"Your acquaintance of the gorge, Virginia!" said Penn.
"You will readily believe that such an unexpected supply of fresh meat, sent by Providence within their reach, proved a temptation to the hungry. Withers, in his hurry to make up for the loss of the pig, ran to head the fellow off, and attempted to stop him with his musket after it had missed fire. In an instant the gun was lying on the ground several yards off, and Withers was sprawling. The bear had done the little business for him with a single stroke of his paw; then he passed on, directly over Withers's body, which happened to be in his way, but which he minded no more than as if it had been a bundle of rags. All this time we couldn't fire a shot; there was the risk, you see, of hitting Withers instead of the bear. Even after he was knocked down, he seemed to think he had nothing more formidable than his stray pig to deal with, and tried to catch the bear by the tail as he ran over him."
"So ye lost de bar!" cried Cudjo, greatly excited. "Fool, tink o' cotchin' on him by de tail!"
"Still we couldn't fire, for he was on his legs again in a second, chasing the bear's tail directly before our muzzles," said Pomp, quietly laughing. "But luckily a stick flew up under his feet. Down he went again. That gave two or three of us a chance to send some lead after the beast. He got a wound—we tracked him by his blood on the ground—we could see it plain as day by the glare of light—it led straight towards the fire that was running up through the leaves and thickets on the north. I expected that when he met that he would turn again; but he did not: we were just in time to see him plough through it, and hear him growl and snarl at the flames that maddened him, and which he was foolish enough to stop and fight. Then he went on again. We followed. Nobody minded the scorching. We kept him in sight till he met the fire again—for it was now all around us. This time his heart failed him; he turned back only to meet us and get a handful of bullets in his head. That finished him, and he fell dead."
"Poor brute!" said Mr. Villars; "he found his human enemies more merciless than the fire!"
"That's so," said Pomp, with a smile. "But we had not much time to moralize on the subject then. The fire we had leaped through had become impassable behind us. The men hurried this way and that to find an outlet. They found only the fire—it was on every side of us like a sea—the spot where we were was only an island in the midst of it—that too would soon be covered. The bear was forgotten where he lay; the men grew wild with excitement, as again and again they attempted to break through different parts of the ring that was narrowing upon us, and failed. Brave men they are, but death by fire, you know, is too horrible!"
"How large was this spot, this island?" asked Penn.
"It might have comprised perhaps twenty acres when we first found ourselves enclosed in it. But every minute it was diminishing; and the heat there was something terrific. The men were rather surprised, after trying in vain on every side to discover a break in the circle of fire, to come back and find me calm.
"'Gentlemen,' said I, 'keep cool. I understand this ground perhaps better than you do. Don't abandon your game; you have lost your meal and potatoes, and you will have need of the bear.'
"'But what is the use of roast meat, if we are to be roasted too?' said Withers, who will always be droll, whatever happens.
"Then Stackridge spoke. He proposed that they should place themselves under my command; for I knew the woods, and while they had been running to and fro in disorder, I had been carefully observing the ground, and forming my plans. I laughed within myself to see Deslow alone hang back; he was unwilling to owe his life to one of my complexion—one who had been a slave. For there are men, do you know," said Pomp, with a smile of mingled haughtiness and pity, "who would rather that even their country should perish than owe in any measure its salvation to the race they have always hated and wronged!"
"I trust," said Mr. Villars, "that you had the noble satisfaction of teaching these men the lesson which our country too must learn before it can be worthy to be saved."
"I showed them that even the despised black may, under God's providence, be of some use to white men, besides being their slave: I had that satisfaction!" said Pomp, proudly smiling. "Stackridge was right: I had observed: I saw what I could do. On one side was a chasm which you know, Mr. Hapgood."
"Yes! I had thought of it! But I knew it was in the midst of the burning forest, and never supposed you could get to it."
"The fire was beyond; and it also burned a little on the side nearest to us. But the vegetation there is thin, you remember. The chasm could be reached without difficulty.
"'Follow me who will!' said I. 'The rest are at liberty to shirk for themselves.'
"'Follow—where?' said Deslow. I couldn't help smiling at the man's distress. All the rest were prepared to obey my directions; and it was hard for him to separate himself from them. But it seemed harder still for him to trust in me. I was not a Moses; I could not take them through that Red Sea. What then?
"I made for the chasm. All followed, even Deslow,—dragging and lugging the bear. We came to the brink. The place, I must confess, had an awful look, in the light of the trees burning all around it! Deslow was not the only one who shrank back then; for though the spot was known to some of them, they had never explored it, and could not guess what it led to. It was difficult, in the first place, to descend into it; it looked still more difficult ever to get out again; and there was nothing to prevent the burning limbs above from falling into it, or the trees that grew in it from catching fire. For this is the sink, Mr. Villars, which you have probably heard of,—where the woods have been undermined by the action of water in the limestone rocks, and an acre or more of the mountain has fallen in, with all its trees, so that what was once the roof of an immense cavern is now a little patch of the forest growing seventy feet below the surface of the earth. The sides are precipitous and projecting. Only one tree throws a strong branch upwards to the edge of the sink.
"'This way, gentlemen,' said I, 'and you are safe!'
"It was a trial of their faith; for I waited to explain nothing. First, I tumbled the bear off the brink. We heard him go crashing down into the abyss, and strike the bottom with a sound full of awfulness to the uninitiated. Then, with my rifle swung on my back, I seized the limb, and threw myself into the tree.
"'Where he can go, we can!' I heard Stackridge say; and he followed me. I took his gun, and handed it to him again when he was safe in the tree. He did the same for another; and so all got into the branches, and climbed down after us. The trunk has no limbs within twenty feet of the bottom, but there is a smaller tree leaning into it which we got into, and so reached the ground.
"'Now, gentlemen,' said I, when all were down, 'I will show you where you are.' And opening the bushes, I discovered a path leading down the rocks into the caverns, of which this cave is only a branch. Then I made them all take an oath never to betray the secret of what I had shown them. Then I lighted one of the torches Cudjo and I keep for our convenience when we come in that way, and gave it to them; lighted another for my own use; invited them to make themselves quite at home in my absence; left them to their reflections;—and here I am."
Still the mystery with regard to the unknown horseman was in no wise explained. Pomp, informed of what had happened, arose hastily. Penn followed him from the cave. Pepperill accompanied them, to show the way. It was raining steadily; but the thickets in which lay the dead horse and his rider were burning still.
"As I was going to Stackridge's camp," said Pomp, "I thought I saw a man crawling over the rocks above where the horse was tied. I ran up to find him, but he was gone. Peace to his ashes, if it was he!"
"Won't be much o' the cuss left but ashes!" remarked Pepperill.
Pomp ascended the ledges, and stood, silent and stern, gazing at the destruction of his beloved woods.
The winds had died. The fires had evidently ceased to spread. Portions of the forest that had been kindled and not consumed were burning now with slow, sullen combustion, like brands without flame. Stripped of their foliage, shorn of their boughs, and seen in the dull and smoky daylight, through the rain, they looked like a forest of skeletons, all of glowing coal, brightening, darkening, and ever crumbling away.
All at once Pomp seemed to rouse himself, and direct his attention more particularly at the part of the woods in which the patriots' camp had been.
"Come with me, Pepperill, if you would help do a good job!"
They started off, and were soon out of sight. As Penn turned from gazing after them, he heard a voice calling from the opposite side of the ravine. He looked, but could see no one. The figure to which the voice belonged was hidden by the bushes. The bushes moved, however; the figure was descending into the ravine. It arrived at the bottom, crossed, and began to ascend the steep side towards the cave. Penn concealed himself, and waited until it had nearly emerged from the thickets beneath him, and he could distinctly hear the breath of a man panting and blowing with the toil of climbing. Then a well-known voice said in a hoarse whisper,—
"Massa Hapgood! dat you?"
And peering over the bank, he saw, upturned in the rain and murky light, among the wet bushes, the black, grinning face of old Toby.
He responded by reaching down, grasping the negro's hand, and drawing him up.
The grin on the old man's face was a ghastly one, and his eyes rolled as he stammered forth,—
"Miss Jinny—ye seen Miss Jinny?"
Penn did not answer immediately; he was considering whether it would be safe to conduct Toby into the cave. Toby grew terrified.
"Don't say ye hain't seen her, Massa Penn! ye kill ol' Toby if ye do! I done lost her!" And the poor old faithful fellow sobbed out his story,—how Virginia had disappeared, and how, on discovering the woods to be on fire, he had set out in search of her, and been wandering he scarcely knew where ever since. "Now don't say ye don't know nuffin' about her! don't say dat!" falling on his knees, and reaching up his hands beseechingly, as if he had only to prevail on Penn to say that all was well with "Miss Jinny," and that would make it so. Such faith is in simple souls.
"I'll say anything you wish me to, good old Toby! only give me a chance."
"Den say you has seen her."
"I has seen her," repeated Penn.
"O, bress you, Massa Penn! And she ar safe—say dat too!"
"She ar safe," said Penn, laughing.
"Bress ye for dat!" And Toby, weeping with joy, kissed the young man's hand again and again. "And ye knows whar she ar?"
"Yes, Toby! So now get up: don't be kneeling on the rocks here in the rain!"
"Jes' one word more! Say ye got her and ol' Massa Villars safe stowed away, and ye'll take me to see 'em; den dis ol' nigger'll bress you and de Lord and dem, and be willin' fur to die! only say dat, massa!"
"Ah! did I promise to say all you wished?"
"Yes, you did, you did so, Massa Penn!" cried Toby, triumphantly.
"Then I suppose I must say that, too. So come, you dear old simpleton! Cudjo!" to the proprietor of the cave, who just then put out his head to reconnoitre, "Cudjo! Here is your friend Toby, come to pay his master and mistress a visit!"
"What business he got hyar?" said Cudjo, crossly. "We's hab all de wuld, and creation besides, comin' bime-by!"
"Cudjo! You knows ol' Toby, Cudjo!" said Toby, in the softest and most conciliatory tone imaginable.
"Nose ye!" Cudjo snuffed disdainfully. "Yes! and wish you'd keep fudder off!"
"Why, Cudjo! don't you 'member Toby? Las' time I seed you! ye 'member dat, Cudjo!"
"Don't 'member nuffin'!"
"'Twan't you, den, got inter my winder, and done skeert me mos' t' def 'fore I found out 'twas my ol' 'quaintance Cudjo, come fur Massa Penn's clo'es! Dat ar wan't you, hey?" And Toby's honest indignation cropped out through the thin crust of deprecating obsequiousness which he still thought it politic to maintain.
Penn got under the shelter of the ledge, and waited for the dispute to end. It was evident to him that Cudjo was not half so ill-natured as he appeared; but, feeling himself in a position of something like official importance, he had the human weakness to wish to make the most of it.
"Your massa and missis bery well off. Dey in my house. No room dar for you. Ain't wanted hyar, nohow!" turning his back very much like a personage of lighter complexion, clad in brief authority.
"Ain't wanted, Cudjo? You don't know what you's sayin' now. Whar my ol' massa and young missis is, dar ol' Toby's wanted. Can't lib widout me, dey can't! Ol' massa wants me to nuss him. Ye don't tink—you's a nigger widout no kind ob 'sideration, Cudjo."
"Talk o' you nussin' him when him's got Pomp!"
"Pomp! what can Pomp do? Wouldn't trust him to nuss a chick sicken!" Toby talked backwards in his excitement.
"Ki! didn't him take Massa Hapgood and make him well? Don't ye know nuffin'?"
Toby seemed staggered for a moment. But he rallied quickly, and said,—
"He cure Massa Hapgood? He done jes' nuffin' 't all fur him. De fac's is, I had de nussin' on him for a spell at fust, and gib him a start. Dar's ebery ting in a start, Cudjo."
"O, what a stupid nigger!" said Cudjo. "Hyar's Massa Hapgood hisself! leab it to him now!"
"You are both right," said Penn. "Toby did nurse me, and give me a good start; for which I shall always thank him."
"Dar! tol' ye so, tol' ye so!" said Toby.
"But it was Pomp who afterwards cured me," added Penn.
"Dar! tol' you so!" cried Cudjo, while Toby's countenance fell.
"For while Toby is a capital nurse" (Toby brightened), "Pomp is a first-rate doctor" (Cudjo grinned). "So don't dispute any more. Shake hands with your old friend, Cudjo, and show him into your house."
Cudjo was still reluctant; but just then occurred a pleasing incident, which made him feel good-natured towards everybody. Pomp and Pepperill arrived, bringing the bag of meal and the basket of potatoes which the bear-hunters had forsaken in the woods, and which the rain had preserved from the fire.
LYSANDER TAKES POSSESSION.
Gad the "Sleeper" (he had earned that title) had been himself placed under guard for drinking too much of the prisoners' liquor, and suffering them to escape. Miserable, sullen, thirsty, he languished in confinement.
"Let 'em shoot me, and done with it, if that's the penalty," said this chivalrous son of the south; "only give a feller suthin' to drink!"
But that policy of the confederates, which opened the jails of the country, and put arms in the hands of the convicts, and pardoned every felon that would fight, might be expected to find a better use for an able-bodied fellow, like Gad, than to shoot him.
The use they found for him was this: He had been a mighty hunter before the Lord, ere he became too besotted and lazy for such sport; and he professed to know the mountains better than any other man. Accordingly, on the recommendation of his friend Lieutenant Ropes, it was resolved to send him to spy out the position of the patriots. It was an enterprise of some danger, and, to encourage him in it, he was promised two things—pardon for his offence, and, what was of more importance to him, a bottle of old whiskey.
"I'll see that you have light enough," said Ropes, significantly.
It was the evening of the firing of the forests. How well the lieutenant fulfilled his part of the engagement, we have seen.
Gad put the bottle in his pocket, and set off at dark by routes obscure and circuitous to get upon the trail of the patriots. How well he succeeded will appear by and by.
The burning of the forests caused a great excitement in the valley, especially among those families whose husbands and fathers were known to have taken refuge in them. Who had committed the barbarous act? The confederates denounced it with virtuous indignation, charging the patriots with it, of course. There was in the village but one witness who could have disputed this charge, and he now occupied Gad's place in the guard-house. It was the deserter Carl.
All the morning Gad's return was anxiously awaited. No doubt there were good reasons why he did not come. So said his friend Silas; and his friend Silas was right: there were good reasons.
"Anyhow, I kep' my word—I giv him light enough, I reckon!" chuckled Silas.
That was true: Gad had had light enough, and to spare.
The rain continued all the morning. Perhaps that was what detained the scout; for it was known that he had a great aversion to water.
In the afternoon came one with tidings from the mountain. It was not Gad. It was old Toby.
He was seized by some soldiers and taken before Captain Sprowl, at the school-house.
"Toby, you black devil, where have you been?" This was Lysander's chivalrous way of addressing an inferior whom he wished to terrify.
Now, if there was a person in the world whom Toby detested, it was this roving Lysander, who had disgraced the Villars family by marrying into it. However, he concealed his contempt with a politic hypocrisy worthy of a whiter skin.
"Please, sar," said the old negro, cap in hand, "I'se been lookin' for my ol' massa and my young missis."
"Well, what luck, you lying scoundrel?"
"O, no luck 't all, I 'sure you, sar!"
"What! couldn't you find 'em? Don't you lie, you ——." (We may as well omit the captain's energetic epithets.)
"O, sar!"—Toby looked up earnestly with counterfeit grief in his wrinkled old face,—"dey ain't nowhars on de face ob de 'arth!"
"Not on the face of the earth!"
"If dey is, den de fire's done burnt 'em all up. I seen, down in a big holler, a place whar somebody's been burnt, shore! Dar's a man, and a hoss on top on him, and de hoss's har am all burnt off, and de man's trouse's-legs am all burnt off too, and one foot's got a fried boot onto it, and tudder han't got nuffin' on, but jes' de skin and bone all roasted to a crisp; and I 'specs dar's 'nuff sight more dead folks down in dar, on'y I didn't da's to look, it make me feel so skeerylike!"
All which, and much more, Toby related so circumstantially, that Captain Sprowl was strongly impressed with the truth of the story. Great, therefore, was the joy of the captain. Perhaps the patriots had been destroyed: he hoped so! Still more ardently he hoped that Virginia had perished with her father. For was he not the husband of Salina? and the snug little Villars property, did he not covet it?
"Can you show me that spot, Toby?"
"'Don'o', sar: I specs I could, sar."
"Don't you forget about it! Now, Toby, go home to your mistress,—my wife's your mistress, you know,—and wait till you are wanted."
"Yes, sar,"—bowing, and pulling his foretop.
Captain Sprowl did not overhear the irrepressible chuckle of satisfaction in which the old negro indulged as he retired, or he would have perceived that he had been trifled with. We are apt to be extremely credulous when listening to what we wish to believe; and Lysander's delight left no room in his heart for suspicion. All he desired now was that Gad should appear and confirm Toby's report; for surely Gad must know something about the dead horse and the dead man under him; and why did not the fellow return?
As for Toby, he hastened home as fast as his tired old legs could carry him, chuckling all the way over his lucky escape, and the cunning answers by which he had mystified the captain without telling a downright falsehood. "Ob course, dey ain't on de face ob de 'arth, long as dey's inside on't! Hi, hi, hi!"
He did not greatly relish reporting himself to Salina: nevertheless, he had been ordered to do so, not only by the captain, but by those whose authority he respected more.
Salina, though so bitter, was not without natural affection, and she had suffered much and waited anxiously ever since Toby, terrified into the avowal of his belief that Virginia was in the burning woods, had set out in search of her. She was not patient; she was wanting in religious trust. She had not slept. All night and all day she had tortured herself with terrible fancies. Instead of calming her spirit with prayer, she had kept it irritated with spiteful thoughts against what she deemed her evil destiny.
There are certain natures to which every misfortune brings a blessing; for, whatever it may take away, it is sure to leave that divine influence which comes from resignation and a deepened sense of reliance upon God. Such a nature was the old clergyman's. Every blow his heart had received had softened it; and a softened heart is a well of interior happiness; it is more precious to its possessor than all outward gifts of friends and fortune. Such a nature, too, was Virginia's. She too, through all things, kept warm in her bosom that holy instinct of faith, that blessed babe named Love, ever humbly born, whose life within is a light that transfigures the world. To such, despair cannot come; for when the worst arrives, when all they cherished is gone, heaven is still left to them; and they look up and smile. To them sorrow is but a preparation for a diviner joy. All things indeed work together for their good; since, whether fair fortune comes, or ill, they possess the spiritual alchemy that transmutes it into blessing.
This love, this faith, Salina lacked. She fostered in their place that selfishness and discontent which sour the soul. Every blow upon her heart had hardened it. Every trial embittered and angered her. Hence the swollen and flaming eyes, the impatient and scowling looks, with which she met the returning Toby.
"Where is Virginia?"
"Dat I can't bery well say, Miss Salina," replied Toby, scratching his woolly head. He would never sacrifice his family pride so far as to call her Mrs. Sprowl.
"How dare you come back without her?" And she heaped upon him the bitterest reproaches. It was he who, through his cowardice, had been the cause of Virginia's night adventure. It was he who had ruined everything by concealing her departure until it was too late. Then he might have found her, if he had so resolved. But if he could not, why had he remained absent all day?
Under this sharp fire of accusations Toby stood with ludicrous indifference, grinning, and scratching his head. At length he scratched out of it a little roll of paper that had been confided to his wool for safe keeping, in case he should be seized and searched. It fell upon the floor. He hastily snatched it up, and gave it, with obsequious alacrity, to Mrs. Sprowl. She took, unrolled it, and read. It was a pencilled note in the handwriting of Virginia.
* * * * *
"Dear Sister: Thanks to a kind Providence and to kind friends, we are safe. I was rescued last night from the most frightful dangers in the burning woods. I had come, without your knowledge, to get news of our dear father. I am now with him. He has excellent shelter, and devoted attendants; but the comforts of his home are wanting, and I have learned how much he is dependent upon us for his happiness. For this reason I shall remain with him as long as I can. To relieve your mind we send Toby back to you. V."
* * * * *
That evening Captain Sprowl entered the house of the absent Mr. Villars with the air of one who had just come into possession of that little piece of property. He nodded with satisfaction at the walls, glanced approvingly at the furniture, curved his lip rather contemptuously at the books (as much as to say, "I'll sell off all that sort of rubbish"), and expressed decided pleasure at sight of old Toby. "Worth eight hundred dollars, that nigger is!" He had either forgotten that Mr. Villars had given Toby his freedom, or he believed that, under the new order of things, in a confederacy founded on slavery, such gifts would not be held valid.
"Well, Sallie, my girl,"—throwing himself into the old clergyman's easy chair,—"here we are at home! Bring me the bootjack, Toby."
"I don't know about your being at home!" said Salina, indignantly.
And it was evident that Toby did not know about bringing the bootjack. He looked as if he would have preferred to jerk the chair from beneath the sprawling Lysander, and break it over him.
"I suppose Toby has told you the news? Awful news! a fearful dispensation of Providence! Pepperill came in this afternoon and confirmed it. We thought he had deserted, but it appears he had only got lost in the woods. He reports some dead bodies in a ravine, and his account tallies very well with Toby's. We'll wear mourning, of course, Sallie."
Lysander stroked his chin. Mrs. Lysander tapped the floor with her impatient foot, gnawed her lip, and scowled.
"Come, my dear!" said the captain, coaxingly; "we may as well understand each other. Times is changed. I tell ye, I'm going to be one of the big men under the new government. Now, Sal, see here. I'm your husband, and there's no getting away from it. And what's the use of getting away from it, even if we could? Let's settle down, and be respectable. We've had quarrels enough, and I've got tired of 'em. Toby, why don't you bring that bootjack?"
Lysander swung his chair around towards Salina. She turned hers away from him, still knitting her brows and gnawing that disdainful lip.
"Now what's the use, Sal? Since the way is opened for us to live together again, why can't you make up your mind to it, let bygones be bygones, and begin life over again? When I was a poor devil, dodging the officers, and never daring to see you except in the dark, I couldn't blame you for feeling cross with me; for it was a cursed miserable state of things. But you're a captain's wife now. You'll be a general's wife by and by. I shall be off fighting the battles of my country, and you'll be proud to hear of my exploits."
Salina was touched. Weary of the life she led, morbidly eager for change, she was a secessionist from the first, and had welcomed the war. Moreover, strange as it may seem, she loved this worthless Lysander. She hated him for the misery he had caused her; she was exceedingly bitter against him; yet love lurked under all. She was secretly proud to see him a captain. It was hard to forgive him for all the wrongs she had suffered; but her heart was lonely, and it yearned for reconciliation. Her scornful lip quivered, and there was a convulsive movement in her throat.
"Go away!" she exclaimed, violently, as he approached to caress her. "I am as unhappy as I can be! O, if I had never seen you! Why do you come to torture me now?"
This passion pleased Lysander: it was a sign that her spirit was breaking. He caught her in his arms, called her pet names, laughed, and kissed her. And this woman, after all, loved to be called pet names, and kissed.
"Toby! you devil!" roared Lysander, "why don't you bring that bootjack?"
The old negro stood behind the door, with the bootjack in his hand, furious, ready to hurl it at the captain's head. He hesitated a moment, then turned, discreetly, and flung it out of the kitchen window.
"Ain't a bootjack nowars in de house, sar!"
"Then come here yourself!"
And the gay captain made a bootjack of the old negro.
"Now shut up the house and go to bed!" he said, dismissing him with a kick.
After Toby had retired, and Salina had wiped her eyes, and Lysander had got his feet comfortably installed in the old clergyman's slippers, the long-estranged couple grew affectionate and confidential.
"Law, Sallie!" said the captain, caressingly, "we can be as happy as two pigs in clover!" And he proceeded to interpret, in plain prosaic detail, those blissful possibilities expressed by the choice poetic figure.
It was evident to Salina that all his domestic plans were founded on the supposition that the slippers he had on were the dead man's shoes he had been waiting for. Was she shocked by this cold, atrocious spirit of calculation? At first she was; but since she had begun to pardon his faults, she could easily overlook that. She, who had lately been so spiteful and bitter, was now all charity towards this man. Even the image of her blind and aged father faded from her mind; even the pure and beautiful image of her sister grew dim; and the old, revivified attachment became supreme. Shall we condemn the weakness? Or shall we pity it, rather? So long her affections had been thwarted! So long she had carried that lonely and hungry heart! So long, like a starved, sick child, it had fretted and cried, till now, at last, nurture and warmth made it grateful and glad! A babe is a sacred thing; and so is love. But if you starve and beat them? Perhaps Salina's unhappiness of temper owed its development chiefly to this cause. No wonder, then, that we find her melancholy, morbid, unreasonable, and now so ready to cling again to this wretch, this scamp, her husband, forgiving all, forgetting all (for the moment at least), in the wild flood of love and tears that drowned the past.
"O, yes! I do think we can be happy!" she said—"if you will only be kind and good to me! If not here, why, then, somewhere else; for place is of no consequence; all I want is love."
"Ah!" said Lysander, knocking the ashes from his cigar, "but I have a fancy for this place! And what should we leave it for?"
"Because—you know—there is no certainty—I believe father is alive yet, and well."
"Not unless Toby lied to me!—Did he?"
"Pshaw! you can't place any reliance on what Toby says!"—evasively.
"But I tell you Pepperill confirms his report about the dead bodies in the ravine! Now, what do you know to the contrary?" Lysander appeared very much excited, and a quarrel was imminent. Salina dreaded a quarrel. She broke into a laugh.
"The truth is, Toby did fool you. He couldn't help bragging to me about it."
O Toby, Toby! that little innocent vanity of yours is destined to cost you, and others besides you, very dear! Lysander sprang upon his feet; his eyes sparkled with rage. Salina saw that it was now too late to keep the secret from him; there was no way but to tell him all. She showed Virginia's note. Virginia and her father alive and safe—that was what maddened Lysander!
But where were they?
Salina could not answer that question; for the most she had been able to get out of Toby was only a vague hint that they were hidden somewhere in a cave.
"No matter!" said Lysander, with a diabolical laugh showing his clinched and tobacco-stained teeth. "I'll have the nigger licked! I'll have the truth out of him, or I'll have his life?"
Filled with disgust and wrath, Toby had obeyed the man who assumed to be his master, and gone to bed. But he was scarcely asleep, when he felt somebody shaking him, and awoke to see bending over him, with smiling countenance, lamp in hand, Captain Lysander.
"What's wantin', sar?"
"I want you to do an errand for me, Toby," Lysander kindly replied.
"Wal, sar, I don'o', sar," said Toby, reluctant, sitting up in bed and rubbing his elbows. "You know I had a right smart tramp. I's a tuckered-out nigger, sar; dat's de troof."
"Yes, you had a hard time, Toby. But you'll just run over to the school-house for me, I know. That's a good fellow!"
Toby hardly knew what to make of Lysander's extraordinarily persuasive and indulgent manner. He didn't know before that a Sprowl could smile so pleasantly, and behave so much like a gentleman. Then, the captain had called him a good fellow, and his African soul was not above flattery. Weary, sleepy as he was, he felt strongly inclined to get up out of his delicious bed, and go and do Lysander's errand.
"You've only to hand this note to Lieutenant Ropes. And I'll give you something when you come back—something you don't get every day, Toby! Something you've deserved, and ought to have had long ago!" And Lysander, all smiles, patted the old servant's shoulder.
This was too much for Toby. He laughed with pleasure, got up, pulled on his clothes, took the note, and started off with alacrity, to convince the captain that he merited all the good that was said of him, and that indefinite "something" besides.
What could that something be? He thought of many things by the way: a dollar; a knife; a new pair of boots with red tops, such as Lysander himself wore;—which last item reminded him of the bootjack he had been used for, and the kick he had received.
He stopped in the street, his wrath rising up again at the recollection. "Good mind ter go back, and not do his old arrant." But then he thought of the smiles and compliments, and the promised reward. "Somefin' kinder decent 'bout dat mis'ble Sprowl, 'long wid a heap o' mean tings, arter all!" And he started on again.
Lysander's note was in these words:—
"Leiutent Ropes Send me with the bearrer of This 2 strappin felloes capble of doin a touhgh Job."
This letter was duly signed, and duly delivered, and it brought the "2 strappin felloes." The internal evidence it bore, that Lysander had not pursued his studies at school half as earnestly as he had of late pursued the schoolmaster, made no difference with the result.
The two strapping fellows returned with Toby. They were raw recruits, who had travelled a long distance on foot in order to enlist in the confederate ranks. They had an unmistakable foreign air. They called themselves Germans. They were brothers.
"All right, Toby!" said Lysander, well pleased. "What are you bowing and grinning at me for? O, I was to give you something!"
"If you please, sar," said Toby—wretched, deceived, cajoled, devoted Toby.
"Well, you go to the woodshed and bring the clothes line for these fellows—to make a swing for the ladies, you know—then I'll tell you what you're to have."
"Sartin, sar." And Toby ran for the clothes line.
"Good old Toby! Now, what you have deserved so long, and what these stout Dutchmen will proceed to give you, is the damnedest licking you ever had in your life!"
Toby almost fainted; falling upon his knees, and rolling up his eyes in consternation. Sprowl smiled. The "Dutchmen" grinned. Just then Salina darted into the room.
"Lysander! what are you going to do with that old man?"
She put the demand sharply, her short upper lip quivering, cheeks flushed, eyes flaming.
"I'm going to have him whipped."
"No, you are not. You promised me you wouldn't. You told me that if he would go to the Academy for you, and be respectful, you would forgive him. If I had known what you were sending for, he should never have left this house. Now send those men back, and let him go."
"Not exactly, my lady. I am master in this house, whatever turns up. I am this nigger's master, too."
"You are not; you never were. Toby has his freedom. He shall not be whipped!" And with a gesture of authority, and with a stamp of her foot, Salina placed herself between the kneeling old servant and the grinning brothers.
Alas! this woman's dream of love and happiness had been brief, as all such dreams, false in their very nature, must ever be. She loved him well enough to concede much. She was not going to quarrel with him any more. To avoid a threatened quarrel, she betrayed Toby. But she was not heartless: she had a sense of justice, pride, temper, an impetuous will, not yet given over in perpetuity to the keeping of her husband.
The captain laughed devilishly, and threw his arms about his wife (this time in no loving embrace), and seizing her wrists, held them, and nodded to the soldiers to begin their work.
They laid hold of Toby, still kneeling and pleading, bound his arms behind him with the cord, and then looked calmly at Lysander for instructions.
"Take him to the shed," said the captain. "One of you carry this light. You can string him up to a crossbeam. If you don't understand how that's done, I'll go and show you. He's to have twenty lashes to begin with, for lying to me. Then he's to be whipped till he tells where our escaped prisoners are hid in the mountains. You understand?"
"Ve unterstan," said the brothers, coldly.
Toby groaned. They took hold of him, and dragged him away.
"Now will you behave, my girl? A pretty row you're making! Ye see it's no use. I am master. The nigger'll only get it the worse for your interference."
Lysander looked insolently in his wife's face. It was livid.
"Hey?" he said. "One of your tantrums?"
He placed her on a chair. She was rigid; she did not speak; he would have thought she was in a fit but for the eyes which she never took off of him—eyes fixed with deep, unutterable, deadly, despairing hate.
"I reckon you'll behave—you'd better!" he said, shaking his finger warningly at her as he retired backwards from the room.
She saw the door close behind him. She did not move: her eyes were still fixed on that door: heavy and cold as stone, she sat there, and gazed, with that same look of unutterable hate. Perhaps five minutes. Then she heard blows and shrieks. Toby's shrieks: he had no Carl now to rush in and cut his bands.
The twenty lashes for lying had been administered on the negro's bare back. Then Lysander put the question: Was he prepared to tell all he knew about the fugitives and the cave?
"O, pardon, sar! pardon, sar!" the old man implored; "I can't tell nuffin', dat am de troof!"
"Work away, boys," said Lysander.
Was it supposed that the good old practice of applying torture to enforce confession had long since been done away with? A great mistake, my friend. Driven from that ancient stronghold of conservatism, the Spanish Inquisition, it found refuge in this modern stronghold of conservatism, American Slavery. Here the records of its deeds are written on many a back.
But Toby was not a slave. No matter for that. For in the school of slavery, this is the lesson that soon or late is learned: Not simply that there are two castes, freeman and slave; two races, white and black; but that there are two great classes, the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak, the lord and the laborer, one born to rule, and the other to be ruled. All, who are not masters, are, or ought to be, slaves: black or white, it makes no difference; and the slave has no rights. This is the first principle of human slavery. This every slave society tends directly to develop. It may be kept carefully out of sight, but there it lurks, in the hardened hearts of men, like water within rocks. It is forever gushing up in little springs of despotism. Once it burst forth in a vast convulsive flood, and that was the Rebellion.
Although Lysander had never owned a slave, he had all his life breathed the atmosphere of the institution, and imbibed its spirit. He hated labor. He was ambitious. But he was poor. Like a flying fish, he had forced himself out of the lower element of society, to which he naturally belonged, and had long desperately endeavored to soar. The struggle it had cost him to attain his present position rendered him all the more violent in his hatred of the inferior class, and all the more eager to enjoy the privileges of the aristocracy. Do not blame this man too much. The injustice, the cruelty, the atrocious selfishness he displays, do not belong so much to the individual as to the institution. The milk of this wolf makes the child it nourishes wolfish.
Torture to the extent of ten lashes was applied; then once more the question was put. Gashed, bleeding, strung up by his thumbs to the crossbeam; every blow of the extemporized whips extorting from him a howl of agony; no rescue at hand; Lysander looking on with a merciless smile; the brothers doing their assigned work with merciless nonchalance; well might poor Toby cry out, in the wild insanity of pain,—
"Yes, sar! I'll tell, I'll tell, sar!"
"Very good," said Lysander. "Let him breathe a minute, boys."
But in that minute Toby gathered up his soul again, dismissed the traitor, Cowardice, and took counsel of his fidelity. Betray his good old master to these ruffians? Break his promise to Virginia, his oath to Cudjo and Pomp? No, he couldn't do that. He thought of Penn, who would certainly be hung if captured; and hung through his treachery!
"Now, out with it," said Lysander. "All about the cave. And don't ye lie, for you'll have to go and show it to us when we're ready."'
"I can't tell!" said Toby. "Dar ain't no cave! none't I knows about—dat's shore!" This was of course a downright lie; but it was told to save from ruin those he loved; and I do not think it stands charged against his soul on the books of the recording angel.
"Ten more, boys," said Lysander.
"O, wait, wait, sar!" shrieked Toby. "Des guv me time to tink!"
He thought of ten lashes; ten more afterwards; and still another ten; for he knew that the whipping would not cease until either he betrayed the fugitives or died; and every lash was to him an agony.
"Think quick," said Captain Sprowl.
Just then the door, of the kitchen opened. Toby grasped wildly at that straw of hope. It broke instantly. The comer was Salina. She had had the power to betray him, but not the power to save. She stood with folded arms, and smiled.
"I can't help you, Toby, but I can be revenged."
"Hello!" cried Lysander, with a start. "What smoke is that?"
She had left the door open, and a draught of air wafted a strange smell of burning cloth and pine wood to his nostrils.
"Nothing," replied Salina, "only the house is afire."
CARL MAKES AN ENGAGEMENT.
Lysander looked in through the doors and saw flames. She had touched the lamp to the sitting-room curtains, and they had ignited the wood-work.
"Your own house," he said, furiously. "What a fiend!"
"It was my father's house until you took possession of it," she answered. "Now it shall burn."
If he had not already considered that he had an interest at stake, that gentle remark reminded him.
"Boys! come quick! By——! we must put out the fire!"
He rushed into the kitchen. The German brothers had come to execute his commands: whether to flay a negro or extinguish a fire, was to them a matter of indifference; and they followed him, seizing pails.
Salina was prepared for the emergency. She held a butcher-knife concealed under her folded arms. With this she cut the cords above Toby's thumbs. It was done in an instant.
"Now, take this and run! If they go to take you, kill them!"
She thrust the handle of the knife into his hand, and pushed him from the shed. Terrified, bewildered, weak, he seemed moving in a kind of nightmare. But somehow he got around the corner of the shed, and disappeared in the darkness.
The brothers saw him go. They were drawing water at the well, and handing it to Lysander in the house. But they had been told to hand water, not to catch the negro. So they looked placidly at each other, and said nothing.
The fire was soon extinguished; and Lysander, with his coat off, pail in hand, excited, turned and saw his "fiend" of a wife seated composedly in a chair, regarding him with a smile sarcastic and triumphant. He uttered a frightful oath.
"Any more of your tantrums, and I'll kill you!"
"Any more of yours," she replied, "and I'll burn you up. I can set fires faster than you can put them out. I don't care for the house any more than I care for my life, and that's precious little."
By the tone in which she said these words, level, determined, distinct, with that spice which compressed fury lends, Captain Lysander Sprowl knew perfectly well that she meant them.
The brothers looked at each other intelligently. One said something in German, which we may translate by the words "Incompatibility of temper;" and he smiled with dry humor. The other responded in the same tongue, and with a sleepy nod, glancing phlegmatically at Sprowl. What he said may be rendered by the phrase—"Caught a Tartar."
Although Lysander did not understand the idiom, he seemed to be quite of the Teutonic opinion. He regarded Mrs. Sprowl with a sort of impotent rage. If he was reckless, she had shown herself more reckless. Though he was so desperate, she had outdone him in desperation. He saw plainly that if he touched her now, that touch must be kindness, or it must be death.
"Have you let Toby go?"
"Yes," replied Salina.
"We can catch him," said Lysander.
"If you do you will be sorry. I warn you in season."
Since she said so, Lysander did not doubt but that it would be so. He concluded, therefore, not to catch Toby—that night. Moreover, he resolved to go back to his quarters and sleep. He was afraid of that wildcat; he dreaded the thought of trusting himself in the house with her. He durst not kill her, and he durst not go to sleep, leaving her alive. The Germans, perceiving his fear, looked at each other and grunted. That grunt was the German for "mean cuss." They saw through Lysander.
After all were gone, Salina went out and called Toby. The old negro had fled for his life, and did not hear. She returned into the house, the aspect of which was rendered all the more desolate and drear by the marks of fire, the water that drenched the floor, the smoky atmosphere, and the dim and bluish lamp-light. The unhappy woman sat down in the lonely apartment, and thought of her brief dream of happiness, of this last quarrel which could never be made up, and of the hopeless, loveless, miserable future, until it seemed that the last drop of womanly blood in her veins was turned to gall.
At the same hour, not many miles away, on a rude couch in a mountain cave, by her father's side, Virginia was tranquilly sleeping, and dreaming of angel visits. Across the entrance of the cavern, like an ogre keeping guard, Cudjo was stretched on a bed of skins. The fire, which rarely went out, illumined faintly the subterranean gloom. By its light came one, and looked at the old man and his child sleeping there, so peacefully, so innocently, side by side. The face of the father was solemn, white, and calm; that of the maiden, smiling and sweet. The heart of the young man yearned within him; his eyes, as they gazed, filled with tears; and his lips murmured with pure emotion,—
"O Lord, I thank thee for their sakes! O Lord, preserve them and bless them!"
And he moved softly away, his whole soul suffused with ineffable tenderness towards that good old man and the dear, beautiful girl. He had stolen thither to see that all was well. All was indeed well. And now he retired once more to a recess in the rock, where he and Pomp had made their bed of blankets and dry moss.
The footsteps on the solid floor of stone had not awakened her. And what was more remarkable, the lover's beating heart and worshipping gaze had not disturbed her slumber. But now the slightest movement on the part of her blind parent banishes sleep in an instant.
"Daughter, are you here?"
"I am here, father!"
"Are you well, my child?"
"O, very well! I have had such a sweet sleep! Can I do anything for you?"
"Yes. Let me feel that you are near me. That is all." She kissed him. "Heaven is good to me!" he said.
She watched him until he slept again. Then, her soul filled with thankfulness and peace, she closed her eyes once more, and happy thoughts became happy dreams.
At about that time Salina threw herself despairingly upon her bed, at home, gnashing her teeth, and wishing she had never been born. And these two were sisters. And Salina had the house and all its comforts left to her, while Virginia had nothing of outward solace for her delicate nature but the rudest entertainment. So true it is that not place, and apparel, and pride make us happy, but piety, affection, and the disposition of the mind.
The night passed, and morning dawned, and they who had slept awoke, and they who had not slept watched bitterly the quickening light which brought to them, not joy and refreshment, but only another phase of weariness and misery.
Captain Lysander Sprowl was observed to be in a savage mood that day. The cares of married life did not agree with him: they do not with some people. Because Salina had baffled him, and Toby had escaped, his inferiors had to suffer. He was sharp even with Lieutenant Ropes, who came to report a fact of which he had received information.
"Stackridge was in the village last night!"
"What's that to me?" said Lysander.
"The lieutenant-colonel—" whispered Silas. Sprowl grew attentive. By the lieutenant-colonel was meant no other person than Augustus Bythewood, who had received his commission the day before. Well might Lysander, at the mention of him to whom both these aspiring officers owed everything, bend a little and listen. Ropes proceeded. "He feels a cussed sight badder now he believes the gal is in a cave somewhars with the schoolmaster, than he did when he thought she was burnt up in the woods. He entirely approves of your conduct last night, and says Toby must be ketched, and the secret licked out of him. In the mean while he thinks sunthin' can be done with Stackridge's family. Stackridge was home last night, and of course his wife will know about the cave. The secret might be frightened out on her, or, I swear!" said Silas, "I wouldn't object to using a little of the same sort of coercion you tried with Toby; and Bythewood wouldn't nuther. Only, you understand, he musn't be supposed to know anything about it."
Lysander's eyes gleamed. He showed his tobacco-stained teeth in a way that boded no good to any of the name of Stackridge.
"Good idee?" said Silas, with a coarse and brutal grin.
"Damned good!" said Lysander. Indeed, it just suited his ferocious mood. "Go yourself, lieutenant, and put it into execution."
"There's one objection to that," replied Silas, thrusting a quid into his cheek. "I know the old woman so well. It's best that none of us in authority should be supposed to have a hand in't. Send somebody that don't know her, and that you can depend on to do the job up harnsome. How's them Dutchmen?"
"Just the chaps!" said Lysander, growing good-natured as the pleasant idea of whipping a woman developed itself more and more to his appreciative mind.
From flogging a slave, to flogging a free negro, the step is short and easy. From the familiar and long-established usage of beating slave-women, to the novel fashion of whipping the patriotic wives of Union men, the step is scarcely longer, or more difficult. Even the chivalrous Bythewood, who was certainly a gentleman in the common acceptation of the term, magnificently hospitable to his equals, gallant to excess among ladies worthy of his smiles,—yet who never interfered to prevent the flogging of slave-mothers on his estates,—saw nothing extraordinary or revolting in the idea of extorting a secret from a hated Union woman by means of the lash. To such gross appetites for cruelty as Ropes had cultivated, the thing relished hugely. The keen, malignant palate of Lysander tasted the flavor of a good joke in it.
The project was freely discussed, and in the hilarity of their hearts the two officers let fall certain words, like crumbs from their table, which a miserable dog chanced to pick up.
That miserable dog was Dan Pepperill, whose heart was so much bigger than his wit. He knew that mischief was meant towards Mrs. Stackridge. How could he warn her? The drums were already beating for company drill, and he despaired of doing anything to save her, when by good fortune—or is there something besides good fortune in such things?—he saw one of his children approaching.
The little Pepperill came with a message from her mother. Dan heard it unheedingly, then whispered in the girl's ear,—
"Go and tell Mrs. Stackridge her and the childern's invited over to our house this forenoon. Right away now! Partic'lar reasons, tell her!" added Dan, reflecting that ladies in Mrs. Stackridge's station did not visit those in his wife's without particular reasons.
The child ran away, and Pepperill fell into the ranks, only to get repeatedly and severely reprimanded by the drill-officer for his heedlessness that morning. He did everything awkwardly, if not altogether wrong. His mind was on the child and the errand on which he had sent her, and he kept wondering within himself whether she would do it correctly (children are so apt to do errands amiss!), and whether Mrs. Stackridge would be wise enough, or humble enough, to go quietly and give Mrs. P. a call.
After company drill the brothers were summoned, and Lysander gave them secret orders. They were to visit Stackridge's house, seize Mrs. Stackridge and compel her, by blows if necessary, to tell where her husband was concealed.
"You understand?" said the captain.
"Ve unterstan," said they, dryly.
Scarcely had the brothers departed, when a prisoner was brought in. It was Toby, who had been caught endeavoring to make his way up into the mountains.
"Now we've got the nigger, mabby we'd better send and call the Dutchmen back," said Silas Ropes.
"No, no!" said Lysander, through his teeth. "'Twon't do any harm to give the jade a good dressing down. I wish every man, woman, and child, that shrieks for the old rotten Union, could be served in the same way."
Having set his heart on this little indulgence, Sprowl could not easily be persuaded to give it up. It was absolutely necessary to his peace of mind that somebody should be flogged. The interesting affair with Toby, which had been so abruptly broken off,—left, like a novelette in the newspapers, to be continued,—must be concluded in some shape: it mattered little upon whose flesh the final chapters were struck off.
In the mean time the recaptured negro was taken to the guard-house. There he found a sympathizing companion. It was Carl. To him he told his story, and showed his wounds, the sight of which filled the heart of the lad with rage, and pity, and grief.
"Vot sort of Tutchmen vos they?" Toby described them. Carl's eyes kindled. "I shouldn't be wery much susprised," said he, "if they vos—no matter!"
Lieutenant Ropes arrived, bringing into the guard-house a formidable cat-o'-nine-tails.
"String that nigger up," said Silas.
Ropes was not the man to await patiently the issue of the woman-whipping, while here was a chance for a little private sport. He remembered how Toby had got away from him once—that he too owed him a flogging. Debts of this kind, if no others, Silas delighted to pay; and accordingly the negro was strung up. It was well for the lieutenant that Carl had irons on his wrists.
The sound of the poor old man's groans,—the sight of his gashed, oozing, and inflamed back, bared again to the whip,—was to Carl unendurable. But as it was not in his power to obey the impulse of his soul, to spring for a musket and slay that monster of cruelty, Ropes, on the spot,—he must try other means, perhaps equally unwise and desperate, to save Toby from torture.
"Vait, sir, if you please, vun leetle moment," he called out to Silas. "I have a vord or two to shpeak."
He had as yet, however, scarcely made up his mind what to propose. A moment's reflection convinced him that only one thing could purchase Toby's reprieve; and perhaps even that would fail. Regardless of consequences to himself, he resolved to try it.
"I know petter as he does about the cave; I vos there," he cried out, boldly.
"Hey? You offer yourself to be whipped in this old nigger's place?" said Ropes.
"Not wery much," replied Carl. "I can go mit you or anypody you vill send, and show vair the cave is. I remember. But if you vill have me whipped, I shouldn't be wery much surprised if that vould make me to forget. Whippins," he added, significantly, "is wery pad for the memory."
"You mean to say, if you are licked, then you won't tell?"
"That ish the idea I vished to conwey."
"We'll see about that." Silas laughed. "In the mean time we'll try what can be got out of this nigger."
Toby, who had had a gleam of hope, now fell again into despair. Just then Captain Sprowl came in.
"Hold! What are you doing with that nigger?"
Silas explained, and Carl repeated his proposal. Lysander caught eagerly at it. He remembered Salina's warning, and was glad of any excuse to liberate the old negro.
"You promise to take me to the cave?" Carl assented. "Why, then, lieutenant, that's all we want, and I order this boy to be set free."
"This boy" was Toby, who was accordingly let off, to his own inexpressible joy and Ropes's infinite disgust.
"If Carl he take de responsumbility to show de cave, dat ain't my fault. 'Sides, dat boy am bright, he am; de secesh can't git much de start o' him!"
Thus the old negro congratulated himself on his way home. At the same time Carl, still in irons, was saying to himself,—
"So far so goot. If they had whipped Toby, two things vould be wery pad—the whipping, for one, and he would have told, for another. But I have made vun promise. It vas a pad promise, and a pad promise is petter proken as kept. But if I preak it, they vill preak my head. Vot shall I do? Now let me see!" said Carl.
And he remained plunged in thought.
CAPTAIN LYSANDER'S JOKE.
Since the time when she lost her best feather-bed and her boarder, the worthy widow Sprowl had suffered serious pecuniary embarrassment. She missed sadly the regular four dollars a week, and the irregular gratuities, she had received from Penn. So much secession had cost her, without yielding as yet any of its promised benefits. The Yankees had not stepped up with the alacrity expected of them, and thrust their servile necks into the yoke of their natural masters. The slave trade was not reopened. Niggers were not yet so cheap that every poor widow could, at a trifling expense, provide herself with several, and grow rich on their labor. In the pride of seeing her son made what she called a "capting," and in the hope of enjoying some of the golden fruits of his valor, she had given him her last penny, and received up to the present time not a penny from him in return. In short, Lysander was ungrateful, and the widow was a disappointed woman.
So it happened that the sugar-bowl and tea-canister were often empty, and the poor widow had no legitimate means of replenishing them. In this extremity she resorted to borrowing. She borrowed of everybody, and never repaid. She borrowed even of the hated Unionists in the neighborhood, and confessed with bitterness to her son that she found them more ready to lend to her than the families of secessionists.
Again, on the morning of the events related in the last chapter, she found herself in want of many things—tea, sugar, meal, beans, potatoes, snuff, and tobacco; for this excellent woman snuffed, "dipped," and smoked.
"Where shall I go and borry to-day?" said she, counting her patrons, and the number of times she had been to borrow of each, on her fingers. "Thar's Mis' Stackridge. I hain't been to her but oncet. I'll go agin, and carry the big basket."
With her basket on her arm, and an ancient brown bonnet (which had been black at the time of the demise of the late lamented Sprowl,) on her head, and a multitude of excuses on her tongue, she set out, and walked to the farmer's house. This had one of those great, shed-like openings through it, so common in Tennessee. A door on the left, as you entered this covered space, led to the kitchen and living-room of the family. Here the widow knocked.
There was no response. She knocked again, with the same result. Then she pulled the latch-string—for the door even of this well-to-do farmer had a latch-string. She entered. The house was deserted.
"Ain't to home, none of 'em, hey?" said the widow, peering about her with a disagreeable scowl. "House wan't locked, nuther. Wonder if Mis' Stackridge and the childern have gone to the mountains too? And whar's old Aunt Deb?"
Her first feeling was that of resentment. What right had Mrs. Stackridge to be absent when she came to borrow? As she explored the pantry and closets, however, and became convinced that she was absolutely alone in a well-provisioned farm-house, her countenance lighted up with a smile.
"I can borry what I want jest exac'ly as well as if Mis' Stackridge war to home," thought the widow.
And she proceeded to fill her basket. She helped herself to a pan of meal, borrowing the pan with it. "I'll fetch home the pan," said she, "when I do the meal,"—exposing her craggy teeth with a grim smile. "If I don't before, I'm a feared Mis' Stackridge'll haf to wait for't a considerable spell! What's in this box? Coffee! May as well take box and all. Bring back the box when I do the coffee. Wish I could find some tobacky somewhars—wonder whar they keep their tobacky!"
Now, the excellent creature did not indulge in these liberties without some apprehension that Mrs. Stackridge might return suddenly and interrupt them. Perhaps she had not followed Mr. Stackridge to the mountains. Perhaps she had only gone into the village to buy shoes for her children, or to call on a neighbor. "If she should come back and ketch me at it,—why, then, I'll tell her I'm only jest a borryin', and see what she'll do about it. The prop'ty of these yer durned Union-shriekers is all gwine to be confisticated, and I reckon I may as well take my sheer when I can git it. Thar's a paper o' black pepper, and I'll take it jest as 'tis. Thar's a jar o' lump butter,—wish I could tote jar and all!—have some of the lumps on a plate anyhow!"
She had soon filled her basket, and was regretting she had not brought two, or a larger one, when a handsome, new tin pail, hanging in the pantry, caught her eye. "Been wantin' jest sich a pail as that, this long while!" And she proceeded to fill that also.
Just as she was putting the cover on, she was very much startled by hearing footsteps at the door.
"O, dear me! What shall I do? If it should be Mr. Stackridge! But it can't be him! If it's only Mis' Stackridge or one of the niggers, I'll face it out! They won't das' to make a fuss, for they're Union-shriekers, and my son's a capting in the confederate army!"
Thump, thump, thump!—loud knocking at the door.
"My, it's visitors! Who can it be?" She set down her pail and basket. "I'll act jest as if I had a right here, anyhow!"
She was hesitating, when the string was pulled, and two strangers, stout, square built, with foreign looking faces, carrying muskets, and dressed in confederate uniform, entered.
"Mrs. Stackridge?" said they, in a heavy Teutonic accent.
"Ye—ye—yes—" stammered the widow, trying to hide the guilty basket and pail behind her skirts. "What do you want of Mis' Stackridge?"
One of the strangers said to the other, in German, indicating the plunder,—
"This is the woman. She is getting provisions ready to send to her husband in the mountains."
"Let us see what there is good to eat," said the other.
Mrs. Sprowl, although understanding no word that was spoken, perceived that the borrowed property formed the theme of their remarks.
"Have some?" she hastened to say, with extreme politeness, as the Germans approached the provisions.
"Tank ye," said they, finding some bread and cold meat. And they ate with appetite, exchanging glances, and grunting with satisfaction.
"O, take all you want!" said the widow. "You're welcome to anything there is in the house, I'm shore!"—adding, within herself, "I am so glad these soldiers have come! Now, whatever is missing will be laid to them."
"You de lady of de house?" said the foreigners, munching.
"Yes, help yourselves!" smiled the hospitable widow.
"You Mrs. Stackridge?" they inquired, more particularly.
"Yes; take anything you like!" replied the widow.
"Where your husband?"
"My husband! my poor dear husband! he has been dead these——"
She checked herself, remembering that the soldiers took her for Mrs. Stackridge. If she undeceived them, then they would know she had been stealing.
"Dead?" The Germans shook their heads and smiled. "No! He was here last night. He was seen. You take dese tings to him up in de mountain."
"Would you like some cheese?" said the embarrassed widow.
"Tank ye. Dis is better as rations."
Mrs. Sprowl returned to the pantry, in order to replace the provisions she had so generously given away, and prepared to depart with the basket and pail; inviting the guests repeatedly to make themselves quite at home, and to take whatever they could find.
"Wait!" said they. Each had a knee on the floor, and one hand full of bread and cheese. They looked up at her with broad, complacent, unctuous faces, smiling, yet resolute. And one, with his unoccupied hand, laid hold of the handle of the basket, while the other detained the pail. "You will tell us where is your husband," said they.
"O, dear me, I don't know! I'm a poor lone woman, and where my husband is I can't consaive, I'm shore!"
"You will tell us where is your husband," repeated the men; and one of them, getting upon his feet, stood before her at the door.
"He's on the mountain somewhars. I don't know whar, and I don't keer," cried the widow, excited. There was something in the stolid, determined looks of the brothers she did not like. "He's a bad man, Mr. Stackridge is! I'm a secessionist myself. You are welcome to everything in the house—only let me go now."
"You will not go," said the soldier at the door, "till you tell us. We come for dat."
On entering, they had placed their muskets in the corner. The speaker took them, and handed one to his comrade. And now the widow observed that out of the muzzle of each protruded the butt-end of a small cowhide. Each soldier held his gun at his side, and laying hold of the said butt-end, drew out the long taper belly and dangling lash of the whip, like a black snake by the neck.
The widow screamed.
"It's all a mistake. Let me go! I ain't Mis' Stackridge"
Nothing so natural as that the wife of the notorious Unionist should deny her identity at sight of the whips. The soldiers looked at each other, muttered something in German, smiled, and replaced their muskets in the corner.
"You tell us where is your husband. Or else we whip you. Dat is our orders."
This they said in low tones, with mild looks, and with a calmness which was frightful. The widow saw that she had to do with men who obeyed orders literally, and knew no mercy.
"I hain't got no husband. I ain't Mis' Stackridge. I'm a poor lone widder, that jest come over here to borry a few things, and that's all."
"Ve unterstan. You say shust now you are Mrs. Stackridge. Now you say not. Dat make no difruns. Ve know. You tell us where is your husband, or ve string you up."
This speech was pronounced by both the foreigners, a sentence by each, alternately. At the conclusion one drew a strong cord from his pocket, while the other looked with satisfaction at certain hooks in the plastering overhead, designed originally for the support of a kitchen pole, but now destined for another use.
"Don't you dast to tech me!" screamed the false Mrs. Stackridge. "I'm a secessionist myself, that hates the Union-shriekers wus'n you do, and I've got a son that's a capting, and a poor lone widder at that!"
"Dat we don't know. What we know is, you tell what we say, or we whip you. Dat's Captain Shprowl's orders."
"Capting Sprowl! That's my son! my own son! If he sent you, then it's all right!"
"So we tink. All right." And the soldiers, seizing her, tied her thumbs as Lysander had taught them, passed the cords over the hook as they had passed the clothesline over the crossbeam the night before, and drew the shrieking woman's hands above her head, precisely as they had hauled up Toby's. They then turned her skirts up over her head, and fastened them. This also they had been instructed to do by Lysander. It was, you will say, shameful; for this woman was free and white. Had she been a slave, with a different complexion, although perhaps quite as white, would it have been any the less shameful? Answer, ye believers in the divine rights of slave-masters!
"Now you vill tell?" said the phlegmatic Teutons, measuring out their whips.
"Go for my son! My son is Capting Sprowl!" gasped the stifled and terror-stricken widow.
"Dat trick won't do. You shpeak, or we shtrike."
"It is true, it is true! I am Mrs. Sprowl, and my husband is dead, and my son is Capting Sprowl, and a poor lone widder, that if you strike her a single blow he'll have you took and hung!"
"If he is your son, den by your own son's orders we whip you. He vill not hang us for dat. You vill not tell? Den we give you ten lash."
Blow upon blow, shriek upon shriek, followed. The soldiers counted the strokes aloud, deliberately, conscientiously, as they gave them, "Vun, two, tree," &c, up to ten. There they stopped. But the screams did not stop. This punishment, which it was sport to inflict upon a faithful old negro, which it would have been such a good joke to have bestowed upon the wife of a stanch Unionist, was no sport, no joke, but altogether a tragic affair to thy mother, O Lysander!
Then she, who had so often wished that she too owned slaves, that when she was angry she might have them strung up and flogged, knew by fearful experience what it was to be strung up and flogged. Then she, who sympathized with her son in his desire to see every man, woman, and child, that loved the old Union, served in this fashion, felt in her own writhing and bleeding flesh the stings of that inhuman vengeance. Terrible blunder, for which she had only herself to thank! Robbery of her neighbor's house—the dishonest "borrowing," not of these ill-gotten goods only, but also of her neighbor's name—had brought her, by what we call fatality, to this strait.
Fatality is but another name for Providence.
The soldiers waited for a lull in the shrieks, then put once more the question.
"You tell now? Where is your husband? No? Den you git ten lash more. Always ten lash till you tell."
A storm of incoherent denial, angry threats, sobs, and screams, was the response. One of the soldiers drew her skirts over her head again, and gave another pull at the cords that hauled up her thumbs, while the other stood off and measured out his whip.
Just then the door opened, and Captain Sprowl looked in.
"How are you getting on, boys?"
The question was accompanied by an approving smile, which seemed to say, "I see you are getting on very well."
"We whip her once. We give her ten lash. She not tell."
"Very well. Give her ten more."
The widow struggled and screamed. Had she recognized her son's voice? Muffled as she was, he did not recognize hers. Nor was it surprising that, in the unusual posture in which he found her, he did not know her from Mrs. Stackridge.
He stood in the door and smiled while the soldier laid on.
"Make it a dozen," he quietly remarked. "And smart ones, to wind up with!"
So it happened that, thanks to her son's presence, the screeching victim got two "smart ones" additional.
"Now uncover her face. Ease away on her thumbs a little. I'll question her mys—Good Lucifer!" exclaimed the captain, finding himself face to face with his own mother.
Twenty-two lashes and the torture of the strung-up thumbs had proved too much even for the strong nerves of Widow Sprowl. She fell down in a swoon.
Lysander, furious, whipped out his sword, and turned upon the soldiers. They quietly stepped back, and took their guns from the corner. He would certainly have killed one of them on the spot had he not seen by the glance of their eyes that the other would, at the same instant, as certainly have killed him.
"You scoundrels! you have whipped my own mother!"
"Captain," they calmly answered, "we opey orders."
"Fools!"—and Lysander ground his teeth,—"you should have known!"
"Captain," they replied, "if you not know, how should we know? We never see dis woman pefore. We come. We find her taking prowisions from de house. We say, 'She take dem to her husband in de mountains.' We say, 'You Mrs. Stackridge?' She say yes to everyting. We not know she lie. We not know she steal. We not say, 'You somepody else.' We opey orders. We take and we whip her. You come in and say, 'Whip more.' We whip more. Now you say to us, 'Scoundrels!' You say, 'Fools!' We say, 'Captain, it was your orders; we opey.'"
Having by a joint effort at sententious English pronounced this speech, the brothers stood stolidly awaiting the result; while the captain, still gnashing his teeth, bent over the prostrate form of his mother.
"Bring some water and throw on her! you idiots!" he yelled at them. "Would you see her die?"
They looked at each other. "Water?" Yes, that was what was wanted. They remembered their practice of the previous evening. One found a wooden pail. The other emptied upon the floor the contents of the tin pail the widow had "borrowed." They went to the well. They brought water. "To throw on her?" Yes, that was what he said. And together they dashed a sudden drenching flood over the poor woman, as if the swoon were another fire to be extinguished.
These fellows obeyed orders literally—a merit which Lysander now failed to appreciate. He swore at them terribly. But he did not countermand his last order. Accordingly they proceeded stoically to bring more water. Lysander had got his mothers head on his knee, and she had just opened her eyes to look and her mouth to gasp, when there came another double ice-cold wave, blinding, stifling, drowning her. Too much of water hadst thou, poor lone widow!
Lysander let fall the maternal head, and bounded to his feet, roaring with wrath. The brothers, imperturbable, with the empty pails at their sides, stared at him with mute wonder.
"Captain, dat was your orders. You say, 'Pring vasser and trow on.' We pring vasser and trow on. Dat is all."
"But I didn't tell you to fetch pailfuls!"
This sentence rushed out of Lysander's soul like a rocket, culminated in a loud, explosive oath, and was followed by a shower of fiery curses falling harmless on the heads of the unmoved Teutons.
They waited patiently until the pyrotechnic rain ceased, then answered, speaking alternately, each a sentence, as if with one mind, but with two organs.
"Captain, you hear. Last night vas de house afire. You say, 'Pring vasser.' We pring a little. Den you say to us, 'Tarn you! why in hell you shtop?' And you say, 'Von I tell you pring vasser, pring till I say shtop.' Vun time more to-day you say, 'Pring vasser,' and you never say shtop. You say, 'Trow on.' We trow on. Vat you say we do. You not say vat you mean, dat is mishtake for you."
It is not to be supposed that Lysander listened meekly to the end of this speech. He had caught the sound of voices without that interested him more; and, looking, he saw Mrs. Stackridge returning, with her children.
The Pepperill young-one had faithfully done her errand; and the farmer's wife, believing something important was meant by it, had hastened to accept the singular and urgent invitation. But, arrived at the poor man's shanty, she was astonished to find Mrs. Pepperill astonished to see her. They talked the matter over, questioned the child, and finally concluded that Daniel had said something quite different, which the child had misunderstood.
"Well," said Mrs. Stackridge, after sitting a-while, "I reckon I may as well be going back, for I've left only old Aunt Deb to home, and she's scar't to death to be left alone these times; thinks the secesh soldiers'll kill her. But I tell her not to be afeared of 'em. I ain't!"
So this woman, little knowing how much real cause she had to be afraid, returned home with her family. When near the house she met Gaff and Jake, negroes belonging to the farm, who had been in the field at work, running towards her, in great terror, declaring that they heard somebody killing Aunt Deb.
"Nonsense!" said she; and in spite of their assurances and entreaties, she marched straight towards the door through which the captain saw her coming.
"Clear out!" said Lysander to the soldiers. "Go to your quarters. I'll have your case attended to!" This was spoken very threateningly. Then, as soon as they were out of hearing, he said to Mrs. Stackridge, "I'm sorry to say a couple of my men have been plundering your house. Them Dutchmen you just saw go out. Worse, than that, my mother was going by, and she came in to save your stuff, and they, it seems, took her for you, and beat her. You see, they have beat her most to death," said Lysander.
"Lordy massy!" said Mrs. Stackridge.
"Do help me! do take off my clo'es! a poor lone widder!" faintly moaned Mrs. Sprowl.
"When I got here," added the captain, "she had fainted, and they had used her basket to pack things in, as you see, and filled this pail, which they emptied afterwards, so as to bring water and fetch her to. Scoundrels! I'm glad they ain't native-born southerners!"
"And where is Aunt Deb?" said Mrs. Stackridge, hastening to raise the widow up.
"I dono'; I hain't seen her. O, dear, them villains!" groaned Mrs. Sprowl. "I was just comin' over to borry a few things, you know."
"Going by; she wasn't coming here," said Lysander.
"Going by," repeated the widow. "O, shall I ever git over it! O, dear me, I'm all cut to pieces! A poor forlorn widder, and my only son—O, dear!"
"Her only son," cried Lysander in a loud voice, "couldn't get here in time to prevent the outrage. That's what she wants to say. I leave her in your care, Mrs. Stackridge. She was doing a neighborly thing for you when she came in to stop the pillaging, and I'm sure you'll do as much for her."
And the captain retired, his appetite for woman-whipping cloyed for the present.
"Where is Aunt Deb?" repeated Mrs. Stackridge. "Aunt Deb!" she called, "where are you? I want you this minute!"
"Here I is!" answered a voice from heaven, or at least from that direction.
It was the voice of the old negress, who had hid herself in the chambers, and now spoke through a stove-pipe hole from which she had observed all that was passing from the time when the widow entered with her empty basket.
THE MOONLIGHT EXPEDITION.
Toby had been released. Mrs. Stackridge had been whipped by proxy, and had kept her husband's secret. Gad, the spy, was still unaccountably absent. These three sources of information were, therefore, for the time, considered closed; and it was determined to have recourse to the fourth, namely, Carl.
Here it should, perhaps, be explained that the confederate government, informed of the position of armed resistance assumed by the little band of patriots, had immediately telegraphed orders to recapture the insurgents. Among the Union-loving mountaineers of East Tennessee the mutterings of a threatened rebellion against the new despotism had long been heard, and it was deemed expedient to suppress at once this outbreak.
"Try the ringleaders by drum-head court-martial, and, if guilty, hang them on the spot," said a second despatch.
These instructions were purposely made public, in order to strike terror among the Unionists. They were discussed by the soldiers, and reached the ears of Carl.
"Hang them on the spot." That meant Stackridge and Penn, and he knew not how many more. "And I," said Carl, "have agreed to show the vay to the cave."
He was sweating fearfully over the dilemma in which he had placed himself, when a sergeant and two men came to conduct him to head-quarters.
"Now it begins," said Carl to himself, drawing a deep breath.
The irons remained on his wrists. In this plight he was brought into the presence of the red-faced colonel.
"I hate a damned Dutchman!" said Lysander, who happened to be at head-quarters.
He had had experience, and his prejudice was natural.
The colonel poised his cigar, and regarded Carl sternly. The boy's heart throbbed anxiously, and he was afraid that he looked pale. Nevertheless, he stood calmly erect on his sturdy young legs, and answered the officer's frown with an expression of placid and innocent wonder.
"Your name is Carl," said the colonel.
"I sushpect that is true," replied Carl, on his guard against making inadvertent admissions.
"Minny-fish? That's a scaly name. And they say you are a scaly fellow. What have you got those bracelets on for?"
"That is vat I should pe wery much glad to find out," said Carl, affectionately regarding his handcuffs.
"You are the fellow that enlisted to save the schoolmaster's neck, ain't you?"
"I suppose that is true too."
"Suppose? Don't you know?"
"I thought I knowed, for you told me so; but as they vas hunting for him aftervards to hang him, I vas conwinced I vas mishtaken."
This quiet reply, delivered in the lad's quaint style, with perfect deliberation, and with a countenance shining with simplicity, was in effect a keen thrust at the perfidy of the confederate officers. The colonel's face became a shade redder, if possible, and he frowningly exclaimed,—
"And so you deserted!"
"That," said Carl, "ish not quite so true."
"What! you deny the fact?"
"I peg your pardon, it ish not a fact. I vas took prisoner."
"And do you maintain that you did not go willingly?"
"I don't know just vat you mean by villingly. Ven vun of them fellows puts his muzzle to my head and says, 'You come mit us, and make no noise or I plow out your prains,' I vas prewailed upon to go. I vas more villing to go as I vas to have my prains spilt. If that is vat you mean by villing, I vas villing."
"Why did they take you prisoner?"
"Pecause. I vill tell you. Gad vas shleeping like thunder: you know vat I mean—shnoring. Nothing could make him vake up; so they let him shnore. But I vake up, and they say, I suppose, they must kill me or take me off, for if I vas left pehind I vould raise the alarm too soon."
"Well, where did they take you?"
Carl was silent a moment, then looking Colonel Derring full in the face, he said earnestly,—
"They make me shwear I vould not tell."
"Minny-fish," said the colonel, "this won't do. The secret is out, and it is too late for you to try to keep it back. Toby betrayed it. Mrs. Stackridge has been arrested, and she has confessed that her husband and his friends are hid in a cave. We sent out a scout, who has come in and corroborated both their statements. Gad discovered the cave; but he has sprained his ankle. He describes the spot accurately, but he's too lame to climb the hills again. What we want is a guide to go in his place. Now, Minny-fish, here's a chance for you to earn a pardon, and prove your loyalty. You promised Captain Sprowl, did you not, that you would conduct him to the cave?"
Carl, overwhelmed by the colonel's confident assertions, breathed a moment, then replied,—
"I pelieve I vas making him some promise."
"Notwithstanding your oath that you would not tell?" said Lysander, eager to cross and corner him.
"To show the vay, that is not to tell," replied Carl. "I shwore I vould not tell, and I shall not tell. But if you vill go mit me to the cave, I vill go mit you and take you. Then I keep my promise to you and my oath to them. You see, I did not shwear not to take you," he added, with a smile.
With a smile on his face, but with profound perturbations of the soul. For he saw himself sinking deeper and deeper into this miry difficulty, and how he was to extricate himself without dragging his friends down, was still a terrible enigma.
"I believe the boy is honest," said Derring. "Sergeant, have those irons taken off. Captain Sprowl, you will manage the affair, and take this boy as your guide. I advise you to trust him. But until he has thoroughly proved his honesty, keep a careful eye on him, and if you become convinced that he is deceiving you, shoot him down on the spot. I say, shoot him on the spot," repeated the colonel, impressively. "You both understand that. Do you, Minny-fish?"
"I vas never shot," said Carl, "but I sushpect I know vat shooting is." And he smiled again, with trouble in his heart, that would have quite disconcerted a youth of less nerve and phlegm.
"Well," said Captain Sprowl, "if you don't, you will know, if you undertake to play any of your Dutch tricks with me!"
"O, sir!" said Carl, humbly, "if I knowed any trick I vouldn't ever think of playing it on you, you are so wery shmart!"
"How do you know I am?" said Lysander, who felt flattered, and thought it would be interesting to hear the lad's reasons; for neither he, nor any one present, had perceived the craft and sarcasm concealed under that simple, earnest manner.
"How do I know you are shmart? Pecause," replied Carl, "you have such a pig head. And such a pig nose. And such a pig mouth. That shows you are a pig man."
This was said with an air of intense seriousness, which never changed amid the peals of laughter that followed. Nobody suspected Carl of an intentional joke; and the round-eyed innocent surprise with which he regarded the merriment added hugely to the humor of it. Everybody laughed except Lysander, who only grimaced a little to disguise his chagrin. This upstart officer was greatly disliked for his conceited ways, and it was not long before the "Dutch boy's compliments" became the joke of the camp, and wherever Lysander appeared some whisper was sure to be heard concerning either the "pig mouth," or "pig nose," of that truly "pig man."
As for Carl, he had something far more serious to do than to laugh. How to circumvent the designs of these men? That was the question.
In the first place, it is necessary to state that his conscience acquitted him entirely of all obligations to them or their cause. He was no secessionist. He had enlisted to save his benefactor and friend. He had said, "I will give you my services if you will give that man his life." They had immediately afterwards broken the contract by seeking to kill his friend, and he felt that he no longer owed them anything. But they held him by force, against which he had no weapon but his own good wit. This, therefore, he determined to use, if possible, to their discomfiture, and the salvation of those to whom he owed everything. But how?
He had saved Toby from torture and confession by promising what he never intended literally to perform.
Once more in the guard-house, retained a prisoner until wanted as a guide, he reasoned with himself thus:—
"If I do not go, then they vill make Gad go, lame or no lame, and he vill not be half so lucky to show the wrong road as I can be;"—for Carl never suspected that what had been said with regard to Mrs. Stackridge's arrest and confession, and Gad's successful reconnoissance and return, was all a lie framed to induce him to undertake this very thing. "And if I did not make pelieve I vas villing to go, then they vould not give me my hands free, and some chances for myself. I think there vill be some chances. But Sprowl is to watch, and be ready to shoot me down?" He shook his head dubiously, and added, "That is vat I do not like quite so vell!"
He remained in a deep study until dusk. Then Captain Sprowl appeared, and said to him,—
"Come! you are to go with me."
Carl's heart gave a great bound; but he answered with an air of indifference,—
"Yes. At once. Stir!"
"I have not quite finished my supper; but I can put some of it in my pockets, and be eating on the road." And he added to himself, "I am glad it is in the night, for that vill be a wery good excuse if I should be so misfortunate as not to find the cave!"
"Here," said Lysander, imperiously, giving him a twist and push,—"march before me! And fast! Now, not a word unless you are spoken to; and don't you dodge unless you want a shot."
Thus instructed, Carl led the way. He did not speak, and he did not dodge. One circumstance overjoyed him. He saw no signs of a military expedition on foot. Was Lysander going alone with him to the mountains? "I sushpect I can find some trick for him, shmart as he is!" thought Carl.
They left the town behind them. They took to the fields; they entered the shadow of the mountains, the western sky above whose tops was yet silvery bright with the shining wake of the sunset. A few faint stars were visible, and just a glimmer of moonlight was becoming apparent in the still twilight gloom.
"We are going to have a quiet little adwenture together!" chuckled Carl. One thing was singular, however. Lysander did not tamely follow his lead: on the contrary, he directed him where to go; and Carl saw, to his dismay, that they were proceeding in a very direct route towards the cave.
"Never mind! Ven ve come to some conwenient place maybe something vill happen," he said consolingly to himself.
Then suddenly consternation met him, as it were face to face. The enigma was solved. From the crest of a knoll over which Lysander drove him like a lamb, he saw, lying on the ground in a little glen before them, the dark forms of some forty men.
One of these rose to his feet and advanced to meet Lysander. It was Silas Ropes.
"All ready?" said Sprowl.
"Ready and waiting," said Silas.
"Well, push on," said the captain. "We'll go to the dead bodies in the ravine first. Where's Pepperill?"
"Here," replied Ropes; and at a summons Dan appeared.
Carl's heart sank within him. Toby in the guard-house had told him about the dead bodies, and he knew that they were not far from the cave. He was aware, too, that Pepperill knew far more than one of such shallow mental resources and feeble will, wearing that uniform, and now in the power of these men, ought to know.
There in the little moonlit glen they met and exchanged glances—the sturdy, calm-faced boy, and the weak-kneed, trembling man. Pepperill had not recovered from the terror with which he had been inspired, when summoned to guide a reconnoitring party to the ravine. But he had not yet lisped a syllable of what he knew concerning the cave. Carl gave him a look, and turned his eyes away again indifferently. That look said, "Be wery careful, Dan, and leave a good deal to me." And Dan, man as he was, felt somehow encouraged and strengthened by the presence of this boy.
"Now, Pepperill," said Sprowl, "can you move ahead and make no mistake?"
"I kin try," answered Pepperill, dismally. "But it's a heap harder to find the way in the night so; durned if 'tain't!"
"None o' that, now, Dan," said Ropes, "or you'll git sunthin' to put sperrit inter ye!"
Dan made no reply, but shivered. The mountain air was chill, the prospect dreary. Close by, the woods, blackened by the recent fire, lay shadowy and spectral in the moon. Far above, the dim summits towards which their course lay whitened silently. There was no noise but the low murmur of these men, bent on bloody purposes. No wonder Dan's teeth chattered.
As for Carl, he killed a mosquito on his cheek, and smiled triumphantly.
"You got a shlap, you warmint!" he said, as if he had no other care on his mind than the insect's slaughter.
"Who told you to speak?" said Lysander sharply.
"Vas that shpeaking?" Carl scratched his cheek complacently. "I vas only making a little obserwation to the mosquito."
"Well, keep your observations to yourself!"
"That is vat I vill try to do."
The order to march was given. Lysander proceeded a few paces in advance, accompanied by Ropes and the two guides. The troops followed in silence, with dull, irregular tramp, filing through obscure hollows, over barren ridges crowned by a few thistles and mulleins, and by the edges of thickets which the fires had not reached. At length they came to a tract of the burned woods. The word "halt!" was whispered. The sound of tramping feet was suddenly hushed, and the slender column of troops, winding like a dark serpent up the side of the mountain, became motionless.
"All right so far, Pepperill?"
"Wal, I hain't made nary mistake yet, cap'm."
Pepperill recognized the woods in which, when flying to the cave with Virginia, Penn, and Cudjo, they had found themselves surrounded by fires.
"How far is it now to your ravine?"
"Nigh on to half a mile, I reckon."
"Shall we go through these woods?"
"It's the nighest to go through 'em. But I s'pose we can git around if we try."
"The moon sets early. We'd better take the nearest way," said the captain. "Well, Dutchy,"—for the first time deigning to consult Carl,—"this route is taking us to the cave, too, ain't it?"
"Wery certain," said Carl, "prowided you go far enough, and turn often enough, and never lose the vay."
"That'll be your risk, Dutchy. Look out for the landmarks, so that when Pepperill stops you can keep on."
"I vill look out, but if they have all been purnt up since I vas here, how wery wexing!"
This wood had been but partially consumed when the flames were checked by the rain. Many trunks were still standing, naked, charred, stretching their black despairing arms to the moon. The shadows of these ghostly trees slanted along the silent field of desolation, or lay entangled with the dark logs and limbs of trees which had fallen, and from which, at short distances, they were scarcely distinguishable. Here and there smouldered a heap of rubbish, its pallid smoke rising noiselessly in the bluish light. There were heaps of ashes still hot; half-burned brands sparkled in the darkness; and now and then a stump or branch emitted a still bright flame.
Through this scene of blackness and ruin, rendered gloomily picturesque by the moonlight, the men picked their way. Not a word was spoken; but occasionally a muttered curse told that some ill-protected foot had come in contact with live cinders, or that some unlucky leg had slumped down into one of those mines of fire, formed by roots of old dead stumps, eaten slowly away to ashes under ground.
Carl had hoped that the woods would prove impassable, and that the party would be compelled to turn back. That would gain for him time and opportunity. But the men pushed on. "Vill nothing happen?" he said to himself, in despair at seeing how directly they were travelling towards the cave. The burned tract was not extensive, and he soon saw, glimmering through the blackened columns, the clear moonlight on the slopes above.
Pepperill, not daring to assume the responsibility of misleading the party, knew no better than to go stumbling straight on.
"I vish he would shtumple and preak his shtupid neck!" thought Carl.
They emerged from the burned woods, and came out upon the ledges beyond; and now the lad saw plainly where they were. On the left, the deep and quiet gulf of shadow was the ravine. They had but to follow this up, he knew not just how far, to reach the cave. And still Pepperill advanced. Carl's heart contracted. He knew that the critical moment of the night, for him and for his fugitive friends, was now at hand.
"Do you see any landmarks yet?" Sprowl whispered to him.
"I can almost see some," answered Carl, peering earnestly over a moonlit bushy space. "Ve shall pe coming to them py and py."
"Do you know this ravine?"
"I remember some rawines. I shouldn't be wery much surprised if this vas vun of 'em."
"Look here," said Lysander. Carl looked, and saw a pistol-barrel. "Understand?"—significantly.
"Is it for me?"' And Carl extended his hand ingenuously.
"For you?—yes." But instead of giving the weapon to the boy, he returned it to his pocket, with a smile the boy did not like.
"Ah, yes! a goot joke!" And Carl smiled too, his good-humored face beaming in the moon.
At the same time he said to himself, "He hates me pecause I am Hapgood's friend; and he vill be much pleased to have cause to shoot me."
Just then Dan stopped. Lysander put up his hand as a signal. The troops halted.
"It's somewhars down in hyar, cap'm," Pepperill whispered.
"It's a horrid place!" muttered Sprowl.
"It ar so, durned if 'tain't!" said Dan, discouragingly.
Before them yawned the ravine, bristling with half-burned saplings, and but partially illumined by the moon. The babble of the brook flowing through its hidden depths was faintly audible.