Tragical-comical-historical-pastoral. HAMLET, Act II., Scene ii.
THE dramatis personœ of the Southern stage before the war have disappeared. The drama goes on in new acts, but, prolonged into the growing day, romance and illusion fade before the trying light. The rich colors and sensuous atmosphere, the fiery graceful movement of that stage, the superbly virile type of players, — all have vanished. Even the scenery, as a frame robbed of its picture, has lost something. For the purposes of the artist certainly much is lost.
One of our own Union soldiers, who has well served both in arms and letters, says, though not in print: “ When I think that the Southern gentleman is no more, that he may vanish out of memory before he is painted, I sometimes half feel that he was worth keeping at the expense of slavery.” Another, in an Atlantic essay, writes: “ Here and there in the Southern society before the war were to be found ease, affluence, leisure, polished manners, European culture,— all worthless; it produced not a book, not a painting, not a statue; it concentrated itself on politics, and failed; then on war, and failed; it is dead and vanished, leaving only memories of wrong behind.”
Worthless? Was it not itself a book — a romance, in which the spirit of Cervantes and Scott combined? Was it not a brilliant picture, mediæval figures and action painted in the nineteenth century and in the New World? Was it not with all its imperfections a heroic group? Only a sketch, perhaps, in nature’s clay, but grandly modeled by the genius of climate, inheritance, and destiny.
The old stage of Southern character — that demolished society—was splendid, picturesque, the last stand of the cavalier, gay, reckless, knightly. There
strode Sir Anthony Absolute, and there rode Don Quixote; and—strange incongruity— where a he for gain or from fear could not breathe, and cowardice found no hidingplace, charity, that “suffereth long and is kind, vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked,” played a very small part; Don Honor, though, beruffled, sword on hip, and the “ code ” in his bosom, proudly trod the boards, winning smiles from dames and bravos from men. Upon the same stage one beheld stately self-respect and irascible vanity, generous actions and cruel principles. The grand manner of the theatre encouraged the sentiments and courtliness of Sir Charles Grandison, and licensed, too, Munchausens as, we may suppose, the old court permitted its fool. To repeat the text from Polonius: “ Tragical-comical-historical-pastoral. ” Once upon a time,—the old time in the theatre I am writing of, — my heart disappointed of a fancy and some young tastes fatigued in society, I started for a two months’ hunt in Florida. The name Indian River and its freely drawn lines on the map invited one to happy hunting grounds where the only civilized intruders were Cape Canaveral lighthouse and two or three Indian forts; a section of country better known by the faith than by the works of map makers in 1859, and yet only a few hundreds of miles from home. I could not find a companion for the trip. Those who had nothing to do were not willing to do this something, and those who had business could not leave it. One friend, Roelff Damrell, our Gentle Fire-Eater, whose tastes were for the problematical, and whose aim, if any, was the impracticable, was absent from town, —had gone on to Harper’s Ferry to see John Brown executed. So it seemed that I had no chance of a comrade. A lonely meal is better than a fast to the hungry man, and I sought my refreshment alone. I went down to the Florida boat to engage passage for Friday’s trip. A Northern steamer came up to the next wharf as I was about to board the St. John, and I turned aside to watch her passengers land. The last to saunter down the gang plank was Roelff Damrell. I rushed upon him.
“ Why, Roellf, my dear fellow, how are you ? ”
His firm, tender eyes sought mine with a ripple of enjoyment. Roelff’s mouth never laughed, nor did it ever relax its firmness to accompany any of the humorous or gentle expressions so continually illuminating from those eyes the otherwise plain, set face.
“ I am right glad to see you, Clare,” he answered in tie sweet, indolent tone peculiar to him.
“ Roelf,”I continued in the full zeal of my Florida project, “ will you go to Indian River with me? ”
he made one step away and turned his head to eject the merest trickle of tobacco juice, before he replied.
“ Yes, Clare. Where is Indian River? ”
I was too well acquainted with Damrell to be surprised at his instant decision or his slow way of announcing it, and his indifference to the object. I eagerly sketched the project while he took my arm and with tardy pace accompanied me to the St. John to engage our stateroom. He had nothing more to say on the way to my rooms. The least talkative of men, he yet so expressed assent, understanding, and sympathy by gesture and many quiet movements of the eyes that one could converse freely with him without his troubling himself to say a word.
Arrived at my quarters, I showed him an easy chair, and when he had fullyrenewed his acquaintance with the engravings and furniture, he gave a sigh of satisfaction and spoke: —
“ My clients are very few, and I have asthma or heart disease; the doctor does not know which. Outdoors may set me right. As I have seen John Brown die, I can enjoy a vacation. Do we start on Friday? ”
His slow speech was not a drawl, nor was it in any sense an affectation. You heard his words as you might see a panther put his feet down in walking; something fascinating in the quiet measure of a predatory purpose. A strong voice, too, used in softest tone and with fine modulations, increased the pleasure with which one heard him speak.
My friend came of a long line of wealthy planters and prominent politicians; among them a secretary of war, a governor, a minister to Vienna, and two United States senators, he was a young lawyer of fair education and ability, and of some culture, though he had never been beyond his own State until he made the journey to John Brown’s execution. That was performed much in the spirit of a religious pilgrimage, to behold, as he expressed it, the vindication of the law on the arch-personification of abolitionism. I wonder that a man of Roelff Damrell’s physical poverty— for, beyond his very fine eyes his person was of plain figure, small stature, short neck, irregular features, and in every' way ordinary — should have had an individual magnetism so powerful, as his certainly was, in the best men’s society of our city.
I made all the preparations for our camping tour, purchasing stores and implements for cooking and tenting, and engaging a smart black Blot, Major Cuthbert’s property, as our chef de cuisine and general servant. During those few days before our departure, Damrell exerted himself to word some original aphorisms on the art of travel, and to sign a check winch he begged me to fill out to the amount of his half of the expenses. Otherwise he lounged from his lodgings to the club, consumed a good deal of tobacco, and divided his reading between De Bow’s Southern Review and Lever’s novels. That Damrell joined me on Friday was owing only to the obliging disposition of the captain of the St. John, who backed her to the wharf after the lines were cast off. Damrell came on board with a small rosewood case under his arm, our servant, Prince, having brought his valise in advance.
“Why are you so late?” I asked; “ and what is in the box? ”
“ That is what delayed me; my pistol case.”
“ Dueling pistols in the woods? My dear Roelff, what a fancy! ”
“Yes, sir,” he replied, facing me in ramrod pose, his heels together, his head thrown back, and his words spoken more softly and slowly than usual. “ A fancy? A fancy every gentleman should cling to. Without a tooth-brush your bodily purity suffers; without his pistols a gentleman’s honor may be stained.”
“ I take. Ah, Roelff, I owe you one. Brush and powder keep your teeth clean; a brush and powder clean your honor. Good.”
His eyes, while a smile and thaw came into them, read mine steadily. Then I laughed carelessly, and Roelff turned away to deposit his pistol case in the state-room.
While we are steaming southward, with the rich cotton islands on the right and the great spread of dark blue ocean on the left, I may narrate something of my friend Damrell previous to this time when we together meet him. From his plantation home and more lately the reading of law in an up-country town, he had come some years before to practice his profession in the sea-board city where I resided. With his pistol case and Blackstone he brought also the suspicion— one common to Southern country gentlemen on moving to a centre of gay and wealthy society — that the gentlemen of&emdash, with a more formal pol-
ish and the conceit (it may be) of Northern education, assumed an insulting patronage to up-country youths, which the same up-country men should be prompt and sensitive to resent, they themselves being truly the aristocrats, by faithfulness to state rights and home support, in the integrity of true Southerners, instead of mixing with Yankees and weakening native teachings. So Damrell, his family name introducing him immediately into the best society, zealously sought a chance to immolate before his pistol’s muzzle some presuming-ian. Prey should be very easy to a hunter of such innocent appearance and gentle, courteous manner. The unsuspicious would not fear a hand of iron under such a small, plain glove of velvet, nor could one feel a vicious intent even when it lay on his, — until the grip came. So it was with me. At a dancing party where a particularly fascinating partner received my engrossed attentions, I stood over her in a rest from the whirl, when Mr. Damrell approached.
“ Miss Osée, may I have the pleasure of a turn with you?—though I dance poorly,” said Mr. Damrell, with an unbecoming blush.
“ Yes — if ” — she assented hesitatingly, and then, hastening to introduce us: “Mr. Clare, Mr. Damrell.”
Mr. Damrell stiffened himself, and then bent his head in the slightest degree, while his stern gaze met my look of frank welcome as the en grade rapier of a maîtra d'arme might cross and hold the careless weapon of a pupil. At the time I was unconscious of anything more than his diffidence, and having bowed, I hastened to say to Miss Osée: —
“But I cannot relinquish this splendid galop just yet, unless”— And as she smiled with some pleasant apology to Mr. Damrell, I put my hand to her waist. Damrell, while acknowledging our introduction, held with one hand the back of a chair that he moved just then, so that one of its sharp feet came with some emphasis on a toe of mine. I supposed the blow to result from an accident,— the sudden move and awkwardness of the other gentleman, —and went off with my partner in the dance, forgetting the whole thing in the present excitement. Notwithstanding a peculiarly restrained and hostile salute when I next met Mr. Damrell, a series of circumstances of both business and social character claimed our mutual interest soon, and for a protracted space of time. That brought about our intimacy and hearty affection for one other. About the time those were established, I met with a severe injury from a horse, and was dangerously ill for weeks. Damrell happened to be present when the accident occurred. He conveyed me home in my unconscious condition, and devotedly nursed me through all my sufferings. Somehow, the dear, dangerous fellow, with his tender feelings and cruel principles, had conceived a strange affection for me. No woman could have cared more gently and untiringly for a sick child than did Roelff Damrell for me. Calm, patient, and constant, with soothing ministrations to one restless and irritable under pain and fever, it was impossible to reconcile this kind nurse and tender friend with one “jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel.” On my recovery he said to me one day, as if there were one blot in his knowledge of me he would have cleared away:
“I wash you would explain, Clare, how it was that you did not resent the affront I put upon you at our first meeting.”
“ What affront, Roelff? ” I replied in astonishment.
“ When you interfered between Miss Osée and me, and I put the chair on your foot with a manner that meant the insult which only the presence of ladies forbade me to put in words.”
“ Good heavens, Damrell, I had not the remotest idea of your intention. I thought it the merest accident.”
“ I am glad to know that,” he said, fervently. “I supposed— But how strange! ”
After those events, Damrell and I knew each other closely and fondly. To me and others who enjoyed an intimacy of acquaintance with him,—which however, never came except through long years of propinquity of place and class, or by a combination of welding circumstances,— he was a cherished companion, though so undemonstrative, reticent, and self-poised; bitter in prejudice, sensitive in feeling, of quixotic honor, and with extremest political opinions.
From Enterprise, on the St. John’s River, to New Smyrna, opposite Halifax Inlet, we journeyed in a wagon drawn by a mule and a cow through two days and one night of solemn, monotonous pine forest. At New Smyrna, we hired a whale-boat — than which there could be no craft more unsuitable for the innumerable shallows of Indian River — and a boy, the son of the owner, without whom the boat could not be let, for our hunting voyage.
Many times Prince and I carried Damrell from our boat to the night’s camp ground, when severe spasms of disease rendered him helpless, but never agitated, never complaining, always with a knightly kind of dignity and courtly apologies to me for the trouble he occasioned. Some nights we lay in the boat, the sombre outlines of thicket or pine to the right and to the left, the spring of mullet, the beats of the drumfish in the water, and the hosts of sparkling stars overhead seeming very near in a sky that kept its blue even by night. Generally we made late camps, with all their discomforts, on damp, thickly foliaged banks, or on scrub-oak bars. Once we slept in a tree. We were pushing on, and without any guide who knew the country, to find the hunter Phelps, a man who had some bear dogs and was the Crockett of Florida. Our only direction to him was that he lived in a hummock back of Cape Canaveral. After eight days’ boating without pitching tent, and killing only a single deer and some ducks, thinking the distance must be nearly made, I climbed a giant tree on the east side of Indian River and saw the white gleam of Cape Canaveral light-house. The next day, after various jungle experiences, Prince came upon Phelps’s camp, — a bark cabin in a large hammock, — but no Phelps, no dogs; some old clothes on a tree branch, a pipe on a stump, a bear skin and a panther pelt fastened to bough frames, half a barrel of flour, an almanac of 1856, and a broken deer-horn in the rather ruinous cabin. What was to be done now? We chose a good camp on the island opposite, put up our tent carefully, and arranged the stores for a halt.
We hear now, in 187—, that game is scarce in East Florida; that along the whole extent of Indian River there are settlers and civilization, and in winter camps innumerable of Northern sportsmen, as in our fashionable Adirondacks in summer; and — though the leaky romance of such speculation seems incredible — that the jut of Cape Canaveral is parceled out in ten-acre lots, each with an orange orchard, and held by a New York land company. Next we may read of the “ Centennial Everglades Company for the profitable breeding of Alligators, and with ten thousand manilla Hammocks suspended in magnificent mossy Oaks for winter Idlers. Cigars run in from Havana, by Caximbas Bay, free of Duty. Millions in it. Shares $100 each.”
Sixteen years ago there was no settlement on Indian River in its whole extent of one hundred and fifty miles, except at the little fishing village — one house and a few cabins — of New Smyrna, just above Musquito Inlet, and at Fort Capron, opposite Jupiter Inlet, where were four or five families, drawn there in its garrison days during the Indian wars. Indian River, by which name both the inner bays of Musquito or New Smyrna and Indian River are generally known, is not a river, but a narrow sound or estuary, in most places shallow, and separated from the ocean by a spit of sand sometimes only a few yards wide, and widest at Cape Canaveral, where it is perhaps four miles. The whole country is level and but a few feet above the sea. On the main-land, near the river, are a series of hummocks, like a string of islands, raised a little above the level of interminable surrounding pine forests, rich in soil, dark and dense in foliage, — oaks, principally, dwarfing wild orangetrees, and suspending mosses to the network below of vines and climbing flower plants. Wild yams, sweet-potatoes, ground-nuts, and many succulent roots, perhaps of old Indian planting, grow in the luxuriant soil where the sun can reach it, and here bears, deer, panthers, and other wild animals, with snakes, make their shelter. Between these hummocks, and between them and the river, are the ever-spreading pines. Near the water-line the sand-loving pines give way to little clumps of gnarled oaks, palmettoes, and canes, where a rank grass climbs a few steps from the muddy shallows of the river shores. Here the blue cranes stand in Egyptian dignity, the alligators bask and shovel, the mudhens flurry in and out, and the pink curlews sweep by. On the long tongue or bar east of the river are occasional hummocks, not on higher bits of land, as on the west side of the river, but in swampy depressions. Here the elephantfooted cypresses crowd together in lofty coverts, and anaconda-like vines encircle them. All else on that ocean key is salt grass, bayonet weeds, stunted, straggling pines, brush oaks, cacti, and long, lifeless wave swells of sand parallel to the ranks of the Atlantic breakers. From Musquito Inlet to Cape Florida, the coast of Florida, for a breadth of ten miles, is as I describe it: a New World India with Italian skies and climate, and a character in which the inherited romance of Spanish history and its tropical sentiment of fruits, flowers, and atmosphere have united to weave an enchantment. It is in the air, in the colors and outlines, in the forests, whose solitudes breathe misty glimmerings of intangible occupancy. You gaze into them as into haunted woods and fairy-lands, and indefinable visions shape themselves: steelmailed horse and soldiery, banners and the cross, and throngs of desperate fighting savages, while vague rifts of light seem to reflect the glitter of gold or the splash of the Fountain of Youth, and the shadows take shapes of the Jesuits’ zeal. The ghostly influence is the more subtle because there exist in those realms no material remains of the long-vanished life whose spirit is so potent; no ruins of stockade or fort or dwelling are to be found; no rusted weapons, no bleached bones. The stories of those hundreds of years are unreliable and uncollected; their history is vague and lifeless.
In permanent camp, after the long and uncomfortable journey, we rested for days. The air was warm, gentle, and salt, breathing the resinous fragrance of the pines, or, on sea puffs, bringing wholesome wafts of the Atlantic, but lazily, as in a solitude of drowsy quiet where the mind might remember but not create. The tree harps overhead, with continuous, mournful treble, and the unseen surf, with solemn, rhythmical bass, made a symphony that sometimes sounded in great power, and at others died away in dreamy whisper, but never ceased. By day the ripple of fins now and then wakened the sunny lethargy of the water, or the log head of an alligator, drawn to the surface by some sound in camp, drifted slowly by on the lagoon tide. Buzzards, those grotesque harpies, flapped in relieving companies to the dead branches of a great shore pine, — transmigrating souls of cannibals,— blinkingly and flatulently considering their mortgagee chances in us. No wonder we drowsed for days, narcotized by the lotus spell of scene and sound and atmosphere. The nights were less dreamy than the days of sleeping and smoking; we were too lazy even to try our rifles on the buzzard targets; but when the firelight warmed socially and the darkness beyond shut out the solitary vastness; when the play of fish studded the water, in which the stars were bathing, with sparkling gleams of phosphorescence; when the pines in the night-breeze gave less funereal time and a stronger and livelier tone came from the sea, then Roelff and I revived to talk over our cups of coffee or whisky. The boy—“New Smyrna,” as we called him — snoring in fiddle tune beside us, and Prince thrumming out a ponderous old measure of slow complaint from his outside covert, seemed assurances that neither Sycorax nor Caliban infested our heavily charmed island. The catlike opossums came, too, with cunning confidence, to pick up by the fire-logs the remnants of the day’s cooking; and a buck, perhaps, in the opposite hummocks, over the water, sounded his locomotive-like whistle of alarm. For the first days of our camp we would have intentionally lounged and rested, even had not the surroundings imposed on us lethargy and submission to the mesmeric spirit of the place, for we were to wait for the return of Phelps to his home over the river; our chance to kill bears was small without his pilotage and his dogs. The languid charm of that “ magical isle” up the Indian River, those Florida days when the stream of life seemed to have left us stranded until another tide on some out-of-the-world shore, warmed my comrade and me to mutual confidences, and in those social nights of camp we held close converse. Politics and poetry oddly combined in Roelff Damrell; politics were his strength and inclosure; poetry his adornment hiding sharp prejudices and obstinate opinions. He was shut in, as it were, by a dangerous iron picket, over which, however, tender, graceful vines and bright flowers grew very prettily.
I have already suggested how courteously and quietly Roelff Damrell practiced his habit of chewing. So it was always in the course of ordinary talk; when he discussed or quoted poetry, though,—and Keats, Shelley, and Byron were the companions of all his gentle moods and tenderest moments, — tobacco was quietly and firmly dismissed; but warmed to state rights, slavery, and politics, the one evidence of excitement was his frank betrayal of the sustaining cud work. His expression of face kept its continual calm, the indolence of attitude was unchanged, his words were uttered as slowly and quietly as ever; only the fire of his eyes and the vehement ejections of his lips showed the turmoil of his feelings.
After nearly a week of idleness, and no appearance of the bear hunter’s return to his head-quarters opposite our camp, we decided to have some sport on our own responsibility and without the aid of dogs, beating up the country in our vicinity on both sides of Indian River, while we sent the New Smyrna youth in his boat further to the south to hunt for Phelps. He might be gone for three or four days and continue the search as far as Oyster Creek, if he did not discover him sooner. The night before this disturbance of our Rip Van Winkle life, Roelff recited to me of Sir Galahad, Sir Launceiot, Queen Guinevere, and Godiva; thence I tempted him to talk of women, of whom, when he spoke, it was with a heart innocent and worshipful, — seeing them as a child sees the angels. At such times I learned the fervor and romance of his old knightly creed and aspirations, so out of time, so homely set, so full of vanishing or dead principles of right. Strange, strange inconsistency of possibilities and realities, strange twinship in character, I knew that this lovable and cruel Roelff Damrell was not one of the very few chaste men: and that he who should be one of the Round Table had found delight in seeing John Brown die. We have all learned much since 1860, but even then, in the new light from that old man’s death, some slight illumination had come to me, and I feebly expressed it, alluding to Roelff’s recent Northern pilgrimage. As I had listened to Roelff and seen what I still believe was his nature, his true man, I had remaining in my mind these lines of all he had quoted: —
This mortal armor that “you“ wear,
This weight and size, this heart and eyes,
Are touched, are turned to finest air.”
But now the angel’s hand withdrew. In a second Roelff grew as hard and cold as steel, and, without concealment, he pinched a brown ball from his silver box, and put it fiercely into his mouth. My companion was no longer the gentle troubadour, but the knight armed and mounted, his lance in rest. Unwittingly, I had thrown down a gage of combat. The friendly “Clare” was now “sir,” much like the congressional “the gentleman from New York.” “ There, sir, we behold the results of Northern schooling. If all Southern parents were wise in patriotism, not one of our youths should nurse at the cold, shriveled, hostile paps of Yankee education. I am less surprised in your case, for often before, in our acquaintance, I have discovered your indecision of opinion on the great conflict of principles and interests between the two sections of this country, and I remember that you are hybrid.”
“ What do you mean, my friend, by that? Are you trying to insult me?”
I said, my kind feelings dispersed by the flash.
“No, sir, —no, Clare,” and he laid his hand on my knee, “ no. I use the term technically. Your source on one side is of the North, Puritan.”
“ You are right,” I answered; “ and I am proud of being a hybrid, which is, in this case, an American, not a Georgian, nor Carolinian, nor Massachusetts man, nor a New Yorker, but an American.”
“ That is a matter both of taste and necessity with you. You may mix the species with success, sometimes. There are exceptions and I acknowledge the exception and success in you.” He bowed gravely and spit decisively, as if, having made full apology to me individually, he would return to his specific subject. “ I assure you, sir, that North and South must dissolve the government partnership. Character, climate, institutions, widely differ. The two people are as distinct as English and French. The compact was originally an experiment in partnership. It is failing now, and there is not and should not be any right or power to bind the States together, when any of them wish to retire. Statesmen are passing away. We of the South used to supply the wisdom to reconcile differences, but intermixing, Northern schools, and the corrupting effects of Northern cities and Northern travel have enfeebled us. Just remember, sir, Washington, Randolph, Habersham, Lee, Marshall, Crawford, Pinckney, Cheves, Clay, Poinsett, Calhoun, Berrien, Legare; and Calhoun, the greatest of all save Washington — yes, and wiser than Washington in politics, in that which should be the supreme study and accomplishment of gentlemen.”
He stopped for a moment to get some more food from his silver box. I brought a log to the fire, and said, “ But slavery is the heavy inheritance that we must be burdened with.”
“ Great G— ! That from you? I am amazed!”—so much so, that he rose up, and, before speaking again, hurriedly walked ten feet to the whisky demijohn, from which he poured out half a cup of spirits and drank it off, clear and at a gulp. “ Great heavens! What are we coming to? ” I answered him as I was able. His presumption of my folly aroused me to some vehemence, but as I talked, his steady gaze on me was one of deep disappointment and pity, whilst he gave vent, at every period of my speech, to that thirsping sound of the tongue and teeth, always accompanied by a wag of the head, which indicates a combination of amazement and commiseration. When I had done, which was not before I had begun to see in a comical light the vanity of arguing with Roelff on these matters, he expectorated in a discursive, ejaculatory manner for a few seconds, and then replied in a tone slow, gentle, and earnest, as a mother might reprove an erring child: “ And do you not know that the laborer must toil, be he slave, hireling, or help, and that the negro slave in our Christian, cultured South is the fortunate laborer? Do you not realize that transportation from Africa to America is a blessing to him; that here he is taught agriculture, the mechanic arts; that the many products of his industry, forced and directed as it must be, are made useful to the whole world; that his improvement is not possible in his own country? Do you not realize that abolitionists are denouncers of Providence, and that their object is selfish? ” And so he went on, through the long course of arguments that are now old to us, unmoved and unswerving from his calm tenor of discourse, though I constantly repeated, with a laugh, at every pause in his speech, “ I agree with you in all that, and only questioned if slavery were not a misfortune and burden to us,”until, having exhausted arguments, he ended thus: “It is a blessed inheritance, a burden that must bring the reward of immense wealth and power to the people who will carry it courageously. Why, sir, the abolition of the slave trade in 1808 was a folly and a sin. Had it been protected and assisted, the poor Africans, instead of being brought here as they are every month, notwithstanding the law, with shameful cruelty, might have made the journey in comfort and safety. But, sir, I tell you that the slave trade will be renewed before 1865, — renewed and established beneficently.”
Roelff’s last clause so staggered me that I had silently to follow his example of recourse to the demijohn, and in a few minutes more my comrade, overcome by the subdued excitement and earnestness of his effort, was speechless and in pain beneath a sharp attack of his disease. On the next day we were to have attempted the exploration of our island with the hope of some game; but Damrell continued too unwell for that, and I kept him company in camp, except for an hour’s tramp, when I was so successful as to kill a turkey weighing seventeen and a half pounds. On my return I found my comrade oiling and rubbing his pistols, as he lay on his blankets.
“ Holding sweet converse with your friends? ” I asked, when I had handed over the turkey to Prince’s care.
“I cannot neglect them. Beautiful pieces of workmanship, are they not? Hapgoldt made them for my father, who used them three times as principal and oftener as second. The cross on this,” handing me one with a small cross scratched on the silver butt plate, “denotes Fox’s death by it in 1821. My father was his second. This other, you see, has two nicks on the trigger guard: one is to mark Colonel McKee’s fall by my father’s hand, and the other is a record of that fatal Bryan County affair, — you know all about it. So they have histories. They have not been loaded since you helped me two years ago.”
“ Oh, put them away, Roelff! That time I can’t forget, and dreams come out of those black mouths every night to disturb my sleep in this tent. They are as useless here as fire-crackers in a greenhouse. ”
“ Apparently so, Clare. But suppose that, out of the woods, an occasion should arise elsewhere in Florida; what should we do then, twenty-four hours, perhaps, from a good brace of pistols ? What then? ” asked Roelff.
“I never think of such a thing,” I answered; “and I never yet had the necessity of shooting a man nor of having a man shoot me. Deadly weapons are not scarce in our land; you can always borrow them if there is need.”
“ Borrow them? I would as soon borrow another man’s breeches or opinions. Clare, you are somewhat of a Yahoo.”
I laughed, and said, “ Roelff, you always carry a weapon, don’t you? ”
“ Yes, I do.”
“ Why? ”
“ Because I would rather die than receive a blow. I am a small, weak-bodied man. Any mere animal, any physical . bully, without spirit or soul, might be my master, if I could not force him to a plane where we should meet equally. If I am assaulted by Hercules, I can stand as safe as he; his mere brute attributes cannot desecrate my manhood. And a gentleman makes no such assault, whilst he holds himself responsible in a civilized manner for wrongs or insults. Are bone and muscle to rule and debase?
‘ Mr. Body,’ you say, ' if you attempt to touch me with your limbs, you die.’ The beasts strive in that way; men, that is, gentlemen, have a tribunal for words and actions in which only reason and courage — not beef and rage — are the jurors.”
“ Well, Roelff,” I replied, “ I am too hungry and lazy to oppose your sentiments; but while I pour you out a drink tell me if it is not strange for a Yahoo and a fire-eater to be such friends. The lamb and the lion lying down together is but a faint type of our compact.”
Roelff took the glass and drank to my growth in political and moral judgment. Then he sank back on his bed.
That night New Smyrna arrived, having with him, not Phelps, but a young man from the Oyster Creek settlement, a genuine native Floridian, born near the Everglades, orphaned by Billy Bowlegs; a young, crude, Southern LeatherStocking, who did scouting duty and mail carrying for forts Lloyd and Capron; who, not yet twenty-seven years of age, had killed in his own quiet way eleven red-skins; and now that they had become exceedingly scarce had turned his talents to hunting and cultivating promiscuous business interests at the military posts. In appearance and independent manners, and even in speech, be might be taken for a Green Mountain Vermonter or a Maine lumberman. He came to our camp from curiosity, and perhaps, too, as a city fashionable would make the acquaintance of a new club. He could tell us that Phelps was down at the Keys, and he might as well acquaint himself with the quality of our weapons, drinkables, and tobacco. Etiquette was as unknown as logarithms to him, and there were no rounds in his social ladder; all white men were on the same level. He was nature itself, true, free, and unadorned. Roelff and I were at a game of euchre when this new acquaintance, Mose Classon, surprised us, having strolled up from the boat ahead of the boy and without our knowledge of their arrival.
“ I ’ll be darned! tented like soldiers, and a-playing at keerds.” There he stood before us, an ingenuous smile in full play over his frank, freckled face. He was a fine figure of a fellow, of good height, lightly clothed in brown frieze garments, no collar or tie about his neck, a broad leather belt with knife and bullet pouch around his waist, a rifle slung in the crook of his left arm, and his right hand tossing a half-military salute to us. You might have supposed he had known us all our lives. Before I could rise and welcome the new-comer, he advanced to the opening of our tent, still smiling blandly, and said, “ If you ’ll make that cut-throat, I ’d like to tek a hand.”
Roelff kept his place without a word. I returned Mose’s introduction with an amiable expression and some inquiries as to whence he had come, etc. Damrell neither looked at him nor spoke to him, but took up the pack of cards and put them aside. He could not brook such familiarity from one he regarded as his inferior. Withdrawing in effect from our circle, his contemptuous silence left me to receive our visitor, whom I liked at first glance. However bad Classon’s manners may have been, he was certainly good looking, — manly in figure and movement, his features large and regular, unflinching brown eyes, and his unbearded face continually rippled by a smile that relaxed its natural firmness as a breeze sways a field of grain. Without, at first, giving any attention to my friend, he made himself at ease on an upturned box, and answered my questions, telling me that we could not get Phelps, and then asking about our luck. My reply amused him, and when I poured out a cup of whisky he drank to our better fortune, turning at the same time to include Damrell in the salutation. Damrell looked at him with about as much acknowledgment as one might give to the barking of a dog. And Mose gazed steadily at him, adding, as he smacked his lips, “ ’Pears as if you was sickly. Got the shakes? But you can’t keep them down here; must travel on to the Everglades if you want to hold on to them.” Seeming to be unconscious of Damrell’s flashing eyes, but as if he had studied him long enough, he turned his looks on Prince, who was arranging the fire for supper, while he continued his talk: “ Why, men, I have had spells in them glades when I could no more hold my rifle stret than I could keep my teeth from chattering, and the heat way up to b’iling, too. A coal-black nigger there will shake the black off in no time and come out a thin, red Injun. Fact! Like to try it, uncle ? ”
“ No, sar,” Prince answered, dropping some of his slave manner. “I is wery well please here, jis as I is.”
I saw that there were two in our camp who could not welcome the visitor. Indeed, his stay was to bring us danger.
When he had gone off to get a bundle left in the boat, Damrell spoke out:—
“ Clare, get rid of that brute somehow, or I shall make Prince butt him into the river.”
How could I do that immediately? I made all the excuses I could for the free and easy fellow, and begged Roelff to bear with him; that he was, as it were, our guest; and that he would probably move away of his own will on the morrow. Roelff’sire was not changed by my pleadings.
Nothing could exceed Mose’s brightness and good spirits that evening as he sat on the end of a big log, the other end of which was phizzing in the flames. His stories were glorious, and I should have enjoyed him and the camp entertainment very much, had I not been in constant fear that Roelff might insult him, or that Classon might take offense at Damrell’s sternly silent and repellent manner.
When at length it was time to sleep, and Damrell had begun to spread his blankets, Mose Classon kicked off his shoes, and entering the tent laid himself down beside us. Uttering but one word of profane exclamation, Roelff started up and, bundling together his blankets again, stepped out from the tent to make his couch under the trees.
“Hi!" said our guest, lighting his pipe before sinking back on the pine straw. “ Fleas must bite your pardner sharp. I should n’t think him right pleasant to kemp with, but I s’pose his sickness makes him uneasy and riley. Ain’t good though to sleep without cover. Well, Mr. Clare, here goes it. Good night to you for as durned nice a white man as I want to sleep aside of. Good night out thar, Mr. Roelff; but it must be demp. Good night, all!”
Mose Classon, when he came to our camp with New Smyrna, towed his log canoe or dug-out behind our boat. Early the morning after his arrival, he proposed to go off and kill some game for us, our larder being very low and containing only hominy, coffee, molasses, one ham, and two gallons of whisky. I was very glad, on Roelff’s account, to have Mose leave us.
Inspirited by Classon’s exit, Damrell suggested that he and I should take the boat and cross to the Canaveral side, to bathe in the surf and perhaps get some game. Delighted with the project and Roelff’s unusual energy, I was soon at the oars, and we crossed the river. When we had waded through the mud to shore and crawled through Phelps’s needle-eye hummock path, we came out on an open of sand hillocks, that, thinly grown with wiry sea-grass and now and then timbered in miniature by clumps of dense brush, swelled for a mile to the ocean, exactly in the shape and rank of billows. Our tread was noiseless, and the wind was from the sea. I kept ahead, expecting to discover some animal in each new valley, and unable to restrain myself to Roelff’s slow pace. Up the last sandwave line nearest the beach I crawled, feeling that I should look on the solitary grandeur of the ocean expanse more modestly, more reverently, were I not to intrude my mortal, insignificant self to speck its horizon, but to peep over at it, prostrate in the sand. And what a magnificent sight! When, after a time, my eyes could distinguish features in the vast spread of beauty, I was astonished to find how few and simple they were, — the lines of horizon and shore, the melting curves of billows, two or three crumbling clouds and uncertain shadows; the colors only blue, gray, and white. No sign of man in the whole immensity, for the lonely light-house, like a pillar of salt, seemed part and possession of the ocean, joining it to clouds and sky. Afterward I made out an irregularity on the beach, its level broken and dotted, as it seemed, by clumps of froth-suds; and last I saw what in any other frame should have caught my first ray of sight. There right before me, and not over one hundred yards away, stood a gray-red, heavy-antlered buck, motionless as a statue, his head up, and staring over the waves. I crawled down and back to Roelff, who was descending the sand billow behind me, and when I had reached him I whispered of the buck. Roelff carried a rifle, I a shotgun. He was not in the least flurried by the promise of the shot. He looked down at the cock of his rifle, then stopped to put a finger of tobacco in his mouth, and crouching and crawling slowly he reached the dented sand where I had lain, and I was close beside him. With a second’s aim he fired, and the sand of the beach or scum of the surf seemed to start up in flight, while the screams and clamor of thousands and thousands of shrill voices astounded our ears and dispersed the solemn sound that made the silence a moment before. The innumerable sea birds, penguins, cranes, curlews, and others, that I had seen in their motionless noonday rest as shapes and wind drifts of the wave-washed shore, startled by the rifle shot, sprang to wing and fluttered and whirled, crowded in masses and broke up in strings, affrighted and screaming, winging over the ocean and driving back to know the cause of their disturbance. The strange manœuvres of these feathery legions and the terrible din of their complaint and alarm so instantly engrossed our attention that we were unconscious of the result of the shot. But now we saw our game as motionless in death as he had been motionless in life one minute before. Then, without going nearer to inspect our quarry, Roelff and I sat on the warm sand where we were, to take in the scene. I can never forget it, because of itself and because of the night it preceded. As we lolled there, the merest speck of a sail came in sight. Soon, though, we could make it out: a schooner, looking infinitely lonely upon that desert spread of water.
“ Perhaps,” said Roelff, musingly, “ perhaps that is the Erro. When condemned and sold, last March, she was bought by some parties to be a fruit carrier, it was said. A strange change, from negroes to bananas? She’ll return to her nature, I ’ll bet. Clare, that is the Erro, or I don’t know the cut of a schooner.”
“ You should know her better than most men, Roelff. You were one of her owners, were you not? ”
“ Yes; and now that the old cat is out of the bag and no one’s definite property, I ’ll tell you something of her history. The Erro was built for a yacht in ’57, and belonged to a member of the New York Yacht Club. He paid twentyfive thousand dollars for her, and she is the largest and fastest private boat ever built in this country; about two hundred and forty tons, I think, with ninety-five feet of keel and a depth in hold of twenty-six feet, if I don’t forget. Just the craft, you see, for the business she came to. She never showed in a race, because, with her measure and canvas, she had to give too much time. But the winter after she was launched her owner took Charley Traval in her to the West Indies, — a pleasure trip. The result was that the New York man sold her to five of us, retaining one sixth himself.
“ You remember her lying in the river for a month or more, and the rumors that got about. Traval, D’Ignauon, and Dick Mott directed the business. I was merely a silent partner; went in on principle and for the fun. You know how well they managed with that dashing fellow Egbert as captain, bringing over comfortably, without a single accident or death, two hundred and eighty niggers. You remember that they were landed near Fernandina, and you have seen the two likely specimens that Charley Traval owns to-day. I hear that he is to be arraigned on a bill of indictment, — for holding as slaves certain Africans of the cargo of the Erro,’ so it will read. He is not alarmed. There is not evidence enough, at least it cannot be commanded, to prove his connection with the Erro. It will fall through, mark my words; but with the captain affairs may go worse. They have him now, as we know, in our jail, and he will be tried for piracy in the spring. They caught the Erro just as she was clean from her cargo. We have never discovered the informer. The marshal knocked her down to the Yankee fruit men for four thousand dollars. We proved, at least, in that venture , how humanely the slave trade may be carried on, and to-day all those negroes are in far better condition than they ever were or could be in Africa. It has opened people’s eyes and ventilated some moldy old prejudices. In five years more you ’ll see, as I have assured you before, the slave trade legalized, the righteous institution of our South protected, and the mission for the black race intelligently conducted, or you ’ll see two governments in these United States.”
“ God forbid the attempt to separate,” I exclaimed; “ what else you predict, Roelff, seems to me the wildest improbability, but that last is a ghost too horrible to talk of. To come to that we should cross the bloodiest river that ever ran in history.”
I spoke as I felt. With no doubt then in slavery as it existed, I yet knew the iniquity of the slave trade, and I was only one of an immense majority that looked forward to a possible division of our country as the most terrible danger that could menace us. I spoke warmly and rose to my feet.
Damrell answered my speech with calm virulence: “D— your Yankee teachings! Thus are we being poisoned. If these wilds bring me this knowledge of a friend, let us escape from them before we are enemies.”
I made no reply, but walked away to cut what venison we could carry to camp. I stopped with the carcass, too, long enough to cut off the head. I was sure Roelff would prize those antlers, the finest I ever saw on a Southern deer. When I came back to Roelff he was asleep in the sand. Four months afterward I remembered how he looked that sunny day as he rested on the warm beach, we two alone; the white, lifeless billows of the far - stretching sand, the power and immensity of the sea, the ineffable glow and glory of the sky, and the soothing breaths of the air throbbing to the lulling music of the ocean. All these returned to me with intense impression when I looked on my friend in another sleep, from which all passions, or errors, or even dreams were gone. When I awakened Roelff he was indifferent to his hunting success and took his way home with me wearily. The day’s work was too heavy for him. The disease of his lungs or heart prostrated him again, and when we reached the river I had to carry him on my back to the boat. We arrived in camp to find Mose Classon, who, elated by his own good luck, was in a boisterous mood peculiarly irritating to Damrell.
Had it not been for Damrell’s antagonism to our visitor, I should have enjoyed his rough naturalness, but, seeing Roelff’s annoyance, I began to lose the pleasure of Classon’s cheeriness. It was evident that he was either carelessly defiant of Damrell, as he might disregard the pettishness of a child, or else that he was entirely unaware of Damrell’s displeasure. At any rate he made himself perfectly at home in our camp and with our servants. When he wanted whisky he called to Prince to bring him the demijohn, and when he filled his pipe it was from my tobacco bag, without even an “if you please,” although it was all done without intention of discourtesy.
His habitual smile was very wholesome, and his stories were interesting and unceasing. When he began a fresh one after supper, suddenly, but very quietly, Roelff said to him: —
“ Classon, do you intend to remain here over night ? ”
“Yes,” he replied, heartily, without a seeming suspicion of the color of Dam - rell’s question. “Yes; I can’t leave such good company till I know you better. I want to make you kind of welcome to this yere country and give you some p’ints, now you can’t git Phelps.
If you will only help me a leetle more with them speerits there, — durned if there’s a fort in the hull State got as good, —why then we’ll have a better acquaintance. Oh, Prince, fill the tin up again, and I ’ll toast that sent'ment; as Major Wilkes sez down at Capron,
' Here’s to you, deep as your hearts.’ ”
I smiled, and drank from my cup. Damrell heaved half a sigh and half a snort, and sank back on his elbow. Then Classon and I had the conversation all to ourselves, and soon Prince and the white boy retired to their couches. Roelff went into the tent and settled himself for the night, and in such a position that unless I should give up my place Classon could not find a couch under canvas that night. Roelff was smoking as he lay down. When he fell asleep, his hand and the pipe in it slid down to the ground close beside his pistol box, on which he had placed his watch. The pipe was a very beautiful meerschaum.
Outside the open tent we talked on for a time, until Classon, ready for another smoke, spied Damrell’s idle meerschaum. “ By jingo! I ’ll try that pipe, it’s so pretty.”
Saying which he slipped into the tent and took the pipe from Damrell’s open hand. Returning to his log seat, he filled the meerschaum. Classon’s act disturbed Damrell’s sleep, from which he now fully awoke. As Classon held a light to the pipe in his mouth, a shot bag, hurled by my insulted friend, struck the meerschaum from its place, and sent it flying fifteen feet into the trees. The Floridian looked one way and the other, without a clear understanding of what had happened, until he heard these trembling words: —
“You d—d Indian hound, I’ll teach you manners! ” followed by a few slowly chosen titles of ignominy, terse and fatal. But Roelff had not risen from his bed. He was leaning on one arm, while the other reached toward the pistol case. His voice was no louder nor quicker than usual, but his words pinged like rifle shots. Then our Everglade guest sprang to his feet, and, while he drew his knife from the belt and ran his fingers over its blade, cursed my friend in a torrent that might have been heard at Cape Canaveral, but his movement to bodily attack was arrested by the pistol that bore steadily on him and the firm injunction,
“ One step this way and you are a dead dog.”
Prince and the boy came tumbling toward the camp fire. I threw myself before Classon, who was turning for his rifle, while he shouted, “ Come out, — come out, you miserable shrimp! Come out, pistols, knives, or bare-handed, and ef I don’t etarnally mince you to bits I ain’t Mose Classon nur any other man. Come out, you! ”
“Clare,” said Roelff, quietly, “just make that savage understand that when he returns to his senses and there is daylight enough to shoot by, I ’ll attend to his wishes.”
Classon had now got hold of his rifle, but I took him by the arm and at length succeeded in walking him off toward the boat. I had influence with the young man. He had taken a fancy to me, and I succeeded with him better than I expected. The only chance now was to defer the inevitable result.
“ Will he fight, then, sure, in the morning? You'll warrant that? Good!” Then how he laughed! “Of all the cranky white men I ever see, your friend is the cussedest; but ef he goes home from Floridy he ’ll have better manners fur the rest of his life, durn me if he don’t. Now, Mr. Clare, let us have a drink together before we turn in, will yer ? ”
“Yes; but you go off a bit to sleep, that’s a good fellow.”
“Ha-a! ’fraid of nightmare? Yes, I ’ll turn in to the kannew. But I want to say as you have treated me right square and warm from the fust, and though you must be his friend foremust, yet I know you ’ll do me right and true; so whatsoever way you fix things, pistols, or knives, or anything, Mose Classon says, ' Amen.’ Now, give me your hand, Mr. Clare. You ’ve just made one friend in Floridy, if you do lose another to-morrow. Good night to you; ” and he went whistling to his canoe bed, where no doubt he slept as soundly as if he were only going on a turkey hunt in the morning.
I tried to do something with Roelff to get him to aid me in stopping the affair where it was, but he was inexorable, and would not bear with much interference. “ Clare,” he said, “ I must beg you to desist. After what has happened I must honor that fellow by fighting him. He is not a gentleman, I know; but considering the shot bag and my words 1 must descend to his level in this affair. Of course, I shall not harm him seriously, for I cannot have this duel go on record. There are two things that I, as the challenged party, demand: that we fight at not more than ten paces, and that it be with pistols. See now how indispensable it is to have proper weapons always at hand! You must be a doublebarreled second, — act for both; but that is easy enough under the circumstances. You can choose the ground and measure it. As you seem to be as friendly with that Yahoo as with me, he will abide, as I shall, by your decisions. You give the word, too. Inform us of rules when the time comes, and if any difference of opinion arises about number of shots, etc., whichever way you approve must have your casting vote. There, that’s all; I am very sleepy; perfectly used up after our day’s tramp. Call us out just as soon as there is daylight enough to sight on the Hapgoldts. By gracious!” looking at his watch, “hardly six hours left for sleep. Good night, my muchbothered friend.”
It was a light matter to him, but very different to me. Yet there was no apparent release from my burden. If I should refuse to act in the strange and horrible position forced upon me, Roelff and Classon would come to an even more murderous settlement of their quarrel. That I had been able to prevent so far.
“Get to bed, Prince,” I called out; “ and you, too, New Smyrna, or I can’t rouse you up till noon to-morrow.”
My words reminded Roelff to speak once more: “Do, for heaven’s sake, manage to get that cracker brute out of the camp, some way, to-morrow, whatever may result from the duel. Alive or dead, I will not put up with him.”
What a night! I could not sleep, for thinking of the morning. Many terrible possibilities haunted my thoughts. I do not know but that, if I could have had the choice, I would have changed places with either of the principals, so far as they might suffer. It was a ghostly night. To watch beside a dead friend could not be so bad as this waiting and waking for the danger that must and the death that might come. A ghostly night, as I sat by the sizzling, hissing log fire, the hot ashes a lava kaleidoscope of phantoms, from the spell of which the crumblings of the wasting logs falling into the molten bed often startled me to momentary trembling; the pines, so melancholy at night, the saddest orchestra that ever wailed; the distant, dim black outlines of dense hummocks; the pale shimmer of the stars on the river, making it a tide of drifting shrouds and drowning faces; the mysterious sounds of water and forest bearing dismal portents; even the noises I recognized, of owl hoots, night-hawk cries, and animal calls, losing earthly meaning and awing my sense with weird suggestions. Notwithstanding what the morning might bring of real disaster, I hailed the earliest dawn, the first rustle of departing night, as the loosening of a dismal spell.
As soon as my eyes could distinguish the natural objects within a surrounding vista of some hundreds of feet, I chose a comparative open for the place of combat, and, in a short space of time, while real life came back and I welcomed and warmed it with a drink from the demijohn and a pull on my pipe, I decided calmly how to conduct my morning’s duty. Then I awakened Roelff and Classon, leaving the servants to sleep on, and informed Classon how he and Damrell were to fight; and when they had freshened themselves a bit and made a camp toilet, one in the tent, the other by the river-bank, I warmed a cup of coffee for each, and, as they drank, carefully loaded Damrell’s dear pistols.
I had determined on every step of my part; so, those minor preliminaries dispatched, I said, calling to each, “ Gentlemen, will you follow me.”
Sixty yards brought us to the spot I had fixed on.
“ Roelff, you will please stand here,” leading him to a certain spot. Then, making ten long strides away from him, I halted and spoke to the other. “Classon, will you place yourself here.” Both answered and obeyed me promptly, then scanned each other sharply, Roelff with an indolent, contemptuous glance at his adversary, and Mose with a flare of energy and anger, until I called their attention to myself. I stood now half-way between them and about twenty feet out of their direct line, holding the pistol case in my hands.
“ Gentlemen, I have the very unfortunate honor of acting for both of you. My instructions in this matter are simply these: You, Roelff, will face south, and Classon, you will about face to the north. Please do so now. Excuse me one moment. I must call New Smyrna and Prince to witness what follows.” I then aroused these two, and, putting them safely out of possible fire, ordered them to hear me and observe carefully what should follow. That done, I proceeded: “ I shall call, ‘ Are you ready? ’ Then ' Fire! ’ counting slowly after that word, ' One, two, three, halt!' Between ' fire ’ and ‘halt,’ you are to wheel and fire. That is all. Now I shall hand you the pistols,” which I did and returned to my position. The light was that of full dawn; clear, soft, neither night, nor shadows, nor sunlight. No air was moving; the trees were quiet, the river was calm. The hush of the earliest moments of day was perfect except for one croaking caw of an over - passing crow, who slowed his journey for a moment to regard the scene below him.
“ Are you ready? ”
“ Yes,” both answered, clearly.
“ Fire! One! ” Before the word was finished, Classon wheeled and fired Roelff was facing about at the same instant, but without leveling his pistol.
I thought Roelff wavered in the movement and made an extra step to complete the wheel. “Two! . . . Three!” Still Roelff did not lift his pistol. I delayed, and then said “ Halt!” after as long a rest as I had the right to give.
With “Halt!” Roelff turned to his first position, and fired, —in a direction exactly opposite to his adversary. An empty sardine box, left on a tree trunk near the tent, and at least thirty yards from my friend, fell to the ground. Roelff faced about immediately, saying with a faint nod to his opponent and to me, “ Hit! ”
“ You ? " I exclaimed, running toward him as he half fell, half sat down at the foot of a tree near by.
“ Oh, nothing serious, Clare, merely a scratch in my left shoulder,” putting up his pistol hand to cover it. But he was pale, and leaned back against the tree. “ Now,” he said in a whisper to me, " if that man is satisfied, get him off.”
Roelff’s movements seemed at first incomprehensible to Classon. But waiting a few seconds in place until Roelff whispered to me, he dropped his weapon and advanced to within a few steps of us, speaking with feeling and in a frank tone that did him honor.
“I meant to hit you, but now that I see the kind of stuff you are, I am d—d sorry for it. Shake hands, will yer?”
Damrell, unmoved, waved him off.
“ Well, ” said Classon, smiling grimly, but evidently repentant and disappointed, “ any ways I am almighty sorry I”
Roelff made an expressive sign to indicate that I should get his opponent away. I took Classon’s arm and walked him off, explaining to him that he had better leave us now, and that I hoped to meet him again at some other time; that he was a trump, and I greatly regretted that he and my friend could not agree.
“ P’raps I had better shove. But look a-here, Mr. Clare, I did n’t mean things to come to this break, — never dreamed of the like. And I like you fust-rate, — Sort o’ clenched to you right off. Dog on it, take this whistle! ” and I believe there was almost a tear in his eye as he drew from one of his shirt pockets an alligator’s tooth finely carved as a whistle. “ Take this to remember Mose Classon, and give us your hand for goodsby.” He held it hard and added, “ I ’ll push out in the stream a bit ontil I see if I can’t do something for that friend of yourn, if he is leastways bad hit; an if he is all right — durn it, I hope so — jest toot on that thing, jest to try it, you see, and I ’ll put, I will. Mighty glad I ain’t so ugly as I meant to be.
Good-by, Mr. Clare, Gdyou!
Good-by” Uttering that paradoxical farewell and blessing, tossed out from the turmoil of his sentiments, he turned away to his canoe with a lugubrious halflaugh, the serio-comic period to my short acquaintance with Mose Classon.
Returning to Roelff I was soon able to sound the relief whistle, for I found there was nothing very bad in the character of my friend’s wound. The ball had struck the left end of the collar-bone and glanced off through the skin of the shoulder.
The success of the Erro in 1858 started a fleet of slavers. Our navy, through the Portsmouth, Vincennes, Wyandotte, and others, seized several of the vessels engaged in the nefarious traffic, and released from 1st February to 1st April, 1859, over two thousand Africans. Many suspected vessels were prevented from sailing; many more were pursued but escaped; and some made successful voyages with immense profits to their owners. Sometime in March the New York Herald printed this statement : “ One hundred nigger expeditions are fitting out in the Northern States, where the slave-trade movement was concocted.” The italicizing is my own.
In the-city jail that spring lay Captain Egbert, of the Erro. Before the return of Roelff Damrell and myself from Indian River, six citizens of - concerned in the Erro business had been indicted. The judge before whom the case came first properly declined to act, because one of the accused parties, Traval, was his relative. Then the chiefjustice was summoned from Washington to preside in the other’s place. But the district attorney declared that, because of the construction of the sixth section of the act of 1818 by the presiding chiefjustice of the Supreme court, and because of intimations thrown out by the court as to insufficiency of evidence to connect defendants with the Erro, it was useless to proceed further in the case, and a nol. pros. was entered against the arraigned. But this failure with parties concerned in the former ownership of the Erro (condemned, and sold March 12, 1859, for four thousand dollars), and indicted also for holding as slaves some of the Africans of her cargo, did not affect the action for piracy against Captain Egbert. He lay in jail, whilst his partners in and instigators to the adventure were safe and free. Of course these men were earnestly scheming to release the captain from his dangerous position. We can imagine the nature of the influence they exerted when we remember that four of them were what were esteemed gentlemen of high social position, popular in society, with large interests in business or as planters, and also active in general politics; while the agent for their scheme, Captain Egbert, their friend and comrade, was a gentleman, too, by birth, a fascinating desperado of darkly romantic career, whose manners, associates, and adventurous history were apologists for his inhumanity. Inhumanity? Not in the honest judgment of Roelff Damrell and some others, who denounced his imprisonment without bail as a legal outrage, and the policy that pursued him as Northern enmity and wicked fanaticism. To a few it was the trial of both a political issue and an advanced principle. Captain Egbert, though a desperate character, was nevertheless their appointed representative to secure the preservation of slavery and the advancement of the South. Of the six immediate actors in the Erro adventure, but two engaged in it for pecuniary profit; and though those six and their followers made a lurid flash and momentary loud peal in the clouds rushing up from the South to the afterstorm, yet their number was very small, and the strong, cooler heart and head of the community were calm and determined against those “ infanti perduti,” born from the error of the time, and shaped by their environment. However, the dashing, daring, fluent minority, with sabre-like gestures and profane threats, made lively the atmosphere of club, hotel, and bar-room. Charley Traval was its face and voice, Roelff Damrell its backbone. It looked to one for excitement, to the other for endurance. These men, who watched as hostile soldiery the course of the trial, and were sworn that Captain Egbert should never be punished, did not number one hundred, notwithstanding the statement of a great Northern paper at the time that “five thousand of the best citizens of -
are ready to rescue the slaver captain.” The Traval men declared that those who were not for them were against them, and gave up all but a kind of armed association with former companions now deemed doubtful. Each one was suspicious of a conservative and grandly hostile to an opponent ready for seconds and ten paces at any moment. So it came about that Roelff conquered his sentiments and obeyed his principles, by dropping entirely our old fond intimacy, and only acknowledging an acquaintanceship by sad, warrior-like salutes. Horribly trying to all my genial dictates and every humorous sense were his expressions of face and carriage when we met. But five feet six in stature, he marched by with the air of six feet one. His usual languid dignity, losing none of its deliberateness, changed to a steely erectness that stiffened knees, back, and neck. The stern lips parted with an unworded salutation, the head made the beginning of inflection, and the blue eyes held unmoved to some point about six inches above the top of my hat as he passed. Some kindliness and courtesy filtered through the strongly held manner, yet no man of prudence or of respect for others would have presumed to leap the barricade. About Roelff Damrell’ s unheroic face and figure it was comical, — sadly comical, — but nevertheless effectual.
The trial proceeded with intense interest. From the assembling of the court to its adjournment each day, the Erro men, the friends of Captain Egbert, —young, handsome, vigorous, welldressed gentlemen,— held their bold positions in the court room. As the allies of some doubtful champion in the prize ring crowd the ropes, ready to pitch in and rescue their man if the fight goes against him, the captain’s backers were actively present, expressing sympathy and comment by flashing glances, impatient gestures, and sotto voce threats. On the 23d of May an important witness for the government appeared in the person of Commodore Roome, once of the Texan navy, when Texas was a republic. In a peculiar and somewhat confidential manner Roome had unwillingly received testimony very damaging to Captain Egbert’s defense. As Egbert had been a comrade of his in the Texan service, he strove to avoid appearing against him, but, summoned to court and his testimony demanded, he was forced to speak. At the crisis of his evidence the prisoner—a tall, swarthy, graceful man, a picture of the pirate of romance — sprang up in the box, and, leaning forward, brandished his clenched fist at the witness, exclaiming in a tremor of rage, “ Commodore Roome, you are a—liar! ” The black curly hair shook on his head as the locks of angry Jove, the blood rushed to his olive cheeks, and his brilliant black eyes appeared to emit sparks of fire. It was a scene dramatic in the extreme, but the witness, a fine, grizzled, lion-like man, stood unmoved, his mouth merely setting itself determinedly as a contemptuous smile crept about his lips. A sort of smothered howl arose from different points in the court room, but in a moment the grand old judge and his officers had enforced order, and the defiant prisoner had sunk back on his seat.
Then the commodore, before taking up his testimony again, said, with a steady gaze at Captain Egbert, “ The insult is unanswerable in your position.” One ringing voice in the audience hurled out an exclamation of reply, but it was lost in the majestic command of the court for order. That day’s session was prolonged until sunset.
When the court adjourned, and the crowding feet clanked through the stone halls and down the granite stairs, Charley Traval stood behind the iron balustrade on a landing of the descending steps, peering with the hungering impatience of a tiger at each of the passing throng. Behind him, like a bull terrier seconding a fighting-cock, glumly, drowsily, sat Damrell, in an alcove intended for some heroic figure of Justice or Law or other statue supposed to be patiently and everlastingly at home in a court-house. One among the last of the groups leaving the scene was Commodore Roome. His conversation and progress were arrested as he came opposite the stand of Traval and Damrell by the words, “ Commodore Roome! I, Charles Traval, not in a prisoner’s position, represent Captain Egbert, and I repeat what he said, ‘ You are a— — liar.’ ” It was enunciated with a Satanic vigor.
The commodore halted, hesitated a moment, looked angrily at Traval, then, smiling terribly as his face paled, he replied calmly and with even a show of courtliness, “ Sir, you will answer me for those words at daylight to-morrow? . . . Good! My friend will call in an hour,” and, without further word to his insulter, he continued the conversation with his companions and descended the steps.
At a quarter past eight the next morning I happened to be in a lawyer’s office of the same building in which the scene I have related took place. Commodore Roome entered immediately after me. He also had some business with the lawyer on whom I had called, but before he could more than introduce himself, a very fat, ready, and pompous personage — an important citizen, albeit, of the city —arose from an arm-chair and, extending his hand, exclaimed theatrically, “ Commodore Roome, proud to meet you, sir, and most happy to congratulate you on the fortunate result of this morning’s most dangerous encounter— aha — happy, indeed.”
The commodore did not clasp the extended hand, but coldly answered, “ Sir, your congratulations are not welcome. Had not my second, Mr. Campbell Hooper” (the district attorney who prosecuted the case in court against the captain of the slaver), “made a blunder in loading the pistols, placing the wooden and lighter ramrod of another pistol in the hold of one of my own weapons, the proper ramrod of which was steel, I should, two hours ago, have put a ball through the brain of a very pestiferous gentleman. Good morning, sir! I have important business with Mr.
—before the court opens.” Commodore Roome, be it said, had fought two duels in years gone by. On each occasion he had killed his man. In this case Charles Traval had his felt hat perforated, without harm to the gay, reckless head it covered.
The night of that same day, while some of us companions were playing poker in an upper room of the principal hotel, Mr. Charles Traval, Roelff Damrell, D-Ignauon, Dick Mott, and half a dozen others repaired to the jail, and by threats and force against the jail officers released Captain Egbert from his cell, and took him with them for an enjoyment of the city’s freedom. In their jolly round they arrived at the hotel, their daring ranks then recruited to perhaps the number of fifty. It was a dashing crowd, with immense resources of fight and unfathomable thirst for champagne. Plenty of it, and of an excellent quality too, was found in the hotel, but there also was found Mr. Campbell Hooper, the district attorney, a Southron of the Southrons by every right, tie, and sentiment. He was a young man, small in stature, gentle in manners, but with the heart of a lion. In the case against the captain of the Erro, he was the representative of an honorable court and of a great government. Here was an outrage upon the power whose officer he was. Alone and unarmed in that excited crowd, he denounced the act, and declared that Captain Egbert should be remanded to prison. All this had gone on while we, unaware of any disturbance, played our game of cards in a room two floors above the scene of dangerous disturbance. But the growing noise below reached us, and we left our quiet pleasure to ascertain what was “up” down-stairs. Now, of our number was Ozier, a cousin of Mr. Hooper. When we reached the second floor, from the landing above the first stairs we looked down on a small sea of vehement faces and many revolvers, while standing alone, half-way up the stairs, was Campbell Hooper, insisting upon the course he had resolved on and demanding that the rescued prisoner should be given up to his authority. The replies were the most savage imprecations on his head if he dared to interfere. It was a tempestuous sight. All of us but Ozier descended the stairs. He stopped at Hooper’s side, put a hand on his shoulder, and said in his natural voice, but yet loud enough in a momentary hush for all to hear: “ Campbell, there are two of us now. I don’t know what all this is about, but if you are right, stick to it. I ’ll back you, though we are two unarmed men to all those pistols.”
With the men assembled about those stairs that gallant act had its effect, and the words may have recalled fair play to their manhood’s sense. I thought, as fresh from a game of poker I entered the throng below, “A pair is better than High Jack,” but just then Roelff Damrell stood before me: “ Clare, what side are you on, in this affan ? ”
“On none,” I answered, “until I know what it is all about.”
“Take care, then,” he said, and we were separated. In ten minutes the danger was past, the turmoil ended; for the courageous promptitude of Hooper’s cousin on the stairs, and the moment of reflection it gave to some just spirits in the excited party, resulted in a truce which guaranteed to the district attorney, entirely powerless to have enforced his authority, that if he would forbear from immediate arrest of the slaver captain, those who had him in charge would pledge their honor to deliver him up to the officers of the jail before sunrise. Then the Egbert guards, except Roelff Damrell, left the hotel, and about a dozen of us, with Roelff as the favorite, ordered of the hotel host a supper. The breaking of the storm left a delicious warmth of social security. Even Damrell seemed to have consented to a peace, and to be glad to be natural with friends whom he loved. At any rate, —so we all seemed to feel, — there should be no quarrel or coldness between us while the night and the bottles held out. When we took seats at the bountiful board, Roelff had the head of the table and I sat two places from him on his right. The last to join our company was Donald Ozier. Passing by Roelff Damrell in the narrow passage between our head man’s chair and the wall, Donald rubbed against Roelff, and something fell with a clatter to the floor. It was Roelff Damrell’s revolver. Fortunately the fall had not exploded it, though it was at full cock. Ozier, with a humorous grimace for us all, handed the weapon to Damrell, who, continuing the flow of talk that the wine had loosed, calmly uncocked the weapon and laid it beside his plate. The act and Damrell’s manner amused us, they were so intensely characteristic, and, at the first break in his narration, some one at the further end of the table sang out, “ Come, Damrell, if it may not be impertinent, what were your intentions with that shooter there? ”
“ The occasion excuses the impertinence; I meant to shoot Clare with it.”
“What?” and a shout of laughter went up from every one but Roelff and myself. His imperturbable, amiable serenity with such a murderous confession fresh from his mouth, and my continuance of alarmed astonishment, augmented the company’s amusement.
“ What? ” said I, repeating the chorused what in a tremolo solo, “ wh—at ? “
Roelff raised a glass of champagne to his lips before he answered, with a look of the very tenderness of friendship on his face, and extended a hand to grasp mine: “ Yes, Clare, I meant the first shot, at any rate, for you if the affair a while ago had come to pistols.”
Somehow I gave him my hand, but said, “ Good heavens, Roelff! you don’t mean that you would have selected as your first foe your closest friend; the chum who slept with you spoon-fashion for weeks and weeks in our Florida camp; the man who carried you on his back and in his arms often; one who ” —
A warm smile melted nearly all the determination of his face, and his eyes lost their languid challenge as he replied, “ If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Cæsar, this is my answer: Not that I loved Cæsar less, but that I loved Rome more.” A volley of laughter and a clinking of glasses followed Damrell’s quotation. All poured out a bumper to our Brutus, who, when the noise grew less, continued, but now earnestly: —
“ Gentlemen, the good cheer of the occasion must not misinterpret what I would express — that — that when one contends for principles one sacrifices sentiments. If I were fighting for my God or for my country, and my kindred were among our foes, I should strike first at the dearest.”
The excitements of the occasion and the revulsion from dangerous discord to ardent harmony fused reserve, differences, and calmness to a glow of delicious comradeship. Recalling that night, the refrains of Thackeray’s table song come up from the lips long ago silenced on the field of battle: —
When we are gone,
Let them sing on
Round the old tree,”
Let us forget
Round the old tree.”
I seem to catch a gleam from the flashing youth and bravery of those impassioned faces, and hear the recitation of Roelff Damrell, who, when called upon, last of us thirteen, for a “ song or story,” repeated in low, ominous voice, from which all inspiration of the occasion seemed suddenly to fall away, that spectral drinking song of Captain Dowling, The Song of the Dying. With an elbow on the table, his left hand supported his head while his right hand held a half-empty glass so that its contents spilled drop by drop with the rhythm of the verse. What could have called to him the thought of that song? He recited it slowly, as if repeating what he listened to. And now I catch an echo of a line here and there:—
Turn ice in the grasp of death.
Where the high and hearty yearning
Of the soul shall sting no more ? ”
And the refrain of each verse: —
And hurrah for the next that dies.”
When the sun was a few hours high, a negro met me as I entered my office with, “Mars’ Clare! Mars’ Clare! der — der—der Mars’ Roelff dead!” It was too true. I reached him to rub the small hands and feet yet warm, but life was gone, — the soul had fled.