I. Uncomfortable Visitors
Near the close of the year 1780 a solitary traveller was pursuing his way through one of the numerous little valleys of New York State which were then common ground for the British and Revolutionary forces. Anxious to obtain a speedy shelter from the increasing violence of the storm, the traveller knocked at the door of a house which had an air altogether superior to the common farmhouses of the country. In answer to his knocking, an aged black appeared, and, without seeming to think it necessary to consult his superiors, acceded to the request for accommodation.
The stranger was shown into a neat parlour, where, after politely repeating his request to an old gentleman who arose to receive him, and paying his compliments to three ladies who were seated at work with their needles, he commenced laying aside his outer garments, and exhibited to the scrutiny of the observant family party a tall and graceful person, apparently fifty years of age. His countenance evinced a settled composure and dignity; his eye was quiet, thoughtful, and rather melancholy; the mouth expressive of decision and much character. His whole appearance was so decidedly that of a gentleman that the ladies arose and, together with the master of the house, received anew and returned the complimentary greetings suitable for the occasion.
After handing a glass of excellent Madeira to his guest, Mr. Wharton, for so was the owner of this retired estate called, threw an inquiring glance on the stranger and asked, “To whose health am I to have the honour of drinking?”
The traveller replied, while a faint tinge gathered on his features–“Mr. Harper.”
“Mr. Harper,” resumed the other, with the formal precision of the day, “I have the honour to drink your health, and to hope you will sustain no injury from the rain to which you have been exposed.”
Mr. Harper bowed in silence to the compliment, and seated himself by the fire with an air of reserve that baffled further inquiry.
The storm now began to rage without with great violence, and on the way being led to the supper-table a loud summons again called the black to the portal. In a minute he returned and informed his master that another traveller desired shelter for the night.
Mr. Wharton, who had risen from his seat in evident uneasiness, scarcely had time to bid the black show the second man in before the door was thrown hastily open and the stranger himself entered the apartment. He paused a moment as the person of Harper met his view, and then repeated the request he had made through the servant.
Throwing aside a rough great-coat, the intruder very composedly proceeded to allay the cravings of an appetite which appeared by no means delicate. But at every mouthful he turned an unquiet eye on Harper, who studied his appearance with a closeness that was very embarrassing. At length, pouring out a glass of wine and nodding to his examiner, the newcomer said, “I drink to our better acquaintance, sir; I believe this is the first time we have met, though your attention would seem to say otherwise.”
“I think we have never met before, sir,” replied Harper, with a slight smile, and then, appearing satisfied with his scrutiny, he rose and desired to be shown to his place of rest.
The knife and fork fell from the hands of the unwelcome intruder as the door closed on the retiring figure of Harper; listening attentively he approached the door, opened it–amid the panic and astonishment of his companions–closed it again, and in an instant the red wig which concealed his black locks, the large patch which hid half his face, the stoop that made him appear fifty years of age, disappeared.
“My father! my dear father!” cried the handsome young man.
“Heaven bless you, my Henry, my son,” exclaimed the astonished and delighted parent, while his sisters sank on his shoulders dissolved in tears.
A twelvemonth had passed since Captain Wharton had seen his family, and now, having impatiently adopted the disguise mentioned, he had unfortunately arrived on the evening that an unknown and rather suspicious guest was an inmate of the house.
“Do you think he suspects me?” asked the captain.
“How should he?” cried Sarah, his elder sister, “when your sisters and father could not penetrate your disguise.”
“There is something mysterious in his manner; his looks are too prying for an indifferent observer,” continued young Wharton thoughtfully, “and his face seems familiar to me. The recent fate of André has created much irritation on both sides. The rebels would think me a fit subject for their plans should I be so unlucky as to fall into their hands. My visit to you would seem to them a cloak to other designs.”
II. The Disguise That Failed
The morning still forbade the idea of exposing either man or beast to the tempest. Harper was the last to appear, and Henry Wharton had resumed his disguise with a reluctance amounting to disgust, but in obedience to the commands of his parent.
While the company were yet seated at breakfast, Caesar, the black, entered and laid a small parcel in silence by his master.
“What is this, Caesar?” inquired Mr. Wharton, eyeing the bundle suspiciously.
“The baccy, sir; Harvey Birch, he got home, and he bring you a little good baccy.”
To Sarah Wharton this intelligence gave unexpected pleasure, and, rising from her seat, she bade the black show Birch into the apartment, adding suddenly, with an apologising look, “If Mr. Harper will excuse the presence of a pedlar.”
The stranger bowed a silent acquiescence, while Captain Wharton placed himself in a window recess, and drew the curtain before him in such a manner as to conceal most of his person from observation.
Harvey Birch had been a pedlar from his youth, and was in no way distinguished from men of his class but by his acuteness and the mystery which enveloped his movements. Those movements were so suspicious that his imprisonments had been frequent.
The pedlar soon disposed of a considerable part of the contents of his pack to the ladies, telling the news while he displayed his goods.
“Have you any other news, friend?” asked Captain Wharton, in a pause, venturing to thrust his head without the curtains.
“Have you heard that Major André has been hanged?” was the reply.
“Is there any probability of movements below that will make travelling dangerous?” asked Harper.
Birch answered slowly, “I saw some of De Lancey’s men cleaning their arms as I passed their quarters, for the Virginia Horse are now in the county.”
“You must be known by this time, Harvey, to the officers of the British Army,” cried Sarah, smiling at the pedlar.
“I know some of them by sight,” said Birch, glancing his eyes round the apartment, taking in their course Captain Wharton, and resting for an instant on the countenance of Harper.
The party sat in silence for many minutes after the pedlar had withdrawn, until at last Mr. Harper suddenly said, “If any apprehensions of me induce Captain Wharton to maintain his disguise, I wish him to be undeceived; had I motives for betraying him they could not operate under present circumstances.”
The sisters sat in speechless surprise, while Mr. Wharton was stupefied; but the captain sprang into the middle of the room, and exclaimed, as he tore off his disguise, “I believe you from my soul, and this tiresome imposition shall continue no longer. You must be a close observer, sir.”
“Necessity has made me one,” said Harper, rising from his seat.
Frances, the younger sister, met him as he was about to withdraw, and, taking his hand between both her own, said with earnestness, “You cannot, you will not betray my brother!”
For an instant Harper paused, and then, folding her hands on his breast, replied solemnly, “I cannot, and I will not!” and added, “If the blessing of a stranger can profit you, receive it.” And he retired, with a delicacy that all felt, to his own apartment.
In the afternoon the sky cleared, and as the party assembled on the lawn to admire the view which was now disclosed, the pedlar suddenly appeared.
“The rig’lars must be out from below,” he remarked, with great emphasis; “horse are on the road; there will soon be fighting near us.” And he glanced his eye towards Harper with evident uneasiness.
As Birch concluded, Harper, who had been contemplating the view, turned to his host and mentioned that his business would not admit of unnecessary delay; he would therefore avail himself of the fine evening to ride a few miles on his journey.
There was a mutual exchange of polite courtesy between the host and his parting guest, and as Harper frankly offered his hand to Captain Wharton, he remarked, “The step you have undertaken is one of much danger, and disagreeable consequences to yourself may result from it. In such a case I may have it in my power to prove the gratitude I owe your family for its kindness.”
“Surely, sir,” cried the father, “you will keep secret the discovery which your being in my house has enabled you to make?”
Harper turned to the speaker, and answered mildly, “I have learned nothing in your family, sir, of which I was ignorant; but your son is safer from my knowledge of his visit than he would be without it.”
And, bowing to the whole party, he rode gracefully through the little gate, and was soon lost to view.
“Captain Wharton, do you go in to-night?” asked the pedlar abruptly, when this scene had closed.
“No!” said the captain laconically.
“I rather guess you had better shorten your visit,” continued the pedlar, coolly.
“No, no, Mr. Birch; here I stay till morning! I brought myself out, and can take myself in. Our bargain went no further than to procure my disguise and to let me know when the coast was clear, and in the latter particular you were mistaken.”
“I was,” said the pedlar, “and the greater the reason why you should go back to-night. The pass I gave you will serve but once.”
“Here I stay this night, come what will.”
“Captain Wharton,” said the pedlar, with great deliberation, “beware a tall Virginian with huge whiskers; he is below you; the devil can’t deceive him; I never could but once.”
III. A Dangerous Situation
The family were assembled round the breakfast-table in the morning when Caesar, who was looking out of the window, exclaimed, “Run, Massa Harry, run; here come the rebel horse.”
Captain Wharton’s sisters, with trembling hands, had hastily replaced the original disguise, when the house was surrounded by dragoons, and the heavy tread of a trooper was heard outside the parlour door. The man who now entered the room was of colossal stature, with dark hair around his brows in profusion, and his face nearly hid in the whiskers by which it was disfigured. Frances saw in him at once the man from whose scrutiny Harvey Birch had warned them there was much to be apprehended.
“Has there been a strange gentleman staying with you during the storm?” asked the dragoon.
“This gentleman here favoured us with his company during the rain,” stammered Mr. Wharton.
“This gentleman!” repeated the other, as he contemplated Captain Wharton with a lurking smile, and then, with a low bow, continued, “I am sorry for the severe cold you have in your head, sir, causing you to cover your handsome locks with that ugly old wig.”
Then, turning to the father, he proceeded, “Then, sir, I am to understand a Mr. Harper has not been here?”
“Mr. Harper?” echoed the other; “yes, I had forgotten; but he is gone, and if there is anything wrong in his character we are in entire ignorance of it.”
“He is gone–how, when, and whither?”
“He departed as he arrived,” said Mr. Wharton, gathering confidence, “on horseback, last evening; he took the northern road.”
The officer turned on his heel, left the apartment, and gave orders which sent some of the horsemen out of the valley, by its various roads, at full speed.
Then, re-entering the room, he walked up to Wharton, and said, with some gravity, “Now, sir, may I beg to examine the quality of that wig? And if I could persuade you to exchange this old surtout for that handsome blue coat, I think you never could witness a more agreeable metamorphosis.”
Young Wharton made the necessary changes, and stood an extremely handsome, well-dressed young man.
“I am Captain Lawton, of the Virginian Horse,” said the dragoon.
“And I, sir, am Captain Wharton, of His Majesty’s 60th Regiment of Foot,” returned Henry, bowing.
The countenance of Lawton changed from quaintness to great earnestness, as he exclaimed, “Then, Captain Wharton, from my soul I pity you!”
Captain Lawton now inquired if a pedlar named Birch did not live in the valley.
“At times only, I believe, sir,” replied Mr. Wharton cautiously. “He is seldom here; I may say I never see him.”
“What is the offence of poor Birch?” asked the aunt.
“Poor!” cried the captain; “if he is poor, King George is a bad paymaster.”
“I am sorry,” said Mr. Wharton, “that any neighbour of mine should incur displeasure.”
“If I catch him,” cried the dragoon, “he will dangle from the limbs of one of his namesakes.”
In the course of the morning Major Dunwoodie, who was an old friend of the family, and the lover of Frances, the younger daughter, arrived, took over the command of the troop, and inquired into the case of his friend the prisoner.
“How did you pass the pickets in the plains?” he asked.
“In disguise,” replied Captain Wharton; “and by the use of this pass, for which I paid, and which, as it bears the name of Washington, is, I presume, forged.”
Dunwoodie caught the paper eagerly, and after gazing at the signature for some time, said, “This name is no counterfeit. The confidence of Washington has been abused. Captain Wharton, my duty will not suffer me to grant you a parole–you must accompany me to the Highlands.”
IV. Justice by Evasion
The Wharton family, by order of Washington, now removed to the Highlands, out of the region of warlike operations, and Captain Wharton was brought to trial. The court condemned him to execution as a spy before nine o’clock on the morning following the trial, the president, however, expressing his intention of riding to Washington’s headquarters and urging a remission of the punishment. But the sentence of the court was returned–approved. All seemed lost.
“Why not apply to Mr. Harper?” said Frances, recollecting for the first time the parting words of their guest.
“Harper!” echoed Dunwoodie, who had joined the family consultation. “What of him? Do you know him?”
“He stayed with us two days. 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, “he knew him not as an officer of the royal army?”
“Indeed he did, and cautioned him against this very danger, bidding him apply to him when in danger and promising to requite the son for the hospitality of the father.”
“Then,” cried the youth, “will I save him. Harper will never forget his word.”
“But has he power,” said Frances, “to move Washington’s stubborn purpose?”
“If he cannot,” shouted Dunwoodie, “who can? Rest easy, for Henry is safe.”
It was while these consultations were proceeding that a divine of fanatical aspect, preceded by Cæsar, sought admission to the prisoner to offer him the last consolations of religion, and so persistent were his demands that at last he was allowed a private interview. Then he instantly revealed himself as Harvey Birch, and proceeded to disguise Captain Wharton as Cæsar, the black servant, who had entered the room with him. So complete was the make-up that the minister and Wharton passed unsuspected through the guard, and it was only when the officer on duty entered the room to cheer up the prisoner after his interview with the “psalm-singer” that the real Cæsar was discovered, and in fright hurriedly revealed that the consoling visitor had been the pedlar spy.
The pursuit was headlong and close, but when once the rocky fastnesses were reached the heavy-booted dragoons were, for the moment, out of the chase, and Harvey Birch conducted Captain Wharton at leisure towards one of his hiding-places, while the mountain was encircled by the watchful troopers.
V. Unexpected Meetings
When passing into the Highlands from her now desolated home, Frances Wharton had noticed under the summit of one of the rockiest heights, as a stream of sunlight poured upon it, what seemed to be a stone hut, though hardly distinguishable from the rocks. Watching this place, for it was visible from her new home, she had fancied more than once that she saw near the hut a form like that of Harvey Birch. Could it be one of the places from which he kept watch on the plains below? On hearing of her brother’s escape, she felt convinced that it was to this hut that the pedlar would conduct him, and there, at night, she repaired alone–a toilsome and dangerous ascent.
The hut was reached at last, and the visitor, applying her eye to a crevice, found it lighted by a blazing fire of dry wood. Against the walls were suspended garments fitted for all ages and conditions, and either sex. British and American uniforms hung side by side. Sitting on a stool, with his head leaning on his hand, was a man more athletic than either Harvey or her brother. He raised his face and Frances instantly recognised the composed features of Harper. She threw open the door of the hut and fell at his feet, crying, “Save him, save my brother; remember your promise!”
“Miss Wharton!” exclaimed Harper. “But you cannot be alone!”
“There is none here but my God and you, and I conjure you by His sacred Name to remember your promise!”
Harper gently raised her, and placed her on the stool, saying, “Miss Wharton, that I bear no mean part in the unhappy struggle between England and America, it might now be useless to deny. You owe your brother’s escape this night to my knowledge of his innocence and the remembrance of my word. I could not openly have procured his pardon, but now I can control his fate, and prevent his recapture. But this interview, and all that has passed between us, must remain a secret confined to your own bosom.”
Frances gave the desired assurance.
“The pedlar and your brother will soon be here; but I must not be seen by the royal officer, or the life of Birch might be the forfeit. Did Sir Henry Clinton know the pedlar had communion with me, the miserable man would be sacrificed at once. Therefore be prudent; be silent. Urge them to instant departure. It shall be my care that there shall be none to intercept them.”
While he was speaking, the voice of the pedlar was heard outside in loud tones. “Stand a little farther this way, Captain Wharton, and you can see the tents in the moonshine.”
Harper pressed his finger to his lip to remind Frances of her promise, and, entering a recess in the rock behind several articles of dress, was hid from view.
The surprise of Henry and the pedlar on finding Frances in possession of the hut may be imagined.
“Are you alone, Miss Fanny?” asked the pedlar, in a quick voice.
“As you see me, Mr. Birch,” said Frances, with an expressive glance towards the secret cavern, a glance which the pedlar instantly understood.
“But why are you here?” exclaimed her astonished brother.
Frances related her conjecture that this would be the shelter of the fugitives for the night, but implored her brother to continue his flight at once. Birch added his persuasions, and soon the girl heard them plunging down the mountain-side at a rapid rate.
Immediately the noise of their departure ceased Harper reappeared, and leading Frances from the hut, conducted her down the hill to where a sheep-path led to the plain. There, pressing a kiss on her forehead, he said, “Here we must part. I have much to do and far to ride. Forget me in all but your prayers.”
She reached her home undiscovered, as her brother reached the British lines, and on meeting her lover, Major Dunwoodie, in the morning learned that the American troops had been ordered suddenly by Washington to withdraw from the immediate neighbourhood.
VI. Last Scenes
The war was drawing to its close when the American general, sitting in an apartment at his headquarters, asked of the aide-de-camp in attendance, “Has the man I wished to see arrived, sir?”
“He waits the pleasure of your excellency.”
“I will receive him here, and alone.”
In a few minutes a figure glided in, and by a courteous gesture was motioned to a chair. Washington opened a desk, and took from it a small but apparently heavy bag.
“Harvey Birch,” said he, turning to the visitor, “the time has arrived when our connection must cease. Henceforth and forever we must be strangers.”
“If it be your excellency’s pleasure,” replied the pedlar meekly.
“It is necessary. You have I trusted most of all. You alone know my secret agents in the city. On your fidelity depend not only their fortunes, but their lives. I believe you are one of the very few 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. It is impossible to do you justice now, but I fearlessly entrust you with this certificate. Remember, in me you will always have a secret friend, though openly I cannot know you. It is now my duty to pay you your postponed reward.”
“Does your excellency think I have exposed my life and blasted my character for money? No, not a dollar of your gold will I touch! Poor America has need of it all!”
“But remember, the veil that conceals your true character cannot be raised. The prime of your days is already past. What have you to subsist on?”
“These,” exclaimed Harvey Birch, stretching forth his hands.
“The characters of men much esteemed depend on your secrecy. What pledge can I give them of your fidelity?”
“Tell them,” said Birch, “that I would not take the gold.”
The officer grasped the hand of the pedlar as he exclaimed, “Now, indeed, I know you!”
It was thirty-three years after the interview just related that an American army was once more arrayed against the troops of England; but the scene was transferred from the banks of the Hudson to those of the Niagara.
The body of Washington had long lain mouldering in the tomb, but his name was hourly receiving new lustre as his worth and integrity became more visible.
The sound of cannon and musketry was heard above the roar of the cataract. On both sides repeated and bloody charges had been made. While the action was raging an old man wandering near was seen to throw down suddenly a bundle he was carrying and to seize a musket from a fallen soldier. He plunged headlong into the thick of the fight, and bore himself as valiantly as the best of the American soldiers. When, in the evening, the order was given to the shattered troops to return to camp, Captain Wharton Dunwoodie found that his lieutenant was missing, and taking a lighted fusee, he went himself in quest of the body. The lieutenant was found on the side of the hill seated with great composure, but unable to walk from a fractured leg.
“Ah, dear Tom,” exclaimed Dunwoodie, “I knew I should find you the nearest man to the enemy!”
“No,” said the lieutenant. “There is a brave fellow nearer than myself. He rushed out of our smoke to make a prisoner, and he never came back. He lies just over the hillock.”
Dunwoodie went to the spot and found an aged stranger. He lay on his back, his eyes closed as if in slumber, and his hands pressed on his breast contained something that glittered like silver.
The subject of his care was a tin box, through which the bullet had pierced to find a way to his heart, and the dying moments of the old man must have been passed in drawing it from his bosom.
Dunwoodie opened it, and found a paper on which he read:
“Circumstances of political importance, which involve the lives and fortunes of many, have hitherto kept secret what this paper reveals. Harvey Birch has for years been a faithful and unrequited servant of his country. Though man does not, may God reward him for his conduct! GEO. WASHINGTON.”
It was the spy of the neutral ground, who died as he had lived, devoted to his country.