He took his torch and gun. There was no time for adieus. In a moment he was gone. There was one who had been waiting with anxious eyes and handcuffed hands to see him go.
Meanwhile Mr. Villars had called Toby to him, and said, in a low voice,—
"Is all right with your prisoner?"
"O, yes; he am bery quiet, 'pears like."
"You must look out for him. He is crafty. I feel that all is not right. When you were out, I thought I heard something like the sawing or tearing of a cord. Look to him, Toby."
"O, yes, sar, I shall!" And the confident old negro approached the rock.
There lay the rope about the base of it, still firmly tied on the side opposite the prisoner. And there crouched he, in the same posture of durance as before, except that now he had his legs well under him. His handcuffed hands lay on the rope.
"Right glad ter see ye convanescent, sar!"
Toby was bending over, examining his captive with a grin of satisfaction; when the latter, in a weak voice, made a humble request.
"I wish you would put on my cap."
"Wiv all de pleasure in de wuld, sar."
The cap had been thrown off purposely. Unsuspecting old Toby! The pistol was in his pocket. He stooped to pick up the cap and place it on Sprowl's head; when, like a jumping devil in a box when the cover is touched, up leaped Lysander on his legs, knocking him down with the handcuffs, and springing over him.
Before the old man was fully aware of what had happened, and long before he had regained his feet, Lysander was in the thickets. In his hurry he thrust his wife remorselessly from the ledge before him, and flung her rudely down upon the sharp boughs and stones, as he sped by her. There Toby found her, when he came too late with his pistol. Her hands were cut; but she did not care for her hands. Ingratitude wounds more cruelly than sharp-edged rocks.
Penn had judged correctly in two particulars. Deslow had turned traitor. And the personage in the new uniform down by the ravine was Lieutenant-Colonel Bythewood.
Deslow had gone straight to head-quarters after quitting Withers the previous night, given himself up, taken the oath of allegiance to the confederacy, and engaged to join the army or provide a substitute. As if this were not enough, he had also been required to expose the secret retreat of his late companions. To this, we know not whether reluctantly, he had consented; and it was this act of treachery that had brought Silas Ropes to the sink, and Bythewood to the ravine.
Advantage had been taken of the fog in the morning to march back again, up the mountain, the men who had marched down, baffled and inglorious, after the wild-goose chase Carl led them the night before. Bythewood commanded the expedition at his own request, being particularly interested in two persons it was designed to capture—Virginia and Pomp. It is supposed that he took a sinister interest in Penn also.
But Bythewood was not anxious to deprive Ropes of his laurels; and perhaps he felt himself to be too fine a gentleman to mix in a vulgar fight. He accordingly sent Ropes forward to surprise the patriots at the sink, while he moved with a small force cautiously up towards Gad's Leap, with two objects in view. One was, to make some discovery, if possible, with regard to the missing Lysander; the other, to intercept the retreat of the fugitives, should they be driven from the cave through the opening unknown to Deslow, but which he believed to be in this direction.
The firing on the right apprised Augustus that the attack had commenced. This was the signal for him to advance boldly up from the ravine, and establish himself on an elevation commanding a view of the slopes. Here he had been discovered very opportunely by Salina, who was seeking some pretext for calling Toby from his prisoner. In the shade of some bushes that had escaped the fire, he sat comfortably smoking his cigar on one end of a log, which was smoking on its own account at the other end.
"Put out that fire, some of you," said Augustus.
This was scarcely done, when suddenly a man came leaping down the slope, holding his hands together in a very singular manner. Bythewood started to his feet.
"Deuce take me!" said he, "if it ain't Lysander! But what's the matter with his hands, sergeant?"
"Looks to me as though he had bracelets on," replied the experienced sergeant.
Some men were despatched to meet and bring the captain in. The sergeant found a key in his pocket to unlock the handcuffs. Then Lysander told the story of his capture, which, though modified to suit himself, excited Bythewood's derision. This stung the proud captain, who, to wash the stain from his honor, proposed to take a squad of men and surprise the cave.
Fired by the prospect of seeing Virginia in his power, Augustus had but one important order to give: "Bring your prisoners to me here!"
Instead of proceeding directly to the cave, Lysander used strategy. He knew that if his movements were observed, and their object suspected, Virginia would have ample time to escape with her father and old Toby into the interior caverns, where it might be extremely difficult to discover them. He accordingly started in the direction of the sink, as if with intent to reenforce the soldiers fighting there; then, dropping suddenly into a hollow, he made a short turn to the left, and advanced swiftly, under cover of rocks and bushes, towards the ledge that concealed the cave.
* * * * *
"How could you let him go, Toby!" cried Virginia, filled with consternation at the prisoner's escape. For she saw all the mischievous consequences that were likely to follow in the track of that fatal error: Cudjo's secret, so long faithfully kept, now in evil hour betrayed; the cave attacked and captured, and the brave men fighting at the sink, believing their retreat secure, taken suddenly in the rear; and so disaster, if not death, resulting to her father, to Penn, to all.
The anguish of her tones pierced the poor old negro's soul.
"Dunno', missis, no more'n you do! 'Pears like he done gnawed off de rope wiv his teef!" For Lysander, having used the knife, had hidden it under the skins on which he sat.
Then Salina spoke, and denounced herself. After all the pains she had taken to conceal her agency in Sprowl's escape,—inconsistent, impetuous, filled with rage against herself and him,—she exclaimed,—
"I did it! Here is the knife I gave him!"
Virginia stood white and dumb, looking at her sister. Toby could only tear his old white wool and groan.
"Salina," said her father, solemnly, "you have done a very treacherous and wicked thing! I pity you!"
Severest reproaches could not have stung her as these words, and the terrified look of her sister, stung the proud and sensitive Salina.
"I have done a damnable thing! I know it. Do you ask what made me? The devil made me. I knew it was the devil at the time; but I did it."
"O, what shall we do, father?" said Virginia.
"There is nothing you can do, my daughter, unless you can reach our friends and warn them."
"O," she said, in despair, "there is not a lamp or a torch! All have been taken!"
"And it is well! It would take you at least an hour to go and return; and that man—" Mr. Villars would never, if he could help it, speak Lysander's name—"will be here again before that time, if he is coming."
"He is not coming," said Salina. "He swore to me that he would not take advantage of his escape to betray or injure any of you. He will keep his oath. If he does not——"
She paused. There was a long, painful silence; the old man musing, Virginia wringing her hands, Toby keeping watch outside.
"Listen!" said Salina. "I am a woman. But I will defend this place. I will stand there, and not a man shall enter till I am dead. As for you, Jinny, take him, and go. You can hide somewhere in the caves. Leave me and Toby. I will not ask you to forgive me; but perhaps some time you will think differently of me from what you do now."
"Sister!" said Virginia, with emotion, "I do forgive you! God will forgive you too; for he knows better than we do how unhappy you have been, and that you could not, perhaps, have done differently from what you have done."
Salina was touched. She threw her arms about Virginia's neck.
"O, I have been a bad, selfish girl! I have made both you and father very unhappy; and you have been only too kind to me always! Now leave me alone—go! I hope I shall not trouble you much longer."
She brushed back her hair from her large white forehead, and smiled a strange and vacant smile. Virginia saw that her wish was to die.
"Sister," she said gently, "we will all stay together, if you stay. We must not give up this place! Our friends are lost—we are lost—if we give it up! Perhaps we can do something. Indeed, I think we can! If we only had arms! Women have used arms before now!"
Toby entered. "Dey ain't comin' dis yer way, nohow! Dey's gwine off to de norf, hull passel on 'em."
"Give me that pistol, Toby," said Salina. "You can use Cudjo's axe, if we are attacked. Place it where you can reach it, and then return to your lookout. Don't be deceived; but warn us at once if there is danger."
"My children," said the old man, "come near to me! I would I could look upon you once; for I feel that a separation is near. Dear daughters!"—he took a hand of each,—"if I am to leave you, grieve not for me; but love one another. Love one another. To you, Salina, more especially, I say this; for though I know that deep down in your heart there is a fountain of affection, you are apt to repress your best feelings, and to cherish uncharitable thoughts. For your own good, O, do not do so any more! Believe in God. Be a child of God. Then no misfortune can happen to you. My children, there is no great misfortune, other than this—to lose our faith in God, and our love for one another. I do not fear bodily harm, for that is comparatively nothing. For many years I have been blind; yet have I been blest with sight; for night and day I have seen God. And as there is a more precious sight than that of the eyes, so there is a more precious life than this of the body. The life of the spirit is love and faith. Let me know that you have this, and I shall no longer fear for you. You will be happy, wherever you are. Why is it I feel such trust that Virginia will be provided for? Salina, let your heart be like hers, and I shall no longer fear for you!"
"I wish it was! I wish it was!" said Salina, pouring out the anguish of her heart in those words. "But I cannot make it so. I cannot be good! I am—Salina! Is there fatality in a name?"
"I know the infirmity of your natural disposition, my child. I know, too, what circumstances have done to embitter it. Our heavenly Father will take all that into account. Yet there is no one who has not within himself faults and temptations to contend with. Many have far greater than yours to combat, and yet they conquer gloriously. I cannot say more. My children, the hour has come which is to decide much for us all. Remember my legacy to you,—Have Faith and Love."
They knelt before him. He laid his hands upon their heads, and in a brief and fervent prayer blessed them. Both were sobbing. Tears ran down his cheeks also; but his countenance was bright in its uplifted serenity, wearing a strange expression of grandeur and of joy.
Pomp, rifle in hand, bearing a torch, led the patriots on their rapid return through the caverns.
"Lights down!" he said, as they approached the vicinity of the sink. "We shall see them; but they must not see us."
They halted at the natural bridge; the torch was extinguished, and the patriots placed their lanterns under a rock. They then advanced as swiftly as possible in the obscurity, along the bank of the stream. In the hall of the bats they met Carl, who had seen their lights and come towards them.
"Hurry! hurry!" he said. "They are coming down the trees like the devil's monkeys! a whole carawan proke loose!"
Captain Grudd commanded the patriots; but Pomp commanded Captain Grudd.
"Quick, and make no noise! We have every advantage; the darkness is on our side—those loose rocks will shelter us."
They advanced until within a hundred yards of where the shaft of daylight came down. There they could distinguish, in the shining cleft under the brow of the cavern, and above the rocky embankment, the forms of their assailants. Some had already gained a footing. Others were descending the tree-trunks in a dark chain, each link the body of a rebel.
"We must stop that!" said Pomp.
The men were deployed forward rapidly, and a halt ordered, each choosing his position.
At that moment, half a dozen men of the attacking party advanced, feeling their way over the rocks down which Penn and his companions had been seen to escape. The leader, shielding his eyes with his hand, peered into the gloom of the cavern. Coming from the light, he could see nothing distinctly. Suddenly he paused: had he heard the words of command whispered? or was he impressed by the awful mystery and silence?
"Fire!" said Captain Grudd.
Instantly a jagged line of flashes leaped across the breast of the darkness, accompanied by a detonation truly terrible. Each gun with its echoes, in those cavernous solitudes, thundered like a whole park of artillery: what, then, was the effect of the volley? The patriots were themselves appalled by it. The mountain trembled, and a gusty roar swept through its shuddering chambers, throbbing and pulsing long after the smoke of the discharge had cleared away.
Pomp laughed quietly, while Withers exclaimed, "By the Etarnal! if I didn't fancy the hull ruf of the mountain had caved in!"
"Load!" said Captain Grudd, sternly.
The rebels advancing over the rocks had suddenly disappeared, having either fallen in the crevices or scrambled back up the bank while hidden from view by the smoke. The chain descending the tree had broken; those near the ground leaped down or slid, while those above seemed seized by a wild impulse to climb back with all haste to the summit of the wall. A few threw away their guns, which fell upon the heads of those below. At the same time those below might have been seen scampering to places of shelter behind rocks and trees.
If ever panic were excusable, this surely was. Since the patriots were terrified by their own firing, we need not wonder at the alarm of the rebels. Some had seen the flashes sever the darkness, and their comrades fall; while all had felt the earthquake and the thundering. To those at the entrance it had seemed that these were the jaws and throat of a monster mountain-huge, which at their approach spat flame and bellowed.
"Now is our time! Clear them out!" said Grudd.
"Rush in and finish them with the bayonet!" said Stackridge. Six of the guns had bayonets, and his was one of them.
"Not yet!" said Pomp. "They will fire on you from above. We must first attend to that. Shall I show you? Then do as I do!"
Instinctively they accepted his lead. Loading his piece, he ran forward until, himself concealed under the brow of the cavern, he could see the rebels in the tree and on the cliff.
"Once more! All together!" he said, taking aim. "Give the word, captain!"
The men knelt among the loosely tumbled rocks, which served at once as a breastwork and as rests for their guns. The projecting roof of the cave was over them; through the obscure opening they pointed their pieces. Above them, in the full light, were the frightened confederates, some on the tree, some on the cliff, some leaping from the tree to the cliff; while their comrades in the sink lurked on the side opposite that where the patriots were.
"Take the cusses on the top of the rocks!" said Stackridge. "The rest are harmless."
"It's all them in the tree can do to take keer of themselves," added Withers. "Reg'lar secesh! All they ax is to be let alone."
Grudd gave the word. Flame from a dozen muzzles shot upwards from the edge of the pit. When the smoke rolled away, the cliff was cleared. Not a rebel was to be seen, except those in the tree franticly scrambling to get out, and two others. One of these had fallen on the cliff: his head and one arm hung horribly over the brink. The other, in his too eager haste to escape from the tree, had slipped from the limb, and been saved from dashing to pieces on the rocks below only by a projection of the wall, to which he had caught, and where he now clung, a dozen feet from the top, and far above the river that rolled black and slow in its channel beneath the cliff.
"Now with your bayonets!" said Pomp. "This way!"
There were six bayonets before; now there were eight.
"That Carl is worth his weight in gold!" said the enthusiastic Stackridge.
While the patriots, preparing for their second volley, were getting positions among the rocks on the left, Carl had crept up the embankment in front, and brought away two muskets from two dead rebels. These were they who had fallen at the first fire. Both guns had bayonets. Pomp took one; Carl kept the other. Cudjo with his sword accompanied the charging party; Grudd and the rest remaining at their post, ready to pick off any rebel that should appear on the cliff.
Swift and stealthy as a panther, Pomp crept around still farther to the left, under the projecting wall, raising his head cautiously now and then to look for the fugitives.
"As I expected! They are over there, afraid to follow the stream into the cave, and hesitating whether to make a rush for the tree. All ready?"
He looked around on his little force and smiled. Instead of eight bayonets, there were now nine. Penn had arrived.
"All ready!" answered Stackridge.
Pomp bounded upon the rocks and over them, with a yell which the rest took up as they followed, charging headlong after him. Cudjo, brandishing his sword, leaped and yelled with the foremost—a figure fantastically terrible. Penn, with the fiery Stackridge on one side, and his beloved Carl on the other, forgot that he had ever been a Quaker, hating strife. Not that he loved it now; but, remembering that these were the deadly foes of his country, and of those he loved, and feeling it a righteous duty to exterminate them, he went to the work, not like an apprentice, but a master,—without fear, self-possessed, impetuous, kindled with fierce excitement.
The rebels in the sink, fifteen in number, had had time to rally from their panic; and they now seemed inclined to make resistance. They were behind a natural breastwork, similar to that which had sheltered the patriots on the other side. They levelled their guns hastily and fired. One of the patriots fell: it was Withers.
"Give it to them!" shouted Pomp.
"Every cussed scoundrel of 'em!" Stackridge cried.
"Kill! kill! kill!" shrieked Cudjo.
"Surrender! surrender!" thundered Penn.
With such cries they charged over the rocks, straight at the faces and breasts of the confederates. Some turned to fly; but beyond them was the unknown darkness into which the river flowed: they recoiled aghast from that. A few stood their ground. The bayonet, which Penn had first made acquaintance with when it was thrust at his own breast, he shoved through the shoulder of a rebel whose clubbed musket was descending on Carl's head. Three inches of the blade come out of his back; and, bearing him downwards in his irresistible onset, Penn literally pinned him to the ground. Cudjo slashed another hideously across the face with the sword. Pomp took the first prisoner: it was Dan Pepperill. The rest soon followed Dan's example, cried quarter, and threw down their arms.
"Quarter!" gasped the wretch Penn had pinned.
"You spoke too late—I am sorry!" said Penn, with austere pity, as, placing his foot across the man's armpit to hold him while he pulled, he put forth his strength, and drew out the steel. A gush of blood followed, and, with a groan, the soldier swooned.
"It is one of them wagabonds that gave you the tar and fedders!" said Carl.
"And assisted at my hanging afterwards!" added Penn, remembering the ghastly face.
Thus retribution followed these men. Gad and Griffin he had seen dead. Was it any satisfaction for him to feel that he was thus avenged? I think, not much. The devil of revenge had no place in his soul; and never for any personal wrong he had received would he have wished to see bloody violence done.
The prisoners were disarmed, and ordered to remain where they were.
"Bring the wounded to me," said Pomp, hastening back to the spot where Withers had fallen.
Stackridge and another were lifting the fallen patriot and bearing him to the shelter of the cave. Pomp assisted, skilfully and tenderly. Then followed those who bore away the wounded prisoners and the guns that had been captured. Pepperill had been ordered to help. He and Carl carried the man whose face Cudjo had slashed. This was the only rebel who had fought obstinately: he had not given up until an arm was broken, and he was blinded by his own blood. Penn and Devitt brought up the rear with the swooning soldier. When half way over they were fired upon by the rebels rallying to the edge of the cliff. Grudd and his men responded sharply, covering their retreat. Penn felt a bullet graze his shoulder. It made but a slight flesh wound there; but, passing down, it entered the heart of the wounded man, whose swoon became the swoon of death. This was the only serious result of the confederate fire.
"I am glad I did not kill him!" said Penn, as they laid the corpse beside the stream.
Then out of the mask of blood which covered the face of the stout fellow who had fought so well, there issued a voice that spoke, in a strange tongue, these words:—
"Was hat man mir gethan? Wo bin ich, mutter?"
But the words were not strange to Carl; neither was the voice strange.
"Fritz! Fritz!" he answered, in the same language, "is it you?"
"I am Fritz Minnevich; that is true. And you, I think, are my cousin Carl."
They laid the wounded man near the stream, where Pomp was examining Withers's hurt.
"O, Fritz!" said Carl, "how came you here?"
"They said the Yankees were coming to take our farm. So Hans and I enlisted to fight. I got in here because I was ordered. We do as we are ordered. It was we who whipped the woman. We whipped her well. I hope my good looks will not be spoiled; for that would grieve our mother."
Thus the soldier talked in his native tongue, while Carl, in sorrow and silence, washed the blood from his face. He remembered he was his father's brother's son; a good fellow, in his way; dull, but faithful; and he had not always treated him cruelly. Indeed, Carl thought not of his cruelty now at all, but only of the good times they had had together, in days when they were friends, and Frau Minnevich had not taught her boys to be as ill-natured as herself.
"What for do you do this, Carl?" said Fritz. "There is no cause that you should be kind to me. I did you some ill turns. You did right to run away. But our father swears you shall have your share of the property if you ever come back for it, and the Yankees do not take it."
"It is all lies they tell you about the Yankees!" said Carl. "O Pomp! this is my cousin—see what you can do for him."
Pomp had been reluctantly convinced that he could do nothing for Withers: his wound was mortal. And Withers had said to him, in cheerful, feeble tones, "I feel I'm about to the eend of my tether. So don't waste yer time on me."
So Pomp turned his attention to the Minnevich. But Penn and Stackridge remained with the dying patriot.
"Wish ye had a Union flag to wrap me in when I'm dead, boys! That's what I've fit fur; that's what I meant to die fur, if 'twas so ordered. It's all right, boys! Jest look arter my family a little, won't ye? And don't give up old Tennessee!"
These were his last words.
Penn and Stackridge rejoined their comrades in the fight.
"Shoot him! shoot him! shoot him!" cried Cudjo, in a frenzy of excitement, pointing at the rebel who had fallen from the tree upon the projection of the chasm wall. "Him dar! Dat Sile Ropes!"
"Ropes?" said Penn, looking up through the opening. "That he!"—raising his gun. "But he can do no harm there; and he can't get out."
"Don' ye see? Dey's got a rope to help him wif! Gib him a shot fust! O, gib him a shot!"
The projection to which the lieutenant clung was a broken shelf less than half a yard in breadth. There he cowered in abject terror betwixt two dangers, that of falling if he attempted to move, and that of being picked off if he remained stationary and in sight. To avoid both, he got upon his hands and knees, and hid his face in the angle of the ledge, leaving the posterior part of his person prominent, no doubt thinking, like an ostrich, that if his head was in a hole, he was safe. The very ludicrousness of his situation saved him. The patriots reserved him to laugh at, and fired over him at the rebels on the cliff. At each shot, Silas could be seen to root his nose still more industriously into the rock. At length, however, as Cudjo had declared, a rope was brought and let down to him.
"Take hold there!" shouted the rebels on the cliff. Ropes could feel the cord dangling on his back. "Tie it around your waist!"
Silas, without daring to look up, put out his hand, which groped awkwardly and blindly for the rope as it swung to and fro all around it. Finally, he seized it, but ran imminent risk of falling as he drew it under his body. At length he seemed to have it secured; but in his hurry and trepidation he had fastened it considerably nearer his hips than his arms. The result, when the rebels above began to haul, can be imagined. Hips and heels were hoisted, while arms and head hung down, causing him to resemble very strikingly a frog hooked on for bait at the end of a fish-line. The affrighted face drawn out of its hole, looked down ridiculously hideous into the rocky and bristling gulf over which he swung.
"Fire!" said Captain Grudd.
The volley was aimed, not at Silas, but at those who were hauling him up. Cudjo shrieked with frantic joy, expecting to see his old enemy plunge head foremost among the stones on the bank of the stream. Such, no doubt, would have been the result, but for one sturdy and brave fellow at the rope. The rest, struck either with bullets or terror, fell back, loosing their hold. But this man clung fast, imperturbable. Alone, slowly, hand over hand, he hauled and hauled; grim, unterrified, faithful. But it was a tedious and laborious task for one, even the stoutest. The man had but a precarious foothold, and the rope rubbed hard on the edge of the cliff. Cudjo shrieked again, this time with despair at seeing his former overseer about to escape.
"That's a plucky fellow!" said Stackridge, with stern admiration of the soldier's courage. "I like his grit; but he must stop that!"
He reached for a loaded gun. He took Carl's. The boy turned pale, but said never a word, setting his lips firmly as he looked up at the cliff. Silas was swinging. The soldier was pulling in the rope, hitch by hitch, over the ledge. Stackridge took deliberate aim, and fired.
For a moment no very surprising effect was perceptible, only the man stopped hauling. Then he went down on one knee, paying out several inches of the rope, and letting the suspended Silas dip accordingly. It became evident that he was hit; he still grasped the rope, but it began to glide through his hands. Silas set up a howl.
"Hold me! hold me!"—at the same time extending all his fingers to grasp the rocks.
The brave fellow made one last effort, and took a turn of the rope about his wrist. It did not slip through his hands any more. But soon he began to slip—forward—forward—on both knees now—his head reeling like that of a drunken man, and at last pitching heavily over the cliff.
Some of the cowards who had deserted their post sprang to save him; but too late: the man was gone.
It was fortunate for Silas that he had been let down several feet thus gradually. He was near the ledge from which he had been lifted, and had just time to grasp it again and crawl upon it, when the man fell, turning a complete somerset over him, fearful to witness! revolving slowly in his swift descent through the air; still holding with tenacious grip the rope; plunging through the boughs like a mere log tumbled from the cliff, and striking the rocks below—dead.
He had taken the rope with him; and Silas had been preserved from sharing his fate only by a lucky accident. The knot at his hips loosened itself as he clutched the ledge, and let the coil fly off as the man shot down.
Not a gun was fired: rebels and patriots seemed struck dumb with horror at the brave fellow's fate. Then Carl whispered,—
"That vas my other cousin! That vas Hans!"
"Cudjo! Cudjo! what are you about?" cried Penn.
The black did not answer. Beside himself with excitement, he ran to the leaning tree and climbed it like an ape. The naked sword gleamed among the twigs. Reaching the trunk of the tall tree he ascended that as nimbly, never stopping until he had reached the upper limbs. There was one that branched towards the ledge where Silas clung. At a glance choosing that, Cudjo ran out upon it, until it bent beneath his weight. There he tried in vain to reach his ancient enemy with the sword; the distance was too great, even for his long arms.
"Sile Ropes! ye ol' oberseer! g'e know Cudjo? Me Cudjo!" he yelled, slashing the end of the branch as if it had been his victim's flesh. "'Member de lickins? 'Member my gal ye got away? Now ye git yer pay!"
While he was raving thus, one of the soldiers above, sheltering himself from the fire of the patriots by lying almost flat on the ground, levelled his gun at the half-crazed negro's breast, and pulled the trigger.
A flash—a report—the sword fell, and went clattering down upon the rocks. Cudjo turned one wild look upward, clapping his hand to his breast. Then, with a terrible grimace, he cast his eyes down again at Ropes,—crept still farther out on the branch,—and leaped.
Silas had his nose in the angle of the ledge again, and scarcely knew what had happened until he felt the negro alight on his back and fling his arms about him.
"Cudjo shot! Cudjo die! But you go too, Sile Ropes!"
As he gibbered forth these words, his long hands found the lieutenant's throat, and tightened upon it. A fearfully quiet moment ensued; then living and dying rolled together from the ledge, and dropped into the chasm. They struck the body of the dead Hans; that broke the fall; and Cudjo was beneath his victim. Ropes, stunned only, struggled to rise; but, held in that deadly embrace, he only succeeded in rolling himself down the embankment, Cudjo accompanying. The stream flowed beneath, black, with scarce a murmur. Silas neither saw nor heard it; but, continuing to struggle, and so continuing to roll, he reached the verge of the rocks, and fell with a splash into the current.
Penn ran to the spot just in time to see the two bodies disappear together; the dying Cudjo and the drowning Silas sinking as one, and drifting away into the cavernous darkness of the subterranean river.
HOW AUGUSTUS FINALLY PROPOSED.
After this there was a lull; and Penn, who had forgotten every thing else whilst the conflict was raging, remembered that he had seen Bythewood at the ravine, and hastened to inform Pomp of the circumstance.
The death of Cudjo had plunged Pomp into a fit of stern, sad reverie. His surgical task performed, he stood leaning on his rifle, gazing abstractedly at the darkly gliding waves, when Penn's communication roused him.
"Ha!" said he, with a slight start. "We must look to that! The danger here is over for the present, and two or three of us can be spared."
"Shall I go, too?" said Carl. "It is time I vas seeing to my prisoner."
"Come," said Pomp. And the three set out to return.
Having but slight anticipations of trouble from the side of the ravine, they came suddenly, wholly unprepared, upon a scene which filled them with horror and amazement.
The prisoner, as we know, had fled. We left him on his way back to the cave with a squad of men. Since which time, this is what had occurred.
The assailants had approached so stealthily over the ledges, below which Toby was stationed, looking intently for them in another direction, that he had no suspicions of their coming until they suddenly dropped upon him as from the clouds. He had no time to run for his axe; and he had scarcely given the alarm when he was overpowered, knocked down, and rolled out of the way off the rocks.
The assailants then, with Lysander at their head, rushed to the entrance of the cave. But there they encountered unexpected resistance: the two sisters—Salina with the pistol, Virginia with the axe.
"Hello! Sal!" cried Lysander, recoiling into the arms of his men; "what the devil do you mean?"
"I mean to kill you, or any man that sets foot in this place! That is what I mean!"
There could be no doubt about it: her eyes, her attitude, her whole form, from head to foot, looked what she said. She was flushed; a smile of wild and reckless scorn curved her mouth, and her countenance gleamed with a wicked light.
By her side was Virginia, with the uplifted axe, expressing no less determination by her posture and looks, though she did not speak, though there was no smile on her pale lips, and though her features were as white as death.
"It's no use, gals!" said Sprowl. "Don't make fools of yourselves! You won't be hurt; but I'm bound to come in!"'
"Do not attempt it! You have broken your oath to me. But I have made an oath I shall not break!"
What that oath was Salina did not say; but Lysander's changing color betrayed that he guessed it pretty well.
"I don't care a d—n for you! Virginia, drop that axe, and come out here with your father, and I pledge my sacred honor that neither of you shall receive the least harm."
"Your sacred honor!" sneered Salina.
But Virginia said nothing. She stood like a clothed statue; only the eyes through which the fire of the excited spirit shone were not those of a statue; and the advanced white arm, beautiful and bare, from which the loose sleeve fell as it reared the axe, was of God's sculpture, not man's.
She seemed not to hear Lysander; for the promise of safety for herself was as nothing to her: she felt that she was there to defend, with her life, if needs were, the friends whom he had betrayed. Only a holy and great purpose like this could have nerved that gentle nature for such work, and made those tender sinews firm as steel.
There was something slightly devilish in the aspect of Salina; but Virginia was all the angel; yet it was the angel roused to strife.
"Call off your gals, Mr. Villars!" said Sprowl.
"Lysander!" said the solemn voice of the old minister from within, "hear me! We are but three here, as you see: a blind and helpless old man and two girls. Why do you follow to persecute us? Go your way, and learn to be a man. The business you are engaged in is unworthy of a man. My daughters do right to defend this place, which you, false and ungrateful, have betrayed. Attempt nothing farther; for we are not afraid to die!"
"Go in, boys!" shouted Lysander, himself shrinking aside to let the soldiers pass.
Salina fired the pistol—not at the soldiers.
"She has shot me!" said Lysander, staggering back. "Kill the fiend! kill her!"
Instantly two bayonets darted at her breast. One of them was struck down by Virginia's axe, which half severed the soldier's wrist. But before the axe could rise and descend again, the other bayonet had done its work; and the soldiers rushed in.
It was all over in a minute. The axe was seized and wrenched violently away. Toby lay senseless on the rocks without. Lysander was leaning dizzily, clutching at the ledge, a ghastly whiteness settling about the gay mustache, and a strange glassiness dimming his eyes. The soldiers had possession. Virginia was a prisoner, and her father; but not Salina. There was the body which had been hers, transfixed by the bayonet, and fallen upon the ground: that was palpable: but who shall capture the escaping soul?
When Penn and his companions arrived, not a living person was there; but alone, stretched upon the cold stone floor, where the gray light from the entrance fell,—pulseless, pallid, with pale hands crossed peacefully on her breast, hiding the wound, and features faintly smiling in their stony calm,—lay the corpse of her that was Salina. The fair cup that had brimmed with the bitterness of life was shattered. The soul that drank thereat had fled away in haughtiness and scorn.
Toby, groaning on the stones outside, felt somebody shaking him, and heard the voice of Carl asking how he was.
"Dunno'; sort o' common," said the old negro, trying to rise.
He knew nothing of what had happened, except that he had been fallen upon and beaten down: for the rest, it was useless to question him: not even Penn's agonies of doubt and fear could rouse his recollection.
* * * * *
Lieutenant-colonel Bythewood had committed the error of an officer green in his profession. The cave surprised, and the prisoners taken, the men retired in all haste, simply because they had received no orders to the contrary. Thus no advantage whatever was taken of the very important position which had been gained.
Leaving the dead behind, and carrying off the wounded and the prisoners, the sergeant, upon whom the command devolved after his captain was disabled, lost no time in reporting to the lieutenant-colonel.
Augustus stood up to receive the report and the prisoners,—extremely pale, but appearing preternaturally courteous and composed. He bowed very low to the old clergyman (who, he forgot, could not witness and appreciate that graceful act of homage), and expressed infinite regret that "his duty had rendered it necessary," and so forth. Then turning to Virginia, whose look was scarcely less stony than that of her dead sister in the cave, he bowed low to her also, but without speaking, and without raising his eyes to her face.
"Have this old gentleman carried to his own house, and see that every attention is paid to him."
"And my daughter?" said the blind old man, meekly.
"She shall follow you. I will myself accompany her."
"And my dead child up yonder?"
"She shall be brought to you at the earliest possible moment."
"And my faithful servant?"
"He shall be cared for."
"Thank you." And Mr. Villars bowed his white head upon his breast.
"Take the captain immediately to the hospital! And you fellow with the hacked wrist, go with him."
The number of men required to execute these orders (since both the old clergyman and the wounded captain had to be carried) left Augustus almost alone with Virginia. Having previously sent off all his available force to Ropes at the sink, in answer to a pressing call for reenforcements, he had now only the sergeant and two men at his beck. But perhaps this was as he wished it to be. He approached Virginia, and, bowing formally, still without speaking, offered her his arm.
"Thank you. I can walk without assistance." Like marble still, but with the same wild fire in her eyes. "The only favor I ask of you is to be permitted to leave you."
Bythewood made a motion to the sergeant, who removed his men farther off.
"I wish to have a few words of conversation with you, Miss Villars. I beg you to be seated here in the shade."
Virginia remained standing, regarding him with features pale and firm as when she held the axe. It was evident to her that here was another struggle before her, scarcely less to be dreaded than the first. Augustus looked at her, and smiled pallidly.
"If eyes could kill, Miss Villars, I think yours would kill me!"
"If polite cruelty can kill, YOU HAVE killed my sister!"
"O, I beg your pardon, dear Miss Villars, but it was not I!"
"I beg no pardon, but I say it WAS you! And now you will murder my father—perhaps me."
"O, my excellent young lady, how you have misunderstood me! By Heaven, I swear!"—his voice shook with sincere emotion,—"if I have committed a fault, it has been for the love of you! Such faults surely may be pardoned. Virginia! will you accept my life as an atonement for all I have done amiss? You shall bear my name, possess my wealth, and, if you do not like the cause I am engaged in, I will throw up my commission to-morrow. I will take you to France—Italy—Switzerland—wherever you wish to go. Nor do I forget your father. Whatever you ask for him shall be granted. I have money—influence—position—every thing that can make you happy."
There was a minute's pause, the intense glances of the girl piercing through and through that pale, polite mask to his soul. A selfish, chivalrous man; not a great villain, by any means; moved by a genuine, eager, unscrupulous passion for her—sincere at least in that; one who might be influenced to good, and made a most convenient and devoted husband: this she saw.
"Well, what more?"
"What more? Ah, you are thinking of your friends—I should say, of your friend! It is natural. I have no ill will against him. Whatever you ask for him shall be granted. At a word from me, the fighting up there ceases; and he and the rest shall be permitted to go wherever they choose, unharmed."
"Well, and if I reject your generous offer?"
Augustus smiled as he answered, with a hard, inexorable purpose in his tones,—
"Then, much as I love you, I can do nothing!"
"Nothing for my father?"
"Nor for me?"
"Not even for you!"
"Why, then, God pity us all!" said Virginia, calmly.
"Truly you may say, God pity you! For do you know what will happen? Your father will die in prison: you will never see him again. Your friends will be massacred to a man. I will be frank with you: to a man they will be given to the sword. They are but a dozen; we are fifty—a hundred—a thousand, if necessary. The sink has already been taken, and a force is on its way to occupy this end of the cave. If your friends hold out, they will be starved. If they fight, they will be bayoneted and shot. If they surrender, every living man of them shall be hung. There is no help for them. Lincoln's army, that has been coming so long, is a chimera; it will never come. The power is all in our hands; and not even God can help them. That sounds blasphemous, I know; but it is true. They are doomed. But I can save them—and you can save them."
"And what is to become of me?" asked Virginia, calmly as before.
"Your future is entirely in your own hands. On the one side, what I have promised. On the other——" Augustus thought he heard a crackling of sticks, and looked around.
"On the other,"—Virginia took up the unfinished speech,—"the fate of a friendless, fatherless, Union-loving woman in this chivalrous south! I know how you treat such women. I know what awaits me on that side. And I accept it. My friends can die. My father can die; and I can. All this I accept; all the rest, you and your offers, I reject. I would not be your wife to save the world. Because I not only do not love you, but because I detest you. You have my answer."
With swelling breast and set teeth Augustus kept his eyes upon her for full a minute, then replied, in a low voice shaken by passion,—
"I hoped your decision would be different. But it is spoken. I cannot hope to change it?"
"Can you change these rocks under our feet with empty words?" she said, with a white smile.
"All is over, then! Without cause you hate me, Miss Villars. Hitherto, in all that has happened to you and your friends, I have been blameless. If in the future I am not so, remember it is your own fault."
Then the fire flashed into Virginia's cheeks, and indignation rang in her tones as she denounced the falsehood.
"Hitherto, in the wrong that has happened to me and my friends, you have NOT been blameless! In the future you cannot do more to injure us than you have already done, or meant to do. Look at me, and listen while I prove what I say."
Again there was a slight noise in the thicket behind them, and he would have been glad to make that an excuse for leaving her a moment; but her spirit held him.
"I listen," he said, inwardly quaking at he knew not what.
"Do you remember the night my father was arrested?"
"And how you that day took a journey to be away from us in our trouble?"
"I certainly took a short journey that day, but—" his eyes flickering with the uneasiness of guilt.
"And do you remember a conversation you had with Lysander under a bridge?"
His face suddenly flushed purple. "The villain has betrayed me!" he thought. Then he stammered, "I hope you have not been listening to any of that fellow's slanders!"
"You talked with Lysander under the bridge. Your conversation was heard, every word of it, by a third person, who lay concealed under the planks, behind you."
"A villanous spy!" articulated Augustus.
"No spy—but the man you two were at that moment seeking to kill: Penn Hapgood, the Schoolmaster."
It was a blow. Poor Bythewood, too luxurious and inert to be a great villain, was only a weak one; and, wounded in his most sensitive point, his pride, he writhed for a space with unutterable chagrin and rage. Then he recovered himself. He had heard the worst; and now there was nothing left for him but to cast down and trample with his feet (so to speak) the mask that had been torn from his face.
"Very well! You think you know me, then!"—He seized her wrists.—"Now hear me! I am not to be spurned like a dog, even by the foot of the woman I love. You reject, despise, insult me. As for me, I say this: all shall be as I have pronounced. Your father, your lover,—not Fate itself shall intervene to save them! And as for you——"
Again he heard a rustling by the ravine; this time so near that it startled him. He looked quickly around, and saw, slowly peering through the bushes, a dark human face. Had it been the terrible front of the Fate he had just defied, the soul of Augustus Bythewood could not have shrunk with a more sudden and appalling fear. It was the face of Pomp.
MASTER AND SLAVE CHANGE PLACES.
The sergeant and his men were several rods distant: the bush through which that menacing visage peered was within as many feet. Augustus reached for his revolver.
"Make a single move—speak a single word—and you are food for the buzzards!" came a whisper from the bush that well might chill his blood. "You know this rifle—and you know me!" And in the negro's face shone a persuasive glitter of the old, untamable, torrid ferocity of his tribe—not pleasing to Augustus.
"What do you want?"
"Give your revolver to that girl—instantly!"
"I have men within call!"
"So have I."
Through the bush, advancing noiselessly, came the straight steel barrel of a rifle that had never missed fire but once: that was when it had been aimed by Augustus at the head of Pomp. Now it was aimed by Pomp at the head of Augustus; and it was hardly to be expected that it would be so obliging as to remember that one fault, and, for the sake of fairness, repeat it, now that positions were reversed. Bythewood hesitated, in mortal fear.
"Obey me! I shall not speak again!"
And there was heard in the bush another slight noise, too short, quick, and clicking, to be the crackle of a twig. Neither was that pleasing to the mind of Augustus. He turned, and with trembling hand made Virginia a present of the revolver.
"Do you know how to use it?" Pomp asked. She nodded, breathless. "And you will use it if necessary?" She nodded again, and held the weapon prepared. "Now,"—to Bythewood,—"send those men away."
"What do you mean to do?"
"I mean to spare their lives and yours, if you obey me. To kill you without much delay if you do not."
"If you shoot,"—Bythewood was beginning to regain his dignity,—"they will rush to the spot before you can escape, and avenge me well!"
A superb, masterful smile mounted to the ebon visage, and the answer came from the bush,—
"Look where the bowlder lies, up there by the ravine. You will see a twinkle of steel among the leaves. There are guns aimed at your men. You understand."
Perhaps Augustus did not distinguish the guns; but he understood. At a signal, his men would be shot down.
"I would prefer not to shed blood. So decide and that quickly!" said Pomp.
"And if I comply?"
"Comply readily with all I shall demand of you, and not a hair of your head shall be harmed. Now I count ten. At the word ten, I send a bullet through your heart if those men are still there." He commenced, like one telling the strokes of a tolling bell: "One——two——three——four——five——"
"Sergeant," called Augustus, "take your men and report to Lieutenant Ropes at the sink."
"A fine time to be taken up with a love affair!" growled the sergeant, as he obeyed.
"Now what?" said Bythewood, under an air of bravado concealing the despair of his heart.
"Come!" said Pomp, with savage impatience,—for he knew well that, if Bythewood had not yet learned of Ropes's death, messengers must be on the way to him, and therefore not a moment was to be lost. He opened the bushes. Augustus crept into them: Virginia followed. But then suddenly the negro seemed to change his plans, the spirit and firmness of the girl inspiring him with a fresh idea.
"Miss Villars, we are going to the cave. Look down the ravine there;—you see this path is rough."
"O, I can go anywhere, you know!"
"But haste is necessary. You shall return the way you came. Take this man with you. If you are seen by his soldiers, they will think all is well. Make him go before. Shoot him if he turns his head. Dare you?"
"I will!" said Virginia.
"Keep near the ravine. My rifle will be there. If you have any difficulty, I will end it. Now march!"—thrusting Bythewood out of the thicket.—"Straight on!—Carry your pistol cocked, young lady!"
Bitterly then did the noble Augustus repent him of having sent his guard away: "I ought to have died first!" But it was too late to recall them; and there was no way left him but to yield—or appear to yield—implicit obedience.
What a situation for a son of the chivalrous south! He had reviled Lysander for having been made prisoner by a boy; and here was he, the haughty, the proud, the ambitious, overawed by a negro's threats, and carried away captive by a girl! However, he had a hope—a desperate one, indeed. He would watch for an opportunity, wheel suddenly upon Virginia, seize the pistol, and escape,—risking a shot from it, which he knew she was firmly determined to deliver in case of need (for had he not seen the soldier's gashed wrist?)—and risking also (what was more serious still) a shot from the rifle in the ravine.
But when they came to the bowlder, there the resolution he had taken fell back leaden and dead upon his heart. He had, on reflection, concluded that the twinkle of guns in the leaves there was but a fiction of the wily African brain. As he passed, however, he perceived two guns peeping through. He knew not what exultant hearts were behind them,—what eager eyes beneath the boughs were watching him, led thus tamely into captivity; but he was impressed with a wholesome respect for them, and from that moment thought no more of escape.
As Virginia approached the cave with her prisoner, the two guns, having followed them closely all the way, came up out of the ravine. They were accompanied by Penn and Carl. In the gladness of that sight Virginia almost forgot her dead sister and her captive father. Those two dear familiar faces beamed upon her with joy and triumph. But there was one who was not so glad. This Quaker schoolmaster, turned fighting man, was the last person Augustus (who was unpleasantly reminded of the conversation under the bridge) would have wished to see under such embarrassing circumstances.
In the cave was Toby, wailing over the dead body of Salina. But at sight of the living sister he rose up and was comforted.
Pomp had remained to cover the retreat. When all were safely arrived, he came bounding into the cave, jubilant. His bold and sagacious plans were thus far successful; and it only remained to carry them out with the same inexorable energy.
"Sit here." Augustus took one of the giant's stools. "I have a few words to say to this man: in the mean while, one of you"—turning to Penn and Carl—"hasten to the sink, and ask Stackridge to send me as many men as he can spare. Bring a couple of the prisoners—we shall need them."
"I'll go!" Carl cried with alacrity.
"And," added Pomp, "if there are any wounded needing my assistance, have them brought here. I shall not, probably, be able to go to them."
While he was giving these directions, with the air of one who felt that he had a momentous task before him, Bythewood sat on the rock, his head heavy and hot, his feet like clods of ice, and his heart collapsing with intolerable suspense. The gloom of the cave, and the strangeness of all things in it; the sight of the corpse near the entrance,—of Toby, at Virginia's suggestion, wiping up the pools of blood,—Virginia herself perfectly calm; Penn carefully untying and straightening the pieces of rope that had served to bind Lysander,—all this impressed him powerfully.
"I suppose," said he, "I am to be treated as a prisoner of war."
Pomp smiled. "Answer me a question. If you had caught me, would you have treated me as a prisoner of war?—Yes or no; we have no time for parley."
"No," said Augustus, frankly.
"Very well! I have caught you!"
Fearfully significant words to the prisoner, who remembered all his injustice to this man, and the tortures he had prepared for him when he should be taken! But he had not been taken. On the contrary, he, the slave, could stand there, calm and smiling, before him, the master, and say, with peculiar and compressed emphasis, "Very well! I have caught you!"
"You promised that not a hair of my head should be injured."
"The hair of your head is not the flesh of your body. No, I will not injure the hair!"—Pomp waited for his prisoner to take in all the horrible suggestiveness of this equivocation; then resumed. "Is not that what you would have said to me if you had found me in your power after making me such a promise? The black man has no rights which the white man is bound to respect! The most solemn pledges made by one of your race to one of mine are to be heeded only so long as suits your convenience. Did you not promise your dying brother in your presence to give me my freedom? Answer,—yes or no."
"Yes," faltered Augustus.
"And did you give it me?"
"No." And Augustus felt that out of his own mouth he was condemned.
"Well, I shall keep my promise better than you kept yours. Comply with all I demand of you (this is what I said), and no part of you, neither flesh nor hair, shall be harmed."
"What do you demand of me?"
"This. Here are pen and ink. Write as I dictate."
"An order to have the fighting on your side discontinued, and your forces withdrawn."
Augustus hesitated to take the pen.
"I have no words to waste. If you do not comply readily with what I require, it is no object for me that you should comply at all."
Penn came and stood by Pomp, looking calm and determined as he. Virginia came also, and looked upon the prisoner, without a smile, without a frown, but strangely serious and still. These were the three against whom he had sinned in the days of his power and pride; and now his shame was bare before them. He took the quill, bit the feather-end of it in supreme perplexity of soul, then wrote.
"Very well," said Pomp, reading the order. "But you have forgotten to sign it." Augustus signed. "Now write again. A letter to your colonel. Mr. Hapgood, please dictate the terms."
Penn understood the whole scheme; he had consulted with Virginia, and he was prepared.
"A safe conduct for Mr. Villars, his daughter and servants, beyond the confederate lines. This is all I have to insist upon."
"I," said Pomp, "ask more. The man who betrayed us must be sent here."
"If you mean Sprowl," said Bythewood, "his wife has no doubt saved the trouble."
"Not Sprowl, but Deslow."
Bythewood was terrified. Pomp had spoken with the positiveness of clear knowledge and unalterable determination. But how was it possible to comply with his demand? Deslow had been promised not only pardon, but protection from the very men he betrayed! Therefore he could not be given up to them without the most cowardly and shameful perfidy.
"I have no influence whatever with the military authorities," the prisoner said, after taking ample time for consideration.
"You forget what you boasted to Sprowl, under the bridge," said Penn.
"You forget what you just now boasted to me," said Virginia.
"Call it boasting," said Bythewood, doggedly. "Absolutely, I have not the power to effect what you require."
"It is your misfortune, then," said Pomp. "To have boasted so, and now to fail to perform, will simply cost you your life. Will you write? or not?"
The prisoner remained sullen, abject, silent, for some seconds. Then, with a deep breath which shook all his frame, and an expression of the most agonizing despair on his face, he took the pen.
"I will write; but I assure you it will do no good."
"So much the worse for you," was the grim response.
Mechanically and briefly Bythewood drew up a paper, signed his name, and shoved it across the table.
"Does that suit you?"
Pomp did not offer to take it.
"If it suits you, well. I shall not read it. It is not the letter that interests us; it is the result."
Bythewood suddenly drew back the paper, pondered its contents a moment, and cast it into the fire.
"I think I had better write another."
"I think so too. I fear you have not done what you might to impress upon the colonel's mind the importance of these simple terms—a safe conduct for Mr. Villars and family, the troops withdrawn entirely from the mountains, and Deslow delivered here to-night. This is plain enough; and you see the rest of us ask nothing for ourselves. I advise you to write freely. Open your mind to your friend. And beware,"—Pomp perceived by a strange expression which had come into the prisoner's face that this counsel was necessary,—"beware that he does not misunderstand you, and send a force to rescue you from our hands. If such a thing is attempted, this cave will be found barricaded. With what, you wonder? With those stones? With your dead body, my friend!"
After that hint, it was evident Augustus did not choose to write what had first entered his mind on learning that his address to the colonel was not to be examined. Penn handed him a fresh sheet, and he filled it—a long and confidential letter, of which we regret that no copy now exists.
Before it was finished, Carl returned, accompanied by four of the patriots and two of the prisoners. One of these last was Pepperill. He was immediately paroled, and sent off to the sink with the order that had been previously written. The letter completed, it was folded, sealed, and despatched by the other prisoner to Colonel Derring's head-quarters.
"Do you believe Deslow will be delivered up?" said Stackridge, in consultation with Penn in a corner of the cave; the farmer's gray eye gleaming with anticipated vengeance.
"I believe the confederate authorities, as a general thing, are capable of any meanness. Their policy is fraud, their whole system is one of injustice and selfishness. If Derring, who is Bythewood's devoted friend, can find means to give up the traitor without too gross an exposure of his perfidy, he will do it. But I regret that Pomp insisted on that hard condition. He was determined, and it was useless to reason with him."
"And he is right!" said Stackridge. "Deslow, if guilty, must pay for this day's work!"
"There is no doubt of his guilt. Pepperill knew of it—he whispered it to Pomp at the sink."
"Then Deslow dies the death! He was sworn to us! He was sworn to Pomp; and Pomp had saved his life! The blood of Withers, my best friend——" The farmer's voice was lost in a throe of rage and grief.
"And the blood of Cudjo, whom Pomp loved!" said Penn. "I feel all you feel—all Pomp feels. But for me, I would leave vengeance with the Lord."
"So would I," said Pomp, standing behind him, composed and grand. "And I would be the Lord's instrument, when called. I am called. Deslow comes to me, or I go to him."
"Then the Lord have mercy on his soul!"
The news of the disaster at the sink, and of the loss of prisoners, had reached Colonel Derring, and he was preparing to forward reenforcements, when Bythewood's letter arrived.
Of the colonel's reflections on the receipt of that singular missive little is known. He was unwontedly cross and abstracted for an hour. At the end of that time he asked for the renegade Deslow.
At the end of another hour Deslow had been found and brought to head-quarters. The colonel, having now quite recovered his equanimity of temper, received him with the most flattering attentions.
"You have done an honorable and patriotic work, Mr. Deslow. Your friends are coming to terms. Bythewood is at this moment engaged in an amicable conference with them. Your example has had a most salutary effect. They all desire to give themselves up on similar terms. But they will not believe as yet that you have been pardoned and received into favor."
The dark brow of the traitor brightened.
"And they have no suspicions?"
"None whatever. They do not imagine you had anything to do with the discovery of their retreat. Now, I've been thinking you might help along matters immensely, if you would go up and join Bythewood, and represent to your friends the folly of holding out any longer, and show them the advantage of following your example."
Deslow felt strong misgivings about undertaking this delicate business. But persuasions, flatteries, and promises prevailed upon him at last. And at sundown he set out, accompanied by the man who had brought Bythewood's letter.
In consequence of the messenger's long absence, it was beginning to be feared, by those who had sent him, that he had gone on a fruitless errand. Evening came. There was sadness on the faces of Penn and Virginia, as they sat by the corpse of Salina. Pomp was gloomy and silent. Bythewood, bound to Lysander's rock, sat waiting, with feelings we will not seek to penetrate, for the answer to his letter. In that letter he had mentioned, among other things, a certain pair of horses that were in his stable. Had he known that the colonel, during his hour of moroseness, had gone over to look at these horses, and that he was now driving them about the village, well satisfied with the munificent bribe, he would, no doubt, have felt easier in his mind.
"You will not go to your father to-night," said Penn, having looked out into the gathering darkness, and returned to Virginia's side. "We have one night more together. May be it is the last."
Carl was comforting his wounded cousin, who had been brought and placed on some skins on the floor. The patriots were holding a consultation. Suddenly the sentinel at the door announced an arrival; and to the amazement of all, the messenger entered, followed by Deslow.
The traitor came in, smiling in most friendly fashion upon his late companions, even offering his hand to Pomp, who did not accept it. Then he saw in the faces that looked upon him a stern and terrible triumph. By the rock he beheld Bythewood bound. And his heart sank.
The messenger brought a letter for Augustus. Pomp took it.
"This interests us!" he said, breaking the seal. "Excuse me, sir!"—to Bythewood.—"I was once your servant; and I had forgotten that circumstances have slightly changed! As your hands are confined, I will read it for you."
He read aloud.
"Dear Gus: This is an awful bad scrape you have got into; but I suppose I must get you out of it. Villars shall have passports, and an escort, if he likes. I'll keep the soldiers from the mountains. The hardest thing to arrange is the Deslow affair. I don't care a curse for the fellow but I don't want the name of giving him up. So, if I succeed in sending him, keep mum. Probably he never will come away to tell a tale."
"Yours, etc., Derring."
"P. S. Thank you for the horses."
Then Pomp turned and looked upon the traitor, who had been himself betrayed. His ghastly face was of the color of grayish yellow parchment. His hat was in his hand, and his short, stiff hair stood erect with terror. If up to this moment there had been any doubt of his guilt in Pomp's mind, it vanished. The wretch had not the power to proclaim his innocence, or to plead for mercy. No explanations were needed: he understood all: with that vivid perception of truth which often comes with the approach of death, he knew that he was there to die.
"Have you anything to confess?" Pomp said to him, with the solemnity of a priest preparing a sacrifice. "If so, speak, for your time is short."
Deslow said nothing: indeed, his organs of speech were paralyzed.
"Very well: then I will tell you, we know all. We trusted you. You have betrayed us. Withers is dead: you killed him. Cudjo is dead: his blood is upon your soul. For this you are now to die."
There was another besides Deslow whom these calm and terrible words appalled. It was Bythewood, who feared lest, after all he had accomplished, his turn might come next.
It was some time before the fear-stricken culprit could recover the power of speech. Then, in a sudden, hoarse, and scarcely articulate shriek, his voice burst forth:—
"Save me! save me!"
He rushed to where the patriots stood. But they thrust him back sternly.
"This is Pomp's business. Deal with him!"
"Will no one save me? Will no one speak for my life?" These words were ejaculated with the ghastly accent and volubility of terror.
"Your life is forfeited. Pomp saved it once; now he takes it. It is just," said Stackridge.
"My God! my God! my God!" Thrice the doomed man uttered that sacred name with wild despair, and with intervals of strange and silent horror between. "Then I must die!"
"I will speak for you," said a voice of solemn compassion. And Penn stepped forward.
"You? you? you will?"
"Do not hope too much. Pomp is inexorable as he is just. But I will plead for you."
"O, do! do! There is something in his face—I cannot bear it—but you can move him!"
Pomp was leaning thoughtfully by one of the giant's stools. Penn drew near to him. Deslow crouched behind, his whole frame shaking visibly.
"Pomp, if you love me, grant me this one favor. Leave this wretch to his God. What satisfaction can there be in taking the life of so degraded and abject a creature?"
"There is satisfaction in justice," replied Pomp, quietly smiling.
"O, but the satisfaction there is in mercy is infinitely sweeter! Forgiveness is a holy thing, Pomp! It brings the blessing of Heaven with it, and it is more effective than vengeance. This man has a wife; he has children; think of them!"
These words, and many more to the same purpose, Penn poured forth with all the earnestness of his soul. He pleaded; he argued; he left no means untried to melt that adamantine will. In vain all. When he finished, Pomp took his hand in one of his, and laying the other kindly on his shoulder, said in his deepest, tenderest tones,—
"I have heard you because I love you. What you say is just. But another thing is just—that this man should die. Ask anything but this of me, and you will see how gladly I will grant all you desire."
"I have done."—Penn turned sadly away.—"It is as I feared. Deslow, I will not flatter you. There is no hope."
Then Deslow, regaining somewhat of his manhood, drew himself up, and prepared to meet his fate.
"Soon?" he asked, more firmly than he had yet spoken.
"Now," said Pomp. He lighted a lantern. "You must go with me. There are eyes here that would not look upon your death." He took his rifle. "Go before." And he conducted his victim into the recesses in the cave.
They came to the well, into the unfathomable mystery of which Carl had dropped the stone. There Pomp stopped.
"This is your grave. Would you take a look at it?" He held the lantern over the fearful place. The falling waters made in those unimaginable depths the noise of far-off thunders. Half dead with fear already, the wretch looked down into the hideous pit.
"Must I die?" he uttered in a ghastly whisper.
"You must! I will shoot you first in mercy to you; for I am not cruel. Have you prayers to make? I will wait."
Deslow sank upon his knees. He tried to confess himself to God, to commit his soul with decency into His hands. But the words of his petition stuck in his throat: the dread of immediate death absorbed all feeling else.
Pomp, who had retired a short distance, supposed he had made an end.
"Are you ready?" he asked, placing his lantern on the rock, and poising his rifle.
"I cannot pray!" said Deslow. "Send for a minister—for Mr. Villars!—I cannot die so."
"It is too late," answered Pomp, sorrowful, yet stern. "Mr. Villars has been carried away by the soldiers you sent. If you cannot pray for yourself, then there is none to pray for you."
Scarce had he spoken, when out of the darkness behind him came a voice, saying with solemn sweetness, as if an angel responded from the invisible profound,—
"I will pray for him!"
He turned, and saw in the lantern's misty glimmer a spectral form advancing. It drew near. It was a female figure, shadowy, noiseless; the right hand raised with piteous entreaty; the countenance pale to whiteness,—its fresh and youthful beauty clothed with sadness and compassion as with a veil.
It was Virginia. All the way through the dismal galleries of the cave, and down Cudjo's stairs, she had followed the executioner and his victim, in order to plead at the last moment for that mercy for which Penn had pleaded in vain.
Struck with amazement, Pomp gazed at her for a moment as if she had been really a spirit.
"How came you here?"
She laid one hand upon his arm; with the other she pointed upwards; her eyes all the while shining upon him with a wondrous brilliancy, which was of the spirit indeed, and not of the flesh.
"Heaven sent me to pray for him—and for you."
"For me, Miss Villars?"
"For you, Pomp!"—Her voice also had that strange melting quality which comes only from the soul. It was low, and full of love and sorrow. "For if you slay this man, then you will have more need of prayers than he."
Pomp was shaken. The touch on his arm, the tones of that voice, the electric light of those inspired eyes, moved him with a power that penetrated to his inmost soul. Yet he retained his haughty firmness, and said coldly,—
"If there had been mercy for this man, Penn would have obtained it. The hardest thing I ever did was to deny him. What is there to be said which he did not say?"
"O, he spoke earnestly and well!" replied Virginia. "I wondered how you could listen to him and not yield. But he is a man; and as a man he gave up all hope when reason failed, and he saw you so implacable. But I would never have given up. I would have clung to your knees, and pleaded with you so long as there was breath in me to ask or heart to feel. I would not have let you go till you had shown mercy to this poor man!"—(Deslow had crawled to her feet: there he knelt grovelling),—"and to yourself, Pomp! If he dies repenting, and you kill him unrelenting, I would rather be he than you. When we shut the gate of mercy on others we shut it on ourselves. For all that you have done for my father and friends, and for me, I am filled with gratitude and friendship. Your manly traits have inspired me with an admiration that was almost hero-worship. For this reason I would save you from a great crime. O, Pomp, if only for my sake, do not annihilate the noble and grand image of you which has built itself up in my heart, and leave only the memory of a strange horror and dread in its place!"
Pomp had turned his eyes away from hers, knowing that if he continued to be fascinated by them, he must end by yielding. He drooped his head, leaning on his rifle, and looking down upon the wretch at their feet. A strong convulsion shook his whole frame, as she ceased speaking. There was silence for some seconds. Then he spoke, still without raising his eyes, in a deep, subdued voice.
"This man is the hater of my race. He is of those who rob us of our labor, our lives, our wives, and children, and happiness. They enslave both body and soul. They damn us with ignorance and vice. To take from us the profits of our toil is little; but they take from us our manhood also. Yet here he came, and accepted life and safety at my hands. He made an oath, and I made an oath. His oath was never to betray my poor Cudjo's secret. The oath I made was to kill him as I would a dog if his should be broken. It has been broken. My poor Cudjo is dead. Withers is dead. Your sister is dead. I see it to be just that this traitor too should now die!"
Again he poised his rifle. But Virginia threw herself upon the victim, covering with her own pure bosom his miserable, guilty breast.
Pomp smiled. "Do not fear. For your sake I have pardoned him."
"O, this is the noblest act of your life, Pomp!" she exclaimed, clasping his hand with joy and gratitude.
He looked in her face. A great weight was taken from his soul. His countenance was bright and glad.
"Do you think it was not a bitter cup for me? You have taken it from me, and I thank you. But Bythewood must not know I have relented. We have yet a work to do with him."
Then those who had been left behind in the cave, listening for the death-signal, heard the report of a rifle ringing through the chambers of rock. Not long after Pomp and Virginia returned; and Deslow was not with them. Augustus heard—Augustus saw—nor knew he any reason why the fate of Deslow should not presently be his own.
"Is justice done?" said Stackridge, with stern eyes fixed on Pomp.
"Is justice done?" said Pomp, turning to Virginia.
"Justice is done!" she answered, in a serious, firm voice.
BREAD ON THE WATERS.
The next morning a singular procession set out from the cave. Stretchers had been framed of the trunks and boughs of saplings, and upon these the dead and wounded of yesterday were placed. They were borne by the prisoners of yesterday, who had been paroled for the purpose. Carl walked by the side of the litter that conveyed his cousin Fritz, talking cheerfully to him in their native tongue. Behind them was carried the dead body of Salina, followed by old Toby with uncovered head. With him went Pepperill, charged with the important business of seeing that all was done for the Villars family which had been stipulated, and of reporting to Pomp at the cave afterwards.
Last of all came Virginia, leaning on Penn's arm. He was speaking to her earnestly, in low, quivering tones: she listened with downcast countenance, full of all tender and sad emotions; for they were about to part.
Pepperill was intrusted with a second letter from Bythewood to the colonel, couched in these terms:—
"Deslow was taken last night, and slaughtered in cold blood. The same will happen to me if all is not done as agreed. I am to be retained as a hostage until Pepperill's return. For Heaven's sake, help Mr. Villars and his family off with all convenient despatch, and oblige," &c.
Virginia was going to try her fortune with her father; but Penn's lot was cast with his friends who remained at the cave. From these he could not honorably separate himself until all danger was over; and, much as he longed to accompany her, he knew well that, even if he should be permitted to do so, his presence would be productive of little good to either her or her father. Moreover, it had been wisely resolved not to demand too much of the military authorities. A safe conduct could be granted with good grace to a blind old minister and his daughter, but not to men who had been in arms against the confederate government. Nor was it thought best to trust or tempt too far these minions of the new slave despotism, whose recklessness of obligations which interest or revenge prompted them to evade, was so notorious.
Penn would have attended Virginia to the base of the mountain, risking all things for the melancholy pleasure of prolonging these last moments. But this she would not permit. Hard as it was to utter the word of separation,—to see him return to those solitary and dangerous rocks, not knowing that he would ever be able to leave them, or that she would ever see him again in this world;—still, her love was greater than her selfishness, and she had strength even for that.
"No farther now! O, you must go no farther!" And, resolutely pausing, she called to Carl,—for Carl's lot too lay with his. Toby and Pepperill also stopped.
"Daniel," said Penn, with impressive solemnity, "into thy hands I commit this precious charge. Be faithful. Good Toby, I trust we shall meet again in God's good time. Farewell! farewell!"
And the procession went its way; only Penn and Carl remained gazing after it long, with hearts too full for words.
When it was out of sight, and they were turning silently to retrace their steps, they saw a man come out of the woods, and beckon to them. It was a negro—it was Barber Jim.
Permitted to approach, he told his story. Since the escape of the arrested Unionists through his cellar, he had been an object of suspicion; and last night his house had been attacked by a mob. He had managed to escape, and was now hiding in the woods to save his life.
"Deslow betrayed you with the rest," said Penn; "that explains it."
"My wife—my two daughters: what will become of them?" said the wretched man. "And my property, that I have been all this while laying up for them!"
"Do not despair, my friend. Your property is mostly real estate, and cannot be so easily appropriated to rebel uses, as the money deposited for me in the bank, from which I was never allowed to draw it! It will wait for you. A kind Providence will care for your family, I am sure. As for you, I do not see what else you can do but share our fortunes. There is one comfort for you,—we are all about as badly off as yourself."
"You shall have your pick of some muskets," said Carl, gayly; "and you vill find us as jolly a set of wagabonds as ever you saw!"
"Have you plenty of arms?"
"Arms is more plenty as prowisions. Vat is vanted is wittles. Vat is vanted most is wegetables. Bears and vild turkeys inwite themselves to be shot, but potatoes keep wery shy, and ve suffers for sour krout."
Barber Jim mused. "I will go with you. I am glad," he added, as if to himself, "that I paid Toby off as I did."
What he meant by this last remark will be seen.
* * * * *
Mr. Villars had taken the precaution to invest his available funds in Ohio Railroad stock some time before. Arrived in Cincinnati, he would be able to reap the advantages of this timely forethought. But in the mean time the expenses of a long journey must be defrayed; and he found it impossible now to raise money on his house or household goods. All the ready cash he could command was barely sufficient to afford a decent burial to his daughter. He was discussing this serious difficulty with Virginia, whilst preparations for Salina's funeral and their own departure were going forward simultaneously, when Toby came trotting in, jubilant and breathless, and laid a little dirty bag in his lap.
"I's fotched 'em! dar ye got 'em, massa!" And the old negro wiped the sweat from his shining face.
"What, Toby! Money!" (for the little bag was heavy). "Where did you get it?"
"Gold, sar! Gold, Miss Jinny! Needn't look 'spicious! I neber got 'em by no underground means!" (He meant to say underhand.) "I'll jes' 'splain 'bout dat. Ye see, Massa Villars, eber sence ye gib me my freedom, ye been payin' me right smart wages,—seben dollah a monf! Dunno' how much dat ar fur a year, but I reckon it ar a heap! An' you rec'lec' you says to me, you says, 'Hire it out to some honest man, Toby, and ye kin draw inference on it,' you says. So what does I do but go and pay it all to Barber Jim fast as eber you pays me. 'Pears like I neber knowed how much I was wuf, till tudder day he says to me, 'Toby,' he says, 'times is so mighty skeery I's afeard to keep yer money for ye any longer; hyar 'tis fur ye, all in gold.' So he gibs it to me in dis yer little bag, an' I takes it, an' goes an' buries it 'hind de cow shed, whar 'twould keep sweet, ye know, fur de family. An' hyar it ar, shore enough, massa, jes' de ting fur dis yer 'casion!"
"So you got it by underground means, after all!" said Virginia, with mingled laughter and tears, opening the bag and pouring out the bright eagles.
The old clergyman was silent for a space, overcome with emotion.
"God bless you for a faithful servant, Toby! and Barber Jim for an honest man."
"Dat's nuffin!" said Toby, snuffing and winking ludicrously. "Why shouldn't a cullud pusson hab de right to be honest, well as white folks? If you's gwine to tank anybody, ye better jes' tink and tank yersef! Who gib ol' Toby his freedom, an' den 'pose to pay him wages? Reckon if 't hadn't been fur dat, massa, I neber should hab de bressed chance to do dis yer little ting fur de family!"
"We will thank only our heavenly Father, whose tender care we will never doubt, after this!" said the old minister, with deep and solemn joy.
"Wust on't is, Jim hissef's got inter trouble now," said Toby. "He hab to put fur de woods; an' his family wants to git to de norf, whar dey tinks he'll mabby be gwine to meet 'em; but dey can't seem to manage it."
"O, father, I have an idea! You will have a right to take your servants with you; and Jim's wife and daughters might pass as servants."
"I shall be rejoiced to help them in any way. Go and find them, Toby. Thus the bread we cast on the water sometimes returns to us before many days!"
EMANCIPATION OF THE BONDMEN.—CONCLUSION.
A week had elapsed since Augustus became a captive; when, one cloudy afternoon, Dan Pepperill returned alone to the mountain cave. Pomp met him at the entrance.
"I be durned if they ain't!" said Dan, exultant. "The ol' man, and the nigger, and the gal, and Jim's wife and darters inter the bargain! Went with 'em myself all the way, by stage and rail, till I seen 'em over the line inter ol' Kentuck'. Durned if I didn't wish I war gwine for good myself."
"You shall go now if you will. I have been waiting only for you. Cudjo is dead. All the rest are gone. There is nothing to keep me here. Will you go back to the rebels, or make a push with us for the free states? Speak quick!"
Pepperill only groaned.
"Nine more have joined since Jim came. They make a strong party, all armed, and determined to fight their way through. They are already twenty miles away; but we will overtake them to-morrow. I am to guide them. I know every cave and defile. Will you come?"
"Pomp, ye know I'd be plaguy glad ter; but 'tain't so ter be! I hain't no gre't fancy fur this secesh business, that ar' a fact. But I'm in fur't, and I reckon I sh'll haf' ter put it through;" and Dan heaved a deep sigh of regret. Without knowing it, he was a fatalist. Being too weak or inert to resist the hand of despotism laid upon him, he yielded to its weight and accepted it as destiny. The rebel ranks have been filled with such.
Pomp smiled with mingled pity and derision. "Good by, then! I hope this war will do something for your class as well as for mine—you need it as much! Wait here, and you shall have company."
He took a lantern, and entered the interior chamber of the cave. After the lapse of many minutes he returned, dragging, as from a dungeon, into the light of day, a wretch who could scarcely have expected ever to behold that blessed boon again,—he was so abject, so filled with joy and trembling. It was Deslow. Then turning to the corner where Augustus sat confined, the negro cut his bonds and lifted him to his feet. Poor Bythewood, rheumatic, stiff in the joints, and terribly wasted by anxiety and chagrin, presented a scarcely less piteous spectacle than Deslow; nor were his fallen spirits revived by the sight of this craven, whom he had supposed to be long since past the memory of the wrong he had done him, and the earthly passion for revenge.