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

Chapter XV

  • Trifles, light as air,
  • Are to the jealous confirmations strong
  • As proofs of holy writ.

  • THE WEATHER, which had been mild and clear since the storm, now changed with the suddenness of the American climate. Towards evening the cold blasts poured down from the mountains, and flurries of snow plainly indicated that the month of November had arrived; a season whose temperature varies from the heats of summer to the cold of winter. Frances had stood at the window of her own apartment, watching the slow progress of the funeral procession, with a melancholy that was too deep to be excited by the spectacle. There was something in the sad office that was in unison with her feelings. As she gazed around, she saw the trees bending to the force of the wind, that swept through the valley with an impetuosity that shook even the buildings; and the forest, that had so lately glittered in the sun with its variegated hues, was fast losing its loveliness, as the leaves were torn from the branches, and were driving irregularly before the eddies of the blast. A few of the southern dragoons, who were patrolling the passes which led to the encampment of the corps, could be distinguished at a distance on the heights, bending to their pommels as they faced the keen air which had so lately traversed the great fresh-water lakes, and drawing their watch-coats about them in tighter folds.

    Frances witnessed the disappearance of the wooden tenement of the deceased, as it was slowly lowered from the light of day; and the sight added to the chilling dreariness of the view. Captain Singleton was sleeping under the care of his own man, while his sister had been persuaded to take possession of her room, for the purpose of obtaining the repose of which her last night’s journeying had robbed her. The apartment of Miss Singleton communicated with the room occupied by the sisters, through a private door, as well as through the ordinary passage of the house; this door was partly open, and Frances moved towards it, with the benevolent intention of ascertaining the situation of her guest, when the surprised girl saw her whom she had thought to be sleeping, not only awake, but employed in a manner that banished all probability of present repose. The black tresses, that during the dinner had been drawn in close folds over the crown of the head, were now loosened, and fell in profusion over her shoulders and bosom, imparting a slight degree of wildness to her countenance; the chilling white of her complexion was strongly contrasted with eyes of the deepest black, that were fixed in rooted attention on a picture she held in her hand. Frances hardly breathed, as she was enabled, by a movement of Isabella, to see that it was the figure of a man in the well-known dress of the southern horse; but she gasped for breath, and instinctively laid her hand on her heart to quell its throbbings, as she thought she recognized the lineaments that were so deeply seated in her own imagination. Frances felt she was improperly prying into the sacred privacy of another; but her emotions were too powerful to permit her to speak, and she drew back to a chair, where she still retained a view of the stranger, from whose countenance she felt it to be impossible to withdraw her eyes. Isabella was too much engrossed by her own feelings to discover the trembling figure of the witness to her actions, and she pressed the inanimate image to her lips, with an enthusiasm that denoted the most intense passion. The expression of the countenance of the fair stranger was so changeable, and the transitions were so rapid, that Frances had scarcely time to distinguish the character of the emotion, before it was succeeded by another, equally powerful and equally attractive. Admiration and sorrow were however the preponderating passions; the latter was indicated by large drops that fell from her eyes on the picture, and which followed each other over her cheek at such intervals, as seemed to pronounce the grief too heavy to admit of the ordinary demonstrations of sorrow. Every movement of Isabella was marked by an enthusiasm that was peculiar to her nature, and every passion in its turn triumphed in her breast. The fury of the wind, as it whistled round the angles of the building, was in consonance with those feelings, and she rose and moved to a window of her apartment. Her figure was now hid from the view of Frances, who was about to rise and approach her guest, when tones of a thrilling melody chained her in breathless silence to the spot. The notes were wild, and the voice not powerful, but the execution exceeded anything that Frances had ever heard; and she stood, endeavoring to stifle the sounds of her own gentle breathing, until the following song was concluded:—

  • Cold blow the blasts o’er the tops of the mountain,
  • And bare is the oak on the hill;
  • Slowly the vapors exhale from the fountain,
  • And bright gleams the ice-bordered rill;
  • All nature is seeking its annual rest,
  • But the slumbers of peace have deserted my breast.
  • Long has the storm poured its weight on my nation,
  • And long have her braves stood the shock;
  • Long has her chieftain ennobled his station,
  • A bulwark on liberty’s rock;
  • Unlicensed ambition relaxes its toil,
  • Yet blighted affection represses my smile.
  • Abroad the wild fury of winter is lowering,
  • And leafless and drear is the tree;
  • But the vertical sun of the south appears pouring
  • Its fierce, killing heats upon me:
  • Without, all the season’s chill symptoms begin—
  • But the fire of passion is raging within.
  • Frances abandoned her whole soul to the suppressed melody of the music, though the language of the song expressed a meaning, which, united with certain events of that and the preceding day, left a sensation of uneasiness in the bosom of the warm-hearted girl, to which she had hitherto been a stranger. Isabella moved from the window as her last tones melted on the ear of her admiring listener, and, for the first time, her eye rested on the pallid face of the intruder. A glow of fire lighted the countenance of both at the same instant, and the blue eye of Frances met the brilliant black one of her guest for a single moment, and both fell in abashed confusion on the carpet; they advanced, however, until they met, and had taken each other’s hand, before either ventured again to look her companion in the face.

    “This sudden change in the weather, and perhaps the situation of my brother, have united to make me melancholy, Miss Wharton,” said Isabella, in a low tone, and in a voice that trembled as she spoke.

    “’T is thought you have little to apprehend for your brother,” said Frances, in the same embarrassed manner; “had you seen him when he was brought in by Major Dunwoodie”—

    Frances paused, with a feeling of conscious shame, for which she could not account; and, in raising her eyes, she saw Isabella studying her countenance with an earnestness that again drove the blood tumultuously to her temples.

    “You were speaking of Major Dunwoodie,” said Isabella, faintly.

    “He was with Captain Singleton.”

    “Do you know Dunwoodie? Have you seen him often?” Once more Frances ventured to look her guest in the face, and again she met the piercing eyes bent on her, as if to search her inmost heart. “Speak, Miss Wharton; is Major Dunwoodie known to you?”

    “He is my relative,” said Frances, appalled at the manner of the other.

    “A relative!” echoed Miss Singleton; “in what degree?—speak, Miss Wharton, I conjure you to speak.”

    “Our parents were cousins,” faintly replied Frances.

    “And he is to be your husband!” said the stranger, impetuously.

    Frances felt shocked, and all her pride awakened, by this direct attack upon her feelings, and she raised her eyes from the floor to her interrogator a little proudly, when the pale cheek and quivering lip of Isabella removed her resentment in a moment.

    “It is true! My conjecture is true; speak to me, Miss Wharton; I conjure you, in mercy to my feelings, to tell me—do you love Dunwoodie?” There was a plaintive earnestness in the voice of Miss Singleton that disarmed Frances of all resentment, and the only answer she could make was to hide her burning face between her hands, as she sank back in a chair to conceal her confusion.

    Isabella paced the floor in silence for several minutes, until she had succeeded in conquering the violence of her feelings, when she approached the place where Frances yet sat, endeavoring to exclude the eyes of her companion from reading the shame expressed in her countenance, and, taking the hand of the other, she spoke with an evident effort at composure.

    “Pardon me, Miss Wharton, if my ungovernable feelings have led me into impropriety; the powerful motive—the cruel reason”—she hesitated; Frances now raised her face, and their eyes once more met; they fell in each other’s arms, and laid their burning cheeks together. The embrace was long—was ardent and sincere—but neither spoke; and on separating, Frances retired to her own room without further explanation.

    While this extraordinary scene was acting in the room of Miss Singleton, matters of great importance were agitated in the drawing-room. The disposition of the fragments of such a dinner as the one we have recorded was a task that required no little exertion and calculation. Notwithstanding several of the small game had nestled in the pocket of Captain Lawton’s man, and even the assistant of Dr. Sitgreaves had calculated the uncertainty of his remaining long in such good quarters, still there was more left unconsumed than the prudent Miss Peyton knew how to dispose of to advantage. Cæsar and his mistress had, therefore, a long and confidential communication on this important business; and the consequence was, that Colonel Wellmere was left to the hospitality of Sarah Wharton. All the ordinary topics of conversation were exhausted, when the colonel, with a little of the uneasiness that is in some degree inseparable from conscious error, touched lightly on the transactions of the preceding day.

    “We little thought, Miss Wharton, when I first saw this Mr. Dunwoodie in your house in Queen Street, that he was to be the renowned warrior he has proved himself,” said Wellmere, endeavoring to smile away his chagrin.

    “Renowned, when we consider the enemy he overcame,” said Sarah, with consideration for her companion’s feelings. “’T was unfortunate, indeed, in every respect, that you met with the accident, or doubtless the royal arms would have triumphed in their usual manner.”

    “And yet the pleasure of such society as this accident has introduced me to, would more than repay the pain of a mortified spirit and wounded body,” added the colonel, in a manner of peculiar softness.

    “I hope the latter is but trifling,” said Sarah, stooping to hide her blushes under the pretext of biting a thread from the work on her knee.

    “Trifling, indeed, compared to the former,” returned the colonel, in the same manner. “Ah! Miss Wharton, it is in such moments that we feel the full value of friendship and sympathy.”

    Those who have never tried it cannot easily imagine what a rapid progress a warm-hearted female can make in love, in the short space of half an hour, particularly where there is a predisposition to the distemper. Sarah found the conversation, when it began to touch on friendship and sympathy, too interesting to venture her voice with a reply. She, however, turned her eyes on the colonel, and saw him gazing at her fine face with an admiration that was quite as manifest, and much more soothing, than any words could make it.

    Their tête-à-tête was uninterrupted for an hour; and although nothing that would be called decided, by an experienced matron, was said by the gentleman, he uttered a thousand things that delighted his companion, who retired to her rest with a lighter heart than she had felt since the arrest of her brother by the Americans.