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

Chapter XXXIV

  • ’Midst furs, and silks, and jewels’ sheen,
  • He stood, in simple Lincoln green,
  • The centre of the glittering ring;
  • And Snowdon’s knight is Scotland’s king!

  • THE COMMENCEMENT of the following year was passed, on the part of the Americans, in making great preparations, in conjunction with their allies, to bring the war to a close. In the South, Greene and Rawdon made a bloody campaign, that was highly honorable to the troops of the latter, but which, by terminating entirely to the advantage of the former, proved him to be the better general of the two.

    New York was the point that was threatened by the allied armies; and Washington, by exciting a constant apprehension for the safety of that city, prevented such reinforcements from being sent to Cornwallis as would have enabled him to improve his success.

    At length, as autumn approached, every indication was given that the final moment had arrived.

    The French forces drew near to the royal lines, passing through the neutral ground, and threatened an attack in the direction of King’s Bridge, while large bodies of Americans were acting in concert. By hovering around the British posts and drawing nigh in the Jerseys, they seemed to threaten the royal forces from that quarter also. The preparations partook of the nature of both a siege and a storm. But Sir Henry Clinton, in the possession of intercepted letters from Washington, rested within his lines, and cautiously disregarded the solicitations of Cornwallis for succor.

    It was at the close of a stormy day in the month of September, that a large assemblage of officers was collected near the door of a building that was situated in the heart of the Americans troops, who held the Jerseys. The age, the dress, and the dignity of deportment of most of these warriors, indicated them to be of high rank; but to one in particular was paid a deference and obedience that announced him to be of the highest. His dress was plain, but it bore the usual military distinctions of command. He was mounted on a noble animal, of a deep bay; and a group of young men, in gayer attire, evidently awaited his pleasure and did his bidding. Many a hat was lifted as its owner addressed this officer; and when he spoke, a profound attention, exceeding the respect of mere professional etiquette, was exhibited on every countenance. At length the general raised his own hat, and bowed gravely to all around him. The salute was returned, and the party dispersed, leaving the officer without a single attendant, except his body-servants and one aid-de-camp. Dismounting, he stepped back a few paces, and for a moment viewed the condition of his horse with the eye of one who well understood the animal, and then, casting a brief but expressive glance at his aid, he retired into the building, followed by that gentleman.

    On entering an apartment that was apparently fitted for his reception, he took a seat, and continued for a long time in a thoughtful attitude, like one in the habit of communing much with himself. During this silence, the aid-de-camp stood in expectation of his orders. At length the general raised his eyes, and spoke in those low placid tones that seemed natural to him.

    “Has the man whom I wished to see arrived, sir?”

    “He waits the pleasure of your excellency.”

    “I will receive him here, and alone, if you please.”

    The aid bowed and withdrew. In a few minutes the door again opened, and a figure, gliding into the apartment, stood modestly at a distance from the general, without speaking. His entrance was unheard by the officer, who sat gazing at the fire, still absorbed in his own meditations. Several minutes passed, when he spoke to himself in an undertone,—

    “To-morrow we must raise the curtain, and expose our plans. May Heaven prosper them!”

    A slight movement made by the stranger caught his ear, and he turned his head, and saw that he was not alone. He pointed silently to the fire, towards which the figure advanced, although the multitude of his garments, which seemed more calculated for disguise than comfort, rendered its warmth unnecessary. A second mild and courteous gesture motioned to a vacant chair, but the stranger refused it with a modest acknowledgment. Another pause followed, and continued for some time. At length the officer arose, and opening a desk that was laid upon the table near which he sat, took from it a small, but apparently heavy bag.

    “Harvey Birch,” he said, turning to the stranger, “the time has arrived when our connection must cease; henceforth and forever we must be strangers.”

    The pedler dropped the folds of the great-coat that concealed his features, and gazed for a moment earnestly at the face of the speaker; then dropping his head upon his bosom, he said, meekly,—

    “If it be your excellency’s pleasure.”

    “It is necessary. Since I have filled the station which I now hold, it has become my duty to know many men, who, like yourself, have been my instruments in procuring intelligence. You have I trusted more than all; I early saw in you a regard to truth and principle, that, I am pleased to say, has never deceived me—you alone know my secret agents in the city, and on your fidelity depend, not only their fortunes, but their lives.”

    He paused, as if to reflect, in order that full justice might be done to the pedler, and then continued:—

    “I believe you are one of the very few that I have employed who have acted faithfully to our cause; and, while you have passed as a spy of the enemy, have never given intelligence that you were not permitted to divulge. To me, and to me only of all the world, you seem to have acted with a strong attachment to the liberties of America.”

    During this address, Harvey gradually raised his head from his bosom, until it reached the highest point of elevation; a faint tinge gathered in his cheeks, and, as the officer concluded, it was diffused over his whole countenance in a deep glow, while he stood proudly swelling with his emotions, but with eyes that sought the feet of the speaker.

    “It is now my duty to pay you for these services; hitherto you have postponed receiving your reward, and the debt has become a heavy one—I wish not to undervalue your dangers; here are a hundred doubloons; you will remember the poverty of our country, and attribute to it the smallness of your pay.”

    The pedler raised his eyes to the countenance of the speaker; but, as the other held forth the money, he moved back, as if refusing the bag.

    “It is not much for your services and risks, I acknowledge,” continued the general, “but it is all that I have to offer; at the end of the campaign, it may be in my power to increase it.”

    “Does your excellency think that I have exposed my life, and blasted my character, for money?”

    “If not for money, what then?”

    “What has brought your excellency into the field? For what do you daily and hourly expose your precious life to battle and the halter? What is there about me to mourn, when such men as you risk their all for our country? No, no, no—not a dollar of your gold will I touch; poor America has need of it all!”

    The bag dropped from the hand of the officer, and fell at the feet of the pedler, where it lay neglected during the remainder of the interview. The officer looked steadily at the face of his companion, and continued,—

    “There are many motives which might govern me, that to you are unknown. Our situations are different; I am known as the leader of armies—but you must descend into the grave with the reputation of a foe to your native land. Remember that the veil which conceals your true character cannot be raised in years—perhaps never.”

    Birch again lowered his face, but there was no yielding of the soul in the movement.

    “You will soon be old; the prime of your days is already past; what have you to subsist on?”

    “These!” said the pedler, stretching forth his hands, that were already embrowned with toil.

    “But those may fail you; take enough to secure a support to your age. Remember your risks and cares. I have told you that the characters of men who are much esteemed in life depend on your secrecy; what pledge can I give them of your fidelity?”

    “Tell them,” said Birch, advancing and unconsciously resting one foot on the bag, “tell them that I would not take the gold!”

    The composed features of the officer relaxed into a smile of benevolence, and he grasped the hand of the pedler firmly.

    “Now, indeed, I know you; and although the same reasons which have hitherto compelled me to expose your valuable life will still exist, and prevent my openly asserting your character, in private I can always be your friend; fail not to apply to me when in want or suffering, and so long as God giveth to me, so long will I freely share with a man who feels so nobly and acts so well. If sickness or want should ever assail you, and peace once more smile upon our efforts, seek the gate of him whom you have so often met as Harper, and he will not blush to acknowledge you in his true character.”

    “It is little that I need in this life,” said Harvey; “so long as God gives me health and honest industry, I can never want in this country; but to know that your excellency is my friend is a blessing that I prize more than all the gold of England’s treasury.”

    The officer stood for a few moments in the attitude of intense thought. He then drew to him the desk, and wrote a few lines on a piece of paper, and gave it to the pedler.

    “That Providence destines this country to some great and glorious fate I must believe, while I witness the patriotism that pervades the bosoms of her lowest citizens,” he said. “It must be dreadful to a mind like yours to descend into the grave, branded as a foe to liberty; but you already know the lives that would be sacrificed, should your real character be revealed. It is impossible to do you justice now, but I fearlessly entrust you with this certificate; should we never meet again, it may be serviceable to your children.”

    “Children!” exclaimed the pedler, “can I give to a family the infamy of my name?”

    The officer gazed at the strong emotion he exhibited with pain, and he made a slight movement towards the gold; but it was arrested by the expression of his companion’s face. Harvey saw the intention, and shook his head, as he continued more mildly,—

    “It is, indeed, a treasure that your excellency gives me: it is safe, too. There are men living who could say that my life was nothing to me, compared to your secrets. The paper that I told you was lost I swallowed when taken last by the Virginians. It was the only time I ever deceived your excellency, and it shall be the last; yes, this is, indeed, a treasure to me; perhaps,” he continued, with a melancholy smile, “it may be known after my death who was my friend; but if it should not, there are none to grieve for me.”

    “Remember,” said the officer, with strong emotion, “that in me you will always have a secret friend; but openly I cannot know you.”

    “I know it, I know it,” said Birch; “I knew it when I took the service. ’T is probably the last time that I shall ever see your excellency. May God pour down his choicest blessings on your head!” He paused, and moved towards the door. The officer followed him with eyes that expressed deep interest. Once more the pedler turned, and seemed to gaze on the placid, but commanding features of the general with regret and reverence, and then, bowing low, he withdrew.

    The armies of America and France were led by their illustrious commander against the enemy under Cornwallis, and terminated a campaign in triumph that had commenced in difficulties. Great Britain soon after became disgusted with the war; and the independence of the States was acknowledged.

    As years rolled by, it became a subject of pride among the different actors in the war, and their descendants, to boast of their efforts in the cause which had confessedly heaped so many blessings upon their country; but the name of Harvey Birch died away among the multitude of agents, who were thought to have labored in secret against the rights of their countrymen. His image, however, was often present to the mind of the powerful chief, who alone knew his true character; and several times did he cause secret inquiries to be made into the other’s fate, one of which only resulted in any success. By this he learned that a pedler of a different name, but similar appearance, was toiling through the new settlements that were springing up in every direction, and that he was struggling with the advance of years and apparent poverty. Death prevented further inquiries on the part of the officer, and a long period passed before he was again heard of.