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

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

Chapter IV

  • “It is the form, the eye, the word,
  • The bearing of that stranger lord,
  • His stature, manly, bold, and tall,
  • Built like a castle’s battled wall,
  • Yet molded in such just degrees
  • His giant strength seems lightsome ease.
  • Weather and war their rougher trace
  • Have left on that majestic face;
  • But ’t is his dignity of eye!
  • There, if a suppliant, would I fly,
  • Secure, ’mid danger, wrongs, and grief,
  • Of sympathy, redress, relief—
  • That glance, if guilty, would I dread
  • More than the doom that spoke me dead.”
  • “Enough, enough!” the princess cried,
  • “’T is Scotland’s hope, her joy, her pride!”

  • THE PARTY sat in silence for many minutes after the pedler had withdrawn. Mr. Wharton had heard enough to increase his uneasiness, without in the least removing his apprehensions on behalf of his son. The captain was impatiently wishing Harper in any other place than the one foe occupied with such apparent composure, while Miss Peyton completed the disposal of her breakfast equipage, with the mild complacency of her nature, aided a little by an inward satisfaction at possessing so large a portion of the trader’s lace; Sarah was busily occupied in arranging her purchases, and Frances was kindly assisting in the occupation, disregarding her own neglected bargains, when the stranger suddenly broke the silence by saying,—

    “If any apprehensions of me induce Captain Wharton to maintain his disguise, I wish him to be undeceived; had I motives for betraying him, they could not operate under present circumstances.”

    The younger sister sank into her seat colorless and astonished. Miss Peyton dropped the tea tray she was lifting from the table, and Sarah sat with her purchases unheeded in her lap, in speechless surprise. Mr. Wharton was stupefied; but the captain, hesitating a moment from astonishment, sprang into the middle of the room, and exclaimed, as he tore off the instruments of his disguise,—

    “I believe you from my soul, and this tiresome imposition shall continue no longer. Yet I am at a loss to conceive in what manner you should know me.”

    “You really look so much better in your proper person, Captain Wharton,” said Harper, with a slight smile, “I would advise you never to conceal it in future. There is enough to betray you, if other sources of detection were wanting:” as he spoke, he pointed to a picture suspended over the mantel piece, which exhibited the British officer in his regimentals.

    “I had flattered myself,” cried young Wharton, with a laugh, “that I looked better on the canvas than in a masquerade. You must be a close observer, sir.”

    “Necessity has made me one,” said Harper, rising from his seat.

    Frances met him as he was about to withdraw, and, taking his hand between both her own, said with earnestness, her cheeks mantling with their richest vermilion, “You cannot—you will not betray my brother.”

    For an instant Harper paused in silent admiration of the lovely pleader, and then, folding her hands on his breast, he replied solemnly, “I cannot, and I will not.” He released her hands, and laying his own on her head gently, continued, “If the blessing of a stranger can profit you, receive it.” He turned, and, bowing low, retired, with a delicacy that was duly appreciated by those he quitted, to his own apartment.

    The whole party were deeply impressed with the ingenuous and solemn manner of the traveller, and all but the father found immediate relief in his declaration. Some of the cast-off clothes of the captain, which had been removed with the goods from the city, were produced; and young Wharton, released from the uneasiness of his disguise, began at last to enjoy a visit which had been undertaken at so much personal risk to himself. Mr. Wharton retiring to his apartment, in pursuance of his regular engagements, the ladies, with the young man, were left to an uninterrupted communication on such subjects as were most agreeable. Even Miss Peyton was affected with the spirits of her young relatives; and they sat for an hour enjoying, in heedless confidence, the pleasures of an unrestrained conversation, without reflecting on any danger which might be impending over them. The city and their acquaintances were not long neglected; for Miss Peyton, who had never forgotten the many agreeable hours of her residence within its boundaries, soon inquired, among others, after their old acquaintance, Colonel Wellmere.

    “Oh!” cried the captain, gayly, “he yet continues there, as handsome and as gallant as ever.”

    Although a woman be not actually in love, she seldom hears without a blush the name of a man whom she might love, and who has been connected with herself by idle gossips, in the amatory rumor of the day. Such had been the case with Sarah, and she dropped her eyes on the carpet with a smile, that, aided by the blush which suffused her cheek, in no degree detracted from her native charms.

    Captain Wharton, without heeding this display of interest in his sister, immediately continued, “At times he is melancholy—we tell him it must be love.” Sarah raised her eyes to the face of her brother, and was consciously turning them on the rest of the party, when she met those of her sister laughing with good humor and high spirits, as she cried, “Poor man! does he despair?”

    “Why, no—one would think he could not; the eldest son of a man of wealth, so handsome, and a colonel.”

    “Strong reasons, indeed, why he should prevail,” said Sarah, endeavoring to laugh; “more particularly the latter.”

    “Let me tell you,” replied the captain, gravely, “a lieutenant-colonelcy in the Guards is a very pretty thing.”

    “And Colonel Wellmere a very pretty man,” added Frances.

    “Nay, Frances,” returned her sister, “Colonel Wellmere was never a favorite of yours; he is too loyal to his king to be agreeable to your taste.”

    Frances quickly answered, “And is not Henry loyal to his king?”

    “Come, come,” said Miss Peyton, “no difference of opinion about the colonel—he is a favorite of mine.”

    “Fanny likes majors better,” cried the brother, pulling her upon his knee.

    “Nonsense!” said the blushing girl, as she endeavored to extricate herself from the grasp of her laughing brother.

    “It surprises me,” continued the captain, “that Peyton, when he procured the release of my father, did not endeavor to detain my sister in the rebel camp.”

    “That might have endangered his own liberty,” said the smiling girl, resuming her seat; “you know it is liberty for which Major Dunwoodie is fighting.”

    “Liberty!” exclaimed Sarah; “very pretty liberty which exchanges one master for fifty.”

    “The privilege of changing masters at all is a liberty.”

    “And one you ladies would sometimes be glad to exercise,” cried the captain.

    “We like, I believe, to have the liberty of choosing who they shall be in the first place,” said the laughing girl; “don’t we, Aunt Jeanette?”

    “Me!” cried Miss Peyton, starting; “what do I know of such things, child? You must ask someone else, if you wish to learn such matters.”

    “Ah! you would have us think you were never young! But what am I to believe of all the tales I have heard about the handsome Miss Jeanette Peyton?”

    “Nonsense, my dear, nonsense,” said the aunt, endeavoring to suppress a smile; “it is very silly to believe all you hear.”

    “Nonsense, do you call it?” cried the captain, gayly; “to this hour General Montrose toasts Miss Peyton; I heard him within the week, at Sir Henry’s table.”

    “Why, Henry, you are as saucy as your sister; and to break in upon your folly, I must take you to see my new home-made manufactures, which I will be bold enough to put in contrast with the finery of Birch.”

    The young people rose to follow their aunt, in perfect good humor with each other and the world. On ascending the stairs to the place of deposit for Miss Peyton’s articles of domestic economy, she availed herself, however, of an opportunity to inquire of her nephew, whether General Montrose suffered as much from the gout as he had done when she knew him.

    It is a painful discovery we make, as we advance in life, that even those we most love are not exempt from its frailties. When the heart is fresh, and the view of the future unsullied by the blemishes which have been gathered from the experience of the past, our feelings are most holy: we love to identify with the persons of our natural friends all those qualities to which we ourselves aspire, and all those virtues we have been taught to revere. The confidence with which we esteem seems a part of our nature; and there is a purity thrown around the affections which tie us to our kindred that after-life can seldom hope to see uninjured. The family of Mr. Wharton continued to enjoy, for the remainder of the day, a happiness to which they had long been strangers; and one that sprang, in its younger members, from the delights of the most confident affection, and the exchange of the most disinterested endearments.

    Harper appeared only at the dinner table, and he retired with the cloth, under the pretense of some engagement in his own room. Notwithstanding the confidence created by his manner, the family felt his absence a relief; for the visit of Captain Wharton was necessarily to be confined to a very few days, both from the limitation of his leave of absence, and the danger of a discovery.

    All dread of consequences, however, was lost in the pleasure of the meeting. Once or twice during the day, Mr. Wharton had suggested a doubt as to the character of his unknown guest, and the possibility of the detection of his son proceeding in some manner from his information; but the idea was earnestly opposed by all his children; even Sarah uniting with her brother and sister in pleading warmly in favor of the sincerity expressed in the outward appearance of the traveller.

    “Such appearances, my children,” replied the desponding parent, “are but too often deceitful; when men like Major André lend themselves to the purposes of fraud, it is idle to reason from qualities, much less externals.”

    “Fraud!” cried his son quickly. “Surely, sir, you forget that Major André was serving his king, and that the usages of war justified the measure.”

    “And did not the usages of war justify his death, Henry?” inquired Frances, speaking in a low voice, unwilling to abandon what she thought the cause of her country, and yet unable to suppress her feelings for the man.

    “Never!” exclaimed the young man, springing from his seat, and pacing the floor rapidly. “Frances, you shock me; suppose it should be my fate, even now, to fall into the power of the rebels; you would vindicate my execution—perhaps exult in the cruelty of Washington.”

    “Henry!” said Frances, solemnly, quivering with emotion, and with a face pale as death, “you little know my heart.”

    “Pardon me, my sister—my little Fanny,” cried the repentant youth, pressing her to his bosom, and kissing off the tears which had burst, spite of her resolution, from her eyes.

    “It is very foolish to regard your hasty words, I know,” said Frances, extricating herself from his arms, and raising her yet humid eyes to his face with a smile; “but reproach from those we love is most severe, Henry; particularly—where we—we think—we know”—her paleness gradually gave place to the color of the rose, as she concluded in a low voice, with her eyes directed to the carpet, “we are undeserving of it.”

    Miss Peyton moved from her own seat to the one next her niece, and, kindly taking her hand, observed, “You should not suffer the impetuosity of your brother to affect you so much; boys, you know, are proverbially ungovernable.”

    “And, from my conduct, you might add cruel,” said the captain, seating himself on the other side of his sister; “but on the subject of the death of André we are all of us uncommonly sensitive. You did not know him: he was all that was brave—that was accomplished—that was estimable.” Frances smiled faintly, and shook her head, but made no reply. Her brother, observing the marks of incredulity in her countenance, continued, “You doubt it, and justify his death?”

    “I do not doubt his worth,” replied the maid, mildly, “nor his being deserving of a more happy fate; but I cannot doubt the propriety of Washington’s conduct. I know but little of the customs of war, and wish to know less; but with what hopes of success could the Americans contend, if they yielded all the principles which long usage had established, to the exclusive purposes of the British?”

    “Why contend at all?” cried Sarah, impatiently; “besides, being rebels, all their acts are illegal.”

    “Women are but mirrors, which reflect the images before them,” cried the captain, good-naturedly. “In Frances I see the picture of Major Dunwoodie, and in Sarah”—

    “Colonel Wellmere,” interrupted the younger sister, laughing, and blushing crimson. “I must confess I am indebted to the major for my reasoning—am I not, Aunt Jeanette?”

    “I believe it is something like his logic, indeed, child.”

    “I plead guilty; and you. Sarah, have not forgotten the learned discussions of Colonel Wellmere.”

    “I trust I never forget the right,” said Sarah, emulating her sister in color, and rising, under the pretense of avoiding the heat of the fire.

    Nothing occurred of any moment during the rest of the day; but in the evening Cæsar reported that he had overheard voices in the room of Harper, conversing in a low tone. The apartment occupied by the traveller was the wing at the extremity of the building, opposite to the parlor in which the family ordinarily assembled; and it seems that Cæsar had established a regular system of espionage, with a view to the safety of his young master. This intelligence gave some uneasiness to all the members of the family; but the entrance of Harper himself, with the air of benevolence and sincerity which shone through his reserve, soon removed the doubts from the breast of all but Mr. Wharton. His children and sister believed Cæsar to have been mistaken, and the evening passed off without any additional alarm.

    On the afternoon of the succeeding day, the party were assembled in the parlor around the tea-table of Miss Peyton, when a change in the weather occurred. The thin scud, that apparently floated but a short distance above the tops of the hills, began to drive from the west towards the east in astonishing rapidity. The rain yet continued to beat against the eastern windows of the house with fury; in that direction the heavens were dark and gloomy. Frances was gazing at the scene with the desire of youth to escape from the tedium of confinement, when, as if by magic, all was still. The rushing winds had ceased, the pelting of the storm was over, and, springing to the window, with delight pictured in her face, she saw a glorious ray of sunshine lighting the opposite wood. The foliage glittered with the checkered beauties of the October leaf, reflecting back from the moistened boughs the richest lustre of an American autumn. In an instant, the piazza, which opened to the south, was thronged with the inmates of the cottage. The air was mild, balmy, and refreshing; in the east, clouds, which might be likened to the retreating masses of a discomfited army, hung around the horizon in awful and increasing darkness. At a little elevation above the cottage, the thin vapor was still rushing towards the east with amazing velocity; while in the west the sun had broken forth and shed his parting radiance on the scene below, aided by the fullest richness of a clear atmosphere and a freshened herbage. Such moments belong only to the climate of America, and are enjoyed in a degree proportioned to the suddenness of the contrast, and the pleasure we experience in escaping from the turbulence of the elements to the quiet of a peaceful evening, and an air still as the softest mornings in June.

    “What a magnificent scene!” said Harper, in a low tone; “how grand! how awfully sublime!—may such a quiet speedily await the struggle in which my country is engaged, and such a glorious evening follow the day of her adversity!”

    Frances, who stood next to him, alone heard the voice. Turning in amazement from the view to the speaker, she saw him standing bareheaded, erect, and with his eyes lifted to heaven. There was no longer the quiet which had seemed their characteristic, but they were lighted into something like enthusiasm, and a slight flush passed over his features.

    There can be no danger apprehended from such a man, thought Frances; such feelings belong only to the virtuous.

    The musings of the party were now interrupted by the sudden appearance of the pedler. He had taken advantage of the first gleam of sunshine to hasten to the cottage. Heedless of wet or dry as it lay in his path, with arms swinging to and fro, and with his head bent forward of his body several inches, Harvey Birch approached the piazza, with a gait peculiarly his own. It was the quick, lengthened pace of an itinerant vender of goods.

    “Fine evening,” said the pedler, saluting the party, without raising his eyes; “quite warm and agreeable for the season.”

    Mr. Wharton assented to the remark, and inquired kindly after the health of his father. Harvey heard him, and continued standing for some time in moody silence; but the question being repeated, he answered with a slight tremor in his voice,—

    “He fails fast; old age and hardships will do their work.” The pedler turned his face from the view of most of the family; but Frances noticed his glistening eyes and quivering lip, and, for the second time, Harvey rose in her estimation.

    The valley in which the residence of Mr. Wharton stood ran in a direction from northwest to southeast, and the house was placed on the side of a hill which terminated its length in the former direction. A small opening, occasioned by the receding of the opposite hill, and the fall of the land to the level of the tide water, afforded a view of the Sound over the tops of the distant woods on its margin. The surface of the water which had so lately been lashing the shores with boisterous fury, was already losing its ruffled darkness in the long and regular undulations that succeeded a tempest, while the light air from the southwest was gently touching their summits, lending its feeble aid in stilling the waters. Some dark spots were now to be distinguished, occasionally rising into view, and again sinking behind the lengthened waves which interposed themselves to the sight. They were unnoticed by all but the pedler. He had seated himself on the piazza, at a distance from Harper, and appeared to have forgotten the object of his visit. His roving eye, however, soon caught a glimpse of these new objects in the view, and he sprang up with alacrity, gazing intently towards the water. He changed his place, glanced his eye with marked uneasiness on Harper, and then said with great emphasis—

    “The rig’lars must be out from below.”

    “Why do you think so?” inquired Captain Wharton, eagerly. “God send it may be true; I want their escort in again.”

    “Them ten whaleboats would not move so fast unless they were better manned than common.”

    “Perhaps,” cried Mr. Wharton in alarm, “they are—they are continentals returning from the island.”

    “They look like rig’lars,” said the pedler, with meaning.

    “Look!” repeated the captain, “there is nothing but spots to be seen.”

    Harvey disregarded his observation, but seemed to be soliloquizing, as he said in an undertone, “They came out before the gale—have laid on the island these two days—horse are on the road—there will soon be fighting near us.” During this speech, Birch several times glanced his eye towards Harper, with evident uneasiness, but no corresponding emotion betrayed any interest of that gentleman in the scene. He stood in silent contemplation of the view, and seemed enjoying the change in the air. As Birch concluded, however, Harper turned to his host, and mentioned that his business would not admit of unnecessary delay; he would, therefore, avail himself of the fine evening to ride a few miles on his journey. Mr. Wharton made many professions of regret at losing so agreeable an inmate; but was too mindful of his duty not to speed the parting guest, and orders were instantly given to that effect.

    The uneasiness of the pedler increased in a manner for which nothing apparent could account; his eye was constantly wandering towards the lower end of the vale as if in expectation of some interruption from that quarter. At length Cæsar appeared, leading the noble beast which was to bear the weight of the traveller. The pedler officiously assisted to tighten the girths, and fasten the blue cloak and valise to the mail-straps.

    Every precaution being completed, Harper proceeded to take his leave. To Sarah and her aunt he paid his compliments with ease and kindness; but when he came to Frances, he paused a moment, while his face assumed an expression of more than ordinary benignity. His eye repeated the blessing which had before fallen from his lips, and the girl felt her cheeks glow, and her heart beat with a quicker pulsation, as he spoke his adieus. There was a mutual exchange of polite courtesy between the host and his parting guest; but as Harper frankly offered his hand to Captain Wharton, he remarked, in a manner of great solemnity,—

    “The step you have undertaken is one of much danger, and disagreeable consequences to yourself may result from it; in such a case, I may have it in my power to prove the gratitude I owe your family for its kindness.”

    “Surely, sir,” cried the father, losing sight of delicacy in apprehension for his child, “you will keep secret the discovery which your being in my house has enabled you to make?”

    Harper turned quickly to the speaker, and then, losing the sternness which had begun to gather on his countenance, he answered mildly, “I have learned nothing in your family, sir, of which I was ignorant before; but your son is safer from my knowledge of his visit than he would be without it.”

    He bowed to the whole party, and without taking any notice of the pedler, other than by simply thanking him for his attentions, mounted his horse, and, riding steadily and gracefully through the little gate, was soon lost behind the hill which sheltered the valley to the northward.

    The eyes of the pedler followed the retiring figure of the horseman so long as it continued within view, and as it disappeared from his sight, he drew a long and heavy sigh, as if relieved from a load of apprehension. The Whartons had meditated in silence on the character and visit of their unknown guest for the same period, when the father approached Birch and observed,—

    “I am yet your debtor, Harvey, for the tobacco you were so kind as to bring me from the city.”

    “If it should not prove so good as the first,” replied the pedler, fixing a last and lingering look in the direction of Harper’s route, “it is owing to the scarcity of the article.”

    “I like it much,” continued the other; “but you have forgotten to name the price.”

    The countenance of the trader changed, and, losing its expression of deep care in a natural acuteness, he answered,—

    “It is hard to say what ought to be the price; I believe I must leave it to your own generosity.”

    Mr. Wharton had taken a hand well filled with the images of Carolus III. from his pocket, and now extended it towards Birch with three of the pieces between his finger and thumb. Harvey’s eyes twinkled as he contemplated the reward; and rolling over in his mouth a large quantity of the article in question, coolly stretched forth his hand, into which the dollars fell with a most agreeable sound: but not satisfied with the transient music of their fall, the pedler gave each piece in succession a ring on the stepping-stone of the piazza, before he consigned it to the safekeeping of a huge deer-skin purse, which vanished from the sight of the spectators so dexterously, that not one of them could have told about what part of his person it was secreted.

    This very material point in his business so satisfactorily completed, the pedler rose from his seat on the floor of the piazza, and approached to where Captain Wharton stood, supporting his sisters on either arm, as they listened with the lively interest of affection to his conversation.

    The agitation of the preceding incidents had caused such an expenditure of the juices which had become necessary to the mouth of the pedler, that a new supply of the weed was required before he could turn his attention to business of lesser moment. This done, he asked abruptly,—

    “Captain Wharton, do you go in to-night?”

    “No!” said the captain, laconically, and looking at his lovely burdens with great affection. “Mr. Birch, would you have me leave such company so soon, when I may never enjoy it again?”

    “Brother!” said Frances, “jesting on such a subject is cruel.”

    “I rather guess,” continued the pedler, coolly, “now the storm is over, the Skinners may be moving; you had better shorten your visit, Captain Wharton.”

    “Oh!” cried the British officer, “a few guineas will buy off those rascals at any time, should I meet them. No, no, Mr. Birch, here I stay until morning.”

    “Money could not liberate Major André,” said the pedler, dryly.

    Both the sisters now turned to the captain in alarm, and the elder observed,—

    “You had better take the advice of Harvey; rest assured, brother, his opinion in such matters ought not to be disregarded.”

    “Yes,” added the younger, “if, as I suspect, Mr. Birch assisted you to come here, your safety, our happiness, dear Henry, requires you to listen to him now.”

    “I brought myself out, and can take myself in,” said the captain positively. “Our bargain went no further than to procure my disguise, and to let me know when the coast was clear; and in the latter particular, you were mistaken, Mr. Birch.”

    “I was,” said the pedler, with some interest, “and the greater is the reason why you should get back to-night; the pass I gave you will serve but once.”

    “Cannot you forge another?”

    The pale cheek of the trader showed an unusual color, but he continued silent, with his eyes fixed on the ground, until the young man added, with great positiveness, “Here I stay this night, come what will.”

    “Captain Wharton,” said the pedler, with great deliberation and marked emphasis, “beware a tall Virginian, with huge whiskers; he is below you, to my knowledge; the devil can’t deceive him; I never could but once.”

    “Let him beware of me,” said Wharton, haughtily; “but, Mr. Birch, I exonerate you from further responsibility.”

    “Will you give me that in writing?” asked the cautious Birch.

    “Oh! cheerfully,” cried the captain, with a laugh; “Cæsar! pen, ink, and paper, while I write a discharge for my trusty attendant, Harvey Birch, pedler, etc., etc.”

    The implements for writing were produced, and the captain, with great gayety, wrote the desired acknowledgment in language of his own; which the pedler took, and carefully depositing it by the side of the image of his Catholic Majesty, made a sweeping bow to the whole family, and departed as he had approached. He was soon seen at a distance, stealing into the door of his own humble dwelling.

    The father and sisters of the captain were too much rejoiced in retaining the young man to express, or even entertain, the apprehensions his situation might reasonably excite; but on retiring to their evening repast, a cooler reflection induced the captain to think of changing his mind. Unwilling to trust himself out of the protection of his father’s domains, the young man dispatched Cæsar to desire another interview with Harvey. The black soon returned with the unwelcome intelligence that it was now too late. Katy had told him that Harvey must be miles on his road to the northward, “having left home at early candlelight with his pack.” Nothing now remained to the captain but patience, until the morning should afford further opportunity of deciding on the best course for him to pursue.

    “This Harvey Birch, with his knowing looks and portentous warnings, gives me more uneasiness than I am willing to own,” said Captain Wharton, rousing himself from a fit of musing in which the danger of his situation made no small part of his meditations.

    “How is it that he is able to travel to and fro in these difficult times, without molestation?” inquired Miss Peyton.

    “Why the rebels suffer him to escape so easily, is more than I can answer,” returned the other; “but Sir Henry would not permit a hair of his head to be injured.”

    “Indeed!” cried Frances, with interest; “is he then known to Sir Henry Clinton?”

    “At least he ought to be.”

    “Do you think, my son,” asked Mr. Wharton, “there is no danger of his betraying you?”

    “Why—no; I reflected on that before I trusted myself to his power,” said the captain, thoughtfully; “he seems to be faithful in matters of business. The danger to himself, should he return to the city, would prevent such an act of villainy.”

    “I think,” said Frances, adopting the manner of her brother, “Harvey Birch is not without good feelings; at least, he has the appearance of them at times.”

    “Oh!” cried his sister, exulting, “he has loyalty, and that with me is a cardinal virtue.”

    “I am afraid,” said her brother, laughing, “love of money is a stronger passion than love of his king.”

    “Then,” said the father, “you cannot be safe while in his power—for no love will withstand the temptations of money, when offered to avarice.”

    “Surely, sir,” cried the youth, recovering his gayety, “there must be one love that can resist anything—is there not, Fanny?”

    “Here is your candle; you keep your father up beyond his usual hour.”