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

Chapter VI

  • And let conquerors boast
  • Their fields of fame—he who in virtue arms
  • A young warm spirit against beauty’s charms,
  • Who feels her brightness, yet defies her thrall,
  • Is the best, bravest conqueror of them all.
  • MOORE.

  • THE LADIES of the Wharton family had collected about a window, deeply interested in the scene we have related.

    Sarah viewed the approach of her countrymen with a smile of contemptuous indifference; for she even undervalued the personal appearance of men whom she thought arrayed in the unholy cause of rebellion. Miss Peyton looked on the gallant show with an exulting pride, which arose in the reflection that the warriors before her were the chosen troops of her native colony; while Frances gazed with a singleness of interest that absorbed all other considerations.

    The two parties had not yet joined, before her quick eye distinguished one horseman in particular from those around him. To her it appeared that even the steed of this youthful soldier seemed to be conscious that he sustained the weight of no common man: his hoofs but lightly touched the earth, and his airy tread was the curbed motion of a blooded charger.

    The dragoon sat in the saddle, with a firmness and ease that showed him master of himself and horse,—his figure uniting the just proportions of strength and activity, being tall, round, and muscular. To this officer Lawton made his report, and, side by side, they rode into the field opposite to the cottage.

    The heart of Frances beat with a pulsation nearly stifling, as he paused for a moment, and took a survey of the building, with an eye whose dark and sparkling glance could be seen, notwithstanding the distance. Her color changed, and for an instant, as she saw the youth throw himself from the saddle, she was compelled to seek relief for her trembling limbs in a chair.

    The officer gave a few hasty orders to his second in command, walked rapidly into the lawn, and approached the cottage. Frances rose from her seat, and vanished from the apartment. The dragoon ascended the steps of the piazza, and had barely time to touch the outer door, when it opened to his admission.

    The youth of Frances, when she left the city, had prevented her sacrificing, in conformity to the customs of that day, all her native beauties on the altar of fashion. Her hair, which was of a golden richness of color, was left, untortured, to fall in the natural ringlets of infancy, and it shaded a face which was glowing with the united charms of health, youth, and artlessness; her eyes spoke volumes, but her tongue was silent; her hands were interlocked before her, and, aided by her taper form, bending forward in an attitude of expectation, gave a loveliness and an interest to her appearance, that for a moment chained her lover in silence to the spot.

    Frances silently led the way into a vacant parlor, opposite to the one in which the family were assembled, and turning to the soldier frankly, placing both her hands in his own, exclaimed,—

    “Ah, Dunwoodie! how happy, on many accounts, I am to see you! I have brought you in here, to prepare you to meet an unexpected friend in the opposite room.”

    “To whatever cause it may be owing,” cried the youth, pressing her hands to his lips, “I, too, am happy in being able to see you alone. Frances, the probation you have decreed is cruel; war and distance may separate us forever.”

    “We must submit to the necessity which governs us. But it is not love speeches I would hear now; I have other and more important matter for your attention.”

    “What can be of more importance than to make you mine by a tie that will be indissoluble! Frances, you are cold to me—me—from whose mind, days of service and nights of alarm have never been able to banish your image for a single moment.”

    “Dear Dunwoodie,” said Frances, softening nearly to tears, and again extending her hand to him, as the richness of her color gradually returned, “you know my sentiments—this war once ended, and you may take that hand forever—but I can never consent to tie myself to you by any closer union than already exists, so long as you are arrayed in arms against my only brother. Even now, that brother is awaiting your decision to restore him to liberty, or to conduct him to a probable death.”

    “Your brother!” cried Dunwoodie, starting and turning pale; “your brother! explain yourself—what dreadful meaning is concealed in your words?”

    “Has not Captain Lawton told you of the arrest of Henry by himself this very morning?” continued Frances, in a voice barely audible, and fixing on her lover a look of the deepest concern.

    “He told me of arresting a captain of the 60th in disguise, but without mentioning where or whom,” replied the major in a similar tone; and dropping his head between his hands, he endeavored to conceal his feelings from his companion.

    “Dunwoodie! Dunwoodie!” exclaimed Frances, losing all her former confidence in the most fearful apprehensions, “what means this agitation?” As the major slowly raised his face, in which was pictured the most expressive concern, she continued, “Surely, surely, you will not betray your friend—my brother—your brother—to an ignominious death.”

    “Frances!” exclaimed the young man in agony, “what can I do?”

    “Do!” she repeated, gazing at him wildly; “would Major Dunwoodie yield his friend to his enemies—the brother of his betrothed wife?”

    “Oh, speak not so unkindly to me, dearest Miss Wharton—my own Frances. I would this moment die for you—for Henry—but I cannot forget my duty—cannot forfeit my honor; you yourself would be the first to despise me if I did.”

    “Peyton Dunwoodie!” said Frances, solemnly, and with a face of ashy paleness, “you have told me—you have sworn, that you love me”—

    “I do,” interrupted the soldier, with fervor; but motioning for silence she continued, in a voice that trembled with her fears,—

    “Do you think I can throw myself into the arms of a man whose hands are stained with the blood of my only brother!”

    “Frances, you wring my very heart;” then pausing, to struggle with his feelings, he endeavored to force a smile, as he added, “but, after all, we may be torturing ourselves with unnecessary fears, and Henry, when I know the circumstances, may be nothing more than a prisoner of war; in which case, I can liberate him on parole.”

    There is no more delusive passion than hope; and it seems to be the happy privilege of youth to cull all the pleasures that can be gathered from its indulgence. It is when we are most worthy of confidence ourselves, that we are least apt to distrust others; and what we think ought to be, we are prone to think will be.

    The half-formed expectations of the young soldier were communicated to the desponding sister, more by the eye than the voice, and the blood rushed again to her cheek, as she cried,—

    “Oh, there can be no just grounds to doubt it: I knew—I knew—Dunwoodie, you would never desert us in the hour of our greatest need!” The violence of her feelings prevailed, and the agitated girl found relief in a flood of tears.

    The office of consoling those we love is one of the dearest prerogatives of affection; and Major Dunwoodie, although but little encouraged by his own momentary suggestion of relief, could not undeceive the lovely girl, who leaned on his shoulder, as he wiped the traces of her feeling from her face, with a trembling, but reviving confidence in the safety of her brother, and the protection of her lover.

    Frances, having sufficiently recovered her recollection to command herself, now eagerly led the way to the opposite room, to communicate to her family the pleasing intelligence which she already conceived so certain.

    Dunwoodie followed her reluctantly, and with forebodings of the result; but a few moments brought him into the presence of his relatives, and he summoned all his resolution to meet the trial with firmness.

    The salutations of the young men were cordial and frank, and, on the part of Henry Wharton, as collected as if nothing had occurred to disturb his self-possession.

    The abhorrence of being, in any manner, auxiliary to the arrest of his friend; the danger to the life of Captain Wharton; and the heart-breaking declarations of Frances, had, however, created an uneasiness in the bosom of Major Dunwoodie, which all his efforts could not conceal. His reception by the rest of the family was kind and sincere, both from old regard, and a remembrance of former obligations, heightened by the anticipations they could not fail to read in the expressive eyes of the blushing girl by his side. After exchanging greetings with every member of the family, Major Dunwoodie beckoned to the sentinel, whom the wary prudence of Captain Lawton had left in charge of the prisoner, to leave the room. Turning to Captain Wharton, he inquired mildly,—

    “Tell me, Henry, the circumstances of this disguise, in which Captain Lawton reports you to have been found, and remember—remember—Captain Wharton—your answers are entirely voluntary.”

    “The disguise was used by me, Major Dunwoodie,” replied the English officer, gravely, “to enable me to visit my friends, without incurring the danger of becoming a prisoner of war.”

    “But you did not wear it, until you saw the troop of Lawton approaching?”

    “Oh! no,” interrupted Frances, eagerly, forgetting all the circumstances in her anxiety for her brother; “Sarah and myself placed them on him when the dragoons appeared; it was our awkwardness that has led to the discovery.”

    The countenance of Dunwoodie brightened, as turning his eyes in fondness on the speaker, he listened to her explanation.

    “Probably some articles of your own,” he continued, “which were at hand, and were used on the spur of the moment.”

    “No,” said Wharton, with dignity; “the clothes were worn by me from the city; they were procured for the purpose to which they were applied, and I intended to use them in my return this very day.”

    The appalled Frances shrank back from between her brother and lover, where her ardent feelings had carried her, as the whole truth glanced over her mind, and she sank into a seat, gazing wildly on the young men.

    “But the pickets—the party at the Plains?” added Dunwoodie, turning pale.

    “I passed them, too, in disguise. I made use of this pass, for which I paid; and, as it bears the name of Washington, I presume it is forged.”

    Dunwoodie caught the paper from his hand, eagerly, and stood gazing on the signature for some time in silence, during which the soldier gradually prevailed over the man; when he turned to the prisoner, with a searching look, as he asked,—

    “Captain Wharton, whence did you procure this paper?”

    “This is a question, I conceive, Major Dunwoodie has no right to ask.”

    “Your pardon, sir; my feelings may have led me into an impropriety.”

    Mr. Wharton, who had been a deeply interested auditor, now so far conquered his feelings as to say, “Surely, Major Dunwoodie, the paper cannot be material; such artifices are used daily in war.”

    “This name is no counterfeit,” said the dragoon, studying the characters, and speaking in a low voice; “is treason yet among us undiscovered? The confidence of Washington has been abused, for the fictitious name is in a different hand from the pass. Captain Wharton, my duty will not suffer me to grant you a parole; you must accompany me to the Highlands.”

    “I did not expect otherwise, Major Dunwoodie.”

    Dunwoodie turned slowly towards the sisters, when the figure of Frances once more arrested his gaze. She had risen from her seat, and stood again with her hands clasped before him in an attitude of petition: feeling himself unable to contend longer with his feelings, he made a hurried excuse for a temporary absence, and left the room. Frances followed him, and, obedient to the direction of her eye, the soldier reëntered the apartment in which had been their first interview.

    “Major Dunwoodie,” said Frances, in a voice barely audible, as she beckoned to him to be seated; her cheek, which had been of a chilling whiteness, was flushed with a suffusion that crimsoned her whole countenance. She struggled with herself for a moment, and continued, “I have already acknowledged to you my esteem; even now, when you most painfully distress me, I wish not to conceal it. Believe me, Henry is innocent of everything but imprudence. Our country can sustain no wrong.” Again she paused, and almost gasped for breath; her color changed rapidly from red to white, until the blood rushed into her face, covering her features with the brightest vermilion; and she added hastily, in an undertone, “I have promised, Dunwoodie, when peace shall be restored to our country, to become your wife. Give to my brother his liberty on parole, and I will this day go with you to the altar, follow you to the camp, and, in becoming a soldier’s bride, learn to endure a soldier’s privations.”

    Dunwoodie seized the hand which the blushing girl, in her ardor, had extended towards him, and pressed it for a moment to his bosom; then rising from his seat, he paced the room in excessive agitation.

    “Frances, say no more, I conjure you, unless you wish to break my heart.”

    “You then reject my offered hand?” she said, rising with dignity, though her pale cheek and quivering lip plainly showed the conflicting passions within.

    “Reject it! Have I not sought it with entreaties—with tears? Has it not been the goal of all my earthly wishes? But to take it under such conditions would be to dishonor both. We will hope for better things. Henry must be acquitted; perhaps not tried. No intercession of mine shall be wanting, you must well know; and believe me, Frances, I am not without favor with Washington.”

    “That very paper, that abuse of his confidence, to which you alluded, will steel him to my brother’s case. If threats or entreaties could move his stern sense of justice, would André have suffered?” As Frances uttered these words she fled from the room in despair.

    Dunwoodie remained for a minute nearly stupefied; and then he followed with a view to vindicate himself, and to relieve her apprehensions. On entering the hall that divided the two parlors, he was met by a small ragged boy, who looked one moment at his dress, and placing a piece of paper in his hands, immediately vanished through the outer door of the building. The bewildered state of his mind, and the suddenness of the occurrence, gave the major barely time to observe the messenger to be a country lad, meanly attired, and that he held in his hand one of those toys which are to be bought in cities, and which he now apparently contemplated with the conscious pleasure of having fairly purchased, by the performance of the service required. The soldier turned his eyes to the subject of the note. It was written on a piece of torn and soiled paper, and in a hand barely legible, but after some little labor, he was able to make out as follows:—

    “The rig’lars are at hand, horse and foot.”

    Dunwoodie started; and, forgetting everything but the duties of a soldier, he precipitately left the house. While walking rapidly towards the troops, he noticed on a distant hill a vidette riding with speed: several pistols were fired in quick succession; and the next instant the trumpets of the corps rang in his ears with the enlivening strain of “To arms!” By the time he had reached the ground occupied by his squadron, the major saw that every man was in active motion. Lawton was already in the saddle, eying the opposite extremity of the valley with the eagerness of expectation, and crying to the musicians, in tones but little lower than their own,—

    “Sound away, my lads, and let these Englishmen know that the Virginia horse are between them and the end of their journey.”

    The videttes and patrols now came pouring in, each making in succession his hasty report to the commanding officer, who gave his orders coolly, and with a promptitude that made obedience certain. Once only, as he wheeled his horse to ride over the ground in front, did Dunwoodie trust himself with a look at the cottage, and his heart beat with unusual rapidity as he saw a female figure standing, with clasped hands, at a window of the room in which he had met Frances. The distance was too great to distinguish her features, but the soldier could not doubt that it was his mistress. The paleness of his cheek and the languor of his eye endured but for a moment longer. As he rode towards the intended battle ground, a flush of ardor began to show itself on his sunburnt features; and his dragoons, who studied the face of their leader, as the best index to their own fate, saw again the wonted flashing of the eyes, and the cheerful animation, which they had so often witnessed on the eve of battle. By the additions of the videttes and parties that had been out, and which now had all joined, the whole number of the horse was increased to nearly two hundred. There was also a small body of men, whose ordinary duties were those of guides, but who, in cases of emergency, were embodied and did duty as foot-soldiers; these were dismounted, and proceeded, by the order of Dunwoodie, to level the few fences which might interfere with the intended movements of the cavalry. The neglect of husbandry, which had been occasioned by the war, left this task comparatively easy. Those long lines of heavy and durable walls, which now sweep through every part of the country, forty years ago were unknown. The slight and tottering fences of stone were then used more to clear the land for the purposes of cultivation than as permanent barriers, and required the constant attention of the husbandman, to preserve them against the fury of the tempests and the frosts of winter. Some few of them had been built with more care immediately around the dwelling of Mr. Wharton; but those which had intersected the vale below were now generally a pile of ruins, over which the horses of the Virginians would bound with the fleetness of the wind. Occasionally a short line yet preserved its erect appearance; but as none of those crossed the ground on which Dunwoodie intended to act, there remained only the slighter fences of rails to be thrown down. Their duty was hastily but effectually performed; and the guides withdrew to the post assigned to them for the approaching fight.

    Major Dunwoodie had received from his scouts all the intelligence concerning his foe, which was necessary to enable him to make his arrangements. The bottom of the valley was an even plain, that fell with a slight inclination from the foot of the hills on either side, to the level of a natural meadow that wound through the country on the banks of a small stream, by whose waters it was often inundated and fertilized. This brook was easily forded in any part of its course; and the only impediment it offered to the movements of the horse, was in a place where it changed its bed from the western to the eastern side of the valley, and where its banks were more steep and difficult of access than common. Here the highway crossed it by a rough wooden bridge, as it did again at the distance of half a mile above the Locusts.

    The hills on the eastern side of the valley were abrupt, and frequently obtruded themselves in rocky prominences into its bosom, lessening the width to half the usual dimensions. One of these projections was but a short distance in the rear of the squadron of dragoons, and Dunwoodie directed Captain Lawton to withdraw, with two troops, behind its cover. The officer obeyed with a kind of surly reluctance, that was, however, somewhat lessened by the anticipations of the effect his sudden appearance would make on the enemy. Dunwoodie knew his man, and had selected the captain for this service, both because he feared his precipitation in the field, and knew, when needed, his support would never fail to appear. It was only in front of the enemy that Captain Lawton was hasty; at all other times his discernment and self-possession were consummately preserved; but he sometimes forgot them in his eagerness to engage. On the left of the ground on which Dunwoodie intended to meet his foe, was a close wood, which skirted that side of the valley for the distance of a mile. Into this, then, the guides retired, and took their station near its edge, in such a manner as would enable them to maintain a scattering, but effectual fire, on the advancing column of the enemy.

    It cannot be supposed that all these preparations were made unheeded by the inmates of the cottage; on the contrary, every feeling which can agitate the human breast, in witnessing such a scene, was actively alive. Mr. Wharton alone saw no hopes to himself in the termination of the conflict. If the British should prevail, his son would be liberated; but what would then be his own fate! He had hitherto preserved his neutral character in the midst of trying circumstances. The fact of his having a son in the royal, or, as it was called, the regular army, had very nearly brought his estates to the hammer. Nothing had obviated this result, but the powerful interest of the relation who held a high political rank in the state, and his own vigilant prudence. In his heart, he was a devoted loyalist; and when the blushing Frances had communicated to him the wishes of her lover, on their return from the American camp the preceding spring, the consent he had given, to her future union with a rebel, was as much extracted by the increasing necessity which existed for his obtaining republican support, as by any considerations for the happiness of his child. Should his son now be rescued, he would, in the public mind, be united with him as a plotter against the freedom of the States; and should he remain a captive and undergo the impending trial, the consequences might be still more dreadful. Much as he loved his wealth, Mr. Wharton loved his children better; and he sat gazing on the movements without, with a listless vacancy in his countenance, that fully denoted his imbecility of character.

    Far different were the feelings of the son. Captain Wharton had been left in the keeping of two dragoons, one of whom marched to and fro on the piazza with a measured tread, and the other had been directed to continue in the same apartment with his prisoner. The young man had witnessed all the movements of Dunwoodie with admiration mingled with fearful anticipations of the consequences to friends. He particularly disliked the ambush of the detachment under Lawton, who could be distinctly seen from the windows of the cottage, cooling his impatience, by pacing on foot the ground in front of his men. Henry Wharton threw several hasty and inquiring glances around, to see if no means of liberation would offer, but invariably found the eyes of his sentinel fixed on him with the watchfulness of an Argus. He longed, with the ardor of youth, to join in the glorious fray, but was compelled to remain a dissatisfied spectator of a scene in which he would so cheerfully have been an actor. Miss Peyton and Sarah continued gazing on the preparations with varied emotions, in which concern for the fate of the captain formed the most prominent feeling, until the moment of shedding of blood seemed approaching, when, with the timidity of their sex, they sought the retirement of an inner room. Not so Frances: she returned to the apartment where she had left Dunwoodie, and, from one of its windows, had been a deeply interested spectator of all his movements. The wheelings of the troops, the deadly preparations, had all been unnoticed; she saw her lover only, and with mingled emotions of admiration and dread that nearly chilled her. At one moment the blood rushed to her heart, as she saw the young warrior riding through his ranks, giving life and courage to all whom he addressed; and the next, it curdled with the thought that the very gallantry she so much valued might prove the means of placing the grave between her and the object of her regard. Frances gazed until she could look no longer.

    In a field on the left of the cottage, and at a short distance in the rear of the troops, was a small group, whose occupation seemed to differ from that of all around them. They were in number only three, being two men and a mulatto boy. The principal personage of this party was a man, whose leanness made his really tall stature appear excessive. He wore spectacles—was unarmed, had dismounted, and seemed to be dividing his attention between a cigar, a book, and the incidents of the field before him. To this party Frances determined to send a note, directed to Dunwoodie. She wrote hastily, with a pencil, “Come to me, Peyton, if it be but for a moment;” and Cæsar emerged from the cellar kitchen, taking the precaution to go by the rear of the building, to avoid the sentinel on the piazza, who had very cavalierly ordered all the family to remain housed. The black delivered the note to the gentleman, with a request that it might be forwarded to Major Dunwoodie. It was the surgeon of the horse to whom Cæsar addressed himself; and the teeth of the African chattered, as he saw displayed upon the ground the several instruments which were in preparation for the anticipated operations. The doctor himself seemed to view the arrangement with great satisfaction, as he deliberately raised his eyes from his book to order the boy to convey the note to his commanding officer, and then dropping them quietly on the page he continued his occupation. Cæsar was slowly retiring, as the third personage, who by his dress might be an inferior assistant of the surgical department, coolly inquired “if he would have a leg taken off?” This question seemed to remind the black of the existence of those limbs, for he made such use of them as to reach the piazza at the same instant that Major Dunwoodie rode up, at half speed. The brawny sentinel squared himself, and poised his sword with military precision as he stood on his post, while his officer passed; but no sooner had the door closed, than, turning to the negro, he said, sharply,—

    “Harkee, blackee, if you quit the house again without my knowledge, I shall turn barber, and shave off one of those ebony ears with this razor.”

    Thus assailed in another member, Cæsar hastily retreated into his kitchen, muttering something, in which the words “Skinner,” and “rebel rascal,” formed a principal part of speech.

    “Major Dunwoodie,” said Frances to her lover as he entered, “I may have done you injustice; if I have appeared harsh”—

    The emotions of the agitated girl prevailed, and she burst into tears.

    “Frances,” cried the soldier with warmth, “you are never harsh, never unjust, but when you doubt my love.”

    “Ah! Dunwoodie,” added the sobbing girl, “you are about to risk your life in battle; remember that there is one heart whose happiness is built on your safety; brave I know you are; be prudent”—

    “For your sake?” inquired the delighted youth.

    “For my sake,” replied Frances, in a voice barely audible, and dropping on his bosom.

    Dunwoodie folded her to his heart, and was about to speak, as a trumpet sounded in the southern end of the vale. Imprinting one long kiss of affection on her unresisting lips, the soldier tore himself from his mistress, and hastened to the scene of strife.

    Frances threw herself on a sofa, buried her head under its cushion, and with her shawl drawn over her face, to exclude as much of sound as possible, continued there until the shouts of the combatants, the rattling of the fire-arms, and the thundering tread of the horses had ceased.