The public table at the inn on that day was thinly attended; and the repast was partaken by all parties in comparative silence. A few words were addressed by Colleton to Lucy Munro, but they were answered, not coldly, but sparingly, and her replies were entirely wanting in their usual spirit. Still, her looks signified for him the deepest interest, and a significant motion of the finger, which might have been held to convey a warning, was all that he noted of that earnest manner which had gratified his self-esteem in her habit heretofore. The day was got through with difficulty by all parties; and as evening approached, Forrester, having effected all his arrangements without provoking observation, in the quiet and privacy of the youth's chamber, bade him farewell, cautioning him at the same time against all voluntary risk, and reminding him of the necessity, while in that neighborhood, of keeping a good lookout. Their courses lay not so far asunder but that they might, for a time, have proceeded together, and with more mutual advantage; but the suggestions and solicitations of Forrester on this subject were alike disregarded by Ralph, with what reason we may not positively say, but it is possible that it arose from a prudential reference to the fact that the association of one flying from justice was not exactly such as the innocent should desire. And this was reason enough.
They separated; and the youth proceeded to the preparation for his own contemplated departure. His pistols were in readiness, with his dirk, on the small table by the side of his bed; his portmanteau lay alike contiguous; and before seeking his couch, which he did at an early hour, he himself had seen that his good steed had been well provided with corn and fodder. The sable groom, too, whose attentions to the noble animal from the first, stimulated by an occasional bit of silver, had been unremitted, was now further rewarded, and promised faithfully to be in readiness at any hour. Thus, all things arranged, Ralph returned to his chamber, and without removing his dress, wrapping his cloak around him, he threw himself upon his couch, and addressed himself to those slumbers which were destined to be of no very long continuance.
Forrester, in the meanwhile, had proceeded with all the impatience of a lover to the designated place of tryst, under the giant sycamore, the sheltering limbs and leaves of which, on sundry previous occasions, had ministered to a like purpose. The place was not remote, or at least would not be so considered in country estimation, from the dwelling of the maiden; and was to be reached from the latter spot by a circuitous passage through a thick wood, which covered the distance between entirely. The spot chosen for the meeting was well known to both parties, and we shall not pretend, at this time of day, to limit the knowledge of its sweet fitness for the purposes of love, to them alone. They had tasted of its sweets a thousand times, and could well understand and appreciate that air of romantic and fairy-like seclusion which so much distinguished it, and which served admirably in concert with the uses to which it was now appropriated. The tree grew within and surmounted a little hollow, formed by the even and combined natural descents, to that common centre, of four hills, beautifully grouped, which surrounded and completely fenced it in. Their descents were smooth and even, without a single abruptness, to the bottom, in the centre of which rose the sycamore, which, from its own situation, conferred the name of Sycamore Hollow on the sweet spot upon which it stood. A spring, trickling from beneath its roots, shaded by its folding branches from the thirsty heats of the summer sun, kept up a low and continuous prattle with the pebbles over which it made its way, that consorted sweetly with the secluded harmonies that overmantled, as with a mighty wing, the sheltered place.
Scenes like these are abundant enough in the southern country; and by their quiet, unobtrusive, and softer beauties, would seem, and not inefficiently or feebly, to supply in most respects the wants of those bolder characteristics, in which nature in those regions is confessedly deficient. Whatever may be the want of southern scenery in stupendousness or sublimity, it is, we are inclined to believe, more than made up in those thousand quiet and wooing charms of location, which seem designed expressly for the hamlet and the cottage—the evening dance—the mid-day repose and rural banquet—and all those numberless practices of a small and well-intentioned society, which win the affections into limpid and living currents, touched for ever, here and there, by the sunshine, and sheltered in their repose by overhanging leaves and flowers, for ever fertile and for ever fresh. They may not occasion a feeling of solemn awe, but they enkindle one of admiring affection; and where the mountain and the bald rock would be productive of emotions only of strength and sternness, their softer featurings of brawling brook, bending and variegated shrubbery, wild flower, gadding vine, and undulating hillock, mould the contemplative spirit into gentleness and love. The scenery of the South below the mountain regions, seldom impresses at first, but it grows upon acquaintance; and in a little while, where once all things looked monotonous and unattractive, we learn to discover sweet influences that ravish us from ourselves at every step we take, into worlds and wilds, where all is fairy-like, wooing, and unchangingly sweet.
The night, though yet without a moon, was beautifully clear and cloudless. The stars had come out with all their brightness—a soft zephyr played drowsily and fitfully among the tops of the shrubbery, that lay, as it were, asleep on the circling hilltops around; while the odors of complicated charm from a thousand floral knots, which had caught blooms from the rainbows, and dyed themselves in their stolon splendors, thickly studding the wild and matted grass which sustained them, brought along with them even a stronger influence than the rest of the scene, and might have taught a ready lesson of love to much sterner spirits than the two, now so unhappy, who were there to take their parting in a last embrace.
The swift motion of a galloping steed was heard, and Forrester was at the place and hour of appointment. In mournful mood, he threw himself at the foot of one of the hills, upon one of the tufted roots of the huge tree which sheltered the little hollow, and resigned himself to a somewhat bitter survey of his own condition, and of the privations and probable straits into which his rash thoughtlessness had so unhappily involved him. His horse, docile and well-trained, stood unfastened in the thicket, cropping the young and tender herbage at some little distance; but so habituated to rule that no other security than his own will was considered by his master necessary for his continued presence. The lover waited not long. Descending the hill, through a narrow pathway one side of the wood, well known and frequently trodden by both, he beheld the approach of the maiden, and hurried forward to receive her.
The terms upon which they had so long stood forbade constraint, and put at defiance all those formalities which, under other circumstances, might have grown out of the meeting. She advanced without hesitancy, and the hand of her lover grasped that which she extended, his arm passed about her, his lip was fastened to her own without hinderance, and, in that one sweet embrace, in that one moment of blissful forgetfulness, all other of life's circumstances had ceased to afflict.
But they were not happy even at that moment of delight and illusion. The gentler spirit of the maiden's sex was uppermost, and the sad story of his crime, which at their last meeting had been told her, lay with heavy influence at her heart. She was a gentle creature, and though dwelling in a wilderness, such is the prevailing influence upon female character, of the kind of education acquirable in the southern,—or, we may add, and thus perhaps furnish the reason for any peculiarity in this respect, the slave-holding states—that she partook in a large degree of that excessive delicacy, as well of spirit as of person, which, while a marked characteristic of that entire region, is apt to become of itself a disease, exhibiting itself too frequently in a nervousness and timidity that unfit its owner for the ruder necessities of life, and permit it to abide only under its more serene and summer aspects. The tale of blood, and its awful consequences, were perpetually recurring to her imagination. Her fancy described and dwelt upon its details, her thoughts wove it into a thousand startling tissues, until, though believing his crime unpremeditated, she almost shrank from the embrace of her lover, because of the blood so recently upon his hands. Placing her beside him upon the seat he had occupied, he tenderly rebuked her gloomy manner, while an inward and painful consciousness of its cause gave to his voice a hesitating tremor, and his eye, heretofore unquailing at any glance, no longer bold, now shrank downcast before the tearful emphasis of hers.
"You have come, Kate—come, according to your promise, yet you wear not loving looks. Your eye is vacant—your heart, it beats sadly and hurriedly beneath my hand, as if there were gloomy and vexatious thoughts within."
"And should I not be sad, Mark, and should you not be sad? Gloom and sorrow befit our situations alike; though for you I feel more than for myself. I think not so much of our parting, as of your misfortune in having partaken of this crime. There is to me but little occasion for grief in the temporary separation which I am sure will precede our final union. But this dreadful deed, Mark—it is this that makes me sad. The knowledge that you, whom I thought too gentle wantonly to crush the crawling insect, should have become the slayer of men—of innocent men, too—makes my heart bleed within, and my eyes fill; and when I think of it, as indeed I now think of little else, and feel that its remorse and all its consequences must haunt you for many years, I almost think, with my father, that it would be better we should see each other no more. I think I could see you depart, knowing that it was for ever, without a tear, were this sin not upon your head."
"Your words are cruel, Kate; but you can not speak to my spirit in language more severe than it speaks momentarily to itself. I never knew anything of punishment before; and the first lesson is a bitter one. Your words touch me but little now, as the tree, when the axe has once girdled it, has no feeling for any further stroke. Forbear then, dear Kate, as you love yourself. Brood not upon a subject that brings pain with it to your own spirit, and has almost ceased, except in its consequences, to operate upon mine. Let us now speak of those things which concern you nearly, and me not a little—of the only thing, which, besides this deed of death, troubles my thought at this moment. Let us speak of our future hope—if hope there may be for me, after the stern sentence which your lips uttered in part even now."
"It was for you—for your safety, believe me, Mark, that I spoke; my own heart was wrung with the language of my lips—the language of my cooler thought. I spoke only for your safety and not for myself. Could—I again repeat—could this deed be undone—could you be free from the reproach and the punishment, I would be content, though the strings of my heart cracked with its own doom, to forego all claim upon you—to give you up—to give up my own hope of happiness for ever."
Her words were passionate, and at their close her head sunk upon his shoulder, while her tears gushed forth without restraint, and in defiance of all her efforts. The heart of the woodman was deeply and painfully affected, and the words refused to leave his lips, while a kindred anguish shook his manly frame, and rendered it almost a difficulty with him to sustain the slight fabric of hers. With a stern effort, however, he recovered himself, and reseating her upon the bank from which, in the agitation of the moment, they had both arisen, he endeavored to soothe her spirit, by unfolding his plan of future life.
"My present aim is the nation—I shall cross the Chestatee river to-morrow, and shall push at once for the forest of Etowee, and beyond the Etowee river. I know the place well, and have been through it before. There I shall linger until I hear all the particulars of this affair in its progress, and determine upon my route accordingly. If the stir is great, as I reckon it will be, I shall push into Tennessee, and perhaps go for the Mississippi. Could I hope that your father would consent to remove, I should at once do this and make a settlement, where, secure from interruption and all together, we might live happily and honorably for the future."
"And why not do so now—why stop at all among the Cherokees? Why not go at once into Mississippi, and begin the world, as you propose in the end to do?"
"What! and leave you for ever—now Kate, you are indeed cruel. I had not thought to have listened to such a recommendation from one who loved me as you profess."
"As I do, Mark—I say nothing which I do not feel. It does not follow that you will be any nigher your object, if my father continue firm in his refusal, though nigher to me, by lingering about in the nation. On the contrary, will he not, hearing of you in the neighborhood, be more close in his restraints upon me? Will not your chance of exposure, too, be so much the greater, as to make it incumbent upon him to pursue his determination with rigor? while, on the other hand, if you remove yourself out of all reach of Georgia, in the Mississippi, and there begin a settlement, I am sure that he will look upon the affair with different notions."
"It can not be, Kate—it can not be. You know I have had but a single motive for living so long among this people and in these parts. I disliked both, and only lingered with a single hope, that I might be blessed with your presence always, and in the event of my sufficient success, that I might win you altogether for myself. I have not done much for this object and this unhappy affair forbids me for the present to do more. Is not this enough, Katharine, and must I bury myself from you a thousand miles in the forest, ignorant of what may be going on, and without any hope, such as I have lived for before? Is the labor I have undergone—the life I have led—to have no fruits? Will you too be the first to recommend forgetfulness; to overthrow my chance of happiness? No—it must not be. Hear me, Kate—hear me, and say I have not worked altogether in vain. I have acquired some little by my toils, and can acquire more. There is one thing now, one blessing which you may afford, and the possession of which will enable me to go with a light heart and a strong hand into any forests, winning comforts for both of us—happiness, if the world have it—and nothing to make us afraid."
He spoke with deep energy, and she looked inquiringly into his face. The expression was satisfactory, and she replied without hesitation:—
"I understand you, Mark Forrester—I understand you, but it must not be. I must regard and live for affections besides my own. Would you have me fly for ever from those who have been all to me—from those to whom I am all—from my father—from my dear, my old mother! Fy, Mark."
"And are you not all to me, Katharine—the one thing for which I would live, and wanting which I care not to live? Ay, Katharine, fly with me from all—and yet not for ever. They will follow you, and our end will then be answered. Unless you do this, they would linger on in this place without an object, even if permitted, which is very doubtful, to hold their ground—enjoying life as a vegetable, and dead before life itself is extinct."
"Spare your speech, Mark—on this point you urge me in vain," was the firm response of the maiden. "Though I feel for you as as I feel for none other, I also feel that I have other ties and other obligations, all inconsistent with the step which you would have me take. I will not have you speak of it further—on this particular I am immoveable."
A shade of mortification clouded the face of Forrester as she uttered these words, and for a moment he was silent. Resuming, at length, with something of resignation in his manner, he continued—
"Well, Kate, since you will have it so, I forbear; though, what course is left for you, and what hope for me, if your father continues in his present humor, I am at a loss to see. There is one thing, however—there is one pledge that I would exact from you before we part."
He took her hand tenderly as he spoke, and his eyes, glistening with tearful expectation, were fixed upon her own; but she did not immediately reply. She seemed rather to await the naming of the pledge of which he spoke. There was a struggle going on between her mind and her affections; and though, in the end, the latter seemed to obtain the mastery, the sense of propriety, the moral guardianship of her own spirit battled sternly and fearlessly against their suggestions. She would make no promise which might, by any possibility, bind her to an engagement inconsistent with other and primary obligations.
"I know not, Mark, what may be the pledge which you would have from me, to which I could consent with propriety. When I hear your desires, plainly expressed to my understanding, I shall better know how to reply. You heard the language of my father: I must obey his wishes as far as I know them. Though sometimes rough, and irregular in his habits, to me he has been at all times tender and kind: I would not now disobey his commands. Still, in this matter, my heart inclines too much in your favor not to make me less scrupulous than I should otherwise desire to be. Besides, I have so long held myself yours, and with his sanction, that I can the more easily listen to your entreaties. If, then you truly love me, you will, I am sure, ask nothing that I should not grant. Speak—what is the pledge?"
"It shall come with no risk, Kate, believe me, none. Heaven forbid that I should bring a solitary grief to your bosom; yet it may adventure in some respects both mind and person, if you be not wary. Knowing your father, as you know him too, I would have from you a pledge—a promise, here, solemnly uttered in the eye of Heaven, and in the holy stillness of this place, which has witnessed other of our vows no less sacred and solemn, that, should he sanction the prayer of another who seeks your love, and command your obedience, that you will not obey—that you will not go quietly a victim to the altar—that you will not pledge to another the same vow which has been long since pledged to me."
He paused a moment for a reply, but she spoke not; and with something like impetuosity he proceeded:—
"You make no reply, Katharine? You hear my entreaty—my prayer. It involves no impropriety; it stands in the way of no other duty, since, I trust, the relationship between us is as binding as any other which may call for your regard. All that I ask is, that you will not dispose of yourself to another, your heart not going with your hand, whatever may be the authority which may require it; at least, not until you are fully assured that it is beyond my power to claim you, or I become unworthy to press the claim."
"It is strange, Mark, that you should speak in a manner of which there is so little need. The pledge long since uttered as solemnly as you now require, under these very boughs, should satisfy you."
"So it should, Kate—and so it would, perhaps, could I now reason on any subject. But my doubts are not now of your love, but of your firmness in resisting a control at variance with your duty to yourself. Your words reassure me, however; and now, though with no glad heart, I shall pass over the border, and hope for the better days which are to make us happy."
"Not so fast, Master Forrester," exclaimed the voice of old Allen, emerging from the cover of the sycamore, to the shelter of which he had advanced unobserved, and had been the unsuspected auditor of the dialogue from first to last. The couple, with an awkward consciousness, started up at the speech, taken by surprise, and neither uttering a word in reply to this sudden address.
"You must first answer, young man, to the charge of advising my daughter to disobedience, as I have heard you for the last half hour; and to elopement, which she had the good sense to refuse. I thought, Master Forrester, that you were better bred than to be guilty of such offences."
"I know them not as such, Mr. Allen. I had your own sanction to my engagement with Katharine, and do not see that after that you had any right to break it off."
"You do not—eh? Well, perhaps, you are right, and I have thought better of the matter myself; and, between us, Kate has behaved so well, and spoken so prettily to you, and obeyed my orders, as she should have done, that I'm thinking to look more kindly on the whole affair."
"Are you, dear father?—Oh, I am so happy!"
"Hush, minx! the business is mine, and none of yours.—Hark you, Mark. You must fly—there's no two ways about that; and, between us, there will be a devil of a stir in this matter. I have it from good authority that the governor will riddle the whole nation but he'll have every man, woman, and child, concerned in this difficulty: so that'll be no place for you. You must go right on to the Massassippi, and enter lands enough for us all. Enter them in Kate's name, and they'll be secure. As soon as you've fixed that business, write on, say where you are, and we'll be down upon you, bag and baggage, in no time and less."
"Oh, dear father—this is so good of you!"
"Pshaw, get away, minx! I don't like kisses jest after supper; it takes the taste all out of my mouth of what I've been eating."
Forrester was loud in his acknowledgments, and sought by eulogistic professions to do away the ill effect of all that he might have uttered in the previous conversation; but the old man cut him short with his wonted querulousness:—
"Oh, done with your blarney, boy! 'It's all my eye and Betty Martin!' Won't you go in and take supper? There's something left, I reckon."
But Forrester had now no idea of eating, and declined accordingly, alleging his determination to set off immediately upon his route—a determination which the old man highly approved of.
"You are right, Mark—move's the word, and the sooner you go about it the better. Here's my hand on your bargain, and good-by—I reckon you'll have something more to say to Kate, and I suppose you don't want me to help you in saying it—so I leave you. She's used to the way; and, if she's at all afraid, you can easily see her home."
With a few more words the old man took his departure, leaving the young people as happy now as he had before found them sad and sorrowful. They did not doubt that the reason of this change was as he alleged it, and gave themselves no thought as to causes, satisfied as they were with effects. But old Allen had not proceeded without his host: he had been advised of the contemplated turn-out of all the squatters from the gold-region; and, having no better tenure than any of his neighbors, he very prudently made a merit of necessity, and took his measures as we have seen. The lovers were satisfied, and their interview now wore, though at parting, a more sunshiny complexion.
But why prolong a scene admitting of so little variety as that which describes the sweets, and the strifes, and the sorrows, of mortal love? We take it there is no reader of novels so little conversant with matters of this nature as not to know how they begin and how they end; and, contenting ourselves with separating the parties—an act hardhearted enough, in all conscience—we shall not with idle and questionable sympathy dwell upon the sorrows of their separation. We may utter a remark, however, which the particular instance before us occasions, in relation to the singular influence of love upon the mental and moral character of the man. There is no influence in the world's circumstance so truly purifying, elevating, and refining. It instils high and generous sentiments; it ennobles human endeavor; it sanctifies defeat and denial; it polishes manners; it gives to morals a tincture of devotion; and, as with the spell of magic, such as Milton describes in "Comus," it dissipates with a glance the wild rout of low desires and insane follies which so much blur and blot up the otherwise fair face of human society. It permits of no meanness in its train; it expels vulgarity, and, with a high stretch toward perfected humanity, it unearths the grovelling nature, and gives it aspirations of sand and sunshine.
Its effect upon Forrester had been of this description. It had been his only tutor, and had taught him nobly in numberless respects. In every association with the maiden of his affections, his tone, his language, his temper, and his thoughts, seemed to undergo improvement and purification. He seemed quite another man whenever he came into her presence, and whenever the thought of her was in his heart. Indeed, such was the effect of this passion upon both of them; though this may have been partially the result of other circumstances, arising from their particular situation. For a long time they had known few enjoyments that were not intimately connected with the image of one another; and thus, from having few objects besides of contemplation or concern, they refined upon each other. As the minute survey in the forest of the single leaf, which, for years, may not have attracted the eye, unfolds the fine veins, the fanciful outline, the clear, green, and transparent texture, and the delicate shadowings of innumerable hues won from the skies and the sunshine—so, day by day, surveying the single object, they had become familiar with attractions in one another which the passing world would never have supposed either of them to possess. In such a region, where there are few competitors for human love and regard, the heart clings with hungering tenacity to the few stray affections that spring up, here and there, like flowers dropped by some kindly, careless hand, making a bloom and a blessing for the untrodden wilderness. Nor do they blossom there in vain, since, as the sage has told us, there is no breeze that wafts not life, no sun that brings not smiles, no water that bears not refreshment, no flower that has not charms and a solace, for some heart that could not well hope to be happy without them.
They separated on the verge of the copse to which he had attended her, their hands having all the way been passionately linked, and a seal having been set upon their mutual vows by the long, loving embrace which concluded their interview. The cottage was in sight, and, from the deep shade which surrounded him, he beheld her enter its precincts in safety; then, returning to the place of tryst, he led forth his steed, and, with a single bound, was once more in his saddle, and once more a wanderer. The cheerlessness of such a fate as that before him, even under the changed aspect of his affairs, to those unaccustomed to the rather too migratory habits of our southern and western people, would seem somewhat severe; but the only hardship in his present fortune, to the mind of Forrester, was the privation and protraction of his love-arrangements. The wild, woodland adventure common to the habits of the people of this class, had a stimulating effect upon his spirit at all other times; and, even now—though perfectly legitimate for a lover to move slowly from his mistress—the moon just rising above the trees, and his horse in full gallop through their winding intricacies, a warm and bracing energy came to his aid, and his heart grew cheery under its inspiriting influences. He was full of the future, rich in anticipation, and happy in the contemplation of a thousand projects. With a free rein he plunged forward into the recesses of the forest, dreaming of a cottage in the Mississippi, a heart at ease, and Katharine Allen, with all her beauties, for ever at hand to keep it so.
The night began to wane, and still did Lucy Munro keep lonely vigil in her chamber. How could she sleep? Threatened with a connection so dreadful as to her mind was that proposed with Guy Rivers—deeply interested as she now felt herself in the fortunes of the young stranger, for whose fate and safety, knowing the unfavorable position in which he stood with the outlaws, she had everything to apprehend—it can cause no wonder when we say sleep grew a stranger to her eyes, and without retiring to her couch, though extinguishing her light, she sat musing by the window of her chamber upon the thousand conflicting and sad thoughts that were at strife in her spirit. She had not been long in this position when the sound of approaching horsemen reached her ears, and after a brief interval, during which she could perceive that they had alighted, she heard the door of the hall gently unclosed, and footsteps, set down with nice caution, moving through the passage. A light danced for a moment fitfully along the chamber, as if borne from the sleeping apartment of Munro to that adjoining the hall in which the family were accustomed to pursue their domestic avocations. Then came an occasional murmur of speech to her ears, and then silence.
Perplexed with these circumstances, and wondering at the return of Munro at an hour something unusual—prompted too by a presentiment of something wrong, and apprehensive on the score of Ralph's safety—a curiosity not, surely, under these circumstances, discreditable, to know what was going on, determined her to ascertain something more of the character of the nocturnal visitation. She felt secured from the strangeness of the occurrence, that evil was afoot, and solicitous for its prevention, she was persuaded to the measure solely with the view to good.
Hastily, but with trembling hands, undoing the door of her apartment, she made her way into the long, dark gallery, with which she was perfectly familiar, and soon gained the apartment already referred to. The door fortunately stood nearly closed, and she successfully passed it by and gained the hall, which immediately adjoined, and lay in perfect darkness. Without herself being seen, she was enabled, through a crevice in the partition dividing the two rooms, to survey its inmates, and to hear distinctly everything that was uttered.
As she expected, there were the two conspirators, Rivers and Munro, earnestly engaged in discourse; to which, as it concerns materially our progress, we may well be permitted to lend our attention. They spoke on a variety of topics entirely foreign to the understanding of the half-affrighted and nervously-susceptible, but still resolute young girl who heard them; and nothing but her deep anxieties for one, whose own importance in her eyes at that moment she did not conjecture, could have sustained her while listening to a dialogue full of atrocious intention, and larded throughout with a familiar and sometimes foul phraseology that certainly was not altogether unseemly in such association.
"Well, Blundell's gone too, they say. He's heartily frightened. A few more will follow, and we must both be out of the way. The rest could not well be identified, and whether they are or not does not concern us, except that they may blab of their confederates. Such as seem likely to suffer detection must be frightened off; and this, by the way, is not so difficult a matter. Pippin knows nothing of himself. Forrester is too much involved to be forward. It was for this that I aroused and set him on. His hot blood took fire at some little hints that I threw out, and the fool became a leader in the mischief. There's no danger from him; besides, they say, he's off too. Old Allen has broken off the match between him and his daughter, and the fellow's almost mad on the strength of it. There's but one left who might trouble us, and it is now understood that but one mode offers for his silence. We are perfectly agreed as to this, and no more scruples."
The quick sense of the maiden readily taught her who was meant; and her heart trembled convulsively within her, as, with a word, Munro, replying to Rivers, gave his assent.
"Why, yes—it must be done, I suppose, though somehow or other I would it could be got rid of in any other way."
"You see for yourself, Wat, there can be no other way; for as long as he lives, there is no security. The few surviving guard will be seen to, and they saw too little to be dangerous. They were like stunned and stupified men. This boy alone was cool and collected, and is so obstinate in what he knows and thinks, that he troubles neither himself nor his neighbors with doubt or difficulty. I knew him a few years ago, when something more of a boy than now; and even then he was the same character."
"But why not let him start, and take the woods for it? How easy to settle the matter on the roadside, in a thousand different ways. The accumulation of these occurrences in the village, as much as anything else, will break us up. I don't care for myself, for I expect to be off for a time; but I want to see the old woman and Lucy keep quiet possession here—"
"You are becoming an old woman yourself, Wat, and should be under guardianship. All these scruples are late; and, indeed, even were they not, they would be still useless. We have determined on the thing, and the sooner we set about it the better. The night wanes, and I have much to see to before daylight. To-morrow I must sleep—sleep—" and for a moment Rivers seemed to muse upon the word sleep, which he thrice repeated; then suddenly proceeding, as if no pause had taken place, he abruptly placed his hand upon the shoulder of Munro, and asked—
"You will bear the lantern; this is all you need perform. I am resolute for the rest."
"What will you use—dirk?"
"Yes—it is silent in its office, and not less sure. Are all asleep, think you—your wife?"
"Quite so—sound when I entered the chamber."
"Well, the sooner to business the better. Is there water in that pitcher? I am strangely thirsty to-night; brandy were not amiss at such a time."
And speaking this to himself, as it were, Rivers approached the side-table, where stood the commodities he sought. In this approach the maiden had a more perfect view of the malignities of his savage face; and as he left the table, and again commenced a brief conversation in an under-tone with Munro, no longer doubting the dreadful object which they had in view, she seized the opportunity with as much speed as was consistent with caution and her trembling nerves, to leave the place of espionage, and seek her chamber.
But to what purpose had she heard all this, if she suffered the fearful deed to proceed to execution? The thought was momentary, but carried to her heart, in that moment, the fullest conviction of her duty.
She rushed hurriedly again into the passage—and, though apprehending momentarily that her knees would sink from under her, took her way up the narrow flight of steps leading into the second story, and to the youth's chamber. As she reached the door, a feminine scruple came over her. A young girl seeking the apartment of a man at midnight—she shrunk back with a new feeling. But the dread necessity drove her on, and with cautious hand undoing the latch securing the door by thrusting her hand through an interstice between the logs—wondering at the same time at the incautious manner in which, at such a period and place, the youth had provided for his sleeping hours—she stood tremblingly within the chamber.
Wrapped in unconscious slumbers, Ralph Colleton lay dreaming upon his rude couch of a thousand strange influences and associations. His roving fancies had gone to and fro, between his uncle and his bewitching cousin, until his heart grew softened and satisfied, not less with the native pleasures which they revived in his memory, than of the sweet oblivion which they brought of the many painful and perilous prospects with which he had more recently become familiar. He had no thought of the present, and the pictures of the past were all rich and ravishing. To his wandering sense at that moment there came a sweet vision of beauty and love—of an affection warmly cherished—green as the summer leaves—fresh as its flowers—flinging odors about his spirit, and re-awakening in its fullest extent the partially slumbering passion—reviving many a hope, and provoking with many a delicious anticipation. The form of the one, lovely beyond comparison, flitted before him, while her name, murmured with words of passion by his parted lips, carried with its utterance a sweet promise of a pure faith, and an unforgetting affection. Never once, since the hour of his departure from home, had he, in his waking moments, permitted that name to find a place upon his lips, and now syllabled into sound by them in his unconscious dreams, it fell with a stunning influence upon an auditor, whose heart grew colder in due proportion with the unconscious but warm tenderness of epithet with which his tongue coupled its utterance.
The now completely unhappy Lucy stood sad and statue-like. She heard enough to teach her the true character of her own feelings for one, whose articulated dreams had revealed the secret of his passion for another; and almost forgetting for a while the office upon which she had come, she continued to give ear to those sounds which brought to her heart only additional misery.
How long Ralph, in his mental wanderings, would have gone on, as we have seen, incoherently developing his heart's history, may not be said. Gathering courage at last, with a noble energy, the maiden proceeded to her proposed duty, and his slumbers were broken. With a half-awakened consciousness he raised himself partially up in his couch, and sought to listen. He was not deceived; a whispered sentence came to his ears, addressed to himself, and succeeded by a pause of several moments' continuance. Again his name was uttered. Half doubting his senses, he passed his hand repeatedly over his eyes, and again listened for the repetition of that voice, the identity of which he had as yet failed utterly to distinguish. The sounds were repeated, and the words grew more and more distinct. He now caught in part the tenor of the sentence, though imperfectly heard. It seemed to convey some warning of danger, and the person who spoke appeared, from the tremulous accents, to labor under many apprehensions. The voice proceeded with increased emphasis, advising his instant departure from the house—speaking of nameless dangers—of murderous intrigue and conspiracy, and warning against even the delay of a single instant.
The character of Ralph was finely marked, and firmness of purpose and a ready decision were among its most prominent attributes. Hastily leaping from his couch, therefore, with a single bound he reached the door of his chamber, which, to his astonishment, he found entirely unfastened. The movement was so sudden and so entirely unlooked-for, that the intruder was taken by surprise; and beheld, while the youth closed securely the entrance, the hope of escape entirely cut off. Ralph advanced toward his visiter, the dim outline of whose person was visible upon the wall. Lifting his arm as he approached, what was his astonishment to perceive the object of his assault sink before him upon the floor, while the pleading voice of a woman called upon him for mercy.
"Spare me, Mr. Colleton—spare me"—she exclaimed, in undisguised terror.
"You here, Miss Munro, and at this hour of the night!" was the wondering inquiry, as he lifted her from the floor, her limbs, trembling with agitation, scarcely able to support even her slender form.
"Forgive me, sir, forgive me. Think not ill of me, I pray you. I come to save you,—indeed, Mr. Colleton, I do—and nothing, believe me, would have brought me here but the knowledge of your immediate danger."
She felt the delicacy of her situation, and recognising her motive readily, we will do him the justice to say, Ralph felt it too in the assurance of her lips. A respectful delicacy pervaded his manner as he inquired earnestly:—
"What is this danger, Miss Munro? I believe you fear for me, but may you not have exaggerated the cause of alarm to yourself? What have I to fear—from what would you save me?"
"Nay, ask me not, sir, but fly. There is but little time for explanation, believe me. I know and do not imagine the danger. I can not tell you all, nor can you with safety bestow the time to hear. Your murderers are awake—they are in this very house, and nothing but instant flight can save you from their hands."
"But from whom, Miss Munro, am I to fear all this? What has given you this alarm, which, until you can give me some clue to this mystery, I must regard as unadvised and without foundation. I feel the kindness and interest of your solicitude—deeply feel, and greatly respect it; but, unless you can give me some reasonable ground for your fears, I must be stubborn in resisting a connection which would have me fly like a midnight felon, without having seen the face of my foe."
"Oh, heed not these false scruples. There is no shame in such a flight, and believe me, sir, I speak not unadvisedly. Nothing, but the most urgent and immediate danger would have prompted me, at this hour, to come here. If you would survive this night, take advantage of the warning and fly. This moment you must determine—I know not, indeed, if it be not too late even now for your extrication. The murderers, by this time, may be on the way to your chamber, and they will not heed your prayers, and they will scorn any defence which you might offer."
"But who are they of whom you speak, Miss Munro? If I must fly, let me at least know from what and whom. What are my offences, and whom have I offended?"
"That is soon told, though I fear, sir, we waste the time in doing so. You have offended Rivers, and you know but little of him if you think it possible for him to forget or forgive where once injured, however slightly. The miners generally have been taught to regard you as one whose destruction alone can insure their safety from punishment for their late aggressions. My uncle too, I grieve to say it, is too much under the influence of Rivers, and does indeed just what his suggestions prescribe. They have plotted your death, and will not scruple at its performance. They are even now below meditating its execution. By the merest good fortune I overheard their design, from which I feel persuaded nothing now can make them recede. Rely not on their fear of human punishment. They care perhaps just as little for the laws of man as of God, both of which they violate hourly with impunity, and from both of which they have always hitherto contrived to secure themselves. Let me entreat, therefore, that you will take no heed of that manful courage which would be honorable and proper with a fair enemy. Do not think that I am a victim to unmeasured and womanly fears. I have seen too much of the doings of these men, not to feel that no fancies of mine can do them injustice. They would murder you in your bed, and walk from the scene of their crime with confidence into the very courts of justice."
"I believe you, Miss Munro, and nothing doubt the correctness of your opinion with regard to the character of these men. Indeed, I have reason to know that what you say of Rivers, I have already realized in my own person. This attempt, if he makes it, will be the second in which he has put my life in hazard, and I believe him, therefore, not too good for any attempt of this evil nature. But why may I not defend myself from the assassins? I can make these logs tenable till daylight from all their assaults, and then I should receive succor from the villagers without question. You see, too, I have arms which may prove troublesome to an enemy."
"Trust not these chances; let me entreat that you rely not upon them. Were you able, as you say, to sustain yourself for the rest of the night in this apartment, there would be no relief in the morning, for how would you make your situation understood? Many of the villagers will have flown before to-morrow into the nation, until the pursuit is well over, which will most certainly be commenced before long. Some of them have already gone, having heard of the approach of the residue of the Georgia guard, to which the survivors at the late affair bore the particulars. Those who venture to remain will not come nigh this house, dreading to be involved in the difficulties which now threaten its occupants. Their caution would only be the more increased on hearing of any commotion. Wait not, therefore, I implore you, for the dawning of the day: it could never dawn to you. Rivers I know too well; he would overreach you by some subtlety or other; and how easy, even while we speak, to shoot you down through these uneven logs. Trust not, trust not, I entreat you; there is a sure way of escape, and you still have time, if at once you avail yourself of it."
The maid spoke with earnestness and warmth, for the terrors of her mind had given animation to her anxiety, while she sought to persuade the somewhat stubborn youth into the proposed and certainly judicious flight she contemplated for him. Her trepidation had made her part with much of that retreating timidity which had usually distinguished her manner; and perfectly assured herself of the causes of her present apprehension, she did not scruple to exhibit—indeed she did not seem altogether conscious of—the deep interest which she took in the fate and fortunes of him who stood beside her.
Flattered as he must have been by the marked feeling, which she could neither disguise nor he mistake, the youth did not, how ever, for a moment seek to abuse it; but with a habit at once gentle and respectful, combated the various arguments and suggestions which, with a single eye to his safety, she urged for his departure. In so doing, he obtained from her all the particulars of her discovery, and was at length convinced that her apprehensions were by no means groundless. She had accidentally come upon the conspirators at an interesting moment in their deliberations, which at once revealed their object and its aim; and he at length saw that, except in flight, according to her proposition, the chances were against his escape at all. While they thus deliberated, the distant sound of a chair falling below, occurring at an hour so unusual, gave an added force to her suggestions, and while it prompted anew her entreaties, greatly diminished his reluctance to the flight.
"I will do just as you advise. I know not, Miss Munro, why my fate and fortune should have provoked in you such an interest, unless it be that yours being a less selfish sex than ours, you are not apt to enter into calculations as to the loss of quiet or of personal risk, which, in so doing, you may incur. Whatever be the motive, however, I am grateful for its effects, and shall not readily forget the gentleness of that spirit which has done so much for the solace and the safety of one so sad in its aspect and so much a stranger in all respects."
The youth spoke with a tone and manner the most tender yet respectful, which necessarily relieved from all perplexity that feeling of propriety and maiden delicacy which otherwise must have made her situation an awkward one. Ralph was not so dull, however, as not to perceive that to a livelier emotion he might in justice attribute the conduct of his companion; but, with a highly-honorable fastidiousness, he himself suggested a motive for her proceeding which her own delicacy rendered improper for her utterance. Still the youth was not marble exactly: and, as he spoke, his arm gently encircled her waist; and her form, as if incapable of its own support, hung for a moment, with apathetic lifelessness, upon his bosom; while her head, with an impulse not difficult to define, drooped like a bending and dewy lily upon his arm. But the passive emotion, if we may so style it, was soon over; and, with an effort, in which firmness and feebleness strongly encountered, she freed herself from his hold with an erect pride of manner, which gave a sweet finish to the momentary display which she had made of womanly weakness. Her voice, as she called upon him to follow her into the passage, was again firm in a moment, and pervaded by a cold ease which seemed to him artificial:—
"There is but little time left you now, sir, for escape: it were criminal not to use it. Follow me boldly, but cautiously—I will lead the way—the house is familiar to me, in night and day, and there must be no waste of time."
He would have resisted this conduct, and himself taken the lead in the advance; but, placing her small and trembling hand upon his arm, she insisted upon the course she had prescribed, and in a manner which he did not venture to resist. Their steps were slow into the open space which, seeming as an introduction to, at the same time separated the various chambers of the dwelling, and terminated in the large and cumbrous stairway which conducted to the lower story, and to which their course was now directed. The passage was of some length, but with cautious tread they proceeded in safety and without noise to the head of the stairway, when the maiden, who still preserved the lead, motioned him back, retreating herself, as she did so, into the cover of a small recess, formed by the stairs, which it partially overhung, and presenting a doubtful apology for a closet. Its door hung upon a broken and single hinge, unclosed—leaving, however, so small an aperture, that it might be difficult to account for their entrance.
There, amid the dust and mystery of time-worn household trumpery, old saddles, broken bridles, and more than one dismembered harness, they came to a pause, and were enabled now to perceive the realization in part of her apprehensions. A small lantern, the rays of light from which feebly made their way through a single square in front, disclosed to the sight the dim forms of the two assassins, moving upward to the contemplated deed of blood.
The terrors of Lucy, as she surveyed their approach, were great; but, with a mind and spirit beyond those commonly in the possession of her sex, she was enabled to conquer and rise above them; and, though her heart beat with a thick and hurried apprehension, her soul grew calmer the more closely approached the danger. Her alarm, to the mind of Ralph, was now sufficiently justified, as, looking through a crevice in the narrow apartment in which he stood, he beheld the malignant and hell-branded visage of Rivers, peering like a dim and baleful light in advance of his companion, in whose face a partial glimmer of the lamp revealed a something of reluctance, which rendered it doubtful how far Munro had in reality gone willingly on the task.
It was, under all the circumstances, a curious survey for the youth. He was a man of high passions, sudden of action, impetuous and unhesitating. In a fair field, he would not have been at a loss for a single moment; but here, the situation was so new, that he was more and more undetermined in his spirit. He saw them commissioned with his murder—treading, one by one, the several steps below him—approaching momently higher and higher—and his heart beat audibly with conflicting emotions; while with one hand he grasped convulsively and desperately the handle of his dirk, the other being fully employed in sustaining the almost fainting form of his high-souled but delicate companion. He felt that, if discovered, he could do little in his defence and against assault; and though without a thought but that of fierce struggle to the last, his reason taught him to perceive with how little hope of success.
As the assassins continued to advance, he could distinctly trace every change of expression in their several countenances. In that of Rivers, linked with the hideousness that his wound conferred upon it, he noted the more wicked workings of a spirit, the fell character of whose features received no moderate exaggeration from the dim and flickering glare of the lamp which his hand unsteadily carried. The whole face had in it something awfully fearful. He seemed, in its expression, already striking the blow at the breast of his victim, or rioting with a fiendish revenge in his groaned agonies. A brief dialogue between his companion and himself more fully describes the character of the monster.
"Stay—you hurry too much in this matter," said Munro, putting his hand on that of Rivers, and restraining his steps for a moment as he paused, seemingly to listen. He continued—
"Your hand trembles, Rivers, and you let your lamp dance about too much to find it useful. Your footstep is unsteady, and but now the stairs creaked heavily beneath you. You must proceed with more caution, or we shall be overheard. These are sleepless times, and this youth, who appears to trouble you more than man ever troubled you before, may be just as much awake as ourselves. If you are determined in this thing, be not imprudent."
Rivers, who, on reaching the head of the flight, had been about to move forward precipitately, now paused, though with much reluctance; and to the speech of his companion, with a fearful expression of the lips, which, as they parted, disclosed the teeth white and closely clinched beneath them, replied, though without directly referring to its import—
"If I am determined—do you say!—But is not that the chamber where he sleeps?"
"No; old Barton sleeps there—he sleeps at the end of the gallery. Be calm—why do you work your fingers in that manner?"
"See you not my knife is in them? I thought at that moment that it was between his ribs, and working about in his heart. It was a sweet fancy, and, though I could not hear his groans as I stooped over him to listen, I almost thought I felt them."
The hand of the maiden grasped that of Ralph convulsively as these muttered words came to their ears, and her respiration grew more difficult and painful. He shuddered at the vindictive spirit which the wretch exhibited, while his own, putting on a feller and a fiercer temper, could scarcely resist the impulse which would have prompted him at once to rush forth and stab him where he stood. But the counsels of prudence had their influence, and he remained quiet and firm. The companion of the ruffian felt no less than his other hearers the savage nature of his mood, as thus, in his own way, he partially rebuked it:
"These are horrid fancies, Rivers—more like those which we should look to find in a panther than in a man; and you delight in them quite too much. Can you not kill your enemy without drinking his blood?"
"And where then would be the pleasure of revenge?"—he muttered, between his closed teeth. "The soldier who in battle slays his opponent, hates him not—he has no personal animosity to indulge. The man has never crossed his path in love or in ambition—yet he shoots him down, ruthlessly and relentlessly. Shall he do no more who hates, who fears, who sickens at the sight of the man who has crossed his path in love and in ambition? I tell you, Munro, I hate this boy—this beardless, this overweening and insolent boy. He has overthrown, he has mortified me, where I alone should have stood supreme and supereminent. He has wronged me—it may be without intention; but, what care I for that qualification. Shall it be less an evil because he by whom it is perpetrated has neither the soul nor the sense to be conscious of his error. The child who trifles with the powder-match is lessoned by the explosion which destroys him. It must be so with him. I never yet forgave a wrong, however slight and unimportant—I never will. It is not in my nature to do so; and as long as this boy can sleep at night, I can not. I will not seek to sleep until he is laid to rest for ever!"
The whole of this brief dialogue, which had passed directly beside the recess in which the maiden and youth had taken shelter, was distinctly audible to them both. The blood of Ralph boiled within him at this latter speech of the ruffian, in which he avowed a spirit of such dire malignity, as, in its utter disproportionateness to the supposed offence of the youth, could only have been sanctioned by the nature which he had declared to have always been his prompter; and, at its close, the arm of the youth, grasping his weapon, was involuntarily stretched forth, and an instant more would have found it buried in the bosom of the wretch—but the action did not escape the quick eye of his companion, who, though trembling with undiminished terror, was yet mistress of all her senses, and perceived the ill-advised nature of his design. With a motion equally involuntary and sudden with his own, her taper fingers grasped his wrist, and her eyes bright with dewy lustres, were directed upward, sweetly and appealingly to those which now bent themselves down upon her. In that moment of excitement and impending terror, a consciousness of her situation and a sense of shame which more than ever agitated her, rushed through her mind, and she leaned against the side of the closet for that support for which her now revived and awakened scruples forbade any reference to him from whom she had so recently received it. Still, there was nothing abrupt or unkind in her manner, and the youth did not hesitate again to place his arm around and in support of the form which, in reality, needed his strength. In doing so, however, a slight noise was the consequence, which the quick sense of Rivers readily discerned.
"Hark!—heard you nothing, Munro—no sound? Hear you no breathing?—It seems at hand—in that closet."
"Thou hast a quick ear to-night, Guy, as well as a quick step. I heard, and hear nothing, save the snorings of old Barton, whose chamber is just beside you to the left. He has always had a reputation for the wild music which his nose contrives, during his sleep, to keep up in his neighborhood."
"It came from the opposite quarter, Munro, and was not unlike the suppressed respiration of one who listens."
"Pshaw! that can not be. There is no chamber there. That is but the old closet in which we store away lumber. You are quite too regardful of your senses. They will keep us here all night, and the fact is, I wish the business well over."
"Where does Lucy sleep?"
"In the off shed-room below. What of her?"
"Of her—oh nothing!" and Rivers paused musingly in the utterance of this reply, which fell syllable by syllable from his lips. The landlord proceeded:—
"Pass on, Rivers; pass on: or have you determined better about this matter? Shall the youngster live? Indeed, I see not that his evidence, even if he gives it, which I very much doubt, can do us much harm, seeing that a few days more will put us out of the reach of judge and jury alike."
"You would have made a prime counsellor and subtle disputant, Munro, worthy of the Philadelphia lawyers," returned the other, in a sneer. "You think only of one part of this subject, and have no passions, no emotions: you can talk all day long on matters of feeling, without showing any. Did I not say but now, that while that boy slept I could not?"
"Are you sure that when he ceases to sleep the case will be any better?"
The answer to this inquiry was unheard, as the pair passed on to the tenantless chamber. Watching their progress, and under the guidance of the young maiden, who seemed endued with a courage and conduct worthy of more experience and a stronger sex, the youth emerged from his place of precarious and uncomfortable concealment, and descended to the lower floor. A few moments sufficed to throw the saddle upon his steed, without arousing the sable groom; and having brought him under the shadow of a tree at some little distance from the house, he found no further obstruction in the way of his safe and sudden flight. He had fastened the door of his chamber on leaving it, with much more caution than upon retiring for the night; and having withdrawn the key, which he now hurled into the woods, he felt assured that, unless the assassins had other than the common modes of entry, he should gain a little time from the delay they would experience from this interruption; and this interval, returning to the doorway, he employed in acknowledgments which were well due to the young and trembling woman who stood beside him.
"Take this little token, sweet Lucy," said he, throwing about her neck the chain and casket which he had unbound from his own—"take this little token of Ralph Colleton's gratitude for this night's good service. I shall redeem it, if I live, at a more pleasant season, but you must keep it for me now. I will not soon forget the devotedness with which, on this occasion, you have perilled so much for a stranger. Should we never again meet, I pray you to remember me in your prayers, and I shall always remember you in mine."
He little knew, while he thus spoke in a manner so humbly of himself, of the deep interest which his uniform gentleness of manner and respectful deference, so different from what she had been accustomed to encounter, had inspired in her bosom; and so small at this period was his vanity, that he did not trust himself for a moment to regard the conjecture—which ever and anon thrust itself upon him—that the fearless devotion of the maiden in his behalf and for his safety, had in reality a far more selfish origin than the mere general humanity of her sex and spirit. We will not say that she would not have done the same by any other member of the human family in like circumstances; but it is not uncharitable to believe that she would have been less anxiously interested, less warm in her interest, and less pained in the event of an unfortunate result.
Clasping the gorgeous chain about her neck, his arm again gently encircled her waist, her head drooped upon her bosom—she did not speak—she appeared scarcely to feel. For a moment, life and all its pulses seemed resolutely at a stand; and with some apprehensions, the youth drew her to his bosom, and spoke with words full of tenderness. She made no answer to his immediate speech; but her hands, as if unconsciously, struck the spring which locked the casket that hung upon the chain, and the miniature lay open before her, the dim light of the moon shining down upon it. She reclosed it suddenly, and undoing it from the chain, placed it with a trembling hand in his own; and with an effort of calm and quiet playfulness, reminded him of the unintended gift. He received it, but only to place it again in her hand, reuniting it to the chain.
"Keep it," said he, "Miss Munro—keep it until I return to reclaim it. It will be as safe in your hands—much safer, indeed, than in mine. She whose features it describes will not chide, that, at a moment of peril, I place it in the care of one as gentle as herself."
Her eyes were downcast, as, again receiving it, she inquired with a girlish curiosity, "Is her name Edith, Mr. Colleton, of whom these features are the likeness!"
The youth, surprised by the question, met the inquiry with another.
"How know you?—wherefore do you ask?"
She saw his astonishment, and with a calm which had not, during the whole scene between them, marked her voice or demeanor, she replied instantly:—
"No matter—no matter, sir. I know not well why I put the question—certainly with no object, and am now more than answered."
The youth pondered over the affair in silence for a few moments, but desirous of satisfying the curiosity of the maiden, though on a subject and in relation to one of whom he had sworn himself to silence—wondering, at the same time, not less at the inquiry than the knowledge which it conveyed, of that which he had locked up, as he thought, in the recesses of his own bosom—was about to reply, when a hurried step, and sudden noise from the upper apartment of the house, warned them of the dangers of further delay. The maiden interrupted with rapid tones the speech he was about to commence:—
"Fly, sir—fly. There is no time to be lost. You have lingered too long already. Do not hesitate longer—you have heard the determination of Rivers—this disappointment will only make him more furious. Fly, then, and speak not. Take the left road at the fork: it leads to the river. It is the dullest, and if they pursue, they will be most likely to fall into the other."
"Farewell, then, my good, my protecting angel—I shall not forget you—have no apprehensions for me—I have now but few for myself. Yet, ere I go—" and he bent down, and before she was conscious of his design, his lips were pressed warmly to her pale and beautiful forehead. "Be not vexed—chide me not," he murmured—"regard me as a brother—if I live I shall certainly become one. Farewell!"
Leaping with a single bound to his saddle, he stood erect for a moment, then vigorously applying his spurs, he had vanished in an instant from the sight. She paused in the doorway until the sounds of his hurrying progress had ceased to fall upon her ears; then, with a mournful spirit and heavy step, slowly re-entered the apartment.
THE OUTLAW AND HIS VICTIM.
Lucy Munro re-entered the dwelling at a moment most inopportune. It was not less her obvious policy than desire—prompted as well by the necessity of escaping the notice and consequent suspicions of those whom she had defrauded of their prey, as by a due sense of that delicate propriety which belonged to her sex, and which her education, as the reader will have conjectured, had taught her properly to estimate—that made her now seek to avoid scrutiny or observation at the moment of her return. Though the niece, and now under the sole direction and authority of Munro, she was the child of one as little like that personage in spirit and pursuit as may well be imagined. It is not necessary that we should dwell more particularly upon this difference. It happened with the two brothers, as many of us have discovered in other cases, that their mental and moral make, though seemingly under the same tutorship, was widely dissimilar. The elder Munro, at an early period in life, broke through all restraints—defied all responsibilities—scorned all human consequences—took no pride or pleasure in any of its domestic associations—and was only known as a vicious profligate, with whom nothing might be done in the way of restraint or reformation. When grown to manhood, he suddenly left his parental home, and went, for a time, no one could say whither. When heard of, it appeared from all accounts that his licentiousness of habit had not deserted him: still, however, it had not, as had been anticipated, led to any fearful or very pernicious results. Years passed on, the parents died, and the brothers grew more than ever separate; when, in different and remote communities, they each took wives to themselves.
The younger, Edgar Munro, the father of Lucy, grew prosperous in business—for a season at least—and, until borne down by a rush of unfavorable circumstances, he spared neither pains nor expense in the culture of the young mind of that daughter whose fortunes are now somewhat before us. Nothing which might tend in the slightest to her personal improvement had been withheld; and the due feminine grace and accomplishment which followed these cares fitted the maiden for the most refined intellectual converse, and for every gentle association. She was familiar with books; had acquired a large taste for letters; and a vein of romantic enthusiasm, not uncommon to the southern temperament, and which she possessed in a considerable degree, was not a little sharpened and exaggerated by the works which fell into her hands.
Tenderly loved and gently nurtured by her parents, it was at that period in her life in which their presence and guardianship were most seriously needed, that she became an orphan; and her future charge necessarily devolved upon an uncle, between whom and her father, since their early manhood, but little association of any kind had taken place. The one looked upon the other as too licentious, if not criminally so, in his habits and pursuits; he did not know their extent, or dream of their character, or he had never doubted for an instant; while he, in turn, so estimated, did not fail to consider and to style his more sedate brother an inveterate and tedious proser; a dull sermonizer on feelings which he knew nothing about, and could never understand—one who prosed on to the end of the chapter, without charm or change, worrying all about him with exhortations to which they yielded no regard.
The parties were fairly quits, and there was no love lost between them. They saw each other but seldom, and, when the surviving brother took up his abode in the new purchase, as the Indian acquisitions of modern times have been usually styled, he was lost sight of, for a time, entirely, by his more staid and worthy kinsman.
Still, Edgar Munro did not look upon his brother as utterly bad. A wild indifference to social forms, and those staid customs which in the estimation of society become virtues, was, in his idea, the most serious error of which Walter had been guilty. In this thought he persisted to the last, and did not so much feel the privations to which his death must subject his child, in the belief and hope that his brother would not only be able but willing to supply the loss.
In one respect he was not mistaken. The afflictions which threw the niece of Walter a dependant upon his bounty, and a charge upon his attention, revived in some measure his almost smothered and in part forgotten regards of kindred; and with a tolerably good grace he came forward to the duty, and took the orphan to the asylum, such as it was, to which his brother's death-bed prayer had recommended her. At first, there was something to her young mind savoring of the romance to which she had rather given herself up, in the notion of a woodland cottage, and rural sports, and wild vines gadding fantastically around secluded bowers; but the reality—the sad reality of such a home and its associations—pressed too soon and heavily upon her to permit her much longer to entertain or encourage the dream of that glad fancy in which she originally set out.
The sphere to which she was transferred, it was soon evident, was neither grateful to the heart nor suited to the mind whose education had been such as hers; and the spirit of the young maiden, at all times given rather to a dreamy melancholy than to any very animated impulses, put on, in its new abiding-place, a garb of increased severity, which at certain moments indicated more of deep and settled misanthropy than any mere constitutionality of habit.
Munro was not at all times rude of speech and manner; and, when he pleased, knew well how so to direct himself as to sooth such a disposition. He saw, and in a little while well understood, the temper of his niece; and, with a consideration under all circumstances rather creditable, he would most usually defer, with a ready accommodation of his own, to her peculiarities. He was pleased and proud of her accomplishments; and from being thus proud, so far as such an emotion could consistently comport with a life and a licentiousness such as his, he had learned, in reality, to love the object who could thus awaken a sentiment so much beyond those inculcated by all his other habits. To her he exhibited none of the harsh manner which marked his intercourse with all other persons; and in his heart sincerely regretted, and sought to avoid the necessity which, as we have elsewhere seen, had made him pledge her hand to Rivers—a disposition of it which he knew was no less galling and painful to her than it was irksome yet unavoidable to himself.
Unhappily, however, for these sentiments, he was too much under the control and at the mercy of his colleague to resist or refuse his application for her person; and though for a long time baffling, under various pretences, the pursuit of that ferocious ruffian, he felt that the time was at hand, unless some providential interference willed it otherwise, when the sacrifice would be insisted on and must be made; or probably her safety, as well as his own, might necessarily be compromised. He knew too well the character of Rivers, and was too much in his power, to risk much in opposition to his will and desires: and, as we have already heard him declare, from having been at one time, and in some respects, the tutor, he had now become, from the operation of circumstances, the mere creature and instrument of that unprincipled wretch.
Whatever may have been the crimes of Munro beyond those already developed—known to and in the possession of Rivers—and whatever the nature of those ties, as well of league as of mutual risk, which bound the parties together in such close affinity, it is not necessary that we should state, nor, indeed, might it be altogether within our compass or capacity to do so. Their connection had, we doubt not, many ramifications; and was strengthened, there is little question, by a thousand mutual necessities, resulting from their joint and frequently-repeated violations of the laws of the land. They were both members of an irregular club, known by its constituents in Georgia as the most atrocious criminal that ever offended society or defied its punishments; and the almost masonic mysteries and bond which distinguished the members provided them with a pledge of security which gave an added impetus to their already reckless vindictiveness against man and humanity. In a country, the population of which, few and far between, is spread over a wide, wild, and little-cultivated territory, the chances of punishment for crime, rarely realized, scarcely occasioned a thought among offenders; and invited, by the impunity which marked their atrocities, their reiterated commission. We have digressed, however, somewhat from our narrative, but thus much was necessary to the proper understanding of the portions immediately before us, and to the consideration of which we now return.
The moment was inopportune, as we have already remarked, at which Lucy Munro endeavored to effect her return to her own apartment. She was compelled, for the attainment of this object, to cross directly over the great hall, from the room adjoining and back of which the little shed-room projected in which she lodged. This hall was immediately entered upon from the passage-way, leading into the court in front, and but a few steps were necessary for its attainment. The hall had but a single outlet besides that through which she now entered, and this led at once into the adjoining apartment, through which only could she make her way to her own. Unhappily, this passage also contained the stairway flight which led into the upper story of the building; and, in her haste to accomplish her return, she had penetrated too far to effect her retreat, when a sudden change of direction in the light which Rivers carried sufficed to develop the form of that person, at the foot of the stairs, followed by Munro, just returning from the attempt which she had rendered fruitless, and now approaching directly toward her.
Conscious of the awkwardness of her situation, and with a degree of apprehension which now for the first time seemed to paralyze her faculties, she endeavored, but with some uncertainty and hesitation of manner, to gain the shelter of the wall which stretched dimly beside her; a hope not entirely vain, had she pursued it decisively, since the lamp which Rivers carried gave forth but a feeble ray, barely adequate to the task of guiding the footsteps of those who employed it. But the glance of the outlaw, rendered, it would seem, more malignantly penetrating from his recent disappointment, detected the movement; and though, from the imperfectness of the light, uncertain of the object, with a ready activity, the result of a conviction that the long-sought-for victim was now before him, he sprang forward, flinging aside the lamp as he did so, and grasping with one hand and with rigid gripe the almost-fainting girl: the other, brandishing a bared knife, was uplifted to strike, when her shrieks arrested the blow.
Disappointed in not finding the object he sought, the fury of the outlaw was rather heightened than diminished when he discovered that his arm only encircled a young and terrified female; and his teeth were gnashed in token of the bitter wrath in his bosom, and angry curses came from his lips in the undisguised vexation of his spirit. In the meantime, Munro advanced, and the lamp having been dashed out in the onset of Rivers, they were still ignorant of the character of their prisoner, until, having somewhat recovered from her first alarm, and struggling for deliverance from the painful gripe which secured her arm, she exclaimed—
"Unhand me, sir—unhand me, on the instant. What mean you by this violence?"
"Ha! it is you then, fair mistress, that have done this work. It is you that have meddled in the concerns of men, prying into their plans, and arresting their execution. By my soul, I had not thought you so ready or so apt; but how do you reconcile it to your notions of propriety to be abroad at an hour which is something late for a coy damsel? Munro, you must look to these rare doings, or they will work you some difficulty in time to come."
Munro advanced and addressed her with some sternness—"Why are you abroad, Lucy, and at this hour? why this disquietude, and what has alarmed you?—why have you left your chamber?"
The uncle did not obtain, nor indeed did he appear to expect, any answer to his inquiries. In the meanwhile, Rivers held possession of her arm, and she continued fruitlessly struggling for some moments in his grasp, referring at length to the speaker for that interference which he now appeared slow to manifest.
"Oh, sir! will you suffer me to be treated thus—will you not make this man undo his hold, and let me retire to my chamber?"
"You should have been there long before this, Lucy," was the reply, in a grave, stern accent. "You must not complain, if, found thus, at midnight, in a part of the building remote from your chamber, you should be liable to suspicions of meddling with things which should not concern you."
"Come, mistress—pray answer to this. Where have you been to-night—what doing—why abroad? Have you been eavesdropping—telling tales—hatching plots?"
The natural ferocity of Rivers's manner was rather heightened by the tone which he assumed. The maiden, struggling still for the release for which her spirit would not suffer her to implore, exclaimed:—
"Insolent! By what right do you ask me these or any questions? Unhand me, coward—unhand me. You are strong and brave only where the feeble are your opponents."
But he maintained his grasp with even more rigidity than before; and she turned towards the spot at which stood her uncle, but he had left the apartment for a light.
"Your speech is bold, fair mistress, and ill suits my temper. You must be more chary of your language, or you will provoke me beyond my own strength of restraint. You are my property—my slave, if I so please it, and all your appeals to your uncle will be of no effect. Hark you! you have done that to-night for which I am almost tempted to put this dagger into your heart, woman as you are! You have come between me and my victim—between me and my enemy. I had summed up all my wrongs, intending their settlement to-night. You have thwarted all my hopes—you have defrauded me of all my anticipations. What is it prevents me from putting you to death on the spot? Nothing. I have no fears, no loves, to hold and keep me back. I live but for revenge, and that which stays and would prevent me from its enjoyment, must also become its victim."
At this moment, Munro returned with a lamp. The affrighted girl again appealed to him, but he heeded her not. He soon left the passage, and the outlaw proceeded:—
"You love this youth—nay, shrink not back; let not your head droop in shame; he is worthy of your love, and for this, among other things, I hate him. He is worthy of the love of others, and for this, too, I hate him. Fool that you are, he cares not for you. 'Spite of all your aid to-night, he will not remember you to-morrow—he has no thought of you—his hope is built upon—he is wedded to another.
"Hear me, then! your life is in my hands, and at my mercy. There are none present who could interfere and arrest the blow. My dagger is even now upon your bosom—do you not feel it? At a word—a single suggestion of my thought—it performs its office, and for this night's defeat I am half revenged. You may arrest my arm—you may procure your release—even more—you may escape from the bondage of that union with me for which your uncle stands pledged, if you please."
"Speak—say—how!" was the eager exclamation of the maiden when this last suggestion met her ears.
"Put me on the scent—say on what route have you sent this boy, that I may realize the revenge I so often dream of."
"Never, never, as I hope to live. I would rather you should strike me dead on the spot."
"Why, so I will," he exclaimed furiously, and his arm rose and the weapon descended, but he arrested the stroke as it approached her.
"No! not yet. There will be time enough for this, and you will perhaps be more ready and resigned when I have got rid of this youth in whom you are so much interested. I need not disguise my purpose to you—you must have known it, when conspiring for its defeat; and now, Lucy, be assured, I shall not slumber in pursuit of him. I may be delayed, my revenge may be protracted, but I shall close with him at last. With holding the clue which you may unfold, can not serve him very greatly; and having it in your hands, you may serve yourself and me. Take my offer—put me on his route, so that he shall not escape me, and be free henceforward from pursuit, or, as you phrase it, from persecution of mine."
"You offer highly, very highly, Guy Rivers, and I should be tempted to anything, save this. But I have not taken this step to undo it. I shall give you no clue, no assistance which may lead to crime and to the murder of the innocent. Release my hand, sir, and suffer me to retire."
"You have the means of safety and release in your own hands—a single condition complied with, and, so far as I am concerned, they are yours. Where is he gone—where secreted! What is the route which you have advised him to take? Speak, and to the point, Lucy Munro, for I may not longer be trifled with."
"He is safe, and by this time, I hope, beyond your reach. I tell you thus much, because I feel that it can not yield you more satisfaction than it yields to me."
"It is in vain, woman, that you would trifle with and delay me; he can not escape me in the end. All these woods are familiar to me, in night as in day, as the apartment in which we stand; and towards this boy I entertain a feeling which will endue me with an activity and energy as unshrinking in the pursuit as the appetite for revenge is keen which gives them birth and impulse. I hate him with a sleepless, an unforgiving hate, that can not be quieted. He has dishonored me in the presence of these men—he has been the instrument through which I bear this badge, this brand-stamp on my cheek—he has come between my passion and its object—nay, droop not—I have no reference now to you, though you, too, have been won by his insidious attractions, while he gives you no thought in return—he has done more than this, occasioned more than this, and wonder not that I had it in my heart at one moment to-night to put my dagger into your bosom, since through you it had been defrauded of its object. But why tremble—do you not tell me he is safe?"
"I do! and for this reason I tremble. I tremble with joy, not fear. I rejoice that through my poor help he is safe. I did it all. I sought him—hear me, Guy Rivers, for in his safety I feel strong to speak—I sought him even in his chamber, and felt no shame—I led the way—I guided him through all the avenues of the house—when you ascended the stairs we stood over it in the closet which is at its head. We beheld your progress—saw, and counted every step you took; heard every word you uttered; and more than once, when your fiend soul spoke through your lips, in horrible threatenings, my hand arrested the weapon with which the youth whom you now seek would have sent you to your long account, with all your sins upon your head. I saved you from his blow; not because you deserved to live, but because, at that moment, you were too little prepared to die."
It would be difficult to imagine—certainly impossible to describe, the rage of Rivers, as, with an excited spirit, the young girl, still trembling, as she expressed it, from joy, not fear, avowed all the particulars of Colleton's escape. She proceeded with much of the fervor and manner of one roused into all the inspiration of a holy defiance of danger:—
"Wonder not, therefore, that I tremble—my soul is full of joy at his escape. I heed not the sneer and the sarcasm which is upon your lips and in your eyes. I went boldly and confidently even into the chamber of the youth—I aroused him from his slumbers—I defied, at that moment of peril, what were far worse to me than your suspicions—I defied such as might have been his. I was conscious of no sin—no improper thought—and I called upon God to protect and to sanction me in what I had undertaken. He has done so, and I bless him for the sanction."
She sunk upon her knees as she spoke, and her lips murmured and parted as if in prayer, while the tears—tears of gladness—streamed warmly and abundantly from her eyes. The rage of the outlaw grew momently darker and less governable. The white foam collected about his mouth—while his hands, though still retaining their gripe upon hers, trembled almost as much as her own. He spoke in broken and bitter words.
"And may God curse you for it! You have dared much, Lucy Munro, this hour. You have bearded a worse fury than the tiger thirsting after blood. What madness prompts you to this folly? You have heard me avow my utter, uncontrollable hatred of this man—my determination, if possible, to destroy him, and yet you interpose. You dare to save him in my defiance. You teach him our designs, and labor to thwart them yourself. Hear me, girl! you know me well—you know I never threaten without execution. I can understand how it is that a spirit, feeling at this moment as does your own, should defy death. But, bethink you—is there nothing in your thought which is worse than death, from the terrors of which, the pure mind, however fortified by heroic resolution, must still shrink and tremble? Beware, then, how you chafe me. Say where the youth has gone, and in this way retrieve, if you can, the error which taught you to connive at his escape."
"I know not what you mean, and have no fears of anything you can do. On this point I feel secure, and bid you defiance. To think now, that, having chiefly effected the escape of the youth, I would place him again within your power, argues a degree of stupidity in me that is wantonly insulting. I tell you he has fled, by this time, beyond your reach. I say no more. It is enough that he is in safety; before a word of mine puts him in danger, I'll perish by your hands, or any hands."
"Then shall you perish, fool!" cried the ruffian; and his hand, hurried by the ferocious impulse of his rage, was again uplifted, when, in her struggles at freedom, a new object met his sight in the chain and portrait which Ralph had flung about her neck, and which, now falling from her bosom, arrested his attention, and seemed to awaken some recognition in his mind. His hold relaxed upon her arm, and with eager haste he seized the portrait, tearing it away with a single wrench from the rich chain to which it was appended, and which now in broken fragments was strewed upon the floor.
Lucy sprang towards him convulsively, and vainly endeavored at its recovery. Rivers broke the spring, and his eyes gazed with serpent-like fixedness upon the exquisitely beautiful features which it developed. His whole appearance underwent a change. The sternness had departed from his face which now put on an air of abstraction and wandering, not usually a habit with it. He gazed long and fixedly upon the portrait, unheeding the efforts of the girl to obtain it, and muttering at frequent intervals detached sentences, having little dependence upon one another:—
"Ay—it is she," he exclaimed—"true to the life—bright, beautiful, young, innocent—and I—But let me not think!"—
Then turning to the maid—
"Fond fool—see you the object of adoration with him whom you so unprofitably adore. He loves her, girl—she, whom I—but why should I tell it you? is it not enough that we have both loved and loved in vain; and, in my revenge, you too shall enjoy yours."
"I have nothing to revenge, Guy Rivers—nothing for you, above all others, to revenge. Give me the miniature; I have it in trust, and it must not go out of my possession."
She clung to him as she spoke, fruitlessly endeavoring at the recovery of that which he studiously kept from her reach. He parried her efforts for a while with something of forbearance; but ere long his original temper returned, and he exclaimed, with all the air of the demon:—
"Why will you tempt me, and why longer should I trifle? You cannot have the picture—it belongs, or should belong, as well as its original, to me. My concern is now with the robber from whom you obtained it. Will you not say upon what route he went? Will you not guide me—and, remember well—there are some terrors greater to your mind than any threat of death. Declare, for the last time—what road he took."
The maiden was still, and showed no sign of reply. Her eye wandered—her spirit was in prayer. She was alone with a ruffian, irresponsible and reckless, and she had many fears.
"Will you not speak?" he cried—"then you must hear. Disclose the fact, Lucy—say, what is the road, or what the course you have directed for this youth's escape, or—mark me! I have you in my power—my fullest power—with nothing to restrain my passion or my power, and—"
She struggled desperately to release herself from his grasp, but he renewed it with all his sinewy strength, enforcing, with a vicelike gripe, the consciousness, in her mind, of the futility of all her physical efforts.
"Do you not hear!" he said. "Do you comprehend me."
"Do your worst!" she cried. "Kill me! I defy your power and your malice!"
"Ha! but do you defy my passions. Hark ye, if ye fear not death, there is something worse than death to so romantic a damsel, which shall teach ye fear. Obey me, girl—report the route taken by this fugitive, or by all that is black in hell or bright in heaven, I—"
And with a whisper, he hissed the concluding and cruel threat in the ears of the shuddering and shrinking girl. With a husky horror in her voice, she cried out:—
"You dare not! monster as you are, you dare not!" then shrieking, at the full height of her voice—"Save me, uncle! save me! save me!"
"Save you! It is he that dooms you! He has given you up to any fate that I shall decree!"
"Liar! away! I defy you. You dare not, ruffian! Your foul threat is but meant to frighten me."
The creeping terrors of her voice, as she spoke, contradicted the tenor of her speech. Her fears—quite as extreme as he sought to make them—were fully evinced in her trembling accents.
"Frighten you!" answered the ruffian. "Frighten you! why, not so difficult a matter either! But it is as easy to do, as to threaten—to make you feel as to make you fear—and why not? why should you not become the thing at once for which you have been long destined? Once certainly mine, Lucy Munro, you will abandon the silly notion that you can be anything to Ralph Colleton! Come!—"
Her shrieks answered him. He clapped his handkerchief upon her mouth.
"Uncle! uncle! save me!"
She was half stifled—she felt breath and strength failing. Her brutal assailant was hauling her away, with a force to which she could no longer oppose resistance; and with a single half-ejaculated prayer—"Oh, God! be merciful!" she sunk senselessly at his feet, even as a falling corse.
"THOU SHALT DO NO MURDER!"
Even at this moment, Munro entered the apartment. He came not a moment too soon. Rivers had abused his opportunity thus far; and it is not to be doubted that he would have forborne none of the advantages which his brute strength afforded him over the feeble innocent, were it not for the interposition of the uncle. He had lied, when he had asserted to the girl the sanction of the uncle for his threatened crime. Munro was willing that his niece should become the wife of the outlaw, and barely willing to consent even to this; but for anything less than this—base as he was—he would sooner have braved every issue with the ruffian, and perished himself in defence of the girl's virtue. He had his pride of family, strange to say, though nursed and nestled in a bosom which could boast no other virtue.