An Outcast/Chapter XLIV
While the events we have recorded in the foregoing chapter, confused, hurried, and curious, are being enacted in New York, let us once more turn to Charleston.
You must know that, notwithstanding our high state of civilization, we yet maintain in practice two of the most loathsome relics of barbarism—we lash helpless women, and we scourge, at the public whipping-post, the bare backs of men.
George Mullholland has twice been dragged to the whipping-post, twice stripped before a crowd in the market-place, twice lashed, maddened to desperation, and twice degraded in the eyes of the very negroes we teach to yield entire submission to the white man, however humble his grade. Hate, scorn, remorse—every dark passion his nature can summon—rises up in one torturing tempest, and fills his bosom with a mad longing for revenge. "Death!" he says, while looking out from his cell upon the bright landscape without, "what is death to me? The burnings of an outraged soul subdue the thought of death."
The woman through whom this dread finale was brought upon him, and who now repines, unable to shake off the smarts old associations crowd upon her heart, has a second and third time crept noiselessly to his cell, and sought in vain his forgiveness. Yea, she has opened the door gently, but drew back in terror before his dark frown, his sardonic scorn, his frenzied rush at her. Had he not loved her fondly, his hate had not taken such deep root in his bosom.
Two or three days pass, he has armed himself "to the death," and is resolved to make his escape, and seek revenge of his enemies. It is evening. Dark festoons of clouds hang over the city, lambent lightning plays along the heavens in the south. Now it flashes across the city, the dull panorama lights up, the tall, gaunt steeples gleam out, and the surface of the Bay flashes out in a phosphoric blaze. Patiently and diligently has he filed, and filed, and filed, until he has removed the bar that will give egress to his body. The window of his cell overlooks the ditch, beyond which is the prison wall. Noiselessly he arranges the rope, for he is in the third story, then paces his cell, silent and thoughtful. "Must it be?" he questions within himself, "must I stain these hands with the blood of the woman I love? Revenge, revenge—I will have revenge. I will destroy both of them, for to-morrow I am to be dragged a third time to the whipping-post." Now he casts a glance round the dark cell, now he pauses at the window, now the lightning courses along the high wall, then reflects back the deep ditch. Another moment, and he has commenced his descent. Down, down, down, he lowers himself. Now he holds on tenaciously, the lightning reflects his dangling figure, a prisoner in a lower cell gives the alarm, he hears the watchword of his discovery pass from cell to cell, the clashing of the keeper's door grates upon his ear like thunder—he has reached the end of his rope, and yet hangs suspended in the air. A heavy fall is heard, he has reached the ditch, bounds up its side to the wall, seizes a pole, and places against it, and, with one vault, is over into the open street. Not a moment is to be lost. Uproar and confusion reigns throughout the prison, his keepers have taken the alarm, and will soon be on his track, pursuing him with ferocious hounds. Burning for revenge, and yet bewildered, he sets off at full speed, through back lanes, over fields, passing in his course the astonished guardmen. He looks neither to the right nor the left, but speeds on toward the grove. Now he reaches the bridge that crosses the millpond, pauses for breath, then proceeds on. Suddenly a light from the villa Anna occupies flashes out. He has crossed the bridge, bounds over the little hedge-grown avenue, through the garden, and in another minute stands before her, a pistol pointed at her breast, and all the terrible passions of an enraged fiend darkening his countenance. Her implorings for mercy bring an old servant rushing into the room, the report of a pistol rings out upon the still air, shriek after shriek follows, mingled with piercing moans, and death-struggles. "Ha, ha!" says the avenger, looking on with a sardonic smile upon his face, and a curl of hate upon his lip, "I have taken the life to which I gave my own—yes, I have taken it—I have taken it!" And she writhes her body, and sets her eyes fixedly upon him, as he hastens out of the room.
"Quick! quick!" he says to himself. "There, then! I am pursued!" He recrosses the millpond over another bridge, and in his confusion turns a short angle into a lane leading to the city. The yelping of dogs, the deep, dull tramp of hoofs, the echoing of voices, the ominous baying and scenting of blood-hounds—all break upon his ear in one terrible chaos. Not a moment is to be lost. The sight at the villa will attract the attention of his pursuers, and give him time to make a distance! The thought of what he has done, and the terrible death that awaits him, crowds upon his mind, and rises up before him like a fierce monster of retribution. He rushes at full speed down the lane, vaults across a field into the main road, only to find his pursuers close upon him. The patrol along the streets have caught the alarm, which he finds spreading with lightning-speed. The clank of side-arms, the scenting and baying of the hounds, coming louder and louder, nearer and nearer, warns him of the approaching danger. A gate at the head of a wharf stands open, the hounds are fast gaining upon him, a few jumps more and they will have him fast in their ferocious grasp. He rushes through the gate, down the wharf, the tumultuous cry of his pursuers striking terror into his very heart. Another instant and the hounds are at his feet, he stands on the capsill at the end, gives one wild, despairing look into the abyss beneath—"I die revenged," he shouts, discharges a pistol into his breast, and with one wild plunge, is buried forever in the water beneath. The dark stream of an unhappy life has run out. Upon whom does the responsibility of this terrible closing rest? In the words of Thomson, the avenger left behind him only "Gaunt Beggary, and Scorn, with many hell-hounds more."
When the gray dawn of morning streamed in through the windows of the little villa, and upon the parlor table, that had so often been adorned with caskets and fresh-plucked flowers, there, in their stead, lay the lifeless form of the unhappy Anna, her features pale as marble, but beautiful even in death. There, rolled in a mystic shroud, calm as a sleeper in repose, she lay, watched over by two faithful slaves.
The Judge and Mr. Snivel have found it convenient to make a trip of pleasure into the country. And though the affair creates some little comment in fashionable society, it would be exceedingly unpopular to pry too deeply into the private affairs of men high in office. We are not encumbered with scrutinizing morality. Being an "unfortunate woman," the law cannot condescend to deal with her case. Indeed, were it brought before a judge, and the judge to find himself sitting in judgment upon a judge, his feelings would find some means of defrauding his judgment, while society would carefully close the shutter of its sanctity.
At high noon there comes a man of the name of Moon, commonly called Mr. Moon, the good-natured Coroner. In truth, a better-humored man than Mr. Moon cannot be found; and what is more, he has the happiest way in the world of disposing of such cases, and getting verdicts of his jury exactly suited to circumstances. Mr. Moon never proceeds to business without regaling his jury with good brandy and high-flavored cigars. In this instance he has bustled about and got together six very solemn and seriously-disposed gentlemen, who proceed to deliberate. "A mystery hangs over the case," says one. A second shakes his head, and views the body as if anxious to get away. A third says, reprovingly, that "such cases are coming too frequent." Mr. Moon explains the attendant circumstances, and puts a changed face on the whole affair. One juryman chalks, and another juryman chalks, and Mr. Moon says, by way of bringing the matter to a settled point, "It is a bad ending to a wretched life." A solemn stillness ensues, and then follows the verdict. The body being identified as that of one Anna Bonard, a woman celebrated for her beauty, but of notorious reputation, the jury are of opinion (having duly weighed the circumstances) that she came to her melancholy death by the hands of one George Mullholland, who was prompted to commit the act for some cause to the jury unknown. And the jury, in passing the case over to the authorities, recommend that the said Mullholland be brought to justice. This done, Mr. Moon orders her burial, and the jury hasten home, fully confident of having performed their duty unswerved.
When night came, when all was hushed without, and the silence within was broken only by the cricket's chirp, when the lone watcher, the faithful old slave, sat beside the cold, shrouded figure, when the dim light of the chamber of death seemed mingling with the shadows of departed souls, there appeared in the room, like a vision, the tall figure of a female, wrapped in a dark mantle. Slowly and noiselessly she stole to the side of the deceased, stood motionless and statue-like for several minutes, her eyes fixed in mute contemplation on the face of the corpse. The watcher looked and started back, still the figure remained motionless. Raising her right hand to her chin, pensively, she lifted her eyes heavenward, and in that silent appeal, in those dewy tears that glistened in her great orbs, in those words that seemed freezing to her quivering lips, the fierce struggle waging in that bosom was told. She heard the words, "You cannot redeem me now!" knelling in her ears, her thoughts flashed back over years of remorse, to the day of her error, and she saw rising up as it were before her, like a spectre from the tomb, seeking retribution, the image of the child she had sacrificed to her vanity. She pressed and pressed the cold hand, so delicate, so like her own; she unbared the round, snowy arm, and there beheld the imprinted hearts, and the broken anchor! Her pent-up grief then burst its bounds, the tears rolled down her cheeks, her lips quivered, her hand trembled, and her very blood seemed as ice in her veins. She cast a hurried glance round the room, a calm and serene smile seemed lighting up the features of the lifeless woman, and she bent over her, and kissed and kissed her cold, marble-like brow, and bathed it with her burning tears. It was a last sad offering; and having bestowed it, she turned slowly away, and disappeared. It was Madame Montford, who came a day too late to save the storm-tossed girl, but returned to think of the hereafter of her own soul.