THE SITUATION of the party in Mr. Whartons dwelling was sufficiently awkward, during the hour of Cæsars absence; for such was the astonishing rapidity displayed by his courser, that the four miles of road was gone over, and the events we have recorded had occurred, somewhat within that period of time. Of course, the gentlemen strove to make the irksome moments fly as swiftly as possible; but premeditated happiness is certainly of the least joyous kind. The bride and bridegroom are immemorially privileged to be dull, and but few of their friends seemed disposed, on the present occasion, to dishonor their example. The English colonel exhibited a proper portion of uneasiness at this unexpected interruption of his felicity, and he sat with a varying countenance by the side of Sarah, who seemed to be profiting by the delay to gather fortitude for the solemn ceremony. In the midst of this embarrassing silence, Dr. Sitgreaves addressed himself to Miss Peyton, by whose side he had contrived to procure a chair.
Marriage, madam, is pronounced to be honorable in the sight of God and man: and it may be said to be reduced, in the present age, to the laws of nature and reason. The ancients, in sanctioning polygamy, lost sight of the provisions of nature, and condemned thousands to misery, but with the increase of science have grown the wise ordinances of society, which ordain that man should be the husband of but one woman.
Wellmere glanced a fierce expression of disgust at the surgeon, that indicated his sense of the tediousness of the others remarks; while Miss Peyton, with a slight hesitation, as if fearful of touching on forbidden subjects, replied,
True, madam, it is somewhere provided in the prescriptions of the apostles, that the sexes should henceforth be on an equality in this particular. But in what degree could polygamy affect holiness of life? It was probably a wise arrangement of Paul, who was much of a scholar, and probably had frequent conferences, on this important subject, with Luke, whom we all know to have been bred to the practice of medicine
There is no telling how far the discursive fancy of Sitgreaves might have led him, on this subject, had he not been interrupted. But Lawton, who had been a close though silent observer of all that passed, profited by the hint to ask abruptly,
More so, returned the surgeon, with undisturbed simplicity: one who remains in a single state may devote his life to science and the extension of knowledge, if not of his species; but the wretch who profits by the constitutional tendency of the female sex to credulity and tenderness, incurs the wickedness of a positive sin, heightened by the baseness of deception.
Captain Lawton, in man the animal is more nobly formed than in woman. The nerves are endowed with less sensibility; the whole frame is less pliable and yielding; is it therefore surprising, that a tendency to rely on the faith of her partner is more natural to woman than to the other sex?
Wellmere, as if unable to listen with any degree of patience to so ill-timed a dialogue, sprang from his seat and paced the floor in disorder. Pitying his situation, the reverend gentleman, who was patiently awaiting the return of Cæsar, changed the discourse, and a few minutes brought the black himself. The billet was handed to Dr. Sitgreaves; for Miss Peyton had expressly enjoined Cæsar not to implicate her, in any manner, in the errand on which he was dispatched. The note contained a summary statement of the several subjects of the surgeons directions, and referred him to the black for the ring. The latter was instantly demanded, and promptly delivered. A transient look of melancholy clouded the brow of the surgeon, as he stood a moment, and gazed silently on the bauble; nor did he remember the place, or the occasion, while he mournfully soliloquized as follows:
Poor Anna! gay as innocence and youth could make thee was thy heart, when this cincture was formed to grace thy nuptials; but ere the hour had come, God had taken thee to Himself. Years have passed, my sister, but never have I forgotten the companion of my infancy! He advanced to Sarah, and, unconscious of observation, placing the ring on her finger, continued, She for whom it was intended has long been in her grave, and the youth who bestowed the gift soon followed her sainted spirit: take it, madam, and God grant that it may be an instrument in making you as happy as you deserve!
Sarah felt a chill at her heart, as this burst of feeling escaped the surgeon; but Wellmere offering his hand, she was led before the divine, and the ceremony began. The first words of this imposing office produced a dead stillness in the apartment; and the minister of God proceeded to the solemn exhortation, and witnessed the plighted troth of the parties, when the investiture was to follow. The ring had been left, from inadvertency and the agitation of the moment, on the finger where Sitgreaves had placed it: the slight interruption occasioned by the circumstance was over, and the clergyman was about to proceed, when a figure gliding into the midst of the party, at once put a stop to the ceremony. It was the pedler. His look was bitter and ironical, while a finger, raised towards the divine, seemed to forbid the ceremony to go any further.
Aghast at the suddenness of this extraordinary address, Wellmere for a moment lost the command of his faculties. To Sarah, the countenance of Birch, expressive as it was, produced no terror; but the instant she recovered from the surprise of his interruption, she turned her anxious gaze on the features of the man to whom she had just pledged her troth. They afforded the most terrible confirmation of all that the pedler affirmed; the room whirled round, and she fell lifeless into the arms of her aunt. There is an instinctive delicacy in woman, that seems to conquer all other emotions; and the insensible bride was immediately conveyed from sight, leaving the room to the sole possession of the other sex.
He had reached the entry, when a slight tap on his shoulder caused him to turn his head; it was Captain Lawton, who, with a smile of peculiar meaning, beckoned him to follow. The state of Wellmeres mind was such, that he would gladly have gone anywhere to avoid the gaze of horror and detestation that glared from every eye he met. They reached the stables before the trooper spoke, when he cried aloud,
His man appeared with the steed caparisoned for its master. Lawton, coolly throwing the bridle on the neck of the animal, took his pistols from the holsters, and continued, Here are weapons that have seen good service before to-dayaye, and in honorable hands, sir. These were the pistols of my father, Colonel Wellmere; he used them with credit in the wars with France, and gave them to me to fight the battles of my country with. In what better way can I serve her than in exterminating a wretch who would have blasted one of her fairest daughters?
Amen! but hold a moment, sir. You are now free, and the passports of Washington are in your pocket; I give you the fire; if I fall, there is a steed that will outstrip pursuit; and I would advise you to retreat without much delay, for even Archibald Sitgreaves would fight in such a causenor will the guard above be very apt to give quarter.
Unarmed, and surprised as he was, Lawtons presence of mind did not desert him; he felt that he was in the hands of those from whom he was to expect no mercy; and, as four of the Skinners fell upon him at once, he used his gigantic strength to the utmost. Three of the band grasped him by the neck and arms, with an intent to clog his efforts, and pinion him with ropes. The first of these he threw from him, with a violence that sent him against the building, where he lay stunned with the blow. But the fourth seized his legs; and, unable to contend with such odds, the trooper came to the earth, bringing with him all of his assailants. The struggle on the ground was short but terrific; curses and the most dreadful imprecations were uttered by the Skinners, who in vain called on more of their band, who were gazing on the combat in nerveless horror, to assist. A difficulty of breathing, from one of the combatants, was heard, accompanied by the stifled moanings of a strangled man; and directly one of the group arose on his feet, shaking himself free from the wild grasp of the others. Both Wellmere and the servant of Lawton had fled: the former to the stables, and the latter to give the alarm, leaving all in darkness. The figure that stood erect sprang into the saddle of the unheeded charger; sparks of fire, issuing from the armed feet of the horse, gave a momentary light by which the captain was seen dashing like the wind towards the highway.
Then, cried the leader, striking his musket on the ground in a rage, the fellow is safe!to your business at once. A short half-hour will bring down that canting sergeant and the guard upon us. T will be lucky if the guns dont turn them out. Quick, to your posts, and fire the house in the chambers; smoking ruins are good to cover evil deeds.
Let him lie, said the leader, fiercely; had he been half a man, that dragooning rascal would have been in my power; enter the house, I say, and fire the chambers. We cant go amiss here; there is plate and money enough to make you all gentlemenand revenge too.
The idea of silver in any way was not to be resisted; and, leaving their companion, who began to show faint signs of life, they rushed tumultuously towards the dwelling. Wellmere availed himself of the opportunity, and, stealing from the stable with his own charger, he was able to gain the highway unnoticed. For an instant he hesitated, whether to ride towards the point where he knew the guard was stationed, and endeavor to rescue the family, or, profiting by his liberty and the exchange that had been effected by the divine, to seek the royal army. Shame, and a consciousness of guilt, determined him to take the latter course, and he rode towards New York, stung with the reflection of his own baseness, and harassed with the apprehension of meeting with an enraged woman, that he had married during his late visit to England, but whose claims, as soon as his passion was sated, he had resolved never willingly to admit. In the tumult and agitation of the moment, the retreat of Lawton and Wellmere was but little noticed; the condition of Mr. Wharton demanding the care and consolation of both the surgeon and the divine. The report of the fire-arms at first roused the family to the sense of a new danger, and but a moment elapsed before the leader, and one more of the gang, entered the room.
Why and wherefore should I yield?I am a non-combatant. The articles of capitulation must be arranged with Captain John Lawton; though yielding, I believe is not a subject on which you will find him particularly complying.
The fellow had by this time taken such a survey of the group, as convinced him that little danger was to be apprehended from resistance, and, eager to seize his share of the plunder, he dropped his musket, and was soon busy, with the assistance of his men, in arranging divers articles of plate in bags. The cottage now presented a singular spectacle. The ladies were gathered around Sarah, who yet continued insensible, in one of the rooms that had escaped the notice of the marauders. Mr. Wharton sat in a state of perfect imbecility, listening to, but not profiting by, the unmeaning words of comfort that fell from the lips of the clergyman. Singleton was lying on a sofa, shaking with debility, and inattentive to surrounding objects; while the surgeon was administering restoratives, and looking at the dressings, with a coolness that mocked the tumult. Cæsar and the attendant of Captain Singleton, had retreated to the wood in the rear of the cottage, and Katy Haynes was flying about the building, busily employed in forming a bundle of valuables, from which, with the most scrupulous honesty, she rejected every article that was not really and truly her own.
But to return to the party at the Four Corners. When the veteran had got his men mounted and under arms, a restless desire to participate in the glory and dangers of the expedition came over the washerwoman. Whether she was impelled to the undertaking by a dread of remaining alone, or a wish to hasten in person to the relief of her favorite, we will not venture to assert; but, as Hollister was giving the orders to wheel and march, the voice of Betty was heard, exclaiming,
Nothing but a cannon-ball can take one of my lads from his charger, he said; and it s not very likely that we shall have as fair fighting as cannon and musketry, in a business of the evil ones inventing; so, Elizabeth, you may go if you will, but the cart will not be wanting.
Now, sargeant dear, you lie, any way, said Betty, who was somewhat unduly governed by her potations; and was nt Captain Singleton shot off his horse but tin days gone by? aye, and Captain Jack himself too; and did nt he lie on the ground, face uppermost, and back downwards, looking grim? And did nt the boys tink him dead, and turn and lave the riglars the day?
For a bit or soonly I mane for a bit or so, said the washerwoman; but Major Dunwoodie turned you, and so you licked the riglars. But the captain it was that fell, and I m thinking that there s no better rider going; so, sargeant, it s the cart will be convanient. Here, two of you, jist hitch the mare to the tills, and it s no whisky that ye ll be wanting the morrow; and put the piece of Jennys hide under the pad; the baste is never the better for the rough ways of the county West-Chester. The consent of the sergeant being obtained, the equipage of Mrs. Flanagan was soon in readiness to receive its burthen.
As it is quite uncertain whether we shall be attacked in front, or in rear, said Hollister, five of you shall march in advance, and the remainder shall cover our retreat towards the barrack, should we be pressed. T is an awful moment to a man of little learning, Elizabeth, to command in such a service; for my part, I wish devoutly that one of the officers were here; but my trust is in the Lord.
Pooh! man, away wid ye, said the washerwoman, who had got herself comfortably seated; the divil a bit of an inimy is there near. March on, hurry-skurry, and let the mare trot, or it s but little that Captain Jack will thank ye for the help.
Although unlearned in matters of communicating with spirits, or laying the dead, Mrs. Flanagan, said the veteran, I have not served through the old war, and five years in this, not to know how to guard the baggage. Does nt Washington always cover the baggage? I am not to be told my duty by a camp follower. Fall in as you are ordered, and dress, men.
Are you sure that it was really a black man that brought the order? said the sergeant, dropping in between the platoons, where he could converse with Betty, and be at hand, to lead on an emergency, either on an advance or on a retreat.
Nayand I m sure of nothing, dear. But why dont the boys prick their horses and jog a trot? The mare is mighty unasy, and it s no warm in this cursed valley, riding as much like a funeral party as old rags is to continental.1
Fairly and softly, aye, and prudently, Mrs. Flanagan; it s not rashness that makes the good officer. If we have to encounter a spirit, it s more than likely he ll make his attack by surprise; horses are not very powerful in the dark, and I have a character to lose, good woman.
Be patient, good woman; hark! what is that? said Hollister, pricking up his ears at the report of Wellmeres pistol; I ll swear that was a human pistol, and one from our regiment. Rear rank, close to the front!Mrs. Flanagan, I must leave you. So saying, having recovered all his faculties, by hearing a sound that he understood, he placed himself at the head of his men with an air of military pride, that the darkness prevented the washerwoman from beholding. A volley of musketry now rattled in the night wind, and the sergeant exclaimed,
The next instant the trampling of a horse was heard coming up the road, at a rate that announced a matter of life or death; and Hollister again halted his party, riding a short distance in front himself, to meet the rider.
T is well! said the trooper, riding up to his men; then, speaking a few words of encouragement, he led them down the valley at a rate but little less rapid than his approach. The miserable horse of the sutler was soon distanced, and Betty, thus thrown out in the chase, turned to the side of the road, and observed,
Thereit s no difficult to tell that Captain Jack is wid em, any way; and away they go like so many nagur boys to a husking-frolic; well, I ll jist hitch the mare to this bit of a fence, and walk down and see the sport afootit s no rasonable to expose the baste to be hurted.
Led on by Lawton, the men followed, destitute alike of fear and reflection. Whether it was a party of the refugees, or a detachment from the royal army, that they were to assail, they were profoundly ignorant; but they knew that the officer in advance was distinguished for courage and personal prowess; and these are virtues that are sure to captivate the thoughtless soldiery. On arriving near the gates of the Locusts, the trooper halted his party, and made his arrangements for the assault. Dismounting, he ordered eight of his men to follow his example, and turning to Hollister, said,
Stand you here, and guard the horses; if anything attempt to pass, stop it, or cut it down, and The flames at this moment burst through the dormer windows and cedar roof of the cottage, and a bright light glared on the darkness of the night. On! shouted the trooper, on!give quarter when you have done justice!
There was a startling fierceness in the voice of the trooper that reached to the heart, even amid the horrors of the cottage. The leader of the Skinners dropped his plunder, and, for a moment, he stood in nerveless dread; then rushing to a window, he threw up the sash; at this instant Lawton entered, sabre in hand, into the apartment.
Die, miscreant! cried the trooper, cleaving a marauder to the jaw: but the leader sprang into the lawn, and escaped his vengeance. The shrieks of the females restored Lawton to his presence of mind, and the earnest entreaty of the divine induced him to attend to the safety of the family. One more of the gang fell in with the dragoons, and met his death; but the remainder had taken the alarm in season. Occupied with Sarah, neither Miss Singleton, nor the ladies of the house, had discovered the entrance of the Skinners, though the flames were raging around them with a fury that threatened the building with rapid destruction. The shrieks of Katy and the terrified consort of Cæsar, together with the noise and uproar in the adjacent apartment, first roused Miss Peyton and Isabella to a sense of their danger.
There are none to fight, returned Isabella, with a face paler than that of the other. Dr. Sitgreaves is very peaceable in his disposition, and surely Captain Lawton would not forget himself so far.
Miss Peyton, excited to attempt what she conceived a duty worthy of her sex and nature, advanced with the dignity of injured female feeling, to the door, followed by Isabella. The apartment to which Sarah had been conveyed was in one of the wings of the building, and it communicated with the principal hall of the cottage by a long and dark passage. This was now light, and across its termination several figures were seen rushing with an impetuosity that prevented an examination of their employment.
They shall, cried Isabella, taking the lead in the enterprise. Frances was left alone with her sister. A few minutes were passed in silence; when a loud crash, in the upper apartments, was succeeded by a bright light that glared through the open door, and made objects as distinct to the eye as if they were placed under a noon-day sun. Sarah raised herself on her bed, and staring wildly around, pressed both her hands on her forehead, endeavoring to recollect herself.
This, then, is heavenand you are one of its bright spirits. Oh! how glorious is its radiance! I had thought the happiness I have lately experienced was too much for earth. But we shall meet again; yesyeswe shall meet again.
Do you shed tears, sweet angel? continued Sarah, soothingly; then heaven is not exempt from grief. But where is Henry? He was executed, and he must be here too; perhaps they will come together. Oh, how joyful will be the meeting!
You look like my sister; but all good and lovely spirits are alike. Tell me, were you ever married? Did you ever let a stranger steal your affections from father, and brother, and sister? If not, poor wretch, I pity you, although you may be in heaven.
Another dreadful crash shook the building to its centre. It was the falling of the roof, and the flames threw their light abroad, so as to make objects visible around the cottage, through the windows of the room. Frances flew to one of them, and saw the confused group that was collected on the lawn. Among them were her aunt and Isabella, pointing with distraction to the fiery edifice, and apparently urging the dragoons to enter it. For the first time she comprehended their danger; and uttering a wild shriek, she flew through the passage without consideration, or object.
A dense and suffocating column of smoke opposed her progress. She paused to breathe, when a man caught her in his arms, and bore her, in a state of insensibility, through the falling embers and darkness, to the open air. The instant that Frances recovered her recollection, she perceived that she owed her life to Lawton, and throwing herself on her knees, she cried,
Her strength failed, and she sank on the grass, in insensibility. The trooper pointed to her figure, motioned to Katy for assistance, and advanced once more to the building. The fire had already communicated to the woodwork of the piazzas and windows, and the whole exterior of the cottage was covered with smoke. The only entrance was through these dangers, and even the hardy and impetuous Lawton paused to consider. It was for a moment only, when he dashed into the heat and darkness, where, missing the entrance, he wandered for a minute, and precipitated himself back, again, upon the lawn. Drawing a single breath of pure air, he renewed the effort, and was again unsuccessful. On a third trial, he met a man staggering under the load of a human body. It was neither the place, nor was there time, to question, or to make distinctions; seizing both in his arms, with gigantic strength, he bore them through the smoke. He soon perceived, to his astonishment, that it was the surgeon, and the body of one of the Skinners, that he had saved.
The surgeon, who had been in imminent peril, was too much bewildered to reply instantly, but wiping the moisture from his forehead, and clearing his lungs from the vapor he had inhaled, he said piteously,
Ah! it is all over! Had I been in time to have stopped the effusion from the jugular, he might have been saved; but the heat was conducive to hemorrhage; life is extinct indeed. Well, are there any more wounded?
By this time the flames had dispersed much of the suffocating vapor, so that the trooper was able to find the door, and in its very entrance he was met by a man supporting the insensible Sarah. There was but barely time to reach the lawn again, before the fire broke through the windows, and wrapped the whole building in a sheet of flame.
The cause of America is dear to me as life, said the trooper; but she cannot require her children to forget gratitude and honor. Fly, unhappy man, while yet you are unseen, or it will exceed my power to save you.
The bright light from the flames reached a great distance around the ruins, but the words were hardly past the lips of Lawton, before the gaunt form of the pedler had glided over the visible space, and plunged into the darkness beyond.
The eye of Lawton rested for a moment on the spot where he had last seen this inexplicable man, and then turning to the yet insensible Sarah, he lifted her in his arms, and bore her, like a sleeping infant, to the care of her friends.
Note 1. The paper money issued by congress was familiarly called continental money. This term continental was applied to the army, the congress, the ships of war, and in short, to almost everything of interest which belonged to the new government. It would seem to have been invented as the opposite of the insular position of the mother country. [back]