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

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

Chapter XIV

  • I see no more those white locks thinly spread
  • Round the bald polish of that honored head:
  • No more that meek, that suppliant look in prayer,
  • Nor that pure faith that gave it force, are there:
  • But he is blest, and I lament no more,
  • A wise good man, contented to be poor.

  • WE have already said that the customs of America leave the dead but a short time in sight of the mourners; and the necessity of providing for his own safety had compelled the pedler to abridge even this brief space. In the confusion and agitation produced by the events we have recorded, the death of the elder Birch had occurred unnoticed; but a sufficient number of the immediate neighbors were hastily collected, and the ordinary rites of sepulture were now about to be paid to the deceased. It was the approach of this humble procession that arrested the movements of the trooper and his comrade. Four men supported the body on a rude bier; and four others walked in advance, ready to relieve their friends from their burden. The pedler walked next the coffin, and by his side moved Katy Haynes, with a most determined aspect of woe, and next to the mourners came Mr. Wharton and the English captain. Two or three old men and women, with a few straggling boys, brought up the rear. Captain Lawton sat in his saddle, in rigid silence, until the bearers came opposite to his position, and then, for the first time, Harvey raised his eyes from the ground, and saw the enemy that he dreaded so near him. The first impulse of the pedler was certainly flight; but recovering his recollection, he fixed his eye on the coffin of his parent, and passed the dragoon with a firm step but swelling heart. The trooper slowly lifted his cap, and continued uncovered until Mr. Wharton and his son had moved by, when, accompanied by the surgeon, he rode leisurely in the rear, maintaining an inflexible silence.

    Cæsar emerged from the cellar kitchen of the cottage, and with a face of settled solemnity, added himself to the number of the followers of the funeral, though with a humble mien and at a most respectful distance from the horsemen. The old negro had placed around his arm, a little above the elbow, a napkin of unsullied whiteness, it being the only time since his departure from the city that he had enjoyed an opportunity of exhibiting himself in the garniture of servile mourning. He was a great lover of propriety, and had been a little stimulated to this display by a desire to show his sable friend from Georgia all the decencies of a New York funeral; and the ebullition of his zeal went off very well, producing no other result than a mild lecture from Miss Peyton at his return, on the fitness of things. The attendance of the black was thought well enough in itself; but the napkin was deemed a superfluous exhibition of ceremony, at the funeral of a man who had performed all the menial offices in his own person.

    The graveyard was an inclosure on the grounds of Mr. Wharton, which had been fenced with stone and set apart for the purpose, by that gentleman, some years before. It was not, however, intended as a burial-place for any of his own family. Until the fire, which raged as the British troops took possession of New York, had laid Trinity in ashes, a goodly gilded tablet on its walls proclaimed the virtues of his deceased parents, and beneath a flag of marble, in one of the aisles of the church, their bones were left to moulder in aristocratical repose. Captain Lawton made a movement as if he was disposed to follow the procession, when it left the highway, to enter the field which contained the graves of the humble dead, but he was recalled to recollection by a hint from his companion that he was taking the wrong road.

    “Of all the various methods which have been adopted by man for the disposal of his earthly remains, which do you prefer, Captain Lawton?” said the surgeon, as they separated from the little procession: “in some countries the body is exposed to be devoured by wild beasts; in others it is suspended in the air to exhale its substance in the manner of decomposition; in other regions it is consumed on the funeral pile, and, again, it is inhumed in the bowels of the earth; every people have their own particular fashion, and to which do you give the preference?”

    “All are agreeable,” said the trooper, following the group they had left with his eyes; “though the speediest interments give the cleanest fields. Of which are you an admirer?”

    “The last, as practiced by ourselves, for the other three are destructive of all the opportunities for dissection; whereas, in the last, the coffin can lie in peaceful decency, while the remains are made to subserve the useful purposes of science. Ah! Captain Lawton, I enjoy comparatively but few opportunities of such a nature, to what I expected on entering the army.”

    “To what may these pleasures numerically amount in a year?” said the captain, withdrawing his gaze from the graveyard.

    “Within a dozen, upon my honor; my best picking is when the corps is detached; for when we are with the main army, there are so many boys to be satisfied, that I seldom get a good subject. Those youngsters are as wasteful as prodigals, and as greedy as vultures.”

    “A dozen!” echoed the trooper, in surprise; “why I furnish you that number with my own hands.”

    “Ah! Jack,” returned the doctor, approaching the subject with great tenderness of manner, “it is seldom I can do anything with your patients; you disfigure them woefully; believe me, John, when I tell you as a friend that your system is all wrong; you unnecessarily destroy life, and then you injure the body so that it is unfit for the only use that can be made of a dead man.”

    The trooper maintained a silence, which he thought would be the most probable means of preserving peace between them, and the surgeon, turning his head from taking a last look at the burial, as they rode around the foot of the hill that shut the valley from their sight, continued with a suppressed sigh—

    “One might get a natural death from that graveyard to-night, if there was but time and opportunity! the patient must be the father of the lady we saw this morning.”

    “The petticoat doctor!—she with the aurora borealis complexion,” said the trooper, with a smile, that began to cause uneasiness to his companion; “but the lady was not the gentleman’s daughter, only his medico-petticoat attendant; and the Harvey, whose name was made to rime with every word in her song, is the renowned pedler spy.”

    “What? he who unhorsed you?”

    “No man ever unhorsed me, Dr. Sitgreaves,” said the dragoon, gravely; “I fell by a mischance of Roanoke; rider and beast kissed the earth together.”

    “A warm embrace, from the love spots it left on your cuticle; ’t is a thousand pities that you cannot find where the tattling rascal lies hid.”

    “He followed his father’s body.”

    “And you let him pass!” cried the surgeon, checking his horse; “let us return immediately, and take him; to-morrow you shall have him hanged, Jack,—and, damn him, I ’ll dissect him!”

    “Softly, softly, my dear Archibald; would you arrest a man while paying the last offices to a dead father? Leave him to me, and I pledge myself he shall have justice.”

    The doctor muttered his dissatisfaction at any postponement of vengeance, but he was compelled to acquiesce, from a regard to his reputation for propriety; and they continued their ride to the quarters of the corps, engaged in various discussions concerning the welfare of the human body.

    Birch supported the grave and collected manner that was thought becoming in a male mourner, on such occasions, and to Katy was left the part of exhibiting the tenderness of the softer sex. There are some people, whose feelings are of such nature that they cannot weep unless it be in proper company, and the spinster was a good deal addicted to this congregational virtue. After casting her eyes around the small assemblage, the housekeeper found the countenances of the few females, who were present, fixed on her in solemn expectation, and the effect was instantaneous; the maiden really wept, and she gained no inconsiderable sympathy, and some reputation for a tender heart, from the spectators. The muscles of the pedler’s face were seen to move, and as the first clod of earth fell on the tenement of his father, sending up that dull, hollow sound that speaks so eloquently the mortality of man, his whole frame was for an instant convulsed. He bent his body down, as if in pain, his fingers worked while the hands hung lifeless by his side, and there was an expression in his countenance that seemed to announce a writhing of the soul; but it was not unresisted, and it was transient. He stood erect, drew a long breath, and looked around him with an elevated face, that even seemed to smile with a consciousness of having obtained the mastery. The grave was soon filled; a rough stone, placed at either extremity, marked its position, and the turf, whose faded vegetation was adapted to the fortunes of the deceased, covered the little hillock with the last office of seemliness. This office ended, the neighbors, who had officiously pressed forward to offer their services in performing their solemn duty, paused, and lifting their hats, stood looking towards the mourner, who now felt himself to be really alone in the world. Uncovering his head also, the pedler hesitated a moment, to gather energy, and spoke.

    “My friends and neighbors,” he said, “I thank you for assisting me to bury my dead out of my sight.”

    A solemn pause succeeded the customary address, and the group dispersed in silence, some few walking with the mourners back to their own habitation, but respectfully leaving them at its entrance. The pedler and Katy were followed into the building by one man, however, who was well known to the surrounding country by the significant term of “a speculator.” Katy saw him enter, with a heart that palpitated with dreadful forebodings, but Harvey civilly handed him a chair, and evidently was prepared for the visit.

    The pedler went to the door, and, taking a cautious glance about the valley, quickly returned, and commenced the following dialogue:—

    “The sun has just left the top of the eastern hill; my time presses me: here is the deed for the house and lot; everything is done according to law.”

    The other took the paper, and conned its contents with a deliberation that proceeded partly from his caution, and partly from the unlucky circumstance of his education having been much neglected when a youth. The time occupied in this tedious examination was employed by Harvey in gathering together certain articles which he intended to include in the stores that were to leave the habitation with himself. Katy had already inquired of the pedler whether the deceased had left a will; and she saw the Bible placed in the bottom of a new pack, which she had made for his accommodation, with a most stoical indifference; but as the six silver spoons were laid carefully by its side, a sudden twinge of her conscience objected to such a palpable waste of property, and she broke silence.

    “When you marry, Harvey, you may miss those spoons.”

    “I never shall marry.”

    “Well, if you don’t there ’s no occasion to make rash promises, even to yourself. One never knows what one may do, in such a case. I should like to know, of what use so many spoons can be to a single man: for my part, I think it is a duty for every man who is well provided, to have a wife and family to maintain.”

    At the time when Katy expressed this sentiment, the fortune of women in her class of life consisted of a cow, a bed, the labors of their own hands in the shape of divers pillow cases, blankets, and sheets, with, where fortune was unusually kind, a half-dozen silver spoons. The spinster herself had obtained all the other necessaries by her own industry and prudence, and it can easily be imagined that she saw the articles she had long counted her own vanish in the enormous pack, with a dissatisfaction that was in no degree diminished by the declaration that had preceded the act. Harvey, however, disregarded her opinions and feelings, and continued his employment of filling the pack, which soon grew to something like the ordinary size of the pedler’s burden.

    “I ’m rather timersome about this conveyance,” said the purchaser, having at length waded through the covenants of the deed.

    “Why so?”

    “I ’m afraid it won’t stand good in law. I know that two of the neighbors leave home to-morrow morning, to have the place entered for confistication; and if I should give forty pounds, and lose it all, ’t would be a dead pull-back to me.”

    “They can only take my right,” said the pedler: “pay me two hundred dollars, and the house is yours: you are a well-known Whig, and you at least they won’t trouble.” As Harvey spoke, there was a strange bitterness of manner, mingled with the shrewd care he expressed concerning the sale of his property.

    “Say one hundred, and it is a bargain,” returned the man, with a grin that he meant for a good-natured smile.

    “A bargain!” echoed the pedler, in surprise; “I thought the bargain already made.”

    “Nothing is a bargain,” said the purchaser, with a chuckle, “until papers are delivered, and the money paid in hand.”

    “You have the paper.”

    “Aye, and will keep it, if you will excuse the money; come, say one hundred and fifty, and I won’t be hard; here—here is just the money.”

    The pedler looked from the window, and saw with dismay that the evening was fast advancing, and knew well that he endangered his life by remaining in the dwelling after dark; yet he could not tolerate the idea of being defrauded in this manner, in a bargain that had already been fairly made; he hesitated.

    “Well,” said the purchaser, rising, “mayhap you can find another man to trade with between this and morning, but, if you don’t your title won’t be worth much afterwards.”

    “Take it, Harvey,” said Katy, who felt it impossible to resist a tender like the one before her; for the purchase-money was in English guineas. Her voice roused the pedler, and a new idea seemed to strike him.

    “I agree to the price,” he said; and, turning to the spinster, he placed part of the money in her hand, as he continued, “had I other means to pay you, I would have lost all, rather than have suffered myself to be defrauded of part.”

    “You may lose all yet,” muttered the stranger, with a sneer, as he rose and left the building.

    “Yes,” said Katy, following him with her eyes; “he knows your failing, Harvey; he thinks with me, now the old gentleman is gone, you will want a careful body to take care of your concerns.”

    The pedler was busied in making arrangements for his departure, and he took no notice of this insinuation, while the spinster returned again to the attack. She had lived so many years in expectation of a termination to her hopes, so different from that which now seemed likely to occur, that the idea of separation began to give her more uneasiness than she had thought herself capable of feeling, about a man so destitute and friendless.

    “Have you another house to go to?” inquired Katy.

    “Providence will provide me with a home.”

    “Yes,” said the housekeeper, “but maybe ’t will not be to your liking.”

    “The poor must not be difficult.”

    “I ’m sure I ’m anything but a difficult body,” cried the spinster, very hastily; “but I love to see things becoming, and in their places; yet I would n’t be hard to persuade to leave this place myself. I can’t say I altogether like the ways of the people hereabouts.”

    “The valley is lovely,” said the pedler, with fervor, “and the people like all the race of man. But to me it matters nothing; all places are now alike, and all faces equally strange;” as he spoke he dropped the article he was packing from his hand, and seated himself on a chest, with a look of vacant misery.

    “Not so, not so,” said Katy, shoving her chair nearer to the place where the pedler sat; “not so, Harvey, you must know me at least; my face cannot be strange to you.”

    Birch turned his eyes slowly on her countenance, which exhibited more of feeling, and less of self, than he had ever seen there before; he took her hand kindly, and his own features lost some of their painful expression, as he said,—

    “Yes, good woman, you, at least, are not a stranger to me; you may do me partial justice; when others revile me, possibly your feelings may lead you to say something in my defense.”

    “That I will; that I would!” said Katy, eagerly; “I will defend you, Harvey, to the last drop; let me hear them that dare to revile you! you say true, Harvey, I am partial and just to you; what if you do like the king? I have often heard it said he was at the bottom a good man; but there ’s no religion in the old country, for everybody allows the ministers are desperate bad!”

    The pedler paced the floor in evident distress of mind; his eyes had a look of wildness that Katy had never witnessed before, and his step was measured, with a dignity that appalled the housekeeper.

    “While my father lived,” murmured Harvey, unable to smother his feelings, “there was one who read my heart; and oh! what a consolation to return from my secret marches of danger, and the insults and wrongs that I suffered, to receive his blessing and his praise; but he is gone,” he continued, stopping and gazing wildly towards the corner that used to hold the figure of his parent, “and who is there to do me justice?”

    “Why, Harvey! Harvey!”

    “Yes, there is one who will, who must know me before I die! Oh! it is dreadful to die, and leave such a name behind me.”

    “Don’t talk of dying, Harvey,” said the spinster, glancing her eye around the room, and pushing the wood in the fire to obtain a light from the blaze.

    The ebullition of feeling in the pedler was over. It had been excited by the events of the past day, and a vivid perception of his sufferings. It was not long, however, that passion maintained an ascendency ever the reason of this singular man; and perceiving that the night had already thrown an obscurity around objects without doors, he hastily threw his pack over his shoulders, and taking Katy kindly by the hand, in leave-taking,—

    “It is painful to part with even you, good woman,” he said, “but the hour has come, and I must go. What is left in the house is yours; to me it could be of no use, and it may serve to make you more comfortable. Farewell—we shall meet hereafter.”

    “In the regions of darkness!” cried a voice that caused the pedler to sink on the chest from which he had risen, in despair.

    “What! another pack, Mr. Birch, and so well stuffed so soon!”

    “Have you not done evil enough?” cried the pedler, regaining his firmness, and springing on his feet with energy; “is it not enough to harass the last moments of a dying man—to impoverish me; what more would you have?”

    “Your blood!” said the Skinner, with cool malignity.

    “And for money,” cried Harvey, bitterly; “like the ancient Judas, you would grow rich with the price of blood!”

    “Aye, and a fair price it is, my gentleman; fifty guineas; nearly the weight of that scarecrow carcase of yours in gold.”

    “Here,” said Katy, promptly, “here are fifteen guineas, and these drawers and this bed are all mine; if you will give Harvey but one hour’s start from the door, they shall be yours.”

    “One hour?” said the Skinner, showing his teeth, and looking with a longing eye at the money.

    “But a single hour; here, take the money.”

    “Hold!” cried Harvey; “put no faith in the miscreant.”

    “She may do what she pleases with her faith,” said the Skinner, with malignant pleasure; “but I have the money in good keeping; as for you, Mr. Birch, we will bear your insolence, for the fifty guineas that are to pay for your gallows.”

    “Go on,” said the pedler, proudly; “take me to Major Dunwoodie; he, at least, may be kind, although he may be just.”

    “I can do better than by marching so far in such disgraceful company; this Mr. Dunwoodie has let one or two Tories go at large; but the troop of Captain Lawton is quartered some half mile nearer, and his receipt will get me the reward as soon as his major’s; how relish you the idea of supping with Captain Lawton, this evening, Mr. Birch?”

    “Give me my money, or set Harvey free,” cried the spinster in alarm.

    “Your bribe was not enough, good woman, unless there is money in this bed:” thrusting his bayonet through the ticking, and ripping it for some distance, he took a malicious satisfaction in scattering its contents about the room.

    “If,” cried the housekeeper, losing sight of her personal danger in care for her newly-acquired property, “there is law in the land, I will be righted!”

    “The law of the neutral ground is the law of the strongest; but your tongue is not as long as my bayonet; you had, therefore, best not set them at loggerheads, or you might be the loser.”

    A figure stood in the shadow of the door, as if afraid to be seen in the group of Skinners; but a blaze of light, raised by some articles thrown in the fire by his persecutors, showed the pedler the face of the purchaser of his little domain. Occasionally there was some whispering between this man and the Skinner nearest him, that induced Harvey to suspect he had been the dupe of a contrivance in which that wretch had participated. It was, however, too late to repine; and he followed the party from the house with a firm and collected tread, as if marching to a triumph, and not to a gallows. In passing through the yard, the leader of the band fell over a billet of wood, and received a momentary hurt from the fall: exasperated at the incident, the fellow sprang on his feet, filling the air with execrations.

    “The curse of Heaven light on the log!” he exclaimed; “the night is too dark for us to move in: throw that brand of fire in yon pile of tow, to light up the scene.”

    “Hold!” roared the speculator; “you ’ll fire the house.”

    “And see the farther,” said the other, hurling the brand in the midst of the combustibles. In an instant the building was in flames. “Come on; let us move towards the heights while we have light to pick our road.”

    “Villain!” cried the exasperated purchaser, “is this your friendship—this my reward for kidnapping the pedler?”

    “’T would be wise to move more from the light, if you mean to entertain us with abuse, or we may see too well to miss our mark,” cried the leader of the gang. The next instant he was as good as his threat, but happily missed the terrified speculator and equally appalled spinster, who saw herself again reduced from comparative wealth to poverty, by the blow. Prudence dictated to the pair a speedy retreat; and the next morning, the only remains of the dwelling of the pedler was the huge chimney we have already mentioned.