your own history. As such, they could not be of little value to me, and this moment of inoccupation and regrets was as suitable as any other to the task of perusing them. I drew them forth, therefore, and laid them on the table in this chamber.
The rest is known to you. During a momentary absence you entered. Surely no interview of ancient friends ever took place in so unexpected and abrupt a manner. You were dead. I mourned for you, as one whom I loved, and whom fate had snatched forever from my sight. Now, in a blissful hour, you had risen, and my happiness in thus embracing you is tenfold greater than would have been experienced if no uncertainties and perils had protracted our meeting.