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Wacousta: A Tale of the Pontiac Conspiracy--Volume 1 By John Richardson Characters: 28400

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


As the bells of the fort tolled the tenth hour of morning, the groups of dispersed soldiery, warned by the rolling of the assembly drum, once more fell into their respective ranks in the order described in the opening of this volume, Soon afterwards the prisoner Halloway was reconducted into the square by a strong escort, who took their stations as before in the immediate centre, where the former stood principally conspicuous to the observation of his comrades. His countenance was paler, and had less, perhaps, of the indifference he had previously manifested; but to supply this there was a certain subdued air of calm dignity, and a composure that sprang, doubtless, from the consciousness of the new character in which he now appeared before his superiors. Colonel de Haldimar almost immediately followed, and with him were the principal staff of the garrison, all of whom, with the exception of the sick and wounded and their attendants, were present to a man. The former took from the hands of the governor, Lawson, a large packet, consisting of several sheets of folded paper closely written upon. These were the proceedings of the court martial.

After enumerating the several charges, and detailing the evidence of the witnesses examined, the adjutant came at length to the finding and sentence of the court, which were as follows:-

"The court having duly considered the evidence adduced against the prisoner private Frank Halloway, together with what he has urged in his defence, are of opinion,-"

"That with regard to the first charge, it is not proved."

"That with regard to the second charge, it is not proved."

"That with regard to the third charge, even by his own voluntary confession, the prisoner is guilty."

"The court having found the prisoner private Frank Halloway guilty of the third charge preferred against him, which is hi direct violation of a standing order of the garrison, entailing capital punishment, do hereby sentence him, the said prisoner, private Frank Halloway, to be shot to death at such time and place as the officer commanding may deem fit to appoint."

Although the utmost order pervaded the ranks, every breath had been suspended, every ear stretched during the reading of the sentence; and now that it came arrayed in terror and in blood, every glance was turned in pity on its unhappy victim. But Halloway heard it with the ears of one who has made up his mind to suffer; and the faint half smile that played upon his lip spoke more in scorn than in sorrow. Colonel de Haldimar pursued:-

"The court having found it imperatively incumbent on them to award the punishment of death to the prisoner, private Frank Halloway, at the same time gladly avail themselves of their privilege by strongly recommending him to mercy. The court cannot, in justice to the character of the prisoner, refrain from expressing their unanimous conviction, that notwithstanding the mysterious circumstances which have led to his confinement and trial, he is entirely innocent of the treachery ascribed to him. The court have founded this conviction on the excellent character, both on duty and in the field, hitherto borne by the prisoner,-his well-known attachment to the officer with whose abduction be stands charged,-and the manly, open, and (as the court are satisfied) correct history given of his former life. It is, moreover, the impression of the court, that, as stated by the prisoner, his guilt on the third charge has been the result only of his attachment for Captain de Haldimar. And for this, and the reasons above assigned, do they strongly recommend the prisoner to mercy."

(Signed)

NOEL BLESSINGTON,

Captain and President.

Sentence approved and confirmed.

CHARLES DE HALDIMAR,

Colonel Commandant.

While these concluding remarks of the court were being read, the prisoner manifested the deepest emotion. If a smile of scorn had previously played upon his lip, it was because he fancied the court, before whom he had sought to vindicate his fame, had judged him with a severity not inferior to his colonel's; but now that, in the presence of his companions, he heard the flattering attestation of his services, coupled even as it was with the sentence that condemned him to die, tears of gratitude and pleasure rose despite of himself to his eyes; and it required all his self-command to enable him to abstain from giving expression to his feelings towards those who had so generously interpreted the motives of his dereliction from duty. But when the melancholy and startling fact of the approval and confirmation of the sentence met his ear, without the slightest allusion to that mercy which had been so urgently recommended, he again overcame his weakness, and exhibited his wonted air of calm and unconcern.

"Let the prisoner be removed, Mr. Lawson," ordered the governor, whose stern and somewhat dissatisfied expression of countenance was the only comment on the recommendation for mercy.

The order was promptly executed. Once more Halloway left the square, and was reconducted to the cell he had occupied since the preceding night.

"Major Blackwater," pursued the governor, "let a detachment consisting of one half the garrison be got in readiness to leave the fort within the hour. Captain Wentworth, three pieces of field artillery will be required. Let them be got ready also." He then retired from the area with the forbidding dignity and stately haughtiness of manner that was habitual to him; while the officers, who had just received his commands, prepared to fulfil the respective duties assigned them.

Since the first alarm of the garrison no opportunity had hitherto been afforded the officers to snatch the slightest refreshment. Advantage was now taken of the short interval allowed by the governor, and they all repaired to the mess-room, where their breakfast had long since been provided.

"Well, Blessington," remarked Captain Erskine, as he filled his plate for the third time from a large haunch of smoke-dried venison, for which his recent skirmish with the Indians had given him an unusual relish, "so it appears your recommendation of poor Halloway to mercy is little likely to be attended to. Did you remark how displeased the colonel looked as he bungled through it? One might almost be tempted to think he had an interest in the man's death, so determined does he appear to carry his point."

Although several of his companions, perhaps, felt and thought the same, still there was no one who would have ventured to avow his real sentiments in so unqualified a manner. Indeed such an observation proceeding from the lips of any other officer would have excited the utmost surprise; but Captain Erskine, a brave, bold, frank, and somewhat thoughtless soldier, was one of those beings who are privileged to say any thing. His opinions were usually expressed without ceremony; and his speech was not the most circumspect NOW, as since his return to the fort he had swallowed, fasting, two or three glasses of a favourite spirit, which, without intoxicating, had greatly excited him.

"I remarked enough," said Captain Blessington, who sat leaning his head on one hand, while with the other he occasionally, and almost mechanically, raised a cup filled with a liquid of a pale blood colour to his lips,-"quite enough to make me regret from my very soul I should have been his principal judge. Poor Halloway, I pity him much; for, on my honour, I believe him to be the gentleman he represents himself."

"A finer fellow does not live," remarked the last remaining officer of the grenadiers. "But surely Colonel de Haldimar cannot mean to carry the sentence into effect. The recommendation of a court, couched in such terms as these, ought alone to have some weight with him."

"It is quite clear, from the fact of his having been remanded to his cell, the execution of the poor fellow will be deferred at least," observed one of Captain Erskine's subalterns. "If the governor had intended he should suffer immediately, he would have had him shot the moment after his sentence was read. But what is the meaning and object of this new sortie? and whither are we now going? Do you know, Captain Erskine, our company is again ordered for this duty?"

"Know it, Leslie! of course I do; and for that reason am I paying my court to the more substantial part of the breakfast. Come, Blessington, my dear fellow, you have quite lost your appetite, and we may have sharp work before we get back. Follow my example: throw that nasty blood-thickening sassafras away, and lay a foundation from this venison. None sweeter is to be found in the forests of America. A few slices of that, and then a glass each of my best Jamaica, and we shall have strength to go through the expedition, if its object be the capture of the bold Ponteac himself."

"I presume the object is rather to seek for Captain de Haldimar," said Lieutenant Boyce, the officer of grenadiers; "but in that case why not send out his own company?"

"Because the Colonel prefers trusting to cooler heads and more experienced arms," good-humouredly observed Captain Erskine. "Blessington is our senior, and his men are all old stagers. My lads, too, have had their mettle up already this morning, and there is nothing like that to prepare men for a dash of enterprise. It is with them as with blood horses, the more you put them on their speed the less anxious are they to quit the course. Well, Johnstone, my brave Scot, ready for another skirmish?" he asked, as that officer now entered to satisfy the cravings of an appetite little inferior to that of his captain.

"With 'Nunquam non paratus' for my motto," gaily returned the young man, "it were odd, indeed, if a mere scratch like this should prevent me from establishing my claim to it by following wherever my gallant captain leads."

"Most courteously spoken, and little in the spirit of a man yet smarting under the infliction of a rifle wound, it must be confessed," remarked Lieutenant Leslie. "But, Johnstone, you should bear in mind a too close adherence to that motto has been, in some degree, fatal to your family."

"No reflections, Leslie, if you please," returned his brother subaltern, slightly reddening. "If the head of our family was unfortunate enough to be considered a traitor to England, he was not so, at least, to Scotland; and Scotland was the land of his birth. But let his political errors be forgotten. Though the winged spur no longer adorn the booted heel of an Earl of Annandale, the time may not be far distant when some liberal and popular monarch of England shall restore a title forfeited neither through cowardice nor dishonour, but from an erroneous sense of duty."

"That is to say," muttered Ensign Delme, looking round for approval as he spoke, "that our present king is neither liberal nor popular. Well, Mr. Johnstone, were such an observation to reach the ears of Colonel de Haldimar you would stand a very fair chance of being brought to a court martial."

"That is to say nothing of the kind, sir," somewhat fiercely retorted the young Scot; "but any thing I do say you are at liberty to repeat to Colonel de Haldimar, or whom you will. I cannot understand, Leslie, why you should have made any allusion to the misfortunes of my family at this particular moment, and in this public manner. I trust it was not with a view to offend me;" and he fixed his large black eyes upon his brother subaltern, as if he would have read every thought of his mind.

"Upon my honour, Johnstone, I meant nothing of the kind," frankly returned Leslie. "I merely meant to hint that as you had had your share of service this morning, you might, at least, have suffered me to borrow your spurs, while you reposed for the present on your laurels."

"There are my gay and gallant Scots," exclaimed Captain Erskine, as he swallowed off a glass of the old Jamaica which lay before him, and with which he usually neutralised the acidities of a meat breakfast, "Settled like gentlemen and lads of spirit as ye are," he pursued, as the young men cordially shook each other's hand across the table. "What an enviable command is mine, to have a company of brave fellows who would face the devil himself were it necessary; and two hot and impatient subs., who are ready to cut each other's throat for the pleasure of accompanying me against a set of savages that are little better than so many devils. Come, Johnstone, you know the Colonel allows us but one sub. at a time, in consequence of our scarcity of officers, therefore it is but fair Leslie should have his turn. It will not be long, I dare say, before we shall have another brush with the rascals."

"In my opinion," observed Captain Blessington, who had been a silent and thoughtful witness of what was passing around him, "neither Leslie nor Johnstone would evince so much anxiety, were they aware of the true-nature of the duty for which our companies have been ordered. Depend upon it, it is no search after Captain de Haldimar in which we are about to be engaged; for much as the colonel loves his son, he would on no account compromise the safety of the garrison, by sending a party into the forest, where poor De Haldimar, if alive, is at all likely to be found."

"Faith you are right, Blessington; the governor is not one to run these sort of risks on every occasion. My chief surprise, indeed, is, that he suffered me to venture even upon the common; but if we are not designed for some hostile expedition, why leave the fort at all?"

"The question will need no answer, if Halloway be found to accompany us."

"Psha! why should Halloway be taken out for the purpose? If he be shot at all, he will be shot on the ramparts, in the presence of, and as an example to, the whole garrison. Still, on reflection, I cannot but think it impossible the sentence should be carried into full effect, after the strong, nay, the almost unprecedented recommendation to mercy recorded on the face of the proceedings."

Captain Blessington shook his head despondingly. "What think you, Erskine, of the policy of making an example, which may be witnessed by the en

emy as well as the garrison? It is evident, from his demeanour throughout, nothing will convince the colonel that Halloway is not a traitor, and he may think it advisable to strike terror in the minds of the savages, by an execution which will have the effect of showing the treason of the soldier to have been discovered."

In this opinion many of the officers now concurred; and as the fate of the unfortunate Halloway began to assume a character of almost certainty, even the spirit of the gallant Erskine, the least subdued by the recent distressing events, was overclouded; and all sank, as if by one consent, into silent communion with their thoughts, as they almost mechanically completed the meal, at which habit rather than appetite still continued them. Before any of them had yet risen from the table, a loud and piercing scream met their ears from without; and so quick and universal was the movement it produced, that its echo had scarcely yet died away in distance, when the whole of the breakfast party had issued from the room, and were already spectators of the cause.

The barracks of the officers, consisting of a range of low buildings, occupied the two contiguous sides of a square, and in the front of these ran a narrow and covered piazza, somewhat similar to those attached to the guardhouses in England, which description of building the barracks themselves most resembled. On the other two faces of the square stood several block-houses, a style of structure which, from their adaptation to purposes of defence as well as of accommodation, were every where at that period in use in America, and are even now continued along the more exposed parts of the frontier. These, capable of containing each a company of men, were, as their name implies, formed of huge masses of roughly-shapen timber, fitted into each other at the extremities by rude incisions from the axe, and filled in with smaller wedges of wood. The upper part of these block-houses projected on every side several feet beyond the ground floor, and over the whole was a sheathing of planks, which, as well as those covering the barracks of the officers, were painted of a brick-red colour. Unlike the latter, they rose considerably above the surface of the ramparts; and, in addition to the small window to be seen on each side of each story of the block-house, were numerous smaller square holes, perforated for the discharge of musketry. Between both these barracks and the ramparts there was just space sufficient to admit of the passage of artillery of a heavy calibre; and at each of the four angles, composing the lines of the fort, was an opening of several feet in extent, not only to afford the gunners room to work their batteries, but to enable them to reach their posts with greater expedition in the event of any sudden emergency. On the right, on entering the fort over the drawbridge, were the block-houses of the men; and immediately in front, and on the left, the barracks of the officers, terminated at the outer extremity by the guard-house, and at the inner by the quarters of the commanding officer.

As the officers now issued from the mess-room nearly opposite to the gate, they observed, at that part of the barracks which ran at right angles with it, and immediately in front of the apartment of the younger De Haldimar, whence he had apparently just issued, the governor, struggling, though gently, to disengage himself from a female, who, with disordered hair and dress, lay almost prostrate upon the piazza, and clasping his booted leg with an energy evidently borrowed from the most rooted despair. The quick eye of the haughty man had already rested on the group of officers drawn by the scream of the supplicant. Numbers, too, of the men, attracted by the same cause, were collected in front of their respective block-houses, and looking from the windows of the rooms in which they were also breakfasting, preparatory to the expedition. Vexed and irritated beyond measure, at being thus made a conspicuous object of observation to his inferiors, the unbending governor made a violent and successful effort to disengage his leg; and then, without uttering a word, or otherwise noticing the unhappy being who lay extended at his feet, he stalked across the parade to his apartments at the opposite angle, without appearing to manifest the slightest consciousness of the scene that had awakened such universal attention.

Several of the officers, among whom was Captain Blessington, now hastened to the assistance of the female, whom all had recognised, from the first, to be the interesting and unhappy wife of Halloway. Many of the comrades of the latter, who had been pained and pitying spectators of the scene, also advanced for the same purpose; but, on perceiving their object anticipated by their superiors, they withdrew to the blocks-houses, whence they had issued. Never was grief more forcibly depicted, than in the whole appearance of this unfortunate woman; never did anguish assume a character more fitted to touch the soul, or to command respect. Her long fair hair, that had hitherto been hid under the coarse mob-cap, usually worn by the wives of the soldiers, was now divested of all fastening, and lay shadowing a white and polished bosom, which, in her violent struggles to detain the governor, had burst from its rude but modest confinement, and was now displayed in all the dazzling delicacy of youth and sex. If the officers gazed for a moment with excited look upon charms that had long been strangers to their sight, and of an order they had little deemed to find in Ellen Halloway, it was but the involuntary tribute rendered by nature unto beauty. The depth and sacredness of that sorrow, which had left the wretched woman unconscious of her exposure, in the instant afterwards imposed a check upon admiration, which each felt to be a violation of the first principles of human delicacy, and the feeling was repressed almost in the moment that gave it birth.

They were immediately in front of the room occupied by Charles de Haldimar, in the piazza of which were a few old chairs, on which the officers were in the habit of throwing themselves during the heat of the day. On one of these Captain Blessington, assisted by the officer of grenadiers, now seated the suffering and sobbing wife of Halloway. His first care was to repair the disorder of her dress; and never was the same office performed by man with greater delicacy, or absence of levity by those who witnessed it. This was the first moment of her consciousness. The inviolability of modesty for a moment rose paramount even to the desolation of her heart, and putting rudely aside the hand that reposed unavoidably upon her person, the poor woman started from her seat, and looked wildly about her, as if endeavouring to identify those by whom she was surrounded. But when she observed the pitying gaze of the officers fixed upon her, in earnestness and commiseration, and heard the benevolent accents of the ever kind Blessington exhorting her to composure, her weeping became more violent, and her sobs more convulsive. Captain Blessington threw an arm round her waist to prevent her from falling; and then motioning to two or three women of the company to which her husband was attached, who stood at a little distance, in front of one of the block-houses, prepared to deliver her over to their charge.

"No, no, not yet!" burst at length from the lips of the agonised woman, as she shrank from the rude but well-intentioned touch of the sympathising assistants, who had promptly answered the signal; then, as if obeying some new direction of her feelings, some new impulse of her grief, she liberated herself from the slight grasp of Captain Blessington, turned suddenly round, and, before any one could anticipate the movement, entered an opening on the piazza, raised the latch of a door situated at its extremity, and was, in the next instant, in the apartment of the younger De Haldimar.

The scene that met the eyes of the officers, who now followed close after her, was one well calculated to make an impression on the hearts even of the most insensible. In the despair and recklessness of her extreme sorrow, the young wife of Halloway had already thrown herself upon her knees at the bedside of the sick officer; and, with her hands upraised and firmly clasped together, was now supplicating him in tones, contrasting singularly in their gentleness with the depth of the sorrow that had rendered her thus regardless of appearances, and insensible to observation.

"Oh, Mr. de Haldimar!" she implored, "in the name of God and of our blessed Saviour, if you would save me from madness, intercede for my unhappy husband, and preserve him from the horrid fate that awaits him. You are too good, too gentle, too amiable, to reject the prayer of a heart-broken woman. Moreover, Mr. de Haldimar," she proceeded, with deeper energy, while she caught and pressed, between her own white and bloodless hands, one nearly as delicate that lay extended near her, "consider all my dear but unfortunate husband has done for your family. Think of the blood he once spilt in the defence of your brother's life; that brother, through whom alone, oh God! he is now condemned to die. Call to mind the days and nights of anguish I passed near his couch of suffering, when yet writhing beneath the wound aimed at the life of Captain de Haldimar. Almighty Providence!" she pursued, in the same impassioned yet plaintive voice, "why is not Miss Clara here to plead the cause of the innocent, and to touch the stubborn heart of her merciless father? She would, indeed, move heaven and earth to save the life of him to whom she so often vowed eternal gratitude and acknowledgment. Ah, she little dreams of his danger now; or, if prayer and intercession could avail, my husband should yet live, and this terrible struggle at my heart would be no more."

Overcome by her emotion, the unfortunate woman suffered her aching head to droop upon the edge of the bed, and her sobbing became so painfully violent, that all who heard her expected, at every moment, some fatal termination to her immoderate grief. Charles de Haldimar was little less affected; and his sorrow was the more bitter, as he had just proved the utter inefficacy of any thing in the shape of appeal to his inflexible father.

"Mrs. Halloway, my dear Mrs. Halloway, compose yourself," said Captain Blessington, now approaching, and endeavouring to raise her gently from the floor, on which she still knelt, while her hands even more firmly grasped that of De Haldimar. "You are ill, very ill, and the consequences of this dreadful excitement may be fatal. Be advised by me, and retire. I have desired my room to be prepared for you, and Sergeant Wilmot's wife shall remain with you as long as you may require it."

"No, no, no!" she again exclaimed with energy; "what care I for my own wretched life-my beloved and unhappy husband is to die. Oh God! to die without guilt-to be cut off in his youth-to be shot as a traitor-and that simply for obeying the wishes of the officer whom he loved!-the son of the man who now spurns all supplication from his presence. It is inhuman-it is unjust-and Heaven will punish the hard-hearted man who murders him-yes, murders him! for such a punishment for such an offence is nothing less than murder." Again she wept bitterly, and as Captain Blessington still essayed to soothe and raise her:-"No, no! I will not leave this spot," she continued; "I will not quit the side of Mr. de Haldimar, until he pledges himself to intercede for my poor husband. It is his duty to save the life of him who saved his brother's life; and God and human justice are with my appeal. Oh, tell me, then, Mr. de Haldimar,-if you would save my wretched heart from breaking,-tell me you will intercede for, and obtain the pardon of, my husband!"

As she concluded this last sentence in passionate appeal, she had risen from her knees; and, conscious only of the importance of the boon solicited, now threw herself upon the breast of the highly pained and agitated young officer. Her long and beautiful hair fell floating over his face, and mingled with his own, while her arms were wildly clasped around him, in all the energy of frantic and hopeless adjuration.

"Almighty God!" exclaimed the agitated young man, as he made a feeble and fruitless effort to raise the form of the unhappy woman; "what shall I say to impart comfort to this suffering being? Oh, Mrs. Halloway," he pursued, "I would willingly give all I possess in this world to be the means of saving your unfortunate husband,-and as much for his own sake as for yours would I do this; but, alas! I have not the power. Do not think I speak without conviction. My father has just been with me, and I have pleaded the cause of your husband with an earnestness I should scarcely have used had my own life been at stake. But all my entreaties have been in vain. He is obstinate in the belief my brother's strange absence, and Donellan's death, are attributable only to the treason of Halloway. Still there is a hope. A detachment is to leave the fort within the hour, and Halloway is to accompany them. It may be, my father intends this measure only with a view to terrify him into a confession of guilt; and that he deems it politic to make him undergo all the fearful preliminaries without carrying the sentence itself into effect."

The unfortunate woman said no more. When she raised her heaving chest from that of the young officer, her eyes, though red and shrunk to half their usual size with weeping, were tearless; but on her countenance there was an expression of wild woe, infinitely more distressing to behold, in consequence of the almost unnatural check so suddenly imposed upon her feelings. She tottered, rather than walked, through the group of officers, who gave way on either hand to let her pass; and rejecting all assistance from the women who had followed into the room, and who now, in obedience to another signal from Captain Blessington, hastened to her support, finally gained the door, and quitted the apartment.

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