( Originally Published Early 1900's )
In writing The Spy, his second novel, Cooper was influenced by a wish to set himself right with his critics. His first book had been criticized severely because he drew his scenes and characters from abroad and wrote in what was thought to be an unpatriotic vein. The author, who had been a midshipman in the navy, felt this keenly and determined to write a book which should deal entirely with American affairs and breathe the very spirit of patriotism. The result was The Spy, which achieved an immediate success. Yet Cooper him-self had been doubtful of the success of the work, and the first volume was in type before he could be induced to begin the second. It was the first American novel to achieve a wide circulation, and, taking into consideration the small population of the country at the time of its publication, few have surpassed it since.
WHEN the war between King George III and his American Colonies broke out, no man was more concerned and perplexed than Mr. Wharton, a wealthy citizen of New York. His one desire was to conserve his own interests and to affiliate himself with the winning side. Being quite unable to guess which side would hold that en-viable position, he decided finally to retire to The Locusts, his country-house in Westchester, to await events. Accordingly, he removed there with his two motherless daughters and their spinster aunt, Miss Peyton.
Westchester County was then a wild and beautiful country, nearly a day's journey from the city. By retreating to its loneliness, Mr. Wharton gained freedom from embarrassing complications; but he gained no peace. From without, the peace of The Locusts was threatened by both sides; for Westchester, lying between the American and the British lines, was termed "the neutral ground," and was overrun by the Cowboys, plundering in the name of the King, and the Skinners, robbing in the name of Congress.
Within, The Locusts was a house divided against itself. Sarah, the elder daughter, was a stanch Tory and had given her heart to Colonel Wellmere of His Majesty's Household Troops; Frances was devoted to the cause of the Colonies and had bestowed her love on Miss Peyton's nephew, Major Peyton Dunwoodie of the Virginia Horse, under Washington; and their brother, Henry Wharton, was an officer in the royal army.
One evening as a great storm was gathering, a horseman rode up to The Locusts and asked shelter. He was a man of striking appearance, tall and large of frame, plainly military in bearing, and with a serene and commanding countenance that compelled instinctive deference.
He gave his name as Harper and spoke as little as courtesy would permit, but listened with keen interest to the fervent discussion on the war between the two beautiful girls. This was interrupted by the arrival of two other travelers, one of whom threw Mr. Wharton and his family into manifest trepidation, desperately as all tried to appear at ease. This stranger had the appearance of an old man, but his impetuous action and speech belied his looks.
The second of the arrivals was Harvey Birch, a pedler in ostensible calling, but notorious as a royalist spy, who had been captured several times by the Americans, yet escaped mysteriously each time, so that a price was set on his head.
At the sight of Mr. Harper the pedler started in evident astonishment, but recovered himself instantly; and a quick look of intelligence passed between the two—a look on the pedler's part full of respect. After making a few hurried sales to the young ladies he departed hastily.
Hardly had he gone when Mr. Harper said to the other guests:
"If any apprehension of me induces 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 disguised man was, indeed, Henry Wharton.
The women were pale from fright, but young Wharton, crying, "I believe you!" tore off his disguise with a light laugh.
The storm ended soon afterward, and Mr. Harper departed, not, however, without warning the Captain that his visit in disguise was a dangerous proceeding, which might yet involve him in grave peril; and he added that, should this be the case, he might be able to render Wharton valuable service.
Scarcely had the mysterious stranger departed when there was a thunder of hoofs and a clanking of sabers, and the house was suddenly surrounded by a party of Virginia Horse, under Captain Lawton. Captain Wharton was taken prisoner, and, being in disguise, was charged with being a royalist spy.
In the midst of the distracted family's despair Major Dunwoodie, who had followed hard on the heels of his troop, entered the house, to be received with acclamations of delighted relief. But the demonstrations only served to render more hard the part he had to play—a part made doubly dreadful by his realization of the terrible danger in which stood his cousin and prospective brother-in-law. He himself believed Henry's statement that his sole object had been to visit his family; but he saw too clearly that the court-martial would give little heed to this story. Frances, who had thought nothing except that Major Dunwoodie would liberate her brother instantly, saw her mistake, and poured on the American a torrent of tears, remonstrance, broken reproach, and piteous entreaty which tortured the young soldier's soul.
Then, growing suddenly calm, she said : " Peyton Dunwoodie, I have promised, when peace shall be restored to our country, to become your wife. Give my brother his liberty, and I will go with you this day to the altar, follow you to the camp, and, in becoming a soldier's bride, learn to endure a soldier's privations!"
"Say no more, Frances," cried the young officer, pacing the room in agony. "Say no more unless you wish to break my heart."
"Then you reject my hand?" said Frances; and rising with pale cheek and quivering lip she left the room.
Dunwoodie sank into a chair and covered his face with his hands. But in a moment the blast of a trumpet tore the air and the despairing lover sprang, to his feet, eager for battle. Vedettes raced in with horses a foam to report royal troops coming up the valley; and at the head of his dragoons the young officer dashed away to meet the soldiery of King George. In the soul of Frances then love overswept all other thoughts, and she could not repress a cry of joy when, on the return of the victorious Americans bearing their wounded and their prisoners, she learned that Dunwoodie was uninjured. But once assured of the young man's safety, she resumed a coldness of demeanor toward him which went straight to his heart, and he rode away, a sad man, in the gloom of night toward the post which he had established at the Four Corners, two miles above the home of Mr. Wharton.
At The Locusts there was a new complication. For among the prisoners brought in by the Americans was Colonel Wellmere, whose appearance was hailed by Sarah Wharton with mingled joy and sorrow—sorrow at seeing the man she loved wounded and a prisoner, and joy at being once more in his presence.
Though the wound of the Colonel was slight, he was too much chagrined by his defeat and capture to resume his love-making with the ardor he had shown in New York; but Sarah's devotion for her mature admirer had suffered no abatement. Dunwoodie had accepted Colonel Wellmere's parole that he would remain at The Locusts until his exchange, for which negotiations were at once set on foot; and Henry Wharton also had been bound by a solemn promise to remain a prisoner in his father's house until such time as the detachment should retire up the river, taking him with them. Captain Lawton himself returned with severe bruises received in an attempt to capture Harvey Birch after the fight. The Captain had sighted the spy hovering about and had jumped his horse over a stone wall in pursuit, but the animal stumbled and pinned his rider beneath him. Yet, much to the Captain's amazement, the spy, though thus having his enemy at his mercy, turned quietly away, leaving the American unattacked.
The next few days were busy and eventful ones at The Locusts. A new beauty was added to the household in the form of Isabella Singleton, who had been summoned to nurse her brother, one of the American wounded. She was a Southern girl, with hair of raven blackness, a complexion of dazzling purity, and dark eyes, which were dreamy yet full of fire.
One night Frances went into her room unexpectedly and found the girl rapturously kissing a miniature of Peyton Dunwoodie. Frances, already sorely distressed because Dunwoodie had not once visited The Locusts since the night of their quarrel, lost all hope and felt that everything for her was at an end. She felt that the proud Southern beauty would not bestow her love unsought; and she attributed the Major's absence to his natural disinclination to meet together two women to whom he had paid court. Now, she thought, she could understand why he had not acceded to her prayers in behalf of her brother and why he had rejected her offer of marriage, the thought of which filled her with shame.
The little garrison at the Four Corners was surprised at this time by the appearance of a party of Skinners bearing captive the spy Harvey Birch, and claiming the reward for his capture. They had taken him in his house and burned it before his eyes. Dunwoodie delegated the task of paying the Skinners to Captain Lawton, which he did in an orchard remote from the post and surrounded by his dragoons. Then he called to his men, who stripped the rascals and whipped them soundly before they let them go, which little attention caused the marauders to take a solemn oath that they would kill Lawton at the first opportunity.
The next morning Dunwoodie arose at daylight and wandered some distance from the camp, deep in meditation. Suddenly the command rang out: "Stand or die!" Looking up he saw Harvey Birch. The spy held a musket pointed at him.
"What do you wish?" cried Dunwoodie. "If you wish to murder me, fire. I will never be your prisoner."
"Major Dunwoodie," replied the spy, "I desire your good opinion—the lenient judgment of all men. No one knows me as I am but my God and him."
"Who is `him'?" responded Dunwoodie. Without replying the spy discharged the musket in the air and threw the piece at the feet of the young officer. Then saying, "I give you warning. Guard those you love," he disappeared into the forest.
The mind of the young officer was filled with doubt regarding the true character of this mysterious man who could have killed him and did not. He remembered, too, that Birch had had Captain Lawton at his mercy but had abstained from harming him, and that an officer suspected to have come from Harvey had given him a note warning him of the approach of royal troops. And yet the pedler was outlawed as a spy and orders were out to hang him without trial should he be caught.
Dunwoodie soon received orders to repair with the main body of his command to the camp at Peekskill with his prisoner, Henry Wharton. Before leaving he sought an interview with Frances, but the young girl would harken to none of his protestations, charged him with having sought the love of Isabella Singleton while already betrothed to herself, and almost drove him from her presence. Then she flew to her room and wept her heart out, while Dunwoodie rode moodily north with his command and his prisoner. Captain Lawton was left behind with a handful of men at the Four Corners, not a little disgusted with the duty assigned him. He longed for action, and held the art of war to consist of hand-to-hand conflicts. The surgeon, Dr. Sitgreaves, on the contrary, was always berating the captain for what he called his disregard of the ethics of warfare. He complained with justice that he seldom got an opportunity to exercise his professional skill upon the enemy, for those who fell before the charge of Lawton and his troopers were beyond all hope of repair.
One evening when the doctor and the Captain were arguing upon this important matter a message was received inviting them to The Locusts. A chaplain of the royal army had arrived from New York with authority to effect the exchange of Colonel Wellmere, and the gallant Colonel had resolved to take advantage of the opportunity to marry Sarah Wharton.
But the marriage was not to be. Just as the clergyman was about to conclude the ceremony Harvey Birch appeared suddenly in the room. Before the startled guests could stir, he cried : "What does Colonel Wellmere here when his wife has crossed the ocean to meet him?" and disappeared as suddenly and as strangely as he had come.
Sarah turned an anguished look on the face of the man she loved. Reading there the truth of the accusation, she fell to the floor insensible.
"Step this way, Colonel," said Lawton politely. Leading the way to the stables, he ordered his own black charger, Roanoke, to be brought out. "Those who should avenge the wrongs of that young lady are absent," said the Captain.
"Here is a fleet horse; you have Washington's passport in your pocket. Here also are a couple of pistols. - Please to take one. I will give you the fire. Ho, there, you man, hold a torch!"
Retiring a few paces, he lowered his pistol and bowed to the Colonel. The Englishman took aim, and the report of his weapon was followed by a scattering of gold lace from the epaulette of the American officer.
"Now," said Lawton, "it is my turn."
"And mine too!" cried a voice from the darkness. It was the voice of the leader of the Skinners. The next moment Lawton found himself beset on all sides and pulled to the ground.
In spite of his herculean frame and great strength and agility he would have been killed had not the numbers and blind anger of his assailants caused interference with each other. Thus it happened that, with swiftness and an exhibition of giant strength, the Captain's tall form suddenly emerged from the heap of struggling men, and the next instant was on a horse's back and riding like the wind amid a storm of bullets pattering harmless around him.
Half-way to the Four Corners Lawton met his troopers under Sergeant Hollister. Harvey Birch had suddenly appeared at the post, warned Hollister that his captain was in danger, and vanished in his mysterious way.
Lawton led his men at a gallop back to The Locusts. They found the house in flames and the Skinners plundering it. The marauders fled at the approach of the dragoons, and the members of the household were rescued. Colonel Wellmere had seized the occasion when the Skinners had fallen upon Lawton to get his horse from the stable and ride away toward New York.
The party repaired to the Four Corners, where Captain Lawton placed his rude accommodations at their disposal. But the Skinners had secretly followed along the flanks of the little party, and as the. Captain and Isabella Singleton stood before a window, a shot suddenly crashed through it. The bullet was intended for the Captain, but it found a lodgment in the breast of the Southern girl, and she fell mortally wounded.
While the troopers scattered in a vain pursuit of the Skinners, Isabella breathed her last in the arms of Frances. With her dying breath she adjured Frances to cherish the affection of Dunwoodie, and acknowledged that, though she loved the young man, her love had been unsought and unreturned by him.
A few days later found the Wharton family at Peekskill, awaiting with fear the result of the court-martial before which the young royalist Captain was being tried for his life. Thanks to the dying confession of Isabella, Dunwoodie and Frances were thoroughly reconciled, and the young man exerted him-self energetically in behalf of his friend. But, in spite of every-thing, Henry Wharton was found guilty and condemned to be hanged.
"I will go to Washington," cried Dunwoodie. "I will beseech him. I will draw my sword no longer in his service if he does not grant me the life of my friend."
"Oh," said Frances, "if we could but find Mr. Harper; perhaps he could do something. He promised."
"Mr. Harper!" exclaimed Dunwoodie, "Mr. Harper! What do you know of him? Have you a promise from him?"
When Frances described the stately stranger and told of his parting words to Henry, Dunwoodie started joyously, and cried : "All will yet be well ! Henry will not die!"
Shortly after his departure a tall, gaunt man dressed in clerical garb appeared and announced himself as a minister from a neighboring village who had been sent to administer spiritual comfort to the condemned officer, who was kept there under guard.
He desired to be left alone with the Captain, but kept Caesar, Wharton's faithful black, in the room. As soon as they were alone the stranger tore off his spectacles and wig and stood revealed as Harvey Birch. He caused Henry and Caesar to exchange clothing and gave the officer a woolly wig to put on. Having resumed his own disguise, he said to the sentinel as they went out, "The erring sinner is, I trust, awakened to his sins. I will send back by this black man, his servant, a book which shall still further touch his obdurate heart."
Harvey and Henry had almost reached the woods when they glanced behind to see a party of cavalry in full chase after them. But Harvey's knowledge of the woodland paths, and the gathering night, stood the fugitives in good stead, and the dragoons had a fruitless search. When the dragoons returned Frances heard orders given to send scouting-parties to scour the woods to the south. She knew that her brother had probably been taken to a certain hut built in a mountain not far across the plain of Peekskill; the night was dark, yet she could find the way. Stealing out of the American lines, the girl fled across country and finally reached the place she sought. But to her surprise on entering the hut she found there, not Harvey and her brother, but Mr. Harper, who was intently studying a large map. Rapidly the girl told her story, and reminded Harper of his promise made at The Locusts. He told her to hurry back to the camp and try to detain Dunwoodie for two hours.
Soon after her return Dunwoodie arrived, having been unable to find Harper; and Washington was not at his headquarters. But he had hopes of being more successful the next morning. When he was told of the escape of the Captain he foresaw with despair that he would be sent in pursuit, and soon the expected orders came; his troop was under arms, and only awaited his appearance to ride off in the pursuit.
Frances, who had kept an anxious eye on the clock, now tried in every manner to delay the departure of her lover. Finally, when she had exhausted all other arts, she played her last desperate card and handed the young man a note which Henry had hastily written before he left the house. This note begged the Virginian officer to spare Cesar for his part in the escape, and to protect his aunt and his two sisters.
Especially did he recommend Frances to the love and tenderness of his old friend and besought him to gain the right to protect her by marrying her at once.
"Am I worthy of this confidence?" exclaimed Peyton. "I, who ride this night to capture your brother?"
"And would you do less of your duty because I am your wife, Major Dunwoodie?" asked Frances.
"Henry is safe anyway," said Dunwoodie. "Harper will save him even if I capture him; but I will show the world a bride-groom who is not afraid to arrest the brother of his bride."
But now Frances broke down. "I cannot enter into such a relation with a fraud upon my soul!" she cried. Then she confessed that she knew—no matter how—that time was all-important and that she had been trying to detain her lover until the clock was on the stroke of nine.
"Time enough," said Dunwoodie. "Two hours will take me through the hills, and to-morrow I shall return with Henry to enliven our wedding-feast, with Washington's pardon for him in my pocket."
A clergyman was called in, and, just as the clock struck nine, Peyton Dunwoodie and Frances Wharton were pronounced man and wife. Kissing his bride, the young officer ran to mount his horse. But before his foot touched the stirrup an orderly from headquarters dashed up and handed him a note. It was an order from Washington ordering him to immediate duty at Croton Heights, and adding: "The escape of the spy has been reported to me, but his capture is unimportant compared with the duty I now assign you."
So there was a merry wedding-party, after all; and a few days later Harvey Birch placed his charge safely on board of a British man-o'-war lying off Yonkers.
Poor Lawton rode away with Dunwoodie and found his longed-for fighting at last. But when it was over he did not ride back on his black charger Roanoke; for he lay dead on the field in his youth and beauty.
Some time later Harvey Birch, at the headquarters of the American army in a New Jersey town, stood before a stately and noble man. It was the stranger whom the family at The Locusts had known as Mr. Harper. But the world knows him as George Washington.
George Washington was looking at the spy with approbation and regard; for Harvey Birch, while pretending to be a royalist spy, had in reality been a spy in the personal service of Washington—a secret known to those two only.
The movement on Yorktown was about to be made; and Washington, having no further need for the spy in the North, where alone he was useful, now proposed to pay him for his work. But Birch refused sternly to touch the offered money, and the two patriots separated with feelings of mutual admiration and respect.
In the War of 1812 an old, old man again went about as a pedler and did good service as spy for the Americans on the Canadian frontier. One day, when a battle was joined near him, he threw away his pedler's pack, seized a musket from a fallen soldier and rushed into the fight.
After the battle they found the old man lying there dead, with a smile on his lips, and in a little packet next to his heart was a letter from Washington addressed to Harvey Birch, and certifying to the virtues of "a faithful and unrequited servant of his country."