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

REFUGE.

For a moment the little group stood dumb and motionless on the ledge, in the flare of the vast flame-curtains. They looked at each other. Penn was the first to speak.

“Which of us goes down into the ravine?”

“Wha’ fur?” said Cudjo.

“To find him!” And Penn gazed anxiously towards the thickets into which the horse and horseman had gone down.

“Dat no good! Deader ’n de debil, shore!”

“O, may be he is not!” exclaimed Virginia, full of compassion for the unfortunate unknown. “Do go and see, Cudjo!”

“Fire’ll be dar in less’n no time. Him nuffin to Cudjo. We’s best be gwine.” And the negro started off, doggedly, towards the cave.

Then Penn took the resolution which he would have taken at once but for Virginia. “Stay with her, Daniel! I will go!”

Virginia turned pale; she had not thought of that. But immediately she controlled her fears: she would not be selfish: if he was brave and generous enough to descend into the ravine for one he did not know, she would be equally brave and generous, and let him go. She clasped her hands together so that they should not hold him back, and forced her lips to say,

“I will wait for you here.”

“No, I be durned if ye shall! Hapgood, you stick to her: take this yer gun, and I’ll slip down inter the holler, and see whuther the cuss’s alive or dead, any how.”

“O, Mr. Pepperill, if you will!” said Virginia, overjoyed.

Penn remonstrated, rather feebly, it must be confessed, for the determination to part from her had cost him a struggle, and the privilege of keeping by her side till all danger was past, seemed too sweet to refuse.

“I’ll take her to her father, and hurry back, and meet you.”

“All right!” came the response from Dan, already far down the rocks.

“The cave is close by,” said Penn. “There is Cudjo, waiting for us!”

Coming up with the black, and once more following his lead, they descended along the shelf of rocks, between the thickets and the overhanging ledge. So they came to the still dark jaws of the cavern. A grateful coolness breathed in their faces from within. But how dismal the entrance seemed to eyes lately dazzled by the blazing woods! Virginia clung tightly to Penn’s hand, as they groped their way in.

At first nothing was visible but a few smouldering embers, winking their sleepy eyes in the dark. Out of these Cudjo soon blew a little blaze, which he fed with sticks and bits of bark until it lighted up fitfully the dim interior and shadowy walls of his abode.

Penn hushed Virginia with a finger on his lips, and restrained her from throwing herself forward upon the rude bed, where the blind old man was just awaking from a sound sleep.

In that profound subterranean solitude the roar of the fiery breakers, dashing on the mountain side, was subdued to a faint murmur, less distinct than the dripping of water from roof to floor in the farther recesses of the cave. There, left alone, lulled by the dull, monotonous trickle, thinking, if he heard the roar at all, that it was the mountain wind blowing among the pines, Mr. Villars had slept tranquilly through all the horrors of that night.

“Is it you, Penn? Safe again!” And sitting up, he grasped the young man’s hand. “What news from my dear girl? from my two dear girls?” he added, remembering Virginia was not his only child.

“Toby did not come to the rock,” said Penn, still holding Virginia back.

“O! did he not?” It seemed a heavy disappointment; but the patient old man rallied straightway, saying, with his accustomed cheerfulness, “No doubt something hindered him; no doubt he would have come if he could. My poor, dear girl, how I wish I could have got word to her that I am safe! But I thank you all the same; it was kind in you to give yourself all that trouble.”

“I believe all is for the best,” said Penn, his voice trembling.

“No doubt, no doubt. It will be some time before I can have the consolation of my dear girl’s presence again; I, who never knew till now how necessary she is to my happiness, I may say, to my very life!” Mr. Villars wiped a tear he could not repress, and smiled. “Yes, Penn, God knows what is best for us all. His will be done!”

But now Virginia could restrain herself no longer; her sobs would burst forth.

“Father! father!” throwing herself upon his neck. “O, my dear, dear father!”

Penn had feared the effect of the sudden surprise upon the old and feeble man, and had meant to break the good news to him softly. But human nature was too strong; his own emotions had baffled him, and the pious little artifice proved a complete failure. So now he could do nothing but stand by and make grim faces, struggling to keep down what was mastering him, and turning away blindly from the bed.

Even Cudjo appeared deeply affected, staring stupidly, and winking something like a tear from the whites of his eyes at sight of the father embracing his child, and the white locks mingling with the wet, tangled curls on her cheek. He was a ludicrous, pathetic object, winking and staring thus; and Penn laughed and cried too, at sight of him.

“Luk dar!” said Cudjo, coming up to him, and pointing at the little walled chamber that served as his pantry. “She hab dat fur her dressum room. Sleep dar, too, if she likes.”

“Thank you, Cudjo! it will be very acceptable, I am sure.”

“Me clar it up fur her all scrumptious!” added the negro, with a grin.

Penn had thought of that. But now he had other business on his hands: he must hasten to find Pepperill: nor could he keep anxious thoughts of Stackridge and his friends out of his mind. And Pomp where all this time was Pomp? He had hoped to find him and the patriots all safely arrived in the cave.

Virginia was seated on the bed by her father’s side. Penn threw a blanket over the dear young shoulders, to shield her from the sudden cold of the cave; then left her relating her adventures, beckoning to Cudjo, who followed him out.

“Cudjo!” the black glided to his side as they emerged from the ravine, “you must go and find Pomp.”

Cudjo laughed and shrugged.

“No use’t! Reckon Pomp take keer o’ hisself heap better’n we’s take keer on him!”

True. Pomp knew the woods. He was athletic, cautious, brave. But he had gone to extricate from peril others, in whose fate he himself might become involved. Cudjo refused to take this view of the matter; and it was evident that, while he comforted himself with his deep convictions of Pomp’s ability to look out for his own safety, he was, to say the least, quite indifferent as to the welfare of the patriots.

Forgetting Dan and the unknown horseman in his great solicitude for his absent friends, Penn climbed the ledges, and gazed away in the direction of the camp, and beheld the forest there a raging gulf of fire.

Assuredly, they must have fled from it before this time; but whither had they gone? Had Pomp been able to find them? Or might they not all have become entangled in the intricacies of the wilderness until encompassed by the fire and destroyed?

Penn watched in vain for their coming in vain for some signal of their safety on the crags above the forest. Had they reached the crags, he thought he might discover them somewhere with a glass, so vividly were those grim rock-foreheads of the hills lighted up beneath the red sky.

He sent Cudjo to find Dan, ran to the cave for Pomp’s glass, and returned to the ledge. There he waited; there he watched; still in vain. Wider and wider, spread the destroying sea; fiercer and fiercer leaped the billows of flame the billows that did not fall again, but broke away in rent sheets, in red-rolling scrolls, and vanished upward in their own smoke.

And now Penn, lowering the glass, perceived what he must long since have been made aware of, had not the greater light concealed the less. It was morning; a dull and sunless dawn; the despairing daylight, filtered of all warmth and color, spreading dim and gray on the misty valleys, and on the sombre, far-off hills, under an interminable canopy of cloud.

Pepperill came clambering up the rocks. Penn turned eagerly to meet and question him.

“Find him?”

“Wal, a piece on him.”

“Killed?”

“I reckon he ar that!”

“Who is it?”

“Durned if I kin tell! He’s jammed in thar ’twixt two gre’t stuns, and the hoss is piled on top, and you can’t see nary featur’ of his face, only the legs, but durned if I know the legs!”

“Couldn’t you move the horse?”

“Nary a bit. His neck is broke, and he lays wedged so clust, right on top o’ the poor cuss, ‘twould take a yoke o’ oxen to drag him out.”

“Are you sure the man is dead?”

“Shore? I reckon! He had one arm loose. I jest lifted it, and it drapped jest like a club when I let go; then I see ’twas broke square off jest above the elbow, about where the backbone o’ the hoss comes. Made me durned sick!”

“What have you got in your hand?”

“A boot one o’ his’n thought I’d pull it off, his leg stuck up so kind o’ handy; didn’t know but some on ye might know the boot.” And Dan held it up for Penn’s inspection.

“What is this on it? Blood?”

“It ar so! Mebby it’s the hoss’s, and then agin mebby it’s his’n; I hadn’t noticed it afore.”

“I’ll go back with you, Daniel. Together perhaps we can move the horse.”

“Ye’re behind time for that! The fire’s thar. I hadn’t only jest time to git cl’ar on’t myself. The poor cuss is a br’ilin’!”

“K-r-r-r! hi! don’t ye har me callin’!” Cudjo sprang up the ledge. “Fire’s a comin’ to de cave! All in de brush dar! Can’t get in widout ye go now!”

“And Pomp and the rest! They will be shut out, if they are not lost already!”

“Pomp know well ’nuff what him ’bout, tell ye! Gorry, massa! ye got to come, if Cudjo hab to tote ye!”

Yielding to his importunity, Penn quitted the ledge. On the shelf of rock Cudjo paused to gnash his teeth at the flames sweeping up towards them. He had long since recovered from his fit of superstitious frenzy. He had seen the fire burning the woods that sheltered him in his mountain retreat, instead of going intelligently to work to destroy the dwellings of the whites; and he no longer regarded it as a deity worthy of his worship.

“All dis yer brush be burnt up! Den nuffin’ to hide Cudjo’s house!”

“Don’t despair, Cudjo. We will trust in Him who is God even of the fire.”

Even as Penn spoke, he felt a cool spatter on his hand. He looked up; sudden, plashy drops smote his face.

“Rain! It is coming! Thank Heaven for the rain!”

At the same time, the wind shifted, and blew fitful gusts down the mountain. Then it lulled; and the rain poured.

“Cudjo, your thickets are saved!” said Penn, exultantly. Then immediately he thought of the absent ones, for whom the rain might be too late; of the beautiful forests, whose burning not cataracts could quench; of the unknown corpse far below in the ravine there, and the swift soul gone to God.

“What news?” asked the old man as he entered the cave.

“It is morning, and it rains; but your friends are still away. The man is dead,” aside to Virginia.

“Heaven grant they be safe somewhere!” said the old man. “And Pomp?”

“He is missing too.”

There was a long, deep silence. A painful suspense seemed to hold every heart still, while they listened. Suddenly a strange noise was heard, as of a ghost walking. Louder and louder it sounded, hollow, faint, far-off. Was it on the rocks over their heads? or in caverns beneath their feet?

“Told ye so! told ye so!” said Cudjo, laughing with wild glee.

The fire had burnt low again, and he was in the act of kindling it, when a novel idea seemed to strike him, and, seizing a pan, he inverted it over the little remnant of a flame. In an instant the cave was dark. It was some seconds before the eyes of the inmates grew accustomed to the gloom, and perceived the glimmer of mingled daylight and firelight that shone in at the entrance.

“Luk a dar! luk a dar!” said Cudjo.

And turning their eyes in the opposite direction, they saw a faint golden glow in the recesses of the cave. The footsteps approached; the glow increased; then the superb dark form of Pomp advanced in the light of his own torch. Penn hastened to meet him, and to demand tidings of Stackridge’s party.

Pomp first saluted Virginia, with somewhat lofty politeness, holding the torch above his head as he bowed. Then turning to Penn,

“Your friends are all safe, I believe.”

“All?” Penn eagerly asked, his thoughts on the luckless horseman. “None missing?”

“There were three absent when I reached their camp. They had gone on a foraging expedition. I found the rest waiting for them, standing their ground against the fire, which was roaring up towards them at a tremendous rate. Soon the foragers came in. They brought a basket of potatoes and a bag of meal, but no meat. Withers had caught a pig, but it had got away from him before he could kill it, and he lost it in the dark. The others were cursing the rascals who had set the woods afire, but Withers lamented the pig.

“‘Gentlemen,’ said I, ’you have not much time to mourn either for the woods or the pork. We must take care of ourselves.’ And I offered to bring them here. But just then we heard a rushing noise; it sounded like some animal coming up the course of the brook; and the next minute it was amongst us a big black bear, frightened out of his wits, singed by the fire, and furious.”

“Your acquaintance of the gorge, Virginia!” said Penn.

“You will readily believe that such an unexpected supply of fresh meat, sent by Providence within their reach, proved a temptation to the hungry. Withers, in his hurry to make up for the loss of the pig, ran to head the fellow off, and attempted to stop him with his musket after it had missed fire. In an instant the gun was lying on the ground several yards off, and Withers was sprawling. The bear had done the little business for him with a single stroke of his paw; then he passed on, directly over Withers’s body, which happened to be in his way, but which he minded no more than as if it had been a bundle of rags. All this time we couldn’t fire a shot; there was the risk, you see, of hitting Withers instead of the bear. Even after he was knocked down, he seemed to think he had nothing more formidable than his stray pig to deal with, and tried to catch the bear by the tail as he ran over him.”

“So ye lost de bar!” cried Cudjo, greatly excited. “Fool, tink o’ cotchin’ on him by de tail!”

“Still we couldn’t fire, for he was on his legs again in a second, chasing the bear’s tail directly before our muzzles,” said Pomp, quietly laughing. “But luckily a stick flew up under his feet. Down he went again. That gave two or three of us a chance to send some lead after the beast. He got a wound we tracked him by his blood on the ground we could see it plain as day by the glare of light it led straight towards the fire that was running up through the leaves and thickets on the north. I expected that when he met that he would turn again; but he did not: we were just in time to see him plough through it, and hear him growl and snarl at the flames that maddened him, and which he was foolish enough to stop and fight. Then he went on again. We followed. Nobody minded the scorching. We kept him in sight till he met the fire again for it was now all around us. This time his heart failed him; he turned back only to meet us and get a handful of bullets in his head. That finished him, and he fell dead.”

“Poor brute!” said Mr. Villars; “he found his human enemies more merciless than the fire!”

“That’s so,” said Pomp, with a smile. “But we had not much time to moralize on the subject then. The fire we had leaped through had become impassable behind us. The men hurried this way and that to find an outlet. They found only the fire it was on every side of us like a sea the spot where we were was only an island in the midst of it that too would soon be covered. The bear was forgotten where he lay; the men grew wild with excitement, as again and again they attempted to break through different parts of the ring that was narrowing upon us, and failed. Brave men they are, but death by fire, you know, is too horrible!”

“How large was this spot, this island?” asked Penn.

“It might have comprised perhaps twenty acres when we first found ourselves enclosed in it. But every minute it was diminishing; and the heat there was something terrific. The men were rather surprised, after trying in vain on every side to discover a break in the circle of fire, to come back and find me calm.

“‘Gentlemen,’ said I, ’keep cool. I understand this ground perhaps better than you do. Don’t abandon your game; you have lost your meal and potatoes, and you will have need of the bear.’

“‘But what is the use of roast meat, if we are to be roasted too?’ said Withers, who will always be droll, whatever happens.

“Then Stackridge spoke. He proposed that they should place themselves under my command; for I knew the woods, and while they had been running to and fro in disorder, I had been carefully observing the ground, and forming my plans. I laughed within myself to see Deslow alone hang back; he was unwilling to owe his life to one of my complexion one who had been a slave. For there are men, do you know,” said Pomp, with a smile of mingled haughtiness and pity, “who would rather that even their country should perish than owe in any measure its salvation to the race they have always hated and wronged!”

“I trust,” said Mr. Villars, “that you had the noble satisfaction of teaching these men the lesson which our country too must learn before it can be worthy to be saved.”

“I showed them that even the despised black may, under God’s providence, be of some use to white men, besides being their slave: I had that satisfaction!” said Pomp, proudly smiling. “Stackridge was right: I had observed: I saw what I could do. On one side was a chasm which you know, Mr. Hapgood.”

“Yes! I had thought of it! But I knew it was in the midst of the burning forest, and never supposed you could get to it.”

“The fire was beyond; and it also burned a little on the side nearest to us. But the vegetation there is thin, you remember. The chasm could be reached without difficulty.

“‘Follow me who will!’ said I. ’The rest are at liberty to shirk for themselves.’

“‘Follow where?’ said Deslow. I couldn’t help smiling at the man’s distress. All the rest were prepared to obey my directions; and it was hard for him to separate himself from them. But it seemed harder still for him to trust in me. I was not a Moses; I could not take them through that Red Sea. What then?

“I made for the chasm. All followed, even Deslow, dragging and lugging the bear. We came to the brink. The place, I must confess, had an awful look, in the light of the trees burning all around it! Deslow was not the only one who shrank back then; for though the spot was known to some of them, they had never explored it, and could not guess what it led to. It was difficult, in the first place, to descend into it; it looked still more difficult ever to get out again; and there was nothing to prevent the burning limbs above from falling into it, or the trees that grew in it from catching fire. For this is the sink, Mr. Villars, which you have probably heard of, where the woods have been undermined by the action of water in the limestone rocks, and an acre or more of the mountain has fallen in, with all its trees, so that what was once the roof of an immense cavern is now a little patch of the forest growing seventy feet below the surface of the earth. The sides are precipitous and projecting. Only one tree throws a strong branch upwards to the edge of the sink.

“‘This way, gentlemen,’ said I, ‘and you are safe!’

“It was a trial of their faith; for I waited to explain nothing. First, I tumbled the bear off the brink. We heard him go crashing down into the abyss, and strike the bottom with a sound full of awfulness to the uninitiated. Then, with my rifle swung on my back, I seized the limb, and threw myself into the tree.

“‘Where he can go, we can!’ I heard Stackridge say; and he followed me. I took his gun, and handed it to him again when he was safe in the tree. He did the same for another; and so all got into the branches, and climbed down after us. The trunk has no limbs within twenty feet of the bottom, but there is a smaller tree leaning into it which we got into, and so reached the ground.

“‘Now, gentlemen,’ said I, when all were down, ’I will show you where you are.’ And opening the bushes, I discovered a path leading down the rocks into the caverns, of which this cave is only a branch. Then I made them all take an oath never to betray the secret of what I had shown them. Then I lighted one of the torches Cudjo and I keep for our convenience when we come in that way, and gave it to them; lighted another for my own use; invited them to make themselves quite at home in my absence; left them to their reflections; and here I am.”

Still the mystery with regard to the unknown horseman was in no wise explained. Pomp, informed of what had happened, arose hastily. Penn followed him from the cave. Pepperill accompanied them, to show the way. It was raining steadily; but the thickets in which lay the dead horse and his rider were burning still.

“As I was going to Stackridge’s camp,” said Pomp, “I thought I saw a man crawling over the rocks above where the horse was tied. I ran up to find him, but he was gone. Peace to his ashes, if it was he!”

“Won’t be much o’ the cuss left but ashes!” remarked Pepperill.

Pomp ascended the ledges, and stood, silent and stern, gazing at the destruction of his beloved woods.

The winds had died. The fires had evidently ceased to spread. Portions of the forest that had been kindled and not consumed were burning now with slow, sullen combustion, like brands without flame. Stripped of their foliage, shorn of their boughs, and seen in the dull and smoky daylight, through the rain, they looked like a forest of skeletons, all of glowing coal, brightening, darkening, and ever crumbling away.

All at once Pomp seemed to rouse himself, and direct his attention more particularly at the part of the woods in which the patriots’ camp had been.

“Come with me, Pepperill, if you would help do a good job!”

They started off, and were soon out of sight. As Penn turned from gazing after them, he heard a voice calling from the opposite side of the ravine. He looked, but could see no one. The figure to which the voice belonged was hidden by the bushes. The bushes moved, however; the figure was descending into the ravine. It arrived at the bottom, crossed, and began to ascend the steep side towards the cave. Penn concealed himself, and waited until it had nearly emerged from the thickets beneath him, and he could distinctly hear the breath of a man panting and blowing with the toil of climbing. Then a well-known voice said in a hoarse whisper,

“Massa Hapgood! dat you?”

And peering over the bank, he saw, upturned in the rain and murky light, among the wet bushes, the black, grinning face of old Toby.

He responded by reaching down, grasping the negro’s hand, and drawing him up.

The grin on the old mans face was a ghastly one, and his eyes rolled as he stammered forth,

“Miss Jinny ye seen Miss Jinny?”

Penn did not answer immediately; he was considering whether it would be safe to conduct Toby into the cave. Toby grew terrified.

“Don’t say ye hain’t seen her, Massa Penn! ye kill ol’ Toby if ye do! I done lost her!” And the poor old faithful fellow sobbed out his story, how Virginia had disappeared, and how, on discovering the woods to be on fire, he had set out in search of her, and been wandering he scarcely knew where ever since. “Now don’t say ye don’t know nuffin’ about her! don’t say dat!” falling on his knees, and reaching up his hands beseechingly, as if he had only to prevail on Penn to say that all was well with “Miss Jinny,” and that would make it so. Such faith is in simple souls.

“I’ll say anything you wish me to, good old Toby! only give me a chance.”

“Den say you has seen her.”

“I has seen her,” repeated Penn.

“O, bress you, Massa Penn! And she ar safe say dat too!”

She ar safe,” said Penn, laughing.

“Bress ye for dat!” And Toby, weeping with joy, kissed the young man’s hand again and again. “And ye knows whar she ar?”

“Yes, Toby! So now get up: don’t be kneeling on the rocks here in the rain!”

“Jes’ one word more! Say ye got her and ol’ Massa Villars safe stowed away, and ye’ll take me to see ’em; den dis ol’ nigger’ll bress you and de Lord and dem, and be willin’ fur to die! only say dat, massa!”

“Ah! did I promise to say all you wished?”

“Yes, you did, you did so, Massa Penn!” cried Toby, triumphantly.

“Then I suppose I must say that, too. So come, you dear old simpleton! Cudjo!” to the proprietor of the cave, who just then put out his head to reconnoitre, “Cudjo! Here is your friend Toby, come to pay his master and mistress a visit!”

“What business he got hyar?” said Cudjo, crossly. “We’s hab all de wuld, and creation besides, comin’ bime-by!”

“Cudjo! You knows ol’ Toby, Cudjo!” said Toby, in the softest and most conciliatory tone imaginable.

“Nose ye!” Cudjo snuffed disdainfully. “Yes! and wish you’d keep fudder off!”

“Why, Cudjo! don’t you ‘member Toby? Las’ time I seed you! ye ’member dat, Cudjo!”

“Don’t ’member nuffin’!”

“‘Twan’t you, den, got inter my winder, and done skeert me mos’ t’ def ’fore I found out ‘twas my ol’ ’quaintance Cudjo, come fur Massa Penn’s clo’es! Dat ar wan’t you, hey?” And Toby’s honest indignation cropped out through the thin crust of deprecating obsequiousness which he still thought it politic to maintain.

Penn got under the shelter of the ledge, and waited for the dispute to end. It was evident to him that Cudjo was not half so ill-natured as he appeared; but, feeling himself in a position of something like official importance, he had the human weakness to wish to make the most of it.

“Your massa and missis bery well off. Dey in my house. No room dar for you. Ain’t wanted hyar, nohow!” turning his back very much like a personage of lighter complexion, clad in brief authority.

“Ain’t wanted, Cudjo? You don’t know what you’s sayin’ now. Whar my ol’ massa and young missis is, dar ol’ Toby’s wanted. Can’t lib widout me, dey can’t! Öl’ massa wants me to nuss him. Ye don’t tink you’s a nigger widout no kind ob ’sideration, Cudjo.”

“Talk o’ you nussin’ him when him’s got Pomp!”

“Pomp! what can Pomp do? Wouldn’t trust him to nuss a chick sicken!” Toby talked backwards in his excitement.

“Ki! didn’t him take Massa Hapgood and make him well? Don’t ye know nuffin’?”

Toby seemed staggered for a moment. But he rallied quickly, and said,

“He cure Massa Hapgood? He done jes’ nuffin’ ’t all fur him. De fac’s is, I had de nussin’ on him for a spell at fust, and gib him a start. Dar’s ebery ting in a start, Cudjo.”

“O, what a stupid nigger!” said Cudjo. “Hyar’s Massa Hapgood hisself! leab it to him now!”

“You are both right,” said Penn. “Toby did nurse me, and give me a good start; for which I shall always thank him.”

“Dar! tol’ ye so, tol’ ye so!” said Toby.

“But it was Pomp who afterwards cured me,” added Penn.

“Dar! tol’ you so!” cried Cudjo, while Toby’s countenance fell.

“For while Toby is a capital nurse” (Toby brightened), “Pomp is a first-rate doctor” (Cudjo grinned). “So don’t dispute any more. Shake hands with your old friend, Cudjo, and show him into your house.”

Cudjo was still reluctant; but just then occurred a pleasing incident, which made him feel good-natured towards everybody. Pomp and Pepperill arrived, bringing the bag of meal and the basket of potatoes which the bear-hunters had forsaken in the woods, and which the rain had preserved from the fire.