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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBonaventure: A Prose Pastoral Of Acadian Louisiana - Au Large - Chapter 18. The Tornado
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Bonaventure: A Prose Pastoral Of Acadian Louisiana - Au Large - Chapter 18. The Tornado Post by :morisan Category :Long Stories Author :George Washington Cable Date :May 2012 Read :1261

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Bonaventure: A Prose Pastoral Of Acadian Louisiana - Au Large - Chapter 18. The Tornado

AU LARGE CHAPTER XVIII. THE TORNADO

The Acadian stooped at once and with a quick splash launched his canoe. A minute later he was in it, gliding along and just within the edge of the forest where it swept around nearly at right angles to the direction in which the steamboat was coming. Thus he could watch the approaching steamer unseen, while every moment putting distance between himself and the lugger.

The strange visitor came on. How many men there were on her lower deck! Were they really negroes, or had they blackened their faces, as men sometimes do when they are going to hang a poor devil in the woods? On the upper deck are two others whose faces do not seem to be blackened. But a moment later they are the most fearful sight of all; for only too plainly does the fugitive see that they are the same two men who stood before the doorway of his hut six days before. And see how many canoes on the lower deck!

While the steamer is yet half a mile away from the hidden lugger, her lamps and fires and their attendant images in the water beneath glow softly in the fast deepening twilight, and the night comes swiftly down. The air is motionless. Across the silent waste an engine bell jangles; the puff of steam ceases; the one plashing paddle-wheel at the stern is still; the lights glide more and more slowly; with a great crash and rumble, that is answered by the echoing woods, the anchor-chain runs out its short measure, and the steamer stops.

Gently the pot-hunter's paddle dipped again, and the pirogue moved back towards the lugger. It may be that the flood was at last numbing his fear, as it had so soon done that of all the brute-life around him; it was in his mind to do something calling for more courage than he had ever before commanded in his life, save on that one day in Carancro, when, stung to madness by the taunts of a brave man, and driven to the wall, he had grappled and slain his tormentor. He had the thought now to return, and under cover of the swamp's deep outer margin of shadow, silently lift into the canoe the bit of iron that anchored the lugger, and as noiselessly draw her miles away to another covert; or if the storm still held back, even at length to step the mast, spread the sail, and put the horizon between him and the steamer before daybreak. This he had now started to do, and would do, if only courage would hold on and the storm hold off.

For a time his canoe moved swiftly; but as he drew near the lugger his speed grew less and less, and eye and ear watched and hearkened with their intensest might. He could hear talking on the steamer. There was a dead calm. He had come to a spot just inside the wood, abreast of the lugger. His canoe slowly turned and pointed towards her, and then stood still. He sat there with his paddle in the water, longing like a dumb brute; longing, and, without a motion, struggling for courage enough to move forward. It would not come. His heart jarred his frame with its beating. He could not stir.

As he looked out upon the sky a soft, faint tremor of light glimmered for a moment over it, without disturbing a shadow below. The paddle stirred gently, and the canoe slowly drew back; the storm was coming to betray him with its lightnings. In the black forest's edge the pot-hunter lingered trembling. Oh for the nerve to take a brave man's chances! A little courage would have saved his life. He wiped the dew from his brow with his sleeve; every nerve had let go. Again there came across the water the very words of those who talked together on the steamer. They were saying that the felling of trees would begin in the morning; but they spoke in a tongue which Acadians of late years had learned to understand, though many hated it, but of which he had never known twenty words, and what he had known were now forgotten--the English tongue. Even without courage, to have known a little English would have made the difference between life and death. Another glimmer spread dimly across the sky, and a faint murmur of far-off thunder came to the ear. He turned the pirogue and fled.

Soon the stars are hidden. A light breeze seems rather to tremble and hang poised than to blow. The rolling clouds, the dark wilderness, and the watery waste shine out every moment in the wide gleam of lightnings still hidden by the wood, and are wrapped again in ever-thickening darkness over which thunders roll and jar, and answer one another across the sky. Then, like a charge of ten thousand lancers, come the wind and the rain, their onset covered by all the artillery of heaven. The lightnings leap, hiss, and blaze; the thunders crack and roar; the rain lashes; the waters writhe; the wind smites and howls. For five, for ten, for twenty minutes,--for an hour, for two hours,--the sky and the flood are never for an instant wholly dark, or the thunder for one moment silent; but while the universal roar sinks and swells, and the wide, vibrant illumination shows all things in ghostly half-concealment, fresh floods of lightning every moment rend the dim curtain and leap forth; the glare of day falls upon the swaying wood, the reeling, bowing, tossing willows, the seething waters, the whirling rain, and in the midst the small form of the distressed steamer, her revolving paddle-wheels toiling behind to lighten the strain upon her anchor-chains; then all are dim ghosts again, while a peal, as if the heavens were rent, rolls off around the sky, comes back in shocks and throbs, and sinks in a long roar that before it can die is swallowed up in the next flash and peal.

The deserted lugger is riding out the tornado. Whirled one moment this way and another that, now and again taking in water, her forest-shelter breaks the force of many a gust that would have destroyed her out in the open. But in the height of the storm her poor substitute for an anchor lets go its defective hold on the rushy bottom and drags, and the little vessel backs, backs, into the willows. She escapes such entanglement as would capsize her, and by and by, when the wind lulls for a moment and then comes with all its wrath from the opposite direction, she swings clear again and drags back nearly to her first mooring and lies there, swinging, tossing, and surviving still,--a den of snakes.

The tempest was still fierce, though abating, and the lightning still flashed, but less constantly, when at a point near the lugger the pirogue came out of the forest, laboring against the wind and half-filled with water. On the face of the storm-beaten man in it each gleam of the lightning showed the pallid confession of mortal terror. Where that frail shell had been, or how often it had cast its occupant out, no one can ever know. He was bareheaded and barefooted. One cannot swim in boots; without them, even one who has never dared learn how may hope to swim a little.

In the darkness he drew alongside the lugger, rose, balanced skilfully, seized his moment, and stepped safely across her gunwale. A slight lurch caused him to throw his arms out to regain his poise; the line by which he still held the canoe straightened out its length and slipped from his grasp. In an instant the pirogue was gone. A glimmer of lightning showed her driving off sidewise before the wind. But it revealed another sight also. It was dark again, black; but the outcast stood freezing with horror and fright, gazing just in advance of his feet and waiting for the next gleam. It came, brighter than the last; and scarcely a step before him he saw three great serpents moving towards the spot that gave him already such slender footing. He recoiled a step--another; but instantly as he made the second a cold, living form was under his foot, its folds flew round his ankle, and once! twice! it struck! With a frantic effort he spurned it from him; all in the same instant a blaze of lightning discovered the maimed form and black and red markings of a "bastard hornsnake," and with one piercing wail of despair, that was drowned in the shriek of the wind and roar of the thunder, he fell.

A few hours later the winds were still, the stars were out, a sweet silence had fallen upon water and wood, and from her deck the watchmen on the steamer could see in the north-eastern sky a broad, soft, illumination, and knew it was the lights of slumbering New Orleans, eighteen miles away.

By and by, farther to the east, another brightness began to grow and gather this light into its outstretched wings. In the nearest wood a soft twitter came from a single tiny bird. Another voice answered it. A different note came from a third quarter; there were three or four replies; the sky turned to blue, and began to flush; a mocking-bird flew out of the woods on her earliest quest for family provision; a thrush began to sing; and in a moment more the whole forest was one choir.

What wonderful purity was in the fragrant air; what color was on the calm waters and in the deep sky; how beautiful, how gentle was Nature after her transport of passion! Shall we ever subdue her and make her always submissive and compliant? Who knows? Who knows what man may do with her when once he has got self, the universal self, under perfect mastery? See yonder huge bull-alligator swimming hitherward out of the swamp. Even as you point he turns again in alarm and is gone. Once he was man's terror, Leviathan. The very lions of Africa and the grizzlies of the Rockies, so they tell us, are no longer the bold enemies of man they once were. "Subdue the earth"--it is being done. Science and art, commerce and exploration, are but parts of religion. Help us, brothers all, with every possible discovery and invention to complete the conquest begun in that lost garden whence man and woman first came forth, not for vengeance but for love, to bruise the serpent's head. But as yet, both within us and without us, what terrible revolts doth Nature make! what awful victories doth she have over us, and then turn and bless and serve us again!

As the sun was rising, one of the timber-cutters from the steamer stood up in his canoe about half a mile away, near the wood and beside some willows, and halloed and beckoned. And when those on the steamer hearkened he called again, bidding them tell "de boss" that he had found a canoe adrift, an anchored boat, and a white man in her, dead.

Tarbox and St. Pierre came in a skiff.

"Is he drowned?" asked Mr. Tarbox, while still some distance off.

"Been struck by lightnin' sim like," replied the negro who had found the body.--"Watch out, Mistoo Tah-bawx!" he added, as the skiff drew near; "dat boat dess lousy wid snake'!"

Tarbox stood up in the skiff and looked sadly upon the dead face. "It's our man," he said to St. Pierre.

"Dass what I say!" exclaimed the negro. "Yes, seh, so soon I see him I say, mos' sholy dass de same man what Mistoo Tah-bawx lookin' faw to show him 'roun' 'bout de swamp! Yes, seh, not-instandin' I never see him befo'! No, seh.--Lawd! look yondeh! look dat big bahsta'd hawn-snake! He kyant git away: he's hu't! Lawd! dass what kill dat man! Dat man trawmp on him in de dark, and he strack him wid his hawny tail! Look at dem fo' li'l' spot' on de man' foot! Now, Mistoo Tah-bawx! You been talk' 'bout dem ah bahsta'd hawn-snake not pizen! Well, mos' sholy dey _bite ain't pizen; but if dat hawn on de een of his tail dess on'y tetch you, you' gone! Look at dat man! Kill' him so quick dey wa'n't time for de place to swell whah he was hit!" But Tarbox quietly pointed out to St. Pierre that the tiny wounds were made by the reptile's teeth.

"The coroner's verdict will probably be 'privation and exposure,'" said he softly; "but it ought to be, 'killed by fright and the bite of a harmless snake.'"

On his murmured suggestion, St. Pierre gave orders that, with one exception, every woodsman go to his tree-felling, and that the lugger and canoe, with the dead man lying untouched, be towed by skiff and a single pair of oars to the head of the canal for inquest and burial.

"I'll go with him," said Tarbox softly to St. Pierre. "We owe him all we're going to get out of these woods, and I owe him a great deal more." When a little later he was left for a moment without a hearer, he said to the prostrate form, "Poor fellow! And to think I had her message to you to come out of this swamp and begin to live the life of a live man!"

The rude funeral moved away, and soon the woods were ringing with the blow of axes and the shout and song of black timber-men as gayly as though there never had been or was to be a storm or a death.

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