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Wacousta: A Tale of the Pontiac Conspiracy--Volume 3 By John Richardson Characters: 27240

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

"It is now four and twenty years," commenced Wacousta, "since your father and myself first met as subalterns in the regiment he now commands, when, unnatural to say, an intimacy suddenly sprang up between us which, as it was then to our brother officers, has since been a source of utter astonishment to myself. Unnatural, I repeat, for fire and ice are not more opposite than were the elements of which our natures were composed. He, all coldness, prudence, obsequiousness, and forethought. I, all enthusiasm, carelessness, impetuosity, and independence. Whether this incongruous friendship-friendship! no, I will not so far sully the sacred name as thus to term the unnatural union that subsisted between us;-whether this intimacy, then, sprang from the adventitious circumstance of our being more frequently thrown together as officers of the same company,-for we were both attached to the grenadiers,-or that my wild spirit was soothed by the bland amenity of his manners, I know not. The latter, however, is not improbable; for proud, and haughty, and dignified, as the colonel NOW is, such was not THEN the character of the ensign; who seemed thrown out of one of Nature's supplest moulds, to fawn, and cringe, and worm his way to favour by the wily speciousness of his manners. Oh God!" pursued Wacousta, after a momentary pause, and striking his palm against his forehead, "that I ever should have been the dupe of such a cold-blooded hypocrite!

"I have said our intimacy excited surprise among our brother officers. It did; for all understood and read the character of your father, who was as much disliked and distrusted for the speciousness of his false nature, as I was generally esteemed for the frankness and warmth of mine. No one openly censured the evident preference I gave him in my friendship; but we were often sarcastically termed the Pylades and Orestes of the regiment, until my heart was ready to leap into my throat with impatience at the bitterness in which the taunt was conceived; and frequently in my presence was allusion made to the blind folly of him, who should take a cold and slimy serpent to his bosom only to feel its fangs darted into it at the moment when most fostered by its genial heat. All, however, was in vain. On a nature like mine, innuendo was likely to produce an effect directly opposite to that intended; and the more I found them inclined to be severe on him I called my friend, the more marked became my preference. I even fancied that because I was rich, generous, and heir to a title, their observations were prompted by jealousy of the influence he possessed over me, and a desire to supplant him only for their interests' sake. Bitterly have I been punished for the illiberality of such an opinion. Those to whom I principally allude were the subalterns of the regiment, most of whom were nearly of our own age. One or two of the junior captains were also of this number; but, by the elders (as we termed the seniors of that rank) and field officers, Ensign de Haldimar was always regarded as a most prudent and promising young officer.

"What conduced, in a great degree, to the establishment of our intimacy was the assistance I always received from my brother subaltern in whatever related to my military duties. As the lieutenant of the company, the more immediate responsibility attached to myself; but being naturally of a careless habit, or perhaps considering all duty irksome to my impatient nature that was not duty in the field, I was but too often guilty of neglecting it. On these occasions my absence was ever carefully supplied by your father, who, in all the minutiae of regimental economy, was surpassed by no other officer in the corps; so that credit was given to me, when, at the ordinary inspections, the grenadiers were acknowledged to be the company the most perfect in equipment and skilful in manoeuvre. Deeply, deeply," again mused Wacousta, "have these services been repaid.

"As you have just learnt, Cornwall is the country of my birth. I was the eldest of the only two surviving children of a large family; and, as heir to the baronetcy of the proud Mortons, was looked up to by lord and vassal as the future perpetuator of the family name. My brother had been designed for the army; but as this was a profession to which I had attached my inclinations, the point was waved in my favour, and at the age of eighteen I first joined the -- regiment, then quartered in the Highlands of Scotland. During my boyhood I had ever accustomed myself to athletic exercises, and loved to excite myself by encountering danger in its most terrific forms. Often had I passed whole days in climbing the steep and precipitous crags which overhang the sea in the neighbourhood of Morton Castle, ostensibly in the pursuit of the heron or the seagull, but self-acknowledgedly for the mere pleasure of grappling with the difficulties they opposed to me. Often, too, in the most terrific tempests, when sea and sky have met in one black and threatening mass, and when the startled fishermen have in vain attempted to dissuade me from my purpose, have I ventured, in sheer bravado, out of sight of land, and unaccompanied by a human soul. Then, when wind and tide have been against me on my return, have I, with my simple sculls alone, caused my faithful bark to leap through the foaming brine as though a press of canvass had impelled her on. Oh, that this spirit of adventure had never grown with my growth and strengthened with my strength!" sorrowfully added the warrior, again apostrophising himself: "then had I never been the wretch I am.

"The wild daring by which my boyhood had been marked was again powerfully awakened by the bold and romantic scenery of the Scottish Highlands; and as the regiment was at that time quartered in a part of these mountainous districts, where, from the disturbed nature of the times, society was difficult of attainment, many of the officers were driven from necessity, as I was from choice, to indulge in the sports of the chase. On one occasion a party of four of us set out early in the morning in pursuit of deer, numbers of which we knew were to be met with in the mountainous tracts of Bute and Argyleshire. The course we happened to take lay through a succession of dark deep glens, and over frowning rocks; the difficulties of access to which only stirred up my dormant spirit of enterprise the more. We had continued in this course for many hours, overcoming one difficulty only to be encountered by another, and yet without meeting a single deer; when, at length, the faint blast of a horn was heard far above our heads in the distance, and presently a noble stag was seen to ascend a ledge of rocks immediately in front of us. To raise my gun to my shoulder and fire was the work of a moment, after which we all followed in pursuit. On reaching the spot where the deer had first been seen, we observed traces of blood, satisfying us he had been wounded; but the course taken in his flight was one that seemed to defy every human effort to follow in. It was a narrow pointed ledge, ascending boldly towards a huge cliff that projected frowningly from the extreme summit, and on either side lay a dark, deep, and apparently fathomless ravine; to look even on which was sufficient to appal the stoutest heart, and unnerve the steadiest brain. For me, however, long accustomed to dangers of the sort, it had no terror. This was a position in which I had often wished once more to find myself placed, and I felt buoyant and free as the deer itself I intended to pursue. In vain did my companions (and your father was one) implore me to abandon a project so wild and hazardous. I bounded forward, and they turned shuddering away, that their eyes might not witness the destruction that awaited me. Meanwhile, balancing my long gun in my upraised hands, I trod the dangerous path with a buoyancy and elasticity of limb, a lightness of heart, and a fearlessness of consequences, that surprised even myself. Perhaps it was to the latter circumstance I owed my safety, for a single doubt of my security might have impelled a movement that would not have failed to have precipitated me into the yawning gulf below. I had proceeded in this manner about five hundred yards, when I came to the termination of the ledge, from the equally narrow transverse extremity of which branched out three others; the whole contributing to form a figure resembling that of a trident. Pausing here for a moment, I applied the hunting horn, with which I was provided, to my lips. This signal, announcing my safety, was speedily returned by my friends below in a cheering and lively strain, that seemed to express at once surprise and satisfaction; and inspirited by the sound, I prepared to follow up my perilous chase. Along the ledge I had quitted I had remarked occasional traces where the stricken deer had passed; and the same blood-spots now directed me at a point where, but for these, I must have been utterly at fault. The centre of these new ridges, and the narrowest, was that taken by the animal, and on that I once more renewed my pursuit. As I continued to advance I found the ascent became more precipitous, and the difficulties opposed to my progress momentarily more multiplied. Still, nothing daunted, I continued my course towards the main body of rock that now rose within a hundred yards. How this was to be gained I knew not; for it shelved out abruptly from the extreme summit, overhanging the abyss, and presenting an appearance which I cannot more properly render than by comparing it to the sounding-boards placed over the pulpits of our English churches. Still I was resolved to persevere to the close, and I but too unhappily succeeded." Again Wacousta paused. A tear started to his eye, but this he impatiently brushed away with his swarthy hand.

"It was evident to me," he again resumed, "that there must be some opening through which the deer had effected his escape to the precipitous height above; and I felt a wild and fearful triumph in following him to his cover, over passes which it was my pleasure to think none of the hardy mountaineers themselves would have dared to venture upon with impunity. I paused not to consider of the difficulty of bearing away my prize, even if I succeeded in overtaking it. At every step my excitement and determination became stronger, and I felt every fibre of my frame to dilate, as when, in my more boyish days, I used to brave, in my gallant skiff, the mingled fury of the warring elements of sea and storm. Suddenly, while my mind was intent only on the dangers I used then to hold in such light estimation, I found my further progress intercepted by a fissure in the crag. It was not the width of this opening that disconcerted me, for it exceeded not ten feet; but I came upon it so unadvisedly, that, in attempting to check my forward motion, I had nearly lost my equipoise, and fallen into the abyss that now yawned before and on either side of me. To pause upon the danger, would, I felt, be to ensure it. Summoning all my dexterity into a single bound, I cleared the chasm; and with one buskined foot (for my hunting costume was strictly Highland) clung firmly to the ledge, while I secured my balance with the other. At this point the rock became gradually broader, so that I now trod the remainder of the rude path in perfect security, until I at length found myself close to the vast mass of which these ledges were merely ramifications or veins: but still I could discover no outlet by which the wounded deer could have escaped. While I lingered, thoughtfully, for a moment, half in disappointment, half in anger, and with my back leaning against the rock, I fancied I heard a rustling, as of the leaves and branches of underwood, on that part which projected like a canopy, far above the abyss. I bent my eye eagerly and fixedly on the spot whence the sound proceeded, and presently could distinguish the blue sky appearing through an aperture, to which was, the instant afterwards, applied what I conceived to be a human face. No sooner, however, was it seen than withdrawn; and then the rustling of leaves was heard again, and all was still as before.

"Why did my evil genius so will it," resumed Wacousta, after another pause, during which he manifested deep emotion, "that I should have heard those sounds and seen that face? But for these I should have returned to my companions, and my life might have been the life-the plodding life-of the multitude; things that are born merely to crawl through existence and die, knowing not at the moment of death why or how they have lived at all. But who may resist the destiny that presides over him from the cradle to the grave? for, although the mass may be, and are, unworthy of the influencing agency of that Unseen Power, who will presume to deny there are those on whom it stamps its iron seal, even from the moment of their birth to that which sees all that is mortal of them consigned to the tomb? What was it but destiny that whispered to me what I had seen was the face of a woman? I had not traced a feature, nor could I distinctly state that it was a human countenance I had beheld; but mine was ever an imagination into which the wildest improbability was scarce admitted that it did not grow into conviction in the instant.

"A new direction was now given to my feelings. I felt a presentiment that my adventure, if prosecuted, would terminate in some extraordinary and characteristic manner; and obeying, as I ever did, the first impulse of my heart, I prepared to grap

ple once more with the difficulties that yet remained to be surmounted. In order to do this, it was necessary that my feet and hands should be utterly without incumbrance; for it was only by dint of climbing that I could expect to reach that part of the projecting rock to which my attention had been directed. Securing my gun between some twisted roots that grew out of and adhered to the main body of the rock, I commenced the difficult ascent; and, after considerable effort, found myself at length immediately under the aperture. My progress along the lower superficies of this projection was like that of a crawling reptile. My back hung suspended over the chasm, into which one false movement of hand or foot, one yielding of the roots entwined in the rock, must inevitably have precipitated me; and, while my toes wormed themselves into the tortuous fibres of the latter, I passed hand over hand beyond my head, until I had arrived within a foot or two of the point I desired to reach. Here, however, a new difficulty occurred. A slight projection of the rock, close to the aperture, impeded my further progress in the manner hitherto pursued; and, to pass this, I was compelled to drop my whole weight, suspended by one vigorous arm, while, with the other, I separated the bushes that concealed the opening. A violent exertion of every muscle now impelled me upward, until at length I had so far succeeded as to introduce my head and shoulders through the aperture; after which my final success was no longer doubtful. If I have been thus minute in the detail of the dangerous nature of this passage," continued Wacousta, gloomily, "it is not without reason. I would have you to impress the whole of the localities upon your imagination, that you may the better comprehend, from a knowledge of the risks I incurred, how little I have merited the injuries under which I have writhed for years."

Again one of those painful pauses with which his narrative was so often broken, occurred; and, with an energy that terrified her whom he addressed, Wacousta pursued-"Clara de Haldimar, it was here-in this garden-this paradise-this oasis of the rocks in which I now found myself, that I first saw and loved your mother. Ha! you start: you believe me now.-Loved her!" he continued, after another short pause-"oh, what a feeble word is love to express the concentration of mighty feelings that flowed like burning lava through my veins! Who shall pretend to give a name to the emotion that ran thrillingly-madly through my excited frame, when first I gazed on her, who, in every attribute of womanly beauty, realised all my fondest fancy ever painted?-Listen to me, Clara," he pursued, in a fiercer tone, and with a convulsive pressure of the form he still encircled:-"If, in my younger days, my mind was alive to enterprise, and loved to contemplate danger in its most appalling forms, this was far from being the master passion of my soul; nay, it was the strong necessity I felt of pouring into some devoted bosom the overflowing fulness of my heart, that made me court in solitude those positions of danger with which the image of woman was ever associated. How often, while tossed by the raging elements, now into the blue vault of heaven, now into the lowest gulfs of the sea, have I madly wished to press to my bounding bosom the being of my fancy's creation, who, all enamoured and given to her love, should, even amid the danger that environed her, be alive but to one consciousness,-that of being with him on whom her life's hope alone reposed! How often, too, while bending over some dark and threatening precipice, or standing on the utmost verge of some tall projecting cliff, my aching head (aching with the intenseness of its own conceptions) bared to the angry storm, and my eye fixed unshrinkingly on the boiling ocean far beneath my feet, has my whole soul-my every faculty, been bent on that ideal beauty which controlled every sense! Oh, imagination, how tyrannical is thy sway-how exclusive thy power-how insatiable thy thirst! Surrounded by living beauty, I was insensible to its influence; for, with all the perfection that reality can attain on earth, there was ever to be found some deficiency, either physical or moral, that defaced the symmetry and destroyed the loveliness of the whole; but, no sooner didst thou, with magic wand, conjure up one of thy embodiments, than my heart became a sea of flame, and was consumed in the vastness of its own fires.

"It was in vain that my family sought to awaken me to a sense of the acknowledged loveliness of the daughters of more than one ancient house in the county, with one of whom an alliance was, in many respects, considered desirable. Their beauty, or rather their whole, was insufficient to stir up into madness the dormant passions of my nature; and although my breast was like a glowing furnace, in which fancy cast all the more exciting images of her coinage to secure the last impress of the heart's approval, my outward deportment to some of the fairest and loveliest of earth's realities was that of one on whom the influence of woman's beauty could have no power. From my earliest boyhood I had loved to give the rein to these feelings, until they at length rendered me their slave. Woman was the idol that lay enshrined within my inmost heart; but it was woman such as I had not yet met with, yet felt must somewhere exist in the creation. For her I could have resigned title, fortune, family, every thing that is dear to man, save the life, through which alone the reward of such sacrifice could have been tasted, and to this phantom I had already yielded up all the manlier energies of my nature; but, deeply as I felt the necessity of loving something less unreal, up to the moment of my joining the regiment, my heart had never once throbbed for created woman.

"I have already said that, on gaining the summit of the rock, I found myself in a sort of oasis of the mountains. It was so. Belted on every hand by bold and precipitous crags, that seemed to defy the approach even of the wildest animals, and putting utterly at fault the penetration and curiosity of man, was spread a carpet of verdure, a luxuriance of vegetation, that might have put to shame the fertility of the soft breeze-nourished valleys of Italy and Southern France. Time, however, is not given me to dwell on the mingled beauty and wildness of a scene, so consonant with my ideas of the romantic and the picturesque. Let me rather recur to her (although my heart be lacerated once more in the recollection) who was the presiding deity of the whole,-the being after whom, had I had the fabled power of Prometheus, I should have formed and animated the sharer of that sweet wild solitude, nor once felt that fancy, to whom I was so largely a debtor, had in aught been cheated of what she had, for a series of years, so rigidly claimed.

"At about twenty yards from the aperture, and on a bank, formed of turf, covered with moss, and interspersed with roses and honeysuckles, sat this divinity of the oasis. She, too, was clad in the Highland dress, which gave an air of wildness and elegance to her figure that was in classic harmony with the surrounding scenery. At the moment of my appearance she was in the act of dressing the wounded shoulder of a stag, that had recently been shot; and from the broad tartan riband I perceived attached to its neck, added to the fact of the tameness of the animal, I presumed that this stag, evidently a favourite of its mistress, was the same I had fired at and wounded. The rustling I made among the bushes had attracted her attention; she raised her eyes from the deer, and, beholding me, started to her feet, uttering a cry of terror and surprise. Fearing to speak, as if the sound of my own voice were sufficient to dispel the illusion that fascinated both eye and heart into delicious tension on her form, yet with my soul kindled into all that wild uncontrollable love which had been the accumulation of years of passionate imagining, I stood for some moments as motionless as the rock out of which I appeared to grow. It seemed as though I had not the power to think or act, so fully was every faculty of my being filled with the consciousness that I at length gazed upon her I was destined to love for ever.

"It was this utter immobility on my own part, that ensured me a continuance of the exquisite happiness I then enjoyed. The first movement of the startled girl had been to fly towards her dwelling, which stood at a short distance, half imbedded in the same clustering roses and honey-suckles that adorned her bank of moss; but when she remarked my utter stillness, and apparent absence of purpose, she checked the impulse that would have directed her departure, and stopped, half in curiosity, half in fear, to examine me once more. At that moment all my energies appeared to be restored; I threw myself into an attitude expressive of deep contrition for the intrusion of which I had been unconsciously guilty, and dropping on one knee, and raising my clasped hands, inclined them towards her in token of mingled deprecation of her anger, and respectful homage to herself. At first she hesitated,-then gradually and timidly retrod her way to the seat she had so abruptly quitted in her alarm. Emboldened by this movement, I made a step or two in advance, but no sooner had I done so than she again took to flight. Once more, however, she turned to behold me, and again I had dropped on my knee, and was conjuring her, with the same signs, to remain and bless me with her presence. Again she returned to her seat, and again I advanced. Scarcely less timid, however, than the deer, which followed her every movement, she fled a third time,-a third time looked back, and was again induced, by my supplicating manner, to return. Frequently was this repeated, before I finally found myself at the feet, and pressing the hand-(oh God! what torture in the recollection!)-yes, pressing the hand of her for whose smile I would, even at that moment, have sacrificed my soul; and every time she fled, the classic disposition of her graceful limbs, and her whole natural attitude of alarm, could only be compared with those of one of the huntresses of Diana, intruded on in her woodland privacy by the unhallowed presence of some daring mortal. Such was your mother, Clara de Haldimar; yes, even such as I have described her was Clara Beverley."

Again Wacousta paused, and his pause was longer than usual, as, with his large hand again covering his face, he seemed endeavouring to master the feelings which these recollections had called up. Clara scarcely breathed. Unmindful of her own desolate position, her soul was intent only on a history that related so immediately to her beloved mother, of whom all that she had hitherto known was, that she was a native of Scotland, and that her father had married her while quartered in that country. The deep emotion of the terrible being before her, so often manifested in the course of what he had already given of his recital, added to her knowledge of the facts just named, scarcely left a doubt of the truth of his statement on her mind. Her ear was now bent achingly towards him, in expectation of a continuance of his history, but he still remained in the same attitude of absorption. An irresistible impulse caused her to extend her hand, and remove his own from his eyes: they were filled with tears; and even while her mind rapidly embraced the hope that this manifestation of tenderness was but the dawning of mercy towards the children of her he had once loved, her kind nature could not avoid sympathizing with him, whose uncouthness of appearance and savageness of nature was, in some measure, lost sight of in the fact of the powerful love he yet apparently acknowledged.

But no sooner did Wacousta feel the soft pressure of her hand, and meet her eyes turned on his with an expression of interest, than the most rapid transition was effected in his feelings. He drew the form of the weakly resisting girl closer to his heart; again imprinted a kiss upon her lips; and then, while every muscle in his iron frame seemed quivering with emotion, exclaimed,-"By Heaven! that touch, that glance, were Clara Beverley's all over! Oh, let me linger on the recollection, even such as they were, when her arms first opened to receive me in that sweet oasis of the Highlands. Yes, Clara," he proceeded more deliberately, as he scanned her form with an eye that made her shudder, "such as your mother was, so are you; the same delicacy of proportion; the same graceful curvature of limb, only less rounded, less womanly. But you must be younger by about two years than she then was. Your age cannot exceed seventeen; and time will supply what your mere girlhood renders you deficient in."

There was a cool licence of speech-a startling freedom of manner-in the latter part of this address, that disappointed not less than it pained and offended the unhappy Clara. It seemed to her as if the illusion she had just created, were already dispelled by his language, even as her own momentary interest in the fierce man had also been destroyed from the same cause. She shuddered; and sighing bitterly, suffered her tears to force themselves through her closed lids upon her pallid cheek. This change in her appearance seemed to act as a check on the temporary excitement of Wacousta. Again obeying one of these rapid transitions of feeling, for which he was remarkable, he once more assumed an expression of seriousness, and thus continued his narrative.

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