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James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851). The Spy. 1911.

Chapter II

  • And many a halcyon day he lived to see
  • Unbroken, but by one misfortune dire,
  • When fate had reft his mutual heart—but she
  • Was gone-and Gertrude climbed a widowed father’s knee.

  • THE FATHER of Mr. Wharton was a native of England, and of a family whose parliamentary interest had enabled them to provide for a younger son in the colony of New York. The young man, like hundreds of others in this situation, had settled permanently in the country. He married; and the sole issue of his connection had been sent early in life to receive the benefits of the English schools. After taking his degrees at one of the universities of the mother country, the youth had been suffered to acquire a knowledge of life with the advantages of European society. But the death of his father recalled him, after passing two years in this manner, to the possession of an honorable name, and a very ample estate.

    It was much the fashion of that day to place the youth of certain families in the army and navy of England, as the regular stepping-stones to preferment. Most of the higher offices in the colonies were filled by men who had made arms their profession; and it was even no uncommon sight to see a veteran warrior laying aside the sword to assume the ermine on the benches of the highest judicial authority.

    In conformity with this system, the senior Mr. Wharton had intended his son for a soldier; but a natural imbecility of character in his child interfered with his wishes.

    A twelvemonth had been spent by the young man in weighing the comparative advantages of the different classes of troops, when the death of his father occurred. The ease of his situation, and the attentions lavished upon a youth in the actual enjoyment of one of the largest estates in the colonies, interfered greatly with his ambitious projects. Love decided the matter; and Mr. Wharton, in becoming a husband, ceased to think of becoming a soldier. For many years he continued happy in his family, and sufficiently respected by his countrymen, as a man of integrity and consequence, when all his enjoyments vanished, as it were, at a blow. His only son, the youth introduced in the preceding chapter, had entered the army, and had arrived in his native country, but a short time before the commencement of hostilities, with the reinforcements the ministry had thought it prudent to throw into the disaffected parts of North America. His daughters were just growing into life, and their education required all the advantages the city could afford. His wife had been for some years in declining health, and had barely time to fold her son to her bosom, and rejoice in the reunion of her family, before the Revolution burst forth, in a continued blaze, from Georgia to Massachusetts. The shock was too much for the feeble condition of the mother, who saw her child called to the field to combat against the members of her own family in the South, and she sank under the blow.

    There was no part of the continent where the manners of England and its aristocratical notions of blood and alliances, prevailed with more force than in a certain circle immediately around the metropolis of New York. The customs of the early Dutch inhabitants had, indeed, blended in some measures, with the English manners; but still the latter prevailed. This attachment to Great Britain was increased by the frequent intermarriages of the officers of the mother-country with the wealthier and most powerful families of the vicinity, until, at the commencement of hostilities, their united influence had very nearly thrown the colony into the scale on the side of the crown. A few, however, of the leading families espoused the cause of the people; and a sufficient stand was made against the efforts of the ministerial party, to organize, and, aided by the army of the confederation, to maintain an independent republican form of government.

    The city of New York and the adjacent territory were alone exempted from the rule of the new commonwealth; while the royal authority extended no further than its dignity could be supported by the presence of an army. In this condition of things, the loyalists of influence adopted such measures as best accorded with their different characters and situations. Many bore arms in support of the crown, and, by their bravery and exertions, endeavored to secure what they deemed to be the rights of their prince, and their own estates from the effects of the law of attainder. Others left the country; seeking in that place they emphatically called home, an asylum, as they fondly hoped, for a season only, against the confusion and dangers of war. A third, and a more wary portion, remained in the place of their nativity, with a prudent regard to their ample possessions, and, perhaps, influenced by their attachments to the scenes of their youth. Mr. Wharton was of this description. After making a provision against future contingencies, by secretly transmitting the whole of his money to the British funds, this gentleman determined to continue in the theater of strife, and to maintain so strict a neutrality as to insure the safety of his large estate, whichever party succeeded. He was apparently engrossed in the education of his daughters, when a relation, high in office in the new state, intimated that a residence in what was now a British camp differed but little, in the eyes of his countrymen, from a residence in the British capital. Mr. Wharton soon saw this was an unpardonable offense in the existing state of things, and he instantly determined to remove the difficulty, by retiring to the country. He possessed a residence in the county of West-Chester; and having been for many years in the habit of withdrawing thither during the heats of the summer months, it was kept furnished and ready for his accommodation. His eldest daughter was already admitted into the society of women; but Frances, the younger, required a year or two more of the usual cultivation, to appear with proper éclat; at least so thought Miss Jeanette Peyton; and as this lady, a younger sister of their deceased mother, had left her paternal home, in the colony of Virginia, with the devotedness and affection peculiar to her sex, to superintend the welfare of her orphan nieces, Mr. Wharton felt that her opinions were entitled to respect. In conformity to her advice, therefore, the feelings of the parent were made to yield to the welfare of his children.

    Mr. Wharton withdrew to the Locusts, with a heart rent with the pain of separating from all that was left him of a wife he had adored, but in obedience to a constitutional prudence that pleaded loudly in behalf of his worldly goods. His handsome town residence was inhabited, in the meanwhile, by his daughters and their aunt. The regiment to which Captain Wharton belonged formed part of the permanent garrison of the city; and the knowledge of the presence of his son was no little relief to the father, in his unceasing meditations on his absent daughters. But Captain Wharton was a young man and a soldier; his estimate of character was not always the wisest; and his propensities led him to imagine that a red coat never concealed a dishonorable heart.

    The house of Mr. Wharton became a fashionable lounge to the officers of the royal army, as did that of every other family that was thought worthy of their notice. The consequences of this association were, to some few of the visited, fortunate; to more, injurious, by exciting expectations which were never to be realized, and, unhappily, to no small number ruinous. The known wealth of the father and, possibly, the presence of a high-spirited brother, forbade any apprehension of the latter danger to the young ladies: but it was impossible that all the admiration bestowed on the fine figure and lovely face of Sarah Wharton should be thrown away. Her person was formed with the early maturity of the climate, and a strict cultivation of the graces had made her decidedly the belle of the city. No one promised to dispute with her this female sovereignty, unless it might be her younger sister. Frances, however, wanted some months to the charmed age of sixteen; and the idea of competition was far from the minds of either of the affectionate girls. Indeed, next to the conversation of Colonel Wellmere, the greatest pleasure of Sarah was in contemplating the budding beauties of the little Hebe, who played around her with all the innocency of youth, with all the enthusiasm of her ardent temper, and with no little of the archness of her native humor. Whether or not it was owing to the fact that Frances received none of the compliments which fell to the lot of her elder sister, in the often repeated discussions on the merits of the war, between the military beaux who frequented the house, it is certain their effects on the sisters were exactly opposite. It was much the fashion then for the British officers to speak slightingly of their enemies; and Sarah took all the idle vaporing of her danglers to be truths. The first political opinions which reached the ears of Frances were coupled with sneers on the conduct of her countrymen. At first she believed them; but there was occasionally a general, who was obliged to do justice to his enemy in order to obtain justice for himself; and Frances became somewhat skeptical on the subject of the inefficiency of her countrymen. Colonel Wellmere was among those who delighted most in expending his wit on the unfortunate Americans; and, in time, Frances began to listen to his eloquence with great suspicion, and sometimes with resentment.

    It was on a hot, sultry day that the three were in the parlor of Mr. Wharton’s house, the colonel and Sarah seated on a sofa, engaged in a combat of the eyes, aided by the usual flow of small talk, and Frances was occupied at her tambouring frame in an opposite corner of the room, when the gentleman suddenly exclaimed,—

    “How gay the arrival of the army under General Burgoyne will make the city, Miss Wharton!”

    “Oh! how pleasant it must be,” said the thoughtless Sarah, in reply; “I am told there are many charming women with that army; as you say, it will make us all life and gayety.”

    Frances shook back the abundance of her golden hair, and raised her eyes, dancing with the ardor of national feeling; then laughing, with a concealed humor, she asked,—

    “Is it so certain that General Burgoyne will be permitted to reach the city?”

    “Permitted!” echoed the colonel. “Who is there to prevent it, my pretty Miss Fanny?”

    Frances was precisely at that age when young people are most jealous of their station in society; neither quite a woman, nor yet a child. The “pretty Miss Fanny” was too familiar to be relished, and she dropped her eyes on her work again with cheeks that glowed like crimson.

    “General Stark took the Germans into custody,” she answered, compressing her lip; “may not General Gates think the British too dangerous to go at large?”

    “Oh! they were Germans, as you say,” cried the colonel, excessively vexed at the necessity of explaining at all; “mere mercenary troops; but when the really British regiments come in question, you will see a very different result.”

    “Of that there is no doubt,” cried Sarah, without in the least partaking of the resentment of the colonel to her sister, but hailing already in her heart the triumph of the British.

    “Pray, Colonel Wellmere,” said Frances, recovering her good humor, and raising her joyous eyes once more to the face of the gentleman, “was the Lord Percy of Lexington a kinsman of him who fought at Chevy Chase?”

    “Why, Miss Fanny, you are becoming a rebel,” said the colonel, endeavoring to laugh away the anger he felt; “what you are pleased to insinuate was a chase at Lexington, was nothing more than a judicious retreat—a—kind of”—

    “Running fight,” interrupted the good-humored girl, laying a great emphasis on the first word.

    “Positively, young lady”—Colonel Wellmere was interrupted by a laugh from a person who had hitherto been unnoticed.

    There was a small family apartment adjoining the room occupied by the trio, and the air had blown open the door communicating between the two. A fine young man was now seen sitting near the entrance, who, by his smiling countenance, was evidently a pleased listener to the conversation. He rose instantly, and coming through the door, with his hat in his hand, appeared a tall, graceful youth, of dark complexion, and sparkling eyes of black, from which the mirth had not entirely vanished, as he made his bow to the ladies.

    “Mr. Dunwoodie!” cried Sarah, in surprise; “I was ignorant of your being in the house; you will find a cooler seat in this room.”

    “I thank you,” replied the young man, “but I must go and seek your brother, who placed me there in ambuscade, as he called it, with a promise of returning an hour ago.” Without making any further explanation, the youth bowed politely to the young women, distantly and with hauteur to the gentleman, and withdrew. Frances followed him into the hall, and blushing richly, inquired, in a hurried voice,—

    “But why—why do you leave us, Mr. Dunwoodie? Henry must soon return.”

    The gentleman caught one of her hands in his own, and the stern expression of his countenance gave place to a look of admiration as he replied,—

    “You managed him famously, my dear little kinswoman; never—no, never, forget the land of your birth; remember, if you are the granddaughter of an Englishman, you are, also, the granddaughter of a Peyton.”

    “Oh!” returned the laughing girl, “it would be difficult to forget that, with the constant lectures on genealogy before us, with which we are favored by Aunt Jeanette; but why do you go?”

    “I am on the wing for Virginia, and have much to do.” He pressed her hand as he spoke, and looking back, while in the act of closing the door, exclaimed, “Be true to your country—be American.” The ardent girl kissed her hand to him as he retired, and then instantly applying it with its beautiful fellow to her burning cheeks, ran into her own apartment to hide her confusion.

    Between the open sarcasm of Frances, and the ill-concealed disdain of the young man, Colonel Wellmere had felt himself placed in an awkward predicament; but ashamed to resent such trifles in the presence of his mistress, he satisfied himself with observing, superciliously, as Dunwoodie left the room,—

    “Quite a liberty for a youth in his situation; a shop boy with a bundle, I fancy.”

    The idea of picturing the graceful Peyton Dunwoodie as a shop boy could never enter the mind of Sarah, and she looked around her in surprise, when the colonel continued,—

    “This Mr. Dun—Dun—”

    “Dunwoodie! Oh, no—he is a relation of my aunt,” cried the young lady, “and an intimate friend of my brother; they were at school together, and only separated in England, when one went into the army, and the other to a French military academy.”

    “His money appears to have been thrown away,” observed the colonel, betraying the spleen he was unsuccessfully striving to conceal.

    “We ought to hope so,” added Sarah, with a smile, “for it is said he intends joining the rebel army. He was brought in here in a French ship, and has just been exchanged; you may soon meet him in arms.”

    “Well, let him—I wish Washington plenty of such heroes;” and he turned to a more pleasant subject, by changing the discourse to themselves.

    A few weeks after this scene occurred, the army of Burgoyne laid down their arms. Mr. Wharton, beginning to think the result of the contest doubtful, resolved to conciliate his countrymen, and gratify himself, by calling his daughters into his own abode. Miss Peyton consented to be their companion; and from that time, until the period at which we commenced our narrative, they had formed one family.

    Whenever the main army made any movements, Captain Wharton had, of course, accompanied it; and once or twice, under the protection of strong parties, acting in the neighborhood of the Locusts, he had enjoyed rapid and stolen interviews with his friends. A twelvemonth had, however, passed without his seeing them, and the impatient Henry had adopted the disguise we have mentioned, and unfortunately arrived on the very evening that an unknown and rather suspicious guest was an inmate of the house, which seldom contained any other than its regular inhabitants.

    “But do you think he suspects me?” asked the captain, with anxiety, after pausing to listen to Cæsar’s opinion of the Skinners.

    “How should he?” cried Sarah, “when your sisters and father could not penetrate your disguise.”

    “There is something mysterious in his manner; his looks are too prying for an indifferent observer,” continued young Wharton thoughtfully, “and his face seems familiar to me. The recent fate of André has created much irritation on both sides. Sir Henry threatens retaliation for his death; and Washington is as firm as if half the world were at his command. The rebels would think me a fit subject for their plans just now, should I be so unlucky as to fall into their hands.”

    “But my son,” cried his father, in great alarm, “you are not a spy; you are not within the rebel—that is, the American lines; there is nothing here to spy.”

    “That might be disputed,” rejoined the young man, musing. “Their pickets were as low as the White Plains when I passed through in disguise. It is true my purposes are innocent; but how is it to appear? My visit to you would seem a cloak to other designs. Remember, sir, the treatment you received not a year since, for sending me a supply of fruit for the winter.”

    “That proceeded from the misrepresentations of my kind neighbors,” said Mr. Wharton, “who hoped, by getting my estate confiscated, to purchase good farms at low prices. Peyton Dunwoodie, however, soon obtained our discharge; we were detained but a month.”

    “We!” repeated the son, in amazement; “did they take my sisters, also? Fanny, you wrote me nothing of this.”

    “I believe,” said Frances, coloring highly, “I mentioned the kind treatment we received from your old friend, Major Dunwoodie; and that he procured my father’s release.”

    “True; but were you with him in the rebel camp?”

    “Yes,” said the father, kindly; “Fanny would not suffer me to go alone. Jeanette and Sarah took charge of the Locusts, and this little girl was my companion, in captivity.”

    “And Fanny returned from such a scene a greater rebel than ever,” cried Sarah, indignantly; “one would think the hardships her father suffered would have cured her of such whims.”

    “What say you to the charge, my pretty sister?” cried the captain gayly; “did Peyton strive to make you hate your king, more than he does himself?”

    “Peyton Dunwoodie hates no one,” said Frances, quickly; then, blushing at her own ardor, she added immediately, “he loves you, Henry, I know; for he has told me so again and again.”

    Young Wharton tapped his sister on the cheek, with a smile, as he asked her, in an affected whisper, “Did he tell you also that he loved my little sister Fanny?”

    “Nonsense!” said Frances; and the remnants of the supper-table soon disappeared under her superintendence.