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

Chapter XXIX

  • Away went Gilpin, neck or nought,
  • Away went hat and wig;
  • He little dreamt, when he set out,
  • Of running such a rig.

  • THE ROAD which it was necessary for the pedler and the English captain to travel, in order to reach the shelter of the hills, lay, for a half-mile, in full view from the door of the building that had so recently been the prison of the latter; running for the whole distance over the rich plain, that spreads to the very foot of the mountains, which here rise in a nearly perpendicular ascent from their bases; it then turned short to the right, and was obliged to follow the windings of nature, as it won its way into the bosom of the Highlands.

    To preserve the supposed difference in their stations, Harvey rode a short distance ahead of his companion, and maintained the sober, dignified pace, that was suited to his assumed character. On their right, the regiment of foot, that we have already mentioned, lay in tents; and the sentinels who guarded their encampment were to be seen moving with measured tread under the hills themselves.

    The first impulse of Henry was, certainly, to urge the beast he rode to his greatest speed at once, and by a coup-de-main not only accomplish his escape, but relieve himself from the torturing suspense of his situation. But the forward movement that the youth made for this purpose was instantly checked by the pedler.

    “Hold up!” he cried, dexterously reining his own horse across the path of the other; “would you ruin us both? Fall into the place of a black, following his master. Did you not see their blooded chargers, all saddled and bridled, standing in the sun before the house? How long do you think that miserable Dutch horse you are on would hold his speed, if pursued by the Virginians? Every foot that we can gain, without giving the alarm, counts a day in our lives. Ride steadily after me, and on no account look back. They are as subtle as foxes, aye, and as ravenous for blood as wolves!”

    Henry reluctantly restrained his impatience, and followed the direction of the pedler. His imagination, however, continually alarmed him with the fancied sounds of pursuit, though Birch, who occasionally looked back under the pretense of addressing his companion, assured him that all continued quiet and peaceful.

    “But,” said Henry, “it will not be possible for Cæsar to remain long undiscovered. Had we not better put our horses to the gallop, and by the time they can reflect on the cause of our flight, we can reach the corner of the woods?”

    “Ah! you little know them, Captain Wharton,” returned the pedler; “there is a sergeant at this moment looking after us, as if he thought all was not right; the keen-eyed fellow watches me like a tiger lying in wait for his leap. When I stood on the horseblock, he half suspected that something was wrong. Nay, check your beast—we must let the animals walk a little, for he is laying his hand on the pommel of his saddle. If he mounts, we are gone. The foot-soldiers could reach us with their muskets.”

    “What does he now?” asked Henry, reining his horse to a walk, but at the same time pressing his heels into the animal’s sides, to be in readiness for a spring.

    “He turns from his charger, and looks the other way; now trot on gently—not so fast—not so fast. Observe the sentinel in the field, a little ahead of us—he eyes us keenly.”

    “Never mind the footman,” said Henry, impatiently; “he can do nothing but shoot us—whereas these dragoons may make me a captive again. Surely, Harvey, there are horse moving down the road behind us. Do you see nothing particular?”

    “Humph!” ejaculated the pedler; “there is something particular, indeed, to be seen behind the thicket on our left. Turn your head a little, and you may see and profit by it too.”

    Henry eagerly seized this permission to look aside, and the blood curdled to his heart as he observed that they were passing a gallows, which unquestionably had been erected for his own execution. He turned his face from the sight, in undisguised horror.

    “There is a warning to be prudent,” said the pedler, in the sententious manner that he often adopted.

    “It is a terrific sight, indeed!” cried Henry, for a moment veiling his eyes with his hand, as if to drive a vision from before him.

    The pedler moved his body partly around, and spoke with energetic but gloomy bitterness: “And yet, Captain Wharton, you see it where the setting sun shines full upon you; the air you breathe is clear, and fresh from the hills before you. Every step that you take leaves that hated gallows behind; and every dark hollow, and every shapeless rock in the mountains, offers you a hiding-place from the vengeance of your enemies. But I have seen the gibbet raised, when no place of refuge offered. Twice have I been buried in dungeons, where, fettered and in chains, I have passed nights in torture, looking forward to the morning’s dawn that was to light me to a death of infamy. The sweat has started from limbs that seemed already drained of their moisture; and if I ventured to the hole that admitted air through grates of iron to look out upon the smiles of nature, which God has bestowed for the meanest of His creatures, the gibbet has glared before my eyes, like an evil conscience harrowing the soul of a dying man. Four times have I been in their power, besides this last; but—twice—did I think my hour had come. It is hard to die at the best, Captain Wharton; but to spend your last moments alone and unpitied, to know that none near you so much as think of the fate that is to you the closing of all that is earthly; to think that, in a few hours, you are to be led from the gloom, which, as you dwell on what follows, becomes dear to you, to the face of day, and there to meet all eyes fixed upon you, as if you were a wild beast; and to lose sight of everything amidst the jeers and scoffs of your fellow creatures—that, Captain Wharton, that indeed is to die!”

    Henry listened in amazement, as his companion uttered this speech with a vehemence altogether new to him; both seemed to have forgotten their danger and their disguises.

    “What! were you ever so near death as that?”

    “Have I not been the hunted beast of these hills for three years past?” resumed Harvey; “and once they even led me to the foot of the gallows itself, and I escaped only by an alarm from the royal troops. Had they been a quarter of an hour later, I must have died. There was I placed in the midst of unfeeling men, and gaping women and children, as a monster to be cursed. When I would pray to God, my ears were insulted with the history of my crimes; and when, in all that multitude, I looked around for a single face that showed me any pity, I could find none—no, not even one; all cursed me as a wretch who would sell his country for gold. The sun was brighter to my eyes than common—but it was the last time I should see it. The fields were gay and pleasant, and everything seemed as if this world was a kind of heaven. Oh! how sweet life was to me at that moment! ’T was a dreadful hour, Captain Wharton, and such as you have never known. You have friends to feel for you, but I had none but a father to mourn my loss, when he might hear of it; but there was no pity, no consolation near, to soothe my anguish. Everything seemed to have deserted me. I even thought that HE had forgotten that I lived.”

    “What! did you feel that God Himself had forgotten you, Harvey?”

    “God never forsakes his servants,” returned Birch, with reverence, and exhibiting naturally a devotion that hitherto he had only assumed.

    “And whom did you mean by HE?”

    The pedler raised himself in his saddle to the stiff and upright posture that was suited to his outward appearance. The look of fire that for a short time glowed on his countenance, disappeared in the solemn lines of unbending self-abasement, and, speaking as if addressing a negro, he replied,—

    “In heaven there is no distinction of color, my brother, therefore you have a precious charge within you, that you must hereafter render an account of;” dropping his voice—“this is the last sentinel near the road; look not back, as you value your life.”

    Henry remembered his situation, and instantly assumed the humble demeanor of his adopted character. The unaccountable energy of the pedler’s manner was soon forgotten in the sense of his own immediate danger; and with the recollection of his critical situation, returned all the uneasiness that he had momentarily forgotten.

    “What see you, Harvey?” he cried, observing the pedler to gaze towards the building they had left, with ominous interest; “what see you at the house?”

    “That which bodes no good to us,” returned the pretended priest. “Throw aside the mask and wig; you will need all your senses without much delay; throw them in the road: there are none before us that I dread, but there are those behind who will give us a fearful race!”

    “Nay, then,” cried the captain, casting the implements of his disguise into the highway, “let us improve our time to the utmost. We want a full quarter to the turn; why not push for it, at once?”

    “Be cool; they are in alarm, but they will not mount without an officer, unless they see us fly—now he comes, he moves to the stables; trots briskly; a dozen are in their saddles, but the officer stops to tighten his girths; they hope to steal a march upon us; he is mounted; now ride, Captain Wharton, for your life, and keep at my heels. If you quit me, you will be lost!”

    A second request was unnecessary. The instant that Harvey put his horse to his speed, Captain Wharton was at his heels, urging the miserable animal he rode to the utmost. Birch had selected his own beast; and although vastly inferior to the high-fed and blooded chargers of the dragoons, still it was much superior to the little pony that had been thought good enough to carry Cæsar Thompson on an errand. A very few jumps convinced the captain that his companion was fast leaving him, and a fearful glance thrown behind informed the fugitive that his enemies were as speedily approaching. With that abandonment that makes misery doubly grievous, when it is to be supported alone, Henry cried aloud to the pedler not to desert him. Harvey instantly drew up, and suffered his companion to run alongside of his own horse. The cocked hat and wig of the pedler fell from his head the moment that his steed began to move briskly, and this development of their disguise, as it might be termed, was witnessed by the dragoons, who announced their observation by a boisterous shout, that seemed to be uttered in the very ears of the fugitives; so loud was the cry, and so short the distance between them.

    “Had we not better leave our horses,” said Henry, “and make for the hills across the fields, on our left?—the fence will stop our pursuers.”

    “That way lies the gallows,” returned the pedler; “these fellows go three feet to our two, and would mind the fences no more than we do these ruts; but it is a short quarter to the turn, and there are two roads behind the wood. They may stand to choose until they can take the track, and we shall gain a little upon them there.”

    “But this miserable horse is blown already,” cried Henry, urging his beast with the end of his bridle, at the same time that Harvey aided his efforts by applying the lash of a heavy riding-whip he carried; “he will never stand it for half a mile farther.”

    “A quarter will do; a quarter will do,” said the pedler, “a single quarter will save us, if you follow my directions.”

    Somewhat cheered by the cool and confident manner of his companion, Henry continued silently urging his horse forward. A few moments brought them to the desired turn, and as they doubled round a point of low underbrush, the fugitives caught a glimpse of their pursuers scattered along the highway. Mason and the sergeant, being better mounted than the rest of the party, were much nearer to their heels than even the pedler thought could be possible.

    At the foot of the hills, and for some distance up the dark valley that wound among the mountains, a thick underwood of saplings had been suffered to shoot up, where the heavier growth was felled for the sake of the fuel. At the sight of this cover, Henry again urged the pedler to dismount, and to plunge into the woods; but his request was promptly refused. The two roads, before mentioned, met at very sharp angles at a short distance from the turn, and both were circuitous, so that but little of either could be seen at a time. The pedler took the one which led to the left, but held it only a moment; for, on reaching a partial opening in the thicket, he darted across into the right-hand path and led the way up a steep ascent, which lay directly before them. This manœuvre saved them. On reaching the fork, the dragoons followed the track and passed the spot where the fugitives had crossed to the other road, before they missed the marks of the footsteps. Their loud cries were heard by Henry and the pedler, as their wearied and breathless animals toiled up the hill, ordering their comrades in the rear to ride in the right direction. The captain again proposed to leave their horses and dash into the thicket.

    “Not yet, not yet,” said Birch, in a low voice; “the road falls from the top of this hill as steep as it rises; first let us gain the top.” While speaking, they reached the desired summit, and both threw themselves from their horses, Henry plunging into the thick underwood, which covered the side of the mountain for some distance above them. Harvey stopped to give each of their beasts a few severe blows of his whip, that drove them headlong down the path on the other side of the eminence, and then followed his example.

    The pedler entered the thicket with a little caution, and avoided, as much as possible, rustling or breaking the branches in his way. There was but time only to shelter his person from view when a dragoon led up the ascent; and on reaching the height, he cried aloud,—

    “I saw one of their horses turning the hill this minute.”

    “Drive on; spur forward, my lads,” shouted Mason; “give the Englishman quarter, but cut down the pedler, and make an end of him.”

    Henry felt his companion grip his arm hard, as he listened in a great tremor to this cry, which was followed by the passage of a dozen horsemen, with a vigor and speed that showed too plainly how little security their over-tired steeds could have afforded them.

    “Now,” said the pedler, rising from the cover to reconnoitre, and standing for a moment in suspense, “all that we gain is clear gain; for, as we go up, they go down. Let us be stirring.”

    “But will they not follow us, and surround this mountain?” said Henry, rising, and imitating the labored but rapid progress of his companion; “remember, they have foot as well as horse, and, at any rate, we shall starve in the hills.”

    “Fear nothing, Captain Wharton,” returned the pedler, with confidence; “this is not the mountain that I would be on, but necessity has made me a dexterous pilot among these hills. I will lead you where no man will dare to follow. See, the sun is already setting behind the tops of the western mountains, and it will be two hours to the rising of the moon. Who, think you, will follow us far, on a November night, among these rocks and precipices?”

    “Listen!” exclaimed Henry; “the dragoons are shouting to each other; they miss us already.”

    “Come to the point of this rock, and you may see them,” said Harvey, composedly setting himself down to rest. “Nay, they can see us—observe, they are pointing up with their fingers. There! one has fired his pistol, but the distance is too great even for a musket.”

    “They will pursue us,” cried the impatient Henry; “let us be moving.”

    “They will not think of such a thing,” returned the pedler, picking the checkerberries that grew on the thin soil where he sat, and very deliberately chewing them, leaves and all, to refresh his mouth. “What progress could they make here, in their heavy boots and spurs, and long swords? No, no—they may go back and turn out the foot, but the horse pass through these defiles, when they can keep the saddle, with fear and trembling. Come, follow me, Captain Wharton; we have a troublesome march before us, but I will bring you where none will think of venturing this night.”

    So saying, they both arose, and were soon hid from view amongst the rocks and caverns of the mountain.

    The conjecture of the pedler was true. Mason and his men dashed down the hill, in pursuit, as they supposed, of their victims, but on reaching the bottom lands, they found only the deserted horses of the fugitives. Some little time was spent in examining the woods near them, and in endeavoring to take the trail on such ground as might enable the horse to pursue, when one of the party descried the pedler and Henry seated on the rock already mentioned.

    “He ’s off,” muttered Mason, eying Harvey, with fury; “he ’s off, and we are disgraced. By heavens, Washington will not trust us with the keeping of a suspected Tory, if we let the rascal trifle in this manner with the corps; and there sits the Englishman, too, looking down upon us with a smile of benevolence! I fancy that I can see it. Well, well, my lad, you are comfortably seated, I will confess, and that is something better than dancing upon nothing; but you are not to the west of the Harlaem River yet, and I ’ll try your wind before you tell Sir Henry what you have seen, or I ’m no soldier.”

    “Shall I fire and frighten the pedler?” asked one of the men, drawing his pistol from the holster.

    “Aye, startle the birds from their perch—let us see how they can use the wing.” The man fired the pistol, and Mason continued—“’Fore George, I believe the scoundrels laugh at us. But homeward, or we shall have them rolling stones upon our heads, and the royal gazettes teeming with an account of a rebel regiment routed by two loyalists. They have told bigger lies than that, before now.”

    The dragoons moved sullenly after their officer, who rode towards their quarters, musing on the course it behooved him to pursue in the present dilemma. It was twilight when Mason’s party reached the dwelling, before the door of which were collected a great number of the officers and men, busily employed in giving and listening to the most exaggerated accounts of the escape of the spy. The mortified dragoons gave their ungrateful tidings with the sullen air of disappointed men; and most of the officers gathered round Mason, to consult of the steps that ought to be taken. Miss Peyton and Frances were breathless and unobserved listeners to all that passed between them, from the window of the chamber immediately above their heads.

    “Something must be done, and that speedily,” observed the commanding officer of the regiment, which lay encamped before the house: “this English officer is doubtless an instrument in the great blow aimed at us by the enemy lately; besides, our honor is involved in his escape.”

    “Let us beat the woods!” cried several at once; “by morning we shall have them both again.”

    “Softly, softly, gentlemen,” returned the colonel; “no man can travel these hills after dark, unless used to the passes. Nothing but horse can do service in this business, and I presume Lieutenant Mason hesitates to move without the orders of his major.”

    “I certainly dare not,” replied the subaltern, gravely shaking his head, “unless you will take the responsibility of an order; but Major Dunwoodie will be back again in two hours, and we can carry the tidings through the hills before daylight; so that by spreading patrols across, from one river to the other, and offering a reward to the country people, their escape will yet be impossible, unless they can join the party that is said to be out on the Hudson.”

    “A very plausible plan,” cried the colonel, “and one that must succeed; but let a messenger be dispatched to Dunwoodie, or he may continue at the ferry until it proves too late; though doubtless the runaways will lie in the mountains to-night.”

    To this suggestion Mason acquiesced, and a courier was sent to the major with the important intelligence of the escape of Henry, and an intimation of the necessity of his presence to conduct the pursuit. After this arrangement, the officers separated.

    When Miss Peyton and her niece first learnt the escape of Captain Wharton, it was with difficulty they could credit their senses. They both relied so implicitly on the success of Dunwoodie’s exertions, that they thought the act, on the part of their relative, extremely imprudent; but it was now too late to mend it. While listening to the conversation of the officers, both were struck with the increased danger of Henry’s situation, if recaptured, and they trembled to think of the great exertions that would be made to accomplish this object. Miss Peyton consoled herself, and endeavored to cheer her niece, with the probability that the fugitives would pursue their course with unremitting diligence, so that they might reach the neutral ground before the horse would carry down the tidings of their flight. The absence of Dunwoodie seemed to her all-important, and the artless lady was anxiously devising some project that might detain her kinsman, and thus give her nephew the longest possible time. But very different were the reflections of Frances. She could no longer doubt that the figure she had seen on the hill was Birch, and she felt certain that, instead of flying to the friendly forces below, her brother would be taken to the mysterious hut to pass the night.

    Frances and her aunt held a long and animated discussion by themselves, when the good spinster reluctantly yielded to the representation of her niece, and, folding her in her arms, she kissed her cold cheek, and, fervently blessing her, allowed her to depart on an errand of fraternal love.