The Maid-At-Arms
by Robert W. Chambers
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7
Home - Random Browse

"I want him! I want him! Give him to me!" yelped the Toad-woman. "Fools! Do you know where you are? Do you know this grove of maple-trees?"

The Indians, amazed and cowed, slunk farther back. The hag fixed her blazing eyes on them and raised her arms.

"Fools! Fools!" she mouthed, "what madness brought you here to this grove?—to this place where the Stonish Giants have returned, riding out of Biskoona!"

A groan burst from the Indians; a chief raised his arms, making the False-Faces' sign.

"Mother," he stammered, "we did not know! We heard that the Stonish Giants had returned; the Onondagas sent us word, but we did not know this grove was where they gathered from Biskoona! McCraw sent us here to await the flag."

"Liar!" hissed the hag.

"It is the truth," muttered the chief, shuddering. "Witness if I speak the truth, O ensigns of the three clans!"

And a hollow groan burst from the cowering savages. "We witness, mother. It is the truth!"

"Witch!" cried the officer, in a shaking voice, "what would you do with my prisoner? You shall not have him, by the living God!"

"Senecas, take him!" howled the hag, pointing at the officer. The fellow strove to draw his claymore, but staggered and sank to the ground, covered under a mass of savages. Then, dragged to his feet, they pulled him back, watching the Toad-woman for a sign.

"To purge this grove! To purge the earth of the Stonish Giants!" she howled. "For this I ask this prisoner. Give him to me!—to me, priestess of the six fires! Tiyanoga calls from behind the moon! What Seneca dares disobey? Give him to me for a sacrifice to Biskoona, that the Stonish ghosts be laid and the doors of fire be closed forever!"

"Take him! Spare us the dreadful rites, O mother!" answered the chief, in a quivering voice. "Slay him before us now and let us see the color of his blood, so that we may depart in peace ere the Stonish Giants ride forth from Biskoona and leave not one among us!"

"Neah!" cried the hag, furiously. "He dies in secret!"

There was a silence of astonishment. Spite of their superstitious terror, the Senecas knew that a sacrificial death, to close Biskoona, could not occur in secret. Suddenly the chief leaped forward and dealt me a blow with his castete. I fell, but staggered to my feet again.

"Mother!" began the chief, "let him die quickly—"

"Silence!" screamed the hag, supporting me. "I hear, far off, the gates of Biskoona opening! Hark! Ta-ho-ne-ho-ga-wen! The doors open—the doors of flame! The Stonish Giants ride forth! O chief, for your sacrilege you die!"

A horrified silence followed; the chief reeled back, dropping the death-maul.

Suddenly a horse's iron-shod foot rang out on a stone, close at hand. Straight through the moonlight, advancing steadily, came a snorting horse; and, towering in the saddle, a magic shape clad in complete steel, glittering in the moonlight.

"Oonah!" shrieked the hag, seizing me in both arms.

With an unearthly howl the Senecas fled; the Toad-woman dropped me and bounded on the dazed renegade; he turned, crying out in horror, stumbled, and fell headlong down the bushy slope.

Then, as the hag halted, she seemed to grow, straightening up, tall, broad, superb; towering into a supple shape from which the scarlet rags fell fluttering around her like painted maple-leaves.

"Magdalen Brant!" I gasped, swaying where I stood, the blood almost blinding me.

From behind two steel-clad arms seized me and dragged me backward; I stumbled against the horse; the armored figure bent swiftly, caught me up, swung me clear into the saddle in front, while the armor creaked and strained and clashed with the effort.

Then my head was drawn gently back, falling on a steel shoulder; two arms were thrust under mine, seizing the bridle. The horse wheeled towards the north, stepping quietly through the moonlight, steadily, slowly northward, through misty woodlands and ferny glades and deep fields swimming under the moon, across a stony stream, up through wet meadows, into a silvery road, and across a bridge which echoed mellow thunder under the trample of the iron-shod horse.

The stockade gate was shut; an old slave opened it—a trembling black man, who shot the bolts and tottered beside us, crying and pressing my hand to his eyes.

Men came from the stables, men ran from the quarters, lanterns glimmered, windows in the house opened, and I heard a vague clamor growing around me, fainter now, yet dinning in my ears until a soft, dense darkness fell, weighing on my lids till they closed.



Day broke with a thundering roll of drums. Instinctively I stumbled out of bed, dragged on my clothes, and, half awake and half dressed, crept to the open window. The level morning sun blazed on acres of slanting rifles passing; a solid column of Continental infantry, drums and fifes leading, came swinging along the stockade; knapsacks, cross-belts, gaiters, gray with dust; officers riding ahead with naked swords drawn, color-bearers carrying the beautiful new standard, stars shining, red and white stripes stirring lazily in brilliant, silken billows.

The morning air rang with the gusty music of the fifes, the drums beat steadily in solid cadence to the long, rippling trample of feet.

Within the stockade an incessant clamor filled the air; the grounds around the house were packed with soldiers, some leading out mules, some loading batt-horses, some drawing and carrying water, some forming ranks, shouting their numbers for column of fours.

Sir George Covert's riders of the Legion had halted under my window, rifles slung, helmets strapped; a trumpeter in embroidered jacket sat his horse in front, corded trumpet reversed flat on his thigh.

Clearing my eyes with unsteady hand, I peered dizzily at the spectacle below; my ears rang with the tumult of arrival and departure; and, through the increasing uproar and the thundering rhythm of the drums, memories of the past night flashed up, livid as flames in darkness.

The endless columns of Continentals were still pouring by the stockade, when, above the dinning drums, I heard my door shaking and a voice calling me by name.

"Ormond! Ormond! Open the door, man!"

With stiff limbs dragging, I made my way to the door and pulled back the bolt. Sir George Covert, in full uniform, sprang in and caught my hands in his.

"Ormond! Ormond!" he cried, in deep reproach. "Why did you not tell me long since that you loved her? You knew she loved you! What blind violence have you and Dorothy done yourselves and each other—and me, Ormond!—and yet another very dear to me—with your mad obstinacy and mistaken chivalry!"

I saw the grave, kind eyes searching mine, I heard his unsteady voice, but I could not respond. An immense fatigue chained mind and tongue; intelligence was there, but the tension had relaxed, and I stood dull, nerveless, my hands limp in his.

"Ormond," he said, gently, "we ride south in a few moments; you will be leaving for Stillwater in an hour. Gates's left wing is marching on Balston, and news is in by an Oneida runner that Arnold has swept all before him; Stanwix is safe; St. Leger routed. Do you understand? Every man in Tryon County is marching on Burgoyne! You, too, will be on the way towards headquarters within the hour!"

Trembling from weakness and excitement, I could only look at him in silence.

"So all is well," he said, gravely, holding my hands tighter. "Do you understand? All is well, Ormond.... We struck McCraw at Schell's last night and tore him to atoms. We punished the Senecas dreadfully. We have cleared the land of the Johnsons, the Butlers, the McDonalds, and the Mohawks, and now we're concentrating on Burgoyne. Ormond, he is a doomed man! He can never leave this land save as a prisoner!"

His grip tightened; a smile lighted his careworn face as though a ray of pure sunshine had struck his eyes.

"Ormond," he said, "I have bred much mischief among us all, yet with the kindest motives in the world. If honor and modesty forbids an explanation, at least let me repair what I can. I have given your cousin Dorothy her freedom; and now, before I go, I ask your friendship. Nay, give me more—give me joy, Ormond! Man, man, must I speak more plainly still? Must I name the bravest maid in county Tryon? Must I say that the woman I love loves me—Magdalen Brant?"

He laughed like a boy in his excitement. "We wed in Albany on Thursday! Think of it, man! I showed her no mercy, I warrant you, soon as I was free!"

He colored vividly. "Nay, that's ungallant to our Maid-at-Arms," he stammered. "I'm flustered—you will pardon that. She rides with us to Albany—I mean Magdalen—we wed at my aunt's house—"

The trumpet of the Legion was sounding persistently; the clatter of spurred boots filled the hallway; Ruyven burst in, sabre banging, and flung himself into my arms.

"Good-bye! Good-bye!" he cried. "We are marching with the left wing to Balston. I'll write you, cousin, when we take Burgoyne—I'll write you all about it and exactly how I conducted!"

I felt the parting clasp of their hands, but scarcely saw them through the tears of sheer weakness that filled my eyes. The capacity for deep emotion was deadened in me; the strain had been too great; the reaction had left me scarcely capable of realizing the instant portent of events.

The mellow trampling of horses came from below. I hobbled to the window and looked down where the troopers were riding in fours, falling in behind a train of artillery which passed jolting and bumping along the stockade.

A young girl, superbly mounted, came galloping by, and behind her spurred Sir George Covert and Ruyven. At full speed she turned her head and looked up at my window, and I think I never saw such radiant happiness in any woman's face as in Magdalen Brant's when she swept past with a gesture of adieu and swung her horse out into the road. A general's escort and staff checked their horses to make way for her. The officers lifted their black cockaded hats; a slim, boyish officer, in a white-and-gold uniform, rode forward to receive her, with a low salute that only a Frenchman could imitate.

So, escorted by prancing, clattering cavalry, and surrounded by a brilliant staff, Magdalen Brant rode away from Varicks'; and beside her, alert, upright, transfigured, rode Sir George Covert, whose life she had accepted only after she had paid her debt to Dorothy by offering her own life to rescue mine.

Dim-eyed, I stared at the passing troops, the blurred colors of their uniforms ever changing as the regiments succeeded each other, now brown and red, now green and red, now gray and yellow, as Massachusetts infantry, New York line, and Morgan's Rifles poured steadily by in unbroken columns.

Wrapped in my chamber-robe, head supported on my hand, I sat by the window, dully content, striving to think, to realize all that had befallen me. The glitter of the passing rifles, the constantly changing hues and colors, the movement, the noise, set my head swimming. Yet I must prepare to leave within the hour, for the stable bells were ringing for eight o'clock.

Cato scratched at the door and entered, bringing me hot water, and hovering around me with napkin, salve, and basin, till my battered body had been bathed, my face shaved, and my bruised head washed where the Seneca castete had glanced, tearing the skin. Clothed in fresh linen and a new uniform, sent by Schuyler, I bade him call Sir Lupus; who came presently, his mouth full of toast, a mug of cooled ale in one hand, clay pipe in the other.

He laid his pipe on the mantel, set his mug on a chair, and embraced me, shaking his head in solemn silence; and we sat for a space, considering one another, while Cato filled my bowl with chocolate and removed the cover from my smoking porridge-dish.

"They beat all," said Sir Lupus, at length; "don't they, George?"

"Do you mean our troops, sir?" I asked.

"No, sir, I don't. I mean our women."

He struck his fat leg with his palm, drew a long breath, and regarded me, arms akimbo.

"Mad, sir; all stark, raving mad! Look at those two chits of girls! The Legion had gone tearing off after you to Schell's with an Oneida scout; Sir George pops in with his tale of your horrid plight, then pelts off to find his troopers and do what he could to save you. Gad, George! it looked bad for you. I—I was half out o' my senses, thinking of you; and what with the children a-squalling and the household rushing up stairs and down, and the militia marching to the grist-mill bridge, I did nothing. What the devil was I to do? Eh?"

"You did quite right, sir," I said, gravely.

He lay back, staring at me, shoving his fat hands into his breeches pockets.

"If I'd known what that baggage o' mine was bent on, I'd ha' locked her in the cellar!... George, you won't hold that against me, will you? She's my own daughter. But the hussy was gone with Magdalen Brant before I dreamed of it—gone on the maddest moonlight quest that mortal ever dared conceive!—one in rags cut from a red blanket, t'other in that rotten old armor that your aunt thought fit to ship from England when her father stripped the house to cross an ocean and build in the forests of a new world. George, she's all Ormond, that girl o' mine. A Varick would never have thought to cut such a caper, I tell you. It isn't in our line; it isn't in Dutch blood to imagine such things, or do 'em either!"

He seized pipe and mug, swearing under his breath.

"It was the bravest thing I ever knew," I said, huskily.

He dipped his nose into his mug, pulled at his long pipe, and eyed me askance.

"What the devil's this between you and Dorothy?" he growled.

"Nothing, I trust now, sir," I answered, in a low voice.

"Oh! 'nothing, you trust now, sir!'" he mimicked, striving to turn a sour face. "Dammy, d' ye know that I meant her for Sir George Covert?" His broad face softened; he attempted to scowl, and failed utterly. "Thank God, the land's clear of these bandits of St. Leger, anyhow!" he snorted. "I'll work my mills and I'll scrape enough to pay my debts. I suppose I'll have you on my hands when you've finished with Burgoyne."

"No," I said, smiling, "the blow that Arnold struck at Stanwix will be felt from Maine to the Florida Keys. The blow to be delivered twenty miles north of us will settle any questions of land confiscation. No, Sir Lupus, I shall not be on your hands, but ... you may be on mine if you turn Tory!"

"You impudent rogue!" he cried, struggling to his feet; then, still clutching pipe and pewter, he embraced me, and choked and chuckled, laying his fat head on my shoulder. "Be a son to me, George," he whimpered, sentimentally; "if you won't, you're a damned ungrateful pup!"

And he took himself off, sniffing, and sucking at his long clay, which had gone out.

I turned to the window, drawing in deep breaths of sweet, pure morning air. Troops were still passing in solid column, grim, dirty soldiers in heavy cowhide knapsacks, leather gaiters, and blue great-coats buttoned back at the skirts; and I heard the militia at the quarters calling across the stable-yard that these grimy battalions were some of Washington's veterans, hurried north from West Point by his Excellency to stiffen the backbone of Lincoln's militia, who prowled, growling and snarling, around Burgoyne's right flank.

They were a gaunt, hard-eyed, firm-jawed lot, marching with a peculiar cadence and swing which set all their muskets and buckles glittering at one moment, as though a thousand tiny mirrors had been turned to the light, then turned away. And, pat! pat! patter! patter! pat! went their single company drums, and their drummers seemed to beat mechanically, without waste of energy, yet with a dry, rattling precision that I had never heard save in the old days when the British troops at New Smyrna or St. Augustine marched out.

"Good—mornin', sorr," came a hearty and somewhat loud voice from below; and I saw Murphy, Elerson, and Mount, arm in arm, swaggering past with that saunter that none but a born forest runner may hope to imitate. They were not sober.

I spoke to them kindly, however, asking them if their wants were fully supplied; and they acknowledged with enthusiasm that they could desire nothing better than Sir Lupus's buttery ale.

"Wisha, then, sorr," said Murphy, jerking his thumb towards the sombre column passing, "thim laads is the laads f'r to twisht th' Dootch pigtails on thim Hissians at Half-moon. They do be pigtails on th' Dootch a fut long in the eel-skin. Faith, I saw McCraw's scalp—'twas wan o' Harrod's men tuk it, not I, sorr!—an' 'twas red an' ratty, wid nary a lock to lift it, more shame to McCraw!"

Mount stood, balancing now on his heels, now on his toes, inhaling and expelling his breath like a man who has had more than a morning draught of cider.

He laid his head on one side, like an enormous bird, and regarded me with a simper, as though lost in admiration.

"Three cheers for the Colonel," he observed, thickly, and took off his cap.

"'Ray!" echoed Elerson, regarding the unsteadiness of Mount's legs with an expression of wonder and pity.

I bade Mount saddle my mare and prepare to accompany me to headquarters. He saluted amiably; presently they started across the yard for their quarters, distributing morsels of wisdom and advice among the militiamen, who stared at them with awe and pointed at their beaded shot—pouches, which were, alas! adorned with fringes of coarse hair, dyed scarlet.

But Morgan must worry over that. I had other matters to stir me and set my pulses beating heavily as I walked to the door, opened it, and looked out into the hallway.

Children's voices came from the library below; I rested my hand on the banisters, aiding my stiffened limbs in the descent, and limped down the stairs.

Cecile spied me first. She was sitting on the porch with a very, very young ensign of Half-moon militia, watching the passing troops; and she sprang to her feet and threw her arms about my neck, kissing me again and again, a proceeding viewed with concern by the very young ensign of Half-moon militia.

"You darling!" she whispered. "Dorothy's in the library with father and the children. Lean on me, you poor boy! How you have suffered! And to think that you loved her all the time! Ah!" she whispered, sentimentally, pressing my arm, "how rare is constancy! How adorable it must be to be adored!"

There was a rush of children as we entered, and Cecile cried, "You little beasts, have you no manners?" But they were clinging to me, limb and body, and I stood there, caressing them, eyes fixed on my cousin Dorothy, who had risen from her chair.

She was very pale and quiet, and the hand she left in mine seemed lifeless as I bent to kiss it. But, upon the bridal finger, I saw the ghost-ring, a thin, rosy band, and I thrilled from head to foot with happiness unspeakable.

"Get him a chair, Harry!" said Sir Lupus. "Sit down, George; and what shall it be, my boy, cold mulled or spiced to cheer you on your journey? Or, as the Glencoe brawlers have it, 'Wha's f'r poonch?'"

I sank into my chair, saying I desired nothing; and my eyes never left Dorothy, who sat with golden head bent, folding and refolding the ruffled corner of her apron, raising her lovely eyes at moments to look across at me.

The morning had turned raw and chilly; a log-fire crackled on the hearth, where Benny had set a row of early harvest apples to sizzle and steam and perfume the air, the while Dorothy heard Harry, Sammy, and Benny read their morning lessons, so that they might hurry away to watch the passing army of their pet hero, Gates.

"Come," cried the patroon, "read your lessons and get out, you young dunces! Now, Sammy!"

Dorothy looked at me and took up her book.

"If Amos gives Joseph sixteen apples, and Joseph gives Amanda two times one half of one half of the apples, how many will Amanda have?" demanded Samuel, with labored breath. "And the true answer to that is six."

Dorothy nodded and stole a glance at me.

"That doesn't sound quite right to me," said Sir Lupus, wrinkling his brows and counting on his fingers. "Is that the answer, Dorothy?"

"I don't know," she murmured, eyes fixed on me.

Sir Lupus glared at Dorothy, then at me. Then he stuffed his pipe full of tobacco and sat in grim silence while Benny repeated:

"Theven timeth theven ith theventy-theven; theven timeth eight ith thixty-thix." While Dorothy nodded absently and plaited the edges of her lace apron, and looked at me under lowered lashes. And Benny lisped on: "Theven timeth nine ith theventy-thix; theven—"

"Stop that nonsense!" burst out Sir Lupus. "Take 'em away, Cecile! Take 'em out o' my sight!"

The children, only too delighted to escape, rushed forth with whoops and hoots, demanding to be shown their hero, General Gates. Sir Lupus looked after them sardonically.

"We're a race o' glory—mongers these days," he said. "Gad, I never thought to see offspring o' mine chasing the drums! Look at 'em now! Ruyven hunting about Tryon County for a Hessian to knock him in the head; Cecile sitting in rapture with every cornet or ensign who'll notice her; the children yelling for Lafayette and Washington; Dorothy, here, playing at Donna Quixota, and you starting for Stillwater to teach that fool, Gates, how to catch Burgoyne. Set an ass to catch an ass—eh, George?—"

He stopped, his small eyes twinkling with a softer light.

"I suppose you want me to go," he said.

We did not reply.

"Oh, I'm going," he added, fretfully; "I'm no company for a pair o' heroes, a colonel, and—"

"Touching the colonelcy," I said, "I want to make it plain that I shall refuse the promotion. I did nothing; the confederacy was split by Magdalen Brant, not by me; I did nothing at Oriskany; I cannot understand how General Schuyler should think me deserving of such promotion. And I am ashamed to take it when such men as Arnold are passed over, and such men as Schuyler are slighted—"

"Folderol! What the devil's this?" bawled Sir Lupus. "Do you think you know more than your superior officers—hey? You're a colonel, George. Let well enough alone, for if you make a donkey of yourself, they'll make you a major-general!"

With a spasmodic effort he got on his feet, seized glass and pipe, and waddled out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

In the ringing silence a charred log broke and fell in a shower of sparks, tincturing the air with the perfume of sweet birch smoke.

I rose from my chair. Dorothy rose, too, trembling. A strange shyness seemed to hold us apart. She stood there, the forced smile stamped on her lips, watching me with the fascination of fear; and I steadied myself on the arm of my chair, looking deep into her eyes, seeking to recognize in her the child I had known.

The child had gone, and in her place stood this lovely, silent stranger, with all the mystery of woman-hood in her eyes—that sweet light, exquisitely prophetic, divinely sad.

"Dorothy," I said, under my breath. "All that is brave and adorable in you, I love and worship. You have risen so far above me—and I am so weak and—and broken, and unworthy—"

"I love you," she faltered, her lips scarcely moving. Then the color surged over brow and throat; she laid her hands on her hot cheeks; I took her in my arms, holding her imprisoned. At my touch the color faded from her face, leaving it white as a flower.

"I fear you—maid spiritual, maid militant—Maid-at-Arms!" I stammered.

"And I fear you," she murmured, looking at me. "What lover does the whole world hold like you? What hero can compare with you? And who am I that I should take you away from the whole world? Sweetheart, I am afraid."

"Then fear no more," I whispered, and bent my head. She raised her pale face; her arms crept up around my neck and tightened, clinging closer as her closing lips met mine.

There came a tapping at the door, a shuffle of felt-shod feet—

"Mars' Gawge, suh, yo' hoss done saddle', suh."


Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7
Home - Random Browse