A DREAM OF EMPIRE
Or THE HOUSE OF BLENNERHASSETT
By WILLIAM HENRY VENABLE
AUTHOR OF "A HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES," "JOHN HANCOCK, EDUCATOR," &c.
New York DODD, MEAD AND COMPANY MDCCCCI
Copyright, 1901, By Dodd, Mead and Company.
TO EMERSON VENABLE
I. AN ECCENTRIC VISITOR. 1 II. A NOTED CHARACTER ARRIVES IN PITTSBURG. 16 III. PILLARS OF SMOKE. 28 IV. PLUTARCH BYLE MAKES A NEW ACQUAINTANCE. 39 V. IN THE LADIES' BOWER. 45 VI. DOCTOR DEVILLE AND HIS LUCRECE. 62 VII. CONSPIRACY. 71 VIII. DIAMOND CUT DIAMOND. 82 IX. DON'T FORGET THE BITTERS. 97 X. "NOW TO MY CHARMS AND TO MY WILY TRAINS." 118 XI. PALAFOX GROWS INSOLENT. 127 XII. SNARING A PHILOSOPHER. 137 XIII. THE ENCHANTED GROUND. 150 XIV. A LARGESS OF CORONETS. 169 XV. THERE BE LAND RATS AND WATER RATS. 181 XVI. A PATRIOT NOT TO BE TAMPERED WITH. 193 XVII. THE BUSY NOTE OF PREPARATION. 205 XVIII. THE VOYAGE OF THE BUCKEYE. 218 XIX. ARLINGTON'S RIDE. 234 XX. MOSTLY LOVE MATTERS. 247 XXI. PRO AND CON. 262 XXII. NOT A TRUE BILL. 269 XXIII. THE FATAL CIPHER. 278 XXIV. THE MIDNIGHT DEPARTURE. 286 XXV. HEROINE AND HERO. 297 XXVI. OUT OF THE NET INTO THE TRAP. 312 XXVII. FLIGHT AND SURRENDER. 326 XXVIII. WHAT BECAME OF THEM. 333
A DREAM OF EMPIRE.
I. AN ECCENTRIC VISITOR.
It was the first of May, and the sun had passed the noon line in a bright sky, causing the shadow of Peter Taylor to fall east of north and infusing his substance with the delightful languor called Spring Fever. Leaning upon an idle spade, Peter watched the lazy motions of a negro slave whom he had directed to trim a level lawn ornamented with flowerbeds. The English origin of the overseer was revealed by his looks and in his speech.
"Scipio, 'ave you 'oed the corn?"
"No, boss, but I's jes' gwine to ten' to it right away."
"Well, make 'aste. Daniel and Ransom can 'elp you, and tell Honest Moses to get the south patch ready for the watermelon seed."
Scipio received his orders submissively, and, shouldering a hoe, sauntered toward the cornfield, and was soon hidden by a clump of young weeping-willows, the sunny green branches of which trailed to the darker verdure of the sward. Screened by the drooping foliage, the shirking menial cast his body on the grass to store up energy for anticipated toil.
Meanwhile, the taskmaster, having issued commands to his black subordinates, felt justified in neglecting his own duties, in a dignified way, by seeking a shady retreat in which he lingered contemplating the charms of Nature and the pleasing results of his own skill as a landscape-gardener. The prevailing aspect of the surroundings was wild, though several acres of cultivated land, including a fine lawn with gravelled walks and drives, attested that much labor had been expended in reclaiming a portion of savage Nature from its primeval condition. The plantation occupied the upper end of Blennerhassett Island. Standing on a knoll, with his back to the "improved" grounds, Peter took in at a sweeping glance a reach of gleaming water which flowed between woody hills overhung by a serene sky. He saw the silver flood of the Ohio River which, coursing southward, broke against the island, dividing its broad current into two nearly equal streams. He admired the meadow slopes of Belpre, on the Ohio side, and the more dimly seen bluffs of Wood County, on the Virginia border. The tourist of to-day, standing where the gardener stood on Blennerhassett Island a hundred years ago, sees in the northern distance the iron framework of the Parkersburg bridge spanning the river, so far away as to show like a fairy web in the air. Beyond, as if issuing from the heart of the hills, the river blends with the purple mist.
Having "bent the quiet of a loving eye" upon the river and its delightful valley, the Englishman turned his ruddy face toward the chief building on the island, a frame structure of odd appearance, painted in dazzling white save the window shutters, which were vivid green. The mansion consisted of a main edifice fifty feet square and two stories high, with a peculiar portico in front, projected not in straight lines, but forming a semicircle, embracing within the curvature of its outstretching arms a favored area of dooryard. The proprietor of the estate had chosen the site and designed the plan of this his residence with the double purpose of indulging a fancy for architectural novelty and of providing against disaster by lightning and earthquake. Never did it occur to him that fire and flood were the elements he had most reason to fear: each of these ruinous agents was destined, in turn, to devastate the island.
In the rear of the fantastic dwelling, and not far from it, stood a row of log cabins for the negroes who served on the place, and a cluster of barns and stables abundantly stocked. All the houses were new, and the adjacent cultivated land showed many signs that it had not long been tilled, or even cleared. The rank soil retained its quick fertility, as could be seen in the thrifty growth of peas, beets, radishes, and early potatoes, flourishing in the "truck-patch." The plum and the peach trees had cast their bloom; the cherry blossoms were falling like snow; the flowers of the apple loaded the air with fragrance; the red-buds were beginning to fade; the maples and oaks, just starting into leaf, hung full of light green tassels.
The vegetable close had irresistible attractions for the gardener, and this drew his laggard steps from their idle excursion, back to the freshly spaded spot enriched by leaf mould, and carefully picketed against the incursions of scratching hens. Here he busied himself in planting lettuce seed, forgetful of Scipio, who lolled sleepily in the shadow of the willows.
The drowsy bondman was just sinking into slumber, when his attention was aroused by a plashing noise followed by the sound of whistling. Glancing in the direction of the disturbance, his eyes fell upon the ungainly figure of a man who was stooping at the water's edge. The negro got upon his feet, and approached the stranger, who at first took no notice of him, being absorbed in puzzled observation. A cut of lean meat, encircled by a row of stones, lay immersed in a pool caused by an eddy in the river.
"Danged if I can make out what this hunk of raw beef is put here for," soliloquized the visitor. "The minnies are nibblin' it away. I wonder if this here Mr. Bladderhatchet means to feed all the fish in the Ohio on beefsteak. Hello, Cuffey, what do you want?"
"I's not Cuffey, sah; I's Scipio."
"Well, I's Byle, Plutarch Byle," said the stranger, raising his gaunt, gawky figure to a posture which, though far from erect, revealed a stature so much above the average height that the negro stepped back a few paces and stared with astonishment. Plutarch Byle's feet, hands and head seemed somewhat too large for his trunk and limbs, but were quite in harmony with the big joints of his knees, elbows and wrists. His attitudes were grotesque and his gestures awkward. Light, curly hair covered his head; his nose was long and inquisitive; his eyes, big, blue and good-humored; his mouth, incredibly wide, with shrewd, mobile lips, which habitually smiled. A tuft of yellow beard on the end of his sharp chin, gave his face a comical expression resembling that which caricature bestows on Uncle Sam. His voice was pitched in a high key, and was modified by that nasal twang supposed to indicate Yankee origin; but a habit of giving his declarative sentences an interrogative finish, might denote that he came from the mountain regions of Pennsylvania or Virginia. A pair of linsey pantaloons, a blue hunting shirt with a fringe of red and yellow, moccasins of tanned leather and a woollen hat were his chief visible articles of dress.
Scrutinizing Scipio's features as he might inspect a wonder in a museum, Byle interrogated him:
"Potterin' about for greens, I reckon? Do you belong here, Africanus?"
The only information drawn from the slave was that the proprietor of the island had bought him in Virginia.
"Bought? Consarn my bones! How much did he give for you? Look here, Sambo, if I was a Roman general, like you, and in your fix," said Byle, pointing with his left thumb over his right shoulder and winking, "I'd skite over to the Buckeye-side of the water and forget to pay for myself. Don't you know what the Ordinance of '87 says? 'No involuntary servitude in said territory.' I agree with John Woolman, that niggers are our feller-creatures."
Turning abruptly, the tall man moved with long, slow strides in the direction of the white house with green shutters, talking continually, more to himself than to the perplexed negro who followed at his heels.
"Wonder how things are growing in the front yard? By gum! that's a fine Italian poplar! Guess the old Coot's at home. Maybe that youngster is one of the little Bladderhatchets! Say, sonny, come this way."
The sentence was addressed to a lad, who, bounding from the portico, ran nimbly toward the intruder. The boy was prettily attired in a military costume, and wore a toy sword at his side and a gay feather in his cap. He was followed by a brother smaller and much less jaunty.
"What might your name be, now, bub? By crackey, you've come out in full blossom, haven't you, like a red-bud bush? What do you say your name is?"
"Dominick, hey? I've seen many a young dominick rooster, but I never saw one with finer feathers than yours. Suppose you flap your wings, and crow for us, like a fighting cockerel."
"I'll not crow; I'll stick my sword through you!"
"Jerusalem artichokes! He wants to kill me with his tin sword! Dominick, I give in. If your pappy is about the house, tell him to come out; a gentleman wants to ask him something."
Before a summons could be served on Mr. Harman Blennerhassett, that person appeared emerging from a wing of the long porch. Being extremely near-sighted, he could not distinctly see the man who awaited him until the distance between the two was diminished to a few steps. The uninvited guest without ceremony opened conversation.
"How d'ye do? I am Mr. Byle—B-y-l-e—Plutarch Byle. Of course everybody knows you by reputation, Mr. Bladderhatchet—"
"It's a prodigious long name, ain't it? Too long, in my opinion. You can have it shortened by law. I'm told you're from Ireland. You don't look much Irish, nor you haven't a bad brogue. I s'pose you've got your naturalization papers all right. This administration is rather easy on foreigners, especially French, for Jefferson has Frenchy notions. President Adams was rough on emigrants—maybe too rough; he wanted to sock it to them hard by acts of Congress. What is your opinion of the Alien and Sedition laws? I favor them; I'm a Federalist to the marrow-bones. I don't reckon you're a United Irishman, Mr. Blanner—"
"Blenner, if you please—Blennerhassett. I belong to the order of United Irishmen, but I presume your errand here is not to discuss politics. Your looks denote that you affiliate with—shall I say, the common people, the humbler class? What is your business here, my good man?"
"Rattlesnakes and brimstone! Me your good man! Me of the humbler class! Why, Squire B., we have no humbler class on our side of the Ohio. But you needn't apologize; I'm not huffy. You're new to the country and your blunders are excusable. I happened along this way—"
"My time is valuable, I must ask you to be brief. What do you want?"
"You're a bigger man than I calculated to see; you're a large-sized citizen, full six foot, I should guess, and you stoop consider'bl in the shoulders, like myself. The Byles are all built that way. But your feet are smaller than mine, and I should think you'd feel awk'ard in such toggery as them red breeches and shoe buckles."
"You are impertinent," snapped Blennerhassett, turning from his rude critic. "If you have nothing to tell or to ask that is of any importance, make off, for I can be detained no longer."
"Hold on, neighbor; I've heaps yet to tell, and lots more to ask. The first thing I noticed particularly when I landed was that puddle up there, with the hunk of raw meat soaking, and I would like dangnation well to know why you put that meat in that puddle?"
Annoyed beyond endurance, the lord of the island would have hurried away, but he was diverted from his intention by the unexpected conduct of his guest, who, suddenly dropping on all fours, fell to examining with the liveliest interest a wild plant which had forced its stem up through the sod.
"Do you know what that is?" asked Plutarch of the two boys who stood near their father, perplexed by the dialogue to which they had listened. They shook their heads, when, glancing up at Scipio, the questioner repeated, "Do you know?" and not waiting for a reply, "That's snakeroot; smell it!" He plucked a portion of the herb, rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger and thrust the bruised substance first under his own nose and then beneath the reluctant nostrils of the disdainful Master Dominick.
Mr. Blennerhassett was himself a botanist, or desired to be considered one, and his eagerness to become familiar with the flora of his vicinity so far overcame offended formality, that he also got down on his knees and directed his imperfect vision to the pungent specimen. The two men, each an oddity, presented a ludicrous picture as they knelt on the grass, their heads almost in contact, and their long noses only a few inches above the object of their scrutiny.
"Yes, Virginia snakeroot, and I couldn't expect it to sprout up in this open place. This is a different thing from the Seneca rattlesnake-root; there's more cure in an ounce of this than in a pound of that. I'll wager five shillings to a sixpence that I can name you nine out of ten of the medicines and dyestuffs growing on this island."
"If that is the case," said the Irish recluse, scrambling to his feet, "I shall be glad to avail myself of your knowledge. There are many vines, shrubs, and trees flourishing here, the names and qualities of which I greatly desire to learn and many herbs which perhaps—"
"I'm your man, neighbor; I'm your man. There are three things which I calculate I do know by experience: the first is fish, the second is game, and the third is yarbs."
"What is the third?"
"Yarbs. Anything that grows wild. I'm acquainted with pretty much every critter that has seed, flower, leaf, bark or root. I fish a good bit, and I doctor a good bit."
"You doctor, fish and hunt," repeated Blennerhassett, his attention now completely captured; "I myself prescribe simple remedies and I am fond of the sports you mention, though a defect of vision interferes with my shooting."
"If you like," proposed Byle, "we will prowl around this very afternoon and study physic together. I call the wild woods God's apothecary shop."
Blennerhassett was convoyed to the depths of the island forest, where the strangely assorted pair conversed intimately on the virtues of pleurisy-root, Indian physic and columbo. Byle discoursed on the high price of ginseng, and the new method of preparing that specific for the Chinese market; recommended the prompt use of succory to cure a snake bite, and the liberal application of green stramonium leaves to heal sores on the back of a horse. He advised Blennerhassett to acquire an appetite for custard apples, which, he said, regulated the bowels.
On returning from the excursion, Blennerhassett hurried into his library, lugging a basket filled with botanical specimens; and Byle prepared to leave the premises. Before starting, he beckoned the gardener, who sulkily responded to the sign. The pertinacious visitor was proof against repulse. No social coolness could chill his confiding ardor. He took Peter's arm, and with a backward jerk of the head declared interrogatively:
"The Mogul is sort of queer, isn't he? A screw loose somewhere, eh?"
"Well," responded Peter cautiously, "yes and no; he is queer and he isn't queer. He has plenty of book learning and plenty of money, and a fool can't get much of either. Folks say he has every kind of sense but common sense."
"At first he didn't want to be sociable. I asked him a civil question about a public matter, and he shut up like a clam. Now can you tell me, as man to man, why the deuce that hunk of beef is put to soak in that puddle, up at the head of the island?"
Peter chuckled in the contemptuous manner of a practical man, without sympathy for speculative genius.
"That's one of his chemical experiments. The man is always up to something of the kind. The carcass of a dead 'og was dug up on the place, and his Honor noticed that it had turned into something like tallow, and he takes the notion that the water here has power to change flesh into solid fat—hadipocere, he calls it—which he thinks may be used to make candles."
Byle listened to the solution of the lean-meat mystery with waning attention, for before the explanation was concluded his roving eye caught glimpses of an apparition more interesting than the gardener's dry sarcasm. He discerned, through openings in the boscage fringing the river bank on the Ohio shore, an object like a scarlet flag flying rapidly along.
"Greased lightning! What strange bird is that coming down the river road? A woman on horseback, sure as Easter flowers! Two of 'em, one in red and one in black. Don't they make them animals cut dirt? I wouldn't miss this sight for a hogshead of tree-honey. Why, it beats a Pittsburg horse-race on the Fourth of July!"
"Oh, it's mamma! It's mamma and Miss Evaleen coming back from Marietta," shouted Dominick.
A gang of colored men, led by Honest Moses, poled an unwieldy scow to the Ohio shore, took the dashing equestriennes on board and ferried back to the island.
The announcement that their mistress was approaching caused a general flurry among the servants, male and female, and several of them, headed by the boys, hastened down to the landing to receive the ladies. Byle was not the man to let slip such an opportunity of taking a look at the paragon, whose charms of person and brilliancy of mind he had heard many tongues extol; and he did not hesitate to join the family group on the river bank. His curiosity was amply rewarded by the vision of fair women which he beheld.
Madam Blennerhassett stepped from the ferryboat, beaming smiles of motherly fondness upon her children. She wore a riding-habit of scarlet cloth embroidered with thread of gold, and a snow-white hat, adorned with long plumes of ostrich feather. The rich attire did not blind Plutarch to the natural beauty of "the woman herself." She was of regal stature, graceful bearing and animated face. Her buoyant step, her rising bosom, her clear, rich voice evidenced the vital glow of maturity in a woman still young—a June rose blooming in May.
Byle, pressing nearer, noted that the madam's hair was brown; her eyelashes long; nose, Grecian; lips, ripe red. When he had fixed her image on his mind, and was meditating the propriety of making friendly inquiries concerning the purpose and results of her excursion to Marietta, her large, calm eyes searched his countenance with a look of offended dignity, which caused his tongue to cleave to the roof of his mouth. Speechless for the moment, but not blinded, Plutarch withdrew his optics from the imperious dame, and took an instantaneous brain-picture of her companion, a light-footed, quick-glancing girl about eighteen years of age, whose arrival put little Harman into an ecstasy, and gave manifest delight to the servants. Her blithe manner and cheerful voice won Byle's complete approbation, and led him to describe her as one who "'peared not to know there was a valley of the shadder of trouble here below."
Madam Blennerhassett instructed Moses to take care of the horses, and side by side with the winsome maiden walked from the landing to the house, followed by a retinue of servants.
Thus abandoned, Plutarch Byle plodded his way to his skiff, pushed the light craft from the sandy beach, ensconced his gaunt person on the rowing bench, seized the oars, and pulled up stream, saying to himself:
"She's the compound extract of Queen 'Liz'beth and Cleopatry; but why didn't she take a fancy to a good-looking Federalist like me, instead of throwing herself away on a near-sighted United Irishman with silver shoe-buckles?"
II. A NOTED CHARACTER ARRIVES IN PITTSBURG.
On the last day of April, 1805, more than the usual number of guests crowded the bar-room or lounged about the open door of the Green Tree, a popular tavern on the bank of the Monongahela, in Pittsburg. The proprietor had found difficulty in providing refreshment for the swarm of hungry mechanics, farmers and boatmen who elbowed their way to a seat at his famed dining-table. To the clatter of dishes was added the clamor of voices making demands upon the decanters, which yielded an inexhaustible supply of rum, whiskey and peach brandy.
In the throng of bar-room loafers was a swarthy boatman, wearing a leathern waistcoat, who, on being jostled by a stalwart roysterer carrying a long rifle, poured out curses and slang epithets, swearing he could whip any man in the tavern or in the town. The challenge was no sooner uttered than the offender for whom it was meant called out to the landlord:
"Here, Billy, hold my shooter a minute until I pitch this Louisiana rat into the river."
"Don't mind him, Mike; he's drunk."
"Drunk or sober," blustered the quarrelsome boatman, "I swear I can whip the best man in Pittsburg or in Pennsylvania."
This sweeping defiance elicited laughter and derision.
"Give him the heft of your fist, Mike!" cried one.
"Bruise the snout of the Mississippi alligator!"
Thus incited, Mike Fink, the recognized champion of Pittsburg, disposed of his rifle, doubled up his fists, and stood ready for assault or defence.
"Fair fight or rough and tumble?" said he, appealing to the crowd.
"Fair fight," growled the boatman and tossed a fiery dram down his gullet. But fair fight in the accepted sense of the phrase was farthest from his intention. Quick as a flash, he drew from his belt a dirk, and would have stabbed his antagonist, had not a bystander seized his uplifted arm, while another wrenched the weapon from his grasp. The ruffian's comrades hurried their dangerous leader from the inn, and guided his steps to the river and aboard a large new flatboat recently launched.
A flourish of bugle notes and the noise of wheels announced the arrival of the mail-coach from the East. Everybody went out to hail the lumbering vehicle, which, drawn by four horses, came bowling down the road in a dust-cloud of glory. The driver cracked his whip with a bang like a pistol-shot, and firmly holding in his left hand the four long lines, brought his team to a sudden halt in front of the tavern.
Only two passengers alighted from the stage, clambering out at the front, a mode of egress requiring agility to avoid awkward slips and tumbles. The first to step down was a handsome young man, who held his head proudly and looked about him with easy self-possession. A fashionable suit of clothes and a hat in the latest Philadelphia style proclaimed him a man of "quality." But aristocratic as were the mien and attire of this fine gentleman, he ceased to be the chief object of attention when his fellow-traveller emerged from the pent darkness of the coach and sprang to the pavement.
Every eye fastened on the second stranger. His was an individuality sure to command deference. Though of slight figure, he bore himself with a lofty air, which lifted his stature and magnified its proportions. Not one of those tarrying to behold the man could resist the feeling that his was a dominating spirit, a will and personality not to be ignored or slighted. A careful scanning of his externals discovered that his form was symmetrical, though the head seemed disproportionately large; the brow was high and sloping; the nose, rather sharp; every curve of the mouth, clear cut and delicate; the eyes, black, bright and piercing. Such was the man who, attired in a suit of black broadcloth, with buff vest, ruffled shirt, and white stock, and with hair tied in a modish queue, revealed himself to the gaze of the throng in front of the Green Tree.
The spectators observed as he descended from the coach that his feet were small, and were fitted to a nicety with polished boots of the finest leather. No amount of gaping, gazing and inquisitive side remark embarrassed the newcomer. Perhaps his dark eyes emitted a sparkle of gratified vanity as he glanced about him, distributing a gracious bow among his unknown fellow-citizens. Addressing the innkeeper, he asked:
"Can you inform us whether Judge Brackenridge is in town?"
"Yes, sir; we are going that way," politely replied a stripling, who stepped forward, followed by another youth with a law book under his arm. "This is Harry Brackenridge, the judge's son."
"Surely? and your name is—?"
"Son of Colonel Presley Neville?"
"Indeed! The particular friend of Lafayette." Young Neville blushed with proud pleasure.
"Yes; father was his aide-de-camp."
"I know," said the stranger, smiling, as he turned to ask young Brackenridge, "Is the judge at home?"
"We expect him home to-morrow from a trip to Washington College."
"Your new Western college, eh? Judge Brackenridge is a promoter of learning and literature. Allow me to make you acquainted with Mr. Arlington, of Virginia." The Southerner saluted the students and, inclining his head deferentially toward his travelling companion, said:
"I have the honor of introducing you to Colonel Aaron Burr."
Diverse were the effects produced on the listening spectators by Arlington's words. At the sound of the notorious name some shrank as from the hiss of a coiled serpent. Others drew near, as if eager to manifest partisan sympathy for the renowned leader, whose pistol had ended the life of Alexander Hamilton ten months prior to the time of this visit to Pittsburg. The unfledged lawyers whom his favor had distinguished were of his faction. They manifested their fealty and gladness with boyish exuberance, by delighted looks and words expressive of esteem and reverence. Burr was importuned to dine at their houses, but he excused himself on account of business affairs which required prompt attention. However, he accepted an invitation to visit Colonel Neville on the following day.
Dinner over, the newly arrived guests sought the general supply agent, with whom Burr had contracted by letter for a boat, intending a voyage down the Ohio. The vessel was ready and that very morning had been brought from the shipyard to the landing.
"You will find her a first-class flatboat, Mr. Burr—strong and tight—sixty foot long by fourteen wide—four first-rate rooms, and as pretty a roof as you ever set foot on anywheres. There's a fellow here from down Mississippi I've spoke to—a number one pole and a letter A oar—Captain Burke Pierce by name—and he'll manage her for you, Mr. Burr, and provide his own crew."
"Where can I find this Captain Pierce?"
"I'll take you to him right away. He's down on the boat now. A mighty good hand is Burke, tough as a bull, swims like a muskrat, but he has one failing—only one so far as I know—he will drink, and when he's drunk he's vicious. But they all take their whiskey, these boatmen, and so does almost every landsman, for that matter—and Pierce is no worse than the rest. But here's the point: cap had a row at the tavern, and his crew took him down to your boat to sober off."
"Well, I thought you'd ask that. I gave them leave to go to your boat out of regard to you. I told him if he'd whistle together five or six experienced poles and a good cook, like as not you'd hire him to take charge of her for you and steer her down the river; see to the kitchen, beds and everything."
Inwardly remarking that the agent had presumed beyond his commission, Burr was conducted to the boat, within which he found half a dozen rough rivermen seated around a table, playing poker. Their redoubtable chief rose with a civil salutation not to be expected from one of his station. He was a stalwart fellow, of swarthy complexion and strongly marked features. A broad yellow belt confining a leather doublet was buckled around his waist; the legs of his coarse blue woollen trousers were stuffed into the wide tops of heavy Suarrow boots, and his head was covered by a broad hat, such as were worn by Spanish traders on the lower Mississippi.
"That's your man; that's Burke; born and raised on a broad-horns. Speak for yourself, cap; this is Mr. Burr, which I told you about."
The boatman spoke for himself in surprisingly good language, with an air combining the bold and the obsequious. For a fixed sum, payable in weekly instalments, he proposed to give his own services and to hire the additional help necessary to navigate the boat, under the general control of the owner. To this arrangement Burr finally agreed, notwithstanding an instinctive repugnance which he had felt on first seeing the letter A oar, who was tough as a bull and who had but one failing. As the captain received in his palm an advance payment, he called upon his men to witness the contract and to vouch for his character, and pledged word and honor that, by six o'clock on the evening of the following day, the boat would be in readiness for the voyage.
Relieved of present care, Burr returned to the tavern, where many citizens, incited by various motives, waited to pay him their respects. The rumor of his arrival had spread over town, and speculation was rife concerning his movements. What could be the noted politician's object in coming to the West? Was he flying from persecution? Could he be suffering remorse? Or was he merely making a tour of observation for commercial reasons?
Burr's reticence gave little satisfaction to the busybodies who sought by direct question to verify their several conjectures. All comers were received with a hearty handshake and were entertained with urbane speeches. Not the humblest caller was slighted. It was late in the evening when, having affably gotten rid of his last visitor, Burr proposed that he and Arlington should retire. They were well content to make the best of the scanty accommodations of the one sleeping-room to which they were both assigned.
After a disturbed night's rest Burr awoke early and called his drowsing companion.
"Rouse up, Mr. Arlington. Shake off this downy sleep."
"Downy sleep!" answered the Virginian, yawning and stretching; "the only down of this couch is shucks and corn-cobs."
The two men had scarcely finished breakfasting when a committee of local officials called to invite them to see the sights of growing Pittsburg.
The "Emporium," as the Gazette called the town, had a population of about two thousand. Most of the buildings were of logs; a few of stone or brick.
Burr listened with every appearance of intense interest to animated accounts of the academy, the old Dutch church, the ferries, the shipping-yard, Suke's Run, and Smoky Island. The party sauntered along muddy thoroughfares—Southfield Street and Chancery Lane. They strolled through Strawberry Avenue and Virgin Alley. They viewed the ruins of Fort Pitt, stood on the site of historic Du Quesne, and paused to gaze up at the garrisoned post of La Fayette, over which floated the flag of the Old Thirteen. During the tour Burr kept up a sprightly conversation. His guides took pains, at his request, to introduce to him the young men of Pittsburg, and those who had the favor of being presented felt themselves enrolled among his devoted adherents. He carried their hearts, not by storm, but by irresistible sunshine.
At the appointed time the visitors were warmly welcomed at Colonel Neville's, where they were gratified to meet Judge Brackenridge. The four gentlemen spent an hour in lively political and military talk, over a decanter of Madeira. Under the mellowing influence of wine and good company, the judge, with Scotch curiosity, made bold to sound Burr in regard to the purpose of his Western trip.
"We are going out West to witness the 'Rising Glory of America,'" was the evasive answer. "I am eager to explore that domain of which the author of 'Bunker Hill,' has sung so sublimely:
'Hail, happy land, The seat of empire, the abode of kings, The final stage, where time shall introduce Renowned characters and glorious works.'"
Flattered to hear his own verse recited by the ex-Vice-president, the judge returned a quick response:
"It is seldom that a poet lives to hear his own prophecies fulfilled. The 'renowned characters' are entering upon the stage; I dare say the 'glorious works' will be accomplished according to prophecy."
The conversation returned to general themes: prospects of trade, routes of migration, growth of western towns, literature, and education. A passing comment on the recent purchase and organization of Louisiana led Colonel Neville to ask:
"When did you last see your former comrade-in-arms, General Wilkinson?"
"Not lately. I thought I might meet him here in Pittsburg. Is he not due here?"
"Yes, he is on the way from Philadelphia, but he travels with his family, and is liable to many detentions. His barge lies at the wharf, to convey him to Fort Massac."
"So I learn," said Burr. "I fear I shall miss him. He is a jovial companion."
"A bon-vivant," ejaculated the Judge. "Few men enjoy a convivial occasion with his gusto, or have the constitution to indulge as he does. Gossip charges him with living beyond his purse. Some ill-natured rumors assert that he allows the rites of Bacchus to interfere with the duties of Mars."
"Bacchus is a gross and vicious god. But your gossips traduce Wilkinson. He is a brave man and a fine officer," said Burr with an emphasis of finality.
"O undoubtedly! Apropos of the wine-god, Colonel Burr, do not fail to tie up your boat at Bacchus Island, you and Mr. Arlington, and call on my friends the Blennerhassetts. Harman Blennerhassett is an agreeable man, though peculiar, and his wife is charming."
"A fine woman, is she?" responded Burr.
"Both beautiful and opulent. A sultana, sir!"
"Then, gentlemen," said Burr, rising with glass in hand, "let us do ourselves the honor of drinking the health of Madam Blennerhassett."
When, at six o'clock in the evening, the travellers went down to the boat, not a soul did they find on board. Seven o'clock came, but no Captain Pierce, no minion of his. Burr made inquiry of the agent, the tavern-keeper and others, without obtaining information concerning any of the missing men.
Much incensed, he and Arlington were compelled to lodge another night in the best bedchamber of the Green Tree.
III. PILLARS OF SMOKE.
On the morning after their provoking delay, when the travellers again appeared at the boat landing, impatient to resume their voyage, Aaron Burr was in a mood not to be trifled with. It scarcely mollified his anger to discover on the deck of the boat the slippery crew that had disappointed him.
"Here we are, sharp on time," bawled Captain Pierce audaciously. "How soon do you want to start?"
Burr, stepping aboard the vessel, confronted his plausible employee, and said in a tone of stern reprimand:
"You will be of no use to me unless you obey orders to the letter. You make a bad beginning. Why were you not here twelve hours ago?"
"I didn't agree to shove off before this morning. We were to come at six—"
"At six last evening. You broke your word."
"What was the use of lying?" said Arlington contemptuously.
The boatman lowered upon the Virginian, and muttered to Burr: "Then I must have heard wrong. I thought you said six o'clock this morning. I'll take my oath on a pile of Bibles."
"Produce the Bibles," suggested Arlington.
Burke ignored the sneering remark, and continued his protestations to Burr. "I mean to do the fair, square thing, as these men will tell you. Ask them. They know Burke Pierce keeps his promises."
"Enough; I hope you do. Don't disappoint me again. Put the boat in motion."
Under the captain's directions, all the hands but one bestirred themselves. The exception, a burly knot of muscles, with stubby beard and purple nose, instead of joining in the work, stood idle, chewing tobacco, ostentatiously. Without a word Burr stepped lightly in front of the impudent roustabout, and, delivering a blow, with the dexterity of an expert boxer, knocked him into the river, amid the jeers of his associates, and of the concourse assembled on the shore to see the boat off.
This prompt stroke of executive policy had a salutary effect. Recalcitrant subjects had warning that the little man wearing the queue and the small, shiny boots, could not be bluffed.
The boat, once in midstream, was easily managed by the use of long, spiked poles, and, now and then, of an oar. The captain kept his station at the stern of the uncouth craft, handling the steering-pole. The two travellers, standing upon the roof of the ark, admired their pilot's skill, and freely exchanged comments regarding him. To their murmured conversation, the steersman seemed dumb, deaf and indifferent; nevertheless, he gave the closest attention to every word, and his sense of hearing was as keen as that of a wildcat.
The scenery along the upper Ohio River is pleasing in any season of the year; no wonder that, in early May, the travellers were enchanted by its picturesque beauty. To this day, in many places, the hills, vales, and woods on either bank, retain almost the original wildness of primeval Nature. The river winds among high limestone hills, which are carved in frequent deep ravines, by tumbling brooks, or trickling rills. Low, green islands rise magically upon the forward view of the voyager, then vanish in the receding distance, like fairy worlds withdrawn.
The real and the imaginary became strangely blended in Arlington's mind. He could hardly distinguish the substantial from the visionary, while he gazed on cloudlike bluffs in Ohio and dim highlands in Virginia. The boat drifted on without sound or jar, and he easily fancied himself at rest on a surface of water, while the woody shore swam by in slow panorama.
Chester Arlington was the son of a wealthy citizen of Richmond, and a graduate of the College of William and Mary. He had studied law, and was beginning life on his own account. Entrusted with a commission to collect some claims held by his father against a merchant in Cincinnati, he was on his way to that metropolis of the Miami country. His acquaintance with Burr dated from a day in the middle of April, when the two got into the same coach to journey from Philadelphia to Pittsburg. A difference of twenty-five years in their ages was cancelled by the art, which the elder possessed, of maintaining perpetual youth. And Burr's genial conversation won his companion's confidence and friendship before they had crossed the Alleghanies. Thus it came about, that the Virginian had been invited to share the conveniences of the flatboat, a courtesy which he had accepted, on condition that he might share the expenses.
Toward the close of the fourth day of the voyage, as the two sat on the top of their drifting domicile, smoking cigars, they fell into a discussion concerning the Great West, and the prospects of new States and Territories.
"To me," said the Virginian, in the slightly florid style habitual to him, "this wonderful new country into which we are sailing is attractive beyond my power to express. This river, the Oyo of the Indian, La Belle of the romantic La Salle, excites my imagination and recalls interesting legends and historic facts. How many keels have plowed these waters—the canoe of the Iroquois, the peroque of French explorers, the batteau of early English traders, the boats of the Spaniards coming up from the Gulf region."
"The boat of the Spaniard has not yet abandoned our western waters, Mr. Arlington."
"No, not yet. Twenty years have not elapsed since the first white settlement was made on the soil of Ohio, at Marietta, a town we are now approaching."
The smokers lapsed into a silence of many minutes. Burr resumed conversation abruptly:
"Arlington, you are not a Federalist?"
"Could you imagine that a son of my father, Major Arlington, would hold the principles of Adams and Jay?"
"You are not, you say, an admirer of Adams, the arch-Federalist. Do you worship his successor? Are you an unconditional Jeffersonian?"
"No, I am not. It seems to me that Jefferson aids the cause of centralization, with the same motive that moved Adams, but with less boldness. What do you think, Colonel Burr, of the temporizing policy of the administration in regard to Spain?"
"In regard to Spain?" echoed Burr, blowing a ring of smoke from his lips, "what do you think, yourself?"
"I think it infamous! It disgraces this nation to submit to exactions and insults from the Spaniards. Why don't the Government declare war, and conquer Mexico?"
"Would you be in favor of that?" asked Burr, lightly touching the ashes of his cigar with the tip of his little finger—so lightly that the ashes did not fall.
"Would I be in favor of it? I am in favor of it. Are not you, Colonel Burr?"
The politician again barely grazed the cylinder of white ashes with his little finger.
"We must not be rash."
"I feel that I am rash to talk so positively, but how can there be a difference of opinion on a subject like this? Why don't Congress declare war?"
"Is it your belief that, if war were declared, there would be difficulty in raising volunteers in Virginia?"
"Not the least. Thousands would enlist."
"Would you enlist, Mr. Arlington?"
"Yes, sir, I would."
Burr's little finger tapped the burnt out inch of his cigar, and the frail ash fell, crumbling to fine powder, which the breeze bore away. The touch recorded a point won.
"Suppose that Congress and the President, disregarding the wishes of the people, and refusing to declare war, force the country to submit tamely to the insults of Spain, do you think it possible that independent men might take upon themselves the responsibility as a private business enterprise, and march against the Dons in Mexico?"
After a thoughtful pause, the young man replied:
"Yes, some would. Many would. The warfare might not be regular, but, in my view, the object would justify extraordinary means to a patriotic end. What is your own feeling on that phase of the subject, may I ask, colonel?"
"I wish to learn the sense of my fellow-citizens. You may express yourself to me with perfect freedom."
"Why not? We are discussing a public question."
"Certainly. But your idea, that an expedition against Mexico, conducted as a private enterprise, might prove popular and—"
"That is your idea, sir, not mine. However, I see no objection to adopting it, providing the Government is in the secret, and tacitly permits an expedition."
"Oh, surely! That is understood," responded Burr, and fell pondering.
With quick whiffs he revived the dying fire of his cigar, leaned back in his chair, and lost himself in reverie. What were his meditations? Perhaps he mused of the past, the half century of crowded events in which he had borne a conspicuous part. Did his memory fly back to the far off, sad days when, a lonesome orphan boy, in a Puritan school, he penned sympathetic letters to his sister? Or was recollection busy with the scenes of the Revolutionary War, in which he served his country nobly and won proud laurels? He recalled his part in the march to Canada and in the assault on Quebec, not forgetting his own heroic exploit of carrying from the fatal field the body of his slain general, Montgomery. He thought of the retreat from Long Island, and of the credit he gained as aide-de-camp to Putnam; he retraced each step in his military career, reflecting on his rise from the command of a regiment to that of a brigade, remembering how his distinction as a brave and able officer reached its culmination in the battle of Monmouth. Perhaps, through his mind ran the events of his political history, his transition from the field to the bar, thence to the State Assembly of New York, to the Senate of the United States, and finally to the Vice-Presidency.
These memories and a myriad more came thronging to his quickened consciousness as he sat smoking. The retrospective visions rose before him, not as vague memories—they seemed living realities as they reproduced events more recent. At last one vivid picture—nay, was it not an actual scene?—one set of vital images, usurped his brain and would not vanish or fade. It showed a grassy ledge guarded by rocks and forest growths, in a secluded spot overlooking the Hudson. There stands himself confronting his political rival and partisan foe; the figures speak and move; a ghastly tragedy is imminent. Yes, imagination compels the repetition—the men are placed—Burr takes deliberate aim, touches the trigger, the fatal bullet pierces Hamilton's breast and the slain Federalist falls heavily, his face upon the sward. But before he falls, his pistol, which he had resolved not to fire, is accidentally discharged, sending its ball eight feet over the head of his antagonist and cutting off a leafy twig from an overhanging bough. Burr's attention is strangely affected by the fate of the green branch which he heard the bullet sever, and, as he sees it come wavering to the ground, he cannot resist the fancy that he beholds an emblem of his own ruin—a symbol of his future self—a living thing cut off from its nourishing stock as he was destined to be from a nation's sympathy and support.
The gloomy retrospect, the dismal forecast, were too painful; by a strong effort of the will, Burr strove to expunge the past and illuminate the future. Rising, he took a brisk turn or two, pacing the deck. His cigar had gone out; casting it into the river, he lit a fresh one, and again sat down. The kindled roll diffused its searching perfume and wrought a soothing change of mood. By some subtle chain of new associations Burr was led to think of the words of Milton's hero in Paradise Lost:
"The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a heaven of hell."
He puffed at the long cigar, and began to build a future out of rolling smoke. Toppled fortunes may be rebuilt; lost reputation may be retrieved. There are new worlds to discover, to conquer, and to possess. What may not be achieved by genius and courage? What to undertake, what to dare and do! Shall he span the Ohio with a bridge, and dig a canal around the falls? Would he find success by settling in some rising city of the West, and resuming the practice of law? Or might he not reasonably hope to be returned to Congress from one of the new States? Or to secure from the President an appointment as Minister to a foreign court, perhaps that of St. James? Better than these schemes and more independent, to embark in a stupendous land speculation in Louisiana, and open a splendid way to riches and power.
The wavering blue nebulae of intoxicating clouds rise and float, and fashion their fragrant columns into grander castles of smoke. The Mississippi Valley is spacious and fertile, Louisiana is a wide domain, but why limit the scope of enterprise to these? Why not conquer Mexico, make New Orleans the capital of a magnificent empire, and possibly annex the southwestern States of the severed Union. Myself the emperor of the richest realm on the globe, my daughter the crown princess and prospective queen Theodosia!
Such was the gorgeous dream, the cloud-vision, the unuttered soliloquy of Aaron Burr, the political bankrupt, as he sat smoking on the deck of a flatboat, drifting down the devious current of the Ohio.
IV. PLUTARCH BYLE MAKES A NEW ACQUAINTANCE.
The boat had reached a point a few miles above Marietta, when an incident occurred to interrupt the resumed dialogue on the Spanish question. A skiff was seen to push off from the Ohio shore, and move rapidly in the direction of the flatboat, urged on by the long, powerful oar-strokes of a man who, even in distant perspective, appeared larger than life-size. Instead of hailing the crew of the passing vessel, as was customary, the man gave no sign that he was conscious of the existence of any other craft than his own fast-gliding skiff. However, he steered straight for the boat, hove alongside, sprang on board with surprising agility, and, having fastened his light boat by a chain to a timber of the flat, stalked deliberately to the stern where Captain Pierce was stationed with steering-oar.
"I saw you coming down and I thought maybe you'd like to buy some fresh fish. I've got a thirty-pound cat in the boat; I caught one last week that weighed one hundred and three pound."
"Don't want any fish. Wouldn't take 'um as a gift."
"You're welcome not to, captain. I suppose a man has a right to hop on board and ask a civil question. Whose boat is this, anyhow, and where bound?"
No attention being paid to the question, the nonchalant intruder went on: "What plunder are you loaded with? Salt or whiskey, or pork or butter, I reckon? Or maybe you carry passengers? Is it a family of emigrants? I see two chaps on the upper deck; who are they? What might your name be, captain?"
The helmsman relieved his irritation by delivering a volley of oaths.
"You 'pear to be out of sorts, captain. Sour stomach, likely. Better take a dose of saleratus."
Hearing a strange voice, the cook, who was the captain's trusted confidant, came out. He was recognized by the ubiquitous Byle.
"Abe Sheldrake! as sure as ham is hog's flesh! Abe, if there's an onrier man than you on earth, the bottomless pit is shaller."
The cook stood speechless, and the tall man sauntered leisurely through the several apartments of the boat, calculating their dimensions and inspecting the furniture, and pausing occasionally to handle such articles as appealed to his curiosity. He passed through the kitchen into the dining-room, and thence through both the sleeping-chambers, finally emerging from a door at the bow of the boat, after which he ascended to the roof, where he accosted Burr and Arlington.
"How d'ye do? My name is Byle; Plutarch Byle—B-y-l-e. I can't call your names, gents, but no matter. We all belong to the same human race. I thought you might be a little bored-like with your own talk—so long together you know—and I hopped on to cheer you up. George Washington used to say to his nephew, 'Be courteous to all, but intimate with few,' and George was half right. I admire a mannerly man. How goes it?"
The familiarity of this overture puzzled, but did not offend the travellers, who conceived that chance had thrown into their presence an original whose company might afford them an hour's entertainment. Arlington politely offered the visitor a chair.
"No, thank you, stranger. I've been setting in the skiff all day, fishing, and I'd rather stand up and stretch my bones."
The gentlemen thought, when they saw Mr. Byle throw back his arms, and gradually straighten up his towering body, that the length and thickness of bone he had to stretch were extraordinary.
"I've got a lot of mussel shells in my boat for Mr. Blennerhatchet. Would you like to see 'em? 'Union-idea,' he says they are. He's a queer customer, that Blennerhatchet."
"You know him then?" asked Burr.
"Know him! I know him like a book. I know him better than I do you. He is not so good-looking as either of us, by ginger. I can't make out why the Rose of Sharon ever took to a near-sighted United Irishman."
"The Rose of Sharon?"
"I mean his old woman—Mrs. B. She's a perfect lady. Pretty! Pretty as a sassafras tree in October! I didn't just catch your names, gentlemen. I like to call a man by his Christian name. It seems more sociable. That's one thing I like about the French—sociability. They go in for liberty, equality and brotherhood. But I don't take any stock in their skeptical notions. I'd as soon eat poke-root and sleep on pizen-vine as read Voltaire and Rousseau. Tom Payne is no better. What's the latest news from Washington? Is Tom Jefferson going to make war on Spain? It ain't war we want; it ain't more territory we want; we need a closer union, and a strong tariff."
"You appear to be a politician, Mr. Pyle."
"Byle—B-y-l-e—Plutarch Byle, if you please. Yes, it's my notion that every citizen ought to be a politician. I'm a John Jay Federalist—a centralizer. Which side are you on?"
"I'm not concerned in politics at present. We are lawyers, not politicians, Mr. Arlington and I."
"Arlington? That's not a bad name. Where do you hail from, Arlington?"
"From Richmond, Virginia," said the young man good humoredly. "This gentleman is a citizen of New York."
"New York City? Porcupines and wildcats! You don't say! There's where Alexander Hamilton lived—the greatest man that ever lived in these United States, except Washington. I suppose there was a heap of excitement in New York when Alexander Hamilton was killed—murdered, I might say. Did you ever see Alexander Hamilton?"
Burr looked steadily into the eyes of the Great Inquisitive. "Yes," he replied, "I was very well acquainted with Mr. Hamilton. He was a fine man."
"You're right there, stranger! Give us your hand on that! I'm proud to shake with a man who has seen Alexander Hamilton."
The enthusiastic Byle extended his prodigious palm and grasped the delicate hand politely proffered him. Arlington looked on in astonishment.
Burr, wincing at the vice-like grip of his new acquaintance, placidly responded: "Yes, there are few men more worthy of esteem than was my admirable friend Mr. Hamilton—whom I shot."
Byle was struck dumb. He could only open his cavernous mouth, and gasp. His heavy hand relaxed its hold, and dropped as if paralyzed. For a moment he stared at Arlington. Then he recovered his powers sufficiently to articulate.
"You shot him? You—you aren't—?"
"Yes, I am Aaron Burr."
Plutarch Byle turned on his heel and with three strides carried his leaning tower of a body to the edge of the deck. Scrambling precipitately down the boat's side, he stumbled into his skiff, undid the chain, grabbed his oars and fairly shot away, as if pursued by flying pestilence. He directed his course northward and quickly ran the bow of his skiff against the river bank. Then plunging his right hand into the water, he rubbed and scrubbed it vigorously, using sand for soap.
"Dog-fennel and skunk-cabbage! I don't believe there's water enough in the Ohio River to take out the wicked smell of that murderer's hand!"
V. IN THE LADIES' BOWER.
The Byle episode put Burr in a merry mood, quite diverting his thoughts from Mexico and the future to the happenings of the hour. A reckless spirit of frivolity took possession of him, and he astonished his fellow traveller by the ebullience of his humor and the play of his extravagant fancy. He mimicked the speech and grotesque gestures of Plutarch, and laughed over the ludicrous finale of the encounter with that free-spoken genius.
"Mr. B-y-l-e, Byle, is exquisite! It is worth coming a thousand miles by stage coach and flatboat, to meet so droll an adventure with such a nondescript amphibian. He has a prodigious gift of gab, plain and ornamental. Did you take note of his metaphors? 'Rose of Sharon' is good.—By the way, we can't be far from the Bower of Bliss. We must tie up our Argo there as Brackenridge recommended, and go in quest of those exotic and visionary Blennerhassetts."
"What do you know of them, colonel, further than we learned in Pittsburg?"
"But little. They stopped in New York for a few months, after arriving in this country, ten or twelve years ago. The man is a barrister, educated in Dublin. He claims to be a descendant of King John. The lady is a daughter of the governor of the Isle of Wight, and a granddaughter of the late Brigadier-General Agnew, who was killed in the battle of Germantown."
"A British general, you say?"
"Oh, certainly—a violent royalist."
While the gentlemen were thus chatting, the boat drifted lazily on, following the windings of the current. The broad Ohio glowed like liquid gold, in the slant sunshine of mid-afternoon, and the interplay of shade and color, shifting from object to object along the shores, gave the varied scenery an ethereal beauty almost supernatural. The distant, forest-crowned uplands, seen dimly in the direction toward which the ark floated, looked as unsubstantial as clouds. A delightful, spicy fragrance exhaled from the blossomy thickets which fringed the river margin.
Burr took a deep breath, and began to hum a half-remembered verse advising youth to "gather the rose whiles yet is prime."
"Yonder is Bacchus Island," said Arlington, pointing down stream.
"I suppose you are right. The Western Navigator locates the spot somewhere about here. But beware of illusions, my friend. I begin to doubt the testimony of my senses. Perhaps yonder prospect is a mirage, and Byle was only a goblin of the mind. This interminable river is enchanted. I sympathize with La Salle's conviction that the Ohio runs to Cathay. Maybe we have sailed round the globe and are now in sight of the Indies. Or we have come to Arabia. Does not the vision resemble some Mohammedan Isle of the Blest—one of the happy seats reserved for blameless souls such as yours and mine? I shall expect to discover the rivers of clarified honey, the couches adorned with gold, and the damsels having complexions like rubies and pearls, as the Koran promises."
Arlington laughingly replied in the same extravagant vein.
"Colonel, you have eaten of the insane root. This island belongs to the Hesperides, not to the East. The best luck we can hope for is to steal one or two golden apples."
"That may prove a risky adventure even for a bold Virginian. If there is a dragon to slay I leave the bloody business to you. I stick to my Oriental paradise."
"Very well; golden apples for me and pearl-ruby damsels for you. But I am scandalized that a Puritan Senator permits himself to dream of Mohammed's heaven, and its honey and houri felicities."
"Mr. Arlington, you are the first and only anchorite that Virginia has produced. You will grant that it is in character for a Senator to pay his devoirs to a sultana. Something too much of this. See there over the willows; that must be the house."
They both gazed forward, and caught glimpses of the secluded mansion, gleaming, snow-white, through forest vistas. Burke Pierce, who knew the private wharf, steered to the landing, and the boat was moored fast to a huge sycamore tree.
The travellers disembarked, and following a path which wound among mazes of shrubbery and early blooming flowers, came to the semicircular plot of green sward fronting the piazza.
"The place is marvellously beautiful!" remarked Arlington.
"A new Garden of Eden!" answered the other.
On approaching the main entrance, they heard, within, the twangling music of a harp.
The hall door was decorated with a large, bronze knocker of curious design. A tap of the falling hammer on its metallic plate, brought to the threshold a jet-black maid-servant wearing a gaudy turban. She ushered the visitors into a spacious drawing-room and took their cards and a note from Judge Brackenridge, to her mistress.
The guests while waiting could not fail to be impressed by what they saw around them. Walls, ceilings and doors were unique in their decorative effects. The furnishings of the apartment were elegant and sumptuous. There were rich hangings at the windows and costly Persian rugs on the floor.
Soon was heard a swish and rustle of brocade on the stairs, and, a moment later, the gentlemen rose to meet Madam Blennerhassett, who came in, smiling a cordial welcome. She was dignified, even stately, in her demeanor, and looked, not indeed the ideal sultana, but rather every inch an empress.
Burr was at once upon his mettle. No levity, nothing of the jester, no trace of ennui lingered in his manner. The presence of the magnificent woman transfigured his body and called up all his social resources. His eye kindled its sparkling fires, his lip took a deeper glow of vital red. These manifestations were spontaneous, almost involuntary, though he was conscious of an obscure design.
"Gentlemen, it hardly needed this note from Judge Brackenridge to insure you a welcome here; you do us a great honor by seeking out our lonely island home." These words, though addressed to both the visitors, were meant for the elder and more distinguished guest, who replied suavely:
"Madam, we made bold to invade the privacy of these grounds in the hope of forming the acquaintance of a family well known by reputation."
Returning a formal bow and a look of appreciation, the lady continued:
"I regret that you do not find my husband at home; his affairs called him to Farmers' Castle, just across the river, but I am expecting him to return at any minute. You must not go without seeing him. Of course, you will take dinner with us."
The wayfarers, having come ashore for idle adventure and recreation, were easily persuaded to linger. Burr tactfully advanced to the borders of familiarity by giving Madam Blennerhassett an embellished report of the encomiums which Brackenridge had bestowed upon her and her ancestors. He was lauding the name of Agnew, when a sound from the vestibule suspended his eloquence, and quickly thereafter the figure of a graceful girl appeared in the entrance to the drawing-room. The maiden paused a moment, a glowing picture in the deep doorway. She was a peerless blonde, blue of eye, scarlet of lip—and her fair head and face were so aureoled by locks of sunniest yellow, that she seemed to radiate light and warmth. Her exceeding loveliness smote through Arlington's nerves and set his southern blood tingling.
"Ah, Evaleen, did you enjoy your ramble?" asked the hostess, affectionately, as she rose to receive the young lady. "Colonel Burr, this is my very dear friend, Miss Evaleen Hale."
The American Chesterfield made a courtierly obeisance.
"Permit me to introduce Mr. Arlington, of Richmond."
"Miss Hale, gentlemen, like myself is a sojourner in a far country. She comes to us from Boston."
Having complied gracefully with the demands of convention, the maiden, in wilful abstraction, busied herself with some wild flowers which she had just gathered in the woods.
"Where did you leave the boys?" inquired madam, referring to the lads Dominick and Harman.
"They are out of doors, making a cage for a young squirrel which I had the luck to catch. But the lively creature bit me; see here, Margaret!"
Evaleen held up a dainty hand, on the whiteness of which the teeth of the captive had left a small purple wound. In her playful carelessness, she let fall a sprig of wind-flowers and two or three violets. Arlington gallantly picked up the flowers.
"What peculiar violets," said he, as he offered to return them.
"Yes, they are of a variety found only on this island, I am told. You may keep them if you like."
"I presume, Mr. Arlington," said Burr, "that you understand the language of flowers. When I was of the sentimental age I knew the floral alphabet and could convey all manner of covert messages through the agency of pinks and pansies and rosebuds and all the sweet go-betweens of Cupid's court. The blue violet, I believe, signifies modesty, does it not?"
The question was accompanied by a look at Miss Hale, who made no reply, not appearing to notice the appeal.
"Our native Western plants," said the hostess, "have no poetical association. The Indians were devoid of sentiment. It is only in Persia and such romantic lands that they make roses and lilies talk. But this island is rich in its flora. Before you resume your voyage you should take time to visit a beautiful spot which Miss Evaleen calls her Violet Bank. It is on a bluff overlooking the river, only a short walk from here."
At Burr's request, Mrs. Blennerhassett was induced to talk of her island home and of her husband's pursuits. It gave her evident relief of mind to narrate the story of her life's trials and vicissitudes since her marriage. She spoke with less reserve than was wise, and notwithstanding the reverence with which she alluded to him, the consort she unconsciously described seemed at best the prince of Utopians. That he was wealthy and lavish could not be doubted. The wife's unguarded revelations gave Burr food for speculation. Many pertinent questions by him elicited answers which he locked away in the safe of memory.
The minutes flew rapidly—an hour went by, yet the master of the house came not, and at length Madam Blennerhassett renewed her suggestion that an excursion to the edge of the island might prove pleasant.
"We shall see him return from the Ohio shore; at least, I hope so."
She reminded her guests that she was an Englishwoman, accustomed to long walks, and, with the buoyant energy of an Artemis, led the way to the near green wood.
"I will pilot ahead with Colonel Burr, and you, Mr. Arlington, shall be taken care of by Miss Hale, who is as familiar as a dryad with these glades. How romantic! Virginia and New England wander together on a solitary island in the Ohio."
The elevated level of ground upon which the party halted lay open to the sunshine, and it was completely covered by a thick bed of wild pansies.
The view from this fragrant knoll surpassed expectation. While the admiring spectators were gazing across the river, now on the village of Belpre, now on the farther off rude fortress aptly named Farmers' Castle, there came floating by a long, slender craft, rigged somewhat like a schooner, and displaying from its mast the flag of the United States. The music of a violin, faintly heard, was wafted across the water from the deck, upon which could be seen a bevy of ladies, a few dancing, others waving handkerchiefs to those watching from the island. By means of a field-glass which Mrs. Blennerhassett handed him, Burr could bring out plainly the forms and faces of the passengers. His attention was immediately fixed upon one striking figure—that of a woman in black, who stood apart from her fellow-voyagers in a pensive attitude, gazing into the sky. A cheer arose from the boat's crew, and the report of a small cannon boomed and echoed along the woody shores; yet Burr still held the magnifying lens before his eye, and a certain agitation was observable in his behavior.
"That," said he, handing back the glass, "is General Wilkinson's barge. He is bound for St. Louis, to take possession of his domain as governor of Upper Louisiana and commander-in-chief of the Army of the West."
For a time the four stood gazing in silence at the receding craft. Then Madam Blennerhassett, speaking aside to Miss Hale, asked:
"How long does the captain intend to remain with you in Marietta? I understand he has orders to proceed to the general's headquarters for duty."
The answer was spoken softly and with a rising blush, noticing which, Arlington was disquieted by a feeling much akin to jealousy.
"We do hope he may stay with us at least another fortnight."
"In that case we will expect him to spend a few days here. I wonder what detains Harman? He may have crossed over while we came through the grove. Perhaps we shall find him at home waiting for us."
With sauntering steps the four returned through the twilight of the woods, breathing the scent of new leaves and now and then stopping to pick a stem of sweet dicentra or a white addertongue. Soon after they reached the house dinner was served in a style distinctively English. During this meal, and afterward, when the cheerful party repaired to the drawing-room, Burr, as was expected of him, assumed the leadership in conversation.
The affluence and the brilliancy of his discourse seemed appropriate to the splendor of the surroundings. He did not monopolize the talk, and never failed to return an appreciative response to any remark or question. To the ladies he gave the most deferential attention. Arlington, a peer in the social realm, felt piqued to admit himself outrivalled by an undersized widower who was a grandfather.
The conversation, in which Miss Hale now more freely participated, flowed afresh in livelier and more sparkling stream—ripples of wit and humor—foam-bells of nonsense. The Geneva clock in the room across the hall struck nine—struck ten—but its musical warning was not heard. Nor yet did the lord of the mansion make his appearance. Madam Blennerhassett concealed the secret uneasiness she felt, and did all she could to contribute to the pleasure of the occasion by every delicate art of hospitality. She sang a Scottish song, she spoke piquantly of the amusing phases of life in a new country, and of her husband's need of congenial literary associates.
"He is compelled more and more to depend upon his books. Would you like, colonel, to look into the library for a moment?" Burr promptly rose and followed his queenly hostess into the adjoining apartment.
The couple left together in the drawing-room verified the homely adage, "Two is company." Arlington might have said, "My blood speaks to you in my veins," but he could not consistently quote Bassanio's other words, "Madam, you have bereft me of all speech." From the presence of Evaleen he received access of eloquence; the two were conscious of a silent interchange of sentiments more meaningful than any spoken word. While Evaleen sat listening with responsive interest to some frank personal disclosures of the young man's hopes and ambitions, her attention was diverted by a slight sound on the porch. She glanced up, and saw, or thought she saw, an ugly face staring at her through a window-pane. Her sudden pallor and dilated eye were observed by Arlington, who asked in a tone of gentle solicitude:
"What is it?"
"I saw a face at the window—a man staring in."
Arlington immediately left the room and, softly opening the door, stepped out upon the piazza and looked searchingly in every direction. Not a sign could be discovered of the prowling eavesdropper whose shadowy features had frightened Miss Hale.
"I may have been mistaken," she said, when Arlington came back, "but I am almost certain that I saw a hideous face at the window."
The effect of the incident was to give the conversation of the two a somewhat more intimate character, and the gentleman's manner assumed an air of protective regard which the New England beauty did not repulse. Her resiliant spirit soon regained its wonted gaiety.
Meanwhile, what had Aaron Burr found to interest him so long in the sanctum sanctorum of the lord of the island?
Blennerhassett's study was both library and laboratory, containing philosophical apparatus, musical instruments and books. The shelves were piled with scientific works and standard editions of the ancient classics. On the wall hung a large oil portrait of a man with an amiable, meditative face, not wanting in agreeable features, yet not indicative of force. Burr scanned the indecisive mouth, the handsome, trustful eyes, the low forehead, at the middle of which was parted the slightly curling mass of brown hair. While her visitor was studying the picture, the lady stood at his side, perusing him.
"Well, what is your verdict?"
"A noble face! A noble face!" he repeated, turning to her with an expression subtly suggestive that his interest was passing from the flat, dead canvas of the absent husband to the breathing, beautiful woman he was addressing. "A noble face; but one fact puzzles me. Madam, pardon my candor. I cannot understand how your husband contents himself to spend an obscure life in this out-of-the-way spot, when his education, talents and fortune qualify him for a career so much more ambitious and useful. I am at equal loss to conceive how a lady of your distinguished birth, breeding and accomplishments could consent to exchange the splendid opportunities of social life in lofty places for the domestic quietude of a rural home, however luxurious. Things cannot make us happy, human associations only can do that. Is it possible that you are satisfied with your present limited sphere?"
"No," she replied, speaking low, "nor is he." She glanced at the portrait. "We have had quite enough of this self-banishment. We grow discontented and would gladly dispose of the estate."
"Madam, you are not unacquainted with the world. You derive your blood from a noble source. The granddaughter of General Agnew inherits all advantages that women covet—rank, wealth, culture, beauty—and you have a husband who appreciates you." When in the enumeration of her endowments Burr pronounced the word beauty, the lady's eyelids drooped and a perceptible constraint came over both the woman and the man—he not feeling sure he had chosen a safe approach to her favor—she in doubt whether to invite or to repulse further personal compliment. It entered his consciousness that she might become part of his political plan—might somehow abet his magnificent purposes. In the pause which succeeded his appeal to her self-love and ambition she once more scanned the mild, meditative countenance beaming from the pictured canvas.
A mesmeric influence drew her eyes from the portrait to encounter those of Aaron Burr, regarding her with a gentle look of wistful melancholy. The color deepened in her cheeks, and her bosom labored with an inaudible sigh.
"Ah, madam, you should give your husband back to the world of great actions suited to one in whose veins runs the blood of a king. How I wish he were here that I might tell him so in your presence. Give him my profound regrets. We have tarried too long."
Madam Blennerhassett never forgot this tete-a-tete with Burr; but an inexplicable qualm kept her from mentioning it to her belated lord on his return from Farmers' Castle. It was nearly midnight when the two visitors reluctantly took leave of the ladies and stepped out into the diffused light of the May moon.
"Pretty late," called out Burke Pierce familiarly from the stern of the boat where he stood, ready to resume his piloting.
No tattling breeze carried to the ears of the ladies the comments spoken by Burr as he stood in the moonlight on the roof of the vessel, beside Arlington.
"Exceedingly fine women, are they not?"
The Virginian made no reply. He was pinning to the lapel of his coat a tiny bunch of violets, and his face was turned from his fellow-voyager.
"Both are ladies of decided individuality. They are amazingly beautiful, too, and possess unusual force of character, especially the captain's lady."
"Damn the captain."
"So say I. You stole a march on him in the Hesperian Garden, and we both escaped the jaws of the absent Dragon."
Soon after their guests left the house Madam Blennerhassett and Evaleen Hale, standing by an open window in a chamber upstairs, looked out toward the wharf. They heard the voices of the watermen and the noise made in shoving out from the gravel beach. Then came silence, and they knew the ark was adrift, bearing away two passengers whom they could not easily forget, but expected never to meet again.
"How delightful he is!" mused the madam, speaking more to herself than to her friend.
"Do you think so?" returned Evaleen abstractedly.
"Perfectly captivating! A brilliant mind! I am charmed with him, are not you?"
"He is pleasant enough, but too bold, too audacious, isn't he?"
"Not, I think, Evaleen, for a person of his age. We expect more freedom in elderly men."
"Elderly! Why, he can't be more than twenty-five!
"Twenty-five! My dear child, he has a married daughter!"
"Oh, you are speaking of Colonel Burr! I hate him."
VI. DOCTOR DEVILLE AND HIS LUCRECE.
"Behold this Ohio city of the Gauls. Volney's ruins of modern date—new oldness—fresh decay—dilapidation to begin with! I am proud of this consummation of American enterprise!"
This irony was uttered by Burr to Arlington as the two men stood taking a first look at Gallipolis, a poor village, consisting of a dozen miserable log houses patched with clay and occupied by a score of wretched French families. The travellers had walked up a steep bank to the natural terrace on which the forlorn dwellings stood.
"Shall we go back to our boat? Have you seen enough of Palmyra? Here are the palaces, but where are the citizens? Ecce Homo! One inhabitant turns out to receive us."
The person to whom Arlington's attention was thus called was a small, nervous gentleman, about sixty years old, who came forth from a whitewashed cot, and, taking off a scarlet cap, saluted the strangers, whom he had eagerly watched from the moment of their landing.
"Pardon, messieurs. Permit that I speak. May it be convenient should one passenger more be accommodated in your polite boat? I much wish to go to Cincinnati, for one of my business very special. I have courage to ask ze bold favor by my necessity professional to come to mon frere."
"Ours is a private boat. Do you say it is to meet a brother that you wish to go to Cincinnati?"
The old man's countenance fell. "Monsieur, accept my apology. Permit me to speak my explanation. Pardieu, I deceive not. When I speak I shall not indicate ze son of my mother, but I shall indicate ze brother in medicine, Monsieur Goforth, ze physician celebre. Pardon. Pardon that I detain you so long."
Disappointed, the old man turned toward his modest domicile, at the door of which stood a petite maiden awaiting the issue of the interview. Immediately descrying the damsel, Burr remarked aside to Arlington:
"Another alluring petticoat. Tree nymphs or naiads haunt every island and green bank."
"Pere," asked the girl anxiously, in a gentle voice, so clear that every word she spoke reached the ear of Burr, "may you go with them?"
The father shook his head.
He went up to his daughter, who impulsively kissed him, as if to solace his disappointment. He seemed about to enter the cottage, when, like one suddenly recollecting a neglected duty, he wheeled round and again approached the strangers.
"Do me ze honor, messieurs, before you depart to enter in my poor dwelling and drink with me one glass of wine."
An invitation so naively extended could not be declined. Burr felt a kindly impulse toward the cordial sire and was not averse to wasting a few stray glances on mademoiselle.
"It will give us great pleasure to accept your hospitality and also to have your company as our guest on the boat. There is room, and you shall be accommodated."
The doctor's spirits rose. His face shone with gratification.
"Your courtesy lift my heart. I shall never forsake to do you ze friendly service. Is it convenient now that we present us. I am your servant, Eloy Deville."
Having imparted his own name, the flighty Frenchman waited not for the completion of the ceremony he had proposed, but, taking on trust the respectability of the strangers, he hastily led the way to his cottage. Burr noticed that he was attired in a tight-fitting suit of brown cloth, clean and well pressed but threadbare and redeemed from shabbiness only by the stitch in time. The feminine apparition vanished from the threshold as the travellers approached, but the father, ushering them in, placed chairs beside a small table, and called out cheerily: "Lucrece, ma chere enfant une bouteille de vin." The girl promptly obeyed by carrying in a salver on which were a flask and three tiny wine-glasses. She glided to the table upon which she set her light burden, keeping her head demurely bowed and her eyes cast down bashfully.
"Messieurs, permit that I you present my daughter, my aide chirurgeon." Thus introduced, Lucrece, raising her head, bestowed a modest smile of welcome on her father's guests and divided between them a coy courtesy.
She could not elude the pardonable glances cast upon her by the strangers—glances which left in their memories the form and face of a dainty brunette with large and very brilliant black eyes. Her waist was slender, her hands and feet were nimble and delicate, and her dress fitted her so neatly that she looked the personation of trimness.
"This wine is not original of Ohio. No, no. Ze cask was from Bordeaux, very old, very old—he has fourteen years. Presented to me by my countryman, Comte Malartie. I speak ze truth. From this very cask I have ze honor to drink also ze health of ze General St. Clair, and at one time of Daniel Boone. Eh bien! Long have I suffer in this wilderness; it is fifteen years that Eloy Deville was ze fool to leave France, to leave my native Lyons, and seek ze Terre promise—to find ze tree of natural sugar, ze plants also with wax candles for ze fruit, ze no work, no tax, no war, no king—ze paradise on ze ground! Oui, sold I not all my property—take ze ship, take ze wagon, ze flatboat—en route pour Gallipolis! Ah! mon dieu! ze damn fever kill ma femme; you see ze old Frenchman in ze poverty; voila sa richesse! une cabane, un verre de vin—et ma bien aimee—ma pauvre fille—ma Lucrece!"
To justify his grievance, the excited man sprang up and ran to a drawer, from which he took an old French map of the Seven Ranges of the Ohio, representing as cleared and inhabited lands large tracts of unbroken wilderness. This chart had been used by speculators to induce French families to migrate to the Ohio Valley.
"See!" continued Deville explosively; "ze scoundrel Barlow cheat my honest poor friends—he print here no veracity—he draw here only to deceive! Look on this place I put my finger"—he tapped the paper angrily—"you see ze Premiereville—ze Premiereville? Eh? I come to Premiereville—no street—no house, only ze forest tree! Messieurs, my little axe make ze first log in ze city, in Premiereville, where we drink now this wine."
The doctor's preparations for the trip down the river were quickly made. Half the population of the village, led by Lucrece, flocked to the boat-landing to see him safely off. After the passengers had gone on board, and while the damsel stood waiting their departure, Burke Pierce, leering in her direction, threw her a kiss and as the boat was pushed off began to sing a ribald song. Deville did not witness the insult, but Arlington, with quick anger kindling his chivalrous blood, strode up to Pierce.
"You ought to be flogged, you filthy cur."
The boatman scowled and clenched his fists, but did not attempt to strike the imperious Southerner.
"Cur? I'll remember that!" he muttered, and swaggered away. "I'm a dog, a filthy cur! But I'll have my day!" he growled to Sheldrake.
The loquacity of the French doctor seemed accelerated by the motion of the boat and the breezy freedom of its deck. Unlike most of his Gallic brethren who left their native land to come to America in 1790, he was in sympathy with the Revolution, and had rejoiced at the falling of the Bastile. By chance a copy of the Marseillaise Hymn had reached him, and snatches of this he would sing, keeping time to the music with his own springing steps as he marched up and down. The cry of "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite," often broke from his lips. When Burr opened to him part of the plausible scheme against Mexico he eagerly volunteered to join any expedition gotten up in the name of freedom. He proffered his services as surgeon, and asked with amusing simplicity what would be the emoluments.
"Sacre!" exclaimed he. "Il faut vivre! Let us destroy ze Spaniard. Vive l'amerique! Vive le General Bur-r-r! Vive Eloy Deville!"
The tedious passage from Gallipolis to Cincinnati required almost a week's time. On the last day of the voyage, soon after breakfast, while Burr and Deville were enjoying the morning sunshine and discussing the French Revolution, Arlington heard a knock on the door of his room, in which he sat writing a letter.
"Come in," he shouted, hurrying to pen down the sentence that was in his mind. The door opened, and Burke Pierce thrust his head and shoulders into the room. Arlington glanced up from his writing and saw a flushed face and a pair of bloodshot eyes.
"You know what you called me up at Gallipolis?"
"I'm a dog, eh? a filthy cur?"
The Virginian made an impatient gesture and dipped his quill into the ink. The drunken boatman after a moment's pause said:
"I want you out here in the kitchen."
Arlington paid no attention to the insolent speech, but went on with his letter writing.
Pierce, without closing the door, stepped back into the narrow quarters in which Sheldrake did the cooking, and a minute later reappeared with two long butcher knives, which he flung down on the table, in front of Arlington.
"Take your choice."
Arlington picked up both the ugly weapons, one in each hand, and stepping to a window, tossed them out into the river. The contemptuous act raised the fury of the captain to the point of frenzy; he seized a stick of firewood and rushed forward. Arlington parried the stroke, closed in, and grappled his assailant. The noise of the scuffle brought to the place Sheldrake and others of the crew. Summoning all his strength, Arlington hurled Pierce backward over a chair with such violence that the ruffian, falling on his head, was rendered senseless. The Southerner stood on the defensive, expecting to be attacked by the others, as he would have been, had not Burr strode into the room, followed by the French doctor. The colonel's sudden appearance on the scene prevented further turbulent demonstrations. The three passengers repaired to the deck, leaving the drunken captain to be revived by his faithful henchman, Sheldrake.
Arlington in few words told how he had been challenged, not stating any cause for Burke Pierce's animosity.
"Wanted to butcher you without provocation! Has the fellow gone mad?"
"Mad from drink."
"This fellow's bellicose propensity," said Burr, "must be punished. I shall have him arrested by the first magistrate I can find."
"Not on my account, colonel. He'll sober off. Your unctuous agent in Pittsburg allowed that when cap is drunk he's vicious."
"Sacre!" burst in the doctor, "not always a gentleman shall be able to observe formality in a quarrel with ze savage. I who tell it you was one time attack on this very river by three red devil in ze canoe. See here, ze scar on my head! Ze wild gentlemen make no ceremony—he yell, and he shall right away take ze scalp with his knife. Pardieu! By good chance I shoot ze one impolite Iroquoix—and ze two, his second, paddle away!"
"We must beat our swords and pistols into scalping-knives and bludgeons," remarked Burr, banteringly. "The code of honor is not observed by Indians or Western boatmen. Mr. Arlington, you may be compelled to adapt yourself to the customs of the country."
Near Yeatman's Cove, at the foot of Sycamore Street, Cincinnati, stood a commodious tavern, built with some reference to architectural effect. Being directed to this resort, the party from the boat climbed the slope of the levee, ascended a flight of wooden steps, and entered the vestibule of the inn, a long, narrow corridor which the landlord considered very imposing. The first objects to attract attention in this public haunt were life-size wax-figures of two men fighting a duel. One of the figures represented Burr with an aimed pistol in hand, the other Hamilton staggering forward mortally wounded. To Arlington Burr remarked as they passed by the waxen show: