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THE PERILOUS HOUR.
Up to this time Dick Venner had not decided on the particular mode and the precise period of relieving himself from the unwarrantable interference which threatened to defeat his plans. The luxury of feeling that he had his man in his power was its own reward. One who watches in the dark, outside, while his enemy, in utter unconsciousness, is illuminating his apartment and himself so that every movement of his head and every button on his coat can be seen and counted, experiences a peculiar kind of pleasure, if he holds a loaded rifle in his hand, which he naturally hates to bring to its climax by testing his skill as a marksman upon the object of his attention.
Besides, Dick had two sides in his nature, almost as distinct as we sometimes observe in those persons who are the subjects of the condition known as double consciousness. On his New England side he was cunning and calculating, always cautious, measuring his distance before he risked his stroke, as nicely as if he were throwing his lasso. But he was liable to intercurrent fits of jealousy and rage, such as the light-hued races are hardly capable of conceiving, blinding paroxysms of passion, which for the time overmastered him, and which, if they found no ready outlet, transformed themselves into the more dangerous forces that worked through the instrumentality of his cool craftiness.
He had failed as yet in getting any positive evidence that there was any relation between Elsie and the schoolmaster other than such as might exist unsuspected and unblamed between a teacher and his pupil. A book, or a note, even, did not prove the existence of any sentiment. At one time he would be devoured by suspicions, at another he would try to laugh himself out of them. And in the mean while he followed Elsie's tastes as closely as he could, determined to make some impression upon her,--to become a habit, a convenience, a necessity,--whatever might aid him in the attainment of the one end which was now the aim of his life.
It was to humor one of her tastes already known to the reader, that he said to her one morning,--"Come, Elsie, take your castanets, and let us have a dance."
He had struck the right vein in the girl's fancy, for she was in the mood for this exercise, and very willingly led the way into one of the more empty apartments. What there was in this particular kind of dance which excited her it might not be easy to guess; but those who looked in with the old Doctor, on a former occasion, and saw her, will remember that she was strangely carried away by it, and became almost fearful in the vehemence of her passion. The sound of the castanets seemed to make her alive all over. Dick knew well enough what the exhibition would be, and was almost afraid of her at these moments; for it was like the dancing mania of Eastern devotees, more than the ordinary light amusement of joyous youth,--a convulsion of the body and the mind, rather than a series of voluntary modulated motions.
Elsie rattled out the triple measure of a saraband. Her eyes began to glitter more brilliantly, and her shape to undulate in freer curves. Presently she noticed that Dick's look was fixed upon her necklace. His face betrayed his curiosity; he was intent on solving the question, why she always wore something about her neck. The chain of mosaics she had on at that moment displaced itself at every step, and he was peering with malignant, searching eagerness to see if an unsunned ring of fairer hue than the rest of the surface, or any less easily explained peculiarity, were hidden by her ornaments.
She stopped suddenly, caught the chain of mosaics and settled it hastily in its place, flung down her castanets, drew herself back, and stood looking at him, with her head a little on one side, and her eyes narrowing in the way he had known so long and well.
"What is the matter, Cousin Elsie? What do you stop for?" he said.
Elsie did not answer, but kept her eyes on him, full of malicious light. The jealousy which lay covered up under his surface-thoughts took this opportunity to break out.
"You wouldn't act so, if you were dancing with Mr. Langdon,--would you, Elsie?" he asked.
It was with some effort that he looked steadily at her to see the effect of his question.
Elsie colored,--not much, but still perceptibly. Dick could not remember that he had ever seen her show this mark of emotion before, in all his experience of her fitful changes of mood. It had a singular depth of significance, therefore, for him; he knew how hardly her color came. Blushing means nothing, in some persons; in others, it betrays a profound inward agitation,--a perturbation of the feelings far more trying than the passions which with many easily moved persons break forth in tears. All who have observed much are aware that some men, who have seen a good deal of life in its less chastened aspects and are anything but modest, will blush often and easily, while there are delicate and sensitive women who can faint, or go into fits, if necessary, but are very rarely seen to betray their feelings in their cheeks, even when their expression shows that their inmost soul is blushing scarlet. Presently she answered, abruptly and scornfully, "Mr. Langdon is a gentleman, and would not vex me as you do."
"A gentleman!" Dick answered, with the most insulting accent,--"a gentleman! Come, Elsie, you 've got the Dudley blood in your veins, and it doesn't do for you to call this poor, sneaking schoolmaster a gentleman!"
He stopped short. Elsie's bosom was heaving, the faint flush on her cheek was becoming a vivid glow. Whether it were shame or wrath, he saw that he had reached some deep-lying centre of emotion. There was no longer any doubt in his mind. With another girl these signs of confusion might mean little or nothing; with her they were decisive and final. Elsie Venner loved Bernard Langdon.
The sudden conviction, absolute, overwhelming, which rushed upon him, had well-nigh led to an explosion of wrath, and perhaps some terrible scene which might have fulfilled some of old Sophy's predictions. This, however, would never do. Dick's face whitened with his thoughts, but he kept still until he could speak calmly.
"I've nothing against the young fellow," he said; "only I don't think there's anything quite good enough to keep the company of people that have the Dudley blood in them. You a'n't as proud as I am. I can't quite make up my mind to call a schoolmaster a gentleman, though this one may be well enough. I 've nothing against him, at any rate."
Elsie made no answer, but glided out of the room and slid away to her own apartment. She bolted the door and drew her curtains close. Then she threw herself on the floor, and fell into a dull, slow ache of passion, without tears, without words, almost without thoughts. So she remained, perhaps, for a half-hour, at the end of which time it seemed that her passion had become a sullen purpose. She arose, and, looking cautiously round, went to the hearth, which was ornamented with curious old Dutch tiles, with pictures of Scripture subjects. One of these represented the lifting of the brazen serpent. She took a hair-pin from one of her braids, and, insinuating its points under the edge of the tile, raised it from its place. A small leaden box lay under the tile, which she opened, and, taking from it a little white powder, which she folded in a scrap of paper, replaced the box and the tile over it.
Whether Dick had by any means got a knowledge of this proceeding, or whether he only suspected some unmentionable design on her part, there is no sufficient means of determining. At any rate, when they met, an hour or two after these occurrences, he could not help noticing how easily she seemed to have got over her excitement. She was very pleasant with him,--too pleasant, Dick thought. It was not Elsie's way to come out of a fit of anger so easily as that. She had contrived some way of letting off her spite; that was certain. Dick was pretty cunning, as old Sophy had said, and, whether or not he had any means of knowing Elsie's private intentions, watched her closely, and was on his guard against accidents.
For the first time, he took certain precautions with reference to his diet, such as were quite alien to his common habits. On coming to the dinner-table, that day, he complained of headache, took but little food, and refused the cup of coffee which Elsie offered him, saying that it did not agree with him when he had these attacks.
Here was a new complication. Obviously enough, he could not live in this way, suspecting everything but plain bread and water, and hardly feeling safe in meddling with them. Not only had this school-keeping wretch come between him and the scheme by which he was to secure his future fortune, but his image had so infected his cousin's mind that she was ready to try on him some of those tricks which, as he had heard hinted in the village, she had once before put in practice upon a person who had become odious to her.
Something must be done, and at once, to meet the double necessities of this case. Every day, while the young girl was in these relations with the young man, was only making matters worse. They could exchange words and looks, they could arrange private interviews, they would be stooping together over the same book, her hair touching his cheek, her breath mingling with his, all the magnetic attractions drawing them together with strange, invisible effluences. As her passion for the schoolmaster increased, her dislike to him, her cousin, would grow with it, and all his dangers would be multiplied. It was a fearful point he had, reached. He was tempted at one moment to give up all his plans and to disappear suddenly from the place, leaving with the schoolmaster, who had come between him and his object, an anonymous token of his personal sentiments which would be remembered a good while in the history of the town of Rockland. This was but a momentary thought; the great Dudley property could not be given up in that way.
Something must happen at once to break up all this order of things. He could think of but one Providential event adequate to the emergency,--an event foreshadowed by various recent circumstances, but hitherto floating in his mind only as a possibility. Its occurrence would at once change the course of Elsie's feelings, providing her with something to think of besides mischief, and remove the accursed obstacle which was thwarting all his own projects. Every possible motive, then,--his interest, his jealousy, his longing for revenge, and now his fears for his own safety,--urged him to regard the happening of a certain casualty as a matter of simple necessity. This was the self-destruction of Mr. Bernard Langdon.
Such an event, though it might be surprising to many people, would not be incredible, nor without many parallel cases. He was poor, a miserable fag, under the control of that mean wretch up there at the school, who looked as if he had sour buttermilk in his veins instead of blood. He was in love with a girl above his station, rich, and of old family, but strange in all her ways, and it was conceivable that he should become suddenly jealous of her. Or she might have frightened him with some display of her peculiarities which had filled him with a sudden repugnance in the place of love. Any of these things were credible, and would make a probable story enough,--so thought Dick over to himself with the New-England half of his mind.
Unfortunately, men will not always take themselves out of the way when, so far as their neighbors are concerned, it would be altogether the most appropriate and graceful and acceptable service they could render. There was at this particular moment no special reason for believing that the schoolmaster meditated any violence to his own person. On the contrary, there was good evidence that he was taking some care of himself. He was looking well and in good spirits, and in the habit of amusing himself and exercising, as if to keep up his standard of health, especially of taking certain evening-walks, before referred to, at an hour when most of the Rockland people had "retired," or, in vulgar language, "gone to bed."
Dick Veneer settled it, however, in his own mind, that Mr. Bernard Langdon must lay violent hands upon himself. He even went so far as to determine the precise hour, and the method in which the "rash act," as it would undoubtedly be called in the next issue of "The Rockland Weekly Universe," should be committed. Time,--this evening. Method, asphyxia, by suspension. It was, unquestionably, taking a great liberty with a man to decide that he should become felo de se without his own consent. Such, however, was the decision of Mr. Richard Veneer with regard to Mr. Bernard Langdon.
If everything went right, then, there would be a coroner's inquest to-morrow upon what remained of that gentleman, found suspended to the branch of a tree somewhere within a mile of the Apollinean Institute. The "Weekly Universe" would have a startling paragraph announcing a "SAD EVENT!!!" which had "thrown the town into an intense state of excitement. Mr. Barnard Langden, a well-known teacher at the Appolinian Institute, was found, etc., etc. The vital spark was extinct. The motive to the rash act can only be conjectured, but is supposed to be disappointed affection. The name of an accomplished young lady of the highest respectability and great beauty is mentioned in connection with this melancholy occurrence."
Dick Venner was at the tea-table that evening, as usual.--No, he would take green tea, if she pleased,--the same that her father drank. It would suit his headache better.--Nothing,--he was much obliged to her. He would help himself,--which he did in a little different way from common, naturally enough, on account of his headache. He noticed that Elsie seemed a little nervous while she was rinsing some of the teacups before their removal.
"There's something going on in that witch's head," he said to himself. "I know her,--she 'd be savage now, if she hadn't got some trick in hand. Let 's see how she looks to-morrow!"
Dick announced that he should go to bed early that evening, on account of this confounded headache which had been troubling him so much. In fact, he went up early, and locked his door after him, with as much noise as he could make. He then changed some part of his dress, so that it should be dark throughout, slipped off his boots, drew the lasso out from the bottom of the contents of his trunk, and, carrying that and his boots in his hand, opened his door softly, locked it after him, and stole down the back-stairs, so as to get out of the house unnoticed. He went straight to the stable and saddled the mustang. He took a rope from the stable with him, mounted his horse, and set forth in the direction of the Institute.
Mr. Bernard, as we have seen, had not been very profoundly impressed by the old Doctor's cautions,--enough, however, to follow out some of his hints which were not troublesome to attend to. He laughed at the idea of carrying a loaded pistol about with him; but still it seemed only fair, as the old Doctor thought so much of the matter, to humor him about it. As for not going about when and where he liked, for fear he might have some lurking enemy, that was a thing not to be listened to nor thought of. There was nothing to be ashamed of or troubled about in any of his relations with the school-girls. Elsie, no doubt, showed a kind of attraction towards him, as did perhaps some others; but he had been perfectly discreet, and no father or brother or lover had any just cause of quarrel with him. To be sure, that dark young man at the Dudley mansion-house looked as if he were his enemy, when he had met him; but certainly there was nothing in their relations to each other, or in his own to Elsie, that would be like to stir such malice in his mind as would lead him to play any of his wild Southern tricks at his, Mr. Bernard's, expense. Yet he had a vague feeling that this young man was dangerous, and he had been given to understand that one of the risks he ran was from that quarter.
On this particular evening, he had a strange, unusual sense of some impending peril. His recent interview with the Doctor, certain remarks which had been dropped in his hearing, but above all an unaccountable impression upon his spirits, all combined to fill his mind with a foreboding conviction that he was very near some overshadowing danger. It was as the chill of the ice-mountain toward which the ship is steering under full sail. He felt a strong impulse to see Helen Darley and talk with her. She was in the common parlor, and, fortunately, alone.
"Helen," he said,--for they were almost like brother and sister now,--"I have been thinking what you would do, if I should have to leave the school at short notice, or be taken away suddenly by any accident."
"Do?" she said, her cheek growing paler than its natural delicate hue,--"why, I do not know how I could possibly consent to live here, if you left us. Since you came, my life has been almost easy; before, it was getting intolerable. You must not talk about going, my dear friend; you have spoiled me for my place. Who is there here that I can have any true society with, but you? You would not leave us for another school, would you?"
"No, no, my dear Helen," Mr. Bernard said, "if it depends on myself, I shall stay out my full time, and enjoy your company and friendship. But everything is uncertain in this world. I have been thinking that I might be wanted elsewhere, and called when I did not think of it;--it was a fancy, perhaps,--but I can't keep it out of my mind this evening. If any of my fancies should come true, Helen, there are two or three messages I want to leave with you. I have marked a book or two with a cross in pencil on the fly-leaf;--these are for you. There is a little hymn-book I should like to have you give to Elsie from me;--it may be a kind of comfort to the poor girl."
Helen's eyes glistened as she interrupted him,--
"What do you mean? You must not talk so, Mr. Langdon. Why, you never looked better in your life. Tell me now, you are not in earnest, are you, but only trying a little sentiment on me?"
Mr. Bernard smiled, but rather sadly.
"About half in earnest," he said. "I have had some fancies in my head,--superstitions, I suppose,--at any rate, it does no harm to tell you what I should like to have done, if anything should happen,--very likely nothing ever will. Send the rest of the books home, if you please, and write a letter to my mother. And, Helen, you will find one small volume in my desk enveloped and directed, you will see to whom;--give this with your own hands; it is a keepsake."
The tears gathered in her eyes; she could not speak at first. Presently, "Why, Bernard, my dear friend, my brother, it cannot be that you are in danger? Tell me what it is, and, if I can share it with you, or counsel you in any way, it will only be paying back the great debt I owe you. No, no,--it can't be true,--you are tired and worried, and your spirits have got depressed. I know what that is;--I was sure, one winter, that I should die before spring; but I lived to see the dandelions and buttercups go to seed. Come, tell me it was nothing but your imagination."
She felt a tear upon her cheek, but would not turn her face away from him; it was the tear of a sister.
"I am really in earnest, Helen," he said. "I don't know that there is the least reason in the world for these fancies. If they all go off and nothing comes of them, you may laugh at me, if you like. But if there should be any occasion, remember my requests. You don't believe in presentiments, do you?"
"Oh, don't ask-me, I beg you," Helen answered. "I have had a good many frights for every one real misfortune I have suffered. Sometimes I have thought I was warned beforehand of coming trouble, just as many people are of changes in the weather, by some unaccountable feeling,--but not often, and I don't like to talk about such things. I wouldn't think about these fancies of yours. I don't believe you have exercised enough;--don't you think it's confinement in the school has made you nervous?"
"Perhaps it has; but it happens that I have thought more of exercise lately, and have taken regular evening walks, besides playing my old gymnastic tricks every day."
They talked on many subjects, but through all he said Helen perceived a pervading tone of sadness, and an expression as of a dreamy foreboding of unknown evil. They parted at the usual hour, and went to their several rooms. The sadness of Mr. Bernard had sunk into the heart of Helen, and she mingled many tears with her prayers that evening, earnestly entreating that he might be comforted in his days of trial and protected in his hour of danger.
Mr. Bernard stayed in his room a short time before setting out for his evening walk. His eye fell upon the Bible his mother had given him when he left home, and he opened it in the New Testament at a venture. It happened that the first words he read were these,--"Lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping." In the state of mind in which he was at the moment, the text startled him. It was like a supernatural warning. He was not going to expose himself to any particular danger this evening; a walk in a quiet village was as free from risk as Helen Darley or his own mother could ask; yet he had an unaccountable feeling of apprehension, without any definite object. At this moment he remembered the old Doctor's counsel, which he had sometimes neglected, and, blushing at the feeling which led him to do it, he took the pistol his suspicious old friend had forced upon him, which he had put away loaded, and, thrusting it into his pocket, set out upon his walk.
The moon was shining at intervals, for the night was partially clouded. There seemed to be nobody stirring, though his attention was unusually awake, and he could hear the whirr of the bats overhead, and the pulsating croak of the frogs in the distant pools and marshes. Presently he detected the sound of hoofs at some distance, and, looking forward, saw a horseman coming in his direction. The moon was under a cloud at the moment, and he could only observe that the horse and his rider looked like a single dark object, and that they were moving along at an easy pace. Mr. Bernard was really ashamed of himself, when he found his hand on the butt of his pistol. When the horseman was within a hundred and fifty yards of him, the moon shone out suddenly and revealed each of them to the other. The rider paused for a moment, as if carefully surveying the pedestrian, then suddenly put his horse to the full gallop, and dashed towards him, rising at the same instant in his stirrups and swinging something round his head, what, Mr. Bernard could not make out. It was a strange manoeuvre,--so strange and threatening in aspect that the young man forgot his nervousness in an instant, cocked his pistol, and waited to see what mischief all this meant. He did not wait long. As the rider came rushing towards him, he made a rapid motion and something leaped five-and-twenty feet through the air, in Mr. Bernard's direction. In an instant he felt a ring, as of a rope or thong, settle upon his shoulders. There was no time to think, he would be lost in another second. He raised his pistol and fired,--not at the rider, but at the horse. His aim was true; the mustang gave one bound and fell lifeless, shot through the head. The lasso was fastened to his saddle, and his last bound threw Mr. Bernard violently to the earth, where he lay motionless, as if stunned.
In the mean time, Dick Venner, who had been dashed down with his horse, was trying to extricate himself,--one of his legs being held fast under the animal, the long spur on his boot having caught in the saddle-cloth. He found, however, that he could do nothing with his right arm, his shoulder having been in some way injured in his fall. But his Southern blood was up, and, as he saw Mr. Bernard move as if he were coming to his senses, he struggled violently to free himself.
"I 'll have the dog, yet," he said,--"only let me get at him with the knife!"
He had just succeeded in extricating his imprisoned leg, and was ready to spring to his feet, when he was caught firmly by the throat, and looking up, saw a clumsy barbed weapon, commonly known as a hay fork, within an inch of his breast.
"Hold on there! What 'n thunder 'r' y' abaout, y' darned Portagee?" said a voice, with a decided nasal tone in it, but sharp and resolute.
Dick looked from the weapon to the person who held it, and saw a sturdy, plain man standing over him, with his teeth clinched, and his aspect that of one all ready for mischief.
"Lay still, naow!" said Abel Stebbins, the Doctor's man; "'f y' don't, I'll stick ye, 'z sure 'z y' 'r' alive! I been arfter ye f'r a week, 'n' I got y' naow! I knowed I'd ketch ye at some darned trick or 'nother 'fore I'd done 'ith ye!"
Dick lay perfectly still, feeling that he was crippled and helpless, thinking all the time with the Yankee half of his mind what to do about it. He saw Mr. Bernard lift his head and look around him. He would get his senses again in a few minutes, very probably, and then he, Mr. Richard Venner, would be done for.
"Let me up! let me up!" he cried, in a low, hurried voice,--"I 'll give you a hundred dollars in gold to let me go. The man a'n't hurt,--don't you see him stirring? He'll come to himself in two minutes. Let me up! I'll give you a hundred and fifty dollars in gold, now, here on the spot,--and the watch out of my pocket; take it yourself, with your own hands!"
"I'll see y' darned fust! Ketch me lett'n' go!" was Abel's emphatic answer. "Yeou lay still, 'n' wait t'll that man comes tew."
He kept the hay-fork ready for action at the slightest sign of resistance.
Mr. Bernard, in the mean time, had been getting, first his senses, and then some few of his scattered wits, a little together.
"What is it?"--he said. "Who'shurt? What's happened?"
"Come along here 'z quick 'z y' ken," Abel answered, "'n' haalp me fix this fellah. Y' been hurt, y'rself, 'n' the' 's murder come pooty nigh happenin'."
Mr. Bernard heard the answer, but presently stared about and asked again, "Who's hurt? What's happened?"
"Y' 'r' hurt, y'rself, I tell ye," said Abel; "'n' the' 's been a murder, pooty nigh."
Mr. Bernard felt something about his neck, and, putting his hands up, found the loop of the lasso, which he loosened, but did not think to slip over his head, in the confusion of his perceptions and thoughts. It was a wonder that it had not choked him, but he had fallen forward so as to slacken it.
By this time he was getting some notion of what he was about, and presently began looking round for his pistol, which had fallen. He found it lying near him, cocked it mechanically, and walked, somewhat unsteadily, towards the two men, who were keeping their position as still as if they were performing in a tableau.
"Quick, naow!" said Abel, who had heard the click of cocking the pistol, and saw that he held it in his hand, as he came towards him. "Gi' me that pistil, and yeou fetch that 'ere rope layin' there. I 'll have this here fella,h fixed 'n less 'n two minutes."
Mr. Bernard did as Abel said,--stupidly and mechanically, for he was but half right as yet. Abel pointed the pistol at Dick's head.
"Naow hold up y'r hands, yeou fellah," he said, "'n' keep 'em up, while this man puts the rope mound y'r wrists."
Dick felt himself helpless, and, rather than have his disabled arm roughly dealt with, held up his hands. Mr. Bernard did as Abel said; he was in a purely passive state, and obeyed orders like a child. Abel then secured the rope in a most thorough and satisfactory complication of twists and knots.
"Naow get up, will ye?" he said; and the unfortunate Dick rose to his feet.
"Who's hurt? What's happened?" asked poor Mr. Bernard again, his memory having been completely jarred out of him for the time.
"Come, look here naow, yeou, don' Stan' askin' questions over 'n' over;--'t beats all! ha'n't I tol' y' a dozen times?"
As Abel spoke, he turned and looked at Mr. Bernard.
"Hullo! What 'n thunder's that 'ere raoun' y'r neck? Ketched ye 'ith a slippernoose, hey? Wal, if that a'n't the craowner! Hol' on a minute, Cap'n, 'n' I'll show ye what that 'ere halter's good for."
Abel slipped the noose over Mr. Bernard's head, and put it round the neck of the miserable Dick Veneer, who made no sign of resistance,--whether on account of the pain he was in, or from mere helplessness, or because he was waiting for some unguarded moment to escape,--since resistance seemed of no use.
"I 'm go'n' to kerry y' home," said Abel; "'T' th' ol Doctor, he's got a gre't cur'osity t' see ye. Jes' step along naow,--off that way, will ye?--'n' I Ill hol' on t' th' bridle, f' fear y' sh'd run away."
He took hold of the leather thong, but found that it was fastened at the other end to the saddle. This was too much for Abel.
"Wal, naow, yeou be a pooty chap to hev raound! A fellah's neck in a slippernoose at one eend of a halter, 'n' a hors on th' full spring at t' other eend!"
He looked at him from' head to foot as a naturalist inspects a new specimen. His clothes had suffered in his fall, especially on the leg which had been caught under the horse.
"Hullo! look o' there, naow! What's that 'ere stickin' aout o' y'r boot?"
It was nothing but the handle of an ugly knife, which Abel instantly relieved him of.
The party now took up the line of march for old Doctor Kittredge's house, Abel carrying the pistol and knife, and Mr. Bernard walking in silence, still half-stunned, holding the hay-fork, which Abel had thrust into his hand. It was all a dream to him as yet. He remembered the horseman riding at him, and his firing the pistol; but whether he was alive, and these walls around him belonged to the village of Rockland, or whether he had passed the dark river, and was in a suburb of the New Jerusalem, he could not as yet have told.
They were in the street where the Doctor's house was situated.
"I guess I'll fire off one o' these here berrils," said Abel.
Presently there was a noise of opening windows, and the nocturnal head-dresses of Rockland flowered out of them like so many developments of the Nightblooming Cereus. White cotton caps and red bandanna handkerchiefs were the prevailing forms of efflorescence. The main point was that the village was waked up. The old Doctor always waked easily, from long habit, and was the first among those who looked out to see what had happened.
"Why, Abel!" he called out, "what have you got there? and what 's all this noise about?"
"We've ketched the Portagee!" Abel answered, as laconically as the hero of Lake Erie, in his famous dispatch. "Go in there, you fellah!"
The prisoner was marched into the house, and the Doctor, who had bewitched his clothes upon him in a way that would have been miraculous in anybody but a physician, was down in presentable form as soon as if it had been a child in a fit that he was sent for.
"Richard Veneer!" the Doctor exclaimed. "What is the meaning of all this? Mr. Langdon, has anything happened to you?"
Mr. Bernard put his hand to his head.
"My mind is confused," he said. "I've had a fall.--Oh, yes!--wait a minute and it will all come back to me."
"Sit down, sit down," the Doctor said. "Abel will tell me about it. Slight concussion of the brain. Can't remember very well for an hour or two,--will come right by to-morrow."
"Been stunded," Abel said. "He can't tell nothin'."
Abel then proceeded to give a Napoleonic bulletin of the recent combat of cavalry and infantry and its results,--none slain, one captured.
The Doctor looked at the prisoner through his spectacles.
"What 's the matter with your shoulder, Venner?"
Dick answered sullenly, that he didn't know, fell on it when his horse came down. The Doctor examined it as carefully as he could through his clothes.
"Out of joint. Untie his hands, Abel"
By this time a small alarm had spread among the neighbors, and there was a circle around Dick, who glared about on the assembled honest people like a hawk with a broken wing.
When the Doctor said, "Untie his hands," the circle widened perceptibly.
"Isn't it a leetle rash to give him the use of his hands? I see there's females and children standin' near."
This was the remark of our old friend, Deacon Soper, who retired from the front row, as he spoke, behind a respectable-looking, but somewhat hastily dressed person of the defenceless sex, the female help of a neighboring household, accompanied by a boy, whose unsmoothed shock of hair looked like a last year's crow's-nest.
But Abel untied his hands, in spite of the Deacon's considerate remonstrance.
"Now," said the Doctor, "the first thing is to put the joint back."
"Stop," said Deacon Soper,--"stop a minute. Don't you think it will be safer--for the women-folks--jest to wait till mornin', afore you put that j'int into the socket?"
Colonel Sprowle, who had been called by a special messenger, spoke up at this moment.
"Let the women-folks and the deacons go home, if they're scared, and put the fellah's j'int in as quick as you like. I 'll resk him, j'int in or out."
"I want one of you to go straight down to Dudley Venner's with a message," the Doctor said. "I will have the young man's shoulder in quick enough."
"Don't send that message!" said Dick, in a hoarse voice;--"do what you like with my arm, but don't send that message! Let me go,--I can walk, and I'll be off from this place. There's nobody hurt but myself. Damn the shoulder!--let me go! You shall never hear of me again!"
Mr. Bernard came forward.
"My friends," he said, "I am not injured,--seriously, at least. Nobody need complain against this man, if I don't. The Doctor will treat him like a human being, at any rate; and then, if he will go, let him. There are too many witnesses against him here for him to want to stay."
The Doctor, in the mean time, without saying a word to all this, had got a towel round the shoulder and chest and another round the arm, and had the bone replaced in a very few minutes.
"Abel, put Cassia into the new chaise," he said, quietly. "My friends and neighbors, leave this young man to me."
"Colonel Sprowle, you're a justice of the peace," said Deacon Soper, "and you know what the law says in cases like this. It a'n't so clear that it won't have to come afore the Grand Jury, whether we will or no."
"I guess we'll set that j'int to-morrow mornin'," said Colonel Sprowle,--which made a laugh at the Deacon's expense, and virtually settled the question.
"Now trust this young man in my care," said the old Doctor, "and go home and finish your naps. I knew him when he was a boy and I'll answer for it, he won't trouble you any more. The Dudley blood makes folks proud, I can tell you, whatever else they are."
The good people so respected and believed in the Doctor that they left the prisoner with him.
Presently, Cassia, the fast Morgan mare, came up to the front-door, with the wheels of the new, light chaise flashing behind her in the moonlight. The Doctor drove Dick forty miles at a stretch that night, out of the limits of the State.
"Do you want money?" he said, before he left him.
Dick told him the secret of his golden belt.
"Where shall I send your trunk after you from your uncle's?"
Dick gave him a direction to a seaport town to which he himself was going, to take passage for a port in South America.
"Good-bye, Richard," said the Doctor. "Try to learn something from to-night's lesson."
The Southern impulses in Dick's wild blood overcame him, and he kissed the old Doctor on both cheeks, crying as only the children of the sun can cry, after the first hours in the dewy morning of life. So Dick Venner disappears from this story. An hour after dawn, Cassia pointed her fine ears homeward, and struck into her square, honest trot, as if she had not been doing anything more than her duty during her four hours' stretch of the last night.
Abel was not in the habit of questioning the Doctor's decisions.
"It's all right," he said to Mr. Bernard. "The fellah 's Squire Venner's relation, anyhaow. Don't you want to wait here, jest a little while, till I come back? The's a consid'able nice saddle 'n' bridle on a dead boss that's layin' daown there in the road 'n' I guess the' a'n't no use in lettin' on 'em spite,--so I'll jest step aout 'n' fetch 'em along. I kind o' calc'late 't won't pay to take the cretur's shoes 'n' hide off to-night,--'n' the' won't be much iron on that hose's huffs an haour after daylight, I'll bate ye a quarter."
"I'll walk along with you," said Mr. Bernard; "I feel as if I could get along well enough now."
So they set off together. There was a little crowd round the dead mustang already, principally consisting of neighbors who had adjourned from the Doctor's house to see the scene of the late adventure. In addition to these, however, the assembly was honored by the presence of Mr. Principal Silas Peckham, who had been called from his slumbers by a message that Master Langdon was shot through the head by a highway-robber, but had learned a true version of the story by this time. His voice was at that moment heard above the rest,--sharp, but thin, like bad cider-vinegar.
"I take charge of that property, I say. Master Langdon 's actin' under my orders, and I claim that hoss and all that's on him. Hiram! jest slip off that saddle and bridle, and carry 'em up to the Institoot, and bring down a pair of pinchers and a file,--and--stop--fetch a pair of shears, too; there's hosshair enough in that mane and tail to stuff a bolster with."
"You let that hoss alone!" spoke up Colonel Sprowle. "When a fellah goes out huntin' and shoots a squirrel, do you think he's go'n' to let another fellah pick him up and kerry him off? Not if he's got a double-berril gun, and t'other berril ha'n't been fired off yet! I should like to see the mahn that'll take off that seddle 'n' bridle, excep' the one th't hez a fair right to the whole concern!"
Hiram was from one of the lean streaks in New Hampshire, and, not being overfed in Mr. Silas Peckham's kitchen, was somewhat wanting in stamina, as well as in stomach, for so doubtful an enterprise, as undertaking to carry out his employer's orders in the face of the Colonel's defiance.
Just then Mr. Bernard and Abel came up together. "Here they be," said the Colonel. "Stan' beck, gentlemen!"
Mr. Bernard, who was pale and still a little confused, but gradually becoming more like himself, stood and looked in silence for a moment.
All his thoughts seemed to be clearing themselves in this interval. He took in the whole series of incidents: his own frightful risk; the strange, instinctive, nay, Providential impulse, which had led him so suddenly to do the one only thing which could possibly have saved him; the sudden appearance of the Doctor's man, but for which he might yet have been lost; and the discomfiture and capture of his dangerous enemy.
It was all past now, and a feeling of pity rose in Mr. Bernard's heart.
"He loved that horse, no doubt," he said,--"and no wonder. A beautiful, wild--looking creature! Take off those things that are on him, Abel, and have them carried to Mr. Dudley Veneer's. If he does not want them, you may keep them yourself, for all that I have to say. One thing more. I hope nobody will lift his hand against this noble creature to mutilate him in any way. After you have taken off the saddle and bridle, Abel, bury him just as he is. Under that old beech-tree will be a good place. You'll see to it,--won't you, Abel?"
Abel nodded assent, and Mr. Bernard returned to the Institute, threw himself in his clothes on the bed, and slept like one who is heavy with wine.
Following Mr. Bernard's wishes, Abel at once took off the high-peaked saddle and the richly ornamented bridle from the mustang. Then, with the aid of two or three others, he removed him to the place indicated. Spades and shovels were soon procured, and before the moon had set, the wild horse of the Pampas was at rest under the turf at the wayside, in the far village among the hills of New England.
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