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

Chapter XXXI

  • Hence, bashful cunning!
  • And prompt me, plain and holy innocence;
  • I am your wife, if you will marry me.

  • ON joining Miss Peyton, Frances learned that Dunwoodie was not yet returned; although, with a view to relieve Henry from the importunities of the supposed fanatic, he had desired a very respectable divine of their own church to ride up from the river and offer his services. This gentleman was already arrived, and had been passing the half-hour he had been there, in a sensible and well-bred conversation with the spinster, that in no degree touched upon their domestic affairs.

    To the eager inquiries of Miss Peyton, relative to her success in her romantic excursion, Frances could say no more than that she was bound to be silent, and to recommend the same precaution to the good maiden also. There was a smile playing around the beautiful mouth of Frances, while she uttered this injunction, which satisfied her aunt that all was as it should be. She was urging her niece to take some refreshment after her fatiguing expedition, when the noise of a horseman riding to the door, announced the return of the major. He had been found by the courier who was dispatched by Mason, impatiently waiting the return of Harper to the ferry, and immediately flew to the place where his friend had been confined, tormented by a thousand conflicting fears. The heart of Frances bounded as she listened to his approaching footsteps. It wanted yet an hour to the termination of the shortest period that the pedler had fixed as the time necessary to effect his escape. Even Harper, powerful and well-disposed as he acknowledged himself to be, had laid great stress upon the importance of detaining the Virginians during that hour. She, however, had not time to rally her thoughts, before Dunwoodie entered one door, as Miss Peyton, with the readiness of female instinct, retired through another.

    The countenance of Peyton was flushed, and an air of vexation and disappointment pervaded his manner.

    “’T was imprudent, Frances; nay, it was unkind,” he cried, throwing himself in a chair, “to fly at the very moment that I had assured him of safety! I can almost persuade myself that you delight in creating points of difference in our feelings and duties.”

    “In our duties there may very possibly be a difference,” returned his mistress, approaching, and leaning her slender form against the wall; “but not in our feelings, Peyton. You must certainly rejoice in the escape of Henry!”

    “There was no danger impending. He had the promise of Harper; and it is a word never to be doubted. Oh! Frances! Frances! had you known the man, you would never have distrusted his assurance; nor would you have again reduced me to this distressing alternative.”

    “What alternative?” asked Frances, pitying his emotions deeply, but eagerly seizing upon every circumstance to prolong the interview.

    “What alternative! am I not compelled to spend this night in the saddle to recapture your brother, when I had thought to lay my head on its pillow, with the happy consciousness of having contributed to his release? You make me seem your enemy; I, who would cheerfully shed the last drop of blood in your service. I repeat, Frances, it was rash; it was unkind; it was a sad, sad mistake.”

    She bent towards him and timidly took one of his hands, while with the other she gently removed the curls from his burning brow.

    “Why go at all, dear Peyton?” she asked. “You have done much for your country, and she cannot exact such a sacrifice as this at your hand.”

    “Frances! Miss Wharton!” exclaimed the youth, springing on his feet, and pacing the floor with a cheek that burnt through its brown covering and an eye that sparkled with wounded integrity; “it is not my country, but my honor, that requires the sacrifice. Has he not fled from a guard of my own corps? But for this, I might have been spared the blow! But if the eyes of the Virginians are blinded to deception and artifice, their horses are swift of foot, and their sabres keen. We shall see, before to-morrow’s sun, who will presume to hint that the beauty of the sister furnished a mask to conceal the brother! Yes, yes; I should like, even now,” he continued, laughing bitterly, “to hear the villain who would dare to surmise that such treachery existed!”

    “Peyton, dear Peyton,” said Frances, recoiling from his angry eye, “you curdle my blood—would you kill my brother?”

    “Would I not die for him!” exclaimed Dunwoodie, as he turned to her more mildly; “you know I would; but I am distracted with the cruel surmise to which this step of Henry’s subjects me. What will Washington think of me, should he learn that I ever became your husband?”

    “If that alone impels you to act so harshly towards my brother,” returned Frances, with a slight tremor in her voice, “let it never happen for him to learn.”

    “And this is consolation, Frances!”

    “Nay, dear Dunwoodie, I meant nothing harsh or unkind; but are you not making us both of more consequence with Washington than the truth will justify?”

    “I trust that my name is not entirely unknown to the commander-in-chief,” said the major, a little proudly; “nor are you as obscure as your modesty would make you. I believe you, Frances, when you say that you pity me, and it must be my task to continue worthy of such feelings. But I waste the precious moments; we must go through the hills to-night, that we may be refreshed in time for the duty of to-morrow. Mason is already waiting my orders to mount. Frances, I leave you with a heavy heart; pity me, but feel no concern for your brother; he must again become a prisoner, but every hair of his head is sacred.”

    “Stop! Dunwoodie, I conjure you,” cried Frances, gasping for breath, as she noticed that the hand of the clock still wanted many minutes to the desired hour; “before you go on your errand of fastidious duty, read this note that Henry has left for you, and which, doubtless, he thought he was writing to the friend of his youth.”

    “Frances, I excuse your feelings; but the time will come when you will do me justice.”

    “That time is now,” she answered, extending her hand, unable any longer to feign a displeasure that she did not feel.

    “Where got you this note?” exclaimed the youth, glancing his eyes over its contents. “Poor Henry, you are indeed my friend! If any one wishes me happiness, it is you!”

    “He does, he does,” cried Frances, eagerly; “he wishes you every happiness; believe what he tells you; every word is true.”

    “I do believe him, lovely girl, and he refers me to you for its confirmation. Would that I could trust equally to your affections!”

    “You may, Peyton,” said Frances, looking up with innocent confidence towards her lover.

    “Then read for yourself, and verify your words,” interrupted Dunwoodie, holding the note towards her.

    Frances received it in astonishment, and read the following:

  • “Life is too precious to be trusted to uncertainties. I leave you, Peyton, unknown to all but Cæsar, and I recommend him to your mercy. But there is a care that weighs me to the earth. Look at my aged and infirm parent. He will be reproached for the supposed crime of his son. Look at those helpless sisters that I leave behind me without a protector. Prove to me that you love us all. Let the clergyman whom you will bring with you, unite you this night to Frances, and become at once, brother, son, and husband.”
  • The paper fell from the hands of Frances, and she endeavored to raise her eyes to the face of Dunwoodie, but they sank abashed to the floor.

    “Am I worthy of this confidence? Will you send me out this night, to meet my own brother? or will it be the officer of Congress in quest of the officer of Britain?”

    “And would you do less of your duty because I am your wife, Major Dunwoodie? In what degree would it better the condition of Henry?”

    “Henry, I repeat, is safe. The word of Harper is his guarantee; but I will show the world a bridegroom,” continued the youth, perhaps deceiving himself a little, “who is equal to the duty of arresting the brother of his bride.”

    “And will the world comprehend this refinement?” said Frances, with a musing air, that lighted a thousand hopes in the bosom of her lover. In fact, the temptation was mighty. Indeed, there seemed no other way to detain Dunwoodie until the fatal hour had elapsed. The words of Harper himself, who had so lately told her that openly he could do but little for Henry, and that everything depended upon gaining time, were deeply engraved upon her memory. Perhaps there was also a fleeting thought of the possibility of an eternal separation from her lover, should he proceed and bring back her brother to punishment. It is difficult at all times to analyze human emotions, and they pass through the sensitive heart of a woman with the rapidity and nearly with the vividness of lightning.

    “Why do you hesitate, dear Frances?” cried Dunwoodie, who was studying her varying countenance; “a few minutes might give me a husband’s claim to protect you.”

    Frances grew giddy. She turned an anxious eye to the clock, and the hand seemed to linger over its face, as if with intent to torture her.

    “Speak, Frances,” murmured Dunwoodie; “may I summon my good kinswoman? determine, for time presses.”

    She endeavored to reply, but could only whisper something that was inaudible, but which her lover, with the privilege of immemorial custom, construed into assent. He turned and flew to the door, when his mistress recovered her voice:—

    “Stop, Peyton! I cannot enter into such a solemn engagement with a fraud upon my conscience. I have seen Henry since his escape, and time is all-important to him. Here is my hand; if, with this knowledge of the consequences of delay, you will not reject it, it is freely yours.”

    “Reject it!” cried the delighted youth; “I take it as the richest gift of Heaven. There is time enough for us all. Two hours will take me through the hills; and by noon to-morrow, I will return with Washington’s pardon for your brother, and Henry will help to enliven our nuptials.”

    “Then meet me here, in ten minutes,” said Frances, greatly relieved by unburdening her mind, and filled with the hope of securing Henry’s safety, “and I will return and take those vows which will bind me to you forever.”

    Dunwoodie paused only to press her once to his bosom, and flew to communicate his wishes to the priest.

    Miss Peyton received the avowal of her niece with infinite astonishment, and a little displeasure. It was violating all the order and decorum of a wedding to get it up so hastily, and with so little ceremony. But Frances, with modest firmness, declared that her resolution was taken; she had long possessed the consent of her friends, and their nuptials, for months, had only waited her pleasure. She had now promised Dunwoodie, and it was her wish to comply; more she dare not say without committing herself, by entering into explanations that might endanger Birch, or Harper, or both. Unused to contention, and really much attached to her kinsman, the feeble objections of Miss Peyton gave way to the firmness of her niece. Mr. Wharton was too completely a convert to the doctrine of passive obedience and non-resistance, to withstand any solicitation from an officer of Dunwoodie’s influence in the rebel armies; and the maid returned to the apartment, accompanied by her father and aunt, at the expiration of the time that she had fixed. Dunwoodie and the clergyman were already there. Frances, silently, and without the affectation of reserve, placed in his hand the wedding-ring of her own mother, and after some little time spent in arranging Mr. Wharton and herself, Miss Peyton suffered the ceremony to proceed.

    The clock stood directly before the eyes of Frances, and she turned many an anxious glance at the dial; but the solemn language of the priest soon caught her attention, and her mind became intent upon the vows she was uttering. The ceremony was quickly over, and as the clergyman closed the words of benediction, the clock told the hour of nine. This was the time that Harper had deemed so important, and Frances felt as if a mighty load was at once removed from her heart.

    Dunwoodie folded her in his arms, saluted the mild aunt again and again, and shook Mr. Wharton and the divine repeatedly by the hands. In the midst of the felicitation, a tap was heard at the door. It was opened, and Mason appeared.

    “We are in the saddle,” said the lieutenant, “and, with your permission, I will lead on; as you are so well mounted, you can overtake us at your leisure.”

    “Yes, yes, my good fellow; march,” cried Dunwoodie, gladly seizing an excuse to linger; “I will reach you at the first halt.”

    The subaltern retired to execute these orders; he was followed by Mr. Wharton and the divine.

    “Now, Peyton,” said Frances, “it is indeed a brother that you seek; I am sure I need not caution you in his behalf, should you unfortunately find him.”

    “Say fortunately,” cried the youth; “for I am determined he shall yet dance at my wedding. Would that I could win him to our cause! It is the cause of his country; and I could fight with more pleasure, Frances, with your brother by my side.”

    “Oh! mention it not! You awaken terrible reflections.”

    “I will not mention it,” returned her husband; “but I must now leave you. But the sooner I go, Frances, the sooner I shall return.”

    The noise of a horseman was heard approaching the house, and Dunwoodie was yet taking leave of his bride and her aunt, when an officer was shown into the room by his own man.

    The gentleman wore the dress of an aid-de-camp, and the major at once knew him to be one of the military family of Washington.

    “Major Dunwoodie,” he said, after bowing to the ladies, “the commander-in-chief has directed me to give you these orders.”

    He executed his mission, and, pleading duty, took his leave immediately.

    “Here, indeed!” cried the major, “is an unexpected turn in the whole affair; but I understand it; Harper has got my letter, and already we feel its influence.”

    “Have you news affecting Henry?” cried Frances, springing to his side.

    “Listen, and you shall judge.”

  • “SIR,—Upon the receipt of this, you will concentrate your squadron, so as to be in front of a covering party which the enemy has sent up in front of his foragers, by ten o’clock to-morrow, on the heights of Croton, where you will find a body of foot to support you. The escape of the English spy has been reported to me, but his arrest is unimportant, compared with the duty I now assign you. You will, therefore, recall your men, if any are in pursuit, and endeavor to defeat the enemy forthwith.”
  • Your obedient servant,
  • “Thank God!” cried Dunwoodie, “my hands are washed of Henry’s recapture; I can now move to my duty with honor.”

    “And with prudence, too, dear Peyton,” said Frances, with a face as pale as death; “remember, Dunwoodie, you leave behind you new claims on your life.”

    The youth dwelt on her lovely but pallid features with rapture; and, as he folded her to his heart, exclaimed,—

    “For your sake, I will, lovely innocent!” Frances sobbed a moment on his bosom, and he tore himself from her presence.

    Miss Peyton retired with her niece, to whom she conceived it necessary, before they separated for the night, to give an admonitory lecture on the subject of matrimonial duty. Her instruction was modestly received, if not properly digested. We regret that history has not handed down to us this precious dissertation; but the result of all our investigation has been to learn that it partook largely of those peculiarities which are said to tincture the rules prescribed to govern bachelors’ children. We shall now leave the ladies of the Wharton family, and return to Captain Wharton and Harvey Birch.