« PreviousContinue »
the combined agencies of darkness and fear might very readily transform into a headless spectre. Thus the skeptics found new cause to doubt, as doubt they always will; but most people chose to believe the evidences of their own senses and the scarcely less indubitable evidence of unimpeachable testimony.
In process of time the dark forests that had covered the region round about yielded to the axe of the woodman. The Mohegans that had hunted among these hills and fished in these waters were replaced by sturdy burghers from the father land. At length the patroon, crowned with civic honors, came to dwell among his tenantry, and enjoy the otium cum dignitate of a green old age; and fixing his mansion not far from the place I have been describing, which he presumed would be his last earthly resting place, with classical propriety he called the place And-per-se. The presence of such neighbors might have been expected to route the ellin band that had haunted this dell, as they are known to have a special dislike to extreme civilization. But in this case their local attachments were too strong to permit them to be readily moved : they still went abroad and were often seen.
Nothing is more reasonable than that those who believed these things should, with that genuine philosophy that commonly accompanies rational credence, inquire among themselves what they should signify; and finally it was agreed by a kind of tacit consent that the headless apparition was the ghost of the victim slain by the pirates, and buried, after an infernal consecration, with the money. His ap. pearance without a head was thought to indicate the manner of his death; that he had been decapitated and then buried with the unholy treasure, that both should remain there together till redeemed by another offering of the same kind. The point toward which he directed his steps seemed to indicate the place where the treasure lay, whither the pensive ghost was then repairing to hold his nightly vigils about the unhonored remains of his earthly habitation. But who could have thought himself richer had he in this way discovered the precise locality of the bidden gold, since it could be obtained only at such a price? No one, thought the good people of And-per-se, and they acted agreeably to their sentiments. Few hesitated to believe that great treasures were there concealed, but no one ventured upon the fearful task of getting them. In this condition matters rested during many succeeding years.
In a land where change and improvement are convertible terms, nothing can be accounted to be finally settled. So the time at length came when this sequestered glen, which seemed designed by nature to be a retreat for the inmates of the forest, flood and marsh, was to be laid open to the idle gaze and careless tread of the traveller. The marshes that bordered the estuaries of the mountain's streams had from time immemorable borne their annual growth of cat-tails and bulrushes; had been the summer roosts of myriads of black-bird s at night, and the orchestra of thousands of frogs by day. Often when straying that way at the approach of evening have I seen swarms of chirping birds settling among the reeds, while here and there, mounted upon whatever rose above the water's edge and presented an eli
gible seat, the gallant bull-frogs sang serenades to their coy mates, who sat hard by, winking and nodding their green heads above the still waters. But the feathered songsters are flown; the chorus of the amphibious tribes is hushed; “improvement has come to the quiet vale of And-per-se. Unheeded were the wild pleasures of birds and frogs, or the beauties of water-lilies and marsh-marigolds, and as little regarded the fearful tales of headless ghosts guarding hidden treasures, consecrated to the Prince of Darkness, when it was ascertained that the most feasible route for a projected highway from the commercial emporium of the nation to the capital of the Empire State lay across these marshes and over the interjacent headland. Now cause-ways rose suddenly among the flags, the streams were spanned by bridges, and the fair rotundity of the fearful promontory was sadly marred by pick-axe, spade and plow-share, and soon this hitherto se. cluded dell was opened to the vagrant world. It might have been apprehended that these rude operations would interfere with the affairs of one whose possession was of such long-standing that, as the lawyers have it, the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.' Had such a thing been possible, it might have been expected that the hidden treasure would have been unceremoniously dragged into daylight. But the work was finished, and no money discovered. Indeed, so confident was the old keeper of the safety of his stores, that he seems scarcely to have noticed the operations of the delving roadmakers; or if he regarded them at all, it was only to grin contempt at their impotent labors.
In some one of the books of ancient wisdom with which I was once as familiar as with my own mother-tongue, is a saying that is about equivalent to the plain English, The cursed love of gold can impel the heart of man to any enormity.' Whoever was the author of that wise saying, he certainly knew something about human nature, and my story is an additional demonstration of its truth ; for to gain this gold became now the study of many a plodding burgher; and that too in spite of — him who kept it. Among the wonderful inventions of the adepts in the black art the divining-rod is not the least wonderful. Its power is scarcely inferior to those of the philosopher's stone; for though it could not make gold, it could find it ready made, and coined too. The willow
rods were sometimes used, and their magic powers fully attested. But an instrument of another kind was employed with the most certain success. This instrument, and the manner of using it, were very simple, although it could be made only by those who were deeply versed in the mysteries of alchemy. It consisted principally of a rod poised like the needle of a compass, and 80 magnetized as to indicate the presence of the precious metals in its vicinity, and by its direction and dip pointing with great precision to the spot where they might be found.
To what extent the use of this instrument was attempted in this place, is not well determined, for men are not commonly in haste to proclaim their own discomfitures. It is, however, very certain that all such attempts failed of their purpose, although they may have afforded the old keeper a little pastime. Some adventures of this kind have, however, come to light, of which I will relate one or two as specimens.
On one occasion a person having satisfied himself of the locality of the much-coveted treasure, went thither by night, (for nothing of the kind can be done by daylight,) and began to open the earth. He had not gone far in his work when he heard at a distance among the trees and brushwood that surrounded him something like the clanking of chains, with groanings and other dismal noises.
These sounds grew more and more distinct, and seemed to be constantly coming nearer to him. Fire also flashed among the bushes, and a strong sulphurous odor identified the approaching visitant. As seen by the lurid light that shone around him, he seemed a monster of vast size and unnatural proportions, covered with long hair, with an immense head and broad horns, a long tail whisking among the leaves, and chains draggling at both heels. He approached the trembling depredator, and reaching out a long snout, fave
him a puff of the fumes of brimstone that soon persuaded him that discretion was the better part of courage. A desperate unbeliever first revealed this matter, and declared that this frightful spectre was nothing else than a man wrapped in a bullock's hide, carrying a cup of burning coals upon which a little sulphur was occasionally thrown; and'that he himself, knowing his neighbor's purpose, had played this practical joke upon him. The explanation satisfied some, but others suspected it was only a device to conceal a nefarious commerce with the Evil One.
Another thus related his own adventure and defeat: Having ascertained the place of deposit, which was at the roots of a large spreading oak, he proceeded, one beautiful moonlight evening, to secure it. He was soon engaged at his work, while all around was as quiet as a summer sunset, and was beginning to feel that success was certain, when chancing to look upward, he saw, sitting upon a great branch of the oak, directly over his head, a little imp, holding in his left hand a thread from which depended a millstone, and upon this thread he was filing away with all his might. The money-digger asked him no questions as to who he was, or by what authority he acted ; but making all convenient haste to be off, he left him alone in his glory.
These repeated failures, without any compensating successes, finally led to an entire relinquishment of the enterprise ; and so the matter seemed likely to end, and the whole to be remembered only as a tale of by-gone days. But though men might consent to such an arrangement, there were weighty reasons why it should not be agreeable to the old treasurer. Money, even in the hands of a demon, has only a current value, and if shut up in hopeless forgetfulness it is rendered worthless. It seemed a hard case if all the care of the guardian fiend, so long and assiduously continued, should go wholly unrequited ; but such seemed likely to be the case, since none approached the keeper to make the necessary stipulations, and no sprite may speak unless first spoken to. But it is not to be presumed that Satan is less shrewd at a desperate trade than are his human representatives, pedlars and pawn-brokers, with whom it is a fixed rule, when the whole price cannot be gotten to take the next best offer. Now the redemption price was not all that was lost by the failure to redeem the pirates' money.
It is known to the devil that 'money is the root of all evil;' at least it is so said, and Scripture is quoted to prove it. But he also knew very well that as it was, this root was too deeply buried to vegetate and bear fruit." He was therefore solicitous that by some means it should be brought to light; and finally he came to the determina. tion to remit the required ransom price. The headless sentinel was accordingly excused from farther duty. But then, when the terror of the apparition had ceased to be felt, doubters increased in numbers and assurance. The generation that had seen him was rapidly passing away, and but little was known either of the place or the existence of the hidden money. Moved by these considerations, the old keeper adopted an entirely new line of policy.
Whether he has but one method of communicating with us mortals, or having found one to work well, he has determined to let well enough alone,' I do not pretend to say; but this is certain, that in this case he adopted the same mode that served him so well,
• Lang syne in Eden's bonnie yard.'
In night-visions and dreams, some of the sons and daughters of her at whose ear he once crouched to whisper harm, were made to understand that great treasures were subject to their refusal. In these nocturnal communications all necessary information as to place and circumstances was given, to enable the adventurers to discover and exhume the prize. The mode of proceeding was somewhat in this wise : approach the designated place after the evening twilight, and with the edge of a spade mark out a circle around it with a radius of not over thirty feet. This circle will then be safe against all preternatural powers; but just beyond it a general revel of every frightful spectre may be expected; especially the headless sentinel, who will then appear on horseback. After the circle is described the digging may proceed, when perfect silence must be kept; for a single word would dissolve the charm and wholly defeat the design. When the money shall have been uncovered, and some extraneous metal introduced among it, the charm will dissolve of itself, and the prize thenceforth be beyond ghostly influences.
And now, patient reader, I have arrived thus far with my tale, and yet I have only given you the preliminaries. But don't be alarmed, for my story is like some modern cottages, where most of the house is before the door. I thought it advisable to give all the introductory matter before proceeding to the substance of the story; and as much of a tale is in the telling, I wished to take a fair start, so as to come up to it with a good degree of force. But I find I have done like the man who attempted to jump over a high hill, by starting a long way off and running as fast as he could till he came to its base, when he first set himself quietly down to rest, and then walked leisurely over. And now I presume you are tired, as well as myself; so we will first rest a while and then proceed.
After a ruddy day of early April, with its alternations of wind, rain and sunshine, the sun had
down behind the lower ridge of the Highlands, and day had given place to a cloudless, damp and chilly evening. The moon, with half filled crescent, hung dim and hazy over the south-west, just above the light-house on Stony-Point, and the few stars that glimmered in the firmament seemed to blush at their own faintness. Then might be heard the shrill cry of the wood.' cock as he clave the evening air, while the yelling of little frogs, and the croaking of great ones made up a concert of varied discords. From the bosom of the Hudson came booming in sullen cadences the splashing sounds of the paddle-wheels of passing steam-boats, while ever and anon, when one had passed, the receding swell bore miniature tides to either bank, and caused the rustling waves to run races along the shores of Verplanck's Point, and beneath the shelving base of Donderberg.
At that hour the savans of Peekskill were collected at the bar-room of the village hotel at the head of Main-street, talking over the latest news and discussing the merits of the newly elected board of townofficers, and the probable influence of the late town.meeting upon the affairs of the nation. The way-side loafers and veteran grog -drinkers gathered at rum-dealing groceries and restaurants, whose bill of fare was tobacco, rum and red-herring, while the quiet and orderly portion of the town sought their domestic fire-sides to rest from the toils of the day among the endearments of home.
Then might have been seen, in more than one place in the streets of the village, little groups engaged in low but earnest conversation, like men who meditate some great enterprise. Presently one body moved stealthily up the street, till they came to the corner where the Highland turnpike bears away to the north ward ; turning up which, they take the direct route toward And-per-se, the little amphibious hamlet that lies just under the mountain above the upper bridge. The whole affair had an air of mystery about it, and certainly was not entirely above suspicion. The tales of former days were not wholly forgotten, nor were they so completely discredited as out-door talk would imply; and certain remarkable dreams, that had recently been talked of, seemed to indicate that though an unbelieving and matter-of-fact generation of men may despise those venerable tales about buried money, there was one who remembered them with unabated interest.
* This night-roaming company should be watched !' thought Cobus De Grau, who met them as he was returning from a fishing expedition along the creek ; especially as one of them was armed with a fire-lock, to say nothing of the concealed weapons they might carry about their persons. They had gained the height of ground above the village, and were rapidly descending the gentle slope toward the lower bridge, when he met them, which they soon passed upon the causeway and turnpike bridge. Though not of a suspicious temper, Cobus's fears were excited by the unusual appearance of this group, and his imagination filled with strange fancies. He looked after them