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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Midnight Foe

By John Neal (1793–1876)

[Born in Portland, Me., 1793. Died there, 1876. From Logan. A Novel. 1821.]

JUST at this time—it was midnight—another council-board had just been dismissed—there stood, without being announced, without preparation, before the governor of the colony, in his very presence-chamber too, a man of gigantic stature, in the garb of an Indian.

The governor was leaning his face upon his hands. His thin gray locks were blowing about his fingers, in the strong night wind, from an open window that looked toward the town. That he was in some profound and agitating inquiry with himself, could be seen by the movement of the swollen veins upon his forehead, distended and throbbing visibly under the pressure of his aged fingers…. It would have made the heart of such a being as Michael Angelo himself swell to study the head of the old man: the capacity and amplitude of the brow; the scattered and beautiful white, thin locks of threaded silver; the trembling hands; the occasional movement of a troubled expression, almost articulate, over the established serenity of the forehead: all so venerable, placid, and awful, as in the confirmed discipline and habit of many years, and all yielding now to the convulsive encroachment of emotion….

The stranger contemplated the picture in silence. He was greatly wrought upon by the aged presence, and felt perhaps somewhat as the profaning Gaul did when he saw what he took to be the gods of Rome—her old men sitting immovably in their chairs.

The governor at length, like one who is determined, resolved, and impatient for action, lifted his head, smote the table heavily with his arm, and was rising from his seat—why that pause?—he gasps for breath—can it be—can the proportions, the mere outline of humanity so disturb a man, an aged man, familiar for half a century with danger and death?

He fell back upon his chair and locked his hands upon his heart, as if—for it grew audible in its hollow palpitations—as if to stifle its irregularity forever, if he could, even though he were suffocated in the effort, rather than betray the unmanly infirmity—a disobedient pulse. He gazed steadily upon the being before him, but with an expression of doubt and horror, like that with which the prophet dwelt upon the sheeted Samuel, as doubting the evidence of his own eyes, yet daring not to withdraw them, though the cold icy sweat started from the very ends of his fingers, lest something yet more terrible might appear.

The Indian stood before him like an apparition. His attitude was not entirely natural, nor perhaps entirely unstudied. He stood motionless and appalling; the bleak, barren, and iron aspect of a man, from head to foot strong and sinewed with desperation, and hardened in the blood and sweat of calamity and trial. He stood, with somewhat of high and princely carriage, like the fighting gladiator, but more erect and less threatening, more prepared and collected. Indeed it was the gladiator still—but the gladiator in defence rather than attack.

The governor was brave, but who would not have quaked at such a moment? To awake, no matter how, when the faculties, or the body and limbs are asleep, in a dim light, alone, helpless, and to find a man at your side, an Indian!—it would shake the nerves, ay, and the constitution too, of the bravest man that ever buckled a sword upon his thigh.

“Great God!” articulated he at last, in the voice of one suffocating and gasping—“Great God! what art thou? speak!”

No answer was returned—no motion of head or hand.

The governor’s terror increased, but it was evidently of a different kind now, the first shock of surprise having passed—“Speak!” he added in a tone of command—“speak! how were you admitted? and for what?”

A scornful writhing of the lip; a sullen, deadly smile, as in derision, when the bitterness of the heart rises and is tasted, was the prelude to his answer. The Indian was agitated—but the agitation passed off like the vibration of molten iron when it trembles for the last time before it becomes solid forever. Then he smiled….

“Hell and furies! who are you? what are you? whence are you? what your purpose?”…

The Indian slowly unwrapped his blanket, and then as slowly, in barbarous dalliance with the terrors of the palsied old man, extended a bayonet toward him reeking with blood.

The governor was silent. It was a fearful moment. His paroxysm appeared to abate at his will now—and by his manner it would appear that some master-thought had suddenly risen in its dominion, and bound hand and foot all the rebellious and warring passions of his nature. Did he hope for succor? or did he look, by gaining time, to some indefinite advantage by negotiation? It would be difficult to tell. But however it might be, his deportment became more worthy of him, more lofty, collected, imposing, and determined…. In desperate emergencies our souls grow calm, and a power is given to them to gaze, as dying men will sometimes, upon the shoreless void before them with preternatural composure. Here was an enemy, and one, of all enemies the most terrible, dripping with recent slaughter, and so situated that he could not escape but by dipping his hands anew in blood.

The governor dared not to call out, and dreaded, as the signal of his own death, the sound of any approaching footstep. To get there, where he was, the Indian must have come, willing and prepared for, and expecting certain death; of what avail then the whole force of the government household?…

There was a sword near the governor; he recollected having unbuckled it, and thrown it aside as he came in from exercising a troop of horse but a few hours before the council had assembled. “It was in a chair behind me,” thought he, and “perhaps is there yet”—But how should he discover whether it was or not? He dares not shift his eye for a single instant from the Indian. But might he not amuse him for a moment, and grope for it without being perceived? How bravely the old man’s spirit mounted in the endeavor!

He made the search; but his implacable foe, like one that delights in toying and trifling with, and mocking his victim, permitted the eager and trembling hand but to touch the hilt, not to grasp it—that were not so prudent…. The moment, therefore, that the searching fingers approached the hilt, the blanket fell from the shoulders of the Indian, and the bloody bayonet gleamed suddenly athwart the ceiling and flashed in the governor’s eyes. The hand was withdrawn, as if smitten with electricity, from the distant sword; all defence and hope forgotten, and he locked his thin hands upon his bosom, bowed his head to the expected sacrifice, and fell upon his knees.

The countenance of the Indian could not be seen, but his solid proportions, like a block of shadow, could be distinguished in the uncertain light of the distant and dying lamps suspended from the ceiling—a bold, great outline, and sublime bearing, the more awful for their indistinctness; the more appalling as they resembled those of a colossal shadow only….

At this instant, a red light flashed across the court-yard, and streaming through the open window, touched the countenance of the Indian, and passed off like the reflection of crimson drapery, suddenly illuminated by lightning; voices were heard in a distant building, and iron hoofs rattled over the broad flag-stones of the far gateway. A few brief words were interchanged, and a shot was fired; the Indian’s hand was upon the bayonet again, but the sounds passed away;… and the prostrate governor, who had kept an anxious eye upon the heavy doors of the hall, expecting, yet scarcely daring to pray for an approaching step, was beginning to yield anew to his terrible fate—when another step was heard, and a hand was laid upon the lock. The rattling of military accoutrements was heard, as the guard stepped aside and gave a countersign to some one approaching; and then a brief and stern echo, in the tone of unqualified authority, rang along the vaulted staircase, and the word pass! was heard.

Yes, yes! a hand was now upon the lock! The light in the apartment streamed fitfully up for a moment, and flared in the breeze from the window, so as to fill the whole room with shifting shadows.

The Indian motioned impatiently with his hand toward the door, and the governor, while his heart sank within him, arose on his feet and prepared to repel the intruder, whoever he might be—but he could not speak—his voice had gone—

The door was yielding to the hurried attempts of some one fumbling about for the lock;—and voices, in clamorous dispute, were heard approaching.

The governor tried again—“Begone! begone! for God’s sake!” he cried, mingling the tone of habitual command with that of entreaty, and then recovering himself, with a feeling of shame added, in his most natural and assured manner, “Begone, whoever you are, begone!”

The noise ceased. The hand was withdrawn; and step by step, with the solid and prompt tread of a strong man, a soldier, in his youth, and accustomed to obedience, the intruder was heard descending.

There was another long silence, which each seemed unwilling to interrupt, while each numbered the departing footfalls. The chamber grew dark. It was impossible longer to distinguish objects. A low conference was held between the two. Tones of angry remonstrance, horror—threats—defiance—suppressed anguish—and then all was silent again as the house of death.

The governor spoke again—in a whisper at first, and then louder—a slight motion was heard near him—and he raised his voice. In vain, and the mysterious and death-like silence he found more insupportable than all that he had yet endured. Where was his foe at that instant?—how employed?—ready perhaps to strike the bayonet through and through his heart at the very next breath! He could not endure it—no mortal could—he uttered a loud cry, and fell upon his face in convulsions….

In the morning, just as the dappled east began to redden with the new daylight, after a night of feverish and wild dreaming, the good old governor awoke exceedingly refreshed, and lay with his eyes shut, revolving the mysterious adventure of the preceding night in his mind. It was all in vain. He could remember nothing distinctly. That an apparition had been before him; that, somehow or other he had been engaged in mortal strife, he had a kind of dim and wavering, shadowy and uncertain recollection, but all else, with whom, and where, had been held the battle—all!—was gone, in the terror of the interview, and the long insensibility and agitation that succeeded. What he had dreamed appeared reality; and the real, as he strove in vain to recall the particular features, took the fantastic and shifting proportions of a dream.