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Wacousta: A Tale of the Pontiac Conspiracy--Volume 1 By John Richardson Characters: 12653

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

While the adjutant was yet reading, in a low and solemn voice, the service for the dead, a fierce and distant yell, as if from a legion of devils, burst suddenly from the forest, and brought the hands of the startled officers instinctively to their swords. This appalling cry lasted, without interruption, for many minutes, and was then as abruptly checked as it had been unexpectedly delivered. A considerable pause succeeded, and then again it rose with even more startling vehemence than before. By one unaccustomed to those devilish sounds, no distinction could have been made in the two several yells that had been thus savagely pealed forth; but those to whom practice and long experience in the warlike habits and customs of the Indians had rendered their shouts familiar, at once divined, or fancied they divined, the cause. The first was, to their conception, a yell expressive at once of vengeance and disappointment in pursuit,-perhaps of some prisoner who had escaped from their toils; the second, of triumph and success,-in all probability, indicative of the recapture of that prisoner. For many minutes afterwards the officers continued to listen, with the most aching attention, for a repetition of the cry, or even fainter sounds, that might denote either a nearer approach to the fort, or the final departure of the Indians. After the second yell, however, the woods, in the heart of which it appeared to have been uttered, were buried in as profound a silence as if they had never yet echoed back the voice of man; and all at length became satisfied that the Indians, having accomplished some particular purpose, had retired once more to their distant encampments for the night. Captain Erskine was the first who broke the almost breathless silence that prevailed among themselves.

"On my life De Haldimar is a prisoner with the Indians. He has been attempting his escape,-has been detected,-followed, and again fallen into their hands. I know their infernal yells but too well. The last expressed their savage joy at the capture of a prisoner; and there is no one of us missing but De Haldimar."

"Not a doubt of it," said Captain Blessington; "the cry was certainly what you describe it, and Heaven only knows what will be the fate of our poor friend."

No other officer spoke, for all were oppressed by the weight of their own feelings, and sought rather to give indulgence to speculation in secret, than to share their impressions with their companions. Charles de Haldimar stood a little in the rear, leaning his head upon his hand against the box of the sentry, (who was silently, though anxiously, pacing his walk,) and in an attitude expressive of the deepest dejection and sorrow.

"I suppose I must finish Lawson's work, although I am but a poor hand at this sort of thing," resumed Captain Erskine, taking up the prayer book the adjutant had, in hastening on the first alarm to get the men under arms, carelessly thrown on the grave of the now unconscious Murphy.

He then commenced the service at the point where Mr. Lawson had so abruptly broken off, and went through the remainder of the prayers. A very few minutes sufficed for the performance of this solemn duty, which was effected by the faint dim light of the at length dawning day, and the men in attendance proceeded to fill up the grave of their officer.

Gradually the mists, that had fallen during the latter hours of the night, began to ascend from the common, and disperse themselves in air, conveying the appearance of a rolling sheet of vapour retiring Back upon itself, and disclosing objects in succession, until the eye could embrace all that came within its extent of vision. As the officers yet lingered near the rude grave of their companion, watching with abstracted air the languid and almost mechanical action of their jaded men, as they emptied shovel after shovel of the damp earth over the body of its new tenant, they were suddenly startled by an expression of exultation from Sir Everard Valletort.

"By Jupiter, I have pinked him," he exclaimed triumphantly. "I knew my rifle could not err; and as for my sight, I have carried away too many prizes in target-shooting to have been deceived in that. How delighted the old governor will be, Charles, to hear this. No more lecturing, I am sure, for the next six months at least;" and the young officer rubbed his hands together, at the success of his shot, with as much satisfaction and unconcern for the future, as if he had been in his own native England; in the midst of a prize-ring.

Roused by the observation of his friend, De Haldimar quitted his position near the sentry box, and advanced to the outer edge of the rampart. To him, as to his companions, the outline of the old bomb proof was now distinctly visible, but it was sometime before they could discover, in the direction in which Valletort pointed, a dark speck upon the common; and this so indistinctly, they could scarcely distinguish it with the naked eye.

"Your sight is quite equal to your aim, Sir Everard," remarked Lieutenant Johnstone, one of Erskine's subalterns, "and both are decidedly superior to mine; yet I used to be thought a good rifleman too, and have credit for an eye no less keen than that of an Indian. You have the advantage of me, however; for I honestly admit I never could have picked off yon fellow in the dark as you have done."

As the dawn increased, the dark shadow of a human form, stretched at its length upon the ground, became perceptible; and the officers, with one unanimous voice, bore loud testimony to the skill and dexterity of him who had, under such extreme disadvantages, accomplished the death of their skulking enemy.

"Bravo, Valletort," said Charles de Haldimar, recovering his spirits, as much from the idea, now occurring to him, that this might indeed be the stranger whose appearance had so greatly disturbed his father, as from the gratification he felt in the praises bestowed on his friend. "Bravo, my dear fellow;" then approaching, and in a half whisper, "when next I write to Clara, I shall request her, with my cousin's assistance, to prepare a chaplet of bays, wherewith I shall myself crown you as their proxy. But what is the matter now, Valletort? Why stand you there gazing upon the common, as if the victim of yo

ur murderous aim was rising from his bloody couch, to reproach you with his death? Tell me, shall I write to Clara for the prize, or will you receive it from her own hands?"

"Bid her rather pour her curses on my head; and to those, De Haldimar, add your own," exclaimed Sir Everard, at length raising himself from the statue-like position he had assumed. "Almighty God," he pursued, in the same tone of deep agony, "what have I done? Where, where shall I hide myself?"

As he spoke he turned away from his companions, and covering his eyes with his hand, with quick and unequal steps, even like those of a drunken man, walked, or rather ran, along the rampart, as if fearful of being overtaken.

The whole group of officers, and Charles de Haldimar in particular, were struck with dismay at the language and action of Sir Everard; and for a moment they fancied that fatigue, and watching, and excitement, had partially affected his brain. But when, after the lapse of a minute or two, they again looked out upon the common, the secret of his agitation was too faithfully and too painfully explained.

What had at first the dusky and dingy hue of a half-naked Indian, was now perceived, by the bright beams of light just gathering in the east, to be the gay and striking uniform of a British officer. Doubt as to who that officer was there could be none, for the white sword-belt suspended over the right shoulder, and thrown into strong relief by the field of scarlet on which it reposed, denoted the wearer of this distinguishing badge of duty to be one of the guard.

To comprehend effectually the feelings of the officers, it would be necessary that one should have been not merely a soldier, but a soldier under the same circumstances. Surrounded on every hand by a fierce and cruel enemy-prepared at every moment to witness scenes of barbarity and bloodshed in their most appalling shapes-isolated from all society beyond the gates of their own fortress, and by consequence reposing on and regarding each other as vital links in the chain of their wild and adventurous existence,-it can easily be understood with what sincere and unaffected grief they lamented the sudden cutting off even of those who least assimilated in spirit and character with themselves. Such, in a great degree, had been the case in the instance of the officer over whose grave they were now met to render the last offices of companionship, if not of friendship. Indeed Murphy-a rude, vulgar, and illiterate, though brave Irishman-having risen from the ranks, the coarseness of which he had never been able to shake off, was little calculated, either by habits or education, to awaken feelings, except of the most ordinary description, in his favour; and he and Ensign Delme were the only exceptions to those disinterested and tacit friendships that had grown up out of circumstances in common among the majority. If, therefore, they could regret the loss of such a companion as Murphy, how deep and heartfelt must have been the sorrow they experienced when they beheld the brave, generous, manly, amiable, and highly-talented Frederick de Haldimar-the pride of the garrison, and the idol of his family-lying extended, a cold, senseless corpse, slain by the hand of the bosom friend of his own brother!-Notwithstanding the stern severity and distance of the governor, whom few circumstances, however critical or exciting, could surprise into relaxation of his habitual stateliness, it would have been difficult to name two young men more universally liked and esteemed by their brother officers than were the De Haldimars-the first for the qualities already named-the second, for those retiring, mild, winning manners, and gentle affections, added to extreme and almost feminine beauty of countenance for which he was remarkable. Alas, what a gloomy picture was now exhibited to the minds of all!-Frederick de Haldimar a corpse, and slain by the hand of Sir Everard Valletort! What but disunion could follow this melancholy catastrophe? and how could Charles de Haldimar, even if his bland nature should survive the shock, ever bear to look again upon the man who had, however innocently or unintentionally, deprived him of a brother whom he adored?

These were the impressions that passed through the minds of the compassionating officers, as they directed their glance alternately from the common to the pale and marble-like features of the younger De Haldimar, who, with parted lips and stupid gaze, continued to fix his eyes upon the inanimate form of his ill-fated brother, as if the very faculty of life itself had been for a period suspended. At length, however, while his companions watched in silence the mining workings of that grief which they feared to interrupt by ill-timed observations, even of condolence, the death-like hue, which had hitherto suffused the usually blooming cheek of the young officer, was succeeded by a flush of the deepest dye, while his eyes, swollen by the tide of blood now rushing violently to his face, appeared to be bursting from their sockets. The shock was more than his delicate frame, exhausted as it was by watching and fatigue, could bear. He tottered, reeled, pressed his hand upon his head, and before any one could render him assistance, fell senseless on the ramparts.

During the interval between Sir Everard Valletort's exclamation, and the fall of Charles de Haldimar, the men employed at the grave had performed their duty, and were gazing with mingled astonishment and concern, both on the body of their murdered officer, and on the dumb scene acting around them. Two of these were now despatched for a litter, with which they speedily re-appeared. On this Charles de Haldimar, already delirious with the fever of intense excitement, was carefully placed, and, followed by Captain Blessington and Lieutenant Johnstone, borne to his apartment in the small range of buildings constituting the officers' barracks. Captain Erskine undertook the disagreeable office of communicating these distressing events to the governor; and the remainder of the officers once more hastened to join or linger near their respective companies, in readiness for the order which it was expected would be given to despatch a numerous party of the garrison to secure the body of Captain de Haldimar.

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