Elsie Venner/Chapter XI



The Doctor was roused from his revery by the clatter of approaching hoofs. He looked forward and saw a young fellow galloping rapidly towards him.

A common New-England rider with his toes turned out, his elbows jerking and the daylight showing under him at every step, bestriding a cantering beast of the plebeian breed, thick at every point where he should be thin, and thin at every point where he should be thick, is not one of those noble objects that bewitch the world. The best horsemen outside of the cities are the unshod countryboys, who ride "bareback," with only a halter round the horse's neck, digging their brown heels into his ribs, and slanting over backwards, but sticking on like leeches, and taking the hardest trot as if they loved it.--This was a different sight on which the Doctor was looking. The streaming mane and tail of the unshorn, savage-looking, black horse, the dashing grace with which the young fellow in the shadowy sombrero, and armed with the huge spurs, sat in his high-peaked saddle, could belong only to the mustang of the Pampas and his master. This bold rider was a young man whose sudden apparition in the quiet inland town had reminded some of the good people of a bright, curly-haired boy they had known some eight or ten years before as little Dick Venner.

This boy had passed several of his early years at the Dudley mansion, the playmate of Elsie, being her cousin, two or three years older than herself, the son of Captain Richard Venner, a South American trader, who, as he changed his residence often, was glad to leave the boy in his brother's charge. The Captain's wife, this boy's mother, was a lady of Buenos Ayres, of Spanish descent, and had died while the child was in his cradle. These two motherless children were as strange a pair as one roof could well cover. Both handsome, wild, impetuous, unmanageable, they played and fought together like two young leopards, beautiful, but dangerous, their lawless instincts showing through all their graceful movements.

The boy was little else than a young Gaucho when he first came to Rockland; for he had learned to ride almost as soon as to walk, and could jump on his pony and trip up a runaway pig with the bolas or noose him with his miniature lasso at an age when some city-children would hardly be trusted out of sight of a nursery-maid. It makes men imperious to sit a horse; no man governs his fellows so well as from this living throne. And so, from Marcus Aurelius in Roman bronze, down to the "man on horseback" in General Cushing's prophetic speech, the saddle has always been the true seat of empire. The absolute tyranny of the human will over a noble and powerful beast develops the instinct of personal prevalence and dominion; so that horse-subduer and hero were almost synonymous in simpler times, and are closely related still. An ancestry of wild riders naturally enough bequeaths also those other tendencies which we see in the Tartars, the Cossacks, and our own Indian Centaurs, and as well, perhaps, in the old-fashioned fox-hunting squire as in any of these. Sharp alternations of violent action and self-indulgent repose; a hard run, and a long revel after it; this is what over-much horse tends to animalize a man into. Such antecedents may have helped to make little Dick Venner a self-willed, capricious boy, and a rough playmate for Elsie.

Elsie was the wilder of the two. Old Sophy, who used to watch them with those quick, animal-looking eyes of hers,--she was said to be the granddaughter of a cannibal chief, and inherited the keen senses belonging to all creatures which are hunted as game, Old Sophy, who watched them in their play and their quarrels, always seemed to be more afraid for the boy than the girl. "Masse Dick! Masse Dick! don' you be too rough wi' dat gal! She scratch you las' week, 'n' some day she bite you; 'n' if she bite you, Masse Dick!" Old Sophy nodded her head ominously, as if she could say a great deal more; while, in grateful acknowledgment of her caution, Master Dick put his two little fingers in the angles of his mouth, and his forefingers on his lower eyelids, drawing upon these features until his expression reminded her of something she vaguely recollected in her infancy,--the face of a favorite deity executed in wood by an African artist for her grandfather, brought over by her mother, and burned when she became a Christian.

These two wild children had much in common. They loved to ramble together, to build huts, to climb trees for nests, to ride the colts, to dance, to race, and to play at boys' rude games as if both were boys. But wherever two natures have a great deal in common, the conditions of a first-rate quarrel are furnished ready-made. Relations are very apt to hate each other just because they are too much alike. It is so frightful to be in an atmosphere of family idiosyncrasies; to see all the hereditary uncomeliness or infirmity of body, all the defects of speech, all the failings of temper, intensified by concentration, so that every fault of our own finds itself multiplied by reflections, like our images in a saloon lined with mirrors! Nature knows what she is about. The centrifugal principle which grows out of the antipathy of like to like is only the repetition in character of the arrangement we see expressed materially in certain seed-capsules, which burst and throw the seed to all points of the compass. A house is a large pod with a human germ or two in each of its cells or chambers; it opens by dehiscence of the front-door by and by, and projects one of its germs to Kansas, another to San Francisco, another to Chicago, and so on; and this that Smith may not be Smithed to death and Brown may not be Browned into a mad-house, but mix in with the world again and struggle back to average humanity.

Elsie's father, whose fault was to indulge her in everything, found that it would never do to let these children grow up together. They would either love each other as they got older, and pair like wild creatures, or take some fierce antipathy, which might end nobody could tell where. It was not safe to try. The boy must be sent away. A sharper quarrel than common decided this point. Master Dick forgot Old Sophy's caution, and vexed the girl into a paroxysm of wrath, in which she sprang at him and bit his arm. Perhaps they made too much of it; for they sent for the old Doctor, who came at once when he heard what had happened. He had a good deal to say about the danger there was from the teeth of animals or human beings when enraged; and as he emphasized his remarks by the application of a pencil of lunar caustic to each of the marks left by the sharp white teeth, they were like to be remembered by at least one of his hearers.

So Master Dick went off on his travels, which led him into strange places and stranger company. Elsie was half pleased and half sorry to have him go; the children had a kind of mingled liking and hate for each other, just such as is very common among relations. Whether the girl had most satisfaction in the plays they shared, or in teasing him, or taking her small revenge upon him for teasing her, it would have been hard to say. At any rate, she was lonely without him. She had more fondness for the old black woman than anybody; but Sophy could not follow her far beyond her own old rocking-chair. As for her father, she had made him afraid of her, not for his sake, but for her own. Sometimes she would seem to be fond of him, and the parent's heart would yearn within him as she twined her supple arms about him; and then some look she gave him, some half-articulated expression, would turn his cheek pale and almost make him shiver, and he would say kindly, "Now go, Elsie, dear," and smile upon her as she went, and close and lock the door softly after her. Then his forehead would knot and furrow itself, and the drops of anguish stand thick upon it. He would go to the western window of his study and look at the solitary mound with the marble slab for its head-stone. After his grief had had its way, he would kneel down and pray for his child as one who has no hope save in that special grace which can bring the most rebellious spirit into sweet subjection. All this might seem like weakness in a parent having the charge of one sole daughter of his house and heart; but he had tried authority and tenderness by turns so long without any good effect, that he had become sore perplexed, and, surrounding her with cautious watchfulness as he best might, left her in the main to her own guidance and the merciful influences which Heaven might send down to direct her footsteps.

Meantime the boy grew up to youth and early manhood through a strange succession of adventures. He had been at school at Buenos Ayres,--had quarrelled with his mother's relatives,--had run off to the Pampas, and lived with the Gauchos;--had made friends with the Indians, and ridden with them, it was rumored, in some of their savage forays,--had returned and made up his quarrel,--had got money by inheritance or otherwise,--had troubled the peace of certain magistrates,--had found it convenient to leave the City of Wholesome Breezes for a time, and had galloped off on a fast horse of his, (so it was said,) with some officers riding after him, who took good care (but this was only the popular story) not to catch him. A few days after this he was taking his ice on the Alameda of Mendoza, and a week or two later sailed from Valparaiso for New York, carrying with him the horse with which he had scampered over the Plains, a trunk or two with his newly purchased outfit of, clothing and other conveniences, and a belt heavy with gold and with a few Brazilian diamonds sewed in it, enough in value to serve him for a long journey.

Dick Venner had seen life enough to wear out the earlier sensibilities of adolescence. He was tired of worshipping or tyrannizing over the bistred or umbered beauties of mingled blood among whom he had been living. Even that piquant exhibition which the Rio de Mendoza presents to the amateur of breathing sculpture failed to interest him. He was thinking of a far-off village on the other side of the equator, and of the wild girl with whom he used to play and quarrel, a creature of a different race from these degenerate mongrels.

"A game little devil she was, sure enough!"--And as Dick spoke, he bared his wrist to look for the marks she had left on it: two small white scars, where the two small sharp upper teeth had struck when she flashed at him with her eyes sparkling as bright as those glittering stones sewed up in the belt he wore. "That's a filly worth noosing!" said Dick to himself, as he looked in admiration at the sign of her spirit and passion. "I wonder if she will bite at eighteen as she did at eight! She shall have a chance to try, at any rate!"

Such was the self-sacrificing disposition with which Richard Venner, Esq., a passenger by the Condor from Valparaiso, set foot upon his native shore, and turned his face in the direction of Rockland, The Mountain, and the mansion-house. He had heard something, from time to time, of his New-England relatives, and knew that they were living together as he left them. And so he heralded himself to "My dear Uncle" by a letter signed "Your loving nephew, Richard Venner," in which letter he told a very frank story of travel and mercantile adventure, expressed much gratitude for the excellent counsel and example which had helped to form his character and preserve him in the midst of temptation, inquired affectionately after his uncle's health, was much interested to know whether his lively cousin who used to be his playmate had grown up as handsome as she promised to be, and announced his intention of paying his respects to them both at Rockland. Not long after this came the trunks marked R. V. which he had sent before him, forerunners of his advent: he was not going to wait for a reply or an invitation.

What a sound that is,--the banging down of the preliminary trunk, without its claimant to give it the life which is borrowed by all personal appendages, so long as the owner's hand or eye is on them! If it announce the coming of one loved and longed for, how we delight to look at it, to sit down on it, to caress it in our fancies, as a lone exile walking out on a windy pier yearns towards the merchantman lying alongside, with the colors of his own native land at her peak, and the name of the port he sailed from long ago upon her stern! But if it tell the near approach of the undesired, inevitable guest, what sound short of the muffled noises made by the undertakers as they turn the corners in the dim-lighted house, with low shuffle of feet and whispered cautions, carries such a sense of knocking-kneed collapse with it as the thumping down in the front entry of the heavy portmanteau, rammed with the changes of uncounted coming weeks?

Whether the R. V. portmanteaus brought one or the other of these emotions to the tenants of the Dudley mansion, it might not be easy to settle. Elsie professed to be pleased with the thought of having an adventurous young stranger, with stories to tell, an inmate of their quiet, not to say dull, family. Under almost any other circumstances, her father would have been unwilling to take a young fellow of whom he knew so little under his roof; but this was his nephew, and anything that seemed like to amuse or please Elsie was agreeable to him. He had grown almost desperate, and felt as if any change in the current of her life and feelings might save her from some strange paroxysm of dangerous mental exaltation or sullen perversion of disposition, from which some fearful calamity might come to herself or others.

Dick had been several weeks at the Dudley mansion. A few days before, he had made a sudden dash for the nearest large city,--and when the Doctor met him, he was just returning from his visit.

It had been a curious meeting between the two young persons, who had parted so young and after such strange relations with each other. When Dick first presented himself at the mansion, not one in the house would have known him for the boy who had left them all so suddenly years ago. He was so dark, partly from his descent, partly from long habits of exposure, that Elsie looked almost fair beside him. He had something of the family beauty which belonged to his cousin, but his eye had a fierce passion in it, very unlike the cold glitter of Elsie's. Like many people of strong and imperious temper, he was soft-voiced and very gentle in his address, when he had no special reason for being otherwise. He soon found reasons enough to be as amiable as he could force himself to be with his uncle and his cousin. Elsie was to his fancy. She had a strange attraction for him, quite unlike anything he had ever known in other women. There was something, too, in early associations: when those who parted as children meet as man and woman, there is always a renewal of that early experience which followed the taste of the forbidden fruit,--a natural blush of consciousness, not without its charm.

Nothing could be more becoming than the behavior of "Richard Venner, Esquire, the guest of Dudley Venner, Esquire, at his noble mansion," as he was announced in the Court column of the "Rockland Weekly Universe." He was pleased to find himself treated with kindness and attention as a relative. He made himself very agreeable by abundant details concerning the religious, political, social, commercial, and educational progress of the South American cities and states. He was himself much interested in everything that was going on about the Dudley mansion, walked all over it, noticed its valuable wood-lots with special approbation, was delighted with the grand old house and its furniture, and would not be easy until he had seen all the family silver and heard its history. In return, he had much to tell of his father, now dead,--the only one of the Venners, beside themselves, in whose fate his uncle was interested. With Elsie, he was subdued and almost tender in his manner; with the few visitors whom they saw, shy and silent,--perhaps a little watchful, if any young man happened to be among them.

Young fellows placed on their good behavior are apt to get restless and nervous, all ready to fly off into some mischief or other. Dick Venner had his half-tamed horse with him to work off his suppressed life with. When the savage passion of his young blood came over him, he would fetch out the mustang, screaming and kicking as these amiable beasts are wont to do, strap the Spanish saddle tight to his back, vault into it, and, after getting away from the village, strike the long spurs into his sides and whirl away in a wild gallop, until the black horse was flecked with white foam, and the cruel steel points were red with his blood. When horse and rider were alike fired, he would fling the bridle on his neck and saunter homeward, always contriving to get to the stable in a quiet way, and coming into the house as calm as a bishop after a sober trot on his steady-going cob.

After a few weeks of this kind of life, he began to want some more fierce excitement. He had tried making downright love to Elsie, with no great success as yet, in his own opinion. The girl was capricious in her treatment of him, sometimes scowling and repellent, sometimes familiar, very often, as she used to be of old, teasing and malicious. All this, perhaps, made her more interesting to a young man who was tired of easy conquests. There was a strange fascination in her eyes, too, which at times was quite irresistible, so that he would feel himself drawn to her by a power which seemed to take away his will for the moment. It may have been nothing but the common charm of bright eyes; but he had never before experienced the same kind of attraction.

Perhaps she was not so very different from what she had been as a child, after all. At any rate, so it seemed to Dick Venner, who, as was said before, had tried making love to her. They were sitting alone in the study one day; Elsie had round her neck that somewhat peculiar ornament, the golden torque, which she had worn to the great party. Youth is adventurous and very curious about necklaces, brooches, chains, and other such adornments, so long as they are worn by young persons of the female sex. Dick was seized with a great passion for examining this curious chain, and, after some preliminary questions, was rash enough to lean towards her and put out his hand toward the neck that lay in the golden coil.

She threw her head back, her eyes narrowing and her forehead drawing down so that Dick thought her head actually flattened itself. He started involuntarily; for she looked so like the little girl who had struck him with those sharp flashing teeth, that the whole scene came back, and he felt the stroke again as if it had just been given, and the two white scars began to sting as they did after the old Doctor had burned them with that stick of gray caustic, which looked so like a slate pencil, and felt so much like the end of a red-hot poker.

It took something more than a gallop to set him right after this. The next day he mentioned having received a letter from a mercantile agent with whom he had dealings. What his business was is, perhaps, none of our business. At any rate, it required him to go at once to the city where his correspondent resided.

Independently of this "business" which called him, there may have been other motives, such as have been hinted at. People who have been living for a long time in dreary country-places, without any emotion beyond such as are occasioned by a trivial pleasure or annoyance, often get crazy at last for a vital paroxysm of some kind or other. In this state they rush to the great cities for a plunge into their turbid life-baths, with a frantic thirst for every exciting pleasure, which makes them the willing and easy victims of all those who sell the Devil's wares on commission. The less intelligent and instructed class of unfortunates, who venture with their ignorance and their instincts into what is sometimes called the "life" of great cities, are put through a rapid course of instruction which entitles them very commonly to a diploma from the police court. But they only illustrate the working of the same tendency in mankind at large which has been occasionally noticed in the sons of ministers and other eminently worthy people, by many ascribed to that intense congenital hatred for goodness which distinguishes human nature from that of the brute, but perhaps as readily accounted for by considering it as the yawning and stretching of a young soul cramped too long in one moral posture.

Richard Veneer was a young man of remarkable experience for his years. He ran less risk, therefore, in exposing himself to the temptations and dangers of a great city than many older men, who, seeking the livelier scenes of excitement to be found in large towns as a relaxation after the monotonous routine of family life, are too often taken advantage of and made the victims of their sentiments or their generous confidence in their fellow-creatures. Such was not his destiny. There was something about him which looked as if he would not take bullying kindly. He had also the advantage of being acquainted with most of those ingenious devices by which the proverbial inconstancy of fortune is steadied to something more nearly approaching fixed laws, and the dangerous risks which have so often led young men to ruin and suicide are practically reduced to somewhat less than nothing. So that Mr. Richard Veneer worked off his nervous energies without any troublesome adventure, and was ready to return to Rockland in less than a week, without having lightened the money-belt he wore round his body, or tarnished the long glittering knife he carried in his boot.

Dick had sent his trunk to the nearest town through which the railroad leading to the city passed. He rode off on his black horse and left him at the place where he took the cars. On arriving at the city station, he took a coach and drove to one of the great hotels. Thither drove also a sagacious-looking, middle-aged man, who entered his name as "W. Thompson" in the book at the office immediately after that of "R. Venner." Mr. "Thompson" kept a carelessly observant eye upon Mr. Venner during his stay at the hotel, and followed him to the cars when he left, looking over his shoulder when he bought his ticket at the station, and seeing him fairly off without obtruding himself in any offensive way upon his attention. Mr. Thompson, known in other quarters as Detective Policeman Terry, got very little by his trouble. Richard Venner did not turn out to be the wife-poisoner, the defaulting cashier, the river-pirate, or the great counterfeiter. He paid his hotel-bill as a gentleman should always do, if he has the money and can spare it. The detective had probably overrated his own sagacity when he ventured to suspect Mr. Venner. He reported to his chief that there was a knowing-looking fellow he had been round after, but he rather guessed he was nothing more than "one o' them Southern sportsmen."

The poor fellows at the stable where Dick had left his horse had had trouble enough with him. One of the ostlers was limping about with a lame leg, and another had lost a mouthful of his coat, which came very near carrying a piece of his shoulder with it. When Mr. Venner came back for his beast, he was as wild as if he had just been lassoed, screaming, kicking, rolling over to get rid of his saddle, and when his rider was at last mounted, jumping about in a way to dislodge any common horseman. To all this Dick replied by sticking his long spurs deeper and deeper into his flanks, until the creature found he was mastered, and dashed off as if all the thistles of the Pampas were pricking him.

"One more gallop, Juan?" This was in the last mile of the road before he came to the town which brought him in sight of the mansion-house. It was in this last gallop that the fiery mustang and his rider flashed by the old Doctor. Cassia pointed her sharp ears and shied to let them pass. The Doctor turned and looked through the little round glass in the back of his sulky.

"Dick Turpin, there, will find more than his match!" said the Doctor.