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

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

Chapter IX

  • A moment gazed adown the dale,
  • A moment snuffed the tainted gale,
  • A moment listened to the cry,
  • That thickened as the chase drew nigh;
  • Then, as the headmost foe appeared,
  • With one brave bound the copse he cleared,
  • And, stretching forward free and far,
  • Sought the wild heaths of Uam-Var.

  • THE PARTY under Captain Lawton had watched the retiring foe to his boats with the most unremitting vigilance, without finding any fit opening for a charge. The experienced successor of Colonel Wellmere knew too well the power of his enemy to leave the uneven surface of the heights, until compelled to descend to the level of the water. Before he attempted this hazardous movement, he threw his men into a compact square, with its outer edges bristling with bayonets. In this position, the impatient trooper well understood that brave men could never be assailed by cavalry with success, and he was reluctantly obliged to hover near them, without seeing any opportunity of stopping their slow but steady march to the beach. A small schooner, which had been their convoy from the city, lay with her guns bearing on the place of embarkation. Against this combination of force and discipline, Lawton had sufficient prudence to see it would be folly to contend, and the English were suffered to embark without molestation. The dragoons lingered on the shore till the last moment, and then they reluctantly commenced their own retreat back to the main body of the corps.

    The gathering mists of the evening had begun to darken the valley, as the detachment of Lawton made its reappearance, at its southern extremity. The march of the troops was slow, and their line extended for the benefit of ease. In the front rode the captain, side by side with his senior subaltern, apparently engaged in close conference, while the rear was brought up by a young cornet, humming an air, and thinking of the sweets of a straw bed after the fatigues of a hard day’s duty.

    “Then it struck you too?” said the captain. “The instant I placed my eyes on her I remembered the face; it is one not easily forgotten. By my faith, Tom, the girl does no discredit to the major’s taste.”

    “She would do honor to the corps,” replied the lieutenant, with some warmth; “those blue eyes might easily win a man to gentler employments than this trade of ours. In sober truth, I can easily imagine such a girl might tempt even me to quit the broadsword and saddle, for a darning-needle and pillion.”

    “Mutiny, sir, mutiny,” cried the other, laughing; “what, you, Tom Mason, dare to rival the gay, admired, and withal rich, Major Dunwoodie in his love! You, a lieutenant of cavalry, with but one horse, and he none of the best! whose captain is as tough as a pepperidge log, and has as many lives as a cat!”

    “Faith,” said the subaltern, smiling in his turn, “the log may yet be split, and grimalkin lose his lives, if you often charge as madly as you did this morning. What think you of many raps from such a beetle as laid you on your back to-day?”

    “Ah! don’t mention it, my good Tom; the thought makes my head ache,” replied the other, shrugging up his shoulders; “it is what I call forestalling night.”

    “The night of death?”

    “No, sir, the night that follows day. I saw myriads of stars, things which should hide their faces in the presence of the lordly sun. I do think nothing but this thick cap saved me for your comfort a little longer, maugre the cat’s lives.”

    “I have much reason to be obliged to the cap,” said Mason dryly; “that or the skull must have had a reasonable portion of thickness, I admit.”

    “Come, come, Tom, you are a licensed joker, so I ’ll not feign anger with you,” returned the captain, good-humoredly; “but Singleton’s lieutenant, I am fearful, will fare better than yourself for this day’s service.”

    “I believe both of us will be spared the pain of receiving promotion purchased by the death of a comrade and friend,” observed Mason kindly; “it was reported that Sitgreaves said he would live.”

    “From my soul I hope so,” exclaimed Lawton: “for a beardless face, that boy carries the stoutest heart I have ever met with. It surprises me, however, that as we both fell at the same instant, the men behaved so well.”

    “For the compliment, I might thank you,” cried the lieutenant with a laugh; “but modesty forbids; I did my best to stop them, but without success.”

    “Stop them!” roared the captain; “would you stop men in the middle of a charge?”

    “I thought they were going the wrong way,” answered the subaltern.

    “Ah! our fall drove them to the right about?”

    “It was either your fall, or apprehensions of their own; until the major rallied us, we were in admirable disorder.”

    “Dunwoodie! the major was on the crupper of the Dutchman.”

    “Ah! but he managed to get off the crupper of the Dutchman. He came in, at half-speed, with the other two troops, and riding between us and the enemy, with that imperative way he has when roused, brought us in line in the twinkling of an eye. Then it was,” added the lieutenant, with animation, “that we sent John Bull to the bushes. Oh! it was a sweet charge—heads and tails, until we were upon them.”

    “The devil! What a sight I missed!”

    “You slept through it all.”

    “Yes,” returned the other, with a sigh; “it was all lost to me and poor George Singleton. But, Tom, what will George’s sister say to this fair-haired maiden, in yonder white building?”

    “Hang herself in her garters,” said the subaltern. “I owe a proper respect to my superiors, but two such angels are more than justly falls to the share of one man, unless he be a Turk or a Hindoo.”

    “Yes, yes,” said the captain, quickly, “the major is ever preaching morality to the youngsters, but he is a sly fellow in the main. Do you observe how fond he is of the cross roads above this valley? Now, if I were to halt the troops twice in the same place, you would all swear there was a petticoat in the wind.”

    “You are well known to the corps.”

    “Well, Tom, a slanderous propensity is incurable—but,” stretching forward his body in the direction he was gazing, as if to aid him in distinguishing objects through the darkness, “what animal is moving through the field on our right?”

    “’T is a man,” said Mason, looking intently at the suspicious object.

    “By his hump ’t is a dromedary!” added the captain, eying it keenly. Wheeling his horse suddenly from the highway, he exclaimed, “Harvey Birch!—take him, dead or alive!”

    Mason and a few of the leading dragoons only understood the sudden cry, but it was heard throughout the line. A dozen of the men, with the lieutenant at their head, followed the impetuous Lawton, and their speed threatened the pursued with a sudden termination of the race.

    Birch prudently kept his position on the rock, where he had been seen by the passing glance of Henry Wharton, until evening had begun to shroud the surrounding objects in darkness. From this height he had seen all the events of the day, as they occurred. He had watched with a beating heart the departure of the troops under Dunwoodie, and with difficulty had curbed his impatience until the obscurity of night should render his moving free from danger. He had not, however, completed a fourth of his way to his own residence, when his quick ear distinguished the tread of the approaching horse. Trusting to the increasing darkness, he determined to persevere. By crouching and moving quickly along the surface of the ground, he hoped yet to escape unseen. Captain Lawton was too much engrossed with the foregoing conversation to suffer his eyes to indulge in their usual wandering; and the pedler, perceiving by the voices that the enemy he most feared had passed, yielded to his impatience, and stood erect, in order to make greater progress. The moment his body arose above the shadow of the ground, it was seen, and the chase commenced. For a single instant, Birch was helpless, his blood curdling in his veins at the imminence of the danger, and his legs refusing their natural and necessary office. But it was only for a moment. Casting his pack where he stood, and instinctively tightening the belt he wore, the pedler betook himself to flight. He knew that by bringing himself in a line with his pursuers and the wood, his form would be lost to sight. This he soon effected, and he was straining every nerve to gain the wood itself, when several horsemen rode by him but a short distance on his left, and cut him off from this place of refuge. The pedler threw himself on the ground as they came near him, and was passed unseen. But delay now became too dangerous for him to remain in that position. He accordingly rose, and still keeping in the shadow of the wood, along the skirts of which he heard voices crying to each other to be watchful, he ran with incredible speed in a parallel line, but in an opposite direction, to the march of the dragoons.

    The confusion of the chase had been heard by the whole of the men, though none distinctly understood the order of Lawton but those who followed. The remainder were lost in doubt as to the duty that was required of them; and the aforesaid cornet was making eager inquiries of the trooper near him on the subject, when a man, at a short distance in his rear, crossed the road at a single bound. At the same instant, the stentorian voice of Lawton rang through the valley, shouting,—

    “Harvey Birch—take him, dead or alive!”

    Fifty pistols lighted the scene, and the bullets whistled in every direction round the head of the devoted pedler. A feeling of despair seized his heart, and in the bitterness of that moment he exclaimed,—

    “Hunted like a beast of the forest!”

    He felt life and its accompaniments to be a burden, and was about to yield himself to his enemies. Nature, however, prevailed. If taken, there was great reason to apprehend that he would not be honored with the forms of a trial, but that most probably the morning sun would witness his ignominious execution; for he had already been condemned to death, and had only escaped that fate by stratagem. These considerations, with the approaching footsteps of his pursuers, roused him to new exertions. He again fled before them. A fragment of a wall, that had withstood the ravages made by war in the adjoining fences of wood, fortunately crossed his path. He hardly had time to throw his exhausted limbs over this barrier, before twenty of his enemies reached its opposite side. Their horses refused to take the leap in the dark, and amid the confusion of the rearing chargers, and the execrations of their riders, Birch was enabled to gain a sight of the base of the hill, on whose summit was a place of perfect security. The heart of the pedler now beat high with hope, when the voice of Captain Lawton again rang in his ears, shouting to his men to make room. The order was obeyed, and the fearless trooper rode at the wall at the top of his horse’s speed, plunged the rowels in his charger, and flew over the obstacle in safety. The triumphant hurrahs of the men, and the thundering tread of the horse, too plainly assured the pedler of the emergency of his danger. He was nearly exhausted, and his fate no longer seemed doubtful.

    “Stop, or die!” was uttered above his head, and in fearful proximity to his ears.

    Harvey stole a glance over his shoulder, and saw, within a bound of him, the man he most dreaded. By the light of the stars he beheld the uplifted arm and the threatening sabre. Fear, exhaustion, and despair seized his heart, and the intended victim fell at the feet of the dragoon. The horse of Lawton struck the prostrate pedler, and both steed and rider came violently to the earth.

    As quick as thought, Birch was on his feet again, with the sword of the discomfited dragoon in his hand. Vengeance seems but too natural to human passions. There are few who have not felt the seductive pleasure of making our injuries recoil on their authors; and yet there are some who know how much sweeter it is to return good for evil.

    All the wrongs of the pedler shone on his brain with a dazzling brightness. For a moment the demon within him prevailed, and Birch brandished the powerful weapon in the air; in the next, it fell harmless on the reviving but helpless trooper. The pedler vanished up the side of the friendly rock.

    “Help Captain Lawton, there!” cried Mason, as he rode up, followed by a dozen of his men; “and some of you dismount with me, and search these rocks; the villain lies here concealed.”

    “Hold!” roared the discomfited captain, raising himself with difficulty on his feet; “if one of you dismount, he dies. Tom, my good fellow, you will help me to straddle Roanoke again.”

    The astonished subaltern complied in silence, while the wondering dragoons remained as fixed in their saddles, as if they composed part of the animals they rode.

    “You are much hurt, I fear,” said Mason, with something of condolence in his manner, as they reëntered the highway, biting off the end of a cigar for the want of a better quality of tobacco.

    “Something so, I do believe,” replied the captain, catching his breath, and speaking with difficulty; “I wish our bone-setter was at hand, to examine into the state of my ribs.”

    “Sitgreaves is left in attendance on Captain Singleton, at the house of Mr. Wharton.”

    “Then there I halt for the night, Tom. These rude times must abridge ceremony; besides, you may remember the old gentleman professed a kinsman’s regard for the corps. I can never think of passing so good a friend without a halt.”

    “And I will lead the troop to the Four Corners; if we all halt there, we shall breed a famine in the land.”

    “A condition I never desire to be placed in. The idea of that graceful spinster’s cakes is no bad solace for twenty-four hours in the hospital.”

    “Oh! you won’t die if you can think of eating,” said Mason, with a laugh.

    “I should surely die if I could not,” observed the captain, gravely.

    “Captain Lawton,” said the orderly of his troop, riding to the side of his commanding officer, “we are now passing the house of the pedler spy; is it your pleasure that we burn it?”

    “No!” roared the captain, in a voice that startled the disappointed sergeant; “are you an incendiary? would you burn a house in cold blood? let but a spark approach, and the hand that carries it will never light another.”

    “Zounds!” muttered the sleepy cornet in the rear, as he was nodding on his horse, “there is life in the captain, notwithstanding his tumble.”

    Lawton and Mason rode on in silence, the latter ruminating on the wonderful change produced in his commander by his fall, when they arrived opposite to the gate before the residence of Mr. Wharton. The troop continued its march; but the captain and his lieutenant dismounted, and, followed by the servant of the former, they proceeded slowly to the door of the cottage.

    Colonel Wellmere had already sought a retreat in his own room; Mr. Wharton and his son were closeted by themselves; and the ladies were administering the refreshments of the tea table to the surgeon of the dragoons, who had seen one of his patients in his bed, and the other happily enjoying the comforts of a sweet sleep. A few natural inquiries from Miss Peyton had opened the soul of the doctor, who knew every individual of her extensive family connection in Virginia, and who even thought it possible that he had seen the lady herself. The amiable spinster smiled as she felt it to be improbable that she should ever have met her new acquaintance before, and not remember his singularities. It however greatly relieved the embarrassment of their situation, and something like a discourse was maintained between them; the nieces were only listeners, nor could the aunt be said to be much more.

    “As I was observing, Miss Peyton, it was merely the noxious vapors of the low lands that rendered the plantation of your brother an unfit residence for man; but quadrupeds were”—

    “Bless me, what’s that?” said Miss Peyton, turning pale at the report of the pistols fired at Birch.

    “It sounds prodigiously like the concussion on the atmosphere made by the explosion of fire-arms,” said the surgeon, sipping his tea with great indifference. “I should imagine it to be the troop of Captain Lawton returning, did I not know the captain never uses the pistol, and that he dreadfully abuses the sabre.”

    “Merciful providence!” exclaimed the agitated maiden, “he would not injure one with it, certainly.”

    “Injure!” repeated the other quickly: “it is certain death, madam; the most random blows imaginable; all that I can say to him will have no effect.”

    “But Captain Lawton is the officer we saw this morning, and is surely your friend,” said Frances, hastily, observing her aunt to be seriously alarmed.

    “I find no fault with his want of friendship; the man is well enough if he would learn to cut scientifically. All trades, madam, ought to be allowed to live; but what is to become of a surgeon, if his patients are dead before he sees them!”

    The doctor continued haranguing on the probability and improbability of its being the returning troop, until a loud knock at the door gave new alarm to the ladies. Instinctively laying his hand on a small saw, that had been his companion for the whole day, in the vain expectation of an amputation, the surgeon, coolly assuring the ladies that he would stand between them and danger, proceeded in person to answer the summons.

    “Captain Lawton!” exclaimed the surgeon, as he beheld the trooper leaning on the arm of his subaltern, and with difficulty crossing the threshold.

    “Ah! my dear bone-setter, is it you? You are here very fortunately to inspect my carcase; but do lay aside that rascally saw!”

    A few words from Mason explained the nature and manner of his captain’s hurts, and Miss Peyton cheerfully accorded the required accommodations. While the room intended for the trooper was getting ready, and the doctor was giving certain portentous orders, the captain was invited to rest himself in the parlor. On the table was a dish of more substantial food than ordinarily adorned the afternoon’s repast, and it soon caught the attention of the dragoons. Miss Peyton, recollecting that they had probably made their only meal that day at her own table, kindly invited them to close it with another. The offer required no pressing, and in a few minutes the two were comfortably seated, and engaged in an employment that was only interrupted by an occasional wry face from the captain, who moved his body in evident pain. These interruptions, however, interfered but little with the principal business in hand; and the captain had got happily through with this important duty, before the surgeon returned to announce all things ready for his accommodation in the room above stairs.

    “Eating!” cried the astonished physician. “Captain Lawton, do you wish to die?”

    “I have no particular ambition that way,” said the trooper, rising, and bowing good night to the ladies, “and, therefore, have been providing materials necessary to preserve life.”

    The surgeon muttered his dissatisfaction, while he followed Mason and the captain from the apartment.

    Every house in America had, at that day, what was emphatically called its best room, and this had been allotted, by the unseen influence of Sarah, to Colonel Wellmere. The down counterpane, which a clear frosty night would render extremely grateful over bruised limbs, decked the English officer’s bed. A massive silver tankard, richly embossed with the Wharton arms, held the beverage he was to drink during the night; while beautiful vessels of china performed the same office for the two American captains. Sarah was certainly unconscious of the silent preference she had been giving to the English officer; and it is equally certain, that but for his hurts, bed, tankard, and everything but the beverage would have been matters of indifference to Captain Lawton, half of whose nights were spent in his clothes, and not a few of them in the saddle. After taking possession, however, of a small but very comfortable room, Doctor Sitgreaves proceeded to inquire into the state of his injuries. He had begun to pass his hand over the body of his patient, when the latter cried impatiently,—

    “Sitgreaves, do me the favor to lay that rascally saw aside, or I shall have recourse to my sabre in self-defense; the sight of it makes my blood cold.”

    “Captain Lawton, for a man who has so often exposed life and limb, you are unaccountably afraid of a very useful instrument.”

    “Heaven keep me from its use,” said the trooper, with a shrug.

    “You would not despise the lights of science, nor refuse surgical aid, because this saw might be necessary?”

    “I would.”

    “You would!”

    “Yes; you shall never joint me like a quarter of beef, while I have life to defend myself,” cried the resolute dragoon. “But I grow sleepy; are any of my ribs broken?”


    “Any of my bones?”


    “Tom, I ’ll thank you for that pitcher.” As he ended his draught, he very deliberately turned his back on his companions, and good-naturedly cried, “Good night, Mason; good night, Galen.”

    Captain Lawton entertained a profound respect for the surgical abilities of his comrade, but he was very skeptical on the subject of administering internally for the ailings of the human frame. With a full stomach, a stout heart, and a clear conscience, he often maintained that a man might bid defiance to the world and its vicissitudes. Nature provided him with the second, and, to say the truth, he strove manfully himself to keep up the other two requisites in his creed. It was a favorite maxim with him, that the last thing death assailed was the eyes, and next to the last, the jaws. This he interpreted to be a clear expression of the intention of nature, that every man might regulate, by his own volition, whatever was to be admitted into the sanctuary of his mouth; consequently, if the guest proved unpalatable, he had no one to blame but himself. The surgeon, who was well acquainted with these views of his patient, beheld him, as he cavalierly turned his back on Mason and himself, with a commiserating contempt, replaced in their leathern repository the phials he had exhibited, with a species of care that was allied to veneration, gave the saw, as he concluded, a whirl of triumph, and departed, without condescending to notice the compliment of the trooper. Mason, finding, by the breathing of the captain, that his own good night would be unheard, hastened to pay his respects to the ladies—after which he mounted and followed the troop at the top of his horse’s speed.