The South Devil
ON the afternoon of the 23d of December, the thermometer marked eighty-six degrees in the shade on the outside wall of Mark Deal’s house. Mark Deal’s brother, lying on the white sand, his head within the line of shadow cast by a live-oak, but all the remainder of his body full in the hot sunshine, basked like a chameleon, and enjoyed the heat. Mark Deal’s brother spent much of his time basking. He always took the liveoak for a head-protector ; but gave himself variety by trying new radiations around the tree, his crossed legs and feet stretching from it in a slightly different direction each day, as the spokes of a wheel radiate from the hub. The live-oak was a symmetrical old tree, standing by itself; having always had sufficient space, its great arms were straight, stretching out evenly all around, densely covered with the small, dark, leathery leaves, unnotched and uncut, which are as unlike the Northern oakleaf as the leaf of the willow is unlike that of the sycamore. Behind the liveoak, two tall, ruined chimneys and a heap of white stones marked where the mansion-house had been. The old tree had watched its foundations laid ; had shaded its blank, white front and little hanging balcony above ; had witnessed its destruction, fifty years before, by the Indians; and had mounted guard over its remains ever since, alone as far as man was concerned, until this year, when a tenant had arrived, Mark Deal, and, somewhat later, Mark Deal’s brother.
The ancient tree was Spanish to the core ; it would have resented the sacrilege to the tips of its small acorns, if the new-comer had laid hands upon the dignified old ruin it guarded. The newcomer, however, entertained no such intention ; a small out-building, roofless, but otherwise in good condition, on the opposite side of the circular space, attracted his attention, and became mentally his residence, as soon as his eyes fell upon it, he meanwhile standing with his hands in his pockets, surveying the place critically. It was the old Monteano plantation, and he had taken it for a year.
The venerable little out-building was now firmly roofed with new, green boards ; its square windows, destitute of sash or glass, possessed new wooden shutters hung by strips of deer’s hide ; new steps led up to its two rooms, elevated four feet above the ground. But for a door it had only a red cotton curtain, now drawn forward and thrown carelessly over a peg on the outside wall, a spot of vivid color on its white. Underneath the windows hung flimsy strips of bark covered with brightlyhued flowers.
“ They won’t live,” said Mark Deal.
“ Oh, I shall put in fresh ones every day or two,” answered his brother. It was he who had wanted the red curtain.
As he basked, motionless, in the sunshine, it could be noted that this brother was a slender youth, with long, paleyellow hair, — hair fine, thin, and dry, the kind that crackles if the comb is passed rapidly through it. His face in sleep was pale and wizened, with deep purple shadows under the closed eyes; his long hands were stretched out on the white, hot sand in the blaze of the sunshine, which, however, could not alter their look of blue-white cold. The sunken chest and blanched temples told of illness ; but if cure were possible, it would be gained from this soft, balmy, fragrant air, now soothing his sore lungs. He slept on in peace ; and an old green chameleon came down from the tree, climbed up on the sleeve of his brown sack-coat, occupied himself for a moment in changing his own miniature hide to match the cloth, swelled out his scarlet throat, caught a fly or two, and then, pleasantly established, went to sleep also in company. Butterflies, in troops of twenty or thirty, danced in the golden air; there was no sound. Everything was hot and soft and brightly colored.
Winter? Who knew of winter here? Labor ? What was labor ? This was the land and the sky and the air of neverending rest.
Yet one man was working there, and working hard, namely, Mark Deal. His little central plaza, embracing perhaps an acre, was surrounded when he first arrived by a wall of green, twenty feet high. The sweet orange - trees, crapemyrtles, oleanders, guavas, and limes planted by the Spaniards had been, during the fifty years, conquered and partially enslaved by a wilder growth, — andromedas, dahoons, bayberries, and the old-field loblollies, the whole bound together by the tangled vines of the jessamine and armed smilax, with beargrass and the dwarf-palmetto below. Climbing the central live-oak, Deal had found, as he expected, traces of the six paths which had once led from this little plaza to the various fields and the sugar plantation, their course still marked by the tops of the bitter-sweet orange-trees, which showed themselves glossily, in regular lines, amid the duller foliage around them. He took their bearings and cut them out slowly, one by one. Now the low-arched aisles, eighty feet in length, were clear, with the thick leaves interlacing overhead, and the daylight shining through at their far ends, golden against the green. Here, where the north path terminated, Deal was now working.
He was a man slightly below middle height, broad-shouldered, and muscular, with the outlines which are called thickset. He appeared forty-five, and was not quite thirty-five. Although weatherbeaten and bronzed, there was yet a pinched look in his face, which was peculiar. He was working in an old field, preparing it for sweet-potatoes, — those omnipresent, monotonous vegetables of Florida which will grow anywhere, and which at last, with their ugly, gray-mottled skins, are regarded with absolute aversion by the Northern visitor.
The furrows of half a century before were still visible in the field. No frost had disturbed the winterless earth ; no atom had changed its place, save where the gopher had burrowed beneath, or the snake left its waving trail above in the sand which constitutes the strange, white, desolate soil, wherever there is what may be called by comparison solid ground, in the lake-dotted, sieve-like land. There are many such traces of former cultivation in Florida : we come suddenly upon old tracks, furrows, and drains in what we thought primeval forest ; rose-bushes run wild and distorted old fig-trees meet us in a jungle where we supposed no white man’s foot had ever before penetrated; the ruins of a chimney gleam whitely through a waste of thorny chaparral. It is all natural enough, if one stops to remember that fifty years before the first settlement was made in Virginia, and sixty-three before the Mayflower touched the shores of the New World, there were flourishing Spanish plantations on this Southern coast, — more flourishing, apparently, than any the indolent peninsula has since known. But one does not stop to remember it; the belief is imbedded in all our Northern hearts that because the narrow, sun-bathed State is far away and wild and empty, it is also new and virgin, like the lands of the West; whereas it is old, — the only gray-haired corner our country holds.
Mark Deal worked hard. Perspiration beaded his forehead and cheeks, and rolled from his short, thick, redbrown hair. He worked in this way every day, from daylight until dusk; and was probably the only white man in the State who did. When his task was finished, he made a circuit around the belt of thicket through which the six paths ran to his orange-grove on the opposite side. On the way he skirted an edge of the sugar plantation, now a wide, empty waste, with the old elevated causeway still running across it. On its far edge loomed the great cypresses of South Devil, a swamp forty miles long ; there was a sister, West Devil, not far away, equally beautiful, dark, and deadly. Beyond the sugar waste were the indigofields, still fenced by their old ditches. Then came the orange-grove ; luxuriant, shady word,—the orange-grove !
It was a space of level white sand, sixty feet square, fertilized a century before with pounded oyster-shells, in the Spanish fashion. Planted in even rows across it, tied to stakes, were slips of green stem, each with three leaves, — forlorn little plants, five or six inches in height. But the stakes were new and square and strong, and rose to Deal’s shoulder ; they were excellent stakes, and made quite a grove of themselves, firm, if somewhat bare.
Deal worked in his grove until sunset; then he shouldered his tools and went homeward through one of the arched aisles to the little plaza within, where stood his two-roomed house with its red cotton door. His brother was still sleeping on the sand; at least, his eyes were closed. Deal put his tools in a rack behind the house, and then crossed to where he lay.
“ You should not sleep here after sunset, Carl,” he said, somewhat roughly. " You know better; why do you do it?”
“ I ’m not asleep,” answered the other, sitting up, and then slowly getting on his feet. “ Heigh-ho ! What, are you going to have for dinner ? ”
“You are tired, Carl; and I see the reason. You have been in the swamp.” Deal’s eyes as he spoke were fixed upon the younger man’s shoes, where traces of the ink-black soil of South Devil were plainly visible.
Carl laughed. “ Can’t keep anything from your Yankee eyes, can I, Mark ? ” he said. But I only went a little way.”
“ It is n’t the distance, it’s the folly,” said Mark, shortly, going towards the house.
“ I never pretended to be wise,” answered Carl, slouching along behind him, with his hands wrapped in his blue cotton handkerchief, arranged like a muff.
Although Deal worked hard in his fields all day, he did not cook. In a third out-building lived a gray-headed old negro with one eye, who cooked for the new tenant, — and cooked well. His name was Scipio, but Carl called him Africanus; he said it was equally appropriate, and sounded more impressive. Scip’s kitchen was out-of-doors, — simply an old Spanish chimney. His kettle and few dishes, when not in use, hung on the sides of this chimney, which now, all alone in the white sand, like an obelisk, cooked solemnly the old negro’s messes, as half a century before it had cooked the more dignified repasts of the dead hidalgos. The brothers ate in the open air also, sitting at a rough board table which Mark had made, behind the house. They had breakfast soon after daylight, and at sunset dinner; in the middle of the day they took only fruit and bread.
“ Day after to-morrow will be Christmas,” said Carl, leaving the table and lighting his long pipe. “ What are you going to do ? ”
“ I had not thought of doing anything in particular.”
“ Well, at least don’t work on Christmas Day.”
“ What would you have me do ?”
Carl took his pipe from his mouth, and gazed at his brother in silence for a moment. “ Go into the swamp with me,” he urged, with sudden vehemence. “ Come, — for the whole day ! ”
Deal was smoking, too, — a short clay pipe, very different from the huge, fantastic, carved bowl with long stem which weighed down Carl’s thin mouth. “ I don’t know what to do with you, boy. You are mad about the swamp,” he said, smoking on calmly.
They were sitting in front of the house now, in two chairs tilted back against its wall. The dark, odorous earth looked up to the myriad stars, but was not lighted by them; a soft, languorous gloom lay over the land. Carl brushed away the ashes from his pipe impatiently.
“ It’s because you can’t understand,” he said. “ The swamp haunts me. I must see it once; you will be wise to let me see it once. We might go through in a canoe together, by the branch; the branch goes through.”
“ The water goes, no doubt, but a canoe could n’t.”
“ Yes, it could, with an axe. It has been done. They used to go up to San Miguel that way, sometimes, from here; it shortens the distance more than half.”
“ Who told you all this, — Scip ? What does he know about it ? ”
“ Oh, Africanus has seen several centuries ; the Spaniards were living here only fifty years ago, you know, and that’s nothing to him. He remembers the Indian attack.”
“ Ponce de Leon, too, I suppose; or, to go back to the old country, Cleopatra. But you must give up the swamp, Carl. I positively forbid it. The air inside is thick and deadly, to say nothing of the other dangers. How do you suppose it gained its name ? ”
“ Diabolus is common enough as a title among Spaniards and Italians; it don’t mean anything. The prince of darkness never lives in the places called by his name ; he likes baptized cities better.”
“ Death lives there, however ; and I brought you down here to cure you.”
“ I’m all right. See how much stronger I am ! I shall soon be quite well again, old man,” answered Carl, with the strange, sanguine faith of the consumptive.
The next day Deal worked very hard. He had a curious, inflexible, possibly narrow, kind of conscience, which required him to do double duty to-day, in order to make up for the holiday granted to Carl to-morrow. There was no task-master over him ; even the seasons were not task-masters here. But so immovable were his own rules for himself that nothing could have induced him to abate one jot of the task he had laid out in his own mind, when he started afield at dawn.
When he returned home at sunset, somewhat later than usual, Carl was absent. Old Scipio could give no information ; he had not seen “ young marse” since early morning. Deal put up his tools, ate something, and then, with a flask in his pocket, a fagot of light-wood torches bound on his back, and one of these brilliant, natural flambeaux in his hand, he started away on his search, going down one of the orange aisles, the light gleaming back through the arch until he reached the far end, when it disappeared. He crossed an old indigo field, and pushed his way through its hedge of Spanish bayonets, while the cacti sown along the ridge — small, flat green plates with white spines, like hideous tufted insects — fastened themselves viciously on the strong leather of his high boots. Then, reaching the sugar waste, he advanced a short distance on the old causeway, knelt down, and in the light of the torch examined its narrow, sandy level. Yes, there were the foot-prints he had feared to find. Carl had gone again into the poisonous swamp, — the beautiful, deadly South Devil. And this time he had not come back.
The elder brother rose, and with the torch held downward slowly traced the foot-marks. There was a path, or rather trail, leading in a short distance. The foot-prints followed it as far as it went, and the brother followed the foot-prints, the red glare of the torch foreshortening each swollen, gray-white cypress trunk, and giving to the dark, hidden pools below bright gleamings which they never had by day. He soon came to the end of the trail; here he stopped and shouted loudly several times, with pauses between for answer. No answer came.
“ But I know the trick of this thick air,” he said to himself. “ One can’t hear anything in a cypress swamp.”
He was now obliged to search closely for the foot-prints, pausing at each one, having no idea in which direction the next would tend. The soil did not hold the impressions well; it was not mud or mire, but wet, spongy, fibrous black earth, thinly spread over the hard roots of trees, which protruded in distorted shapes in every direction. He traced what seemed foot-marks across an open space, and then lost them on the brink of a dark pool. If Carl had kept on, he must have crossed this pool; but how ? On the sharp cypress-knees standing sullenly in the claret-colored water ? He went all around the open space again, seeking for foot-marks elsewhere; but no, they ended at the edge of the pool. Cutting a long stick, he made his way across by its aid, stepping from knee-point to knee-point. On the other side he renewed his search for the trail, and after some labor found it, and went on again.
He toiled forward slowly in this way a long time, his course changing often; Carl’s advance seemed to have been aimless. Then, suddenly, the foot-prints ceased. There was not another one visible anywhere, though he searched in all directions again and again. He looked at his watch; it was midnight. He hallooed ; no reply. What could have become of the lad ? He now began to feel his own fatigue ; after the long day of toil in the hot. sun, these hours of laboring over the ground in a bent position, examining it inch by inch, brought on pains in his shoulders and back. Planting the torch he was carrying in the soft soil of a little knoll, he placed another one near it, and sat down between the two flames to rest for a minute or two, pouring out for himself a little brandy in the bottom of the cup belonging to his flask. He kept strict watch as he did this. Venomous things, large and small, filled the vines above, and might drop at any moment upon him. But he had quick eyes and ears, and no intention of dying in the South Devil; so while he watched keenly, he took the time to swallow the brandy. After a moment or two he was startled by a weak human voice, saying, with faint decision, “ That’s brandy! ”
“ I should say it was,” called Deal, springing to his feet. “ Where are you, then ? ”
The rescuer followed the sound, and, after one or two errors, came upon the body of his brother lying on a dank mat of water-leaves and ground-vines at the edge of a pool. In the red light of the torch he looked as though he was dead; his eyes only were alive.
“Brandy,” he said again, faintly, as Deal appeared.
After he had swallowed a small quantity of the stimulant, he revived with unexpected swiftness.
“I have been shouting for you not fifty feet away,” said Deal; “ how is it that you did not hear ? ” Then in the same breath, in a soft undertone, he added, “ Ah-h-h-h ! ” and without stirring a hair’s-breadth from where he stood, or making an unnecessary motion, he slowly drew forth his pistol, took careful aim, and fired. He was behind his brother, who lay with closed eyes, not noticing the action.
“ What have you killed ? ” asked Carl languidly. “ I’ve seen nothing but birds ; and the most beautiful ones, too.”
“ A moccasin, — that’s all,” said Deal, kicking the dead creature into the pool. He did not add that the snake was coiled for a spring. “ Let us get back to the little knoll where I was, Carl; it’s drier there.”
“ I don’t think I can walk, old man. I fell from the vines up there, and something ’s the matter with my ankles.”
“Well, I can carry you that distance,” said Deal. “ Put your arms around my neck, and raise yourself as I lift you, — so.”
The burning flambeau on the knoll served as a guide, and, after one or two pauses, owing to the treacherous footing, the elder brother succeeded in carrying the other thither. He then took off the light woolen coat he had put on before entering the swamp, spread it over the driest part of the little knoll, and laid Carl upon it.
“If you cannot walk,” he said, “we shall have to wait here until daylight. I could not carry you and the torch also ; and the footing is bad, — there are twenty pools to cross, or go around. Fortunately, we have light-wood enough to burn all night.”
He lit fresh torches and arranged them at the four corners of their little knoll; then he began to pace slowly to and fro, like a picket walking his beat.
“ What were you doing up among those vines ? ” he asked. He knew that it would be better for them both if they could keep themselves awake; those who fell asleep in the night air of South Devil generally awoke the next morning in another world.
“ I climbed up a ladder of vines to gather some of the great red blossoms swinging in the air ; and once up, I went along on the mat to see what I could find. It’s beautiful there, — fairy-land. You can’t see anything down below, but above the long moss hangs in fine, silvery lines like spray from ever so high up, and mixed with it air-plants, sheafs, and bells of scarlet and cream-colored blossoms. I sat there a long time looking, and I suppose I must have dozed ; for I don’t know when I fell.”
“ You did not hear me shout ? ”
“No. The first consciousness I had was the odor of brandy.”
“ The odor reached you, and the sound did not: that is one of the tricks of such air as this ! You must have climbed up, I suppose, at the place where I lost the trail. What time did you come in ? ”
“ I don’t know,” murmured Carl drowsily.
“ Look here ! you must keep awake ! ”
“ I can’t,” answered the other.
Deal shook him, but could not rouse him even to anger. He only opened his blue eyes and looked reproachfully at his brother, but as though he was a long distance off. Then Deal lifted him up, uncorked the flask, and put it to his lips.
“ Drink ! ” he said, loudly and sternly ; and mechanically Carl obeyed. Once or twice his head moved aside, as if refusing more ; but Deal again said, “ Drink ! ” and without pity made the sleeper swallow every drop the flask contained. Then he laid him down upon the coat again, and covered his face and head with his own broad-brimmed palmetto hat, Carl’s hat having been lost, He had done all he could, — changed the lethargy of the South Devil into the sleep of drunkenness, the last named at least a human slumber. He was now left to keep the watch alone.
During the first half hour a dozen red and green things, of the centipede and scorpion kind, stupefied by the glare of the torches, fell from the trees; and he dispatched them. Next, enormous grayish-white spiders, in color exactly like the bark, moved slowly one furred leg into view, and then another, on the trunks of the cypresses near by, gradually coming wholly into the light, — creatures covering a circumference as large as that of a plate. At length the cypresses all around the knoll were covered with them ; and they all seemed to be watching him. He was not watching the spiders, however ; he cared very little for the spiders. His eyes were upon the ground all the time, moving along the borders of his little knoll fort. It was bounded on two sides by pools, in whose dark depths he knew moccasins were awake, watching the light too with whatever of curiosity belongs to a snake’s cold brain. His torches aroused them ; and yet darkness would have been worse. In the light he could at least see them, if they glided forth and tried to ascend the brilliant knoll. After a while they began to rise to the surface ; he could distinguish portions of their bodies in waving lines, moving noiselessly hither and thither, appearing and disappearing suddenly, until the pools around seemed alive with them. There was not a sound ; the soaked forest stood motionless. The absolute stillness made the quick gliding motions of the moccasins even more horrible. Yet Deal had no instinctive dread of snakes. The terrible “coach-whip,” the deadly and grotesque spread-adder, the rattlesnake of the barrens, and these great moccasins of the pools were endowed with no imaginary horrors in his eyes. He accepted them as nature made them, and not as man’s fancy painted them; it was only their poison fangs he feared.
“ If the sea-crab could sting, how hideous we should think him ! If the lobster had a deadly venom, how devilish his shape would seem to us ! ” he said.
But now no imagination was required to make the moccasins terrible. His revolver carried six balls ; and he had already used one of them. Four hours must pass before dawn ; there could be no unnecessary shooting. The creatures might even come out, and move along the edge of his knoll; only when they showed an intention of coming up the slope must their gliding life be ended. The moccasin is not a timorous or quicknerved snake; in a place like the South Devil, when a human foot or boat approaches, generally he does not stir. His great body, sometimes over six feet in length, and thick and fat in the middle, lies on a log or at the edge of a pool, seemingly too lazy to move. But none the less, when roused, is his coil sudden and his long spring sure; his venom is deadly. After a time one of the creatures did come out and glide along the edge of the knoll. He went back into the water ; but a second came out on the other side. During the night Deal killed three ; he was an excellent marksman, and picked them off easily as they crossed his dead-line.
“ Fortunately they come one by one,” he said to himself. “ If there was any concert of action among them, I could n’t hold the place a minute.”
As the last hour began, the long hour before dawn, he felt the swamp lethargy stealing into his own brain ; he saw the trees and torches doubled. He walked to and fro more quickly, and sang to keep himself awake. He knew only a few old-fashioned songs, and the South Devil heard that night, probably for the first time in its tropical life, the ancient Northern strains of “ Gayly the Troubadour touched his guitar.” Deal was no troubadour, and he had no guitar. But he sang on bravely, touching that stringed instrument, vocally at least, and bringing himself " home from the war ” over and over again, until at last faint dawn penetrated from above down to the knoll where the four torches were burning. They were the last torches, and Deal was going through his sixtieth rehearsal of the Troubadour ; but, instead of “ Lady-love, lady-lo-o-o-ve,” whom he apostrophized, a large moccasin rose from the pool, as if in answer. She might have been the queen of the moccasins, and beautiful — to moccasin eyes; but to Deal she was simply the largest and most hideous of all the snake visions of the night. He gave her his fifth ball, full in her mistaken brain; and if she had admired him (or the Troubadour), she paid for it with her life.
This was the last. Daylight appeared. The watchman put out his torches, and roused the sleeper. “ Carl! Carl! It’s daylight. Let us get out of this confounded crawling hole, and have a breath of fresh air.”
Carl stirred, and opened his eyes; they were heavy and dull. His brother lifted him, told him to hold on tightly, and started with his burden towards home. The snakes had disappeared, the gray spiders had vanished; he could see his way now, and he followed his own trail, which he had taken care to make distinct when he came in, the night before. But, loaded down as he was, and obliged to rest frequently and also to go around all the pools, hours passed before he reached the last cypresses and came out on the old causeway across the sugar waste.
It was Christmas morning ; the thermometer stood at eighty-eight.
Carl slept off his enforced drunkenness in his hammock. Mark, having bandaged his brother’s strained ankles, threw himself upon his rude couch, and fell into a heavy slumber also, He slept until sunset; then he rose, plunged his head into a tub of the limpid, pure, but never cold water of Florida, drawn from his shallow well, and went out to the chimney to see about dinner. The chimney was doing finely : a fiery plume of sparks waved from its white top, a red bed of coals glowed below. Scip moved about with as much equanimity as though he had a row of kitchen tables upon which to arrange his pans and dishes, instead of ruined blocks of stone, under the open sky. The dinner was good. Carl, awake at last, was carried out to the table to enjoy it, and then brought back to his chair in front of the house to smoke his evening pipe.
“ I must make you a pair of crutches,” said Deal.
“ One will do ; my right ankle is not much hurt, I think.”
The fall, the air of the swamp, and the inward drenching of brandy had left Carl looking much as usual; the tenacious disease that held him swallowed the lesser ills. But for the time, at least, his wandering footsteps were stayed.
“ I suppose there is no use in my asking, Carl, why you went in there ? ” said Deal, after a while.
“ No, there is n’t. I’m haunted, — that’s all.”
“ But what is it that haunts you ? ”
“ Sounds. You could n’t understand, though, if I was to talk all night,”
“ Perhaps I could ; perhaps I can understand more than you imagine. I ’ll tell you a story, presently; but first you must explain to me, at least as well as you can, what it is that attracts you in South Devil.”
“Oh — well,” said Carl, with a long, impatient sigh, closing his eyes wearily. “ I am a musician, you know, a musician manqué ; a musician who can’t play. Something’s the matter ; I hear music, but cannot bring it out. And I know so well what it ought to be, ought to be and is n’t, that I’ve broken my violin in pieces a dozen times in my rages about it. Now, other fellows in orchestras, who don't know, get along very well. But I could n’t. I’ve thought at times that, although I cannot sound what I hear with my own hands, perhaps I could write it out so that other men could sound it. The idea has never come to anything definite yet, — that is, what you would call definite ; but it haunts me persistently, and now it has got into that swamp. The wish,” here Carl laid down his great pipe, and pressed his hand eagerly upon his brother’s knee, — “ the wish that haunts me — drives me — is to write out the beautiful music of the South Devil, the sounds one hears in there ” —
“ But there are no sounds.”
“ No sounds ? You must be deaf ! The air fairly reeks with sounds, with harmonies. But there, — I told you you could n’t understand.” He leaned back against the wall again, and took up the great pipe, which looked as though it must consume whatever small store of strength remained to him.
“ Is it what is called an opera you want to write, like — like the Creation, for instance ? ” asked Deal. The Creation was the only long piece of music he had ever heard.
Carl groaned. “ Oh, don't talk of it! ” he said; then added, irritably, “ It’s a song, that’s all, — the song of a Southern swamp.”
“ Call it by it’s real name, Devil,” said the elder brother, grimly.
“ I would, if I was rich enough to have a picture painted,—the Spirit of the Swamp, — a beautiful woman, falsely called a devil by cowards, dark, languorous, mystical, sleeping among the vines I saw up there, with the great red blossoms dropping around her.”
“ And the great mottled snakes coiling over her ? ”
“ I did n’t see any snakes.”
“Well,” said Mark, refilling his pipe, “ now I’m going to tell you my story. When I met you on that windy pier at Exton, and proposed that you should come down here with me, I was coming myself, in any case, was n’t I ? And why ? I wanted to get to a place where I could be warm, — warm, hot, baked ; warm through and through; warm all the time. I wanted to get to a place where the very ground was warm. And now — I ’ll tell you why.”
He rose from his seat, laid down his pipe, and, extending his hand, spoke for about fifteen minutes without pause. Then he turned, went back hastily to the old chimney, where red coals still lingered, and sat down close to the glow, leaving Carl wonder-struck in his tilted chair. The elder man leaned over the fire and held his hands close to the coals ; Carl watched him. It was nine o’clock, and the thermometer marked eighty.
For nearly a month after Christmas, life on the old plantation went on without event or disaster. Carl, with his crutch and cane, could not walk far; his fancy now was to limp through the east orange aisle to the place of tombs, and sit there for hours, playing softly, what might be called crooning, on his violin. The place of tombs was a small, circular space surrounded by wild orange-trees in a close, even row like a hedge ; here were four tombs, massive, oblong blocks of the white conglomerate of the coast, too coarse-grained to hold inscription or mark of any kind. Who the old Spaniards were whose bones lay beneath, and what names they bore in the flesh, no one knew; all record was lost. Outside in the wild thicket was a tomb still more ancient, and of different construction : four slabs of stone, uncovered, about three feet high, rudely but firmly placed, as though inclosing a coffin. In the earth between these low walls grew a venerable cedar ; but, old as it was, it must have been planted by chance or by hand after the human body beneath had been laid in its place.
“ Why do you come here ? ” said Deal, pausing and looking into the place of tombs, one morning, on his way to the orange-grove. “ There are plenty of pleasanter spots about.”
“ No ; I like this better,” answered Carl, without stopping the low chant of his violin. “ Besides, they like, it too.” “ Who ? ”
“ The old fellows down below. The chap outside there, who must have been an Aztec, I suppose, and the original proprietor, catches a little of it; but I generally limp over and give him a tune to himself before going home. I have to imagine the Aztec style.”
Mark gave a short laugh, and went on to his work. But he knew the real reason for Carl’s fancy for the place : between the slim, clean trunks of the orange-trees, the long green line of South Devil bounded the horizon, the flat tops of the cypresses far above against the sky, and the vines and silver moss filling the space below, — a luxuriant wall across the broad, thinly-treed expanses of the pine barrens.
One evening in January Deal came homeward as usual at sunset, and found a visitor. Carl introduced him. “ My friend Schwartz,” he said. Schwartz merited his name ; he was dark in complexion, hair, and eyes, and if he had any aims they were dark also He was full of anecdotes and jests, and Carl laughed heartily ; Mark had never heard him laugh in that way before. The elder brother ordered a good supper, and played the host as well as he could; but, in spite of the anecdotes, he did not altogether like friend Schwartz. Early the next morning, while the visitor was still asleep, he called Carl outside, and asked in an undertone who he was.
“ Oh, I met him first in Berlin, and afterwards I knew him in New York,” said Carl. “All the orchestra fellows know Schwartz.”
“ Is he a musician, then ? ”
“ Not exactly; but he used to be always around, you know.”
“ How comes he down here ? ”
“ Just chance. He had an offer from a sort of a — of a restaurant, up in San Miguel, a new place recently opened. The other day he happened to find out that I was here, and so came down to see me.”
“ How did he find out ? ”
“ I suppose you gave our names to the agent when you took the place, did n’t you ? ”
“ I gave mine ; and — yes, I think I mentioned you.”
“ If you did n’t, I mentioned myself. I was at San Miguel two weeks, you remember, while you were making ready down here ; and I venture to say almost everybody remembers Carl Brenner.”
Mark smiled. Carl’s fixed, assured self-conceit in the face of the utter failure he had made of his life did not annoy, but rather amused him ; it seemed part of the lad’s nature.
“ I don’t want to grudge you your amusement, Carl,” he said ; “ but I don’t much like this Schwartz of yours.”
“ He won’t stay ; he has to go back to-day. He came in a cart with a man from San Miguel, who, by some rare chance, had an errand down this forgotten, God - forsaken, dead - alive old road. The man will pass by on his way home this afternoon, and Schwartz is to meet him at the edge of the barren.”
“ Have an early dinner, then; there are birds and venison, and there is lettuce enough for a salad. Scip can make you some coffee.”
But although he thus proffered his best, none the less did the elder brother take with him the key of the little chest which contained his small store of brandy and the two or three bottles of orange wine which he had brought down with him from San Miguel.
After he had gone, Schwartz and Carl strolled around the plantation in the sunshine. Schwartz did not care to sit down among Carl’s tombs ; he said they made him feel moldy. Carl argued the point with him in vain, and then gave it up, and took him around to the causeway across the sugar waste, where they stretched themselves out in the shade cast by the ruined wall of the old mill.
“ What brought this brother of yours away down here?” asked the visitor, watching a chameleon on the wall near by. “ See that little beggar swelling out his neck ! ”
“ He’s catching flies. In a storm they will come and hang themselves by one paw on our windows, and the wind will blow them out like dead leaves, and rattle them about, and they ’ll never move. But when the sun shines out, there they are all alive again.”
“ But about your brother ? ”
“ He is n’t my brother.”
“ What ? ”
“ My mother, a widow, named Brenner, with one son, Carl, married his father, a widower, named Deal, with one son, Mark. There you have the whole.”
“ He is a great deal older than you. I suppose he has been in the habit of assisting you ? ”
“ Never saw him in my life until this last October, when, one windy day, he found me coughing on the Exton pier; and, soon afterward, he brought me down here.”
“ Came, then, on your account ? ”
“ By no means ; he was coming himself. It’s a queer story ; I ’ll tell it to you. It seems he went with the Kenton Arctic expedition, — you remember it ? Two of the ships were lost; his was one. But I ’ll have to get up and say it as he did.” Here Carl rose, put down his pipe, extended one hand stiffly in a fixed position, and went on speaking, his very voice, by force of the natural powers of mimicry he possessed, sounding like Mark’s : —
“ We were a company of eight when we started away from the frozen hulk, which would never see clear water under her bows again. Once before we had started, thirty-five strong, and had come back thirteen. Five had died in the old ship, and now the last survivors were again starting forth. We drew a sledge behind us, carrying our provisions and the farcical records of the expedition which had ended in death, as they must all end. We soon lose sight of the vessel. It was our only shelter, and we look back; then, at each other. ‘ Cheer up ! ’ says one. ‘ Take this extra skin, Mark; I am stronger than you.’ It’s Procter’s voice that speaks. Ten days go by. There are only five of us now, and we are walking on doggedly across the ice, the numbing ice, the killing ice, the never-ending, gleaming, taunting, devilish ice. We have left the sledge behind. No trouble now for each to carry his share of food, it is so light. Now we walk together for a while ; now we separate, sick of seeing one another’s pinched faces, but we keep within call. On the eleventh day a wind rises ; bergs come sailing into view. One moves down upon us. Its peak shining in the sunshine far above is nothing to the great mass that moves on under the water. Our ice - field breaks into a thousand pieces. We leap from block to block; we cry aloud in our despair ; we call to each other, and curse, and pray. But the strips of dark water widen between us; our ice-islands grow smaller; and a current bears us onward. We can no longer keep in motion, and freeze as we stand. Two float near each other as darkness falls : ‘ Cheer up, Mark, cheer up! ’ cries one, and throws his flask across the gap between. Again it is Procter’s voice that speaks.
“ In the morning only one is left alive. The others are blocks of ice, and float around in the slow eddy, each solemnly staring, one foot advanced, as if still keeping up the poor cramped steps with which he had fought off death. The one who is still alive floats around and around, with these dead men standing stiffly on their islands, all day, sometimes so near them that the air about him is stirred by their icy forms as they pass. At evening his cake drifts away through an opening towards the south, and he sees them no more, save that after him follows his dead friend, Procter, at some distance behind. As night comes, the figure seems to wave its rigid hand in the distance, and cry from its icy throat, ' Cheer up, Mark, and goodby ? ”
Here Carl stopped, rubbed his hands, shivered, and looked to see how his visitor took the narrative.
“ It’s a pretty cold story,” said Schwartz, “ even in this broiling sun. So he came down here to get a good, full warm, did he ? He’s got the cash, I suppose, to pay for his fancies.”
“ I don’t call that a fancy, exactly,” said Carl, seating himself on the hot white sand in the sunshine, with his thin hands clasped around his knees. “ As to cash, — I don’t know. He works very hard.”
“ He works because he likes it,” said Schwartz, contemptuously ; “ he looks like that sort of a man. But, at any rate, he don’t make you work much! ”
“ He is awfully good to me,” admitted Carl.
“ It is n’t on account of your beauty.”
“ Oh, I’m good-looking enough in my way,” replied the youth. “ I acknowledge it is n’t a common way ; like yours, for instance.” As he spoke, he passed his hand through his thin light hair, drew the ends of the long locks forward, and examined them admiringly.
“ As he never saw you before, it could n’t have been brotherly love,” pursued the other. “ I suppose it was pity.”
“ No, it was n’t pity, either, you old blockhead,” said Carl, laughing. “ He likes to have me with him ; he likes me.”
“ I see that myself, and that’s exactly the point. Why should he? You have n’t any inheritance to will to him, have you ? ”
“ My violin, and the clothes on my back. I believe that’s all,” answered Carl, lightly. He took off his palmetto hat, made a pillow of it, and stretched himself out at full length, closing his eyes.
“Well, give me a brother with cash, and I ’ll go to sleep, too,” said Schwartz. When Deal came home at sunset, the dark-skinned visitor was gone.
But he came again; and this time stayed three days. Mark allowed it, for Carl’s sake. All he said was, “ He cannot be of much use in the restaurant up there. What is he ? Cook ? Or waiter ? ”
“ Oh, Schwartz is n’t a servant, old fellow. He helps entertain the guests.”
“ Sings, I suppose.”
Carl did not reply, and Deal set Schwartz down as a lager-beer-hall ballad singer, borne southward on the tide of winter travel to Florida. One advantage at least was gained, — when Schwartz was there, Carl was less tempted by the swamp.
And now, a third time, the guest came. During the first evening of this third visit, he was so good-tempered, so frankly lazy and amusing, that even Deal was disarmed. “ He’s a good-for-nothing, probably ; but there’s no active harm in him,” he said to himself.
The second evening was a repetition of the first.
When he came home at sunset on the third evening, Carl was lying coiled up close to the wall of the house, his face hidden in his arms.
“What are you doing there?” said Deal, as he passed by, on his way to put up the tools.
No answer. But Carl had all kinds of whims, and Deal was used to them. He went across to Scip’s chimney.
“Awful time, cap’en,” said the old negro, in a low voice. “Soon’s yon’s gone, dat man make young marse drink, and bot’ begin to holler and fight.”
“ Drink ? They had no liquor.”
“ Yes, dey hab. Mus’ hab brought ’em ’long.”
“ Where is the man ? ”
“ Oh, he gone long ago, — gone at noon.”
Deal went to his brother. “ Carl,” he said, “ get up. Dinner is ready.” But the coiled form did not stir.
“ Don’t be a fool,” continued Deal. “ I know you’ve been drinking; Scip told me. It’s a pity. But no reason why you should not eat.”
Carl did not move. Deal went off to his dinner, and sent some to Carl. But the food remained untasted. Then Deal passed into the house, to get some tobacco for his pipe. Then a loud cry was heard. The hiding-place which his Yankee fingers had skillfully fashioned in the old wall had been rifled; all his money was gone. No one knew the secret of the spot but Carl.
“ Did he overpower you, and take it ? ” he asked, kneeling down and lifting Carl by force, so that he could see his face.
“ No; I gave it to him,” Carl answered, thickly and slowly.
“ You gave it to him ? ”
“ I lost it, — at cards.”
“ Cards ! ”
Deal had never thought of that. All at once the whole flashed upon him : the gambler who was always “ around ” with the “ orchestra fellows ; ” the “ restaurant ” at San Miguel where he helped “ entertain ” the guests ; the probability that business was slack in the ancient little town, unaccustomed to such luxuries ; and the treasure-trove of an old acquaintance within a day’s journey, — an old acquaintance like Carl, who had come also into happy possession of a rich brother. A rich brother! — probably that was what Schwartz called him !
At any rate, rich or poor, Schwartz had it all. With the exception of one hundred dollars which he had left at San Miguel as a deposit, he had now only five dollars in the world; Carl had gambled away his all.
It was a hard blow.
He lifted his brother in his arms and carried him in to his hammock. A few minutes later, staff in hand, he started down the live-oak avenue towards the old road which led northward to San Miguel. The moonlight was brilliant; he walked all night. At dawn he was searching the little city.
Yes, the man was known there. He frequented the Esmeralda Parlors. The Esmeralda Parlors, however, represented by an attendant, a Northern mulatto, with straight features, long, narrow eyes, and pale-golden skin, a bronze piece of insolence, who was also more faultlessly dressed than any one else in San Miguel, suavely replied that Schwartz was no longer one of their “ guests ; ” he had severed his connection with the Parlors several days before. Where was he ? The Parlors had no idea.
But the men about the docks knew. Schwartz had been seen the previous evening negotiating passage at the last moment on a coasting schooner bound South, — one of those nondescript little craft engaged in smuggling and illegal trading, with which the waters of the West Indies are infested. The schooner had made her way out of the harbor by moonlight. Although ostensibly bound for Key West, no one could say with any certainty that she would touch there ; bribed by Schwartz, with all the harbors, inlets, and lagoons of the West Indies open to her, pursuit would be worse than hopeless. Deal realized this. He ate the food he had brought with him, drank a cup of coffee, called for his deposit, and then walked back to the plantation.
When he came into the little plaza, Carl was sitting on the steps of their small house. His head was clear again ; he looked pale and wasted.
“It’s all right,” said Deal. “I’ve traced him. In the mean time, don’t worry, Carl. If I don’t mind it, why should you ? ”
Without saying more, he went inside, changed his shoes, then came out, ordered dinner, talked to Scip, and when the meal was ready called Carl, and took his place at the table as though nothing had happened. Carl scarcely spoke; Deal approved his silence, He felt so intensely for the lad, realized so strongly what he must be feeling, — suffering and feeling, — that conversation on the subject would have been at that early moment unendurable. But waking during the night, and hearing him stirring, uneasy, and apparently feverish, he went across to the hammock.
“You are worrying about it, Carl, and you are not strong enough to stand worry. Look here, — I have forgiven you; I would forgive you twice as much. Have you no idea why I brought you down here with me?”
“ Because you ’re kind-hearted. And perhaps, too, you thought it would be lonely,” answered Carl.
“No, I’m not kind-hearted, and I never was lonely in my life. I didn’t intend to tell you, but — you must not worry. It is your name, Carl, and — and your blue eyes. I was fond of Eliza.”
“ Fond of Leeza, — Leeza Brenner ? Then why on earth did n’t you marry her?” said Carl, sitting up in his hammock, and trying to see his step-brother’s face in the moonlight that came through the chinks in the shutters.
Mark’s face was in shadow. “She liked some one else better,” he said.
“Never mind. But — yes, I will tell you, — Graves.”
“John Graves? That dunce? No, she did n’t.”
“ As it happens, I know she did. But we won’t talk about it. I only told you to show you why I cared for you.”
“ I would n’t care about a girl that did n’t care for me,” said Carl, still peering curiously through the checkered darkness. The wizened young violin player fancied himself an omnipotent power among women. But Deal had gone to his bed, and would say no more.
Carl had heard something now which deeply astonished him. He had not been much troubled about the lost money ; it was not in his nature to be much troubled about money at any time. He was sorry; but what was gone was gone ; why waste thought upon it ? This he called philosophy. Mark, out of regard for Carl’s supposed distress, had forbidden conversation on the subject; but he was not shutting out, as be thought, torrents of shame, remorse, and self-condemnation. Carl kept silence willingly enough; but even if the bar had been removed, he would have had little to say. During the night his head had ached, and he had had some fever; but it was more the effect of the fiery, rank liquor pressed upon him by Schwartz than of remorse. But now he had heard what really interested and aroused him. Mark in love! — hardworking, steady, dull old Mark, whom he had thought endowed with no fancies at all, save perhaps that of being thoroughly warmed after his arctic freezing. Old Mark fond of Leeza, — in love with Leeza!
Leeza was n’t much. Carl did not even think his cousin pretty ; his fancy was for something large and Oriental. But, pretty or not, she had evidently fascinated Mark Deal, coming, a poor little orphan maid, with her aunt, Carl’s mother, to brighten old Abner Deal’s farmhouse, one mile from the windy Exton pier. Carl’s mother could not hope to keep her German son in this new home ; but she kept little Leeza, or Eliza, as the neighbors called her. And Mark, a shy, awkward boy, had learned to love the child, who had sweet blue eyes, and thick braids of flaxen hair fastened across the back of her head.
“ To care all that for Leeza ! ” thought Carl, laughing silently in his hammock. “ And then to fancy that she liked that Graves! And then to leave her, and come away off down here, just on the suspicion ! ”
But Carl was mistaken. A man, be he never so awkward and silent, will generally make at least one effort to get the woman he loves. Mark had made two, and failed. After his first, he had gone North; after his second, he had come South, bringing Leeza’s cousin with him.
In the morning a new life began on the old plantation. First, Scipio was dismissed; then the hunter who had kept the open-air larder supplied with game, an old man of unknown, or rather mixed descent, having probably Spanish, African, and Seminole blood in his veins, was told that his services were required no more.
“ But are you going to starve us, then ? ” asked Carl, with a comical grimace.
“ I am a good shot, myself,” replied Deal; “ and a fair cook, too.”
“ But why do you do it ? ” pursued the other. He had forgotten all about the money.
The elder man looked at his brother. Could it be possible that he had forgotten ? And, if he had, was it not necessary, in their altered circumstances, that the truth should be brought plainly before his careless eyes ?
“ I am obliged to do it,” he answered, gravely. “ We must be very saving, Carl. Things will be easier, I hope, when the fields begin to yield.”
“ Good heavens, you don’t mean to say I took all you had! ” said Carl, with an intonation showing that the fact that the abstracted sum was “ all ” was impressing him more than any agency of his own in the matter.
“ I told you I did not mind it,” answered Mark, going off with his gun and game-bag.
“ But I do, by Jove! ” said Carl to himself, watching him disappear.
Musicians, in this world’s knowledge and wisdom, are often fools, or rather they remain always children. The beautiful gift, the divine gift, the gift which is the nearest to heaven, is accompanied by lacks of another sort. Carl Brenner, like a child, could not appreciate poverty unless his dinner was curtailed, his tobacco gone. The petty changes now made in the small routine of each day touched him acutely, and roused him at last to the effort of connected, almost practical thought. Old Mark was troubled,— poor. The cook was going, the hunter discharged; the dinners would be good no longer. This was because he, Carl, had taken the money. There was no especial harm in the act per se ; but as the sum happened to be all old Mark bad, it was unfortunate. Under the circumstances, what could he, Carl, do to help old Mark ?
Mark loved that light-headed little Leeza. Mark had brought him down here and taken care of him on Leeza’s account. Mark, therefore, should have Leeza. He, Carl, would bring it about. He set to work at once to be special providence in Mark’s affairs. He sat down, wrote a long letter, sealed it with a stern air, and then laid it on the table, got up, and surveyed it with decision. There it was, — done! Gone ! But no; not “gone ” yet. And how could it go ? He was now confronted by the difficulty of mailing it without Mark’s knowledge. San Miguel was the nearest post-office; and San Miguel was miles away. Africanus was half crippled; the old hunter would come no more; he himself could not walk half the distance. Then an idea came to him : Africanus, although dismissed, was not yet gone. He went out to find him.
Mark came home at night with a few birds. “ They will last us over one day,” he said, throwing down the spoil. “ You still here, Scip ? I thought I sent you off.”
“ He’s going to-morrow,” interposed Carl. Scip sat up all night cooking.
“ What in the world has got into him?” said Deal, as the light from the old chimney made their sleeping-room bright.
“ He wants to leave us well supplied, I suppose,” said Carl, from his hammock. “ Things keep better down here when they ’re cooked, you know.” This was true ; but it was unusual for Carl to interest himself in such matters.
The next morning Deal started on a hunting expedition, intending to be absent two days. Game was plenty in the high lands farther west. He had good luck, and came back at the end of the second day loaded, having left also several caches behind to be visited on the morrow. But there was no one in the house, or on the plantation; both Scip and Carl were gone.
A slip of paper was pinned to the red cotton door. It contained these words : “ It’s all right, old fellow. If I ’m not back at the end of three days, counting this as one, come into South Devil after me. You ’ll find a trail.”
“ Confound the boy ! ” said Deal, in high vexation. “ He’s crazy.” He took a torch, went to the causeway, and there saw from the foot-prints that two had crossed. “ Scip went with him,” he thought, somewhat comforted. “ The old black rascal used to declare that he knew every inch of the swamp.” He went back, cooked his supper, and slept. In the matter of provisions, there was little left save what he kept under lock and key. Scipio had started with a good supply. At dawn he rose, made a fire under the old chimney, cooked some venison, baked some corn-bread, and, placing them in his bag, started into South Devil, a bundle of torches slung on his back as before, his gun in his hand, his revolver and knife in his belt. “ They have already been gone two days,” he said to himself; “ they must be coming towards home, now.” He thought Carl was carrying out his cherished design of exploring the swamp. There was a trail, — hatchet marks on the trees, and broken boughs. “ That’s old Scip. Carl would never have been so systematic,” he thought.
He went on until noon; and then suddenly found himself on the bank of a sluggish stream. “ The Branch,” he said, — “ South Devil Branch. It joins West Devil, and the two make the San Juan Baptista (a queer origin for a saint!) three miles below Miguel. But where does the trail go, now ? ” It went nowhere. He searched and searched, and could not find it. It ended at the Branch. Standing there in perplexity, he happened to raise his eyes. Small attention had he hitherto paid to the tangled vines and blossoms swinging above him. He hated the beauty of South Devil. But now he saw a slip of paper hanging from a vine, and, seizing it, he read as follows: “We take boat here ; wait for me if not returned.”
Mark stood, the paper in his hand, thinking. There was only one boat in the neighborhood, a canoe belonging to the mongrel old hunter, who occasionally went into the swamp. Carl must have obtained this in some way ; probably the mongrel had brought it in by the Branch, or one of its tributaries, and this was the rendezvous. One comfort, — the old hunter must then be of the party, too. But why should he, Mark, wait, if Carl had two persons with him ? Still, the boy had asked. It ended in his waiting.
He began to prepare for the night. There was a knoll near by, and here he made a camp-fire, spending the time before sunset in gathering the wood by the slow process of climbing the trees and vines, and breaking off dead twigs and branches ; everything near the ground was wet and sogged. He planted his four torches, ate his supper, examined his gun and revolver, and then, as darkness fell, having nothing else to do, he made a plot on the ground with twigs and long splinters of light-wood, and played, one hand against the other, a swamp game of fox and geese. He played standing (his fox and geese were two feet high), so that he could keep a lookout for every sort of creature. There were wild-cats and bears in the interior of South Devil, and in the Branch, alligators. He did not fear the large creatures, however ; his especial guard, as before, was against the silent snakes. He lighted the fire and torches early, so that whatever uncanny inhabitants there might be in the near trees could have an opportunity of coming down and seeking night quarters elsewhere. He played game after game of fox and geese; and this time he sang Sweet Afton. He felt that he had exhausted the Troubadour on the previous occasion. He shot five snakes, and saw (or rather it seemed to him that he saw) five thousand others coiling and gliding over the roots of the cypresses all around. He made a ride not to look at them, if he could help it, as long as they did not approach. “ Otherwise,” he thought, “ I shall lose my senses, and think the very trees are squirming.”
It was a long, long night. The knoll was dented all over with holes made by the long splinters representing his fox and geese. Dizziness was creeping over him at intervals. His voice, singing Sweet Afton, had become hoarse and broken, and his steps uneven, as he moved to and fro, still playing the game dully, when at last dawn came. But although the flat tops of the great cypresses far above were bathed in the golden sunshine, it was long before the radiance penetrated to the dark glades below. The dank, watery aisles were still in gray shadow, when the watcher heard a sound, — a real sound now, not an imaginary one, — and at the same moment his glazed eyes saw a boat coming up the Branch. It was a white canoe, and paddled by a wraith ; at least, the creature who sat within looked so grayly pale, and its eyes in its still, white face so large and unearthly, that it seemed like a shade returned from the halls of death.
“ Why, Carl! ” said Mark, in a loud, unsteady voice, breaking through his own lethargy by main force. “ It’s you, Carl, is n’t it ? ”
He tramped down to the water’s edge, each step seeming to him a rod long, and now a valley, now a hill. The canoe touched the bank, and Carl fell forward; not with violence, but softly, and without strength. What little consciousness he had kept was now gone.
Dawn was coming down from above; the air was slightly stirred. The elder man’s head grew more steady, as he lifted his step-brother, gave him brandy, rubbed his temples and chest, and then, as he came slowly back to life again, stood thinking what he should do. They were a half-day’s journey from home, and Carl could not walk. If he attempted to carry him, he was fearful that they should not reach pure air outside before darkness fell again, and a second night in the thick air might be death for both of them ; but there was the boat. It had come into South Devil in some way ; by that way it should go out again. He laid Carl in one end, putting his own coat under his head for a pillow, and then stepped in himself, took the paddle, and moved off. Of course he must ascend the Branch; as long as there were no tributaries, he could not err. But presently he came to an everglade, — a broadening of the stream with apparently twenty different outlets, all equally dark and tangled, He paddled around the border, looking first at one, then at another. The matted water-vines caught at his boat like hundreds of hands ; the great lily leaves slowly sank and let the light bow glide over them. Carl slept; there was no use trying to rouse him; but probably he would remember nothing, even if awake. The elder brother took out his compass, and had decided by it which outlet to take, when his eye rested upon the skin of a moccasin nailed to a cypress on the other side of the pond. It was the mongrel’s way of making a guide-post. Without hesitation, although the direction was the exact opposite of the one he had selected, Deal pushed the canoe across and entered the stream thus indicated. At the next pool he found another snake-skin ; and so on out of the swamp. Twenty-five snakes had died in the cause. He came to firm land at noon, two miles from the plantation. Carl was awake now, but weak and wandering. Deal lifted him on shore, built a fire, heated some meat, toasted corn-bread, and made him eat. Then, leaning upon his brother’s arm, walking slowly, and often pausing to rest, the blue-eyed ghost reached home at sunset, — two miles in five hours.
Ten days now passed; the mind of the young violin player did not regain its poise. He rose and dressed himself each morning, and slept in the sunshine as before. He went to the place of tombs, carrying his violin, but forgot to play. Instead, he sat looking dreamily at the swamp. He said little; and what he did say was disconnected. The only sentence which seemed to have meaning, and to be spoken earnestly, was, “ It’s all right, old fellow. Just you wait fifteen days, — fifteen days! ” But when Mark questioned him, he could get no definite reply ; only a repetition of the exhortation to “ wait fifteen days.”
Deal went over to one of the mongrel’s haunts, and, by good luck, found him at home. The mongrel had a number of camps which he occupied according to convenience. The old man acknowledged that he had lent his canoe, and that he had accompanied Carl and Scip part of the way through South Devil. But only part of the way ; then he left them, and struck across to the west. Where were they going? Why, straight to San Miguel; the Branch brought them to the King’s road crossing, and the rest of the way they went on foot. What were they going to do in San Miguel ? The mongrel had no idea; he had not many ideas. Scip was to stay up there ; Brenner was to return alone in the canoe, they having made a trail all the way.
Deal returned to the plantation. He still thought that Carl’s idea had been merely to explore the swamp.
Twelve days had passed, and had grown to fourteen ; Carl was no stronger. He was very gentle now, like a sick child. Deal was seized with a fear that this soft quiet was the peace that often comes before the last to the poor racked frame of the consumptive. He gave up all but the necessary work, and stayed with Carl all day. The blue-eyed ghost smiled, but said little; into its clouded mind penetrated but one ray, — “ Wait fifteen days.” Mark had decided that the sentence meant, nothing but some wandering fancy. Spring in all her superb luxuriance was now wreathing Florida with flowers ; the spring flowers met the old flowers, the spring leaves met the old leaves. The yellow jessamine climbed over miles of thicket; the myriad purple balls of the sensitive-plant starred the ground; the atamasco lilies grew whitely, each one shining all alone, in the wet woods ; chocolate-hued orchids nodded, and the rose-colored ones rang their bells, at the edge of the barren. The old causeway across the sugar waste was blue with violets, and Mark carried Carl thither; he would lie there contentedly in the sunshine for hours, his pale fingers toying with the blue blossoms, his eyes lifted to the green line of South Devil across the sapphire sky.
One afternoon he fell asleep there, and Mark left him to cook their dinner. When he came back, his step-brother’s eyes had reason in them once more, or rather remembrance.
“ Old fellow,” he said, as Mark, surprised and somewhat alarmed at the change, sat down beside him, “ you got me out of the swamp, I suppose ? I don’t remember getting myself out. Now I want to ask something. I’m going to leave this world in a few days, and try it in another; better luck next time, you know. What I want to ask is that you ’ll take me up and bury me at San Miguel in a little old buryingground they have there, on a knoll overlooking the ocean. I don’t want to lie here with the Dons and the Aztecs; and, besides, I particularly want to be carried through the swamp. Take me through in the canoe, as I went the last time ; it’s the easiest way, and there’s a trail. And I want to go. And do not cover my face, either ; I want to see. Promise.”
Mark promised, and Carl closed his eyes. Then he roused himself again.
“ Inquire at the post-office in San Miguel for a letter,” he said, drowsily. “ Promise.” Again Mark promised. He seemed to sleep for some minutes ; then he spoke again.
“ I heard that music, you know, — heard it all out plainly and clearly,” he said, looking quietly at his brother. “ I know the whole, and have sung it over to myself a thousand times since. I cannot write it down now. But it will not be lost.”
“ Music is never lost, I suppose,” answered Mark, somewhat at random.
“ Certainly not,” said Carl, with decision. “ My song will be heard some time.
I ’m sure of that. And it will be much admired.”
“ I hope so.”
“ You try to be kind always, don’t you, old fellow, whether you comprehend or not ? ” said the boy, with his old superior smile, — the smile of the artist, who, although he be a failure and a pauper, yet always pities the wise. Then he slept again. At dawn, peacefully and with a smile, he died.
It should not have been expected, perhaps, that he could live. But, in some way, Mark had expected it.
A few hours later a canoe was floating down the Branch through South Devil. One man was paddling at the stern ; another was stretched on a couch, with his head on a pillow placed at the bow, where he could see the blossoming net-work above through his closed eyes. As Carl had said, Scipio had left a trail all the way, — a broken branch, a bent reed, or a shred of cloth tied to the lilyleaves. All through the still day they glided on, the canoe moving without a sound on the bosom of the dark stream. They passed under the gray and solemn cypresses, rising without branches to an enormous height, their far foliage hidden by the moss, which hung down thickly in long flakes, diffusing the sunshine and making it silvery like mist; in the silver swung the air-plants, great cream-colored disks, and wands of scarlet, crowded with little buds, blossoms that looked like butterflies, and blossoms that looked like humming-birds, and little dragon-heads with grinning faces. Then they came to the region of the palms ; these shot up, slender and graceful, and leaned over the stream, the great aureum ferns growing on their trunks high in the air. Beneath was a firmer soil than in the domain of the cypresses, and here grew a mat of little flowers, each less than a quarter of an inch wide, close together, pink, blue, scarlet, yellow, purple, but never white, producing a hue singularly rich, owing to the absence of that colorless color which man ever mingles with his floral combinations, and strangely makes sacred alike to the bridal and to death. Great vines ran up the palms, knotted themselves, and came down again, hand over hand, wreathed in little fresh leaves of exquisite green. Birds with plumage of blush-rose pink flew slowly by ; also some with scarlet wings, and the jeweled paroquets. The great Savannah cranes stood on the shore, and did not stir as the boat moved by. And, as the spring was now in its prime, the alligators showed their horny heads above water, and climbed awkwardly out on the bank; or else, swimming by the side of the canoe, accompanied it long distances, no doubt moved by dull curiosity concerning its means of locomotion, and its ideas as to choice morsels of food. The air was absolutely still; no breeze reached these blossoming aisles ; each leaf hung motionless. The atmosphere was hot, and heavy with perfumes. It was the heart of the swamp, a riot of intoxicating, steaming, swarming, fragrant, beautiful, tropical life, without man to make or mar it. All the world was once so, before man was made.
Did Deal appreciate this beauty ? He looked at it, because he could not get over the feeling that Carl was looking at it too ; but he did not admire it. The old New England spirit was rising within him again at last, after the crushing palsy of the polar ice, and the icy looks of a certain blue-eyed woman.
He came out of the swamp an hour before sunset, and, landing, lifted his brother in his arms, and started northward toward San Miguel. The little city was near ; but the weight of a dead body grown cold is strange and mighty, and it was late evening before he entered the gate, carrying his motionless burden. He crossed the little plaza, and went into the ancient cathedral, laying it down on the chancel step before the high altar. It was the only place he could think of; and he was not repelled. A hanging lamp of silver burned dimly ; in a few moments kind hands came to help him. And thus Carl, who never went to church in life, went there in death, and, with tapers burning at his head and feet, rested all night under the picture of the madonna, with nuns keeping watch and murmuring their gentle prayers beside him.
The next morning, he was buried in the dry little burial-ground on the knoll overlooking the blue Southern ocean.
When all was over, Deal, feeling strangely lonely, remembered his promise, and turned towards the post-office. He expected nothing; it was only one of the poor lad’s fancies; still, he would keep his word. There was nothing for him.
He went out. Then an impulse made him turn back and ask if there was a letter for Carl. “ For Carl Brenner,” he said, and thought how strange it was that there was now no Carl. There was a letter; he put it into his pocket and left the town, going homeward by the King’s road on foot; the South Devil should see him no more. He slept part of the night by the rood-side, and reached home the next morning ; every thing was as he had left it. He made a fire and boiled some coffee ; then he set the little house in order, loaded his gun, and went out mechanically after game. The routine of daily life had begun again.
“It’s a pleasant old place,” he said to himself, as he went through one of the orange aisles and saw the wild oranges dotting the ground with their golden color. “ It’s a pleasant old place,” he repeated, as he went out into the hot, still sunshine beyond. He filled his game-bag, and sat down to rest a while before returning. Then for the first time he remembered the letter, and drew it forth. This was the letter Carl meant; Carl asked him to get it after he was dead; he must have intended, then, that he, Mark, should read it. He opened it, and looked at the small, slanting handwriting without recognizing it. Then from the inside a photograph fell out, and he took it up ; it was Leeza. On the margin was written, “For Mark.”
She had written; but, woman-like, not, as Carl expected, to Mark. Instead, she had written to Carl, and commissioned him to tell Mark — what ? Oh, a long story, such as girls tell, but with the point that after all she “ liked ” (liked?) Mark best. Carl’s letter had been blunt, worded with unflattering frankness. Leeza was tired of her own coquetries, lonely, and poor; she wrote her foolish little apologizing, confessing letter with tears in her blue eyes, — those blue eyes that sober, reticent Mark Deal could not forget.
Carl had gone to San Miguel, then, to mail a letter, — a letter which had brought this answer! Mark, with his face in his hands, thanked God that he had not spoken one harsh word to the boy for what had seemed obstinate disobedience, but had tended him gently to the last.
Then he rose, stretched his arms, drew along breath, and looked around. Everything seemed altered. The sky was brassy, the air an oven. He remembered the uplands where the oats grew, near Exton ; and his white sand-furrows seemed a ghastly mockery of fields. He went homeward and drew water from his well to quench his burning thirst; it was tepid, and he threw it away, recalling as he did so the spring under the cool brown rocks where he drank when a boy. A sudden repugnance came over him when his eyes fell on the wild oranges lying on the ground, over-ripe with rich, pulpy decay; he spurned them aside with his foot, and thought of the firm apples in the old orchard, a fruit cool and reticent, a little hard too, not giving itself to the first comer. Then there came over him the hue of Northern forests in spring, the late, reluctant spring of Exton; and the changeless olive-green of the pine barrens grew hideous in his eyes. But, most of all, there seized him a horror of the swamp, — a horror of its hot steaming air, and its intoxicating perfume, which reached him faintly even where he stood ; it seemed to him that if he stayed long within their reach his brain would be affected as Carl’s had been, and that he should wander within and die. For there would be no one to rescue him.
So strong was this new feeling, like a giant full armed, that he started that very night, carrying his gun and Carl’s violin, and a knapsack of clothes on his back, and leaving his other possessions behind. Their value was not great, but they made a princely home for the mongrel, who came over after he had departed, looked around stealthily, stole several small articles, and hastened away; came back again after a day or two, and stole a little more; and finally, finding the place deserted, brought back all his spoil and established himself there permanently, knowing full well that it would be long before Monteano’s would find another tenant from the North.
As Mark Deal passed across the King’s road bridge over the Branch (now soon to be sainted), he paused, and looked down into the north border of South Devil. Then he laid aside his gun and the violin, went off that way, and gathered a large bunch of swamp blossoms. Coming into San Miguel, he passed through the town and out to the little burial-ground beyond. Here he found the new-made grave, and laid the flowers upon it.
“ He will like them because they come from there,” was his thought.
Then, with a buoyant step, he started up the long, low, white peninsula, set with its olive woods in a sapphire sea; and his face was turned Northward.
Constance Fenimore Woolson.