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

Chapter X

  • On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
  • Some pious drops the closing eye requires,
  • E’en from the tomb the voice of nature cries,
  • E’en in our ashes live their wonted fires.

  • THE POSSESSIONS of Mr. Wharton extended to some distance on each side of the house in which he dwelt, and most of his land was unoccupied. A few scattered dwellings were to be seen in different parts of his domains, but they were fast falling to decay, and were untenanted. The proximity of the country to the contending armies had nearly banished the pursuits of agriculture from the land. It was useless for the husbandman to devote his time and the labor of his hands, to obtain overflowing garners, that the first foraging party would empty. None tilled the earth with any other view than to provide the scanty means of subsistence, except those who were placed so near to one of the adverse parties as to be safe from the inroads of the light troops of the other. To these the war offered a golden harvest, more especially to such as enjoyed the benefits of an access to the royal army. Mr. Wharton did not require the use of his lands for the purposes of subsistence; and he willingly adopted the guarded practice of the day, limiting his attention to such articles as were soon to be consumed within his own walls, or could be easily secreted from the prying eyes of the foragers. In consequence, the ground on which the action was fought had not a single inhabited building, besides the one belonging to the father of Harvey Birch. This house stood between the place where the cavalry had met, and that where the charge had been made on the party of Wellmere.

    To Katy Haynes it had been a day fruitful of incidents. The prudent housekeeper had kept her political feelings in a state of rigid neutrality; her own friends had espoused the cause of the country, but the maiden herself never lost sight of that important moment, when, like females of more illustrious hopes, she might be required to sacrifice her love of country on the altar of domestic harmony. And yet, notwithstanding all her sagacity, there were moments when the good woman had grievous doubts into which scale she ought to throw the weight of her eloquence, in order to be certain of supporting the cause favored by the pedler. There was so much that was equivocal in his movements and manner, that often, when, in the privacy of their household, she was about to offer a philippic on Washington and his followers, discretion sealed her mouth, and distrust beset her mind. In short, the whole conduct of the mysterious being she studied was of a character to distract the opinions of one who took a more enlarged view of men and life than came within the competency of his housekeeper.

    The battle of the Plains had taught the cautious Washington the advantages his enemy possessed in organization, arms, and discipline. These were difficulties to be mastered by his own vigilance and care. Drawing off his troops to the heights, in the northern part of the county, he had bidden defiance to the attacks of the royal army, and Sir William Howe fell back to the enjoyment of his barren conquest—a deserted city. Never afterwards did the opposing armies make the trial of strength within the limits of West-Chester; yet hardly a day passed, that the partisans did not make their inroads; or a sun rise, that the inhabitants were spared the relation of excesses which the preceding darkness had served to conceal. Most of the movements of the pedler were made at the hours which others allotted to repose. The evening sun would frequently leave him at one extremity of the county, and the morning find him at the other. His pack was his never-failing companion; and there were those who closely studied him, in his moments of traffic, and thought his only purpose was the accumulation of gold. He would be often seen near the Highlands, with a body bending under its load; and again near the Harlaem River, travelling with lighter steps, with his face towards the setting sun. But these glances at him were uncertain and fleeting. The intermediate time no eye could penetrate. For months he disappeared, and no traces of his course were ever known.

    Strong parties held the heights of Harlaem, and the northern end of Manhattan Island was bristling with the bayonets of the English sentinels, yet the pedler glided among them unnoticed and uninjured. His approaches to the American lines were also frequent; but generally so conducted as to baffle pursuit. Many a sentinel, placed in the gorges of the mountains, spoke of a strange figure that had been seen gliding by them in the mists of the evening. These stories reached the ears of the officers, and, as we have related, in two instances the trader had fallen into the hands of the Americans. The first time he had escaped from Lawton, shortly after his arrest; but the second he was condemned to die. On the morning of his intended execution, the cage was opened, but the bird had flown. This extraordinary escape had been made from the custody of a favorite officer of Washington, and sentinels who had been thought worthy to guard the person of the commander-in-chief. Bribery and treason could not be imputed to men so well esteemed, and the opinion gained ground among the common soldiery, that the pedler had dealings with the dark one. Katy, however, always repelled this opinion with indignation; for within the recesses of her own bosom, the housekeeper, in ruminating on the events, concluded that the evil spirit did not pay in gold. Nor, continued the wary spinster in her cogitations, does Washington; paper and promises were all that the leader of the American troops could dispense to his servants. After the alliance with France, when silver became more abundant in the country, although the scrutinizing eyes of Katy never let any opportunity of examining into the deer-skin purse pass unimproved, she was never able to detect the image of Louis intruding into the presence of the well-known countenance of George III. In short, the secret hoard of Harvey sufficiently showed in its contents that all its contributions had been received from the British.

    The house of Birch had been watched at different times by the Americans, with a view to his arrest, but never with success; the reputed spy possessing a secret means of intelligence, that invariably defeated their schemes. Once, when a strong body of the continental army held the Four Corners for a whole summer, orders had been received from Washington himself, never to leave the door of Harvey Birch unwatched. The command was rigidly obeyed, and during this long period the pedler was unseen; the detachment was withdrawn, and the following night Birch reëntered his dwelling. The father of Harvey had been greatly molested, in consequence of the suspicious character of the son. But, notwithstanding the most minute scrutiny into the conduct of the old man, no fact could be substantiated against him to his injury, and his property was too small to keep alive the zeal of patriots by profession. Its confiscation and purchase would not have rewarded their trouble. Age and sorrow were now about to spare him further molestation, for the lamp of life had been drained of its oil. The recent separation of the father and son had been painful, but they had submitted in obedience to what both thought a duty. The old man had kept his dying situation a secret from the neighborhood, in the hope that he might still have the company of his child in his last moments. The confusion of the day, and his increasing dread that Harvey might be too late, helped to hasten the event he would fain arrest for a little while. As night set in, his illness increased to such a degree, that the dismayed housekeeper sent a truant boy, who had shut up himself with them during the combat, to the Locusts, in quest of a companion to cheer her solitude. Cæsar, alone, could be spared, and, loaded with eatables and cordials by the kind-hearted Miss Peyton, the black had been dispatched on his duty. The dying man was past the use of medicines, and his chief anxiety seemed to centre in a meeting with his child.

    The noise of the chase had been heard by the group in the house, but its cause was not understood; and as both the black and Katy were apprised of the detachment of American horse being below them, they supposed it to proceed from the return of that party. They heard the dragoons, as they moved slowly by the building; but in compliance with the prudent injunction of the black, the housekeeper forbore to indulge her curiosity. The old man had closed his eyes, and his attendants believed him to be asleep. The house contained two large rooms and as many small ones. One of the former served for kitchen and sitting-room; in the other lay the father of Birch; of the latter, one was the sanctuary of the vestal, and the other contained the stock of provisions. A huge chimney of stone rose in the centre, serving, of itself, for a partition between the larger rooms; and fire-places of corresponding dimensions were in each apartment. A bright flame was burning in that of the common room, and within the very jambs of its monstrous jaws sat Cæsar and Katy, at the time of which we write. The African was impressing his caution on the housekeeper, and commenting on the general danger of indulging an idle curiosity.

    “Best nebber tempt a Satan,” said Cæsar, rolling up his eyes till the whites glistened by the glare of the fire; “I berry like heself to lose an ear for carrying a little bit of a letter; dere much mischief come of curiosity. If dere had nebber been a man curious to see Africa, dere would be no color people out of dere own country; but I wish Harvey get back.”

    “It is very disregardful in him to be away at such a time,” said Katy, imposingly. “Suppose now his father wanted to make his last will in the testament, who is there to do so solemn and awful an act for him? Harvey is a very wasteful and very disregardful man!”

    “Perhap he make him afore?”

    “It would not be a wonderment if he had,” returned the housekeeper; “he is whole days looking into the Bible.”

    “Then he read a berry good book,” said the black solemnly. “Miss Fanny read in him to Dinah now and den.”

    “You are right, Cæsar. The Bible is the best of books, and one that reads it as often as Harvey’s father should have the best of reasons for so doing. This is no more than common-sense.”

    She rose from her seat, and stealing softly to a chest of drawers in the room of the sick man, she took from it a large Bible, heavily bound, and secured with strong clasps of brass, with which she returned to the negro. The volume was eagerly opened, and they proceeded instantly to examine its pages. Katy was far from an expert scholar, and to Cæsar the characters were absolutely strangers. For some time the housekeeper was occupied in finding out the word Matthew, in which she had no sooner succeeded than she pointed out the word, with great complacency, to the attentive Cæsar.

    “Berry well, now look him t’rough,” said the black, peeping over the housekeeper’s shoulder, as he held a long lank candle of yellow tallow, in such a manner as to throw its feeble light on the volume.

    “Yes, but I must begin with the very beginning of the book,” replied the other, turning the leaves carefully back, until, moving two at once, she lighted upon a page covered with writing. “Here,” said the housekeeper, shaking with the eagerness of expectation, “here are the very words themselves; now I would give the world itself to know whom he has left the big silver shoe-buckles to.”

    “Read ’em,” said Cæsar, laconically.

    “And the black walnut drawers; for Harvey could never want furniture of that quality, as long as he is a bachelor!”

    “Why he no want ’em as well as he fader?”

    “And the six silver table-spoons; Harvey always uses the iron!”

    “P’r’ap he say, without so much talk,” returned the sententious black, pointing one of his crooked and dingy fingers at the open volume.

    Thus repeatedly advised, and impelled by her own curiosity, Katy began to read. Anxious to come to the part which most interested herself, she dipped at once into the centre of the subject.

    “Chester Birch, born September 1st, 1755,”—read the spinster, with a deliberation that did no great honor to her scholarship.

    “Well, what he gib him?”

    “Abigail Birch, born July 12th, 1757,”—continued the housekeeper, in the same tone.

    “I t’ink he ought to gib her ’e spoon.”

    “June 1st, 1760. On this awful day, the judgment of an offended God lighted on my house:” a heavy groan from the adjoining room made the spinster instinctively close the volume, and Cæsar, for a moment, shook with fear. Neither possessed sufficient resolution to go and examine the condition of the sufferer, but his heavy breathing continued as usual. Katy dared not, however, re-open the Bible, and carefully securing its clasps, it was laid on the table in silence. Cæsar took his chair again, and after looking timidly round the room, remarked,—

    “I t’ought he time war’ come!”

    “No,” said Katy, solemnly, “he will live till the tide is out, or the first cock crows in the morning.”

    “Poor man!” continued the black, nestling still farther into the chimney-corner, “I hope he lay quiet after he die.”

    “’T would be no astonishment to me if he did n’t; for they say an unquiet life makes an uneasy grave.”

    “Johnny Birch a berry good man in he way. All mankind can’t be a minister; for if he do, who would be a congregation?”

    “Ah! Cæsar, he is good only who does good—can you tell me why honestly gotten gold should be hidden in the bowels of the earth!”

    “Grach!—I t’ink it must be to keep t’e Skinner from findin’ him; if he know where he be, why don’t he dig him up?”

    “There may be reasons not comprehensible to you,” said Katy, moving her chair so that her clothes covered the charmed stone, underneath which lay the secret treasures of the pedler, unable to refrain from speaking of what she would have been very unwilling to reveal; “but a rough outside often holds a smooth inside.” Cæsar stared around the building, unable to fathom the hidden meaning of his companion, when his roving eyes suddenly became fixed, and his teeth chattered with affright. The change in the countenance of the black was instantly perceived by Katy, and turning her face, she saw the pedler himself, standing within the door of the room.

    “Is he alive?” asked Birch, tremulously, and seemingly afraid to receive the answer.

    “Surely,” said Katy, rising hastily, and officiously offering her chair. “He must live till day, or till the tide is down.”

    Disregarding all but the fact that his father still lived, the pedler stole gently into the room of his dying parent. The tie which bound the father and son was of no ordinary kind. In the wide world they were all to each other. Had Katy but read a few lines further in the record, she would have seen the sad tale of their misfortunes. At one blow competence and kindred had been swept from them, and from that day to the present hour, persecution and distress had followed their wandering steps. Approaching the bedside, Harvey leaned his body forward, and, in a voice nearly choked by his feelings, he whispered near the ear of the sick,—

    “Father, do you know me?”

    The parent slowly opened his eyes, and a smile of satisfaction passed over his pallid features, leaving behind it the impression of death, more awful by the contrast. The pedler gave a restorative he had brought with him to the parched lips of the sick man, and for a few minutes new vigor seemed imparted to his frame. He spoke, but slowly, and with difficulty. Curiosity kept Katy silent; awe had the same effect on Cæsar; and Harvey seemed hardly to breathe, as he listened to the language of the departing spirit.

    “My son,” said the father in a hollow voice, “God is as merciful as He is just; if I threw the cup of salvation from my lips when a youth, He graciously offers it to me in mine age. He has chastised to purify, and I go to join the spirits of our lost family. In a little while, my child, you will be alone. I know you too well not to foresee you will be a pilgrim through life. The bruised reed may endure, but it will never rise. You have that within you, Harvey, that will guide you aright; persevere as you have begun, for the duties of life are never to be neglected—and”—a noise in the adjoining room interrupted the dying man, and the impatient pedler hastened to learn the cause, followed by Katy and the black. The first glance of his eye on the figure in the doorway told the trader but too well his errand, and the fate that probably awaited himself. The intruder was a man still young in years, but his lineaments bespoke a mind long agitated by evil passions. His dress was of the meanest materials, and so ragged and unseemly, as to give him the appearance of studied poverty. His hair was prematurely whitened, and his sunken, lowering eye avoided the bold, forward look of innocence. There was a restlessness in his movements, and an agitation in his manner, that proceeded from the workings of the foul spirit within him, and which was not less offensive to others than distressing to himself. This man was a well-known leader of one of those gangs of marauders who infested the county with a semblance of patriotism, and who were guilty of every grade of offense, from simple theft up to murder. Behind him stood several other figures clad in a similar manner, but whose countenances expressed nothing more than the indifference of brutal insensibility. They were well armed with muskets and bayonets, and provided with the usual implements of foot-soldiers. Harvey knew resistance to be vain, and quietly submitted to their directions. In the twinkling of an eye both he and Cæsar were stripped of their decent garments, and made to exchange clothes with two of the filthiest of the band. They were then placed in separate corners of the room, and, under the muzzles of the muskets, required faithfully to answer such interrogatories as were put to them.

    “Where is your pack?” was the first question to the pedler.

    “Hear me,” said Birch, trembling with agitation; “in the next room is my father, now in the agonies of death. Let me go to him, receive his blessing, and close his eyes, and you shall have all—aye, all.”

    “Answer me as I put the questions, or this musket shall send you to keep the old driveler company: where is your pack?”

    “I will tell you nothing, unless you let me go to my father,” said the pedler, resolutely.

    His persecutor raised his arm with a malicious sneer, and was about to execute his threat, when one of his companions checked him.

    “What would you do?” he said. “You surely forget the reward. Tell us where are your goods, and you shall go to your father.”

    Birch complied instantly, and a man was dispatched in quest of the booty; he soon returned, throwing the bundle on the floor, swearing it was as light as feathers.

    “Aye,” cried the leader, “there must be gold somewhere for what it did contain. Give us your gold, Mr. Birch; we know you have it; you will not take continental, not you.”

    “You break your faith,” said Harvey.

    “Give us your gold,” exclaimed the other, furiously, pricking the pedler with his bayonet until the blood followed his pushes in streams. At this instant a slight movement was heard in the adjoining room, and Harvey cried imploringly,—

    “Let me—let me go to my father, and you shall have all.”

    “I swear you shall go then,” said the Skinner.

    “Here, take the trash,” cried Birch, as he threw aside the purse, which he had contrived to conceal, notwithstanding the change in his garments.

    The robber raised it from the floor with a hellish laugh.

    “Aye, but it shall be to your father in heaven.”

    “Monster! have you no feeling, no faith, no honesty?”

    “To hear him, one would think there was not a rope around his neck already,” said the other, laughing. “There is no necessity for your being uneasy, Mr. Birch; if the old man gets a few hours the start of you in the journey, you will be sure to follow him before noon to-morrow.”

    This unfeeling communication had no effect on the pedler, who listened with gasping breath to every sound from the room of his parent until he heard his own name spoken in the hollow, sepulchral tones of death. Birch could endure no more, but shrieking out,—

    “Father! hush—father! I come—I come!” he darted by his keeper and was the next moment pinned to the wall by the bayonet of another of the band. Fortunately, his quick motion had caused him to escape a thrust aimed at his life, and it was by his clothes only that he was confined.

    “No, Mr. Birch,” said the Skinner, “we know you too well for a slippery rascal, to trust you out of sight—your gold, your gold!”

    “You have it,” said the pedler, writhing with agony.

    “Aye, we have the purse, but you have more purses. King George is a prompt paymaster, and you have done him many a piece of good service. Where is your hoard? Without it you will never see your father.”

    “Remove the stone underneath the woman,” cried the pedler, eagerly—“remove the stone.”

    “He raves! he raves!” said Katy, instinctively moving her position to a different stone from the one on which she had been standing. In a moment it was torn from its bed, and nothing but earth was seen beneath.

    “He raves! you have driven him from his right mind,” continued the trembling spinster: “would any man in his senses keep gold under a hearth?”

    “Peace, babbling fool!” cried Harvey. “Lift the corner stone, and you will find that which will make you rich, and me a beggar.”

    “And then you will be despisable,” said the housekeeper bitterly. “A pedler without goods and without money is sure to be despisable.”

    “There will be enough left to pay for his halter,” cried the Skinner, who was not slow to follow the instructions of Harvey, soon lighting upon a store of English guineas. The money was quickly transferred to a bag, notwithstanding the declarations of the spinster, that her dues were unsatisfied, and that, of right, ten of the guineas were her property.

    Delighted with a prize that greatly exceeded their expectations, the band prepared to depart, intending to take the pedler with them, in order to give him up to the American troops above, and to claim the reward offered for his apprehension. Everything was ready, and they were about to lift Birch in their arms, for he resolutely refused to move an inch, when a form appeared in their midst, which appalled the stoutest heart among them. The father had arisen from his bed, and he tottered forth at the cries of his son. Around his body was thrown the sheet of the bed, and his fixed eye and haggard face gave him the appearance of a being from another world. Even Katy and Cæsar thought it was the spirit of the elder Birch, and they fled the house, followed by the alarmed Skinners in a body.

    The excitement which had given the sick man strength, soon vanished, and the pedler, lifting him in his arms, reconveyed him to his bed. The reaction of the system which followed hastened to close the scene.

    The glazed eye of the father was fixed upon the son; his lips moved, but his voice was unheard. Harvey bent down, and, with the parting breath of his parent, received his dying benediction. A life of privation, and of wrongs, embittered most of the future hours of the pedler. But under no sufferings, in no misfortunes, the subject of poverty and obloquy, the remembrance of that blessing never left him; it constantly gleamed over the images of the past, shedding a holy radiance around his saddest hours of despondency; it cheered the prospect of the future with the prayers of a pious spirit; and it brought the sweet assurance of having faithfully discharged the sacred offices of filial love.

    The retreat of Cæsar and the spinster had been too precipitate to admit of much calculation; yet they themselves instinctively separated from the Skinners. After fleeing a short distance they paused, and the maiden commenced in a solemn voice,—

    “Oh! Cæsar, was it not dreadful to walk before he had been laid in his grave! It must have been the money that disturbed him; they say Captain Kidd walks near the spot where he buried gold in the old war.”

    “I never t’ink Johnny Birch hab such a big eye!” said the African, his teeth yet chattering with the fright.

    “I ’m sure ’t would be a botherment to a living soul to lose so much money. Harvey will be nothing but an utterly despisable, poverty-stricken wretch. I wonder who he thinks would even be his housekeeper!”

    “Maybe a spooke take away Harvey, too,” observed Cæsar, moving still nearer to the side of the maiden. But a new idea had seized the imagination of the spinster. She thought it not improbable that the prize had been forsaken in the confusion of the retreat; and after deliberating and reasoning for some time with Cæsar, they determined to venture back, and ascertain this important fact, and, if possible, learn what had been the fate of the pedler. Much time was spent in cautiously approaching the dreaded spot; and as the spinster had sagaciously placed herself in the line of the retreat of the Skinners, every stone was examined in the progress in search of abandoned gold. But although the suddenness of the alarm and the cry of Cæsar had impelled the freebooters to so hasty a retreat, they grasped the hoard with a hold that death itself would not have loosened. Perceiving everything to be quiet within, Katy at length mustered resolution to enter the dwelling, where she found the pedler, with a heavy heart, performing the last sad offices for the dead. A few words sufficed to explain to Katy the nature of her mistake; but Cæsar continued to his dying day to astonish the sable inmates of the kitchen with learned dissertations on spooks, and to relate how direful was the appearance of that of Johnny Birch.

    The danger compelled the pedler to abridge even the short period that American custom leaves the deceased with us; and, aided by the black and Katy, his painful task was soon ended. Cæsar volunteered to walk a couple of miles with orders to a carpenter; and, the body being habited in its ordinary attire, was left, with a sheet thrown decently over it, to await the return of the messenger.

    The Skinners had fled precipitately to the wood, which was but a short distance from the house of Birch, and once safely sheltered within its shades, they halted, and mustered their panic-stricken forces.

    “What in the name of fury seized your coward hearts?” cried their dissatisfied leader, drawing his breath heavily.

    “The same question might be asked of yourself,” returned one of the band, sullenly.

    “From your fright, I thought a party of De Lancey’s men were upon us. Oh! you are brave gentlemen at a race!”

    “We follow our captain.”

    “Then follow me back, and let us secure the scoundrel, and receive the reward.”

    “Yes; and by the time we reach the house, that black rascal will have the mad Virginian upon us; by my soul, I would rather meet fifty Cow-Boys than that single man.”

    “Fool!” cried the enraged leader, “don’t you know Dunwoodie’s horse are at the Corners, full two miles from here?”

    “I care not where the dragoons are, but I will swear that I saw Captain Lawton enter the house of old Wharton, while I lay watching an opportunity of getting the British colonel’s horse from the stable.”

    “And if he should come, won’t a bullet silence a dragoon from the South as well as from old England?”

    “Aye, but I don’t choose a hornet’s nest about my ears; rase the skin of one of that corps, and you will never see another peaceable night’s foraging again.”

    “Well,” muttered the leader, as they retired deeper into the wood, “this sottish pedler will stay to see the old devil buried; and though we cannot touch him at the funeral (for that would raise every old woman and priest in America against us), he ’ll wait to look after the movables, and to-morrow night shall wind up his concerns.”

    With this threat they withdrew to one of their usual places of resort, until darkness should again give them an opportunity of marauding on the community without danger of detection.