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Recreations for Solitary Hours

An Incident in the Life of My Father; — or, — The Murderer Detected. — A Tale

page 154

An Incident in the Life of My Father;
The Murderer Detected.
A Tale.

Nothing gave me more pleasure in my younger years than when a few veterans met round my father's hearth, to pass an evening, and recount the dangers they have escaped, the hazards they have endured, and scenes they have witnessed, during the time of their servitude. Then would I sit on my stool, gazing into the fire as it blazed and shed a cheerful light around, while listening with intense delight to all they rehearsed, oft fancying myself among the scenes they described, and partaking a part of all they underwent. The following is one which often much engaged my attention, and the more so as it was related by my father, who was a witness of the affair, of which the circumstances are deeply impressed on my mind:—

It was a clear moonlight night, about the harvest season, a short time after the taking of the Cape of page 155Good Hope from the Dutch, I think in the year 1795, when that detachment of the army, in which my father was, lay encamped at a considerable distance from Cape Town, when he Was on guard walking his rounds, and employing himself at the same time with reading the history of the Roman empire,* and sometimes musing on the wildness of the surrounding country, stretching far on every side, and listening to the night breeze breathing through the wild jeramin bushes which grew near in abundance, and wafting abroad their fragrance on its wings.—It was thus he was employed, while backwards and forwards he paced his stated rounds, wraped up in his great coat, with his gun resting along the one arm, while in his other hand he held the book with which, by moonlight, he amused himself, when his attention was suddenly roused by wild yells of distress, which seemed to be at no great distance. He knew it to be the voice of some suffering wretch, and immediately, without the fear of being discovered from his post, he hastened to the place whence the cry arose, where he discovered two poor slaves stretched on the ground, with the blood streaming from their wounded foreheads, seemingly choking with gore as the blood ran into their mouths. Thus they lay writhing in agony, without the power of assisting themselves. Spying two soldiers at a short page 156distance, whom he was convinced were the perpetrators of such a foul deed, as no others he observed were near; and laying down his gun, he began to turn the suffering wretches on their faces, and so emptied their mouths of the choking gore, at the same time crying to the men he espied, "that surely they were cruel monsters to go and leave the poor creatures in such a condition."

"If you say another word on the matter," exclaimed one of them, an Irishman, brandishing a large horn of a bullock, "I'll come and with this make you share the same fate with them niggers!"

At this he snatched up his gun, and dared them to do their worst; but they went away without returning an answer. Seeing this, he again resumed his work of mercy; and observing two large waterpots, which the slaves had been carrying on their heads with water, when they were knocked down, lying at a very short distance, he found one of them to contain a little water, which had not altogether been spilt when it fell. This he took and washed their wounds, but one of them more weak than the other died among his hands; and no wonder, for he appeared to have been a short time before sorely treated by a hard-hearted master. Taking a large handkerchief from his pocket, he bound it round the head of the survivor, who seemed not so sorely hurt as his neighbour, which, in a short time, greatly staunched the purple stream. Having thus succeeded in rendering all the assistance he could, he left his surviving patient page 157in a fair way of recovery, and returned to his post ahout ten minutes before the time of changing guard; but during that time his mind was ill at ease, lest some evil should come over the poor survivor, left yet defenceless.

When we went into the guard-house, which was a large field-tent fitted up for the purpose, he found that he had left his book at the place where he had lately been employed. While pacing two or three times round the tent, musing sadly over what had happened, instead of sitting down at the fire with his comrades, he was observed by some of them to be somewhat unusually sad in his appearance. Some more jocular than others, taking advantage of this, began to raise some sport to themselves, by asking such questions, as—"have you seen some evil spirits to-night, my boy, that you look so gravely?" "I think, cried another, squirting a tobacco spittle into the fire, seemingly much delighted with what he was about to advance, he has been seeing some white devils that he looks so strangely; for, in this country, you know, we can have no black ones like them in our mother country. What say you to that my boy—eh?"

Their taunts he never answered; but paced ahout and laughed with them at their jokes as well as he could, till their conversation changed to some other thing, though he could not but think within himself that those he saw were evil spirited enough. One may think, that to get quit of the jeers of his comrades, he might have page 158told what he had seen; but then to be known off duty was a crime, therefore he was in danger of coming under martial displeasure. However, there was one old soldier among them who was always somewhat friendly to him; he said nothing farther than remarked his sad appearance. Seeing a seat beside his old friend, he sat down a little to try and hide his sadness with tobacco smoke; then in a short time rising, he gave the old man a sign, went to the door, and was followed by his friend, where he told him the circumstances which occasioned his sadness.

"Take courage to yourself," said the old soldier, in a somewhat brisk whisper, "and relate the whole affair as it stands to the captain by himself, and I'll be bound to answer for you if hes hould say any thing against it." So saying, he went into the tent, and paying his honours to the captain, told him he was wanted at the door,—The captain, without speaking, rose, went to the door, looked out, and asked, somewhat sharply, as was his manner, "what's wanted here?" while my father, encouraged by his old friend's advice, giving him his honours, said he wished a private word of him. This was granted. The old soldier, trying to hear how the captain relished the interview, contrived to be near the door without being noticed by the rest, who were loud in their own merriment, minding nothing but the pipe and tobacco, and a laugh at the end of their jokes. So taking up his canteen, he went out pretending to go for water.

"Well, Gordon," said the captain, as he was passing, page 159"did you hear anything of this?"—"Yes, Sir," said he, turning round with his hand at the peak of his bonnet, "I believe I did, and I advised him to speak to you privately, and promised to answer for him, Sir, if you should think he had done anything unbecoming a soldier." "Well," said the captain, smiling and clapping their shoulders at the same time, "you have both done well; I recommend you both highly, and especially you, said he, turning to my father, for the part you have acted; but do not speak of it to any other till called for; but you may go round to the place and see if all is well."

Accordingly, he took his gun in his arms, and in haste repaired to the scene of blood to see if his patient was still alive, By this time the sky had become somewhat cloudy, which darken much the face of the country from the light of a meridian moon. After a little wandering in search of the scene he sought, while his mind was racked with anxiety for the welfare of the poor wretch he left in a state of recovery, lest some wild beast of the desert had found him as a prey. The night breeze gaining more strength, rustled through the thickets, as if some tiger was preparing to make a spring. Sometimes he faced round to where the noise proceeded, in the expectation of meeting some antagonist, but was as often happily disappointed. On reaching at length the scene he sought, he found his patient was gone, and the one who died lying in the same state he left him. Seeing this he stood still, resting his elbow on the muzzle of his page 160gun, with his hands clasped, gazing on the dead, and wondering what could have become of him—"It cannot be," he muttered to himself, with a deep sigh, "that he can be torn by any of the prowling brutes of the desert, and this one still lying there." Thinking he may have crept into some concealment for safety, or into some more comfortable shelter from the cold air, he began to make search round the place, often asking if any one was there. In doing so, his foot kicked against something he knew not what, till, stooping down, he found it to be the book he left, and had again entirely forgot it, in his anxiety after what had become of the man. Remembering the waterpots, and seeing they were gone, he wondered if he could have so much recovered as to be able to go home himself, and carry them too. Thus again he stood amid the loneness of night, considering whether or not again to return to the camp. Sometimes he thought he heard a deep sigh, yet could not learn whence it proceeded; and, at other times, at a distance, he heard the wild growls of a beast of prey, but that he never regarded, provided he was certain the survivor was safe. At last, far before him, just as he thought of returning to the camp, he observed the glare of various lights, like flambeaux and lanterns, which seemed to be advancing. As they drew nearer, he could distinguish a number of people, who appeared to be on the search for something, as he saw the bearers of the lights often going off at aside, a short way from the rest. When they had come nearer, he page 161found them to be the master and a retinue of slaves come in search of the one that was lost. Amongst the foremost of the crowd, he discovered his late patient, with his handkerchief round his head, as their guide, and bearing a large torch.

On coming up to the place where my father stood, a lone sentinel over the dead, and leaning on his gun, the slave who lately lay on the same spot, writhing in all the agony of distress, came forward, crying—"Oh! massa, massa, here de man, here de man—vat will us do?"

On hearing this, the master came forward, and with a stern voice—and seeing the dead man stretched by his side—demanded if he knew any thing of this murderous deed—"I believe I do," my father replied, in as firm a tone, and so explained to him how he came to know, and the regiment to which those belonged, who did it, though he could not tell their names, and saying he thought, however, he could point them out.

During this explanation he was surrounded by the sable attendants, about twelve in number, who gazed on him for a time with a sort of indignation, thinking him to be the one who did the deed, until they were otherwise convinced. Then the poor African whom he had assisted, though naturally the first to accuse, with all the emotions of joy and gratitude, threw his torch aside, and without being able to speak, flung his arms round his neck, and eagerly kissed his cheeks; then falling down on his knees, begged pardon, crying—"O massa, massa, page 162me no did know you de good man dat save me, when me first tink you de bad man dat knock me down. Oh! no, no, massa, me now sorry me tink you de bad man, when you de good man, and tie mine head wid de clot'!"—and kissing him again, begged pardon, and thanked him with all the language he was master of, or gratitude could suggest, till he was fully assured that he was indeed really forgiven, and no offence taken in the least, and that he was made welcome to all the assistance given. The rest stood round with wondering curiosity, holding their torches over their heads, while giving some expressions of their satisfaction in what they heard, and revenge on the one, if they had him, who did the deed.

"Well," said the master, "you will not refuse, I trust, to become my prisoner as a witness and surety, till the villains you speak of be convicted to-morrow."—By no means, was the reply; but we must go to the camp, and there remain in the guard-house till then, so as to have the matter rightly gone about.

The slaves were then immediately dismissed, who returned homewards, taking along with them their dead fellow-servant, to have him laid in a proper grave, and there weep over him, while the master and my father went to the camp to wait the proceedings of next morning.

As soon as it was proper for the transacting of such kind of business, after the morning drum was beat, the master sent in a libel of damages, for 100 dollars, to the page 163colonel of the regiment to which the villains belonged. This was no sooner received than the men were ordered out on parade, and the libel produced and read; but none would own with the charge till the witness was brought before the ranks, and ordered to point out the man. The order was little sooner given than it was accomplished, when the consciences-striken wretches, seeing they were detected, cried out for pardon, when the libel was put into their hands, with orders either to have it, within four days, paid up, or then undergo a court-martial. So, under rank and file, they were conveyed to the guard-house, there to be kept in security.

Had you seen how a number of their comrades looked at the time, one would have thought that every one had a share in the crime. However, as soon as parade was over, matters were soon arranged and set about among the men, to raise the sum required. For this purpose, numbers of them went through the several regiments in the camp, and collected largely, till they got what would set the murderers at liberty. Thus they were cleared from the charge, whereas they should have been made to suffer for the crime, according to the laws of the country they served; but the murdered man was only considered the property of his master, and so a charge of damages was all that was required to repair the loss sustained. A reward was offered to my father for the services he had given; but this he rejected with contempt, telling the master at the same time, that all he did was page 164nothing more than what was due to suffering humanity, and that the price of human blood should be nothing more nor less than the death of the murderer.

After this affair, for some time he had to keep a strict look-out for his own safety, as many of the murderer's comrades vowed revenge on his head, if ever they met him conveniently. One day, when taking a private walk, being much disconcerted in his own mind, on account of the dangers he was under, from his surrounding enemies; and musing on the injustice of letting one guilty of the murder of a man, even although he was a slave, escape the vengeance which the laws of nature required; and having thus gone farther than he was aware, and that, too, without any kind of defence, saving his sidearms, viz his bayonet; and passing a kind of thicket at a short distance to the right, he was suddenly startled from his painful musings by an angry-like growl. On looking round, he beheld a large bear in a small opening in the thicket, looking out as if ready to dart upon him, were it near enough. Recollecting himself, from the momentary agitation he felt, he immediately faced round, and laying his right hand on his bayonet, ready to draw it for combat, stood in that position, staring the animal in the face. Although, at the same time, he felt much agitated, yet he saw, to relinquish the appearance of firmness, and being far from any assistance, would be at the peril of his life. The sun shining full on his breastplate, and the glitter of the buttons on his read coat, page 165both reflecting fire, as it were, on the animal's face, rather scared the brute, so that it retired; but soon she appeared again with a cub in her mouth, and with it ran into another part of the thicket. Speedily returning, and before entering her old den, she stood and took another view of him, as he still remained watching its motions, wishing he had his gun to shoot her; but again she ran growling into her old den, and brought out another cub, carrying it to where she took her last. This she did other twice, when she altogether disappeared. Seen this he returned to the camp, resolved not to venture so unwittingly so far in future, without being better armed.

On his return, meeting with Gordon, his old friend, and being questioned where he had been, and why he went so far, and being answered accordingly, and hearing his adventure, he began, in a friendly manner, to give him what advice and encouragement—he could, by telling him still to keep up his spirits, and fear the threats of none. "You are but a young man," said the old soldier, clapping him most familiarly on the shoulder, "and have neither seen nor experienced a great deal yet, and I put little doubt, but that since it was put into your hand by the will of Providence to detect the murder, He surely would not suffer a hair of your head to fall to the ground on that account. So, my boy, look brave, and keep a spirit above the dread of all who would wish to do you harm, and bid defiance to the one that would dare oppose you, conscious that you have done your duty; and I am page 166sure, as I have heard many now speak much in your favour, there is not one in all our regiment but will take your part, should any harm you for what you have done. Thus the good old soldier endeavoured to cheer the gloomy forebodings of his mind, nor did his counsels loose the desired effect, and from that day forth they became mutual friends.

But miserable indeed was the state of the murderers, especially of him who took the active part in the deed. Although it was but a slave that they killed, still human blood cried aloud for vengeance, and an accusing conscience was ever in ceaseless uproar in their bosoms; nor could it be appeased with the intoxicating draught, though now more and more they deeply indulged in it. Often were the two wretches heard quarrelling, and accusing each other in loud vociferations, and threatening to take each other's life, for being called the murderer. Often for the disturbances they raised, were they confined; and one for a flagrant offence done, during one of his drunken brawls, to one of his superiors, received the compliment of 500 lashes. Those who at first took their part so much, now began to despise and abhor their company. Still, by their wild and disturbed appearances, they seemed to be hunted by the spirit of the dead; and often have they been heard in their more sober moments muttering and cursing their own existence.

One day the wretch who formerly threatened to take my father's life, when he was upbraided for his cruelty page 167to the poor slaves, happened to meet him when on a private walk, which much surprised them both at the time. Then much indeed he showed the disquietude of his mind, when down before him on his knees he dropped, and with tears streaming from his eyes, begged, for heaven's sake, that he would forgive him, what he had said and done. My father stood thunderstruck for a moment, without being able to speak, and the more so, when he saw his wild and distracted-like appearance. As soon as he recovered from his surprise, he took him by the hand, raising and telling him that he forgave him all on his part, and that it was from God alone with whom he had to deal, he was to ask and look for forgiveness, seeing it was him he had chiefly offended.—But what was it, my father enquired, in a familiar manner, tempted you to do what you have done; it was not surely that they were harming you at the time.—"Oh! Sir," he returned, "do not vex me by asking such a question, and I will tell you all. Smith and I, you understand, went over that day after evening parade, to Gardener's plantation, to have some sport to ourselves among the slaves, and get some dates. Well, you know, we had an excellent go in drinking rum, when some of them got half jack, and so began to quarrel and fight among themselves, and set up a great noise. We thought it fine sport, and carried on the spree you know, till at last it came to the ears of the overseer. Of course, he came to see what the great noise was about, when he saw page 168some singing, some yelling, and others dancing, in high spirits, without ever a fiddler amongst them. It was getting late, and the mirth was going on without ever one of them thinking of going to bed, and rising next morning early to a hard day's work. This, no doubt, displeased the old bull, and he began to scold us with warm words, and swearing that we would soon repent of it, if we would not immediately disband. Why, you know, we did not very much relish his conversation, and we thought to have ourselves revenged on him some other way. Well, when we were coming away, I got hold of a large bullock's horn, somewhere about, and brought it along with me, without ever thinking, I assure you, of using it by the way. Well, we had not gone above two miles, when we saw before us the two slaves coining home with their water on their heads, for which you know they were sent to be ready against next morning's use.—What do you think, says Cameron to me, of knocking them fellows down, and so deprive the old dog from having his cold drink to-night, when he goes to bed. A d—d good plan, by G—d, said I, clenching the horn by the small end, and coming up without speaking a word, so I first knocked down the one, and then the other, by striking them with all my force on the forehead. Cameron was not content with what they already got, poor fellows, but he kicked them both with his foot. Well, said he, I think they will not live now to tell who did it, so away we went, chuckling over the trick we played page 169old Gardener, little thinking of the nature of the crime we had committed, till you came to their assistance. Oh.! Sir, believe me, my mind has since been terribly plagued, both by night and by day, when I think that they were not only slaves, but that they were men whom I have murdered without any reason whatever. Yes, I confess, I am guilty of the foulest crime that ever was committed; but, Oh! how am I to get quit of my guilt, for I feel that vengeance will yet have hold of me—hell is gaping to receive me—I am not worthy to live—but, Oh! how—how am I to escape?"

Thus the much self-convicted man went on confessing his crime, and condemning himself, while my father, full of painful emotions, knew not either what to say or do. "Sir," said he at last, when the man spoke of taking his own life—Sir," said he, that will make your fault no less, but make your crime the greater. It is true enough the laws of God and man require life for life, but that is no argument that you should take your own; for, remember, your life was given you to preserve, but never to cast so dishonourably away as that of which you speak. But, since it is the case that you have escaped the punishment you own you deserve, I would have you at least improve the privileges you enjoy, through the mercy of God, and amend your way of living, from bad to good, and from good to better, instead of going on from bad to worse. This is all the advice that I can give, and I hope you will be kind enough to yourself as take it. And, remem-page 170ber, that it is God alone who is able to pardon yon; therefore, I recommend you to ask his pardon, and his grace to help you on in the way that leads to happiness."

The poor penitent wept, and without speaking a word, pressed the hand of his adviser, as if to say, I gratefully thank you for your advice.?"Oh! Sir," at last he sobbed out, yon are, indeed, a happy man—I would give a world to have my mind disburdened from this load of guilt. I feel myself hateful in my own eyes, and despised by all with abhorrence, and my life too grievous to be borne; yet I must say I am greatly obliged to you—but do you really forgive me for my wild threatening on that dreadful night."—With all my heart: I do, was the reply, when the sound of the drum for evening parade made them part for the time.

By degrees this penitent man grew better and better in his way of living afterwards—taking amends of himself in a proper way, though often he confessed the death of the slave was a heavy burden to his mind. I need hardly mention how the other, in a fit of despair and drunkenness, shortly after the punishment he received, put an end to his own existence.

* In countries lying near the line at full moon, when no clouds intervene, any one with great ease may see either to read or write.