Charles James Lever.

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life with that selfish indifference to all others which is so
often the passport to success. I saw this, and perceived how
affection and sympathy are so much additional weight upon,
the back of him " who enters for the plate of Fortune ;" but
yet my esteem for Halkett increased from that moment. I
fancied that his capacity for labour and exertion was greater,
from the force of a higher and a nobler impulse than that
which animated the others ; and I thought I could trace to
this source the untiring energy for which he was con-
spicuous above all the rest. It was evident, too, that this
" weakness," as they deemed it, had sapped nothing of his
coui-age, nor detracted in aught from his resolute daring
ever foremost, as he was, wherever peril was to be con-
fronted.

I ruminated long and frequently over this, to me, singular
trait of character. Whole days as I rambled the prairies
alone in search of game ; the tedious hours of the night I
would lie awake, speculating upon it, and wondering if it
were impulses of this nature that elevated men to high deeds
and generous actions; and to realize my conception in one
word made them " Gentlemen."

To be sure, in all the accessory advantages of such, Halkett
was most lamentably deficient, and it would have been labour
in vain to endeavour to conform him to any one of the usages
of the polite world ; and yet, I thought, might it not be



310 THE CONFESSIONS OP CON CREGAN.

possible that this rude unlettered roan might have within
him, in the recesses of his own heart, all those finer instincts,
all those refinements of high feeling and honour that makes
up a gentleman, like a lump of pure virgin gold encased
in a mass of pudding-stone. The study of this problem took
an intense hold upon me ; for while I could recognize in
myself a considerable power for imitating all the observations
of the well-bred world, I grieved to see that these graces
were mere garments, which no more influenced a man's real
actions than the colour of his coat or the shape of his
hat will affect the stages of an ague or the paroxysms of a
fever.

To become a "gentleman," according to my very crude
notions of that character, was the ruling principle of my life.
I knew that rank, wealth, and station, were all indispensably
requisite ; but these I also fancied might be easily counterfeited,
while other gifts must be absolutely possessed ; such as a
good address ; a skill in all manly exercises ; a personal courage
ever ready to the proof ; a steady adherence to a pledged word.
Now I tried to educate myself to all these, and to a certain
extent, I succeeded. In fact, I experienced what all men have
who have set up a standard before them, that constant mea-
surement will make one grow taller. I fancied that Halkett
and myself were on the way to the same object, by different
roads. Forgive the absurd presumption, most benevolent
reader ; for there is really something insufferably ludicrous
in the very thought ; and I make the " confession " now only
in the fulness of a heart which is determined to have no
concealments.

That I rode my " mustang " with a greater air that I wore
my black fox pelisse more jauntily that I slung my rifle at
my back with a certain affectation of grace that I was
altogether " got up " with an eye to the picturesque, did
not escape my companions, who made themselves vastly merry
at pretensions which, in their eyes, were so supremely ridi-
culous ; but which amply repaid me for all the sarcasm, by
suggesting a change of their name for me, my old appella-
tion, " II Lepero,'' being abandoned for " II Conde," the
Count. It matters little in what spirit you give a man a
peculiar designation: the world take it up in their own
fashion, and he himself confoi'ms to it, whether for good or
evil.

As the " Conde," I doubtless displayed many a laughable
affectation, and did many things in open caricature of the
title ; but, on the other hand, the name spurred me on to



THE FATE OF A GAMBUSINO. 311

actions of most perilous daring, and made me confront
danger for the very sake of the hazard ; till, by degrees,
I saw that the designation conferred upon me at first
in mockery became a mark of honourable esteem, among
my comrades.

The Prairie was fruitful in incidents to test my courage.
As the season wore on, and game became more scarce, we
were compelled to pursue the "bison" into distant tracks,
verging upon the hunting-grounds of an Indian tribe, called
the Camanches. At first our " rencontres " were confined to
meeting with a scout, or some small outlying party of the
tribe ; but later on, we ventured farther within their frontier,
and upon one occasion we penetrated a long and winding
ravine, which expanded into a small plain, in the midst of
which, to our amazement, we beheld their village.

The scene was in every way a striking one. It was a few
minutes after sunset, and while yet the " yellow glory " of the
hour bathed the earth, that we saw the cane wigwams of the
" Camanches," as they stood at either side of a little river
that, with many a curve, meandered through the plain. Some
squaws were seated on the banks, and a number of children
were sporting in the stream, which appeared too shallow for
swimming. Here and there, at the door of the wigwams, an
old man was sitting smoking. Some mustangs, seemingly
fresh caught, were picketed in a circle, and a few boys were
amusing themselves, tormenting the animals into bounds and
curvets the laiighter the sport excited being audible where
we stood. The soft influence of the hour the placid beauty
of the picture the semblance of tranquil security impressed
on everything the very childish gambols were all images
so full of home and homelike memories, that we halted and
gazed on the scene in speechless emotion. Perhaps each of
us at that moment had traversed in imagination half a world
of space, and was once again a child ! As for myself, infancy
had been " no fairy dream," and yet my eyes filled up, and
yet my lip quivered as I looked.

It was evident that the warriors of the tribe were absent on
some expedition. The few figures that moved about were
either the very old, the very young, or the squaws, who, in all
the enjoyment of that gossiping, as fashionable in the wild
regions of the West as in the gilded boudoirs of Paris, sat
enjoying the cool luxury of the twilight.

Our party consisted of only four and myself; and standing,
as we did, in a grove of nut-trees, were perfectly concealed
from view ; no sense of danger then interfered with our



812 THE CONFESSIONS OF CON CREQAN.

enjoyment of the prospect ; we gazed calmly on the scene on
which we looked.

" Senhor Conde," whispered one of my party, a swarthy
Spaniard from the Basque, " what a foray we might make
yonder ! their young men are absent ; they could make no
defence. Caramba ! it would be rare sport."

" Conde mio ! " cried a Mexican, who had once been a
horse-dealer, " I see mustangs yonder worth five hundred
dollars, if they are worth a cent ; let us have a dash forward,
and carry them off."

" There is gold in that village," muttered an old Ranchero,
with a white moustache ; "I see sifting-sieves drying beside
the stream."

And so, thought I to myself, these are the associates, who,
a moment back, I dreamed were sharing my thoughts, and
whose hearts, I fancied, were overflowing with softest
emotions. One, indeed, had not pronounced, and to him I
turned in hope. He was a dark-eyed, sharp-featured Breton.
" And you, Claude," said I, " what are your thoughts on this
matter? "

" I leave all in the hands of my captain," said he, saluting
in military fashion ; " but if there be a pillage, I claim the
woman that is sitting on the rock yonder, with a yellow girdle
round her, as mine.''

I turned away in utter disappointment. The robber-spirit
was the only one I had evoked, and I grew sick at heart to
think of it. How is it, that, in certain moods of mind, the
vices we are conversant with assume a double coarseness, and
that we feel repugnance to what daily habit had seemed to
have inured us ?

" Is it to be, or not?" growled the Spaniard, who, having
tightened his girths, and examined the lock of his rifle, now
stood in somewhat patient anxiety.

" Since when have we become banditti," said I, insultingly,
" that we are to attack and pillage helpless women and
children? Are these the lessons Halkett has taught us?
Back to the camp. Let us have no more of such counsels."

" We meet nothing but scoffs and jibes when we return
empty-handed," muttered the Spaniard. " It is seldom such
an opportunity offers of a heavy booty."

" Right-about," said I, imperiously, not caring to risk my
ascendency by debating the question further. They obeyed
without a word ; but it was easy to see that the spirit of
mutiny was but sleeping. For some miles of the way a
dreary silence pervaded the party. I tried all in my power



THE FATE OF A GAMBUSINO. 318

to bring back our old good understanding, and erase the
memory of the late altercation ; but even my friend Nar-
vasque held aloof, and seemed to side with the others. I was
vexed and irritated to a degree the amount of the incident
was far from warranting ; nor was the fact that we were re-
turning without any success without its influence. Moody
and sad, I rode along at their head, not making any further
effort to renew their confidence, when suddenly a spotted
buck started from the shelter of a prairie roll, and took his
way across the plain. To unsling my rifle and fire at him
was the work of half a minute. My shot missed ; and I
heard, or thought I heard, a burst of contemptuous laughter
behind me. Without turning my head, I spurred my horse
to a sharp gallop, and proceeded to reload my rifle as I
went. The buck had, however, got a " long start " of me ; and
although my mustang had both speed and endurance, I soon
saw tha.t the chase would prove unrewarding ; and, after a
hot pursuit of half a mile, I pulled up and wheeled about.
Where was my party ? not a trace of them was to be seen.
I rode up a little slope of the prairie, and then, at a great
way off, I could descry their figures, as with furious speed
they were hastening back in the direction of the Camanche
village. I cannot express the bitterness of the feeling that
came over me.

It was no longer the sense of outraged humanity which
filled my heart. Selfishness usurped the ground altogether,
and it was the injured honour of a leader, whose orders had
been despised. It was the affront to my authority wounded
me so deeply. Then I fancied to myself their triumphant
return to the camp, laden with the spoils of victory, and full
of heroic stories of their own deeds ; while I, the captain of the
band, should have nothing to contribute but a lame narrative
of misplaced compassion, which some might call by even a
harsher name. Alas for weak principle ! I wished myself
back at their head a hundred times over. There was no
atrocity that, for a minute or two, I did not feel myself
capable of; I really believe that, if any other course were open
to me, I had never turned my steps back toward the camp.
Crest-fallen and sad indeed was I, as I rode forward now,
cursing the insubordinate rabble that deserted me now, in-
veighing against my own silly efforts to change the ferocious
instincts of such natures. In my bitterness of spirit I
attributed all to my foolish ambition of being " the gentle-
man." What business had such a character there ? or what
possible link could bind him to such companionship? In



814 THE CONFESSIONS OF CON CREGA.N.

my discontent, too, I fancied that these " gentlemen " traits
were like studding-sails, only available in fine weather, and
with a fair wind ; but that for the storms and squalls of life,
such fine-spun canvas was altogether unsuited. Is it needful
I should say that I lived to discover this to be an error ?

To reach the camp ere nightfall, I was obliged to ride fast,
and the quick stride of my " half-breed " did more to rally
my spirits than all my philosophizings.

The slight breeze of sunset was blowing over the prairie,
when I came in sight of the skirting of nut-wood which
sheltered the camp to the " southward." It was like home,
somehow, that spot. The return to it each evening, had
given it that character, and one's instincts are invariably at
work to make substitutes for all the " prestiges " that tell of
family and friends. I experienced the feeling strongly now,
as I entered the wood, and spurred my nag onward, impa-
tient to catch a glimpse at the watch-fires. As I issued
from the copse, and looked up towards the little table-land
where the camp used to stand, I saw nothing that spoke of
my friends. There were no fires ; not a figure moved on the
spot. I pressed eagerly forward to ascertain the reason ; my
mind full of its own explanation of the fact, in which, I own
it, fears were already blending. Perhaps they had removed
somewhat higher up the stream ; perhaps the Camanches

had been there, and a battle had been fought ; perhaps .

But why continue ? Already I stood upon the spreading
surface of table-land, and was nearing the spot where all our
huts were built, and now a deep booming noise filled my ears
a hollow, cavernous sound, like the sea surging within
some rocky cave. I listened ; it grew fuller and louder, -or
seemed to do so, and I could mark sounds that resembled the
crashing of timber and the splintering of rocks.

My suspense had now risen to torture, and my poor mus-
tang, equally frightened as myself, refused to move a step,
but stood with his ears flattened back, fore legs extended, and
protruded nostril, sniffing, in a very paroxysm of fright.

I dismounted, and fastening his head to his fore leg, in
Mexican fashion, advanced on foot. Each step I made
brought me nearer to the sounds, which now I perceived
were those of a fast rolling river. A horrid dread shot
through my heart my senses reeled as it struck me, but
with an effort, I sprang forward, and there, deep below me,
in a boiling ocean of foam, rolled the river along the channel
which we had succeeded in damming up, on the mountain
side, and in whose dry bed all our labours had been followed.



THE FATE OP A GAMBUSINO. 315

In an instant the whole truth revealed itself before me : the
stream, swollen by the rain falling in the distant mountains,
had overborne the barrier, and descending with all its force,
had carried away village, mines, and every trace of the ill-
fated " Expedition." The very trees that grew along the
banks were at first undermined, and then swept away, and
might be seen waving their great branches above the flood,
and then disappearing for ever like gigantic figures
struggling in the agony of drowning. The rude smelting-
house, built of heavy stones and masses of rock, had been
carried down with the rest. Trees whose huge size attested
ages of growth reeled with the shock that shook the earth
beside them, and seemed to tremble at their own coming
destiny.

The inundation continued to increase at each instant, and
more than once the "yellowest" waves compelled me to
retire. This it was which first led me to despair of my poor
comrades, since I inferred that the torrent had burst its
barrier only a short space before my arrival, and as the sun-
set was the hour when all the gold discovered during the day
was washed, before being deposited in the smelting-house, I
conjectured that my companions were overtaken at that
moment by the descending flood, and that none had escaped
destruction.

However the sad event took place, I never saw any of them
after, and although I tracked the stream for miles, and spent
the entire of two days in search of them, I did not discover
one trace of the luckless expedition. So changed had every-
thing become such a terrible alteration had the scene under-
gone that whenever I awoke from a sleep, short and broken
as my feverish thoughts would make it, it was with difficulty
I could believe that this was once the " Camp :" that where
that swollen and angry torrent rolled, had been the dry,
gravelly bed where joyous parties laboured ; that beneath
those cedars, where now the young alligator stirred the
muddy slime, we used to sit, and chat in pleasant companion-
ship : that human joys, and passions, and hopes once lived
and flourished in that little space where ruin and desolation
had now set their marks, and where the weariest traveller
would not linger, so sorrow-struck and sad was every feature
of the scene.

Poor Halkett was uppermost in my thoughts ; his remem-
brance of his old mother ; his plans for her future happiness
and comfort, formed, doubtless many a long year before, and
only realized to be dashed for ever ! How many a wanderer



816 THE CONFESSIONS OF CON CREGAN.

and outcast, doubtless, like him, have sunk into unhonoured
graves in far-away lands, and of whom no trace exists, and
who are classed among the worthless and the heartless of
their families ; and yet, if we had record of them, we might
learn, perhaps, how thoughts of home of some dear mother
of some kind sister of some brother, who had been more
than father had spirited them on to deeds of daring and
privation and how, in all the terrible conflict of danger in
which their days were spent, one bright hope of return-
ing home at last glittered like a light ship on a lonely
sea, and shed a radiance when all around was dark and
dreary.

The third day broke, and still found me lingering beside
the fatal torrent, not only without meeting with any of my
former comrades, but even of that party who had returned
to the Indian village, not one came back. In humble imita-
tion of prairie habit, I erected a little cross on the spot, and
with my penknife inscribed poor Halkett's name. This
done, I led my horse slowly away through the tangled
underwood, till I reached the open plain, then I struck
out in a gallop, and rode in the direction where the sun was
setting.

The mere detail of personal adventures, in which the traits
of character, or the ever-varying aspects of human nature
find no place, must always prove wearisome. The most
" hair-breadth 'scapes " require for their interest the play of
passions and emotions, and iu this wise the perils of the
lonely traveller amid the deserts cf the Far West could
not vie in interest with the slightest incident of domestic
life, wherein human cares and hopes and joys are mingled up.

I will not longer trespass on the indulgence of any one who
has accompanied me so far, by lingering over the accidents
of my prairie life nor tell by what chances I escaped death
in some of its most appalling forms. The " Choctaw," the
jaguar, the spotted leopard of the jungle, the cayman of the
sand lakes, had each in turn marked me for its prey, and yet,
preserved from every peril, I succeeded in reaching the little
village of "La Noria," or the " Well," which occupies one of
the opening gorges of the Rocky Mountains, at the outskirts
of which some of the inhabitants found me asleep, with
clothing reduced to very rags, nothing remaining of all my
equipment save my rifle, and a little canvas pouch of
ammunition.

My entertainers were miners, whose extreme poverty and
privation would have been inexplicable, had I not learned



THE FATE OP A GAMBUSINO. 317

that the settlement was formed exclusively of convicts, who
had either been pardoned during the term of their sentence,
or, having completed their time, preferred passing the re-
mainder of their lives in exile. As a " billet of conduct "
was necessary to all who settled at the village, the inhabitants,
with a very few exceptions, were peaceable, quiet, and inoffen-
sive, and of the less well-disposed, a rigidly severe police took
the most effective charge.

Had there been any way of disposing of me, I should not
have been suffered to remain ; but as there was no " parish "
to which they could " send me on," nor any distinct fund
upon which to charge me, I was retained in a spirit of rude
compassion, for which, had it even been ruder, I had been
grateful. The " Gobernador " of the settlement was an old
Mexican officer of Santa Anna's staff, called Salezar, and
whose "promotion " was a kind of penalty imposed upon him
for his robberies and extortions in the commissariat of the
army. He was not altogether unworthy of the trust, since
it was asserted that there never was a convict vice nor
iniquity in which he was not thoroughly versed, nor could any
scheme be hatched, the clue to which his dark ingenuity
could not discover.

I was summoned before him on the day of my arrival, and
certainly a greater contrast could not have been desired than
was the bravery of his costume to the rags of mine. A
Spanish hat and feathers, such as is only seen upon the
stage, surmounted his great red and carbuncled face ; a pair
of fiery red moustaches, twisted into two complete circles,
with a tail out of them like an eccentric "Q;" a sky-blue
jacket covered with silver buttons ; tight pantaloons of the
same colour, and Hessian boots, made up the chief details of
a figure, whose unwieldy size the tightness of the dress did
not by any means set off to advantage. He wore besides a
quantity of daggers, pistols, and stilettos, suspended around
his person, and a huge Barcelona blade hung by two silver
chains from his side, the rattle and jingle of which, as he
spoke, appeared to give him the most lively pleasure. I was
ordered to stand before a table at which he sat, with a kind
of secretary at his side, while he interrogated me as to who
I was, whence I came, the object of my journey, and so forth.
My account of myself was given in the very briefest way I
could devise totally devoid of all colouring or exaggeration,
and,ybr me, with a most singular avoidance of the romantic ;
and yet, to my utter discomfiture, from the very announce-
ment of my name, down to the last incident of my journey,



818 THE CONFESSIONS OP CON CBEGAN.

he characterized every statement by the very short and
emphatic word " a lie," desiring the secretary to record the
same in his "Ledger," as his own firm conviction ; "and add,"
said he, solemnly, " that the fellow is a spy from the States of
North America that he probably belonged to some exploring
party into our frontier and that he will most certainly be
hanged whenever the smallest offence is proved against him."
These benign words were most royally spoken, and I made
my acknowledgments for them by taking off my tattered and
greasy cap, and, with a most urbane bow, wishing him health
and happiness for half a century to come, to pronounce
similar blessings upon many others.

The bystanders did look, I confess, somewhat terrified at
my impromptu courtesy ; but Salezar, upon whom my rags,
and my grotesque appearance generally, produced a rather
amusing effect, laughed heartily, and bade them give me
something to eat/ The order, simple and intelligible as it was,
at least to me, seemed to evoke the strangest signs of sur-
prise and astonishment, and not unreasonably ; for, as I after-
wards came to know, no Lazarus eat of the crumbs which fell
from this " rich man's table," while from the poor herd of
the settlers, not a crust nor a parched pea could be expected,
as they were fed by rations so scantily doled out as barely to
support life. The order to feed me was therefore issued
pretty much in the same spirit which made Marie Antoinette
recommend the starving people to eat " brioche." As no one
was to be found, however, bold enough to express a doubt as
to the facility of the measure, I was led away in silence.

A very animated little discussion arose in the street as to
what I was to get ? where to have it ? and who to give it ?
difficulties which none seemed able to solve by any explana-
tion save the usual Mexican one of " quien sabe ? " or " who
knows ? " having uttered which in accents of very convincing
embarrassment, each went his way, leaving me standing with
an old mule-driver, the only one who had not delivered him-
self of this speech.

Now it chanced that the well from which the village derived
its name of " La Noria " had originally been worked by two
mules, who having died off, their places were supplied by two
miserable asses of the prairie breed, creatures not much
bigger than sheep, and scarcely stronger. These wretched
beasts had been for years past stimulated to their daily labour
by the assiduous persecutions of a fierce English bull-dog,
who, with bark and bite, made their lives a very pretty
martyrdom. Either worn-out by his unremitting exertions,



Online LibraryCharles James Lever[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 5) → online text (page 32 of 50)