Had Perez Hamlin been her sweetheart, her brother, her dearest friend, the announcement that he was to be captured and brought to Stockbridge for punishment would not have come upon her with a greater effect of consternation. After hearing that news it would have been impossible for her to have retained her composure sufficiently to have avoided remark had she remained in the parlor. But there were other reasons why she had fled to the seclusion of her chamber. It was necessary that she should think of some plan to evade the humiliation of being confronted by him, of being reminded by his presence, by his looks, and maybe his words even, of the weak folly of which she was so cruelly ashamed, and which she was trying to forget about. Desperately, she resolved to make some excuse to fly to Pittsfield, to be away from home when Perez was brought in. But no, she could think of no excuse, not even the wildest pretense for thus precipitately leaving a house full of guests, and taking a journey by dangerous roads to make an uninvited visit. Perez must be warned, he must escape, he must not be captured. Thus only could she see any way to evade meeting him. But how could word be got to him? They marched at dawn. There were but a few hours. There was his family. Surely, if they were warned, they would find a way of communicating with him. She had heard that he had a brother. Whatever she did she must do quickly, before she was missed from the parlor and her mother came to her door to ask if she were sick. There was no time to change her dress, or even her shoes. Throwing a big shawl over her head, which quite concealed her figure, she noiselessly made her way downstairs, and out into the snowy street, passing, as she went, close under the lighted windows of the parlor, whence came the sound of the voices and laughter of guests who, no doubt, were already wondering at her absence.
Thanks to the amount of travel of late weeks, the snow in the street had been trodden to a passable condition. But blinded by the darkness every now and then, with a gasp and a flounder, she would step out of the path into the deep snow on either side, and once hearing a sleigh coming along, she had to plunge into a drift nearly as high as her waist, and stand there till the vehicle had passed, with the snow freezing her ankles, and also ruining, as she well knew, her lovely morocco shoes. Suddenly a tall figure loomed up close before her, there was a rattle of accoutrements, and a rough voice said sharply:
She stopped, all in a tremble. She had quite forgotten that the streets were now-a-days guarded by regular lines of sentries.
"Advance and give the countersign," said the soldier.
At first she gave herself quite up for lost. Then she remembered that by the merest chance in the world she knew the countersign for that night. The officer of the day had playfully asked her to name it, and in honor of the patriotic citizens of the capital who had lent to the empty treasury the money needed to equip and supply the force of militia the governor had ordered out, she had given "The Merchants of Boston." Scarcely believing that so simple a formula could remove this formidable obstacle from her path, she repeated it in a tremulous voice. "Pass on," said the sentry, and the way was clear. Now turning out of the main street, she made her way slowly and pantingly, rather wading than walking up the less trodden lane leading to the Hamlins' house, through whose windows shines the flickering light of the fire on the hearth within, the only species of evening illumination afforded in those days save in the households of the rich.
She pulls the latchstring and enters. The miserable fittings of the great kitchen denote extreme poverty, but the great fire of logs in the chimney is such as the richest, in these days of wasted forests, cannot afford, and the ruddy light illumines the room as all the candles in Stockbridge scarcely could do. Before it sit Elnathan and his wife and Reuben. The shawl which Desire wears is thickly flecked with the snow, through which she has stumbled, and instinctively her first motion on entering the room is to open and shake it, thereby revealing to the eyes of the astonished family the toilet of a fashionable beauty. Her hair is built up over a toupee with a charming effect of stateliness, the dusting of powder upon the dark strands bringing out the rich bloom of her brunette complexion. The shoulders gleam through the meshes of the square of ancient yellow lace that covers them, while the curves of the full young figure and the white roundness of the arms, left bare by the elbow sleeves, are set off in charming contrast by the stiff folds of the figured crimson brocade.
"Miss Edwards!" murmurs Mrs. Hamlin, as Elnathan and Reuben gape in speechless bewilderment.
"Yes, it is I," replied Desire, coming forward a few steps, but still keeping in the back of the room. "I came to tell you that the army is going to march at dawn to-morrow to Lee, to take your son, and all who are with him prisoners, and bring them back here to be punished." There was a moment's silence, then Mrs. Hamlin said:
"How do you know it?"
"I was told so ten minutes since by the officers at my father's house," replied Desire.
"And why do you tell us?" asked Mrs. Hamlin again, regarding her keenly from beneath her bushy grey eyebrows, and speaking with a certain slight hardness of tone, as if half suspicious of a warning from such a source.
"I thought if I told you in time, you might get some word to him so he could get away. The countersign is 'The Merchants of Boston.'"
Mrs. Hamlin's face suddenly changed its expression, and she answered slowly, in a tone of intense, suppressed feeling:
"And so you left them gay gentlemen, and waded through the snow all alone half a mile way out here, all in your pretty clothes, so that no harm might come to my boy. God bless you, my child! God bless you with his choicest blessings, my sweet young lady! My son does well to worship the ground you walk on."
It was an odd sensation, but as the gray-haired woman was speaking, her face aglow with tenderness, and her eyes wet with a mother's gratitude, Desire could not help half wishing she had deserved the words, even though that wish implied her being really in love with this woman's son. It was not without emotion, and eyes to which a responsive wetness had sprung that she exclaimed, with a gesture of deprecation:
"No, no, do not thank me. If you knew all, you would not thank me. I am not so good as you think," and, throwing the door open she sprang out into the snow.
When she reentered the parlor at home, the silver-dialed clock, high upon the wall, accused her of only an hour's absence, and since nobody but herself knew that her feet were quite wet through, there were no explanations to make. But for the first time she wearied a little of her courtiers. She found their compliments insipid and her repartees were slow. Her thoughts were wandering to that poor home where all undeservedly she had been received as an angel of light; and her anxieties were with the messenger stumbling along the half broken road to Lee to carry the warning. When, at last, Squire Edwards proposed that all should fill their punch-glasses and drain to the success of the morrow's expedition, she set down hers untasted, passing off her omission with some excuse. That night toward morning, though it was yet pitch dark, she was awakened by the noise of opening doors and men's boots, and loud talk; and afterwards hearing a heavy, jarring sound, she looked out the window and descried in the road, a long black column moving rapidly along, noiseless save for now and then a hoarse word of command. It was the expedition setting out for Lee. The impressiveness of this silent, formidable departure gave her a new sense of the responsibility she had taken on herself in frustrating the design of so many grave and weighty men, and interfering with issues of life and death. And then for the first time a dreadful thought occurred to her. What if after all there should be a battle? She had only thought of giving Perez warning, so he might fly with his men, but what if he should take advantage of it to prepare an ambush and fight? She had not thought of that. Jonathan was with the expedition. What if she should prove to be the murderer of her brother? What had she done? Sick at heart, she lay awake trembling till dawn. Then she got up and dressed, and waited about miserably, till toward eight o'clock the news of the result came. Then she laughed till she cried and ended by saying that she would go to bed, for she thought she was going to be sick. And she was right. Her mother wondered how she could have taken such a terrible cold.
But leaving Dr. Partridge to cure her cold with calomel and laudanum, after the manner of the day, let us inquire in a historical spirit what it was in the news of the result at Lee which should cause a young woman to laugh so immoderately.
It had been nearly midnight of the preceding evening, when Reuben wearily and slowly making his way along the dark and difficult road, reached Lee, and was directed at the rebel outposts to the house of Mrs. Perry as the place which Perez occupied as a headquarters. Although it was so late, the rebel commander, too full of anxious and brooding thoughts to sleep, was still sitting before the smouldering fire in the kitchen chimney when Reuben staggered in.
"Reub," he cried, starting up as he recognized his brother, "what's the matter? Has anything happened at home?"
"Nothing bad. I've brought you news. Have you got some rum? I'm pretty tired."
Perez found a demijohn, poured out a mug, and watched his brother with anxious eyes as he gulped it down. Presently, a little color came back to his white face, and he said:
"Now I feel better. It was a hard road. I felt like giving out once or twice. But I'm all right now."
"What made you come, Reub? You're not strong yet. It might have killed you."
"I had to, Perez. It was life or death for you. The army at Stockbridge are going to surprise you at sunrise. I came to warn you. Desire Edwards brought us word."
"What!" exclaimed Perez, his face aglow. "She brought you word? Do you mean that?"
"Jess hole on, and I'll tell you how it was," said Reub, with a manner almost as full of enthusiasm as his brother's. "It was nigh bedtime, and we were setting afore the fire a talking 'bout you, and a hopin you'd get over the line into York; when the door opened, an in come Desire Edwards, all dressed up in a shiny gaown, an her hair fixed, an everything like as to a weddin. I tell yew, Perez, my eyes stood out some. An afore we could say nothing, we wuz so flustered, she up an says as haow she hearn them ossifers tew her haouse tellin haow they wuz gonter s'prise ye in the mornin, an so she come ter tell us, thinkin we mout git word ter ye."
"Did she say that, Reub? Did she say those words? Did she say that about me? Are you sure?" interrupted Perez, in a hushed tone of incredulous ecstasy, as he nervously gripped his brother's shoulder.
"Them wuz her words, nigh es I kin reckullec," replied Reub, "an that 'bout yew she said for sartin. She said we wuz ter sen' word ter ye, so's ye mout git away, an then she guv me the countersign for ter say tew the sentries, so's I could git by ter fetch ye word."
"To think of her doing all that for me, Reub. I can't believe it. It's too much. Because you see, Reub, if she'd take all that trouble for me, it shows--it shows--I think it must be she"--he hesitated, and finally gulped out--"cares for me, Reub," and his eyes filled with tears.
"Ye may say so, for sartin, Perez," replied his brother with sympathetic enthusiasm. "A gal wouldn' dew what she did for no feller, unless she sat store by him, naow. It's a sign fer sure."
"Reub," said Perez, in a voice uneven with suppressed emotion, "now I know she cares for me that much, I don't mind a snap of the finger what happens to me. If they came to hang me this minute, I should laugh in their faces," and he sprang up and paced to and fro, with fixed eyes and a set smile, and then, still wearing the same look came back and sat down by his brother, and said: "I sort of hoped she cared for me before, but it seemed most too much to believe. You don't know how I feel, Reub. You can't think, nohow."
"Yes I can," said Reuben, quietly; "I guess ye feel suthin ez I uster baout Jemimy, sorter light inside an so pleased like ye don't keer a copper ef ye live or die. Yes, I know mor'n ye think I dew baout the feelin's a feller hez long o' women, on'y ye see it didn't come ter nothin with Jemimy, fer wen my fust crop failed, an I was tuk for debt, Peleg got her arter all."
"I didn't think 'bout Jemimy, Reub," said Perez, softly. In the affluence of his own happiness, he was overwhelmed with compassion for his brother. He was stricken by the patient look upon his pale face. "Never mind, Reub," he said. "Don't be downhearted. You and me 'll stand by each other, an mebbe it'll be made up to ye some time," and he laid his arm tenderly on the other's shoulder.
"I on'y spoke on't 'cause o' what ye said 'bout my not under-standin," said Reuben, excusing himself for having made a demand on the other's compassion. "She never guv me no sech reasin ter think she set store by me ez ye've hed ter night 'long o' Desire Edwards. I wuzn't a comparin on us, nohow."
There was a space of silence finally disturbed by a noise of boots in an adjoining room and presently Abner Rathbun stumped out. Abner had escaped at the West Stockbridge rout and having made his way to Perez, at Lee, had been forgiven his desertion by the latter and made his chief lieutenant and adviser.
"Hello, Reub," he exclaimed. "Whar'd ye drop from? Heard so much talkin, callated suthin must a happened, an turned out ter see what it wuz. Fetched any news, hev ye Reub? Spit it aout. Guess it muss be pooty good, or the cap'n would'n be lookin so darned pleased."
"The news I fetched is that the army in Stockbridge is going to attack you to-morrow at dawn."
Abner's jaw fell. He looked from Reuben to Perez, whose face as he gazed absently at the coals on the hearth still wore the smile which had attracted his attention. This seemed to decide him, for as he turned again to Reub, he said, shrewdly:
"Yew can't fool me with no gum-game o' that sort. I guess Perez wouldn't be grinnin that ar way ef he callated we wuz gonter be all chawed up afore mornin."
"Reuben tells the truth. They are going to attack us in the morning," said Perez, looking up. Abner stared at him a moment, and then demanded half-sullen, half-puzzled:
"Wal, Cap'n, wat dew ye see tew larf at in that? Derned ef I see nothin funny."
"Your glum mug would be enough to laugh at if there was nothing else Abner," said Perez, getting up and gayly slapping the giant on the shoulder.
"I s'pose ye must hev got some plan in yer head fer gittin the best on em," suggested Abner, at last, evidently racking his brains to suggest a hypothesis to explain his commander's untimely levity.
"No, Abner," replied Perez, "I have not thought of any plan yet. What do you think about the business?"
"I'm afeard thar ain't no dependin on the men fer a scrimmage. I callate they'll scatter ez soon's the news gits raound that the white feathers be comin, 'thout even waitin fer em tew git in sight," was Abner's gloomy response.
"I shouldn't be at all surprised if they did. I don't believe there's a dozen in the lot we could depend on," said Perez cheerfully.
"Wat's the matter with ye, Cap'n," burst out Abner, in desperation. "I can't make aout wat's come over ye. Ye talk 's though ye didn' keer a Bungtaown copper wether we fit or run, or stayed an got hung, but jess set thar a grinnin tew yerself ez if ye'd loss yer wits."
Perez laughed again, but checking himself, replied: "I s'pose I do seem a little queer, Abner, but you mustn't mind that. I hope I haven't lost my wits quite. Let's see, now," he went on in a businesslike tone, with the air of one abruptly enforcing a new direction upon his thoughts. "We could get up the men and retreat to the mountains by morning, but two-thirds would desert before we'd marched two miles, and slink away home, and the worst of it is the poor chaps would be arrested and abused when they got home."
"That's sartin so, Cap'n," said Abner, his anxiety for Perez' sanity evidently diminishing.
"It's a shame to retreat, too, with such a position to defend. Why, Abner, just look at it. The snow is three to four feet deep in the fields and woods, and the enemy can only come in on the road. That road is just like a causeway through a swamp or a bridge. They can't go off it without snowshoes. With half a company that I could depend on, I'd defend it against a regiment. If I wanted breastworks all I've got to do is to dig paths in the snow. I could hold Lee till the snow melts or till they took it by zig-zags and parallels through the drifts. But there's no use talking about any such thing, for there's no fight left in the men, not a bit. If they had ever so little grit left, we might hold out long enough at least to get some sort of fair terms, but, Lord they haven't. They'll just run like sheep."
"Ef we on'y hed a cannon naow, ef 'twan't but a three-pounder!" said Abner, pathetically. "We could jess sot it in the middle of the road, and all creation couldn't get intew Lee. Yew an I could stop em alone then. Gosh naow wat wouldn't I give fer a cannon the size o' Mis Perry's yarn-beam thar. Ef the white feathers seen a gun the size o' that p'inted at em an a feller behind it with a hot coal, I callate they'd be durn glad tew 'gree tew a fa'r settlement. But Lordomassy, gosh knows we hain't got no cannon, and we can't make one."
"I don't know about that, Abner," replied Perez, deliberately. His glance had followed Abner's to the loom standing in the back of the kitchen, and as he answered his lieutenant he was fixedly regarding the very yarn-beam to which the other had alluded, a round, smooth, dark colored wooden roller, five or six feet long and eight or ten inches through.
But perhaps it will be better to let Dr. Partridge tell the rest of the story as he related it nearly three weeks later for the amusement of Desire during her convalescence from the cold and fever through which he had brought her.
"It was pitch dark when we left Stockbridge," said the doctor, "and allowing a good hour for the march owing to the state of the road, the General calculated we should reach Lee about dawn and catch the rascals taking their beauty sleep. It was excessively cold and our fingers began to grow numb very soon, and if anybody touched the iron part of his gun without the mittens he would leave a piece of skin behind. But you see we had just heard of General Lincoln's thirty-mile night march from Hadley to Petersham in even worse weather, and for the credit of Berkshire, we had to keep on if we froze to death. We met nobody until we were within half a mile of Lee. Then we overhauled one of the rebel sentries, and captured him, though not till he had let off his gun. Then we heard the drum beating in the town. There was nothing to do but to hurry on as fast as we could. And so we did for about ten minutes more when somebody said, 'There they are.' Sure enough, about twenty rods off, where the road enters the village was a black mass of men occupying its entire breadth with a man on horseback in front whom I took for Hamlin. We kept on a little longer and then the General ordered us to halt, and Squire Woodbridge rode forward within easy speaking distance of the rebels and began to read the riot act. But he had no sooner begun than Hamlin made a gesture, and a drum struck up lustily among the rebels, drowning the Squire's voice. Nevertheless he made an end of the reading so that we might proceed legally and thereupon the General ordered the men to fix bayonets and gave the order to march. Then it seemed that the rebels were about to retire, for their line fell back a little and already our men had given a cheer when a sharp-eyed fellow in the front rank sang out:
"'They've got a cannon!' And when we looked, sure enough the slight falling back of the rebels we had noted, had only been to uncover a piece of artillery which was planted squarely in the middle of the road, pointing directly at us. A man with a smoking brazier of coals stood by the breech, and another, whom by his size I took to be Abner Rathbun, with a pair of tongs held a bright coal which he had taken from it. It being yet rather dark, though close on sunrise, we could plainly see the redness of the coal the fellow held in the tongs above the touchhole of the gun, and ticklish near, it seemed, I can say. I know not to this day, and others say the same, whether any one gave the order to halt or not, but it is certain we stopped square, nor were those behind at all disposed to push forward such as were in front, for there is this about cannon balls that is different from musket balls. The front rank serves the rear rank as a shield from the bullets, but the cannon ball plows the whole length of the file and kills those behind as readily as those before. And, moreover, we had as soon expected to see the devil in horns and tail leading the rebels, as this cannon, for no one supposed there was a piece of artillery in all Berkshire. You must know the place we were in, was, moreover, as bad as could be; for we could only march by the road, by reason of the deep snow on either hand, which was like walls shutting us in, and leaving room for no more than eight men to go abreast. If the cannon were loaded with a ball, it must needs cut a swathe like a scythe from the first man to the last, and if it were loaded with small balls, all of us who were near the front must needs go down at once. The General asked counsel of us who were riding with him at the front what had best be done, whereupon Squire Sedgwick advised that half a dozen of us with horses should put spurs to them and dash suddenly upon the cannon and take it. 'Ten to one,' he said, 'the rascal with the tongs will not dare touch off the gun, and if he does, why, 'tis but one shot.' But this seemed to us all a foolhardy thing; for, though there were but one shot, who could tell whom it might hit? It might be one of us as well as another. Your uncle Jahleel, as it seemed, lest any should deem Squire Sedgwick braver than he, declared that he was ready, but the others of us, by no means fell in with the notion and General Patterson said flatly that he was responsible for all our lives and would permit no such madness. And then, as no one had any other plan to propose, we were in a quandary, and I noted that each one had his eyes, as it were, fastened immovably upon the cannon and the glowing coal which the fellow held in the tongs. For, in order to keep it clear of ash, he kept waving it to and fro, and once or twice when he brought it perilously close to the touchhole, I give you my word I began to think in a moment of all the things I had done in my life. And I remember, too, that if one of us was speaking when the fellow made as if he would touch off the gun, there was an interruption of a moment in his speech, ere he went on again. It must be that not only civilians like myself, but men of war also do find a certain discomposing effect in the stare of a cannon. Meanwhile the wind drew through the narrow path wherein we stood, with vehemence, and, whereas we had barely kept our blood in motion by our laboring through the snow, now that we stood still, we seemed freezing. Our horses shivered and set their ears back with the cold, but it was notable how quietly the men stood packed in the road behind us, though they must have been well nigh frost-bitten. No doubt they were absorbed in watching the fellow swinging the coal as we were. But if we did not advance, we must retreat, that was plain. We could not stay where we were. It was, I fancy, because no one could bring himself to propose such an ignoble issue to our enterprise, that we were for a little space all dumb.
"Then it was when the General could no longer have put off giving the order to right about march, that Hamlin tied a white rag to his sword and rode toward us holding it aloft. When he had come about half way, he cried out:
"'Will your commander and Dr. Partridge, if he be among you, ride out to meet me? I would have a parley.'
"Why he pitched on me I know not, save that, wanting a witness, he chose me as being a little more friendly to him than most of the Stockbridge gentlemen. When we had ridden forward, he saluted us with great cordiality and good humor, as if forsooth, instead of being within an ace of murdering us all, he had but been trying us with a jest.
"'I see,' said he to the general, 'that your fellows like not the look of my artillery, and I blame them not, for it will be a nasty business in that narrow lane if we have to let drive, as assuredly we shall do if you come another foot further. But it may be we can settle our difference without bloodshed. My men have fled together to me to be protected from arrest and prosecution, for what they have heretofore done, not because they intend further to attack the government. I will agree that they shall disperse and go quietly to their homes, provided you give me your word that they shall not be arrested or injured by your men, and will promise to use your utmost influence to secure them from any arrest hereafter, and that at any rate they shall have trial before a jury of their neighbors.'
"The General is a shrewd bargainer, I make no doubt, for though I knew he was delighted out of measure to find any honorable escape from the predicament in which we were, he pulled a long face, and after some thought, said that he would grant the conditions, provided the rebels also surrendered their arms, and took the oath of allegiance to the state. At this Hamlin laughed a little.
"'I see, sir, we are but wasting time,' he said, with a mighty indifferent air. 'You have got the boot on the wrong foot. It is we who are granting you terms, not you us. You may thank your stars I don't require your men to surrender their arms. Look you, sir, my men will not give up their guns, or take any oath but go as free as yours, with your promise of protection hereafter. If you agree to those terms, you may come into Lee, and we will disperse. If not let us lose no more time waiting, but have at it.'
"It was something to make one's blood run cold, to hear the fellow talk so quietly about murdering us. The General hemmed and hawed a little, and made a show of talking aside with me, and presently said that to avoid shedding the blood of the misguided men on the other side, he would consent to the terms, but he added, the artillery must at any rate be surrendered.
"'It is private property,' said Hamlin.
"'It is forfeited to its owner by its use against the government,' replied the General sturdily.
"'I will not stickle for the gun,' said Hamlin, 'but will leave you to settle that with the owner,' and, as he spoke, he looked as if he were inwardly amused over something.
"Thereupon we separated. The announcement of the terms was received by our men with a cheer, for they had made up their minds that there was nothing before them but a march back to Stockbridge in the face of the wind and to meet the ridicule of the populace. As we now approached the cannon at quick-step Abner Rathbun came around and stood in front of it, so we did not see it till we were close upon it. He was grinning from ear to ear. The road just behind was packed with rebels all likewise on the broad grin, as if at some prodigious jest. As we came up Hamlin said to the General:
"'Sir, I now deliver over to you the artillery, that is if you can settle it with Mrs. Perry. Abner stand aside.'
"Rathbun did so and what we saw was a yarn-beam mounted on a pair of oxcart wheels with the tongue of the cart resting on the ground behind."
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