Home  »  The Spy; a Tale of the Neutral Ground  »  Chapter XXVII

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

Chapter XXVII

  • Have you no countermand for Claudio yet,
  • But he must die to-morrow?

  • A FEW hours were passed by the prisoner, after his sentence was received, in the bosom of his family. Mr. Wharton wept in hopeless despondency over the untimely fate of his son, and Frances, after recovering from her insensibility, experienced an anguish of feeling to which the bitterness of death itself would have been comparatively light. Miss Peyton alone retained a vestige of hope, or presence of mind to suggest what might be proper to be done under their circumstances. The comparative composure of the good aunt arose in no degree from any want of interest in the welfare of her nephew, but it was founded in a kind of instinctive dependence on the character of Washington. He was a native of the same colony with herself; and although his early military services, and her frequent visits to the family of her sister, and subsequent establishment at its head, had prevented their ever meeting, still she was familiar with his domestic virtues, and well knew that the rigid inflexibility for which his public acts were distinguished formed no part of his reputation in private life. He was known in Virginia as a consistent but just and lenient master; and she felt a kind of pride in associating in her mind her countryman with the man who led the armies, and in a great measure controlled the destinies, of America. She knew that Henry was innocent of the crime for which he was condemned to suffer, and, with that kind of simple faith that is ever to be found in the most ingenuous characters, could not conceive of those constructions and interpretations of law that inflicted punishment without the actual existence of crime. But even her confiding hopes were doomed to meet with a speedy termination. Towards noon, a regiment of militia, that were quartered on the banks of the river, moved to the ground in front of the house that held our heroine and her family, and deliberately pitched their tents, with the avowed intention of remaining until the following morning, to give solemnity and effect to the execution of a British spy.

    Dunwoodie had performed all that was required of him by his orders, and was at liberty to retrace his steps to his expectant squadron, which was impatiently waiting his return to be led against a detachment of the enemy, that was known to be slowly moving up the banks of the river, in order to cover a party of foragers in its rear. He was accompanied by a small party of Lawton’s troop, under the expectation that their testimony might be required to convict the prisoner; and Mason, the lieutenant, was in command. But the confession of Captain Wharton had removed the necessity of examining any witnesses on behalf of the people. The major, from an unwillingness to encounter the distress of Henry’s friends, and a dread of trusting himself within its influence, had spent the time we have mentioned in walking by himself, in keen anxiety, at a short distance from the dwelling. Like Miss Peyton, he had some reliance on the mercy of Washington, although moments of terrific doubt and despondency were continually crossing his mind. To him the rules of service were familiar, and he was more accustomed to consider his general in the capacity of a ruler, than as exhibiting the characteristics of the individual. A dreadful instance had too recently occurred, which fully proved that Washington was above the weakness of sparing another in mercy to himself. While pacing, with hurried steps, through the orchard, laboring under these constantly recurring doubts, enlivened by transient rays of hope, Mason approached, accoutered completely for the saddle.

    “Thinking you might have forgotten the news brought this morning from below, sir, I have taken the liberty to order the detachment under arms,” said the lieutenant, very coolly, cutting down with his sheathed sabre the mullein-tops that grew within his reach.

    “What news?” cried the major, starting.

    “Only that John Bull is out in West-Chester, with a train of wagons, which, if he fills, will compel us to retire through these cursed hills, in search of provender. These greedy Englishmen are so shut up on York Island, that when they do venture out, they seldom leave straw enough to furnish the bed of a Yankee heiress.”

    “Where did the express leave them, did you say? The intelligence has entirely escaped my memory.”

    “On the heights above Sing Sing,” returned the lieutenant, with no little amazement. “The road below looks like a hay-market, and all the swine are sighing forth their lamentations, as the corn passes them towards King’s Bridge. George Singleton’s orderly, who brought up the tidings, says that our horses were holding consultation if they should not go down without their riders, and eat another meal, for it is questionable with them whether they can get a full stomach again. If they are suffered to get back with their plunder, we shall not be able to find a piece of pork at Christmas fat enough to fry itself.”

    “Peace, with all this nonsense of Singleton’s orderly, Mr. Mason,” cried Dunwoodie, impatiently; “let him learn to wait the orders of his superiors.”

    “I beg pardon in his name, Major Dunwoodie,” said the subaltern; “but, like myself, he was in error. We both thought it was the order of General Heath, to attack and molest the enemy whenever he ventured out of his nest.”

    “Recollect yourself, Lieutenant Mason,” said the major, “or I may have to teach you that your orders pass through me.”

    “I know it, Major Dunwoodie—I know it; and I am sorry that your memory is so bad as to forget that I never have yet hesitated to obey them.”

    “Forgive me, Mason,” cried Dunwoodie, taking both his hands; “I do know you for a brave and obedient soldier; forget my humor. But this business—had you ever a friend?”

    “Nay, nay,” interrupted the lieutenant; “forgive me and my honest zeal. I knew of the orders, and was fearful that censure might fall on my officer. But remain, and let a man breathe a syllable against the corps, and every sword will start from the scabbard of itself; besides, they are still moving up, and it is a long road from Croton to King’s Bridge. Happen what may, I see plainly that we shall be on their heels before they are housed again.”

    “Oh! that the courier was returned from headquarters!” exclaimed Dunwoodie. “This suspense is insupportable.”

    “You have your wish,” cried Mason; “here he is at the moment, and riding like the bearer of good news. God send it may be so; for I can’t say that I particularly like myself to see a brave young fellow dancing upon nothing.”

    Dunwoodie heard but very little of this feeling declaration; for, ere half of it was uttered, he had leaped the fence, and stood before the messenger.

    “What news?” cried the major, the moment that the soldier stopped his horse.

    “Good!” exclaimed the man; and feeling no hesitation to intrust an officer so well-known as Major Dunwoodie, he placed the paper in his hands, as he added, “but you can read it, sir, for yourself.”

    Dunwoodie paused not to read; but flew, with the elastic spring of joy, to the chamber of the prisoner. The sentinel knew him, and he was suffered to pass without question.

    “Oh! Peyton,” cried Frances, as he entered the apartment, “you look like a messenger from heaven! bring you tidings of mercy?”

    “Here, Frances—here, Henry—here, dear cousin Jeanette,” cried the youth, as with trembling hands he broke the seal; “here is the letter itself, directed to the captain of the guard. But listen”—

    All did listen with intense anxiety; and the pang of blasted hope was added to their misery, as they saw the glow of delight which had beamed on the countenance of the major give place to a look of horror. The paper contained the sentence of the court, and underneath was written these simple words,—

  • “Approved—GEO. WASHINGTON.”
  • “He ’s lost, he ’s lost!” cried Frances, sinking into the arms of her aunt.

    “My son! my son!” sobbed the father, “there is mercy in heaven, if there is none on earth. May Washington never want that mercy he thus denies to my innocent child!”

    “Washington!” echoed Dunwoodie, gazing around him in vacant horror. “Yes, ’t is the act of Washington himself; these are his characters; his very name is here, to sanction the dreadful deed.”

    “Cruel, cruel Washington!” cried Miss Peyton; “how has familiarity with blood changed his nature!”

    “Blame him not,” said Dunwoodie; “it is the general, and not the man; my life on it, he feels the blow he is compelled to inflict.”

    “I have been deceived in him,” cried Frances. “He is not the saviour of his country; but a cold and merciless tyrant. Oh! Peyton, Peyton! how have you misled me in his character!”

    “Peace, dear Frances; peace, for God’s sake; use not such language. He is but the guardian of the law.”

    “You speak the truth, Major Dunwoodie,” said Henry, recovering from the shock of having his last ray of hope extinguished, and advancing from his seat by the side of his father. “I, who am to suffer, blame him not. Every indulgence has been granted me that I can ask. On the verge of the grave I cannot continue unjust. At such a moment, with so recent an instance of danger to your cause from treason, I wonder not at Washington’s unbending justice. Nothing now remains but to prepare for that fate which so speedily awaits me. To you, Major Dunwoodie, I make my first request.”

    “Name it,” said the major, giving utterance with difficulty.

    Henry turned, and pointing to the group of weeping mourners near him, he continued,—

    “Be a son to this aged man; help his weakness, and defend him from any usage to which the stigma thrown upon me may subject him. He has not many friends amongst the rulers of this country; let your powerful name be found among them.”

    “It shall.”

    “And this helpless innocent,” continued Henry, pointing to where Sarah sat, unconscious of what was passing, “I had hoped for an opportunity to revenge her wrongs;” a flush of excitement passed over his features; “but such thoughts are evil—I feel them to be wrong. Under your care, Peyton, she will find sympathy and refuge.”

    “She shall,” whispered Dunwoodie.

    “This good aunt has claims upon you already; of her I will not speak; but here,” taking the hand of Frances, and dwelling upon her countenance with an expression of fraternal affection, “here is the choicest gift of all. Take her to your bosom, and cherish her as you would cultivate innocence and virtue.”

    The major could not repress the eagerness with which he extended his hand to receive the precious boon; but Frances, shrinking from his touch, hid her face in the bosom of her aunt.

    “No, no, no!” she murmured; “none can ever be anything to me who aid in my brother’s destruction.”

    Henry continued gazing at her in tender pity for several moments, before he again resumed a discourse that all felt was most peculiarly his own.

    “I have been mistaken, then. I did think, Peyton, that your worth, your noble devotion to a cause that you have been taught to revere, that your kindness to our father when in imprisonment, your friendship for me,—in short, that your character was understood and valued by my sister.”

    “It is—it is,” whispered Frances, burying her face still deeper in the bosom of her aunt.

    “I believe, dear Henry,” said Dunwoodie, “this is a subject that had better not be dwelt upon now.”

    “You forget,” returned the prisoner, with a faint smile, “how much I have to do, and how little time is left to do it in.”

    “I apprehend,” continued the major, with a face of fire, “that Miss Wharton has imbibed some opinions of me that would make a compliance with your request irksome to her—opinions that it is now too late to alter.”

    “No, no, no,” cried Frances, quickly; “you are exonerated, Peyton—with her dying breath she removed my doubts.”

    “Generous Isabella!” murmured Dunwoodie; “but still, Henry, spare your sister now; nay, spare even me.”

    “I speak in pity to myself,” returned the brother, gently removing Frances from the arms of her aunt. “What a time is this to leave two such lovely females without a protector! Their abode is destroyed, and misery will speedily deprive them of their last male friend,” looking at his father; “can I die in peace with the knowledge of the danger to which they will be exposed?”

    “You forget me,” said Miss Peyton, shrinking at the idea of celebrating nuptials at such a moment.

    “No, my dear aunt, I forget you not, nor shall I, until I cease to remember; but you forget the times and the danger. The good woman who lives in this house has already dispatched a messenger for a man of God, to smooth my passage to another world. Frances, if you would wish me to die in peace, to feel a security that will allow me to turn my whole thoughts to heaven, you will let this clergyman unite you to Dunwoodie.”

    Frances shook her head, but remained silent.

    “I ask for no joy—no demonstration of a felicity that you will not, cannot feel, for months to come; but obtain a right to his powerful name—give him an undisputed title to protect you”—

    Again the maid made an impressive gesture of denial.

    “For the sake of that unconscious sufferer”—pointing to Sarah, “for your sake—for my sake—my sister”—

    “Peace, Henry, or you will break my heart,” cried the agitated girl; “not for worlds would I at such a moment engage in the solemn vows that you wish. It would render me miserable for life.”

    “You love him not,” said Henry, reproachfully. “I cease to importune you to do what is against your inclinations.”

    Frances raised one hand to conceal her countenance, as she extended the other towards Dunwoodie, and said earnestly,—

    “Now you are unjust to me—before, you were unjust to yourself.”

    “Promise me, then,” said Wharton, musing awhile in silence, “that as soon as the recollection of my fate is softened, you will give my friend that hand for life, and I am satisfied.”

    “I do promise,” said Frances, withdrawing the hand that Dunwoodie delicately relinquished, without even presuming to press it to his lips.

    “Well, then, my good aunt,” continued Henry, “will you leave me for a short time alone with my friend? I have a few melancholy commissions with which to intrust him, and would spare you and my sister the pain of hearing them.”

    “There is yet time to see Washington again,” said Miss Peyton, moving towards the door; and then, speaking with extreme dignity, she continued, “I will go myself: surely he must listen to a woman from his own colony!—and we are in some degree connected with his family.”

    “Why not apply to Mr. Harper?” said Frances, recollecting the parting words of their guest for the first time.

    “Harper!” echoed Dunwoodie, turning towards her with the swiftness of lightning; “what of him? Do you know him?”

    “It is in vain,” said Henry, drawing him aside; “Frances clings to hope with the fondness of a sister. Retire, my love, and leave me with my friend.”

    But Frances read an expression in the eye of Dunwoodie that chained her to the spot. After struggling to command her feelings, she continued,—

    “He stayed with us for two days—he was with us when Henry was arrested.”

    “And—and—did you know him?”

    “Nay,” continued Frances, catching her breath as she witnessed the intense interest of her lover, “we knew him not; he came to us in the night, a stranger, and remained with us during the severe storm; but he seemed to take an interest in Henry, and promised him his friendship.”

    “What!” exclaimed the youth in astonishment; “did he know your brother?”

    “Certainly; it was at his request that Henry threw aside his disguise.”

    “But,” said Dunwoodie, turning pale with suspense, “he knew him not as an officer of the royal army?”

    “Indeed he did,” cried Miss Peyton; “and he cautioned us against this very danger.”

    Dunwoodie caught up the fatal paper, that still lay where it had fallen from his own hands, and studied its characters intently. Something seemed to bewilder his brain. He passed his hand over his forehead, while each eye was fixed on him in dreadful suspense—all feeling afraid to admit those hopes anew that had been so sadly destroyed.

    “What said he? What promised he?” at length Dunwoodie asked, with feverish impatience.

    “He bid Henry apply to him when in danger, and promised to requite the son for the hospitality of the father.”

    “Said he this, knowing him to be a British officer?”

    “Most certainly; and with a view to this very danger.”

    “Then,” cried the youth aloud, and yielding to his rapture, “then you are safe—then will I save him; yes, Harper will never forget his word.”

    “But has he the power to?” said Frances; “can he move the stubborn purpose of Washington?”

    “Can he! If he cannot,” shouted the youth, “if he cannot, who can? Greene, and Heath, and young Hamilton are nothing, compared to this Harper. But,” rushing to his mistress, and pressing her hands convulsively, “repeat to me—you say you have his promise?”

    “Surely, surely, Peyton; his solemn, deliberate promise, knowing all the circumstances.”

    “Rest easy,” cried Dunwoodie, holding her to his bosom for a moment, “rest easy, for Henry is safe.”

    He waited not to explain, but darting from the room, he left the family in amazement. They continued in silent wonder until they heard the feet of his charger, as he dashed from the door with the speed of an arrow.

    A long time was spent after this abrupt departure of the youth, by the anxious friends he had left, in discussing the probability of his success. The confidence of his manner had, however, communicated to his auditors something of his own spirit. Each felt that the prospects of Henry were again brightening, and with their reviving hopes they experienced a renewal of spirits, which in all but Henry himself amounted to pleasure: with him, indeed, his state was too awful to admit of trifling, and for a few hours he was condemned to feel how much more intolerable was suspense than even the certainty of calamity. Not so with Frances. She, with all the reliance of affection, reposed in security on the assurance of Dunwoodie, without harassing herself with doubts that she possessed not the means of satisfying; but believing her lover able to accomplish everything that man could do, and retaining a vivid recollection of the manner and benevolent appearance of Harper, she abandoned herself to all the felicity of renovated hope.

    The joy of Miss Peyton was more sobered, and she took frequent occasions to reprove her niece for the exuberance of her spirits, before there was a certainty that their expectations were to be realized. But the slight smile that hovered around the lips of the virgin contradicted the very sobriety of feeling that she inculcated.

    “Why, dearest aunt,” said Frances, playfully, in reply to one of her frequent reprimands, “would you have me repress the pleasure that I feel at Henry’s deliverance, when you yourself have so often declared it to be impossible that such men as ruled in our country could sacrifice an innocent man?”

    “Nay, I did believe it impossible, my child, and yet think so; but still there is a discretion to be shown in joy as well as in sorrow.”

    Frances recollected the declaration of Isabella, and turned an eye filled with tears of gratitude on her excellent aunt, as she replied,—

    “True: but there are feelings that will not yield to reason. Ah! here are those monsters, who have come to witness the death of a fellow-creature, moving around yon field, as if life was, to them, nothing but a military show.”

    “It is but little more to the hireling soldier,” said Henry, endeavoring to forget his uneasiness.

    “You gaze, my love, as if you thought a military show of some importance,” said Miss Peyton, observing her niece to be looking from the window with a fixed and abstracted attention. But Frances answered not.

    From the window where she stood, the pass that they had travelled through the Highlands was easily to be seen; and the mountain which held on its summit the mysterious hut was directly before her. Its side was rugged and barren; huge and apparently impassable barriers of rocks presenting themselves through the stunted oaks, which, stripped of their foliage, were scattered over its surface. The base of the hill was not half a mile from the house, and the object which attracted the notice of Frances was the figure of a man emerging from behind a rock of remarkable formation, and as suddenly disappearing. The manœuvre was several times repeated, as if it were the intention of the fugitive (for such by his air he seemed to be) to reconnoitre the proceedings of the soldiery, and assure himself of the position of things on the plain. Notwithstanding the distance, Frances instantly imbibed the opinion that it was Birch. Perhaps this impression was partly owing to the air and figure of the man, but in a great measure to the idea that presented itself on formerly beholding the object at the summit of the mountain. That they were the same figure she was confident, although this wanted the appearance which, in the other, she had taken for the pack of the pedler. Harvey had so connected himself with the mysterious deportment of Harper, within her imagination, that, under circumstances of less agitation than those in which she had labored since her arrival, she would have kept her suspicions to herself. Frances, therefore, sat ruminating on this second appearance in silence, and endeavoring to trace what possible connection this extraordinary man could have with the fortunes of her own family. He had certainly saved Sarah in some degree, from the blow that had partially alighted on her, and in no instance had he proved himself to be hostile to their interests.

    After gazing for a long time at the point where she had last seen the figure, in the vain expectation of its reappearance, she turned to her friends in the apartment. Miss Peyton was sitting by Sarah, who gave some slight additional signs of observing what passed, but who still continued insensible either to joy or grief.

    “I suppose, by this time, my love, that you are well acquainted with the manœuvres of a regiment,” said Miss Peyton; “it is no bad quality in a soldier’s wife, at all events.”

    “I am not a wife yet,” said Frances, coloring to the eyes; “and we have little reason to wish for another wedding in our family.”

    “Frances!” exclaimed her brother, starting from his seat, and pacing the floor in violent agitation, “touch not the chord again, I entreat you. While my fate is uncertain, I would wish to be at peace with all men.”

    “Then let the uncertainty cease,” cried Frances, springing to the door, “for here comes Peyton with the joyful intelligence of your release.”

    The words were hardly uttered, before the door opened, and the major entered. In his air there was the appearance of neither success nor defeat, but there was a marked display of vexation. He took the hand that Frances, in the fullness of her heart, extended towards him, but instantly relinquishing it, threw himself into a chair, in evident fatigue.

    “You have failed,” said Wharton, with a bound of his heart, but an appearance of composure.

    “Have you seen Harper?” cried Frances, turning pale.

    “I have not; I crossed the river in one boat as he must have been coming to this side, in another. I returned without delay, and traced him for several miles into the Highlands, by the western pass, but there I unaccountably lost him. I have returned here to relieve your uneasiness, but see him I will this night, and bring a respite for Henry.”

    “But saw you Washington?” asked Miss Peyton.

    Dunwoodie gazed at her a moment in abstracted musing, and the question was repeated. He answered gravely, and with some reserve,—

    “The commander-in-chief had left his quarters.”

    “But, Peyton,” cried Frances, in returning terror, “if they should not see each other, it will be too late. Harper alone will not be sufficient.”

    Her lover turned his eyes slowly on her anxious countenance, and dwelling a moment on her features, said, still musing,—

    “You say that he promised to assist Henry.”

    “Certainly, of his own accord, and in requital for the hospitality he had received.”

    Dunwoodie shook his head, and began to look grave.

    “I like not that word hospitality—it has an empty sound; there must be something more reasonable to tie Harper. I dread some mistake: repeat to me all that passed.”

    Frances, in a hurried and earnest voice, complied with his request. She related particularly the manner of his arrival at the Locusts, the reception that he received, and the events that passed as minutely as her memory could supply her with the means. As she alluded to the conversation that occurred between her father and his guest, the major smiled, but remained silent. She then gave a detail of Henry’s arrival, and the events of the following day. She dwelt upon the part where Harper had desired her brother to throw aside his disguise, and recounted, with wonderful accuracy, his remarks upon the hazard of the step that the youth had taken. She even remembered a remarkable expression of his to her brother, “that he was safer from Harper’s knowledge of his person, than he would be without it.” Frances mentioned, with the warmth of youthful admiration, the benevolent character of his deportment to herself, and gave a minute relation of his adieus to the whole family.

    Dunwoodie at first listened with grave attention; evident satisfaction followed as she proceeded. When she spoke of herself, in connection with their guest, he smiled with pleasure, and as she concluded, he exclaimed, with delight,—

    “We are safe!—we are safe!”

    But he was interrupted, as will be seen in the following chapter.