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

Chapter XVI

  • And let me the canakin clink, clink,
  • And let me the canakin clink.
  • A soldier’s a man;
  • A life’s but a span;
  • Why, then, let a soldier drink.

  • THE POSITION held by the corps of dragoons, we have already said, was a favorite place of halting with their commander. A cluster of some half-dozen small and dilapidated buildings formed what, from the circumstance of two roads intersecting each other at right angles, was called the village of the Four Corners. As usual, one of the most imposing of these edifices had been termed, in the language of the day, “a house of entertainment for man and beast.” On a rough board suspended from the gallows-looking post that had supported the ancient sign, was, however, written in red chalk, “Elizabeth Flanagan, her hotel,” an ebullition of the wit of some of the idle wags of the corps. The matron, whose name had thus been exalted to an office of such unexpected dignity, ordinarily discharged the duties of a female sutler, washerwoman, and, to use the language of Katy Haynes, petticoat doctor to the troops. She was the widow of a soldier who had been killed in the service, and who, like herself, was a native of a distant island, and had early tried his fortune in the colonies of North America. She constantly migrated with the troops; and it was seldom that they became stationary for two days at a time but the little cart of the bustling woman was seen driving into the encampment loaded with such articles as she conceived would make her presence most welcome. With a celerity that seemed almost supernatural, Betty took up her ground and commenced her occupation. Sometimes the cart itself was her shop; at others the soldiers made her a rude shelter of such materials as offered; but on the present occasion she had seized on a vacant building, and, by dint of stuffing the dirty breeches and half-dried linen of the troopers into the broken windows, to exclude the cold, which had now become severe, she formed what she herself had pronounced to be “most illigant lodgings.” The men were quartered in the adjacent barns, and the officers collected in the “Hotel Flanagan,” as they facetiously called headquarters. Betty was well known to every trooper in the corps, could call each by his Christian or nickname, as best suited her fancy; and, although absolutely intolerable to all whom habit had not made familiar with her virtues, was a general favorite with these partisan warriors. Her faults were, a trifling love of liquor, excessive filthiness, and a total disregard of all the decencies of language; her virtues, an unbounded love for her adopted country, perfect honesty when dealing on certain known principles with the soldiery, and great good-nature. Added to these, Betty had the merit of being the inventor of that beverage which is so well known, at the present hour, to all the patriots who make a winter’s march between the commercial and political capitals of this great State, and which is distinguished by the name of “cock-tail.” Elizabeth Flanagan was peculiarly well qualified, by education and circumstances, to perfect this improvement in liquors, having been literally brought up on its principal ingredient, and having acquired from her Virginian customers the use of mint, from its flavor in a julep to its height of renown in the article in question. Such, then, was the mistress of the mansion, who, reckless of the cold northern blasts, showed her blooming face from the door of the building to welcome the arrival of her favorite, Captain Lawton, and his companion, her master in matters of surgery.

    “Ah! by my hopes of promotion, my gentle Elizabeth, but you are welcome!” cried the trooper, as he threw himself from his saddle! “this villainous fresh-water gas from the Canadas has been whistling among my bones till they ache with the cold, but the sight of your fiery countenance is as cheery as a Christmas fire.”

    “Now sure, Captain Jack, ye ’s always full of your complimentaries,” replied the sutler, taking the bridle of her customer; “but hurry in for the life of you, darling; the fences hereabouts are not so strong as in the Highlands, and there ’s that within will warm both sowl and body.”

    “So you have been laying the rails under contribution, I see: well, that may do for the body,” said the captain coolly; “but I have had a pull at a bottle of cut-glass with a silver stand, and I doubt my relish for your whisky for a month to come.”

    “If it ’s silver or goold that ye ’re thinking of, it ’s but little I have, though I ’ve a trifling bit of the continental,” said Betty, with a look of humor; “but there ’s that within that ’s fit to be put in vissils of di’monds.”

    “What can she mean, Archibald?” asked Lawton: “the animal looks as if it meant more than it says!”

    “’T is probably a wandering of the reasoning powers, created by the frequency of intoxicating draughts,” observed the surgeon, as he deliberately threw his left leg over the pommel of the saddle, and slid down on the right side of his horse.

    “Faith, my dear jewel of a doctor, but it was this side I was expicting you; the whole corps come down on this side but yeerself,” said Betty, winking at the trooper; “but I ’ve been feeding the wounded, in yeer absence, with the fat of the land.”

    “Barbarous stupidity!” cried the panic-stricken physician, “to feed men laboring under the excitement of fever with powerful nutriment: woman, woman, you are enough to defeat the skill of Hippocrates!”

    “Pooh!” said Betty, with infinite composure, “what a botheration ye make about a little whisky; there was but a gallon betwixt a good dozen of them, and I gave it to the boys to make them sleep asy; sure, jist as slumbering drops.”

    Lawton and his companion now entered the building, and the first objects which met their eyes explained the hidden meaning of Betty’s comfortable declaration. A long table, made of boards torn from the side of an out-building, was stretched through the middle of the largest apartment, or the bar-room, and on it was a very scanty display of crockery ware. The steams of cookery arose from an adjoining kitchen, but the principal attraction was in a demijohn of fair proportions, which had been ostentatiously placed on high by Betty as the object most worthy of notice. Lawton soon learned that it was teeming with the real amber-colored juice of the grape, and had been sent from the Locusts, as an offering to Major Dunwoodie, from his friend Captain Wharton of the royal army.

    “And a royal gift it is,” said the grinning subaltern, who made the explanation. “The major gives us an entertainment in honor of our victory, and you see the principal expense is borne as it should be, by the enemy. Zounds! I am thinking that after we have primed with such stuff, we could charge through Sir Henry’s headquarters, and carry off the knight himself.”

    The captain of dragoons was in no manner displeased at the prospect of terminating so pleasantly a day that had been so agreeably commenced. He was soon surrounded by his comrades, who made many eager inquiries concerning his adventures, while the surgeon proceeded, with certain quakings of the heart, to examine into the state of his wounded. Enormous fires were snapping in the chimneys of the house, superseding the necessity of candles, by the bright light which was thrown from the blazing piles. The group within were all young men and tried soldiers; in number they were rather more than a dozen, and their manners and conversation were a strange mixture of the bluntness of the partisan with the manners of gentlemen. Their dresses were neat, though plain; and a never-failing topic amongst them was the performance and quality of their horses. Some were endeavoring to sleep on the benches which lined the walls, some were walking the apartments, and others were seated in earnest discussion on subjects connected with the business of their lives. Occasionally, as the door of the kitchen opened, the hissing sounds of the frying-pans and the inviting savor of the food created a stagnation in all other employments; even the sleepers, at such moments, would open their eyes, and raise their heads, to reconnoitre the state of the preparations. All this time Dunwoodie sat by himself, gazing at the fire, and lost in reflections which none of his officers presumed to disturb. He had made earnest inquiries of Sitgreaves after the condition of Singleton, during which a profound and respectful silence was maintained in the room; but as soon as he had ended, and resumed his seat, the usual ease and freedom prevailed.

    The arrangement of the table was a matter of but little concern to Mrs. Flanagan; and Cæsar would have been sadly scandalized at witnessing the informality with which various dishes, each bearing a wonderful resemblance to the others, were placed before so many gentlemen of consideration. In taking their places at the board, the strictest attention was paid to precedency; for, notwithstanding the freedom of manners which prevailed in the corps, the points of military etiquette were at all times observed, with something approaching to religious veneration. Most of the guests had been fasting too long to be in any degree fastidious in their appetites; but the case was different with Captain Lawton; he felt an unaccountable loathing at the exhibition of Betty’s food, and could not refrain from making a few passing comments on the condition of the knives, and the clouded aspect of the plates. The good-nature and the personal affection of Betty for the offender, restrained her, for some time, from answering his innuendoes, until Lawton, having ventured to admit a piece of the black meat into his mouth, inquired, with the affectation of a spoiled child,—

    “What kind of animal might this have been when living, Mrs. Flanagan?”

    “Sure, captain, and was n’t it the ould cow?” replied the sutler, with a warmth that proceeded partly from dissatisfaction at the complaints of her favorite, and partly from grief at the loss of the deceased.

    “What!” roared the trooper, stopping short as he was about to swallow his morsel, “ancient Jenny!”

    “The devil!” cried another, dropping his knife and fork, “she who made the campaign of the Jerseys with us?”

    “The very same,” replied the mistress of the hotel, with a piteous aspect of woe; “a gentle baste, and one that could and did live on less than air, at need. Sure, gentlemen, ’t is awful to have to eat sitch an ould friend.”

    “And has she sunk to this?” said Lawton, pointing with his knife to the remnants on the table.

    “Nay, captain,” said Betty, with spirit, “I sould two of her quarters to some of your troop; but divil the word did I tell the boys what an ould frind it was they had bought, for fear it might damage their appetites.”

    “Fury!” cried the trooper, with affected anger, “I shall have my fellows as limber as supple-jacks on such fare; afraid of an Englishman as a Virginian negro is of his driver.”

    “Well,” said Lieutenant Mason, dropping his knife and fork in a kind of despair, “my jaws have more sympathy than many men’s hearts. They absolutely decline making any impression on the relics of their old acquaintance.”

    “Try a drop of the gift,” said Betty, soothingly, pouring a large allowance of the wine into a bowl, and drinking it off as taster to the corps. “Faith, ’t is but a wishy-washy sort of stuff after all!”

    The ice once broken, however, a clear glass of wine was handed to Dunwoodie, who, bowing to his companions, drank the liquor in the midst of a profound silence. For a few glasses there was much formality observed, and sundry patriotic toasts and sentiments were duly noticed by the company. The liquor, however, performed its wonted office; and before the second sentinel at the door had been relieved, all recollection of the dinner and their cares was lost in the present festivity. Dr. Sitgreaves did not return in season to partake of Jenny, but he was in time to receive his fair proportion of Captain Wharton’s present.

    “A song, a song from Captain Lawton!” cried two or three of the party in a breath, on observing the failure of some of the points of good-fellowship in the trooper; “silence, for the song of Captain Lawton.”

    “Gentlemen,” returned Lawton, his dark eyes swimming with the bumpers he had finished, though his head was as impenetrable as a post; “I am not much of a nightingale, but, under the favor of your good wishes, I consent to comply with the demand.”

    “Now, Jack,” said Sitgreaves, nodding on his seat, “remember the air I taught you, and—stop, I have a copy of the words in my pocket.”

    “Forbear, forbear, good doctor,” said the trooper, filling his glass with great deliberation; “I never could wheel round those hard names. Gentlemen, I will give you a humble attempt of my own.”

    “Silence, for Captain Lawton’s song!” roared five or six at once; when the trooper proceeded, in a fine, full tone, to sing the following words to a well-known bacchanalian air, several of his comrades helping him through the chorus with a fervor that shook the crazy edifice they were in:—

  • Now push the mug, my jolly boys,
  • And live, while live we can;
  • To-morrow’s sun may end your joys,
  • For brief ’s the hour of man.
  • And he who bravely meets the foe
  • His lease of life can never know.
  • Old mother Flanagan
  • Come and fill the can again;
  • For you can fill, and we can swill,
  • Good Betty Flanagan.
  • If love of life pervades your breast,
  • Or love of ease your frame,
  • Quit honor’s path for peaceful rest,
  • And bear a coward’s name;
  • For soon and late, we danger know,
  • And fearless on the saddle go.
  • Old mother, etc.
  • When foreign foes invade the land,
  • And wives and sweethearts call,
  • In freedom’s cause we ’ll bravely stand,
  • Or will as bravely fall;
  • In this fair home the fates have given,
  • We ’ll live as lords, or live in heaven.
  • Old mother, etc.
  • At each appeal made to herself, by the united voices of the choir, Betty invariably advanced and complied literally with the request contained in the chorus, to the infinite delight of the singers, and with no small participation in the satisfaction on her account. The hostess was provided with a beverage more suited to the high seasoning to which she had accustomed her palate, than the tasteless present of Captain Wharton; by which means Betty had managed, with tolerable facility, to keep even pace with the exhilaraton of her guests. The applause received by Captain Lawton was general, with the exception of the surgeon, who rose from the bench during the first chorus, and paced the floor, in a flow of classical indignation. The bravos and bravissimos drowned all other noises for a short time; but as they gradually ceased, the doctor turned to the musician, and exclaimed, with heat,—

    “Captain Lawton, I marvel that a gentleman, and a gallant officer, can find no other subject for his muse, in these times of trial, than in such beastly invocations to that notorious follower of the camp, the filthy Elizabeth Flanagan. Methinks the goddess of Liberty could furnish a more noble inspiration, and the sufferings of your country a more befitting theme.”

    “Heyday!” shouted the hostess, advancing towards him in a threatening attitude; “and who is it that calls me filthy? Master Squirt! Master Pop-gun”—

    “Peace!” said Dunwoodie, in a voice that was exerted but a little more than common, but which was succeeded by the stillness of death; “woman, leave the room. Dr. Sitgreaves, I call you to your seat, to wait the order of the revels.”

    “Proceed, proceed,” said the surgeon, drawing himself up in an attitude of dignified composure; “I trust, Major Dunwoodie, I am not unacquainted with the rules of decorum, nor ignorant of the by-laws of good-fellowship.” Betty made a hasty but somewhat devious retreat to her own dominions, being unaccustomed to dispute the orders of the commanding officer.

    “Major Dunwoodie will honor us with a sentimental song,” said Lawton, bowing to his leader, with the collected manner he so well knew how to assume.

    The major hesitated a moment, and then sang, with fine execution, the following words:—

  • Some love the heats of southern suns,
  • Where’s life’s warm current maddening runs,
  • In one quick circling stream;
  • But dearer far ’s the mellow light
  • Which trembling shines, reflected bright
  • In Luna’s milder beam.
  • Some love the tulip’s gaudier dyes,
  • Where deepening blue with yellow vies,
  • And gorgeous beauty glows;
  • But happier he, whose bridal wreath,
  • By love entwined, is found to breathe
  • The sweetness of the rose.
  • The voice of Dunwoodie never lost its authority with his inferiors; and the applause which followed his song, though by no means so riotous as that which succeeded the effort of the captain, was much more flattering.

    “If, sir,” said the doctor, after joining in the plaudits of his companions, “you would but learn to unite classical allusions with your delicate imagination you would become a pretty amateur poet.”

    “He who criticizes ought to be able to perform,” said Dunwoodie with a smile. “I call on Dr. Sitgreaves for a specimen of the style he admires.”

    “Dr. Sitgreaves’ song! Dr. Sitgreaves’ song!” echoed all at the table with delight; “a classical ode from Dr. Sitgreaves!”

    The surgeon made a complacent bow, took the remnant of his glass, and gave a few preliminary hems, that served to delight three or four young cornets at the foot of the table. He then commenced singing, in a cracked voice, and to anything but a tune, the following ditty:—

  • Hast thou ever felt love’s dart, dearest,
  • Or breathed his trembling sigh—
  • Thought him, afar, was ever nearest,
  • Before that sparkling eye?
  • Then hast thou known what ’t is to feel
  • The pain that Galen could not heal.
  • “Hurrah!” shouted Lawton: “Archibald eclipses the Muses themselves; his words flow like the sylvan stream by moonlight, and his melody is a cross breed of the nightingale and the owl.”

    “Captain Lawton,” cried the exasperated operator, “it is one thing to despise the lights of classical learning, and another to be despised for your own ignorance!”

    A loud summons at the door of the building created a dead halt in the uproar, and the dragoons instinctively caught up their arms, to be prepared for the worst. The door was opened, and the Skinners entered, dragging in the pedler, bending beneath the load of his pack.

    “Which is Captain Lawton?” said the leader of the gang, gazing around him in some little astonishment.

    “He waits your pleasure,” said the trooper dryly.

    “Then here I deliver to your hands a condemned traitor: this is Harvey Birch, the pedler spy.”

    Lawton started as he looked his old acquaintance in the face, and, turning to the Skinner with a lowering look, he asked,—

    “And who are you, sir, that speak so freely of your neighbors? But,” bowing to Dunwoodie, “your pardon, sir; here is the commanding officer; to him you will please address yourself.”

    “No,” said the man, sullenly, “it is to you I deliver the pedler, and from you I claim my reward.”

    “Are you Harvey Birch?” said Dunwoodie, advancing with an air of authority that instantly drove the Skinner to a corner of the room.

    “I am,” said Birch, proudly.

    “And a traitor to your country,” continued the major, with sternness; “do you know that I should be justified in ordering your execution this night?”

    “’T is not the will of God to call a soul so hastily to His presence,” said the pedler with solemnity.

    “You speak truth,” said Dunwoodie; “and a few brief hours shall be added to your life. But as your offense is most odious to a soldier, so it will be sure to meet with the soldier’s vengeance: you die to-morrow.”

    “’T is as God wills.”

    “I have spent many a good hour to entrap the villain,” said the Skinner, advancing a little from his corner, “and I hope you will give me a certificate that will entitle us to the reward; ’t was promised to be paid in gold.”

    “Major Dunwoodie,” said the officer of the day, entering the room, “the patrols report a house to be burnt near yesterday’s battle-ground.”

    “’T was the hut of the pedler,” muttered the leader of the gang; “we have not left him a shingle for shelter. I should have burnt it months ago, but I wanted his shed for a trap to catch the sly fox in.”

    “You seem a most ingenious patriot,” said Lawton. “Major Dunwoodie, I second the request of this worthy gentleman, and crave the office of bestowing the reward on him and his fellows.”

    “Take it; and you, miserable man, prepare for that fate which will surely befall you before the setting of to-morrow’s sun.”

    “Life offers but little to tempt me with,” said Harvey, slowly raising his eyes, and gazing wildly at the strange faces in the apartment.

    “Come, worthy children of America!” said Lawton, “follow, and receive your reward.”

    The gang eagerly accepted the invitation, and followed the captain towards the quarters assigned to his troop. Dunwoodie paused a moment, from reluctance to triumph over a fallen foe, before he proceeded.

    “You have already been tried, Harvey Birch; and the truth has proved you to be an enemy too dangerous to the liberties of America to be suffered to live.”

    “The truth!” echoed the pedler, starting, and raising himself in a manner that disregarded the weight of his pack.

    “Aye! the truth; you are charged with loitering near the continental army, to gain intelligence of its movements, and, by communicating them to the enemy, to enable him to frustrate the intentions of Washington.”

    “Will Washington say so, think you?”

    “Doubtless he would; even the justice of Washington condemns you.”

    “No, no, no,” cried the pedler, in a voice and with a manner that startled Dunwoodie; “Washington can see beyond the hollow views of pretended patriots. Has he not risked his all on the cast of a die? If a gallows is ready for me, was there not one for him also? No, no, no, no—Washington would never say, ‘Lead him to a gallows.’”

    “Have you anything, wretched man, to urge to the commander-in-chief why you should not die?” said the major, recovering from the surprise created by the manner of the other.

    Birch trembled, for violent emotions were contending in his bosom. His face assumed the ghastly paleness of death, and his hand drew a box of tin from the folds of his shirt; he opened it, showing by the act that it contained a small piece of paper: on this document his eye was for an instant fixed—he had already held it towards Dunwoodie, when suddenly withdrawing his hand he exclaimed,—

    “No—it dies with me; I know the conditions of my service, and will not purchase life with their forfeiture—it dies with me.”

    “Deliver that paper, and you may possibly find favor,” cried Dunwoodie, expecting a discovery of importance to the cause.

    “It dies with me,” repeated Birch, a flush passing over his pallid features, and lighting them with extraordinary brilliancy.

    “Seize the traitor!” cried the major, “and wrest the secret from his hands.”

    The order was immediately obeyed; but the movements of the pedler were too quick; in an instant he swallowed the paper. The officers paused in astonishment; but the surgeon cried eagerly,—

    “Hold him, while I administer an emetic.”

    “Forbear!” said Dunwoodie, beckoning him back with his hand; “if his crime is great, so will his punishment be heavy.”

    “Lead on,” cried the pedler, dropping his pack from his shoulders, and advancing towards the door with a manner of incomprehensible dignity.

    “Whither?” asked Dunwoodie, in amazement.

    “To the gallows.”

    “No,” said the major, recoiling in horror at his own justice. “My duty requires that I order you to be executed, but surely not so hastily; take until nine to-morrow to prepare for the awful change.”

    Dunwoodie whispered his orders in the ear of a subaltern, and motioned to the pedler to withdraw. The interruption caused by this scene prevented further enjoyment around the table, and the officers dispersed to their several places of rest. In a short time the only noise to be heard was the heavy tread of the sentinel, as he paced the frozen ground in front of the Hotel Flanagan.