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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Strange Bird in Nieuw-Amsterdam

By James Kirke Paulding (1778–1860)

[The Book of St. Nicholas. 1827.]

IN the year of the building of the city (which in Latin is called Anno Urba Conditur) fifty-five, to wit, the year of our Lord 1678, there appeared a phenomenon in the street of Nieuw-Amsterdam called Garden Street. This was a youthful stranger, dressed in the outlandish garb of the English beyond the Varsche river, towards the east, where those interlopers have grievously trespassed on the territories of their high mightinesses, the states-general. Now, be it known that this was the first stranger from foreign parts that ever showed himself in the streets of Nieuw-Amsterdam, which had never been before invaded in like manner. Whereat the good people were strangely perplexed and confounded, seeing they could by no means divine his business. The good yffrouws did gaze at him as he passed along by their stoops, and the idle boys followed him wheresoever he went, shouting and hallooing, to the great disturbance of the peaceable and orderly citizens, of whom it was once said that the barking of a cur disturbed the whole city.

But the stranger took not the least heed of the boys or their hallooings, but passed straight onward, looking neither to the right nor the left, which circumstance seemed exceedingly perplexing to the good yffrouws, seeing it savored of having no curiosity to see or be seen, which to them appeared altogether out of nature. The stranger proceeded in a sort of rigmarole way, seeming little to care whither he went, all along by the Stadt Huys, the East and West Docks, the Bendeel or Battery, the Rondeels, and I can’t tell where else. All the while he seemed to take no notice of anything, which everybody thought strange, since he appeared as if he had no other business than to see the city.

In the course of his marvellous peregrinations, he at length came to the great building, which, being the only house of public resort, was called, by way of eminence, the City Tavern. Here he stopped all of a sudden, so abruptly, that little Brom, son of Alderman Botherwick, who was close at his heels, did run right upon his hinder parts, and almost knocked him down, before he could stop himself. Whereupon the stranger turned round and gave him a look, whether of menace or good-will was long after disputed by divers people that saw him. Be this as it may, the stranger, on seeing the tavern, nodded his head, and went straight up the steps into the bar-room, where he courteously saluted the landlord, good Mynheer Swighauser, by pulling off his hat, saying, at the same time, nothing; which mynheer thought rather mighty particular. He asked the interloping stranger what he would please to have; for he was a polite man enough, except to losel beggars and that sort of vermin. The stranger hereupon said nothing, but addressed Mynheer Swighauser in a figurative style, which all landlords comprehend. He pulled out a purse, and showed him the money, at the sight of which mynheer made him a reverend bow, and ushered him into the Half Moon, so called from being ornamented with a gallant picture of the vessel of that name, in which good Master Hendrick Hudson did first adventure to the discovery of the Manhadoes. It was the best room in the house, and always reserved by Mynheer Swighauser for guests that carried full purses.

Having so done, mynheer courteously asked the stranger what he would please to have for dinner, it being now past eleven o’clock, and the dinner-hour nigh. Whereat the stranger looked hard at him, and said not a word. Mynheer thereupon raised his voice so loud, that he frightened divers tame pigeons, sitting on their coop in the yard, who rose into the air out of sight, and, it is affirmed, never returned again. The stranger answered not a word, as before. “Wat donder is dat?” exclaimed mynheer; “a man with such a full purse might venture to call for his dinner, I think.”

However, when Mynheer Swighauser and his family sat down to their dinner at twelve o’clock, the stranger, without any ceremony, sat down with them, taking the chair from time immemorial appropriated to mynheer’s youngest child, who was thereat so mortally offended, that she set up a great cry, and refused to eat any dinner. Yffrouw Swighauser looked hard and angry at the stranger, who continued to eat as if it were his last, saying nothing all the while, and paying no more heed to the little child than he did to the hallooings of the boys or mynheer’s courteous interrogatories.

When he had finished, he took up his hat, and went forth on a peregrination, from which he did not return until it was nigh dusk. Mynheer was in tribulation lest he should lose the price of his dinner, but the yffrouw said she did not care if she never saw such a dumb noddy again. The stranger ate a huge supper in silence, smoked his pipe, and went to bed at eight o’clock, at which hour mynheer always shut up the front of his house, leaving the back door open to the roistering younkers, who came there to carouse every night and play at all-fours. Soon after the stranger retired, there was heard a great noise in his room, which so excited the curiosity of Yffrouw Swighauser that she took a landlady’s liberty and went and listened at the door. It proved only the stranger playing a concert with Morpheus, on the nasal trumpet, whereupon the yffrouw went away, exclaiming, “The splutterkin! He makes noise enough in his sleep, if he can’t when he is awake.”

That night the good city of Nieuw-Amsterdam was impestered with divers strange noises, grievous mishaps, and unaccountable appearances. The noises were such as those who heard them could not describe, and, for that reason, I hope the courteous reader will excuse me if I say nothing more about them; the mishaps were of certain mysterious broken heads, black eyes, and sore bruises received, as was affirmed, from unknown assailants; and the mysterious appearances consisted in lights moving about, at midnight, in the Ladies’ Valley, since called Maiden Lane, which might have passed for lightning-bugs, only people that saw them said they were as big as jack-a-lanterns. Besides these, there were seen divers stars shooting about in the sky, and an old yffrouw, being called out after midnight on a special occasion, did certify that she saw two stars fighting with each other, and making the sparks fly at every blow. Other strange things happened on that memorable night, which alarmed the good citizens and excited the vigilance of the magistrates.

The next night, matters were still worse. The lights in the Ladies’ Valley were larger and more numerous; the noises waxed more alarming and unaccountable; and the stranger, while he continued to act and say nothing all day, snored louder than ever. At length Yffrouw Swighauser, being thereunto, as I suspect, instigated by a stomachful feeling, on account of the stranger’s having got possession of her favorite’s seat, and set her a-crying, did prevail by divers means, of which, thank Heaven, I have little experience, being a bachelor, to have her husband go and make a complaint against the stranger, as having some diabolical agency in these matters.

“Wat donner meen je, wife?” quoth mynheer; “what have I to say against the man? He is a very civil, good sort of a body, and never makes any disturbance except in his sleep.”

“Ay, there it is,” replied yffrouw. “I never heard such a snore in all my life. Why, it’s no more like yours than the grunt of a pig is to the roar of a lion. It’s unnatural.”

Mynheer did not like this comparison, and answered and said, “By St. Johannes de Dooper! whoever says I snore like a pig is no better than a goose.” The yffrouw had a point to gain, or Mynheer Swighauser would have repented this rejoinder. “My duck-a-deary,” said she, “whoever says you don’t snore like a fiddle has no more ear for music than a mole—I mean a squeaking fiddle,” quoth she, aside.

Without further prosecuting this dialogue, let it suffice to say that the yffrouw at length wrought upon mynheer to present the stranger unto Alderman Schlepevalcker as a mysterious person, who came from—nobody knew where, for—nobody knew what; and, for aught he knew to the contrary, was at the bottom of all the disturbances that had beset the good people of Nieuw-Amsterdam for the last two nights. Accordingly, the honest man went on his way to the Stadt Huys, where the excellent magistrate was taking his turn in presiding over the peace of the city of Nieuw-Amsterdam, and told all he knew, together with much more besides.

During this communication, the worthy alderman exclaimed, from time to time, “Indeedad!” “Onbegrypelyk!” “Goeden Hemel!” “Is het mogelyk!” “Vuur envlammen!” and finally dismissed Mynheer Swighauser, desiring him to watch the stranger, and come next day with the result of his observations. After which he went home to consult his pillow, which he considered worth all the law books in the world.

The honest publican returned to the City Tavern, where he found supper all ready; and the stranger, sitting down as usual in the old place, ate a hearty meal without uttering one word. The yffrouw was out of all patience with him, seeing she never before had a guest in the house four-and-twenty hours without knowing all about him. The upshot of the interview with the worthy magistrate being disclosed to the yffrouw, it was agreed in secret to set old Quashee, the black hostler, to watch the stranger; though the yffrouw told her husband he might as well set a wooden image to do it, for Quashee was the most notorious sleepy-head in all Nieuw-Amsterdam, not excepting himself.

“Well, well,” quoth mynheer, “men weet niet hoe een koe een haas vangan kan;” which means, “There is no saying that a cow won’t catch a hare,” and so the matter was settled.

When the stranger retired to his room after supper, the old negro was accordingly stationed outside the door, with strict injunctions to keep himself awake, on pain of losing his New Year present, and being shut up in a stable all New Year’s day. But it is recorded of Quashee that the flesh was too strong for the spirit, though he had a noggin of genuine Holland to comfort him, and that he fell into a profound nap, which lasted till after sunrise next day, when he was found sitting bolt-upright on a three-legged stool, with his little black stump of a pipe declining from the dexter corner of his mouth. Mynheer was exceeding wroth, and did accommodate old Quashee with such a hearty cuff on the side of his head that he fell from the stool, and did incontinently roll down the stairs and so into the kitchen, where he was arrested by the great Dutch andirons. “Een vervlockte jonge,” exclaimed Mynheer Swighauser, “men weet niet, hoe een dubbeltje rollen kan”—in English, “There is no saying which way a sixpence will roll.”

At breakfast, the stranger was for the first time missing from his meals, and this excited no small wonder in the family, which was marvellously aggravated, when, after knocking some time and receiving no answer, the door was opened, and the stranger found wanting.

“Is het mogelyk!” exclaimed the yffrouw, and “Wat blixen!” cried mynheer. But their exclamations were speedily arrested by the arrival of the reverend schout, Master Roelif, as he was commonly called, who summoned them both forthwith to the Stadt Huys, at the command of his worship Alderman Schlepevalker. “Ben je bedonnered?” cried mynheer; “what can his worship want of my wife now?” “Never mind,” replied the good yffrouw, “het is goed visschen in troebel water,” and so they followed Master Roelif to the Stadt Huys, according to the behest of Alderman Schlepevalker, as aforesaid. When they arrived there, whom should they see, in the middle of a great crowd in the hall of justice, but that “vervlocte hond,” the stranger, as the yffrouw was wont to call him, when he would not answer her questions.

The stranger was standing with his hands tied behind him, and apparently unconscious or indifferent to what was going forward around him. It appears he had been detected very early in the morning in a remote part of the King’s Farm, as it was afterwards called, but which was then a great forest full of rabbits and other game, standing over the dead body of a man, whose name and person were equally unknown, no one recollecting ever to have seen him before. On being interrogated on the subject, he had not only declined answering, but affected to take not the least heed of what they said to him. Under these suspicious circumstances he was brought before the magistrate, charged with the murder of the unknown person, whose body was also produced in proof of the fact. No marks of violence were found on the body, but all agreed that the man was dead, and that there must have been some cause for his death. The vulgar are ever prone to suspicions, and, albeit, are so fond of seeing a man hanged that they care little to inquire whether he is guilty or not.

The worthy alderman, after ordering Master Roelif to call the people to order, proceeded to interrogate the prisoner as followeth: “What is thy name?” The stranger took not the least notice of him. “What is thy name, ben je bedonnered?” repeated the worthy magistrate, in a loud voice, and somewhat of a violent gesture of impatience. The stranger looked him in the face and nodded his head. “Wat donner is dat?” cried the magistrate. The stranger nodded as before. “Wat donner meen je?” Another nod. The worthy magistrate began, as it were, to wax wroth, and demanded of the prisoner whence he came; but he had relapsed into his usual indifference, and paid not the least attention, as before. Whereupon the angry alderman committed him for trial, on the day but one following, as the witnesses were all on the spot, and the prisoner contumacious. In the interim, the body of the dead man had been examined by the only two doctors of Nieuw-Amsterdam, Mynheer Van Dosum and Mynheer Vandercureum, who, being rival practitioners, of course differed entirely on the matter. Mynheer Van Dosum decided that the unknown died by the hand of man, and Mynheer Vandercureum, by the hand of his Maker.

When the cause came to be tried, the stranger, as before, replied to all questions, either by taking not the least notice, or nodding his head. The worthy magistrate hereupon was sorely puzzled, whether this ought to be construed into pleading guilty or not pleading at all. In the former case his course was quite clear; in the latter, he did not exactly know which way to steer his doubts. But fortunately having no lawyers to confound him, he finally decided, after consulting the ceiling of the court-room, that, as it was so easy for a man to say not guilty, the omission or refusal to say it was tantamount to a confession of guilt. Accordingly he condemned the prisoner to be hanged, in spite of the declaration of Doctor Vandercureum that the murdered man died of apoplexy.

The prisoner received the sentence, and was conducted to prison without saying a word in his defence, and without discovering the least emotion on the occasion. He merely looked wistfully, first on the worthy magistrate, then on his bonds, and then at Master Roelif, who, according to the custom of such losel varlets in office, rudely pushed him out of the court and dragged him to prison.

On the fourteenth day after his condemnation, it being considered that sufficient time had been allowed him to repent of his sins, the poor stranger was brought forth to execution. He was accompanied by the good dominie, who had prepared his last dying speech and confession, and certified that he died a repentant sinner. His face was pale and sad, and his whole appearance bespoke weakness and suffering. He still persisted in his obstinate silence, and seemed unconscious of what was going forward; whether from indifference or despair, it was impossible to decide. When placed on a coffin in the cart, and driven under the gallows, he seemed for a moment to be aware of his situation, and the bitter tears coursed one by one down his pallid cheeks. But he remained silent as before; and when the rope was tied round his neck, only looked wistfully with a sort of innocent wonder in the face of the executioner.

All being now ready, and the gaping crowd on the tiptoe of expectation, the dominie sang a devout hymn, and, shaking hands for the last time with the poor stranger, descended from the cart. The bell tolled the signal for launching him into the illimitable ocean of eternity, when, all at once, its dismal moanings were, as it were, hushed into silence by the piercing shrieks of a female which seemed approaching from a distance. Anon a voice was heard crying out, “Stop, stop, for the love of Heaven stop; he is innocent!”

The crowd opened, and a woman of good appearance, seemingly about forty-five years old, rushed forward, and throwing herself at the feet of the worthy alderman, whose duty it was to preside at the execution and maintain due order among the crowd, cried out aloud, “Spare him, he is my son—he is innocent!” “Ben je bedonnered?” cried the magistrate, “he is een verdoemde schurk, and has confessed his crime by not denying it.” “He cannot confess or deny it—he was born deaf and dumb!” “Goeden Hemel!” exclaimed Alderman Schlepevalcker; “that accounts for his not pleading guilty or not guilty. But art thou sure of it, good woman?” “Sure of it! Did not I give him birth, and did I not watch like one hanging over the death-bed of an only child, year after year, to catch some token that he could hear what I said? Did I not try and try, day after day, month after month, year after year, to teach him only to name the name of mother? and when at last I lost all hope that I should ever hear the sound of his voice, did I not still bless Heaven that I was not childless, though my son could not call me mother?” “Het is jammer!” exclaimed the worthy magistrate, wiping his eyes. “But still a dumb man may kill another, for all this. What have you to say against that?”

At this moment the poor speechless youth recognized his mother, and uttering a strange inarticulate scream, burst away from the executioner, leaped from the cart, and throwing himself on her bosom, sobbed as if his heart was breaking. The mother pressed him to her heart in silent agony, and the absence of words only added to the deep pathos of the meeting.

Alderman Schlepevalcker was sorely puzzled as well as affected on this occasion, and after wiping his eyes, addressed the weeping mother. “How came thy son hither?” “He is accustomed to ramble about the country, sometimes all day, alone; and one day having strayed farther than usual, lost his way, and being unable to ask any information, wandered we knew not whither, until a neighbor told us a rumor of a poor youth, who was about to be executed at Nieuw-Amsterdam for refusing to answer questions. I thought it might be my son, and came in time, I hope, to save him.” “Why did not thy husband come with thee?” “He is dead.” “And thy father?” “He died when I was a child.” “And thy other relatives?” “I have none but him,” pointing to the dumb youth. “Het is jammer! but how will he get rid of the charge of this foul murder?” “I will question him,” said the mother, who now made various signs, which were replied to by the youth in the same way. “What does he say?” asked the worthy magistrate. “He says that he went forth early in the morning of the day he was found standing over the dead body, as soon as the gate was opened to admit the country people, where he saw the dead man lying under a tree, and was seized while thus occupied. He knows nothing more.” “Onbegrypelik! how can you understand all this?” “Oh, sir, I have been used to study every look and action of his life since he was a child, and can comprehend his inmost thoughts.” “Goeden Hemel! is all this true? but he must go back to prison, while I wait on the governor to solicit his pardon. Wilt thou accompany him?” “Oh yes—but no. I will go with thee to the governor. He will not deny the petition of a mother for the life of her only child.”

Accordingly the magistrate called on Doctor Vander Cureum on his way, proceeded to the governor’s house, accompanied by the mother of the youth, who repeated what he had told her by signs. The doctor also again certified, in the most positive manner, that the supposed murdered man had died of apoplexy, brought on, as he supposed, by excessive drinking; and the good governor, moved by the benevolence of his heart, did thereupon grant the poor youth an unconditional pardon. He was rewarded by the tears, the thanks, and the blessings of the now happy mother.

“Where dost thou abide?” asked the governor. “If it is at a distance, I will send some one to protect thee.” “My home is beyond the fresh water river.” “Wat blikslager! Thou belongest to the Splutterkins, who—but no matter, thou shalt have protection in thy journey home.” The governor being somewhat of a conscientious man, instead of swearing by the lightning, did piously asseverate by the tinman.

The young man was forthwith released, to the unutterable joy of the mother, and the infinite content of the Yffrouw Swighauser, who, now that she knew the cause of his silence, forgave him with all her heart. The next day the mother and son departed towards home, accompanied by an escort provided by the good governor, the commander of which carried a stout defiance to the Yankees; and the last words of that upright and excellent magistrate, Alderman Schlepevalcker, as he looked kindly at the youth, were, “Het is jammer—it is a pity.”