The Beckoning Hand, and Other Stories
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C?sarine answered never a word, but to my intense surprise she burst suddenly into a flood of tears, and flung herself sobbing on the cabin floor at my feet in an agony of tempestuous cries and writhings.
A few days later, when we had settled down for a three months' stay at a little bungalow on the green hills behind Port-au-Prince, C?sarine said to me early in the day, "I want to go away to-day, Harry, up into the mountains, to the chapel of Notre Dame de Bon Secours."
I bowed my head in acquiescence. "I can guess why you want to go, Reeney," I answered gently. "You want to pray there about something that's troubling you. And if I'm not mistaken, it's the same thing that made you cry the other evening when I spoke to you down yonder in the cabin."
The tears rose hastily once more into C?sarine's eyes, and she cried in a low distressed voice, "Harry, Harry, don't talk to me so. You are too good to me. You will kill me. You will kill me."
I lifted her head from the table, where she had buried it in her arms, and kissed her tenderly. "Reeney," I said, "I know how you feel, and I hope Notre Dame will listen to your prayers, and send you what you ask of her. But if not, you need never be afraid that I shall love you any the less than I do at present."
C?sarine burst into a fresh flood of tears. "No, Harry," she said, "you don't know about it. You can't imagine it. To us, you know, who have the blood of Africa running in our veins, it is not a mere matter of fancy. It is an eternal disgrace for any woman of our race and descent not to be a mother. I cannot help it. It is the instinct of my people. We are all born so: we cannot feel otherwise."
It was the only time either of us ever alluded in speaking with one another to the sinister half of C?sarine's pedigree.
"You will let me go with you to the mountains, Reeney?" I asked, ignoring her remark. "You mustn't go so far by yourself, darling."
"No, Harry, you can't come with me. It would make my prayers ineffectual, dearest. You are a heretic, you know, Harry. You are not Catholic. Notre Dame won't listen to my prayer if I take you with me on my pilgrimage, my darling."
I saw her mind was set upon it, and I didn't interfere. She would be away all night, she said. There was a rest-house for pilgrims attached to the chapel, and she would be back again at Maisonette (our bungalow) the morning after.
That afternoon she started on her way on a mountain pony I had just bought for her, accompanied only by a negro maid. I couldn't let her go quite unattended through those lawless paths, beset by cottages of half savage Africans; so I followed at a distance, aided by a black groom, and tracked her road along the endless hill-sides up to a fork in the way where the narrow bridle-path divided into two, one of which bore away to leftward, leading, my guide told me, to the chapel of Notre Dame de Bon Secours.
At that point the guide halted.He peered with hand across his eyebrows among the tangled brake of tree-ferns with a terrified look; then he shook his woolly black head ominously. "I can't go on, Monsieur," he said, turning to me with an unfeigned shudder. "Madame has not taken the path of Our Lady. She has gone to the left along the other road, which leads at last to the Vaudoux temple."
I looked at him incredulously. I had heard before of Vaudoux. It is the hideous African canibalistic witchcraft of the relapsing half-heathen Haitian negroes. But C?sarine a Vaudoux worshipper! It was too ridiculous. The man must be mistaken: or else C?sarine had taken the wrong road by some slight accident.
Next moment, a horrible unspeakable doubt seized upon me irresistibly. What was the unknown shrine in her grandmother's garden at which C?sarine had prayed in those awful gutturals? Whatever it was, I would probe this mystery to the very bottom. I would know the truth, come what might of it.
"Go, you coward!" I said to the negro. "I have no further need of you. I will make my way alone to the Vaudoux temple."
"Monsieur," the man cried, trembling visibly in every limb, "they will tear you to pieces. If they ever discover you near the temple, they will offer you up as a victim to the Vaudoux."
"Pooh," I answered, contemptuous of the fellow's slavish terror. "Where Madame, a woman, dares to go, I, her husband, am certainly not afraid to follow her."
"Monsieur," he replied, throwing himself submissively in the dust on the path before me, "Madame is Creole; she has the blood of the Vaudoux worshippers flowing in her veins. Nobody will hurt her. She is free of the craft. But Monsieur is a pure white and uninitiated… If the Vaudoux people catch him at their rites, they will rend him in pieces, and offer his blood as an expiation to the Unspeakable One."
"Go," I said, with a smile, turning my horse's head up the right-hand path toward the Vaudoux temple. "I am not afraid. I will come back again to Maisonette to-morrow."
I followed the path through a tortuous maze, beset with prickly cactus, agave, and fern-brake, till I came at last to a spur of the hill, where a white wooden building gleamed in front of me, in the full slanting rays of tropical sunset. A skull was fastened to the lintel of the door. I knew at once it was the Vaudoux temple.
I dismounted at once, and led my horse aside into the brake, though I tore his legs and my own as I went with the spines of the cactus plants; and tying him by the bridle to a mountain cabbage palm, in a spot where the thick underbrush completely hid us from view, I lay down and waited patiently for the shades of evening.
It was a moonless night, according to the Vaudoux fashion; and I knew from what I had already read in West Indian books that the orgies would not commence till midnight.
From time to time, I rubbed a fusee against my hand without lighting it, and by the faint glimmer of the phosphorus on my palm, I was able to read the figures of my watch dial without exciting the attention of the neighbouring Vaudoux worshippers.
Hour after hour went slowly by, and I crouched there still unseen among the agave thicket. At last, as the hands of the watch reached together the point of twelve, I heard a low but deep rumbling noise coming ominously from the Vaudoux temple. I recognized at once the familiar sound. It was the note of the bull-roarer, that mystic instrument of pointed wood, whirled by a string round the head of the hierophant, by whose aid savages in their secret rites summon to their shrines their gods and spirits. I had often made one myself for a toy when I was a boy in England.
I crept out through the tangled brake, and cautiously approached the back of the building. A sentinel was standing by the door in front, a powerful negro, armed with revolver and cutlas. I skulked round noiselessly to the rear, and lifting myself by my hands to the level of the one tiny window, I peered in through a slight scratch on the white paint, with which the glass was covered internally.
I only saw the sight within for a second. Then my brain reeled, and my fingers refused any longer to hold me. But in that second, I had read the whole terrible, incredible truth: I knew what sort of a woman she really was whom I had blindly taken as the wife of my bosom.
Before a rude stone altar covered with stuffed alligator skins, human bones, live snakes, and hideous sorts of African superstition, a tall and withered black woman stood erect, naked as she came from her mother's womb, one skinny arm raised aloft, and the other holding below some dark object, that writhed and struggled awfully in her hand on the slab of the altar, even as she held it. I saw in a flash of the torches behind it was the black hag I had watched before at the Port-au-Prince cottage.
Beside her, whiter of skin, and faultless of figure, stood a younger woman, beautiful to behold, imperious and haughty still, like a Greek statue, unmoved before that surging horrid background of naked black and cringing savages. Her head was bent, and her hand pressed convulsively against the swollen veins in her throbbing brow; and I saw at once it was my own wife – a Vaudoux worshipper – C?sarine Tristram.
In another flash, I knew the black woman had a sharp flint knife in her uplifted hand; and the dark object in the other hand I recognized with a thrill of unspeakable horror as a negro girl of four years old or thereabouts, gagged and bound, and lying on the altar.
Before I could see the sharp flint descend upon the naked breast of the writhing victim, my fingers in mercy refused to bear me, and I fell half fainting on the ground below, too shocked and unmanned even to crawl away at once out of reach of the awful unrealizable horror.
But by the sounds within, I knew they had completed their hideous sacrifice, and that they were smearing over C?sarine – my own wife – the woman of my choice – with the warm blood of the human victim.
Sick and faint, I crept away slowly through the tangled underbrush, tearing my skin as I went with the piercing cactus spines; untied my horse from the spot where I had fastened him; and rode him down without drawing rein, cantering round sharp angles and down horrible ledges, till he stood at last, white with foam, by the grey dawn, in front of the little piazza at Maisonette.
That night, the thunder roared and the lightning played with tropical fierceness round the tall hilltops away in the direction of the Vaudoux temple. The rain came down in fearful sheets, and the torrents roared and foamed in cataracts, and tore away great gaps in the rough paths on the steep hill-sides. But at eight o'clock in the morning C?sarine returned, drenched with wet, and with a strange frown upon her haughty forehead.
I did not know how to look at her or how to meet her.
"My prayers are useless," she muttered angrily as she entered. "Some heretic must have followed me unseen to the chapel of Notre Dame de Bon Secours. The pilgrimage is a failure."
"You are wet," I said, trembling. "Change your things, C?sarine." I could not pretend to speak gently to her.
She turned upon me with a fierce look in her big black eyes. Her instinct showed her at once I had discovered her secret. "Tell them, and hang me," she cried fiercely.
It was what the law required me to do. I was otherwise the accomplice of murder and cannibalism. But I could not do it. Profoundly as I loathed her and hated her presence, now, I couldn't find it in my heart to give her up to justice, as I knew I ought to do.
I turned away and answered nothing.
Presently, she came out again from her bedroom, with her wet things still dripping around her. "Smoke that," she said, handing me a tiny cigarette rolled round in a leaf of fresh tobacco.
"I will not," I answered with a vague surmise, taking it from her fingers. "I know the smell. It is manchineal. You cannot any longer deceive me."
She went back to her bedroom once more. I sat, dazed and stupefied, in the bamboo chair on the front piazza. What to do, I knew not, and cared not. I was tied to her for life, and there was no help for it, save by denouncing her to the rude Haitian justice.
In an hour or more, our English maid came out to speak to me. "I'm afraid, sir," she said, "Mrs. Tristram is getting delirious. She seems to be in a high fever. Shall I ask one of these poor black bodies to go out and get the English doctor?"
I went into my wife's bedroom. C?sarine lay moaning piteously on the bed, in her wet clothes still; her cheeks were hot, and her pulse was high and thin and feverish. I knew without asking what was the matter with her. It was yellow fever.
The night's exposure in that terrible climate, and the ghastly scene she had gone through so intrepidly, had broken down even C?sarine's iron constitution.
I sent for the doctor and had her put to bed immediately. The black nurse and I undressed her between us. We found next her bosom, tied by a small red silken thread, a tiny bone, fresh and ruddy-looking. I knew what it was, and so did the negress. It was a human finger-bone – the last joint of a small child's fourth finger. The negress shuddered and hid her head. "It is Vaudoux, Monsieur!" she said. "I have seen it on others. Madame has been paying a visit, I suppose, to her grandmother."
For six long endless days and nights I watched and nursed that doomed criminal, doing everything for her that skill could direct or care could suggest to me: yet all the time fearing and dreading that she might yet recover, and not knowing in my heart what either of our lives could ever be like if she did live through it.
A merciful Providence willed it otherwise.
On the sixth day, the fatal vomito negro set in – the symptom of the last incurable stage of yellow fever – and I knew for certain that C?sarine would die. She had brought her own punishment upon her. At midnight that evening she died delirious.
Thank God, she had left no child of mine behind her to inherit the curse her mother's blood had handed down to her!
On my return to London, whither I went by mail direct, leaving the yacht to follow after me, I drove straight to the Lathams' from Waterloo Station. Mrs. Latham was out, the servant said, but Miss Irene was in the drawing-room.
Irene was sitting at the window by herself, working quietly at a piece of crewel work. She rose to meet me with her sweet simple little English smile. I took her hand and pressed it like a brother.
"I got your telegram," she said simply. "Harry, I know she is dead; but I know something terrible besides has happened. Tell me all. Don't be afraid to speak of it before me. I am not afraid, for my part, to listen."
I sat down on the sofa beside her, and told her all, without one word of excuse or concealment, from our last parting to the day of C?sarine's death in Haiti: and she held my hand and listened all the while with breathless wonderment to my strange story.
At the end I said, "Irene, it has all come and gone between us like a hideous nightmare. I cannot imagine even now how that terrible woman, with all her power, could ever for one moment have bewitched me away from you, my beloved, my queen, my own heart's darling."
Irene did not try to hush me or to stop me in any way. She merely sat and looked at me steadily, and said nothing.
"It was fascination," I cried. "Infatuation, madness, delirium, enchantment."
"It was worse than that, Harry," Irene answered, rising quietly. "It was poison; it was witchcraft; it was sheer African devilry."
In a flash of thought, I remembered the cup of coffee at Seymour Crescent, the curious sherry at Port-au-Prince, the cigarette with the manchineal she had given me on the mountains, and I saw forthwith that Irene with her woman's quickness had divined rightly. It was more than infatuation; it was intoxication with African charms and West Indian poisons.
"What a man does in such a woman's hands is not his own doing," Irene said slowly. "He has no more control of himself in such circumstances than if she had drugged him with chloroform or opium."
"Then you forgive me, Irene?"
"I have nothing to forgive, Harry. I am grieved for you. I am frightened." Then bursting into tears, "My darling, my darling; I love you, I love you!"
I will acknowledge that I was certainly a very young man in the year '67; indeed, I was only just turned of twenty, and was inordinately proud of a slight downy fringe on my upper lip, which I was pleased to speak of as my moustache. Still, I was a sturdy young fellow enough, in spite of my consumptive tendencies, and not given to groundless fears in a general way; but I must allow that I was decidedly frightened by my adventure in the Richmond Hotel on the Christmas Eve of that aforesaid year of grace. It may be a foolish reminiscence, yet I dare say you won't mind listening to it.
When I say the Richmond Hotel, you must not understand me to speak of the Star and Garter in the town of that ilk situated in the county of Surrey, England. The Richmond where I passed my uncomfortable Christmas Eve stands on the banks of the pretty St. Francis River in Lower Canada. I had gone out to the colony in the autumn of that year, to look after a small property of my mother's near Kamouraska; and I originally intended to spend the winter in Quebec. But as November and December wore away, and the snow grew deeper and deeper upon the plains of Abraham, I became gradually aware that a Canadian winter was not the best adapted tonic in the world for a hearty young man with a slight hereditary predisposition to consumption. I had seen enough of Arctic life in Quebec during those two initial months to give me a good idea of its pleasures and its drawbacks. I had steered by taboggan down the ice-cone at the Falls of Montmorenci; I had driven a sleigh, t?te-?-t?te with a French Canadian belle, to a surprise picnic in a house at Sainte Anne; I had skated, snow-shoed, and curled to my heart's content; and I had caught my death of cold on the frozen St. Lawrence, not to mention such minor misfortunes as getting my nose, ears, and feet frostbitten during a driving party up the banks of the Chaudi?re. So a few days before Christmas, I determined to strike south. I would go for a tour through Virginia and the Carolinas, to escape the cold weather, waiting for the return of the summer sun to catch a glimpse of Niagara and the great lakes.
For this purpose I must first go to Montreal; and, that being the case, what could be more convenient than to spend Christmas Day itself with the rector at Richmond, to whom I had letters of introduction, his wife being in fact a first cousin of my mother's? Richmond lies half-way on the Grand Trunk line between Quebec and Montreal, and it would be more pleasant, by breaking my journey there, to eat my turkey and plum-pudding in a friend's family than in that somewhat cheerless hotel, the Dominion Hall. So off I started from the Point Levy station, at four o'clock on the twenty-fourth of December, hoping to arrive at my journey's end about one o'clock on Christmas morning.
Now, those were the days, just after the great American civil war, when gold was almost unknown either in the States or Canada, and everybody used greasy dollar notes of uncertain and purely local value. Hence I was compelled to take the money for expenses on my projected tour in the only form of specie which was available, that of solid silver. A hundred and fifty pounds in silver dollars amounts to a larger bulk and a heavier weight than you would suppose; and I thought it safer to carry the sum in my own hands, loosely bundled into a large leather reticule. Hinc ill? lacrim?: – that was the real cause of my night's adventure and of the present story.
When I got into the long open American railway-carriage, with its comfortable stove and warm foot-bricks, I found only one seat vacant, and that was a red velvet sofa, opposite to another occupied by a girl of singular beauty. I can remember to this day exactly how she was dressed. I dare say my lady readers will think it horribly old-fashioned at the present time, but it was the very latest and most enchanting style in the year '67. On her head was a coquettish little cheese-plate bonnet, bound round with one of those warm, soft, fleecy woollen veils or head-wraps which Canadian girls know as Nubias. Her dress was a short winter walking costume of the period, trimmed with fur, and vandyked at the bottom so as to show a glimpse of the quilted down petticoat underneath. Her little high-heeled boots, displayed by the short costume, were buttoned far above the ankle, and bound with fur to match the dress; while a tiny tassel at the side added just a suspicion of Parisian coquetry. Her cloak was lined with sable, or what seemed so to my undiscriminating eyes; and her rug was a splendid piece of wolverine skins. As to her eyes, her lips, her figure, I had rather not attempt them. I can manage clothes, but not goddesses. Altogether, quite a dream of Canadian beauty, not devoid of that indefinable grace which goes only with the French blood.
I was not bold in '67, and I would have preferred to take any other seat rather than face this divine apparition; but there was no help for it, since all the others were filled: so I sat down a little sheepishly, I dare say. Almost before we were well out of the station we had got into a conversation, and it was she who began it.
"You are an Englishman, I think?" she said, looking at me with a frank and pleasant smile.
"Yes," I answered, colouring, though why I should have been ashamed of my nationality for that solitary moment of my life I cannot imagine, – unless, perhaps, because she was a Canadian; "but how on earth did you discover it?"
"You would have been more warmly wrapped up if you had lived long in Canada," she replied. "In spite of our stoves and hot bricks, you'll find yourself very cold before you get to your journey's end."
"Yes," I said; "I suppose it's rather chilly late at night in these big cars."
"Dreadfully; oh, quite terribly. You ought to have a rug, you really ought. Won't you let me lend you one? I have another under the seat here."
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