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

Chapter V

  • Through Solway sands, through Taross moss,
  • Blindfold, he knew the paths to cross:
  • By wily turns, by desperate bounds,
  • Had baffled Percy’s best blood-hounds.
  • In Eske, or Liddel, fords were none,
  • But he would ride them, one by one;
  • Alike to him was time or tide,
  • December’s snow or July’s pride;
  • Alike to him was tide or time,
  • Moonless midnight or matin prime.

  • ALL the members of the Wharton family laid their heads on their pillows that night, with a foreboding of some interruption to their ordinary quiet. Uneasiness kept the sisters from enjoying their usual repose, and they rose from their beds, on the following morning, unrefreshed, and almost without having closed their eyes.

    On taking an eager and hasty survey of the valley from the windows of their room, nothing, however, but its usual serenity was to be seen. It was glittering with the opening brilliancy of one of those lovely, mild days, which occur about the time of the falling of the leaf; and which, by their frequency, class the American autumn with the most delightful seasons of other countries. We have no spring; vegetation seems to leap into existence, instead of creeping, as in the same latitudes of the Old World; but how gracefully it retires! September, October, even November and December, compose the season for enjoyment in the open air; they have their storms, but they are distinct, and not of long continuance, leaving a clear atmosphere and a cloudless sky.

    As nothing could be seen likely to interrupt the enjoyments and harmony of such a day, the sisters descended to the parlor, with a returning confidence in their brother’s security, and their own happiness.

    The family were early in assembling around the breakfast table; and Miss Peyton, with a little of that minute precision which creeps into the habits of single life, had pleasantly insisted that the absence of her nephew should in no manner interfere with the regular hours she had established; consequently, the party were already seated when the captain made his appearance; though the untasted coffee sufficiently proved that by none of his relatives was his absence disregarded.

    “I think I did much better,” he cried, taking a chair between his sisters, and receiving their offered salutes, “to secure a good bed and such a plentiful breakfast, instead of trusting to the hospitality of that renowned corps, the Cow-Boys.”

    “If you could sleep,” said Sarah, “you were more fortunate than Frances and myself; every murmur of the night air sounded to me like the approach of the rebel army.”

    “Why,” said the captain, laughing, “I do acknowledge a little inquietude myself—but how was it with you?” turning to his younger and evidently favorite sister, and tapping her cheek. “Did you see banners in the clouds, and mistake Miss Peyton’s Æolian harp for rebellious music?”

    “Nay, Henry,” rejoined the maid, looking at him affectionately, “much as I love my own country, the approach of her troops just now would give me great pain.”

    The brother made no reply; but returning the fondness expressed in her eye by a look of fraternal tenderness, he gently pressed her hand in silence; when Cæsar, who had participated largely in the anxiety of the family, and who had risen with the dawn, and kept a vigilant watch on the surrounding objects, as he stood gazing from one of the windows, exclaimed with a face that approached to something like the hues of a white man,—

    “Run—Massa Harry—run—if he love old Cæsar, run—here come a rebel horse.”

    “Run!” repeated the British officer, gathering himself up in military pride. “No, Mr. Cæsar, running is not my trade.” While speaking, he walked deliberately to the window, where the family were already collected in the greatest consternation.

    At the distance of more than a mile, about fifty dragoons were to be seen, winding down one of the lateral entrances of the valley. In advance, with an officer, was a man attired in the dress of a countryman, who pointed in the direction of the cottage. A small party now left the main body, and moved rapidly towards the object of their destination.

    On reaching the road which led through the bottom of the valley, they turned their horses’ heads to the north.

    The Whartons continued chained in breathless silence to the spot, watching their movements, when the party, having reached the dwelling of Birch, made a rapid circle around his grounds, and in an instant his house was surrounded by a dozen sentinels.

    Two or three of the dragoons now dismounted and disappeared; in a few minutes, however, they returned to the yard, followed by Katy, from whose violent gesticulations, it was evident that matters of no trifling concern were on the carpet. A short communication with the loquacious housekeeper followed the arrival of the main body of the troop, and the advance party remounting, the whole moved towards the Locusts with great speed.

    As yet none of the family had sufficient presence of mind to devise any means of security for Captain Wharton; but the danger now became too pressing to admit of longer delay, and various means of secreting him were hastily proposed; but they were all haughtily rejected by the young man, as unworthy of his character. It was too late to retreat to the woods in the rear of the cottage, for he would unavoidably be seen, and, followed by a troop of horse, as inevitably taken.

    At length his sisters, with trembling hands, replaced his original disguise, the instruments of which had been carefully kept at hand by Cæsar, in expectation of some sudden emergency.

    This arrangement was hastily and imperfectly completed, as the dragoons entered the lawn and orchard of the Locusts, riding with the rapidity of the wind; and in their turn the Whartons were surrounded.

    Nothing remained now, but to meet the impending examination with as much indifference as the family could assume. The leader of the horse dismounted, and, followed by a couple of his men, he approached the outer door of the building, which was slowly and reluctantly opened for his admission by Cæsar. The heavy tread of the trooper, as he followed the black to the door of the parlor, rang in the ears of the females as it approached nearer and nearer, and drove the blood from their faces to their hearts, with a chill that nearly annihilated feeling.

    A man, whose colossal stature manifested the possession of vast strength, entered the room, and removing his cap, he saluted the family with a mildness his appearance did not indicate as belonging to his nature. His dark hair hung around his brow in profusion, though stained with powder which was worn at that day, and his face was nearly hid in the whiskers by which it was disfigured. Still, the expression of his eye, though piercing, was not bad, and his voice, though deep and powerful, was far from unpleasant. Frances ventured to throw a timid glance at his figure as he entered, and saw at once the man from whose scrutiny Harvey Birch had warned them there was so much to be apprehended.

    “You have no cause for alarm, ladies,” said the officer, pausing a moment, and contemplating the pale faces around him; “my business will be confined to a few questions, which, if freely answered, will instantly remove us from your dwelling.”

    “And what may they be, sir?” stammered Mr. Wharton, rising from his chair and waiting anxiously for the reply.

    “Has there been a strange gentleman staying with you during the storm?” continued the dragoon, speaking with interest, and in some degree sharing in the evident anxiety of the father.

    “This gentleman—here—favored us with his company during the rain, and has not yet departed.”

    “This gentleman!” repeated the other, turning to Captain Wharton, and contemplating his figure for a moment until the anxiety of his countenance gave place to a lurking smile. He approached the youth with an air of comic gravity, and with a low bow, continued, “I am sorry for the severe cold you have in your head, sir.”

    “I!” exclaimed the captain, in surprise; “I have no cold in my head.”

    “I fancied it then, from seeing you had covered such handsome black locks with that ugly old wig; it was my mistake; you will please to pardon it.”

    Mr. Wharton groaned aloud; but the ladies, ignorant of the extent of their visitor’s knowledge, remained in trembling yet rigid silence. The captain himself moved his hand involuntarily to his head, and discovered that the trepidation of his sisters had left some of his natural hair exposed. The dragoon watched the movement with a continued smile, when, seeming to recollect himself, turning to the father, he proceeded,—

    “Then, sir, I am to understand there has not been a Mr. Harper here, within the week?”

    “Mr. Harper,” echoed the other, feeling a load removed from his heart, “yes,—I had forgotten; but he is gone; and if there be anything wrong in his character, we are in entire ignorance of it; to me he was a total stranger.”

    “You have but little to apprehend from his character,” answered the dragoon dryly; “but he is gone—how—when—and whither?”

    “He departed as he arrived,” said Mr. Wharton, gathering renewed confidence from the manner of the trooper; “on horseback, last evening, and he took the northern road.”

    The officer listened to him with intense interest, his countenance gradually lighting into a smile of pleasure, and the instant Mr. Wharton concluded his laconic reply he turned on his heel and left the apartment. The Whartons, judging from his manner, thought he was about to proceed in quest of the object of his inquiries. They observed the dragoon, on gaining the lawn, in earnest and apparently pleased conversation with his two subalterns. In a few moments orders were given to some of the troops, and horsemen left the valley, at full speed, by its various roads.

    The suspense of the party within, who were all highly interested witnesses of this scene, was shortly terminated: for the heavy tread of the dragoon soon announced his second approach. He bowed again politely as he reëntered the room, and walking up to Captain Wharton, said, with comic gravity,—

    “Now, sir, my principal business being done, may I beg to examine the quality of that wig?”

    The British officer imitated the manner of the other, as he deliberately uncovered his head, and handing him the wig, observed, “I hope, sir, it is to your liking.”

    “I cannot, without violating the truth, say it is,” returned the dragoon; “I prefer your ebony hair, from which you seem to have combed the powder with great industry. But that must have been a sad hurt you have received under this enormous black patch.”

    “You appear so close an observer of things, I should like your opinion of it, sir,” said Henry, removing the silk, and exhibiting the cheek free from blemish.

    “Upon my word, you improve most rapidly in externals,” added the trooper, preserving his muscles in inflexible gravity: “if I could but persuade you to exchange this old surtout for that handsome blue coat by your side, I think I never could witness a more agreeable metamorphosis, since I was changed myself from a lieutenant to a captain.”

    Young Wharton very composedly did as was required and stood an extremely handsome, well-dressed young man. The dragoon looked at him for a minute with the drollery that characterized his manner, and then continued,—

    “This is a new-comer in the scene; it is usual, you know, for strangers to be introduced; I am Captain Lawton, of the Virginia horse.”

    “And I, sir, am Captain Wharton, of his Majesty’s 60th regiment of foot,” returned Henry, bowing stiffly, and recovering his natural manner.

    The countenance of Lawton changed instantly, and his assumed quaintness vanished. He viewed the figure of Captain Wharton, as he stood proudly swelling with a pride that disdained further concealment, and exclaimed with great earnestness,—

    “Captain Wharton, from my soul I pity you!”

    “Oh! then,” cried the father in agony, “if you pity him, dear sir, why molest him? he is not a spy; nothing but a desire to see his friends prompted him to venture so far from the regular army in disguise. Leave him with us; there is no reward, no sum, which I will not cheerfully pay.”

    “Sir, your anxiety for your friend excuses your language,” said Lawton, haughtily; “but you forget I am a Virginian, and a gentleman.” Turning to the young man, he continued, “Were you ignorant, Captain Wharton, that our pickets have been below you for several days?”

    “I did not know it until I reached them, and it was then too late to retreat,” said Wharton sullenly. “I came out, as my father has mentioned, to see my friends, understanding your parties to be at Peekskill, and near the Highlands, or surely I would not have ventured.”

    “All this may be very true; but the affair of André has made us on the alert. When treason reaches the grade of general officers, Captain Wharton, it behooves the friends of liberty to be vigilant.”

    Henry bowed to this remark in distant silence, but Sarah ventured to urge something in behalf of her brother. The dragoon heard her politely, and apparently with commiseration; but willing to avoid useless and embarrassing petitions, he answered mildly,—

    “I am not the commander of the party, madam; Major Dunwoodie will decide what must be done with your brother; at all events he will receive nothing but kind and gentle treatment.”

    “Dunwoodie!” exclaimed Frances, with a face in which the roses contended for the mastery with the paleness of apprehension; “thank God! then Henry is safe!”

    Lawton regarded her with a mingled expression of pity and admiration; then shaking his head doubtingly, he continued,—

    “I hope so; and with your permission, we will leave the matter for his decision.”

    The color of Frances changed from the paleness of fear to the glow of hope. Her dread on behalf of her brother was certainly greatly diminished; yet her form shook, her breathing became short and irregular, and her whole frame gave tokens of extraordinary agitation. Her eyes rose from the floor to the dragoon, and were again fixed immovably on the carpet—she evidently wished to utter something but was unequal to the effort. Miss Peyton was a close observer of these movements of her niece, and advancing with an air of feminine dignity, inquired,—

    “Then, sir, we may expect the pleasure of Major Dunwoodie’s company shortly?”

    “Immediately, madam,” answered the dragoon, withdrawing his admiring gaze from the person of Frances; “expresses are already on the road to announce to him our situation, and the intelligence will speedily bring him to this valley; unless, indeed, some private reasons may exist to make a visit particularly unpleasant.”

    “We shall always be happy to see Major Dunwoodie.”

    “Oh! doubtless; he is a general favorite. May I presume on it so far as to ask leave to dismount and refresh my men, who compose a part of his squadron?”

    There was a manner about the trooper that would have made the omission of such a request easily forgiven by Mr. Wharton, but he was fairly entrapped by his own eagerness to conciliate, and it was useless to withhold a consent which he thought would probably be extorted; he therefore made the most of necessity, and gave such orders as would facilitate the wishes of Captain Lawton.

    The officers were invited to take their morning’s repast at the family breakfast table, and having made their arrangements without, the invitation was frankly accepted. None of the watchfulness, which was so necessary to their situation, was neglected by the wary partisan. Patrols were seen on the distant hills, taking their protecting circuit around their comrades, who were enjoying, in the midst of danger, a security that can only spring from the watchfulness of discipline and the indifference of habit.

    The addition to the party at Mr. Wharton’s table was only three, and they were all of them men who, under the rough exterior induced by actual and arduous service, concealed the manners of gentlemen. Consequently, the interruption to the domestic privacy of the family was marked by the observance of strict decorum. The ladies left the table to their guests, who proceeded, without much superfluous diffidence, to do proper honors to the hospitality of Mr. Wharton.

    At length Captain Lawton suspended for a moment his violent attacks on the buckwheat cakes, to inquire of the master of the house, if there was not a pedler of the name of Birch who lived in the valley at times.

    “At times only, I believe, sir,” replied Mr. Wharton, cautiously; “he is seldom here; I may say I never see him.”

    “That is strange, too,” said the trooper, looking at the disconcerted host intently, “considering he is your next neighbor; he must be quite domestic, sir; and to the ladies it must be somewhat inconvenient. I doubt not that that muslin in the window-seat cost twice as much as he would have asked them for it.”

    Mr. Wharton turned in consternation, and saw some of the recent purchases scattered about the room.

    The two subalterns struggled to conceal their smiles; but the captain resumed his breakfast with an eagerness that created a doubt, whether he ever expected to enjoy another. The necessity of a supply from the dominion of Dinah soon, however, afforded another respite, of which Lawton availed himself.

    “I had a wish to break this Mr. Birch of his unsocial habits, and gave him a call this morning,” he said: “had I found him within, I should have placed him where he would enjoy life in the midst of society, for a short time at least.”

    “And where might that be, sir?” asked Mr. Wharton, conceiving it necessary to say something.

    “The guard-room,” said the trooper, dryly.

    “What is the offense of poor Birch?” asked Miss Peyton, handing the dragoon a fourth dish of coffee.

    “Poor!” cried the captain; “if he is poor, King George is a bad paymaster.”

    “Yes, indeed,” said one of the subalterns, “his Majesty owes him a dukedom.”

    “And congress a halter,” continued the commanding officer commencing anew on a fresh supply of the cakes.

    “I am sorry,” said Mr. Wharton, “that any neighbor of mine should incur the displeasure of our rulers.”

    “If I catch him,” cried the dragoon, while buttering another cake, “he will dangle from the limbs of one of his namesakes.”

    “He would make no bad ornament, suspended from one of those locusts before his own door,” added the lieutenant.

    “Never mind,” continued the captain; “I will have him yet before I ’m a major.”

    As the language of the officers appeared to be sincere, and such as disappointed men in their rough occupations are but too apt to use, the Whartons thought it prudent to discontinue the subject. It was no new intelligence to any of the family, that Harvey Birch was distrusted and greatly harassed by the American army. His escapes from their hands, no less than his imprisonments, had been the conversation of the country in too many instances, and under circumstances of too great mystery, to be easily forgotten. In fact, no small part of the bitterness expressed by Captain Lawton against the pedler, arose from the unaccountable disappearance of the latter, when intrusted to the custody of two of his most faithful dragoons.

    A twelvemonth had not yet elapsed, since Birch had been seen lingering near the headquarters of the commander-in-chief, and at a time when important movements were expected hourly to occur. So soon as the information of this fact was communicated to the officer whose duty it was to guard the avenues of the American camp, he dispatched Captain Lawton in pursuit of the pedler.

    Acquainted with all the passes of the hills, and indefatigable in the discharge of his duty, the trooper had, with much trouble and toil, succeeded in effecting his object. The party had halted at a farm-house for the purposes of refreshment, and the prisoner was placed in a room by himself, but under the keeping of the two men before mentioned; all that was known subsequently is, that a woman was seen busily engaged in the employments of the household near the sentinels, and was particularly attentive to the wants of the captain, until he was deeply engaged in the employments of the supper-table.

    Afterwards, neither woman nor pedler was to be found. The pack, indeed, was discovered open, and nearly empty, and a small door, communicating with a room adjoining to the one in which the pedler had been secured, was ajar.

    Captain Lawton never could forgive the deception; his antipathies to his enemies were not very moderate, but this was adding an insult to his penetration that rankled deeply. He sat in portentous silence, brooding over the exploit of his prisoner, yet mechanically pursuing the business before him, until, after sufficient time had passed to make a very comfortable meal, a trumpet suddenly broke on the ears of the party, sending its martial tones up the valley, in startling melody. The trooper rose instantly from the table, exclaiming,—

    “Quick, gentlemen, to your horses; there comes Dunwoodie;” and, followed by his officers, he precipitately left the room.

    With the exception of the sentinels left to guard Captain Wharton, the dragoons mounted, and marched out to meet their comrades.

    None of the watchfulness necessary in a war, in which similarity of language, appearance, and customs rendered prudence doubly necessary, was omitted by the cautious leader. On getting sufficiently near, however, to a body of horse of more than double his own number, to distinguish countenances, Lawton plunged his rowels into his charger, and in a moment he was by the side of his commander.

    The ground in front of the cottage was again occupied by the horse; and observing the same precautions as before, the newly arrived troops hastened to participate in the cheer prepared for their comrades.