Home  »  The Master of Ballantrae A Winter’s Tale  »  The Journey in the Wilderness (Continued).

Stevenson, Robert Louis (1850–1894). The Master of Ballantrae. 1889.


The Journey in the Wilderness (Continued).

MOUNTAIN’S story, as it was laid before Sir William Johnson and my lord, was shorn, of course, of all the earlier particulars, and the expedition described to have proceeded uneventfully, until the Master sickened. But the latter part was very forcibly related, the speaker visibly thrilling to his recollections; and our then situation, on the fringe of the same desert, and the private interests of each, gave him an audience prepared to share in his emotions. For Mountain’s intelligence not only changed the world for my Lord Durrisdeer, but materially affected the designs of Sir William Johnson.

These I find I must lay more at length before the reader. Word had reached Albany of dubious import; it had been rumoured some hostility was to be put in act; and the Indian diplomatist had, thereupon, sped into the wilderness, even at the approach of winter, to nip that mischief in the bud. Here, on the borders, he learned that he was come too late; and a difficult choice was thus presented to a man (upon the whole) not any more bold than prudent. His standing with the painted braves may be compared to that of my Lord President Culloden among the chiefs of our own Highlanders at the ‘forty-five; that is as much as to say, he was, to these men, reason’s only speaking trumpet, and counsels of peace and moderation, if they were to prevail at all, must prevail singly through his influence. If, then, he should return, the province must lie open to all the abominable tragedies of Indian war—the houses blaze, the wayfarer be cut off, and the men of the woods collect their usual disgusting spoil of human scalps. On the other side, to go farther forth, to risk so small a party deeper in the desert, to carry words of peace among warlike savages already rejoicing to return to war: here was an extremity from which it was easy to perceive his mind revolted.

“I have come too late,” he said more than once, and would fall into a deep consideration, his head bowed in his hands, his foot patting the ground.

At length he raised his face and looked upon us, that is to say upon my lord, Mountain, and myself, sitting close round a small fire, which had been made for privacy in one corner of the camp.

“My lord, to be quite frank with you, I find myself in two minds,” said he. “I think it very needful I should go on, but not at all proper I should any longer enjoy the pleasure of your company. We are here still upon the water side; and I think the risk to southward no great matter. Will not yourself and Mr. Mackellar take a single boat’s crew and return to Albany?”

My lord, I should say, had listened to Mountain’s narrative, regarding him throughout with a painful intensity of gaze; and since the tale concluded, had sat as in a dream. There was something very daunting in his look; something to my eyes not rightly human; the face, lean, and dark, and aged, the mouth painful, the teeth disclosed in a perpetual rictus; the eyeball swimming clear of the lids upon a field of blood-shot white. I could not behold him myself without a jarring irritation, such as, I believe, is too frequently the uppermost feeling on the sickness of those dear to us. Others, I could not but remark. were scarce able to support his neighbourhood—Sir William eviting to be near him, Mountain dodging his eye, and, when he met it, blenching and halting in his story. At this appeal, however, my lord appeared to recover his command upon himself.

“To Albany?” said he, with a good voice.

“Not short of it, at least,” replied Sir William. “There is no safety nearer hand.”

“I would be very sweir to return,” says my lord. “I am not afraid—of Indians,” he added, with a jerk.

“I wish that I could say so much,” returned Sir William, smiling; “although, if any man durst say it, it should be myself. But you are to keep in view my responsibility, and that as the voyage has now become highly dangerous, and your business—if you ever had any,” says he, “brought quite to a conclusion by the distressing family intelligence you have received, I should be hardly justified if I even suffered you to proceed, and run the risk of some obloquy if anything regrettable should follow.”

My lord turned to Mountain. “What did he pretend he died of?” he asked.

“I don’t think I understand your honour,” said the trader, pausing like a man very much affected, in the dressing of some cruel frost-bites.

For a moment my lord seemed at a full stop; and then, with some irritation, “I ask you what he died of. Surely that’s a plain question,” said he.

“Oh! I don’t know,” said Mountain. “Hastie even never knew. He seemed to sicken natural, and just pass away.”

“There it is, you see!” concluded my lord, turning to Sir William.

“Your lordship is too deep for me,” replied Sir William.

“Why,” says my lord, “this in a matter of succession; my son’s title may be called in doubt; and the man being supposed to be dead of nobody can tell what, a great deal of suspicion would be naturally roused.”

“But, God damn me, the man’s buried!” cried Sir William.

“I will never believe that,” returned my lord, painfully trembling. “I’ll never believe it!” he cried again, and jumped to his feet. “Did he LOOK dead?” he asked of Mountain.

“Look dead?” repeated the trader. “He looked white. Why, what would he be at? I tell you, I put the sods upon him.”

My lord caught Sir William by the coat with a hooked hand. “This man has the name of my brother,” says he, “but it’s well understood that he was never canny.”

“Canny?” says Sir William. “What is that?”

“He’s not of this world,” whispered my lord, “neither him nor the black deil that serves him. I have struck my sword throughout his vitals,” he cried; “I have felt the hilt dirl on his breastbone, and the hot blood spirt in my very face, time and again, time and again!” he repeated, with a gesture indescribable. “But he was never dead for that,” said he, and I sighed aloud. “Why should I think he was dead now? No, not till I see him rotting,” says he.

Sir William looked across at me with a long face. Mountain forgot his wounds, staring and gaping.

“My lord,” said I, “I wish you would collect your spirits.” But my throat was so dry, and my own wits so scattered, I could add no more.

“No,” says my lord, “it’s not to be supposed that he would understand me. Mackellar does, for he kens all, and has seen him buried before now. This is a very good servant to me, Sir William, this man Mackellar; he buried him with his own hands—he and my father—by the light of two siller candlesticks. The other man is a familiar spirit; he brought him from Coromandel. I would have told ye this long syne, Sir William, only it was in the family.” These last remarks he made with a kind of a melancholy composure, and his time of aberration seemed to pass away. “You can ask yourself what it all means,” he proceeded. “My brother falls sick, and dies, and is buried, as so they say; and all seems very plain. But why did the familiar go back? I think ye must see for yourself it’s a point that wants some clearing.”

“I will be at your service, my lord, in half a minute,” said Sir William, rising. “Mr. Mackellar, two words with you;” and he led me without the camp, the frost crunching in our steps, the trees standing at our elbow, hoar with frost, even as on that night in the Long Shrubbery. “Of course, this is midsummer madness,” said Sir William, as soon as we were gotten out of bearing.

“Why, certainly,” said I. “The man is mad. I think that manifest.”

“Shall I seize and bind him?” asked Sir William. “I will upon your authority. If these are all ravings, that should certainly be done.”

I looked down upon the ground, back at the camp, with its bright fires and the folk watching us, and about me on the woods and mountains; there was just the one way that I could not look, and that was in Sir William’s face.

“Sir William,” said I at last, “I think my lord not sane, and have long thought him so. But there are degrees in madness; and whether he should be brought under restraint—Sir William, I am no fit judge,” I concluded.

“I will be the judge,” said he. “I ask for facts. Was there, in all that jargon, any word of truth or sanity? Do you hesitate?” he asked. “Am I to understand you have buried this gentleman before?”

“Not buried,” said I; and then, taking up courage at last, “Sir William,” said I, “unless I were to tell you a long story, which much concerns a noble family (and myself not in the least), it would be impossible to make this matter clear to you. Say the word, and I will do it, right or wrong. And, at any rate, I will say so much, that my lord is not so crazy as he seems. This is a strange matter, into the tail of which you are unhappily drifted.”

“I desire none of your secrets,” replied Sir William; “but I will be plain, at the risk of incivility, and confess that I take little pleasure in my present company.”

“I would be the last to blame you,” said I, “for that.”

“I have not asked either for your censure or your praise, sir,” returned Sir William. “I desire simply to be quit of you; and to that effect, I put a boat and complement of men at your disposal.”

“This is fairly offered,” said I, after reflection. “But you must suffer me to say a word upon the other side. We have a natural curiosity to learn the truth of this affair; I have some of it myself; my lord (it is very plain) has but too much. The matter of the Indian’s return is enigmatical.”

“I think so myself,” Sir William interrupted, “and I propose (since I go in that direction) to probe it to the bottom. Whether or not the man has gone like a dog to die upon his master’s grave, his life, at least, is in great danger, and I propose, if I can, to save it. There is nothing against his character?”

“Nothing, Sir William,” I replied.

“And the other?” he said. “I have heard my lord, of course; but, from the circumstances of his servant’s loyalty, I must suppose he had some noble qualities.”

“You must not ask me that!” I cried. “Hell may have noble flames. I have known him a score of years, and always hated, and always admired, and always slavishly feared him.”

“I appear to intrude again upon your secrets,” said Sir William, “believe me, inadvertently. Enough that I will see the grave, and (if possible) rescue the Indian. Upon these terms, can you persuade your master to return to Albany?”

“Sir William,” said I, “I will tell you how it is. You do not see my lord to advantage; it will seem even strange to you that I should love him; but I do, and I am not alone. If he goes back to Albany, it must be by force, and it will be the death-warrant of his reason, and perhaps his life. That is my sincere belief; but I am in your hands, and ready to obey, if you will assume so much responsibility as to command.”

“I will have no shred of responsibility; it is my single endeavour to avoid the same,” cried Sir William. “You insist upon following this journey up; and be it so! I wash my hands of the whole matter.”

With which word, he turned upon his heel and gave the order to break camp; and my lord, who had been hovering near by, came instantly to my side.

“Which is it to be?” said he.

“You are to have your way,” I answered. “You shall see the grave.”

The situation of the Master’s grave was, between guides, easily described; it lay, indeed, beside a chief landmark of the wilderness, a certain range of peaks, conspicuous by their design and altitude, and the source of many brawling tributaries to that inland sea, Lake Champlain. It was therefore possible to strike for it direct, instead of following back the blood-stained trail of the fugitives, and to cover, in some sixteen hours of march, a distance which their perturbed wanderings had extended over more than sixty. Our boats we left under a guard upon the river; it was, indeed, probable we should return to find them frozen fast; and the small equipment with which we set forth upon the expedition, included not only an infinity of furs to protect us from the cold, but an arsenal of snow-shoes to render travel possible, when the inevitable snow should fall. Considerable alarm was manifested at our departure; the march was conducted with soldierly precaution, the camp at night sedulously chosen and patrolled; and it was a consideration of this sort that arrested us, the second day, within not many hundred yards of our destination—the night being already imminent, the spot in which we stood well qualified to be a strong camp for a party of our numbers; and Sir William, therefore, on a sudden thought, arresting our advance.

Before us was the high range of mountains toward which we had been all day deviously drawing near. From the first light of the dawn, their silver peaks had been the goal of our advance across a tumbled lowland forest, thrid with rough streams, and strewn with monstrous boulders; the peaks (as I say) silver, for already at the higher altitudes the snow fell nightly; but the woods and the low ground only breathed upon with frost. All day heaven had been charged with ugly vapours, in the which the sun swam and glimmered like a shilling piece; all day the wind blew on our left cheek barbarous cold, but very pure to breathe. With the end of the afternoon, however, the wind fell; the clouds, being no longer reinforced, were scattered or drunk up; the sun set behind us with some wintry splendour, and the white brow of the mountains shared its dying glow.

It was dark ere we had supper; we ate in silence, and the meal was scarce despatched before my lord slunk from the fireside to the margin of the camp; whither I made haste to follow him. The camp was on high ground, overlooking a frozen lake, perhaps a mile in its longest measurement; all about us, the forest lay in heights and hollows; above rose the white mountains; and higher yet, the moon rode in a fair sky. There was no breath of air; nowhere a twig creaked; and the sounds of our own camp were hushed and swallowed up in the surrounding stillness. Now that the sun and the wind were both gone down, it appeared almost warm, like a night of July: a singular illusion of the sense, when earth, air, and water were strained to bursting with the extremity of frost.

My lord (or what I still continued to call by his loved name) stood with his elbow in one hand, and his chin sunk in the other, gazing before him on the surface of the wood. My eyes followed his, and rested almost pleasantly upon the frosted contexture of the pines, rising in moonlit hillocks, or sinking in the shadow of small glens. Hard by, I told myself, was the grave of our enemy, now gone where the wicked cease from troubling, the earth heaped for ever on his once so active limbs. I could not but think of him as somehow fortunate to be thus done with man’s anxiety and weariness, the daily expense of spirit, and that daily river of circumstance to be swum through, at any hazard, under the penalty of shame or death. I could not but think how good was the end of that long travel; and with that, my mind swung at a tangent to my lord. For was not my lord dead also? a maimed soldier, looking vainly for discharge, lingering derided in the line of battle? A kind man, I remembered him; wise, with a decent pride, a son perhaps too dutiful, a husband only too loving, one that could suffer and be silent, one whose hand I loved to press. Of a sudden, pity caught in my windpipe with a sob; I could have wept aloud to remember and behold him; and standing thus by his elbow, under the broad moon, I prayed fervently either that he should be released, or I strengthened to persist in my affection.

“Oh God,” said I, “this was the best man to me and to himself, and now I shrink from him. He did no wrong, or not till he was broke with sorrows; these are but his honourable wounds that we begin to shrink from. Oh, cover them up, oh, take him away, before we hate him!”

I was still so engaged in my own bosom, when a sound broke suddenly upon the night. It was neither very loud, nor very near; yet, bursting as it did from so profound and so prolonged a silence, it startled the camp like an alarm of trumpets. Ere I had taken breath, Sir William was beside me, the main part of the voyagers clustered at his back, intently giving ear. Methought, as I glanced at them across my shoulder, there was a whiteness, other than moonlight, on their cheeks; and the rays of the moon reflected with a sparkle on the eyes of some, and the shadows lying black under the brows of others (according as they raised or bowed the head to listen) gave to the group a strange air of animation and anxiety. My lord was to the front, crouching a little forth, his hand raised as for silence: a man turned to stone. And still the sounds continued, breathlessly renewed with a precipitate rhythm.

Suddenly Mountain spoke in a loud, broken whisper, as of a man relieved. “I have it now,” he said; and, as we all turned to hear him, “the Indian must have known the cache,” he added. “That is he—he is digging out the treasure.”

“Why, to be sure!” exclaimed Sir William. “We were geese not to have supposed so much.”

“The only thing is,” Mountain resumed, “the sound is very close to our old camp. And, again, I do not see how he is there before us, unless the man had wings!”

“Greed and fear are wings,” remarked Sir William. “But this rogue has given us an alert, and I have a notion to return the compliment. What say you, gentlemen, shall we have a moonlight hunt?”

It was so agreed; dispositions were made to surround Secundra at his task; some of Sir William’s Indians hastened in advance; and a strong guard being left at our headquarters, we set forth along the uneven bottom of the forest; frost crackling, ice sometimes loudly splitting under foot; and overhead the blackness of pine-woods, and the broken brightness of the moon. Our way led down into a hollow of the land; and as we descended, the sounds diminished and had almost died away. Upon the other slope it was more open, only dotted with a few pines, and several vast and scattered rocks that made inky shadows in the moonlight. Here the sounds began to reach us more distinctly; we could now perceive the ring of iron, and more exactly estimate the furious degree of haste with which the digger plied his instrument. As we neared the top of the ascent, a bird or two winged aloft and hovered darkly in the moonlight; and the next moment we were gazing through a fringe of trees upon a singular picture.

A narrow plateau, overlooked by the white mountains, and encompassed nearer hand by woods, lay bare to the strong radiance of the moon. Rough goods, such as make the wealth of foresters, were sprinkled here and there upon the ground in meaningless disarray. About the midst, a tent stood, silvered with frost: the door open, gaping on the black interior. At the one end of this small stage lay what seemed the tattered remnants of a man. Without doubt we had arrived upon the scene of Harris’s encampment; there were the goods scattered in the panic of flight; it was in yon tent the Master breathed his last; and the frozen carrion that lay before us was the body of the drunken shoemaker. It was always moving to come upon the theatre of any tragic incident; to come upon it after so many days, and to find it (in the seclusion of a desert) still unchanged, must have impressed the mind of the most careless. And yet it was not that which struck us into pillars of stone; but the sight (which yet we had been half expecting) of Secundra ankle deep in the grave of his late master. He had cast the main part of his raiment by, yet his frail arms and shoulders glistered in the moonlight with a copious sweat; his face was contracted with anxiety and expectation; his blows resounded on the grave, as thick as sobs; and behind him, strangely deformed and ink-black upon the frosty ground, the creature’s shadow repeated and parodied his swift gesticulations. Some night birds arose from the boughs upon our coming, and then settled back; but Secundra, absorbed in his toil; heard or heeded not at all.

I heard Mountain whisper to Sir William, “Good God! it’s the grave! He’s digging him up!” It was what we had all guessed, and yet to hear it put in language thrilled me. Sir William violently started.

“You damned sacrilegious hound!” he cried. “What’s this?”

Secundra leaped in the air, a little breathless cry escaped him, the tool flew from his grasp, and he stood one instant staring at the speaker. The next, swift as an arrow, he sped for the woods upon the farther side; and the next again, throwing up his hands with a violent gesture of resolution, he had begun already to retrace his steps.

“Well, then, you come, you help—” he was saying. But by now my lord had stepped beside Sir William; the moon shone fair upon his face, and the words were still upon Secundra’s lips, when he beheld and recognised his master’s enemy. “Him!” he screamed, clasping his hands, and shrinking on himself.

“Come, come!” said Sir William. “There is none here to do you harm, if you be innocent; and if you be guilty, your escape is quite cut off. Speak, what do you here among the graves of the dead and the remains of the unburied?”

“You no murderer?” inquired Secundra. “You true man? you see me safe?”

“I will see you safe, if you be innocent,” returned Sir William. “I have said the thing, and I see not wherefore you should doubt it.”

“There all murderers,” cried Secundra, “that is why! He kill—murderer,” pointing to Mountain; “there two hire-murderers,” pointing to my lord and myself—“all gallows—murderers! Ah! I see you all swing in a rope. Now I go save the sahib; he see you swing in a rope. The sahib,” he continued, pointing to the grave, “he not dead. He bury, he not dead.”

My lord uttered a little noise, moved nearer to the grave, and stood and stared in it.

“Buried and not dead?” exclaimed Sir William. “What kind of rant is this?”

“See, sahib,” said Secundra. “The sahib and I alone with murderers; try all way to escape, no way good. Then try this way: good way in warm climate, good way in India; here, in this dam cold place, who can tell? I tell you pretty good hurry: you help, you light a fire, help rub.”

“What is the creature talking of?” cried Sir William. “My head goes round.”

“I tell you I bury him alive,” said Secundra. “I teach him swallow his tongue. Now dig him up pretty good hurry, and he not much worse. You light a fire.”

Sir William turned to the nearest of his men. “Light a fire,” said he. “My lot seems to be cast with the insane.”

“You good man,” returned Secundra. “Now I go dig the sahib up.”

He returned as he spoke to the grave, and resumed his former toil. My lord stood rooted, and I at my lord’s side, fearing I knew not what.

The frost was not yet very deep, and presently the Indian threw aside his tool, and began to scoop the dirt by handfuls. Then he disengaged a corner of a buffalo robe; and then I saw hair catch among his fingers: yet, a moment more, and the moon shone on something white. Awhile Secundra crouched upon his knees, scraping with delicate fingers, breathing with puffed lips; and when he moved aside, I beheld the face of the Master wholly disengaged. It was deadly white, the eyes closed, the ears and nostrils plugged, the cheeks fallen, the nose sharp as if in death; but for all he had lain so many days under the sod, corruption had not approached him, and (what strangely affected all of us) his lips and chin were mantled with a swarthy beard.

“My God!” cried Mountain, “he was as smooth as a baby when we laid him there!”

“They say hair grows upon the dead,” observed Sir William; but his voice was thick and weak.

Secundra paid no heed to our remarks, digging swift as a terrier in the loose earth. Every moment the form of the Master, swathed in his buffalo robe, grew more distinct in the bottom of that shallow trough; the moon shining strong, and the shadows of the standers-by, as they drew forward and back, falling and flitting over his emergent countenance. The sight held us with a horror not before experienced. I dared not look my lord in the face; but for as long as it lasted, I never observed him to draw breath; and a little in the background one of the men (I know not whom) burst into a kind of sobbing.

“Now,” said Secundra, “you help me lift him out.”

Of the flight of time, I have no idea; it may have been three hours, and it may have been five, that the Indian laboured to reanimate his master’s body. One thing only I know, that it was still night, and the moon was not yet set, although it had sunk low, and now barred the plateau with long shadows, when Secundra uttered a small cry of satisfaction; and, leaning swiftly forth, I thought I could myself perceive a change upon that icy countenance of the unburied. The next moment I beheld his eyelids flutter; the next they rose entirely, and the week-old corpse looked me for a moment in the face.

So much display of life I can myself swear to. I have heard from others that he visibly strove to speak, that his teeth showed in his beard, and that his brow was contorted as with an agony of pain and effort. And this may have been; I know not, I was otherwise engaged. For at that first disclosure of the dead man’s eyes, my Lord Durrisdeer fell to the ground, and when I raised him up, he was a corpse.

Day came, and still Secundra could not be persuaded to desist from his unavailing efforts. Sir William, leaving a small party under my command, proceeded on his embassy with the first light; and still the Indian rubbed the limbs and breathed in the mouth of the dead body. You would think such labours might have vitalised a stone; but, except for that one moment (which was my lord’s death), the black spirit of the Master held aloof from its discarded clay; and by about the hour of noon, even the faithful servant was at length convinced. He took it with unshaken quietude.

“Too cold,” said he, “good way in India, no good here.” And, asking for some food, which he ravenously devoured as soon as it was set before him, he drew near to the fire and took his place at my elbow. In the same spot, as soon as he had eaten, he stretched himself out, and fell into a childlike slumber, from which I must arouse him, some hours afterwards, to take his part as one of the mourners at the double funeral. It was the same throughout; he seemed to have outlived at once and with the same effort, his grief for his master and his terror of myself and Mountain.

One of the men left with me was skilled in stone-cutting; and before Sir William returned to pick us up, I had chiselled on a boulder this inscription, with a copy of which I may fitly bring my narrative to a close:

J. D.,
H. D.,