"Marguerite! are you mad?" asked her father, as the door closed.
"No, father,—but honest,—which is the same thing," she responded, still standing near it.
"True," he said, in a low tone like a groan. "But we are ruined."
"Ruined? Oh, no! You are well and strong. So am I. I can work. I shall get much embroidery to do, for I can do it perfectly; the nuns taught me. I have a thousand resources. And there is something my mother can do; it is her great secret; she has played at it summer after summer. She has moulded leaves and flowers and twined them round beautiful faces in clay, long enough; now she shall carve them in stone, and you will be rich again!"
Mrs. Laudersdale sat in a low chair while Marguerite spoke, the nasturtium-vine dinging round her feet like a gorgeous snake, her hands lying listlessly in her lap, and her attitude that of some queen who has lost her crown, and is totally bewildered by this strange conduct on the part of circumstances. All the strength and energy that had been the deceits of manner were utterly fallen away, and it was plain, that, whatever the endowment was which Marguerite had mentioned, she could only play at it. She was but a woman, sheer woman, with the woman's one capability, and the exercise of that denied her.
Mr. Laudersdale remained with his eyes fixed on her, and lost, it seemed, to the presence of others.
"The disgrace is bitter," he murmured. "I have kept my name so proudly and so long! But that is little. It is for you I fear. I have stood in your sunshine and shadowed your life, dear!—At least," he continued, after a pause, "I can place you beyond the reach of suffering. I must finish my lonely way."
Mrs. Laudersdale looked up slowly and met his earnest glance.
"Must I leave you?" she exclaimed, with a wild terror in her tone. "Do you mean that I shall go away? Oh, you need not care for me,—you need never love me,—you may always be cold,—but I must serve you, live with you, die with you!" And she sprang forward with outstretched arms.
He caught her before her foot became entangled in the long folds of her skirt, drew her to himself, and held her. What he murmured was inaudible to the others; but a tint redder than roses are swam to her cheek, and a smile broke over her face like a reflection in rippling water. She held his arm tightly in her hand, and erect and proud, as it were with a new life, bent toward Roger Raleigh.
"You see!" said she. "My husband loves me. And I,—it seems at this moment that I have never loved any other than him!"
There came a quick step along the matting, the handle of the door turned in Marguerite's resisting grasp, and Mrs. Purcell's light muslins swept through. Mr. Raleigh advanced to meet her,—a singular light upon his face, a strange accent of happiness in his voice.
"Since you seem to be a part of the affair," she said in a low tone, while her lip quivered with anger and scorn, "concerning which I have this moment been informed, pray, take to Mr. Lauderdale my brother's request to enter the house of Day, Knight, and Company, from this day."
"Has he made such a request?" asked Mr. Raleigh.
"He shall make it!" she murmured swiftly, and was gone.
That night a telegram flashed over the wires, and thenceforth, on the great financial tide, the ship Day, Knight, and Company lowered its peak to none.
The day crept through until evening, deepening into genuine heat, and Marguerite sat waiting for Mr. Raleigh to come and bid her farewell. It seemed that his plans were altered, or possibly he was gone, and at sunset she went out alone. The cardinals that here and there showed their red caps above the bank, the wild roses that still lined the way, the grapes that blossomed and reddened and ripened year after year ungathered, did not once lift her eyes. She sat down, at last, on an old fallen trunk cushioned with moss, half of it forever wet in the brook that babbled to the lake, and waited for the day to quench itself in coolness and darkness.
"Ah!" said Mr. Raleigh, leaping from the other side of the brook to the mossy trunk, "is it you? I have been seeking you, and what sprite sends you to me?"
"I thought you were going away," she said, abruptly.
"That is a broken paving-stone," he answered, seating himself beside her, and throwing his hat on the grass.
"You asked me, yesterday, if I confessed to being a myth," she said, after a time. "If I should go back to Martinique, I should become one in your remembrance,—should I not? You would think of me just as you would have thought of the Dryad yesterday, if she had stepped from the tree and stepped back again?"
"Are you going to Martinique?" he asked, with a total change of face and manner.
"I don't know. I am tired of this; and I cannot live on an ice-field. I had such life at the South! It is 'as if a rose should shut and be a bud again.' I need my native weather, heat and sea."
"How can you go to Martinique?"
"Oh, I forgot!"
Mr. Raleigh did not reply, and they both sat listening to the faint night-side noises of the world.
"You are very quiet," he said at last, ceasing to fling waifs upon the stream.
"And you could be very gay, I believe."
"Yes. I am full of exuberant spirits. Do you know what day it is?"
"It is my birthday."
"It is my birthday!"
"How strange! The Jews would tell you that this sweet first of August was the birthday of the world.
"''Tis like the birthday of the world, When earth was born in bloom,'"—
she sang, but paused before her voice should become hoarse in tears.
"Do you know what you promised me on my birthday? I am going to claim it."
"The present. You shall have a cast which I had made from one of my mother's fancies or bas-reliefs,—she only does the front of anything,—a group of fleurs-de-lis whose outlines make a child's face, my face."
"It is more than any likeness in stone or pencil that I shall ask of you."
"You cannot imagine?"
"Monsieur" she whispered, turning toward him, and blushing in the twilight, "est ce que c'est moi?"
There came out the low west-wind singing to itself through the leaves, the drone of a late-carousing honey-bee, the lapping of the water on the shore, the song of the wood-thrush replete with the sweetness of its half-melody; and ever and anon the pensive cry of the whippoorwill fluted across the deepening silence that summoned all these murmurs into hearing. A rustle like the breeze in the birches passed, and Mrs. Purcell retarded her rapid step to survey the woods-people who rose out of the shade and now went on together with her. It seemed as if the loons and whippoorwills grew wild with sorrow that night, and after a while Mrs. Purcell ceased her lively soliloquy, and as they walked they listened. Suddenly Mr. Raleigh turned. Mrs. Purcell was not beside him. They had been walking on the brook-edge; the path was full of gaps and cuts. With a fierce shudder and misgiving, he hurriedly retraced his steps, and searched and called; then, with the same haste, rejoining Marguerite, gained the house, for lanterns and assistance. Mrs. Purcell sat at the drawing-room window.
"Comment?" cried Marguerite, breathlessly.
"Oh, I had no idea of walking in fog up to my chin," said Mrs. Purcell; "so I took the short cut."
"You give me credit for the tragic element," she continued, under her breath, as Mr. Raleigh quietly passed her. "That is old style. To be sure, I might as well die there as in the swamps of Florida. Purcell is ordered to Florida. Of course, I am ordered too!" And she whirled him the letter which she held.
Other letters had been received with the evening-mail, and one that made Mr. Raleigh's return in September imperative occasioned some discussion in the House of Laudersdale. The result that that gentleman secured one more than he had intended in the spring; and if you ever watch the shipping-list, the arrival of the Spray-Plough at Calcutta, with Mr. and Mrs. Raleigh among the passengers, will be seen by you as soon as me.
Later in the evening of this same eventful day, as Mr. Raleigh and Marguerite sat together in the moonlight that flooded the great window, Mrs. Laudersdale passed them and went down the garden to the lake. She wore some white garment, as in her youth, and there was a dreamy sweetness in her eye and an unspoken joy about her lips. Mr. Raleigh could not help thinking it was a singular happiness, this that opened before her; it seemed to be like a fruit plucked from the stem and left to mature in the sunshine by itself, late and lingering, never sound at heart. She floated on, with the light in her dusky eyes and the seldom rose on her cheek,—floated on from moonbeam to moonbeam,—and the lovers brought back their glances and gave them to each other. For one, life opened a labyrinth of warmth and light and joy; for the other, youth was passed, destiny not to be appeased: if his affection enriched her, the best he could do was to bestow it; in his love there would yet be silent reservations.
"Mr. Raleigh," said Marguerite, "did you ever love my mother?"
"Once I thought I did."
"Whereas I was blind, now I see."
"Listen! Mrs. Purcell is singing in the drawing-room."
"Through lonely summers, where the roses blow Unsought, and shed their tangled sweets, I sit and hark, or in the starry dark, Or when the night-rain on the hill-side beats.
"Alone! But when the eternal summers flow And refluent drown in song all moan, Thy soul shall waste for its delight, and haste Through heaven. And I shall be no more alone!"
"What a voice she sings with to-night!" said Marguerite. "It is stripped of all its ornamental disguises,—so slender, yet piercing!"
"A needle can pain like a sword-blade. There goes the moon in clouds. Hark! What was that? A cry?" And he started to his feet.
"No," she said,—"it is only the wild music of the lake, the voices of shadows calling to shadows."
"There it is again, but fainter; the wind carries it the other way."
"It is a desolating wind."
"And the light on the land is like that of eclipse!"
He stooped and raised her and folded her in his arms.
"I have a strange, terrible sense of calamity, Mignonne!" he said. "Let it strike, so it spare you!"
"Nothing can harm us," she replied, clinging to him. "Even death cannot come between us!"
"Marguerite!" said Mr. Laudersdale, entering, "where is your mother?"
"She went down to the lake, Sir."
"She cannot possibly have gone out upon it!"
"Oh, she frequently does; and so do we all."
"But this high wind has risen since. The flaws"——And he went out hastily.
There flashed on Mr. Raleigh's mental sight a vision of the moonlit lake, one instant. A boat, upon its side, bending its white sail down the depths; a lifted arm wound in the fatal rope; a woman's form, hanging by that arm, sustained in the dark transparent tide of death; the wild wind blowing over, the moonlight glazing all. For that instant he remained still as stone; the next, he strode away, and dashed down to the lake-shore. It seemed as if his vision yet continued. They had already put out in boats; he was too late. He waited in ghastly suspense till they rowed home with their slow freight. And then his arm supported the head with its long, uncoiling, heavy hair, and lifted the limbs, round which the drapery flowed like a pall on sculpture, till another man took the burden from him and went up to the house with his dead.
* * * * *
When Mr. Raleigh entered the house again, it was at break of dawn. Some one opened the library-door and beckoned him in. Marguerite sprang into his arms.
"What if she had died?" said Mrs. Purcell, with her swift satiric breath, and folding a web of muslin over her arm. "See! I had got out the shroud. As it is, we drink skal and say grace at breakfast. The funeral baked-meats shall coldly furnish forth the marriage-feast. You men are all alike. Le Roi est mort? Vive la Reine!"
* * * * *
PAUL REVERE'S RIDE.
Listen, my children, and you shall hear Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five: Hardly a man is now alive Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend,—"If the British march By land or sea from the town to-night, Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light,— One if by land, and two if by sea; And I on the opposite shore will be, Ready to ride and spread the alarm Through every Middlesex village and farm, For the country-folk to be up and to arm."
Then he said good-night, and with muffled oar Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore, Just as the moon rose over the bay, Where swinging wide at her moorings lay The Somersett, British man-of-war: A phantom ship, with each mast and spar Across the moon, like a prison-bar, And a huge, black hulk, that was magnified By its own reflection in the tide.
Meanwhile, his friend, through alley and street Wanders and watches with eager ears, Till in the silence around him he hears The muster of men at the barrack-door, The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet, And the measured tread of the grenadiers Marching down to their boats on the shore.
Then he climbed to the tower of the church, Up the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread, To the belfry-chamber overhead, And startled the pigeons from their perch On the sombre rafters, that round him made Masses and moving shapes of shade,— Up the light ladder, slender and tall, To the highest window in the wall, Where he paused to listen and look down A moment on the roofs of the town, And the moonlight flowing over all.
Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead In their night-encampment on the hill, Wrapped in silence so deep and still, That he could hear, like a sentinel's tread, The watchful night-wind, as it went Creeping along from tent to tent, And seeming to whisper, "All is well!" A moment only he feels the spell Of the place and the hour, the secret dread Of the lonely belfry and the dead; For suddenly all his thoughts are bent On a shadowy something far away, Where the river widens to meet the bay,— A line of black, that bends and floats On the rising tide, like a bridge of boats.
Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride, Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride, On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere Now he patted his horse's side, Now gazed on the landscape far and near, Then impetuous stamped the earth, And turned and tightened his saddle-girth; But mostly he watched with eager search The belfry-tower of the old North Church, As it rose above the graves on the hill, Lonely, and spectral, and sombre, and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry's height, A glimmer, and then a gleam of light! He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns, But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight A second lamp in the belfry burns!
A hurry of hoofs in a village-street, A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark, And beneath from the pebbles, in passing, a spark Struck out by a steed that flies fearless and fleet: That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light, The fate of a nation was riding that night; And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight, Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
It was twelve by the village-clock, When he crossed the bridge into Medford town. He heard the crowing of the cock, And the barking of the farmer's dog, And felt the damp of the river-fog, That rises when the sun goes down.
It was one by the village-clock, When he rode into Lexington. He saw the gilded weathercock Swim in the moonlight as he passed, And the meeting-house windows, blank and bare, Gaze at him with a spectral glare, As if they already stood aghast At the bloody work they would look upon.
It was two by the village-clock, When he came to the bridge in Concord town. He heard the bleating of the flock, And the twitter of birds among the trees, And felt the breath of the morning-breeze Blowing over the meadows brown. And one was safe and asleep in his bed Who at the bridge would be first to fall, Who that day would be lying dead, Pierced by a British musket-ball.
You know the rest. In the books you have read How the British regulars fired and fled,— How the farmers gave them ball for ball, From behind each fence and farmyard-wall, Chasing the red-coats down the lane, Then crossing the fields to emerge again Under the trees at the turn of the road, And only pausing to fire and load.
So through the night rode Paul Revere; And so through the night went his cry of alarm To every Middlesex village and farm,— A cry of defiance, and not of fear,— A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door, And a word that shall echo forevermore! For, borne on the night-wind of the Past, Through all our history, to the last, In the hour of darkness and peril and need, The people will waken and listen to hear The hurrying hoof-beat of that steed, And the midnight-message of Paul Revere.
A NIGHT UNDER GROUND.
My dear Laura Matilda, have you ever worked your way under ground, like the ghost Hamlet, Senior? On the contrary, you confess, but a dim idea of that peculiar mode of progression abides in the well-ordered mansion of your mind?
Well, I do not wonder at it; you are civilized beyond the common herd; your mamma, careful of her own comfort and the beauty of her child, guards both. Your sunny summer-times go by in the shade of sylvan groves, or amid the whirl of Saratoga or Newport ball-rooms. I accept your ignorance; it is a pretty blossom in your maiden chaplet. For myself, I blush for my own familiarity with rough scenes chanced upon in wayward wanderings.
Let me tell you of a path among the "untrodden ways." Transport yourself with me.
Fancy a low, level, drowsy point of land, stretching out into the unbroken emerald green of Lake Superior, at the point where a narrow, yellowish river offers its tribute. The King of Lakes is exclusive; he disdains to blend his brilliant waters with those of the muddy river; a wavy line, distinctly and clearly defined, but seeming as if drawn by a trembling hand, undulates at their junction,—no democratic, union-seeking boundary, but the arbitrary line of division that separates the Sultan from the slave, the peer from the peasant.
Along this shore are scattered various buildings that seem to nod in the indolent sunshine of the bright, clear, quiet air of midsummer. One of these, differing from the rest in its more modern construction, is a spacious hotel that holds itself proudly erect, and from its summit the gay flag of my country floats flauntingly.
We must pass this by, and go down a plank-covered walk to reach the sandy-golden beach where the green waves dash with silent dignity, in these long calms of July. Before the hotel the river flows also sleepily; but both shores are vocal with ladies' laughter and the singing of young girls, the lively chatter of a party of pleasure-tourists.
The fine steamer that brought us to this point has gone,
"Sailing out into the west, Out into the west, as the sun went down";
but no "weeping and wringing of hands" was there; we knew it must "come back to the town,"—that we are merely transient waifs cast upon this quiet beach, flitting birds of passage who have alighted in the porticos of the "Bigelow House," Ontonagon, Michigan.
A long, low flat-boat, without visible sails, steam-pipes, or oars,—a narrow river-craft, with a box-like cabin at one end, the whole rude in its ensemble, and uncivilized in its details,—is the object that meets the gaze of those who would curiously inspect the means by which the adventurous novelty-seeking portion of our party are to be conveyed up this Ontonagon river to the great copper-mines that form the inestimable wealth of that region. For the metallic attraction has proved magnetic to the fancies of a few. A mine is a mystery; and mysteries, to the female mind, are delights.
What is the boat to us but a means? If it seem prosaic, what care we? Have we escaped the French fashions of a-la-mode watering-places, to be fastidious amid wigwams and unpeopled shores?
We all know what it is to embark for a day's travel, but we do not all understand the charm of being stowed away like freight in a boat such as the one here faintly sketched; how seats are improvised; how umbrellas are converted into stationary screens, and awnings grow out of inspiration; how baskets are hidden carefully among carpet-bags, and camp-stools, and water-jugs, and stowed-in-shavings ice; how the long-suffering, patient ladies shelter themselves in the tiny, stifling cabin, while those of the merry, complexion-careless sort lounge in the daylight's glare, and one couple, fond of seclusion and sentiment, discover a good place for both, at the rudder-end.
There is an oar or two on board, it appears, as we push off in the early dawn; and these are employed for a mile or so at the mouth of the river; then the current begins to quicken in a narrower bed, and a group of sinewy men betake themselves to their poles, lazily at first, until——
But you do not know exactly what these implements are?
They are heavy, wooden, sharp-pointed poles, ten or twelve feet long. On either side of the boat runs a "walk," arranged as if a ladder were laid horizontally; but in reality the bars or rungs are firmly fastened to the walk, to be used as rests for the feet. Here the men, five on a side, march like a chain-gang, backward and forward; placing one end of the pole in the bed of the stream, resting the other in the hollow of the shoulder near the arm-pit, and bracing themselves by their feet against these bars, they pry the boat along.
Progression by such means is unavoidably slow; but no steamboat-race on our Western rivers, blind and reckless, boiler-defying and life-despising, ever produced more excitement than this same poling.
Wait till the current runs rapidly, fretting and seething in its angry haste, when for a moment's delay the boat must lose ground; when the poles are plunged into the rocky bed like harpoons into the back of an escaping whale; when the athletic forms of the men are bent forward until each prostrates himself in the exertion of his full powers; when not a false step—each step a run—can be hazarded; when that monotonous unanimity of labor is at its height, in which each boatman becomes possessed as if by a devil of strife; when their faces lose every gentle semblance of humanity, and become distorted to a simple expression of stubborn brute force; when the muscles of their arms are knitted, rope-like, and every nerve stretched to its utmost;—wait till you have seen all this, and you will confess that a woman's lazy life can know no harder toil than that of the mind's sympathetic coexertion,—that is, if she be excitable or impressible.
The stream is tortuous, erratic, shallow, and narrow. Sometimes, as we glide, always noiselessly, beneath the overhanging foliage and tangled vines along shore, what myriads of gayly winged insects—brilliant dragon-flies, mammoth gnats, preposterous mosquitoes—swarm about our heads, disturbed from their gambols by the laughter and songs aboard our moving craft!
Only one halt in our journey, and that to dine. Just above this point we pass the swiftest rapids on the route, where the river widens, and each side of the bank is beautiful in its wooded picturesqueness, while the waters rush, in foaming, surging, tumbling confusion, over the rugged rocks, or dart between them like a merry band of water-sprites chasing each other in gleesome frolic.
It seems a desecration of these rapids thus to subdue and triumph over them. They are as if placed there by Nature as a sportive check to man's further intrusion; and as the waters come hurrying down, led, as it were, by some Undine jealous for her realm, their murmurings seem to say, in playful, yet earnest remonstrance,—"Let our gambols divert you; we will hasten to you; but approach no nearer! Permit us to guard the sanctuary of our hidden sources, our beloved and holy solitudes!"
But vain appeal! Our men pole frantically onward, and so the day passes. By mid-afternoon their labors cease, and we come to anchor at the bank, having achieved seventeen miles in nine hours! Let those of us to whom lightning-express-trains have been slow grumble hereafter at their fifty miles an hour!
A country-wagon receives most of the ladies; the majority of their attendant cavaliers walk; of two horses, the side-saddled one has about one hundred pounds avoirdupois for his share, and, in spite of the lack of habit and equestrian "pomp and circumstance" generally, I cannot term it the most unpleasant three miles I ever travelled. The road is a wild, rugged ascent up a well-wooded hill-side. There is a tonic vigor in the atmosphere, which communicates itself irresistibly to one's mental state; the gladdened lungs inhale it eagerly, as a luxury. When one walks in this air, one seems to gain wings; to ride is to float at will.
Presently, at the top, a low village comes in sight; yelping curs start from wayside cabins; coarse, dull-featured women gape at half-opened doors or sit idly on rude steps; and the men we chance to meet wear that cadaverous pallor inseparable from the mere idea of a miner. We do not regret that the pert dogs have imparted speed to our horses' heels;—a swift, exhilarating gallop brings us in sight of a large, comfortable house, perched like a bird-box in the hills; then others are discerned; and in a few more bounds, we are at the gate. Here, where all visitors to the Minnesota Mines are received and entertained, we prove avant-couriers of the slowly advancing wagon-load,—"the largest party of ladies ever met there," they tell us, as we forewarn our hosts of the band so boldly invading their copper-bound country.
Very soon we are rambling over the hills,—those of Nature's rearing, and others formed by the accumulation of refuse brought up from the mine. We discover and secure some fine specimens of the metal; sundry of the knowing ones, after mysterious interviews with rascally-looking miners, appear with curious bits of pure silver ore mingled with crystals of quartz and tinted with tiny specks of copper. These, being the most valuable curiosities of the region, are usually secreted by the miners for the purpose of private speculation.
We feel a reverence for this ground, so teeming with metallic wealth,—and yet a certain timorousness, as we remember that we walk on a crust, that beneath us are great caves and subterranean galleries.
This outer shell, this surface-knowledge of what lies below, does not content me. I have also a brave friend who shares my feeling. We agree, that, despite the interest of this crust, to know of the fruit beneath and not taste it is worse than aggravating; we grow reckless in our thirst for the forbidden knowledge.
We have entertained a little plot in our headstrong minds all the way, which we have hardly dared to name before. It is surely not feminine to look longingly on those ladders made for the descent of hardy miners only; visitors beneath the surface are rare; only gentlemen interested in seeing for themselves the richness of these vaunted mines have essayed the tour; even many of these failing to penetrate farther than the first level, and bravely owning their faint-heartedness. In spite of this, we feel our way cautiously. A descent is to be made this night, when the Captain of the Mine goes his nightly round of inspection; a gentleman, the head and front of our expedition, whom we shall call the "Colonel," proposes to accompany him.
Why may we not form an harmonious quartette? We have nerve; has it not been tested throughout the somewhat arduous journey of the preceding weeks? We have presence of mind; we are passable gymnastes.
In fact, viewing Mon Amie and me from our own point of view, than ourselves never did there exist two mortals more manifestly fashioned straight from the hand of Nature, and educated by previous physical culture and mental discipline for the performance of a feat at once perilous and daring, one unknown to the members of "our set," and which might have been thought impracticable by all who had known us only in the gas-light glare of Society, and the circumspection of crinoline's confining circle.
Does it matter by what cunning wiles of pretty pleading and downright demonstrations of the project's reasonableness we succeeded (for we did succeed) in being allowed to take our fates in our own hands or trust them to our own sure-footedness? I think not.
"For when a woman will, she will, you may depend on't."
But you should have seen the robing! We are to start at ten, P.M. Previously we betake ourselves to our chambers, and, entertaining a vague notion that Fashion's expanse may prove inconvenient, we are looping up our trailing robes in fantastic folds, when a tap at the door.
Voila! a servant with two full suits of new, but coarse, miners' clothes,—with a modest intimation from our companions of their advisability,—in fact, their absolute necessity. We pause aghast! Ah! the renewed shouts of laughter from those merry, but more timorous damsels, who, from their secure surroundings,—those becoming barriers adopted at the dictate of Parisian caprice and retained with feminine pertinacity,—had poked fun at our forlorn limpness!
This climax of costume is startling, but the laughter rouses our courage. We stand on the brink of our Rubicon. Shall trousers deter us from the passage? Shall a coat be synonymous with cowardice? No,—we rise superior to the occasion; we pant to be free; we in-breathe the spirit of liberty, as we don our blouses. We loop our long tresses under such head-coverings as would drive any artist hatter to despair; to us they prove a weighty argument against hats in general, as we feel their heavy rims press on our tender brain-roofs. However, when the saucy eyes of Mon Amie look out sparkling from under her begrimed helmet, the effect is not bad; on the contrary, the masquerade is piquant. No need to mention the ribbons that we knot under our wide, square collars for becomingness, our coquetry "under difficulties," nor the gauntleted gloves wherewith we protect our hands, nor the daintiness of the little boots that peep from the loose trousers, which have something Turkish in their cut. Mon Amie, with her rosy blushes, reminds me of a jocund miller's boy;—as for myself, well, I do not think the Bloomer dress so very bad, after all!
A torch-bearing band have stationed themselves at the doors to bid us god-speed,—to make merry at our droll masquerade,—to quiz our odd head-gear,—to criticize us from head to foot, in short,—but between all, to offer words of caution. Then we go out into the starlit, but not over-bright night,—such a one as is friendly to lovers and to thieves, friendly to religion and to thought, the beloved of sentimentalists, and the adored of this particular group of adventurous miners. In Indian file, lantern-led, we traverse the narrow, beaten path that leads to one of the openings of the mine. These are covered by a rough-plank house,—too much like a shed to merit that pretentious term, which implies something fit to live in; in the centre of this shelter is an open space, perhaps a yard square, and similar in appearance to a trap-door in a roof. Here we wait a few moments, while the Captain of the Mine and the Agent of the Mining Company,—who has joined our party at the last moment, to afford us the undivided services of the Captain as guide,—are engaged in some mysterious process of moulding; an odor, not attar of rose, nor yet Frangipanni, salutes our nostrils; then our companions approach. Both the Colonel and the Agent are "lit up,"—in fact, all-luminous with the radiance of tallow "dips"; one of these, stuck in a lump of soft clay, adheres to the front of each hat, and in their hands they have others.
We also are to wear a starry flame on our brows; and, not content with this, are invested with several short unlighted candles, which are to dangle gracefully by their wicks from a buttonhole of our becoming blouses. Thus our costume is complete; and I doubt if Buckingham sported the diamond tags of Anne of Austria with more satisfaction than do we our novel and odorous decoration: we dub ourselves the Light Guard on the instant.
In the delay before starting, we observe several miners descend through the black and most suggestive trap-door, each bearing a tin can in his mouth, as a good dog carries a basket at the bidding of his master.
The flame of the candle, bright in the density of the pit's darkness, as its bearer descends step by step with the rapidity which custom has made easy, becomes in a few seconds like the tiniest glow-worm: one can follow the spark only; the man disappears within the moment.
I cannot describe, nor, indeed, convey the least idea of this peculiar effect. We feel our hearts tremble at the thought that whither that light has gone we must follow. For the first time I realize that we are about to go into the earth,—that we shall presently crawl like insects, burrow like underground vermin, beneath the surface, man's proper place. But such thoughts are not for long indulgence.
"Now let us descend!" says the Colonel.
Grasping the round of the ladder where it rose slightly above the floor, the Captain, our guide, with that air of assurance which practice bestows, swings himself from sight. To him succeeds the Colonel. Next comes my own turn. This is not the first time my feet have tried ladder-bars; in the country-spent vacations of my school-days, how many times have I alertly scaled the highest leading to granaries, to barn-lofts, to bird-houses, to all quasi-inaccessible places, whither my daring ignorance—reckless, because unconscious of danger—had tempted me! But mounting a clean, strong, wide ladder, in the full flood of day, light below, above, around, promising you security by its very fulness of effulgence, is a far different thing from groping your way, step by step, down a slimy, muddy frame which hangs in a straight line from the very start. I shake off a first tremor, draw a full breath, and with fortitude follow my leader carefully. As I look above, after fairly getting committed, I can behold Mon Amie's feet, whose arched in-steps cling round each bar with a pretty dependence that is in the highest degree appealing. Above her I hear the deep voice of the Agent.
And so the quintette, in grim harmony of enterprise, go down, down, down, like so many human buckets, into a bottomless well.
Alas, and alas! our own arms, with their as yet untried muscles, must be our only windlass to bring us to the surface again! Down, down, down, deeper, deeper, deeper! Will this first ladder never end?
Ah, at last! At the foot, on either side, stand the Captain and the Colonel, like sentries. We have reached a shelf of rock, and we may rest. Here we perch ourselves, like sea-birds on a precipice that overlooks the sea.
By the light of our flickering candles we behold each other's faces, and we can talk together. We are but two hundred feet under ground. A desolate stillness reigns here; no sound reaches us, either of labor or the steps of passing workmen. A cold stream of water trickles from a cleft rock behind us; we bathe our foreheads in it, and betake ourselves to the ladder again.
From our next resting-place we proceed through a gallery, an exhausted vein, kept open as a passage from one shaft to another. As we turn a corner, we seem to plunge into a rocky cavern; our feet tread on roughly imbedded rocks; the sides of the cave jut out in refuse boulders,—harsh, dark-colored, ashen; overhead are beams of hard wood, bracing and strengthening the excavation. We traverse this gallery hastily.
Now that we are here, we are conscious of excitement. Mon Amie manifests hers by her steady, deliberate tones, a sort of exaltation foreign to her usually vibrating voice, her tremulous cadences; she seems borne along, despite and above herself. For my own part, as my lungs inflate themselves with this pure, dry, bracing air, exquisitely redolent of health, and testifying at once to a total exemption from noxious exhalations or mephitic vapors, I grow tete-montee, rattle-brained; my laugh echoes through these stony chambers, wild snatches of song hover on my lips, odd conceits flit through my brain, I joke, I dash forward with haste; my excitement endows me with a superfeminine self-possession.
But now we hear an ominous rattle, a clanking of chains, a rumbling as of distant thunder; we are approaching a shaft. The shafts in this mine are not sunk perpendicularly, but are slightly inclined: the huge buckets, lowered and raised by means of powerful machinery, are but ancient caldrons, counterparts of those in which the weird witches in "Macbeth" might have brewed their unholy decoctions, or such as the dreadful giants that formed the nightmare of my childhood might have used in preparing those Brobdignagian repasts among the ingredients of which a plump child held the same rank as a crab in ours.
The sounds grow nearer; presently our guide disappears; then I behold the Colonel, in whose steps I follow, faithful as his shadow, crouch sidewise: we must pass behind this inclined plane, which rests on roughly hewn rocks, that protrude till it appears impossible that any living thing, except a lizard, can find a passage. I am sure we must shrink from the original rotundity with which Nature blessed us. I feel as the frog in the fable might have felt, if, after successfully inflating himself to the much-envied dimensions of the ox, he had suddenly found himself reduced to his proper proportions. Edging sidewise, accommodating the inequalities of the damp surfaces to the undulations of our forms, deafened, crazed by the roar of the caldrons that dash madly from side to side, we fairly ooze through.
More ladders! This time they are not hung quite perpendicularly, are shorter, and some lean, a little, which affords rest; others have one side higher than the other: to these my already aching palms cling with desperation. So have I seen insects adhere, through sheer force of fear, to a shaken stem, or a perilous branch beaten by a storm-wind.
The voices of my companions come to me from above, though I cannot see the soles of Mon Amie's friendly feet, which at first preserved an amiable companionship with my own hands; but, looking far upward, I behold a tiny, star-like spark. When I was a child, I used to think that fire-flies were the crowns of the fairies, which shone despite their wearers' invisibility: this idea was recalled to me.
Hark! booming from unthought-of depths, a roar rolls up in majestic waves of echoing thunder. At this resonant burst, I tremble,—I think a prayer.
"They are blasting below us," cries the Colonel, de profundis.
Then up rushes a volume of thick, white smoke, and we are enveloped as in shrouds. I have no more fear,—but the odor, ah! that sulphureous, sickening, deathly odor! Faintness seizes me,—the ladder swims before my eyes,—I am paralyzed,—Death has me, I think!
But the very excess of the danger has in it something of reviving power. I remember, that, just as I left my room,—whose quiet safety never before appeared so heavenly,—prompted by some instinctive impulse, I had placed a small vial of ammonia in the breast-pocket of my coat.
I have wellnigh swooned with ecstasy, as I have inhaled the overcoming odors of some rare bouquet, love-bestowed and prized beyond gems; my senses have reeled in the intoxication of those wondrous extracts whose Oriental, tangible richness of fragrance holds me in a spell almost mystical in its enthralment; but I dare aver that no blossom's breath, no pungent perfume distilled by the erudite inspiration of Science, ever possessed a tithe of the delicious agony of that whiff of unromantic ammonia, which, powerful as the touch of magic, and thrilling as the kiss of love, snatched me back to life, arrested my tottering senses, as they blindly staggered on the very brink of certain death.
When we reach the next level, and our faces are revealed to each other, with one voice they exclaim, "How frightfully pale you are!" But I say nothing. In fact, their familiar features, wearing no longer their daylight semblance, present an aspect at once grim and grotesque, and more like the spirits of my friends than their incorporated substances.
Traversing the wild, rude corridors, we find that the path grows more perilous, the way more intricate; we have words of warning from our protectors, who often look back anxiously. They have begun to realize what they have done in yielding to a woman's odd caprice.
In this level we are shown the spots from which famous masses of copper have been removed, and are granted useful, but fleeting statistics of weight; we are also so fortunate as to discover some chips of the wonderful block, raised in '54, I think, which weighed five hundred tons. Then we chance upon chasms, which, seen so dimly, though dreadful enough in reality, are made a thousand times more so by the terrors of imagination; we creep along the brinks of these, scarcely daring to look down; above, the heavy boulders lie heaped in frightful confusion. When we have crawled past these death-traps and stand in safety once more, we throw down bits of stone, and seconds elapse before we hear the dull thump with which each signals its arrival in the depths. Along the edges of some of these gloomy pits we cannot pick our way; therefore a plank is thrown across, and, trusting to so slender a bridge, we pass, one by one. A single false step were enough to dash one to atoms,—so to be transformed to a bruised and mangled mass, to perform one's own sepulture, and lie in a grander grave than will ever be hollowed by mortal hands to hide our useless bodies.
The deeper one penetrates into these mines, the wilder, more dangerous the paths. It is as though the upper regions were kept in "company" order, but lower down we meet with the every-day roughnesses of veritable miners'-life; we follow their hazardous, but familiar steps; we behold all the hardships these toiling, burrowing workers undergo, that the hidden coffers of Earth may yield their tribute of treasure to Man, its self-appointed, arrogant master.
Occasionally we meet a passing miner. Grasping his ponderous tools, he flits by like a phantom; even in the momentary glance, we can perceive how livid his sunless labor has left him; he is blanched as a ghoul, and moves as noiselessly, with feather-light step. Each with a motion salutes the Captain; but they do not heed the little group of strangers who have braved so many dangers to behold the wonders which to them are as commonplace as the forge to a blacksmith, or to a carpenter his work-bench.
Still farther below us we hear the clink and clatter of real work. Down we plunge,—another ladder, "long drawn out." Some of its rounds are wanting; others are loose and worn to a mere splinter. Warned by the voice below me, I proceed with a trembling caution, tenfold more exciting to the strained nerves than the wildest bound on a mettled racer, the fiercest rush that ever tingled through every fibre of the rider's frame.
The water has saturated the banks by which our crazy ladder hangs, and every round is damp and slimy with clayey mud. Alas, for my poor pretty gantlets! Mon Amie has thrown away hers, as useless.
Finally the ladder ceases abruptly. My feet in vain seek a resting-place. There is none.
A voice says,—that kindly, earnest voice, the symbol of protective care, and our smoother of all difficulties,—"We have swung ourselves down by a chain that hangs from the side of the last round. We are too far below to reach or assist you. Take the chain firmly; it is the only route, and we cannot return!"
Que faire? Behold a pleasant predicament for two city-bred ladies, not "to the manner born," of swinging themselves from the end of a ladder by means of a rusty iron chain, from which they would alight—where? Surely, we know not.
I am very sure I could not reproduce in description, and probably not by practice, the inevitable monkey-contortions, the unimaginable animal agility, by which I transfer my weight to the clumsy links of this almost invisible chain. The size of the staple from which it hangs dissipates all fears in respect to its strength. Hand over hand, my feet sliding on the slippery bank, remembering sailors in the shrouds, and taking time to pity them, at last I reach friendly hands, and stand breathless on another level.
How the soft, white, dimpled palms of Mon Amie testify to the hardship of this episode, as she bathes them in the cooling water! But, because one's hands are tender, cannot one's nerves be strong, one's will indomitable?
Again on the tramp. The cavernous passages are sublime in height, the chasms fearful in their yawning gulfs. We pick our way daintily, at intervals pausing to listen to the distant reverberations of exploding blasts. The atmosphere here, as above, is fairly heavenly in its purity and invigorating freshness; it girds us with singular strength, and clothes us as in a garment of enchanted armor that defies all soul-sinking.
Creeping behind another shaft, we reach still another chasm, above which piles of dark rocks lie heaped in such confusion as might result from a great convulsion. There is a narrow path along its edge, and here the stones are small; but, as we look up, the mighty masses frown down upon us with threatening grandeur. Along this path, treading lightly, as if gifted with wings, the Captain passes; then the Agent (for we had slightly altered our order of march); Mon Amie follows. She is half-way past the danger, when an ominous pause,—we are ordered to stop.
Down into the chasm rolls a stone, displaced by an unlucky step of our pioneer. One stone is nothing,—but more follow that had been supported by this: small ones at first,—but the larger rocks threaten a slide. If they are not arrested in their course, she is lost!
What a moment that is! I dare not breathe. Mon Amie stands statue-like, awaiting the death which she believes is upon her. Not many words are spoken. I think I feel all that her one glance conveys. But the brave men beyond her, with instant unanimous action bracing themselves against the sliding rocks, oppose their feeble force to the down-sweeping agents of destruction; a moment more, and they would have been too late. With the step of a frightened antelope Mon Amie trembles past them. I see her safe, and hasten on. "Step lightly!" says a voice full of suspense and fear, despite its calmness.
Step, indeed! As if I rest on those treacherous stones! My feet brush them no more than the wing of a butterfly grazes the roses among which it flutters. Step, forsooth! If ever the angels concerned themselves for this atom in Creation's myriads, they hover round me now, they bear me up, they teach me how to fly! Deprived now of their human props, how the angry fragments leap and tumble and chase one another through the echoing abyss below! These reverberations seem freighted with elfin voices that jeer the insensate rocks for their baffled scheme of mischief.
But they chanted a far different chorus, and the darkness saw another sight, when, a few moons later, they dashed themselves down in irresistible array, and bore with them in their desperate plunge the lifeless bodies of two passing miners, in whose hearts, it may be, dwelt at the moment only happy thoughts of the homes 'neath the blue skies to which they were hurrying, the dear familiar sunlit Paradise that would succeed the endless night of their Inferno of toil.
"But men must work, and women must weep; And the sooner 'tis over, the sooner to sleep!"
Well, we take up our march again presently, and, led by a monotonous hammering, proceed toward the sound. Some of the miners are at work here, clearing a mass of ore from the stubborn rock. Their strokes fall as regularly as those of machinery, and the grim men who wield the ponderous hammers accompany each blow with a peculiar loud indrawing of the breath, like the pant of a blacksmith at his anvil. So strong is this resemblance, that we burst forth all together in the strains of the "Anvil Chorus"; and the accompaniment is beaten with tenfold more regularity and effect than on the stage, in the glare of the footlights, by "Il Trovatore's" gypsy-comrades. I doubt if Verdi's music was ever so rendered before, amid such surroundings. The compliment may be the higher, coming from so low a region.
Beyond this group are a few miners resting from toil. One of these, as he stands leaning his folded arms on a jutting rock, upon which he has placed his candle, elicits our spontaneous admiration. His beauty is Apollo-like,—every chiselled feature perfect in its classic regularity; his eyes sad, slumberous, and yet deep and glowing, are quite enough for any susceptible maiden's heart; about a broad expanse of forehead cluster thick masses of dark brown hair; his shirt, open at the throat, reveals glimpses of ivory; altogether he is statuesque and beautiful. Even his hands, strongly knit as they are, have not been rendered coarse by labor; they bear the same pallid hue as his face, and he looks like some nobly-born prisoner. "What untoward fate cast him there?" I often ask myself. He exists in my memory as a veritable Prince Charming, held captive in those gloomy caves of enchantment that yielded up to me their unreal realities in that nightmarish experience. I never fancy him on upper earth living coarsely, even, it may be, talking ungrammatically, defying Horne Tooke and outraging Murray, among beings of a lower order of humanity; but he rises like a statue, standing silent and apart.
Some one throws away a nearly burnt-out candle at this spot. It falls but a few inches from a can of gunpowder, which is not too securely closed. As I utter a quick word of warning to the careless one, a miner starts. "Good Heaven!" I hear him exclaim, as we disappear,—"that was a woman!"
When we reach the next shaft, the Captain deposits himself in the descending bucket, and, irregularly tossing from side to side, goes down to overlook some work, and leave fresh orders with the miners. We await his return before again betaking ourselves to the ladders.
On the next level, we behold scores of men in busy action. I can think only of ants in an ant-hill: some are laden with ore; others bearing the refuse rocks and earth, the debris of the mine, to the shafts; others, again, are preparing blasts,—we do not tarry long with these; others with picks work steadily at the tough ore. In some places, the copper freshly broken glitters like gold, and the specks on the rocks, or in the earth-covered mass, as our candle-light awakens their sparkles, gleam like the spangles on a dancer's robe or stars in a midnight sky. All the while we hear the dreadful rattle of the down-sinking caldrons, or the heavy labor of the freighted ones, as they ascend from level to level.
Suddenly our path conducts us past a seated bevy of miners taking their "crib," as it is termed, from the food-can, which stands at hand,—a small fire blazing in the midst of them. Weary and sore, we seat ourselves near them, while our hardier companions talk with the respectful group.
They work eight hours at a time, they tell us,—ascending at the expiration of that period to betake themselves to their homes, which are mostly in the little village where the yelping curs also reside. They enjoy unusual health, and pity the upper-world of surface-laborers, whom they regard with a kind of contempt. Accidents are not frequent, considering the perils of their occupation. The miners here are generally Cornish-men, with some Germans.
I sit silent, thinking of my Prince Charming, with many vague conjectures.
At first, these men have paused in their repast in presence of the strangers; but now, with rude courtesy, noticing our weariness, they offer a portion to us. Faint and famishing, we by no means disdain it. I wonder what Mrs. Grundy would say, could her Argus-eyes penetrate to the spot, where we,—bound to "die of roses in aromatic pain,"—in miners'-garb, masculine and muddy, sit on stones with earthy delvers, more than six hundred feet under ground,—where the foot of woman has never trod before, nor the voice of woman echoed,—and sip, with the relish of intense thirst, steaming black tea from an old tin cup!
Eh, bien! for all that, let me do it justice. Never was black tea less herb-like; never draught of sillery, quaffed from goblet of rare Bohemian glass, more delicious! And so, with thank-yous that were not only from the lip, we toil on some distance yet, to the shaft by which we are to ascend,—one quite remote from that by which we began our trip.
Halting at the foot of the ladder, we pour forth the "Star-spangled Banner" with the full strength of lungs inflated by patriotism, until the stirring staves ring and resound through those dim caves. The miners, who hold the superstition, that to whisper bodes ill-luck, must have imagined we were exorcising evil spirits with an incantation.
Then begins our weary way upward. We sing "Excelsior" in our hearts, and forget our aching limbs, for the most laborious portion of the night's toil is before us. The almost perpendicular ladder is just beside the powerful pump, which, worked by a steam-engine, exhausts the water from the mine, and its busy piston, in monotonous measure, keeps time to our climbing.
Two rests during the entire distance, which we travel in brave silence. Indeed, we cannot speak,—the oppressive strain upon the chest is so great. Step after step, hand over hand, up we go. At last, warmer air greets us, lights flicker from above; the trap-door is reached; we are on the surface again; we are out of the depths,—and our hearts whisper a Te Deum of thanksgiving.
I think well of the establishment of a chapel, such as exists at the entrance to the Valenciana mine in Mexico, where each miner spends half an hour, going to or returning from his labors. Such a union of work and worship seems a proper adjunct to the profit and the peril.
There is a faint glimmer of coming dawn far away in the east, as we go forth into the midsummer-night, and we catch the distant notes of chanticleer, as he sounds his shrill reveille to the day.
As my confused brain seeks repose, and my weary limbs sink into the softness of the never-so-welcome bed, my thoughts fly to distant ones, to whom I would whisper,—as I do to you who have so patiently burrowed with me,—"Only love me for the dangers I have passed!"
But it is in vain that you long for a similar experience, my dear Laura Matilda. Being the first, we are also the last women to whom these subterranean passages will yield their mysteries, their windings, and their wonders. Against all of my own sex the Pandemonian depths of the Minnesota Mines are henceforth as obstinately barred as ever were the golden gates of the Mohammedan Paradise.
A LONELY HOUSE.
"Some weighty crime that Heaven could not pardon, A secret curse, on that old building hung, And its deserted garden."
HOOD'S Haunted House.
One autumn evening, not very long ago, I was driving out with my uncle. I had been spending several weeks at his house, and in that time had driven with him very often, so that I supposed myself familiar with nearly all the roads that stretched away from the pleasant village where he resided; but on this occasion he proposed taking me in an entirely new direction, over a tract of country I had never before seen.
For a mile or two after we left home, we bowled rapidly along on a well-travelled turnpike; then a sudden turn to the right brought us, with slackened speed, into a quiet country-road. Passing through the fields that bordered the highway, we came into a wild, romantic region of hill and dale that fully deserved all that my uncle had said in its praise.
Giving ourselves up to the sweet influences of the scene, we trotted our horses slowly, past dusky bits of forest that made the air fragrant with the damp smell of the woods, and by occasional shining pools adorned with floating pond-lilies, and shaded with thick, low bushes of witch-hazel. The sunlight had that orange glow that comes only on autumn evenings, the long, slant rays striking across the yellow fields and lighting up the dark evergreens which dotted the landscape with a tawny illumination, like dull flames. The locusts hummed drowsily, as if they were almost asleep, and the frogs in the ponds sent out an occasional muffled croak. Altogether, it was deliciously calm and deserted; we did not meet a human being or a habitation for miles, as we wound along the secluded path, now up and now down, but on the whole gradually ascending, till we reached the summit of a hill larger and steeper than the rest.
Here there stood a lonely house.
Pausing to allow our horses a moment's rest, my eye was caught by its deserted and dilapidated appearance. It had evidently been uninhabited for years. The fence had gone to decay, the gate lay rotting on the ground, and a forlorn sleigh, looking strangely out of place in contrast with the summer-flowers that had over-grown it, was drawn up before the entrance. The grass had obliterated every trace of the path that once led to the decayed steps, bushes had grown up thickly around the lower story of the house, and tangled vines, creeping in through the broken panes of the windows, hung in festoons from the moss-covered sills. The door had dropped from its hinges, and on one side of the front the boards had fallen off, so that I could see quite into the interior, where I noticed, with surprise, some furniture yet remained, though in great confusion, a broken chair and an overturned table being the most prominent objects. Outside, the same disorder was manifest in the great farm-wagon, left standing where it had last been used, and the neglected out-buildings fast going to decay. About the whole place there was an aspect of peculiar gloom, and the house itself stood on this bleak hill looking out over the lonesome landscape with a sort of tragic melancholy in its black and weather-beaten front.
Now such a sight as this is very rare in our busy New England, where everything is turned to advantage, and where the thrifty owner of a tenement too old for habitation is sure to tear it down and convert the materials of which it is built to some other use. My curiosity was, therefore, at once excited regarding this place, and I turned to my uncle with an inquiry as to its history.
"It is a very sad one," he answered,—"so sad that it gives a terrible dreariness to this solitary spot."
"Then I am sure you will tell me the causes which led to its desertion. You know how much I like a story."
My uncle complied with the request, and, as we wended our way home through the deepening twilight, related a series of strange facts, which, at the time, took a powerful hold on my imagination, and which I have since endeavored to group into a continuous narrative.
* * * * *
This house, now so forlorn, was once a neat and happy home. It was built by a young farmer named James Blount, who went into it with his young wife when he brought her home from the distant State where he had married her. For several years they seemed very prosperous and happy; then a heavy affliction came. The healthy young farmer was thrown from his horse, and carried to his home only to linger a few terrible hours and expire in great agony. Thus early in its history was the doomed house overshadowed with the gloom of sudden and violent death.
Every one was heartily sorry for the widow with her two little boys, and the people of the country-side did all that they could to cheer her loneliness and lighten her grief. But, as I have said, she was a stranger among them, and she seems to have been naturally of a reserved disposition, preferring solitude in her affliction; for she so repelled their attentions, that, one by one, even her husband's friends deserted her. Then, too, her house was three miles from the nearest neighbor, and this was necessarily a barrier to frequent social intercourse. She very rarely went into the village, even to church, and thus people came to know very little of her manner of life; it was only guessed at by those few acquaintance who, at rare intervals, made their way to the Blount farm-house.
Among them it was remarked, that the widow, still quite young, was unnaturally stern and cold, and that her two sons, who were growing up in this sad isolation, were strangely like their mother, not only in appearance, but in manners. Their names were James and John. There was but little over a year between them, and they were so much alike that most persons found a difficulty in distinguishing one from the other. Both had fierce, black eyes, short, crisp, black hair, and swarthy skins,—quite unlike our freckled-face Yankee boys,—so that the older villagers declared, with a sigh, that there was not a trace of the good-hearted father about them; they wholly resembled their strange mother. The boys themselves did nothing to lessen this disagreeable impression; they were unusually grave and reserved for their years, taking no interest in the sports of other children; and after a time, it became painfully evident to those who watched them that they had no fondness for each other; on the contrary, that affection which would naturally have sprung from their nearness in age and their constant companionship seemed to be entirely wanting, and its place usurped by an absolute dislike.
When this was first discovered, it was supposed to account for the widow's aversion to society. This idea, being once started, made those idle busybodies there are in every village eager to discover if the suspicion were correct. Through the men hired to work on the farm, it was ascertained that the poor mother, with all her sternness and her iron law, had difficulty in keeping peace between the boys. Twenty times a day they would fall into angry dispute about some trifle; and so violent were these altercations, that it was said that she durst not for a moment have them both out of her sight, lest one should inflict some deadly injury upon the other. That this was no ill-founded fear was evinced by a quarrel that took place between them, when John was perhaps eleven, and James twelve years old.
It was witnessed by a village lad named Isaac Welles. He was an alert, active person, who liked to earn a penny or two on his own account, out of work-hours. With this notable intention, he arose soon after dawn of a pleasant summer-morning, for the purpose of picking blackberries. Now he knew that they were very plentiful in a field near the Blount farmhouse, and, thinking such small theft no robbery, he made his way thither with all speed, and was soon filling his basket with the dew-sprinkled fruit. Early as it was, however, he soon discovered that there was some one up before him. He heard a sound of talking in low, caressing tones, and, glancing in the direction whence it came, he saw John Blount sitting under a tree near by, and playing with a little black squirrel, which appeared to be quite tame. Not caring to be discovered and warned off, Isaac went on with his work quietly, taking care to keep where he could see without being seen.
John was not long left alone in his innocent amusement, for in a few moments James Blount came running down from the house towards him. As he approached, John's face darkened; he caught up the squirrel, and made an endeavor to hide it under his jacket.
"No, you don't!" said James, as he came up, breathless. "I see you have got him, plain enough; he sha'n't get away this time,—so you might as well give him to me."
"No, I won't!" replied John, sullenly.
"No!" said John, more fiercely, and then burst out, passionately,—"I don't see why you want to tease me about it; he a'n't your pet; I have found him and tamed him; he knows me and loves me, and he don't care for you; besides, you only want him to torment him. No! you sha'n't have him!"
"Sha'n't I? we'll see!" And James made a step forward.
John drew back several paces, at the same time trying to soothe the squirrel, which was becoming impatient of its confinement. His face quivered with excitement, as he went on, passionately,—
"I know what you want him for: you want him to hurt some way. You wrung my black kitten's neck, and now you want to kill my squirrel. You are a bad, wicked boy, and I hate you!"
With the last words he started to run; but he had not gone far when his foot struck a stone, and he fell. At this, the squirrel, terrified, jumped from his arms; but James was close by, and before it could escape, he had caught it. John was up in an instant, and James, seeing that he could not avoid him, gave the poor little creature's neck a sudden twist and flung it gasping at his brother's feet, exclaiming,—
"There, now, you may have it!"
For one moment John stood still, white with rage and grief; then he uttered a sort of choking howl, and sprang at James,—
"You cruel coward!"
The words were accompanied with a half-articulate curse, as he struck at him, blindly, fiercely, and they closed in what seemed a deadly struggle. John, being the younger, had a slight disadvantage in size and weight, but wrath gave him more than his usual strength; while James fought desperately, as if for life. After a few moments they rolled on the ground together.
It was a fearful sight, those two brothers, boys though they were, fighting in that mad way. Their faces, so much alike that they seemed almost reflections of each other, were crimson with anger; their eyes shot fire; their breath came in sobbing pants; and very soon blood was drawn on both. After a brief contest, John, with a tremendous effort, threw James under him. With one hand he pinioned his arms, while the other was at his throat, where it closed with a deadly gripe. James made one last effort to save himself; with a violent wrench he succeeded in fixing his teeth in his brother's arm, but he failed in making him relax his hold, though they met in the firm flesh. John's brow grew darker, but he only tightened his clasp closer and closer, muttering,—
"So help me, God! I will kill you!"
His words were near being verified; already the fallen boy's mouth had unclosed, the red of his face turned to livid purple, and his eyes stared wildly, when Mrs. Blount, pale, with disordered attire, as if she had but just risen and dressed hastily, ran, screaming, down the hill. Seizing John around the waist, she dragged him back, and flung him to the ground, exclaiming,—
"Oh, my sons! my sons! are you not brothers? Will you never be at peace?"
At this moment, Isaac arrived, breathless with running, at the spot. When she saw him, the widow ceased speaking, and made no further allusion to the quarrel while he remained. However, she gladly accepted his offered assistance in lifting James, who lay gasping, and wellnigh dead. As they turned towards the house, John rose, sullenly, and wrapping a handkerchief round his wounded arm, which was bleeding profusely, he glanced scowlingly at his brother.
"He will get over this," he muttered, with an oath; "but, sooner or later, I swear I will kill him!"
Without noticing his mother's appealing look, he walked back to the tree where the dead pet lay.
The half-strangled boy was carried to his bed, and a few simple remedies restored him to consciousness. As soon as possible, Mrs. Blount dismissed Isaac, declining his offers of going for a doctor, with cold thanks. As he went back to resume his interrupted blackberrying, he saw John sitting at the foot of the tree. He had dug a hole in which to bury the poor squirrel; it lay on his knee, a stream of dark gore oozing through its tiny white teeth. John was vainly endeavoring to wipe this with the handkerchief already stained with his own blood, while his hot tears fell fast and heavy.
As John had said, James recovered from the choking, and the only apparent results of the fight were that both boys were scarred for life. John bore on his right wrist the impression of his brother's teeth; and James's throat was disfigured by two deep, black marks, on each side, which were quite visible till his beard concealed them. Yet, I doubt not, that desperate struggle, in that dawning summer-day, laid the foundation of the inextinguishable hatred that blasted those men's lives and was to be quenched only in death.
Several years passed after this, in which very little was known of what passed at the lonely house. The boys were old enough to perform most of the work of the farm, so that they no longer hired laborers except at harvest. Mrs. Blount had herself given her sons all the instruction they had ever received, and, being a woman of attainments beyond those usual in her station, she seemed quite competent to the task. Nothing more was heard of their quarrels; they were always coldly civil to each other, when in the presence of others, and were regarded by their companions with respect, though, I imagine, never with any cordial liking. So they grew up to be grave, taciturn men, still retaining the same strong resemblance of face and figure, though time had somewhat altered the features, by fixing a different expression on each, giving to John a fierce resolution, and to James a lurking distrustfulness of look. These years made less change in Mrs. Blount than in her sons; she was the same active, black-eyed woman, only that her sternness and reserve seemed to increase with her age, and a few silver threads appeared in her raven hair.
I have said that it was three miles from the Blount place to the nearest house. This was at the toll-gate, which was kept by a man named Curtis. He was a person of progressive tastes, supposed to have aristocratic inclinations. As he was a well-to-do man, these were evinced in a Brussels carpet and a piano-forte which figured in his small parlor, and by his sending his only child, a daughter, to a city boarding-school. She returned, as might have been expected, with ideas and desires far beyond the hill-side cottage where she was condemned to vegetate. Now she was very pretty, with dancing blue eyes and a profusion of golden curls; she had, too, a most winning manner, hard for any one to resist; and these personal attractions, added to style of dress that had never been seen or imagined among the simple country-folk, rendered her a most important person, so that no "tea-fight" or merry-making was complete without Nelly Curtis.
However, it might have been long enough before the recluse young Blounts would have encountered the gay little belle, had it not been that they were of necessity obliged to pass through the toll-gate, and sometimes forced to stop there. From some of her friends Nelly heard what a secluded life the two brothers led, and how especially averse they seemed to female society, and, with the appetite for conquest of a true flirt, she at once determined on adding them to the list of her victims. It was not long before she had an opportunity for beginning her wiles.
One fine spring morning, John Blount started on horseback to go to the village. The sun shone very brightly, the hedge-rows blushed with early blossoms, and the birds sang a song of rejoicing. It was one of those clear, soft days when one feels new life and vigor at the thought of the coming summer. Arrived at the toll-gate, John was surprised at seeing no one there to open it; he waited a moment, somewhat impatiently, and then called out,—
At this, as if startled at his voice, there appeared in the cottage door-way a slender, rosy-cheeked maiden, who looked blooming and graceful enough to be the incarnation of the fresh and beautiful May.
"Excuse me," she said, with a little curtsy; "I did not see you come up."
This, as Nelly informed the friend to whom she related the adventure, was a fib,—for Mr. Curtis was away, and she had been watching all the morning, in hopes one of the Blounts would pass; but she considered it a justifiable stratagem, as likely to secure his attention.
Meantime John was gazing spellbound at this apparition, which appeared to him charming beyond anything he had ever imagined. He was so far carried away, that he was quite speechless and wholly oblivious of the toll, until she came up to the side of the horse and held out her hand. Then he colored, and, with awkward apology, gave her the change.
"Thank you, Sir."
Nelly smiled sweetly, and was just about to undo the latch of the gate, when John anticipated her by springing from his horse, and laying his powerful brown hand over her small white one, saying,—
"You can't do anything with this great, heavy gate. Stand aside, and let me open it."
Of course the offer was kindly accepted, and Nelly fairly overwhelmed him with her thanks, being herself somewhat touched by the unusual civility. John appeared quite overcome with confusion, and, remounting his horse, he rode off with a gruff "Good day." However, I fancy, that pleasant voice, and the accidental touch of that little hand, made an impression that never was effaced.
Having thus enslaved John, it was not long before a similar opportunity occurred for captivating James; though it would seem from Nelly's confessions to her confidante that this was not so easily accomplished with him as with his brother. The first time she opened the gate for him, he paid but little more heed to her than he would have to her father, and she never considered her conquest complete until one day when Mr. Curtis availed himself of a vacant seat in James's wagon to get Nelly taken into the village: that ride, she fancied, insured the wished-for result. Whether this was a correct supposition or not, certain it is that not many weeks elapsed before both the Blounts were completely fascinated by the gay coquette.
For some time the passion of each brother remained a secret to the other. Accident revealed it.
One soft summer-evening, John rode down to the village for letters. As he passed through the toll-gate, he succeeded in making an appointment with Nelly for a walk on his return. He came back an hour later, and soon after sunset the two strolled down a shady path into the woods. It was moonlight, and Nelly was doubtless very charming in the mysterious radiance,—certainly her companion thought so,—for, when their walk was over, he induced her to sit with him on a fallen log that lay just within the shade of the trees, instead of returning to the house. They had been chatting there perhaps half an hour, when they were interrupted by the girl the Curtises kept to do "chores."
"Please, Miss Nelly, there's a gentleman wants to see you."
"Very well, tell him I will be there in a moment."
When the girl was gone, Nelly suddenly exclaimed, rather regretfully,—
"How stupid of me, not to ask who it was!"
John's answer is not reported, only that he succeeded in lengthening the "moment" into a quarter of an hour, and then half an hour; and it might, perhaps, have lasted the whole evening, had they not, in the midst of a most interesting conversation, been startled by a rustling in the bushes behind them.
"There is some one watching us!" cried John, excitedly, and half rising.
"Nonsense!" said Nelly; "it is only a cat. Sit down again."
This invitation was not to be declined. John sat down again, though still a little restless and uneasy. For some moments all was still. John had concluded that Nelly's suggestion was a correct one, and they had begun to chat quite unconcernedly, when they were again interrupted. This time the sound was that of an approaching footstep, and for an instant a dark shadow fell across the moonlit path in front of them. Nelly was now fairly frightened, she uttered a faint shriek, and clung to John for protection. Doubtless this was a very pleasant appeal to the young farmer, but just now wrath mastered every other feeling. He was ever easily angered, and, to be sure, the thought that they were watched was by no means agreeable. So, with a quick caress, he loosened her clasp and started to his feet, exclaiming,—
"Don't be frightened, dear! I'll punish the rascal!"
He made a dash in the direction whence the sound had come. In the shade of the trees stood the intruder quite still, making no attempt to avoid the furious onset. Mad with rage, John seized him by the collar, and, striking him repeatedly, and muttering curses, dragged him towards the bench where Nelly sat trembling. A few staggering steps, and they were on the path, with the pure, peaceful light of the moon falling full on the stranger's face.
"Good God!" cried John, loosening his hold,—"it is my brother!"
James drew himself up, tossing back his disordered hair, and for a moment the two men regarded each other with stern, fixed looks, as if they were preparing for another encounter. By this time, Nelly, who was completely terrified, had begun to weep convulsively, and her sobs broke the ominous silence, as she gasped,—
"Oh, John, please don't strike him again!"
At these words, John started, as if stung, and, looking at her with indignant sadness, said,—
"There, you needn't cry, Nelly! I won't hurt him; I will leave him to you safely."
Then, overcome by the rush of recollection, he burst out, passionately,—
"Oh, James! James! you have rendered my life miserable by your treacheries, and now you have robbed me of her! This is no place to settle our quarrels; but I have sworn it once, and I swear it again now, some day I will be revenged!"
He would not stop to hear Nelly's entreating voice; but, full of the one dreadful thought, that all her anxieties had been for another, while he was indifferent to her, he mounted his horse, without one backward look, and galloped fast away. I can fancy there was a wild whirl of emotion in his passionate heart: deadly hatred, jealousy, and crossed love are enough to drive any man mad.
Meantime, James apologized to Nelly for his intrusion, on the ground, that, becoming tired of waiting, and hearing she had gone out for a wait, he had started to meet them, but was about to turn back, fearing to interrupt them, when John's rudeness compelled him to appear. The excuse was accepted; and James soon occupied the seat recently vacated by poor John. So well did he avail himself of the circumstances, that he succeeded in convincing Nelly that his brother was a very ill-tempered person, whom it would be well for her to avoid. On this, with the true instinct of a flirt, she endeavored to persuade him that she had never really cared for John's attentions. James was but too willing to be convinced of this; and he parted from her, feeling satisfied that his suit would be successful.
Knowing well that his life was scarcely safe, if he were for a moment alone with John, after that night, James constantly exercised such caution as prevented the possibility of an encounter. He was determined as soon as possible to leave that neighborhood, always provided that Nelly would go with him. For some time he considered this as certain. John carefully avoided her, and no new suitor appeared.
I fear that pretty Nelly was a thorough coquette; for, having nearly broken one brother's heart, she very soon tired of the other, for whom she had never really cared a straw. These two men being the last to fall into her toils, she began to sigh wearily over her too easily captured victims, when her fickle fancy was caught by game more worthy so expert a sportsman.
It happened that at this time there came to the village a gentleman from New York, named Brooke, a bachelor of known wealth. He was perhaps forty years old, and had run through a course of reckless dissipation which had rendered him thoroughly tired of city ways and city women. On the very first Sunday after his arrival, as he stood idly lounging at the church-door, his eye was caught by Nelly's fresh, rosy face. He followed her into church, and spent the time of service in staring her out of countenance. It will be readily imagined that she was not slow to follow up this first impression; and but few days elapsed before their acquaintance had ripened into intimacy.
Of course, his unceasing attentions could not fail of attracting notice and exciting remark; and it was not long before they came to the ears of the Blounts. John received the news with sullen indifference. It mattered little to him whom she liked now. James, however, refused to believe that there could be anything in it, regarding it as a mere passing caprice. In this view most of the village-people coincided; they considered it absurd to suppose that there could be anything serious in Mr. Brooke's devotion. Time would probably have proved the correctness of this supposition, had it not been, fortunately for Nelly, that she had a father with more steadiness of mind than her giddy brain was capable of. Mr. Curtis succeeded in turning the rapid attachment to such advantage, that in three weeks from the time of their first meeting they were not only engaged, but actually married.
It had been Nelly's intention, with the vanity of a true woman, to postpone the wedding a month longer, and then to have it on such a scale as would excite the admiration and envy of all her companions; but Mr. Curtis was too shrewd for this. He durst not put this rapid love to the test of waiting; and he so worked upon his daughter's fears, that she consented to a more hasty union. Mr. Brooke, too, showed some aversion to any public demonstration. Perhaps he was conscious that his friends would think he was doing a foolish thing, and he was therefore desirous of having it over before they had time to remonstrate. So, on a fine bright Sunday, early in September, the drowsy congregation, who were dozing away the afternoon-service, were aroused by the publication of the banns of marriage between Henry Brooke and Nelly Curtis. It occasioned great whispering and tittering. But no one suspected that the wedding was near at hand; and there were very few lingerers after the service was over, when Kelly came in at the side-door with her father, was joined by Mr. Brooke, and actually married then and there.