Home  »  The Spy; a Tale of the Neutral Ground  »  Chapter III

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

Chapter III

  • ’T was when the fields were swept of Autumn’s store,
  • And growing winds the fading foliage tore
  • Behind the Lowmon hill, the short-lived light,
  • Descending slowly, ushered in the night;
  • When from the noisy town, with mournful look,
  • His lonely way the meagre pedler took.

  • A STORM below the highlands of the Hudson, if it be introduced with an easterly wind, seldom lasts less than two days. Accordingly, as the inmates of the Locusts assembled, on the following morning, around their early breakfast, the driving rain was seen to strike in nearly horizontal lines against the windows of the building, and forbade the idea of exposing either man or beast to the tempest. Harper was the last to appear; after taking a view of the state of the weather, he apologized to Mr. Wharton for the necessity that existed for his trespassing on his goodness for a longer time. To appearances, the reply was as courteous as the excuse; yet Harper wore a resignation in his deportment that was widely different from the uneasy manner of the father. Henry Wharton had resumed his disguise with a reluctance amounting to disgust, but in obedience to the commands of his parent. No communications passed between him and the stranger, after the first salutations of the morning had been paid by Harper to him, in common with the rest of the family. Frances had, indeed, thought there was something like a smile passing over the features of the traveller, when, on entering the room, he first confronted her brother; but it was confined to the eyes, seeming to want power to affect the muscles of the face, and was soon lost in the settled and benevolent expression which reigned in his countenance, with a sway but seldom interrupted. The eyes of the affectionate sister were turned in anxiety, for a moment, on her brother, and glancing again on their unknown guest, met his look, as he offered her, with marked attention, one of the little civilities of the table; and the heart of the girl, which had begun to throb with violence, regained a pulsation as tempered as youth, health, and buoyant spirits could allow. While yet seated at the table, Cæsar entered, and laying a small parcel in silence by the side of his master, modestly retired behind his chair, where, placing one hand on its back, he continued in an attitude half familiar, half respectful, a listener.

    “What is this, Cæsar?” inquired Mr. Wharton, turning the bundle over to examine its envelope, and eying it rather suspiciously.

    “The ’baccy, sir; Harvey Birch, he got home, and he bring you a little good ’baccy from York.”

    “Harvey Birch!” rejoined the master with great deliberation, stealing a look at his guest. “I do not remember desiring him to purchase any tobacco for me; but as he has brought it, he must be paid for his trouble.”

    For an instant only, as the negro spoke, did Harper suspend his silent meal; his eye moved slowly from the servant to the master, and again all remained in impenetrable reserve.

    To Sarah Wharton, this intelligence gave unexpected pleasure; rising from her seat with impatience, she bade the black show Birch into the apartment; when, suddenly recollecting herself, she turned to the traveller with an apologizing look, and added, “If Mr. Harper will excuse the presence of a pedler.”

    The indulgent benevolence expressed in the countenance of the stranger, as he bowed a silent acquiescence, spoke more eloquently than the nicest framed period, and the young lady repeated her order, with a confidence in its truth that removed all embarrassment.

    In the deep recesses of the windows of the cottage were seats of paneled work; and the rich damask curtains, that had ornamented the parlor in Queen Street, had been transferred to the Locusts, and gave to the room that indescribable air of comfort, which so gratefully announces the approach of a domestic winter. Into one of these recesses Captain Wharton now threw himself, drawing the curtain before him in such a manner as to conceal most of his person from observation; while his younger sister, losing her natural frankness of manner, in an air of artificial constraint, silently took possession of the other.

    Harvey Birch had been a pedler from his youth; at least so he frequently asserted, and his skill in the occupation went far to prove the truth of the declaration. He was a native of one of the eastern colonies; and, from something of superior intelligence which belonged to his father, it was thought they had known better fortune in the land of their nativity. Harvey possessed, however, the common manners of the country, and was in no way distinguished from men of his class, but by his acuteness, and the mystery which enveloped his movements. Ten years before, they had arrived together in the vale, and, purchasing the humble dwelling at which Harper had made his unsuccessful application, continued ever since peaceful inhabitants, but little noticed and but little known. Until age and infirmities had prevented, the father devoted himself to the cultivation of the small spot of ground belonging to his purchase, while the son pursued with avidity his humble barter. Their orderly quietude had soon given them so much consideration in the neighborhood, as to induce a maiden of five-and-thirty to forget the punctilio of her sex, and to accept the office of presiding over their domestic comforts. The roses had long before vanished from the cheeks of Katy Haynes, and she had seen in succession, both her male and female acquaintances forming the union so desirable to her sex, with but little or no hope left for herself, when, with views of her own, she entered the family of the Birches. Necessity is a hard master, and, for the want of a better companion, the father and son were induced to accept her services; but still Katy was not wanting in some qualities which made her a very tolerable housekeeper. On the one hand, she was neat, industrious, honest, and a good manager. On the other, she was talkative, selfish, superstitious, and inquisitive. By dint of using the latter quality with consummate industry, she had not lived in the family five years when she triumphantly declared that she had heard, or rather overheard, sufficient to enable her to say what had been the former fate of her associates. Could Katy have possessed enough of divination to pronounce upon their future lot, her task would have been accomplished. From the private conversations of the parent and child, she learned that a fire had reduced them from competence to poverty, and at the same time diminished the number of their family to two. There was a tremulousness in the voice of the father, as he touched lightly on the event, which affected even the heart of Katy; but no barrier is sufficient to repel vulgar curiosity. She persevered, until a very direct intimation from Harvey, by threatening to supply her place with a female a few years younger than herself, gave her awful warning that there were bounds beyond which she was not to pass. From that period the curiosity of the housekeeper had been held in such salutary restraint, that, although no opportunity of listening was ever neglected, she had been able to add but little to her stock of knowledge. There was, however, one piece of intelligence, and that of no little interest to herself, which she had succeeded in obtaining; and from the moment of its acquisition, she directed her energies to the accomplishment of one object, aided by the double stimulus of love and avarice.

    Harvey was in the frequent habit of paying mysterious visits in the depth of the night, to the fire-place of the apartment that served for both kitchen and parlor. Here he was observed by Katy; and availing herself of his absence and the occupations of the father, by removing one of the hearthstones, she discovered an iron pot, glittering with a metal that seldom fails to soften the hardest heart. Katy succeeded in replacing the stone without discovery, and never dared to trust herself with another visit. From that moment, however, the heart of the virgin lost its obduracy, and nothing interposed between Harvey and his happiness, but his own want of observation.

    The war did not interfere with the traffic of the pedler, who seized on the golden opportunity which the interruption of the regular trade afforded, and appeared absorbed in the one grand object of amassing money. For a year or two his employment was uninterrupted, and his success proportionate; but, at length, dark and threatening hints began to throw suspicion around his movements, and the civil authority thought it incumbent on them to examine narrowly into his mode of life. His imprisonments, though frequent, were not long; and his escapes from the guardians of the law easy, compared to what he endured from the persecution of the military. Still Birch survived, and still he continued his trade, though compelled to be very guarded in his movements, especially whenever he approached the northern boundaries of the county; or in other words, the neighborhood of the American lines. His visits to the Locusts had become less frequent, and his appearance at his own abode so seldom, as to draw forth from the disappointed Katy, in the fullness of her heart, the complaint we have related, in her reply to Harper. Nothing, however, seemed to interfere with the pursuits of this indefatigable trader, who, with a view to dispose of certain articles for which he could only find purchasers in the very wealthiest families of the county, had now braved the fury of the tempest, and ventured to cross the half mile between his own residence and the house of Mr. Wharton.

    In a few minutes after receiving the commands of his young mistress, Cæsar reappeared, ushering into the apartment the subject of the foregoing digression. In person, the pedler was a man above the middle height, spare, but full of bone and muscle. At first sight, his strength seemed unequal to manage the unwieldy burden of his pack; yet he threw it on and off with great dexterity, and with as much apparent ease as if it had been filled with feathers. His eyes were gray, sunken, restless, and, for the flitting moments that they dwelt on the countenance of those with whom he conversed, they seemed to read the very soul. They possessed, however, two distinct expressions, which, in a great measure, characterized the whole man. When engaged in traffic, the intelligence of his face appeared lively, active, and flexible, though uncommonly acute; if the conversation turned on the ordinary transactions of life, his air became abstracted and restless; but if, by chance, the Revolution and the country were the topic, his whole system seemed altered—all his faculties were concentrated: he would listen for a great length of time, without speaking, and then would break silence by some light and jocular remark, that was too much at variance with his former manner, not to be affectation. But of the war, and of his father, he seldom spoke and always from some very obvious necessity.

    To a superficial observer, avarice would seem his ruling passion—and, all things considered, he was as unfit a subject for the plans of Katy Haynes as can be readily imagined. On entering the room, the pedler relieved himself from his burden, which, as it stood on the floor, reached nearly to his shoulders, and saluted the family with modest civility. To Harper he made a silent bow, without lifting his eyes from the carpet; but the curtain prevented any notice of the presence of Captain Wharton. Sarah gave but little time for the usual salutations, before she commenced her survey of the contents of the pack; and, for several minutes, the two were engaged in bringing to light the various articles it contained. The tables, chairs, and floor were soon covered with silks, crapes, gloves, muslins, and all the stock of an itinerant trader. Cæsar was employed to hold open the mouth of the pack, as its hoards were discharged, and occasionally he aided his young lady, by directing her admiration to some article of finery, which, from its deeper contrast in colors, he thought more worthy of her notice. At length, Sarah, having selected several articles, and satisfactorily arranged the prices, observed in a cheerful voice,—

    “But, Harvey, you have told us no news. Has Lord Cornwallis beaten the rebels again?”

    The question could not have been heard; for the pedler, burying his body in the pack, brought forth a quantity of lace of exquisite fineness, and, holding it up to view, he required the admiration of the young lady. Miss Peyton dropped the cup she was engaged in washing, from her hand; and Frances exhibited the whole of that lovely face, which had hitherto only suffered one of its joyous eyes to be seen, beaming with a color that shamed the damask which enviously concealed her figure.

    The aunt quitted her employment; and Birch soon disposed of a large portion of his valuable article. The praises of the ladies had drawn the whole person of the younger sister into view; and Frances was slowly rising from the window, as Sarah repeated her question, with an exultation in her voice, that proceeded more from pleasure in her purchase, than her political feelings. The younger sister resumed her seat, apparently examining the state of the clouds, while the pedler, finding a reply was expected, answered slowly,—

    “There is some talk, below, about Tarleton having defeated General Sumter, on the Tiger River.”

    Captain Wharton now involuntarily thrust his head between the opening of the curtains into the room; and Frances, turning her ear in breathless silence, noticed the quiet eyes of Harper looking at the pedler, over the book he was affecting to read, with an expression that denoted him to be a listener of no ordinary interest.

    “Indeed!” cried the exulting Sarah; “Sumter—Sumter—who is he? I ’ll not buy even a pin, until you tell me all the news,” she continued, laughing and throwing down a muslin she had been examining.

    For a moment the pedler hesitated; his eye glanced towards Harper, who was yet gazing at him with settled meaning, and the whole manner of Birch was altered. Approaching the fire, he took from his mouth a large allowance of the Virginian weed, and depositing it, with the superabundance of its juices, without mercy to Miss Peyton’s shining andirons, he returned to his goods.

    “He lives somewhere among the niggers to the south,” answered the pedler, abruptly.

    “No more nigger than be yourself, Mister Birch,” interrupted Cæsar tartly, dropping at the same time the covering of the goods in high displeasure.

    “Hush, Cæsar—hush; never mind it now,” said Sarah Wharton soothingly, impatient to hear further.

    “A black man so good as white, Miss Sally,” continued the offended negro, “so long as he behave heself.”

    “And frequently he is much better,” rejoined his mistress. “But, Harvey, who is this Mr. Sumter?”

    A slight indication of humor showed itself on the face of the pedler, but it disappeared, and he continued as if the discourse had met with no interruption from the sensitiveness of the domestic.

    “As I was saying, he lives among the colored people in the south”—Cæsar resumed his occupation—“and he has lately had a skrimmage with this Colonel Tarleton”—

    “Who defeated him, of course?” cried Sarah, with confidence.

    “So say the troops at Morrisania.”

    “But what do you say?” Mr. Wharton ventured to inquire, yet speaking in a low tone.

    “I repeat but what I hear,” said Birch, offering a piece of cloth to the inspection of Sarah, who rejected it in silence, evidently determined to hear more before she made another purchase.

    “They say, however, at the Plains,” the pedler continued, first throwing his eyes again around the room, and letting them rest for an instant on Harper, “that Sumter and one or two more were all that were hurt, and that the rig’lars were all cut to pieces, for the militia were fixed snugly in a log barn.”

    “Not very probable,” said Sarah, contemptuously, “though I make no doubt the rebels got behind the logs.”

    “I think,” said the pedler coolly, again offering the silk, “it ’s quite ingenious to get a log between one and a gun, instead of getting between a gun and a log.”

    The eyes of Harper dropped quietly on the pages of the volume in his hand, while Frances, rising, came forward with a smile in her face, as she inquired, in a tone of affability that the pedler had never witnessed from the younger sister,—

    “Have you more of the lace, Mr. Birch?”

    The desired article was immediately produced, and Frances became a purchaser also. By her order a glass of liquor was offered to the trader, who took it with thanks, and having paid his compliments to the master of the house and the ladies, drank the beverage.

    “So, it is thought that Colonel Tarleton has worsted General Sumter?” said Mr. Wharton, affecting to be employed in mending the cup that was broken by the eagerness of his sister-in-law.

    “I believe they think so at Morrisania,” said Birch, dryly.

    “Have you any other news, friend?” asked Captain Wharton, venturing to thrust his face without the curtains.

    “Have you heard that Major André has been hanged?”

    Captain Wharton started, and for a moment glances of great significance were exchanged between him and the trader, when he observed, with affected indifference, “That must have been some weeks ago.”

    “Does his execution make much noise?” asked the father, striving to make the broken china unite.

    “People will talk, you know, ’squire.”

    “Is there any probability of movements below, my friend, that will make travelling dangerous?” asked Harper, looking steadily at the other, in expectation of his reply.

    Some bunches of ribbons fell from the hands of Birch; his countenance changed instantly, losing its keen expression in intent meaning, as he answered slowly, “It is some time since the rig’lar cavalry were out, and I saw some of De Lancey’s men cleaning their arms, as I passed their quarters; it would be no wonder if they took the scent soon, for the Virginia horse are low in the county.”

    “Are they in much force?” asked Mr. Wharton, suspending all employment in anxiety.

    “I did not count them.”

    Frances was the only observer of the change in the manner of Birch, and, on turning to Harper, he had resumed his book in silence. She took some of the ribbons in her hand—laid them down again—and, bending over the goods, so that her hair, falling in rich curls, shaded her face, she observed, blushing with a color that suffused her neck,—

    “I thought the southern horse had marched towards the Delaware.”

    “It may be so,” said Birch; “I passed the troops at a distance.”

    Cæsar had now selected a piece of calico, in which the gaudy colors of yellow and red were contrasted on a white ground, and, after admiring it for several minutes, he laid it down with a sigh, as he exclaimed, “Berry pretty calico.”

    “That,” said Sarah; “yes, that would make a proper gown for your wife, Cæsar.”

    “Yes, Miss Sally,” cried the delighted black, “it make old Dinah heart leap for joy—so berry genteel.”

    “Yes,” added the pedler, quaintly, “that is only wanting to make Dinah look like a rainbow.”

    Cæsar eyed his young mistress eagerly, until she inquired of Harvey the price of the article.

    “Why, much as I light of chaps,” said the pedler.

    “How much?” demanded Sarah in surprise.

    “According to my luck in finding purchasers; for my friend Dinah, you may have it at four shillings.”

    “It is too much,” said Sarah, turning to some goods for herself.

    “Monstrous price for coarse calico, Mister Birch,” grumbled Cæsar, dropping the opening of the pack again.

    “We will say three, then,” added the pedler, “if you like that better.”

    “Be sure he like ’em better,” said Cæsar, smiling good-humoredly, and reopening the pack; “Miss Sally like a t’ree shilling when she give, and a four shilling when she take.”

    The bargain was immediately concluded; but in measuring, the cloth wanted a little of the well-known ten yards required by the dimensions of Dinah. By dint of a strong arm, however, it grew to the desired length, under the experienced eye of the pedler, who conscientiously added a ribbon of corresponding brilliancy with the calico; and Cæsar hastily withdrew, to communicate the joyful intelligence to his aged partner.

    During the movements created by the conclusion of the purchase, Captain Wharton had ventured to draw aside the curtain, so as to admit a view of his person, and he now inquired of the pedler, who had begun to collect the scattered goods, at what time he had left the city.

    “At early twilight,” was the answer.

    “So lately!” cried the other in surprise: then correcting his manner, by assuming a more guarded air, he continued, “Could you pass the pickets at so late an hour?”

    “I did,” was the laconic reply.

    “You must be well known by this time, Harvey, to the officers of the British army,” cried Sarah, smiling knowingly on the pedler.

    “I know some of them by sight,” said Birch, glancing his eyes round the apartment, taking in their course Captain Wharton, and resting for an instant on the countenance of Harper.

    Mr. Wharton had listened intently to each speaker, in succession, and had so far lost the affectation of indifference, as to be crushing in his hand the pieces of china on which he had expended so much labor in endeavoring to mend it; when, observing the pedler tying the last knot in his pack, he asked abruptly,—

    “Are we about to be disturbed again with the enemy?”

    “Who do you call the enemy?” said the pedler, raising himself erect, and giving the other a look, before which the eyes of Mr. Wharton sank in instant confusion.

    “All are enemies who disturb our peace,” said Miss Peyton, observing that her brother was unable to speak. “But are the royal troops out from below?”

    “’T is quite likely they soon may be,” returned Birch, raising his pack from the floor, and preparing to leave the room.

    “And the continentals,” continued Miss Peyton mildly, “are the continentals in the county?”

    Harvey was about to utter something in reply, when the door opened, and Cæsar made his appearance, attended by his delighted spouse.

    The race of blacks of which Cæsar was a favorable specimen is becoming very rare. The old family servant who, born and reared in the dwelling of his master, identified himself with the welfare of those whom it was his lot to serve, is giving place in every direction to that vagrant class which has sprung up within the last thirty years, and whose members roam through the country unfettered by principles, and uninfluenced by attachments. For it is one of the curses of slavery, that its victims become incompetent to the attributes of a freeman. The short curly hair of Cæsar had acquired from age a coloring of gray, that added greatly to the venerable cast of his appearance. Long and indefatigable applications of the comb had straightened the close curls of his forehead, until they stood erect in a stiff and formal brush, that gave at least two inches to his stature. The shining black of his youth had lost its glistening hue, and it had been succeeded by a dingy brown. His eyes, which stood at a most formidable distance from each other, were small, and characterized by an expression of good feeling, occasionally interrupted by the petulance of an indulged servant; they, however, now danced with inward delight. His nose possessed, in an eminent manner, all the requisites for smelling, but with the most modest unobtrusiveness; the nostrils being abundantly capacious, without thrusting themselves in the way of their neighbors. His mouth was capacious to a fault, and was only tolerated on account of the double row of pearls it contained. In person Cæsar was short, and we should say square, had not all the angles and curves of his figure bid defiance to anything like mathematical symmetry. His arms were long and muscular, and terminated by two bony hands, that exhibited on one side a coloring of blackish gray, and on the other, a faded pink. But it was in his legs that nature had indulged her most capricious humor. There was an abundance of material injudiciously used. The calves were neither before nor behind, but rather on the outer side of the limb, inclining forward, and so close to the knee as to render the free use of that joint a subject of doubt. In the foot, considering it as a base on which the body was to rest, Cæsar had no cause of complaint, unless, indeed, it might be that the leg was placed so near the centre, as to make it sometimes a matter of dispute, whether he was not walking backwards. But whatever might be the faults a statuary could discover in his person, the heart of Cæsar Thompson was in the right place, and, we doubt not, of very just dimensions.

    Accompanied by his ancient companion, Cæsar now advanced, and paid his tribute of gratitude in words. Sarah received them with great complacency, and made a few compliments to the taste of the husband, and the probable appearance of the wife. Frances, with a face beaming with a look of pleasure that corresponded to the smiling countenances of the blacks, offered the service of her needle in fitting the admired calico to its future uses. The offer was humbly and gratefully accepted.

    As Cæsar followed his wife and the pedler from the apartment, and was in the act of closing the door, he indulged himself in a grateful soliloquy, by saying aloud,—

    “Good little lady—Miss Fanny—take care of he fader—love to make a gown for old Dinah, too.” What else his feelings might have induced him to utter is unknown, but the sound of his voice was heard some time after the distance rendered his words indistinct.

    Harper had dropped his book, and he sat an admiring witness of the scene; and Frances enjoyed a double satisfaction, as she received an approving smile from a face which concealed, under the traces of deep thought and engrossing care, the benevolent expression which characterizes all the best feelings of the human heart.