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

Chapter XVII

  • There are, whose changing lineaments
  • Express each guileless passion of the breast;
  • Where Love, and Hope, and tender-hearted Pity
  • Are seen reflected, as from a mirror’s face;
  • But cold experience can veil these hues
  • With looks, invented shrewdly to encompass
  • The cunning purposes of base deceit.
  • DUO.

  • THE OFFICER to whose keeping Dunwoodie had committed the pedler transferred his charge to the custody of the regular sergeant of the guard. The gift of Captain Wharton had not been lost on the youthful lieutenant; and a certain dancing motion that had taken possession of objects before his eyes, gave him warning of the necessity of recruiting nature by sleep. After admonishing the non-commissioned guardian of Harvey to omit no watchfulness in securing the prisoner, the youth wrapped himself in his cloak, and, stretched on a bench before a fire, soon found the repose he needed. A rude shed extended the whole length of the rear of the building, and from off one of its ends had been partitioned a small apartment, that was intended as a repository for many of the lesser implements of husbandry. The lawless times had, however, occasioned its being stripped of everything of value; and the searching eyes of Betty Flanagan selected this spot, on her arrival, as the storehouse for her movables and a sanctuary for her person. The spare arms and baggage of the corps had also been deposited here; and the united treasures were placed under the eye of the sentinel who paraded the shed as a guardian of the rear of the headquarters. A second soldier, who was stationed near the house to protect the horses of the officers, could command a view of the outside of the apartment; and, as it was without window or outlet of any kind, excepting its door, the considerate sergeant thought this the most befitting place in which to deposit his prisoner until the moment of his execution. Several inducements urged Sergeant Hollister to this determination, among which was the absence of the washerwoman, who lay before the kitchen fire, dreaming that the corps was attacking a party of the enemy, and mistaking the noise that proceeded from her own nose for the bugles of the Virginians sounding the charge. Another was the peculiar opinions that the veteran entertained of life and death, and by which he was distinguished in the corps as a man of most exemplary piety and holiness of life. The sergeant was more than fifty years of age, and for half that period he had borne arms. The constant recurrence of sudden deaths before his eyes had produced an effect on him differing greatly from that which was the usual moral consequence of such scenes; and he had become not only the most steady, but the most trustworthy soldier in his troop. Captain Lawton had rewarded his fidelity by making him its orderly.

    Followed by Birch, the sergeant proceeded in silence to the door of the intended prison, and, throwing it open with one hand, he held a lantern with the other to light the pedler to his prison. Seating himself on a cask, that contained some of Betty’s favorite beverage, the sergeant motioned to Birch to occupy another, in the same manner. The lantern was placed on the floor, when the dragoon, after looking his prisoner steadily in the face, observed,—

    “You look as if you would meet death like a man; and I have brought you to a spot where you can tranquilly arrange your thoughts, and be quiet and undisturbed.”

    “’T is a fearful place to prepare for the last change in,” said Harvey, gazing around his little prison with a vacant eye.

    “Why, for the matter of that,” returned the veteran, “it can reckon but little in the great account, where a man parades his thoughts for the last review, so that he finds them fit to pass the muster of another world. I have a small book here, which I make it a point to read a little in, whenever we are about to engage, and I find it a great strengthener in time of need.” While speaking, he took a Bible from his pocket, and offered it to the pedler. Birch received the volume with habitual reverence; but there was an abstracted air about him, and a wandering of the eye, that induced his companion to think that alarm was getting the mastery of the pedler’s feelings; accordingly, he proceeded in what he conceived to be the offices of consolation.

    “If anything lies heavy on your mind, now is the best time to get rid of it—if you have done any wrong to any one, I promise you, on the word of an honest dragoon, to lend you a helping hand to see them righted.”

    “There are few who have not done so,” said the pedler, turning his vacant gaze once more on his companion.

    “True—’t is natural to sin; but it sometimes happens that a man does what at other times he may be sorry for. One would not wish to die with any very heavy sin on his conscience, after all.”

    Harvey had by this time thoroughly examined the place in which he was to pass the night, and saw no means of escape. But as hope is ever the last feeling to desert the human breast, the pedler gave the dragoon more of his attention, fixing on his sunburnt features such searching looks, that Sergeant Hollister lowered his eyes before the wild expression which he met in the gaze of his prisoner.

    “I have been taught to lay the burden of my sins at the feet of my Saviour,” replied the pedler.

    “Why, yes—all that is well enough,” returned the other; “but justice should be done while there is opportunity. There have been stirring times in this country since the war began, and many have been deprived of their rightful goods. I oftentimes find it hard to reconcile even my lawful plunder to a tender conscience.”

    “These hands,” said the pedler, stretching forth his meagre, bony fingers, “have spent years in toil, but not a moment in pilfering.”

    “It is well that it is so,” said the honest-hearted soldier, “and, no doubt, you now feel it a great consolation. There are three great sins, that, if a man can keep his conscience clear of, why, by the mercy of God, he may hope to pass muster with the saints in heaven: they are stealing, murdering, and desertion.”

    “Thank God!” said Birch, with fervor, “I have never yet taken the life of a fellow-creature.”

    “As to killing a man in lawful battle, that is no more than doing one’s duty. If the cause is wrong, the sin of such a deed, you know, falls on the nation, and a man receives his punishment here with the rest of the people; but murdering in cold blood stands next to desertion as a crime in the eye of God.”

    “I never was a soldier, therefore never could desert,” said the pedler, resting his face on his hand in a melancholy attitude.

    “Why, desertion consists of more than quitting your colors, though that is certainly the worst kind; a man may desert his country in the hour of need.”

    Birch buried his face in both his hands, and his whole frame shook; the sergeant regarded him closely, but good feelings soon got the better of his antipathies, and he continued more mildly,—

    “But still that is a sin which I think may be forgiven, if sincerely repented of; and it matters but little when or how a man dies, so that he dies like a Christian and a man. I recommend you to say your prayers, and then to get some rest, in order that you may do both. There is no hope of your being pardoned; for Colonel Singleton has sent down the most positive orders to take your life whenever we met you. No, no—nothing can save you.”

    “You say the truth,” cried Birch. “It is now too late—I have destroyed my only safeguard. But he will do my memory justice at least.”

    “What safeguard?” asked the sergeant, with awakened curiosity.

    “’T is nothing,” replied the pedler, recovering his natural manner, and lowering his face to avoid the earnest looks of his companion.

    “And who is he?”

    “No one,” added Harvey, anxious to say no more.

    “Nothing and no one can avail but little now,” said the sergeant, rising to go; “lay yourself on the blanket of Mrs. Flanagan, and get a little sleep; I will call you betimes in the morning; and from the bottom of my soul I wish I could be of some service to you, for I dislike greatly to see a man hung up like a dog.”

    “Then you might save me from this ignominious death,” said Birch, springing to his feet, and catching the dragoon by the arm. “And, oh! what will I not give you in reward!”

    “In what manner?” asked the sergeant, looking at him in surprise.

    “See,” said the pedler, producing several guineas from his person; “these are nothing to what I will give you, if you will assist me to escape.”

    “Were you the man whose picture is on the gold, I would not listen to such a crime,” said the trooper, throwing the money on the floor with contempt. “Go—go, poor wretch, and make your peace with God; for it is He only that can be of service to you now.”

    The sergeant took up the lantern, and, with some indignation in his manner, he left the pedler to sorrowful meditations on his approaching fate. Birch sank, in momentary despair, on the pallet of Betty, while his guardian proceeded to give the necessary instructions to the sentinels for his safe-keeping.

    Hollister concluded his injunctions to the man in the shed, by saying, “Your life will depend on his not escaping. Let none enter or quit the room till morning.”

    “But,” said the trooper, “my orders are, to let the washerwoman pass in and out, as she pleases.”

    “Well, let her then; but be careful that this wily pedler does not get out in the folds of her petticoats.” He then continued his walk, giving similar orders to each of the sentinels near the spot.

    For some time after the departure of the sergeant, silence prevailed within the solitary prison of the pedler, until the dragoon at his door heard his loud breathings, which soon rose into the regular cadence of one in a deep sleep. The man continued walking his post, musing on an indifference to life which could allow nature its customary rest, even on the threshold of the grave. Harvey Birch had, however, been a name too long held in detestation by every man in the corps, to suffer any feelings of commiseration to mingle with these reflections of the sentinel; for, notwithstanding the consideration and kindness manifested by the sergeant, there probably was not another man of his rank in the whole party who would have discovered equal benevolence to the prisoner, or who would not have imitated the veteran in rejecting the bribe, although probably from a less worthy motive. There was something of disappointed vengeance in the feelings of the man who watched the door of the room on finding his prisoner enjoying a sleep of which he himself was deprived, and at his exhibiting such obvious indifference to the utmost penalty that military rigor could inflict on all his treason to the cause of liberty and America. More than once he felt prompted to disturb the repose of the pedler by taunts and revilings; but the discipline he was under, and a secret sense of shame at the brutality of the act, held him in subjection.

    His meditations were, however, soon interrupted by the appearance of the washerwoman, who came staggering through the door that communicated with the kitchen, muttering execrations against the servants of the officers, who, by their waggery, had disturbed her slumbers before the fire. The sentinel understood enough of her maledictions to comprehend the case; but all his efforts to enter into conversation with the enraged woman were useless, and he suffered her to enter her room without explaining that it contained another inmate. The noise of her huge frame falling on the bed was succeeded by a silence that was soon interrupted by the renewed respiration of the pedler, and within a few minutes Harvey continued to breathe aloud, as if no interruption had occurred. The relief arrived at this moment. The sentinel, who felt nettled at the contempt of the pedler, after communicating his orders, while he was retiring, exclaimed to his successor,—

    “You may keep yourself warm by dancing, John; the pedler spy has tuned his fiddle, you hear, and it will not be long before Betty will strike up, in her turn.”

    The joke was followed by a general laugh from the party, who marched on in performance of their duty. At this instant the door of the prison was opened, and Betty reappeared, staggering back again toward her former quarters.

    “Stop,” said the sentinel, catching her by her clothes; “are you sure the spy is not in your pocket?”

    “Can’t you hear the rascal snoring in my room, you dirty blackguard?” sputtered Betty, her whole frame shaking with rage; “and is it so ye would sarve a dacent famale, that a man must be put to sleep in the room wid her, ye rapscallion?”

    “Pooh! Do you mind a fellow who ’s to be hanged in the morning? You see he sleeps already; to-morrow he ’ll take a longer nap.”

    “Hands off, ye villain!” cried the washerwoman, relinquishing a small bottle that the trooper had succeeded in wresting from her. “But I ’ll go to Captain Jack, and know if it ’s orders to put a hang-gallows spy in my room; aye, even in my widowed bed, you tief!”

    “Silence, old Jezebel!” said the fellow with a laugh, taking the bottle from his mouth to breathe, “or you will wake the gentleman—would you disturb a man in his last sleep?”

    “I ’ll awake Captain Jack, you reprobate villain, and bring him here to see me righted: he will punish ye all, for imposing on a dacent widowed body, you marauder!”

    With these words, which only extorted a laugh from the sentinel, Betty staggered round the end of the building, and made the best of her way towards the quarters of her favorite, Captain John Lawton, in search of redress. Neither the officer nor the woman, however, appeared during the night, and nothing further occurred to disturb the repose of the pedler, who, to the astonishment of the different sentinels, continued by his breathing to manifest how little the gallows could affect his slumbers.