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

Chapter XXV

  • No vernal blooms their torpid rocks array,
  • But winter, lingering, chills the lap of May;
  • No zephyr fondly sues the mountain’s breast,
  • But meteors glare, and stormy glooms invest.

  • THE ROADS of West-Chester are, at this hour, below the improvements of the country. Their condition at the time of the tale has already been alluded to in these pages; and the reader will, therefore, easily imagine the task assumed by Cæsar, when he undertook to guide the translated chariot of the English prelate through their windings, into one of the less frequented passes of the Highlands of the Hudson.

    While Cæsar and his steeds were contending with these difficulties, the inmates of the carriage were too much engrossed with their own cares to attend to those who served them. The mind of Sarah had ceased to wander so wildly as at first; but at every advance that she made towards reason, she seemed to retire a step from animation; from being excited and flighty, she was gradually becoming moody and melancholy. There were moments, indeed, when her anxious companions thought that they could discern marks of recollection; but the expression of exquisite woe that accompanied these transient gleams of reason, forced them to the dreadful alternative of wishing that she might forever be spared the agony of thought. The day’s march was performed chiefly in silence, and the party found shelter for the night in different farmhouses.

    The following morning the cavalcade dispersed. The wounded diverged towards the river, with the intention of taking water at Peekskill, in order to be transported to the hospitals of the American army above. The litter of Singleton was conveyed to a part of the Highlands where his father held his quarters, and where it was intended that the youth should complete his cure; the carriage of Mr. Wharton, accompanied by a wagon conveying the housekeeper and what baggage had been saved, and could be transported, resumed its route towards the place where Henry Wharton was held in duress, and where he only waited their arrival to be put on trial for his life.

    The country which lies between the waters of the Hudson and Long Island Sound, is, for the first forty miles from their junction, a succession of hills and dales. The land bordering on the latter then becomes less abrupt, and gradually assumes a milder appearance, until it finally melts into the lovely plains and meadows of the Connecticut. But as you approach the Hudson, the rugged aspect increases, until you at length meet with the formidable barrier of the Highlands. Here the neutral ground ceased. The royal army held the two points of land that commanded the southern entrance of the river into the mountains; but all the remaining passes were guarded by the Americans.

    We have already stated that the pickets of the continental army were sometimes pushed low into the country, and that the hamlet of the White Plains was occasionally maintained by parties of its troops. At other times, the advanced guards were withdrawn to the northern extremity of the country, and, as has been shown, the intermediate country was abandoned to the ravages of the miscreants who plundered between both armies, serving neither.

    The road taken by our party was not the one that communicates between the two principal cities of the states, but was a retired and unfrequented pass, that to this hour is but little known, and which, entering the hills near the eastern boundary, emerges into the plain above, many miles from the Hudson.

    It would have been impossible for the tired steeds of Mr. Wharton to drag the heavy chariot up the lengthened and steep ascents which now lay before them; and a pair of country horses were procured, with but little regard to their owner’s wishes, by the two dragoons who still continued to accompany the party. With their assistance, Cæsar was enabled to advance, by slow and toilsome steps, into the bosom of the hills. Willing to relieve her own melancholy by breathing a fresher air, and also to lessen the weight, Frances alighted as they reached the foot of the mountain. She found that Katy had made similar preparations, with the like intention of walking to the summit. It was near the setting of the sun, and, from the top of the mountain, their guard had declared that the end of their journey might be discerned. Frances moved forward with the elastic step of youth; and, followed by the housekeeper at a little distance, she soon lost sight of the sluggish carriage, that was slowly toiling up the hill, occasionally halting to allow the cattle to breathe.

    “Oh, Miss Fanny, what dreadful times these be!” said Katy, when they paused for breath themselves; “I know’d that calamity was about to befall, ever sin’ the streak of blood was seen in the clouds.”

    “There has been blood upon earth, Katy, though but little is ever seen in the clouds.”

    “Not blood in the clouds!” echoed the housekeeper; “yes, that there has, often, and comets with fiery, smoking tails. Did n’t people see armed men in the heavens, the year the war began? And, the night before the battle of the Plains, was n’t there thunder, like the cannon themselves? Ah! Miss Fanny, I ’m fearful that no good can follow rebellion against the Lord’s anointed!”

    “These events are certainly dreadful,” returned Frances, “and enough to sicken the stoutest heart. But what can be done, Katy? Gallant and independent men are unwilling to submit to oppression; and I am fearful that such scenes are but too common in war.”

    “If I could but see anything to fight about,” said Katy, renewing her walk as the young lady proceeded, “I should n’t mind it so much. ’T was said the king wanted all the tea for his own family, at one time; and then again, that he meant the colonies should pay over to him all their earnings. Now this is matter enough to fight about—for I ’m sure that no one, however he may be lord or king, has a right to the hard earnings of another. Then it was all contradicted, and some said Washington wanted to be king himself; so that, between the two, one does n’t know which to believe.”

    “Believe neither—for neither is true. I do not pretend to understand, myself, all the merits of this war, Katy; but to me it seems unnatural, that a country like this should be ruled by another so distant as England.”

    “So I have heard Harvey say to his father, that is dead and in his grave,” returned Katy, approaching nearer to the young lady, and lowering her voice. “Many is the good time that I ’ve listened to them talking, when all the neighborhood was asleep; and such conversations, Miss Fanny, that you can have no idea on! Well, to say the truth, Harvey was a mystified body, and he was like the winds in the good book; no one could tell whence he came, or whither he went.”

    Frances glanced her eye at her companion with an apparent desire to hear more.

    “There are rumors abroad relative to the character of Harvey,” she said, “that I should be sorry were true.”

    “’T is a disparagement, every word on ’t,” cried Katy, vehemently; “Harvey had no more dealings with Beelzebub than you or I had. I ’m sure if Harvey had sold himself he would take care to be better paid; though, to speak the truth, he was always a wasteful and disregardful man.”

    “Nay, nay,” returned the smiling Frances, “I have no such injurious suspicion of him; but has he not sold himself to an earthly prince—one too much attached to the interests of his native island to be always just to this country?”

    “To the king’s majesty!” replied Katy. “Why, Miss Fanny, your own brother that is in jail serves King George.”

    “True,” said Frances, “but not in secret—openly, manfully, and bravely.”

    “’T is said he is a spy, and why ain’t one spy as bad as another?”

    “’T is untrue; no act of deception is worthy of my brother; nor of any would he be guilty, for so base a purpose as gain or promotion.”

    “Well, I ’m sure,” said Katy, a little appalled at the manner of the young lady, “if a body does the work, he should be paid for it. Harvey is by no means partic’lar about getting his lawful dues; and I dar’st to say, if the truth was forthcoming, King George owes him money this very minute.”

    “Then you acknowledge his connection with the British army,” said Frances; “I confess there have been moments when I have thought differently.”

    “Lord, Miss Fanny, Harvey is a man that no calculation can be made on. Though I lived in his house for a long concourse of years, I have never known whether he belonged above or below. The time that Burg’yne was taken he came home, and there was great doings between him and the old gentleman, but for my life I could n’t tell if ’t was joy or grief. Then, here, the other day, when the great British general—I ’m sure I have been so flurried with losses and troubles, that I forget his name”—

    “André,” said Frances.

    “Yes, Ondree; when he was hanged, acrost the tappan, the old gentleman was near hand to going crazy about it, and did n’t sleep for night nor day, till Harvey got back; and then his money was mostly golden guineas; but the Skinners took it all, and now he is a beggar, or, what ’s the same thing, despisable for poverty and want.”

    To this speech Frances made no reply, but continued her walk up the hill, deeply engaged in her own reflections. The allusion to André had recalled her thoughts to the situation of her own brother.

    They soon reached the highest point in their toilsome progress to the summit, and Frances seated herself on a rock to rest and to admire. Immediately at her feet lay a deep dell, but little altered by cultivation, and dark with the gloom of a November sunset. Another hill rose opposite to the place where she sat, at no great distance, along whose rugged sides nothing was to be seen but shapeless rocks, and oaks whose stunted growth showed a meagre soil.

    To be seen in their perfection, the Highlands must be passed immediately after the fall of the leaf. The scene is then the finest, for neither the scanty foliage which the summer lends the trees, nor the snows of winter, are present to conceal the minutest objects from the eye. Chilling solitude is the characteristic of the scenery; nor is the mind at liberty, as in March, to look forward to a renewed vegetation that is soon to check, without improving, the view.

    The day had been cloudy and cool, and thin fleecy clouds hung around the horizon, often promising to disperse, but as frequently disappointing Frances in the hope of catching a parting beam from the setting sun. At length a solitary gleam struck on the base of the mountain on which she was gazing, and moved gracefully up its side, until reaching the summit, it stood for a minute, forming a crown of glory to the sombre pile. So strong were the rays, that what was before indistinct now clearly opened to the view. With a feeling of awe at being thus unexpectedly admitted, as it were, into the secrets of that desert place, Frances gazed intently, until, among the scattered trees and fantastic rocks, something like a rude structure was seen. It was low, and so obscured by the color of its materials, that but for its roof, and the glittering of a window, it must have escaped her notice. While yet lost in the astonishment created by discovering a habitation in such a spot, on moving her eyes she perceived another object that increased her wonder. It apparently was a human figure, but of singular mould and unusual deformity. It stood on the edge of a rock, a little above the hut, and it was no difficult task for our heroine to fancy it was gazing at the vehicles that were ascending the side of the mountain beneath her. The distance, however, was too great to distinguish with precision. After looking at it a moment in breathless wonder, Frances had just come to the conclusion that it was ideal, and that what she saw was a part of the rock itself, when the object moved swiftly from its position, and glided into the hut, at once removing every doubt as to the nature of either. Whether it was owing to the recent conversation that she had been holding with Katy, or to some fancied resemblance that she discerned, Frances thought, as the figure vanished from her view, that it bore a marked likeness to Birch, moving under the weight of his pack. She continued to gaze towards the mysterious residence, when the gleam of light passed away, and at the same instant the tones of a bugle rang through the glens and hollows, and were reëchoed in every direction. Springing on her feet, the alarmed girl heard the trampling of horses, and directly a party in the well-known uniform of the Virginians came sweeping round the point of a rock near her, and drew up at a short distance. Again the bugle sounded a lively strain, and before the agitated Frances had time to rally her thoughts, Dunwoodie dashed by the party of dragoons, threw himself from his charger, and advanced to her side.

    His manner was earnest and interested, but in a slight degree constrained. In a few words he explained that he had been ordered up, with a party of Lawton’s men, in the absence of the captain himself, to attend the trial of Henry, which was fixed for the morrow; and that, anxious for their safety in the rude passes of the mountain, he had ridden a mile or two in quest of the travellers. Frances explained, with trembling voice, the reason of her being in advance, and taught him momentarily to expect the arrival of her father. The constraint of his manner had, however, unwillingly on her part, communicated itself to her own deportment, and the approach of the chariot was a relief to both. The major handed her in, spoke a few words of encouragement to Mr. Wharton and Miss Peyton, and, again mounting, led the way towards the plains of Fishkill, which broke on their sight, on turning the rock, with the effect of enchantment. A short half-hour brought them to the door of the farm-house which the care of Dunwoodie had already prepared for their reception, and where Captain Wharton was anxiously expecting their arrival.