"That is owing, doubtless, to the fact that your mind is absorbed in important things," said Graham, not very tactfully. "I make bold to come to your house, Mr. Blennerhassett, uninvited, but not without warrant. You are, I am informed, a partner of Aaron Burr in certain enterprises now much talked of. It is of this Wachita expedition that I wish to speak with you."
"Speak freely, Mr. Graham. Colonel Burr intimated that you would probably join us. Here are letters giving recent information. Read for yourself."
Graham glanced over a number of communications containing secrets that Blennerhassett, had he been a man of ordinary forethought, would not have trusted out of his own hands. Among the letters was one from Burr, giving a brief account of his troubles in Frankfort. "You perceive, my dear sir," so ran the lines, "that this step will embarrass me in my project of the Wachita settlement, and will deprive me of the pleasure of seeing you at your own house." Graham smiled gravely at the guileless simplicity of the man who had not hesitated to take a stranger into his confidence, unquestioned and unsuspected.
"It is my duty, as a man of honor, to undeceive you, Mr. Blennerhassett. I have no intention of joining your expedition. The fact is, I am here, not to aid and abet you, but the reverse. I come commissioned, as the agent of the Federal Government, and my duty is to prevent the execution of Burr's designs. Do you not know that orders have been issued for the civil authorities to interfere with your plans?"
Blennerhassett opened his eyes wide, with a stupefied stare.
"Then you are not one of us? I was told that you were a leader in the New Orleans Association for the invasion of Mexico. The printer of the Gazette d'Orleans informed me that three hundred men had joined the company."
"There is not a word of truth in the report. I am an officer of the Government, but I have no desire to molest misguided people. My motive in coming through this snowstorm to you to-day is friendly. I want to save your family and you from disaster. I hope to dissuade you from your present purpose. You are misinformed—deluded."
The lord of the isle plucked up spirit and replied haughtily:
"I thank you for your good intentions toward me and my family, though your coming is inopportune, not to say impertinent. We know our own affairs. Colonel Burr and myself are, I conceive, sufficiently experienced in business, and well enough informed in law, to know what we are about. The interference of local officials I shall resent, and if necessary, prosecute. As for yourself, you have not shown your credentials. I trust you will have the honor not to magnify or distort any information I may have inadvertently exposed to your scrutiny. I wish you farewell. Shall I send one of my servants to conduct you to the wharf?"
The official, who was really sincere in all that he had said, left the house and the premises in rather bad temper, yet he cherished no resentment on account of the rebuff.
No sooner was Graham gone than Blennerhassett's courage collapsed. He flung himself into a big chair, and yielded to the pressure of despondency. His wife came into the study and discovered him with his head bowed upon his hands.
"Husband, what ails you?"
"Oh, Maggie, Maggie—we have been deceived. I fear Colonel Burr has not told me all he should have told. We must go no farther in this enterprise." He went on to tell what had passed between himself and Graham, and ended his lament by saying: "I am worried to death! Half my fortune is already squandered! We must think of the boys; we must stop further expenditure, before we have lost all."
The wife stood erect, unshaken, firm almost to rigidity. A white heat of resolute energy burnt in every capillary of her nerved body.
"Give up nothing! Carry out the original plans decided upon here in this library. We expected difficulties—we shall overcome them. All great enterprises are difficult. What do we care for the prattling of this Graham? Now is our time to act. We must do our own thinking. Burr is not here to direct, and if he were, I would not trouble him with details. Why play a secondary part? You are as wise a man as he is, and you are my husband. You have spent money—spend more! To abandon the enterprise is to throw away your chances, all your past expenditures, and all your labor."
"But, my dear wife—"
"Harman, this is not a time for ifs and buts. Hasten your preparations. Bring the boats down from Marietta. Keep every engagement with Burr, and join him at the mouth of the Cumberland at the appointed time. Whoever weakens, let not you and me do so. Remember the pledges made to and by us, and bear yourself as becomes the man chosen to be Minister to the Court of St. James."
What spur more sharp than a beautiful woman's appeal to a proud man's vanity? Blennerhassett hastened every preparation for the forwarding of provisions, ammunition, arms, and men. Night and day the busy work went on. Skiffs flitted in and out of the secluded cove, fetching and carrying supplies or recruits. Skilful hands folded cartridges and manipulated the bullet-mould in the light and heat of the kitchen fire—even the slender fingers of the mistress shared in this significant task.
The time came for bringing the fifteen batteaux from the shipyard on the Muskingum, where Byle had heard the clatter of saw and hammer. But when Blennerhassett's tardy employees made an attempt to get the boats, they were frustrated by the civil and military authorities of Marietta. Only a single batteau was brought down. Jefferson's proclamation was producing its intended effect. The country had awakened to a sense of public danger. The militia was called out in Ohio and a rumor came to Blennerhassett that Colonel Phelps, at the head of the militia of Wood County, Virginia, was about to cross over to the island, seize whatever supplies might be found there, and arrest the proprietor.
The islanders were alarmed. There was no time to waste. Nevertheless, the head of the household hesitated—dawdled. The crisis paralyzed his energy. It was an imperative duty, now, for his wife to make up his mind and to make it up strong. Her will was adequate. She took command of the domestic ship, captain and crew. Peter Taylor hung around his master deprecatingly; she sent him to Belpre on an errand. Albright, the dairyman, spoke disparagingly; she ordered him to look after the cows. She put an arm round her wavering lord, and drew him into his favorite retreat, the library.
"You must embark to-night or lose your liberty, possibly your life. The trunks are packed—everything is ready! We must be brave, as an example to the children." While she spoke Dominick knocked at the door. "May I come in, mamma? I want to go along with papa; I want to go along to Mexico!" The mother gently pushed him from the room. Tears were in the eyes of both parents.
"Margaret, ought I leave them and you unprotected?" She kissed him on the forehead and pressed his tremulous hand.
"Have no fear. I shall be safe. To-morrow we will follow you. Now make haste and complete your final preparations. Tell your men just what to do. We know not the instant that Colonel Phelps may come to arrest you." Blennerhassett assured his wife that everything had been attended to, and that he was ready, at a moment's warning, to start for his boat, which lay waiting by the shore. Night came on, however, and still the fond husband and father lingered. The snow was falling in the outer darkness, and the wind howled through the long avenue of the portico. No wonder the easy-going devotee of luxury shrank from stepping into the bleak night, to navigate a scow down the rough, icy current of the Ohio. Against his wife's protest he took up the violincello and began to tune up its three remaining strings. Touching the chords lightly with the bow, he attempted to play "Auld Lang Syne." A confused noise in the direction of the river stopped the plaintive music.
"Now you must start; I will go along to the river's edge, and see you safe aboard."
Blennerhassett hurried to the bedroom of his boys. Little Harman was asleep. The father kissed the favorite child, and then embraced Dominick.
"Be a good boy, Nicky. Mamma will soon bring you to me again."
Voices were heard shouting, somewhere, in the distance. When Madam Blennerhassett opened the hall door to go forth with her husband, a dash of snow was driven into her face by the insolent wind. Arm in arm went the pair, through the drift which heaped the dooryard path and covered the flower beds. They saw a fire which a squad of the recruits had kindled near the river, to warm their numb hands. The flickering blaze made fantastic lights and shadows among the gaunt bare trees. Just beyond the limits of the snow could be seen the broad Ohio.
"How sullen the black flood looks!" thought the woman.
"Do you hear the water swash against the logs along the shore?" said Blennerhassett.
The couple made straight for the camp-fire, breaking a track. The dry leaves under the snow, when trodden on, gave back a muffled rustle. Near the fire stood a group of a dozen men, with guns in their hands.
"Who are these? Are they militiamen? Will they arrest you? O Harman, my dearest!"
"They are my own people!" answered the husband.
The words had scarcely passed his lips when a figure emerged from the hollow of a huge sycamore, and advanced to intercept the coming party. A powerful man clapped his hand on Blennerhassett's shoulder.
"Harman Blennerhassett, I arrest you in the name and by the authority of the State of Ohio."
"The hell you do!" a gruff voice responded from the group of armed men, who instantly levelled their guns at the intruder.
"Take your hands off that man, and take yourself away, or we will blow your damned brains out!"
"Don't shoot! don't shoot!" cried the foiled agent of the State of Ohio, taken by surprise. "You won't be rash enough to kill an old army officer, will you?"
"We will be rash enough to shoot any man who interferes with our affairs. Who the devil are you?"
"I am General Tupper."
He came forward, into the light of the fire, and was recognized by several.
"You say you represent the State of Ohio," Blennerhassett faltered. "This island belongs to the State of Virginia; you have no business here."
"Blow his head off!" growled one of the guards, and again the recruits covered the spy with their muskets.
"For God's sake, men, don't fire! Upon my word and honor, I came here with good intent. All Marietta is friendly to you, Mr. Blennerhassett. Can't you be persuaded to give up your rash design? You are rushing to your own ruin."
"Put down your guns," commanded Blennerhassett.
"Time is flying," whispered the wife, impatiently. "Let them scare him away."
"If you delay us longer, General Tupper, I cannot be answerable for what my men may do."
The cocking of a gun warned the well-intentioned officer to hurry away.
"Farewell," he shouted back, "I wish you a safe escape down the river, and a fortunate adventure."
The speech was answered by a yell of derision from the boatmen as they leapt on board the batteau, muskets in hand.
"Good-bye, my love," whispered Blennerhassett, clasping his wife in a parting embrace.
"Good-bye, dear!" she said, and kissed him. "Be strong! Be brave! All will end well. God bless you! Think of a glorious future!"
She turned to go, looked back, turned again from the icy margin of the river, and started homeward; but, after taking a few steps, she again stopped and stood a minute, shivering, and weeping under the bare boughs of the great oak tree beneath which Burr had read aloud to her one of her own sentimental poems. Groaning in spirit, and heart-stung by pangs of self-reproach, she hurried up the slope of the carriage road alone.
Through the drifting snow the brave woman returned to her house, which, seen dimly through a veil of falling flakes, had looked to her from a distance like an unsubstantial pile—a phantom habitation for spectres. As she entered its dark hall the Geneva clock struck twelve.
XXV. HEROINE AND HERO.
Blennerhassett was afloat to join Burr. The management of the affairs of the island devolved upon his wife. In the sole care of one woman were left houses and land, man and beast, domestic duties at home and business transactions abroad. Her children required constant attention, and the servants, bond and free, for the most part lazy, evasive, and insubordinate—spoilt by the inefficiency of a vacillating master—were hard to govern or to please. Peter Taylor was insidious, but plausible; Albright, obstinate; the negroes, with few exceptions, "something between a hindrance and a help."
On returning to her house at midnight, having just seen her husband embark, the vigilant wife and mother did not bury her troubles in sleep. The urgent demands of a crisis not to be postponed forbade slumber. The words of General Tupper rang in her ears: "I arrest you by the authority of the State of Ohio." That her peace and liberty would soon be threatened, if not taken from her, by civil or by military force, she had much reason to fear; that her island retreat was already invaded by scouts from the Virginia militia she did not surmise. "How I wish I were a man," she said to herself, and sat down to think how a man in her situation would act. Whatever may have been the sex of her brain, her mind worked swiftly, both to decide and to will. "I shall go to Marietta," was her mental conclusion, "and make another effort to secure the family boat for my children and myself. It belongs to my husband; he paid for it from his own private purse; I will claim that boat."
The tardy sun, peering through the dense fog of the following morning, caught a first glimpse of Madam Blennerhassett when she dismounted near Fort Harmar, and asked to be ferried across the Muskingum, to the boatyard on the eastern shore. The resolute lady sought the town authorities of Marietta—magistrates, lawyers, generals, merchants, common laborers—whom she importuned to intercede in her behalf. She argued, she coaxed, she threatened, she tried the persuasive influence of bribes, and as a last resort, she summoned tears to plead her cause—but of no avail—she failed to obtain the boat. Enraged, disappointed, filled with anxious forebodings, she recrossed the Muskingum, and started back over the road which leads to Belpre, following the windings of the Ohio.
During her absence from home a very disagreeable surprise was preparing for her. The militia of Wood County, Virginia, crossed over to the island and camped on the most eligible grounds they could find, the premises nearest Blennerhassett's buildings. The commander of this reckless and undisciplined infantry, Colonel Hugh Phelps, did not appear at the place of rendezvous until late in the day, having gone on a reconnoitering errand, to the mouth of the Kanawha, hoping to intercept Blennerhassett. The soldiers, if a name so honorable can be applied to the raw levy, mustered on the spur of the moment, assumed all the boisterous swagger which, as they imagined, was the prerogative of the citizen dressed in uniform and armed with musket. It was their idea that a soldier's privilege is insolence, and the badge of his superiority, self-importance. The captain and lieutenants exercised slight control over the men in the ranks, who conceived that the offices had gone to the wrong men. The Wood County militia regarded itself as an "army of occupation," by law and precedent warranted in abusing a brief authority. Instead of guarding and protecting property not their own, the men showed their patriotic zeal by mutilating or demolishing the results of Blennerhassett's labor. They took malicious pleasure in wantonly defacing whatever was elegant or ornamental. They tore off the fence-palings to build their camp-fires; they broke down young fruit trees and pulled up evergreen shrubs; they ransacked barns and outhouses, stole hoarded apples, killed chickens, and frightened the negro slaves out of their small wits. Peter Taylor protested in vain; the roysterers threatened to put Peter in the guard-house and gag him, or even to "string him up," if he didn't hold his tongue.
The butler was forced to produce the keys to the wine-cellar, and the consequences of his surrender were what might have been expected. The mischief already perpetrated in coarse fun—the horseplay of backwoods big boys cut loose from restraint, though rude and destructive, was harmless compared with the orgies to which it was a prelude. The rich and abundant liquors stored away to supply the family demand for twenty years were in a day poured down the throats of the pseudo-soldiers. Under the influence of drink many of the privates, and not a few officers, lost all sense of decency. Some of the bolder among them entered the house, roamed through kitchen, parlor, library, bedrooms. One drunken lout smashed the rare violincello, another brought the gilded harp out into the barnyard and used it as a gridiron on which to roast a confiscated pig. The oil portrait of Blennerhassett, set up as a target, was riddled with bullets.
Dominick made a frantic effort to rescue his father's picture from so ignominious a fate, but, cuffed on the ear by a bully, the boy had no recourse except to hide away in his mother's room with Harman and the black housemaid, Juno.
Such were the scenes enacting in and around her beautiful mansion, while the disappointed mistress was hurrying homeward. A heavy fog still hung over the valley and almost hid the sullen waters of the river from view. As Madam Blennerhassett urged her horse along the river road, her vigilant eye kept her aware of a small boat, which, soon after her starting back from Marietta, she had seen glide out of the mouth of the Muskingum and drift down the Ohio, hugging close to the north shore. Indistinctly, through the mist, she could make out the shape of a man rowing the boat. Whenever she quickened the pace of her horse, the man plied his oars rapidly; whenever she slackened reins, the man slowed up; he kept opposite her and was watching her. Madam Blennerhassett was a courageous woman; but she was a woman, and she began to be afraid. Why was that man furtively following her down the river? Why did he keep her constantly in sight? What might be his evil design? Her terror increased as she neared the ferry, where she had ordered Peter Taylor and Ransom, the negro, to await her return. Striking her steed smartly with the riding whip, she galloped fast. She reached the ferry landing, the boat was there, but Peter Taylor, in whose face she read distressful tidings, was reluctant to carry her over.
"Maybe, mum, you'd best stay in Belpre; there's a rough set on the island."
"The militia, I suppose," said she. "Make haste! Take me to my children."
Hesitatingly, the rowers obeyed their mistress, whose eyes watchfully pierced the fog, in every direction, though nothing could she see of the sneaking river-spy or of his canoe. She drew a long breath of relief, and turned inquiringly to Peter Taylor.
"Has anything gone wrong?"
"Heverything 'as gone wrong!"
He told her a dismal tale of the doings of the militia, dwelling on his own inglorious sufferings. A flush reddened his mistress's cheeks, her eyes flashed and her heart was on fire. "Go faster! Work with all your might!"
The white man and his black helper bent hard to their poles, and brought the boat speedily to the landing. The horse was led ashore and its rider sprang into the saddle, and galloped to the door of her house. The soldiers, bivouacking in the front yard, stared in amazement as she rode past. In a minute, in a second, she alighted and swept into the parlor, where six or eight brawling intruders sat on mahogany chairs and upholstered sofas, drinking wine and singing filthy songs. One fellow, maudlin from liquor, rolled on the Smyrna rug. Another was in the act of firing a bullet at the frescoed ceiling.
"Robbers! Cowards! Beasts! Begone! Where is your commanding officer? By whose permission are you here? Young man"—this to a captain—"you wear a sword—draw it and drive these ruffians out! This is my house. You have no warrant to break in, like a band of thieves."
This speech and the imperious bearing of the offended woman checked, but did not stop the orgies of the irresponsible men. A few slunk from the room, ashamed and overawed. But the mob spirit was not to be quenched by an angry lady's lofty speech. The brutal element prevailed. What cared those intoxicated revellers for a scolding tongue? The young captain, his head swimming in the fumes of whiskey, impudently replied, "I'm in command here myself, my dear. When Phelps comes back, I'll interduce you to him." The soldiers yawped applause. In the midst of the uproar, Juno, the house servant, ventured to come in by way of the library, with Harman. The child ran to his mother where she stood in the centre of the room. A saucy corporal broke out with obscene speech and plucked at the dress of the negro girl, imitating the affrighted child.
Again the mistress made a vain appeal:
"Do American soldiers abuse women?"
"A nigger's not a woman!" hiccoughed the corporal, and his words were applauded by a general guffaw.
"Think of your own sisters and mothers and wives!"
"Wives! That's good! How many wives do you s'pose I've got? I wish to hell I had a bloomin' wife like yerself. Yer man's run away, how will I do for a substitute?"
"Shouldn't wonder," interrupted the captain, "if the damned Irish traitor was lynched by this time."
Madam Blennerhassett looked around imploringly and supplicated:
"I am alone here with my poor children. Will no one take our part? Is there not one man here who will defend me?"
A drawling voice responded:
"By ginger-root, there is sich a man. Blast you, you forward skunks, git out of this! Say, you woods-colt with the humps on your shoulders and a stalk-knife by your side, help drive these hogs into the Ohio River. They've got more devils in 'em than what's-his-name, in the Holy Scripture, cast into all the swine of Jerusalem. Git out, I say, you knock-kneed jackasses!"
Loquacity was Byle's riches, but he could transmute speech into action. Instead of wasting words, he began to deliver convincing blows. His first stroke sent the obscene corporal to the floor, minus front teeth and consciousness. The amazed captain labored to unsheath his sword, but Byle snatched the rusty weapon and thwacked the young scapegrace over the pate with it. A rash rustic drew up musket and fired; the ball grazed Plutarch's right thumb, bringing blood. This enraged the doughty champion to the highest pitch of his fighting compass. Rushing upon the dismayed private, he seized the offending musket with both hands, and snapped stock from barrel by suddenly pressing the piece against his bent knee. So impetuous and so violent and so general was the onslaught of Plutarch, that the untried militiamen, "flown with insolence and wine," were taken aback, surprised and confounded. Seeing his advantage, the gaunt giant resumed bellicose speech, like a Greek taunting the Trojans.
"Bust my buttons, bimeby I'll get mad, and hurt some of you 'fore I know what I'm about! What the Holy Moses did you shoot my thumb for? durn you! Don't you guess I've any feelin', you onery idiot? Needn't be skeered, Margaret, I'll make ground mustard out of anybody that dares touch a hair of your head with his sass!"
The rout, ignominiously driven from the parlor by the vigorous assaults of Byle, immediately rallied, in the yard, ashamed of their precipitate panic and retreat. The humiliated captain gave orders to a file of men to enter the house and take the champion, alive or dead. This command might have been executed had not Colonel Phelps come upon the scene unexpectedly. A rapid survey of the premises, a few inquiries, revealed to him the shameful misbehavior of his officers and men. Byle freely imparted his version of how matters stood.
"Colonel, these scandalous boys of yourn are guilty of burglary in open daylight! yes, and of unprovoked 'sault and batter, prepense. The law is on our side, all round. The citizen has an inalienable right to defend his home and family, and we did, didn't we, Harman?"
Phelps admitted the correctness of Plutarch's views. To the captain the colonel said sternly:
"Consider yourself under arrest. You have disgraced your temporary commission." Addressing the derelict soldiery, he added:
"You are not fit to carry muskets! Shame upon you, men, shame! You have soiled the name of Virginia, and stained the honor of your homes."
"Say, cap'n," resumed Byle, staunching his bloody thumb with the fringe of his buckskin doublet, "you'd best trade your side arms for this young un's tin sword; git it for him, bub; and I'll make him a pop-gun of elder-wood. Colonel Hugh Phelps, of Parkurgberg, how are you? Excuse my not shaking hands sooner."
Phelps assumed a haughty military attitude, which displayed to advantage his large and imposing form. "Who is this person?" he asked the captain.
"Jersey cranberries! Don't you know me? I've heard of the Phelpses ever since I was knee-high to a duck. They are folks nobody need feel ticklish about shaking hands with. You're the only swelled up one of the stock. I never knowed but one wuthless Phelp, and he was a good enough fisher when he was sober. Colonel, were you ever picked up by puttin' out your paw to the wrong man? Want to see inside the 'stablishment? Come right in, I'll introduce you to Mrs. Blennerhassett."
The colonel pushed forward through the open door and accosted the dignified lady, who was taking an inventory of the ruined household effects. Byle stalked into the room at the officer's side.
In the stately manner of the gentry of the period, Phelps made his compliments and solicited a brief interview. He apologized as well as he could for the outrageous behavior of the militia, and offered to do anything in his power to make amends. The only favor which the proud woman asked was the privilege of embarking as soon as practicable, on a down-river boat that would carry her and her children to the South.
"Can you procure for me the family boat which my husband provided for us at Marietta?"
The colonel feared not. Marietta was out of his jurisdiction.
"Is there any boat that I can borrow here, or buy? I must join my husband; I promised him that I would not delay."
"I'd lend you my big piroque, but you'll overset before you get as far as Farmer's Castle," said Byle.
"Pardon me," responded Madam Blennerhassett, in tones of apology, bestowing looks of infinite gratitude on her zealous guardian; "I cannot put in words my sense of obligation to you, sir. Colonel Phelps, I owe to this gentleman more than money can repay! It was he who protected me and my servants from the drunken soldiers; he drove them out, risking his life; he was wounded defending us!"
"You don't owe me a fip. It is no trouble at all to me to do a little chore for you. It was fool's luck, anyway. I saw you in town this morning, skiting about, from pillar to post, and says I to myself, 'There's uneasiness under that fine bonnet!' I noticed you dodge in at the court-house and at Squire Hale's, and everywhere, and something told me to investigate. So I went in wherever I saw you come out, in reg'lar order, and larnt, I guess, just about as much as you did, about your disappointment and your worry. Then I thought, 'as like as not that woman is having more trouble down upon the island than I know anything about. So, true as calamus is sweet-flag, as soon as you was on your white horse, like the old lady of Banbury Cross, I was in my everyday skiff, and I didn't lose you out of my sight from the minute you started to the minute Peter and Ransom took you on the ferry—but I slid along where you couldn't spy me."
"I did see you, sir, and I confess I imagined you might be some river-ruffian watching me with no good intention. I did you great injustice."
"I looked like a river pirate, did I? No, ma'am, I was a privateer, but not a pirate. I was sailing under your colors, unbeknown to you. Is that correct military language, Phelps? To make a long story short, Scipio told me in his charcoal style what happened last night, and all about Harman's sudden going away. Well, sir—ma'am, I mean—it struck me of a heap. I never was worse doubled up by news in my life. I'm not a praying man, as a rule—I only remember praying out loud once—that was when brother Euc was near 'bout dead with cholera morbus—I began to pray, and he says, 'Don't be fooling with the Lord now, but give me some more camphire.' That speech of Euc's sort of cured me of praying out loud, though I'm orthodox. Let's see; where was I? Oh, yes, I felt so dangnation sorry for the family, that I says, in my mind, or I reckon it was in my soul, I says to God, 'Don't forget to keep your all-seeing eye on Margaret.' Well, Colonel Phelps; I leave you in charge of the widow and the fatherless. If you have any trouble with the militia, just send for Plutarch Byle. Good-bye, Mrs. B. I never seen you lookin' handsomer since the day I first met you and Evaleen, last May a year ago, when I was up here investigating that hunk of raw beef in the puddle."
Notwithstanding his precipitate farewell, Plutarch lingered at the door, and kept nervously wiping the blood off his thumb upon the fringe of his doublet. Mrs. Blennerhassett, with gracious solicitude, insisted upon wrapping a small linen handkerchief about the wounded member. The gawky hero looked very sheepish while she tied the soft bandage fast.
"Is this yourn?" he asked.
"It was mine," she answered, smiling amusedly, "but it now belongs to the knight who came to fight my battle when I was in great distress."
"By gum, I'm obliged to you."
Uttering these elegant parting words, Byle bolted out of the room to the long porch. He stood a moment, then turned his face toward the door, where stood the lady, smiling her embarrassed thanks and adieux. Big tears were trickling down Plutarch's cheeks. The awkward giant gulped, wheeled round, and with long strides made a bee-line for his boat, followed as he left the yard by cheers from the Wood County militia.
* * * * *
Fortunately, a party of youths, including Morgan Neville, William Robinson, young Brackenridge, and a dozen others, who had attached themselves to Burr and Arlington in Pittsburg, came down the Ohio, in a flatboat belonging to one of their associates, Thomas Butler. These adventurous voyagers, suspected of complicity with Burr, were arraigned before three justices of the peace, of the Dogberry caliber, and after a ludicrous examination were acquitted. The best room of their boat was fitted up with carpets, hangings, and a suite of furniture taken from the chambers of the White House, soon to be deserted. The unplaned, unpainted cabin, perfumed by the sour odor of oaken planks and the scent of pine resin, was transformed into an Eastern boudoir—couches, divans, gorgeous colors and all, for the accommodation of Mrs. Blennerhassett.
The ill-starred gentlewoman whose passion for the magnificent prompted her to adorn her floating bower thus luxuriously, and who, like Cleopatra, was attended on her barge by Ethiop slaves, had not relinquished her faith in Burr's dream of conquest and empire.
"Where are we going," asked Harman, when the boat which was to convey the family to Bayou Pierre had been pushed off from their island, and the mother and her children realized that they were afloat upon the river.
"We are going to meet your father in a splendid city far away in the South."
"Will Colonel Burr be there?"
"Yes, but we shall not then call him Colonel; he will be Emperor."
"And what will you be, mamma?"
"A duchess, my son."
The weary mother sank back upon her oriental divan, which was piled with cushions, and closed her eyes in fragrant slumber, a luxury she had foregone for many days and nights.
XXVI. OUT OF THE NET INTO THE TRAP.
December was well-nigh spent when Blennerhassett's bateau reached the mouth of the Cumberland and joined Burr's flotilla of a dozen similar boats. The number of men ready to embark for the Wachita counted only three or four score. This informidable showing discouraged Blennerhassett, but the "general," for so Burr was now styled, saw fleet and men with the multiplying eye of faith, and he rejoiced to have actually begun the campaign. Followers yet unseen were surely on their way to join his resolute band. The miscarriage of plans at the island imposed only a temporary delay on the five hundred expected to descend from the Alleghany country. That recruits would flock the Mississippi shores to look for the coming of the leader, and to offer themselves—blanket, gun and soul—for the bold venture, was to be expected of men whose names were written in the "Roster of the Faithful."
The motley forces drawn up on the bank of the Cumberland for review and instruction made up in fantastic variety for what they lacked in number. There was much of the grotesque and somewhat of the pitiful in the spectacle presented by the straggling ranks of boatmen and backwoods farmers. Many wore garments of butternut linsey; others had on buckskin breeches and coats of bear's pelts; some, in imitation of Boone and the pioneers, had donned moccasins and wolf's skin caps, ornamented with foxtails. Some of these picturesque resolutes leaned on their long rifles, displaying to advantage tomahawk and scalping knife.
To this nucleus of an expected great army Burr made a brief speech: "There can be no failure in any enterprise backed up by patriots of such stock as I see before me. You have the muscle and the sinew, the blood and the brains, the heart and the soul, of Western heroes. Your officers, while expecting obedience, give in return their friendship and protection. We are to share common hardships and dangers, putting up with things as they are to-day, in certainty of reward to-morrow."
The progress of the unwieldy batteaux was impeded by perils of winter navigation. Burr exercised his best generalship in directing his men how to overcome the difficulties they must encounter. He now thought he knew the river in its two siren moods, its summer singing hour and its winter rage of hunger for decoyed victims. His royal progress in Wilkinson's barge he recollected as an event so long ago as to seem an impression revived in the brain, of a voyage enjoyed in some previous state of existence.
The flotilla had passed New Madrid, when, one afternoon, Burr standing near the stern of his boat—amused himself by contemplating a procession of flying clouds in distorted shapes of dragons, hippogrifs, witches, and ghosts. The boat was close to shore, skirting a low bluff, covered with shrubs and trees. A majestic poplar standing on the river's edge drew the colonel's attention by its noble aspect. At the very moment when the prow drove opposite the monarch tree, its lofty top trembled, the towering trunk reeled and fell into the river with a terrific plunge. The twenty-foot long steering pole, to which was attached a rudder like the blade of a huge oar, was struck and splintered by the falling trunk. The seemingly firm-rooted and defiant poplar had been undermined by the incessant erosion of the flood.
"Good Heaven!" exclaimed Burr, involuntarily. "Am I the tree or the undercurrent?"
That he had far less to dread from winds, waves, and falling trees than from ominous storm gatherings of human element, menacing the fleet from the shore, the adventurer discovered full soon. He was prepared to battle with the Mississippi, but had not anticipated collision with the territorial militia, for he was in ignorance of the fact that his plans had been exposed, and that a thunderbolt from the hand of national authority had been hurled. His flotilla, as it proceeded southward, instead of being hailed and boarded by eager recruits, was bayed by the watch-dogs of the law, civil and martial. Intrusive messengers from the courts and officious colonels of raw militia regiments pestered and threatened; those, with paper warrants from local magistrates, these, with flintlock muskets in reserve.
Not until his boat arrived at Bayou Pierre, near Natchez, and landed in Petite Gulf, was Burr fully informed of the action taken by the National Government and the several States. The situation was disclosed to him by Major Flaharty of the Second Regiment, who, acting under the authority of the territorial governor of Mississippi, ordered Burr to appear at the village of Washington to undergo examination. The order was not promptly enforced, and the boats were permitted to cross the river to a point on the western shore, a few miles lower down.
Before Burr's boat pushed out from Petite Gulf, Blennerhassett hurried to his superior, and with many apologies, handed him a letter, crumpled from having been carried long in the bearer's pocket.
"This came by mail to the island, addressed, as you see, in my care. Margaret warned me to deliver it to you promptly; but the commission escaped my mind." The superscription on the letter, written in fine hand, ran thus: "To Colonel Aaron Burr, care of Mr. Harman Blennerhassett, Blennerhassett's Island, opposite Belpre, Ohio, U. S. A." Burr waited until the boat was in motion before entering his cabin to open and read the belated billet-doux, for such he judged the missive to be. The news he had just heard of Wilkinson's changed attitude, and the prospect of his own arrest, left him in a state of mind not favorable to playing the capricious game of flirtation, with pen or tongue. He cast the sealed epistle on the table provided for his use, and sat down on a wooden stool to ponder. The only illumination of his rude quarters came from a tallow candle stuck in a socket made by boring an auger-hole in a block of wood. Night had fallen, the wind blew in violent gusts and the timbers of the flatboat creaked and shuddered. Burr sat in meditation, his face buried in his hands, his elbows resting on the table, a foiled conspirator—frustrated, trapped, as he conjectured, by his suave confederate. He had drifted into the eelpot prepared for him. No mode of escape could he devise. He thought of Madam Blennerhassett, of Theodosia, of glorious visions seen and royal assurances given, in the secluded library of the White House on the lonely island in the Ohio. Vividly he remembered his first voyage down the beautiful river, the conversations with Arlington, the serio-comic encounter with Plutarch Byle, the reverie on deck of the ark, the evening in the ladies' bower. Slowly he raised his head from his hands, and moved by the automatism of habit drew a cigar from its case, lit the solacing weed at the blue-yellow cone of the candle flame, and smoked. He now felt not disinclined to take up the neglected billet-doux. He broke the seal and read.
PHILADELPHIA, NOV. 31, 1806.
"Forgive—forgive me, if you can—I am dying of remorse. You deceived me, betrayed me, in my girlhood, but I pardoned that, for I loved you more than any other woman ever loved a man. When we met in Ohio, by strange accident, all was reconciled. How happy I was! But when I learned of your perfidy; when I was forced to realize that I was not only your jilted victim, but your hoodwinked dupe; that your object in coaxing from me my fortune was wholly selfish; that you never meant to restore either my property or my good name; while your kisses were warm upon my lips your heart was planning proposals to another woman to become your wife that I, your discarded tool, could not claim even to be regarded as your mistress; when I felt sure of all this, I was frantic with grief and rage. I went to Washington, saw the President, gave him all the facts and papers you had intrusted to me. I did this in hatred, for revenge. In my madness I wanted to crush you, to blast your hopes, to kill you, if I could. But anger gave way to remorse. I would undo what I have done, but it is too late. I know you cannot love me—you cannot pity or forgive. I never shall forgive myself. There is nothing for me to live for—I am wretched, wretched, ruined—abandoned by you and despised by the world. When this reaches you, if it ever reaches your dear hand, I will be out of this awful misery and free from shame.
"I send enclosed the diamond ring you gave me in Princeton—the one you took from my finger in that farmhouse on the Miami, to write with it on the window-pane your name, dear Aaron, my first love, and underneath it my own.
The unhappy trifler having reread the reproachful lines, took up the ring which had fallen upon the table when the letter was unfolded. There was a small window in the side of the cabin, opening on hinges. Burr rose, stepped to the rude casement, unfastened the bolt, thrust his arm out as far as he could reach, holding betwixt his thumb and finger the sparkling gem, and was about to cast it into the water; but he checked the impulse, drew back his hand and slipped the love-token on his little finger.
"Poor Salome!" he murmured, closing the sash. "Foolish Salome! She thinks she is the cause of my ruin; but she is not. I wish to God I could say I am not the cause of hers."
The fickle lover, rousing from his remorseful reverie, became the man of action. His boat was freighted, in part, with military stores, proof positive of warlike designs. This objective evidence must not come to the knowledge of judge or militia-man. Burr seized an axe, and calling one of the boatmen to his assistance, led the way to the main storage room, where guns and ammunition, packed in chests, lay piled. The place was closely boarded up, having no openings whatever in the sides.
"Here, Gilpin, take the axe, while I hold the light. Cut a hole in the side of the boat, between these two upright braces. Hurry up! Make the space large enough to let these boxes pass through."
The boatman chopped with lusty strokes and soon hewed an opening sufficiently long and wide through the plank siding.
"Now, take hold; help lift this, and slide it overboard."
Rapidly the two worked with might and main, casting chest after chest overboard to sink plumb to the muddy bottom of the Mississippi. By the time the steersman gave orders for landing on the Arkansas shore, the telltale cargo had all been unloaded. The innocent vessel was brought to harbor in a bend and made fast to some friendly trees.
Military officers, acting for the governor of Mississippi Territory, lay in wait to seize Burr and Blennerhassett. To the governor's aide-de-camp the chief conspirator said with bitter resentment:
"As to any projects or plans which may have been formed between General Wilkinson and myself, heretofore, they are now completely frustrated by the treacherous conduct of Wilkinson; and the world must pronounce him a perfidious villain. If I am sacrificed, my portfolio will prove him such."
This petulant outburst was of no avail to stave off the minions of the law. Burr was again in the toils. He, the distinguished attorney who had won so many cases before the New York bench, and who had presided over the Senate of the United States, was summoned to a hearing before a grand jury in the obscure village of Washington. What a descent from Washington, the capital, to Washington, the frontier hamlet; from presidency of the Senate to a prisoner's box in a backwoods court-house!
The good genius of Burr did not desert him at the hour of this, his second humiliating ordeal. Fortune, who had rescued him in Kentucky, again favored him in Mississippi. The grand jury, to the chagrin of judge and territorial governor, brought in the unexpected presentment that Aaron Burr was not guilty of any crime or misdemeanor. The jury was dismissed, but the prisoner was not discharged. Burr, who had many secret friends, was advised that the governor intended to seize on his person the moment the court should release him. The conspirator resolved to elude judiciary and executive by flight. Prudence and dignity, however, forbade precipitate action. Never was fugitive so intrepid, so calm. No valet had ever regarded him less than a hero. But how would Madam Blennerhassett judge him? She had arrived at Bayou Pierre—that Burr knew—and the first tidings she heard of her husband told her that he and Burr had been arrested. Burr sat down, and penned the following:
"WASHINGTON, MISS., Jan. 31, 1807.
"Mrs. M. Blennerhassett.
"Dear Madam: Your good husband has informed you of the miscarriage of our plans, and of our humiliating detention by Government officials. This temporary delay on the road to Beulah is wholly chargeable to the treachery of one individual in whom I placed absolute trust. No fit abiding place is yet provided for you on the Wachita acres. And Orleans is a port closed against us. How mortifying! Let not these tidings distress you, but draw upon the infinite resources of a determined will. I am not discouraged—only pestered and stung by a swarm of mosquitoes in the shape of magistrates, militia colonels, and false witnesses. Doubtless, Mr. Blennerhassett will be restored to you soon; as for myself, I take all the responsibility for his misfortunes upon my shoulders. Circumstances compel me, for the present, to move with circumspection, but you shall hear from me in good time.
"Last night, in my sleep, I had a delightful experience. I dreamed we were all sailing the Mediterranean, in a silken-sailed barge, bound for Egypt, Syria, Arabia, and every spicy, flowery land. I awoke to the 'slumbery agitation' of today's evil chances. However, 'there's nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.' The Kingdom is within us. You recollect old Shirley's solemn lines,
'The glories of our blood and state Are shadows, not substantial things.'
The only substantial world is comprised within the two hemispheres of the human heart.
"Dear madam, will you console Theodosia with one of your brave, loving, womanly letters? She is the one who will suffer most from the miserable collapse of our plans—she and poor little Gampy.
"I presume you will return to the Enchanted Ground! 'Tis a heavenly retreat. I enclose a sprig of Spanish moss from a cypress-tree near the village jail. Adieu,
The gallant traitor did not linger for the governor's catchpoll to seize him. French leave was better than a sheriff's hospitality. Three of Burr's faithful adherents agreed to convey him secretly, in a skiff, to a point twenty miles from Bayou Pierre, and there to provide him with a horse and a mounted guide, to facilitate his escape from the Territory. In pursuance of his project, he was about to leave Washington, on foot, to join his clandestine abettors, when he was curtly accosted by a young man whom he was startled to recognize at that time and place. Burr put out his hand, but the young man haughtily withheld his own. He spoke vehemently.
"Colonel Burr, I challenged a brave man, a patriotic soldier, to fight a duel with me, because he spoke severe words about you. He wronged you a little, but you have wronged me much—my friends more. You called Hamilton to the field for traducing you; I demand satisfaction from you for treacherously involving me and my family name with your own, in charges of disloyalty to the Government. You lied to me!"
Burr compressed his lips and filled his lungs with a quick-drawn breath. His cheeks purpled and his eyes shot dark fire.
"Mr. Arlington, you go too far. I cannot brook insult."
"Do not brook it. Resent it. You have smutched my honor. You have ruined the Blennerhassetts. You have betrayed a host of confiding people. You have endeavored to destroy the Union. I can right myself before the country and in my own estimation only by calling you to personal account. Will you meet me with pistol or with sword?"
Burr quenched the resentful fires that burnt in his heart, and replied calmly:
"My friend, I decline to meet you in any form of duel. You cannot provoke me to accept your challenge. I respect you too much to kill you. You demand satisfaction. Arlington, no satisfaction comes to either party in a fatal conflict. The dead man is indifferent to the boast of honor vindicated. I have fought my last duel. But don't imagine me afraid of threats, or bullets, or swords."
The Virginian responded in milder tones.
"Can you justify your deceptions, practised on me, or make amends for the injury done the Blennerhassetts?"
"I justify nothing. I promise no reform. My plan failed. I did my best. I am no traitor. I meant to benefit everybody. I shall be vindicated. Good-bye. Go, Arlington, marry the belle of Marietta, and be a happy man."
Arlington's nostrils quivered. A second surge of anger swept over him. Burr continued:
"I advise seriously. Win Miss Hale. I know she likes you. She is the finest woman west of the Appalachians—or east of them. I had matrimonial inclinings toward the paragon myself."
"That I know," said the young man, with crabbed acrimony.
"Yes, you know that. That is an additional reason, you think, for wishing to meet me in dudgeon. A lover hates a rival, even an unsuccessful one, and cherishes hotter resentment against the man who steals a kiss from his lady love than against him who violates a dozen federal constitutions, and breaks all the apron strings of his mother country."
The flippancy of this speech renewed Arlington's animosity.
"You will not, then, permit me to right myself by the code of honor?"
"No, Arlington, as I told you, I fought my last duel on the bank of the Hudson. Good-bye. I am not the bad man you believe me to be. But I am under a cloud. My hopes are darkened. I would like to keep your friendship, but cannot demand it. It was in our plans to make you a 'belted knight, a marquis, duke, and a' that,' but the Creator anticipated me by making you a true gentleman, which is the highest title of nobility."
Burr started on the path which led to the covert where his three faithful friends awaited his coming, to row him down the river. Halting for a minute, he looked back at Arlington wistfully, and said:
"I am an outcast and an outlaw. Farewell."
Burr followed the path which he hoped would extricate him from the labyrinth of his troubles, and Arlington left the village of Washington, and was soon on the way to New Orleans, where Evaleen Hale expected him at the house of her uncle.
XXVII. FLIGHT AND SURRENDER.
Disguised in the borrowed clothes of a boatman—pantaloons of coarse stuff, dyed in copperas, a drab-colored roundabout, a broad-brimmed slouch hat much the worse for hard usage in rain and sun—Aaron Burr fled. He deemed it impossible that any detective could recognize him. One precaution, however, he neglected to take; his genteel feet disdained the boatman's cowhide shoes, nor would he put on the pair of big Suarrow boots proffered by one of his followers. He insisted on wearing, as usual, his tight-fitting, neat, elegant city-boots of polished calfskin.
Clad and accoutred for flight through a wild country, mounted upon a spirited horse provided by devoted accessories for the severe journey, and accompanied by a guide who knew the forest ways, he set out, a fugitive from justice. Both he and his pilot carried pistols in holster and provisions in saddle-bags. Their route lay through a desolate region sparsely settled by pioneers, and not yet relinquished by wandering aborigines, nor by the bear and the catamount. The month of February was spent before they reached the valley of the Tombigbee, a distance of two hundred miles from the Mississippi River.
Late one evening the weary travellers drew rein at the door of a log tavern in Alabama. A bright fire was crackling within, and several guests sat conversing before the broad hearth.
"Hello the house!" shouted Burr's attendant. Not hearing a prompt response to the call, the guide dismounted, rapped on the deal door, at the same time jerking a stout leathern bobbin which drew up the wooden latch inside. The door flew open, disclosing a puncheon floor, a bar with bulging decanters of whiskey, and the group of talkers sitting in the ruddy glow of the wide fireplace. The landlord came to the threshold.
"Alight and come in, stranger. I have good beds."
"We are obliged to you, landlord," said Burr from the saddle, "but we can't stop. We hailed the house only to inquire the way to Colonel Hinson's. How far is it?"
"A long seven miles, and all that isn't stump is mud hole. Better put up here till morning. A bite of pork and pone, washed down with a cup of hot coffee, will make a new man of you."
"Thank you, my friend, but we are in some hurry. What direction shall we take?" The tavern-keeper gave the desired information, with tedious minuteness. Meanwhile the party at the fireside took sharp notice of the man on horseback, whom they could plainly see in the outshining light of the fire. A tall gentleman, whom the host called "colonel," inspected the strangers with comprehensive scrutiny.
"Neighbors," said he, listening to the receding hoof-beats of the horses, "did you notice that man's face and his feet? He don't look like a common man. Our backwoodsmen don't wear shiny boots." Leaving his companions mystified by this speech, the colonel hurried from the inn, and bent his steps toward a cabin, from the single small window of which a lard-lamp levelled its faint ray. This was the lodge of the district sheriff. The tall colonel called the officer out and described the appearance and actions of the two travellers.
"Brightwell, I have my suspicions. Hadn't we better go—you and I—to Hinson's, and learn who these parties are and what they want? I doubt if your cousin, Mrs. Hinson, knows that her husband sympathizes with a certain individual who falls under the charges of Jefferson's proclamation."
Colonel Perkins easily persuaded the sheriff it was their duty to follow the suspected persons, and the self-constituted spies saddled horses and spurred through the woods, along a solitary road, to Hinson's lonely cottage. Perkins remained outside, holding the horses and shivering under the gusty pines. The sheriff knocked at the back door of the cabin; the mistress of the house received him kinswomanly in the kitchen. From this rear apartment Brightwell could peep into the front room, where sat the object of his curiosity. Having exchanged a few familiar remarks and inquiries with Mrs. Hinson, the sheriff asked, in a whisper:
"Who is that man—the small man with black eyes and white hands?"
"He calls himself Hodge—Jeremiah Hodge—and claims acquaintance with my husband. He says he came by request to have a talk with Hinson about raft-building on the Tombigbee."
"Do you believe this?"
"I don't know what to think. He is a civil man—very civil—as soft spoken as a girl, and he has the nicest table manners I ever seen in a man. I couldn't turn strangers away on such a raw night."
"No," said the sheriff, "you could not; we must be neighborly; but I have my doubts of Jeremiah Hodge. Good-bye, Jane. Drop over and see Fanny and the new baby."
The officer, highly satisfied with his cunning detective work, slipped out and joined his impatient companion, Perkins, who agreed to communicate straightway with Lieutenant Gaines, commandant at Fort Stoddart, a post on the Tombigbee. Having secured a canoe and a colored boy to paddle it, Colonel Perkins, on the following morning, descended the river, and told Gaines his story.
While Perkins was floating down the Tombigbee, the polite boatman, Jeremiah Hodge, was writing letters, eating breakfast, and chatting most agreeably with his admiring hostess. At about nine-o'clock he requested his fellow-traveller to saddle the horses, and within the few minutes required for this to be done he surprised Mrs. Hinson by disclosing his real name.
"Madam, if you should ever chance to meet a boatman by the name of Jeremiah Hodge, which is not probable, please make my apologies to him for borrowing his name, as I have borrowed also another man's clothes. I am Aaron Burr, of New York, a name pretty widely known and much bandied about in these scandalmongering days. I know your husband well; Colonel Hinson and myself are old friends; I saw him lately in Natchez, and he was kind enough to invite me to make his house my home, in case I had need of a comrade soldier's hospitality. Under the circumstances now existing I cannot remain longer."
Mrs. Hinson looked incredulous and scared.
"Mercy me!" was her suppressed interjection.
"Pardon me for giving a false name, and not a pretty one, either. A reward of two thousand dollars is offered to any one who will give information leading to my arrest. Such a snug sum might serve you for pin-money." This was jocularly said and with a smile. Mrs. Hinson found a tongue to protest.
"Don't fear I'll blab. I wish I could help you to get out of danger. Now I see why cousin Brightwell was Paul Prying here last night. There's your horse saddled and bridled. Take keer of yourself."
"Good-bye, my dear madam. I cannot, of course, offer to pay you for your generous entertainment of me and my follower. But you must not deny me one small favor—take this ring as a keepsake from Jeremiah Hodge."
He waited not for a reply, but gently raising her hand, which was a very pretty one, he placed on her finger Salome Rosemary's diamond ring! Bowing a graceful adieu, the versatile fugitive rode away at his faithful servant's side.
The brace of horsemen had not trotted a mile before they were overtaken on the highway by a rider who accosted them very cordially. His sorrel steed kept even pace with the other two horses.
"A nice frosty morning," chirpped the friendly bore. "I hope I don't intrude. I like company myself when I am on the road. Which way are you bound? Pensacola?"
Burr made no reply, but his attache answered freely:
"Yes, Pensacola. Which is the best road from here to Carson's Ferry?"
"The best road and the shortest is by way of the cut-off. I am going that way—I'll show you the road."
All three cantered forward. In half an hour they came to a place where the road made an abrupt turn, and just at this bend a file of mounted and armed soldiers stopped their progress. Lieutenant Gaines and Colonel Perkins rode at the head of the troopers. The lieutenant waved a military salute and spoke.
"Have I the honor of addressing Colonel Burr?"
"You have that honor; I am Aaron Burr."
"You are my prisoner."
"By what authority do you detain me, a private citizen, attending peaceably to my own affairs, on a public thoroughfare?"
"I arrest you, Aaron Burr, in the name and at the instance of the United States of America. I hold in my hand the proclamation of President Jefferson. I am a lieutenant in the United States Army. The gentleman at your side is Theodore Brightwell, a sheriff, and the officer accompanying me is Colonel Nicholas Perkins, who detected you last evening when you rode up to the Piny Woods Tavern."
Burr surrendered. That night he slept, a prisoner, in Fort Stoddart.
XXVIII. WHAT BECAME OF THEM.
Almost eight years had elapsed since the date of Burr's arrest and imprisonment, when on the first day of May, 1815, two young families loitered away an afternoon in picnic outing on Blennerhassett Island. The party consisted of eight persons—Colonel Warren Danvers, his wife and a small daughter; and Mr. and Mrs. Arlington, their two pretty little girls and a boy-baby. The children, excepting the infant, were old enough to enjoy gathering wild-flowers. They kept within call of the parents, who, conversing on events familiar to them all, strolled over the deserted grounds of an estate rendered sadly famous by the misfortunes of its former possessors. Amid scenes associated with the disastrous failure of a treasonable conspiracy, it was natural to speak of Burr.
"He is paying a bitter penalty for his crime," Danvers commented. "Though acquitted by the Federal Court at Richmond, in spite of Wirt's arraignment, the traitor will not recover the people's good-will. He lives in New York City, a man forbid. His four years' self-exile in Europe, I am told, was a humiliating banishment from the loyal and patriotic. No country can be a "Sweet Home" to the man who repudiates his own nation's flag. Burr declares himself severed from the human race, and so he is."
"You are relentless, Warren," said his sister. "I feel much pity for the man, since his heart-breaking experience of two or three years ago."
"Ah, yes; yes," Lucrece impulsively said; "Theodosia was her father's incentive and his happiness. It was bad enough to lose the little grandson. Think how you would grieve if your dear little boy should die."
"We don't ever think of dying, do we, Dicky?" Evaleen cooed, making mother eyes at her baby. "The world must have seemed a blank to Burr after Theodosia was drowned."
"Was she drowned?" questioned Arlington. "That was a mysterious affair—the disappearance of the schooner—what was the vessel's name, Danvers?"
"The Patriot. She sailed from Charleston for New York in the winter of 1812. I remember reading of the disaster just before marching with General Harrison to Fort Meigs."
"The boat may have foundered or wrecked," said Arlington. "Some believe it was captured by pirates, who carried Theodosia away to a foreign port."
"That's an absurd theory!" declared Danvers.
"But not impossible, my dear," put in Lucrece. "I hope the poor lady was not carried away; drowning is preferable," said Evaleen.
"You two wouldn't drown when you had a chance at Cypress Bayou," laughed the husband. "You chose to be carried away by one robber and brought back by another."
Lucrece snugged close to her soldier, and he gave her a playful kiss.
"Spoony," sang Evaleen, whereupon her prim younger daughter, whose plump fist tightly held a bunch of spring-beauties, looked up in wonder and lisped:
"Mamma, what is spoony?"
The elder sister, some seven years old, came running to her mother's side.
"There's a man by the well!"
"I saw him first," chimed in the smaller child. "Didn't I see him first, Eva?"
The rambling party had returned from the woodland to the cleared tract, in the midst of which the White House of Blennerhassett formerly stood. The mansion, never occupied after the ill-starred family left it, was destroyed by fire a few years before the time of the picnic excursion. Near the low foundation walls of blackened stone stood the wooden curb surrounding the mouth of a deep well. The old windlass, below which a leaky bucket still swung, was kept in repair by unknown hands. Upon looking for the man whom Eva had discovered, Mrs. Arlington saw leaning upon the curb, in a posture of meditation, a figure which both she and her husband recognized. There was no possibility of avoiding or of evading a meeting with the meddlesome babbler who had volunteered to prescribe "cowcumber bitters" as a sure cure for Chester's love. Within the ten years since the revelation on the summit of the mound, and the piroque tour to the island, Arlington had seen and heard a good deal of Plutarch Byle. Though it was always more or less of a social annoyance, and at times an intolerable bore, to encounter the gossipy humorist, his numberless acquaintances, far from wishing him ill, admired his honesty and lauded his goodness of heart.
Byle heard the children's voices, and straightening up his awkward form, turned to observe the advancing group. His wide mouth opened with a grin of pleasure; he came forward with gangling strides.
"By crackey, if it isn't the Arlingtons! Home from Virginia, Evaleen, to old Marietta, on a visit to the folks? You're looking peart. How do you all do?"
Arlington, out of regard for his wife and kinsfolk, made some dignified efforts to stem the tide of Byle's familiarity, but his polite formality was not noticed by the associable democrat, who shook hands with every one, beginning with the baby.
"So these is your offspring, as the preacher says, are they, Chester? I knowed you'd have a lot of 'em when I recommended the match. Here's the suckin' kid; let Uncle Byle heft him once. Gosh, baby, you want to grab uncle's nose, do you? Well, then, pull away till the cows come home. What's 'is name?"
"Richard," answered the mother.
"Why didn't you name him after me? P. B. Arlington would sound sort of uppercrusty, eh? 'Richard,' you say? Oh, I see. Named for your daddy's Orleens brother, the cripple! Yes! yes! Did Richard leave you as big a pile of money as folks say? It must have been a heavy slam on you, Evaleen, when he dropped off. Lucky, too, in another pint of view; he's better off, and so are you—lots better off."
Danvers and Lucrece, wishing to prevent posthumous comments on Uncle Richard, came to Evaleen's rescue.
"You are a frequent comer to this island. You know its products and topography?"
"Topography, yarbography, bugology and the dickens knows wot ology. The ground is jest kivered, in places with Injun arrers, and pipes and stone hatchets, and I've dug up some of the durndest queer-shaped arthen pots you ever sot eyes on. Yes, I reckon I know Bacchus Island, major."
"Not major," interrupted Arlington. "He was promoted after the battle of New Orleans. He is now Colonel Danvers."
"Jehoshaphat! Let's shake hands on that, Danvers. No resk this time, Arlington, is there? You recollect, don't you? the day I first seed you and Hoopsnake on the roof of his flatboat? I read t'other day in the noospaper that Harry Clay met the aforesaid in the court-house in New York. The sarpent put out his hand, but Harry wouldn't tech it. By gum, Clay was smarter than me."
Danvers and Lucrece looked mystified. Byle winked at Arlington.
"Don't tell 'em my disgrace. So cap's a colonel? This is a surprise. I'm just back from a jant to Cinc'natti. Stayed there a coon's age with brother Virgil, who moved down from the Yok, last fall, and went into the pork trade. Virgil's married, same as you four, but I'll be dadbanged if he wasn't fooled in his woman. I tell you, Mrs. Danvers, matrimony ain't always sich honey in the comb as Warren is swallerin'. Virgil's wife looks nice, but Spanish flies! how he enjoys her going away from home. Well, that's that. I went down on the Enterprise. You've rid in a steamboat, I dare say, going to see your pa, in Orleens? How's he? I forgot to ask. They say the old man's got to be stylisher than ever. Jest run slap bang into rich relations. How much is the doctor wuth? He never met me, but they say Deville is a choice mackerel, for a Frenchman. I was about to say, I went down to Cinc'natti on the Enterprise last December. Best boat on the river, Captain Shreve says, and the fourth one built. I have saw the Orleens, the Comet and the Vesuvius, but the Enterprise knocks 'em all. Keelboats and barges is clean cut out."
To check the deluge of Byle's conversation, the picnickers soon took occasion to shift their ground from the well to the beautiful green plot which had been the carefully kept lawn of the Blennerhassett premises.
Raised flowerbeds, of various forms, circular, crescent, and diamond, could still be traced, though overgrown with grass and weeds. These abandoned garden beds furnished convenient seating space for the excursionists, while they ate lunch and drank water fetched from the old well by Plutarch. The conversation reverted to Burr and his alleged associates, involving the name of Wilkinson. Danvers defended the general from severe animadversions. Arlington had no patience with his brother-in-law's lenient judgment.
"Why, Warren, you, a colonel in the regulars, must know Wilkinson to have been a failure every way. Wasn't he court-martialed last spring, after holding the command of the Northern army less than a year? He blundered in all he undertook. He was, in effect, discharged for want of generalship and for excess in wine."
"I admit he lost laurels in the late war. So did many others. Jackson and Harrison are our heroes now. General Wilkinson was acquitted by the court-martial, as he was acquitted in 1811 of charges accusing him of complicity with Burr."
"Acquitted! I know he was acquitted; so was Burr; but public opinion condemns the decision of the courts. Before the bar of history both stand accused and sentenced. They are guilty alike. Wilkinson seems to me no better than Burr. Perhaps he is worse, for he betrayed his comrade."
"Did he betray Burr, or did he only find him out? I was in Wilkinson's tent when Burr's cipher letter was exposed. Wilkinson was outspoken in denouncing Burr."
"Hold yer hosses. Let me put in a word edgeways, Captain Danvers—'scuse me, I mean colonel. You spoke of Andy Jackson. He's not my stripe—I'm a Federalist yist'day, to-day and forever—but Old Hickory is a truth teller. What did Jackson say? I give you his upside dixit, word for word, ex litteratum, as they say. Andrew Jackson says, says he, 'Whatever may have been the project of Burr, James Wilkinson has went hand in hand with him.'"
Mrs. Arlington introduced a new topic of conversation by saying, "I'll not believe that Mr. Blennerhassett was consciously guilty."
"No, my dear, he was deluded. Mr. Wirt is right in contending that Blennerhassett was comparatively innocent, 'a mere accessory.'"
Here Mr. Byle stood up and began rummaging in his pockets. The mention of the name of Blennerhassett had altered his mood and changed his manner. A shade of seriousness bordering on melancholy came over his features. He slowly drew from the poke of his warmus a white cambric handkerchief, which he blinked at for a minute, and then replaced, venting an audible sigh. Long he listened in silence to remarks about the islanders and their untoward fate. At length he broke in with:
"I told Harman before he sot out for Eternal Smash what he was comin' to. He wouldn't take my advice. But, gentlemen and ladies, in my opinion, the near-sighted was about as much to blame for what happened, as a pewee is for being swallered by a black snake. Harman lost everything, as I told him he would. Fust in debt heels over head—then the house burns—then he sells the plantation. Now he's tryin' to run a cotton-gin down about Natchez. The boys are growin' up no account. And she—Jerusalem artichokes! What a shame it war for Margaret to throw herself away!"
The amused expression of Arlington indicated his appreciation of Byle's sentiments, but Evaleen could not smile when the distress of her much-beloved friend was the theme of conversation. The rich, beautiful, commanding lady, who had presided like an Eastern princess, in her luxurious island palace, was now struggling with adverse fate, on a cotton plantation, near Port Gibson, Mississippi. Recollecting the downfall and humiliation of Madam Blennerhassett, Evaleen sighed and cast her gaze mournfully toward the spot upon which had stood the stately mansion, which had been to her a second home. But on that May day in 1815, could she have lifted the veil of the future, events far more depressing would have been disclosed. She would have beheld the former lord of the isle, landless, harassed by debts, now in Natchez, now in New York, and now in Canada, unsuccessfully attempting the practice of the law. He made a voyage to Ireland, returned to Montreal, and then again crossed the ocean to reside with his maiden sister, Avis, on the Isle of Jersey. His wife shared his disappointments and sorrows, and it was on her faithful bosom that he breathed his last at Port Prerie, Guernsey, in 1831. Ten years later, the widow, having returned to the United States destitute, forlorn, her health gone, her beauty faded, took up lodgings in a poor tenement-house in the city of New York—and it was here that she died, forsaken by fortune and by friends. Such were the crown of thorns and the crucifixion of Margaret Blennerhassett, who aspired to wear the coronet of a duchess in the court of Aaron the Emperor.
The sons, Dominick and Harman, were reserved to fates not less abortive and wretched. The first entered the navy as surgeon-mate, but was discharged for drunkenness. He died in penury, an outcast. Harman became a portrait painter in New York, but he lost his strength of body and mind, and finally perished in an almshouse on Blackwell's Island. His body lies buried beside that of his mother, in the family vault of Emmet, the Irish patriot, in the "Marble Cemetery," New York.
Well was it that the Book of Fate, in which was written the story of the House of Blennerhassett, was not opened to Evaleen, for had she read therein, the revelation would have turned the day's pensive melancholy into poignant grief.
Moved by a common impulse of commiseration, and by reverential regard akin to such as one feels when standing beside the tomb of a dear friend, the married couples and the lank bachelor bent their steps from the lawn to the rubble-strown site of the burnt mansion-house. The foundation stones indicated the size and location of the several rooms formerly occupying the ground floor. Danvers and his wife sat down upon the sandstone steps leading, in bygone days, to the wide hall door. The three little girls were at play in the paths of the ruined shrubbery; Evaleen's baby boy lay asleep on the lap of Lucrece.
Arlington and Evaleen stepped across the crumbling foundation wall, and a few short paces brought them to the middle of the square area once covered by the floor of the reception room. A bunch of wild violets, in bloom, grew in the charred leaf mould at their feet. The wife plucked one of the flowers, and gave it into the hand of her constant lover.
"Here is just where you stood when we met for the first time, love; do you remember? And look, Chester," she pointed upward to the empty space once enclosed in the walls of Lady Blennerhassett's bower, "right up there is the window through which we watched you go away in the moonlight."
"Yes, darling; there you stood, caring very little whether or not we should ever meet again. It is exactly ten years since the day you—didn't kiss me. Do it now."
"Hold on for about three shakes of a sheep's tail. Then fire away when I'm gone. I want to tell you, Chester, here is just the spot where I stood when I fit for her—"
"Fought for my wife?"
"No, for Harman's wife." Byle took out the handkerchief again, and Evaleen thought he intended to tell its history.
"That is a fine piece of cambric. It looks like a lady's token."
Plutarch gulped down a big emotion.
"It's a thumb-stall."
1. Punctuation has been normalized to contemporary standards, including multi-paragraph quotations without open double-quote marks at each break, retained as in original.
2. Added table of contents not in original edition.
3. Typographic errors corrected from original: p. 53 fragrant for fragant ("fragrant knoll") p. 75 tastefully for tastefuly ("tastefully arrayed") p. 98 huge for hugh ("huge mound") p. 182 creature for creatrue ("savage looking creature")
4. Page 317: invalid date ("November 31, 1806") retained.