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

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

Chapter XI

  • O wo! O woful, woful, woful day!
  • Most lamentable day: most woful day,
  • That ever, ever, I did yet behold!
  • O day! O day! O day! O hateful day:
  • Never was seen so black a day as this:
  • O woful day! O woful day!

  • THE FAMILY at the Locusts had slept, or watched, through all the disturbances at the cottage of Birch, in perfect ignorance of their occurrence. The attacks of the Skinners were always made with so much privacy as to exclude the sufferers, not only from succor, but frequently, through a dread of future depredations, from the commiseration of their neighbors also. Additional duties had drawn the ladies from their pillows at an hour somewhat earlier than usual; and Captain Lawton, notwithstanding the sufferings of his body, had risen in compliance with a rule from which he never departed, of sleeping but six hours at a time. This was one of the few points, in which the care of the human frame was involved, on which the trooper and the surgeon of horse were ever known to agree. The doctor had watched, during the night, by the side of the bed of Captain Singleton, without once closing his eyes. Occasionally he would pay a visit to the wounded Englishman, who, being more hurt in the spirit than in the flesh, tolerated the interruptions with a very ill grace; and once, for an instant, he ventured to steal softly to the bed of his obstinate comrade, and was near succeeding in obtaining a touch of his pulse, when a terrible oath, sworn by the trooper in a dream, startled the prudent surgeon, and warned him of a trite saying in the corps, “that Captain Lawton always slept with one eye open.” This group had assembled in one of the parlors as the sun made its appearance over the eastern hill, dispersing the columns of fog which had enveloped the low land.

    Miss Peyton was looking from a window in the direction of the tenement of the pedler, and was expressing a kind anxiety after the welfare of the sick man, when the person of Katy suddenly emerged from the dense covering of an earthly cloud, whose mists were scattering before the cheering rays of the sun, and was seen making hasty steps towards the Locusts. There was that in the air of the housekeeper which bespoke distress of an unusual nature, and the kind-hearted mistress of the Locusts opened the door of the room, with the benevolent intention of soothing a grief that seemed so overwhelming. A nearer view of the disturbed features of the visitor confirmed Miss Peyton in her belief; and, with the shock that gentle feelings ever experience at a sudden and endless separation from even the meanest of their associates, she said hastily,—

    “Katy, is he gone?”

    “No, ma’am,” replied the disturbed damsel, with great bitterness, “he is not yet gone, but he may go as soon as he pleases now, for the worst is done. I do verily believe, Miss Peyton, they have n’t so much as left him money enough to buy him another suit of clothes to cover his nakedness, and those he has on are none of the best, I can tell you.”

    “How!” exclaimed the other, astonished, “could any one have the heart to plunder a man in such distress?”

    “Hearts,” repeated Katy, catching her breath; “men like them have no bowels at all. Plunder and distress, indeed! Why, ma’am, there were in the iron pot, in plain sight, fifty-four guineas of gold, besides what lay underneath, which I could n’t count without handling; and I did n’t like to touch it, for they say that another’s gold is apt to stick—so, judging from that in sight, there was n’t less than two hundred guineas, besides what might have been in the deer-skin purse. But Harvey is little better now than a beggar; and a beggar, Miss Jeanette, is the most awfully despisable of all earthly creatures.”

    “Poverty is to be pitied, and not despised,” said the lady, still unable to comprehend the extent of the misfortune that had befallen her neighbor during the night. “But how is the old man? And does this loss affect him much?”

    The countenance of Katy changed, from the natural expression of concern, to the set form of melancholy, as she answered,—

    “He is happily removed from the cares of the world; the chinking of the money made him get out of his bed, and the poor soul found the shock too great for him. He died about two hours and ten minutes before the cock crowed, as near as we can say;” she was interrupted by the physician, who, approaching, inquired, with much interest, the nature of the disorder. Glancing her eye over the figure of this new acquaintance, Katy instinctively adjusting her dress, replied,—

    “’T was the troubles of the times, and the loss of property, that brought him down; he wasted from day to day, and all my care and anxiety were lost; for now Harvey is no better than a beggar, and who is there to pay me for what I have done?”

    “God will reward you for all the good you have done,” said Miss Peyton, mildly.

    “Yes,” interrupted the spinster hastily, and with an air of reverence that was instantly succeeded by an expression that denoted more of worldly care; “but then I have left my wages for three years past in the hands of Harvey, and how am I to get them? My brothers told me, again and again, to ask for my money; but I always thought accounts between relations were easily settled.”

    “Were you related, then, to Birch?” asked Miss Peyton, observing her to pause.

    “Why,” returned the housekeeper, hesitating a little, “I thought we were as good as so. I wonder if I have no claim on the house and garden; though they say, now it is Harvey’s, it will surely be confiscated;” turning to Lawton, who had been sitting in one posture, with his piercing eyes lowering at her through his thick brows, in silence, “perhaps this gentleman knows—he seems to take an interest in my story.”

    “Madam,” said the trooper, bowing very low, “both you and the tale are extremely interesting”—Katy smiled involuntarily—“but my humble knowledge is limited to the setting of a squadron in the field, and using it when there. I beg leave to refer you to Dr. Archibald Sitgreaves, a gentleman of universal attainments and unbounded philanthropy; the very milk of human sympathies, and a mortal foe to all indiscriminate cutting.”

    The surgeon drew up, and employed himself in whistling a low air, as he looked over some phials on a table; but the housekeeper, turning to him with an inclination of the head, continued,—

    “I suppose, sir, a woman has no dower in her husband’s property, unless they be actually married?”

    It was a maxim with Dr. Sitgreaves, that no species of knowledge was to be despised; and, consequently, he was an empiric in everything but his profession. At first, indignation at the irony of his comrade kept him silent; but, suddenly changing his purpose, he answered the applicant with a good-natured smile,—

    “I judge not. If death has anticipated your nuptials, I am fearful you have no remedy against his stern decrees.”

    To Katy this sounded well, although she understood nothing of its meaning, but “death” and “nuptials.” To this part of his speech, then, she directed her reply.

    “I did think he only waited the death of the old gentleman before he married,” said the housekeeper, looking on the carpet; “but now he is nothing more than despisable, or, what ’s the same thing, a pedler without house, pack, or money. It might be hard for a man to get a wife at all in such a predicary—don’t you think it would, Miss Peyton?”

    “I seldom trouble myself with such things,” said the lady gravely.

    During this dialogue Captain Lawton had been studying the countenance and manner of the housekeeper, with a most ludicrous gravity; and, fearful the conversation would cease, he inquired, with an appearance of great interest,—

    “You think it was age and debility that removed the old gentleman at last?”

    “And the troublesome times. Trouble is a heavy pull-down to a sick-bed; but I suppose his time had come, and when that happens, it matters but little what doctor’s stuff we take.”

    “Let me set you right in that particular,” interrupted the surgeon; “we must all die, it is true, but it is permitted us to use the lights of science, in arresting dangers as they occur, until”—

    “We can die secundem artem,” cried the trooper.

    To this observation the physician did not deign to reply; but, deeming it necessary to his professional dignity that the conversation should continue, he added,—

    “Perhaps, in this instance, judicious treatment might have prolonged the life of the patient. Who administered to the case?”

    “No one yet,” said the housekeeper, with quickness; “I expect he has made his last will in the testament.”

    The surgeon disregarded the smile of the ladies, and pursued his inquiries.

    “It is doubtless wise to be prepared for death. But under whose care was the sick man during his indisposition?”

    “Under mine,” answered Katy, with an air of a little importance; “and care thrown away I may well call it; for Harvey is quite too despisable to be any sort of compensation at present.”

    The mutual ignorance of each other’s meaning made very little interruption to the dialogue, for both took a good deal for granted, and Sitgreaves pursued the subject.

    “And how did you treat him?”

    “Kindly, you may be certain,” said Katy, rather tartly.

    “The doctor means medically, madam,” observed Captain Lawton, with a face that would have honored the funeral of the deceased.

    “I doctored him mostly with yarbs,” said the housekeeper, smiling, as if conscious of error.

    “With simples,” returned the surgeon; “they are safer in the hands of the unlettered than more powerful remedies: but why had you no regular attendant?”

    “I ’m sure Harvey has suffered enough already from having so much concerns with the rig’lars,” replied the housekeeper; “he has lost his all, and made himself a vagabond through the land; and I have reason to rue the day I ever crossed the threshold of his house.”

    “Dr. Sitgreaves does not mean a rig’lar soldier, but a regular physician, madam,” said the trooper.

    “Oh!” cried the maiden, again correcting herself, “for the best of all reasons; there was none to be had, so I took care of him myself. If there had been a doctor at hand, I am sure we would gladly have had him; for my part, I am clear for doctoring, though Harvey says I am killing myself with medicines; but little difference to him, whether I live or die.”

    “Therein you show your sense,” said the surgeon, approaching the spinster, who sat holding the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet to the genial heat of a fine fire, making the most of comfort amid all her troubles; “you appear to be a sensible, discreet woman, and some who have had opportunities of acquiring more correct views might envy you your respect for knowledge and the lights of science.”

    Although the housekeeper did not altogether comprehend the other’s meaning, she knew he used a compliment, and as such was highly pleased with what he said; with increased animation, therefore, she cried, “It was always said of me, that I wanted nothing but opportunity to make quite a physician myself; so long as before I came to live with Harvey’s father, they called me the petticoat doctor.”

    “More true than civil, I dare say,” returned the surgeon, losing sight of the woman’s character in his admiration of her respect for the healing art. “In the absence of more enlightened counselors, the experience of a discreet matron is frequently of great efficacy in checking the progress of disease; under such circumstances, madam, it is dreadful to have to contend with ignorance and obstinacy.”

    “Bad enough, as I well know from experience,” cried Katy, in triumph: “Harvey is as obstinate about such things as a dumb beast; one would think the care I took of his bed-ridden father might learn him better than to despise good nursing. But some day he may know what it is to want a careful woman in his house, though now I am sure he is too despisable himself to have a house.”

    “Indeed, I can easily comprehend the mortification you must have felt in having one so self-willed to deal with,” returned the surgeon, glancing his eyes reproachfully at his comrade. “But you should rise superior to such opinions, and pity the ignorance by which they are engendered.”

    The housekeeper hesitated a moment, at a loss to comprehend all that the surgeon expressed, yet she felt it was both complimentary and kind; therefore, suppressing her natural flow of language a little, she replied,—

    “I tell Harvey his conduct is often condemnable, and last night he made my words good; but the opinions of such unbelievers is not very consequential; yet it is dreadful to think how he behaves at times: now, when he threw away the needle”—

    “What!” said the surgeon, interrupting her, “does he affect to despise the needle? But it is my lot to meet with men, daily, who are equally perverse, and who show a still more culpable disrespect for the information that flows from the lights of science.”

    The doctor turned his face towards Captain Lawton while speaking, but the elevation of the head prevented his eyes from resting on the grave countenance maintained by the trooper. Katy listened with admiring attention, and when the other had done, she added,—

    “Then Harvey is a disbeliever in the tides.”

    “Not believe in the tides!” repeated the healer of bodies in astonishment; “does the man distrust his senses? but perhaps it is the influence of the moon that he doubts.”

    “That he does!” exclaimed Katy, shaking with delight at meeting with a man of learning, who could support her favorite opinions. “If you was to hear him talk, you would think he did n’t believe there was such a thing as a moon at all.”

    “It is the misfortune of ignorance and incredulity, madam, that they feed themselves. The mind, once rejecting useful information, insensibly leans to superstition and conclusions on the order of nature, that are not less prejudicial to the cause of truth, than they are at variance with the first principles of human knowledge.”

    The spinster was too much awe-struck to venture an undigested reply to this speech; and the surgeon, after pausing a moment in a kind of philosophical disdain, continued,—

    “That any man in his senses can doubt of the flux of the tides is more than I could have thought possible; yet obstinacy is a dangerous inmate to harbor, and may lead us into any error, however gross.”

    “You think, then, they have an effect on the flux?” said the housekeeper, inquiringly.

    Miss Peyton rose and beckoned her nieces to give her their assistance in the adjoining pantry, while for a moment the dark visage of the attentive Lawton was lighted by an animation that vanished by an effort, as powerful and as sudden, as the one that drew it into being.

    After reflecting whether he rightly understood the meaning of the other, the surgeon, making due allowance for the love of learning, acting upon a want of education, replied,—

    “The moon, you mean; many philosophers have doubted how far it affects the tides; but I think it is willfully rejecting the lights of science not to believe it causes both the flux and reflux.”

    As reflux was a disorder with which Katy was not acquainted, she thought it prudent to be silent; yet burning with curiosity to know the meaning of certain portentous lights to which the other so often alluded, she ventured to ask,—

    “If them lights he spoke of were what was called northern lights in these parts?”

    In charity to her ignorance, the surgeon would have entered into an elaborate explanation of his meaning, had he not been interrupted by the mirth of Lawton. The trooper had listened so far with great composure; but now he laughed until his aching bones reminded him of his fall, and the tears rolled over his cheeks in larger drops than had ever been seen there before. At length the offended physician seized an opportunity of a pause to say,—

    “To you, Captain Lawton, it may be a source of triumph, that an uneducated woman should make a mistake in a subject on which men of science have long been at variance; but yet you find this respectable matron does not reject the lights—does not reject the use of proper instruments in repairing injuries sustained by the human frame. You may possibly remember, sir, her allusion to the use of the needle.”

    “Aye,” cried the delighted trooper, “to mend the pedler’s breeches.”

    Katy drew up in evident displeasure, and prompt to vindicate her character for more lofty acquirements, she said,—

    “’T was not a common use that I put that needle to—but one of much greater virtue.”

    “Explain yourself, madam,” said the surgeon impatiently, “that this gentleman may see how little reason he has for exultation.”

    Thus solicited, Katy paused to collect sufficient eloquence to garnish her narrative. The substance of her tale was, that a child who had been placed by the guardians of the poor in the keeping of Harvey, had, in the absence of its master, injured itself badly in the foot by a large needle. The offending instrument had been carefully greased, wrapped in woolen, and placed in a certain charmed nook of the chimney; while the foot, from a fear of weakening the incantation, was left in a state of nature. The arrival of the pedler had altered the whole of this admirable treatment; and the consequences were expressed by Katy, as she concluded her narrative, by saying,—

    “’T was no wonder the boy died of a lock-jaw!”

    Doctor Sitgreaves looked out of the window in admiration of the brilliant morning, striving all he could to avoid the basilisk’s eyes of his comrade. He was impelled, by a feeling that he could not conquer, however, to look Captain Lawton in the face. The trooper had arranged every muscle of his countenance to express sympathy for the fate of the poor child; but the exultation of his eyes cut the astounded man of science to the quick; he muttered something concerning the condition of his patients, and retreated with precipitation.

    Miss Peyton entered into the situation of things at the house of the pedler, with all the interest of her excellent feelings; she listened patiently while Katy recounted, more particularly, the circumstances of the past night as they had occurred. The spinster did not forget to dwell on the magnitude of the pecuniary loss sustained by Harvey, and in no manner spared her invectives, at his betraying a secret which might so easily have been kept.

    “For, Miss Peyton,” continued the housekeeper, after a pause to take breath, “I would have given up life before I would have given up that secret. At the most, they could only have killed him, and now a body may say that they have slain both soul and body; or, what ’s the same thing, they have made him a despisable vagabond. I wonder who he thinks would be his wife, or who would keep his house, For my part, my good name is too precious to be living with a lone man; though, for the matter of that, he is never there. I am resolved to tell him this day, that stay there a single woman, I will not an hour after the funeral; and marry him I don’t think I will, unless he becomes steadier and more of a home body.”

    The mild mistress of the Locusts suffered the exuberance of the housekeeper’s feelings to expend itself, and then, by one or two judicious questions, that denoted a more intimate knowledge of the windings of the human heart in matters of Cupid than might fairly be supposed to belong to a spinster, she extracted enough from Katy to discover the improbability of Harvey’s ever presuming to offer himself, with his broken fortunes, to the acceptance of Katharine Haynes. She therefore mentioned her own want of assistance in the present state of her household, and expressed a wish that Katy would change her residence to the Locusts, in case the pedler had no further use for her services. After a few preliminary conditions on the part of the wary housekeeper, the arrangement was concluded; and making a few more piteous lamentations on the weight of her own losses and the stupidity of Harvey, united with some curiosity to know the future fate of the pedler, Katy withdrew to make the necessary preparations for the approaching funeral, which was to take place that day.

    During the interview between the two females, Lawton, through delicacy, had withdrawn. Anxiety took him to the room of Captain Singleton. The character of this youth, it has already been shown, endeared him in a peculiar manner to every officer in the corps. The singularly mild deportment of the young dragoon had on so many occasions been proved not to proceed from want of resolution that his almost feminine softness of manner and appearance had failed to bring him into disrepute, even in that band of partisan warriors.

    To the major he was as dear as a brother, and his easy submission to the directions of his surgeon had made him a marked favorite with Dr. Sitgreaves. The rough usage the corps often received in its daring attacks had brought each of its officers, in succession, under the temporary keeping of the surgeon. To Captain Singleton the man of science had decreed the palm of docility, on such occasions, and Captain Lawton he had fairly blackballed. He frequently declared, with unconquerable simplicity and earnestness of manner, that it gave him more pleasure to see the former brought in wounded than any officer in the squadron, and that the latter afforded him the least; a compliment and condemnation that were usually received by the first of the parties with a quiet smile of good nature, and by the last with a grave bow of thanks. On the present occasion, the mortified surgeon and exulting trooper met in the room of Captain Singleton, as a place where they could act on common ground. Some time was occupied in joint attentions to the comfort of the wounded officer, and the doctor retired to an apartment prepared for his own accommodation; here, within a few minutes, he was surprised by the entrance of Lawton. The triumph of the trooper had been so complete, that he felt he could afford to be generous, and commencing by voluntarily throwing aside his coat, he cried carelessly,—

    “Sitgreaves, administer a little of the aid of the lights of science to my body, if you please.”

    The surgeon was beginning to feel this was a subject that was intolerable, but venturing a glance towards his comrade, he saw with surprise the preparations he had made, and an air of sincerity about him, that was unusual to his manner when making such a request. Changing his intended burst of resentment to a tone of civil inquiry, he said,—

    “Does Captain Lawton want anything at my hands?”

    “Look for yourself, my dear sir,” said the trooper mildly; “there seem to be most of the colors of the rainbow, on this shoulder.”

    “You have reason for saying so,” said the other, handling the part with great tenderness and consummate skill; “but happily nothing is broken. It is wonderful how well you escaped!”

    “I have been a tumbler from my youth, and I am past minding a few falls from a horse; but, Sitgreaves,” he added with affection, and pointing to a scar on his body, “do you remember this bit of work?”

    “Perfectly well, Jack; it was bravely obtained, and neatly extracted; but don’t you think I had better apply an oil to these bruises?”

    “Certainly,” said Lawton, with unexpected condescension.

    “Now, my dear boy,” cried the doctor, exultantly, as he busied himself in applying the remedy to the hurts, “do you not think it would have been better to have done all this last night?”

    “Quite probable.”

    “Yes, Jack, but if you had let me perform the operation of phlebotomy n when I first saw you, it would have been of infinite service.”

    “No phlebotomy,” said the other, positively.

    “It is now too late; but a dose of oil would carry off the humors famously.”

    To this the captain made no reply, but grated his teeth, in a way that showed the fortress of his mouth was not to be assailed without a resolute resistance; and the experienced physician changed the subject by saying,—

    “It is a pity, John, that you did not catch the rascal, after the danger and trouble you incurred.”

    The captain of dragoons made no reply; and, while placing some bandages on the wounded shoulder, the surgeon continued,—

    “If I have any wish at all to destroy human life, it is to have the pleasure of seeing that traitor hanged.”

    “I thought your business was to cure, and not to slay,” said the trooper, dryly.

    “Aye! but he has caused us such heavy losses by his information, that I sometimes feel a very unsophistical temper towards that spy.”

    “You should not encourage such feelings of animosity to any of your fellow-creatures,” returned Lawton, in a tone that caused the operator to drop a pin he was arranging in the bandages from his hand. He looked the patient in the face to remove all doubts of his identity: finding, however, it was his old comrade, Captain John Lawton, who had spoken, he rallied his astonished faculties, and proceeded by saying,—

    “Your doctrine is just, and in general I subscribe to it. But, John, my dear fellow, is the bandage easy?”


    “I agree with you as a whole; but as matter is infinitely divisible, so no case exists without an exception. Lawton, do you feel easy?”


    “It is not only cruel to the sufferer, but sometimes unjust to others, to take human life where a less punishment would answer the purpose. Now, Jack, if you were only—move your arm a little—if you were only—I hope you feel easier, my dear friend?”


    “If, my dear John, you would teach your men to cut with more discretion, it would answer you the same purpose—and give me great pleasure.”

    The doctor drew a heavy sigh, as he was enabled to get rid of what was nearest to the heart; and the dragoon coolly replaced his coat, saying with great deliberation as he retired,—

    “I know no troop that cut more judiciously; they generally shave from the crown to the jaw.”

    The disappointed operator collected his instruments, and with a heavy heart proceeded to pay a visit to the room of Colonel Wellmere.