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

Chapter XXVI

  • These limbs are strengthened with a soldier’s toil,
  • Nor has this cheek been ever blanched with fear—
  • But this sad tale of thine enervates all
  • Within me that I once could boast as man;
  • Chill trembling agues seize upon my frame,
  • And tears of childish sorrow pour, apace,
  • Through scarrèd channels that were marked by wounds.
  • DUO.

  • THE FRIENDS of Henry Wharton had placed so much reliance on his innocence, that they were unable to see the full danger of his situation. As the moment of trial, however, approached, the uneasiness of the youth himself increased; and after spending most of the night with his afflicted family, he awoke, on the following morning, from a short and disturbed slumber, to a clearer sense of his condition, and a survey of the means that were to extricate him from it with life. The rank of André, and the importance of the measures he was plotting, together with the powerful intercessions that had been made in his behalf, occasioned his execution to be stamped with greater notoriety than the ordinary events of the war. But spies were frequently arrested; and the instances that occurred of summary punishment for this crime were numerous. These were facts that were well known to both Dunwoodie and the prisoner; and to their experienced judgments the preparations for the trial were indeed alarming. Notwithstanding their apprehensions, they succeeded so far in concealing them, that neither Miss Peyton nor Frances was aware of their extent. A strong guard was stationed in the outbuilding of the farm-house where the prisoner was quartered, and several sentinels watched the avenues that approached the dwelling. Another was constantly near the room of the British officer. A court was already detailed to examine into the circumstances; and upon their decision the fate of Henry rested.

    The moment at length arrived, and the different actors in the approaching investigation assembled. Frances experienced a feeling like suffocation, as, after taking her seat in the midst of her family, her eyes wandered over the group who were thus collected. The judges, three in number, sat by themselves, clad in the vestments of their profession, and maintained a gravity worthy of the occasion, and becoming in their rank. In the centre was a man of advanced years, and whose whole exterior bore the stamp of early and long-tried military habits. This was the president of the court; and Frances, after taking a hasty and unsatisfactory view of his associates, turned to his benevolent countenance as to the harbinger of mercy to her brother. There was a melting and subdued expression in the features of the veteran, that, contrasted with the rigid decency and composure of the others, could not fail to attract her notice. His attire was strictly in conformity to the prescribed rules of the service to which he belonged; but while his air was erect and military, his fingers trifled with a kind of convulsive and unconscious motion, with a bit of crape that entwined the hilt of the sword on which his body partly reclined, and which, like himself, seemed a relic of older times. There were the workings of an unquiet soul within; but his military front blended awe with the pity that its exhibition excited. His associates were officers selected from the eastern troops, who held the fortresses of West Point and the adjacent passes; they were men who had attained the meridian of life, and the eye sought in vain the expression of any passion or emotion on which it might seize as an indication of human infirmity. In their demeanor there was a mild, but a grave, intellectual reserve. If there was no ferocity nor harshness to chill, neither was there compassion nor interest to attract. They were men who had long acted under the dominion of a prudent reason, and whose feelings seemed trained to a perfect submission to their judgments.

    Before these arbiters of his fate Henry Wharton was ushered under the custody of armed men. A profound and awful silence succeeded his entrance, and the blood of Frances chilled as she noted the grave character of the whole proceedings. There was but little of pomp in the preparations, to impress her imagination; but the reserved, business-like air of the whole scene made it seem, indeed, as if the destinies of life awaited the result. Two of the judges sat in grave reserve, fixing their inquiring eyes on the object of their investigation; but the president continued gazing around with uneasy, convulsive motions of the muscles of the face, that indicated a restlessness foreign to his years and duty. It was Colonel Singleton, who, but the day before, had learned the fate of Isabella, but who stood forth in the discharge of a duty that his country required at his hands. The silence, and the expectation in every eye, at length struck him, and making an effort to collect himself, he spoke, in the tones of one used to authority.

    “Bring forth the prisoner,” he said, with a wave of the hand.

    The sentinels dropped the points of their bayonets towards the judges, and Henry Wharton advanced, with a firm step, into the centre of the apartment. All was now anxiety and eager curiosity. Frances turned for a moment in grateful emotion, as the deep and perturbed breathing of Dunwoodie reached her ears; but her brother again concentrated all her interest in one feeling of intense care. In the background were arranged the inmates of the family who owned the dwelling, and behind them, again, was a row of shining faces of ebony, glistening with pleased wonder. Amongst these was the faded lustre of Cæsar Thompson’s countenance.

    “You are said,” continued the president, “to be Henry Wharton, a captain in his Britannic Majesty’s 60th regiment of foot.”

    “I am.”

    “I like your candor, sir; it partakes of the honorable feelings of a soldier, and cannot fail to impress your judges favorably.”

    “It would be prudent,” said one of his companions, “to advise the prisoner that he is bound to answer no more than he deems necessary: although we are a court of martial law, yet, in this respect, we own the principles of all free governments.”

    A nod of approbation from the silent member was bestowed on this remark, and the president proceeded with caution, referring to the minutes he held in his hand.

    “It is an accusation against you, that, being an officer of the enemy, you passed the pickets of the American army at the White Plains, in disguise, on the 29th of October last, whereby you are suspected of views hostile to the interests of America, and have subjected yourself to the punishment of a spy.”

    The mild but steady tones of the speaker, as he slowly repeated the substance of this charge, were full of authority. The accusation was so plain, the facts so limited, the proof so obvious, and the penalty so well established, that escape seemed impossible. But Henry replied, with earnest grace,—

    “That I passed your pickets in disguise, is true; but”—

    “Peace!” interrupted the president; “the usages of war are stern enough in themselves; you need not aid them to your own condemnation.”

    “The prisoner can retract that declaration, if he please,” remarked another judge. “His confession, if taken, goes fully to prove the charge.”

    “I retract nothing that is true,” said Henry proudly.

    The two nameless judges heard him in silent composure, yet there was no exultation mingled with their gravity. The president now appeared, however, to take new interest in the scene.

    “Your sentiment is noble, sir,” he said; “I only regret that a youthful soldier should so far be misled by loyalty as to lend himself to the purposes of deceit.”

    “Deceit!” echoed Wharton; “I thought it prudent to guard against capture from my enemies.”

    “A soldier, Captain Wharton, should never meet his enemy but openly, and with arms in his hands. I have served two kings of England, as I now serve my native land: but never did I approach a foe, unless under the light of the sun, and with honest notice that an enemy was nigh.”

    “You are at liberty to explain what your motives were in entering the ground held by our army in disguise,” said the other judge, with a slight movement of the muscles of his mouth.

    “I am the son of this aged man before you,” continued Henry. “It was to visit him that I encountered the danger. Besides, the country below is seldom held by your troops, and its very name implies a right to either party to move at pleasure over its territory.”

    “Its name, as a neutral ground, is unauthorized by law; it is an appellation that originates with the condition of the country. But wherever an army goes, it carries its rights along, and the first is the ability to protect itself.”

    “I am no casuist, sir,” returned the youth; “but I feel that my father is entitled to my affection, and I would encounter greater risks to prove it to him in his old age.”

    “A very commendable spirit,” cried the veteran; “come, gentlemen, this business brightens. I confess, at first, it was very bad, but no man can censure him for desiring to see his parents.”

    “And have you proof that such only was your intention?”

    “Yes—here,” said Henry, admitting a ray of hope; “here is proof—my father, my sister, Major Dunwoodie, all know it.”

    “Then, indeed,” returned his immovable judge, “we may be able to save you. It would be well, sir, to examine further into this business.”

    “Certainly,” said the president, with alacrity; “let the elder Mr. Wharton approach and take the oath.”

    The father made an effort at composure, and, advancing with a feeble step, he complied with the necessary forms of the court.

    “You are the father of the prisoner?” said Colonel Singleton, in a subdued voice, after pausing a moment in respect for the agitation of the witness.

    “He is my only son.”

    “And what do you know of his visit to your house, on the 29th day of October last?”

    “He came, as he told you, to see me and his sisters.”

    “Was he in disguise?” asked the other judge.

    “He did not wear the uniform of the 60th.”

    “To see his sisters, too!” said the president with great emotion. “Have you daughters, sir?”

    “I have two—both are in this house.”

    “Had he a wig?” interrupted the officer.

    “There was some such thing I do believe, upon his head.”

    “And how long had you been separated?” asked the president.

    “One year and two months.”

    “Did he wear a loose great-coat of coarse materials?” inquired the officer, referring to the paper that contained the charges.

    “There was an over-coat.”

    “And you think that it was to see you, only, that he came out?”

    “Me, and my daughters.”

    “A boy of spirit,” whispered the president to his silent comrade. “I see but little harm in such a freak; ’t was imprudent, but then it was kind.”

    “Do you know that your son was intrusted with no commission from Sir Henry Clinton, and that the visit to you was not merely a cloak to other designs?”

    “How can I know it?” said Mr. Wharton, in alarm; “would Sir Henry intrust me with such a business?”

    “Know you anything of this pass?” exhibiting the paper that Dunwoodie had retained when Wharton was taken.

    “Nothing—upon my honor, nothing,” cried the father, shrinking from the paper as from contagion.

    “On your oath?”


    “Have you other testimony?—this does not avail you, Captain Wharton. You have been taken in a situation where your life is forfeited; the labor of proving your innocence rests with yourself. Take time to reflect, and be cool.”

    There was a frightful calmness in the manner of this judge that appalled the prisoner. In the sympathy of Colonel Singleton, he could easily lose sight of his danger; but the obdurate and collected air of the others was ominous of his fate. He continued silent, casting imploring glances towards his friend. Dunwoodie understood the appeal, and offered himself as a witness. He was sworn, and desired to relate what he knew. His statement did not materially alter the case, and Dunwoodie felt that it could not. To him personally but little was known, and that little rather militated against the safety of Henry than otherwise. His account was listened to in silence, and the significant shake of the head that was made by the silent member spoke too plainly what effect it had produced.

    “Still you think that the prisoner had no other object than what he has avowed?” said the president, when he had ended.

    “None other, I will pledge my life,” cried the major, with fervor.

    “Will you swear it?” asked the immovable judge.

    “How can I? God alone can tell the heart; but I have known this gentleman from a boy; deceit never formed part of his character. He is above it.”

    “You say that he escaped, and was retaken in open arms?” said the president.

    “He was; nay, he received a wound in the combat. You see he yet moves his arm with difficulty. Would he, think you, sir, have trusted himself where he could fall again into our hands, unless conscious of innocence?”

    “Would André have deserted a field of battle, Major Dunwoodie, had he encountered such an event, near Tarrytown?” asked his deliberate examiner. “Is it not natural to youth to seek glory?”

    “Do you call this glory?” exclaimed the major; “an ignominious death and a tarnished name.”

    “Major Dunwoodie,” returned the other, still with inveterate gravity, “you have acted nobly; your duty has been arduous and severe, but it has been faithfully and honorably discharged; ours must not be less so.”

    During the examination, the most intense interest prevailed among the hearers. With that kind of feeling which could not separate the principle from the cause, most of the auditors thought that if Dunwoodie failed to move the hearts of Henry’s judges, no other possessed the power. Cæsar thrust his misshapen form forward; and his features, so expressive of the concern he felt, and so different from the vacant curiosity pictured in the countenance of the other blacks, caught the attention of the silent judge. For the first time he spoke:—

    “Let that black be brought forward.”

    It was too late to retreat, and Cæsar found himself confronted with a row of rebel officers, before he knew what was uppermost in his thoughts. The others yielded the examination to the one who suggested it, and using all due deliberation, he proceeded accordingly.

    “You know the prisoner?”

    “I t’ink he ought,” returned the black in a manner as sententious as that of his examiner.

    “Did he give you the wig when he threw it aside?”

    “I don’t want ’em,” grumbled Cæsar; “got a berry good hair heself.”

    “Were you employed in carrying any letters or messages while Captain Wharton was in your master’s house?”

    “I do what a tell me,” returned the black.

    “But what did they tell you to do?”

    “Sometime a one t’ing—sometime anoder.”

    “Enough,” said Colonel Singleton, with dignity; “you have the noble acknowledgment of a gentleman, what more can you obtain from this slave? Captain Wharton, you perceive the unfortunate impression against you. Have you other testimony to adduce?”

    To Henry there now remained but little hope; his confidence in his security was fast ebbing, but with an indefinite expectation of assistance from the loveliness of his sister, he fixed an earnest gaze on the pallid features of Frances. She arose, and with a tottering step moved towards the judges; the paleness of her cheek continued but for a moment, and gave place to a flush of fire, and with a light but firm tread, she stood before them. Raising her hand to her polished forehead, Frances threw aside her exuberant locks, and displayed a picture of beauty and innocence to their view that might have moved even sterner natures. The president shrouded his eyes for a moment, as if the wild eye and speaking countenance recalled the image of another. The movement was transient, and recovering himself, with an earnestness that betrayed his secret wishes,—

    “To you, then, your brother previously communicated his intention of paying your family a secret visit?”

    “No!—no!” said Frances, pressing her hand on her brain, as if to collect her thoughts; “he told me nothing—we knew not of the visit until he arrived; but can it be necessary to explain to gallant men, that a child would incur hazard to meet his only parent, and that in times like these, and in a situation like ours?”

    “But was this the first time? Did he never even talk of doing so before?” inquired the colonel, leaning towards her with paternal interest.

    “Certainly—certainly,” cried Frances, catching the expression of his own benevolent countenance. “This is but the fourth of his visits.”

    “I knew it!” exclaimed the veteran, rubbing his hands with delight; “an adventurous, warm-hearted son—I warrant me, gentlemen, a fiery soldier in the field! In what disguises did he come?”

    “In none, for none were then necessary; the royal troops covered the country, and gave him safe passage.”

    “And was this the first of his visits out of the uniform of his regiment?” asked the colonel, in a suppressed voice, avoiding the penetrating looks of his companions.

    “Oh! the very first,” exclaimed the eager girl; “his first offense, I do assure you, if offense it be.”

    “But you wrote him—you urged the visit; surely, young lady, you wished to see your brother?” added the impatient colonel.

    “That we wished it, and prayed for it,—oh, how fervently we prayed for it!—is true; but to have held communion with the royal army would have endangered our father, and we dared not.”

    “Did he leave the house until taken, or had he intercourse with any out of your own dwelling?”

    “With none—no one, excepting our neighbor, the pedler Birch.”

    “With whom!” exclaimed the colonel, turning pale, and shrinking as from the sting of an adder.

    Dunwoodie groaned aloud, and striking his head with his hand, cried in piercing tones, “He is lost!” and rushed from the apartment.

    “But Harvey Birch,” repeated Frances, gazing wildly at the door through which her lover had disappeared.

    “Harvey Birch!” echoed all the judges. The two immovable members of the court exchanged looks, and threw an inquisitive glance at the prisoner.

    “To you, gentlemen, it can be no new intelligence to hear that Harvey Birch is suspected of favoring the royal cause,” said Henry, again advancing before the judges; “for he has already been condemned by your tribunals to the fate that I now see awaits myself. I will therefore explain, that it was by his assistance I procured the disguise, and passed your pickets; but to my dying moments, and with my dying breath, I will avow, that my intentions were as pure as the innocent being before you.”

    “Captain Wharton,” said the president, solemnly, “the enemies of American liberty have made mighty and subtle efforts to overthrow our power. A more dangerous man, for his means and education, is not ranked among our foes than this pedler of West-Chester. He is a spy—artful, delusive, and penetrating, beyond the abilities of any of his class. Sir Henry could not do better than to associate him with the officer in his next attempt. He would have saved André. Indeed, young man, this is a connection that may prove fatal to you!”

    The honest indignation that beamed on the countenance of the aged warrior was met by a look of perfect conviction on the part of his comrades.

    “I have ruined him!” cried Frances, clasping her hands in terror; “do you desert us? then he is lost, indeed!”

    “Forbear! lovely innocent, forbear!” said the colonel, with strong emotion; “you injure none, but distress us all.”

    “Is it then such a crime to possess natural affection?” said Frances, wildly; “would Washington—the noble, upright, impartial Washington, judge so harshly? delay, till Washington can hear his tale.”

    “It is impossible,” said the president, covering his eyes, as if to hide her beauty from his view.

    “Impossible! oh! but for a week suspend your judgment. On my knees I entreat you, as you will expect mercy yourself, when no human power can avail you, give him but a day.”

    “It is impossible,” repeated the colonel, in a voice that was nearly choked; “our orders are peremptory, and too long delay has been given already.”

    He turned from the kneeling suppliant, but could not, or would not, extricate that hand that she grasped with frenzied fervor.

    “Remand your prisoner,” said one of the judges to the officer who had the charge of Henry. “Colonel Singleton, shall we withdraw?”

    “Singleton! Singleton!” echoed Frances; “then you are a father, and know how to pity a father’s woes: you cannot, will not, wound a heart that is now nearly crushed. Hear me, Colonel Singleton; as God will listen to your dying prayers, hear me, and spare my brother!”

    “Remove her,” said the colonel, gently endeavoring to extricate his hand; but none appeared disposed to obey. Frances eagerly strove to read the expression of his averted face, and resisted all his efforts to retire.

    “Colonel Singleton! how lately was your own son in suffering and in danger! under the roof of my father he was cherished—under my father’s roof he found shelter and protection. Oh! suppose that son the pride of your age, the solace and protection of your infant children, and then pronounce my brother guilty, if you dare!”

    “What right has Heath to make an executioner of me!” exclaimed the veteran fiercely, rising with a face flushed like fire, and every vein and artery swollen with suppressed emotion. “But I forget myself; come, gentlemen, let us mount, our painful duty must be done.”

    “Mount not! go not!” shrieked Frances; “can you tear a son from his parent—a brother from his sister, so coldly? Is this the cause I have so ardently loved? Are these the men that I have been taught to reverence? But you relent, you do hear me, you will pity and forgive.”

    “Lead on, gentlemen,” said the colonel, motioning towards the door, and erecting himself into an air of military grandeur, in the vain hope of quieting his feelings.

    “Lead not on, but hear me,” cried Frances, grasping his hand convulsively; “Colonel Singleton, you are a father!—pity—mercy—mercy for the son! mercy for the daughter! Yes—you had a daughter. On this bosom she poured out her last breath; these hands closed her eyes; these very hands, that are now clasped in prayer did those offices for her that you condemn my poor, poor brother, to require.”

    One mighty emotion the veteran struggled with, and quelled; but with a groan that shook his whole frame. He even looked around in conscious pride at his victory; but a second burst of feeling conquered. His head, white with the frost of seventy winters, sank upon the shoulder of the frantic suppliant. The sword that had been his companion in so many fields of blood dropped from his nerveless hand, and as he cried, “May God bless you for the deed!” he wept aloud.

    Long and violent was the indulgence that Colonel Singleton yielded to his feelings. On recovering, he gave the senseless Frances into the arms of her aunt, and, turning with an air of fortitude to his comrades, he said,—

    “Still, gentlemen, we have our duty as officers to discharge; our feelings as men may be indulged hereafter. What is your pleasure with the prisoner?”

    One of the judges placed in his hand a written sentence, that he had prepared while the colonel was engaged with Frances, and declared it to be the opinion of himself and his companion.

    It briefly stated that Henry Wharton had been detected in passing the lines of the American army as a spy, and in disguise. That thereby, according to the laws of war, he was liable to suffer death, and that this court adjudged him to the penalty; recommending him to be executed by hanging, before nine o’clock on the following morning.

    It was not usual to inflict capital punishments, even on the enemy, without referring the case to the commander-in-chief, for his approbation; or, in his absence, to the officer commanding for the time being. But, as Washington held his headquarters at New-Windsor, on the western bank of the Hudson, there was sufficient time to receive his answer.

    “This is short notice,” said the veteran, holding the pen in his hand, in a suspense that had no object; “not a day to fit one so young for heaven?”

    “The royal officers gave Hale but an hour,” returned his comrade; “we have granted the usual time. But Washington has the power to extend it, or to pardon.”

    “Then to Washington will I go,” cried the colonel, returning the paper with his signature; “and if the services of an old man like me, or that brave boy of mine, entitle me to his ear, I will yet save the youth.”

    So saying, he departed, full of his generous intentions in favor of Henry Wharton.

    The sentence of the court was communicated, with proper tenderness, to the prisoner; and after giving a few necessary instructions to the officer in command, and dispatching a courier to headquarters with their report, the remaining judges mounted, and rode to their own quarters, with the same unmoved exterior, but with the consciousness of the same dispassionate integrity, that they had maintained throughout the trial.