A TALE OF GEORGIA.
BY W. GILMORE SIMMS,
AUTHOR OF "THE YEMASSEE," "THE PARTISAN," "MELLICHAMPE," "KATHARINE WALTON," "THE SCOUT," "WOODCRAFT," ETC.
"Who wants A sequel may read on. Th' unvarnished tale That follows will supply the place of one."
New and Revised Edition.
CHICAGO: DONOHUE, HENNEBERRY & CO. 407-425 DEARBORN STREET
PRINTED AND BOUND BY DONOHUE & HENNEBERRY CHICAGO.
THE STERILE PROSPECT AND THE LONELY TRAVELLER.
Our scene lies in the upper part of the state of Georgia, a region at this time fruitful of dispute, as being within the Cherokee territories. The route to which we now address our attention, lies at nearly equal distances between the main trunk of the Chatahoochie and that branch of it which bears the name of the Chestatee, after a once formidable, but now almost forgotten tribe. Here, the wayfarer finds himself lost in a long reach of comparatively barren lands. The scene is kept from monotony, however, by the undulations of the earth, and by frequent hills which sometimes aspire to a more elevated title. The tract is garnished with a stunted growth, a dreary and seemingly half-withered shrubbery, broken occasionally by clumps of slender pines that raise their green tops abruptly, and as if out of place, against the sky.
The entire aspect of the scene, if not absolutely blasted, wears at least a gloomy and discouraging expression, which saddens the soul of the most careless spectator. The ragged ranges of forest, almost untrodden by civilized man, the thin and feeble undergrowth, the unbroken silence, the birdless thickets,—all seem to indicate a peculiarly sterile destiny. One thinks, as he presses forward, that some gloomy Fate finds harbor in the place. All around, far as the eye may see, it looks in vain for relief in variety. There still stretch the dreary wastes, the dull woods, the long sandy tracts, and the rude hills that send out no voices, and hang out no lights for the encouragement of the civilized man. Such is the prospect that meets the sad and searching eyes of the wayfarer, as they dart on every side seeking in vain for solace.
Yet, though thus barren upon the surface to the eye, the dreary region in which we now find ourselves, is very far from wanting in resources, such as not only woo the eyes, but win the very soul of civilization. We are upon the very threshold of the gold country, so famous for its prolific promise of the precious metal; far exceeding, in the contemplation of the knowing, the lavish abundance of Mexico and of Peru, in their palmiest and most prosperous condition. Nor, though only the frontier and threshold as it were to these swollen treasures, was the portion of country now under survey, though bleak, sterile, and uninviting, wanting in attractions of its own. It contained indications which denoted the fertile regions, nor wanted entirely in the precious mineral itself. Much gold had been already gathered, with little labor, and almost upon its surface; and it was perhaps only because of the limited knowledge then had of its real wealth, and of its close proximity to a more productive territory, that it had been suffered so long to remain unexamined.
Nature, thus, in a section of the world seemingly unblessed with her bounty, and all ungarnished with her fruits and flowers, seemed desirous of redeeming it from the curse of barrenness, by storing its bosom with a product, which, only of use to the world in its conventional necessities, has become, in accordance with the self-creating wants of society, a necessity itself; and however the bloom and beauty of her summer decorations may refresh the eye of the enthusiast, it would here seem that, with an extended policy, she had planted treasures, for another and a greatly larger class, far more precious to the eyes of hope and admiration than all the glories and beauties in her sylvan and picturesque abodes. Her very sterility and solitude, when thus found to indicate her mineral treasures, rise themselves into attractions; and the perverted heart, striving with diseased hopes, and unnatural passions, gladly welcomes the wilderness, without ever once thinking how to make it blossom like the rose.
Cheerless in its exterior, however, the season of the year was one—a mild afternoon in May—to mollify and sweeten the severe and sterile aspect of the scene. Sun and sky do their work of beauty upon earth, without heeding the ungracious return which she may make; and a rich warm sunset flung over the hills and woods a delicious atmosphere of beauty, burnishing the dull heights and the gloomy pines with golden hues, far more bright, if for less highly valued by men, than the metallic treasures which lay beneath their masses. Invested by the lavish bounties of the sun, so soft, yet bright, so mild, yet beautiful, the waste put on an appearance of sweetness, if it did not rise into the picturesque. The very uninviting and unlovely character of the landscape, rendered the sudden effect of the sunset doubly effective, though, in a colder moment, the spectator might rebuke his own admiration with question of that lavish and indiscriminate waste which could clothe, with such glorious hues, a region so little worthy of such bounty; even as we revolt at sight of rich jewels about the brows and neck of age and ugliness. The solitary group of pines, that, here and there, shot up suddenly like illuminated spires;—the harsh and repulsive hills, that caught, in differing gradations, a glow and glory from the same bright fountain of light and beauty;—even the low copse, uniform of height, and of dull hues, not yet quite caparisoned for spring, yet sprinkled with gleaming eyes, and limned in pencilling beams and streaks of fire; these, all, appeared suddenly to be subdued in mood, and appealed, with a freshening interest, to the eye of the traveller whom at midday their aspects discouraged only.
And there is a traveller—a single horseman—who emerges suddenly from the thicket, and presses forward, not rapidly, nor yet with the manner of one disposed to linger, yet whose eyes take in gratefully the softening influences of that evening sunlight.
In that region, he who travelled at all, at the time of which we write, must do so on horseback. It were a doubtful progress which any vehicle would make over the blind and broken paths of that uncultivated realm. Either thus, or on foot, as was the common practice with the mountain hunters; men who, at seventy years of age, might be found as lithe and active, in clambering up the lofty summit as if in full possession of the winged vigor and impulse of twenty-five.
Our traveller, on the present occasion, was apparently a mere youth. He had probably seen twenty summers—scarcely more. Yet his person was tall and well developed; symmetrical and manly; rather slight, perhaps, as was proper to his immaturity; but not wanting in what the backwoodsmen call heft. He was evidently no milksop, though slight; carried himself with ease and grace; and was certainly not only well endowed with bone and muscle, but bore the appearance, somehow, of a person not unpractised in the use of it. His face was manly like his person; not so round as full, it presented a perfect oval to the eye; the forehead was broad, high, and intellectual—purely white, probably because so well shadowed by the masses of his dark brown hair. His eyes were rather small, but dark and expressive, and derived additional expression from their large, bushy, overhanging brows, which gave a commanding, and, at times, a somewhat fierce expression to his countenance. But his mouth was small, sweet, exquisitely chiselled, and the lips of a ripe, rich color. His chin, full and decided, was in character with the nobility of his forehead. The tout ensemble constituted a fine specimen of masculine beauty, significant at once of character and intelligence.
Our traveller rode a steed, which might be considered, even in the South, where the passion for fine horses is universal, of the choicest parentage. He was blooded, and of Arabian, through English, stocks. You might detect his blood at a glance, even as you did that of his rider. The beast was large, high, broad-chested, sleek of skin, wiry of limb, with no excess of fat, and no straggling hair; small ears, a glorious mane, and a great lively eye. At once docile and full of life, he trod the earth with the firm pace of an elephant, yet with the ease of an antelope; moving carelessly as in pastime, and as if he bore no sort of burden on his back. For that matter he might well do so. His rider, though well developed, was too slight to be felt by such a creature—and a small portmanteau carried all his wardrobe. Beyond this he had no impedimenta; and to those accustomed only to the modes of travel in a more settled and civilized country—with bag and baggage—the traveller might have appeared—but for a pair of moderately-sized twisted barrels which we see pocketed on the saddle—rather as a gentleman of leisure taking his morning ride, than one already far from home and increasing at every step the distance between it and himself. From our privilege we make bold to mention, that, strictly proportioned to their capacities, the last named appurtenances carried each a charge which might have rendered awkward any interruption; and it may not be saying too much if we add, that it is not improbable to this portion of his equipage our traveller was indebted for that security which had heretofore obviated all necessity for their use. They were essentials which might or might not, in that wild region, have been put in requisition; and the prudence of all experience, in our border country, is seldom found to neglect such companionship.
So much for the personal appearance and the equipment of our young traveller. We have followed the usage among novelists, and have dwelt thus long upon these details, as we design that our adventurer shall occupy no small portion of the reader's attention. He will have much to do and to endure in the progress of this narrative.
It may be well, in order to the omission of nothing hereafter important, to add that he seems well bred to the manege—and rode with that ease and air of indolence, which are characteristic of the gentry of the south. His garments were strictly suited to the condition and custom of the country—a variable climate, rough roads, and rude accommodations. They consisted of a dark blue frock, of stuff not so fine as strong, with pantaloons of the same material, all fitting well, happily adjusted to the figure of the wearer, yet sufficiently free for any exercise. He was booted and spurred, and wore besides, from above the knee to the ankle, a pair of buckskin leggins, wrought by the Indians, and trimmed, here and there, with beaded figures that gave a somewhat fantastic air to this portion of his dress. A huge cloak strapped over the saddle, completes our portrait, which, at the time of which we write, was that of most travellers along our southern frontiers. We must not omit to state that a cap of fur, rather than a fashionable beaver, was also the ordinary covering of the head—that of our traveller was of a finely-dressed fur, very far superior to the common fox skin cap worn by the plain backwoodsmen. It declared, somewhat for the superior social condition of the wearer, even if his general air and carriage did not sufficiently do so.
Our new acquaintance had, by this time, emerged into one of those regions of brown, broken, heathery waste, thinly mottled with tree and shrub, which seem usually to distinguish the first steppes on the approach to our mountain country. Though undulating, and rising occasionally into hill and crag, the tract was yet sufficiently monotonous; rather saddened than relieved by the gentle sunset, which seemed to gild in mockery the skeleton woods and forests, just recovering from the keen biting blasts of a severe and protracted winter.
Our traveller, naturally of a dreamy and musing spirit, here fell unconsciously into a narrow footpath, an old Indian trace, and without pause or observation, followed it as if quite indifferent whither it led. He was evidently absorbed in that occupation—a very unusual one with youth on horseback—that "chewing of the cud of sweet and bitter thought"—which testifies for premature troubles and still gnawing anxieties of soul. His thoughts were seemingly in full unison with the almost grave-like stillness and solemn hush of everything around him. His spirit appeared to yield itself up entirely to the mournful barrenness and uninviting associations, from which all but himself, birds and beasts, and the very insects, seemed utterly to have departed. The faint hum of a single wood-chuck, which, from its confused motions, appeared to have wandered into an unknown territory, and by its uneasy action and frequent chirping, seemed to indicate a perfect knowledge of the fact, was the only object which at intervals broke through the spell of silence which hung so heavily upon the sense. The air of our traveller was that of one who appeared unable, however desirous he might be, to avoid the train of sad thought which such a scene was so eminently calculated to inspire; and, of consequence, who seemed disposed, for this object, to call up some of those internal resources of one's own mind and memory, which so mysteriously bear us away from the present, whatever its powers, its pains, or its pleasures, and to carry us into a territory of the heart's own selection. But, whether the past in his case, were more to be dreaded than the present; or whether it was that there was something in the immediate prospect which appealed to sterile hopes, and provoking memories, it is very certain that our young companion exhibited a most singular indifference to the fact that he was in a wild empire of the forest—a wilderness—and that the sun was rapidly approaching his setting. The bridle held heedlessly, lay loose upon the neck of his steed; and it was only when the noble animal, more solicitous about his night's lodging than his rider, or rendered anxious by his seeming stupor, suddenly came to a full stand in the narrow pathway, that the youth seemed to grow conscious of his doubtful situation, and appeared to shake off his apathy and to look about him.
He now perceived that he had lost the little Indian pathway which he had so long pursued. There was no sign of route or road on any side. The prospect was greatly narrowed; he was in a valley, and the trees had suddenly thickened around him. Certain hills, which his eyes had hitherto noted on the right, had disappeared wholly from sight. He had evidently deflected greatly from his proper course, and the horizon was now too circumscribed to permit him to distinguish any of those guiding signs upon which he had relied for his progress. From a bald tract he had unwittingly passed into the mazes of a somewhat thickly-growing wood.
"Old Blucher," he said, addressing his horse, and speaking in clear silvery tones—"what have you done, old fellow? Whither have you brought us?"
The philosophy which tells us, when lost, to give the reins to the steed, will avail but little in a region where the horse has never been before. This our traveller seemed very well to know. But the blame was not chargeable upon Blucher. He had tacitly appealed to the beast for his direction when suffering the bridle to fall upon his neck. He was not willing, now, to accord to him a farther discretion; and was quite too much of the man to forbear any longer the proper exercise of his own faculties. With the quickening intelligence in his eyes, and the compression of his lips, declaring a resolute will, he pricked the animal forward, no longer giving way to those brown musings, which, during the previous hour, had not only taken him to remote regions but very much out of his way besides. In sober earnest, he had lost the way, and, in sober earnest, he set about to recover it; but a ten minutes' farther ride only led him to farther involvements; and he paused, for a moment, to hold tacit counsel with his steed, whose behavior was very much that of one who understands fully his own, and the predicament of his master. Our traveller then dismounted, and, suffering his bridle to rest upon the neck of the docile beast, he coursed about on all sides, looking close to the earth in hopes to find some ancient traces of a pathway. But his search was vain. His anxieties increased. The sunlight was growing fainter and fainter; and, in spite of the reckless manner, which he still wore, you might see a lurking and growing anxiety in his quick and restless eye. He was vexed with himself that he had suffered his wits to let fall his reins; and his disquiet was but imperfectly concealed under the careless gesture and rather philosophic swing of his graceful person, as, plying his silent way, through clumps of brush, and bush, and tree, he vainly peered along the earth for the missing traces of the route. He looked up for the openings in the tree-tops—he looked west, at the rapidly speeding sun, and shook his head at his horse. Though bold of heart, no doubt, and tolerably well aware of the usual backwoods mode of procedure in all such cases of embarrassment, our traveller had been too gently nurtured to affect a lodge in the wilderness that night—its very "vast contiguity of shade" being anything but attractive in his present mood. No doubt, he could have borne the necessity as well as any other man, but still he held it a necessity to be avoided if possible. He had, we are fain to confess, but small passion for that "grassy couch," and "leafy bower," and those other rural felicities, of which your city poets, who lie snug in garrets, are so prone to sing; and always gave the most unromantic preference to comfortable lodgings and a good roof; so, persevering in his search after the pathway, while any prospect of success remained, he circled about until equally hopeless and fatigued; then, remounted his steed, and throwing the bridle upon his neck, with something of the indifference of despair, he plied his spurs, suffering the animal to adopt his own course, which we shall see was nevertheless interrupted by the appearance of another party upon the scene, whose introduction we reserve for another chapter.
THE ENCOUNTER—THE CHEVALIER D'INDUSTRIE.
Thus left to himself, the good steed of our traveller set off, without hesitation, and with a free step, that promised, at least, to overcome space hurriedly, if it attained not the desired destination. The rider did not suffer any of his own doubts to mar a progress so confidently begun; and a few minutes carried the twain, horse and man, deeply, as it were, into the very bowels of the forest. The path taken by the steed grew every moment more and more intricate and difficult of access, and, but for the interruption already referred to, it is not impossible that a continued course in the same direction, would have brought the rider to a full stop from the sheer inaccessibleness of the forest.
The route thus taken lay in a valley which was necessarily more fertile, more densely packed with thicket, than the higher road which our rider had been pursuing all the day. The branches grew more and more close; and, what with the fallen trees, the spreading boughs, the undergrowth, and broken character of the plain, our horseman was fain to leave the horse to himself, finding quite enough to do in saving his eyes, and keeping his head from awkward contact with overhanging timber. The pace of the beast necessarily sunk into a walk. The question with his rider was, in what direction to turn, to extricate himself from the mazes into which he had so rashly ridden? While he mused this question, Blucher started suddenly with evidently some new and exciting consciousness. His ears were suddenly lifted—his eyes were strained upon the copse in front—he halted, as if reluctant to proceed. It was evident that his senses had taken in some sights, or sounds, which were unusual.
Of course, our traveller was by no means heedless of this behavior on the part of the beast. He well knew the superior keenness of the brute senses, over those of the man; and his own faculties were keenly enlisted in the scrutiny. There might be wolves along the track—the country was not wanting in them; or, more to be feared, there might be a panther lurking along some great overhanging forest bough. There was need to be vigilant. Either of these savages would make his propinquity known, at a short distance, to the senses of an animal so timid as the horse. Or, it might be, that a worse beast still—always worst of all when he emulates the nature of the beast—man!—might be lurking upon the track! If so, the nature of the peril was perhaps greater still, to the rider if not the steed. The section of the wild world in which our traveller journeyed was of doubtful character; but sparingly supplied with good citizens; and most certainly infested with many with whom the world had quarrelled—whom it had driven forth in shame and terror.
The youth thought of all these things. But they did not overcome his will, or lessen his courage. Preparing himself, as well as he might, for all chances, he renewed his efforts to extricate himself from his thick harborage; pressing his steed firmly, in a direction which seemed to open fairly, the sky appearing more distinctly through the opening of the trees above. Meanwhile, he kept his eyes busy, watching right and left. Still, he could see nothing, hear nothing, but the slight footfall of his own steed. And yet the animal continued uneasy, his ears pricked up, his head turning, this way and that, with evident curiosity; his feet set down hesitatingly, as if uncertain whether to proceed.
Curious and anxious, our traveller patted the neck of the beast affectionately, and, in low tones, endeavored to soothe his apprehensions:
"Quietly, Blucher, quietly? What do you see, old fellow, to make you uneasy? Is it the snug stall, and the dry fodder, and the thirty ears, for which you long. I'faith, old fellow, the chance is that both of us will seek shelter and supper in vain to-night."
Blucher pricked up his ears at the tones, however subdued, of his rider's voice, which he well knew; but his uneasiness continued; and, just when our young traveller, began to feel some impatience at his restiffness and coyness, a shrill whistle which rang through the forest, from the copse in front, seemed at once to determine the correctness of sense in the animal, and the sort of beast which had occasioned his anxieties. He was not much longer left in doubt as to the cause of the animal's excitement. A few bounds brought him unexpectedly into a pathway, still girdled, however, by a close thicket—and having an ascent over a hill, the top of which was of considerable elevation compared with the plain he had been pursuing. As the horse entered this pathway, and began the ascent, he shyed suddenly, and so abruptly, that a less practised rider would have lost his seat.
"Quiet, beast! what do you see?"
The traveller himself looked forward at his own query, and soon discovered the occasion of his steed's alarm. No occasion for alarm, either, judging by appearances; no panther, no wolf, certainly—a man only—looking innocent enough, were it not for the suspicious fact that he seemed to have put himself in waiting, and stood directly in the midst of the path that the horseman was pursuing.
Our traveller, as we have seen, was not wholly unprepared, as well to expect as to encounter hostilities. In addition to his pistols, which were well charged, and conveniently at hand, we may now add that he carried another weapon, for close quarters, concealed in his bosom. The appearance of the stranger was not, however, so decided a manifestation of hostility, as to justify his acting with any haste by the premature use of his defences. Besides, no man of sense, and such we take our traveller to be, will force a quarrel where he can make his way peacefully, like a Christian and a gentleman. Our young traveller very quietly observed as he approached the stranger—
"You scare my horse, sir. Will it please you to give us the road?"
"Give you the road?—Oh! yes! when you have paid the toll, young master!"
The manner of the man was full of insolence, and the blood, in a moment, rushed to the cheeks of the youth. He divined, by instinct, that there was some trouble in preparation for him, and his teeth were silently clenched together, and his soul nerved itself for anticipated conflict. He gazed calmly, however, though sternly, at the stranger, who appeared nothing daunted by the expression in the eyes of the traveller. His air was that of quiet indifference, bordering on contempt, as if he knew his duties, or his man, and was resolved upon the course he was appointed to pursue. When men meet thus, if they are persons of even ordinary intelligence, the instincts are quick to conceive and act, and the youth was now more assured than ever, that the contest awaited him which should try his strength. This called up all his resources, and we may infer that he possessed them in large degree, from his quiet forbearance and deliberation, even when he became fully sensible of the insolence of the person with whom he felt about to grapple.
As yet, however, judging from other appearances, there was no violence meditated by the stranger. He was simply insolent, and he was in the way. He carried no weapons—none which met the sight, at least, and there was nothing in his personal appearance calculated to occasion apprehension. His frame was small, his limbs slight, and they did not afford promise of much activity. His face was not ill favored, though a quick, restless black eye, keen and searching, had in it a lurking malignity, like that of a snake, which impressed the spectator with suspicion at the first casual glance. His nose, long and sharp, was almost totally fleshless; the skin being drawn so tightly over the bones, as to provoke the fear that any violent effort would cause them to force their way through the frail integument. An untrimmed beard, run wild; and a pair of whiskers so huge, as to refuse all accordance with the thin diminutive cheeks which wore them; thin lips, and a sharp chin;—completed the outline of a very unprepossessing face, which a broad high forehead did not tend very much to improve or dignify.
Though the air of the stranger was insolent, and his manner rude, our young traveller was unwilling to decide unfavorably. At all events, his policy and mood equally inclined him to avoid any proceeding which should precipitate or compel violence.
"There are many good people in the world"—so he thought—"who are better than they promise; many good Christians, whose aspects would enable them to pass, in any crowd, as very tolerable and becoming ruffians. This fellow may be one of the unfortunate order of virtuous people, cursed with an unbecoming visage. We will see before we shoot."
Thus thought our traveller, quickly, as became his situation. He determined accordingly, while foregoing none of his precautions, to see farther into the designs of the stranger, before he resorted to any desperate issues. He replied, accordingly, to the requisition of the speaker; the manner, rather than the matter of which, had proved offensive.
"Toll! You ask toll of me! By what right, sir, and for whom do you require it?"
"Look you, young fellow, I am better able to ask questions myself, than to answer those of other people. In respect to this matter of answering, my education has been wofully neglected."
The reply betrayed some intelligence as well as insolence. Our traveller could not withhold the retort.
"Ay, indeed! and in some other respects too, not less important, if I am to judge from your look and bearing. But you mistake your man, let me tell you. I am not the person whom you can play your pranks upon with safety, and unless you will be pleased to speak a little more respectfully, our parley will have a shorter life, and a rougher ending, than you fancy."
"It would scarcely be polite to contradict so promising a young gentleman as yourself," was the response; "but I am disposed to believe our intimacy likely to lengthen, rather than diminish. I hate to part over-soon with company that talks so well; particularly in these woods, where, unless such a chance come about as the present, the lungs of the heartiest youth in the land would not be often apt to find the echo they seek, though they cried for it at the uttermost pitch of the pipe."
The look and the language of the speaker were alike significant, and the sinister meaning of the last sentence did not escape the notice of him to whom was addressed. His reply was calm, however, and his mind grew more at ease, more collected, with his growing consciousness of annoyance and danger. He answered the stranger in a vein not unlike his own.
"You are pleased to be eloquent, worthy sir—and, on any other occasion, I might not be unwilling to bestow my ear upon you; but as I have yet to find my way out of this labyrinth, for the use of which your facetiousness would have me pay a tax, I must forego that satisfaction, and leave the enjoyment for some better day."
"You are well bred, I see, young sir," was the reply, "and this forms an additional reason why I should not desire so soon to break our acquaintance. If you have mistaken your road, what do you on this?—why are you in this part of the country, which is many miles removed from any public thoroughfare?"
"By what right do you ask the question?" was the hurried and unhesitating response. "You are impertinent!"
"Softly, softly, young sir. Be not rash, and let me recommend that you be more choice in the adoption of your epithets. Impertinent is an ugly word between gentlemen of our habit. Touching my right to ask this or that question of young men who lose the way, that's neither here nor there, and is important in no way. But, I take it, I should have some right in this matter, seeing, young sir, that you are upon the turnpike and I am the gate-keeper who must take the toll."
A sarcastic smile passed over the lips of the man as he uttered the sentence, which was as suddenly succeeded, however, by an expression of gravity, partaking of an air of the profoundest business. The traveller surveyed him for a moment before he replied, as if to ascertain in what point of view properly to understand his conduct.
"Turnpike! this is something new. I never heard of a turnpike and a gate for toll, in a part of the world in which men, or honest ones at least, are not yet commonly to be found. You think rather too lightly, my good sir, of my claim to that most vulgar commodity called common sense, if you suppose me likely to swallow this silly story."
"Oh, doubtless—you are a very sagacious young man, I make no question," said the other, with a sneer—"but you'll have to pay the turnpike for all that."
"You speak confidently on this point; but, if I am to pay this turnpike, at least, I may be permitted to know who is its proprietor."
"To be sure you may. I am always well pleased to satisfy the doubts and curiosity of young travellers who go abroad for information. I take you to be one of this class."
"Confine yourself, if you please, to the matter in hand—I grow weary of this chat," said the youth with a haughty inclination, that seemed to have its effect even upon him with whom he spoke.
"Your question is quickly answered. You have heard of the Pony Club—have you not?"
"I must confess my utter ignorance of such an institution. I have never heard even the name before."
"You have not—then really it is high time to begin the work of enlightenment. You must know, then, that the Pony Club is the proprietor of everything and everybody, throughout the nation, and in and about this section. It is the king, without let or limitation of powers, for sixty miles around. Scarce a man in Georgia but pays in some sort to its support—and judge and jury alike contribute to its treasuries. Few dispute its authority, as you will have reason to discover, without suffering condign and certain punishment; and, unlike the tributaries and agents of other powers, its servitors, like myself, invested with jurisdiction over certain parts and interests, sleep not in the performance of our duties; but, day and night, obey its dictates, and perform the various, always laborious, and sometimes dangerous functions which it imposes upon us. It finds us in men, in money, in horses. It assesses the Cherokees, and they yield a tithe, and sometimes a greater proportion of their ponies, in obedience to its requisitions. Hence, indeed, the name of the club. It relieves young travellers, like yourself, of their small change—their sixpences; and when they happen to have a good patent lever, such a one as a smart young gentleman like yourself is very apt to carry about him, it is not scrupulous, but helps them of that too, merely by way of pas-time."
And the ruffian chuckled in a half-covert manner at his own pun.
"Truly, a well-conceived sort of sovereignty, and doubtless sufficiently well served, if I may infer from the representative before me. You must do a large business in this way, most worthy sir."
"Why, that we do, and your remark reminds me that I have quite as little time to lose as yourself. You now understand, young sir, the toll you have to pay, and the proprietor who claims it."
"Perfectly—perfectly. You will not suppose me dull again, most candid keeper of the Pony Turnpike. But have you made up your mind, in earnest, to relieve me of such trifling encumbrances as those you have just mentioned?"
"I should be strangely neglectful of the duties of my station, not to speak of the discourtesy of such a neglect to yourself, were I to do otherwise; always supposing you burdened with such encumbrances. I put it to yourself, whether such would not be the effect of my omission."
"It most certainly would, most frank and candid of all the outlaws. Your punctiliousness on this point of honor entitles you, in my mind, to an elevation above and beyond all others of your profession. I admire the grace of your manner, in the commission of acts which the more tame and temperate of our kind are apt to look upon as irregular and unlovely. You, I see, have the true notion of the thing."
The ruffian looked with some doubt upon the youth—inquiringly, as if to account in some way for the singular coolness, not to say contemptuous scornfulness, of his replies and manner. There was something, too, of a searching malignity in his glance, that seemed to recognise in his survey features which brought into activity a personal emotion in his own bosom, not at variance, indeed, with the craft he was pursuing, but fully above and utterly beyond it. Dismissing, however, the expression, he continued in the manner and tone so tacitly adopted between the parties.
"I am heartily glad, most travelled young gentleman, that your opinion so completely coincides with my own, since it assures me I shall not be compelled, as is sometimes the case in the performance of my duties, to offer any rudeness to one seemingly so well taught as yourself. Knowing the relationship between us so fully, you can have no reasonable objection to conform quietly to all my requisitions, and yield the toll-keeper his dues."
Our traveller had been long aware, in some degree, of the kind of relationship between himself and his companion; but, relying on his defences, and perhaps somewhat too much on his own personal capacities of defence, and, possibly, something curious to see how far the love of speech in his assailant might carry him in a dialogue of so artificial a character, he forbore as yet a resort to violence. He found it excessively difficult, however, to account for the strange nature of the transaction so far as it had gone; and the language of the robber seemed so inconsistent with his pursuit, that, at intervals, he was almost led to doubt whether the whole was not the clever jest of some country sportsman, who, in the guise of a levyer of contributions upon the traveller, would make an acquaintance, such as is frequent in the South, terminating usually in a ride to a neighboring plantation, and pleasant accommodations so long as the stranger might think proper to avail himself of them.
If, on the other hand, the stranger was in reality the ruffian he represented himself, he knew not how to account for his delay in the assault—a delay, to the youth's mind, without an object—unless attributable to a temper of mind like that of Robin Hood, and coupled in the person before him, as in that of the renowned king of the outlaws, with a peculiar freedom and generosity of habit, and a gallantry and adroitness which, in a different field, had made him a knight worthy to follow and fight for Baldwin and the Holy Cross. Our young traveller was a romanticist, and all of these notions came severally into his thoughts. Whatever might have been the motives of conduct in the robber, who thus audaciously announced himself the member of a club notorious on the frontiers of Georgia and among the Cherokees for its daring outlawries, the youth determined to keep up the game so long as it continued such. After a brief pause, he replied to the above politely-expressed demand in the following language:—
"Your request, most unequivocal sir, would seem but reasonable; and so considering it, I have bestowed due reflection upon it. Unhappily, however, for the Pony Club and its worthy representative, I am quite too poorly provided with worldly wealth at this moment to part with much of it. A few shillings to procure you a cravat—such as you may get of Kentucky manufacture—I should not object to. Beyond this, however (and the difficulty grieves me sorely), I am so perfectly incapacitated from doing anything, that I am almost persuaded, in order to the bettering of my own condition, to pay the customary fees, and applying to your honorable body for the privilege of membership, procure those means of lavish generosity which my necessity, and not my will, prevents me from bestowing upon you."
"A very pretty idea," returned he of the road; "and under such circumstances, your jest about the cravat from Kentucky is by no means wanting in proper application. But the fact is, our numbers are just now complete—our ranks are full—and the candidates for the honor are so numerous as to leave little chance for an applicant. You might be compelled to wait a long season, unless the Georgia penitentiary and Georgia guard shall create a vacancy in your behalf."
"Truly, the matter is of very serious regret," with an air of much solemnity, replied the youth, who seemed admirably to have caught up the spirit of the dialogue—"and it grieves me the more to know, that, under this view of the case, I can no more satisfy you than I can serve myself. It is quite unlucky that your influence is insufficient to procure me admission into your fraternity; since it is impossible that I should pay the turnpike, when the club itself, by refusing me membership, will not permit me to acquire the means of doing so. So, as the woods grow momently more dull and dark, and as I may have to ride far for a supper, I am constrained, however unwilling to leave good company, to wish you a fair evening, and a long swing of fortune, most worthy knight of the highway, and trusty representative of the Pony Club."
With these words, the youth, gathering up the bridle of the horse, and slightly touching him with the rowel, would have proceeded on his course; but the position of the outlaw now underwent a corresponding change, and, grasping the rein of the animal, he arrested his farther progress.
"I am less willing to separate than yourself from good company, gentle youth, as you may perceive; since I so carefully restrain you from a ride over a road so perilous as this. You have spoken like a fair and able scholar this afternoon; and talents, such as you possess, come too seldom into our forests to suffer them, after so brief a sample, to leave us so abruptly. You must come to terms with the turnpike."
"Take your hands from my horse, sirrah!" was the only response made by the youth; his tone and manner corresponding with the change in the situation of the parties. "I would not do you harm willingly; I want no man's blood on my head; but my pistols, let me assure you, are much more readily come at than my purse. Tempt me not to use them—stand from the way."
"It may not be," replied the robber, with a composure and coolness that underwent no change; "your threats affect me not. I have not taken my place here without a perfect knowledge of all its dangers and consequences. You had better come peaceably to terms; for, were it even the case that you could escape me, you have only to cast your eye up the path before you, to be assured of the utter impossibility of escaping those who aid me. The same glance will also show you the tollgate, which you could not see before. Look ahead, young sir, and be wise in time; and let me perform my duties without hindrance."
Casting a furtive glance on the point indicated by the ruffian, the youth saw, for the first time, a succession of bars—a rail fence, in fact, of more than usual height—completely crossing the narrow pathway and precluding all passage. Approaching the place of strife, the same glance assured him, were two men, well armed, evidently the accomplices of the robber who had pointed to them as such. The prospect grew more and more perilous, and the youth, whose mind was one of that sort which avails itself of its energies seemingly only in emergencies, beheld his true course, with a moment's reflection, and hesitated not a single moment in its adoption. He saw that something more was necessary than to rid himself merely of the ruffian immediately before him, and that an unsuccessful blow or shot would leave him entirely at the mercy of the gang. To escape, a free rein must be given to the steed, on which he felt confident he could rely; and, though prompted by the most natural impulse to send a bullet through the head of his assailant, he wisely determined on a course which, as it would be unlooked for, had therefore a better prospect of success.
Without further pause, drawing suddenly from his bosom the bowie-knife commonly worn in those regions, and bending forward, he aimed a blow at the ruffian, which, as he had anticipated, was expertly eluded—the assailant, sinking under the neck of the steed, and relying on the strength of the rein, which he still continued to hold, to keep him from falling, while at the same time he kept the check upon the horse.
This movement was that which the youth had looked for and desired. The blow was but a feint, for, suddenly turning the direction of the knife when his enemy was out of its reach, he cut the bridle upon which the latter hung, and the head of the horse, freed from the restraint, was as at once elevated in air. The suddenness of his motion whirled the ruffian to the ground; while the rider, wreathing his hands in the mane of the noble animal, gave him a free spur, and plunged at once over the struggling wretch, in whose cheek the glance of his hoof left a deep gash.
The steed bounded forward; nor did the youth seek to restrain him, though advancing full up the hill and in the teeth of his enemies. Satisfied that he was approaching their station, the accomplices of the foiled ruffian, who had seen the whole affray, sunk into the covert; but, what was their mortification to perceive the traveller, though without any true command over his steed, by an adroit use of the broker bridle, so wheel him round as to bring him, in a few leaps, over the very ground of the strife, and before the staggering robber had yet fully arisen from the path. By this manoeuvre he placed himself in advance of the now approaching banditti. Driving his spurs resolutely and unsparingly into the flanks of his horse, while encouraging him with well known words of cheer, he rushed over the scene of his late struggle with a velocity that set all restraint at defiance—his late opponent scarcely being able to put himself in safety. A couple of shots, that whistled wide of the mark, announced his extrication from the difficulty—but, to his surprise, his enemies had been at work behind him, and the edge of the copse through which he was about to pass, was blockaded with bars in like manner with the path in front. He heard the shouts of the ruffians in the rear—he felt the danger, if not impracticability of his pausing for the removal of the rails, and, in the spirit which had heretofore marked his conduct, he determined upon the most daring endeavor. Throwing off all restraint from his steed, and fixing himself firmly in the stirrup and saddle, he plunged onward to the leap, and, to the chagrin of the pursuers, who had relied much upon the obstruction, and who now appeared in pursuit, the noble animal, without a moment's reluctance, cleared it handsomely.
Another volley of shot rang in the ears of the youth, as he passed the impediment, and he felt himself wounded in the side. The wound gave him little concern at the moment, for, under the excitement of the strife, he felt not even its smart; and, turning himself upon the saddle, he drew one of his own weapons from its case, and discharging it, by way of taunt, in the faces of the outlaws, laughed loud with the exulting spirit of youth at the successful result of an adventure due entirely to his own perfect coolness, and to the warm courage which had been his predominating feature from childhood.
The incident just narrated had dispersed a crowd of gloomy reflections, so that the darkness which now overspread the scene, coupled as it was with the cheerlessness of prospect before him, had but little influence upon his spirits. Still, ignorant of his course, and beginning to be enfeebled by the loss of blood, he moderated his speed, and left it to the animal to choose his own course. But he was neither so cool nor so sanguine, to relax so greatly in his speed as to permit of his being overtaken by the desperates whom he had so cleverly foiled. He knew the danger, the utter hopelessness, indeed, of a second encounter with the same persons. He felt sure that he would be suffered no such long parley as before. Without restraining his horse, our young traveller simply regulated his speed by a due estimate of the capacity of the outlaws for pursuit a-foot; and, without knowing whither he sped, having left the route wholly to the horse, he was suddenly relieved by finding himself upon a tolerably broad road, which, in the imperfect twilight, he concluded to be the same from which, in his mistimed musings he had suffered his horse to turn aside. He had no means to ascertain the fact, conclusively, and, in sooth, no time; for now he began to feel a strange sensation of weakness; his eyes swam, and grew darkened; a numbness paralyzed his whole frame; a sickness seized upon his heart; and, after sundry feeble efforts, under a strong will, to command and compel his powers, they finally gave way, and he sunk from his steed upon the long grass, and lay unconscious;—his last thought, ere his senses left him, being that of death! Here let us leave him for a little space, while we hurriedly seek better knowledge of him in other quarters.
YOUNG LOVE—THE RETROSPECT.
It will not hurt our young traveller, to leave him on the greensward, in the genial spring-time; and, as the night gathers over him, and a helpful insensibility interposes for the relief of pain, we may avail ourselves of the respite to look into the family chronicles, and show the why and wherefore of this errant journey, the antecedents and the relations of our hero.
Ralph Colleton, the young traveller whose person we have described, and whose most startling adventure in life, we have just witnessed, was the only son of a Carolinian, who could boast the best blood of English nobility in his veins. The sire, however, had outlived his fortunes, and, late in life, had been compelled to abandon the place of his nativity—an adventurer, struggling against a proud stomach, and a thousand embarrassments—and to bury himself in the less known, but more secure and economical regions of Tennessee. Born to affluence, with wealth that seemed adequate to all reasonable desires—a noble plantation, numerous slaves, and the host of friends who necessarily come with such a condition, his individual improvidence, thoughtless extravagance, and lavish mode of life—a habit not uncommon in the South—had rendered it necessary, at the age of fifty, when the mind, not less than the body, requires repose rather than adventure, that he should emigrate from the place of his birth; and with resources diminished to a cipher, endeavor to break ground once more in unknown forests, and commence the toils and troubles of life anew. With an only son (the youth before us) then a mere boy, and no other family, Colonel Ralph Colleton did not hesitate at such an exile. He had found out the worthlessness of men's professions at a period not very remote from the general knowledge of his loss of fortune: and having no other connection claiming from him either countenance or support, and but a single relative from whom separation might be painful, he felt, comparatively speaking, but few of the privations usually following such a removal. An elder brother, like himself a widower, with a single child, a daughter, formed the whole of his kindred left behind him in Carolina; and, as between the two brothers there had existed, at all times, some leading dissimilar points of disposition and character, an occasional correspondence, due rather to form than to affection, served all necessary purposes in keeping up the sentiment of kindred in their bosoms. There were but few real affinities which could bring them together. They never could altogether understand, and certainly had but a limited desire to appreciate or to approve many of the several and distinct habits of one another; and thus they separated with but few sentiments of genuine concern. William Colleton, the elder brother, was the proprietor of several thousand highly valuable and pleasantly-situated acres, upon the waters of the Santee—a river which irrigates a region in the state of South Carolina, famous for its wealth, lofty pride, polished manners, and noble and considerate hospitality. Affluent equally with his younger brother by descent, marriage had still further contributed toward the growth of possessions, which a prudent management had always kept entire and always improving. Such was the condition of William Colleton, the uncle of the young Ralph, then a mere child, when he was taken by his father into Tennessee.
There, the fortune of the adventurer still maintained its ancient aspect. He had bought lands, and engaged in trade, and made sundry efforts in various and honorable ways, but without success. Vocation after vocation had with him a common and certain termination, and after many years of profitless experiment, the ways of prosperity were as far remote from his knowledge and as perplexing to his pursuit, as at the first hour of his enterprise. In worldly concerns he stood just where he had started fifteen years before; with this difference for the worse, however, that he had grown older in this space of time, less equal to the tasks of adventure; and with the moral energies checked as they had been by continual disappointments, recoiling in despondency and gloom, with trying emphasis, upon a spirit otherwise noble and sufficiently daring for every legitimate and not unwonted species of trial and occasion. Still, he had learned little, beyond hauteur and querulousness, from the lessons of experience. Economy was not more the inmate of his dwelling than when he was blessed with the large income of his birthright; but, extravagantly generous as ever, his house was the abiding-place of a most lavish and unwise hospitality.
His brother, William Colleton, on the other hand, with means hourly increasing, exhibited a disposition narrowing at times into a selfishness the most pitiful. He did not, it is true, forego or forget any of those habits of freedom and intercourse in his household and with those about him, which form so large a practice among the people of the south. He could give a dinner, and furnish an ostentatious entertainment—lodge his guest in the style of a prince for weeks together, nor exhibit a feature likely to induce a thought of intrusion in the mind of his inmate. In public, the populace had no complaints to urge of his penuriousness; and in all outward shows he manifested the same general characteristics which marked the habit of the class to which he belonged.
But his selfishness lay in things not so much on the surface. It was more deep and abiding in its character; and consisted in the false estimate which he made of the things around him. He had learned to value wealth as a substitute for mind—for morals—for all that is lofty, and all that should be leading, in the consideration of society. He valued few things beside. He had different emotions for the rich from those which he entertained for the poor; and, from perceiving that among men, money could usurp all places—could defeat virtue, command respect denied to morality and truth, and secure a real worship when the Deity must be content with shows and symbols—he gradually gave it the chief place in his regard. He valued wealth as the instrument of authority. It secured him power; a power, however, which he had no care to employ, and which he valued only as tributary to the maintenance of that haughty ascendency over men which was his heart's first passion. He was neither miser nor mercenary; he did not labor to accumulate—perhaps because he was a lucky accumulator without any painstaking of his own: but he was, by nature an aristocrat, and not unwilling to compel respect through the means of money, as through any other more noble agency of intellect or morals.
There was only one respect in which a likeness between the fortunes of the two brothers might be found to exist. After a grateful union of a few years, they had both lost their wives. A single child, in the case of each, had preserved and hallowed to them the memories of their mothers. To the younger brother Ralph, a son had been born, soothing the sorrows of the exile, and somewhat compensating his loss. To William Colleton, the elder brother, his wife had left a single and very lovely daughter, the sweet and beautiful Edith, a girl but a few months younger than her cousin Ralph. It was the redeeming feature, in the case of the surviving parents, that they each gave to their motherless children, the whole of that affection—warm in both cases—which had been enjoyed by the departed mothers.
Separated from each other, for years, by several hundred miles of uncultivated and untravelled forest, the brothers did not often meet; and the bonds of brotherhood waxed feebler and feebler, with the swift progress of successive years. Still, they corresponded, and in a tone and temper that seemed to answer for the existence of feelings, which neither, perhaps, would have been so forward as to assert warmly, if challenged to immediate answer. Suddenly, however, when young Ralph was somewhere about fifteen, his uncle expressed a wish to see him; and, whether through a latent and real affection, or a feeling of self-rebuke for previous neglect, he exacted from his brother a reluctant consent that the youth should dwell in his family, while receiving his education in a region then better prepared to bestow it with profit to the student. The two young cousins met in Georgia for the first time, and, after a brief summer journey together, in which they frequented the most favorite watering places, Ralph was separated from Edith, whom he had just begun to love with interest, and despatched to college.
The separation of the son from the father, however beneficial it might be to the former in certain respects of education, proved fatal to the latter. He had loved the boy even more than he knew; had learned to live mostly in the contemplation of the youth's growth and development; and his absence preyed upon his heart, adding to his sense of defeat in fortune, and the loneliness and waste of his life. The solitude in which he dwelt, after the boy's departure, he no longer desired to disturb; and he pined as hopelessly in his absence, as if he no longer had a motive or a hope to prompt exertion. He had anticipated this, in some degree, when he yielded to his brother's arguments and entreaties; but, conscious of the uses and advantages of education to his son, he felt the selfishness to be a wrong to the boy, which would deny him the benefits of that larger civilization, which the uncle promised, on any pretexts. A calm review of his own arguments against the transfer, showed them to be suggested by his own wants. With a manly resolution, therefore, rather to sacrifice his own heart, than deny to his child the advantages which were held out by his brother, he consented to his departure. The reproach of selfishness, which William Colleton had not spared, brought about his resolve; and with a labored cheerfulness he made his preparations, and accompanied the youth to Georgia, where his uncle had agreed to meet him. They parted, with affectionate tears and embraces, never to meet again. A few months only had elapsed when the father sickened. But he never communicated to his son, or brother, the secret of his sufferings and grief. Worse, he never sought relief in change or medicine; but, brooding in the solitude, gnawing his own heart in silence, he gradually pined away, and, in a brief year, he was gathered to his fathers. He died, like many similarly-tempered natures, of no known disorder!
The boy received the tidings with a burst of grief, which seemed to threaten his existence. But the sorrows of youth are usually short-lived, particularly in the case of eager, energetic natures. The exchange of solitude for the crowd; the emulation of college life; the sports and communion of youthful associates—served, after a while, to soothe the sorrows of Ralph Colleton. Indeed, he found it necessary that he should bend himself earnestly to his studies, that he might forget his griefs. And, in a measure he succeeded; at least, he subdued their more fond expression, and only grew sedate, instead of passionate. The bruises of his heart had brought the energies of his mind to their more active uses.
From fifteen to twenty is no very long leap in the history of youth. We will make it now, and place the young Ralph—now something older in mind as in body—returned from college, finely formed, intellectual, handsome, vivacious, manly, spirited, and susceptible—as such a person should be—once again in close intimacy with his beautiful cousin. The season which had done so much for him, had been no less liberal with her; and we now survey her, the expanding flower, all bloom and fragrance, a tribute of the spring, flourishing in the bosom of the more forward summer.
Ralph came from college to his uncle's domicil, now his only home. The circumstances of his father's fate and fortune, continually acting upon his mind and sensibilities from boyhood, had made his character a marked and singular one—proud, jealous, and sensitive, to an extreme which was painful not merely to himself, but at times to others. But he was noble, lofty, sincere, without a touch of meanness in his composition, above circumlocution, with a simplicity of character strikingly great, but without anything like puerility or weakness.
The children—for such, in reference to their experience, we may venture to call them—had learned to recognise in the progress of a very brief period but a single existence. Ralph looked only for Edith, and cared nothing for other sunlight; while Edith, with scarcely less reserve than her bolder companion, had speech and thought for few besides Ralph. Circumstances contributed not a little to what would appear the natural growth of this mutual dependence. They were perpetually left together, and with few of those tacit and readily understood restraints, unavoidably accompanying the presence of others older than themselves. Residing, save at few brief intervals, at the plantation of Colonel Colleton, they saw little and knew less of society; and the worthy colonel, not less ambitious than proud, having become a politician, had left them a thousand opportunities of intimacy which had now become so grateful to them both. Half of his time was taken up in public matters. A leader of his party in the section of country in which he lived, he was always busy in the responsibilities imposed upon him by such a station; and, what with canvassing at election-polls and muster-grounds, and dancing attendance as a silent voter at the halls of the state legislature, to the membership of which his constituents had returned him, he saw but little of his family, and they almost as little of him. His influence grew unimportant with his wards, in proportion as it obtained vigor with his faction—was seldom referred to by them, and, perhaps, if it had been, such was the rapid growth of their affections, would have been but little regarded. He appeared to take it for granted, that, having provided them with all the necessaries called for by life, he had done quite enough for their benefit; and actually gave far less of his consideration to his own and only child than he did to his plantation, and the success of a party measure, involving possibly the office of doorkeeper to the house, or of tax-collector to the district. The taste for domestic life, which at one period might have been held with him exclusive, had been entirely swallowed up and forgotten in his public relations; and entirely overlooking the fact, that, in the silent goings-on of time, the infantile will cease to be so, he never seemed to observe that the children whom he had brought together but a few years before might not with reason be considered children any longer.
Children, indeed! What years had they not lived—what volumes of experience in human affections and feelings had the influence and genial warmth of a Carolina sun not unfolded to their spirits—in the few sweet and uninterrupted seasons of their intercourse. How imperious were the dictates of that nature, to whose immethodical but honest teachings they had been almost entirely given up. They lived together, walked together, rode together—read in the same books, conned the same lessons, studied the same prospects, saw life through the common medium of mutual associations; and lived happy only in the sweet unison of emotions gathered at a common fountain, and equally dear, and equally necessary to them both. And this is love—they loved!
They loved, but the discovery was yet to be made by them. Living in its purest luxuries—in the perpetual communion of the only one necessary object—having no desire and as little prospect of change—ignorant of and altogether untutored by the vicissitudes of life—enjoying the sweet association which had been the parent of that passion, dependent now entirely upon its continuance—they had been content, and had never given themselves any concern to analyze its origin, or to find for it a name. A momentary doubt—the presages of a dim perspective—would have taught them better. Had there been a single moment of discontent in their lives at this period, they had not remained so long in such ignorance. The fear of its loss can alone teach us the true value of our treasure. But the discovery was at hand.
A pleasant spring afternoon in April found the two young people, Ralph and Edith—the former now twenty years of age, and the latter in the same neighborhood, half busied, half idle, in the long and spacious piazza of the family mansion. They could not be said to have been employed, for Edith rarely made much progress with the embroidering needle and delicate fabric in her hands, while Ralph, something more absorbed in a romance of the day, evidently exercised little concentration of mind in scanning its contents. He skimmed, at first, rather than studied, the pages before him; conversing occasionally with the young maiden, who, sitting beside him, occasionally glanced at the volume in his hand, with something of an air of discontent that it should take even so much of his regard from herself. As he proceeded, however, in its perusal, the story grew upon him, and he became unconscious of her occasional efforts to control his attention. The needle of Edith seemed also disposed to avail itself of the aberrations of its mistress, and to rise in rebellion; and, having pricked her finger more than once in the effort to proceed with her work while her eyes wandered to her companion, she at length threw down the gauzy fabric upon which she had been so partially employed, and hastily rising from her seat, passed into the adjoining apartment.
Her departure was not attended to by her companion, who for a time continued his perusal of the book. No great while, however, elapsed, when, rising also from his seat with a hasty exclamation of surprise, he threw down the volume and followed her into the room where she sat pensively meditating over thoughts and feelings as vague and inscrutable to her mind, as they were clear and familiar to her heart. With a degree of warm impetuosity, even exaggerated beyond his usual manner, which bore at all times this characteristic, he approached her, and, seizing her hand passionately in his, exclaimed hastily—
"Edith, my sweet Edith, how unhappy that book has made me!"
"How so, Ralph—why should it make you unhappy?"
"It has taught me much, Edith—very much, in the last half hour. It has spoken of privation and disappointment as the true elements of life, and has shown me so many pictures of society in such various situations, and with so much that I feel assured must be correct, that I am unable to resist its impressions. We have been happy—so happy, Edith, and for so many years, that I can not bear to think that either of us should be less so; and yet that volume has taught me, in the story of parallel fortunes with ours, that it may be so. It has given me a long lesson in the hollow economy of that world which men seek, and name society. It has told me that we, or I, at least, may be made and kept miserable for ever."
"How, Ralph, tell me, I pray you—how should that book have taught you this strange notion? Why? What book is it? That stupid story!" was the gasping exclamation of the astonished girl—astonished no less by the impetuous manner than the strong language of the youth; and, with the tenderest concern she laid her hand upon his arm, while her eyes, full of the liveliest interest, yet moistened with a tearful apprehension, were fixed earnestly upon his own.
"It is a stupid book, a very stupid book—a story of false sentiment, and of mock and artificial feelings, of which I know, and care to know, nothing. But it has told me so much that I feel is true, and that chimes in with my own experience. It has told me much besides, that I am glad to have been taught. Hear me then, dear Edith, and smile not carelessly at my words, for I have now learned to tremble when I speak, in fear lest I should offend you."
She would have spoken words of assurance—she would have taught him to think better of her affections and their strength; but his impetuosity checked her in her speech.
"I know what you would say, and my heart thanks you for it, as if its very life depended upon the utterance. You would tell me to have no such fear; but the fear is a portion of myself now—it is my heart itself. Hear me then, Edith—my Edith, if you will so let me call you."
Her hand rested on his assuringly, with a gentle pressure. He continued—
"Hitherto we have lived with each other, only with each other—we have loved each other, and I have almost only loved you. Neither of us, Edith (may I believe it of you?) has known much of any other affection. But how long is this to last? that book—where is it? but no matter—it has taught me that, now, when a few months will carry us both into the world, it is improper that our relationship should continue. It says we can not be the children any longer that we have been—that such intercourse—I can now perceive why—would be injurious to you. Do you understand me?"
The blush of a first consciousness came over the cheek of the maiden, as she withdrew her hand from his passionate clasp.
"Ah! I see already," he exclaimed: "you too have learned the lesson. And is it thus—and we are to be happy no longer!"
"Ralph!"—she endeavored to speak, but could proceed no further, and her hand was again, silently and without objection, taken into the grasp of his. The youth, after a brief pause, resumed, in a tone, which though it had lost much of its impetuousness, was yet full of stern resolution.
"Hear me, Edith—but a word—a single word. I love you, believe me, dear Edith, I love you."
The effect of this declaration was scarcely such as the youth desired. She had been so much accustomed to his warm admiration, indicated frequently in phrases such as these, that it had the effect of restoring to her much of her self-possession, of which the nature of the previous dialogue had a little deprived her; and, in the most natural manner in the world, she replied—perhaps too, we may add, with much of the artlessness of art—
"Why, to be sure you do, Cousin Ralph—it would be something strange indeed if you did not. I believe you love me, as I am sure you can never doubt how much you are beloved by me!"
"Cousin Ralph—Cousin Ralph!" exclaimed the youth with something of his former impetuosity, emphasizing ironically as he spoke the unfortunate family epithet—"Ah, Edith, you will not understand me—nor indeed, an hour ago, should I altogether have understood myself. Suddenly, dear Edith, however, as I read certain passages of that book, the thought darted through my brain like lightning, and I saw into my own heart, as I had never been permitted to see into it before. I there saw how much I loved you—not as my cousin—not as my sister, as you sometimes would have me call you, but as I will not call you again—but as—as—"
"As my wife, Edith—as my own, own wife!"
He clasped her hand in his, while his head sunk, and his lips were pressed upon the taper and trembling fingers which grew cold and powerless within his grasp.
What a volume was at that moment opened, for the first time, before the gaze and understanding of the half-affrighted and deep-throbbing heart of that gentle girl. The veil which had concealed its burning mysteries was torn away in an instant. The key to its secret places was in her hands, and she was bewildered with her own discoveries. Her cheeks alternated between the pale and crimson of doubt and hope. Her lips quivered convulsively, and an unbidden but not painful suffusion overspread the warm brilliance of her soft fair cheeks. She strove, ineffectually, to speak; her words came forth in broken murmurs; her voice had sunk into a sigh; she was dumb. The youth once more took her hand into his, as, speaking with a suppressed tone, and with a measured slowness which had something in it of extreme melancholy, he broke silence:—
"And have I no answer, Edith—and must I believe that for either of us there should be other loves than those of childhood—that new affections may usurp the place of old ones—that there may come a time, dear Edith, when I shall see an arm, not my own, about your waist; and the eyes that would look on no prospect if you were not a part of it, may be doomed to that fearfullest blight of beholding your lips smiling and pressed beneath the lips of another?"
"Never, oh never, Ralph! Speak no more, I beseech you, in such language. You do me wrong in this—I have no such wish, no such thought or purpose. I do not—I could not—think of another, Ralph. I will be yours, and yours only—if you really wish it."
"If I wish! Ah! dear Edith, you are mine, and I am yours! The world shall not pass between us."
"Yours, Ralph, yours only!"
He caught her in his passionate embrace, even as the words were murmured from her lips. Her head settled upon his shoulder; her light brown hair, loosened from the comb, fell over it in silky masses. Her eyes closed, his arms still encircled her, and the whole world was forgotten in a moment;—when the door opened, and a third party entered the room in the person of Colonel Colleton.
Here was a catastrophe!
A RUPTURE—THE COURSE OF TRUE LOVE.
Colonel Colleton stood confounded at the spectacle before him. Filled with public affairs, or rather, with his own affairs in the public eye, he had grown totally heedless of ordinary events, household interests, and of the rapid growth and development of those passions in youth which ripen quite as fervently and soon in the shade as in the sun. These children—how should they have grown to such a stature! His daughter, at this moment, seemed taller than he had ever seen her before! and Ralph!—as the uncle's eyes were riveted upon the youth, he certainly grew more than ever erect and imposing of look and stature. The first glance which he gave to the scene, did not please the young man. There was something about the expression of the uncle's face, which seemed to the nephew to be as supercilious, as it certainly was angry. Proud, jealous of his sensibilities, the soul of the youth rose in arms, at the look which annoyed him. That Edith's father should ever disapprove of his passion for his cousin, never once entered the young man's brain. He had not, indeed, once thought upon the matter. He held it to be a thing of course that the father would welcome a union which promised to strengthen the family bond, and maintain the family name and blood in perpetuity. When, therefore, he beheld, in his uncle's face, such an expression of scorn mixed with indignation, he resented it with the fervor of his whole soul. He was bewildered, it is true, but he was also chafed, and it needed that he should turn his eyes to the sweet cause of his offence, before he could find himself relieved of the painful feelings which her father's look and manner had occasioned him.
Poor Edith had a keener sense of the nature of the case. Her instincts more readily supplied the means of knowledge. Besides, there were certain family matters, which the look of her father suddenly recalled—which had never been suffered to reach the ears of her cousin;—which indicated to her, however imperfectly, the possible cause of that severe and scornful expression of eye, in the uncle, which had so confounded the nephew. She looked, with timid pleading to her father's face, but dared not speak.
And still the latter stood at the entrance, silent, sternly scanning the young offenders, just beginning to be conscious of offence. A surprise of any kind is exceedingly paralyzing to young lovers, caught in a situation like that in which our luckless couple were found on this occasion. It is probable, that, but for this, Ralph Colleton would scarcely have borne so meekly the severe look which the father now bestowed upon his daughter.
Though not the person to trouble himself much at any time in relation to his child, Colonel Colleton had never once treated her unkindly. Though sometimes neglectful, he had never shown himself stern. The look which he now gave her was new to all her experience. The poor girl began to conceive much more seriously of her offence than ever;—it seemed to spread out unimaginably far, and to involve a thousand violations of divine and human law. She could only look pleadingly, without speech, to her father. His finger silently pointed her to withdraw.
"Oh, father!"—the exclamation was barely murmured.
"Go!" was the sole answer, with the finger still uplift.
In silence, she glided away; not, however, without stealing a fond and assuring glance at her lover.
Her departure was the signal for that issue between the two remaining parties for which each was preparing in his own fashion. Ralph had not beheld the dumb show, in which Edith was dismissed, without a rising impulse of choler. The manner of the thing had been particularly offensive to him. But the father of Edith, whatever his offence, had suddenly risen into new consideration in the young man's mind, from the moment that he fully comprehended his feelings for the daughter. He was accordingly, somewhat disposed to temporize, though there was still a lurking desire in his mind, to demand an explanation of those supercilious glances which had so offended him.
But the meditations of neither party consumed one twentieth part of the time that we have taken in hinting what they were. With the departure of Edith, and the closing of the door after her, Colonel Colleton, with all his storms, approached to the attack. The expression of scorn upon his face had given way to one of anger wholly. His glance seemed meant to penetrate the bosom of the youth with a mortal stab—it was hate, rather than anger, that he looked. Yet it was evident that he made an effort to subdue his wrath—its full utterance at least—but he could not chase the terrible cloud from his haughty brow.
The youth, getting chafed beneath his gaze, returned him look for look, and his brows grew dark and lowering also; and, for anger, they gave back defiance. This silent, but expressive dialogue, was the work of a single moment of time. The uncle broke the silence.
"What am I to understand from this, young man?"
"Young man, sir!—I feel it very difficult to understand you, uncle! In respect to Edith and myself, sir, I have but to say that we have discovered that we are something more than cousins to each other!"
"Indeed! And how long is it, I pray, since you have made this discovery?"
This was said with a dry tone, and hard, contemptuous manner. The youth strove honestly to keep down his blood.
"Within the hour, sir! Not that we have not always felt that we loved each other, uncle; only, that, up to this time, we had never been conscious of the true nature of our feelings."
The youth replied with the most provoking simplicity. The uncle was annoyed. He would rather that Ralph should have relieved him, by a conjecture of his own, from the necessity of hinting to him that such extreme sympathies, between the parties, were by no means a matter of course. But the nephew would not, or could not, see; and his surprise, at the uncle's course, was perpetually looking for explanation. It became necessary to speak plainly.
"And with what reason, Ralph Colleton, do you suppose that I will sanction an alliance between you and my daughter? Upon what, I pray you, do you ground your pretensions to the hand of Edith Colleton?"
Such was the haughty interrogation. Ralph was confounded.
"My pretensions, sir?—The hand of Edith!—Do I hear you right, uncle? Do you really mean what you say?"
"My words are as I have said them. They are sufficiently explicit. You need not misunderstand them. What, I ask, are your pretensions to the hand of my daughter, and how is it that you have so far forgotten yourself as thus to abuse my confidence, stealing into the affections of my child?"
"Uncle, I have abused no confidence, and will not submit to any charge that would dishonor me. What I have done has been done openly, before all eyes, and without resort to cunning or contrivance. I must do myself the justice to believe that you knew all this without the necessity of my speech, and even while your lips spoke the contrary."
"You are bold, Ralph, and seem to have forgotten that you are yet but a mere boy. You forget your years and mine."
"No, sir—pardon me when I so speak—but it is you who have forgotten them. Was it well to speak as you have spoken?" proudly replied the youth.
"Ralph, you have forgotten much, or have yet to be taught many things. You may not have violated confidence, but—"
"I have not violated confidence!" was the abrupt and somewhat impetuous response, "and will not have it spoken of in that manner. It is not true that I have abused any trust, and the assertion which I make shall not therefore be understood as a mere possibility."
The uncle was something astounded by the almost fierce manner of his nephew; but the only other effect of this expression was simply, while it diminished his own testiness of manner in his speeches, to add something to the severity of their character. He knew the indomitable spirit of the youth, and his pride was enlisted in the desire for its overthrow.
"You are yet to learn, Ralph Colleton, I perceive, the difference and distance between yourself and my daughter. You are but a youth, yet—quite too young to think of such ties as those of marriage, and to make any lasting engagement of that nature; but, even were this not the case, I am entirely ignorant of those pretensions which should prompt your claim to the hand of Edith."
Had Colonel Colleton been a prudent and reflective man—had he, indeed, known much, if anything, of human nature—he would have withheld the latter part of this sentence. He must have seen that its effect would only be to irritate a spirit needing an emollient. The reply was instantaneous.
"My pretensions, Colonel Colleton? You have twice uttered that word in my ears, and with reference to this subject. Let me understand you. If you would teach me by this sentence the immeasurable individual superiority of Edith over myself in all things, whether of mind, or heart, or person, the lesson is gratuitous. I need no teacher to this end. I acknowledge its truth, and none on this point can more perfectly agree with you than myself. But if, looking beyond these particulars, you would have me recognize in myself an inferiority, marked and singular, in a fair comparison with other men—if, in short, you would convey an indignity; and—but you are my father's brother, sir!" and the blood mounted to his forehead, and his heart swelling, the youth turned proudly away, and rested his head upon the mantel.
"Not so, Ralph; you are hasty in your thought, not less than in its expression," said his uncle, soothingly, "I meant not what you think. But you must be aware, nephew, that my daughter, not less from the fortune which will be exclusively hers, and her individual accomplishments, than from the leading political station which her father fills, will be enabled to have a choice in the adoption of a suitor, which this childish passion might defeat."
"Mine is no childish passion, sir; though young, my mind is not apt to vary in its tendencies; and, unlike that of the mere politician, has little of inconsistency in its predilections with which to rebuke itself. But, I understand you. You have spoken of her fortune, and that reminds me that I had a father, not less worthy, I am sure—not less generous, I feel—but certainly far less prudent than hers. I understand you, sir, perfectly."
"If you mean, Ralph, by this sarcasm, that my considerations are those of wealth, you mistake me much. The man who seeks my daughter must not look for a sacrifice; she must win a husband who has a name, a high place—who has a standing in society. Your tutors, indeed, speak of you in fair terms; but the public voice is everything in our country. When you have got through your law studies, and made your first speech, we will talk once more upon this subject."
"And when I have obtained admission to the practice of the law, do you say that Edith shall be mine?"
"Nay, Ralph, you again mistake me. I only say, it will be then time enough to consider the matter."
"Uncle, this will not do for me. Either you sanction, or you do not. You mean something by that word pretensions which I am yet to understand; my name is Colleton, like your own, and—"
There was a stern resolve in the countenance of the colonel, which spoke of something of the same temper with his impetuous nephew, and the cool and haughty sentence which fell from his lips in reply, while arresting that of the youth, was galling to the proud spirit of the latter, whom it chafed nearly into madness.
"Why, true, Ralph, such is your name indeed; and your reference to this subject now, only reminds me of the too free use which my brother made of it when he bestowed it upon a woman so far beneath him and his family in all possible respects."
"There again, sir, there again! It is my mother's poverty that pains you. She brought my father no dowry. He had nothing of that choice prudence which seems to have been the guide of others, of our family in the bestowment of their affections. He did not calculate the value of his wife's income before he suffered himself to become enamored of her. I see it, sir—I am not ignorant."
"If I speak with you calmly, Ralph, it is because you are the indweller of my house, and because I have a pledge to my brother in your behalf."
"Speak freely, sir; let not this scruple trouble you any longer. It shall not trouble me; and I shall be careful to take early occasion to release you most effectually from all such pledges."
Colonel Colleton proceeded as if the last speech had not been uttered.
"Edith has a claim in society which shall not be sacrificed. Her father, Ralph, did not descend to the hovel of the miserable peasant, choosing a wife from the inferior grade, who, without education, and ignorant of all refinement, could only appear a blot upon the station to which she had been raised. Her mother, sir, was not a woman obscure and uneducated, for whom no parents could be found."
"What means all this, sir? Speak, relieve me at once, Colonel Colleton. What know you of my mother?"
"Nothing—but quite as much as your father ever knew. It is sufficient that he found her in a hovel, without a name, and with the silly romance of his character through life, he raised her to a position in society which she could not fill to his honor, and which, finally, working upon his pride and sensibility drove him into those extravagances which in the end produced his ruin. I grant that she loved him with a most perfect devotion, which he too warmly returned, but what of that?—she was still his destroyer."
Thus sternly did the colonel unveil to the eyes of Ralph Colleton a portion of the family picture which he had never been permitted to survey before.
Cold drops stood on the brow of the now nerveless and unhappy youth. He was pale, and his eyes were fixed for an instant; but, suddenly recovering himself, he rushed hastily from the apartment before his uncle could interpose to prevent him. He heard not or heeded not the words of entreaty which called him back; but, proceeding at once to his chamber, he carefully fastened the entrance, and, throwing himself upon his couch, found relief from the deep mental agony thus suddenly forced upon him, in a flood of tears.
For the first time in his life, deriving his feeling in this particular rather from the opinions of society than from any individual consciousness of debasement, he felt a sentiment of humiliation working in his breast. His mother he had little known, but his father's precepts and familiar conversation had impressed upon him, from his childhood, a feeling for her of the deepest and most unqualified regard. This feeling was not lessened, though rebuked, by the development so unnecessarily and so wantonly conveyed. It taught a new feeling of distrust for his uncle, whose harsh manner and ungenerous insinuations in the progress of the preceding half-hour, had lost him not a little of the youth's esteem. He felt that the motive of his informer was not less unkind than was the information painful and oppressive; and his mind, now more than ever excited and active from this thought, went on discussing, from point to point, all existing relations, until a stern resolve to leave, that very night, the dwelling of one whose hospitality had been made a matter of special reference, was the only and settled conclusion to which his pride could possibly come.
The servant reminded him of the supper-hour, but the summons was utterly disregarded. The colonel himself condescended to notify the stubborn youth of the same important fact, but with almost as little effect. Without opening his door, he signified his indisposition to join in the usual repast, and thus closed the conference.
"I meet him at the table no more—not at his table, at least," was the muttered speech of Ralph, as he heard the receding footsteps of his uncle.
He had determined, though without any distinct object in view, upon leaving the house and returning to Tennessee, where he had hitherto resided. His excited spirits would suffer no delay, and that very night was the period chosen for his departure. Few preparations were necessary. With a fine horse of his own, the gift of his father, he knew that the course lay open. The long route he had more than once travelled before; and he had no fears, though he well knew the desolate character of the journey, in pursuing it alone. Apart from this, he loved adventure for its own sake. The first lesson which his father had taught him, even in boyhood, was that braving of trial which alone can bring about the most perfect manliness. With a stout heart, and with limbs not less so, the difficulties before him had no thought in his mind; there was buoyancy enough in the excitement of his spirit, at that moment, to give even a pleasurable aspect to the obstacles that rose before him.