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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

The Royalist’s Escape

By James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851)

[The Spy. 1821.]

“CAPTAIN WHARTON,” said Birch, looking guardedly around, and speaking with impressive seriousness of manner, “if I fail you, all fail you. No Harper nor Dunwoodie can save your life; unless you get out with me, and that within the hour, you die to-morrow on the gallows of a murderer. Yes, such are their laws; the man who fights, and kills, and plunders, is honored; but he who serves his country as a spy, no matter how faithfully, no matter how honestly, lives to be reviled, or dies like the vilest criminal!”

“You forget, Mr. Birch,” said the youth, a little indignantly, “that I am not a treacherous, lurking spy, who deceives to betray; but innocent of the charge imputed to me.”

The blood rushed over the pale, meagre features of the peddler, until his face was one glow of fire; but it passed quickly away, and he replied,—

“I have told you truth. Cæsar met me, as he was going on his errand this morning, and with him I have laid the plan which, if executed as I wish, will save you—otherwise you are lost; and I again tell you, that no other power on earth, not even Washington, can save you.”

“I submit,” said the prisoner, yielding to his earnest manner, and goaded by the fears that were thus awakened anew.

The peddler beckoned him to be silent, and walking to the door, opened it, with the stiff, formal air with which he had entered the apartment.

“Friend, let no one enter,” he said to the sentinel; “we are about to go to prayer, and would wish to be alone.”

“I don’t know that any will wish to interrupt you,” returned the soldier, with a waggish leer of his eye; “but, should they be so disposed, I have no power to stop them, if they be of the prisoner’s friends; I have my orders, and must mind them, whether the Englishman goes to heaven, or not.”

“Audacious sinner!” said the pretended priest, “have you not the fear of God before your eyes! I tell you, as you will dread punishment at the last day to let none of the idolatrous communion enter, to mingle in the prayers of the righteous.”

“Whew-ew-ew—what a noble commander you’d make for Sergeant Hollister! you’d preach him dumb in a roll-call. Harkee, I’ll thank you not to make such a noise when you hold forth, as to drown our bugles, or you may get a poor fellow a short horn at his grog, for not turning out to the evening parade: if you want to be alone, have you no knife to stick over the door-latch, that you must have a troop of horse to guard your meeting-house?”

The peddler took the hint, and closed the door immediately, using the precaution suggested by the dragoon.

“You overact your part,” said young Wharton, in constant apprehension of discovery; “your zeal is too intemperate.”

“For a foot-soldier and them Eastern militia, it might be,” said Harvey, turning a bag upside down, that Cæsar now handed him; “but these dragoons are fellows that you must brag down. A faint heart, Captain Wharton, would do but little here; but come, here is a black shroud for your good-looking countenance,” taking, at the same time, a parchment mask, and fitting it to the face of Henry. “The master and the man must change places for a season.”

“I don’t t’ink he look a bit like me,” said Cæsar, with disgust, as he surveyed his young master with his new complexion.

“Stop a minute, Cæsar,” said the peddler, with the lurking drollery that at times formed part of his manner, “till we get on the wool.”

“He worse than ebber now,” cried the discontented African. “A t’ink colored man like a sheep! I nebber see sich a lip, Harvey; he most as big as a sausage!”

Great pains had been taken in forming the different articles used in the disguise of Captain Wharton, and when arranged, under the skilful superintendence of the peddler, they formed together a transformation that would easily escape detection, from any but an extraordinary observer.

The mask was stuffed and shaped in such a manner as to preserve the peculiarities, as well as the color, of the African visage; and the wig was so artfully formed of black and white wool, as to imitate the pepper-and-salt color of Cæsar’s own head, and to exact plaudits from the black himself, who thought it an excellent counterfeit in everything but quality.

“There is but one man in the American army who could detect you, Captain Wharton,” said the peddler, surveying his work with satisfaction, “and he is just now out of our way.”

“And who is he?”

“The man who made you prisoner. He would see your white skin through a plank. But strip, both of you; your clothes must be exchanged from head to foot.”

Cæsar, who had received minute instructions from the peddler in their morning interview, immediately commenced throwing aside his coarse garments, which the youth took up and prepared to invest himself with; unable, however, to suppress a few signs of loathing.

In the manner of the peddler there was an odd mixture of care and humor; the former was the result of a perfect knowledge of their danger, and the means necessary to be used in avoiding it; and the latter proceeded from the unavoidably ludicrous circumstances before him, acting on an indifference which sprung from habit, and long familiarity with such scenes as the present.

“Here, captain,” he said, taking up some loose wool, and beginning to stuff the stockings of Cæsar, which were already on the leg of the prisoner; “some judgment is necessary in shaping this limb. You will have to display it on horseback; and the southern dragoons are so used to the brittle-shins, that should they notice your well-turned calf, they’d know at once it never belonged to a black.”

“Golly!” said Cæsar, with a chuckle, that exhibited a mouth open from ear to ear, “Massa Harry breeches fit.”

“Anything but your leg,” said the peddler, coolly pursuing the toilet of Henry. “Slip on the coat, captain, over all. Upon my word, you’d pass well at a pinkster frolic; and here, Cæsar, place this powdered wig over your curls, and be careful and look out of the window, whenever the door is open, and on no account speak, or you will betray all.”

“I s’pose Harvey t’ink a colored man ain’t got a tongue like oder folk,” grumbled the black, as he took the station assigned to him.

Everything now was arranged for action, and the peddler very deliberately went over the whole of his injunctions to the two actors in the scene. The captain he conjured to dispense with his erect military carriage, and for a season to adopt the humble paces of his father’s negro; and Cæsar he enjoined to silence and disguise, so long as he could possibly maintain them. Thus prepared, he opened the door, and called aloud to the sentinel, who had retired to the farthest end of the passage, in order to avoid receiving any of that spiritual comfort, which he felt was the sole property of another.

“Let the woman of the house be called,” said Harvey, in the solemn key of his assumed character; “and let her come alone. The prisoner is in a happy train of meditation, and must not be led from his devotions.”

Cæsar sunk his face between his hands; and when the soldier looked into the apartment, he thought he saw his charge in deep abstraction. Casting a glance of huge contempt at the divine, he called aloud for the good woman of the house. She hastened at the summons, with earnest zeal, entertaining a secret hope that she was to be admitted to the gossip of a death-bed repentance.

“Sister,” said the minister, in the authoritative tones of a master, “have you in the house ‘The Christian Criminal’s last Moments, or Thoughts on Eternity, for them who die a violent Death?’”

“I never heard of the book!” said the matron in astonishment.

“’Tis not unlikely; there are many books you have never heard of: it is impossible for this poor penitent to pass in peace, without the consolations of that volume. One hour’s reading in it is worth an age of man’s preaching.”

“Bless me, what a treasure to possess!—when was it put out?”

“It was first put out at Geneva in the Greek language, and then translated at Boston. It is a book, woman, that should be in the hands of every Christian, especially such as die upon the gallows. Have a horse prepared instantly for this black, who shall accompany me to my brother ——, and I will send down the volume yet in season. Brother, compose thy mind; you are now in the narrow path to glory.”

Cæsar wriggled a little in his chair, but he had sufficient recollection to conceal his face with hands that were, in their turn, concealed by gloves. The landlady departed, to comply with this very reasonable request, and the group of conspirators were again left to themselves.

“This is well,” said the peddler; “but the difficult task is to deceive the officer who commands the guard—he is lieutenant to Lawton, and has learned some of the captain’s own cunning in these things. Remember, Captain Wharton,” continued he with an air of pride, “that now is the moment when everything depends on our coolness.”

“My fate can be made but little worse than it is at present, my worthy fellow,” said Henry; “but for your sake I will do all that in me lies.”

“And wherein can I be more forlorn and persecuted than I now am?” asked the peddler, with that wild incoherence which often crossed his manner. “But I have promised one to save you, and to him I have never yet broken my word.”

“And who is he?” said Henry, with awakened interest.

“No one.”

The man soon returned, and announced that the horses were at the door. Harvey gave the captain a glance, and led the way down the stairs, first desiring the woman to leave the prisoner to himself, in order that he might digest the wholesome mental food that he had so lately received.

A rumor of the odd character of the priest had spread from the sentinel at the door to his comrades; so that when Harvey and Wharton reached the open space before the building, they found a dozen idle dragoons loitering about, with the waggish intention of quizzing the fanatic, and employed in affected admiration of the steeds.

“A fine horse!” said the leader in this plan of mischief; “but a little low in flesh; I suppose from hard labor in your calling.”

“My calling may be laborsome to both myself and this faithful beast, but then a day of settling is at hand, that will reward me for all my outgoings and incomings,” said Birch, putting his foot in the stirrup, and preparing to mount.

“You work for pay, then, as we fight for’t?” cried another of the party.

“Even so—‘is not the laborer worthy of his hire?’”

“Come, suppose you give us a little preaching; we have a leisure moment just now, and there’s no telling how much good you might do a set of reprobates like us, in a few words; here, mount this horse-block, and take your text where you please.”

The men now gathered in eager delight around the peddler, who, glancing his eye expressively towards the captain, who had been suffered to mount, replied,—

“Doubtless, for such is my duty. But, Cæsar, you can ride up the road and deliver the note—the unhappy prisoner will be wanting the book, for his hours are numbered.”

“Aye, aye, go along, Cæsar, and get the book,” shouted half a dozen voices, all crowding eagerly round the ideal priest, in anticipation of a frolic.

The peddler inwardly dreaded, that, in their unceremonious handling of himself and garments, his hat and wig might be displaced, when detection would be certain; he was therefore fain to comply with their request. Ascending the horse-block, after hemming once or twice, and casting several glances at the captain, who continued immovable, he commenced as follows:—

“I shall call your attention, my brethren, to that portion of Scripture which you will find in the second book of Samuel, and which is written in the following words: ‘And the king lamented over Abner, and said, Died Abner as a fool dieth? Thy hands were not bound, nor thy feet put into fetters: as a man falleth before wicked men, so fellest thou. And all the people wept again over him.’ Cæsar, ride forward, I say, and obtain the book as directed; thy master is groaning in spirit even now for the want of it.”

“An excellent text!” cried the dragoons. “Go on—go on—let the snow-ball stay; he wants to be edified as well as another.”

“What are you at there, scoundrels?” cried Lieutenant Mason, as he came in sight from a walk he had taken to sneer at the evening parade of the regiment of militia; “away with every man of you to your quarters, and let me find that each horse is cleaned and littered, when I come round.” The sound of the officer’s voice operated like a charm, and no priest could desire a more silent congregation, although he might possibly have wished for one that was more numerous. Mason had not done speaking, when it was reduced to the image of Cæsar only. The peddler took that opportunity to mount, but he had to preserve the gravity of his movements, for the remarks of the troopers upon the condition of their beasts were but too just, and a dozen dragoon horses stood saddled and bridled at hand, ready to receive their riders at a moment’s warning.

“Well, have you bitted the poor fellow within,” said Mason, “that he can take his last ride under the curb of divinity, old gentleman?”

“There is evil in thy conversation, profane man,” cried the priest, raising his hands and casting his eyes upwards in holy horror; “so I will depart from thee unhurt, as Daniel was liberated from the lion’s den.”

“Off with you, for a hypocritical, psalm-singing, canting rogue in disguise,” said Mason, scornfully; “by the life of Washington! it worries an honest fellow to see such voracious beasts of prey ravaging a country for which he sheds his blood. If I had you on a Virginia plantation for a quarter of an hour, I’d teach you to worm the tobacco with the turkeys.”

“I leave you, and shake the dust off my shoes, that no remnant of this wicked hole may tarnish the vestments of the godly.”

“Start, or I will shake the dust from your jacket, designing knave! A fellow to be preaching to my men! There’s Hollister put the devil in them by his exhorting; the rascals were getting too conscientious to strike a blow that would rase the skin. But hold! whither do you travel, Master Blackey, in such godly company?”

“He goes,” said the minister, hastily speaking for his companion, “to return with a book of much, condolence and virtue to the sinful youth above, whose soul will speedily become white, even as his outwards are black and unseemly. Would you deprive a dying man of the consolation of religion?”

“No, no, poor fellow, his fate is bad enough; a famous good breakfast his prim body of an aunt gave us. But harkee, Mr. Revelation, if the youth must die secundum artem, let it be under a gentleman’s directions; and my advice is, that you never trust that skeleton of yours among us again, or I will take the skin off and leave you naked.”

“Out upon thee for a reviler and scoffer of goodness!” said Birch, moving slowly, and with a due observance of clerical dignity, down the road, followed by the imaginary Cæsar; “but I leave thee, and that behind me that will prove thy condemnation, and take from thee a hearty and joyful deliverance.”

“Damn him,” muttered the trooper; “the fellow rides like a stake, and his legs stick out like the cocks of his hat. I wish I had him below these hills, where the law is not over-particular, I’d”—

“Corporal of the guard!—corporal of the guard!” shouted the sentinel in the passage to the chambers, “corporal of the guard!—corporal of the guard!”

The subaltern flew up the narrow stairway that led to the room of the prisoner, and demanded the meaning of the outcry.

The soldier was standing at the open door of the apartment, looking in with a suspicious eye on the supposed British officer. On observing his lieutenant, he fell back with habitual respect, and replied, with an air of puzzled thought,—

“I don’t know, sir; but just now the prisoner looked queer. Ever since the preacher has left him, he don’t look as he used to do—but,” gazing intently over the shoulder of his officer, “it must be him, too! There is the same powdered head, and the darn in the coat, where he was hit the day we had the last brush with the enemy.”

“And then all this noise is occasioned by your doubting whether that poor gentleman is your prisoner, or not, is it, sirrah? Who the devil do you think it can be, else?”

“I don’t know who else it can be,” returned the fellow, sullenly; “but he has grown thicker and shorter, if it is he; and see for yourself, sir, he shakes all over, like a man in an ague.”

This was but too true, Cæsar was an alarmed auditor of this short conversation, and, from congratulating himself upon the dexterous escape of his young master, his thoughts were very naturally beginning to dwell upon the probable consequences to his own person. The pause that succeeded the last remark of the sentinel, in no degree contributed to the restoration of his faculties. Lieutenant Mason was busied in examining with his own eyes the suspected person of the black, and Cæsar was aware of the fact by stealing a look through a passage under one of his arms, that he had left expressly for the purpose of reconnoitring. Captain Lawton would have discovered the fraud immediately, but Mason was by no means so quick-sighted as his commander. He therefore turned rather contemptuously to the soldier, and, speaking in an undertone, observed,—

“That anabaptist, methodistical, quaker, psalm-singing rascal has frightened the boy, with his farrago about flames and brimstone. I’ll step in and cheer him with a little rational conversation.”

“I have heard of fear making a man white,” said the soldier, drawing back, and staring as if his eyes would start from their sockets, “but it has changed the royal captain to a black!”

The truth was, that Cæsar, unable to hear what Mason uttered in a low voice, and having every fear aroused in him by what had already passed, incautiously removed the wig a little from one of his ears, in order to hear the better, without in the least remembering that its color might prove fatal to his disguise. The sentinel had kept his eyes fastened on his prisoner, and noticed the action. The attention of Mason was instantly drawn to the same object; and, forgetting all delicacy for a brother officer in distress, or, in short forgetting everything but the censure that might alight on his corps, the lieutenant sprang forward and seized the terrified African by the throat; for no sooner had Cæsar heard his color named, than he knew his discovery was certain; and at the first sound of Mason’s heavy boot on the floor, he arose from his seat, and retreated precipitately to a corner of the room.

“Who are you?” cried Mason, dashing the head of the old man against the angle of the wall at each interrogatory, “who the devil are you, and where is the Englishman? Speak, thou thunder-cloud! Answer me, you jackdaw, or I’ll hang you on the gallows of the spy!”

Cæsar continued firm. Neither the threats nor the blows could extract any reply, until the lieutenant, by a very natural transition in the attack, sent his heavy boot forward in a direction that brought it in direct contact with the most sensitive part of the negro—his shin. The most obdurate heart could not have exacted further patience, and Cæsar instantly gave in. The first words he spoke were—

“Golly! massa, you t’ink I got no feelin’?”

“By heavens!” shouted the lieutenant, “it is the negro himself! Scoundrel! where is your master, and who was the priest?” While speaking, he made a movement, as if about to renew the attack; but Cæsar cried aloud for mercy, promising to tell all that he knew.

“Who was the priest?” repeated the dragoon, drawing back his formidable leg, and holding it in threatening suspense.

“Harvey, Harvey!” cried Cæsar, dancing from one leg to the other, as he thought each member in turn might be assailed.

“Harvey who, you black villain?” cried the impatient lieutenant, as he executed a full measure of vengeance by letting his leg fly.

“Birch!” shrieked Cæsar, falling on his knees, the tears rolling in large drops over his shining face.

“Harvey Birch!” echoed the trooper, hurling the black from him, and rushing from the room. “To arms! to arms! Fifty guineas for the life of the peddler spy—give no quarter to either. Mount, mount! to arms! to horse!”

During the uproar occasioned by the assembling of the dragoons, who all rushed tumultuously to their horses, Cæsar rose from the floor, where he had been thrown by Mason, and began to examine into his injuries. Happily for himself, he had alighted on his head, and consequently sustained no material damage.