"Louis Durant, the very proposition you make, accompanied as it is by the alternative, is one of such black enormity, that if nothing else were added to debase you in my estimation, I would spurn your offer as I would the proffered hand of Satan himself or of the vilest imp in the loathsome pit of night where he reigns! You have your answer. As well try to pluck the sun from his place in the heavens or wrench the sparkling stars from the firmament as to alter my resolve."
"Perhaps you will think differently when the trying hour comes, perhaps repent when it is too late."
"Never, sir villain! Do you suppose I cannot penetrate the thin gauze that is intended to hide your motives? Your highest aspiration is after the Wealth you imagine me to possess; if I were poor, you would not even offer me your hand, let alone make such efforts to obtain it. I see through all your devices, base miscreant, including your sham repentance, which deserves the descent of God's just indignation upon your guilty head, and polluted soul!"
"Your perceptions are exceedingly acute, I must confess; but I leave you for the present, to reflect on the subject, so vital to us all, and hope that reason may yet prevail."
Much after the same manner he continued to persecute her, day after day, and with no better success. In the meantime Hamilton had so far recovered as to be able to walk about. To him Durant appealed; but his offer of freedom, on condition of using his influence to induce Ellen to consent to become his captor's wife, was rejected with the contempt and scorn it merited, and a brave man could give it.
This was the last peg upon which the villain hung a hope of working out his purpose, and he now resolved to fall back on his first intention, and execute his long threatened vengeance. The stake was prepared after the most approved Indian model, and the fagots piled high around it. The two victims were then led out to see what awaited them; and this excess of cruelty, this torture in advance, was forced upon the lovers with a view to shake their resolution.
Again they were separately and jointly appealed to; but with the same result as before; they were pale with hopeless despair, but firm and unwavering in purpose.
"I would die a thousand deaths of torture, my beloved Ellen, rather than persuade you to sacrifice yourself to save me," was Hamilton's language to his companion in distress. "Life without you would be a burden; and I can now die with a pleasing hope of reunion beyond the grave."
Durant would not permit a continuation of such interchange of thoughts, and they were separated.
On the following day Hamilton was fastened to the stake, and an Indian stood ready with a torch to fire the combustibles so soon as the word of command was given.
"Behold the fate of him you pretend to love!" said Durant to Ellen, whom he had dragged to the spot. "His destiny is yet in the balances; say but the word, and he shall go free!"
Pale as death itself, and scarcely able to stand, Ellen replied:
"The will of God be done! I am prepared for the worst!"
"The worst?" and he hissed in her ear some words of infamy.
"Oh, God! not that! not that!" and she reeled as if struck with a blow.
"Then, in the name of reason, save yourself, save both! It is easily done."
The villain's words calmed her in a moment, and she responded:
"Either fate is more than I can bear; but I will not perjure my soul to save myself from any fate it pleases God to send upon me."
"And you will not be an honorable bride, then?"
"Fire the fagots!" he commanded in a voice of rage, and the order was instantly obeyed by the Indian who stood impatiently awaiting the word.
THE BURNING STAKE
The material around the stake was the most highly inflammable that could be collected, and a mighty blaze soon spread along the pile, with its fiery spires leaping high in air, and its forked tongues hissing like serpents! Snapping, crackling, roaring! the devouring flames rushed to their work of death!
The stake was in the center of the heap, the wood being piled around it at a distance of some feet, leaving an open space on all sides, in which the prisoner could walk, being fastened with a cord, some ten feet in length, one end of which was lashed to the stake, a large post, driven firmly into the ground. This vacant space was purposely left, that the sufferings of the doomed might be prolonged, a species of cruelty common in Indian tortures. As it would be some time before the flames would touch Hamilton, though his sufferings from heat would be excruciating in a little while, murdering him by slow inches, Durant hoped that the sufferings and reflections of this interval would bring repentance at the eleventh hour, and cause his victim to plead for mercy on his own terms.
The fiery circle kept drawing nearer and nearer, narrowing the space between life and death at every moment; yet no groan escaped the lips of Hamilton; and he evinced the steady and unflinching heroism of a martyr. At a sign from Durant, the Indians prepared themselves with long splinters, which were to be fired at one end, and then driven into the flesh of the sufferer; the guns were loaded with powder, to be fired against the naked person of the prisoner when the signal should be given. Hamilton saw all these preparations, but they shook not his firm resolve for a moment. His proud soul rose above all the horrors of the scene, and remained calm in the dignity of its earthly despair and eternal hopes. He knelt down by the stake and engaged in prayer:
"Oh, Father! give me strength to endure this trial by fire! Forsake me not in this hour of extremity, but send Thy ministering angels to strengthen and sustain my spirit, that it faint not with the consuming flesh! And, oh, God! protect Thy persecuted daughter, and save, oh, save her from the grasp of the destroyer! Let not the wicked triumph! my God, let not the wicked triumph! but shield, oh, shield the innocent! Thou art He who canst do wonders; make known Thy power in the rescue and salvation of the afflicted child of misfortune from the hands of the spoiler! Not for myself, but for her, I implore Thee for deliverance! Oh, hear my prayer in her behalf, and send help in the hour of need!"
Durant listened to this prayer in spite of himself; there was a something about it which held him spell-bound, fascinated; and he forgot, for the moment, that his followers were awaiting his orders—everything, in fact, but the one scene before him, the man on his knees at the stake. And there was another of those present no less deeply interested, though in a different way—Ellen, who was in agony at the sight before her. A thought entered her mind—a wild thought, which only despair could arouse. She saw the fixed attention of her persecutor, and at the close of Hamilton's fervent prayer, she sprung from the midst of her enemies, and ere they comprehended her design, or had time to lift a hand to stay her progress, rushed through the flames, and fell on her knees by the side of her lover. In a moment they were in each others' arms, shedding tears on each others' bosoms.
The spectators of this strange exhibition were struck dumb with wonder, as they beheld this act of devoted heroism, and looked on in astonishment, then exchanged glances of bewilderment and consternation. A solemn pause ensued, as though all were paralyzed by such a deed of self-devotion to death.
"Tear away the fire! scatter the burning embers!" at length fell from the lips of Durant, as he aroused himself from the spell that was on him. "Quick! for your lives! for if they are not rescued, you shall all die!"
His command was obeyed with alacrity, and every one present worked as though life really depended upon his exertions.
Unobserved by any of the actors in this strange and exciting drama, a dark cloud had gathered and spread over the face of heaven, black as the heralding banner of an approaching hurricane, from whose bosom the lurid lightning leaped forth, and the deep-toned thunder resounded. Presently the large drops of rain fell peltering on the leaves; then the first heavy dash of the fitful storm came down, and presently extinguished the fire, which, by this time, was pretty well scattered over the ground. Walter and Ellen, still locked in a close embrace, were rescued from the jaws of the devouring element, and restored to a state of life more painful to contemplate than the prospect of ending existence in each others' arms, even at the stake.
But He who had interposed to save them, was now speaking through the storm in a voice which made the guilty Durant tremble with conscious-smitten fear. Flash followed flash in quick succession, and the jarring thunder, loud and terrible, broke, peal after peal, on the ear! Then the howling wind, like ten thousand furies, came crashing and roaring through the forest, bearing whole trees on its driving wings, while others bent low before the blasting swoop of its leveling might!
Cowering like a condemned criminal, the dark-deeded villain crept toward a shelter, dragging with him his captives. Suddenly a dazzling flood of light, blinding and bewildering, enveloped the whole party, and, at the same instant, an earth-shaking, sky-rending burst of sound stunned them all to prostration. It was some seconds before any one recovered. Then Hamilton arose and lifted Ellen also. On looking around, they perceived a large oak had been riven by the descending bolt at a short distance from them. A splinter from the tree had struck Durant on the breast and temple, and he lay bleeding and senseless upon the earth, but whether dead or alive, none could tell, as they had no time to certainly determine the point at such a moment. Hastily gathering him up, Ramsey and two of the Indians carried him to the cave, where they were all glad to congregate themselves during the continuance of the frightful tornado.
Once sheltered, Walter and Ellen gazed out upon the raging tempest in bewildered amazement, not unmixed with awe. Never had they beheld the elements so fearfully agitated as now! Blacker than midnight were the pall-like clouds that "hung the heavens." Loud as thunder was the roaring of the wind. Incessantly the vivid lightnings blazed forth in blinding flashes; while above all the mingled commotion of the storm strife, the bursting thunders boomed. Like feathers in the breeze, great limbs of trees were wrenched from their places, and whirled, and twirled, and borne away. The tough oaks were twisted from their stems, or pulled up by the roots, while the smaller trees were snapped off like brittle reeds.
"Terribly grand!" said Hamilton to his companion.
"A fearful display of God's power!" responded Ellen.
"A mere breath of his omnipotence—nothing more!"
For half an hour the tempest raged in violence, then its fury was spent, and soon after the clouds rolled away. During its continuance, the wild passions of the savages were awed into quiet, and their hearts filled with other thoughts and emotions than those of vengeance and cruelty. They were silent as the grave, and harmless as silent.
The party now found time to look about them. Durant had manifested signs of life, but was evidently badly hurt. Presently he opened his eyes, and stared about, but his glances were those of bewildered delirium. A high fever was burning in his veins; its fires penetrated to the head, and, reveling amid the brain, unhinged reason, and let loose the fierce passions so long time grown strong and o'ermastering.
Who shall paint the darkness of a corrupt heart, when for years the basest feelings human nature is capable of experiencing have been nourished until more than mature? It was more dreadful to listen to the ravings of Durant than to witness the fearful war of the elements. The tempest just over, was nothing to the one that was struggling and out-breaking in his bosom. We shall not attempt to record all the dark revelations he made of his own evil thoughts and deeds, as we would spare the reader's feelings from the shock so revolting a record would produce. In his delirium he raved of the past, and unbosomed his intentions for the future. First he seemed to be enacting over the tragic scenes of the day.
"Tear away the fagots!" he cried. "I say, tear them away! Stupid blockheads! do you not know that I must have my revenge on the girl? Scatter the fagots! Gods! if she dies the heart's blood of every dog of you shall be spilled! I—I must, I will have her alive!"
During the utterance of those words his voice, gestures, and expression of countenance were in keeping with the language itself, and truly horrible. Suddenly a change came over his countenance; the dark lines of passion retreated, and an expression of timidity or fear came in their place. He muttered incoherently for a time, and then, as if communing with himself, he spoke in a subdued voice of the last scene in his conscious life. A few sentences were audible and connected, showing how his mind was affected by the tempest:
"How I dread the storm! It tells me there is a God! that the thunder is his voice, and the fierce wind but the motion of his breath! And the lightning! oh, the lightning! how it looks into the heart and exposes all its secrets to the eye of Deity! What a flash was that! Come! to the cave! to the cave!"
With the concluding words his quiet ceased, and he struggled as if exerting himself to do something very hastily. A moment more and a short, frightened cry, escaped his lips, and he sunk back, as if dead. It was plain that he was re-living and re-enacting the day, and its scenes; and in this condition he remained for some time; then his insanity took a wilder and wider range, recalling the past, and exposing the future of his life and designs. He raved and cajoled, commanded and persuaded by times; was now quiet, and, anon, in a fever of excitement, or rage. After one of his quiet moods, he slowly aroused and addressed himself in this manner:
"That oath! it was a great mistake, this worst blunder I have made. In spite of myself it will haunt me. And the curse! that awful curse! Gods! will it never cease ringing in my ears! night and day, sleeping and waking it never leaves me! I see her now! How weird-like her prophetic looks! How like the sentence of doom are her words, as, with flashing eye and quivering lip, she says: 'As you have wilfully, voluntarily, and wickedly called it down upon your own head, may the curse of God rest upon you in this world and the world to come.' Gods and demons! if their should be 'a world to come!'—How her words burn into my heart! and, worst of all, they are proving a reality! I am accused! my 'plans of villainy' do fail, and I am a 'vagabond upon the face of the earth!' But I'll not endure it longer! I'll shake myself from these haunting fears! aye, and I'll prove them false! I'll do it if all the curses of the universe rise up before me! Avaunt, ye specters! I'll be a man despite your efforts to frighten me by your grim presence!"
Again, in another strain, he broke forth with this development of his inward thoughts.
"Heigh, ho! I am on the track now, and nothing can save her! Oh, but I'll be sweetly revenged! I'll teach the proud minx to insult a Durant! Won't she be humbled, though! ha! ha! ha! How she will struggle and beg for mercy! But will I pity her? Yes, 'as the wolf the lamb!' Oh, if I but possessed her now!"
"Proud as ever! Never mind, I'll bring her down! I'll wreathe that lofty brow with shame! I'll strike her through her lover! To save him at the stake she'll yield! I'll revel in her charms, and then—then what? Ha! ha! As a reward for her condescensions, I'll burn him alive! Ha! ha! Fool, she'll be to think I'd let a rival live, when her heart was his!" * * *
"How pale she is! the charm works! she'll bend to my will at last. * * Not yet? Look at his agony, have you the heart to see him suffer so? Ah, how dearly you must love him, to stand by and see him burn to ashes when a word from your lips would rescue him from the flames!" * * * * * * * *
"Let me see, I'll not suffer him to die so soon; perhaps a little reflection will induce him to persuade her to yield. At all events I'll try the experiment. Ho! Ramsey, cut him loose; we'll adjourn the fun to another day."
Having thus given a few snatches of the revelations made by the villain in his delirium, enough to show what were his intentions toward his prisoners, and the utter blackness of his heart, we will depict another phase of his madness, in which he imagines the swift feet of retribution to be on his track, while the future was uncurtained to his distempered gaze.
"Coming! coming! coming! and there is no escape! * * Away! ye grinning devils! out of my sight, ye imps of h—l! Begone! ye ghostly demons, forever pointing with your long fingers! what would you have me see?"
His eyes were wild with a horrible stare, as if fixed by the magic power of some ghastly sight, while large drops of perspiration oozed from every pore, and stood in cold beads upon his brow! In fixed horror he thus remained for some moments, then fell back and covered his eyes with his hands, as if to shut out the dreadful scene!
Then rousing again, he exclaimed in another key:
"No! no! no! not that! I'll not come to that! Alive, and food for crawling worms! No! no! no! Then birds of prey feasting upon my flesh! Oh, God! the curse! the curse!"
This last vision seemed to overpower him, and he lay moaning most piteously for a length of time. Then the wilder phases of a distempered mind came on, and he again resumed his frenzied tone, manner, and language.
"Begone! ye lying fiends, avaunt! I'll not believe your hissing tongues! 'Tis false! all false! Back, or I'll smite you to the earth! Back! back!"
And he fought the air furiously, for a brief period, then sunk back exhausted on his pallet. A troubled half hour's sleep followed, from which he awoke much debilitated. With his waning strength, the delirium took a milder form. The vail of the future seemed still to be lifted, to give him a glimpse of coming events, but the scene that appeared was not dreadful like the ones which had preceded it.
"Happy at last, despite my oath, my vengeance unachieved! All my deep-laid schemes of no avail! Oh, Eliza! thou art indeed revenged! Thy worst predictions are realized."
The fever soon returned in violence, and once more his ravings were dreadful.
"Ho, Ramsey! keep them safe, on your life, keep them safe! do you hear? Your life, if they escape! I'll not be thwarted in my wishes; I'll move all h—l but I'll be revenged! ay, I'll walk through fire, flood and storm to gain my ends and work their ruin! They shall not escape my vengeance, I swear it in the face of earth and heaven!"
But we will not dwell longer on this unpleasant picture of a wretched man exposing his own dark soul to the eyes of others. All the night long he continued to rave in this fever-crazed manner, Hamilton, and much of the time Ellen, too, a witness of his madness. As morning drew near he fell into a more tranquil slumber, and the violence of the fever seemed to have passed. With the early dawn seizing a favorable moment, when all their enemies were asleep, the lovers made their escape. Ramsey and the Indians were so much occupied with Durant, they did not think of the prisoners as they would have done under other circumstances, though they did not feel desirous of seeing the deeds of the past day re-enacted. It was some time before they noticed the escape, and then no pursuit was instituted until after the morning meal was dispatched.
Hamilton and Ellen made the best of their way down the Ohio, and early in the evening had the good fortune to fall upon the camp of a party of whites, under the direction of Ellen's brother, who had busied himself day and night to raise the force and go in quest of the captives, having resolved never to cease his efforts until his sister was rescued, or her fate learned and her death avenged.
The meeting was a happy one; and as the object of the expedition was accomplished, the party returned home, when there was a time of general rejoicing.
We have little more to say. As the reader will conclude without reading the fact, Walter and Ellen were married, according to their original arrangements, and afterward lived in the enjoyment of that happiness which love alone can procure, and which can be found only at the domestic fireside where peace reigns; their descendants may still be found in Kentucky and other western states.
Durant recovered from his hurt, and lived for some years to plot more mischief, and fail in his designs. He at last quarreled with one of his savage followers, and in a fit of anger, struck him a blow with his fist. The indignity was never forgotten or forgiven. The Indian vowed to be revenged, and he kept his oath; dogging the steps of his foe, he found an opportunity to inflict a wound, which felled his adversary to the earth. With proper attention he might have recovered, but his enemy left him disabled and bound, to die by slow inches!
His wound, at first very painful, soon began to mortify, and he felt the worms in his still living body! Vultures came to feast upon him, ere the vital spark of existence had gone out within him, and he had not the strength left to lift a hand, or speak a word in his own defense, though their long beaks were stretched over him and planted in his flesh and eyes! And when death at last came, and laid his icy fingers upon his heart, for the final stilling of its disquiet and guilty throbbing, his failing senses were suddenly and momentarily aroused, and the curdling blood sent again with quickened impulse through his veins, as his dull ears were saluted with the horrible sound of the howlings of wild beasts in the distance; and the last things that his closing, almost sightless balls beheld were the glaring eyes of the monsters of the forest, as they gloated over their prey!
The sight was enough to finish the work of dissolution, already advanced near to completion, and the sluggish blood rushed for the last time upon his paralyzed heart with such chilling coldness and mastering power, that it ceased to beat, and the wretch was dead!
Then a fight took place over his putrefying carcass, and the screech of the vulture, mingled with the angry growl of the wolf, as they contended for the remains of the man of crimes in their wild fury and ferocious hunger!
A few hours longer, and the flesh was all torn from his frame, and only a ghostly, grinning skeleton was left of the once proud and vicious Louis Durant; and yet fresh beasts arriving upon the scene, disappointed in their anticipated feast, howled a dismal requiem over his bones, which were left, without sepulture, to bleach in the winds and storms of heaven!
Such was the terrible end of the villain, while the victims of his hate and malice, against whom he had plotted so often and so fiendishly, were happy in the enjoyment of life's best blessings; and thus the story points its own moral.