"Here is something stirring on our left," whispered the former—"It seems, too, to be crouching under the fence."
"You have lost your familiarity with our rural life, Bob," answered the father, with a little more confidence of tone, but still guardedly, "or this fragrant breath would tell you we are almost on a cow. It is old Whiteback; I know her by her horns. Feel; she is here in the lane with us, and within reach of your hand. A gentler animal is not in the settlement. But, stop—pass your hand on her udder—she will not stir— how is it, full or not?"
"If I can judge, sir, it is nothing remarkable in the way of size."
"I understand this better. By Jupiter, boy, that cow has been milked! It is certain none of our people have left the house to do it, since the alarm was first given. This is ominous of neighbours."
The major made no reply, but he felt to ascertain if his arms were in a state for immediate service. After a moment's further pause the captain proceeded, moving with increased caution. Not a word was now uttered, for they were getting within the shadows of the orchard, and indeed of the forest, where objects could not well be distinguished at the distance of a very few yards. A cabin was soon reached, and it was found empty; the fire reduced to a few embers, and quite safe. This was the residence of the man who had the care of the horses, the stables standing directly behind it. Captain Willoughby was a thoughtful and humane man, and it struck him the animals might now be turned into a field that joined the barn-yard, where there was not only rich pasture, but plenty of sweet running water. This he determined to do at once, the only danger being from the unbridled movements of cattle that must be impatient from unusual privation, and a prolonged restraint.
The major opened the gate of the field, and stationed himself in a way to turn the animals in the desired direction, while his father went into the stable to set them free. The first horse came out with great deliberation, being an old animal well cooled with toil at the plough, and the major had merely to swing his arm, to turn him into the field. Not so with the next, however. This was little better than a colt, a creature in training for his master's saddle; and no sooner was it released than it plunged into the yard, then bounded into the field, around which it galloped, until it found the water. The others imitated this bad example; the clatter of hoofs, though beaten on a rich turf, soon resounding in the stillness of the night, until it might be heard across the valley. The captain then rejoined his son.
"This is a good deed somewhat clumsily done, Bob," observed the father, as he picked up his rifle and prepared to proceed. "An Indian ear, however, will not fail to distinguish between the tramping of horses and a charge of foot."
"Faith, sir, the noise may serve us a good turn yet. Let us take another look at the fires, and see if this tramping has set any one in motion near them. We can get a glimpse a little further ahead."
The look was taken, but nothing was seen. While standing perfectly motionless, beneath the shadows of an apple-tree, however, a sound was heard quite near them, which resembled that of a guarded footstep. Both gentlemen drew up, like sportsmen expecting the birds to rise, in waiting for the sound to approach. It did draw nearer, and presently a human form was seen moving slowly forward in the path, approaching the tree, as if to get within its cover. It was allowed to draw nearer and nearer, until captain Willoughby laid his hand, from behind the trunk, on the stranger's shoulder, demanding sternly, but in a low voice, "who are you?"
The start, the exclamation, and the tremor that succeeded all denoted the extent of this man's surprise. It was some little time, even, before he could recover from his alarm, and then he let himself be known by his answer.
"Massy!" exclaimed Joel Strides, who ordinarily gave this doric sound to the word 'mercy'—"Massy, captain, is it you! I should as soon thought of seeing a ghost! What in natur' has brought you out of the stockade, sir?"
"I think that is a question I might better ask you, Mr. Strides. My orders were to keep the gate close, and for no one to quit the court- yard even, until sent on post, or called by an alarm."
"True, sir—quite true—true as gospel. But let us moderate a little, captain, and speak lower; for the Lord only knows who's in our neighbourhood. Who's that with you, sir?—Not the Rev. Mr. Woods, is it?"
"No matter who is with me. He has the authority of my commands for being here, whoever he may be, while you are here in opposition to them. You know me well enough, Joel, to understand nothing but the simple truth will satisfy me."
"Lord, sir, I am one of them that never wish to tell you anything but truth. The captain has known me now long enough to understand my natur', I should think; so no more need be said about that."
"Well, sir—give me the reason—and see that it is given to me without reserve."
"Yes, sir; the captain shall have it. He knows we scrambled out of our houses this afternoon a little onthinkingly, Injin alarms being skeary matters. It was an awful hurrying time! Well, the captain understands, too, we don't work for him without receiving our wages; and I have been laying up a little, every year, until I've scraped together a few hundred dollars, in good half-joes; and I bethought me the money might be in danger, should the savages begin to plunder; and I've just came out to look a'ter the money."
"If this be true, as I hope and can easily believe to be the case, you must have the money about you, Joel, to prove it."
The man stretched forth his arm, and let the captain feel a handkerchief, in which, sure enough, there was a goodly quantity of coin. This gave him credit for truth, and removed all suspicion of his present excursion being made with any sinister intention. The man was questioned as to his mode of passing the stockade, when he confessed he had fairly clambered over it, an exploit of no great difficulty from the inside. As the captain had known Joel too long to be ignorant of his love of money, and the offence was very pardonable in itself, he readily forgave the breach of orders. This was the only man in the valley who did not trust his little hoard in the iron chest at the Hut; even the miller reposing that much confidence in the proprietor of the estate; but Joel was too conscious of dishonest intentions himself to put any unnecessary faith in others.
All this time, the major kept so far aloof as not to be recognised, though Joel, once or twice, betrayed symptoms of a desire to ascertain who he was. Maud had awakened suspicions that now became active, in both father and son, when circumstances so unexpectedly and inconveniently threw the man in their way. It was consequently the wish of the former to get rid of his overseer as soon as possible. Previously to doing this, however, he saw fit to interrogate him a little further.
"Have you seen anything of the Indians since you left the stockade, Strides?" demanded the captain. "We can perceive no other traces of their presence than yonder fires, though we think that some of them must have passed this way, for Whiteback's udder is empty."
"To own the truth, captain, I haven't. I some think that they've left the valley; though the Lord only can tell when they'll be back ag'in. Such critturs be beyond calcilation! They outdo arithmetic, nohow. As for the cow, I milked her myself; for being the crittur the captain has given to Phoebe for her little dairy, I thought it might hurt her not to be attended to. The pail stands yonder, under the fence, and the women and children in the Hut may be glad enough to see it in the morning."
This was very characteristic of Joel Strides. He did not hesitate about disobeying orders, or even to risk his life, in order to secure his money; but, determined to come out, he had the forethought and care to bring a pail, in order to supply the wants of those who were now crowded within the stockade, and who were too much accustomed to this particular sort of food, not to suffer from its absence. If we add, that, in the midst of all this prudent attention to the wants of his companions, Joel had an eye to his personal popularity and what are called "ulterior events", and that he selected his own cow for the precise reason given, the reader has certain distinctive traits of the man before him.
"This being the case," returned the captain, a good deal relieved at finding that the savages had not been the agents in this milking affair, since it left the probability of their remaining stationary—"This being the case, Joel, you had better find the pail, and go in. As soon as day dawns, however, I recommend that all the cows be called up to the stockade and milked generally. They are feeding in the lanes, just now, and will come readily, if properly invited. Go, then, but say nothing of having met me, and—"
"Who else did the captain say?" inquired Joel, curiously, observing that the other paused.
"Say nothing of having met us at all, I tell you. It is very important that my movements should be secret."
The two gentlemen now moved on, intending to pass in front of the cabins which lined this part of the valley, by a lane which would bring them out at the general highway which led from the Knoll to the mill. The captain marched in front, while his son brought up the rear, at a distance of two or three paces. Each walked slowly and with caution, carrying his rifle in the hollow of his arm, in perfect readiness for service. In this manner both had proceeded a few yards, when Robert Willoughby felt his elbow touched, and saw Joel's face, within eighteen inches of his own, as the fellow peered under his hat. It was an action so sudden and unexpected, that the major saw, at once, nothing but perfect coolness could avert his discovery.
"Is't you, Dan'el"—so was the miller named. "What in natur' has brought the old man on this tramp, with the valley filled with Injins?" whispered Joel, prolonging the speech in order to get a better view of a face and form that still baffled his conjectures. "Let's know all about it."
"You'll get me into trouble," answered he major, shaking off his unwelcome neighbour, moving a step further from him, and speaking also in a whisper. "The captain's bent on a scout, and you know he'll not bear contradiction. Off with you, then, and don't forget the milk."
As the major moved away, and seemed determined to baffle him, Joel had no choice between complying and exposing his disobedience of orders to the captain. He disliked doing the last, for his cue was to seem respectful and attached, and he was fain to submit. Never before, however, did Joel Strides suffer a man to slip through his fingers with so much reluctance. He saw that the captain's companion was not the miller, while the disguise was too complete to enable him to distinguish the person or face. In that day, the different classes of society were strongly distinguished from each other, by their ordinary attire; and, accustomed to see major Willoughby only in the dress that belonged to his station, he would not be likely to recognise him in his present guise, had he even known of or suspected his visit. As it was, he was completely at fault; satisfied it was not his friend Daniel, while unable to say who it was.
In this doubting state of mind, Joel actually forgot the savages, and the risks he might run from their proximity. He walked, as it might be mechanically, to the place where he had left the pail, and then proceeded slowly towards the Knoll, pondering at every step on what he had just seen. He and the miller had secret communications with certain active agents of the revolutionists, that put them in possession of facts, notwithstanding their isolated position, with which even their employer was totally unacquainted. It is true, these agents were of that low caste that never fail to attach themselves to all great political enterprises, with a sole view to their own benefit; still, as they were active, cunning and bold, and had the sagacity to make themselves useful, they passed in the throng of patriots created by the times, and were enabled to impart to men of similar spirits much available information.
It was through means like these, that Joel knew of the all-important measure of the declaration of independence, while it still remained a secret to captain Willoughby. The hope of confiscations was now active in the bosoms of all this set, and many of them had even selected the portions of property that they intended should be the reward of their own love of freedom and patriotism. It has been said that the English ministry precipitated the American revolution, with a view to share, among their favourites, the estates that it was thought it would bring within the gift of the crown, a motive so heinous as almost to defy credulity, and which may certainly admit of rational doubts. On the other hand, however, it is certain that individuals, who will go down to posterity in company with the many justly illustrious names that the events of 1776 have committed to history, were actuated by the most selfish inducements, and, in divers instances, enriched themselves with the wrecks of estates that formerly belonged to their kinsmen or friends. Joel Strides was of too low a class to get his name enrolled very high on the list of heroes, nor was he at all ambitious of any such distinction; but he was not so low that he could not and did not aspire to become the owner of the property of the Hutted Knoll. In an ordinary state of society, so high a flight would seem irrational in so low an aspirant; but Joel came of a people who seldom measure their pretensions by their merits, and who imagine that to boldly aspire, more especially in the way of money, is the first great step to success. The much talked of and little understood doctrine of political equality has this error to answer for, in thousands of cases; for nothing can be more hopeless, in the nature of things, than to convince a man of the necessity of possessing qualities of whose existence he has not even a faint perception, ere he may justly pretend to be put on a level with the high-minded, the just, the educated, and the good. Joel, therefore, saw no other reason than the law, against his becoming the great landlord, as well as captain Willoughby; and could the law be so moulded as to answer his purposes, he had discreetly resolved to care for no other considerations. The thought of the consequences to Mrs. Willoughby and her daughters gave him no concern whatever; they had already possessed the advantages of their situation so long, as to give Phoebe and the miller's wife a sort of moral claim to succeed them. In a word, Joel, in his yearnings after wealth, had only faintly shadowed forth the modern favourite doctrine of "rotation in office."
The appearance of a stranger in company with captain Willoughby could not fail, therefore, to give rise to many conjectures in the mind of a man whose daily and hourly thoughts were running on these important changes. "Who can it be," thought Joel, as he crawled along the lane, bearing the milk, and lifting one leg after the other, as if lead were fastened to his feet. "Dan'el it is not—nor is it any one that I can consait on, about the Hut. The captain is mightily strengthened by this marriage of his da'ter with colonel Beekman, that's sartain. The colonel stands wonderful well with our folks, and he 'll not let all this first-rate land, with such capital betterments, go out of the family without an iffort, I conclude—but then I calcilate on his being killed—there must be a disperate lot on 'em shot, afore the war's over, and he is as likely to be among 'em as another. Dan'el thinks the colonel has the look of a short-lived man. Waal; to- morrow will bring about a knowledge of the name of the captain's companion, and then a body may calcilate with greater sartainty!"
This is but an outline of what passed through Joel's mind as he moved onward. It will serve, however, to let the reader into the secret of his thoughts, as well as into their ordinary train, and is essentially connected with some of the succeeding events of our legend. As the overseer approached the stockade, his ideas were so abstracted that he forgot the risk he ran; but walking carelessly towards the palisades, the dogs barked, and then he was saluted by a shot. This effectually aroused Joel, who called out in his natural voice, and probably saved his life by so doing. The report of the rifle, however, produced an alarm, and by the time the astounded overseer had staggered up to the gate, the men were pouring out from the court, armed, and expecting an assault. In the midst of this scene of confusion, the chaplain admitted Joel, as much astonished as the man himself, at the whole of the unexpected occurrence.
It is unnecessary to say that many questions were asked. Joel got rid of them, by simply stating that he had gone out to milk a cow, by the captain's private orders, and that he had forgotten to arrange any signal, by which his return might be known. He ventured to name his employer, because he knew he was not there to contradict him; and Mr. Woods, being anxious to ascertain if his two friends had been seen, sent the men back to their lairs, without delay, detaining the overseer at the gate for a minute's private discourse. As the miller obeyed, with the rest, he asked for the pail with an eye to his own children's comfort; but, on receiving it, he found it empty! The bullet had passed through it, and the contents had escaped.
"Did you see any thing, or person, Strides?" demanded the chaplain, as soon as the two were alone.
"Lord, Mr. Woods, I met the captain!—The sight on him came over me a'most as cruelly as the shot from the rifle; for I no more expected it than I do to see you rise up to heaven, in your clothes, like Elijah of old. Sure enough, there was the captain, himself, and—and—"
Here Joel sneezed, repeating the word "and" several times, in hopes the chaplain would supply the name he so much wished to hear.
"But you saw no savages?—I know the captain is out, and you will be careful not to mention it, lest it get to Mrs. Willoughby's ears, and make her uneasy. You saw nothing of the savages?"
"Not a bit—the critturs lie cluss enough, if they haven't actually tramped. Who did you say was with the captain, Mr. Woods?"
"I said nothing about it—I merely asked after the Indians, who, as you say, do keep themselves very close. Well, Joel, go to your wife, who must be getting anxious about you, and be prudent."
Thus dismissed, the overseer did not dare to hesitate; but he entered the court, still pondering on the late meeting.
As for the two adventurers, they pursued their march in silence. As a matter of course, they heard the report of the rifle, and caught some faint sounds from the alarm that succeeded; but, readily comprehending the cause, they produced no uneasiness; the stillness which succeeded soon satisfying them that all was right. By this time they were within a hundred yards of the flickering fires. The major had kept a strict watch on the shanties at the report of the rifle; but not a living thing was seen moving in their vicinity. This induced him to think the place deserted, and he whispered as much to his father.
"With any other enemy than an Indian", answered the latter, "you might be right enough, Bob; but with these rascals one is never certain. We must advance with a good deal of their own caution."
This was done, and the gentlemen approached the fires in the most guarded manner, keeping the shantees between them and the light. By this time, however, the flames were nearly out, and there was no great difficulty in looking into the nearest shantee, without much exposure. It was deserted, as proved to be the case with all the others, on further examination. Major Willoughby now moved about on the rock with greater confidence; for, naturally brave, and accustomed to use his faculties with self-command in moments of trial, he drew the just distinctions between real danger and unnecessary alarm; the truest of all tests of courage.
The captain, feeling a husband's and a father's responsibility, was a little more guarded; but success soon gave him more confidence, and the spot was thoroughly explored. The two then descended to the mills, which, together with the adjacent cabins, they entered also, and found uninjured and empty. After this, several other suspected points were looked at, until the captain came to the conclusion that the party had retired, for the night at least, if not entirely. Making a circuit, however, he and his son visited the chapel, and one or two dwellings on that side of the valley, when they bent their steps towards the Knoll.
As the gentlemen approached the stockade, the captain gave a loud hem, and clapped his hands. At the signal the gate flew open, and they found themselves in company with their friend the chaplain once more. A few words of explanation told all they had to say, and then the three passed into the court, and separated; each taking the direction towards his own room. The major, fatigued with the toils of a long march, was soon in a soldier's sleep; but it was hours before his more thoughtful, and still uneasy father, could obtain the rest which nature so much requires.
——"I could teach you, How to choose right, but then I am forsworn; So will I never be; so may you miss me; But if you do, you'll make me wish a sin That I had been forsworn."——
Captain Willoughby knew that the hour which preceded the return of light, was that in which the soldier had the most to apprehend, when in the field. This is the moment when it is usual to attempt surprises; and it was, in particular, the Indian's hour of blood. Orders had been left, accordingly, to call him at four o'clock, and to see that all the men of the Hut were afoot, and armed also. Notwithstanding the deserted appearance of the valley, this experienced frontier warrior distrusted the signs of the times; and he looked forward to the probability of an assault, a little before the return of day, with a degree of concern he would have been sorry to communicate to his wife and daughters.
Every emergency had been foreseen, and such a disposition made of the forces, as enabled the major to be useful, in the event of an attack, without exposing himself unnecessarily to the danger of being discovered. He was to have charge of the defence of the rear of the Hut, or that part of the buildings where the windows opened outwards; and Michael and the two Plinys were assigned him as assistants. Nor was the ward altogether a useless one. Though the cliff afforded a material safeguard to this portion of the defences, it might be scaled; and, it will be remembered, there was no stockade at all, on this, the northern end of the house.
When the men assembled in the court, therefore, about an hour before the dawn, Robert Willoughby collected his small force in the dining- room, the outer apartment of the suite, where he examined their arms by lamp-light, inspected their accoutrements, and directed them to remain until he issued fresh orders. His father, aided by serjeant Joyce, did the same in the court; issuing out, through the gate of the buildings, with his whole force, as soon as this duty was performed. The call being general, the women and children were all up also; many of the former repairing to the loops, while the least resolute, or the less experienced of their number, administered to the wants of the young, or busied themselves with the concerns of the household. In a word, the Hut, at that early hour, resembled a hive in activity, though the different pursuits had not much affinity to the collection of honey.
It is not to be supposed that Mrs. Willoughby and her daughters still courted their pillows on an occasion like this. They rose with the others, the grandmother and Beulah bestowing their first care on the little Evert, as if his life and safety were the considerations uppermost in their thoughts. This seemed so natural, that Maud wondered she too could not feel all this absorbing interest in the child, a being so totally dependent on the affection of its friends and relatives to provide for its wants and hazards, in an emergency like the present.
"We will see to the child, Maud," observed her mother, ten or fifteen minutes after all were up and dressed. "Do you go to your brother, who will be solitary, alone in his citadel. He may wish, too, to send some message to his father. Go, then, dear girl, and help to keep up poor Bob's spirits."
What a service for Maud! Still, she went, without hesitation or delay; for the habits of her whole infancy were not to be totally overcome by the natural and more engrossing sentiments of her later years. She could not feel precisely the reserve and self-distrust with one she had so long regarded as a brother, as might have been the case with a stranger youth in whom she had begun to feel the interest she entertained for Robert Willoughby. But, Maud did not hesitate about complying. An order from her mother to her was law; and she had no shame, no reserves on the subject of contributing to Bob's comfort or happiness.
Her presence was a great relief to the young man himself, whom she found in the library. His assistants were posted without, as sentinels to keep off intruders, a disposition that left him quite alone, anxious and uneasy. The only intercourse he could have with his father was by means of messages; and the part of the building he occupied was absolutely without any communication with the court, except by a single door near the offices, at which he had stationed O'Hearn.
"This is kind, and like yourself, dearest Maud," exclaimed the young man, taking the hand of his visiter, and pressing it in both his own, though he strangely neglected to kiss her cheek, as he certainly would have done had it been Beulah—"This is kind and like yourself; now I shall learn something of the state of the family. How is my mother?"
It might have been native coyness, or even coquetry, that unconsciously to herself influenced Maud's answer. She knew not why—and yet she felt prompted to let it be understood she had not come of her own impulses.
"Mother is well, and not at all alarmed," she said. "She and Beulah are busy with little Evert, who crows and kicks his heels about as if he despised danger as becomes a soldier's son, and has much amused even me; though I am accused of insensibility to his perfections. Believing you might be solitary, or might wish to communicate with some of us, my mother desired me to come and inquire into your wants."
"Was such a bidding required, Maud! How long has an order been necessary to bring you to console me?"
"That is a calculation I have never entered into, Bob," answered Maud, slightly blushing, and openly smiling, and that in a way, too, to take all the sting out of her words—"as young ladies can have more suitable occupations, one might think. You will admit I guided you faithfully and skilfully into the Hut last evening, and such a service should suffice for the present. But, my mother tells me we have proper causes of complaint against you, for having so thoughtlessly left the place of safety into which you were brought, and for going strolling about the valley, after we had retired, in a very heedless and boyish manner!"
"I went with my father; surely I could not have been in better company."
"At his suggestion, or at your own, Bob?" asked Maud, shaking her head.
"To own the truth, it was, in some degree, at my own. It seemed so very unmilitary for two old soldiers to allow themselves to be shut up in ignorance of what their enemies were at, that I could not resist the desire to make a little sortie. You must feel, dear Maud, that our motive was your safety—the safety, I mean, of my mother, and Beulah, and nil of you together—and you ought to be the last to blame us."
The tint on Maud's cheek deepened as Robert Willoughby laid so heavy an emphasis on "your safety;" but she could not smile on an act that risked so much more than was prudent.
"This is well enough as to motive," she said, after a pause; "but frightfully ill-judged, I should think, as to the risks. You do not remember the importance our dear father is to us all—to my mother—to Beulah—even to me, Bob."
"Even to you, Maud!—And why not as much to you as to any of us?"
Maud could speak to Beulah of her want of natural affinity to the family; but, it far exceeded her self-command to make a direct allusion to it to Robert Willoughby. Still, it was now rarely absent from her mind; the love she bore the captain and his wife, and Beulah, and little Evert, coming to her heart through a more insidious and possibly tenderer tie, than that of purely filial or sisterly affection. It was, indeed, this every-day regard, strangely deepened and enlivened by that collateral feeling we so freely bestow on them who are bound by natural ties to those who have the strongest holds on our hearts, and which causes us to see with their eyes, and to feel with their affections. Accordingly, no reply was made to the question; or, rather, it was answered by putting another.
"Did you see anything, after all, to compensate for so much risk?" asked Maud, but not until a pause had betrayed her embarrassment.
"We ascertained that the savages had deserted their fires, and had not entered any of the cabins. Whether this were done to mislead us, or to make a retreat as sudden and unexpected as their inroad, we are altogether in the dark. My father apprehends treachery, however; while, I confess, to me it seems probable that the arrival and the departure may be altogether matters of accident. The Indians are in motion certainly, for it is known that our agents are busy among them; but, it is by no means so clear that our Indians would molest captain Willoughby—Sir Hugh Willoughby, as my father is altogether called, at head-quarters."
"Have not the Americans savages on their side, to do us this ill office?"
"I think not. It is the interest of the rebels to keep the savages out of the struggle; they have so much at risk, that this species of warfare can scarcely be to their liking."
"And ought it to be to the liking of the king's generals, or ministers either, Bob!"
"Perhaps not, Maud. I do not defend it; but I have seen enough of politics and war, to know that results are looked to, far more than principles. Honour, and chivalry, and humanity, and virtue, and right, are freely used in terms; but seldom do they produce much influence on facts. Victory is the end aimed at, and the means are made to vary with the object."
"And where is all we have read together?—Yes, together, Bob? for I owe you a great deal for having directed my studies—where is all we have read about the glory and truth of the English name and cause?"
"Very much, I fear, Maud, where the glory and truth of the American name and cause will be, as soon as this new nation shall fairly burst the shell, and hatch its public morality. There are men among us who believe in this public honesty, but I do not."
"You are then engaged in a bad cause, major Willoughby, and the sooner you abandon it, the better."
"I would in a minute, if I knew where to find a better. Rely on it, dearest Maud, all causes are alike, in this particular; though one side may employ instruments, as in the case of the savages, that the other side finds it its interest to decry. Men, as individuals, may be, and sometimes are, reasonably upright—but, bodies of men, I much fear, never. The latter escape responsibility by dividing it."
"Still, a good cause may elevate even bodies of men," said Maud, thoughtfully.
"For a time, perhaps; but not in emergencies. You and I think it a good cause, my good and frowning Maud, to defend the rights of our sovereign lord the king. Beulah I have given up to the enemy; but on you I have implicitly replied."
"Beulah follows her heart, perhaps, as they say it is natural to women to do. As for myself, I am left free to follow my own opinion of my duties."
"And they lead you to espouse the cause of the king, Maud!"
"They will be very apt to be influenced by the notions of a certain captain Willoughby, and Wilhelmina, his wife, who have guided me aright on so many occasions, that I shall not easily distrust their opinions on this."
The major disliked this answer; and yet, when he came to reflect on it, as reflect he did a good deal in the course of the day, he was dissatisfied with himself at being so unreasonable as to expect a girl of twenty-one not to think with her parents, real or presumed, in most matters. At the moment, however, he did not wish further to press the point.
"I am glad to learn, Bob," resumed Maud, looking more cheerful and smiling, "that you met with no one in your rash sortie—for rash I shall call it, even though sanctioned by my father."
"I am wrong in saying that. We did meet with one man, and that was no less a person than your bug-bear, Joel Strides—as innocent, though as meddling an overseer as one could wish to employ."
"Robert Willoughby, what mean you! Does this man know of your presence at the Knoll?"
"I should hope not—think not." Here the major explained all that is known to the reader on this head, when he continued—"The fellow's curiosity brought his face within a few inches of mine; yet I do not believe he recognised me. This disguise is pretty thorough; and what between his ignorance, the darkness and the dress, I must believe he was foiled."
"Heaven be praised!" exclaimed Maud, breathing more freely. "I have long distrusted that man, though he seems to possess the confidence of every one else. Neither my father nor my mother will see him, as I see him; yet to me his design to injure you is so clear—so obvious!—I wonder, often wonder, that others cannot view it as I do. Even Beulah is blind!"
"And what do you see so clearly, Maud? I have consented to keep myself incog. in submission to your earnest request; and yet, to own the truth, I can discover no particular reason why Strides is to be distrusted more than any one else in the valley—than Mike, for instance."
"Mike! I would answer for his truth with my life. He will never betray you, Bob."
"But why is Joel so much the object of your distrust?—and why am I the particular subject of your apprehensions?"
Maud felt the tell-tale blood flowing again to her cheeks; since, to give a simple and clear reason for her distrust, exceeded her power. It was nothing but the keen interest which she took in Robert Willoughby's safety that had betrayed to her the truth; and, as usually happens, when anxiety leads the way in discoveries of this sort, logical and plausible inferences are not always at command. Still, Maud not only thought herself right, but, in the main, she was right; and this she felt so strongly as to be enabled to induce others to act on her impressions.
"Why I believe in Strides' sinister views is more than I may be able to explain to you, in words, Bob," she replied, after a moment's thought; "still, I do believe in them as firmly as I believe in my existence. His looks, his questions, his journeys, and an occasional remark, have all aided in influencing the belief; nevertheless, no one proof may be perfectly clear and satisfactory. Why you should be the subject of his plans, however, is simple enough, since you are the only one among us he can seriously injure. By betraying you, he might gain some great advantage to himself."
"To whom can he betray me, dear? My father is the only person here, in any authority, and of him I have no cause to be afraid."
"Yet, you were so far alarmed when last here, as to change your route back to Boston. If there were cause for apprehension then, the same reason may now exist."
"That was when many strangers were in the valley, and we knew not exactly where we stood. I have submitted to your wishes, however, Maud, and shall lie perdu, until there is a serious alarm; then it is understood I am to be permitted to show myself. In a moment of emergency my unexpected appearance among the men might have a dramatic effect, and, of itself, give us a victory. But tell me of my prospects—am I likely to succeed with my father? Will he be brought over to the royal cause?"
"I think not. All common inducements are lost on him. His baronetcy, for instance, he will never assume; that, therefore, cannot entice him. Then his feelings are with his adopted country, which he thinks right, and which he is much disposed to maintain; more particularly since Beulah's marriage, and our late intercourse with all that set. My mother's family, too, has much influence with him. They, you know, are all whigs."
"Don't prostitute the name, Maud. Whig does not mean rebel; these misguided men are neither more nor less than rebels. I had thought this declaration of independence would have brought my father at once to our side."
"I can see it has disturbed him, as did the Battle of Bunker's Hill. But he will reflect a few days, and decide now, as he did then, in favour of the Americans. He has English partialities, Bob, as is natural to one born in that country; but, on this point, his mind is very strongly American."
"The accursed Knoll has done this! Had he lived in society, as he ought to have done, among his equals and the educated, we should now see him at the head—Maud, I know I can confide in you."
Maud was pleased at this expression of confidence, and she looked up in the major's face, her full blue eyes expressing no small portion of the heartfelt satisfaction she experienced. Still, she said nothing.
"You may well imagine," the major continued, "that I have not made this journey entirely without an object—I mean some object more important, even, than to see you all. The commander-in-chief is empowered to raise several regiments in this country, and it is thought useful to put men of influence in the colonies at their head. Old Noll de Lancey, for instance, so well known to us all, is to have a brigade; and I have a letter in my pocket offering to Sir Hugh Willoughby one of his regiments. One of the Allens of Pennsylvania, who was actually serving against us, has thrown up his commission from congress, since this wicked declaration, and has consented to take a battalion from the king. What think you of all this? Will it not have weight with my father?"
"It may cause him to reflect, Bob; but it will not induce him to change his mind. It may suit Mr. Oliver de Lancey to be a general, for he has been a soldier his whole life; but my father has retired, and given up all thoughts of service. He tells us he never liked it, and has been happier here at the Knoll, than when he got his first commission. Mr. Allen's change of opinion may be well enough, he will say, but I have no need of change; I am here, with my wife and daughters, and have them to care for, in these troubled times. What think you he said, Bob, in one of his conversations with us, on this very subject?"
"I am sure I cannot imagine—though I rather fear it was some wretched political stuff of the day."
"So far from this, it was good natural feeling that belongs, or ought to belong to all days, and all ages," answered Maud, her voice trembling a little as she proceeded. "'There is my son,' he said; 'one soldier is enough in a family like this. He keeps all our hearts anxious, and may cause them all to mourn.'"
Major Willoughby was mute for quite a minute, looking rebuked and thoughtful.
"I fear I do cause my parents concern," he at length answered; "and why should I endeavour to increase that of my excellent mother, by persuading her husband to return to the profession? If this were ordinary service, I could not think of it. I do not know that I ought to think of it, as it is!"
"Do not, dear Robert. We are all—that is, mother is often miserable on your account; and why would you increase her sorrows? Remember that to tremble for one life is sufficient for a woman."
"My mother is miserable on my account!" answered the young man, who was thinking of anything but his father, at that instant. "Does Beulah never express concern for me? or have her new ties completely driven her brother from her recollection? I know she can scarce wish me success; but she might still feel some uneasiness for an only brother. We are but two—"
Maud started, as if some frightful object glared before her eyes; then she sat in breathless silence, resolute to hear what would come next. But Robert Willoughby meant to pursue that idea no farther. He had so accustomed himself—had endeavoured even so to accustom himself to think of Beulah as his only sister, that the words escaped him unconsciously. They were no sooner uttered, however, than the recollection of their possible effect on Maud crossed his mind. Profoundly ignorant of the true nature of her feelings towards himself, he had ever shrunk from a direct avowal of his own sentiments, lest he might shock her; as a sister's ear would naturally be wounded by a declaration of attachment from a brother; and there were bitter moments when he fancied delicacy and honour would oblige him to carry his secret with him to the grave. Two minutes of frank communication might have dissipated all these scruples for ever; but, how to obtain those minutes, or how to enter on the subject at all, were obstacles that often appeared insurmountable to the young man. As for Maud, she but imperfectly understood her own heart—true, she had conscious glimpses of its real state; but, it was through those sudden and ungovernable impulses that were so strangely mingled with her affections. It was years, indeed, since she had ceased to think of Robert Willoughby as a brother, and had begun to view him with different eyes; still, she struggled with her feelings, as against a weakness. The captain and his wife were her parents; Beulah her dearly, dearly beloved sister; little Evert her nephew; and even the collaterals, in and about Albany, came in for a due share of her regard; while Bob, though called Bob as before; though treated with a large portion of the confidence that was natural to the intimacy of her childhood; though loved with a tenderness he would have given even his high-prized commission to know, was no longer thought of as a brother. Often did Maud find herself thinking, if never saying, "Beulah may do that, for Beulah is his sister; but it would be wrong in me. I may write to him, talk freely and even confidentially with him, and be affectionate to him; all this is right, and I should be the most ungrateful creature on earth to act differently; but I cannot sit on his knee as Beulah sometimes does; I cannot throw my arms around his neck when I kiss him, as Beulah does; I cannot pat his cheek, as Beulah does, when he says anything to laugh at; nor can I pry into his secrets, as Beulah does, or affects to do, to tease him. I should be more reserved with one who has not a drop of my blood in his veins—no, not a single drop." In this way, indeed, Maud was rather fond of disclaiming any consanguinity with the family of Willoughby, even while she honoured and loved its two heads, as parents. The long pause that succeeded the major's broken sentence was only interrupted by himself.
"It is vexatious to be shut up here, in the dark, Maud," he said, "when every minute may bring an attack. This side of the house might be defended by you and Beulah, aided and enlightened by the arm and counsels of that young 'son of liberty,' little Evert; whereas the stockade in front may really need the presence of men who have some knowledge of the noble art. I wish there were a look-out to the front, that one might at least see the danger as it approached."
"If your presence is not indispensable here, I can lead you to my painting-room, where there is a loop directly opposite to the gate. That half of the garrets has no one in it."
The major accepted the proposal with joy, and forthwith he proceeded to issue a few necessary orders to his subordinates, before he followed Maud. When all was ready, the latter led the way, carrying a small silver lamp that she had brought with her on entering the library. The reader already understands that the Hut was built around a court, the portion of the building in the rear, or on the cliff, alone having windows that opened outward. This was as true of the roofs as of the perpendicular parts of the structure, the only exceptions being in the loops that had been cut in the half-story, beneath the eaves. Of course, the garrets were very extensive. They were occupied in part, however, by small rooms, with dormer-windows, the latter of which opened on the court, with the exception of those above the cliff. It was on the roofs of these windows that captain Willoughby had laid his platform, or walk, with a view to extinguish fires, or to defend the place. There were many rooms also that were lighted only by the loops, and which, of course, were on the outer side of the buildings. In addition to these arrangements, the garret portions of the Hut were divided into two great parts, like the lower floor, without any doors of communication. Thus, below, the apartments commenced at the gateway, and extended along one-half the front; the whole of the east wing, and the whole of the rear, occupying five-eighths of the entire structure. This part contained all the rooms occupied by the family and the offices. The corresponding three-eighths, or the remaining half of the front, and the whole of the west wing, were given to visiters, and were now in possession of the people of the valley; as were all the rooms and garrets above them. On the other hand, captain Willoughby, with a view to keep his family to itself, had excluded every one, but the usual inmates, from his own portion of the house, garret-rooms included.
Some of the garret-rooms, particularly those over the library, drawing- room, and parlour, were convenient and well-furnished little apartments, enjoying dormer-windows that opened on the meadows and forest, and possessing a very tolerable elevation, for rooms of that particular construction. Here Mr. Woods lodged and had his study. The access was by a convenient flight of steps, placed in the vestibule that communicated with the court. A private and narrower flight also ascended from the offices.
Maud now led the way up the principal stairs, Mike being on post at the outer door to keep off impertinent eyes, followed by Robert Willoughby. Unlike most American houses, the Hut had few passages on its principal floor; the rooms communicating en suite, as a better arrangement where the buildings were so long, and yet so narrow. Above, however, one side was left in open garret; sometimes in front and sometimes in the rear, as the light came from the court, or from without. Into this garret, then, Maud conducted the major, passing a line of humble rooms on her right, which belonged to the families of the Plinys and the Smashes, with their connections, until she reached the front range of the buildings. Here the order was changed along the half of the structure reserved to the use of the family; the rooms being on the outer side lighted merely by the loops, while opposite to them was an open garret with windows that overlooked the court.
Passing into the garret just mentioned, Maud soon reached the door of the little room she sought. It was an apartment she had selected for painting, on account of the light from the loop, which in the morning was particularly favourable, though somewhat low. As she usually sat on a little stool, however, this difficulty was in some measure obviated; and, at all events, the place was made to answer her purposes. She kept the key herself, and the room, since Beulah's marriage in particular, was her sanctum; no one entering it unless conducted by its mistress. Occasionally, Little Smash was admitted with a broom; though Maud, for reasons known to herself, often preferred sweeping the small carpet that covered the centre of the floor, with her own fair hands, in preference to suffering another to intrude.
The major was aware that Maud had used this room for the last seven years. It was here he had seen her handkerchief waving at the loop, when he last departed; and hundreds of times since had he thought of this act of watchful affection, with doubts that led equally to pain or pleasure, as images of merely sisterly care, or of a tenderer feeling, obtruded themselves. These loops were four feet long, cut in the usual bevelling manner, through the massive timbers; were glazed, and had thick, bullet-proof, inside shutters, that in this room were divided in equal parts, in order to give Maud the proper use of the light she wanted. All these shutters were now closed by command of the captain, in order to conceal the lights that would be flickering through the different garrets; and so far had caution become a habit, that Maud seldom exposed her person at night, near the loop, with the shutter open.
On the present occasion, she left the light without, and threw open the upper-half of her heavy shutter, remarking as she did so, that the day was just beginning to dawn.
"In a few minutes it will be light," she added; "then we shall be able to see who is and who is not in the valley. Look—you can perceive my father near the gate, at this moment."
"I do, to my shame, Maud. He should not be there, I am cooped up here, behind timbers that are almost shot-proof."
"It will be time for you to go to the front, as you soldiers call it, when there is an enemy to face. You cannot think there is any danger of an attack upon the Hut this morning."
"Certainty not. It is now too late. If intended at all, it would have been made before that streak of light appeared in the east."
"Then close the shutter, and I will bring in the lamp, and show you some of my sketches. We artists are thirsting always for praise; and I know you have a taste, Bob, that one might dread."
"This is kind of you, dear Maud," answered the major, closing the shutter; "for they tell me you are niggardly of bestowing such favours. I hear you have got to likenesses—little Evert's, in particular."
Anxious, she hovers o'er the web the while, Reads, as it grows, thy figured story there; Now she explains the texture with a smile, And now the woof interprets with a tear.
All Maud's feelings were healthful and natural. She had no exaggerated sentiments, and scarcely art enough to control or to conceal any of the ordinary impulses of her heart. We are not about to relate a scene, therefore, in which a long-cherished but hidden miniature of the young man is to play a conspicuous part, and to be the means of revealing to two lovers the state of their respective hearts; but one of a very different character. It is true, Maud had endeavoured to make, from memory, one or two sketches of "Bob's" face; but she had done it openly, and under the cognizance of the whole family. This she might very well do, indeed, in her usual character of a sister, and excite no comments. In these efforts, her father and mother, and Beulah, had uniformly pronounced her success to be far beyond their hopes; but Maud, herself, had thrown them all aside, half-finished, dissatisfied with her own labours. Like the author, whose fertile imagination fancies pictures that defy his powers of description, her pencil ever fell far short of the face that her memory kept so constantly in view. This sketch wanted animation, that gentleness, another fire, and a fourth candour; in short, had Maud begun a thousand all would have been deficient, in her eyes, in some great essential of perfection. Still, she had no secret about her efforts, and half-a-dozen of these very sketches lay uppermost in her portfolio, when she spread it, and its contents, before the eyes of the original.
Major Willoughby thought Maud had never appeared more beautiful than as she moved about making her little preparations for the exhibition. Pleasure heightened her colour; and there was such a mixture of frank, sisterly regard, in every glance of her eye, blended, however, with sensitive feeling, and conscious womanly reserve, as made her a thousand times—measuring amounts by the young man's sensations—more interesting than he had ever seen her. The lamp gave but an indifferent light for a gallery, but it was sufficient to betray Maud's smiles, and blushes, and each varying emotion of her charming countenance.
"Now, Bob," she said, opening her portfolio, with all her youthful frankness and confidence, "you know well enough I am not one of those old masters of whom you used to talk so much, but your own pupil—the work of your own hands; and if you find more faults than you have expected, you will have the goodness to remember that the master has deserted his peaceful pursuits to go a campaigning—there—that is a caricature of your own countenance, staring you in the face, as a preface!"
"This is like, I should think—was it done from memory, dear Maud?"
"How else should it be done? All our entreaties have never been able to persuade you to send us even a miniature. You are wrong in this, Bob"— by no accident did Maud now ever call the major, Robert, though Beulah often did. There was a desperate sort of familiarity in the Bob, that she could easily adopt; but the 'Robert' had a family sound that she disliked; and yet a more truly feminine creature than Maud Meredith did not exist—"You are wrong, Bob; for mother actually pines to possess your picture, in some shape or other. It was this wish that induced me to attempt these things."
"And why has no one of them ever been finished?—Here are six or eight beginnings, and all, more or less, like, I should think, and not one of them more than half done. Why have I been treated so cavalierly, Miss Maud?"
The fair artist's colour deepened a little; but her smile was quite as sweet as it was saucy, as she replied—
"Girlish caprice, I suppose. I like neither of them; and of that which a woman dislikes, she will have none. To be candid, however, I hardly think there is one of them all that does you justice."
"No?—what fault have you to find with this? This might be worked up to something very natural."
"It would be a natural, then—it wants expression, fearfully."
"And this, which is still better. That might be finished while I am here, and I will give you some sittings."
"Even mother dislikes that—there is too much of the Major of Foot in it. Mr. Woods says it is a martial picture."
"And ought not a soldier to look like a soldier? To me, now, that seems a capital beginning."
"It is not what mother, or Beulah—or father—or even any of us wants. It is too full of Bunker's Hill. Your friends desire to see you as you appear to them; not as you appear to your enemies."
"Upon my word, Maud, you have made great advances in the art! This is a view of the Knoll, and the dam—and here is another of the mill, and the water-fall—all beautifully done, and in water-colours, too. What is this?—Have you been attempting a sketch of yourself!—The glass must have been closely consulted, my fair coquette, to enable you to do this!"
The blood had rushed into Maud's face, covering it with a rich tell- tale mantle, when her companion first alluded to the half-finished miniature he held in his hand; then her features resembled ivory, as the revulsion of feeling, that overcame her confusion, followed. For some little time she sate, in breathless stillness, with her looks cast upon the floor, conscious that Robert Willoughby was glancing from her own face to the miniature, and from the miniature to her face again, making his observations and comparisons. Then she ventured to raise her eyes timidly towards his, half-imploringly, as if to beseech him to proceed to something else. But the young man was too much engrossed with the exceedingly pretty sketch he held in his hand, to understand her meaning, or to comply with her wishes.
"This is yourself, Maud!" he cried—"though in a strange sort of dress—why have you spoilt so beautiful a thing, by putting it in this masquerade?"
"It is not myself—it is a copy of—a miniature I possess."
"A miniature you possess!—Of whom can you possess so lovely a miniature, and I never see it?"
A faint smile illumined the countenance of Maud, and the blood began to return to her cheeks. She stretched her hand over to the sketch, and gazed on it, with intense feeling, until the tears began to stream from her eyes.
"Maud—dear, dearest Maud—have I said that which pains you?—I do not understand all this, but I confess there are secrets to which I can have no claim to be admitted—"
"Nay, Bob, this is making too much of what, after all, must sooner or later be spoken of openly among us. I believe that to be a copy of a miniature of my mother."
"Of mother, Maud—you are beside yourself—it has neither her features, expression, nor the colour of her eyes. It is the picture of a far handsomer woman, though mother is still pretty; and it is perfection!"
"I mean of my mother—of Maud Yeardley; the wife of my father, Major Meredith."
This was said with a steadiness that surprised our heroine herself, when she came to think over all that had passed, and it brought the blood to her companion's heart, in a torrent.
"This is strange!" exclaimed Willoughby, after a short pause. "And my mother—our mother has given you the original, and told you this? I did not believe she could muster the resolution necessary to such an act."
"She has not. You know, Bob, I am now of age; and my father, a month since, put some papers in my hand, with a request that I would read them. They contain a marriage settlement and other things of that sort, which show I am mistress of more money than I should know what to do with, if it were not for dear little Evert—but, with such a precious being to love, one never can have too much of anything. With the papers were many trinkets, which I suppose father never looked at. This beautiful miniature was among the last; and I feel certain, from some remarks I ventured to make, mother does not know of its existence."
As Maud spoke, she drew the original from her bosom, and placed it in Robert Willoughby's hands. When this simple act was performed, her mind seemed relieved; and she waited, with strong natural interest, to hear Robert Willoughby's comments.
"This, then, Maud, was your own—your real mother!" the young man said, after studying the miniature, with a thoughtful countenance, for near a minute. "It is like her—like you."
"Like her, Bob?—How can you know anything or that?—I suppose it to be my mother, because I think it like myself, and because it is not easy to say who else it can be. But you cannot know anything of this?"
"You are mistaken, Maud—I remember both your parents well—it could not be otherwise, as they were the bosom friends of my own. You will remember that I am now eight-and-twenty, and that I had seen seven of these years when you were born. Was my first effort in arms never spoken of in your presence?"
"Never—perhaps it was not a subject for me to hear, if it were in any manner connected with my parents."
"You are right—that must be the reason it has been kept from your ears."
"Surely, surely, I am old enough to hear it now—you will conceal nothing from me, Bob?"
"If I would, I could not, now. It is too late, Maud. You know the manner in which Major Meredith died?—"
"He fell in battle, I have suspected," answered the daughter, in a suppressed, doubtful tone—"for no one has ever directly told me even that."
"He did, and I was at his side. The French and savages made an assault on us, about an hour earlier than this, and our two fathers rushed to the pickets to repel it—I was a reckless boy, anxious even at that tender age to see a fray, and was at their side. Your father was one of the first that fell; but Joyce and our father beat the Indians back from his body, and saved it from mutilation. Your mother was buried in the same grave, and then you came to us, where our have been ever since."
Maud's tears flowed fast, and yet it was not so much in grief as in a gush of tenderness she could hardly explain to herself. Robert Willoughby understood her emotions, and perceived that he might proceed.
"I was old enough to remember both your parents well—I was a favourite, I believe, with, certainly was much petted by, both—I remember your birth, Maud, and was suffered to carry you in my arms, ere you were a week old."
"Then you have known me for an impostor from the beginning, Bob—must have often thought of me as such!"
"I have known you for the daughter of Lewellen Meredith, certainly; and not for a world would I have you the real child of Hugh Willoughby—"
"Bob!" exclaimed Maud, her heart beating violently, a rush of feeling nearly overcoming her, in which alarm, consciousness, her own secret, dread of something wrong, and a confused glimpse of the truth, were all so blended, as nearly to deprive her, for the moment, of the use of her senses.
It is not easy to say precisely what would have followed this tolerably explicit insight into the state of the young man's feelings, had not an outcry on the lawn given the major notice that his presence was needed below. With a few words of encouragement to Maud, first taking the precaution to extinguish the lamp, lest its light should expose her to a shot in passing some of the open loops, he sprang towards the stairs, and was at his post again, literally within a minute. Nor was he a moment too soon. The alarm was general, and it was understood an assault was momentarily expected.
The situation of Robert Willoughby was now tantalizing in the extreme. Ignorant of what was going on in front, he saw no enemy in the rear to oppose, and was condemned to inaction, at a moment when he felt that, by training, years, affinity to the master of the place, and all the usual considerations, he ought to be in front, opposed to the enemy. It is probable he would have forgotten his many cautions to keep close, had not Maud appeared in the library, and implored him to remain concealed, at least until there was the certainty his presence was necessary elsewhere.
At that instant, every feeling but those connected with the danger, was in a degree forgotten. Still, Willoughby had enough consideration for Maud to insist on her joining her mother and Beulah, in the portion of the building where the absence of external windows rendered their security complete, so long as the foe could be kept without the palisades. In this he succeeded, but not until he had promised, again and again, to be cautious in not exposing himself at any of the windows, the day having now fairly dawned, and particularly not to let it be known in the Hut that he was present until it became indispensable.
The major felt relieved when Maud had left him. For her, he had no longer any immediate apprehensions, and he turned all his faculties to the sounds of the assault which he supposed to be going on in front. To his surprise, however, no discharges of fire-arms succeeded; and even the cries, and orders, and calling from point to point, that are a little apt to succeed an alarm in an irregular garrison, had entirely ceased; and it became doubtful whether the whole commotion did not proceed from a false alarm. The Smashes, in particular, whose vociferations for the first few minutes had been of a very decided kind, were now mute; and the exclamations of the women and children had ceased.
Major Willoughby was too good a soldier to abandon his post without orders, though bitterly did he regret the facility with which he had consented to accept so inconsiderable a command. He so far disregarded his instructions, however, as to place his whole person before a window, in order to reconnoitre; for it was now broad daylight, though the sun had not yet risen. Nothing rewarded this careless exposure; and then it flashed upon his mind that, as the commander of a separate detachment, he had a perfect right to employ any of his immediate subordinates, either as messengers or scouts. His choice of an agent was somewhat limited, it is true, lying between Mike and the Plinys; after a moment of reflection, he determined to choose the former.
Mike was duly relieved from his station at the door, the younger Pliny being substituted for him, and he was led into the library. Here he received hasty but clear orders from the major how he was to proceed, and was thrust, rather than conducted from the room, in his superior's haste to hear the tidings. Three or four minutes might have elapsed, when an irregular volley of musketry was heard in front; then succeeded an answering discharge, which sounded smothered and distant. A single musket came from the garrison a minute later, and then Mike rushed into the library, his eyes dilated with a sort of wild delight, dragging rather than carrying his piece after him.
"The news!" exclaimed the major, as soon as he got a glimpse of his messenger. "What mean these volleys, and how comes on my father in front?"
"Is it what do they mane?" answered Mike. "Well, there's but one maning to powther and ball, and that's far more sarious than shillelah wor-r- k. If the rapscallions didn't fire a whole plathoon, as serjeant Joyce calls it, right at the Knoll, my name is not Michael O'Hearn, or my nature one that dales in giving back as good as I get."
"But the volley came first from the house—why did my father order his people to make the first discharge?"
"For the same r'ason that he didn't. Och! there was a big frown on his f'atures, when he heard the rifles and muskets; and Mr. Woods never pr'ached more to the purpose than the serjeant himself, ag'in that same. But to think of them rapscallions answering a fire that was ag'in orders! Not a word did his honour say about shooting any of them, and they just pulled their triggers on the house all the same as if it had been logs growing in senseless and uninhabited trees, instead of a rational and well p'apled abode. Och! arn't they vagabonds!"
"If you do not wish to drive me mad, man, tell me clearly what has past, that I may understand you."
"Is it understand that's wanting?—Lord, yer honour, if ye can understand that Misther Strhides, that's yon, ye'll be a wise man. He calls hisself a 'son of the poor'atin's,' and poor 'ating it must have been, in the counthry of his faders, to have produced so lane and skinny a baste as that same. The orders was as partic'lar as tongue of man could utter, and what good will it all do?—Ye're not to fire, says serjeant Joyce, till ye all hear the wor-r-d; and the divil of a wor-r- d did they wait for; but blaze away did they, jist becaase a knot of savages comes on to them rocks ag'in, where they had possession all yesterday afthernoon; and sure it is common enough to breakfast where a man sups."
"You mean to say that the Indians have reappeared on the rocks, and that some of Strides's men fired at them, without orders?—Is that the history of the affair?"
"It's jist that, majjor; and little good, or little har-r-m, did it do. Joel, and his poor'atin's, blazed away at 'em, as if they had been so many Christians—and 'twould have done yer heart good to have heard the serjeant belabour them with hard wor-r-ds, for their throuble. There's none of the poor'atin' family in the serjeant, who's a mighty man wid his tongue!"
"And the savages returned the volley—which explains the distant discharge I heard."
"Anybody can see, majjor, that ye're yer father's son, and a souldier bor-r-n. Och! who would of t'ought of that, but one bred and bor-r-n in the army? Yes; the savages sent back as good as they got, which was jist not'in' at all, seem' that no one is har-r-m'd."
"And the single piece that followed—there was one discharge, by itself?"
Mike opened his mouth with a grin that might have put either of the Plinys to shame, it being rather a favourite theory with the descendants of the puritans—or "poor'atin's," as the county Leitrim- man called Joel and his set—that the Irishman was more than a match for any son of Ham at the Knoll, in the way of capacity about this portion of the human countenance. The major saw that there was a good deal of self-felicitation in the expression of Mike's visage, and he demanded an explanation in more direct terms.
"'Twas I did it, majjor, and 'twas as well fired a piece as ye've ever hear-r-d in the king's sarvice. Divil bur-r-n me, if I lets Joel get any such advantage over me, as to have a whole battle to himself. No— no—as soon as I smelt his Yankee powther, and could get my own musket cock'd, and pointed out of the forthifications, I lets 'em have it, as if it had been so much breakfast ready cooked to their hands. 'Twas well pointed, too; for I'm not the man to shoot into a fri'nd's countenance."
"And you broke the orders for a reason no better than the fact that Strides had broken them before?"
"Divil a bit, majjor—Joel had broken the orders, ye see and that settled the matter. The thing that is once broken is broken, and wor-r-ds can't mend it, any more than for bearin' to fire a gun will mend it."
By dint of cross-questioning, Robert Willoughby finally succeeded in getting something like an outline of the truth from Mike. The simple facts were, that the Indians had taken possession of their old bivouac, as soon as the day dawned, and had commenced their preparations for breakfast, when Joel, the miller, and a few of that set, in a paroxysm of valour, had discharged a harmless volley at them; the distance rendering the attempt futile. This fire had been partially returned, the whole concluding with the finale from the Irishman's gun, as has been related. As it was now too light to apprehend a surprise, and the ground in front of the palisade had no very dangerous covers, Robert Willoughby was emboldened to send one of the Plinys to request an interview with his father. In a few minutes the latter appeared, accompanied by Mr. Woods.
"The same party has reappeared, and seems disposed to occupy its old position near the mill," said the captain, in answer to his son's inquiries. "It is difficult to say what the fellows have in view; and there are moments when I think there are more or less whites among them. I suggested as much to Strides, chaplain; and I thought the fellow appeared to receive the notion as if he thought it might be true."
"Joel is a little of an enigma to me, captain Willoughby," returned the chaplain; "sometimes seizing an idea like a cat pouncing upon a rat, and then coquetting with it, as the same cat will play with a mouse, when it has no appetite for food."
"Och! he's a precious poor'atin'!" growled Mike, from his corner of the room.
"If whites are among the savages, why should they not make themselves known?" demanded Robert Willoughby. "Your character, sir, is no secret; and they must be acquainted with their own errand here."
"I will send for Strides, and get his opinion a little more freely," answered the captain, after a moment of deliberation. "You will withdraw, Bob; though, by leaving your door a little ajar, the conversation will reach you; and prevent the necessity of a repetition."
As Robert Willoughby was not unwilling to hear what the overseer might have to say in the present state of things, he did not hesitate about complying, withdrawing into his own room as requested, and leaving the door ajar, in a way to prevent suspicion of his presence, as far as possible. But, Joel Strides, like all bad men, ever suspected the worst. The innocent and pure of mind alone are without distrust; while one constituted morally, like the overseer, never permitted his thoughts to remain in the tranquillity that is a fruit of confidence. Conscious of his own evil intentions, his very nature put on armour against the same species of machinations in others, as the hedge-hog rolls himself into a ball, and thrusts out his quills, at the sight of the dog. Had not captain Willoughby been one of those who are slow to see evil, he might have detected something wrong in Joel's feelings, by the very first glance he cast about him, on entering the library.
In point of fact, Strides' thoughts had not been idle since the rencontre of the previous night. Inquisitive, and under none of the usual restraints of delicacy, he had already probed all he dared approach on the subject; and, by this time, had become perfectly assured that there was some mystery about the unknown individual whom he had met in his master's company. To own the truth, Joel did not suspect that major Willoughby had again ventured so far into the lion's den; but he fancied that some secret agent of the crown was at the Hut, and that the circumstance offered a fair opening for helping the captain down the ladder of public favour, and to push himself up a few of its rounds. He was not sorry, therefore, to be summoned to this conference, hoping it might lead to some opening for farther discoveries.
"Sit down, Strides"—said captain Willoughby, motioning towards a chair so distant from the open door of the bed-room, and so placed as to remove the danger of too close a proximity—"Sit down—I wish to consult you about the state of things towards the mills. To me it seems as If there were more pale-faces than red-skins among our visitors."
"That's not onlikely, captain—the people has got to be greatly given to paintin' and imitatin', sin' the hatchet has been dug up ag'in the British. The tea-boys were all in Indian fashion."
"True; but, why should white men assume such a disguise to come to the Knoll? I am not conscious of having an enemy on earth who could meditate harm to me or mine."
Alas! poor captain. That a man at sixty should yet have to learn that the honest, and fair-dealing, and plain-dealing, and affluent—for captain Willoughby was affluent in the eyes of those around him—that such a man should imagine he was without enemies, was to infer that the Spirit of Darkness had ceased to exercise his functions among men. Joel knew better, though he did not perceive any necessity, just then, for letting the fact reach the ears of the party principally concerned.
"A body might s'pose the captain was pop'lar, if any man is pop'lar," answered the overseer; "nor do I know that visiters in paint betoken onpopularity to a person in these times more than another. May I ask why the captain consaits these Injins a'n't Injins? To me, they have a desperate savage look, though I a'n't much accustomed to red skin usages."
"Their movements are too open, and yet too uncertain, for warriors of the tribes. I think a savage, by this time, would have made up his mind to act as friend or foe."
Joel seemed struck with the idea; and the expression of his countenance, which on entering had been wily, distrustful and prying, suddenly changed to that of deep reflection.
"Has the captain seen anything else, partic'lar, to confirm this idee?" he asked.
"Their encampment, careless manner of moving, and unguarded exposure of their persons, are all against their being Indians."
"The messenger they sent across the meadow, yesterday, seemed to me to be a Mohawk?"
"He was. Of his being a real red-skin there can be no question. But he could neither speak nor understand English. The little that passed between us was in Low Dutch. Our dialogue was short; for, apprehensive of treachery, I brought it to a close sooner than I might otherwise have done."
"Yes; treachery is a cruel thing," observed the conscientious Joel; "a man can't be too strongly on his guard ag'in it. Does the captain ra'ally calcilate on defending the house, should a serious attempt be brought forward for the day?"
"Do I! That is an extraordinary question, Mr. Strides. Why have I built in this mode, if I have no such intention?—why palisaded?—why armed and garrisoned, if not in earnest?"
"I s'posed all this might have been done to prevent a surprise, but not in any hope of standin' a siege. I should be sorry to see all our women and children shut up under one roof, if the inimy came ag'in us, in airnest, with fire and sword."
"And I should be sorry to see them anywhere else. But, this is losing time. My object in sending for you, Joel, was to learn your opinion about the true character of our visiters. Have you any opinion, or information to give me, on that point?"
Joel placed his elbow on his knee, and his chin in the palm of his hand, and pondered on what had been suggested, with seeming good-will, and great earnestness.
"If any one could be found venturesome enough to go out with a flag," he at length remarked, "the whole truth might be come at, in a few minutes."
"And who shall I employ? Cheerfully would I go myself, were such a step military, or at all excusable in one in my situation."
"If the likes of myself will sarve yer honour's turn," put in Mike, promptly, and yet with sufficient diffidence as regarded his views of his own qualifications—"there'll be nobody to gainsay that same; and it isn't wilcome that I nade tell you, ye'll be to use me as ye would yer own property."
"I hardly think Mike would answer," observed Joel, not altogether without a sneer. "He scurce knows an Indian from a white man; when it comes to the paint, it would throw him into dreadful confusion."
"If ye thinks that I am to be made to believe in any more Ould Nicks, Misther Strhides, then ye're making a mistake in my nature. Let but the captain say the word, and I'll go to the mill and bring in a grist of them same, or l'ave my own body for toll."
"I do not doubt you in the least, Mike," captain Willoughby mildly observed; "but there will be no occasion, just now, of your running any such risks. I shall be able to find other truce-bearers."
"It seems the captain has his man in view," Joel said, keenly eyeing his master. "Perhaps 'tis the same I saw out with him last night. That's a reliable person, I do s'pose."
"You have hit the nail on the head. It was the man who was out last night, at the same time I was out myself, and his name is Joel Strides."
"The captain's a little musical, this morning—waal—if go I must, as there was two on us out, let us go to these savages together. I saw enough of that man, to know he is reliable; and if he'll go, I'll go."
"Agreed"—said Robert Willoughby, stepping into the library—"I take you at your word, Mr. Strides; you and I will run what risks there may be, in order to relieve this family from its present alarming state."
The captain was astounded, though he knew not whether to be displeased or to rejoice. As for Mike, his countenance expressed great dissatisfaction; for he ever fancied things were going wrong so long as Joel obtained his wishes. Strides, himself, threw a keen glance at the stranger, recognised him at a glance, and had sufficient self-command to conceal his discovery, though taken completely by surprise. The presence of the major, however, immediately removed all his objections to the proposed expedition; since, should the party prove friendly to the Americans, he would be safe on his own account; or, should it prove the reverse, a king's officer could not fail to be a sufficient protection.
"The gentleman's a total stranger to me," Joel hypocritically resumed; "but as the captain has belief in him, I must have the same. I am ready to do the ar'nd, therefore, as soon as it is agreeable."
"This is well, captain Willoughby," put in the major, in order to anticipate any objections from his father; "and the sooner a thing of this sort is done, the better will it be for all concerned. I am ready to proceed this instant; and I take it this worthy man—I think you called him Strides—is quite as willing."
Joel signified his assent; and the captain, perceiving no means of retreat, was fain to yield. He took the major into the bed-room, however, and held a minute's private discourse, when he returned, and bade the two go forth together.
"Your companion has his instructions, Joel," the captain observed, as they left the library together; "and you will follow his advice. Show the white flag as soon as you quit the gate; if they are true warriors, it must be respected."
Robert Willoughby was too intent on business, and too fearful of the reappearance and reproachful looks of Maud, to delay. He had passed the court, and was at the outer gate, before any of the garrison even noted his appearance among them. Here, indeed, the father's heart felt a pang; and, but for his military pride, the captain would gladly have recalled his consent. It was too late, however; and, squeezing his hand, he suffered his son to pass outward. Joel followed steadily, as to appearances, though not without misgivings as to what might be the consequences to himself and his growing family.
"I worship not the sun at noon, The wandering stars, the changing moon, The wind, the flood, the flame; I will not bow the votive knee To wisdom, virtue, liberty; There is no god, but God for me, Jehovah is his name."
So sudden and unexpected had been the passage of Robert Willoughby through the court, and among the men on post without the inner gates, that no one recognised his person. A few saw that a stranger was in their midst; but, under his disguise, no one was quick enough of eye and thought to ascertain who that stranger was. The little white flag that they displayed, denoted the errand of the messengers; the rest was left to conjecture.
As soon as captain Willoughby ascertained that the alarm of the morning was not likely to lead to any immediate results, he had dismissed all the men, with the exception of a small guard, that was stationed near the outer gait, under the immediate orders of serjeant Joyce. The latter was one of those soldiers who view the details of the profession as forming its great essentials; and when he saw his commander about to direct a sortie, it formed his pride not to ask questions, and to seem to know nothing about it. To this, Jamie Allen, who composed one of the guard, quietly assented; but it was a great privation to the three or four New England-men to be commanded not to inquire into the why and wherefore.
"Wait for orders, men, wait for orders," observed the serjeant, by way of quieting an impatience that was very apparent. "If his honour, the captain, wished us to be acquainted with his movements, he would direct a general parade, and lay the matter before us, as you know he always does, on proper occasions. 'Tis a flag going out, as you can see, and should a truce follow, we'll lay aside our muskets, and seize the plough-shares; should it be a capitulation—I know our brave old commander too well to suppose it possible—but should it be even that, we'll ground arms like men, and make the best of it."
"And should Joel, and the other man, who is a stranger to me, be scalped?" demanded one of the party.
"Then we'll avenge their scalps. That was the way with us, when my Lord Howe fell—'avenge his death! cried our colonel; and on we pushed, until near two thousand of us fell before the Frenchmen's trenches. Oh! that was a sight worth seeing, and a day to talk of!"
"Yes, but you were threshed soundly, serjeant, as I've heard from many that were there."
"What of that, sir! we obeyed orders. 'Avenge his death!' was the cry; and on we pushed, in obedience, until there were not men enough left in our battalion to carry the wounded to the rear."
"And what did you do with them?" asked a youth, who regarded the serjeant as another Caesar—Napoleon not having come into notice in 1776.
"We let them lie where they fell. Young man, war teaches us all the wholesome lesson that impossibilities are impossible to be done. War is the great schoolmaster of the human race; and a learned man is he who has made nineteen or twenty campaigns."
"If he live to turn his lessons to account"—remarked the first speaker, with a sneer.
"If a man is to die in battle, sir, he had better die with his mind stored with knowledge, than be shot like a dog that has outlived his usefulness. Every pitched battle carries out of the world learning upon learning that has been got in the field. Here comes his honour, who will confirm all I tell you, men. I was letting these men, sir, understand that the army and the field are the best schools on earth. Every old soldier will stick to that, your honour."
"We are apt to think so, Joyce—have the arms been inspected this morning?"
"As soon as it was light, I did that myself, sir."
"Flints, cartridge-boxes and bayonets, I hope?"
"Each and all, sir. Does your honour remember the morning we had the affair near Fort du Quesne?"
"You mean Braddock's defeat, I suppose, Joyce?"
"I call nothing a defeat, captain Willoughby. We were roughly handled that day, sir; but I am not satisfied it was a defeat. It is true, we fell back, and lost some arms and stores; but, in the main, we stuck to our colours, considering it was in the woods. No, sir; I do not call that a defeat, by any means."
"You will at least own we were hard pressed, and might have fared worse than we did, had it not been for a certain colonial corps, that manfully withstood the savages?"
"Yes, sir; that I allow. I remember the corps, and its commander, a colonel Washington, with your honour's permission."
"It was, indeed, Joyce. And do you happen to know what has became of this same colonel Washington?"
"It never crossed my mind to inquire, sir, as he was a provincial. I dare say he may have a regiment—or even a brigade by this time; and good use would he make of either."
"You have fallen far behind his fortunes, Joyce. The man is a commander-in-chief—a captain-general."
"Your honour is jesting—since many of his seniors are still living."
"This is the man who leads the American armies, in the war with England."
"Well, sir, in that way, he may indeed get a quick step, or two. I make no doubt, sir, so good a soldier will know how to obey orders."
"From which I infer you think him right, in the cause he has espoused?"
"Bless your honour, sir, I think nothing about it, and care nothing about it. If the gentleman has taken service with congress, as they call the new head-quarters, why he ought to obey congress; and if he serve the king, His Majesty's orders should be attended to."
"And, in this crisis, serjeant, may I ask in what particular service you conceive yourself to be, just at the present moment?"
"Captain Willoughby's, late of His Majesty's —-th Regiment of Foot, at your honour's command."
"If all act in the same spirit, Joyce, we shall do well enough at the Knoll, though twice as many savages brave us as are to be seen on yon rocks," returned the captain, smiling.
"And why should they no?" demanded Jamie Allen, earnestly. "Ye're laird here, and we've no the time, nor the grace, to study and understand the orthodoxy and heterodoxy of the quarrel atween the House of Hanover and the houses of these Americans; so, while we a'stand up for the house and household of our old maister, the Lord will smile on our efforts, and lead us to victory."
"Divil bur-r-n me, now, Jamie," said Mike, who having seen the major to the gate, now followed his father, in readiness to do him any good turn that might offer—"Divil bur-r-n me, now, Jamie, if ye could have said it better had ye just aised yer conscience to a proper praist, and were talking on a clane breast! Stick up for the captain, says I, and the Lord will be of our side!"
The serjeant nodded approbation of this sentiment, and the younger Pliny, who happened also to be within hearing, uttered the sententious word "gosh" and clenched his fist, which was taken as proof of assent also, on his part. But, the Americans of the guard, all of whom were the tools of Joel's and the miller's arts, manifested a coldness that even exceeded the usual cold manner of their class. These men meant right; but they had been deluded by the falsehoods, machinations, and frauds of a demagogue, and were no longer masters of their own opinions or acts. It struck the captain that something was wrong; but, a foreigner by birth himself, he had early observed, and long known, the peculiar exterior and phlegm of the people of the country, which so nearly resemble the stoicism of the aborigines, as to induce many writers to attribute both alike to a cause connected with climate. The present was not a moment however, nor was the impression strong enough to induce the master of the place to enter into any inquiries. Turning his eyes in the direction of the two bearers of the flag, he there beheld matter for new interest, completely diverting his thoughts from what had just passed.
"I see they have sent two men to meet our messengers serjeant," he said—"This looks as if they understood the laws of war."
"Quite true, your honour. They should now blindfold our party, and lead them within their own works, before they suffer them to see at all; though there would be no great advantage in it, as Strides is as well acquainted with every inch of that rock as I am with the manual exercise."
"Which would seem to supersede the necessity of the ceremony you have mentioned?"
"One never knows, your honour. Blindfolding is according to the rules, and I should blindfold a flag before I let him approach, though the hostile ranks stood drawn up, one on each side of a parade ground. Much is gained, while nothing is ever lost, by sticking to the rules of a trade."
The captain smiled, as did all the Americans of the guard; the last having too much sagacity not to perceive that a thing might be overdone, as well as too little attended to. As for Jamie and Mike, they both received the serjeant's opinions as law; the one from having tried the troops of the line at Culloden, and the other on account of divers experiences through which he had gone, at sundry fairs, in his own green island. By this time, however, all were too curious in watching the result of the meeting, to continue the discourse.
Robert Willoughby and Joel had moved along the lane towards the rocks, without hesitating, keeping their little flag flying. It did not appear that their approach produced any change among the savages, who were now preparing their breakfasts, until they had got within two hundred yards of the encampment, when two of the red-men, having first laid aside their arms, advanced to meet their visiters. This was the interview which attracted the attention of those at the Hut, and its progress was noted with the deepest interest.
The meeting appeared to be friendly. After a short conference, in which signs seemed to be a material agent in the communications, the four moved on in company, walking deliberately towards the rocks. Captain Willoughby had sent for his field-glass, and could easily perceive much that occuired in the camp, on the arrival of his son. The major's movements were calm and steady, and a feeling of pride passed over the father's heart, as he noted this, amid a scene that was well adapted to disturbing the equilibrium of the firmest mind. Joel certainly betrayed nervousness, though he kept close at his companion's side, and together they proceeded into the very centre of the party of strangers.
The captain observed, also, that this arrival caused no visible sensation among the red-men. Even those the major almost touched in passing did not look up to note his appearance, while no one seemed to speak, or in any manner to heed him. The cooking and other preparations for the breakfast proceeded precisely as if no one had entered the camp. The two who had gone forth to meet the flag alone attended its bearers, whom they led through the centre of the entire party; stopping only on the side opposite to the Hut, where there was an open space of flat rock, which it had not suited the savages to occupy.
Here the four halted, the major turning and looking back like a soldier who was examining his ground. Nor did any one appear disposed to interrupt him in an employment that serjeant Joyce pronounced to be both bold and against the usages of war to permit. The captain thought the stoicism of the savages amounted to exaggeration, and it renewed his distrust of the real characters of his visiters. In a minute or two, however, some three or four of the red-men were seen consulting together apart, after which they approached the bearers of the flag, and some communications passed between the two sides. The nature of these communications could not be known, of course, though the conference appeared to be amicable. After two or three minutes of conversation, Robert Willoughby, Strides, the two men who had advanced to meet them, and the four chiefs who had joined the group, left the summit of the rock in company, taking a foot-path that descended in the direction of the mills. In a short time they all disappeared in a body.