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The Pledge Redeemed by Unknown

 

Towards the close of the reign of Louis XIV., a plant of Mocha coffee was brought to the king's garden, which very soon increased; and the genius of the government of that day thought that, by transplanting into their West India colonies this shrub, an immense source of riches might be opened to the country. The carrying out of this idea was entrusted to Chevalier Desclieux, who, provided with a young coffee-plant, set out from Nantes, thence to convey it to Martinique. Imbedded in its native mould, the precious exile was placed in an oak-wood box, impenetrable to cold, and covered with a glass frame so formed as to catch the least ray of the sun and double its heat; and in case the sun did not shine, a small aperture, hermetically sealed, could admit heated air, when it was thought proper to do so. We can imagine all the charges Desclieux received when he entered the ship in which he was to embark: but he did not need them; he saw at a glance all the distinction he would gain by this expedition, which would secure to his country an inexhaustible source of riches. It was then, with a really patriotic feeling, that he took the plant under his care, promising to devote himself to it as he would to his country, and to all the duties of his profession. And when the skiff, after having quitted the vessel, returned again to renew the charge, and to remind Desclieux once more that the plant must be watered every day, and that copiously, he pledged his honour that, rather than fail in this, he would himself die of thirst.

The ship sailed; the crew was composed of about one hundred men, and of some passengers about to settle in the Antilles, amongst whom was an amiable family, consisting of father, mother, and their only daughter Louisa, a beautiful and accomplished girl of eighteen. In a vessel where people are so much thrown together, meeting constantly for a length of time, destined perhaps to share the same death, but little time is required to form an intimacy which often ripens into lasting friendship; and thus it proved in the case of the parents of Louisa and Desclieux. Scarcely had they passed the light-house of Cordouan, glittering in the twilight of a lovely evening, when they were already friends. Already this fresh and delicate plant, interesting as an exile, as a flower transplanted from its own soil, as a child torn from its mother, became a mutual object of attraction. It was thus that Louisa pointed it out to her parents as it lay on the deck in its glass case, exposed to the mid-day sun. She charmed the tedium of the voyage in hourly watching the progress which she believed visible in the feeble offset. She had felt interested in it from the moment Desclieux had shown her all the glory he was to gain by it for France, and then she had become attached to it; for it is a beautiful proof of the magnanimity of women—their love for all that is glorious. Even during the five days they had been at sea, the little coffee-plant had evidently increased—two small leaves of a most delicate green had appeared; and every morning Louisa's first thought after prayer was the cherished plant; but she could not see it till Desclieux had left his room, for he always kept the sacred deposit with him. Every evening he watered it abundantly, and then let hot air into the frame by means of the tube, as he had been directed: he kept it as close as possible to him at night, that even during sleep he might administer heat to it. Never did bird brood over its young more fondly—never did nurse cherish more tenderly the new-born babe.

As soon as Desclieux appeared on deck in the morning to lay his precious charge in the sun, Louisa immediately ran thither. She delighted to point out to her mother its growth during the night, a growth imperceptible to indifferent eyes; but she had become attached to it; and as the slightest emotions are visible to us in the features of those we love, though unperceived by strangers, so she discovered the least change even in the thickness of the stalk or the length of the leaves; and Desclieux, seeing the young girl thus attaching herself to what had been confided to him, and what he so cherished, felt touched and grateful.

They met with a terrible assault when close to Madeira. It was about the middle of a dark night, though not stormy; the vessel was gliding along noiselessly; and all on board were asleep except the officer on watch—and indeed he too perhaps slept, or he would have heard the noise of the keel cutting the waves as a bird's wing cuts the air, and he would have cried: 'Ship ahoy!' A ship was indeed quite close to Desclieux's vessel, and the token it gave of its vicinity was a cannonade which awoke up every one in a moment, both crew and passengers. It was a pirate vessel of Tunis, a poor chebeck, but formidable in the night—a time that magnifies every fear—and formidable, too, from the desperate bravery of the banditti who manned her. Believing themselves assailed by superior forces, the ship's crew prepared for a resistance as vigorous, as desperate as the attack. Better far to die than to be carried slaves to Africa! All the passengers were at prayer, distracted, trembling, or half dead. Louisa alone remained calm, for she was sustained by the thought that to her Desclieux had entrusted his precious charge. The fight commenced; the ship fired eight cannon on the chebeck; and it was time, for already the captain had boarded the French ship, but was immediately cut down by Desclieux's axe. A last discharge of guns on each side, and the firing ceased. The pirate felt its inferiority and retreated, while the conquerors continued their course.

Two hours of torturing suspense had passed since the terrible awakening, which but served to make the feeling of restored security the more delightful, and the remainder of the night was spent in relating the events of the rencontre. Louisa's was not the least interesting: she had been regardless of danger during the combat, while watching over her charge; then she took it to Desclieux, who admired her the more—loved her the more; for courage, always beautiful, has a still greater charm when displayed by a woman.

It was a lovely morning, the sun was unusually bright and warm, and Desclieux left the plant on deck, the glass frame half raised to admit the fresh air and reviving heat, while he, with Louisa and her parents, sat near and enjoyed seeing it expand its pretty leaves, and, as it were, smilingly greet the sun's rays, which infused into it such genial warmth, and seeming to thank them for their care. But Desclieux's brow now kindled with higher thoughts. In this feeble offset he saw the pretty little starry flowers, then the perfumed berries, and the negroes gathering it abundantly, and then the ocean bearing vessels to France laden, with its produce. All this he could see in the few small leaves scarcely aboveground. Enthusiastically did he tell these bright visions to Louisa, and as she kindled in her turn, the coffee-plant became dearer and dearer to her, and she lavished as tender care upon it as she would upon a newborn brother. She seemed to have common sympathies with it, and if she felt that the heat might be too much for its slender stem, she drew over it little curtains of green silk which she had made expressly for it, just as a tender mother curtains the cradle of her infant. And then she read to Desclieux and her parents a long account of the coffee of Mocha, and pictured vividly to their imagination the tree to grow out of the nursling whose infancy they watched over. Sometimes the conversation took a different turn, and the parents of Louisa spoke, as if to an old familiar friend, of their fortune, of their family interests, of their views for the establishment of their only daughter; and Desclieux in return imparted to them his plans. By degrees these communications led to projects of marriage between him and Louisa. It was no unpleasing thought to either, and the very day they crossed the line, a declaration was made, and an engagement formed, and it was agreed that their union should take place immediately on their return to France.

We may well think that Louisa became more attached than ever to the plant, now become a source of distinction in which she would one day share: imagine, then, her consternation when, one morning, she beheld it languishing. She said nothing, hoping it might revive; but the next morning found its leaves still more withered. She did not trust herself to speak of it to Desclieux, who also had but too plainly seen it. At last, the thought occurred to him that whilst in the intense heat of the tropics, the plant would require more water; and therefore poured on it almost his whole allowance. The effect was immediate in restoring its life and verdure, and Louisa was again happy. The ship was still some hundreds of leagues from Martinique, when a violent tempest arose, apparently the last of a fearful hurricane which had raged through the Antilles. It was found that the ship had sprung a leak; the pumps were not sufficient: they were in imminent danger, and the necessity of lightening the vessel was so urgent that they were forced to throw overboard almost all the merchandise, a part of the ballast, and even several barrels of water. This last sacrifice was an appalling one: it was with a solemn feeling they made it, similar to that with which one hears the earth fall upon a coffin, or gives to the departed one the ocean for its tomb. Indeed, these casks of water carried with them the lives of many individuals, who had now no escape from a cruel death by thirst. Desclieux, impressed, like the others, with this idea, only thought of his precious coffee-plant. However, they were not very far from port, and, with a favourable wind, might get in in a few days; and in effect the tempest being over, and the leak closed with great difficulty, a fresh breeze sprang up, and for a day and a night they sailed fast, and the stormy state of the atmosphere had produced on the coffee-plant the usual effect. It might almost have been said to have flourished the more for the tempest. Louisa and Desclieux contemplated it with a sweet joy, as at once the emblem and the omen of domestic happiness amid the storms of life. But, alas! the wind suddenly lulled—not the least breath to fill the sails, not a wave broke against the motionless vessel: an awful calm succeeded; and what is more terrible upon this scene of continual agitation than a calm unwonted and too often fatal? The dead heat of the tropics was felt in all its power by the helpless voyagers; they languished and fainted with a continual thirst; and, horrible to relate, the water was failing, for they had thrown so much overboard, that they were limited to a very small allowance—a cupful at most.

If men, notwithstanding their energies, sunk under the sufferings caused by the intense heat and burning thirst, what must have been the state of the poor little plant which faded away before the eye! It had its allowance also, but it was not enough; and every morning and evening Desclieux gave it his, only for which it would have died. Louisa was astonished to see the feeble plant yet bearing up; but Desclieux carefully concealed from her the means he was using, lest she also would deprive herself of water for it, and that he did not wish—he preferred suffering alone; and a long sojourn in the hottest parts of Arabia had in a great measure inured him to the climate, so that he did not feel it so much as others. The calm was uninterrupted, the remainder of the water was nearly exhausted, their situation was become dreadful, and there was no hope, in their case, of any relief from another vessel, for all were alike becalmed; and it was sad to see the ocean without a sail in the horizon, or, if there was one, it too was motionless. Their ration of water was now reduced to one small liqueur glass. One drop only, just to moisten his lips, and Desclieux poured the rest on the plant, now apparently dying.

'Alas! how you are changed!' said Louisa to him one day: 'how pale you have become. You are suffering: this heat is killing you.'

He knew it; but he had promised to water the plant, even though he himself was to die of thirst; and he was faithful to his word. One evening, when Louisa and her parents were questioning him, he thus answered in a feeble voice, 'You are right; I die of thirst, that my charge may live—it is my duty.' And saying these words, he laid his parched lips upon its withered leaves, as one would kiss the hand of an expiring friend, and continued: 'You have all promised to love me: if I do not live, be careful of this coffee-plant, which held out to us such brilliant prospects. I ask it of you as a favour, and bequeath to you the distinction I hoped to have gained by it.' At the moment they were distributing the scanty portion of water, and though he was perishing, he threw the whole of it upon the shrub—Louisa did the same. It was, as it were, a sacred bond between them—an indissoluble tie. I am convinced that many of my readers have frequently felt a lively and almost inexplicable pleasure in watering a flower dried up by the scorching sun, and, in seeing it revive, have felt as if benefited themselves. What pleasure, then, it must have given to Desclieux and Louisa to see their plant raise its sickly leaves once more!

At length the wind began to rise lightly, and the vessel moved, though slowly. Desclieux was ill—in a burning fever; but he continued to share with the plant his allowance of water; and Louisa added hers. It increased their happiness that it owed its recovery to their mutual self-denial; and it seemed as if their household life had begun in a common endurance of suffering.

The breeze still freshened: and when the vessel anchored in the port of St Pierre, there was not a single drop of water on board. But the coffee-plant was saved; the colony enriched by it; Desclieux's pledge redeemed; and, three months after, Louisa was his wife.