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

Chapter XX

  • Flatter and praise, commend, extol their graces,
  • Though ne’er so black, say they have angels’ faces,
  • That man who hath a tongue I say is no man,
  • If with that tongue he cannot win a woman.

  • IN making the arrangements by which Captain Lawton had been left, with Sergeant Hollister and twelve men, as a guard over the wounded, and heavy baggage of the corps, Dunwoodie had consulted not only the information which had been conveyed in the letter of Colonel Singleton, but the bruises of his comrade’s body. In vain Lawton declared himself fit for any duty that man could perform, or plainly intimated that his men would never follow Tom Mason to a charge with the alacrity and confidence with which they followed himself; his commander was firm, and the reluctant captain was compelled to comply with as good a grace as he could assume. Before parting, Dunwoodie repeated his caution to keep a watchful eye on the inmates of the cottage; and especially enjoined him, if any movements of a particularly suspicious nature were seen in the neighborhood, to break up from his present quarters, and to move down with his party, and take possession of the domains of Mr. Wharton. A vague suspicion of danger to the family had been awakened in the breast of the major, by the language of the pedler, although he was unable to refer it to any particular source, or to understand why it was to be apprehended.

    For some time after the departure of the troops, the captain was walking before the door of the “Hotel,” inwardly cursing his fate, that condemned him to an inglorious idleness, at a moment when a meeting with the enemy might be expected, and replying to the occasional queries of Betty, who, from the interior of the building, ever and anon demanded, in a high tone of voice, an explanation of various passages in the pedler’s escape, which as yet she could not comprehend. At this instant he was joined by the surgeon, who had hitherto been engaged among his patients in a distant building, and was profoundly ignorant of everything that had occurred, even to the departure of the troops.

    “Where are all the sentinels, John?” he inquired, as he gazed around with a look of curiosity, “and why are you here alone?”

    “Off—all off, with Dunwoodie, to the river. You and I are left here to take care of a few sick men and some women.”

    “I am glad, however,” said the surgeon, “that Major Dunwoodie had consideration enough not to move the wounded. Here, you Mrs. Elizabeth Flanagan, hasten with some food, that I may appease my appetite. I have a dead body to dissect and am in haste.”

    “And here, you Mister Doctor Archibald Sitgreaves,” echoed Betty, showing her blooming countenance from a broken window of the kitchen, “you are ever a-coming too late; here is nothing to ate but the skin of Jenny, and the body ye ’re mintioning.”

    “Woman!” said the surgeon, in anger, “do you take me for a cannibal, that you address your filthy discourse to me, in this manner? I bid you hasten with such food as may be proper to be received into the stomach fasting.”

    “And I ’m sure it ’s for a pop-gun that I should be taking you sooner than for a cannon-ball,” said Betty, winking at the captain; “and I tell ye that it ’s fasting you must be, unless ye ’ll let me cook ye a steak from the skin of Jenny. The boys have ate me up intirely.”

    Lawton now interfered to preserve the peace, and assured the surgeon that he had already dispatched the proper persons in quest of food for the party. A little mollified with this explanation, the operator soon forgot his hunger, and declared his intention of proceeding to business at once.

    “And where is your subject?” asked Lawton.

    “The pedler,” said the other, glancing a look at the sign-post. “I made Hollister put a stage so high that the neck would not be dislocated by the fall, and I intend making as handsome a skeleton of him as there is in the states of North America; the fellow has good points, and his bones are well knit. I will make a perfect beauty of him. I have long been wanting something of this sort to send as a present to my old aunt in Virginia, who was so kind to me when a boy.”

    “The devil!” cried Lawton. “Would you send the old woman a dead man’s bones?”

    “Why not?” said the surgeon; “what nobler object is there in nature than the figure of a man—and the skeleton may be called his elementary parts. But what has been done with the body?”

    “Off too.”

    “Off! And who has dared to interfere with my perquisites?”

    “Sure, jist the divil,” said Betty; “and who ’ll be taking yeerself away some of these times too, without asking yeer lave.”

    “Silence, you witch!” said Lawton, with difficulty suppressing a laugh; “is this the manner in which to address an officer?”

    “Who called me the filthy Elizabeth Flanagan?” cried the washerwoman, snapping her fingers contemptuously; “I can remimber a fri’nd for a year, and don’t forgit an inimy for a month.”

    But the friendship or enmity of Mrs. Flanagan was alike indifferent to the surgeon, who could think of nothing but his loss; and Lawton was obliged to explain to his friend the apparent manner in which it had happened.

    “And a lucky escape it was for ye, my jewel of a doctor,” cried Betty, as the captain concluded. “Sargeant Hollister, who saw him face to face, as it might be, says it ’s Beelzeboob, and no pidler, unless it may be in a small matter of lies and thefts, and sich wickedness. Now a pretty figure ye would have been in cutting up Beelzeboob, if the major had hanged him. I don’t think it ’s very ’asy he would have been under yeer knife.”

    Thus doubly disappointed in his meal and his business, Sitgreaves suddenly declared his intention of visiting the Locusts, and inquiring into the state of Captain Singleton. Lawton was ready for the excursion; and mounting, they were soon on the road, though the surgeon was obliged to submit to a few more jokes from the washerwoman, before he could get out of hearing. For some time the two rode in silence, when Lawton, perceiving that his companion’s temper was somewhat ruffled by his disappointments and Betty’s attack, made an effort to restore the tranquillity of his feelings.

    “That was a charming song, Archibald, that you commenced last evening, when we were interrupted by the party that brought in the pedler,” he said: “the allusion to Galen was much to the purpose.”

    “I knew you would like it, Jack, when you had got the fumes of the wine out of your head. Poetry is a respectable art, though it wants the precision of the exact sciences, and the natural beneficence of the physical. Considered in reference to the wants of life, I should define poetry as an emollient, rather than as a succulent.”

    “And yet your ode was full of the meat of wit.”

    “Ode is by no means a proper term for the composition; I should term it a classical ballad.”

    “Very probably,” said the trooper; “hearing only one verse, it was difficult to class the composition.”

    The surgeon involuntarily hemmed, and began to clear his throat, although scarcely conscious himself to what the preparation tended. But the captain, rolling his dark eyes towards his companion, and observing him to be sitting with great uneasiness on his horse, continued,—

    “The air is still, and the road solitary—why not give the remainder? It is never too late to repair a loss.”

    “My dear John, if I thought it would correct the errors you have imbibed, from habit and indulgence, nothing could give me more pleasure.”

    “We are fast approaching some rocks on our left; the echo will double my satisfaction.”

    Thus encouraged, and somewhat impelled by the opinion that he both sang and wrote with taste, the surgeon set about complying with the request in sober earnest. Some little time was lost in clearing his throat, and getting the proper pitch of his voice; but no sooner were these two points achieved, than Lawton had the secret delight of hearing his friend commence—

  • “‘Hast thou ever’”—
  • “Hush!” interrupted the trooper; “what rustling noise is that among the rocks?”

    “It must have been the rushing of the melody. A powerful voice is like the breathing of the winds.

  • “‘Hast thou ever’”—
  • “Listen!” said Lawton, stopping his horse. He had not done speaking, when a stone fell at his feet, and rolled harmlessly across the path.

    “A friendly shot, that,” cried the trooper; “neither the weapon, nor its force, implies much ill-will.”

    “Blows from stones seldom produce more than contusions,” said the operator, bending his gaze in every direction in vain, in quest of the hand from which the missile had been hurled; “it must be meteoric; there is no living being in sight, except ourselves.”

    “It would be easy to hide a regiment behind those rocks,” returned the trooper, dismounting, and taking the stone in his hand. “Oh! here is the explanation along with the mystery.” So saying, he tore a piece of paper that had been ingeniously fastened to the small fragment of rock which had thus singularly fallen before him; and opening it, the captain read the following words, written in no very legible hand:—

    “A musket bullet will go farther than a stone, and things more dangerous than yarbs for wounded men lie hid in the rocks of West-Chester. The horse may be good, but can he mount a precipice?”

    “Thou sayest the truth, strange man,” said Lawton. “Courage and activity would avail but little against assassination and these rugged passes.” Remounting his horse, he cried aloud, “Thanks, unknown friend; your caution will be remembered.”

    A meagre hand was extended for an instant over a rock, in the air, and afterwards nothing further was seen, or heard, in that quarter, by the soldiers.

    “Quite an extraordinary interruption,” said the astonished Sitgreaves, “and a letter of very mysterious meaning.”

    “Oh! ’t is nothing but the wit of some bumpkin, who thinks to frighten two of the Virginians by an artifice of this kind,” said the trooper, placing the billet in his pocket; “but let me tell you, Mr. Archibald Sitgreaves, you were wanting to dissect, just now, a damned honest fellow.”

    “It was the pedler—one of the most notorious spies in the enemy’s service; and I must say that I think it would be an honor to such a man to be devoted to the uses of science.”

    “He may be a spy—he must be one,” said Lawton, musing; “but he has a heart above enmity, and a soul that would honor a soldier.”

    The surgeon turned a vacant eye on his companion as he uttered this soliloquy, while the penetrating looks of the trooper had already discovered another pile of rocks, which, jutting forward, nearly obstructed the highway that wound directly around its base.

    “What the steed cannot mount, the foot of man can overcome,” exclaimed the wary partisan. Throwing himself again from his saddle, and leaping a wall of stone, he began to ascend the hill at a pace which would soon have given him a bird’s-eye view of the rocks in question, together with all their crevices. This movement was no sooner made, than Lawton caught a glimpse of the figure of a man stealing rapidly from his approach, and disappearing on the opposite side of the precipice.

    “Spur, Sitgreaves—spur,” shouted the trooper, dashing over every impediment in pursuit, “and murder the villain as he flies.”

    The former part of the request was promptly complied with, and a few moments brought the surgeon in full view of a man armed with a musket, who was crossing the road, and evidently seeking the protection of the thick wood on its opposite side.

    “Stop, my friend—stop until Captain Lawton comes up, if you please,” cried the surgeon, observing him to flee with a rapidity that baffled his horsemanship. But as if the invitation contained new terrors, the footman redoubled his efforts, nor paused even to breathe, until he had reached his goal, when, turning on his heel, he discharged his musket towards the surgeon, and was out of sight in an instant. To gain the highway, and throw himself into his saddle, detained Lawton but a moment, and he rode to the side of his comrade just as the figure disappeared.

    “Which way has he fled?” cried the trooper.

    “John,” said the surgeon, “am I not a non-combatant?”

    “Whither has the rascal fled?” cried Lawton, impatiently.

    “Where you cannot follow—into that wood. But I repeat, John, am I not a non-combatant?”

    The disappointed trooper, perceiving that his enemy had escaped him, now turned his eyes, which were flashing with anger, upon his comrade, and gradually his muscles lost their rigid compression, his brow relaxed, and his look changed from its fierce expression, to the covert laughter which so often distinguished his countenance. The surgeon sat in dignified composure on his horse; his thin body erect, and his head elevated with the indignation of one conscious of having been unjustly treated.

    “Why did you suffer the villain to escape?” demanded the captain. “Once within reach of my sabre, and I would have given you a subject for the dissecting table.”

    “’T was impossible to prevent it,” said the surgeon, pointing to the bars, before which he had stopped his horse. “The rogue threw himself on the other side of this fence, and left me where you see; nor would the man in the least attend to my remonstrances, or to an intimation that you wished to hold discourse with him.”

    “He was truly a discourteous rascal; but why did you not leap the fence, and compel him to a halt?—you see but three of the bars are up, and Betty Flanagan could clear them on her cow.”

    The surgeon, for the first time, withdrew his eyes from the place where the fugitive had disappeared, and turned his look on his comrade. His head, however, was not permitted to lower itself in the least, as he replied,—

    “I humbly conceive, Captain Lawton, that neither Mrs. Elizabeth Flanagan, nor her cow, is an example to be emulated by Doctor Archibald Sitgreaves: it would be but a sorry compliment to science, to say that a doctor of medicine had fractured both his legs by injudiciously striking them against a pair of bar-posts.” While speaking, the surgeon raised the limbs in question to a nearly horizontal position, an attitude which really appeared to bid defiance to anything like a passage for himself through the defile; but the trooper, disregarding this ocular proof of the impossibility of the movement, cried hastily,—

    “Here was nothing to stop you, man; I could leap a platoon through, boot and thigh, without pricking with a single spur. Pshaw! I have often charged upon the bayonets of infantry, over greater difficulties than this.”

    “You will please to remember, Captain John Lawton, that I am not the riding-master of the regiment—nor a drill sergeant—nor a crazy cornet; no, sir—and I speak it with a due respect for the commission of the continental Congress—nor an inconsiderate captain, who regards his own life as little as that of his enemies. I am only, sir, a poor humble man of letters, a mere Doctor of Medicine, an unworthy graduate of Edinburgh, and a surgeon of dragoons; nothing more, I do assure you, Captain John Lawton.” So saying, he turned his horse’s head towards the cottage, and recommenced his ride.

    “Aye, you speak the truth,” muttered the dragoon; “had I but the meanest rider of my troop with me, I should have taken the scoundrel, and given at least one victim to the laws. But, Archibald, no man can ride well who straddles in this manner like the Colossus of Rhodes. You should depend less on your stirrup, and keep your seat by the power of the knee.”

    “With proper deference to your experience, Captain Lawton,” returned the surgeon, “I conceive myself to be no incompetent judge of muscular action, whether in the knee, or in any other part of the human frame. And although but humbly educated, I am not now to learn that the wider the base, the more firm is the superstructure.”

    “Would you fill a highway, in this manner, with one pair of legs, when half a dozen might pass together in comfort, stretching them abroad like the scythes of the ancient chariot wheels?”

    The allusion to the practice of the ancients somewhat softened the indignation of the surgeon, and he replied, with rather less hauteur,—

    “You should speak with reverence of the usages of those who have gone before us, and who, however ignorant they were in matters of science, and particularly that of surgery, yet furnished many brilliant hints to our own improvements. Now, sir, I have no doubt that Galen has operated on wounds occasioned by these very scythes that you mention, although we can find no evidence of the fact in contemporary writers. Ah! they must have given dreadful injuries, and, I doubt not, caused great uneasiness to the medical gentlemen of that day.”

    “Occasionally a body must have been left in two pieces, to puzzle the ingenuity of those gentry to unite. Yet, venerable and learned as they were, I doubt not they did it.”

    “What! unite two parts of the human body, that have been severed by an edged instrument, to any of the purposes of animal life?”

    “That have been rent asunder by a scythe, and are united to do military duty,” said Lawton.

    “’T is impossible—quite impossible,” cried the surgeon; “it is in vain, Captain Lawton, that human ingenuity endeavors to baffle the efforts of nature. Think, my dear sir, in this case you separate all the arteries—injure all of the intestines—sever all of the nerves and sinews, and, what is of more consequence, you”—

    “You have said enough, Dr. Sitgreaves, to convince a member of a rival school. Nothing shall ever tempt me willingly to submit to be divided in this irretrievable manner.”

    “Certes, there is little pleasure in a wound which, from its nature, is incurable.”

    “I should think so,” said Lawton, dryly.

    “What do you think is the greatest pleasure in life?” asked the operator suddenly.

    “That must greatly depend on taste.”

    “Not at all,” cried the surgeon; “it is in witnessing, or rather feeling, the ravages of disease repaired by the lights of science coöperating with nature. I once broke my little finger intentionally, in order that I might reduce the fracture and watch the cure: it was only on a small scale, you know, dear John; still the thrilling sensation excited by the knitting of the bone, aided by the contemplation of the art of man thus acting in unison with nature, exceeded any other enjoyment that I have ever experienced. Now, had it been one of the more important members, such as the leg, or arm, how much greater must the pleasure have been!”

    “Or the neck,” said the trooper; but their desultory discourse was interrupted by their arrival at the cottage of Mr. Wharton. No one appearing to usher them into an apartment, the captain proceeded to the door of the parlor, where he knew visitors were commonly received. On opening it, he paused for a moment, in admiration at the scene within. The person of Colonel Wellmere first met his eye, bending towards the figure of the blushing Sarah, with an earnestness of manner that prevented the noise of Lawton’s entrance from being heard by either of the parties. Certain significant signs, which were embraced at a glance by the prying gaze of the trooper, at once made him a master of their secret; and he was about to retire as silently as he had advanced, when his companion, pushing himself through the passage, abruptly entered the room. Advancing instantly to the chair of Wellmere, the surgeon instinctively laid hold of his arm, and exclaimed,—

    “Bless me!—a quick and irregular pulse—flushed cheek and fiery eye—strong febrile symptoms, and such as must be attended to.” While speaking, the doctor, who was much addicted to practicing in a summary way,—a weakness of most medical men in military practice,—had already produced his lancet, and was making certain other indications of his intentions to proceed at once to business. But Colonel Wellmere, recovering from the confusion of the surprise, arose from his seat haughtily, and said,—

    “Sir, it is the warmth of the room that lends me the color, and I am already too much indebted to your skill to give you any further trouble; Miss Wharton knows that I am quite well, and I do assure you that I never felt better or happier in my life.”

    There was a peculiar emphasis on the latter part of this speech, that, however it might gratify the feelings of Sarah, brought the color to her cheeks again; and Sitgreaves, as his eye followed the direction of those of his patient, did not fail to observe it.

    “Your arm, if you please, madam,” said the surgeon, advancing with a bow; “anxiety and watching have done their work on your delicate frame, and there are symptoms about you that must not be neglected.”

    “Excuse me, sir,” said Sarah, recovering herself with womanly pride; “the heat is oppressive, and I will retire and acquaint Miss Peyton with your presence.”

    There was but little difficulty in practicing on the abstracted simplicity of the surgeon; but it was necessary for Sarah to raise her eyes to return the salutation of Lawton, as he bowed his head nearly to a level with the hand that held open the door for her passage. One look was sufficient; she was able to control her steps sufficiently to retire with dignity; but no sooner was she relieved from the presence of all observers, than she fell into a chair and abandoned herself to a feeling of mingled shame and pleasure.

    A little nettled at the contumacious deportment of the British colonel, Sitgreaves, after once more tendering services that were again rejected, withdrew to the chamber of young Singleton, whither Lawton had already preceded him.