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

Chapter XIII

  • I will stand to and feed,
  • Although my last.

  • THE SAVOR of preparation which had been noticed by Captain Lawton began to increase within the walls of the cottage: certain sweet-smelling odors, that arose from the subterranean territories of Cæsar, gave to the trooper the most pleasing assurances that his olfactory nerves, which on such occasions were as acute as his eyes on others, had faithfully performed their duty; and for the benefit of enjoying the passing sweets as they arose, the dragoon so placed himself at a window of the building, that not a vapor charged with the spices of the East could exhale on its passage to the clouds, without first giving its incense to his nose. Lawton, however, by no means indulged himself in this comfortable arrangement, without first making such preparations to do meet honor to the feast, as his scanty wardrobe would allow. The uniform of his corps was always a passport to the best tables, and this, though somewhat tarnished by faithful service and unceremonious usage, was properly brushed and decked out for the occasion. His head, which nature had ornamented with the blackness of a crow, now shone with the whiteness of snow; and his bony hand, that so well became the sabre, peered from beneath a ruffle with something like maiden coyness. The improvements of the dragoon went no further, excepting that his boots shone with more than holiday splendor, and his spurs glittered in the rays of the sun, as became the pure ore of which they were composed.

    Cæsar moved through the apartments with a face charged with an importance exceeding even that which had accompanied him in his melancholy task of the morning. The black had early returned from the errand on which he had been dispatched by the pedler, and, obedient to the commands of his mistress, promptly appeared to give his services where his allegiance was due; so serious, indeed, was his duty now becoming, that it was only at odd moments he was enabled to impart to his sable brother, who had been sent in attendance on Miss Singleton to the Locusts, any portion of the wonderful incidents of the momentous night he had so lately passed. By ingeniously using, however, such occasions as accidentally offered, Cæsar communicated so many of the heads of his tale, as served to open the eyes of his visitor to their fullest width. The gusto for the marvelous was innate in these sable worthies; and Miss Peyton found it necessary to interpose her authority, in order to postpone the residue of the history to a more befitting opportunity.

    “Ah! Miss Jinnett,” said Cæsar, shaking his head, and looking all that he expressed, “’t was awful to see Johnny Birch walk on a feet when he lie dead!”

    This concluded the conversation; though the black promised himself the satisfaction, and did not fail to enjoy it, of having many a gossip on the subject at a future period.

    The ghost thus happily laid, the department of Miss Peyton flourished; and by the time the afternoon’s sun had travelled a two hours’ journey from the meridian, the formal procession from the kitchen to the parlor commenced, under the auspices of Cæsar, who led the van, supporting a turkey on the palms of his withered hands, with the dexterity of a balance-master.

    Next followed the servant of Captain Lawton, bearing, as he marched stiffly, and walking wide, as if allowing room for his steed, a ham of true Virginian flavor; a present from the spinster’s brother in Accomac. The supporter of this savory dish kept his eye on his trust with military precision; and by the time he reached his destination, it might be difficult to say which contained the most juice, his own mouth or the Accomac bacon.

    Third in the line was to be seen the valet of Colonel Wellmere, who carried in either hand chickens fricasseed, and oyster patties.

    After him marched the attendant of Dr. Sitgreaves, who had instinctively seized an enormous tureen, as most resembling matters he understood, and followed on in place, until the steams of the soup so completely bedimmed the spectacles he wore, as a badge of office, that, on arriving at the scene of action, he was compelled to deposit his freight on the floor, until, by removing the glasses, he could see his way through the piles of reserved china and plate-warmers.

    Next followed another trooper, whose duty it was to attend on Captain Singleton; and, as if apportioning his appetite to the feeble state of his master, he had contented himself with conveying a pair of ducks, roasted, until their tempting fragrance began to make him repent his having so lately demolished a breakfast that had been provided for his master’s sister, with another prepared for himself.

    The white boy, who belonged to the house, brought up the rear, groaning under a load of sundry dishes of vegetables, that the cook, by way of climax, had unwittingly heaped on him.

    But this was far from all of the preparations for that day’s feast; Cæsar had no sooner deposited his bird, which, but the week before, had been flying amongst the highlands of Dutchess, little dreaming of so soon heading such a goodly assemblage, than he turned mechanically on his heel, and took up his line of march again for the kitchen. In this evolution the black was imitated by his companions in succession, and another procession to the parlor followed in the same order. By this admirable arrangement, whole flocks of pigeons, certain bevies of quails, shoals of flat-fish, bass, and sundry woodcock, found their way into the presence of the company.

    A third attack brought suitable quantities of potatoes, onions, beets, cold-slaw, rice, and all the other minutiæ of a goodly dinner.

    The board now fairly groaned with American profusion, and Cæsar, glancing his eye over the show with a most approving conscience, after readjusting every dish that had not been placed on the table with his own hands, proceeded to acquaint the mistress of the revels that his task was happily accomplished.

    Some half-hour before the culinary array just recorded took place, all the ladies disappeared, much in the same unaccountable manner that swallows flee the approach of winter. But the spring-time of their return had arrived, and the whole party were collected in an apartment that, in consequence of its containing no side-table, and being furnished with a chintz coverlet settee, was termed a withdrawing-room.

    The kind-hearted spinster had deemed the occasion worthy, not only of extraordinary preparations in the culinary department, but had seen proper to deck her own person in garments suited to the guests whom it was now her happiness to entertain.

    On her head Miss Peyton wore a cap of exquisite lawn, which was ornamented in front with a broad border of lace, that spread from the face in such a manner as to admit of a display of artificial flowers, clustered in a group on the summit of her fine forehead.

    The color of her hair was lost in the profusion of powder with which it was covered; but a slight curling of the extremities in some degree relieved the formality of its arrangement, and gave a look of feminine softness to the features.

    Her dress was a rich, heavy silk, of violet color, cut low around the bust, with a stomacher of the same material, that fitted close to the figure, and exhibited the form, from the shoulders to the waist in its true proportions. Below, the dress was full, and sufficiently showed that parsimony in attire was not a foible of the day. A small loop displayed the beauty of the fabric to advantage, and aided in giving majesty to the figure.

    The tall stature of the lady was heightened by shoes of the same material with the dress, whose heels added more than an inch to the liberality of nature.

    The sleeves were short, and close to the limb, until they fell off at the elbows in large ruffles, that hung in rich profusion from the arm when extended; and duplicates and triplicates of lawn, trimmed with Dresden lace, lent their aid in giving delicacy to a hand and arm that yet retained their whiteness and symmetry. A treble row of large pearls closely encircled her throat; and a handkerchief of lace partially concealed that part of the person that the silk had left exposed, but which the experience of forty years had warned Miss Peyton should now be veiled.

    Thus attired, and standing erect with the lofty grace that distinguished the manners of that day, the maiden would have looked into nothingness a bevy of modern belles.

    The taste of Sarah had kept even pace with the decorations of her aunt; and a dress, differing in no respect from the one just described, but in material and tints, exhibited her imposing form to equal advantage. The satin of her robe was of a pale bluish color. Twenty years did not, however, require the screen that was prudent in forty, and nothing but an envious border of exquisite lace hid, in some measure, what the satin left exposed to view. The upper part of the bust, and the fine fall of the shoulders, were blazing in all their native beauty, and, like the aunt, the throat was ornamented by a treble row of pearls, to correspond with which were rings of the same quality in the ears. The head was without a cap, and the hair drawn up from the countenance so as to give to the eye all the loveliness of a forehead as polished as marble and as white as snow. A few straggling curls fell gracefully on the neck, and a bouquet of artificial flowers was also placed, like a coronet, over her brow.

    Miss Singleton had resigned her brother to the advice of Dr. Sitgreaves, who had succeeded in getting his patient into a deep sleep, after quieting certain feverish symptoms that followed the agitation of the interview. The sister was persuaded, by the observant mistress of the mansion, to make one of the party, and she sat by the side of Sarah, differing but little in appearance from that lady, except in refusing the use of powder on her raven locks, and that her unusually high forehead and large, brilliant eyes gave an expression of thoughtfulness to her features, that was possibly heightened by the paleness of her cheek.

    Last and least, but not the most unlovely, in this display of female charms, was the youngest daughter of Mr. Wharton. Frances, we have already mentioned, left the city before she had attained to the age of fashionable womanhood. A few adventurous spirits were already beginning to make inroads in those customs which had so long invaded the comforts of the fair sex; and the youthful girl had ventured to trust her beauty to the height which nature had bestowed. This was but little, but that little was a masterpiece. Frances several times had determined, in the course of the morning, to bestow more than usual pains in the decoration of her person. Each time in succession, as she formed this resolution, she spent a few minutes in looking earnestly towards the north, and then she as invariably changed it.

    At the appointed hour, our heroine appeared in the drawing-room, clothed in a robe of pale blue silk, of a cut and fashion much like that worn by her sister. Her hair was left to the wild curls of nature, its exuberance being confined to the crown of her head by a long, low comb, made of light tortoise-shell; a color barely distinguishable in the golden hue of her tresses. Her dress was without a plait or a wrinkle, and fitted the form with an exactitude that might lead one to imagine the arch girl more than suspected the beauties it displayed. A tucker of rich Dresden lace softened the contour of the figure. Her head was without ornament; but around her throat was a necklace of gold clasped in front with a rich cornelian.

    Once, and once only, as they moved towards the repast, did Lawton see a foot thrust itself from beneath the folds of her robe, and exhibit its little beauties encased in a slipper of blue silk, clasped close to the shape by a buckle of brilliants. The trooper caught himself sighing as he thought, though it was good for nothing in the stirrup, how enchantingly it would grace a minuet.

    As the black appeared on the threshold of the room, making a low reverence, which has been interpreted for some centuries into “dinner waits,” Mr. Wharton, clad in a dress of drab, bedecked with enormous buttons, advanced formally to Miss Singleton, and bending his powdered head nearly to the level of the hand he extended, received hers in return.

    Dr. Sitgreaves offered the same homage to Miss Peyton, and met with equal favor; the lady first pausing to draw on her gloves.

    Colonel Wellmere was honored with a smile from Sarah, while performing a similar duty; and Frances gave the ends of her taper fingers to Captain Lawton with maiden bashfulness.

    Much time, and some trouble, were expended before the whole party were, to the great joy of Cæsar, comfortably arranged around the table, with proper attention to all points of etiquette and precedence. The black well knew the viands were not improving; and though abundantly able to comprehend the disadvantage of eating a cold dinner, it greatly exceeded his powers of philosophy to weigh all the latent consequences to society which depend on social order.

    For the first ten minutes all but the captain of dragoons found themselves in a situation much to their liking. Even Lawton would have been perfectly happy, had not excess of civility on the part of his host and Miss Jeanette Peyton, kept him from the more agreeable occupation of tasting dishes he did want, in order to decline those he did not. At length, however, the repast was fairly commenced, and a devoted application to the viands was more eloquent than a thousand words in favor of Dinah’s skill.

    Next came drinking with the ladies; but as the wine was excellent, and the glasses ample, the trooper bore this interruption with consummate good nature. Nay, so fearful was he of giving offense, and of omitting any of the nicer points of punctilio, that having commenced this courtesy with the lady who sat next him, he persevered until not one of his fair companions could, with justice, reproach him with partiality in this particular.

    Long abstemiousness from anything like generous wine might plead the excuse of Captain Lawton, especially when exposed to so strong a temptation as that now before him. Mr. Wharton had been one of a set of politicians in New York, whose principal exploits before the war had been to assemble, and pass sage opinions on the signs of the times, under the inspiration of certain liquor made from a grape that grew on the south side of the island of Madeira, and which found its way into the colonies of North America through the medium of the West Indies, sojourning awhile in the Western Archipelago, by way of proving the virtues of the climate. A large supply of this cordial had been drawn from his storehouse in the city, and some of it now sparkled in a bottle before the captain, blushing in the rays of the sun, which were passing obliquely through it, like amber.

    Though the meat and vegetables had made their entrance with perfect order and propriety, their exeunt was effected much in the manner of a retreat of militia. The point was to clear the board something after the fabled practice of the harpies, and by dint of scrambling, tossing, breaking, and spilling, the remnants of the overflowing repast disappeared. And now another series of processions commenced, by virtue of which a goodly display of pastry, with its usual accompaniments, garnished the table.

    Mr. Wharton poured out a glass of wine for the lady who sat on his right hand, and, pushing the bottle to a guest, said with a low bow,—

    “We are to be honored with a toast from Miss Singleton.”

    Although there was nothing more in this movement than occurred every day on such occasions, yet the lady trembled, colored, and grew pale again, seemingly endeavoring to rally her thoughts, until, by her agitation, she had excited the interest of the whole party; when by an effort, and in a manner as if she had striven in vain to think of another, Isabella said, faintly,—

    “Major Dunwoodie.”

    The health was drunk cheerfully by all but Colonel Wellmere, who wet his lips, and drew figures on the table with some of the liquor he had spilt.

    At length Colonel Wellmere broke silence by saying aloud to Captain Lawton,—

    “I suppose, sir, this Mr. Dunwoodie will receive promotion in the rebel army, for the advantage my misfortune gave him over my command.”

    The trooper had supplied the wants of nature to his perfect satisfaction; and, perhaps, with the exception of Washington and his immediate commander, there was no mortal whose displeasure he regarded a tittle. First helping himself, therefore, to a little of his favorite bottle, he replied with admirable coolness,—

    “Colonel Wellmere, your pardon; Major Dunwoodie owes his allegiance to the confederated states of North America, and where he owes it, he pays it. Such a man is no rebel. Promoted I hope he may be, both because he deserves it, and because I am next in rank in the corps; and I know not what you call a misfortune, unless you deem meeting the Virginia horse as such.”

    “We will not differ about terms, sir,” said the colonel, haughtily; “I spoke as duty to my sovereign prompted: but do you not call the loss of a commander a misfortune to a party?”

    “It certainly may be so,” said the trooper, with emphasis.

    “Miss Peyton, will you favor us with a toast?” cried the master of the house, anxious to stop this dialogue.

    The lady bowed her head with dignity, as she named “General Montrose;” and the long-absent bloom stole lightly over her features.

    “There is no term more doubtful than that word misfortune,” said the surgeon, regardless of the nice manœuvres of the host; “some deem one thing a misfortune, others its opposite: misfortune begets misfortune: life is a misfortune, for it may be the means of enduring misfortune; and death is a misfortune, as it abridges the enjoyments of life.”

    “It is a misfortune that our mess has no such wine as this,” interrupted the trooper.

    “We will pledge you a sentiment in it, sir, as it seems to suit your taste,” said Mr. Wharton.

    Lawton filled to the brim, and drank, “A speedy peace, or a stirring war.”

    “I drink your toast, Captain Lawton, though I greatly distrust your construction of activity,” said the surgeon. “In my poor judgment, cavalry should be kept in the rear to improve a victory, and not sent in front to gain it. Such may be said to be their natural occupation, if the term can be used in reference to so artificial a body; for all history shows that the horse have done most when held in reserve.”

    This dissertation, uttered in a sufficiently didactic manner, was a hint that Miss Peyton did not neglect. She arose and retired, followed by her juniors.

    Nearly at the same moment, Mr. Wharton and his son made an apology for their absence, which was required on account of the death of a near neighbor, and withdrew.

    The retreat of the ladies was the signal for the appearance of the surgeon’s cigar, which, being established in a corner of his mouth, in a certain knowing way, caused not the slightest interruption to his discourse—

    “If anything can sweeten captivity and wounds, it must be the happiness of suffering in the society of the ladies who have left us,” gallantly observed the colonel, as he resumed his seat after closing the door.

    “Sympathy and kindness have their influence on the human system,” returned the surgeon, knocking the ashes from his cigar, with the tip of a little finger, in the manner of an adept. “The connection is intimate between the moral and physical feelings; but still, to accomplish a cure, and restore nature to the healthy tone it has lost from disease or accident, requires more than can flow from unguided sympathies. In such cases, the lights”—the surgeon accidentally caught the eye of the trooper and he paused. Taking two or three hasty puffs, he essayed to finish the sentence, “In such cases, the knowledge that flows from the lights”—

    “You were saying, sir,” said Colonel Wellmere, sipping his wine,—

    “The purport of my remark went to say,” continued Sitgreaves, turning his back on Lawton, “that a bread poultice would not set a broken arm.”

    “More is the pity,” cried the trooper, “for next to eating, the nourishment could not be more innocently applied.”

    “To you, Colonel Wellmere,” said the surgeon, “as a man of education, I can with safety appeal.” The colonel bowed. “You must have observed the dreadful havoc made in your ranks by the men who were led by this gentleman;” the colonel looked grave, again; “how, when blows lighted on their frames, life was invariably extinguished, beyond all hope of scientific reparation: how certain yawning wounds were inflicted, that must set at defiance the art of the most experienced practitioner; now, sir, to you I triumphantly appeal, therefore, to know whether your detachment would not have been as effectually defeated, if the men had all lost a right arm, for instance, as if they had all lost their heads.”

    “The triumph of your appeal is somewhat hasty, sir,” said Wellmere.

    “Is the cause of liberty advanced a step by such injudicious harshness in the field?” continued the surgeon, bent on the favorite principle of his life.

    “I am yet to learn that the cause of liberty is in any manner advanced by the services of any gentleman in the rebel army,” rejoined the colonel.

    “Not liberty! Good God, for what then are we contending?”

    “Slavery, sir; yes, even slavery; you are putting the tyranny of a mob on the throne of a kind and lenient prince; where is the consistency of your boasted liberty?”

    “Consistency!” repeated the surgeon, looking about him a little wildly, at hearing such sweeping charges against a cause he had so long thought holy.

    “Aye, sir, your consistency. Your congress of sages have published a manifesto, wherein they set forth the equality of political rights.”

    “’T is true, and it is done most ably.”

    “I say nothing of its ability; but if true, why not set your slaves at liberty?” This argument, which is thought by most of the colonel’s countrymen a triumphant answer to a thousand eloquent facts, lost none of its weight by the manner in which it was uttered.

    Every American feels humbled at the necessity of vindicating his country from the apparent inconsistency and injustice of the laws alluded to. His feelings are much like those of an honorable man who is compelled to exonerate himself from a disgraceful charge, although he may know the accusation to be false. At the bottom, Sitgreaves had much good sense, and thus called on, he took up the cudgels of argument in downright earnest.

    “We deem it a liberty to have the deciding voice in the councils by which we are governed. We think it a hardship to be ruled by the king of a people who live at a distance of three thousand miles, and who cannot, and who do not, feel a single political interest in common with ourselves. I say nothing of oppression; the child was of age, and was entitled to the privileges of majority. In such cases, there is but one tribunal to which to appeal for a nation’s rights—it is power, and we now make the appeal.”

    “Such doctrines may suit your present purposes,” said Wellmere, with a sneer; “but I apprehend it is opposed to all the opinions and practices of civilized nations.”

    “It is in conformity with the practices of all nations,” said the surgeon, returning the nod and smile of Lawton, who enjoyed the good sense of his comrade as much as he disliked what he called “his medical talk.” “Who would be ruled when he can rule? The only rational ground to take is, that every community has a right to govern itself, so that in no manner it violates the laws of God.”

    “And is holding your fellow-creatures in bondage in conformity to those laws?” asked the colonel, impressively.

    The surgeon took another glass, and hemming once, returned to the combat.

    “Sir,” said he, “slavery is of very ancient origin, and it seems to have been confined to no particular religion or form of government; every nation of civilized Europe does, or has held their fellow-creatures in this kind of duresse.”

    “You will except Great Britain,” cried the colonel, proudly.

    “No, sir,” continued the surgeon, confidently, feeling that he was now carrying the war out of his own country; “I cannot except Great Britain. It was her children, her ships, and her laws, that first introduced the practice into these states; and on her institutions the judgment must fall. There is not a foot of ground belonging to England, in which a negro would be useful, that has not its slave. England herself has none, but England is overflowing with physical force, a part of which she is obliged to maintain in the shape of paupers. The same is true of France, and most other European countries. So long as we were content to remain colonies, nothing was said of our system of domestic slavery; but now, when we are resolute to obtain as much freedom as the vicious system of metropolitan rule has left us, that which is England’s gift has become our reproach. Will your master liberate the slaves of his subjects should he succeed in subduing the new States, or will he condemn the whites to the same servitude as that in which he has been so long content to see the blacks? It is true, we continue the practice; but we must come gradually to the remedy, or create an evil greater than that which we endure at present: doubtless, as we advance, the manumission of our slaves will accompany us, until happily these fair regions shall exist, without a single image of the Creator that is held in a state which disqualifies him to judge of that Creator’s goodness.”

    It will be remembered that Doctor Sitgreaves spoke forty years ago, and Wellmere was unable to contradict his prophetic assertion.

    Finding the subject getting to be knotty, the Englishman retired to the apartment in which the ladies had assembled; and, seated by the side of Sarah, he found a more pleasing employment in relating the events of fashionable life in the metropolis, and in recalling the thousand little anecdotes of their former associates. Miss Peyton was a pleased listener, as she dispensed the bounties of the tea-table, and Sarah frequently bowed her blushing countenance to her needle-work, as her face glowed at the flattering remarks of her companion.

    The dialogue we have related established a perfect truce between the surgeon and his comrade; and the former having paid a visit to Singleton, they took their leave of the ladies, and mounted; the former to visit the wounded at the encampment, and the latter to rejoin his troop. But their movements were arrested at the gate by an occurrence that we shall relate in the next chapter.