"It pains me, I assure you, Miss Roussillon, to tell you what will probably grieve you deeply," he presently added; "but I have not been unaware of your tender interest in Lieutenant Beverley, and when I had bad news from him, I thought it my duty to inform you."
He paused, feeling with a devil's satisfaction the point of his statement go home to the girl's heart.
The wind was beginning to blow outside, shaking open the dark clouds and letting gleams of moonlight flicker on the thinning fog. A ghostly ray came through a crack between the logs and lit Alice's face with a pathetic wanness. She moved her lips as if speaking, but Hamilton heard no sound.
"The Indian, Long-Hair, whom I sent upon Lieutenant Beverley's trail, reported to me this afternoon that his pursuit had been quite successful. He caught his game."
Alice's voice came to her now. She drew in a quivering breath of relief.
"Then he is here—he is—you have him a prisoner again?"
"A part of him, Miss Roussillon. Enough to be quite sure that there is one traitor who will trouble his king no more. Mr. Long-Hair brought in the Lieutenant's scalp."
Alice received this horrible statement in silence; but her face blanched and she stood as if frozen by the shock. The shifty moon-glimmer and the yellow glow of the lamp showed Hamilton to what an extent his devilish cruelty hurt her, and somehow it chilled him as if by reflection; but he could not forego another thrust.
"He deserved hanging, and would have got it had he been brought to me alive. So after all, you should be satisfied. He escaped my vengeance and Long-Hair got his pay. You see I am the chief sufferer."
These words, however, fell without effect upon the girl's ears, in which was booming the awful, storm-like roar of her excitement. She did not see her persecutor standing there; her vision, unhindered by walls and distance, went straight away to a place in the wilderness, where all mangled and disfigured Beverley lay dead. A low cry broke from her lips; she dropped the heavy swivel-balls; and then, like a bird, swiftly, with a rustling swoop, she went past Hamilton and down the stair.
For perhaps a full minute the man stood there motionless, stupefied, amazed; and when at length he recovered himself, it was with difficulty that he followed her. Everything seemed to hinder him. When he reached the open air, however, he quickly regained his activity of both mind and body, and looked in all directions. The clouds were breaking into parallel masses with streaks of sky between. The moon hanging aslant against the blue peeped forth just in time to show him a flying figure which, even while he looked, reached the postern, opened it and slipped through.
With but a breath of hesitation between giving the alarm and following Alice silently and alone, he chose the latter. He was a swift runner and light footed. With a few bounds he reached the little gate, which was still oscillating on its hinges, darted through and away, straining every muscle in desperate pursuit, gaining rapidly in the race, which bore eastward along the course twice before chosen by Alice in leaving the stockade.
A MARCH THROUGH COLD WATER
On the fifth day of February, 1779, Colonel George Rogers Clark led an army across the Kaskaskia River and camped. This was the first step in his march towards the Wabash. An army! Do not smile. Fewer than two hundred men, it is true, answered the roll-call, when Father Gibault lifted the Cross and blessed them; but every name told off by the company sergeants belonged to a hero, and every voice making response struck a full note in the chorus of freedom's morning song.
It was an army, small indeed, but yet an army; even though so rudely equipped that, could we now see it before us, we might wonder of what use it could possibly be in a military way.
We should nevertheless hardly expect that a hundred and seventy of our best men, even if furnished with the latest and most deadly engines of destruction, could do what those pioneers cheerfully undertook and gloriously accomplished in the savage wilderness which was to be the great central area of the United States of America.
We look back with a shiver of awe at the three hundred Spartans for whom Simonides composed his matchless epitaph. They wrought and died gloriously; that was Greek. The one hundred and seventy men, who, led by the backwoodsman, Clark, made conquest of an empire's area for freedom in the west, wrought and lived gloriously; that was American. It is well to bear in mind this distinction by which our civilization separates itself from that of old times. Our heroism has always been of life—our heroes have conquered and lived to see the effect of conquest. We have fought all sorts of wars and have never yet felt defeat. Washington, Jackson, Taylor, Grant, all lived to enjoy, after successful war, a triumphant peace. "These Americans," said a witty Frenchman, "are either enormously lucky, or possessed of miraculous vitality. You rarely kill them in battle, and if you wound them their wounds are never mortal. Their history is but a chain of impossibilities easily accomplished. Their undertakings have been without preparation, their successes in the nature of stupendous accidents." Such a statement may appear critically sound from a Gallic point of view; but it leaves out the dominant element of American character, namely, heroic efficiency. From the first we have had the courage to undertake, the practical common sense which overcomes the lack of technical training, and the vital force which never flags under the stress of adversity.
Clark knew, when he set out on his march to Vincennes, that he was not indulging a visionary impulse. The enterprise was one that called for all that manhood could endure, but not more. With the genius of a born leader he measured his task by his means. He knew his own courage and fortitude, and understood the best capacity of his men. He had genius; that is, he possessed the secret of extracting from himself and from his followers the last refinement of devotion to purpose. There was a certainty, from first to last, that effort would not flag at any point short of the top-most possible strain.
The great star of America was no more than a nebulous splendor on the horizon in 1779. It was a new world forming by the law of youth. The men who bore the burdens of its exacting life were mostly stalwart striplings who, before the down of adolescence fairly sprouted on their chins, could swing the ax, drive a plow, close with a bear or kill an Indian. Clark was not yet twenty-seven when he made his famous campaign. A tall, brawny youth, whose frontier experience had enriched a native character of the best quality, he marched on foot at the head of his little column, and was first to test every opposing danger. Was there a stream to wade or swim? Clark enthusiastically shouted, "Come on!" and in he plunged. Was there a lack of food? "I'm not hungry," he cried. "Help yourselves, men!" Had some poor soldier lost his blanket? "Mine is in my way," said Clark. "Take it, I'm glad to get rid of it!" His men loved him, and would die rather than fall short of his expectations.
The march before them lay over a magnificent plain, mostly prairie, rich as the delta of the Nile, but extremely difficult to traverse. The distance, as the route led, was about a hundred and seventy miles. On account of an open and rainy winter all the basins and flat lands were inundated, often presenting leagues of water ranging in depth from a few inches to three of four feet. Cold winds blew, sometimes with spits of snow and dashes of sleet, while thin ice formed on the ponds and sluggish streams. By day progress meant wading ankle-deep, knee-deep, breast-deep, with an occasional spurt of swimming. By night the brave fellows had to sleep, if sleep they could, on the cold ground in soaked clothing under water-heavy blankets. They flung the leagues behind them, however, cheerfully stimulating one another by joke and challenge, defying all the bitterness of weather, all the bitings of hunger, all the toil, danger and deprivation of a trackless and houseless wilderness, looking only eastward, following their youthful and intrepid commander to one of the most valuable victories gained by American soldiers during the War of the Revolution.
Colonel Clark understood perfectly the strategic importance of Vincennes as a post commanding the Wabash, and as a base of communication with the many Indian tribes north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi. Francis Vigo (may his name never fade!) had brought him a comprehensive and accurate report of Hamilton's strength and the condition of the fort and garrison. This information confirmed his belief that it would be possible not only to capture Vincennes, but Detroit as well.
Just seven days after the march began, the little army encamped for a night's rest at the edge of a wood; and here, just after nightfall, when the fires were burning merrily and the smell of broiling buffalo steaks burdened the damp air, a wizzened old man suddenly appeared, how or from where nobody had observed He was dirty and in every way disreputable in appearance, looking like an animated mummy, bearing a long rifle on his shoulder, and walking with the somewhat halting activity of a very old, yet vivacious and energetic simian. Of course it was Oncle Jason, "Oncle Jazon sui generis," as Father Beret had dubbed him.
"Well, here I am!" he cried, approaching the fire by which Colonel Clark and some of his officers were cooking supper, "but ye can't guess in a mile o' who I am to save yer livers and lights."
He danced a few stiff steps, which made the water gush out of his tattered moccasins, then doffed his nondescript cap and nodded his scalpless head in salutation to the commander.
Clark looked inquiringly at him, while the old fellow grimaced and rubbed his shrunken chin.
"I smelt yer fat a fryin' somepin like a mile away, an' it set my in'ards to grumblin' for a snack; so I jes thought I'd drap in on ye an' chaw wittles wi' ye."
"Your looks are decidedly against you," remarked the Colonel with a dry smile. He had recognized Oncle Jazon after a little sharp scrutiny. "I suppose, however, that we can let you gnaw the bones after we've got off the meat."
"Thank 'ee, thank 'ee, plenty good. A feller 'at's as hongry as I am kin go through a bone like a feesh through water."
Clark laughed and said:
"I don't see any teeth that you have worth mentioning, but your gums may be unusually sharp."
"Ya-a-s, 'bout as sharp as yer wit, Colonel Clark, an' sharper'n yer eyes, a long shot. Ye don't know me, do ye? Take ernother squint at me, an' see'f ye kin 'member a good lookin' man!"
"You have somewhat the appearance of an old scamp by the name of Jazon that formerly loafed around with a worthless gun on his shoulder, and used to run from every Indian he saw down yonder in Kentucky." Clark held out his hand and added cordially:
"How are you, Jazon, my old friend, and where upon earth have you come from?"
Oncle Jazon pounced upon the hand and gripped it in his own knotted fingers, gazing delightedly up into Clark's bronzed and laughing face.
"Where'd I come frum? I come frum ever'wheres. Fust time I ever got lost in all my born days. Fve been a trompin' 'round in the water seems like a week, crazy as a pizened rat, not a knowin' north f'om south, ner my big toe f'om a turnip! Who's got some tobacker?"
Oncle Jazon's story, when presently he told it, interested Clark deeply. In the first place he was glad to hear that Simon Kenton had once more escaped from the Indians; and the news from Beverley, although bad enough, left room for hope. Frontiersmen always regarded the chances better than even, so long as there was life. Oncle Jazon, furthermore, had much to tell about the situation at Vincennes, the true feeling of the French inhabitants, the lukewarm friendship of the larger part of the Indians for Hamilton, and, indeed, everything that Clark wished to know regarding the possibilities of success in his arduous undertaking. The old man's advent cheered the whole camp. He soon found acquaintances and friends among the French volunteers from Kaskaskia, with whom he exchanged creole gestures and chatter with a vivacity apparently inexhaustible. He and Kenton had, with wise judgement, separated on escaping from the Indian camp, Kenton striking out for Kentucky, while Oncle Jazon went towards Kaskaskia.
The information that Beverley would be shot as soon as he was returned to Hamilton, caused Colonel Clark serious worry of mind. Not only the fact that Beverley, who had been a charming friend and a most gallant officer, was now in such imminent danger, but the impression (given by Oncle Jazon's account) that he had broken his parole, was deeply painful to the brave and scrupulously honorable commander. Still, friendship rose above regret, and Clark resolved to push his little column forward all the more rapidly, hoping to arrive in time to prevent the impending execution.
Next morning the march was resumed at the break of dawn; but a swollen stream caused some hours of delay, during which Beverley himself arrived from the rear, a haggard and weirdly unkempt apparition. He had been for three days following hard on the army's track, which he came to far westward. Oncle Jazon saw him first in the distance, and his old but educated eyes made no mistake.
"Yander's that youngster Beverley," he exclaimed. "Ef it ain't I'm a squaw!"
Nor did he parley further on the subject; but set off at a rickety trot to meet and assist the fagged and excited young man.
Clark had given Oncle Jazon his flask, which contained a few gills of whisky. This was the first thing offered to Beverley; who wisely took but a swallow. Oncle Jazon was so elated that he waved his cap on high, and unconsciously falling into French, yelled in a piercing voice:
"VIVE ZHORSH VASINTON! VIVE LA BANNIERE D'ALICE ROUSSILLON!"
Seeing Beverley reminded him of Alice and the flag. As for Beverley, the sentiment braced him, and the beloved name brimmed his heart with sweetness.
Clark went to meet them as they came in. He hugged the gaunt Lieutenant with genuine fervor of joy, while Oncle Jazon ran around them making a series of grotesque capers. The whole command, hearing Oncle Jazon's patriotic words, set up a wild shouting on the spur of a general impression that Beverley came as a messenger bearing glorious news from Washington's army in the east.
It was a great relief to Clark when he found out that his favorite Lieutenant had not broken his parole; but had instead boldly resurrendered himself, declaring the obligation no longer binding, and notifying Hamilton of his intention to go away with the purpose of returning and destroying him and his command. Clark laughed heartily when this explanation brought out Beverley's tender interest in Alice; but he sympathized cordially; for he himself knew what love is.
Although Beverley was half starved and still suffering from the kicks and blows given him by Long-Hair and his warriors, his exhausting run on the trail of Clark aad his band had not worked him serious harm. All of the officers and men did their utmost to serve him. He was feasted without stint and furnished with everything that the scant supply of clothing on the pack horses could afford for his comfort. He promptly asked for an assignment to duty in his company and took his place with such high enthusiasm that his companions regarded him with admiring wonder. None of them save Clark and Oncle Jazon suspected that love for a fair-haired girl yonder in Vincennes was the secret of his amazing zeal and intrepidity.
In one respect Clark's expedition was sadly lacking in its equipment for the march. It had absolutely no means of transporting adequate supplies. The pack-horses were not able to carry more than a little extra ammunition, a few articles of clothing, some simple cooking utensils and such tools as were needed in improvising rafts and canoes. Consequently, although buffalo and deer were sometimes plentiful, they furnished no lasting supply of meat, because it could not be transported; and as the army neared Vincennes wild animals became scarce, so that the men began to suffer from hunger when within but a few days of their journey's end.
Clark made almost superhuman efforts in urging forward his chilled, water-soaked, foot-sore command; and when hunger added its torture to the already disheartening conditions, his courage and energy seemed to burn stronger and brighter. Beverley was always at his side ready to undertake any task, accept any risk; his ardor made his face glow, and he seemed to thrive upon hardships. The two men were a source of inspiration—their followers could not flag and hesitate while under the influence of their example.
Toward the end of the long march a decided fall of temperature added ice to the water through which our dauntless patriots waded and swam for miles. The wind shifted northwesterly, taking on a searching chill. Each gust, indeed, seemed to shoot wintry splinters into the very marrow of the men's bones. The weaker ones began to show the approach of utter exhaustion just at the time when a final spurt of unflinching power was needed. True, they struggled heroically; but nature was nearing the inexorable limit of endurance. Without food, which there was no prospect of getting, collapse was sure to come.
Standing nearly waist-deep in freezing water and looking out upon the muddy, sea-like flood that stretched far away to the channel of the Wabash and beyond, Clark turned to Beverley and said, speaking low, so as not to be overheard by any other of his officers or men:
"Is it possible, Lieutenant Beverley, that we are to fail, with Vincennes almost in sight of us?"
"No, sir, it is not possible," was the firm reply. "Nothing must, nothing can stop us. Look at that brave child! He sets the heroic example."
Beverley pointed, as he spoke, at a boy but fourteen years old, who was using his drum as a float to bear him up while he courageously swam beside the men.
Clark's clouded face cleared once more. "You are right," he said, "come on! we must win or die."
"Sergeant Dewit," he added, turning to an enormously tall and athletic man near by, "take that little drummer and his drum on your shoulder and lead the way. And, sergeant, make him pound that drum like the devil beating tan-bark!"
The huge man caught the spirit of his commander's order. In a twinkling he had the boy astride of his neck with the kettle-drum resting on his head, and then the rattling music began. Clark followed, pointing onward with his sword. The half frozen and tottering soldiers sent up a shout that went back to where Captain Bowman was bringing up the rear under orders to shoot every man that straggled or shrank from duty.
Now came a time when not a mouthful of food was left. A whole day they floundered on, starving, growing fainter at every step, the temperature falling, the ice thickening. They camped on high land; and next morning they heard Hamilton's distant sunrise gun boom over the water.
"One half-ration for the men," said Clark, looking disconsolately in the direction whence the sound had come. "Just five mouthfuls apiece, even, and I'll have Hamilton and his fort within forty-eight hours."
"We will have the provisions, Colonel, or I will die trying to get them," Beverley responded "Depend upon me."
They had constructed some canoes in which to transport the weakest of the men.
"I will take a dugout and some picked fellows. We will pull to the wood yonder, and there we shall find some kind of game which has been forced to shelter from the high water."
It was a cheerful view of a forlorn hope. Clark grasped the hand extended by Beverley and they looked encouragement into each other's eyes.
Oncle Jazon volunteered to go in the pirogue. He was ready for anything, everything.
"I can't shoot wo'th a cent," he whined, as they took their places in the cranky pirogue; "but I might jes' happen to kill a squir'l or a elephant or somepin 'nother."
"Very well," shouted Clark in a loud, cheerful voice, when they had paddled away to a considerable distance, "bring the meat to the woods on the hill yonder," pointing to a distant island-like ridge far beyond the creeping flood. "We'll be there ready to eat it!"
He said this for the ears of his men. They heard and answered with a straggling but determined chorus of approval. They crossed the rolling current of the Wabash by a tedious process of ferrying, and at last found themselves once more wading in back-water up to their armpits, breaking ice an inch thick as they went. It was the closing struggle to reach the high wooded lands. Many of them fell exhausted; but their stronger comrades lifted them, holding their heads above water, and dragged them on.
Clark, always leading, always inspiring, was first to set foot on dry land. He shouted triumphantly, waved his sword, and then fell to helping the men out of the freezing flood. This accomplished, he ordered fires built; but there was not a soldier of them all whose hands could clasp an ax-handle, so weak and numbed with cold were they. He was not to be baffled, however. If fire could not be had, exercise must serve its purpose. Hastily pouring some powder into his hand he dampened it and blacked his face. "Victory, men, victory!" he shouted, taking off his hat and beginning to leap and dance. "Come on! We'll have a war dance and then a feast, as soon as the meat arrives that I have sent for. Dance! you brave lads, dance! Victory! victory!"
The strong men, understanding their Colonel's purpose, took hold of the delicate ones; and the leaping, the capering, the tumult of voices and the stamping of slushy moccasins with which they assaulted that stately forest must have frightened every wild thing thereabout into a deadly rigor, dark's irrepressible energy and optimism worked a veritable charm upon his faithful but almost dying companions in arms. Their trust in him made them feel sure that food would soon be forthcoming. The thought afforded a stimulus more potent than wine; it drove them into an ecstasy of frantic motion and shouting which soon warmed them thoroughly.
It is said that fortune favors the brave. The larger meaning of the sentence may be given thus: God guards those who deserve His protection. History tells us that just when Clark halted his command almost in sight of Vincennes—just when hunger was about to prevent the victory so close to his grasp—a party of his scouts brought in the haunch of a buffalo captured from some Indians. The scouts were Lieutenant Beverley and Oncle Jazon. And with the meat they brought Indian kettles in which to cook it.
With consummate forethought Clark arranged to prevent his men doing themselves injury by bolting their food or eating it half-cooked. Broth was first made and served hot; then small bits of well broiled steak were doled out, until by degrees the fine effect of nourishment set in, and all the command felt the fresh courage of healthy reaction.
"I ain't no gin'ral, nor corp'ral, nor nothin'," remarked Oncle Jazon to Colonel Clark, "but 'f I's you I'd h'ist up every dad dinged ole flag in the rig'ment, w'en I got ready to show myself to 'em, an' I'd make 'em think, over yander at the fort, 'at I had 'bout ninety thousan' men. Hit'd skeer that sandy faced Gov'nor over there till he'd think his back-bone was a comin' out'n 'im by the roots."
Clark laughed, but his face showed that the old man's suggestion struck him forcibly and seriously.
"We'll see about that presently, Oncle Jazon. Wait till we reach the hill yonder, from which the whole town can observe our manoeuvres, then we'll try it, maybe."
Once more the men were lined up, the roll-call gone through with satisfactorily, and the question put: "Are we ready for another plunge through the mud and water?"
The answer came in the affirmative, with a unanimity not to be mistaken. The weakest heart of them all beat to the time of the charge step. Again Clark and Beverley clasped hands and took the lead.
When they reached the next high ground they gazed in silence across a slushy prairie plot to where, on a slight elevation, old Vincennes and Fort Sackville lay in full view.
Beverley stood apart. A rush of sensations affected him so that he shook like one whose strength is gone. His vision was blurred. Fort and town swimming in a mist were silent and still. Save the British flag twinkling above Hamilton's headquarters, nothing indicated that the place was not deserted. And Alice? With the sweet name's echo Beverley's heart bounded high, then sank fluttering at the recollection that she was either yonder at the mercy of Hamilton, or already the victim of an unspeakable cruelty. Was it weakness for him to lift his clasped hands heavenward and send up a voiceless prayer?
While he stood thus Oncle Jazon came softly to his side and touched his arm. Beverley started.
"The nex' thing'll be to shoot the everlastin' gizzards outen 'em, won't it?" the old man inquired. "I'm jes' a eetchin' to git a grip onto that Gov'nor. Ef I don't scelp 'em I'm a squaw."
Beverley drew a deep breath and came promptly back from his dream. It was now Oncle Jazon's turn to assume a reflective, reminiscent mood. He looked about him with an expression of vague half tenderness on his shriveled features.
"I's jes' a thinkin' how time do run past a feller," he presently remarked. "Twenty-seven years ago I camped right here wi' my wife—ninth one, ef I 'member correct—jes' fresh married to 'r; sort o' honey-moon. 'Twus warm an' sunshiny an' nice. She wus a poorty squaw, mighty poorty, an' I wus as happy as a tomtit on a sugar-trough. We b'iled sap yander on them nobs under the maples. It wus glor'us. Had some several wives 'fore an' lots of 'm sence; but she wus sweetes' of 'm all. Strange how a feller 'members sich things an' feels sort o' lonesome like!"
The old man's mouth drooped at the corners and he hitched up his buckskin trousers with a ludicrous suggestion of pathos in every line of his attitude. Unconsciously he sidled closer to Beverley, remotely feeling that he was giving the young man very effective sympathy, well knowing that Alice was the sweet burden of his thoughts. It was thus Oncle Jazon honestly tried to fortify his friend against what probably lay in store for him.
But Beverley failed to catch the old man's crude comfort thus flung at him. The analogy was not apparent. Oncle Jazon probably felt that his kindness had been ineffectual, for he changed his tone and added:
"But I s'pose a young feller like ye can't onderstan' w'at it is to love a 'oman an' 'en hev 'er quit ye for 'nother feller, an' him a buck Injin. Wall, wall, wall, that's the way it do go! Of all the livin' things upon top o' this yere globe, the mos' onsartin', crinkety-crankety an' slippery thing is a young 'oman 'at knows she's poorty an' 'at every other man in the known world is blind stavin' crazy in love wi' 'er, same as you are. She'll drop ye like a hot tater 'fore ye know it, an' 'en look at ye jes' pine blank like she never knowed ye afore in her life. It's so, Lieutenant, shore's ye'r born. I know, for I've tried the odd number of 'em, an' they're all jes' the same."
By this time Beverley's ears were deaf to Oncle Jazon's querulous, whining voice, and his thoughts once more followed his wistful gaze across the watery plain to where the low roofs of the creole town appeared dimly wavering in the twilight of eventide, which was fast fading into night. The scene seemed unsubstantial; he felt a strange lethargy possessing his soul; he could not realize the situation. In trying to imagine Alice, she eluded him, so that a sort of cloudy void fell across his vision with the effect of baffling and benumbing it. He made vain efforts to recall her voice, things that she had said to him, her face, her smiles; all he could do was to evoke an elusive, tantalizing, ghostly something which made him shiver inwardly with a haunting fear that it meant the worst, whatever the worst might be. Where was she? Could she be dead, and this the shadowy message of her fate?
Darkness fell, and a thin fog began to drift in wan streaks above the water. Not a sound, save the suppressed stir of the camp, broke the wide, dreary silence. Oncle Jazon babbled until satisfied that Beverley was unappreciative, or at least unresponsive.
"Got to hev some terbacker," he remarked, and shambled away in search of it among his friends.
A little later Clark approached hastily and said:
"I have been looking for you. The march has begun. Bowman and Charleville are moving; come, there's no time to lose."
A DUEL BY MOONLIGHT
When Hamilton, after running some distance, saw that he was gaining upon Alice and would soon overtake her, it added fresh energy to his limbs. He had quickly realized the foolishness of what he had done in visiting the room of his prisoner at so late an hour in the night. What would his officers and men think? To let Alice escape would be extremely embarrassing, and to be seen chasing her would give good ground for ridicule on the part of his entire command. Therefore his first thought, after passing through the postern and realizing fully what sort of predicament threatened him, was to recapture her and return her to the prison room in the block-house without attracting attention. This now promised to be an easier task than he had at first feared; for in the moonlight, which on account of the dispersing clouds, was fast growing stronger, he saw her seem to falter and weaken. Certainly her flight was checked and took an eccentric turn, as if some obstruction had barred her way. He rushed on, not seeing that, as Alice swerved, a man intervened. Indeed he was within a few strides of laying his hand on her when he saw her make the strange movement. It was as if, springing suddenly aside, she had become two persons instead of one. But instantly the figures coincided again, and in becoming taller faced about and confronted him.
Hamilton stopped short in his tracks. The dark figure was about five paces from him. It was not Alice, and a sword flashed dimly but unmistakably in a ray of the moon. The motion visible was that of an expert swordsman placing himself firmly on his legs, with his weapon at guard.
Alice saw the man in her path just in time to avoid running against him. Lightly as a flying bird, when it whisks itself in a short semicircle past a tree or a bough, she sprang aside and swung around to the rear of him, where she could continue her course toward the town. But in passing she recognized him. It was Father Beret, and how grim he looked! The discovery was made in the twinkling of an eye, and its effect was instantaneous, not only checking the force of her flight, but stopping her and turning her about to gaze before she had gone five paces farther.
Hamilton's nerve held, startled as he was, when he realized that an armed man stood before him. Naturally he fell into the error of thinking that he had been running after this fellow all the way from the little gate, where, he supposed, Alice had somehow given him the slip. It was a mere flash of brain-light, so to call it, struck out by the surprise of this curious discovery. He felt his bellicose temper leap up furiously at being balked in a way so unexpected and withal so inexplicable. Of course he did not stand there reasoning it all out. The rush of impressions came, and at the same time he acted with promptness. Changing the rapier, which he held in his right hand, over into his left, he drew a small pistol from the breast of his coat and fired. The report was sharp and loud; but it caused no uneasiness or inquiry in the fort, owing to the fact that Indians invariably emptied their guns when coming into the town.
Hamilton's aim, although hasty, was not bad. The bullet from his weapon cut through Father Beret's clothes between his left arm and his body, slightly creasing the flesh on a rib. Beyond him it struck heavily and audibly. Alice fell limp and motionless to the soft wet ground, where cold puddles of water were splintered over with ice. She lay pitifully crumpled, one arm outstretched in the moonlight. Father Beret heard the bullet hit her, and turned in time to see her stagger backward with a hand convulsively pressed over her heart. Her face, slightly upturned as she reeled, gave the moon a pallid target for its strengthening rays. Sweet, beautiful, its rigid features flashed for a second and then half turned away from the light and went down.
Father Beret uttered a short, thin cry and moved as if to go to the fallen girl, but just then he saw Hamilton's sword pass over again into his right hand, and knew that there was no time for anything but death or fight. The good priest did not shirk what might have made the readiest of soldiers nervous. Hamilton was known to be a great swordsman and proud of the distinction. Father Beret had seen him fence with Farnsworth in remarkable form, touching him at will, and in ministering to the men in the fort he had heard them talk of the Governor's incomparable skill.
A priest is, in perhaps all cases but the last out of a thousand, a man of peace, not to be forced into a fight; but the exceptional one out of the ten hundred it is well not to stir up if you are looking for an easy victim. Hamilton was in the habit of considering every antagonist immediately conquerable. His domineering spirit could not, when opposed, reckon with any possibility of disaster. As he sprang toward Father Beret there was a mutual recognition and, we speak guardedly, something that sounded exactly like an exchange of furious execrations. As for Father Beret's words, they may have been a mere priestly formula of objurgation.
The moon was accommodating. With a beautiful white splendor it entered a space of cloudless sky, where it seemed to slip along the dusky blue surface among the stars, far over in the west.
"It's you, is it?" Hamilton exclaimed between teeth that almost crushed one another. "You prowling hypocrite of hell!"
Father Beret said something. It was not complimentary, and it sounded sulphurous, if not profane. Remember, however, that a priest can scarcely hope to be better than Peter, and Peter did actually make the Simon pure remark when hard pressed. At all events Father Beret said something with vigorous emphasis, and met Hamilton half way.
Both men, stimulated to the finger-tips by a draught of imperious passion, fairly plunged to the inevitable conflict. Ah, if Alice could have seen her beautiful weapons cross, if she could have heard the fine, far-reaching clink, clink, clink, while sparks leaped forth, dazzling even in the moonlight; if she could have noted the admirable, nay, the amazing, play, as the men, regaining coolness to some extent, gathered their forces and fell cautiously to the deadly work, it would have been enough to change the cold shimmer of her face to a flash of warm delight. For she would have understood every feint, longe, parry, and seen at a glance how Father Beret set the pace and led the race at the beginning. She would have understood; for Father Beret had taught her all she knew about the art of fencing.
Hamilton quickly felt, and with a sense of its strangeness, the priest's masterly command of his weapon. The surprise called up all his caution and cleverness. Before he could adjust himself to such an unexpected condition he came near being spitted outright by a pretty pass under his guard. The narrow escape, while it put him on his best mettle, sent a wave of superstition through his brain. He recalled what Barlow had jocularly said about the doings of the devil-priest or priest-devil at Roussillon place on that night when the patrol guard attempted to take Gaspard Roussillon. Was this, indeed, Father Beret, that gentle old man, now before him, or was it an avenging demon from the shades?
The thought flitted electrically across his mind, while he deftly parried, feinted, longed, giving his dark antagonist all he could do to meet the play. Priest or devil, he thought, he cared not which, he would reach its vitals presently. Yet there lingered with him a haunting half-fear, or tenuous awe, which may have aided, rather than hindered his excellent swordsmanship.
Under foot it was slushy with mud, water and ice, the consistency varying from a somewhat solid crust to puddles that half inundated Hamilton's boots and quite overflowed Father Beret's moccasins. An execrable field for the little matter in hand. They gradually shifted position. Now it was the Governor, then the priest, who had advantage as to the light. For some time Father Beret seemed quite the shiftier and surer fighter, but (was it his age telling on him?) he lost perceptibly in suppleness. Still Hamilton failed to touch him. There was a baffling something in the old man's escape now and again from what ought to have been an inevitable stroke. Was it luck? It seemed to Hamilton more than that—a sort of uncanny evasion. Or was it supreme mastery, the last and subtlest reach of the fencer's craft?
Youth forced age slowly backward in the struggle, which at times took on spurts so furious that the slender blades, becoming mere glints of acicular steel, split the moonlight back and forth, up and down, so that their meetings, following one another in a well-nigh continuous stroke, sent a jarring noise through the air. Father Beret lost inch by inch, until the fighting was almost over the body of Alice; and now for the first time Hamilton became aware of that motionless something with the white, luminous face in profile against the ground; but he did not let even that unsettle his fencing gaze, which followed the sunken and dusky eyes of his adversary. A perspiration suddenly flooded his body, however, and began to drip across his face. His arm was tiring. A doubt crept like a chill into his heart. Then the priest appeared to add a cubit to his stature and waver strangely in the soft light. Behind him, low against the sky, a wide winged owl shot noiselessly across just above the prairie.
The soul of a true priest is double: it is the soul of a saint and the soul of a worldly man. What is most beautiful in this duality is the supreme courage with which the saintly spirit attacks the worldly and so often heroically masters it. In the beginning of the fight Father Beret let a passion of the earthly body take him by storm. It was well for Governor Henry Hamilton that the priest was so wrought upon as to unsettle his nerves, otherwise there would have been an evil heart impaled midway of Father Beret's rapier. A little later the saintly spirit began to assert itself, feebly indeed, but surely. Then it was that Father Beret seemed to be losing agility for a while as he backstepped away from Hamilton's increasing energy of assault. In his heart the priest was saying: "I will not murder him. I must not do that. He deserves death, but vengeance is not mine. I will disarm him." Step by step he retreated, playing erratically to make an opening for a trick he meant to use.
It was singularly loose play, a sort of wavering, shifty, incomprehensible show of carelessness, that caused Hamilton to entertain a doubt, which was really a fear, as to what was going to happen; for, notwithstanding all this neglect of due precaution on the priest's part, to touch him seemed impossible, miraculously so, and every plan of attack dissolved into futility in the most maddening way.
"Priest, devil or ghost!" raged Hamilton, with a froth gathering around his mouth; "I'll kill you, or—"
He made a longe, when his adversary left an opening which appeared absolutely beyond defence. It was a quick, dextrous, vicious thrust. The blade leaped toward Father Beret's heart with a twinkle like lightning.
At that moment, although warily alert and hopeful that his opportunity was at hand, Father Beret came near losing his life; for as he side-stepped and easily parried Hamilton's thrust, which he had invited, thinking to entangle his blade and disarm him, he caught his foot in Alice's skirt and stumbled, nearly falling across her. It would have been easy for Hamilton to run him through, had he instantly followed up the advantage. But the moonlight on Alice's face struck his eyes, and by that indirect ray of vision which is often strangely effective, he recognized her lying there. It was a disconcerting thing for him, but he rallied instantly and sprang aside, taking a new position just in time to face Father Beret again. A chill crept up his back. The horror which he could not shake off enraged him beyond measure. Gathering fresh energy, he renewed the assault with desperate steadiness the highest product of absolutely molten fury.
Father Beret felt the dangerous access of power in his antagonist's arm, and knew that a crisis had arrived. He could not be careless now. Here was a swordsman of the best school calling upon him for all the skill and strength and cunning that he could command. Again the saintly element was near being thrown aside by the worldly in the old man's breast. Alice lying there seemed mutely demanding that he avenge her. A riotous something in his blood clamored for a quick and certain act in this drama by moonlight—a tragic close by a stroke of terrible yet perfectly fitting justice.
There was but the space of a breath for the conflict in the priest's heart, yet during that little time he reasoned the case and quoted scripture to himself.
"Domine, percutimus in gladio?" rang through his mind. "Lord, shall we smite with the sword?"
Hamilton seemed to make answer to this with a dazzling display of skill. The rapiers sang a strange song above the sleeping girl, a lullaby with coruscations of death in every keen note.
Father Beret was thinking of Alice. His brain, playing double, calculated with lightning swiftness the chances and movements of that whirlwind rush of fight, while at the same time it swept through a retrospect of all the years since Alice came into his life. How he had watched her grow and bloom; how he had taught her, trained her mind and soul and body to high things, loved her with a fatherly passion unbounded, guarded her from the coarse and lawless influences of her surroundings. Like the tolling of an infinitely melancholy bell, all this went through his breast and brain, and, blending with a furious current of whatever passions were deadly dangerous in his nature, swept as a storm bearing its awful force into his sword-arm.
The Englishman was a lion, the priest a gladiator. The stars aloft in the vague, dark, yet splendid, amphitheater were the audience. It was a question. Would the thumbs go down or up? Life and death held the chances even; but it was at the will of Heaven, not of the stars. "Hoc habet" must follow the stroke ordered from beyond the astral clusters and the dusky blue.
Hamilton pressed, nay rushed, the fight with a weight and at a pace which could not last. But Father Beret withstood him so firmly that he made no farther headway; he even lost some ground a moment later.
"You damned Jesuit hypocrite!" he snarled; "you lowest of a vile brotherhood of liars!"
Then he rushed again, making a magnificent show of strength, quickness and accuracy. The sparks hissed and crackled from the rasping and ringing blades.
Father Beret was, in truth, a Jesuit, and as such a zealot; but he was not a liar or a hypocrite. Being human, he resented an insult. The saintly spirit in him was strong, yet not strong enough to breast the indignation which now dashed against it. For a moment it went down.
"Liar and scoundrel yourself!" he retorted, hoarsely forcing the words out of his throat. "Spawn of a beastly breed!"
Hamilton saw and felt a change pass over the spirit of the old priest's movements. Instantly the sword leaping against his own seemed endowed with subtle cunning and malignant treachery. Before this it had been difficult enough to meet the fine play and hold fairly even; now he was startled and confused; but he rose to the emergency with admirable will power and cleverness.
"Murderer of a poor orphan girl!" Father Beret added with a hot concentrated accent; "death is too good for you."
Hamilton felt nearer his grave than ever before in all his wild experience, for somehow doom, shadowy and formless, like the atmosphere of an awful dream, enmisted those words; but he was no weakling to quit at the height of desperate conflict. He was strong, expert, and game to the middle of his heart.
"I'll add a traitor Jesuit to my list of dead," he panted forth, rising yet again to the extremest tension of his power.
As he did this Father Beret settled himself as you have seen a mighty horse do in the home stretch of a race. Both men knew that the moment had arrived for the final act in their impromptu play. It was short, a duel condensed and crowded into fifteen seconds of time, and it was rapid beyond the power of words to describe. A bystander, had there been one, could not have seen what was finally done or how it was done. Father Beret's sword seemed to be revolving—it was a halo in front of Hamilton for a mere point of time. The old priest seemed to crouch and then make a quick motion as if about to leap backward. A wrench and a snip, as of something violently jerked from a fastening, were followed by a semicircular flight of Hamilton's rapier over Father Beret's head to stick in the ground ten feet behind him. The duel was over, and the whole terrible struggle had occupied less than three minutes.
With his wrist strained and his fingers almost broken, Hamilton stumbled forward and would have impaled himself had not Father Beret turned the point of his weapon aside as he lowered it.
"Surrender, or die!"
That was a strange order for a priest to make, but there could be no mistaking its authority or the power behind it. Hamilton regained his footing and looked dazed, wheezing and puffing like a porpoise, but he clearly understood what was demanded of him.
"If you call out I'll run you through," Father Beret added, seeing him move his lips as if to shout for help.
The level rapier now reinforced the words. Hamilton let the breath go noiselessly from his mouth and waved his hand in token of enforced submission.
"Well, what do you want me to do?" he demanded after a short pause. "You seem to have me at your mercy. What are your terms?"
Father Beret hesitated. It was a question difficult to answer.
"Give me your word as a British officer that you will never again try to harm any person, not an open, armed enemy, in this town."
Hamilton's gorge rose perversely. He erected himself with lofty reserve and folded his arms. The dignity of a Lieutenant Governor leaped into him and took control. Father Beret correctly interpreted what he saw.
"My people have borne much," he said, "and the killing of that poor child there will be awfully avenged if I but say the word. Besides, I can turn every Indian in this wilderness against you in a single day. You are indeed at my mercy, and I will be merciful if you will satisfy my demand."
He was trembling with emotion while he spoke and the desire to kill the man before him was making a frightful struggle with his priestly conscience; but conscience had the upper hand. Hamilton stood gazing fixedly, pale as a ghost, his thoughts becoming more and more clear and logical. He was in a bad situation. Every word that Father Beret had spoken was true and went home with force. There was no time for parley or subterfuge; the sword looked as if, eager to find his heart, it could not be held back another moment. But the wan, cold face of the girl had more power than the rapier's hungry point. It made an abject coward of him.
"I am willing to give you my word," he presently said. "And let me tell you," he went on more rapidly, "I did not shoot at her. She was behind you."
"Your word as a British officer?"
Hamilton again stiffened and hesitated, but only for the briefest space, then said:
"Yes, my word as a British officer."
Father Beret waved his hand with impatience.
"Go, then, back to your place in the fort and disturb, my people no more. The soul of this poor little girl will haunt you forever. Go!"
Hamilton stood a little while gazing at the face of Alice with the horrible wistfulness of remorse. What would he not have given to rub his eyes and find it all a dream?
He turned away; a cloud scudded across the moon; here and yonder in the dim town cocks crowed with a lonesome, desultory effect.
Father Beret plucked up the rapier that he had wrenched from Hamilton's hand. It suggested something.
"Hold!" he called out, "give me the scabbard of this sword." Hamilton, who was striding vigorously in the direction of the fort, turned about as the priest hastened to him.
"Give me the scabbard of this rapier; I want it. Take it off."
The command was not gently voiced. A hoarse, half-whisper winged every word with an imperious threat.
Hamilton obeyed. His hands were not firm; his fingers fumbled nervously; but he hurried, and Father Beret soon had the rapier sheathed and secured at his belt beside its mate.
A good and true priest is a burden-bearer. His motto is: Alter alterius onera portate; bear ye one another's burdens. His soul is enriched with the cast-off sorrows of those whom he relieves. Father Beret scarcely felt the weight of Alice's body when he lifted it from the ground, so heavy was the pressure of his grief. All that her death meant, not only to him, but to every person who knew her, came into his heart as the place of refuge consecrated for the indwelling of pain. He lifted her and bore her as far toward Roussillon place as he could; but his strength fell short just in front of the little Bourcier cottage, and half dead he staggered across the veranda to the door, where he sank exhausted.
After a breathing spell he knocked. The household, fast asleep, did not hear; but he persisted until the door was opened to him and his burden.
Captain Farnsworth unclosed his bloodshot eyes, at about eight o'clock in the morning, quite confused as to his place and surroundings. He looked about drowsily with a sheepish half-knowledge of having been very drunk. A purring in his head and a dull ache reminded him of an abused stomach. He yawned and stretched himself, then sat up, running a hand through his tousled hair. Father Beret was on his knees before the cross, still as a statue, his clasped hands extended upward.
Farnsworth's face lighted with recognition, and he smiled rather bitterly. He recalled everything and felt ashamed, humiliated, self-debased. He had outraged even a priest's hospitality with his brutish appetite, and he hated himself for it. Disgust nauseated his soul apace with the physical sinking and squirming that grew upon him.
"I'm a shabby, worthless dog!" he muttered, with petulant accent; "why don't you kick me out, Father?"
The priest turned a collapsed and bloodless gray face upon him, smiled in a tired, perfunctory way, crossed himself absently and said:
"You have rested well, my son. Hard as the bed is, you have done it a compliment in the way of sleeping. You young soldiers understand how to get the most out of things."
"You are too generous, Father, and I can't appreciate it. I know what I deserve, and you know it, too. Tell me what a brute and fool I am; it will do me good. Punch me a solid jolt in the ribs, like the one you gave me not long ago."
"Qui sine peccato est, primus lapidem mittat" said the priest. "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."
He had gone to the hearth and was taking from the embers an earthen saucer, or shallow bowl, in which some fragrant broth simmered and steamed.
"A man who has slept as long as you have, my son, usually has a somewhat delicate appetite. Now, here is a soup, not especially satisfying to the taste of a gourmet like yourself, but possessing the soothing quality that is good for one just aroused from an unusual nap. I offer it, my son, propter stomachum tuum, et frequentes tuas infirmitates (on account of thy stomach, and thine often infirmities). This soup will go to the right spot."
While speaking he brought the hot bowl to Farnsworth and set it on the bedcover before him, then fetched a big horn spoon.
The fragrance of pungent roots and herbs, blent with a savory waft of buffalo meat, greeted the Captain's sense, and the anticipation itself cheered his aching throat. It made him feel greedy and in a hurry. The first spoonful, a trifle bitter, was not so pleasant at the beginning, but a moment after he swallowed it a hot prickling set in and seemed to dart through him from extremity to extremity.
Slowly, as he ate, the taste grew more agreeable, and all the effects of his debauch disappeared. It was like magic; his blood warmed and glowed, as if touched with mysterious fire.
"What is this in this soup, Father Beret, that makes it so searching and refreshing?" he demanded, when the bowl was empty.
Father Beret shook his head and smiled drolly.
"That I cannot divulge, my son, owing to a promise I had to make to the aged Indian who gave me the secret. It is the elixir of the Miamis. Only their consecrated medicine men hold the recipe. The stimulation is but temporary."
Just then someone knocked on the door. Father Beret opened it to one of Hamilton's aides.
"Your pardon, Father, but hearing Captain Farnsworth's voice I made bold to knock."
"What is it, Bobby?" Farnsworth called out.
"Nothing, only the Governor has been having you looked for in every nook and corner of the fort and town. You'd better report at once, or hell be having us drag the river for your body."
"All right, Lieutenant, go back and keep mum, that's a dear boy, and I'll shuffle into Colonel Hamilton's august presence before many minutes."
The aide laughed and went his way whistling a merry tune.
"Now I am sure to get what I deserve, with usury at forty per cent in advance," said Farnsworth dryly, shrugging his shoulders with undissembled dread of Hamilton's wrath. But the anticipation was not realized. The Governor received Farnsworth stiffly enough, yet in a way that suggested a suppressed desire to avoid explanations on the Captain's part and a reprimand on his own. In fact, Hamilton was hoping that something would turn up to shield him from the effect of his terrible midnight adventure, which seemed the darker the more he thought of it. He had a slow, numb conscience, lying deep where it was hard to reach, and when a qualm somehow entered it he endured in secret what most men would have cast off or confessed. He was haunted, if not with remorse, at least by a dread of something most disagreeable in connection with what he had done. Alice's white face had impressed itself indelibly on his memory, so that it met his inner vision at every turn. He was afraid to converse with Farnsworth lest she should come up for discussion; consequently their interview was curt and formal.
It was soon discovered that Alice had escaped from the stockade, and some show of search was made for her by Hamilton's order, but Farnsworth looked to it that the order was not carried out. He thought he saw at once that his chief knew where she was. The mystery perplexed and pained the young man, and caused him to fear all sorts of evil; but there was a chance that Alice had found a safe retreat and he knew that nothing but ill could befall her if she were discovered and brought back to the fort. Therefore his search for her became his own secret and for his own heart's ease. And doubtless he would have found her; for even handicapped and distorted love like his is lynx-eyed and sure on the track of its object; but a great event intervened and swept away his opportunity.
Hamilton's uneasiness, which was that of a strong, misguided nature trying to justify itself amid a confusion of unmanageable doubts and misgivings, now vented itself in a resumption of the repairs he had been making at certain points in the fort. These he completed just in time for the coming of Clark.
It has already been mentioned that Indians, arriving singly or in squads, to report at Hamilton's headquarters, were in the habit of firing their guns before entering the town or the fort, not only as a signal of their approach, but in order to rid their weapons of their charges preliminary to cleaning them before setting out upon another scalp-hunting expedition. A shot, therefore, or even a volley, heard on the outskirts of the village, was not a noticeable incident in the daily and nightly experience of the garrison. Still, for some reason, Governor Hamilton started violently when, just after nightfall, five or six rifles cracked sharply a short distance from the stockade.
He and Helm with two other officers were in the midst of a game of cards, while a kettle, swinging on a crane in the ample fire-place, sang a shrill promise of hot apple-jack toddy.
"By Jove!" exclaimed Farnsworth, who, although not in the game, was amusing himself with looking on; "you jump like a fine lady! I almost fancied I heard a bullet hit you."
"You may all jump while you can," remarked Helm. "That's Clark, and your time's short—He'll have this fort tumbling on your heads before daylight of to-morrow morning comes."
As he spoke he arose from his seat at the card table and went to look after the toddy, which, as an expert, he had under supervision.
Hamilton frowned. The mention of Clark was disturbing. Ever since the strange disappearance of Lieutenant Barlow he had nursed the fear that possibly Clark's scouts had captured him and that the American forces might be much nearer than Kaskaskia. Besides, his nerves were unruly, as they had been ever since the encounter with Father Beret; and his vision persisted in turning back upon the accusing cold face of Alice, lying in the moonlight. One little detail of that scene almost maddened him at times; it was a sheeny, crinkled wisp of warm looking hair looped across the cheek in which he had often seen a saucy dimple dance when Alice spoke or smiled. He was bad enough, but not wholly bad, and the thought of having darkened those merry eyes and stilled those sweet dimples tore through him with a cold, rasping pang.
"Just as soon as this toddy is properly mixed and tempered," said Helm, with a magnetic jocosity beaming from his genial face, "I'm going to propose a toast to the banner of Alice Roussillon, which a whole garrison of British braves has been unable to take!"
"If you do I'll blow a hole through you as big as the south door of hell," said Hamilton, in a voice fairly shaken to a husky quaver with rage. "You may do a great many insulting things; but not that."
Helm was in a half stooping attitude with a ladle in one hand, a cup in the other. He had met Hamilton's glowering look with a peculiarly innocent smile, as if to say: "What in the world is the matter now? I never felt in a better humor in all my life. Can't you take a joke, I wonder?" He did not speak, however, for a rattling volley of musket and rifle shots hit the top of the clay-daubed chimney, sending down into the toddy a shower of soot and dirt.
In a wink every man was on his feet and staring.
"Gentlemen," said Helm, with an impressive oath, "that is Clark's soldiers, and they will take your fort; but they ought not to have spoiled this apple toddy!"
"Oh, the devil!" said Hamilton, forcibly resuming a calm countenance, "it is only a squad of drunken Indians coming in. We'll forego excitement; there's no battle on hand, gentlemen."
"I'm glad you think so, Governor Hamilton," Helm responded, "but I should imagine that I ought to know the crack of a Kentucky rifle. I've heard one occasionally in my life. Besides, I got a whiff of freedom just now."
"Captain Helm is right," observed Farnsworth. "That is an attack."
Another volley, this time nearer and more concentrated, convinced Hamilton that he was, indeed, at the opening of a fight. Even while he was giving some hurried orders to his officers, a man was wounded at one of the port-holes. Then came a series of yells, answered by a ripple of sympathetic French shouting that ran throughout the town. The patrol guards came straggling in, breathless with excitement. They swore to having seen a thousand men marching across the water-covered meadows.
Hamilton was brave. The approach of danger stirred him like a trumpet-strain. His fighting blood rose to full tide, and he gave his orders with the steadiness and commanding force of a born soldier. The officers hastened to their respective positions. On all sides sounds indicative of rapid preparations for the fight mingled into a confused strain of military energy. Men marched to their places; cannon were wheeled into position, and soon enough the firing began in good earnest.
Late in the afternoon a rumor of Clark's approach had gone abroad through the village; but not a French lip breathed it to a friend of the British. The creoles were loyal to the cause of freedom; moreover, they cordially hated Hamilton, and their hearts beat high at the prospect of a change in masters at the fort. Every cabin had its hidden gun and supply of ammunition, despite the order to disarm issued by Hamilton. There was a hustling to bring these forth, which was accompanied with a guarded yet irrepressible chattering, delightfully French and infinitely volatile.
"Tiens! je vais frotter mon fusil. J'ai vu un singe!" said Jaques Bourcier to his daughter, the pretty Adrienne, who was coming out of the room in which Alice lay.
"I saw a monkey just now; I must rub up my gun!" He could not be solemn; not he. The thought of an opportunity to get even with Hamilton was like wine in his blood.
If you had seen those hardy and sinewy Frenchmen gliding in the dusk of evening from cottage to cottage, passing the word that the Americans had arrived, saying airy things and pinching one another as they met and hurried on, you would have thought something very amusing and wholly jocund was in preparation for the people of Vincennes.
There was a current belief in the town that Gaspard Roussillon never missed a good thing and always somehow got the lion's share. He went out with the ebb to return on the flood. Nobody was surprised, therefore, when he suddenly appeared in the midst of his friends, armed to the teeth and emotionally warlike to suit the occasion. Of course he took charge of everybody and everything. You could have heard him whisper a bowshot away.
"Taisons!" he hissed, whenever he met an acquaintance. "We will surprise the fort and scalp the whole garrison. Aux armes! les Americains viennent d'arriver!"
At his own house he knocked and called in vain. He shook the door violently; for he was thinking of the stores under the floor, of the grimy bottles, of the fragrant Bordeaux—ah, his throat, how it throbbed! But where was Madame Roussillon? Where was Alice? "Jean! Jean!" he cried, forgetting all precaution, "come here, you scamp, and let me in this minute!"
A profoundly impressive silence gave him to understand that his home was deserted.
"Chiff! frightened and gone to stay with Madame Godere, I suppose—and I so thirsty! Bah! hum, hum, apres le vin la bataille, ziff!"
He kicked in the door and groped his way to the liquors. While he hastily swigged and smacked he heard the firing begin with a crackling, desultory volley. He laughed jovially, there in the dark, between draughts and deep sighs of enjoyment.
"Et moi aussi," he murmured, like the vast murmur of the sea, "I want to be in that dance! Pardonnez, messieurs. Moi, je veux danser, s'il vous plait."
And when he had filled himself he plunged out and rushed away, wrought up to the extreme fighting pitch of temper. Diable! if he could but come across that Lieutenant Barlow, how he would smash him and mangle him! In magnifying his prowess with the lens of imagination he swelled and puffed as he lumbered along.
The firing sounded as if it were between the fort and the river; but presently when one of Hamilton's cannon spoke, M. Roussillon saw the yellow spike of flame from its muzzle leap directly toward the church, and he thought it best to make a wide detour to avoid going between the firing lines. Once or twice he heard the whine of a stray bullet high overhead. Before he had gone very far he met a man hurrying toward the fort. It was Captain Francis Maisonville, one of Hamilton's chief scouts, who had been out on a reconnoissance and, cut off from his party by some of Clark's forces, was trying to make his way to the main gate of the stockade.
M. Roussillon knew Maisonville as a somewhat desperate character, a leader of Indian forays and a trader in human scalps. Surely the fellow was legitimate prey.
"Ziff! diable de gredin!" he snarled, and leaping upon him choked him to the ground, "Je vais vous scalper immediatement!"
Clark's plan of approach showed masterly strategy. Lieutenant Bailey, with fourteen regulars, made a show of attack on the east, while Major Bowman led a company through the town, on a line near where Main street in Vincennes is now located, to a point north of the stockade. Charleville, a brave creole, who was at the head of some daring fellows, by a brilliant dash got position under cover of a natural terrace at the edge of the prairie, opposite the fort's southwestern angle. Lieutenant Beverley, in whom the commander placed highest confidence, was sent to look for a supply of ammunition, and to gather up all the Frenchmen in the town who wished to join in the attack. Oncle Jazon and ten other available men went with him.
They all made a great noise when they felt that the place was completely invested. Nor can we deny, much as we would like to, the strong desire for vengeance which raised those shouting voices and nerved those steady hearts to do or die in an undertaking which certainly had a desperate look. Patriotism of the purest strain those men had, and that alone would have borne them up; but the recollection of smouldering cabin homes in Kentucky, of women and children murdered and scalped, of men brave and true burned at the stake, and of all the indescribable outrages of Indian warfare incited and rewarded by the commander of the fort yonder, added to patriotism the terrible urge of that dark passion which clamors for blood to quench the fire of wrath. Not a few of those wet, half-frozen, emaciated soldiers of freedom had experienced the soul rending shock of returning from a day's hunting in the forest to find home in ashes and loved ones brutally murdered and scalped, or dragged away to unspeakable outrage under circumstances too harrowing for description, the bare thought of which turns our blood cold, even at this distance. Now the opportunity had arrived for a stroke of retaliation. The thought was tremendously stimulating.
Beverley, with the aid of Oncle Jazon, was able to lead his little company as far as the church before the enemy saw him. Here a volley from the nearest angle of the stockade had to be answered, and pretty soon a cannon began to play upon the position.
"We kin do better some'rs else," was Oncle Jazon's laconic remark flung back over his shoulder, as he moved briskly away from the spot just swept by a six-pounder. "Come this yer way, Lieutenant. I hyer some o' the fellers a talkin' loud jes' beyant Legrace's place. They ain't no sort o' sense a tryin' to hit anything a shootin' in the dark nohow."
When they reached the thick of the town there was a strange stir in the dusky streets. Men were slipping from house to house, arming themselves and joining their neighbors. Clark had sent an order earlier in the evening forbidding any street demonstration by the inhabitants; but he might as well have ordered the wind not to blow or the river to stand still. Oncle Jazon knew every man whose outlines he could see or whose voice he heard. He called each one by name:
"Here, Roger, fall in!—Come Louis, Alphonse, Victor, Octave—venez ici, here's the American army, come with me!" His rapid French phrases leaped forth as if shot from a pistol, and his shrill voice, familiar to every ear in Vincennes, drew the creole militiamen to him, and soon Beverley's company had doubled its numbers, while at the same time its enthusiasm and ability to make a noise had increased in a far greater proportion. In accordance with an order from Clark they now took position near the northeast corner of the stockade and began firing, although in the darkness there was but little opportunity for marksmanship.
Oncle Jazon had found citizens Legrace and Bosseron, and through them Clark's men were supplied with ammunition, of which they stood greatly in need, their powder having got wet during their long, watery march. By nine o'clock the fort was completely surrounded, and from every direction the riflemen and musketeers were pouring in volley after volley. Beverley with his men took the cover of a fence and some houses sixty yards from the stockade. Here to their surprise they found themselves below the line of Hamilton's cannon, which, being planted on the second floor of the fort, could not be sufficiently depressed to bear upon them. A well directed musket fire, however, fell from the loopholes of the blockhouses, the bullets rattling merrily against the cover behind which the attacking forces lay.
Beverley was thinking of Alice during every moment of all this stir and tumult He feared that she might still be a prisoner in the fort exposed to the very bullets that his men were discharging at every crack and cranny of those loosely constructed buildings. Should he ever see her again? Would she care for him? What would be the end of all this terrible suspense? Those remote forebodings of evils, formless, shadowy, ineffable, which have harried the lover's heart since time began, crowded all pleasant anticipations out of his mind.
Clark, in passing hurriedly from company to company around the line, stopped for a little while when he found Beverley.
"Have you plenty of ammunition?" was his first inquiry.
"A mighty sight more'n we kin see to shoot with," spoke up Oncle Jazon. "It's a right smart o' dad burn foolishness to be wastin' it on nothin'; seems like to me 'at we'd better set the dasted fort afire an' smoke the skunks out!"
"Speak when you are spoken to, my man," said the Colonel a trifle hotly, and trying by a sharp scrutiny to make him out in the gloom where he crouched.
"Ventrebleu! I'm not askin' YOU, Colonel Clark, nor no other man, when I shill speak. I talks whenever I gits ready, an' I shoots jes' the same way. So ye'd better go on 'bout yer business like a white man! Close up yer own whopper jawed mouth, ef ye want anything shet up!"
"Oho! is that you, Jazon? You're so little I didn't know you! Certainly, talk your whole damned under jaw off, for all I care," Clark replied, assuming a jocose tone. Then turning again to Beverley: "Keep up the firing and the noise; the fort will be ours in the morning."
"What's the use of waiting till morning?" Beverley demanded with impatience. "We can tear that stockade to pieces with our hands in half an hour."
"I don't think so, Lieutenant. It is better to play for the sure thing. Keep up the racket, and be ready for 'em if they rush out. We must not fail to capture the hair-buyer General."
He passed on, with something cheerful to say whenever he found a squad of his devoted men. He knew how to humor and manage those independent and undisciplined yet heroically brave fellows. What to see and hear, what to turn aside as a joke, what to insist upon with inflexible mastery, he knew by the fine instantaneous sense of genius. There were many men of Oncle Jazon's cast, true as steel, but refractory as flint, who could not be dominated by any person, no matter of what stamp or office. To them an order was an insult; but a suggestion pleased and captured them. Strange as it may seem, theirs was the conquering spirit of America—the spirit which has survived every turn of progress and built up the great body of our independence.
Beverley submitted to Clark's plan with what patience he could, and all night long fired shot for shot with the best riflemen in his squad. It was a fatiguing performance, with apparently little result beyond forcing the garrison now and again to close the embrasures, thus periodically silencing the cannon. Toward the close of the night a relaxation showed itself in the shouting and firing all round the line. Beverley's men, especially the creoles, held out bravely in the matter of noise; but even they flagged at length, their volatility simmering down to desultory bubbling and half sleepy chattering and chaffing.
Beverley leaned upon a rude fence, and for a time neglected to reload his hot rifle. Of course he was thinking of Alice,—he really could not think in any other direction; but it gave him a shock and a start when he presently heard her name mentioned by a little Frenchman near him on the left.
"There'll never be another such a girl in Post Vincennes as Alice Roussillon," the fellow said in the soft creole patois, "and to think of her being shot like a dog!"
"And by a man who calls himself a Governor, too!" said another. "Ah, as for myself, I'm in favor of burning him alive when we capture him. That's me!"
"Et moi aussi," chimed in a third voice. "That poor girl must be avenged. The man who shot her must die. Holy Virgin, but if Gaspard Roussillon were only here!"
"But he is here; I saw him just after dark. He was in great fighting temper, that terrible man. Ouf! but I should not like to be Colonel Hamilton and fall in the way of that Gaspard Roussillon!"
"Morbleu! I should say not. You may leave me out of a chance like that! I shouldn't mind seeing Gaspard handle the Governor, though. Ah, that would be too good! He'd pay him up for shooting Mademoiselle Alice."
Beverley could scarcely hold himself erect by the fence; the smoky, foggy landscape swam round him heavy and strange. He uttered a groan, which brought Oncle Jazon to his side in a hurry.
"Qu' avez-vous? What's the matter?" the old man demanded with quick sympathy. "Hev they hit ye? Lieutenant, air ye hurt much?"
Beverley did not hear the old man's words, did not feel his kindly touch.
"Alice! Alice!" he murmured, "dead, dead!"
"Ya-as," drawled Oncle Jazon, "I hearn about it soon as I got inter town. It's a sorry thing, a mighty sorry thing. But mebby I won't do a little somepin' to that—"
Beverley straightened himself and lifted his gun, forgetting that he had not reloaded it since firing last. He leveled it at the fort and touched the trigger. Simultaneously with his movement an embrasure opened and a cannon flashed, its roar flanked on either side by a crackling of British muskets. Some bullets struck the fence and flung splinters into Oncle Jazon's face. A cannon ball knocked a ridge pole from the roof of a house hard by, and sent it whirling through the air.
"Ventrebleu!—et apres? What the devil next? Better knock a feller's eyes out!" the old man cried. "I ain't a doin' nothin' to ye!"
He capered around rubbing his leathery face after the manner of a scalded monkey. Beverley was struck in the breast by a flattened and spent ball that glanced from a fence-picket. The shock caused him to stagger and drop his gun; but he quickly picked it up and turned to his companion.
"Are you hurt, Oncle Jazon?" he inquired. "Are you hurt?"
"Not a bit—jes' skeert mos' into a duck fit. Thought a cannon ball had knocked my whole dang face down my throat! Nothin' but a handful o' splinters in my poorty count'nance, makin' my head feel like a porc'-pine. But I sort o' thought I heard somepin' give you a diff."
"Something did hit me," said Beverley, laying a hand on his breast, "but I don't think it was a bullet. They seem to be getting our range at last. Tell the men to keep well under cover. They must not expose themselves until we are ready to charge."
The shock had brought him back to his duty as a leader of his little company, and with the funeral bell of all his life's happiness tolling in his agonized heart he turned afresh to directing the fire upon the block-house.
About this time a runner came from Clark with an order to cease firing and let a returning party of British scouts under Captain Lamothe re-enter the fort unharmed. A strange order it seemed to both officers and men; but it was implicitly obeyed. Clark's genius here made another fine strategic flash. He knew that unless he let the scouts go back into the stockade they would escape by running away, and might possibly organize an army of Indians with which to succor Hamilton. But if they were permitted to go inside they could be captured with the rest of the garrison; hence his order.
A few minutes passed in dead silence; then Captain Lamothe and his party marched close by where Beverley's squad was lying concealed. It was a difficult task to restrain the creoles, for some of them hated Lamothe. Oncle Jazon squirmed like a snake while they filed past all unaware that an enemy lurked so near. When they reached the fort, ladders were put down for them and they began to clamber over the wall, crowding and pushing one another in wild haste. Oncle Jazon could hold in no longer.
"Ya! ya! ya!" he yelled. "Look out! the ladder is a fallin' wi' ye!"
Then all the lurking crowd shouted as one man, and, sure enough, down came a ladder—men and all in a crashing heap.
"Silence! silence!" Beverley commanded; but he could not check the wild jeering and laughing, while the bruised and frightened scouts hastily erected their ladder again, fairly tumbling over one another in their haste to ascend, and so cleared the wall, falling into the stockade to join the garrison.
"Ventrebleu!" shrieked Oncle Jazon. "They've gone to bed; but we'll wake 'em up at the crack o' day an' give 'em a breakfas' o' hot lead!"
Now the fighting was resumed with redoubled spirit and noise, and when morning came, affording sufficient light to bring out the "bead sights" on the Kentucky rifles, the matchless marksmen in Clark's band forced the British to close the embrasures and entirely cease trying to use their cannon; but the fight with small arms went merrily on until the middle of the forenoon.
Meantime Gaspard Roussillon had tied Francis Maisonville's hands fast and hard with the strap of his bullet-pouch.
"Now, I'll scalp you," he said in a rumbling tone, terrible to hear. And with his words out came his hunting knife from its sheath.
"O have mercy, my dear Monsieur Roussillon!" cried the panting captive; "have mercy!"
"Mercy! yes, like your Colonel's, that's what you'll get. You stand by that forban, that scelerat, that bandit, and help him. Oh, yes, you'll get mercy! Yes, the same mercy that he showed to my poor little Alice! Your scalp, Monsieur, if you please! A small matter; it won't hurt much!"
"But, for the sake of old friendship, Gaspard, for the sake—"
"Ziff! poor little Alice!"
"But I swear to you that I—"
"Tout de meme, Monsieur, je vais vous scalper maintenant."
In fact he had taken off a part of Maisonville's scalp, when a party of soldiers, among whom was Maisonville's brother, a brave fellow and loyal to the American cause, were attracted by his cries and came to his rescue.
M. Roussillon struggled savagely, insisting upon completing his cruel performance; but he was at last overpowered, partly by brute force and partly by the pleading of Maisonville's brother, and made to desist. The big man wept with rage when he saw the bleeding prisoner protected. "Eh bien! I'll keep what I've got," he roared, "and I'll take the rest of it next time."
He shook the tuft of hair at Maisonville and glared like a mad bull.
Two or three other members of Lamothe's band were captured about the same time by some of the French militiamen; and Clark, when on his round cheering and directing his forces, discovered that these prisoners were being used as shields. Some young creoles, gay with drink and the stimulating effect of fight, had bound the poor fellows and were firing from behind them! Of course the commander promptly put an end to this cruelty; but they considered it exquisite fun while it lasted. It was in broad daylight, and they knew that the English in the fort could see what they were doing.
"It's shameful to treat prisoners in this way," said Clark. "I will not permit it. Shoot the next man that offers to do such a thing!"
One of the creole youths, a handsome, swarthy Adonis in buckskin, tossed his shapely head with a debonair smile and said:
"To be sure, mon Colonel! but what have they been doing to us? We have amused them all winter; it's but fair that they should give us a little fun now."
Clark shrugged his broad shoulders and passed on. He understood perfectly what the people of Vincennes had suffered under Hamilton's brutal administration.
At nine o'clock an order was passed to cease firing, and a flag of truce was seen going from Clark's headquarters to the fort. It was a peremptory demand for unconditional surrender. Hamilton refused, and fighting was fiercely resumed from behind rude breastworks meantime erected. Every loop-hole and opening of whatever sort was the focus into which the unerring backwoods rifles sent their deadly bullets. Men began to fall in the fort, and every moment Hamilton expected an assault in force on all sides of the stockade. This, if successful, would mean inevitable massacre. Clark had warned him of the terrible consequences of holding out until the worst should come. "For," said he in his note to the Governor, "if I am obliged to storm, you may depend upon such treatment as is justly due to a murderer."
Historians have wondered why Hamilton became so excited and acted so strangely after receiving the note. The phrase, "justly due to a murderer," is the key to the mystery. When he read it his heart sank and a terrible fear seized him. "Justly due to a murderer!" ah, that calm, white, beautiful girlish face, dead in the moonlight, with the wisp of shining hair across it! "Such treatment as is justly due to a murderer!" Cold drops of sweat broke out on his forehead and a shiver went through his body.
During the truce Clark's weary yet still enthusiastic besiegers enjoyed a good breakfast prepared for them by the loyal dames of Vincennes. Little Adrienne Bourcier was one of the handmaidens of the occasion. She brought to Beverley's squad a basket, almost as large as herself, heaped high with roasted duck and warm wheaten bread, while another girl bore two huge jugs of coffee, fragrant and steaming hot. The men cheered them lustily and complimented them without reserve, so that before their service was over their faces were glowing with delight.
And yet Adrienne's heart was uneasy, and full of longing to hear something of Rene de Ronville. Surely some one of her friends must know something about him. Ah, there was Oncle Jazon! Doubtless he could tell her all that she wanted to know. She lingered, after the food was distributed, and shyly inquired.
"Hain't seed the scamp," said Oncle Jazon, only he used the patois most familiar to the girl's ear. "Killed an' scelped long ago, I reckon."
His mouth was so full that he spoke mumblingly and with utmost difficulty. Nor did he glance at Adrienne, whose face took on as great pallor as her brown complexion could show.
Beverley ate but little of the food. He sat apart on a piece of timber that projected from the rough breastwork and gave himself over to infinite misery of spirit, which was trebled when he took Alice's locket from his bosom, only to discover that the bullet which struck him had almost entirely destroyed the face of the miniature.
He gripped the dinted and twisted case and gazed at it with the stare of a blind man. His heart almost ceased to beat and his breath had the rustling sound we hear when a strong man dies of a sudden wound. Somehow the defacement of the portrait was taken by his soul as the final touch of fate, signifying that Alice was forever and completely obliterated from his life. He felt a blur pass over his mind. He tried in vain to recall the face and form so dear to him; he tried to imagine her voice; but the whole universe was a vast hollow silence. For a long while he was cold, staring, rigid; then the inevitable collapse came, and he wept as only a strong man can who is hurt to death, yet cannot die.
Adrienne approached him, thinking to speak to him about Rene; but he did not notice her, and she went her way, leaving beside him a liberal supply of food.
Governor Hamilton received the note sent him by Colonel Clark and replied to it with curt dignity; but his heart was quaking. As a soldier he was true to the military tradition, and nothing could have induced him to surrender his command with dishonor.
"Lieutenant-Governor Hamilton," he wrote to Clark, "begs leave to acquaint Colonel Clark that he and his garrison are not disposed to be awed into any action unworthy of British subjects."
"Very brave words," said Helm, when Hamilton read the note to him, "but you'll sing a milder tune before many minutes, or you and your whole garrison will perish in a bloody heap. Listen to those wild yells! Clark has enough men to eat you all up for breakfast. You'd better be reasonable and prudent. It's not bravery to court massacre."
Hamilton turned away without a word and sent the message; but Helm saw that he was excited, and could be still further wrought up.
"You are playing into the hands of your bitterest enemies, the frog-eaters," he went on. "These creoles, over whom you've held a hot poker all winter, are crazy to be turned loose upon you; and you know that they've got good cause to feel like giving you the extreme penalty. They'll give it to you without a flinch if they get the chance. You've done enough."
Hamilton whirled about and glared ferociously.
"Helm, what do you mean?" he demanded in a voice as hollow as it was full of desperate passion.
The genial Captain laughed, as if he had heard a good joke.
"You won't catch any fish if you swear, and you look blasphemous," he said with the lightness of humor characteristic of him at all times. "You'd better say a prayer or two. Just reflect a moment upon the awful sins you have committed and—"
A crash of coalescing volleys from every direction broke off his levity. Clark was sending his response to Hamilton's lofty note. The guns of freedom rang out a prophecy of triumph, and the hissing bullets clucked sharply as they entered the solid logs of the walls or whisked through an aperture and bowled over a man. The British musketeers returned the fire as best they could, with a courage and a stubborn coolness which Helm openly admired, although he could not hide his satisfaction whenever one of them was disabled.
"Lamothe and his men are refusing to obey orders," said Farnsworth a little later, hastily approaching Hamilton, his face flushed and a gleam of hot anger in his eyes. "They're in a nasty mood; I can do nothing with them; they have not fired a shot."
"Mutiny?" Hamilton demanded.
"Not just that. They say they do not wish to fire on their kinsmen and friends. They are all French, you know, and they see their cousins, brothers, uncles and old acquaintances out there in Clark's rabble. I can do nothing with them."
"Shoot the scoundrels, then!"
"It will be a toss up which of us will come out on top if we try that. Besides, if we begin a fight inside, the Americans will make short work of us."
"Well, what in hell are we to do, then?"
"Oh, fight, that's all," said Farnsworth apathetically turning to a small loop-hole and leveling a field glass through it. "We might make a rush from the gates and stampede them," he presently added. Then he uttered an exclamation of great surprise.
"There's Lieutenant Beverley out there," he exclaimed.
"You're mistaken, you're excited," Hamilton half sneeringly remarked, yet not without a shade of uneasiness in his expression. "You forget, sir."
"Look for yourself, it's easily settled," and Farnsworth proffered the glass. "He's there, to a certainty, sir."
"I saw Beverley an hour ago," said Helm. "I knew all the time that he'd be on hand."
It was a white lie. Captain Helm was as much surprised as his captors at what he heard; but he could not resist the temptation to be annoying.
Hamilton looked as Farnsworth directed, and sure enough, there was the young Virginian Lieutenant, standing on a barricade, his hat off, cheering his men with a superb show of zeal. Not a hair of his head was missing, so far as the glass could be relied upon to show.
Oncle Jazon's quick old eyes saw the gleam of the telescope tube in the loop-hole.
"I never could shoot much," he muttered, and then a little bullet sped with absolute accuracy from his disreputable looking rifle and shattered the object-lens, just as Hamilton moved to withdraw the glass, uttering an ejaculation of intense excitement.
"Such devils of marksmen!" said he, and his face was haggard. "That infernal Indian lied."
"I could have told you all the time that the scalp Long-Hair brought to you was not Beverley's," said Helm indifferently. "I recognized Lieutenant Barlow's hair as soon as I saw it."
This was another piece of off-hand romance. Helm did not dream that he was accidentally sketching a horrible truth.
"Barlow's!" exclaimed Farnsworth.
"Yes, Barlow's, no mistake—"
Two more men reeled from a port-hole, the blood spinning far out of their wounds. Indeed, through every aperture in the walls the bullets were now humming like mad hornets.
"Close that port-hole!" stormed Hamilton; then turning to Farnsworth he added: "We cannot endure this long. Shut up every place large enough for a bullet to get through. Go all around, give strict orders to all. See that the men do not foolishly expose themselves. Those ruffians out there have located every crack."
His glimpse of Beverley and the sinister remark of Helm had completely unmanned him before his men fell. Now it rushed upon him that if he would escape the wrath of the maddened creoles and the vengeance of Alice's lover, he must quickly throw himself upon the mercy of Clark. It was his only hope. He chafed inwardly, but bore himself with stern coolness. He presently sought Farnsworth, pulled him aside and suggested that something must be done to prevent an assault and a massacre. The sounds outside seemed to forebode a gathering for a desperate rush, and in his heart he felt all the terrors of awful anticipation.
"We are completely at their mercy, that is plain," he said, shrugging his shoulders and gazing at the wounded men writhing in their agony. "What do you suggest?"
Captain Farnsworth was a shrewd officer. He recollected that Philip Dejean, justice of Detroit, was on his way down the Wabash from that post, and probably near at hand, with a flotilla of men and supplies. Why not ask for a few days of truce? It could do no harm, and if agreed to, might be their salvation. Hamilton jumped at the thought, and forthwith drew up a note which he sent out with a white flag. Never before in all his military career had he been so comforted by a sudden cessation of fighting. His soul would grovel in spite of him. Alice's cold face now had Beverley's beside it in his field of inner vision—a double assurance of impending doom, it seemed to him.
There was short delay in the arrival of Colonel Clark's reply, hastily scrawled on a bit of soiled paper. The request for a truce was flatly refused; but the note closed thus:
"If Mr. Hamilton is Desirous of a Conferance with Col. Clark he will meet him at the Church with Captn. Helms."
The spelling was not very good, and there was a redundancy of capital letters; yet Hamilton understood it all; and it was very difficult for him to conceal his haste to attend the proposed conference. But he was afraid to go to the church—the thought chilled him. He could not face Father Beret, who would probably be there. And what if there should be evidences of the funeral?—what if?—he shuddered and tried to break away from the vision in his tortured brain.
He sent a proposition to Clark to meet him on the esplanade before the main gate of the fort; but Clark declined, insisting upon the church. And thither he at last consented to go. It was an immense brace to his spirit to have Helm beside him during that walk, which, although but eighty yards in extent, seemed to him a matter of leagues. On the way he had to pass near the new position taken up by Beverley and his men. It was a fine test of nerve, when the Lieutenant's eyes met those of the Governor. Neither man permitted the slightest change of countenance to betray his feelings. In fact, Beverley's face was as rigid as marble; he could not have changed it.
But with Oncle Jazon it was a different affair. He had no dignity to preserve, no fine military bearing to sustain, no terrible tug of conscience, no paralyzing grip of despair on his heart. When he saw Hamilton going by, bearing himself so superbly, it affected the French volatility in his nature to such an extent that his tongue could not be controlled.
"Va t'en, bete, forban, meurtrier! Skin out f'om here! beast, robber, murderer!" he cried, in his keen screech-owl voice. "I'll git thet scelp o' your'n afore sundown, see 'f I don't! Ye onery gal-killer an' ha'r buyer!"
The blood in Hamilton's veins caught no warmth from these remarks; but he held his head high and passed stolidly on, as if he did not hear a word. Helm turned the tail of an eye upon Oncle Jazon and gave him a droll, quizzical wink of approval. In response the old man with grotesque solemnity drew his buckhorn handled knife, licked its blade and returned it to its sheath,—a bit of pantomime well understood and keenly enjoyed by the onlooking creoles.
"Putois! coquin!" they jeered, "goujat! poltron!"
Beverley heard the taunting racket, but did not realize it, which was well enough, for he could not have restrained the bitter effervescence. He stood like a statue, gazing fixedly at the now receding figure, the lofty, cold-faced man in whom centered his hate of hates. Clark had requested him to be present at the conference in the church; but he declined, feeling that he could not meet Hamilton and restrain himself. Now he regretted his refusal, half wishing that—no, he could not assassinate an enemy under a white flag. In his heart he prayed that there would be no surrender, that Hamilton would reject every offer. To storm the fort and revel in butchering its garrison seemed the only desirable thing left for him in life.