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Wacousta: A Tale of the Pontiac Conspiracy--Volume 1 By John Richardson Characters: 25650

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


While this scene was enacting in front of the Fleur de lis, one of a far more touching and painful nature was passing in the very heart of the detachment itself. At the moment when the halt was ordered by Captain Blessington, a rumour ran through the ranks that they had reached the spot destined for the execution of their ill-fated comrade. Those only in the immediate front were aware of the true cause; but although the report of the rifle had been distinctly heard by all, it had been attributed by those in the rear to the accidental discharge of one of their own muskets. A low murmur, expressive of the opinion generally entertained, passed gradually from rear to front, until it at length reached the ears of the delicate drummer boy who marched behind the coffin. His face was still buried in the collar of his coat; and what was left uncovered of his features by the cap, was in some degree hidden by the forward drooping of his head upon his chest. Hitherto he had moved almost mechanically along, tottering and embarrassing himself at every step under the cumbrous drum that was suspended from a belt round his neck over the left thigh; but now there was a certain indescribable drawing up of the frame, and tension of the whole person, denoting a concentration of all the moral and physical energies,-a sudden working up, as it were, of the intellectual and corporeal being to some determined and momentous purpose.

At the first halt of the detachment, the weary supporters of the coffin had deposited their rude and sombre burden upon the earth, preparatory to its being resumed by those appointed to relieve them. The dull sound emitted by the hollow fabric, as it touched the ground, caught the ear of him for whom it was destined, and he turned to gaze upon the sad and lonely tenement so shortly to become his final resting place. There was an air of calm composure and dignified sorrow upon his brow, that infused respect into the hearts of all who beheld him; and even the men selected to do the duty of executioners sought to evade his glance, as his steady eye wandered from right to left of the fatal rank. His attention, however, was principally directed towards the coffin, which lay before him; on this he gazed fixedly for upwards of a minute. He then turned his eyes in the direction of the fort, shuddered, heaved a profound sigh, and looking up to heaven with the apparent fervour that became his situation, seemed to pray for a moment or two inwardly and devoutly. The thick and almost suffocating breathing of one immediately beyond the coffin, was now distinctly heard by all. Halloway started from his attitude of devotion, gazed earnestly on the form whence it proceeded, and then wildly extending his arms, suffered a smile of satisfaction to illumine his pale features. All eyes were now turned upon the drummer boy, who, evidently labouring under convulsive excitement of feeling, suddenly dashed his cap and instrument to the earth, and flew as fast as his tottering and uncertain steps would admit across the coffin, and into the arms extended to receive him.

"My Ellen! oh, my own devoted, but too unhappy Ellen!" passionately exclaimed the soldier, as he clasped the slight and agitated form of his disguised wife to his throbbing heart. "This, this, indeed, is joy even in death. I thought I could have died more happily without you, but nature tugs powerfully at my heart; and to see you once more, to feel you once more HERE" (and he pressed her wildly to his chest) "is indeed a bliss that robs my approaching fate of half its terror."

"Oh Reginald! my dearly beloved Reginald! my murdered husband!" shrieked the unhappy woman; "your Ellen will not survive you. Her heart is already broken, though she cannot weep; but the same grave shall contain us both. Reginald, do you believe me? I swear it; the same grave shall contain us both."

Exhausted with the fatigue and excitement she had undergone, the faithful and affectionate creature now lay, without sense or motion, in the arms of her wretched husband. Halloway bore her, unopposed, a pace or two in advance, and deposited her unconscious form on the fatal coffin.

No language of ours can render justice to the trying character of the scene. All who witnessed it were painfully affected, and over the bronzed cheek of many a veteran coursed a tear, that, like that of Sterne's recording angel, might have blotted out a catalogue of sins. Although each was prepared to expect a reprimand from the governor, for suffering the prisoner to quit his station in the ranks, humanity and nature pleaded too powerfully in his behalf, and neither officer nor man attempted to interfere, unless with a view to render assistance. Captain Erskine, in particular, was deeply pained, and would have given any thing to recall the harsh language he had used towards the supposed idle and inattentive drummer boy. Taking from a pocket in his uniform a small flask of brandy, which he had provided against casualties, the compassionating officer slightly raised the head of the pale and unconscious woman with one hand, while with the other he introduced a few drops between her parted lips. Halloway knelt at the opposite side of the coffin; one hand searching, but in vain, the suspended pulse of his inanimate wife; the other, unbuttoning the breast of the drum-boy's jacket, which, with every other part of the equipment, she wore beneath the loose great coat so effectually accomplishing her disguise.

Such was the position of the chief actors in this truly distressing drama, at the moment when Colonel de Haldimar came up with his new prisoner, to mark what effect would be produced on Halloway by his unexpected appearance. His own surprise and disappointment may be easily conceived, when, in the form of the recumbent being who seemed to engross universal attention, he recognised, by the fair and streaming hair, and half exposed bosom, the unfortunate being whom, only two hours previously, he had spurned from his feet in the costume of her own sex, and reduced, by the violence of her grief, to almost infantine debility. Question succeeded question to those around, but without eliciting any clue to the means by which this mysterious disguise had been effected. No one had been aware, until the truth was so singularly and suddenly revealed, the supposed drummer was any other than one of the lads attached to the grenadiers; and as for the other facts, they spoke too plainly to the comprehension of the governor to need explanation. Once more, however, the detachment was called to order. Halloway struck his hand violently upon his brow, kissed the wan lips of his still unconscious wife, breathing, as he did so, a half murmured hope she might indeed be the corpse she appeared. He then raised himself from the earth with a light and elastic vet firm movement, and resumed the place he had previously occupied, where, to his surprise, he beheld a second victim bound, and, apparently, devoted to the same death. When the eyes of the two unhappy men met, the governor closely watched the expression of the countenance of each; but although the Canadian started on beholding the soldier, it might be merely because he saw the latter arrayed in the garb of death, and followed by the most unequivocal demonstrations of a doom to which he himself was, in all probability, devoted. As for Halloway, his look betrayed neither consciousness nor recognition; and though too proud to express complaint or to give vent to the feelings of his heart, his whole soul appeared to be absorbed in the unhappy partner of his luckless destiny. Presently he saw her borne, and in the same state of insensibility, in the arms of Captain Erskine and Lieutenant Leslie, towards the hut of his fellow prisoner, and he heard the former officer enjoin the weeping girl, Babette, to whose charge they delivered her over, to pay every attention to her her situation might require. The detachment then proceeded.

The narrow but deep and rapid river alluded to by the Canadian, as running midway between the town and Hog Island, derived its source far within the forest, and formed the bed of one of those wild, dark, and thickly wooded ravines so common in America. As it neared the Detroit, however, the abruptness of its banks was so considerably lessened, as to render the approach to it on the town side over an almost imperceptible slope. Within a few yards of its mouth, as we have already observed in our introductory chapter, a rude but strong wooden bridge, over which lay the high road, had been constructed by the French; and from the centre of this, all the circuit of intermediate clearing, even to the very skirt of the forest, was distinctly commanded by the naked eye. To the right, on approaching it from the town, lay the adjacent shores of Canada, washed by the broad waters of the Detroit, on which it was thrown into strong relief, and which, at the distance of about a mile in front, was seen to diverge into two distinct channels, pursuing each a separate course, until they again met at the western extremity of Hog Island. On the left, and in the front, rose a succession of slightly undulating hills, which, at a distance of little more than half a mile, terminated in an elevation considerably above the immediate level of the Detroit side of the ravine. That, again, was crowned with thick and overhanging forest, taking its circular sweep, as we have elsewhere shown, around the fort. The intermediate ground was studded over with rude stumps of trees, and bore, in various directions, distinct proofs of the spoliation wrought among the infant possessions of the murdered English settlers. The view to the rear was less open; the town being partially hidden by the fruit-laden orchards that lined the intervening high road, and hung principally on its left. This was not the case with the fort. Between these orchards and the distant forest lay a line of open country, fully commanded by its cannon, even to the ravine we have described, and in a sweep that embraced every thing from the bridge itself to the forest, in which all traces of its source was lost.

When the detachment had arrived within twenty yards of the bridge, they were made to file off to the left, until the last gun had come up. They were then fronted; the rear section of Captain Erskine's company resting on the road, and the left flank, covered by the two first guns pointed obliquely, both in front and rear, to guard against surprise, in the event of any of the Indians stealing round to the cover of the orchards. The route by which they had approached this spot was upwards of two miles in extent; but, as they now filed off into the open ground, the leading sections observed, in a direct line over the cleared country, and at the distance of little more than three quarters of a mile, the dark ramparts of the fortress that contained their comrades, and could even distinguish the uniforms of the officers and men drawn up in line along the works, where they were evidently assembled to witness the execution of the sentence on Halloway.

Such a sight as that of the English so far from their fort, was not likely to escape the notice of the Indians. Their encampment, as the Canadian had truly stated, lay within the forest, and beyond the elevated ground already alluded to; and to have crossed the ravine, or ventured out of reach of the cannon of the fort, would have been to have sealed the destruction of the detachment. But the officer to whom their security was entrusted, although he had his own particular views for venturing thus far, knew also at what point to stop; and such was the confidence of his men in his skill and prudence, they would have fearlessly followed wherever he might have chosen to lead. Still, even amid all the solemnity of preparation attendant on the duty they were out to perform, there was a natural and secret apprehensiveness about each, that caused him to cast his eyes frequently and fixedly on that part of the forest which was known to afford cover to their merciless foes. At times they fancied they beheld the dark and flitting forms of men gliding from tree to tree along the skirt of the wood; but when they gazed again, nothing of the kind was to be seen, and the illusion was at once ascribed to the heavy state of the atmosphere, and the action of their own precautionary instincts.

Meanwhile the solemn tragedy of death was preparing in mournful silence. On the centre of the bridge, and visible to those even within the fort, was placed the coffin of Halloway, and at twelve paces in front were drawn up the six rank and file on whom had devolved, by lot, the cruel duty of the day. With calm and fearless eye the prisoner surveyed the preparations for his a

pproaching end; and whatever might be the inward workings of his mind, there was not among the assembled soldiery one individual whose countenance betrayed so little of sorrow and emotion as his own. With a firm step, when summoned, he moved towards the fatal coffin, dashing his cap to the earth as he advanced, and baring his chest with the characteristic contempt of death of the soldier. When he had reached the centre of the bridge, he turned facing his comrades, and knelt upon the coffin. Captain Blessington, who, permitted by the governor, had followed him with a sad heart and heavy step, now drew a Prayer-book from his pocket, and read from it in a low voice. He then closed the volume, listened to something the prisoner earnestly communicated to him, received a small packet which he drew from the bosom of his shirt, shook him long and cordially by the hand, and then hastily resumed his post at the head of the detachment.

The principal inhabitants of the village, led by curiosity, had followed at a distance to witness the execution of the condemned soldier: and above the heads of the line, and crowning the slope, were collected groups of both sexes and of all ages, that gave a still more imposing character to the scene. Every eye was now turned upon the firing party, who only awaited the signal to execute their melancholy office, when suddenly, in the direction of the forest, and upon the extreme height, there burst the tremendous and deafening yells of upwards of a thousand savages. For an instant Halloway was forgotten in the instinctive sense of individual danger, and all gazed eagerly to ascertain the movements of their enemy. Presently a man, naked to the waist, his body and face besmeared with streaks of black and red paint, and his whole attitude expressing despair and horror, was seen flying down the height with a rapidity proportioned to the extreme peril in which he stood. At about fifty paces in his rear followed a dozen bounding, screaming Indians, armed with uplifted tomahawks, whose anxiety in pursuit lent them a speed that even surpassed the efforts of flight itself. It was evident the object of the pursued was to reach the detachment, that of the pursuers to prevent him. The struggle was maintained for a few moments with equality, but in the end the latter were triumphant, and at each step the distance that separated them became less. At the first alarm, the detachment, with the exception of the firing party, who still occupied their ground, had been thrown into square, and, with a gun planted in each angle, awaited the attack momentarily expected. But although the heights were now alive with the dusky forms of naked warriors, who, from the skirt of the forest, watched the exertions of their fellows, the pursuit of the wretched fugitive was confined to these alone. Foremost of the latter, and distinguished by his violent exertions and fiendish cries, was the tall and wildly attired warrior of the Fleur de lis. At every bound he took he increased the space that divided him from his companions, and lessened that which kept him from his panting and nearly exhausted victim. Already were they descending the nearest of the undulating hills, and both now became conspicuous objects to all around; but principally the pursuer, whose gigantic frame and extraordinary speed riveted every eye, even while the interest of all was excited for the wretched fugitive alone.

At that moment Halloway, who had been gazing on the scene with an astonishment little inferior to that of his comrades, sprang suddenly to his feet upon the coffin, and waving his hand in the direction of the pursuing enemy, shouted aloud in a voice of mingled joy and triumph,-

"Ha! Almighty God, I thank thee! Here, here comes one who alone has the power to snatch me from my impending doom."

"By Heaven, the traitor confesses, and presumes to triumph in his guilt," exclaimed the voice of one, who, while closely attending to every movement of the Indians, was also vigilantly watching the effect likely to be produced on the prisoner by this unexpected interruption. "Corporal, do your duty."

"Stay, stay-one moment stay!" implored Halloway with uplifted hands.

"Do your duty, sir," fiercely repeated the governor.

"Oh stop-for God's sake, stop! Another moment and he will be here, and I-"

He said no more-a dozen bullets penetrated his body-one passed directly through his heart. He leaped several feet in the air, and then fell heavily, a lifeless bleeding corpse, across the coffin.

Meanwhile the pursuit of the fugitive was continued, but by the warrior of the Fleur de lis alone. Aware of their inefficiency to keep pace with this singular being, his companions had relinquished the chace, and now stood resting on the brow of the hill where the wretched Halloway had first recognised his supposed deliverer, watching eagerly, though within musket shot of the detachment, the result of a race on which so much apparently depended. Neither party, however, attempted to interfere with the other, for all eyes were now turned on the flying man and his pursuer with an interest that denoted the extraordinary efforts of the one to evade and the other to attain the accomplishment of his object. Although the exertions of the former had been stupendous, such was the eagerness and determination of the latter, that at each step he gained perceptibly on his victim. The immediate course taken was in a direct line for the ravine, which it evidently was the object of the fugitive to clear at its nearest point. Already had he approached within a few paces of its brink, and every eye was fastened on the point where it was expected the doubtful leap would be taken, when suddenly, as if despairing to accomplish it at a bound, he turned to the left, and winding along its bank, renewed his efforts in the direction of the bridge. This movement occasioned a change in the position of the parties which was favourable to the pursued. Hitherto they had been so immediately on a line with each other, it was impossible for the detachment to bring a musket to bear upon the warrior, without endangering him whose life they were anxious to preserve. For a moment or two his body was fairly exposed, and a dozen muskets were discharged at intervals from the square, but all without success. Recovering his lost ground, he soon brought the pursued again in a line between himself and the detachment, edging rapidly nearer to him as he advanced, and uttering terrific yells, that were echoed back from his companions on the brow of the hill. It was evident, however, his object was the recapture, not the destruction, of the flying man, for more than once did he brandish his menacing tomahawk in rapid sweeps around his head, as if preparing to dart it, and as often did he check the movement. The scene at each succeeding moment became more critical and intensely interesting. The strength of the pursued was now nearly exhausted, while that of his formidable enemy seemed to suffer no diminution. Leap after leap he took with fearful superiority, sideling as he advanced. Already had he closed upon his victim, while with a springing effort a large and bony hand was extended to secure his shoulder in his grasp. The effort was fatal to him; for in reaching too far he lost his balance, and fell heavily upon the sward. A shout of exultation burst from the English troops, and numerous voices now encouraged the pursued to renew his exertions. The advice was not lost; and although only a few seconds had elapsed between the fall and recovery of his pursuer, the wretched fugitive had already greatly increased the distance that separated them. A cry of savage rage and disappointment burst from the lips of the gigantic warrior; and concentrating all his remaining strength and speed into one final effort, he bounded and leapt like a deer of the forest whence he came. The opportunity for recapture, however, had been lost in his fall, for already the pursued was within a few feet of the high road, and on the point of turning the extremity of the bridge. One only resource was now left: the warrior suddenly checked himself in his course, and remained stationary; then raising and dropping his glittering weapon several times in a balancing position, he waited until the pursued had gained the highest point of the open bridge. At that moment the glittering steel, aimed with singular accuracy and precision, ran whistling through the air, and with such velocity of movement as to be almost invisible to the eyes of those who attempted to follow it in its threatening course. All expected to see it enter into the brain against which it had been directed; but the fugitive had marked the movement in time to save himself by stooping low to the earth, while the weapon, passing over him, entered with a deadly and crashing sound into the brain of the weltering corpse. This danger passed, he sprang once more to his feet, nor paused again in his flight, until, faint and exhausted, he sank without motion under the very bayonets of the firing party.

A new direction was now given to the interest of the assembled and distinct crowds that had witnessed these startling incidents. Scarcely had the wretched man gained the protection of the soldiery, when a shriek divided the air, so wild, so piercing, and so unearthly, that even the warrior of the Fleur de lis seemed to lose sight of his victim, in the harrowing interest produced by that dreadful scream. All turned their eyes for a moment in the quarter whence it proceeded; when presently, from behind the groups of Canadians crowning the slope, was seen flying, with the rapidity of thought, one who resembled rather a spectre than a being of earth;-it was the wife of Halloway. Her long fair hair was wild and streaming-her feet, and legs, and arms were naked-and one solitary and scanty garment displayed rather than concealed the symmetry of her delicate person. She flew to the fatal bridge, threw herself on the body of her bleeding husband, and imprinting her warm kisses on his bloody lips, for a moment or two presented the image of one whose reason has fled for ever. Suddenly she started from the earth; her face, her hands, and her garment so saturated with the blood of her husband, that a feeling of horror crept throughout the veins of all who beheld her. She stood upon the coffin, and across the corpse-raised her eyes and hands imploringly to Heaven-and then, in accents wilder even than her words, uttered an imprecation that sounded like the prophetic warning of some unholy spirit.

"Inhuman murderer!" she exclaimed, in tones that almost paralysed the ears on which it fell, "if there be a God of justice and of truth, he will avenge this devilish deed. Yes, Colonel de Haldimar, a prophetic voice whispers to my soul, that even as I have seen perish before my eyes all I loved on earth, without mercy and without hope, so even shall you witness the destruction of your accursed race. Here-here-here," and she pointed downwards, with singular energy of action, to the corpse of her husband, "here shall their blood flow till every vestige of his own is washed away; and oh, if there be spared one branch of thy detested family, may it only be that they may be reserved for some death too horrible to be conceived!"

Overcome by the frantic energy with which she had uttered these appalling words, she sank backwards, and fell, uttering another shriek, into the arms of the warrior of the Fleur de lis.

"Hear you this, Colonel de Haldimar?" shouted the latter in a fierce and powerful voice, and in the purest English accent; "hear you the curse and prophecy of this heart-broken woman? You have slain her husband, but she has found another. Ay, she shall be my bride, if only for her detestation of yourself. When next you see us here," he thundered, "tremble for your race. Ha, ha, ha! no doubt this is another victim of your cold and calculating guile; but it shall be the last. By Heaven, my very heart leaps upward in anticipation of thy coming hour. Woman, thy hatred to this man has made me love thee; yes, thou shall be my bride, and with my plans of vengeance will I woo thee. By this kiss I swear it."

As he spoke, he bent his face over that of the pale and inanimate woman, and pressed his lips to hers, yet red and moist with blood spots from the wounds of her husband. Then wresting, with a violent effort, his reeking tomahawk from the cranched brain of the unfortunate soldier, and before any one could recover sufficiently from the effect of the scene altogether to think even of interfering, he bore off his prize in triumph, and fled, with nearly the same expedition he had previously manifested, in the direction of the forest.

END OF THE FIRST VOLUME.

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