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

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

Chapter VIII

  • With fire and sword the country round
  • Was wasted far and wide;
  • And many a childing mother then,
  • And new-born infant, died;
  • But things like these, you know, must be
  • At every famous victory.

  • THE LAST sounds of the combat died on the ears of the anxious listeners in the cottage, and were succeeded by the stillness of suspense. Frances had continued by herself, striving to exclude the uproar, and vainly endeavoring to summon resolution to meet the dreaded result. The ground where the charge on the foot had taken place was but a short mile from the Locusts, and, in the intervals of the musketry, the cries of the soldiers had even reached the ears of its inhabitants. After witnessing the escape of his son, Mr. Wharton had joined his sister and eldest daughter in their retreat, and the three continued fearfully waiting for news from the field. Unable longer to remain under the painful uncertainty of her situation, Frances soon added herself to the uneasy group, and Cæsar was directed to examine into the state of things without, and report on whose banners victory had alighted. The father now briefly related to his astonished children the circumstance and manner of their brother’s escape. They were yet in the freshness of their surprise, when the door opened, and Captain Wharton, attended by a couple of the guides, and followed by the black, stood before them.

    “Henry—my son, my son,” cried the agitated parent, stretching out his arms, yet unable to rise from his seat; “what is it I see; are you again a captive, and in danger of your life?”

    “The better fortune of these rebels has prevailed,” said the youth, endeavoring to force a cheerful smile, and taking a hand of each of his distressed sisters. “I strove nobly for my liberty; but the perverse spirit of rebellion has even lighted on their horses. The steed I mounted carried me, greatly against my will, I acknowledge, into the very centre of Dunwoodie’s men.”

    “And you were again captured,” continued the father, casting a fearful glance on the armed attendants who had entered the room.

    “That, sir, you may safely say; this Mr. Lawton, who sees so far, had me in custody again immediately.”

    “Why you no hold ’em in, Massa Henry?” cried Cæsar, pettishly.

    “That,” said Wharton, smiling, “was a thing easier said than done, Mr. Cæsar, especially as these gentlemen” (glancing his eyes at the guides) “had seen proper to deprive me of the use of my better arm.”

    “Wounded!” exclaimed both sisters in a breath.

    “A mere scratch, but disabling me at a most critical moment,” continued the brother, kindly, and stretching out the injured limb to manifest the truth of his declaration. Cæsar threw a look of bitter animosity on the irregular warriors who were thought to have had an agency in the deed, and left the room. A few more words sufficed to explain all that Captain Wharton knew relative to the fortune of the day. The result he thought yet doubtful, for when he left the ground, the Virginians were retiring from the field of battle.

    “They had tree’d the squirrel,” said one of the sentinels abruptly, “and did n’t quit the ground without leaving a good hound for the chase when he comes down.”

    “Aye,” added his comrade dryly, “I ’m thinking Captain Lawton will count the noses of what are left before they see their whale-boats.”

    Frances had stood supporting herself, by the back of a chair, during this dialogue, catching, in breathless anxiety, every syllable as it was uttered; her color changed rapidly; her limbs shook under her; until, with desperate resolution, she inquired,—

    “Is any officer hurt on—the—on either side?”

    “Yes,” answered the man, cavalierly, “these southern youths are so full of mettle, that it ’s seldom we fight but one or two gets knocked over; one of the wounded, who came up before the troops, told me that Captain Singleton was killed, and Major Dunwoodie”—

    Frances heard no more, but fell lifeless in the chair behind her. The attention of her friends soon revived her when the captain, turning to the man, said fearfully,—

    “Surely Major Dunwoodie is unhurt?”

    “Never fear him,” added the guide, disregarding the agitation of the family; “they say a man who is born to be hanged will never be drowned: if a bullet could kill the major, he would have been dead long ago. I was going to say, that the major is in a sad taking because of the captain’s being killed; but had I known how much store the lady set by him, I would n’t have been so plain-spoken.”

    Frances now rose quickly from her seat, with cheeks glowing with confusion, and, leaning on her aunt, was about to retire, when Dunwoodie himself appeared. The first emotion of the agitated girl was unalloyed happiness; in the next instant she shrank back appalled from the unusual expression that reigned in his countenance. The sternness of battle yet sat on his brow; his eye was fixed and severe. The smile of affection that used to lighten his dark features on meeting his mistress, was supplanted by the lowering look of care; his whole soul seemed to be absorbed in one engrossing emotion, and he proceeded at once to his object.

    “Mr. Wharton,” he earnestly began, “in times like these, we need not stand on idle ceremony: one of my officers, I am afraid, is hurt mortally; and, presuming on your hospitality, I have brought him to your door.”

    “I am happy, sir, that you have done so,” said Mr. Wharton, at once perceiving the importance of conciliating the American troops; “the necessitous are always welcome, and doubly so, in being the friend of Major Dunwoodie.”

    “Sir, I thank you for myself, and in behalf of him who is unable to render you his thanks,” returned the other, hastily; “if you please, we will have him conducted where the surgeon may see and report upon his case without delay.” To this there could be no objection; and Frances felt a chill at her heart, as her lover withdrew, without casting a solitary look on herself.

    There is a devotedness in female love that admits of no rivalry. All the tenderness of the heart, all the powers of the imagination, are enlisted in behalf of the tyrant passion; and where all is given, much is looked for in return. Frances had spent hours of anguish, of torture, on account of Dunwoodie, and he now met her without a smile, and left her without a greeting. The ardor of her feelings was unabated, but the elasticity of her hopes was weakened. As the supporters of the nearly lifeless body of Dunwoodie’s friend passed her, in their way to the apartment prepared for his reception, she caught a view of this seeming rival.

    His pale and ghastly countenance, sunken eye, and difficult breathing, gave her a glimpse of death in its most fearful form. Dunwoodie was by his side and held his hand, giving frequent and stern injunctions to the men to proceed with care, and, in short, manifesting all the solicitude that the most tender friendship could, on such an occasion, inspire. Frances moved lightly before them, and, with an averted face, she held open the door for their passage to the bed; it was only as the major touched her garments, on entering the room, that she ventured to raise her mild blue eyes to his face. But the glance was unreturned, and Frances unconsciously sighed as she sought the solitude of her own apartment.

    Captain Wharton voluntarily gave a pledge to his keepers not to attempt again escaping, and then proceeded to execute those duties on behalf of his father, which were thought necessary in a host. On entering the passage for that purpose, he met the operator who had so dexterously dressed his arm, advancing to the room of the wounded officer.

    “Ah!” cried the disciple of Esculapius, “I see you are doing well; but stop; have you a pin? No! here, I have one; you must keep the cold air from your hurt, or some of the youngsters will be at work at you yet.”

    “God forbid,” muttered the captain, in an undertone, attentively adjusting the bandages, when Dunwoodie appeared at the door, impatiently crying aloud,—

    “Hasten, Sitgreaves, hasten; or George Singleton will die from loss of blood.”

    “What! Singleton! God forbid! Bless me—is it George—poor little George?” exclaimed the surgeon, as he quickened his pace with evident concern, and hastened to the side of the bed. “He is alive, though, and while there is life there is hope. This is the first serious case I have had to-day, where the patient was not already dead. Captain Lawton teaches his men to strike with so little discretion—poor George—bless me, it is a musket bullet.”

    The youthful sufferer turned his eyes on the man of science, and with a faint smile endeavored to stretch forth his hand. There was an appeal in the look and action that touched the heart of the operator. The surgeon removed his spectacles to wipe an unusual moisture from his eyes, and proceeded carefully to the discharge of his duty. While the previous arrangements were, however, making, he gave vent in some measure to his feelings, by saying,—

    “When it is only a bullet, I have always some hopes; there is a chance that it hits nothing vital; but, bless me, Captain Lawton’s men cut so at random—generally sever the jugular or the carotid artery, or let out the brains, and all are so difficult to remedy—the patient mostly dying before one can get at him. I never had success but once in replacing a man’s brains, although I have tried three this very day. It is easy to tell where Lawton’s troops charge in a battle, they cut so at random.”

    The group around the bed of Captain Singleton were too much accustomed to the manner of their surgeon to regard or to reply to his soliloquy; but they quietly awaited the moment when he was to commence his examination. This now took place, and Dunwoodie stood looking the operator in the face, with an expression that seemed to read his soul. The patient shrank from the application of the probe, and a smile stole over the features of the surgeon, as he muttered,—

    “There has been nothing before it in that quarter.” He now applied himself in earnest to his work, took off his spectacles, and threw aside his wig. All this time Dunwoodie stood in feverish silence, holding one of the hands of the sufferer in both his own, watching the countenance of Doctor Sitgreaves. At length Singleton gave a slight groan, and the surgeon rose with alacrity, and said aloud,—

    “Ah! there is some pleasure in following a bullet; it may be said to meander through the human body, injuring nothing vital; but as for Captain Lawton’s men”—

    “Speak,” interrupted Dunwoodie; “is there hope?—can you find the ball?”

    “It ’s no difficult matter to find that which one has in his hand, Major Dunwoodie,” replied the surgeon, coolly, preparing his dressings. “It took what that literal fellow, Captain Lawton, calls a circumbendibus, a route never taken by the swords of his men, notwithstanding the multiplied pains I have been at to teach him how to cut scientifically. Now, I saw a horse this day with his head half severed from his body.”

    “That,” said Dunwoodie, as the blood rushed to his cheeks again, and his dark eyes sparkled with the rays of hope, “was some of my handiwork; I killed that horse myself.”

    “You!” exclaimed the surgeon, dropping his dressings in surprise, “you! But you knew it was a horse!”

    “I had such suspicions, I own,” said the major, smiling, and holding a beverage to the lips of his friend.

    “Such blows alighting on the human frame are fatal,” continued the doctor, pursuing his business. “They set at naught the benefits which flow from the lights of science; they are useless in a battle, for disabling your foe is all that is required. I have sat, Major Dunwoodie, many a cold hour, while Captain Lawton has been engaged, and after all my expectation, not a single case worth recording has occurred—all scratches or death-wounds; ah! the sabre is a sad weapon in unskillful hands! Yes, Major Dunwoodie, many are the hours I have thrown away in endeavoring to impress this truth on Captain John Lawton.”

    The impatient major pointed silently to his friend, and the surgeon quickened his movements.

    “Ah! poor George, it is a narrow chance; but”—he was interrupted by a messenger requiring the presence of the commanding officer in the field. Dunwoodie pressed the hand of his friend, and beckoned the doctor to follow him, as he withdrew.

    “What think you?” he whispered, on reaching the passage; “will he live?”

    “He will.”

    “Thank God!” cried the youth, hastening below.

    Dunwoodie for a moment joined the family, who were now collecting in the ordinary parlor. His face was no longer wanting in smiles, and his salutations, though hasty, were cordial. He took no notice of the escape and capture of Henry Wharton, but seemed to think the young man had continued where he had left him before the encounter. On the ground they had not met. The English officer withdrew in haughty silence to a window, leaving the major uninterrupted to make his communications.

    The excitement produced by the events of the day in the youthful feelings of the sisters, had been succeeded by a languor that kept them both silent, and Dunwoodie held his discourse with Miss Peyton.

    “Is there any hope, my cousin, that your friend can survive his wound?” said the lady, advancing towards her kinsman, with a smile of benevolent regard.

    “Everything, my dear madam, everything,” answered the soldier cheerfully. “Sitgreaves says he will live, and he has never deceived me.”

    “Your pleasure is not much greater than my own at this intelligence. One so dear to Major Dunwoodie cannot fail to excite an interest in the bosom of his friends.”

    “Say one so deservedly dear, madam,” returned the major, with warmth: “he is the beneficent spirit of the corps, equally beloved by us all; so mild, so equal, so just, so generous, with the meekness of a lamb and the fondness of a dove—it is only in the hour of battle that Singleton is a lion.”

    “You speak of him as if he were your mistress, Major Dunwoodie,” observed the smiling spinster, glancing her eye at her niece, who sat pale and listening, in a corner of the room.

    “I love him as one,” cried the excited youth; “but he requires care and nursing; all now depends on the attention he receives.”

    “Trust me, sir, he will want for nothing under this roof.”

    “Pardon me, dear madam; you are all that is benevolent, but Singleton requires a care which many men would feel to be irksome. It is at moments like these, and in sufferings like this, that the soldier most finds the want of female tenderness.” As he spoke, he turned his eyes on Frances with an expression that again thrilled to the heart of his mistress; she rose from her seat with burning cheeks, and said,—

    “All the attention that can with propriety be given to a stranger, will be cheerfully bestowed on your friend.”

    “Ah!” cried the major, shaking his head, “that cold word propriety will kill him; he must be fostered, cherished, soothed.”

    “These are offices for a sister or a wife.”

    “A sister!” repeated the soldier, the blood rushing to his own face tumultuously; “a sister! he has a sister; and one that might be here with to-morrow’s sun.” He paused, mused in silence, glanced his eyes uneasily at Frances, and muttered in an undertone, “Singleton requires it, and it must be done.”

    The ladies had watched his varying countenance in some surprise, and Miss Peyton now observed that,—

    “If there were a sister of Captain Singleton near them, her presence would be gladly requested both by herself and nieces.”

    “It must be, madam; it cannot well be otherwise,” replied Dunwoodie, with a hesitation that but ill agreed with his former declarations; “she shall be sent for express this very night.” And then, as if willing to change the subject, he approached Captain Wharton, and continued, mildly,—

    “Henry Wharton, to me honor is dearer than life; but in your hands I know it can safely be confided. Remain here unwatched until we leave the county, which will not be for some days.”

    The distance in the manner of the English officer vanished, and taking the offered hand of the other, he replied with warmth, “Your generous confidence, Peyton, will not be abused, even though the gibbet on which your Washington hung André be ready for my own execution.”

    “Henry, Henry Wharton,” said Dunwoodie reproachfully, “you little know the man who leads our armies, or you would have spared him that reproach; but duty calls me without. I leave you where I could wish to stay myself, and where you cannot be wholly unhappy.”

    In passing Frances, she received another of those smiling looks of affection she so much prized, and for a season the impression made by his appearance after the battle was forgotten.

    Among the veterans that had been impelled by the times to abandon the quiet of age for the service of their country, was Colonel Singleton. He was a native of Georgia, and had been for the earlier years of his life a soldier by profession. When the struggle for liberty commenced, he offered his services to his country, and from respect to his character they had been accepted. His years and health had, however, prevented his discharging the active duties of the field, and he had been kept in command of different posts of trust, where his country might receive the benefits of his vigilance and fidelity without inconvenience to himself. For the last year he had been intrusted with the passes into the Highlands, and was now quartered, with his daughter, but a short day’s march above the valley where Dunwoodie had met the enemy. His only other child was the wounded officer we have mentioned. Thither, then, the major prepared to dispatch a messenger with the unhappy news of the captain’s situation, and charged with such an invitation from the ladies as he did not doubt would speedily bring the sister to the couch of her brother.

    This duty performed, though with an unwillingness that only could make his former anxiety more perplexing, Dunwoodie proceeded to the field where his troops had halted. The remnant of the English were already to be seen, over the tops of the trees, marching along the heights towards their boats, in compact order and with great watchfulness. The detachment of the dragoons under Lawton were a short distance on their flank, eagerly awaiting a favorable moment to strike a blow. In this manner both parties were soon lost to view.

    A short distance above the Locusts was a small hamlet where several roads intersected each other, and from which, consequently, access to the surrounding country was easy. It was a favorite halting-place of the horse, and frequently held by the light parties of the American army during their excursions below. Dunwoodie had been the first to discover its advantages, and as it was necessary for him to remain in the county until further orders from above, it cannot be supposed he overlooked them now. To this place the troops were directed to retire, carrying with them their wounded; parties were already employed in the sad duty of interring the dead. In making these arrangements, a new object of embarrassment presented itself to our young soldier. In moving through the field, he was struck with the appearance of Colonel Wellmere, seated by himself, brooding over his misfortunes, uninterrupted by anything but the passing civilities of the American officers. His anxiety on behalf of Singleton had hitherto banished the recollection of his captive from the mind of Dunwoodie, and he now approached him with apologies for his neglect. The Englishman received his courtesies with coolness, and complained of being injured by what he affected to think was the accidental stumbling of his horse. Dunwoodie, who had seen one of his own men ride him down, and that with very little ceremony, slightly smiled, as he offered him surgical assistance. This could only be procured at the cottage, and thither they both proceeded.

    “Colonel Wellmere!” cried young Wharton in astonishment as they entered, “has the fortune of war been thus cruel to you also?—but you are welcome to the house of my father, although I could wish the introduction to have taken place under more happy circumstances.”

    Mr. Wharton received this new guest with the guarded caution that distinguished his manner, and Dunwoodie left the room to seek the bedside of his friend. Everything here looked propitious, and he acquainted the surgeon that another patient waited his skill in the room below. The sound of the word was enough to set the doctor in motion, and seizing his implements of office, he went in quest of this new applicant. At the door of the parlor he was met by the ladies, who were retiring. Miss Peyton detained him for a moment, to inquire into the welfare of Captain Singleton. Frances smiled with something of natural archness of manner, as she contemplated the grotesque appearance of the bald-headed practitioner; but Sarah was too much agitated, with the surprise of the unexpected interview with the British colonel, to observe him. It has already been intimated that Colonel Wellmere was an old acquaintance of the family. Sarah had been so long absent from the city, that she had in some measure been banished from the remembrance of the gentleman; but the recollections of Sarah were more vivid. There is a period in the life of every woman when she may be said to be predisposed to love; it is at the happy age when infancy is lost in opening maturity—when the guileless heart beats with those anticipations of life which the truth can never realize—and when the imagination forms images of perfection that are copied after its own unsullied visions. At this happy age Sarah left the city, and she had brought with her a picture of futurity, faintly impressed, it is true, but which gained durability from her solitude, and in which Wellmere had been placed in the foreground. The surprise of the meeting had in some measure overpowered her, and after receiving the salutations of the colonel, she had risen, in compliance with a signal from her observant aunt, to withdraw.

    “Then, sir,” observed Miss Peyton, after listening to the surgeon’s account of his young patient, “we may be flattered with the expectation that he will recover.”

    “’T is certain, madam,” returned the doctor, endeavoring, out of respect to the ladies, to replace his wig; “’t is certain, with care and good nursing.”

    “In those he shall not be wanting,” said the spinster, mildly. “Everything we have he can command, and Major Dunwoodie has dispatched an express for his sister.”

    “His sister!” echoed the practitioner, with a look of particular meaning; “if the major has sent for her, she will come.”

    “Her brother’s danger would induce her, one would imagine.”

    “No doubt, madam,” continued the doctor, laconically, bowing low, and giving room to the ladies to pass. The words and the manner were not lost on the younger sister, in whose presence the name of Dunwoodie was never mentioned unheeded.

    “Sir,” cried Dr. Sitgreaves, on entering the parlor, addressing himself to the only coat of scarlet in the room, “I am advised you are in want of my aid. God send ’t is not Captain Lawton with whom you came in contact, in which case I may be too late.”

    “There must be some mistake, sir,” said Wellmere, haughtily; “it was a surgeon that Major Dunwoodie was to send me, and not an old woman.”

    “’T is Dr. Sitgreaves,” said Henry Wharton, quickly, though with difficulty suppressing a laugh; “the multitude of his engagements, to-day, has prevented his usual attention to his attire.”

    “Your pardon, sir,” added Wellmere, very ungraciously proceeding to lay aside his coat, and exhibit what he called a wounded arm.

    “If, sir,” said the surgeon, dryly, “the degrees of Edinburgh—walking your London hospitals—amputating some hundreds of limbs—operating on the human frame in every shape that is warranted by the lights of science, a clear conscience, and the commission of the Continental Congress, can make a surgeon, I am one.”

    “Your pardon, sir,” repeated the colonel stiffly. “Captain Wharton has accounted for my error.”

    “For which I thank Captain Wharton,” said the surgeon, proceeding coolly to arrange his amputating instruments, with a formality that made the colonel’s blood run cold. “Where are you hurt, sir? What! is it then this scratch in your shoulder? In what manner might you have received this wound, sir?”

    “From the sword of a rebel dragoon,” said the colonel, with emphasis.

    “Never. Even the gentle George Singleton would not have breathed on you so harmlessly.” He took a piece of sticking-plaster from his pocket, and applied it to the part. “There, sir; that will answer your purpose, and I am certain it is all that is required of me.”

    “What do you take to be my purpose, then, sir?”

    “To report yourself wounded in your dispatches,” replied the doctor, with great steadiness; “and you may say that an old woman dressed your hurts—for if one did not, one easily might!”

    “Very extraordinary language,” muttered the Englishman.

    Here Captain Wharton interfered; and, by explaining the mistake of Colonel Wellmere to proceed from his irritated mind and pain of body, he in part succeeded in mollifying the insulted practitioner, who consented to look further into the hurts of the other. They were chiefly bruises from his fall, to which Sitgreaves made some hasty applications, and withdrew.

    The horse, having taken their required refreshment, prepared to fall back to their intended position, and it became incumbent on Dunwoodie to arrange the disposal of his prisoners. Sitgreaves he determined to leave in the cottage of Mr. Wharton, in attendance on Captain Singleton. Henry came to him with a request that Colonel Wellmere might also be left behind, under his parole, until the troops marched higher into the country. To this the major cheerfully assented; and as all the rest of the prisoners were of the vulgar herd, they were speedily collected, and, under the care of a strong guard, ordered to the interior. The dragoons soon after marched; and the guides, separating in small parties, accompanied by patrols from the horse, spread themselves across the country, in such a manner as to make a chain of sentinels from the waters of the Sound to those of the Hudson.

    Dunwoodie had lingered in front of the cottage, after he paid his parting compliments, with an unwillingness to return, that he thought proceeded from his solicitude for his wounded friends. The heart which has not become callous, soon sickens with the glory that has been purchased with a waste of human life. Peyton Dunwoodie, left to himself, and no longer excited by the visions which youthful ardor had kept before him throughout the day, began to feel there were other ties than those which bound the soldier within the rigid rules of honor. He did not waver in his duty, yet he felt how strong was the temptation. His blood had ceased to flow with the impulse created by the battle. The stern expression of his eye gradually gave place to a look of softness; and his reflections on the victory brought with them no satisfaction that compensated for the sacrifices by which it had been purchased. While turning his last lingering gaze on the Locusts, he remembered only that it contained all that he most valued. The friend of his youth was a prisoner, under circumstances that endangered both life and honor. The gentle companion of his toils, who could throw around the rude enjoyments of a soldier the graceful mildness of peace, lay a bleeding victim to his success. The image of the maid who had held, during the day, a disputed sovereignty in his bosom, again rose to his view with a loveliness that banished her rival, glory, from his mind.

    The last lagging trooper of the corps had already disappeared behind the northern hill, and the major unwillingly turned his horse in the same direction. Frances, impelled by a restless inquietude, now timidly ventured on the piazza of the cottage. The day had been mild and clear, and the sun was shining brightly in a cloudless sky. The tumult, which so lately disturbed the valley, was succeeded by the stillness of death, and the fair scene before her looked as if it had never been marred by the passions of men. One solitary cloud, the collected smoke of the contest, hung over the field; and this was gradually dispersing, leaving no vestige of the conflict above the peaceful graves of its victims. All the conflicting feelings, all the tumultuous circumstances of the eventful day, appeared like the deceptions of a troubled vision. Frances turned, and caught a glimpse of the retreating figure of him who had been so conspicuous an actor in the scene, and the illusion vanished. She recognized her lover, and, with the truth, came other recollections that drove her to the room, with a heart as sad as that which Dunwoodie himself bore from the valley.