"Do you mean, Jamie, that the boys have deserted?"
"It's just that; and no need of ca'ing it by anither name. The Hoose o' Hanover wad seem to have put the de'il in a' the lads, women and children included, and to have raised up a spirit o' disaffection, that is fast leaving us to carry on this terrible warfare with our ain hearts and bodies."
"With your honour's permission," said the serjeant, "I would ask corporal Allen if the deserters have gone off with their arms and accoutrements?"
"Airms? Ay, and legs, and a' belonging to 'em, with mair that is the lawfu' property of the laird. Not so much as a flint is left behind."
"Then we may count on seeing all the fellows in the enemy's ranks," the serjeant quietly remarked, helping himself to the tobacco from which he had refrained throughout the previous hours of the night, Joyce being too much of a martinet to smoke or chew on duty. "It's up-hill work, your honour, when every deserter counts two, in this manner. The civil wars, however, are remarkable for this sort of wheeling, and facing to the right-about; the same man often changing his colours two or three times in a campaign."
Captain Willoughby received the news of this addition to his ill luck with an air of military stoicism, though he felt, in reality, more like a father and a husband on the occasion than like a hero. Accustomed to self-command, he succeeded in concealing the extent of his uneasiness, while he immediately set about inquiring into the extent of the evil.
"Joel is to join my watch," he said, "and he may throw some light on this affair. Let us call him, at once, for a few minutes may prove of importance."
Even while speaking, the captain crossed the court, accompanied by the serjeant and mason; and, ceremony being little attended to on such occasions, they all entered the quarters of Strides, in a body. The place was empty! Man, woman, and children had abandoned the spot, seemingly in a body; and this, too, far from empty-handed. The manner in which the room had been stripped, indeed, was the first fact which induced the captain to believe that a man so much and so long trusted would desert him in a strait so serious. There could be no mistake; and, for a moment, the husband and father felt such a sinking of the heart as would be apt to follow the sudden conviction that his enemies must prevail.
"Let us look further, Joyce," he said, "and ascertain the extent of the evil at once."
"This is a very bad example, your honour, that corporal Strides has set the men, and we may expect to hear of more desertions. A non- commissioned officer should have had too much pride for this! I have always remarked, sir, in the army, that when a non-commissioned officer left his colours, he was pretty certain to carry off a platoon with him."
The search justified this opinion of the serjeant. A complete examination of the quarters of all the men having been made, it was ascertained that every white man in the Hut, the serjeant, Jamie Allen, and a young New England labourer of the name of Blodget excepted, had abandoned the place. Every man had carried off with him his arms and ammunition, leaving the rooms as naked of defence as they had been before they were occupied. Women and children, too, were all gone, proving that the flights had been made deliberately, and with concert. This left the Hut to be defended by its owner, the serjeant, the two Plinys and a young descendant of the same colour, Jamie Allen, Blodget and Mike, who had not yet been relieved from his ward over the Indian; eight men in all, who might possibly receive some assistance from the four black females in the kitchen.
The captain examined this small array of force, every man but Mike being up and in the line, with a saddened countenance; for he remembered what a different appearance it made only the previous day, when he had his gallant son too, with him, a host in himself. It added mortification to regret, also, when he remembered that this great loss had been made without a single blow having been struck in defence of his precious family, and his lawful rights.
"We must close the gate of the court, and bar it at once, Joyce," the captain said, as soon as fully apprised of the true state of his force. "It will be quite sufficient if we make good the house, with this handful of men; giving up all hope of doing anything with the stockade. It is the facility offered by the open gateway that has led to all this mischief."
"I don't know, your honour. When desertion once fairly gets into a man's mind, it's wonderful the means he will find to bring about his wishes. Corporal Strides, no doubt has passed his family and his kit through both gates; for, being in authority, our people were hardly disciplined enough to understand the difference between a non- commissioned officer on guard and one off guard; but, there were a hundred ways to mischief, even had there been no gate. Jamie, take one of the blacks, and bar the inner gate. What is your honour's pleasure next?"
"I wish my mind were at ease on the subject of the Tuscarora. With Nick's assistance as a runner and spy, and even as a sharp-shooter, we should be vastly stronger. See to the gate yourself, serjeant, then follow me to Mr. Woods' room."
This was done, the captain waiting for his companion on the threshold of the outer door. Ascending the narrow stairs, they were soon on the floor above, and were happy to find the door of the Tuscarora's prison fastened without, as they had left it; this precaution having been taken as a salutary assistance to O'Hearn's sagacity. Undoing these fastenings, the serjeant stepped aside to allow his superior to precede him, as became their respective stations. The captain advanced, holding the lantern before him, and found an empty room. Both Nick and Mike were gone, though it was not easy to discover by what means they had quitted the place. The door was secure, the windows were down, and the chimney was too small to allow of the passage of a human body. The defection of the Irishman caused the captain great pain, while it produced surprise even in the serjeant. Mike's fidelity had been thought of proof; and, for an instant, the master of the place was disposed to believe some evil spirit had been at work to corrupt his people.
"This is more than I could have expected, Joyce!" he said, as much in sorrow as in anger. "I should have as soon looked for the desertion of old Pliny as that of Mike!"
"It is extr'or'nary, sir; but one is never safe without in-and-in discipline. A drill a week, and that only for an hour or two of a Saturday afternoon, captain Willoughby, may make a sort of country militia, but it will do nothing for the field. 'Talk of enlisting men for a year, serjeant Joyce,' said old colonel Flanker to me, one day in the last war—'why it will take a year to teach a soldier how to eat. Your silly fellows in the provincial assemblies fancy because a man has teeth, and a stomach, and an appetite, that he knows how to eat; but eating is an art, serjeant; and military eating above all other branches of it; and I maintain a soldier can no more learn how to eat, as a soldier, the colonel meant, your honour, than he can learn to plan a campaign by going through the manual exercise.' For my part, captain Willoughby, I have always thought it took a man his first five years' enlistment to learn how to obey orders."
"I had thought that Irishman's heart in the right place, Joyce, and counted as much on him as I did on you!"
"On me, captain Willoughby!" answered the serjeant, in a tone of mortification. "I should think your honour would have made some difference between your old orderly—a man who had served thirty years in your own regiment, and most of the time in your own company, and a bit of a wild Hibernian of only ten years' acquaintance, and he a man who never saw a battalion paraded for real service!"
"I see my error now, Joyce; but Michael had so much blundering honesty about him, or seemed to have, that I have been his dupe. It is too late, however, to repine; the fellow is gone; it only remains to ascertain the manner of his flight. May not Joel have undone the fastenings of the door, and let him and the Indian escape together, in common with the rest of the deserters?"
"I secured that door, sir, with my own hands, in a military manner, and know that it was found as I left it. The Rev. Mr. Woods' bed seems to have been disturbed; perhaps that may furnish a clue."
A clue the bed did furnish, and it solved the problem. The bed-cord was removed, and both the sheets and one of the blankets were missing. This directed the inquiry to the windows, one of which was not closed entirely. A chimney stood near the side of this window, and by its aid it was not difficult to reach the ridge of the roof. On the inner side of the roof was the staging, or walk, already mentioned; and, once on that, a person could make the circuit of the entire roof, in perfect safety. Joyce mounted to the ridge, followed by the captain, and gained the staging with a little effort, whence they proceeded round the buildings to ascertain if the rope was not yet hanging over the exterior, as a means of descent. It was found as expected, and withdrawn lest it might be used to introduce enemies within the house.
These discoveries put the matter of Michael's delinquency at rest. He had clearly gone off with his prisoner, and might next be looked for in the ranks of the besiegers. The conviction of this truth gave the captain more than uneasiness; it caused him pain, for the county Leitrim-man had been a favourite with the whole family, and most especially with his daughter Maud.
"I do not think you and the blacks will leave me, Joyce," he observed, as the serjeant and himself descended, by the common passage, to the court. "On you I can rely, as I would rely on my noble son, were he with me at this moment."
"I beg your honour's pardon—few words tell best for a man, deeds being his duty—but, if your honour will have the condescension just to issue your orders, the manner in which they shall be obeyed will tell the whole story."
"I am satisfied of that, serjeant; we must put shoulder to shoulder, and die in the breach, should it be necessary, before we give up the place."
By this time the two old soldiers were again in the court, where they found all their remaining force, of the male sex; the men being too uneasy, indeed, to think of going to their pallets, until better assured of their safety. Captain Willoughby ordered Joyce to draw them up in line again, when he addressed them once more in person.
"My friends," the captain commenced, "there would be little use in attempting to conceal from you our real situation; nor would it be strictly honest. You see here every man on whom I can now depend for the defence of my fireside and family. Mike has gone with the rest, and the Indian has escaped in his company. You can make up your own opinions of our chances of success, but my resolution is formed. Before I open a gate to the merciless wretches without, who are worse than the savages of the wilderness, possessing all their bad and none of their redeeming qualities, it is my determination to be buried under the ruins of this dwelling. But you are not bound to imitate my example; and, if any man among you, black or white, regrets being here at this moment, he shall still have arms and ammunition, and food given him, the gates shall be opened and he may go freely to seek his safety in the forest. For God's sake let there be no more desertions; he that wishes to quit me, may now quit me unmolested; but, after this moment, martial law will be, enforced, and I shall give orders to shoot down any man detected in treachery, as I would shoot down a vicious dog."
This address was heard in profound silence. No man stirred, nor did any man speak.
"Blodget," continued the captain, "you have been with me a shorter time than any other person present, and cannot feel the same attachment to me and mine as the rest. You are the only native American among us, Joyce excepted—for we count the blacks as nothing in respect to country—may feel that I am an Englishman born, as I fear has been the case with the rest of your friends. Perhaps I ought not to ask you to remain. Take your arms, then, and make the best of your way to the settlements. Should you reach Albany, you might even serve me essentially by delivering a letter I will confide to you, and which will bring us effectual succour."
The young man did not answer, though his fingers worked on the barrel of his musket, and he shifted his weight, from leg to leg, like one whose inward feelings were moved.
"I believe I understand you, captain Willoughby," he said, at length, "though I think you don't understand me. I know you old country people think meanly of us new country people, but I suppose that's in the nature of things; then, I allow Joel Strides' conduct has been such as to give you reason to judge us harshly. But there is a difference among us, as well as among the English; and some of us—won't say I am such a man, but actions speak louder than words, and all will be known in the end—but some of us will be found true to our bargains, as well as other men."
"Bravely answered, my lad," cried the serjeant, heartily, and looking round at his commander with exultation, to congratulate him on having such a follower—"This is a man who will obey orders through thick and thin, I'll answer for it, your honour. Little does he care who's king or who's governor, so long as he knows his captain and his corps."
"There you are mistaken, serjeant Joyce," the youth observed, firmly. "I'm for my country, and I'd quit this house in a minute, did I believe captain Willoughby meant to help the crown. But I have lived long enough here to know he is at the most neutral; though I think he rather favours the side of the colonies than that of the crown."
"You have judged rightly, Blodget," observed the captain. "I do not quite like this declaration of independence, though I can scarce blame congress for having made it. Of the two, I think the Americans nearest right, and I now conceive myself to be more of an American than an Englishman. I wish this to be understood, Joyce."
"Do you, sir?—It's just as your honour pleases. I didn't know which side it was your pleasure to support, nor does it make any great difference with most of us. Orders are orders, let them come from king or colonies. I would take the liberty of recommending, your honour, that this young man be promoted. Strides' desertion has left a vacancy among the corporals, and we shall want another for the guard. It would hardly do to make a nigger a corporal."
"Very well, Joyce, have it as you wish," interrupted the captain, a little impatiently; for he perceived he had a spirit to deal with in Blodget that must hold such trifles at their true value. "Let it be corporal Allen and corporal Blodget in future."
"Do you hear, men?—These are general orders. The relieved guard will fall out, and try to get a little sleep, as we shall parade again half an hour before day."
Alas! the relieved guard, like the relief itself, consisted of only two men, corporal Blodget and Pliny the younger; old Pliny, in virtue of his household work, being rated as an idler. These five, with the captain and the serjeant, made the number of the garrison seven, which was the whole male force that now remained.
Captain Willoughby directed Joyce and his two companions to go to their pallets, notwithstanding, assuming the charge of the look-out himself, and profiting by the occasion to make himself better acquainted with the character of his new corporal than circumstances had hitherto permitted.
"For thee they fought, for thee they fell, And their oath was on thee laid; To thee the clarions raised their swell, And the dying warriors pray'd."
The distaste for each other which existed between the people of New England and those of the adjoining colonies, anterior to the war of the revolution, is a matter of history. It was this feeling that threw Schuyler, one of the ablest and best men in the service of his country, into the shade, a year later than the period of which we are writing. This feeling was very naturally produced, and, under the circumstances, was quite likely to be active in a revolution. Although New England and New York were contiguous territories, a wide difference existed between their social conditions. Out of the larger towns, there could scarcely be said to be a gentry at all, in the former; while the latter, a conquered province, had received the frame-work of the English system, possessing Lords of the Manor, and divers other of the fragments of the feudal system. So great was the social equality throughout the interior of the New England provinces, indeed, as almost to remove the commoner distinctions of civilised associations, bringing all classes surprisingly near the same level, with the exceptions of the very low, or some rare instance of an individual who was raised above his neighbours by unusual wealth, aided perhaps by the accidents of birth, and the advantages of education.
The results of such a state of society are easily traced. Habit had taken the place of principles, and a people accustomed to see even questions of domestic discipline referred, either to the church or to public sentiment, and who knew few or none of the ordinary distinctions of social intercourse, submitted to the usages of other conditions of society, with singular distaste and stubborn reluctance. The native of New England deferred singularly to great wealth, in 1776 as he is known to defer to it to-day; but it was opposed to all his habits and prejudices to defer to social station. Unused to intercourse with what was then called the great world of the provinces, he knew not how to appreciate its manners or opinions; and, as is usual with the provincial, he affected to despise that which he neither practised nor understood. This, at once, indisposed him to acknowledge the distinctions of classes; and, when accident threw him into the adjoining province, he became marked, at once, for decrying the usages he encountered, comparing them, with singular self-felicitation, to those he had left behind him; sometimes with justice beyond a doubt, but oftener in provincial ignorance and narrow bigotry.
A similar state of things, on a larger scale, has been witnessed, more especially in western New York, since the peace of '83; the great inroads of emigrants from the New England states having almost converted that district of country into an eastern colony. Men of the world, while they admit how much has been gained in activity, available intelligence of the practical school, and enterprise, regret that the fusion has been quite so rapid and so complete; it being apparently a law of nature that nothing precious that comes of man shall be enjoyed altogether without alloy.
The condition in which captain Willoughby was now placed, might have been traced to causes connected with the feelings and habits above alluded to. It was distasteful to Joel Strides, and one or two of his associates, to see a social chasm as wide as that which actually existed between the family of the proprietor of the Knoll and his own, growing no narrower; and an active cupidity, with the hopes of confiscations, or an abandonment of the estate, came in aid of this rankling jealousy of station; the most uneasy, as it is the meanest of all our vices. Utterly incapable of appreciating the width of that void which separates the gentleman from the man of coarse feelings and illiterate vulgarity, he began to preach that doctrine of exaggerated and mistaken equality which says "one man is as good as another," a doctrine that is nowhere engrafted even on the most democratic of our institutions to-day, since it would totally supersede the elections, and leave us to draw lots for public trusts, as men are drawn for juries. On ordinary occasions, the malignant machinations of Strides would probably have led to no results; but, aided by the opinions and temper of the times, he had no great difficulty in undermining his master's popularity, by incessant and well-digested appeals to the envy and cupidity of his companions. The probity, liberality, and manly sincerity of captain Willoughby, often counteracted his schemes, it is true; but, as even the stone yields to constant attrition, so did Joel finally succeed in overcoming the influence of these high qualities, by dint of perseverance, and cunning, not a little aided by certain auxiliaries freely obtained from the Father of Lies.
As our tale proceeds, Joel's connection with the late movement will become more apparent, and we prefer leaving the remainder of the explanations to take their proper places in the course of the narrative.
Joyce was so completely a matter of drill, that he was in a sound sleep three minutes after he had lain down, the negro who belonged to his guard imitating his industry in this particular with equal coolness. As for the thoughtful Scotchman, Jamie Allen, sleep and he were strangers that night. To own the truth, the disaffection of Mike not only surprised, but it disappointed him. He remained in the court, therefore, conversing on the subject with the "laird," after his companions had fallen asleep.
"I wad na hae' thought that o' Michael," he said, "for the man had an honest way with him, and was so seeming valiant, that I could na hae' supposed him capable of proving a desairter. Mony's the time that I've heard him swear—for Michael was an awfu' hand at that vice, when his betters were no near to rebuke him—but often has he swore that Madam, and her winsome daughters, were the pride of his een; ay, and their delight too!"
"The poor fellow has yielded to my unlucky fortune, Jamie," returned the captain, "and I sometimes think it were better had you all imitated his example."
"Begging pairdon, captain Willoughby, for the familiarity, but ye're just wrang, fra' beginning to end, in the supposition. No man with a hairt in his body wad desairt ye in a time like this, and no mair 's to be said in the matter. Nor do I think that luuk has had anything to do with Michael's deficiency, unless ye ca' it luuk to be born and edicated in a misguiding religion. Michael's catholicity is at the bottom of his backsliding, ye'll find, if ye look closely into the maiter."
"I do not see how that is to be made out, Allen; all sects of the Christian religion, I believe, teaching us to abide by our engagements, and to perform our duties."
"Na doubt—na doubt, 'squire Willoughby—there's a seeming desire to teach as much in a' churches; but ye'll no deny that the creatur' o' Rome wears a mask, and that catholicity is, at the best, but a wicked feature to enter into the worship of God."
"Catholicism, Jamie, means adherence to the catholic church—"
"Just that—just that"—interrupted the Scot, eagerly—and it's that o' which I complain. All protestants—wather fully disposed, or ainly half-disposed, as may be the case with the English kirk—all protestants agree in condemning the varry word catholic, which is a sign and a symbol of the foul woman o' Babylon."
"Then, Jamie, they agree in condemning what they don't understand. I should be sorry to think I am not a member of the catholic church myself."
Yersal'!—No, captain Willoughby, ye're no catholic, though you are a bit akin to it, perhaps. I know that Mr. Woods, that's now in the hands o' the savages, prays for the catholics, and professes to believe in what he ca's the 'Holy Catholic Kirk;' but, then, I've always supposed that was in the way o' Christian charity like; for one is obleeged to use decent language, ye'll be acknowledging, sir, in the pulpit, if it's only for appearance's sake."
"Well—well—Jamie; a more fitting occasion may occur for discussing matters of this nature, and we will postpone the subject to another time. I may have need of your services an hour or two hence, and it will be well for every man to come to the work fresh and clear-headed. Go to your pallet then, and expect an early call."
The mason was not a man to oppose such an order coming from the 'laird;' and he withdrew, leaving the captain standing in the centre of the court quite alone. We say alone, for young Blodget had ascended to the gallery or staging that led around the inner sides of the roofs, while the negro on guard was stationed at the gateway, as the only point where the Hut could be possibly carried by a coup-de-main. As the first of these positions commanded the best exterior view from the inside of the buildings, the captain mounted the stairs he had so recently descended, and joined the young Rhode Islander at his post.
The night was star-light, but the elevation at which the two watchers were placed, was unfavourable to catching glimpses of any lurking enemy. The height confounded objects with the ground on which they were placed, though Blodget told the captain he did not think a man could cross the palisades without his being seen. By moving along the staging on the southern side of the quadrangle, he could keep a tolerable look- out, on the front and two flanks, at the same time. Still, this duty could not be performed without considerable risk, as the head and shoulders of a man moving along the ridge of the building would be almost certain to attract the eye of any Indian without. This was the first circumstance that the captain remarked on joining his companion, and gratitude induced him to point it out, in order that the other might, in a degree at least, avoid the danger.
"I suppose, Blodget, this is the first of your service," said captain Willoughby, "and it is not easy to impress on a young man the importance of unceasing vigilance against savage artifices."
"I admit the truth of all you say, sir," answered Blodget, "though I do not believe any attempt will be made on the house, until the other side has sent in what the serjeant calls another flag."
"What reason have you for supposing this?" asked the captain, in a little surprise.
"It seems unreasonable for men to risk their lives when an easier way to conquest may seem open to them. That is all I meant, captain Willoughby."
"I believe I understand you, Blodget. You think Joel and his friends have succeeded so well in drawing off my men, that they may be inclined to wait a little, in order to ascertain if further advantages may not be obtained in the same way."
Blodget confessed that he had some such thoughts in his mind, while, at the same time, he declared that he believed the disaffection would go no further.
"It is not easy for it to do so," returned the captain, smiling a little bitterly, as he remembered how many who had eaten of his bread, and had been cared for by him, in sickness and adversity, had deserted him in his need, "unless they persuade my wife and daughters to follow those who have led the way."
Respect kept Blodget silent for a minute; then uneasiness induced him to speak.
"I hope captain Willoughby don't distrust any who now remain with him," he said. "If so, I know I must be the person."
"Why you, in particular, young man? With you, surely, have every reason to be satisfied."
"It cannot be serjeant Joyce, for he will stay until he get your orders to march," the youth replied, not altogether without humour in his manner; "and, as for the Scotchman, he is old, and men of his years are not apt to wait so long, if they intend to be traitors. The negroes all love you, as if you were their father, and there is no one but me left to betray you."
"I thank you for this short enumeration of my strength, Blodget, since it gives me new assurance of my people's fidelity. You I will not distrust; the others I cannot, and there is a feeling of high confidence—What do you see?—why do you lower your piece, and stand at guard, in this manner?"
"That is a man's form, sir, on the right of the gate, trying to climb the palisades. I have had my eye on it, for some time, and I feel sure of my aim."
"Hold an instant, Blodget; let us be certain before we act."
The young man lowered the butt of his piece, waiting patiently and calmly for his superior to decide. There was a human form visible, sure enough, and it was seen slowly and cautiously rising until it reached the summit of the stockade, where it appeared to pause to reconnoitre. Whether it were a pale-face or a red-skin, it was impossible to distinguish, though the whole movement left little doubt that an assailant or a spy was attempting to pass the outer defences.
"We cannot spare that fellow," said the captain, with a little regret in his manner; "it is more than we can afford. You must bring him down, Blodget. The instant you have fired, come to the other end of the stage, where we will watch the result."
This arranged, the captain prudently passed away from the spot, turning to note the proceedings of his companion, the moment he was at the opposite angle of the gallery. Blodget was in no haste. He waited until his aim was certain; then the stillness of the valley was rudely broken by the sharp report of a rifle, and a flash illumined its obscurity. The figure fell outward, like a bird shot from its perch, lying in a ball at the foot of the stockade. Still, no cry or groan gave evidence of nature surprised by keen and unexpected anguish. At the next instant Blodget was by captain Willoughby's side. His conduct was a pledge of fidelity that could not be mistaken, and a warm squeeze of the hand assured the youth of his superior's approbation.
It was necessary to be cautious, however, and to watch the result with ceaseless vigilance. Joyce and the men below had taken the alarm, and the serjeant with his companions were ordered up on the stage immediately, leaving the negro, alone, to watch the gate. A message was also sent to the females, to give them confidence, and particularly to direct the blacks to arm, and to repair to the loops.
All this was done without confusion, and with so little noise as to prevent those without from understanding what was in progress. Terror kept the negroes silent, and discipline the others. As every one had lain down in his or her clothes, it was not a minute before every being in the Hut was up, and in motion. It is unnecessary to speak of the mental prayers and conflicting emotions with which Mrs. Willoughby and her daughters prepared themselves for the struggle; and, yet, even the beautiful and delicate Maud braced her nerves to meet the emergency of a frontier assault. As for Beulah, gentle, peaceful, and forgiving as she was by nature, the care of little Evert aroused all the mother within her, and something like a frown that betokened resolution was, for a novelty, seen on her usually placid face.
A moment sufficed to let Joyce and his companions into the state of affairs. There now being four armed men on the stage, one took each of the three exposed sides of the buildings to watch, leaving the master of the house to move from post to post, to listen to suggestions, hear reports, and communicate orders.
The dark object that lay at the foot of the palisades was pointed out to the serjeant the instant he was on the stage, and one of his offices was to observe it, in order to ascertain if it moved, or whether any attempts were made to carry off the body. The American Indians attach all the glory or shame of a battle to the acquisition or loss of scalps, and one of their practices was to remove those who had fallen, at every hazard, in order to escape the customary mutilation. Some tribes even believed it disgrace to suffer a dead body to be struck by the enemy, and many a warrior has lost his life in the effort to save the senseless corpse of a comrade from this fancied degradation.
As soon as the little stir created in the Hut by the mustering of the men was over, a stillness as profound as that which had preceded the alarm reigned around the place. No noise came from the direction of the mill; no cry, or call, or signal of battle was heard; everything lay in the quiet of midnight. Half an hour thus passed, when the streak of light that appeared in the east announced the approach of day.
The twenty minutes that succeeded were filled with intense anxiety. The slow approach of light gradually brought out object after object in the little panorama, awakening and removing alike, conjectures and apprehensions. At first the grey of the palisades became visible; then the chapel, in its sombre outlines; the skirts of the woods; the different cabins that lined them; the cattle in the fields, and the scattering trees. As for Joyce, he kept his gaze fastened on the object at the foot of the stockade, expecting every instant there would be an attempt to carry it off.
At length, the light became so strong as to allow the eye to take in the entire surface of the natural glacis without the defences, bringing the assurance that no enemy was near. As the ground was perfectly clear, a few fruit-trees and shrubs on the lawn excepted, and by changing positions on the stage, these last could now be examined on all sides, nothing was easier than to make certain of this fact. The fences, too, were light and open, rendering it impossible for any ambush or advancing party to shelter itself behind them. In a word, daylight brought the comfortable assurance to those within the palisades that another night was passed without bringing an assault.
"We shall escape this morning, I do believe, Joyce," said the captain, who had laid down his rifle, and no longer felt it necessary to keep the upper portions of his body concealed behind the roof—"Nothing can be seen that denotes an intention to attack, and not an enemy is near."
"I will take one more thorough look, your honour," answered the serjeant, mounting to the ridge of the building, where he obtained the immaterial advantage of seeing more at the same time, at the risk of exposing his whole person, should any hostile rifle be in reach of a bullet—"then we may be certain."
Joyce was a man who stood just six feet in his stockings, and, losing no part of this stature by his setting up, a better object for a sharp- shooter could not have been presented than he now offered. The crack of a rifle soon saluted the ears of the garrison; then followed the whizzing of the bullet as it came humming through the air towards the Hut. But the report was so distant as at once to announce that the piece was discharged from the margin of the forest; a certain evidence of two important facts; one, that the enemy had fallen back to a cover; the other, that the house was narrowly watched.
Nothing tries the nerves of a young soldier more than the whizzing of a distant fire. The slower a bullet or a shot approaches, the more noise it makes; and, the sound continuing longer than is generally imagined, the uninitiated are apt to imagine that the dangerous missile is travelling on an errand directly towards themselves. Space appears annihilated, and raw hands are often seen to duck at a round shot that is possibly flying a hundred yards from them.
On the present occasion, the younger Pliny fairly squatted below the root Jamie thought it prudent to put some of his own masonry, which was favourably placed in an adjacent chimney for such a purpose, between him and the spot whence the report proceeded; while even Blodget looked up into the air, as if he expected to see where the bullet was going. Captain Willoughby had no thought of the missile he was looking for the smoke in the skirts of the woods, to note the spot; while Joyce, with folded arms, stood at rest on the ridge, actually examining the valley in another direction, certain that a fire so distant could not be very dangerous.
Jamie's calculation proved a good one. The bullet struck against the chimney, indented a brick, and fell upon the shingles of the roof. Joyce descended at the next instant, and he coolly picked up, and kept tossing the flattened bit of lead in his hand, for the next minute or two, with the air of a man who seemed unconscious of having it at all.
"The enemy is besieging us, your honour," said Joyce, "but he will not attack at present. If I might presume to advise, we shall do well to leave a single sentinel on this stage, since no one can approach the palisades without being seen, if the man keeps in motion."
"I was thinking of this myself, serjeant; we will first post Blodget here. We can trust him; and, as the day advances, a-less intelligent sentinel will answer. At the same time, he must be instructed to keep an eye in the rear of the Hut, danger often coming from the quarter least expected."
All this was done, and the remainder of the men descended to the court. Captain Willoughby ordered the gate unbarred, when he passed outside, taking the direction towards the lifeless body, which still lay where it had fallen, at the foot of the stockades. He was accompanied by Joyce and Jamie Allen, the latter carrying a spade, it being the intention to inter the savage as the shortest means of getting rid of a disagreeable object. Our two old soldiers had none of the sensitiveness on the subject of exposure that is so apt to disturb the tyro in the art of war. With sentinels properly posted, they had no apprehensions of dangers that did not exist, and they moved with confidence and steadily wherever duty called. Not only was the inner gate opened and passed, but the outer also, the simple precaution of stationing a man at the first being the only safeguard taken.
When outside of the palisades, the captain and his companions proceeded at once towards the body. It was now sunrise, and a rich light was illuminating the hill-tops, though the direct rays of the luminary had not yet descended to the valley. There lay the Indian, precisely as he had fallen, no warrior having interposed to save him from the scalping- knife. His head had reached the earth first, and the legs and body were tumbled on it, in a manner to render the form a confused pile of legs and blanket, rather than a bold savage stretched in the repose of death.
"Poor fellow!" exclaimed the captain, as the three approached the spot; "it is to be hoped Blodget's bullet did its commission faithfully, else the fall must have hurt him sadly."
"By Jove, 'tis nothing but a stuffed soldier!" cried Joyce, rolling the ingeniously contrived bundle over with his foot; "and here, the lad's ball has passed directly through its head! This is Injin deviltry, sir; it has been tried, in order to see whether our sentinels were or were not asleep."
"To me, Joyce, it seems more like a white man's clumsiness. The fellow has been made to resemble an Indian, but people of our own colour have had a hand in the affair."
"Well, sir, let that be as it may, it is lucky our youngster had so quick, an eye, and so nimble a finger. See, your honour; here is the pole by which the effigy was raised to the top of the palisades, and here is the trail on the grass yet, by which his supporter has crept off. The fellow seems to have scrambled along in a hurry; his trail is as plain as that of a whole company."
The captain examined the marks left on the grass, and was of opinion that more than one man had been employed to set up the decoy figure, a circumstance that seemed probable in itself, when the weight of the image and the danger of exposure were remembered.—Let that be as it might, he was rejoiced on reflection that no one was hurt, and he still retained the hope of being able to come to such an understanding with his invaders as to supersede the necessity of actual violence.
"At all events, your honour, I will carry the quaker in," said Joyce, tossing the stuffed figure on a shoulder. "He do to man the quaker gun at least, and may be of use in frightening some one of the other side, more than he has yet frightened us."
Captain Willoughby did not object, though he reminded Joyce that the desertions had probably put the enemy in possession of a minute statement of their defences and force, including the history of the wooden gun. If Joel and his fellow-delinquents had joined the party at the mill, the name, age, character and spirit of every man remaining in the garrison were probably known to its leaders; and neither quakers nor paddies would count for much in opposing an assault.
The captain came within the gate of the palisades last, closing, barring, and locking it with his own hands, when all immediate apprehensions from the enemy ceased. He knew, certainly, that it would probably exceed his present means of resistance, to withstand a vigorous assault; but, on the other hand, he felt assured that Indians would never approach a stockade in open day, and expose themselves to the hazards of losing some fifteen or twenty of their numbers, before they could carry the place. This was opposed to all their notions of war, neither honour nor advantage tempting them to adopt it. As for the first, agreeably to savage notions, glory was to be measured by the number of scalps taken and lost; and, counting all the women left in the Hut, there would not be heads enough to supply a sufficient number to prove an offset to those which would probably be lost in the assault.
All this did the captain discuss in few words, with the serjeant, when he proceeded to join his anxious and expecting wife and daughters.
"God has looked down upon us in mercy, and protected us this night," said the grateful Mrs. Willoughby, with streaming eyes, as she received and returned her husband's warm embrace. "We cannot be too thankful, when we look at these dear girls, and our precious little Evert. If Robert were only with us now, I should be entirely happy!"
"Such is human nature, my little Maud"—answered the captain, drawing his darling towards himself and kissing her polished forehead. "The very thoughts of being in our actual strait would have made your mother as miserable as her worst enemy could wish—if, indeed, there be such a monster on earth as her enemy—and, now she protests she is delighted because our throats were not all cut last night. We are safe enough for the day I think, and not another night shall one of you pass in the Hut, if I can have my way. If there be such a thing as desertion, there is such a thing as evacuation also."
"Hugh!—What can you, do you mean! Remember, we are surrounded by a wilderness."
"I know our position reasonably well, wife of mine, and intend to turn that knowledge to some account, God willing, and aiding. I mean to place old Hugh Willoughby by the side of Xenophon and Washington, and let the world see what a man is capable of, on a retreat, when he has such a wife, two such daughters, and a grandson like that, on his hands. As for Bob, I would not have him here, on any account. The young dog would run away with half the glory."
The ladies were too delighted to find their father and husband in such spirits, to be critical, and all soon after sat down to an early breakfast, to eat with what appetite they could.
Yet I well remember The favours of these men: were they not mine? Did they not sometimes cry, all hail! to me? So Judas did to Christ: but he, in twelve Found truth in all but one; I in twelve thousand none.
That which captain Willoughby had said in seeming pleasantry he seriously meditated. The idea of passing another night in the Hut, supported by only six men, with more than ten times that number besieging him, and with all the secrets of his defences known, through the disaffection of his retainers, was, to the last degree, painful to him. Had his own life, alone, been at risk, military pride might have tempted him to remain; but his charge was far too precious to be exposed on account of considerations so vain.
No sooner, therefore, was the breakfast over, than captain summoned Joyce to a consultation on the contemplated movement. The interview took place in the library, whither the serjeant repaired, on receiving his superior's orders. As to the party without, no apprehension was felt, so long as the sentinels were even moderately vigilant, and the day lasted.
"I suppose, serjeant," commenced captain Willoughby, "a soldier of your experience is not to be taught what is the next resort of a commanding officer, when he finds himself unable to make good his ground against his enemy in front?"
"It is to retreat, your honour. The road that cannot be passed, must be turned."
"You have judged rightly. It is now my intention to evacuate the Hut, and to try our luck on a march to the rear. A retreat, skilfully executed, is a creditable thing; and any step appears preferable to exposing the dear beings in the other room to the dangers of a night assault."
Joyce appeared struck with the suggestion; though, if one might have judged from the expression of his countenance, far from favourably. He reflected a moment ere he answered.
"Did your honour send for me," he then inquired, "to issue orders for this retreat, or was it your pleasure to hear anything I might have to say about it?"
"The last—I shall give no orders, until I know your opinion of the measure."
"It is as much the duty of an inferior to speak his mind freely, when he is called for an opinion, captain Willoughby, as it is to obey in silence, when he gets nothing but orders. According to my views of the matter, we shall do better to stand our ground, and try to make good the house against these vagabonds, than to trust to the woods."
"Of course you have your reasons for this opinion, Joyce?"
"Certainly, your honour. In the first place, I suppose it to be against the rules of the art of war to evacuate a place that is well provisioned, without standing an assault. This we have not yet done. It is true, sir, that our ranks are thinned by desertions; but I never heard of a garrisoned town, or a garrisoned house, capitulating on account of a few deserters; and, I take it, evacuation is only the next step before capitulation."
"But our desertions, Joyce, have not been few, but many. Three times as many have left us, if we include our other losses, as remain. It matters not whence the loss proceeds, so long as it is a loss."
"A retreat, with women and baggage, is always a ticklish operation, your honour, especially if an enemy is pressing your rear! Then we have a wilderness before us, and the ladies could hardly hold out for so long a march as that from this place to the Mohawk; short of which river they will hardly be as safe as they are at present."
"I have had no such march in view, Joyce. You know there is a comfortable hut, only a mile from this very spot on the mountain side, where we commenced a clearing for a sheep-pasture, only three summers since. The field is in rich grass; and, could we once reach the cabin, and manage to drive a cow or two up there, we might remain a month in security. As for provisions and clothes, we could carry enough on our backs to serve us all several weeks; especially if assisted by the cows."
"I'm glad your honour has thought of this idea," said the serjeant, his face brightening as he listened; "it will be a beautiful operation to fall back on that position, when we can hold out no longer in this. The want of some such arrangement has been my only objection to this post, captain Willoughby; for, we have always seemed to me, out here in the wilderness, like a regiment drawn up with a ravine or a swamp in its rear."
"I am glad to find you relishing the movement for any cause, serjeant. It is my intention at present to make the necessary arrangements to evacuate the Hut, while it is light; and, as soon as it is dark, to retreat by the gates, the palisades, and the rivulet—How now, Jamie? You look as if there were news to communicate?"
Jamie Allen, in truth, had entered at that instant in so much haste as to have overlooked the customary ceremony of sending in his name, or even of knocking.
"News!" repeated the mason, with a sort of wondering smile "and it's just that I've come to bring. Wad ye think it, baith, gentlemen, that our people are in their am cabins ag'in, boiling their pots, and frying their pork, a' the same as if the valley was in a state of tranquillity, and we so many lairds waiting for them to come and do our pleasure!"
"I do not understand you, Jamie—whom do you mean by 'our people'?"
"Sure, just the desairters; Joel, and the miller, and Michael, and the rest."
"And the cabins—and the pots—and the pork—it is gibberish to me."
"I hae what ye English ca' an aiccent, I know; but, in my judgment, captain Willoughby, the words may be comprehended without a dictionary. It's just that Joel Strides, and Daniel the miller, and the rest o' them that fleed, the past night, have gane into their ain abodes, and have lighted their fires, and put over their pots and kettles, and set up their domestic habitudes, a' the same as if this Beaver Dam was ain o' the pairks o' Lonnon!"
"The devil they have! Should this be the case, serjeant, our sortie may be made at an earlier hour than that mentioned. I never will submit to such an insult."
Captain Willoughby was too much aroused to waste many words; and, seizing his hat, he proceeded forthwith to take a look for himself. The stage, or gallery on the roofs, offering the best view, in a minute he and his two companions were on it.
"There; ye'll be seein' a smoke in Joel's habitation, with your own een; and, yon is anither, in the dwelling of his cousin Seth," said Jamie, pointing in the direction he named.
"Smoke there is, of a certainty; but the Indians may have lighted fires in the kitchen, to do their own cooking. This looks like investing us, serjeant, rather more closely than the fellows have done before."
"I rather think not, your honour—Jamie is right, or my eyes do not know a man from a woman. That is certainly a female in the garden of Joel, and I'll engage it's Phoebe, pulling onions for his craving stomach, the scoundrel!"
Captain Willoughby never moved without his little glass, and it was soon levelled at the object mentioned.
"By Jupiter, you are right, Joyce"—he cried. "It is Phoebe, though the hussy is coolly weeding, not culling the onions! Ay—and now I see Joel himself! The rascal is examining some hoes, with as much philosophy as if he were master of them, and all near them. This is a most singular situation to be in!"
This last remark was altogether just. The situation of those in the Hut was now singular indeed. Further examination showed that every cabin had its tenant, no one of the party that remained within the palisades being a householder. By using the glass, and pointing it, in succession, at the different dwellings, the captain in due time detected the presence of nearly every one of the deserters. Not a man of them all, in fact, was missing, Mike alone excepted. There they were, with their wives and children, in quiet possession of their different habitations. Nor was this all; the business of the valley seemed as much on their minds as had been their practice for years. Cows were milked, the swine were fed, poultry was called and cared for, and each household was also making the customary preparations for the morning meal.
So absorbed was the captain with this extraordinary scene, that he remained an hour on the staging, watching the course of events. The breakfasts were soon over, having been later than common, and a little hurried; then commenced the more important occupations of the day. A field was already half ploughed, in preparation for a crop of winter grain; thither Joel himself proceeded, with the necessary cattle, accompanied by the labourers who usually aided him in that particular branch of husbandry. Three ploughs were soon at work, with as much regularity and order as if nothing had occurred to disturb the tranquillity of the valley. The axes of the wood-choppers were next heard, coming out of the forest, cutting fuel for the approaching winter; and a half-finished ditch had its workmen also, who were soon busy casting up the soil, and fashioning their trench. In a word, all the suspended toil was renewed with perfect system and order.
"This beats the devil himself, Joyce!" said the captain, after a half- hour of total silence. "Here are all these fellows at work as coolly as if I had just given them their tasks, and twice as diligently. Their unusual industry is a bad symptom of itself!"
"Your honour will remark one circumstance. Not a rascal of them all comes within the fair range of a musket, for, as to throwing away ammunition at such distances, it would be clearly unmilitary, and might be altogether useless."
"I have half a mind to scatter them with a volley"—said the captain, doubtingly. "Bullets would take effect among those ploughmen, could they only be made to hit."
"And amang the cattle, too," observed the Scotsman, who had an eye on the more economical part of the movement, as well as on that which was military. "A ball would slay a horse as well as a man in such a skairmish."
"This is true enough, Jamie; and it is not exactly the sort of warfare I could wish, to be firing at men who were so lately my friends. I do not see, Joyce, that the rascals have any arms with them?"
"Not a musket, sir. I noticed that, when Joel first detailed his detachments. Can it be possible that the savages have retired?"
"Not they; else would Mr. Strides and his friends have gone with them. No, serjeant, there is a deep plan to lead us into some sort of ambush in this affair, and we will be on the look-out for them."
Joyce stood contemplating the scene for some, time, in profound silence, when he approached the captain formally, and made the usual military salute; a ceremony he had punctiliously observed, on all proper occasions, since the garrison might be said to be placed under martial law.
"If it's your honour's pleasure," he said, "I will detail a detachment, and go out and bring in two or three of these deserters; by which means we shall get into their secrets."
"A detachment, Joyce!" answered the captain, eyeing his subordinate a little curiously—"What troops do you propose to tell-off for the service?"
"Why, your honour, there's corporal Allen and old Pliny off duty; I think the thing might be done with them, if your honour would have the condescension to order corporal Blodget, with the two other blacks, to form as a supporting party, under the cover of one of the fences."
"A disposition of my force that would leave captain Willoughby for a garrison! I thank you, serjeant, for your offer and gallantry, but prudence will not permit it. We may set down Strides and his companions as so many knaves, and——"
"That may ye!" cried Mike's well-known voice, from the scuttle that opened into the garrets, directly in front of which the two old soldiers were conversing—"That may ye, and no har-r-m done the trut', or justice, or for that matther, meself. Och! If I had me will of the blackguards, every rogue of 'em should be bound hand and fut and laid under that pratthy wather-fall, yon at the mill, until his sins was washed out of him. Would there be confessions then?—That would there; and sich letting out of sacrets as would satisfy the conscience of a hog!"
By the time Mike had got through this sentiment he was on the staging, where he stood hitching up his nether garment, with a meaning grin on his face that gave a peculiar expression of heavy cunning to the massive jaw and capacious mouth, blended with an honesty and good- nature that the well-meaning fellow was seldom without when he addressed any of the captain's family. Joyce glanced at the captain, expecting orders to seize the returned run-away; but his superior read at once good faith in the expression of his old retainer's countenance.
"You have occasioned us a good deal of surprise, O'Hearn, on more accounts than one," observed the captain, who thought it prudent to assume more sternness of manner than his feelings might have actually warranted. "You have not only gone off yourself, but you have suffered your prisoner to escape with you. Then your manner of getting into the house requires an explanation. I shall hear what you have to say before I make up my mind as to your conduct."
"Is it spake I will?—That will I, and as long as it plase yer honour to listen. Och! Isn't that Saucy Nick a quare one? Divil burn me if I thinks the likes of him is to be found in all Ameriky, full as it is of Injins and saucy fellies! Well, now, I suppose, sarjeant, ye've set me down as sin riding off with Misther Joel and his likes, if ye was to open yer heart, and spake yer thrue mind?"
"You have been marked for a deserter, O'Hearn, and one, too, that deserted from post."
"Post! Had I been that, I shouldn't have stirred, and ye'd be wanting in the news I bring ye from the Majjor, and Mr. Woods, and the savages, and the rest of the varmints."
"My son!—Is this possible, Michael? Have you seen him, or can you tell us anything of his state?"
Mike now assumed a manner of mysterious importance, laying a finger on his nose, and pointing towards the sentinel and Jamie.
"It's the sarjeant that I considers as one of the family," said the county Leitrim-man, when his pantomime was through, "but it isn't dacent to be bawling out sacrets through a whole nighbourhood; and then, as for Ould Nick—or Saucy Nick, or whatever ye calls him—Och! isn't he a pratthy Injin! Ye'll mar-r-ch t'rough Ameriky, and never see his aiquel!"
"This will never do, O'Hearn. Whatever you have to say must be said clearly, and in the simplest manner. Follow to the library, where I will hear your report. Joyce, you will accompany us."
"Let him come, if he wishes to hear wonderful achaivements!" answered Mike, making way for the captain to descend the steps; then following himself, talking as he went. "He'll niver brag of his campaigns ag'in to the likes of me, seeing that I've outdone him, ten—ay, forty times, and boot. Och! that Nick's a divil, and no har-r-m said!"
"In the first place, O'Hearn," resumed the captain, as soon as the three were alone in the library—"you must explain your own desertion."
"Me!—Desart! Sure, it isn't run away from yer honour, and the Missus, and Miss Beuly, and pratthy Miss Maud, and the child, that's yer honour's m'aning?"
This was said with so much nature and truth, that the captain had not the heart to repeat the question, though Joyce's more drilled feelings were less moved. The first even felt a tear springing to his eye, and he no longer distrusted the Irishman's fidelity, as unaccountable as his conduct did and must seem to his cooler judgment. But Mike's sensitiveness had taken the alarm, and it was only to be appeased by explanations.
"Yer honour's not sp'aking when I questions ye on that same?" he resumed, doubtingly.
"Why, Mike, to be sincere, it did look a little suspicious when you not only went, off yourself, but you let the Indian go off with you."
"Did it?"—said Mike, mus'ng—"No, I don't allow that, seein' that the intent and object was good. And, then, I never took the Injin wid me; but 'twas I, meself, that went wid him."
"I rather think, your honour," said Joyce, smiling, "we'll put O'Hearn's name in its old place on the roster, and make no mark against him at pay-day."
"I think it will turn out so, Joyce. We must have patience, too, and let Mike tell his story in his own way."
"Is it tell a story, will I? Ah!—Nick's the cr'ature for that same! See, he has given me foor bits of sticks, every one of which is to tell a story, in its own way. This is the first; and it manes let the captain into the sacret of your retrait; and how you got out of the windie, and how you comes near to breaking yer neck by a fall becaase of the fut's slipping; and how ye wint down the roof by a rope, the divil a bit fastening it to yer neck, but houlding it in yer hand with sich a grip as if 'twere the fait' of the church itself; and how Nick led ye to the hole out of which ye hot' wint, as if ye had been two cats going t'rough a door!"
Mike stopped to grin and look wise, as he recounted the manner of the escape, the outlines of which, however, were sufficiently well known to his auditors before he, began.
"Throw away that stick, now, and let us know where this hole is, and what you mean by it."
"No"—answered Mike, looking at the stick, in a doubting manner—"I'll not t'row it away, wid yer honour's l'ave, 'till I've told ye how we got into the brook, forenent the forest, and waded up to the woods, where we was all the same as if we had been two bits of clover tops hid in a haymow. That Nick is a cr'ature at consailment!"
"Go on," said the captain, patiently, knowing that there was no use in hurrying one of Mike's peculiar mode of communicating his thoughts. "What came next?"
"That will I; and the r'ason comes next, as is seen by this oder stick. And, so, Nick and meself was in the chaplain's room all alone, and n'ither of us had any mind to dhrink; Nick becaase he was a prisoner and felt crass, and full of dignity like; and meself becaase I was a sentinel; and sarjeant Joyce, there, had tould me, the Lord knows how often, that if I did my duty well, I might come to be a corporal, which was next in rank to himself; barring, too, that I was a sentinel, and a drunken sentinel is a disgrace to a man, sowl and body, and musket."
"And so neither of you drank?"—put in the captain, by way of a reminder.
"For that same r'ason, and one betther still, as we had nothin' to dhrink. Well, says Nick—'Mike,' says he—'you like cap'in, and Missus, and Miss Beuly, and Miss Maud, and the babby?' Divil burn ye, Nick,' says I, 'why do ye ask so foolish a question? Is it likes ye would know? Well—then just ask yerself if you likes yer own kith and kin, and ye've got yer answer.'"
"And Nick made his proposal, on getting this answer," interrupted the captain, "which was—"
"Here it is, on the stick. 'Well,' says Nick, says he—'run away wid Nick, and see Majjor; bring back news. Nick cap'in friend, but cap'in don't know it—won't believe'—Fait', I can't tell yer honour all Nick said, in his own manner; and so, wid yer Pave, I'll just tell it in my own way."
"Any way, Mike, so that you do but tell it."
"Nick's a cr'ature! His idee was for us two to get out of the windie, and up on the platform, and to take the bedcord, and other things, and slide down upon the ground—and we did it! As sure as yer honour and the sarjeant is there, we did that same, and no bones broke! 'Well,' says I, 'Nick, ye're here, sure enough, but how do you mane to get out of here? Is it climb the palisades ye will, and be shot by a sentinel?'—if there was one, which there wasn't, yer honour, seeing that all had run away—'or do ye mane to stay here,' says I, 'and be taken a prisoner of war ag'in, in which case ye'll be two prisoners, seem' that ye've been taken wonst already, will ye Nick?' says I. So Nick never spoke, but he held up his finger, and made a sign for me to follow, as follow I did; and we just crept through the palisade, and a mhighty phratty walk we had of it, alang the meadies, and t'rough the lanes, the rest of the way."
"You crept through the palisades, Mike! There is no outlet of sufficient size."
"I admits the hole is a tight squaze, but 'twill answer. And then it's just as good for an inlet as it is for an outlet, seein' that I came t'rough it this very marnin'. Och! Nick's a cr'ature! And how d'ye think that hole comes there, barring all oversights in setting up the sticks?"
"It has not been made intentionally, I should hope, O'Hearn?"
"'Twas made by Joel, and that by just sawing off a post, and forcin' out a pin or two, so that the palisade works like a door. Och! it's nately contrived, and it manes mischief."
"This must be looked to, at once," cried the captain; "lead the way, Mike, and show us the spot."
As the Irishman was nothing loth, all three were soon in the court, whence Mike led the way through the gate, round to the point where the stockade came near the cliffs, on the eastern side of the buildings. This was the spot where the path that led down to the spring swept along the defences, and was on the very route by which the captain contemplated retreating, as well as on that by which Maud had entered the Hut, the night of the invasion. At a convenient place, a palisade had been sawed off, so low in the ground that the sods, which had been cut and were moveable, concealed the injury, while the heads of the pins that ought to have bound the timber to the cross-piece, were in their holes, leaving everything apparently secure. On removing the sods, and pushing the timber aside, the captain ascertained that a man might easily pass without the stockade. As this corner was the most retired within the works, there was no longer any doubt that the hole had been used by all the deserters, including the women and children. In what manner it became known to Nick, however, still remained matter of conjecture.
Orders were about to be given to secure this passage, when it occurred to the captain it might possibly be of use in effecting his own retreat. With this object in view, then, he hastened away from the place, lest any wandering eye without might detect his presence near it, and conjecture the cause. On returning to the library, the examination of Mike was resumed.
As the reader must be greatly puzzled with the county Leitrim-man's manner of expressing himself, we shall relate the substance of what he now uttered, for the sake of brevity. It would seem that Nick had succeeded in persuading Mike, first, that he, the Tuscarora, was a fast friend of the captain and his family, confined by the former, in consequence of a misconception of the real state of the Indian's feelings, much to the detriment of all their interests; and that no better service could be rendered the Willoughbys than to let Nick depart, and for the Irishman to go with him. Mike, however, had not the slightest idea of desertion, the motive which prevailed on him to quit the Hut being a desire to see the major, and, if possible, to help him escape. As soon as this expectation was placed before his eyes, Mike became a convert to the Indian's wishes. Like all exceedingly zealous men, the Irishman had an itching propensity to be doing, and he was filled with a sort of boyish delight at the prospect of effecting a great service to those whom he so well loved, without their knowing it. Such was the history of Michael's seeming desertion; that of what occurred after he quitted the works remains to be related.
The Tuscarora led his companion out of the Hut, within half an hour after they had been left alone together, in the room of Mr. Woods. As this was subsequently to Joel's flight, Nick, in anticipation of this event, chose to lie in ambush a short time, in order to ascertain whether the defection was likely to go any further. Satisfied on this head, he quietly retired towards the mill. After making a sufficient detour to avoid being seen from the house, Nick gave himself no trouble about getting into the woods, or of practising any of the expedients of a time of real danger, as had been done by all of the deserters; but he walked leisurely across the meadows, until he struck the highway, along which he proceeded forthwith to the rocks. All this was done in a way that showed he felt himself at home, and that he had no apprehensions of falling into an ambush. It might have arisen from his familiarity with the ground; or, it might have proceeded from the consciousness that he was approaching friends, instead of enemies.
At the rocks, however, Nick did not deem it wise to lead Mike any farther, without some preliminary caution. The white man was concealed in one of the clefts, therefore, while the Indian pursued his way alone. The latter was absent an hour; at the end of that time he returned, and, after giving Mike a great many cautions about silence and prudence, he led him to the cabin of the miller, in the buttery of which Robert Willoughby was confined. To this buttery there was a window; but, as it was so small as to prevent escape, no sentinel had been placed on the outside of the building. For his own comfort, too, and in order to possess his narrow lodgings to himself, the major had given a species of parole, by which he was bound to remain in duresse, until the rising of the next sun. Owing to these two causes, Nick had been enabled to approach the window, and to hold communications with the prisoner. This achieved, he returned to the rocks, and led Mike to the same spot.
Major Willoughby had not been able to write much, in consequence of the darkness. That which he communicated, accordingly, had to pass through the fiery ordeal of the Irishman's brains. As a matter of course it did not come with particular lucidity, though Mike did succeed in making his auditors comprehend this much.
The major was substantially well treated, though intimations had been given that he would be considered as a spy. Escape seemed next to impossible; still, he should not easily abandon the hope. From all he had seen, the party was one of that irresponsible character that would render capitulation exceedingly hazardous, and he advised his father to hold out to the last. In a military point of view, he considered his captors as contemptible, being without a head; though many of the men:—the savages in particular—appeared to be ferocious and reckless. The whole party was guarded in discourse, and little was said in English, though he was convinced that many more whites were present than he had at first believed. Mr. Woods he had not seen, nor did he know anything of his arrest or detention.
This much Mike succeeded in making the captain comprehend, though a great deal was lost through the singular confusion that prevailed in the mind of the messenger. Mike however, had still another communication, which we reserve for the ears of the person to whom it was especially sent.
This news produced a pause in captain Willoughby's determination. Some of the fire of youth awoke within him, and he debated with himself on the possibility of making a sortie, and of liberating his son, as a step preliminary to victory; or, at least, to a successful retreat. Acquainted with every foot of the ground, which had singular facilities for a step so bold, the project found favour in his eyes each minute, and soon became fixed.
Yet I well remember The favours of these men: were they not mine? Did they not sometimes cry, all hail! to me? So Judas did to Christ: but he, in twelve Found truth in all but one; I in twelve thousand none.
While the captain and Joyce were digesting their plans Mike proceeded on an errand of peculiar delicacy with which he had been entrusted by Robert Willoughby. The report that he had returned flew through the dwellings, and many were the hearty greetings and shakings of the hand that the honest fellow had to undergo from the Plinys and Smashes, ere he was at liberty to set about the execution of this trust. The wenches, in particular, having ascertained that Mike had not broken his fast, insisted on his having a comfortable meal, in a sort of servants' hall, before they would consent to his quitting their sight. As the county Leitrim-man was singularly ready with a knife and fork, he made no very determined opposition, and, in a few minutes, he was hard at work, discussing a cold ham, with the other collaterals of a substantial American breakfast.
The blacks, the Smashes inclusive, had been seriously alarmed at the appearance of the invading party. Between them and the whole family of red-men there existed a sort of innate dislike; an antipathy that originated in colour, and wool, and habits, and was in no degree lessened by apprehensions on the score of scalps.
"How you look, ole Plin, widout wool?" Big Smash had reproachfully remarked, not five minutes before Mike made his appearance in the kitchen, in answer to some apologetic observation of her husband, as to the intentions of the savages being less hostile than he had at first imagined; "why you say dey no murder, and steal and set fire, when you know dey's Injin! Natur' be natur'; and dat I hear dominie Woods say t'ree time one Sunday. What 'e dominie say often, he mean, and dere no use in saying dey don't come to do harm."
As Great Smash was an oracle in her own set, there was no gainsaying her dogmas, and Pliny the elder was obliged to succumb. But the presence of Mike, one who was understood to have been out, near, if not actually in, the enemy's camp, and a great favourite in the bargain, was a circumstance likely to revive the discourse. In fact, all the negroes, crowded into the hall, as soon as the Irishman was seated at table, one or two eager to talk, the rest as eager to listen.
"How near you been to sabbage, Michael?" demanded Big Smash, her two large coal-black eyes seeming to open in a degree proportioned to her interest in the answer.
"I wint as nigh as there was occasion, Smash, and that was nigher than the likes of yer husband there would be thinking of travelling. Maybe 'twas as far as from my plate here to yon door; maybe not quite so far. They 're a dhirty set, and I wish to go no nearer."
"What dey look like, in 'e dark?" inquired Little Smash—"Awful as by daylight?"
"It's not meself that stopped to admire 'em. Nick and I had our business forenent us, and when a man is hurried, it isn't r'asonable to suppose he can kape turning his head about to see sights."
"What dey do wid Misser Woods?—What sabbage want wid dominie?"
"Sure enough, little one; and the question is of yer own asking. A praist, even though he should be only a heretic, can have no great call for his sarvices, in sich a congregation. And, I don't think the fellows are blackguards enough to scalp a parson."
Then followed a flood of incoherent questions that were put by all the blacks in a body, accompanied by divers looks ominous of the most serious disasters, blended with bursts of laughter that broke out of their risible natures in a way to render the medley of sensations as ludicrous as it was strange. Mike soon found answering a task too difficult to be attempted, and he philosophically came to a determination to confine his efforts to masticating.
Notwithstanding the terror that actually prevailed among the blacks, it was not altogether unmixed with a resolution to die with arms in their hands, in preference to yielding to savage clemency. Hatred, in a measure, supplied the place of courage, though both sexes had insensibly imbibed some of that resolution which is the result of habit, and of which a border life is certain to instil more or less into its subjects, in a form suited to border emergencies. Nor was this feeling confined to the men; the two Smashes, in particular, being women capable of achieving acts that would be thought heroic under circumstances likely to arouse their feelings.
"Now, Smashes," said Mike, when, by his own calculation, he had about three minutes to the termination of his breakfast before him, "ye'll do what I tells ye, and no questions asked. Ye'll find the laddies, Missus, and Miss Beuly, and Miss Maud, and ye'll give my humble respects to 'em all—divil the bit, now, will ye be overlooking either of the t'ree, but ye'll do yer errand genteely and like a laddy yerself—and ye'll give my jewty and respects to 'em all, I tells ye, and say that Michael O'Hearn asks the honour of being allowed to wish 'em good morning."
Little Smash screamed at this message; yet she went, forthwith, and delivered it, making reasonably free with Michael's manner and gallantry in so doing.
"O'Hearn has something to tell us from Robert"—said Mrs. Willoughby, who had been made acquainted with the Irishman's exploits and return; "he must be suffered to come in as soon as he desires."
With this reply, Little Smash terminated her mission.
"And now, laddies and gentlemen," said Mike, with gravity, as he rose to quit the servants' hall, "my blessing and good wishes be wid ye. A hearty male have I had at yer hands and yer cookery, and good thanks it desarves. As for the Injins, jist set yer hearts at rest, as not one of ye will be scalp'd the day, seeing that the savages are all to be forenent the mill this morning, houlding a great council, as I knows from Nick himself. A comfortable time, then, ye may all enjoy, wid yer heads on yer shoulters, and yer wool on yer heads."
Mike's grin, as he retreated, showed that he meant to be facetious, having all the pleasantry that attends a full stomach uppermost in his animal nature at that precise moment. A shout rewarded this sally, and the parties separated with mutual good humour and good feeling. In this state of mind, the county Leitrim-man was ushered into the presence of the ladies. A few words of preliminary explanations were sufficient to put Mike in the proper train, when he came at once to his subject.
"The majjor is no way down-hearted," he said, "and he ordered me to give his jewty and riverence, and obligations, to his honoured mother and his sisters. 'Tell 'em, Mike,' says he, says the majjor, 'that I feels for 'em, all the same as if I was their own fader; and tell 'em,' says he, 'to keep up their spirits, and all will come right in the ind. This is a throublesome wor-r-ld, but they that does their jewties to God and man, and the church, will not fail, in the long run, to wor-r-k their way t'rough purgatory even, into paradise.'"
"Surely my son—my dear Robert—never sent us such a message as this, Michael?"
"Every syllable of it, and a quantity moor that has slipped my memory," answered the Irishman, who was inventing, but who fancied he was committing a very pious fraud—"'Twould have done the Missuses heart good to have listened to the majjor, who spoke more in the charackter of a praist, like, than in that of a souldier."
All three of the ladies looked a little abashed, though there was a gleam of humour about the mouth of Maud, that showed she was not very far from appreciating the Irishman's report at its just value. As for Mrs. Willoughby and Beulah, less acquainted with Mike's habits, they did not so readily penetrate his manner of substituting his own desultory thoughts for the ideas of others.
"As I am better acquainted with Mike's language, dear mother"— whispered Maud—"perhaps it will be well if I take him into the library and question him a little between ourselves about what actually passed. Depend on it, I shall get the truth."
"Do, my child, for it really pains me to hear Robert so much misrepresented—and, as Evert must now begin to have ideas, I really do not like that his uncle should be so placed before the dear little fellow's mind."
Maud did not even smile at this proof of a grandmother's weakness, though she felt and saw all its absurdity. Heart was ever so much uppermost with the excellent matron, that it was not easy for those she loved to regard anything but her virtues; and least of all did her daughter presume to indulge in even a thought that was ludicrous at her expense. Profiting by the assent, therefore, Maud quietly made a motion for Mike to follow, and proceeded at once to the room she had named.
Not a word was exchanged between the parties until both were in the library, when Maud carefully closed the door, her face pale as marble, and stood looking inquiringly at her companion. The reader will understand that, Mr. Woods and Joyce excepted, not a soul at the Hut, out of the limits of the Willoughby connection, knew anything of our heroine's actual relation to the captain and his family. It is true, some of the oldest of the blacks had once some vague notions on the subject; but their recollections had become obscured by time, and habit was truly second nature with all of the light-hearted race.
"That was mighty injanious of you, Miss Maud!" Mike commenced, giving one of his expressive grins again, and fairly winking. "It shows how fri'nds wants no spache but their own minds. Barrin' mistakes and crass-accidents, I'm sartain that Michael O'Hearn can make himself understood any day by Miss Maud Willoughby, an' niver a word said."
"Your success then, Mike, will be greater at dumb-show than it always is with your tongue," answered the young lady, the blood slowly returning to her cheek, the accidental use of the name of Willoughby removing the apprehension of anything immediately embarrassing; "what have you to tell me that you suppose I have anticipated?"
"Sure, the like o' yees needn't be tould, Miss Maud, that the majjor bad me spake to ye by yerself, and say a word that was not to be overheerd by any one else."
"This is singular—extraordinary even—but let me know more, though the messenger be altogether so much out of the common way!"
"I t'ought ye 'd say that, when ye come to know me. Is it meself that 's a messenger? and where is there another that can carry news widout spilling any by the way? Nick's a cr'ature, I allows; but the majjor know'd a million times bhetter than to trust an Injin wid sich a jewty. As for Joel, and that set of vagabonds, we'll grind 'em all in the mill, before we've done wid 'em. Let 'em look for no favours, if they wishes no disapp'intment."
Maud sickened at the thought of having any of those sacred feelings connected with Robert Willoughby that she had so long cherished in her inmost heart, rudely probed by so unskilful a hand; though her last conversation with the young soldier had told so much, even while it left so much unsaid, that she could almost kneel and implore Mike to be explicit. The reserve of a woman, notwithstanding, taught her how to preserve her sex's decorum, and to maintain appearances.
"If major Willoughby desired you to communicate anything to me, in particular," she said, with seeming composure, "I am ready to hear it."
"Divil the word did he desire, Miss Maud, for everything was in whispers between us, but jist what I'm about to repait. And here's my stick, that Nick tould me to kape as a reminderer; it 's far bhetter for me than a book, as I can't read a syllable. 'And now, Mike,' says the majjor, says he, 'conthrive to see phratty Miss Maud by herself'——"
"Pretty Miss Maud!" interrupted the young lady, involuntarily.
"Och! it's meself that says that, and sure there 's plenty of r'ason for it; so we'll agree it's all right and proper—'phratty Miss Maud by herself, letting no mortal else know what you are about. That was the majjor's."
"It is very extraordinary!—Perhaps it will be better Michael, if you tell me nothing but what is strictly the major's. A message should be delivered as nearly like the words that were actually sent as possible."
"Wor-r-ds!—And it isn't wor-r-ds at all, that I have to give ye."
"If not a message in words, in what else can it be?—Not in sticks, surely."
"In that"—cried Mike, exultingly—"and, I'll warrant, when the trut' comes out, that very little bit of silver will be found as good as forty Injin scalps."
Although Mike put a small silver snuff-box that Maud at once recognised as Robert Willoughby's property into the young lady's hand, nothing was more apparent than the circumstance that he was profoundly ignorant of the true meaning of what he was doing. The box was very beautiful, and his mother and Beulah had often laughed at the major for using an article that was then deemed de rigueur for a man of extreme ton, when all his friends knew he never touched snuff. So far from using the stimulant, indeed, he never would show how the box was opened, a secret spring existing; and he even manifested or betrayed shyness on the subject of suffering either of his sisters to search for the means of doing so.
The moment Maud saw the box, her heart beat tumultuously. She had a presentiment that her fate was about to be decided. Still, she had sufficient self-command to make an effort to learn all her companion had to communicate.
"Major Willoughby gave you this box," she said, her voice trembling in spite of herself. "Did he send any message with it? Recollect yourself; the words may be very important."
"Is it the wor-r-ds? Well, it's little of them that passed between us, barrin' that the Injins was so near by, that it was whisper we did, and not a bit else."
"Still there must have been some message."
"Ye are as wise as a sarpent, Miss Maud, as Father O'Loony used to tell us all of a Sunday! Was it wor-r-ds!—Give that to Miss Maud,' says the majjor, says he, 'and tell her she is now misthress of my sacret."
"Did he say this, Michael?—For heaven's sake, be certain of what you tell me."
"Irish Mike—Masser want you in monstrous hurry," cried the youngest of the three black men, thrusting his glistening lace into the door, announcing the object of the intrusion, and disappearing almost in the same instant.
"Do not leave me, O'Hearn," said Maud, nearly gasping for breath, "do not leave me without an assurance there is no mistake."
"Divil bur-r-n me if I 'd brought the box, or the message, or anything like it, phretty Miss Maud, had I t'ought it would have done this har- r-m."
"Michael O'Hearn," called the serjeant from the court, in his most authoritative military manner, and that on a key that would not brook denial.
Mike did not dare delay; in half a minute Maud found herself standing alone, in the centre of the library, holding the well-known snuff-box of Robert Willoughby in her little hand. The renowned caskets of Portia had scarcely excited more curiosity in their way than this little silver box of the major's had created in the mind of Maud. In addition to his playful evasions about letting her and Beulah pry into its mysteries, he had once said to herself, in a grave and feeling manner, "When you get at the contents of this box, dear girl, you will learn the great secret of my life." These words had made a deep impression at the time—it was in his visit of the past year—but they had been temporarily forgotten in the variety of events and stronger sensations that had succeeded. Mike's message, accompanied by the box itself, however, recalled them, and Maud fancied that the major, considering himself to be in some dangerous emergency, had sent her the bauble in order that she might learn what that secret was. Possibly he meant her to communicate it to others. Persons in our heroine's situation feel, more than they reason; and it is possible Maud might have come to some other conclusion had she been at leisure, or in a state of mind to examine all the circumstances in a more logical manner.
Now she was in possession of this long-coveted box—coveted at least so far as a look into its contents were concerned—Maud not only found herself ignorant of the secret by which it was opened, but she had scruples about using the means, even had she been in possession of them. At first she thought of carrying the thing to Beulah, and of asking if she knew any way of getting at the spring; then she shrunk from the exposure that might possibly attend such a step. The more she reflected, the more she felt convinced that Robert Willoughby would not have sent her that particular box, unless it were connected with herself, in some way more than common; and ever since the conversation in the painting-room she had seen glimmerings of the truth, in relation to his feelings. These glimmerings too, had aided her in better understanding her own heart, and all her sentiments revolted at the thought of having a witness to any explanation that might relate to the subject. In every event she determined, after a few minutes of thought, not to speak of the message, or the present, to a living soul.
In this condition of mind, filled with anxiety, pleasing doubts, apprehensions, shame, and hope, all relieved, however, by the secret consciousness of perfect innocence, and motives that angels might avow, Maud stood, in the very spot where Mike had left her, turning the box in her hands, when accidentally she touched the spring, and the lid flew open. To glance at the contents was an act so natural and involuntary as to anticipate reflection.
Nothing was visible but a piece of white paper, neatly folded, and compressed into the box in a way to fill its interior. "Bob has written," thought Maud—"Yet how could he do this? He was in the dark, and had not pen or paper!" Another look rendered this conjecture still more improbable, as it showed the gilt edge of paper of the quality used for notes, an article equally unlikely to be found in the mill and in his own pocket. "Yet it must be a note," passed through her mind, "and of course it was written before he left the Hut—quite likely before he arrived—possibly the year before, when he spoke of the box as containing the evidence of the great secret of his life."
Maud now wished for Mike, incoherent, unintelligible, and blundering as he was, that she might question him still further as to the precise words of the message. "Possibly Bob did not intend me to open the-box at all," she thought, "and meant merely that I should keep it until he could return to claim it. It contains a great secret; and, because he wishes to keep this secret from the Indians, it does not follow that he intends to reveal it to me. I will shut the box again, and guard his secret as I would one of my own."
This was no sooner thought than it was done. A pressure of the lid closed it, and Maud heard the snap of the spring with a start. Scarcely was the act performed ere she repented it. "Bob would not have sent the box without some particular object," she went on to imagine; "and had he intended it not to be opened, he would have told as much to O'Hearn. How easy would it have been for him to say, and for Mike to repeat, 'tell her to keep the box till I ask for it—it contains a secret, and I wish my captors not to learn it.' No, he has sent the box with the design that I should examine its contents. His very life may depend on my doing so; yes, and on my doing so this minute!"
This last notion no sooner glanced athwart our heroine's mind, than she began diligently to search for the hidden spring. Perhaps curiosity had its influence on the eagerness to arrive at the secret, which she now manifested; possibly a tenderer and still more natural feeling lay concealed behind it all. At any rate, her pretty little fingers never were employed more nimbly, and not a part of the exterior of the box escaped its pressure. Still, the secret spring eluded her search. The box had two or three bands of richly chased work on each side of the place of opening, and amid these ornaments Maud felt certain that the little projection she sought must lie concealed. To examine these, then, she commenced in a regular and connected manner, resolved that not a single raised point should be neglected. Accident, however, as before, stood her friend; and, at a moment when she least expected it, the lid flew back, once more exposing the paper to view.
Maud had been too seriously alarmed about re-opening the box, to hesitate a moment now, as to examining its contents. The paper was removed, and she began to unfold it slowly, a slight tremor passing through her frame as she did so. For a single instant she paused to scent the delightful and delicate perfume that seemed to render the interior sacred; then her fingers resumed their office. At each instant, her eyes expected to meet Robert Willoughby's well known handwriting. But the folds of the paper opened on a blank. To Maud's surprise, and, for a single exquisitely painful moment, she saw that a lock of hair was all the box contained, besides the paper in which it was enveloped. Her look became anxious, and her face pale; then the eyes brightened, and a blush that might well be likened to the tints with which the approach of dawn illumines the sky, suffused her cheeks, as, holding the hair to the light, the long ringlets dropped at length, and she recognised one of those beautiful tresses, of which so many were falling at that very moment, in rich profusion around her awn lovely face. To unloosen her hair from the comb, and to lay the secret of Bob Willoughby by its side, in a way to compare the glossy shades, was the act of only a moment; it sufficed, however, to bring a perfect conviction of the truth. It was a memorial of herself, then, that Robert Willoughby so prized, had so long guarded with care, and which he called the secret of his life!