Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Thirty Seven. A Man Missing

The breakfast bell of Casa del Corvo had sounded its second and last summons—preceded by a still earlier signal from a horn, intended to call in the stragglers from remote parts of the plantation.

The “field hands” labouring near had collected around the “quarter;” and in groups, squatted upon the grass, or seated upon stray logs, were discussing their diet—by no means spare—of “hog and hominy” corn-bread and “corn-coffee,” with a jocosity that proclaimed a keen relish of these, their ordinary comestibles.

The planter’s family assembled in the sala were about to begin breakfast, when it was discovered that one of its members was missing.

Henry was the absent one.

At first there was but little notice taken of the circumstance. Only the conjecture: that he would shortly make his appearance.

As several minutes passed without his coming in, the planter quietly observed that it was rather strange of Henry to be behind time, and wonder where he could be.

The breakfast of the South-western American is usually a well appointed meal. It is eaten at a fixed hour, and table-d’hôte fashion—all the members of the family meeting at the table.

This habit is exacted by a sort of necessity, arising out of the nature of some of the viands peculiar to the country; many of which, as “Virginia biscuit,” “buckwheat cakes,” and “waffles,” are only relished coming fresh from, the fire: so that the hour when breakfast is being eaten in the dining-room, is that in which the cook is broiling her skin in the kitchen.

As the laggard, or late riser, may have to put up with cold biscuit, and no waffles or buckwheat cakes, there are few such on a Southern plantation.

Considering this custom, it was somewhat strange, that Henry Poindexter had not yet put in an appearance.

“Where can the boy be?” asked his father, for the fourth time, in that tone of mild conjecture that scarce calls for reply.

None was made by either of the other two guests at the table. Louise only gave expression to a similar conjecture. For all that, there was a strangeness in her glance—as in the tone of her voice—that might have been observed by one closely scrutinising her features.

It could scarce be caused by the absence of her brother from the breakfast-table? The circumstance was too trifling to call up an emotion; and clearly at that moment was she subject to one.

What was it? No one put the inquiry. Her father did not notice anything odd in her look. Much less Calhoun, who was himself markedly labouring to conceal some disagreeable thought under the guise of an assumed naïvété.

Ever since entering the room he had maintained a studied silence; keeping his eyes averted, instead of, according to his usual custom, constantly straying towards his cousin.

He sate nervously in his chair; and once or twice might have been seen to start, as a servant entered the room.

Beyond doubt he was under the influence of some extraordinary agitation.

“Very strange Henry not being here to his breakfast!” remarked the planter, for about the tenth time. “Surely he is not abed till this hour? No—no—he never lies so late. And yet if abroad, he couldn’t be at such a distance as not to have heard the horn. He may be in his room? It is just possible. Pluto!”

“Ho—ho! d’ye call me, Mass’ Woodley? I’se hya.” The sable coachee, acting as table waiter, was in the sala, hovering around the chairs.

“Go to Henry’s sleeping-room. If he’s there, tell him we’re at breakfast—half through with it.”

“He no dar, Mass’ Woodley.”

“You have been to his room?”

“Ho—ho! Yas. Dat am I’se no been to de room itseff; but I’se been to de ’table, to look atter Massa Henry hoss; an gib um him fodder an corn. Ho—ho! Dat same ole hoss he ain’t dar; nor han’t a been all ob dis mornin’. I war up by de fuss skreek ob day. No hoss dar, no saddle, no bridle; and ob coass no Massa Henry. Ho—ho! He been an gone out ’fore anb’dy wor ’tirrin’ ’bout de place.”

“Are you sure?” asked the planter, seriously stirred by the intelligence.

“Satin, shoo, Mass’ Woodley. Dar’s no hoss doins in dat ere ’table, ceppin de sorrel ob Massa Cahoon. Spotty am in de ’closure outside. Massa Henry hoss ain’t nowha.”

“It don’t follow that Master Henry himself is not in his room. Go instantly, and see!”

“Ho—ho! I’se go on de instum, massr; but f’r all dat dis chile no speck find de young genl’um dar. Ho! ho! wha’ebber de ole hoss am, darr Massr Henry am too.”

“There’s something strange in all this,” pursued the planter, as Pluto shuffled out of the sala. “Henry from home; and at night too. Where can he have gone? I can’t think of any one he would be visiting at such unseasonable hours! He must have been out all night, or very early, according to the nigger’s account! At the Port, I suppose, with those young fellows. Not at the tavern, I hope?”

“Oh, no! He wouldn’t go there,” interposed Calhoun, who appeared as much mystified by the absence of Henry as was Poindexter himself. He refrained, however, from suggesting any explanation, or saying aught of the scenes to which he had been witness on the preceding night.

“It is to be hoped he knows nothing of it,” reflected the young Creole. “If not, it may still remain a secret between brother and myself. I think I can manage Henry. But why is he still absent? I’ve sate up all night waiting for him. He must have overtaken Maurice, and they have fraternised. I hope so; even though the tavern may have been the scene of their reconciliation. Henry is not much given to dissipation; but after such a burst of passion, followed by his sudden repentance, he may have strayed from his usual habits? Who could blame him if he has? There can be little harm in it: since he has gone astray in good company?”

How far the string of reflections might have extended it is not easy to say: since it did not reach its natural ending.

It was interrupted by the reappearance of Pluto; whose important air, as he re-entered the room, proclaimed him the bearer of eventful tidings.

“Well!” cried his master, without waiting for him to speak, “is he there?”

“No, Mass’ Woodley,” replied the black, in a voice that betrayed a large measure of emotion, “he are not dar—Massa Henry am not. But—but,” he hesitatingly continued, “dis chile grieb to say dat—dat—him hoss am dar.”

“His horse there! Not in his sleeping-room, I suppose?”

“No, massa; nor in de ’table neider; but out da, by de big gate.”

“His horse at the gate? And why, pray, do you grieve about that?”

“’Ecause, Mass’ Woodley, ’ecause de hoss—dat am Massa Henry hoss—’ecause de anymal—”

“Speak out, you stammering nigger! What because? I suppose the horse has his head upon him? Or is it his tail that is missing?”

“Ah, Mass’ Woodley, dis nigga fear dat am missin’ wuss dan eider him head or him tail. I’se feer’d dat de ole hoss hab loss him rider!”

“What! Henry thrown from his horse? Nonsense, Pluto! My son is too good a rider for that. Impossible that he should have been pitched out of the saddle—impossible!”

“Ho! ho! I doan say he war frown out ob de saddle. Gorramity! I fear de trouble wuss dan dat. O! dear ole Massa, I tell you no mo’. Come to de gate ob do hashashanty, and see fo youseff.”

By this time the impression conveyed by Pluto’s speech—much more by his manner—notwithstanding its ambiguity, had become sufficiently alarming; and not only the planter himself, but his daughter and nephew, hastily forsaking their seats, and preceded by the sable coachman, made their way to the outside gate of the hacienda.

A sight was there awaiting them, calculated to inspire all three with the most terrible apprehensions.

A negro man—one of the field slaves of the plantation—stood holding a horse, that was saddled and bridled. The animal wet with the dews of the night, and having been evidently uncared for in any stable, was snorting and stamping the ground, as if but lately escaped from some scene of excitement, in which he had been compelled to take part.

He was speckled with a colour darker than that of the dewdrops—darker than his own coat of bay-brown. The spots scattered over his shoulders—the streaks that ran parallel with the downward direction of his limbs, the blotches showing conspicuously on the saddle-flaps, were all of the colour of coagulated blood. Blood had caused them—spots, streaks, and blotches!

Whence came that horse?

From the prairies. The negro had caught him, on the outside plain, as, with the bridle trailing among his feet, he was instinctively straying towards the hacienda.

To whom did he belong?

The question was not asked. All present knew him to be the horse of Henry Poindexter.

Nor did any one ask whose blood bedaubed the saddle-flaps. The three individuals most interested could think only of that one, who stood to them in the triple relationship of son, brother, and cousin.

The dark red spots on which they were distractedly gazing had spurted from the veins of Henry Poindexter. They had no other thought.