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Chapter 79 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The Crisis

No doubt a messenger had preceded us, for we found Squire Claiborne in his chair of office, ready to hear the case. In the tall, thin old man, with white hair and dignified aspect, I recognised a fit representative of justice—one of those venerable magistrates, who command respect not only by virtue of age and office, but from the dignity of their personal character. In spite of the noisy rabble that surrounded me, I read in the serene, firm look of the magistrate the determination to show fair play.

I was no longer uneasy. On the way, Reigart had told me to be of good cheer. He had whispered something about “strange developments to be made;” but I had not fully heard him, and was at a loss to comprehend what he meant. In the hurry and crush I had found no opportunity for an explanation.

“Keep up your spirits!” said he, as he pushed his horse alongside me. “Don’t have any fear about the result. It’s rather an odd affair, and will have an odd ending—rather unexpected for somebody, I should say—ha! ha! ha!”

Reigart actually laughed aloud, and appeared to be in high glee! What could such conduct mean?

I was not permitted to know, for at that moment the sheriff, in a high tone of authority, commanded that no one should “hold communication with the prisoner;” and my friend and I were abruptly separated. Strange, I did not dislike the sheriff for this! I had a secret belief that his manner—apparently somewhat hostile to me—was assumed for a purpose. The mob required conciliation; and all this brusquerie was a bit of management on the part of Sheriff Hickman.

On arriving before Justice Claiborne, it required all the authority of both sheriff and justice to obtain silence. A partial lull, however, enabled the latter to proceed with the case.

“Now, gentlemen!” said he, speaking in a firm, magisterial tone, “I am ready to hear the charge against this young man. Of what is he accused, Colonel Hickman?” inquired the justice, turning to the sheriff.

“Of negro-stealing, I believe,” replied the latter.

“Who prefers the charge?”

“Dominique Gayarre,” replied a voice from the crowd, which I recognised as that of Gayarre himself.

“Is Monsieur Gayarre present?” inquired the justice.

The voice again replied in the affirmative, and the fox-like face of the avocat now presented itself in front of the rostrum.

“Monsieur Dominique Gayarre,” said the magistrate, recognising him, “what is the charge you bring against the prisoner? State it in full and upon oath.”

Gayarre having gone through the formula of the oath, proceeded with his plaint in true lawyer style.

I need not follow the circumlocution of legal phraseology. Suffice it to say, that there were several counts in his indictment.

I was first accused of having endeavoured to instigate to mutiny and revolt the slaves of the plantation Besançon, by having interfered to prevent one of their number from receiving his just punishment! Secondly, I had caused another of these to strike down his overseer; and afterwards had induced him to run away to the woods, and aided him in so doing! This was the slave Gabriel, who had just that day been captured in my company. Thirdly and Gayarre now came to the cream of his accusation.

“Thirdly,” continued he, “I accuse this person of having entered my house on the night of October the 18th, and having stolen therefrom the female slave Aurore Besançon.”

“It is false!” cried a voice, interrupting him. “It is false! Aurore Besançon is not a slave!”

Gayarre started, as though some one had thrust a knife into him.

“Who says that?” he demanded, though with a voice that evidently faltered.

“I!” replied the voice; and at the same instant a young man leaped upon one of the benches, and stood with his head overtopping the crowd. It was D’Hauteville!

“I say it!” he repeated, in the same firm tone. “Aurore Besançon is no slave, but a free Quadroon! Here, Justice Claiborne,” continued D’Hauteville, “do me the favour to read this document!” At the same time the speaker handed a folded parchment across the room.

The sheriff passed it to the magistrate, who opened it and read aloud.

It proved to be the “free papers” of Aurore the Quadroon—the certificate of her manumission—regularly signed and attested by her master, Auguste Besançon, and left by him in his will.

The astonishment was extreme—so much so that the crowd seemed petrified, and preserved silence. Their feelings were on the turn.

The effect produced upon Gayarre was visible to all. He seemed covered with confusion. In his embarrassment he faltered out—

“I protest against this—that paper has been stolen from my bureau, and—”

“So much the better, Monsieur Gayarre!” said D’Hauteville, again interrupting him; “so much the better! You confess to its being stolen, and therefore you confess to its being genuine. Now, sir, having this document in your possession, and knowing its contents, how could you claim Aurore Besançon as your slave?”

Gayarre was confounded. His cadaverous face became of a white, sickly hue; and his habitual look of malice rapidly gave way to an expression of terror. He appeared as if he wanted to be gone; and already crouched behind the taller men who stood around him.

“Stop, Monsieur Gayarre!” continued the inexorable D’Hauteville, “I have not done with you yet. Here, Justice Claiborne! I have another document that may interest you. Will you have the goodness to give it your attention?”

Saying this, the speaker held out a second folded parchment, which was handed to the magistrate—who, as before, opened the document and read it aloud.

This was a codicil to the will of Auguste Besançon, by which the sum of fifty thousand dollars in bank stock was bequeathed to his daughter, Eugénie Besançon, to be paid to her upon the day on which she should be of age by the joint executors of the estate—Monsieur Dominique Gayarre and Antoine Lereux—and these executors were instructed not to make known to the recipient the existence of this sum in her favour, until the very day of its payment.

“Now, Monsieur Dominique Gayarre!” continued D’Hauteville, as soon as the reading was finished, “I charge you with the embezzlement of this fifty thousand dollars, with various other sums—of which more hereafter. I charge you with having concealed the existence of this money—of having withheld it from the assets of the estate Besançon—of having appropriated it to your own use!”

“This is a serious charge,” said Justice Claiborne, evidently impressed with its truth, and prepared to entertain it. “Your name, sir, if you please?” continued he, interrogating D’Hauteville, in a mild tone of voice.

It was the first time I had seen D’Hauteville in the full light of day. All that had yet passed between us had taken place either in the darkness of night or by the light of lamps. That morning alone had we been together for a few minutes by daylight; but even then it was under the sombre shadow of the woods—where I could have but a faint view of his features.

Now that he stood in the light of the open window, I had a full, clear view of his face. The resemblance to some one I had seen before again impressed me. It grew stronger as I gazed; and before the magistrate’s interrogatory had received its reply, the shock of my astonishment had passed.

“Your name, sir, if you please?” repeated the justice.

“Eugénie Besançon!”

At the same instant the hat was pulled off—the black curls were drawn aside—and the fair, golden tresses of the beautiful Creole exhibited to the view.

A loud huzza broke out—in which all joined, excepting Gayarre and his two or three ruffian adherents. I felt that I was free.

The conditions had suddenly changed, and the plaintiff had taken the place of the defendant. Even before the excitement had quieted down, I saw the sheriff, at the instigation of Reigart and others, stride forward to Gayarre, and placing his hand upon the shoulder of the latter, arrest him as his prisoner.

“It is false!” cried Gayarre; “a plot—a damnable plot! These documents are forgeries! the signatures are false—false!”

“Not so, Monsieur Gayarre,” said the justice, interrupting him. “Those documents are not forgeries. This is the handwriting of Auguste Besançon. I knew him well. This is his signature—I could myself swear to it.”

“And I!” responded a voice, in a deep solemn tone, which drew the attention of all.

The transformation of Eugène D’Hauteville to Eugénie Besançon had astonished the crowd; but a greater surprise awaited them in the resurrection of the steward Antoine!

Reader! my story is ended. Here upon our little drama must the curtain drop. I might offer you other tableaux to illustrate the after history of our characters, but a slight summary must suffice. Your fancy will supply the details.

It will glad you to know, then, that Eugénie Besançon recovered the whole of her property—which was soon restored to its flourishing condition under the faithful stewardship of Antoine.

Alas! there was that that could never be restored—the young cheerful heart—the buoyant spirit—the virgin love!

But do not imagine that Eugénie Besançon yielded to despair—that she was ever after the victim of that unhappy passion. No—hers was a mighty will; and all its energies were employed to pluck the fatal arrow from her heart.

Time and a virtuous life have much power; but far more effective was that sympathy of the object beloved—that pity for love—which to her was fully accorded.

Her heart’s young hope was crushed—her gay spirit shrouded—but there are other joys in life besides the play of the passions; and, it may be, the path of love is not the true road to happiness. Oh! that I could believe this! Oh! that I could reason myself into the belief, that that calm and unruffled mien—that soft sweet smile were the tokens of a heart at rest. Alas! I cannot. Fate will have its victims. Poor Eugénie! God be merciful to thee! Oh, that I could steep thy heart in the waters of Lethe!

And Reigart? You, reader, will be glad to know that the good doctor prospered—prospered until he was enabled to lay aside his lancet, and become a grandee planter—nay more, a distinguished legislator,—one of those to whom belongs the credit of having modelled the present system of Louisiana law—the most advanced code in the civilised world.

You will be glad to learn that Scipio, with his Chloe and the “leetle Chloe,” were brought back to their old and now happy home—that the snake-charmer still retained his brawny arms, and never afterwards had occasion to seek refuge in his tree-cavern.

You will not be grieved to know, that Gayarre passed several years of his after-life in the palace-prison of Baton Rouge, and then disappeared altogether from the scene. It was said that under a changed name he returned to France, his native country. His conviction was easy. Antoine had long suspected him of a design to plunder their joint ward, and had determined to put him to the proof. The raft of chairs had floated after all; and by the help of these the faithful steward had gained the shore, far down the river. No one knew of his escape; and the idea occurred to this strange old man to remain for a while en perdu—a silent spectator of the conduct of Monsieur Dominique. No sooner did Gayarre believe him gone, than the latter advanced boldly upon his purpose, and hurried events to the described crisis. It was just what Antoine had expected; and acting himself as the accuser, the conviction of the avocat was easy and certain. A sentence of five years to the State Penitentiary wound up Gayarre’s connexion with the characters of our story.

It will scarce grieve you to know that “Bully Bill” experienced a somewhat similar fate—that Ruffin, the man-hunter, was drowned by a sudden rising of the swamp—and that the “nigger-trader” afterwards became a “nigger-stealer;” and for that crime was sentenced at the court of Judge Lynch to the punishment of “tar and feathers.”

The “sportsmen,” Chorley and Hatcher, I never saw again—though their future is not unknown to me. Chorley—the brave and accomplished, but wicked Chorley—was killed in a duel by a Creole of New Orleans, with whom he had quarrelled at play.

Hatcher’s bank “got broke” soon after, and a series of ill-fortune at length reduced him to the condition of a race-course thimble-rig, and small sharper in general.

The pork-merchant I met many years afterward, as a successful monte dealer in the “Halls of the Montezumas.” Thither he had gone,—a camp-follower of the American army—and had accumulated an enormous fortune by keeping a gambling-table for the officers. He did not live long to enjoy his evil gains. The “vomito prieto” caught him at Vera Cruz; and his dust is now mingled with the sands of that dreary shore.

Thus, reader, it has been my happy fortune to record poetical justice to the various characters that have figured in the pages of our history.

I hear you exclaim, that two have been forgotten, the hero and heroine?

Ah! no—not forgotten. Would you have me paint the ceremony—the pomp and splendour—the ribbons and rosettes—the after-scenes of perfect bliss?

Hymen, forbid! All these must be left to your fancy, if your fancy deign to act. But the interest of a “lover’s adventures” usually ends with the consummation of his hopes—not even always extending to the altar—and you, reader, will scarce be curious to lift the curtain, that veils the tranquil after-life of myself and my beautiful Quadroon.

Note to the Preface.

After what has been stated in the Preface, it will scarce be necessary to say that the names and some of the places mentioned in this book are fictitious. Some of the scenes, and many of the characters that figure in these pages, are real, and there are those living who will recognise them.

The book is “founded” upon an actual experience. It was written many years ago, and would have been then published, but for the interference of a well-known work, which treated of similar scenes and subjects. That work appeared just as the “Quadroon” was about to be put to press; and the author of the the latter, not willing to risk the chances of being considered an imitator had determined on keeping the “Quadroon” from the public.

Circumstances have ruled it otherwise; and having re-written some parts of the work, he now presents it to the reader as a painting—somewhat coarse and crude, perhaps—of life in Louisiana.

The author disclaims all “intention.” The book has been written neither to aid the Abolitionist nor glorify the planter. The author does not believe that by such means he could benefit the slave, else he would not fear to avow it. On the other hand, he is too true a Republican, to be the instrument that would add one drop to the “bad blood” which, unfortunately for the cause of human freedom, has already arisen between “North” and “South.” No; he will be the last man to aid European despots in this, their dearest wish and desperate hope.

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