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

Chapter XIX

  • No longer then perplex the breast—
  • When thoughts torment, the first are best;
  • ’T is mad to go, ’t is death to stay!
  • Away, to Orra, haste away.

  • WHILE his comrades were sleeping, in perfect forgetfulness of their hardships and dangers, the slumbers of Dunwoodie were broken and unquiet. After spending a night of restlessness, he arose, unrefreshed, from the rude bed where he had thrown himself in his clothes, and, without awaking any of the group around him, he wandered into the open air in search of relief. The soft rays of the moon were just passing away in the more distinct light of the morning; the wind had fallen, and the rising mists gave the promise of another of those autumnal days, which, in this unstable climate, succeed a tempest with the rapid transitions of magic. The hour had not yet arrived when he intended moving from his present position; and, willing to allow his warriors all the refreshment that circumstances would permit, he strolled towards the scene of the Skinners’ punishment, musing upon the embarrassments of his situation, and uncertain how he should reconcile his sense of duty with his love. Although Dunwoodie himself placed the most implicit reliance on the captain’s purity of intention, he was by no means assured that a board of officers would be equally credulous; and, independently of all feelings of private regard, he felt certain that with the execution of Henry would be destroyed all hopes of a union with his sister. He had dispatched an officer, the preceding evening, to Colonel Singleton, who was in command of the advance posts, reporting the capture of the British captain, and, after giving his own opinion of his innocence, requesting orders as to the manner in which he was to dispose of his prisoner. These orders might be expected every hour, and his uneasiness increased, in proportion as the moment approached when his friend might be removed from his protection. In this disturbed state of mind, the major wandered through the orchard, and was stopped in his walk by arriving at the base of those rocks which had protected the Skinners in their flight, before he was conscious whither his steps had carried him. He was about to turn, and retrace his path to his quarters, when he was startled by a voice, bidding him—

    “Stand or die!”

    Dunwoodie turned in amazement, and beheld the figure of a man placed at a little distance above him on a shelving rock, with a musket leveled at himself. The light was not yet sufficiently powerful to reach the recesses of that gloomy spot, and a second look was necessary before he discovered, to his astonishment, that the pedler stood before him. Comprehending, in an instant, the danger of his situation, and disdaining to implore mercy or to retreat, had the latter been possible, the youth cried firmly,—

    “If I am to be murdered, fire! I will never become your prisoner.”

    “No, Major Dunwoodie,” said Birch, lowering his musket, “it is neither my intention to capture nor to slay.”

    “What then would you have, mysterious being?” said Dunwoodie, hardly able to persuade himself that the form he saw was not a creature of the imagination.

    “Your good opinion,” answered the pedler, with emotion; “I would wish all good men to judge me with lenity.”

    “To you it must be indifferent what may be the judgment of men; for you seem to be beyond the reach of their sentence.”

    “God spares the lives of His servants to His own time,” said the pedler, solemnly: “a few hours ago I was your prisoner, and threatened with the gallows; now you are mine; but, Major Dunwoodie, you are free. There are men abroad who would treat you less kindly. Of what service would that sword be to you against my weapon and a steady hand? Take the advice of one who has never harmed you, and who never will. Do not trust yourself in the skirts of any wood, unless in company and mounted.”

    “And have you comrades, who have assisted you to escape, and who are less generous than yourself?”

    “No—no, I am alone truly—none know me but my God and him.”

    “And who?” asked the major, with an interest he could not control.

    “None,” continued the pedler, recovering his composure. “But such is not your case, Major Dunwoodie; you are young and happy; there are those that are dear to you, and such are not far away—danger is near them you love most—danger within and without—double your watchfulness—strengthen your patrols—and be silent. With your opinion of me, should I tell you more, you would suspect an ambush. But remember and guard them you love best.”

    The pedler discharged the musket in the air, and threw it at the feet of his astonished auditor. When surprise and the smoke allowed Dunwoodie to look again on the rock where he had stood, the spot was vacant.

    The youth was aroused from the stupor, which had been created by this strange scene, by the trampling of horses, and the sound of the bugles. A patrol was drawn to the spot by the report of the musket, and the alarm had been given to the corps. Without entering into any explanation with his men, the major returned quickly to his quarters, where he found the whole squadron under arms, in battle array, impatiently awaiting the appearance of their leader. The officer whose duty it was to superintend such matters, had directed a party to lower the sign of the Hotel Flanagan, and the post was already arranged for the execution of the spy. On hearing from the major that the musket was discharged by himself, and was probably one of those dropped by the Skinners (for by this time Dunwoodie had learned the punishment inflicted by Lawton, but chose to conceal his own interview with Birch), his officers suggested the propriety of executing their prisoner before they marched. Unable to believe that all he had seen was not a dream, Dunwoodie, followed by many of his officers, and preceded by Sergeant Hollister, went to the place which was supposed to contain the pedler.

    “Well, sir,” said the major to the sentinel who guarded the door, “I trust you have your prisoner in safety.”

    “He is yet asleep,” replied the man, “and he makes such a noise, I could hardly hear the bugles sound the alarm.”

    “Open the door and bring him forth.”

    The order was obeyed; but, to the utter amazement of the honest veteran who entered the prison, he found the room in no little disorder—the coat of the pedler where his body ought to have been, and part of the wardrobe of Betty scattered in disorder on the floor. The washerwoman herself occupied the pallet, in profound mental oblivion, clad as when last seen, excepting a little black bonnet, which she so constantly wore, that it was commonly thought she made it perform the double duty of both day and night cap. The noise of their entrance, and the exclamations of their party, awoke the woman.

    “Is it the breakfast that ’s wanting?” said Betty, rubbing her eyes; “faith, ye look as if ye would ate myself—but patience a little, darlings, and ye ’ll see sich a fry as never was.”

    “Fry!” echoed the sergeant, forgetful of his religious philosophy, and the presence of his officers; “we ’ll have you roasted, Jezebel!—you ’ve helped that damned pedler to escape.”

    “Jezebel back ag’in in your own teeth, and damned pidler too, Mr. Sargeant!” cried Betty, who was easily roused; “what have I to do with pidlers, or escapes? I might have been a pidler’s lady, and wore my silks, if I ’d had Sawny M’Twill, instead of tagging at the heels of a parcel of dragooning rapscallions, who don’t know how to trate a lone body with dacency.”

    “The fellow has left my Bible,” said the veteran, taking he book from the floor; “instead of spending his time in reading it to prepare for his end like a good Christian, he has been busy in laboring to escape.”

    “And who would stay and be hanged like a dog?” cried Betty, beginning to comprehend the case; “’t is n’t everyone that ’s born to meet with sich an ind—like yourself, Mr. Hollister.”

    “Silence!” said Dunwoodie. “This must be inquired into closely, gentlemen; there is no outlet but the door, and there he could not pass, unless the sentinel connived at his escape, or was asleep at his post: call up the guard.”

    As these men were not paraded, curiosity had already drawn them to the place, and they one and all, with the exception of him before mentioned, denied that any person had passed out. The individual in question acknowledged that Betty had gone by him, but pleaded his orders in justification.

    “You lie, you t’ief—you lie!” shouted Betty, who had impatiently listened to his exculpation; “would ye slanderize a lone woman, by saying she walks a camp at midnight? Here have I been slaping the long night, swaatly as the sucking babe.”

    “Here, sir,” said the sergeant, turning respectfully to Dunwoodie, “is something written in my Bible that was not in it before; for having no family to record, I would not suffer any scribbling in the sacred book.”

    One of the officers read aloud,—

    “These certify, that if suffered to get free, it is by God’s help alone, to whose divine aid I humbly riccommind myself. I ’m forced to take the woman’s clothes, but in her pocket is a ricompinse. Witness my hand—HARVEY BIRCH.”

    “What!” roared Betty, “has the t’ief robbed a lone woman of her all!—hang him—catch him and hang him, major; if there ’s law or justice in the land.”

    “Examine your pocket,” said one of the youngsters, who was enjoying the scene, careless of the consequences.

    “Ah! faith,” cried the washerwoman, producing a guinea, “but he is a jewel of a pidler! Long life and a brisk trade to him, say I; he is wilcome to the duds—and if he is ever hanged, many a bigger rogue will go free.”

    Dunwoodie turned to leave the apartment, and he saw Captain Lawton standing with folded arms, contemplating the scene with profound silence. His manner, so different from his usual impetuosity and zeal, struck his commander as singular. Their eyes met, and they walked together for a few minutes in close conversation, when Dunwoodie returned, and dismissed the guard to their place of rendezvous. Sergeant Hollister, however, continued along with Betty, who, having found none of her vestments disturbed but such as the guinea more than paid for, was in high good humor. The washerwoman had for a long time looked on the veteran with the eyes of affection; and she had determined within herself to remove certain delicate objections which had long embarrassed her peculiar situation, as respected the corps, by making the sergeant the successor of her late husband. For some time past the trooper had seemed to flatter this preference; and Betty, conceiving that her violence might have mortified her suitor, was determined to make him all the amends in her power. Besides, rough and uncouth as she was, the washerwoman had still enough of her sex to know that the moments of reconciliation were the moments of power. She therefore poured out a glass of her morning beverage, and handed it to her companion as a peace-offering.

    “A few warm words between fri’nds are a trifle, ye must be knowing, sargeant,” said the washerwoman; “it was Michael Flanagan that I ever calumn’ated the most when I was loving him the best.”

    “Michael was a good soldier and a brave man,” said the trooper finishing the glass; “our troop was covering the flank of his regiment when he fell, and I rode over his body myself during the day; poor fellow! he lay on his back, and looked as composed as if he had died a natural death after a year’s consumption.”

    “Oh! Michael was a great consumer, and be sartain; two such as us make dreadful inroads in the stock, sargeant. But ye ’re a sober, discrate man, Mister Hollister, and would be a helpmate indeed.”

    “Why, Mrs. Flanagan, I ’ve tarried to speak on a subject that lies heavy at my heart, and I will now open my mind, if you ’ve leisure to listen.”

    “Is it listen?” cried the impatient woman; “and I ’d listen to you, sargeant, if the officers never ate another mouthful: but take a second drop, dear; ’t will encourage you to spake freely.”

    “I am already bold enough in so good a cause,” returned the veteran, rejecting her bounty. “Betty, do you think it was really the pedler spy that I placed in this room the last night?”

    “And who should it be else, darling?”

    “The evil one.”

    “What, the divil?”

    “Aye, even Beelzebub, disguised as the pedler; and them fellows we thought to be Skinners were his imps!”

    “Well, sure, sargeant dear, ye ’re but little out this time, any way; for if the divil’s imps go at large in the county West-Chester, sure it is the Skinners, themselves.”

    “Mrs. Flanagan, I mean in their incarnate spirits; the evil one knew there was no one we would arrest sooner than the pedler Birch, and he took on his appearance to gain admission to your room.”

    “And what should the divil be wanting of me?” cried Betty, tartly. “And is n’t there divils enough in the corps already, without one’s coming from the bottomless pit to frighten a lone body?”

    “’T was in mercy to you, Betty, that he was permitted to come. You see he vanished through the door in your form, which is a symbol of your fate, unless you mend your life. Oh! I noticed how he trembled when I gave him the good book. Would any Christian, think you, my dear Betty, write in a Bible in this way; unless it might be the matter of births and deaths, and such lawful chronicles?”

    The washerwoman was pleased with the softness of her lover’s manner, but dreadfully scandalized at his insinuation. She, however, preserved her temper, and with the quickness of her own country’s people, rejoined,—

    “And would the divil have paid for the clothes, think ye?—aye, and overpaid.”

    “Doubtless the money is base,” said the sergeant, a little staggered at such an evidence of honesty in one of whom, as to generals, he thought so meanly. “He tempted me with his glittering coin, but the Lord gave me strength to resist.”

    “The goold looks well; but I ’ll change it, any way, with Captain Jack, the day. He is niver a bit afeard of any divil of them all!”

    “Betty, Betty,” said her companion, “do not speak so disreverently of the evil spirit; he is ever at hand, and will owe you a grudge, for your language.”

    “Pooh! if he has any bowels at all, he won’t mind a fillip or two from a poor lone woman; I ’m sure no other Christian would.”

    “But the dark one has no bowels, except to devour the children of men,” said the sergeant, looking around him in horror; “and it ’s best to make friends everywhere, for there is no telling what may happen till it comes. But, Betty, no man could have got out of this place, and passed all the sentinels, without being known: take awful warning from the visit therefore”—

    Here the dialogue was interrupted by a peremptory summons to the sutler to prepare the morning’s repast, and they were obliged to separate; the woman secretly hoping that the interest the sergeant manifested was more earthly than he imagined; and the man, bent on saving a soul from the fangs of the dark spirit that was prowling through their camp in quest of victims.

    During the breakfast several expresses arrived, one of which brought intelligence of the actual force and destination of the enemy’s expedition that was out on the Hudson; and another, orders to send Captain Wharton to the first post above, under the escort of a body of dragoons. These last instructions, or rather commands, for they admitted of no departure from their letter, completed the sum of Dunwoodie’s uneasiness. The despair and misery of Frances were constantly before his eyes, and fifty times he was tempted to throw himself on his horse and gallop to the Locusts; but an uncontrollable feeling prevented. In obedience to the commands of his superior, an officer, with a small party, was sent to the cottage to conduct Henry Wharton to the place directed; and the gentleman who was intrusted with the execution of the order was charged with a letter from Dunwoodie to his friend, containing the most cheering assurances of his safety, as well as the strongest pledges of his own unceasing exertions in his favor. Lawton was left with part of his own troop, in charge of the few wounded; and as soon as the men were refreshed, the encampment broke up, the main body marching towards the Hudson. Dunwoodie repeated his injunctions to Captain Lawton again and again—dwelt on every word that had fallen from the pedler, and canvassed, in every possible manner that his ingenuity could devise, the probable meaning of his mysterious warnings, until no excuse remained for delaying his own departure. Suddenly recollecting, however, that no directions had been given for the disposal of Colonel Wellmere, instead of following the rear of the column, the major yielded to his desires, and turned down the road which led to the Locusts. The horse of Dunwoodie was fleet as the wind, and scarcely a minute seemed to have passed before he gained sight, from an eminence, of the lonely vale, and as he was plunging into the bottom lands that formed its surface, he caught a glimpse of Henry Wharton and his escort, at a distance, defiling through a pass which led to the posts above. This sight added to the speed of the anxious youth, who now turned the angle of the hill that opened to the valley, and came suddenly on the object of his search. Frances had followed the party which guarded her brother, at a distance; and as they vanished from her sight, she felt deserted by all that she most prized in this world. The unaccountable absence of Dunwoodie, with the shock of parting from Henry under such circumstances, had entirely subdued her fortitude, and she had sunk on a stone by the roadside, sobbing as if her heart would break. Dunwoodie sprang from his charger, threw the reins over the neck of the animal, and in a moment he was by the side of the weeping girl.

    “Frances—my own Frances!” he exclaimed, “why this distress?—let not the situation of your brother create any alarm. As soon as the duty I am now on is completed, I will hasten to the feet of Washington, and beg his release. The Father of his Country will never deny such a boon to one of his favorite pupils.”

    “Major Dunwoodie, for your interest in behalf of my poor brother, I thank you,” said the trembling girl, drying her eyes, and rising with dignity; “but such language addressed to me, surely, is improper.”

    “Improper! are you not mine—by the consent of your father—your aunt—your brother—nay, by your own consent, my sweet Frances?”

    “I wish not, Major Dunwoodie, to interfere with the prior claims that any other lady may have to your affections,” said Frances, struggling to speak with firmness.

    “None other, I swear by Heaven, none other has any claim on me!” cried Dunwoodie, with fervor. “You alone are mistress of my inmost soul.”

    “You have practiced so much, and so successfully, Major Dunwoodie, that it is no wonder you excel in deceiving the credulity of my sex,” returned Frances, attempting a smile, which the tremulousness of her muscles smothered at birth.

    “Am I a villain, Miss Wharton, that you receive me with such language?—when have I ever deceived you, Frances? who has practiced in this manner on your purity of heart?”

    “Why has not Major Dunwoodie honored the dwelling of his intended father with his presence lately? Did he forget it contained one friend on a bed of sickness, and another in deep distress? Has it escaped his memory that it held his intended wife? Or is he fearful of meeting more than one that can lay a claim to that title? Oh, Peyton—Peyton, how have I been deceived in you! With the foolish credulity of my youth, I thought you all that was brave, noble, generous, and loyal.”

    “Frances, I see how you have deceived yourself,” cried Dunwoodie, his face in a glow of fire; “you do me injustice; I swear by all that is most dear to me, that you do me injustice.”

    “Swear not, Major Dunwoodie,” interrupted Frances, her fine countenance lighting with the lustre of womanly pride; “the time is gone by for me to credit oaths.”

    “Miss Wharton, would you have me a coxcomb—make me contemptible in my own eyes, by boasting with the hope of raising myself in your estimation?”

    “Flatter not yourself that the task is so easy, sir,” returned Frances, moving towards the cottage; “we converse together in private for the last time; but—possibly—my father would welcome my mother’s kinsman.”

    “No, Miss Wharton, I cannot enter his dwelling now: I should act in a manner unworthy of myself. You drive me from you, Frances, in despair. I am going on desperate service, and may not live to return. Should fortune prove severe, at least do my memory justice; remember that the last breathings of my soul will be for your happiness.” So saying, he had already placed his foot in the stirrup, but his youthful mistress, turning on him an eye that pierced his soul, arrested the action.

    “Peyton—Major Dunwoodie,” she said, “can you ever forget the sacred cause in which you are enlisted? Duty both to your God and to your country forbids your doing anything rashly. The latter has need of your services; besides”—but her voice became choked, and she was unable to proceed.

    “Besides what?” echoed the youth, springing to her side, and offering to take her hand in his own. Frances having, however, recovered herself, coldly repulsed him, and continued her walk homeward.

    “Is this our parting!” cried Dunwoodie, in agony; “am I a wretch, that you treat me so cruelly? You have never loved me, and wish to conceal your own fickleness by accusations that you will not explain.”

    Frances stopped short in her walk, and turned on him a look of so much purity and feeling, that, heart-stricken, Dunwoodie would have knelt at her feet for pardon; but motioning him for silence, she once more spoke:—

    “Hear me, Major Dunwoodie, for the last time: it is a bitter knowledge when we first discover our own inferiority; but it is a truth that I have lately learnt. Against you I bring no charges—make no accusations; no, not willingly in my thoughts. Were my claims to your heart just, I am not worthy of you. It is not a feeble, timid girl, like me, that could make you happy. No, Peyton, you are formed for great and glorious actions, deeds of daring and renown, and should be united to a soul like your own; one that can rise above the weakness of her sex. I should be a weight to drag you to the dust; but with a different spirit in your companion, you might soar to the very pinnacle of earthly glory. To such a one, therefore, I resign you freely, if not cheerfully; and pray, oh, how fervently do I pray! that with such a one you may be happy.”

    “Lovely enthusiast!” cried Dunwoodie, “you know not yourself, nor me. It is a woman, mild, gentle, and dependent as yourself, that my very nature loves; deceive not yourself with visionary ideas of generosity, which will only make me miserable.”

    “Farewell, Major Dunwoodie,” said the agitated girl, pausing for a moment to gasp for breath; “forget that you ever knew me—remember the claims of your bleeding country; and be happy.”

    “Happy!” repeated the youthful soldier, bitterly, as he saw her light form gliding through the gate of the lawn, and disappearing behind its shrubbery; “yes, I am now happy, indeed!”

    Throwing himself into the saddle, he plunged his spurs into his horse, and soon overtook his squadron, which was marching slowly over the hilly roads of the county, to gain the banks of the Hudson.

    But painful as were the feelings of Dunwoodie at this unexpected termination of the interview with his mistress, they were but light compared with those which were experienced by the fond girl herself. Frances had, with the keen eye of jealous love, easily detected the attachment of Isabella Singleton to Dunwoodie. Delicate and retiring herself, it never could present itself to her mind that this love had been unsought. Ardent in her own affections, and artless in their exhibition, she had early caught the eye of the young soldier; but it required all the manly frankness of Dunwoodie to court her favor, and the most pointed devotion to obtain his conquest. This done, his power was durable, entire, and engrossing. But the unusual occurrences of the few preceding days, the altered mien of her lover during those events, his unwonted indifference to herself, and chiefly the romantic idolatry of Isabella, had aroused new sensations in her bosom. With a dread of her lover’s integrity had been awakened the never-failing concomitant of the purest affection, a distrust of her own merits. In the moment of enthusiasm, the task of resigning her lover to another, who might be more worthy of him, seemed easy; but it is in vain that the imagination attempts to deceive the heart. Dunwoodie had no sooner disappeared, than our heroine felt all the misery of her situation; and if the youth found some relief in the cares of his command, Frances was less fortunate in the performance of a duty imposed on her by filial piety. The removal of his son had nearly destroyed the little energy of Mr. Wharton, who required all the tenderness of his remaining children to convince him that he was able to perform the ordinary functions of life.