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Chapter 27 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The Devil’s Douche

In a few seconds I entered the wide avenue between the cabins, and drawing bridle, sat glancing around me.

My patriarchal dreams vanished at the sight that met my eyes. Before me was a scene of tyranny, of torture—a scene from the tragedy of slave-life!

At the upper end of the quarter, and on one side of the overseer’s house, was an enclosure. It was the enclosure of the sugar-mill—a large building which stood a little further back. Inside the fence was a tall pump, rising full ten feet in height, with the spout near its top. The purpose of this pump was to yield a stream of water, which was conducted to the sugar-house by means of a slender trough, that served as an aqueduct.

A platform was raised a few feet above the ground, so as to enable the person working the pump to reach its handle.

To this spot my attention was directed by seeing that the negroes of the quarter were grouped around it, while the women and children, clinging along the fence, had their eyes bent in the same direction.

The faces of all—men, women, and children—wore an ominous and gloomy expression; and the attitudes in which they stood betokened terror and alarm. Murmurs I could hear—now and then ejaculations—and sobs that bespoke sympathy with some one who suffered. I saw scowling brows, as if knit by thoughts of vengeance. But these last were few—the more general expression was one of terror and submission.

It was not difficult to tell that the cry I had heard proceeded from the neighbourhood of the pump, and a glance unfolded the cause. Some poor slave was undergoing punishment!

A group of negroes hid the unfortunate from my view, but over their heads I could see the slave Gabriel, his body naked to the breech, mounted upon the platform and working the pump with all his might.

This Gabriel was a Bambarra negro, of huge size and strength, branded on both shoulders with the fleur-de-lis. He was a man of fierce aspect, and, as I had heard, of fierce and brutal habit—feared not only by the other negroes, but by the whites with whom he came in contact. It was not he that was undergoing punishment. On the contrary, he was the instrument of torture.

And torture it was—I knew the punishment well.

The trough or aqueduct had been removed; and the victim was placed at the bottom of the pump, directly under the spout. He was fast bound in a species of stocks; and in such a position that he could not move his head, which received the continuous jet in the very centre of the crown!

Torture? No doubt, you are incredulous? You fancy there can be no great torture in that. A simple shock—a shower-bath—nothing more!

You are right. For the first half-minute or so it is but a shock, a shower-bath, but then—

Believe me when I declare to you—that a stream of molten lead—an axe continually crashing through the skull—would not be more painful than the falling of this cold-water jet! It is torture beyond endurance—agony indescribable. Well may it be called the “devil’s douche.”

Again the agonised cry came from the pump, almost curdling my blood.

As I have said, I could not see the sufferer at first. A row of bodies was interposed between him and me. The negroes, however, seeing me ride up, eagerly opened their ranks and fell back a pace, as if desiring I should be a witness to what was going forward. They all knew me, and all had some impression that I sympathised with their unfortunate race.

This opening gave me a full view of the horrid spectacle, disclosing a group that made me start in the saddle. Under the torture was the victim—a man of sable hue. Close by him, a large mulatto woman and a young girl of the same complexion—mother and daughter—stood folded in each other’s arms, both weeping bitterly. I could hear their sobs and ejaculations, even at the distance of a score of yards, and above the plashing sound of the falling water. I recognised at a glance who these were—they were the little Chloe and her mother!

Quick as lightning my eyes were directed towards the sufferer. The water, as it bounded from his crown, spread into a glassy sheet, that completely concealed his head, but the huge, fin-like, projecting ears told me who was the victim. It was Scipio!

Again his cry of agony pealed upon my ears, deep and prolonged, as though it issued from the innermost recesses of his soul!

I did not wait till that cry was ended. A fence of six rails separated me from the sufferer; but what of that? I did not hesitate a moment, but winding my horse round to give him the run, I headed him at the leap, and with a touch of the spur lifted him into the inclosure. I did not even stay to dismount, but galloping up to the platform, laid my whip across the naked shoulders of the Bambarra with all the force that lay in my arm. The astonished savage dropped the pump-handle as if it had been iron at a white heat; and leaping from the platform, ran off howling to his cabin!

Exclamations and loud murmurings of applause followed; but my horse, brought so suddenly to this exciting work, snorted and plunged, and it was some time before I could quiet him. While thus engaged, I observed that the exclamations were suddenly discontinued; and the murmurs of applause were succeeded by a dead, ominous silence! I could hear several of the negroes nearest me muttering some words of caution, as though meant for me; among others the cry of—

“De oberseer! de oberseer! Look out, mass’r! Dar he kum!”

At that moment an abominable oath, uttered in a loud voice, reached my ears. I looked in the direction whence it came. As I anticipated, it was the overseer.

He was just issuing from the back-door of his house, from a window of which he had been all the while a spectator of Scipio’s torture!

I had not come in contact with this person before; and I now saw approaching a man of fierce and brutal aspect, somewhat flashily dressed, and carrying in his hand a thick waggon-whip. I could see that his face was livid with rage, and that he was directing himself to attack me. I had no weapon but my riding-whip, and with this I prepared to receive his assault.

He came on at a run, all the while venting the most diabolical curses.

When he had got nearly up to my horse’s head, he stopped a moment, and thundered out—

“Who the Hell are you, meddling with my affairs? Who the damn are—”

He suddenly paused in his speech, and stood staring in astonishment. I reciprocated that astonishment, for I had now recognised in the brutal overseer my antagonist of the boat! the hero of the bowie-knife! At the same instant he recognised me.

The pause which was the result of our mutual surprise, lasted but a moment.

“Hell and furies!” cried the ruffian, changing his former tone only into one more horribly furious—

“It’s you, is it? Whip be damned! I’ve something else for you.”

And as he said this he drew a pistol from his coat, and hastily cocking it, aimed it at my breast.

I was still on horseback and in motion, else he would no doubt have delivered his fire at once; but my horse reared up at the gleam of the pistol, and his body was thus interposed between mine and its muzzle.

As I have said, I had no weapon but the whip. Fortunately it was a stout hunting-whip, with loaded butt. I hastily turned it in my hand, and just as the hoofs of my horse came back to the earth, I drove the spur so deeply into his ribs that he sprang forward more than his own length. This placed me in the very spot I wanted to be—alongside my ruffian antagonist, who, taken aback by my sudden change of position, hesitated a moment before taking fresh aim. Before he could pull trigger, the butt of my whip descended upon his skull, and doubled him up in the dust! His pistol went off as he fell, and the bullet ploughed up the ground between my horse’s hoofs, but fortunately hit no one. The weapon itself new out of his hand, and lay beside him where he had fallen.

It was a mere lucky hit—all owing to the spur being touched, and my horse having sprung forward in good time. Had I missed the blow, I should not likely have had a second chance. The pistol was double-barrelled, and on examination I found he carried another of a similar kind.

He was now lying as still as if asleep, and I began to fear I had killed him. This would have been a serious matter. Although perfectly justifiable in me to have done so, who was to show that? The evidence of those around me—the whole of them together—was not worth the asseveration of one white man; and under the circumstances not worth a straw. Indeed, considering what had immediately led to the rencontre, such testimony would have been more likely to damage my case than otherwise! I felt myself in an awkward situation.

I now dismounted, and approached the prostrate form, around which the blacks were congregating. They made way for me.

I knelt down and examined the head. It was cut and bleeding, but the skull was still sound!

The knowledge of this fact set my mind at rest, and before I rose to my feet I had the satisfaction to see that the fellow was coming to his senses, under the influence of a douche of cold-water. The butt of the second pistol came under my eye, as it stuck out from the breast of his coat. I drew it forth, and along with its fellow took them into my own keeping.

“Tell him,” said I, “as soon as he comes to himself, that when he next attacks me, I shall have pistols as well as he!”

Having ordered him to be carried into the house, I now turned my attention to his victim. Poor Scipio! he had been most cruelly tortured, and it was some time before he recovered his faculties, so as to be able to tell me why he had been thus punished.

The relation he at length gave, and it made the blood boil afresh within my veins. He had surprised the overseer in some of the outbuildings with little Chloe in his arms, the child crying out and struggling to get free. Natural indignation on the part of the father led to a blow—an offence for which Scipio might have lost an arm; but the white wretch, knowing that he dare not, for his own sake, expose the motive, had commuted Scipio’s legal punishment to a little private torture under the pump!

My first impulse on hearing this sad story was to return to the house, report what had occurred to Mademoiselle, and urge upon her the necessity of getting rid of this savage overseer at all risk.

After a little reflection I changed my mind. I purposed to return upon the morrow, on business of—to me—much greater importance. To-morrow it was my intention to bid for Aurore!

“I can then,” thought I, “introduce the case of poor Scipio. Perhaps it may be an introduction to the ‘graver theme?’”

Having promised this much to my old attendant, I mounted my horse, and rode off, amidst a shower of blessings.

As I passed through the avenue at a walk, women and half-grown girls hurried from their doors, and kissed my feet as they hung in the stirrups!

The burning love which so late filled my heart was for a moment unfelt. Its place was occupied by a calm, sweet happiness—the happiness that springs from benefaction!

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