Read CHAPTER XXIX of Cudjo's Cave , free online book, by J. T. Trowbridge, on ReadCentral.com.

IN THE BURNING WOODS.

The incessant excitement and fatigue of the past few days had caused Penn to fall asleep almost immediately after Carl left him. The rude ground on which he stretched himself proved a blissful couch of repose. Virginia climbed the mountain to meet him, and no fine intuitive sense of her approach thrilled him with wakeful expectancy. Carl was captured, and still he slept. The lost young girl wandered within fifty yards of where he lay steeped in forgetfulness, dreaming, perhaps, of her; and all the time they were as unconscious of each other’s presence as were Evangeline and her lover when they passed each other at night on the great river.

Penn was the first to wake; and still his stupid heart whispered to him no syllable of the strange secret of the beautiful sleeper whom he might have looked down upon from the edge of the cliff so near.

The grove had been but recently fired, and it would have been easy enough then for him to rush into the gorge and rescue her. From what terrors, from what perils would she have been saved! But he wasted the precious moments in staring amazement; then, thinking of his own safety, he commenced running away from her, his escape lighted by the same fatal flames that were enclosing her within the gorge.

She never knew whether, on awaking, she cried for help or remained dumb; nor did it matter much then: he was already too far off to hear.

The glow on the clouds lighted all the broad mountain side. Under the ruddy canopy he ran, now through dimly illumined woods, and now over bare rocks faintly flushed by the glare of the sky.

As he drew near the cave, he saw, on a rock high above him, a wild human figure making fantastic gestures, and prostrating itself towards the burning forests. He ran up to it, and, all out of breath, stood on the ledge.

“Cudjo! Cudjo! what are you doing here?”

The negro made no reply, but, folding his arms above his head, spread them forth towards the fire, bowing himself again and again, until his forehead touched the stone.

Penn shuddered with awe. For the first time in his life he found himself in the presence of an idolater. Cudjo belonged to a tribe of African fire-worshippers, from whom he had been stolen in his youth; and, although the sentiment of the old barbarous religion had smouldered for years forgotten in his breast, this night it had burst forth again, kindled by the terrible splendors of the burning mountain.

Penn waited for him to rise, then grasped his arm. The negro, startled into a consciousness of his presence, stared at him wildly.

“That is not God, Cudjo!”

“No, no, not your God, massa! My God!” and the African smote his breast. “Me mos’ forgit him; now me ‘members! Him comin’ fur burn up de white folks, and set de brack man free!”

Penn stood silent, thinking the negro might not be altogether wrong. No doubt the dim, dark soul of him saw vaguely, with that prophetic sense which is in all races of men, a great truth. A fire was indeed coming was already kindled which was to set the bondman free: and God was in the fire. But of that mightier conflagration, the combustion of the forests was but a feeble type.

Penn turned from Cudjo to watch the burning, and became aware of its threatening and rapidly increasing magnitude. The woods had been set in several places, but the different fires were fast growing into one, swept by a strong wind diagonally across and up the mountain. It seemed then as if nothing could prevent all the forest growths that lay to the southward and westward along the range from being consumed.

As he gazed, he became extremely alarmed for the safety of Stackridge and his friends: and where all this time was Carl? In vain he questioned Cudjo. He turned, and was hastening to the cave when he met Pomp coming towards him. Tall, majestic, naked to the waist, wearing a garment of panther-skins, with the red gleam of the fire on his dusky face and limbs, the negro looked like a native monarch of the hills.

“O Pomp! what a fire that is!”

“What a fire it is going to be!” answered Pomp, with a lurid smile. “Our new neighbors have brought us bad luck. All those woods are gone. The fire is sweeping up directly towards us it will pass over all the mountain nothing will be left.” Yet he spoke with a lofty calmness that astonished Penn.

“And our friends! Carl! have you heard from them?”

“I have not seen Carl since he left the cave with you, nor any of Stackridge’s people to-night.”

“Then they are in the woods yet!”

“Yes; unless they have been wise enough to get out of them! I was just starting out to look for them. Who comes there?” poising his rifle.

“It’s Carl!” exclaimed Penn, recognizing the confederate coat. But in an instant he saw his mistake.

“It is one of Ropes’s men!” said Pomp. “He has discovered us he shall die for setting my mountains on fire!”

“Hold!” Penn grasped his arm. “He is beckoning and calling!”

Pomp frowned as he lowered his rifle, and waited for the soldier to come up.

“What! is it you? I didn’t know you in that dress, and came near shooting you, as you deserve, for wearing it!” And Pomp turned scornfully away.

The comer was Dan Pepperill, breathless with haste, horror-struck, haggard. It was some time before he could reply to Penn’s impetuous demand what had brought him up thither?

“Carl!” he gasped.

“What has happened to Carl?”

“Ben tuck! durned if he hain’t! But that ar ain’t the wüst!”

“What, then, is the worst?” for that seemed bad enough.

“Virginny Miss Villars!”

“Virginia! what of her?”

“She’s down thar! in the fire!”

“Virginia in the fire!”

“She ar, durned if she ain’t! Carl said she war on the mountain, and wanted me to hurry up and help her or find you; and I’d a done it, but I couldn’t git off till we was runnin’ from the fires we’d sot; then I kinder got scattered a puppus; t’other ones hung on to Carl, though, so I had to come alone.”

Penn interrupted the loose and confused narrative Virginia: had he seen her?

“Wal, I reckon I hev! Ye see I war huntin’ fur her thar, above the round rock; fur Carl said,

A short, sharp groan broke from the lips of Penn. At first the idea of Virginia being on the mountain had appeared to him incredible. But at the mention of the place of rendezvous the truth smote him: she had come up there with Toby, or in his stead. With spasmodic grip he wrung Pepperill’s arm as if he would have wrung the truth out of him that way.

“You saw her! where?”

His hoarse voice, his terrible look, bewildered the poor man more and more.

“I war a tellin’ ye! Don’t break my arm, and don’t look so durned f’erce at me, and I’ll out with the hull story. Ye see, I warn’t to blame, now, no how. They sot the fires; they sot the grove on our way back; and if I helped any, ’twas cause I had ter. But about her. Wal, I begun to the big rock, and war a-huntin’ up along, till the grove got all in a blaze, and the red limbs begun ter fall, and I see ’twas high time for me to put. Says I ter myself, ’She hain’t hyar; she ar off the mountain and safe ter hum afore this time, shore!’ But jest then I heern a screech; it sounded right inter the grove, and I run up as clust ter the fire’s I could, and looked, and thar I seen right in the middle on’t, amongst the burnin’ trees, a woman’s gownd, and then a face: ’twas her face, I knowed it, fur she hadn’t nary bunnit on, and the fire shone on it bright as lightnin’! But thar war half a acre o’ blazin’ timber atween her and me; and besides, I was so struck up all of a heap, I couldn’t do nary thing fur nigh about a minute I couldn’t even holler ter let her know I war thar. And ’fore I knowed what I war about, durned if she hadn’t gone!”

Penn afterwards understood that Dan had actually had a glimpse of Virginia when she ran out to the entrance of the gorge, and stood there a moment in the terrible heat and glare.

“Where show me where!” he exclaimed with fierce vehemence, dragging Pepperill after him down the rocks.

“It war a considerable piece this side the round rock, nigh the upper eend o’ the grove,” said Dan, in a jarred voice, clattering after him, as fast as he could. “I reckon I kin find it, if ’tain’t too late.”

Too late? It must not be too late! Penn leaps down the ledges, and rushes through the thickets, as if he would overtake time itself. They reach the burning grove. Pepperill points out as nearly as he can the spot where he stood when he saw Virginia. Great God! if she was in there, what a frightful end was hers!

“Daniel! are you sure?” for Penn cannot, will not believe it is too terrible!

Daniel is very sure; and he withdraws from the insufferable heat, to which his companion appears insensible.

“There is a gorge just above there; perhaps she escaped into the gorge. O, if I had known!” groans the half-distracted youth, thinking how near he must have been to her when the fire awoke him.

He still hopes that Dan’s vision of her in the fire was but the hallucination of a bewildered brain. Yet no effort will he spare, no danger will he shun. The entrance to the gorge is all a gulf of flame; and the woods are blazing upwards along the cliffs, and all the forest beyond is turning to a sea of fire. Yet the gorge must be reached. Back again up the steep slope they climb. Penn flies to the verge of the cliff. He looks down: the chasm is all a glare of light. There runs the red-gleaming brook. He sees the logs, the stones, the mosses, all the wild entanglement, deep below. But no Virginia. He runs almost into the crackling flames, in order to peer farther down the gorge. Then he darts away in the opposite direction, along the very brink of the precipice, among the fire-lit trees, Pepperill stupidly following. He seizes hold of a sapling, and, with his foot braced against its root, swings his body forward over the chasm, the better to gaze into its depths. From that position he casts his eye up the gorge. He sees the cascade falling over the ledge in a sheet of ruddy foam. He discovers the upper gorge; sees a monster of the forest come plunging and plashing down to the fall, and there lift himself on his haunches to look; and what is that other object, half hidden by a drooping bough? It is Virginia clinging to the rocks.

A moment before, had Penn made the discovery of the young girl still unharmed by fire, his happiness would have been supreme. But now joy was checked by an appalling fear. The bear might seize her, or with a stroke of his paw hurl her from his path.

Penn caught hold of the bough that impeded his view, and saw how precarious was her hold. He dared not so much as call to her, or shout to frighten the monster away, lest, her attention being for an instant distracted, she might turn her head, lose her balance, and fall backwards from the rocks.

“Durned if she ain’t thar!” said Dan, excitedly. “But she’s got a powerful slim chance with the bar!”

“Come with me!” said Penn.

He ran to the upper gorge, showed himself on the bank above the cascade, and shouted. The bear, as he anticipated, turned and looked up at him. Virginia at the same time saw her deliverer.

“Hold on! I’ll be with you in a minute!” he cried in a voice heard above the noise of the waterfall and the roar of the conflagration.

She clung fast, hope and gladness thrilling her soul, and giving her new strength.

To reach her, Penn had a precipitous descent of near thirty feet to make. He did not pause to consider the difficulty of getting up again, or the peril of encountering the bear. He jumped down over a perpendicular ledge upon a projection ten feet below. Beyond that was a rapid slope covered with moss and thin patches of soil, with here and there a shrub, and here and there a tree. Striking his heels into the soil, and catching at whatever branch or stem presented itself, he took the plunge. Clinging, sliding, falling, he arrived at the bottom. In a posture half sitting, half standing, and considerably jarred, he found himself face to face with Bruin. The animal had settled down on all fours, and now, with his surly, depressed head turned sullenly to one side, he looked at Penn, and growled. Penn looked at him, and said nothing. He had heard of staring wild beasts out of countenance an experiment that could be conducted strictly on peace principles, if the bear would only prove as good a Quaker as himself. He resolved to try it: indeed, all unarmed as he was, what else could he do? He might at least, by diverting the brute’s attention, give Virginia time to get into a position of safety. So he stood up, and fixed his eyes on the red-blinking eyes of the ferocious beast. Something Bruin did not like: it might have been the youth’s company and valiant bearing, but more probably his observation of the fire had satisfied him that he was out of his place. With another growl, that seemed to say, “All I ask is to be let alone,” he seceded, turning his head still more, twisting his body around, after it, and retreating up the gorge.

In an instant Penn was at the young girl’s side: his hand clasped hers; he drew her up over the rock.

Not a word was uttered. He was too agitated to speak; and she, after the terror and the strain to which her nerves had been subjected so long, felt all her strength give way. But as he lifted her in his arms, a faint smile of happiness flitted over her white face, and her lips moved with a whisper of gratitude he did not hear.

In spite of all the dangers behind them, and of the dangers still before, both felt, in that moment, a shock of mutual bliss. Neither had ever known till then how dear the other was.

Pepperill had by this time leaped down upon the bulge of the bank. There he waited for them, shouting,

“Hurry up! the bar’ll meet the fire up thar, and be comin’ down agin!”

Penn required no spur to his exertions: he knew too well the necessity of getting speedily beyond the reach, not of the bear only, but also of the fire, which threatened them now on three sides below, above, and on the farther bank of the gorge.

Clasping the burden more precious to him than life, resolved in his soul to part with it only with life, he toiled heavily up the bank, down which he had descended with such tremendous swiftness a few minutes before.

But it was not in Virginia’s nature to remain long a helpless encumbrance. Seeing the labor and peril still before them, her will returned, and with it her strength. She grasped a branch by which he was trying in vain with one hand, holding her with the other, to draw them both up a steep place. Her prompt action enabled him to seize the trunk of a young tree: she assisted still, and slipping from his hands, clung to it until he had reached the next tree above. He pulled her up after him, and then pushed her on still farther, until Pepperill could reach her from where he stood. A minute later the three were together on the summit of the slope.

But now they had above them the ten feet of sheer perpendicularity down which Dan had indiscreetly jumped, following Penn’s lead. A single hand above them would now be worth several hands below.

“What a fool I war! durned if I warn’t!” said Dan, endeavoring unsuccessfully to find a place by which he could reascend.

“Get on my shoulders!” And Penn braced himself against the ledge.

Dan made the attempt, but fell, and rolled down the bank.

Just then a grinning black face appeared above.

“Gib me de gal! gib me de gal!” and a prodigiously long arm reached down.

“O Cudjo! you are an angel!” cried Penn, “Daniel! Here!”

Pepperill was up the bank again in a minute, at Penn’s side. They lifted Virginia above their heads. Holding on by a sapling with one hand, the negro extended the other far down over the ledge. Those miraculous arms of his seemed to have been made expressly for this service. He grasped a wrist of the girl; with the other hand she clung to his arm until he had drawn her up to the sapling; this she seized, and helped herself out. Then once more Penn gave Daniel his shoulder, while Cudjo gave him a hand from above; and Daniel was safe. Last of all, Penn remained.

“Cotch holt hyar!” said Cudjo, extending towards him the end of a branch he had broken from a tree.

To this Penn held fast, assisting himself with his feet against the ledge, while Cudjo and Dan hauled him up.

“Good Cudjo! how came you here?”

“Me see you and Pepperill a gwine inter de fire. So me foller.”

“This is the old man’s daughter, Cudjo.”

Cudjo regarded the beautiful young girl with a look of vague wonder and admiration.

“He remembers me,” said Virginia. “I saw him the night he climbed in at Toby’s window.” She gave him her hand; it trembled with emotion. “I thank you, Cudjo, for what you have done for my father and for me.”

“Now, Cudjo! show us the nearest and easiest path. We must take her to the cave there is no other way.”

“You must be right spry, den!” said Cudjo. “De fire am a runnin’ ober dat way powerful!”

Indeed, it had already crossed the upper end of the gorge, where the forest brook fell into it; and, getting into some beds of leaves, and thence into dense and inflammable thickets, it was now blazing directly across their line of retreat.

Penn would have carried Virginia in his arms, but she would not suffer him.

“I can go where you can!” she cried, once more full of spirit and daring. “Just give me your hand you shall see!”

Penn took one of her hands, Pepperill the other, and with their aid, supporting her, lifting her, she sprang lightly up the ledges, and from rock to rock.

Cudjo, carrying Dan’s gun, ran on before, leading the way through hollows and among bushes, by a route known only to himself. So they reached a piece of woods, by the thin skirts of which he hoped to head off the fire. Too late it was there before them. It ran swiftly among the fallen leaves and twigs, and spread far into the woods.

The negro turned back. There was a wild grimace in his face, and a glitter in his eyes, as he threw up his hand, by way of signal that their flight in that direction was cut off.

“Cudjo! what is to be done!” And Penn drew Virginia towards him with a look that showed his fears were all for her.

“We can’t git off down the mountain, nuther!” said Dan. “It’s gittin’ into the woods down thar. It’ll be all around us in no time!”

“You let Cudjo do what him pleases?” said the black.

“I can trust you! Can you, Virginia?”

“He should know what is best. Yes, I will trust him.”

“Take dat ’ar!” Pepperill received his gun. “Now you look out fur youselves. Me tote de gal.”

And catching up Virginia, before Penn could stop him, or question him, he rushed with her into the fire.

Penn ran after him, perceiving at once the meaning of this bold act. The woods were not yet fairly kindled; only now and then the loose bark of a dry trunk was beginning to blaze. Cudjo leaped over the line of flame that was running along the ground, and bore Virginia high above it to the other side. Penn followed, and Dan came close behind. They then had before them a tract of blackened ground which the flames had swept, leaving here and there a dead limb or mat of leaves still burning.

These little fires were easily avoided. But they soon came to another line of flame raging on the upper side of the burnt tract. They were almost out of the woods: only that red, crackling hedge fenced them in; but that they could not pass: the underbrush all along the forest edge was burning. And there they were, brought to a halt, half-stifled with smoke, in the midst of woods kindling and blazing all around them.

“May as well pull up hyar, and take a bref,” remarked Cudjo, grimly, placing Virginia on a log too dank with decay and moss to catch fire easily. “Den we’s try ’em agin.”

A horrible suspicion crossed Penn’s mind; the fanatical fire-worshipper had brought them there to destroy them to sacrifice them to his god!

“Virginia!” eagerly laying hold of her arm, “we must retreat! It will soon be too late! We can get out of the woods where we came in, if we go at once!”

“Beg pardon, sar,” said Cudjo, stamping out fire in the leaves by the end of the log, and he looked up through the smoke at Penn, with the old malignant grin on his apish face.

“What do you mean, Cudjo?” said Penn, in an agony of doubt.

“Can’t get back dat way, sar!”

“Then you have led us here to destroy us!”

“You’s no longer trust Cudjo!” was the negro’s only reply.

“Didn’t we trust you? Haven’t we come through fire, following you? O Cudjo! more than once you have helped to save my life! You have helped to save this life, dearer than mine! Why do you desert us now?”

“’Sert you? Cudjo no ’sert you.” But the negro spoke sullenly, and there was still a sparkle of malignancy in his look.

“Then why do you stop here?”

“Hugh! tink we’s go trough dat fire like we done trough tudder?”

“What then are we to do?”

“You’s no longer trust Cudjo!” was once more the sullen response.

Virginia, with her quick perceptions, saw at once what Penn was either too dull or too much excited to see. Cudjo felt himself aggrieved; but he was not unfaithful.

I trust you, Cudjo!” and she laid her hand frankly and confidingly on his shoulder. “Did I tremble, did I shrink when you carried me through the fire? I shall never forget how brave, how good you are! He trusts you too, only he is so afraid for me! You can forgive that, Cudjo.”

“She is right,” said Penn, though still in doubt. “If you know a way to save her, don’t lose a moment!”

“He knows; on’y let him take his time,” said Pepperill, whose firm faith in the negro’s good will shamed Penn for his distrust. And yet Pepperill did not love, as Penn loved, the girl whose life was in danger; and he had not seen the evidences of Cudjo’s fire-worshipping fanaticism which Penn had seen.

Under the influence of Virginia’s gentle and soothing words, the glitter of resentment died out of the negro’s face. But his aspect was still morose.

“De fire take his time to burn out; so we’s take our time too,” said he. “You try your chance wid Cudjo agin, miss?”

“Certainly! for I am sure you will take us safely through yet!” said Virginia, without a shadow of doubt or hesitation on her face, however dark may have been the shadow on her heart.

The negro was evidently well pleased. He examined carefully the line of fire in the undergrowth. And now Penn discovered, what Cudjo had known very well from the first, that there were barren ledges above, and that the fire was rapidly burning itself out along their base. An opening through which a courageous and active man might dash unscathed soon presented itself. Then Cudjo waited no longer to “take bref.” He caught Virginia in his arms, and bore her through the second line of fire, as he had borne her through the first, and placed her in safety on the rocks above.

“Cudjo, my brave, my noble fellow!” said Penn, deeply affected, “I have wronged you; I confess it with shame. Forgive me!”

“Cudjo hab nuffin to forgib,” replied the negro, with a laugh of pleasure “Neber mention um, massa! All right now! Reckon we’s better be gitt’n out o’ dis yer smudge!”

He showed the way, and Penn and Daniel helped Virginia up the rocks as before.

They had reached a smooth and unsheltered ledge near the ravine, a little below the mouth of the cave, when a hideous and inhuman shriek rent the air.

“What dat?” cried Cudjo, stopping short; and his visage in the smoky and lurid light looked wild with superstitious alarm.

The sound was repeated, louder, nearer, more hideous than before, seeming to make the very atmosphere shudder above their heads.

“Go on, Cudjo! go on!” Penn commanded.

The terrified black crouched and gibbered, but would not stir. Then straightway a sharp clatter, as of iron hoofs flying at a furious gallop, resounded along the mountain-side. By a simultaneous impulse the little party huddled together, and turned their faces towards the fire, and saw coming down towards them a horse with the speed of the wind.

“Stand close!” said Penn; and he threw himself before Virginia, to shield her, shouting and swinging his hat to frighten the animal from his course.

“Stackridge’s hoss!” exclaimed Cudjo, recovering from his fright, leaping up, and flinging abroad his long arms in the air. “Wiv some poor debil onter him’s back!”

It was so. The little group stood motionless, chilled with horror. The beast came thundering on, with lips of terror parted, nostrils wide and snorting, mane and tail flying in the wild air, hoofs striking fire from the rocks. A human being a man was lying close to his neck, and clinging fast: the face hidden by the tossing and streaming mane: a fearful ride! the mystery surrounding him, and the awful glare and smoke, enhancing the horror of it.

Approaching the group on the ledge, the animal veered, and shot past them like a thunderbolt; clearing rocks, hollows, bushes, with incredible bounds; nearing the ravine, but halting not; dashing into the thickets there, missing suddenly the ground beneath his feet, striking only the air and yielding boughs with frantic hoofs; then plunging down with a dull, reverberant crash, horse and unknown rider rolling together over rocks and spiked limbs to the bottom of the ravine.

Then all was still again: it had passed like a vision of fear.