Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker

      by Charles Brockden Brown / Historical Fiction

Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker
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To the Public:

The flattering reception that has been given, by the public, to ArthurMervyn, has prompted the writer to solicit a continuance of the samefavour, and to offer to the world a new performance.

America has opened new views to the naturalist and politician, but hasseldom furnished themes to the moral painter. That new springs of actionand new motives to curiosity should operate,--that the field ofinvestigation, opened to us by our own country, should differessentially from those which exist in Europe,--may be readily conceived.The sources of amusement to the fancy and instruction to the heart, thatare peculiar to ourselves, are equally numerous and inexhaustible. It isthe purpose of this work to profit by some of these sources; to exhibita series of adventures, growing out of the condition of our country, andconnected with one of the most common and most wonderful diseases oraffections of the human frame.

One merit the writer may at least claim:--that of calling forth thepassions and engaging the sympathy of the reader by means hithertounemployed by preceding authors. Puerile superstition and explodedmanners, Gothic castles and chimeras, are the materials usually employedfor this end. The incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of theWestern wilderness, are far more suitable; and for a native of Americato overlook these would admit of no apology. These, therefore, are, inpart, the ingredients of this tale, and these he has been ambitious ofdepicting in vivid and faithful colours. The success of his efforts mustbe estimated by the liberal and candid reader.

C. B. B.

Chapter I.

I sit down, my friend, to comply with thy request. At length does theimpetuosity of my fears, the transports of my wonder, permit me torecollect my promise and perform it. At length am I somewhat deliveredfrom suspense and from tremors. At length the drama is brought to animperfect close, and the series of events that absorbed my faculties,that hurried away my attention, has terminated in repose.

Till now, to hold a steadfast pen was impossible; to disengage my sensesfrom the scene that was passing or approaching; to forbear to grasp atfuturity; to suffer so much thought to wander from the purpose whichengrossed my fears and my hopes, could not be.

Yet am I sure that even now my perturbations are sufficiently stilledfor an employment like this? That the incidents I am going to relate canbe recalled and arranged without indistinctness and confusion? Thatemotions will not be reawakened by my narrative, incompatible with orderand coherence? Yet when I shall be better qualified for this task I knownot. Time may take away these headlong energies, and give me back myancient sobriety; but this change will only be effected by weakening myremembrance of these events. In proportion as I gain power over words,shall I lose dominion over sentiments. In proportion as my tale isdeliberate and slow, the incidents and motives which it is designed toexhibit will be imperfectly revived and obscurely portrayed.

Oh, why art thou away at a time like this. Wert thou present, the officeto which my pen is so inadequate would easily be executed by my tongue.Accents can scarcely be too rapid; or that which words should fail toconvey, my looks and gestures would suffice to communicate. But I knowthy coming is impossible. To leave this spot is equally beyond my power.To keep thee in ignorance of what has happened would justly offend thee.There is no method of informing thee except by letter, and this methodmust I, therefore, adopt.

How short is the period that has elapsed since thou and I parted, andyet how full of tumult and dismay has been my soul during that period!What light has burst upon my ignorance of myself and of mankind! Howsudden and enormous the transition from uncertainty to knowledge!

But let me recall my thoughts; let me struggle for so much composure aswill permit my pen to trace intelligible characters. Let me place inorder the incidents that are to compose my tale. I need not call on theeto listen. The fate of Waldegrave was as fertile of torment to thee asto me. His bloody and mysterious catastrophe equally awakened thy grief,thy revenge, and thy curiosity. Thou wilt catch from my story everyhorror and every sympathy which it paints. Thou wilt shudder with myforeboding and dissolve with my tears. As the sister of my friend, andas one who honours me with her affection, thou wilt share in all mytasks and all my dangers.

You need not be reminded with what reluctance I left you. To reach thisplace by evening was impossible, unless I had set out early in themorning; but your society was too precious not to be enjoyed to the lastmoment. It was indispensable to be here on Tuesday, but my duty requiredno more than that I should arrive by sunrise on that day. To travelduring the night was productive of no formidable inconvenience. The airwas likely to be frosty and sharp, but these would not incommode one whowalked with speed. A nocturnal journey in districts so romantic and wildas these, through which lay my road, was more congenial to my temperthan a noonday ramble.

By nightfall I was within ten miles of my uncle's house. As the darknessincreased, and I advanced on my way, my sensations sunk into melancholy.The scene and the time reminded me of the friend whom I had lost. Irecalled his features, and accents, and gestures, and mused withunutterable feelings on the circumstances of his death.

My recollections once more plunged me into anguish and perplexity. Oncemore I asked, Who was his assassin? By what motives could he be impelledto a deed like this? Waldegrave was pure from all offence. His piety wasrapturous. His benevolence was a stranger to remissness or torpor. Allwho came within the sphere of his influence experienced and acknowledgedhis benign activity. His friends were few, because his habits were timidand reserved; but the existence of an enemy was impossible.

I recalled the incidents of our last interview, my importunities that heshould postpone his ill-omened journey till the morning, hisinexplicable obstinacy, his resolution to set out on foot during a darkand tempestuous night, and the horrible disaster that befell him.

The first intimation I received of this misfortune, the insanity ofvengeance and grief into which I was hurried, my fruitless searches forthe author of this guilt, my midnight wanderings and reveries beneaththe shade of that fatal elm, were revived and reacted. I heard thedischarge of the pistol, I witnessed the alarm of Inglefield, I heardhis calls to his servants, and saw them issue forth with lights andhasten to the spot whence the sound had seemed to proceed. I beheld myfriend, stretched upon the earth, ghastly with a mortal wound, alone,with no traces of the slayer visible, no tokens by which his place ofrefuge might be sought, the motives of his enmity or his instruments ofmischief might be detected.

I hung over the dying youth, whose insensibility forbade him torecognise his friend, or unfold the cause of his destruction. Iaccompanied his remains to the grave; I tended the sacred spot where helay; I once more exercised my penetration and my zeal in pursuit of hisassassin. Once more my meditations and exertions were doomed to bedisappointed.

I need not remind thee of what is past. Time and reason seemed to havedissolved the spell which made me deaf to the dictates of duty anddiscretion. Remembrances had ceased to agonize, to urge me to headlongacts and foster sanguinary purposes. The gloom was half dispersed, and aradiance had succeeded sweeter than my former joys.

Now, by some unseen concurrence of reflections, my thoughts revertedinto some degree of bitterness. Methought that to ascertain the hand whokilled my friend was not impossible, and to punish the crime was just.That to forbear inquiry or withhold punishment was to violate my duty tomy God and to mankind. The impulse was gradually awakened that bade meonce more to seek the elm; once more to explore the ground; toscrutinize its trunk. What could I expect to find? Had it not been ahundred times examined? Had I not extended my search to the neighbouringgroves and precipices? Had I not pored upon the brooks, and pried intothe pits and hollows, that were adjacent to the scene of blood?

Lately I had viewed this conduct with shame and regret; but in thepresent state of my mind it assumed the appearance of conformity withprudence, and I felt myself irresistibly prompted to repeat my search.Some time had elapsed since my departure from this district,--timeenough for momentous changes to occur. Expedients that formerly wereuseless might now lead instantaneously to the end which I sought. Thetree which had formerly been shunned by the criminal might, in theabsence of the avenger of blood, be incautiously approached. Thoughtlessor fearless of my return, it was possible that he might, at this moment,be detected hovering near the scene of his offences.

Nothing can be pleaded in extenuation of this relapse into folly. Myreturn, after an absence of some duration, into the scene of thesetransactions and sufferings, the time of night, the glimmering of thestars, the obscurity in which external objects were wrapped, and which,consequently, did not draw my attention from the images of fancy, may insome degree account for the revival of those sentiments and resolutionswhich immediately succeeded the death of Waldegrave, and which, duringmy visit to you, had been suspended.

You know the situation of the elm, in the midst of a private road, onthe verge of Norwalk, near the habitation of Inglefield, but three milesfrom my uncle's house. It was now my intention to visit it. The road inwhich I was travelling led a different way. It was requisite to leaveit, therefore, and make a circuit through meadows and over steeps. Myjourney would, by these means, be considerably prolonged; but on thathead I was indifferent, or rather, considering how far the night hadalready advanced, it was desirable not to reach home till the dawn.

I proceeded in this new direction with speed. Time, however, was allowedfor my impetuosities to subside, and for sober thoughts to take place.Still I persisted in this path. To linger a few moments in this shade,to ponder on objects connected with events so momentous to my happiness,promised me a mournful satisfaction. I was familiar with the way, thoughtrackless and intricate, and I climbed the steeps, crept through thebrambles, leaped the rivulets and fences with undeviating aim, till atlength I reached the craggy and obscure path which led to Inglefield'shouse.

In a short time, I descried through the dusk the widespread branches ofthe elm. This tree, however faintly seen, cannot be mistaken foranother. The remarkable bulk and shape of its trunk, its position in themidst of the way, its branches spreading into an ample circumference,made it conspicuous from afar. My pulse throbbed as I approached it.

My eyes were eagerly bent to discover the trunk and the area beneath theshade. These, as I approached, gradually became visible. The trunk wasnot the only thing which appeared in view. Somewhat else, which madeitself distinguishable by its motions, was likewise noted. I falteredand stopped.

To a casual observer this appearance would have been unnoticed. To me,it could not but possess a powerful significance. All my surmises andsuspicions instantly returned. This apparition was human, it wasconnected with the fate of Waldegrave, it led to a disclosure of theauthor of that fate. What was I to do? To approach unwarily would alarmthe person. Instant flight would set him beyond discovery and reach.

I walked softly to the roadside. The ground was covered with rockymasses, scattered among shrub-oaks and dwarf-cedars, emblems of itssterile and uncultivated state. Among these it was possible to eludeobservation and yet approach near enough to gain an accurate view ofthis being.

At this time, the atmosphere was somewhat illuminated by the moon,which, though it had already set, was yet so near the horizon as tobenefit me by its light. The shape of a man, tall and robust, was nowdistinguished. Repeated and closer scrutiny enabled me to perceive thathe was employed in digging the earth. Something like flannel was wrappedround his waist and covered his lower limbs. The rest of his frame wasnaked. I did not recognise in him any one whom I knew.

A figure, robust and strange, and half naked, to be thus employed, atthis hour and place, was calculated to rouse up my whole soul. Hisoccupation was mysterious and obscure. Was it a grave that he wasdigging? Was his purpose to explore or to hide? Was it proper to watchhim at a distance, unobserved and in silence, or to rush upon him andextort from him, by violence or menaces, an explanation of the scene?

Before my resolution was formed, he ceased to dig. He cast aside hisspade and sat down in the pit that he had dug. He seemed wrapped inmeditation; but the pause was short, and succeeded by sobs, at first lowand at wide intervals, but presently louder and more vehement. Sorelycharged was indeed that heart whence flowed these tokens of sorrow.Never did I witness a scene of such mighty anguish, such heart-burstinggrief.

What should I think? I was suspended in astonishment. Every sentiment,at length, yielded to my sympathy. Every new accent of the mournerstruck upon my heart with additional force, and tears found their wayspontaneously to my eyes. I left the spot where I stood, and advancedwithin the verge of the shade. My caution had forsaken me, and, insteadof one whom it was duty to persecute, I beheld, in this man, nothing butan object of compassion.

My pace was checked by his suddenly ceasing to lament. He snatched thespade, and, rising on his feet, began to cover up the pit with theutmost diligence. He seemed aware of my presence, and desirous of hidingsomething from my inspection. I was prompted to advance nearer and holdhis hand, but my uncertainty as to his character and views, theabruptness with which I had been ushered into this scene, made me stillhesitate; but, though I hesitated to advance, there was nothing tohinder me from calling.

”What, ho!” said I. ”Who is there? What are you doing?”

He stopped: the spade fell from his hand; he looked up and bent forwardhis face towards the spot where I stood. An interview and explanationwere now, methought, unavoidable. I mustered up my courage to confrontand interrogate this being.

He continued for a minute in his gazing and listening attitude. Where Istood I could not fail of being seen, and yet he acted as if he sawnothing. Again he betook himself to his spade, and proceeded with newdiligence to fill up the pit. This demeanour confounded and bewilderedme. I had no power but to stand and silently gaze upon his motions.

The pit being filled, he once more sat upon the ground, and resignedhimself to weeping and sighs with more vehemence than before. In a shorttime the fit seemed to have passed. He rose, seized the spade, andadvanced to the spot where I stood.

Again I made preparation as for an interview which could not but takeplace. He passed me, however, without appearing to notice my existence.He came so near as almost to brush my arm, yet turned not his head toeither side. My nearer view of him made his brawny arms and loftystature more conspicuous; but his imperfect dress, the dimness of thelight, and the confusion of my own thoughts, hindered me from discerninghis features. He proceeded with a few quick steps along the road, butpresently darted to one side and disappeared among the rocks and bushes.

My eye followed him as long as he was visible, but my feet were rootedto the spot. My musing was rapid and incongruous. It could not fail toterminate in one conjecture, that this person was _asleep_. Suchinstances were not unknown to me, through the medium of conversation andbooks. Never, indeed, had it fallen under my own observation till now,and now it was conspicuous, and environed with all that could give edgeto suspicion and vigour to inquiry. To stand here was no longer of use,and I turned my steps towards my uncle's habitation.

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