« 上一頁繼續 »
ruffian leader, who had already reconnoitred the dwelling of his intended victim; the boat was carefully drawn up, and hidden in the tall reeds which fringed the river's bank ; water carried from the stream, and flung on the red embers of the fire; and, in Indian files, one after another, the ruffians took a narrow path cut through the tangled underwood, and followed their truculent commander.
Did no eye, save that which looks alike on innocence and guilt, observe them? Yes; the slave, whose canoe they had despoiled, directed by the fire, had traced the marauders, and, concealed in the thick brushwood, overheard their plans of murder. While making their final preparations, the negro glided through the coppice like a snake, and ran, at headlong speed, to alarm his devoted master. He reached the dwelling safely; but it was to alarm, and not to save!
The planter's country-house was wrapped in night and silence; the lights were extinguished, and the inmates buried in deep repose. From the lord to the serf, all felt the influence of that peaceful hour; and in the woods where he had toiled all day, the negro slept in his wigwam as soundly as his master; for, as the Indian adage goes, “ The lightest heart has ever the heaviest eye-lid.”
At that still hour, a dusky figure stole underneath the verandah of the planter's house, and sought a window in the rear. Twice, he tapped gently on the lattice; the third time, the sound was sharper-and it was heard and answered. To a person within, the negro communicated some intelligence, and the next moment a door was cautiously unclosed, and the late visitor admitted.
Whatever the tidings were, which this untimely messenger had brought, they seemed to have created an unusual sensation. From window to window lights flashed rapidly, and human figures flitted to and fro. But the alarm as speedily subsided; the lights disappeared; and darkness, denser apparently than before, returned ; and the ominous silence that succeeded, rendered the recent hurry the more remarkable.
The interval of this singular repose was brief—it was but a treacherous calm. Armed men issued quietly from the cover of the woods, and, halting at a little distance from the sleeping house, they held a rapid consultation. Presently, dividing into two bodies, they approached the planter's dwelling. One moved stealthily to the front —the other as cautiously stole round the rear. The marauders calculated upon effecting a surprise, but the negro fisherman had warned the inmates of their danger; and on the first attempt to force an entrance, a double discharge from a lower-lattice stretched two of the assailants on the ground ; while, in the rear, the attack proved equally disastrous.
It might have been expected, that, astounded at a sanguinary and unexpected repulse, the villains would have abandoned their design. But, desperate men, they brought with them desperate means, and, at the order of their leader, they flung lighted combustibles into the thatch which covered the edifice; and retiring for shelter behind the nearest trees, maintained a fusilade upon the house, and waited with demoniac patience the rapid progress of fire-their terrible auxiliary.
In a few minutes the roof was in a blaze, and the upper story, constructed entirely of wood-work, caught fire. Coolly the murderous ruffians watched the flames as they enveloped the edifice from front to rear; and assured of the result, they watched the crisis with fiendish pleasure.
It came:-all-above, below—the building was sheeted in fire. Suddenly, the negroes broke out from the blazing pile, and rushed towards the woods for safety. Two male slaves were instantly shot downthe others effected their escape.
“ Now, lads, look sharp,” roared the demon leader of the gang ; “ the traitor will bolt immediately. No mercy for Ramirez !”
The words were scarcely uttered before a white man, only halfdressed, and bearing a female in his arms, sprang from the burning ruins, followed closely by a tall powerful negro, with a bundle grasped by his left arm, and a cutlas flaming in his right hand. The leader dashed past the trees where the murderers had taken their stand, at headlong speed, apparently as little embarrassed with the female form he carried, as if his burden were an infant. The negro kept directly in his master's rear. A yell arose : half a dozen shots were discharged but not a bullet found its mark.
By Heaven ! the villain will escape us !” roared the piratecaptain, rushing from his concealment in pursuit. Another of the gang had already crossed his path, but the fugitive discharged a pistol, and shot the assailant dead. The occurrence caused a moment's delay. It was a fatal one : for Gaspard overtook his intended victim, and struck fiercely at him with a dagger. It missed the heart it aimed at, but found a sheath in the bosom of her whom the fugitive supported ; and before a surer blow could be delivered, with one trenchant sweep the negro's cutlass cleft the villain to the chin. The wood was gained— the fugitive believing that he held a living body in his arms ! Alas! that precious burden was only a breathless corpse !
That was the last effort of the murderers. A gang of wood-cutters, alarmed by the blaze and firing, had hurried to their master's domicile, while the murderous crew, eight in number, retreated to the woods; and for that time, darkness and a tangled copse concealed them.
They tell me that for an hour I gazed on the loved one in stupid indifference. I can believe it well : the blow was stunning. Not a slave ventured to approach me ; for even their dull natures respected the bereavement this terrible calamity had brought on. Gradually Dominique placed himself before me, holding my infant in his right arm ; for the left that clasped it when we broke from the burning pile,
; had been wounded by a random bullet.
“What would you, Dominique ?” I inquired, in tones of deep despondency.
“ Vengeance !” exclaimed the negro, in a voice of thunder. “Leave to woman's hands the duties owing to the dead, and let us together hunt down the murderers. Vengeance ! vengeance !"
The voice of my faithful follower changed at once the current of
my thoughts. I raised myself, looked proudly round, and called for food and wine. I ate bread—'twas a form ; I drank wine that was reality. I seized my rifle, dagger, pistols; Dominique armed the hardiest of
slaves; before the sun rose, we set out to visit blood for blood.
I was absent for three days and nights. I started warmly on the death-chase, and never was one more keenly followed up. I seemed insensible to fatigue-heat, hunger, thirst were disregarded. Of fiveand-twenty vigorous axe-men, accustomed from infancy to forest-life, by the second evening eighteen were worn out, and unable to proceed; and yet I and Dominique- and he with a wounded arm-pursued the traces of the murderers with unabated ardour. I ate not, slept not, but drank brandy and shed blood. Seven of the eight had already perished; but that eighth one lived; and without that ruffian's life, my vengeance was incomplete. On we went once more, and the human hunt continued.
We found the wretch, at last, stretched beneath a tree-worn down, impassive, unresisting. I drew a pistol from my belt-looked at the doomed one for a moment. Three had fallen, resisting, by my hand: as many more by Dominique's. “No," I said, as I replaced the weapon;
“ desire the slaves to string that felon up; thou and I, my friend, cannot stoop to be his executioners !”
I returned-witnessed the obsequies of my wife. That scene was too much for one already excited by maddening influences; my senses wandered—and memory deserts me.
A long, long gloomy epoch follows-ten years; long, long years! Mine was a melancholy state of being ; for they neither could call me mad, nor yet pronounce me sane. My child was placed in a neighbouring convent: she grew—was happy; and became, as the nuns averred, the favourite pensionnaire of a dozen. I saw her seldom ; for when I did, the striking likeness between her and her angel-mother for days unsettled reason. Meanwhile, worldly events went prosperously; and, Heaven knows, without the slightest wish to increase possessions already more than enough to defray every desire and want, still wealth flowed in upon me; and, in the list of rich Chilian proprietors, my name stood high.
There was one period of the year when my reason was invariably disturbed; the anniversary of Camilla's murder. The whole of the events attendant on that frightful tragedy came back to memory; and the scene was vivid to the imagination as if it were really being again enacted. All was before my eyes-darkness and fire; slaughter; the death chase; the funeral; and then insanity closed the fearful drama. The domestics were always prepared for this awful season; and Dominique remained with me like
shadow. It chanced that a week before this sad anniversary, an English -botanist passed a country-house, where I was for the time residing, and, stopping with me as a guest, he observed the gloom and depression of my manner. Having delicately inquired the cause, and made himself master of all the circumstances connected with the appalling visitation which I expected in another week, he asked permission to remain. This was granted, -and, directing his attention to the peculiar symptoms of my disease, he at once pronounced it curable. This bold assertion startled my household, who, for ten years, had witnessed the annual return of my insanity, and always accompanied, as it was, with unabated violence. But he seemed confident; and I felt a secret assurance that, through the instrumentality of this man's skill, Heaven's mercy was about to be extended to me, and that blest gift, reason, would be eventually restored. I placed myself, and all upon my establishment, during the approaching period of my mental aberration, under the absolute direction of the stranger.
I was not deceived ; and the result proved that I had calculated soundly on the ability and experience of my unknown visitor. Dreading that it might increase my excitement, the Chilleno doctors had inhibited the visits of
child. The Englishman adopted a different course : Isidora was sent for from the convent, and she “ministered to a mind diseased ;” and the soft influence of filial love, like the melody of David's harp, effected a gentle cure, and soothed into tranquillity a spirit for so many years perturbed.
By the stranger's advice, I determined to quit the country, and return to my native land. I disposed of my estates, transmitted my fortune safely to England ; and, with a dearer treasure far, my gentle Isidora, sailed for the island-home of freedom, and landed on my native shores, after having been a wanderer and alien for one-andtwenty years.
A long absence had rendered European manners strange; and, for a time, I felt myself unequal to the novel task which a return to England had imposed, that of mingling in society. For two years, Isidora and I wandered through every portion of the British islands, for the Continent was then closed against the traveller. Time, change of scene, and the constant presence of my darling child, effected a mental cure, and verified the assurances given me in South America by my able physician, that my recovery would be permanent. I wished at least to have the semblance of a home, although the very name recalled my past calamities; and, in order that I might fall back, when wearied with the world, on a retirement congenial to my fancy, I purchased that wild retreat in which our first acquaintance was so singularly formed. Thither, I have occasionally retired to enjoy solitude and my child's society. Ours, indeed, seemed stolen visits on the world, -and we both felt that calm pleasure only to be estimated by those who have lived for each other and alone, when, like wild birds to their nest, we sought and found the peaceful seclusion which our mountain home afforded.
Your visit, Hector, rekindled feelings long suppressed, and spurred me to exertions that, probably, under other circumstances, I should have wanted nerve to undertake. Strange as it may appear, for several years I watched your progress into manhood. The first impressions when we met were favourable ; and a more extended acquaintance has corroborated them. For your sake, and for Isidora's, I have sacrificed my own.yearnings after solitude, and come upon the stage
of life anew. My existence is unknown; my errand unsuspected. Should I succeed in my present objects, a noble inheritance shall be restored to the rightful heir; and should I fail, I have a consolation left, in feeling that I have fortune's gifts at my disposal, and amply sufficient, so far as wealth can confer peace and independence, to ensure both to my children. You mark the term-Can he to whom Isidora's happiness is to be confided be aught but a son to me?”
The record of an eventful life was ended ; and I bound those documents together, the perusal of which had occasioned an intense but painful interest. It was long past midnight. At day-light it was necessary that I should be stirring; and I retired to bed, to snatch a few hours of repose.
I was still asleep when a gentle touch upon the shoulder dispelled my uneasy slumbers, and the faithful follower of my uncle's fortunes told me it was. time to dress, and that the camarados of my intended voyage and campaigns were afoot, and waiting in the court-yard. Indeed, the ratcatcher's presence was intimated already-for in perfect indifference as to what might be the complexion of our future fortune, Shemus Rhua was croning an Irish ditty. I dressed by candlelight, descended to the eating-room, and there found “mine honoured uncle." Alas—Isidora was not there to say farewell. She slept, poor girl, little dreaming that we had already parted ; and that many a month and stormy passage in a soldier's life must wear away, before I should be permitted to return and claim her plighted hand.
“ Hector,” said my uncle, with a sigh, as he received the papers he had entrusted to me, and immediately committed them to the fire,
you are now in full possession of every secret of my life. 'Tis done—the disclosure is made—and I have nothing either to communicate or conceal. No more of this ; the clock chimes, and our hour
; of parting hurries on. I am going to deprive you of a follower, provided you can dispense with the services of Captain Macgreal, and that he is willing to transfer his allegiance to me. Pray step down; and if the ratcatcher has no particular objection, let me have his valuable assistance till you return. 'Strange fortunes produce strange bedfellows,' a proverb says; and singular positions require as singular agents. Odd as it may appear, in the tangled web I shall have to unravel, I may be beholden for success to that wild woman who seems devoted to your interests, or this wandering personage, who appears equally attached, and willing to follow where you lead.”
A brief communication with Shemus Rhua effected my uncle's wish; and the ratcatcher placed his services at the disposal of Mr. Hartley. Sooth to say, the captain's previous experience of a martial life had left no craving in his breast after “the bubble reputation.”
Nothing could be more picturesque than the departure of the fleet from Portsmouth; and years afterwards, memory recalled the poet's description, and I could have imagined that Byron had been a fellowpassenger. The morning was brilliant. The signal gun was answered. All were immediately under way.