Charles James Lever.

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some insignificant guest, would meet notice from none : not
one to ask what became of him ! when did he leave us ? to
whom did he say farewell ?

If there was something unspeakably sad in the solitude of
such a fate, there was that also which nerved the heart by a
sense of Self-sufficiency the very brother of Independence ;
and this thought gave me courage as I looked over the grassy
embankment, and peered into the gloomy fosse, which now,
in the indistinct light, seemed far deeper than ever. A low
marshy tract, undrained and uninhabitable, surrounded the
" Lazaretto " for miles; and if this insalubrious neighbour-
hood assisted in keeping up the malaria of fever, it compen-
sated, on the other hand, by interposing an unpopulated
district between the sick and the healthy.

These dreary wastes, pathless and untrodden, were a kind


of fabulous region among the patients for all kind of horrors,
peopled as the fancy of each dictated by the spirits of de-
parted " Leperos," by venomous serpents and cobras, or by
escaped galley-slaves, who led a life of rapine and murder.
The flitting jack-o'-lantern that often skimmed along the
surface, the wild cry of the plover, the dreary night wind
sighing over miles of plain, aided these superstitious, and
convinced many whose stubborn incredulity demanded corro-
boration from the senses. As for myself, if very far from
crediting the tales I had so often listened to, the theme left
its character of gloom upon my mind, and it was with a cold
shudder that I strained my eyes over the wide distance from
which a heavy exhalation was already rising. Determined
to derive comfort from every source, I bethought me that the
misty fog would assist my concealment, as if it were worth
while to pursue me through a region impregnated with all
the vapours of disease ! The bell had ceased : the bang of
the great iron wicket had resounded, and all was still. I
hesitated, I know not why : a moment before, my mind was
made up ; and now, it seemed like self-destruction to go on !
Here was life ! a sad and terrible existence truly ; but was
the dark grave better ? or, if it were, had I the right to make
the choice ? this was a subtlety that had not occurred till
now. The dull tramp of the patrol routed my musings, as
in quick time a party advanced up the alley towards me.
They were not visible from the darkness, but the distance
could not be great, and already I could hear the corporal
urging them forward, as the mists were rising, and a deadly
fog gathering over the earth. Any longer delay now, and
my project must be abandoned for ever, seeing that my lin-
gering outside the walls would expose me to close surveillance
for the future.

I arose suddenly and advanced to the very edge of the
cliff: would that I could only have scanned the depth below,
and seen where I was about to go ! Alas ! darkness was on
all ; a foot beneath where I stood all was black and undis-

The patrol were now about thirty paces from me; another
instant and I should be taken ! 1 clasped my hands together
convulsively, and with drawn-in breath and clenched lips, I
bent my knees to spring. Alas, they would not ! my strength
failed me at this last moment, and instead of a leap, my
limbs relaxed, and tottering under me, gave way. I lost my
balance, and fell over the cliff! Grasping the grassy surface
with the energy of despair, I tore tufts of long grass and


fern as I fell down down down till consciousness left
me, to be rallied again into life by a terrible " squash " into a
reedy swamp at the bottom. Up to my waist in duck- weed
and muddy water, I soon felt, however, that I had sustained
no other injury than a shock ; nay, even fancied that the con-
cussion had braced my nerves ; and as I looked up at the
dark mass of wall above me, I knew that my fall must have
been terrific.

Neither my bodily energy, nor my habiliments, favoured
me in escaping from this ditch : but I did rescue myself at
last ; and then, remembering that I must reach some place of
refuge before day broke, I set out over the moor, my only
pilotage being the occasionally looking back at the lights of
the hospital, and in sailor-fashion using them as my point of
departure. When creeping along the walks of the Lazaretto,
I was barely able to move ; and now, such a good ally is a
strong " will," I stepped out boldly and manfully.

As I walked on, the night cleared : a light fresh breeze
dissipated the vapour, and refreshed me as I went ; while
overhead, myriads of bright stars shone out, and served to
guide me on the trackless waste. If I often felt fatigue
stealing over me, a thought of the Lazaretto and its fearful
inmates nerved me to new efforts. Sometimes, so possessed
did I become with these fears, that I actually increased my
speed to a run, and thus exerting myself to the very utmost,
I made immense progress, and ere day began to break, found
myself at the margin of the moor, and the entrance to a
dense forest, which I remembered often to have seen of a
clear evening from the garden of the Lazaretto. With what
gratitude did I accept that leafy shade which seemed to
promise me its refuge ! I threw my arms around a tree in
the ecstasy of my delight, and felt, that now indeed I had
gained a haven of rest and safety. By good fortune, too, I
came upon a pathway ; a small piece of board nailed to a
tree bore the name of a village ; but this I could not read in
the half light ; still it was enough that I was sure of a beaten
track, and could not be lost in the dense intricacies of a pine-

The change of scene encouraged me to renewed exertion,
and I began to feel that so far from experiencing fatigue,
each mile I travelled supplied me with greater energy, and
that my strength rose each hour, as I left the Lazaretto
farther behind me.

" Ah, Con, my boy, fortune has not taken leave of you
yet!" said I, as I discovered that my severe exercise, far


from being injurious, as I had feared, was already bringing
back the glow of health to my frame, and spirit to my

There is something unspeakably calming in the solitude
of a forest, unlike the lone sensations inspired by the sea or
the prairie ; the feeling is one of peaceful quietude. The
tempered sunlight stealing through the leaves and boughs
entangled ; the giant trunks that tell of centuries ago the
short smooth mossy turf through which the tiny rivulet runs
without a channel, the little vistas opening like alleys, or
ending in some shady nook, bower-like, and retired, fill the
mind with a myriad of pleasant fancies. Instead of wander-
ing forth over the immensity of space, as when contemplating
the great ocean, or the desert, the heart here falls back upon
itself, and is satisfied with the little world around it.

Such were my reveries as I lay down beneath a tree, at
first, to muse, and then, to sleep ; and such a sleep as only a
weary foot-traveller knows, who, stretched under the shade
of a spreading tree, lies dreamless and lost. It must have
been late ere I awoke ; the sunlight came slanting obliquely
through the leaves, and bespoke the decline of day. I rose ;
at first my limbs were stiff and rigid, and my sensations
those of debility ; but after a little time my strength came
back, and I strode along freely. Continuing the path, I came,
after about three hours' fast walking, to a little open spot in
the wood, where the remains of a hut, and the charred frag-
ments of firewood, indicated a bivouac ; some morsels of
black bread strewn about, and a stray piece of dried venison,
argued that the party who had left them had but recently
quitted the spot ; very grateful for the negligent abundance
of their waste, I sat down, and by the aid of a little spring,
the reason, probably, of the selection of the spot for a halt,
made a capital supper, some chestnuts that had fallen from
the trees furnishing a delicious dessert. Night was fast
closing in, and 1 resolved on passing it where I was, the
shelter of the little hut being too tempting a refuge to relin-
quish easily. The next morning I started early, my mind
fully satisfied that I was preceded by some foot party, the
path not admitting of any other, with whom, by exertion, I
should be perhaps able to come up. I walked from day to
dawn with scarcely an interval of rest ; but, although the
tracks of many feet showed me my conjecture was right, I
did not succeed in overtaking them. Towards evening I
again came upon their bivouac-ground, which was even more
abundantly provided than the preceding one. They appeared


to have killed a buck ; and though having roasted an entire
Bide, had contented themselves with some steaks off tho
quarter. Upon this I feasted luxuriously, securing a sufficient
provision to last me for the next two or three days.

In this way I continued to travel for eight entire days, each
successive one hoping to overtake the party in advance ; and
if disappointed in this expectation, well pleased with the good
luck that had supplied me so far with food, and made my
journey safe and pleasant, for it was both. A single beast of
prey I never met with, nor even a serpent larger than the
common green snake, which is neither venomous nor bold ;
and, as for pleasure, I was free. Was not that alone happi-
ness for him who had been a prisoner among the " Leperos "
of Bexar ?

On the ninth day of my wandering, certain unmistakable
signs indicated that I was approaching the verge of the
forest ; the grass became deeper, the wood less dense ; the
undergrowth, too, showed the influence of winds and currents
of air. These, only appreciable by him who has watched
with anxious eyes every little change in the aspect of Nature,
became at last evident to the least observant in the thickened
bark, and the twisted branches of the trees, on which the
storms of winter were directed. Shall I own it ! my heart
grew heavy at these signs, boding, as they did, another
change of scene, and to what ? perhaps the bleak prairie
stretching away in dreary desolation ! Perhaps, some such
tract of swampy moor, where forests once had stood, but
now, lying in mere waste of rottenness and corruption
" clearings," as they are called the little intervals which
hard industry plants amid universal wildness, I could not
hope for, since I had often heard that no settlers ever
selected these places, to which access by water was difficult,
and the roads few and bad. What, then, was to come next ?
Not the sea coast that must be miles away to the eastward ;
not the chain of the Rocky Mountains they lay equally far
to the west.

While yet revolving these thoughts, I reached the verge of
the wood ; and suddenly, and without anything which might
apprise me of this singular change, I found myself standing
on the verge of a great bluff of land overlooking an ap-
parently boundless plain. The sight thus unexpectedly pre-
sented of a vast prairie for such it was was overwhelming
in its intense interest. My position, from a height of some
seven or eight hundred feet, gave me an uninterrupted view
over miles and miles of surface. Towards the far west a


ridge of rugged mountains could be seen, but to the south
and east a low flat horizon bounded the distance. The sur-
face of this great tract was covered for a short space by dry
cedars, apparently killed by a recent fire ; beyond that, a tall,
rank grass grew, through which I could trace something like
a road. This was, as I afterwards learned, a buffalo-trail,
these animals frequently marching in close column when in
search of water. The sun was setting as I looked, and
gilded the whole vast picture with its yellow glory ; but
as it sunk beneath the horizon, and permitted a clearer
view of the scene, I could perceive that everything trees,
grass, earth itself presented one uniform dry, burnt-up

Not a creature of any kind was seen to move over this
great plain ; not a wing cleaved the air above ; not a sound
broke the stillness beneath. It was a solitude the most com-
plete I ever conceived grand and imposing ! How my heart
sank within me as I sat and looked, thinking I was there
alone, without one creature near me, to linger out, perhaps,
some few days or hours of life, and die unseen, unwatched,
uncared for ! And to this sad destiny had ambition brought
me ! Were it not for the craving desire to become something
above my station to move in a sphere to which neither my
birth nor my abilities gave me any title and I should be
now the humble peasant, living by my daily labour in my
native land, my thoughts travelling in the worn track those
of my neighbours journeyed, and I neither better nor worse
off than they.

And for this wish insensate, foolish, as it was the expia-
tion is indeed heavy. I hid my head within my hands, and
tried to pray, but I could not. The mind harassed by various
conflicting thoughts is not in the best mood for supplication.
I felt like the criminal of whom I had once read, that when
the confessor came to visit him the night before his execution,
seemed eager and attentive for a while, but at last acknow-
ledged that his thoughts were centred upon one only theme
escape ! " To look steadfastly at the next world, you must
extinguish the light of this one ; " and how difficult is that!
how hard to close every chink and fissure through which
hope may dart a ray ! hope of life, hope of renewing the
struggle in which we are so often defeated, and where even
the victory is without value.

" Be it so," sighed I, at last; " the game is up ! " and I
lay down at the foot of a rock to die. My strength, long
sustained by expectation, had given way at last, and I felt


that the hour of release could not be distant. I drew my
hand across my eyes I am ashamed to own there were tears
there and just then, as if my vision had been cleared by the
act, I saw, or I thought I saw, in the plain beneath, the
glittering sparkle of flame. Was it the reflection of a star,
of which thousands were now studding the sky, in some pool
of rain water ? No ! it was real fire, which now, from one
red spark, burst forth into a great blaze, rolling out volumes
of black smoke, which rose like a column into the air.

Were they Indians who made it, or trappers ? or could it
be the party in whose track I had so long been following ;
and, if so, by what path had they descended ? Speculation
is half-brother to hope. No sooner had I begun to canvass
this proposition, than it aroused my drooping energies, and
rallied my failing courage.

I set about to seek for some clue to the descent, and by the
moonlight, which was now full and strong, I detected foot-
tracks in the clayey soil near the verge of the cliff. A little
after I found a narrow pathway, which seemed to lead down
the face of the bluff. The trees were scratched, too, in many
places with marks familiar to prairie travellers, but which to
me only betokened the fact that human hands had been at
work upon them. I gained courage by these, which, at least,
I knew were not "Indian signs," no more than the foot-tracks
were those of Indian feet.

The descent was tedious, and often perilous ; the path,
stopping abruptly short at rocks, from which the interval to
the next footing should be accomplished by a spring, or a
drop of several feet, was increased in danger by the indistinct
light. In the transit I received many a sore bruise, and ere
I reached the bottom my flannel drapery was reduced to a
string of rags which would have done no credit to a scare-

When looking from the top of the cliff, the fire appeared
to be immediately at its foot; but now I perceived it stood
about half a mile off in the plain. Thither I bent my steps,
half fearing, half hoping, what might ensue. So wearied was I
by the fatigue of the descent, added to the long day's journey,
that even in this short space I was often obliged to halt and
take rest. Exhaustion, hunger, and lassitude weighed me
down, till I went along with that half- despairing effort a worn-
out swimmer makes as his last before sinking.

A more pitiable object it would not be easy to picture.
The blood oozing from my wound, re-opened by the exertion,
had stained my flannel dress, which, ragged and torn, gave


glimpses of a figure reduced almost to a skeleton. My beard
was long, adding to the seeming length of my gaunt and
lanthorn jaws, blue with fatigue and fasting. My shoes were
in tatters, and gave no protection to my bleeding feet ; while
my hands were torn and cut by grasping the rocks and boughs
in my descent. Half stumbling, half tottering, I came on-
ward till I found myself close to the great fire, at the base of
a mound a " Prairie roll," as it is called which formed a
shelter against the east wind.

Around the immense blaze sat a party, some of whom in
shadow, others in strong light, presented a group the
strangest ever my eyes beheld. Bronzed and bearded coun-
tenances, whose fierce expression glowed fiercer in the ruddy
glare of the fire, were set off by costumes the oddest

Many wore coats of undressed skeepskin, with tall caps of
the same material ; others had ragged uniforms of different
services. One or two were dressed in "ponchos" of red
brown cloth, like Mexicans, and some, again, had a kind of
buff coat, studded with copper ornaments, a costume often
seen among the half-breeds. All agreed in one feature of
equipment, which was a broad leather belt or girdle, in which
were fastened various shining implements, of which a small
pick-axe and a hammer were alone distinguishable where I
stood. Several muskets were piled near them, and on the
scorched boughs of the cedars hung a little armoury of cut-
lasses, pistols, and " bowies," from which I was able to
estimate the company at some twenty-eight or thirty in.
number. Packs and knapsacks, with some rude cooking
utensils, were strewn around ; but the great carcase of a
deer which I saw in the flames, supported by a chevaux-de-
frise of ramrods, was the best evidence that the cares of
"cuisine" did not demand any unnecessary aid from
" casseroles."

A couple of great earthen pitchers passed rapidly from
hand to hand round the circle, and, by the assistance of some
blackhead, served to beguile the time while the " roast " was
being prepared.

Creeping noiselessly nearer, I gained a little clump of
brushwood scarcely more than half a dozen paces off, and
then lay myself down to listen what language they were
speaking. At first the whole buzz seemed one unmeaning
jargon, more like the tongue of an Indian tribe than any-
thing else ; but as I listened I could detect words of French,
Spanish, and German. Eager to make out some clue to


what class they might belong, I leaned forward on a bough
and listened attentively. A stray word a chance phrase,
could I but catch so much, would be enough ; and I bent my
ear with the most watchful intensity. The spot I occupied
was the crest of the little ridge, or " Prairie roll, " and gave
me a perfect view over the group, while the black smoke
rolling upwards effectually concealed me from them.

As I listened, I heard a deep husky voice say something
in English. It was only an oath, but it smacked of my
country, and set my heart a-throbbing powerfully. I lay
out upon the branch to catch what might follow, when
smash went the frail timber, and, with a cry of terror, down
I rolled behind them. In a second every one was on his legs,
while a cry of " The jaguars ! the jaguars ! '' resounded on
all sides. The sudden shock over, their discipline seemed
perfect ; for the whole party had at once betaken themselves
to their arms, and stood in a hollow square prepared to re-
ceive any attack. Meanwhile, the smoke and the falling
rubbish effectually shut me out from view. As these cleared
away they caught sight of me, and truly never was a for-
midable file of musketry directed upon a more pitiable object.
Such seemed their own conviction ; for, after a second or two
passed in steady contemplation of me, the whole group burst
out into a roar of savage laughter. "Whatis't?" " It's not
human!" being the exclamations which, in more than one
strange tongue, were uttered.

Unable to speak, in part from terror, in part from shock,
I sat up on my knees, and, gesticulating with my hands,
implored their mercy, and bespoke my own defencelessness.
I conclude that I made a very sorry exhibition, for again the
laughter burst forth in louder tones than before, when one,
taking a brand of the burning firewood, came nearer to
examine me. He threw down his torch, and springing back-
ward with horror, screamed out, a " lepero ! " a " lepero ! "
In a moment every musket was again raised to the shoulder,
and directed towards me.

" I'm not a lepero never was ! " cried I, in Spanish.
" I'm a poor Englishman, who has made his escape from the
Lazaretto." I could not utter more, but fell powerless to
the earth.

"I know him; we were messmates," cried a gruff voice.
" Halt ! avast there ! don't fire ! I say, my lad, crawl over to
leeward of the fire. There, that will do. Dash a bucket
of water over him, Perez."

Perez obeyed with a vengeance, for I was soaked to the


skin, and at the same time exposed to the scorching glare of
the great fire, where I steamed away like a swamp at sun-

" A'n't you Cregan, I say ? " cried the same English voice
which spoke before : " a'n't you little Con, as we used to call
you ? "

" Yes," said I, overjoyed by the recognition, without
knowing by whom it was made ; " I am the little Con you
speak of."

" Ah ! I remembered yonr voice the moment I heard it,"
said he. " Don't you remember me ? "

" Caramba ! " broke in a savage-looking Spaniard, " we're
not going to catch a leprosy for the sake of your reminis-
cences. Tell the fellow to move off, or I'll send a bullet
through him."

" And I'll follow you."

"And I and I," cried two or three more, who, suiting
the action to the speech, threw back the pan of the flint-
muskets to examine the priming.

" And shall I tell you what I'll do ? " said the Englishman.
" I'll lay the first fellow's skull open with this hanger that
fires a shot at him."

" Will you so ? " said a thin, athletic fellow, springing to
his legs, and drawing a long narrow-bladed knife from his

" A truce there, Rivas," said another, " would you quarrel
with the Capitan for a miserable lepero? "

" He's not a Capitan of my making," said Rivas, sulkily.

" I don't care of whose making," said the Englishman, in
his broken Spanish ; " I'm the leader of this expedition if
any one deny it, let him stand out and say so. If half a
dozen of you deny it, come out one by one I ask nothing
better than to show you who's the best man here."

A low muttering followed this speech, but whether it were
of admiration or anger, I could not determine. Meanwhile
my own resolve was formed, as gathering my limbs together,
I rolled upon one knee and said

" Hear me for one instant, Senhors. It would be unworthy
of you to quarrel about an object so poor and worthless as I
am. Although not a lepero, I have made my escape from the
Lazaretto, and travelled hither on foot, with little clothing
and less food an hour or two more will finish what fatigue
and starving have all but accomplished. If you will be kind
enough to throw me a morsel of bread, and give me time to
move away, I'll try and do it ; or, if you prefer doing the


humane thing, you'll come a few paces nearer and send a
volley into me."

"I vote for the last," shouted one; but, strange to say,
none seconded his motion. A change had come over them,
possibly by the very recklessness of my own proposal. At
last one called out, " Creep away some fifty yards or so, and
burn those rags of yours we'll give you something to wear
instead of them."

"Ay just so," said another, "the poor devil doesn't
deserve death for what he's done."

" That's spoken like honest fellows and good comrades,"
said the Englishman. " And now, my hearty, move down
to leeward there, and put on your new toggery, and we'll see
if a hot supper won't put some life in you."

I could scarcely credit my own alacrity, as this prospect of
better days inspired me with fresh vigour ; I recovered my
feet at once, and in something which I intended should re-

Online LibraryCharles James Lever[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 5) → online text (page 29 of 50)