At sight of his commander the soldier who had been about to lay hands on Mrs. Edwards to thrust her out of his path to the cellar, giving over his design, slunk into the store to join his comrades there, and was followed by the faithful Keziah. Mrs. Edwards, who had faced the ruffian only in the courage of desperation, sank trembling upon a settle, and the children throwing themselves upon her, bawled in concert. Without bestowing so much as a glance on any other object in the room Perez crossed it to where Desire stood, and taking her nerveless hand in both his, devoured her face with glowing eyes. She did not flush or show any confusion; neither did she try to get away. She stood as if fascinated, unresponsive but unresisting.
"Were you frightened?" he asked.
"Yes," she replied in a mechanical tone corresponding with her appearance.
"Didn't you know I was here? I told you I would come back for you, and I have come. You have been sick. I heard of it. Are you well now?"
"Reuben told me you came on foot through the snow to bring word so he might warn me the night before the Lee battle. Was it that made you sick?"
"What is that, Desire? What do you mean about sending him warning?" cried Mrs. Edwards amazedly. Desire made no reply but Perez did:
"It is thanks to her I was not caught in my bed by your men that morning. It is thanks to her I am not in jail today, disgraced by the lash and waiting for the hangman. Oh my dear, how glad I am to owe it to you," and he caught the end of one of the long strands of jetty hair that fell down her neck and touched it to his lips.
"You are crazy, fellow!" cried Mrs. Edwards, and starting forward and grasping Desire by the arm she demanded, "What does this wild talk mean? There is no truth in it, is there?"
"Yes," said the girl in the same dead, mechanical voice, without turning her eyes to her mother or even raising them.
Mrs. Edwards opened her mouth, but no sound came forth. Her astonishment was too utter. Meanwhile Perez had passed his arm about Desire's waist as if to claim her on her own acknowledgement. Stung by the sight of her daughter in the very arms of the rebel captain, Mrs. Edwards found her voice once more, righteous indignation overcoming her first unmingled consternation.
"Out upon you for a shameless hussy. Oh, that a daughter of mine should come to this! Do you dare tell me you love this scoundrel?"
"No," answered the girl.
"What?" faltered Perez, his arm involuntarily dropping from her waist.
For all reply she rushed to her mother and threw herself on her bosom, sobbing hysterically. For once at least in their lives Mrs. Edwards' and Perez Hamlin's eyes met with an expression of perfect sympathy, the sympathy of a common bewilderment. Then Mrs. Edwards tried to loosen Desire's convulsive clasp about her neck, but the girl held her tightly, crying:
"Oh, don't, mother, don't."
For several moments Perez stood motionless just where Desire had left him, looking after her stupefied. The pupils of his eyes alternately dilated and contracted, his mouth opened and closed; he passed his hand over his forehead. Then he went up to her and stood over her as she clung to her mother, but seemed no more decided as to what he could do or say further.
But just then there was a diversion. Meshech and his followers who had passed through from the living-room into the store in search of rum had thrown open the outside door, and a gang of their comrades had poured in to assist in the onset upon the liquor barrels. The spigots had all been set running, or knocked out entirely, and yet comparatively little of the fiery fluid was wasted, so many mugs, hats, caps, and all sorts of receptacles were extended to catch the flow. Some who could not find any sort of a vessel, actually lay under the stream and let it pour into their mouths, or lapped it up as it ran on the floor. Meanwhile the store was being depleted of other than the drinkable property. The contents of the shelves and boxes were littered on the floor, and the rebels were busy swapping their old hats, boots and mittens for new ones, or filling their pockets with tobacco, tea or sugar, while some of the more foresighted were making piles of selected goods to carry away. But whatever might be the momentary occupation of the marauders, all were drunk, excessively yet buoyantly drunk, drunk with that peculiarly penetrating and tenacious intoxication which results from drinking in the morning on an empty stomach, a time when liquor seems to pervade all the interstices of the system and lap each particular fibre and tissue in a special and independent intoxication on its own account. Several fellows, including Meshech, had been standing for a few moments in the door leading from the store into the living-room, grinningly observing the little drama which the reader has been following. As Desire broke away from Perez and rushed to her mother, Meshech exclaimed:
"Wy in time did'n yer hole ontew her, Cap'n? I'd like ter seen her git away from me."
"Or me nuther," seconded the fellow next him.
Perez paid no heed to this remonstrance, and probably did not hear it at all, but Mrs. Edwards looked up. In her bewilderment and distress over Desire the thought of her husband and Jonathan had been driven from her mind. The sight of Meshech recalled it.
"What have you done with my husband?" she demanded anxiously.
"He's all right. He an the young cub be jess a gonter take a leetle walk with us fellers 'cross the border," replied Meschech jocularly.
"What are you going to take them away for? What are you going to do to them?" cried Mrs. Edwards.
"Oh, ye need'n be skeert," Meshech reassured her. "He'll hev good kumpny. Squire Woodbridge an Ginral Ashley an Doctor Sergeant, Cap'n Jones an schoolmaster Gleason, an a slew more o' the silk stockins be a goin' tew."
"Are you going to murder them?" exclaimed the frantic woman.
"Wal," drawled Meshech, "that depends. Ef govment hangs any o' our fellers wat they've got in jail, we're gonter hang yewr husban' an the res' on em, sure's taxes. Ef none o' aourn ain't hurt, we shan't hurt none o' yourn. We take em fer kinder hostiges, ye see, ole lady."
"Where have you got my husband? I must go to him. God help us!" ejaculated Mrs. Edwards; and loosing herself from her daughter, now in turn forgotten in anxiety for husband and son, the poor woman hurried past Meshech through the confused store and so out of the house.
At the same moment the drum at the tavern began to beat the recall to the plundering parties of insurgents scattered over the village, and the men poured out of the store.
Save for the presence of the smaller children and the negro servants cowering in a corner, Desire and Perez were left alone in the room. With no refuge to fly to, she stood where her mother had left her, just before Perez, with face averted, trembling, motionless, like a timid bird which seeing no escape struggles no longer, but waits for its captor's hand to close upon it. But in his nonplused, piteously perplexed face, you would have vainly looked for the hardened and remorseless expression appropriate to his part. The roll of the rebel drum kept on.
"See here, Cap'n," said Abner Rathbun, suddenly appearing at the outside door of the living-room, "we've got the hostiges together, an we'd better be a gittin along, for the 'larm's gone ter Pittsfield an all roun' an we'll hev the milishy ontew us in no time. An besides that the fellers tew the tavern be a gittin so drunk, some on em can't walk a' ready."
Aroused by Abner's insistent words, Perez took Desire's hand, and said desperately:
"Won't you come, my darling? You shall have a woman to go with you, and we'll be married as soon as we're over the border. I know it's sudden, but you see I can't wait, and I thought you liked me a little. Won't you come, now?"
"Oh, no! Oh, no! I don't want to," she said, shuddering and drawing her hand away.
Abner was silent a moment, and then he broke out vehemently:
"Look a' here, Cap'n, we hain't got no time fer soft sawder naow, with the milishy a comin daown on us. I kin hear em a drummin up ter Lee a'ready, an every jiffey we stay means a man's life an hangin fer them as is tuk. Ye've hed fuss nuff 'long o' that gal fust and last, an this ain't no time fer ye ter put up with any more o' her tantrums."
"She don't want to come, Abner. She don't like me and I thought she did," said Perez, turning his eyes from the girl to Abner, with an expression of despairing, appealing helplessness, almost childlike.
"Nonsense," replied Abner, with contemptuous impatience. "She likes ye, or she'd never a sent ye that warnin. Akshins speaks louder'n words. She's kinder flustered an dunno her own mind, that's all. Gals don't, genally. Ye'd be a darnation fool ter let her slip through yer fingers naow, arter riskin yer neck an all aour necks in this ere job jess ter git a holt of her, an a settin sech store by her ez ye allers hev. Take a fool's advice, Cap'n. Don' waste no more talk, but jess grab her kinder soft like, an fetch her aout ter the sleigh, willy nilly. She'll come roun' in less 'n an hour, an thank ye for't. Gals allers does. They likes a masterful man. There, that's the talk. Fetch her right along."
As the last words indicated, Perez, apparently decided by Abner's words, had thrown his arm about Desire's waist and drawing her to him and half lifting her from her feet had begun with gentle force to bear her away. She made no violent resistance which indeed would have been quite vain in his powerful clasp, but burst into tears, crying poignantly:
"Oh, don't! Please! Please don't! Don't! Oh, don't!" Had there been a trace of defiance or of indignant pride in her tone, it would have been easy for him to carry out his attempt. But of the proud, high-spirited Desire Edwards there was no hint in the tear-glazed eyes turned up to his in wild dismay. She was but a frightened girl quite broken up with terror.
And yet if the thought of leaving her had been dreadful before, now the pressure of his arm upon her pliant waist, the delicious sensation of her weight, made it maddening, and thrilled him with all sorts of reckless impulses. Still clasping her, he whispered hoarsely, "I love you, I love you," as if that mighty word left nothing further needed as excuse or explanation for his conduct. "Let me go, then, if you love me. Let me go," she cried, frantically, catching at his plea and turning it against him.
"Ef ye let her go, ye'll never set eyes on her agin, Cap'n," said Abner.
"I can't. I can't. Have pity on me," groaned Perez. "I can't let you go."
"Oh, for pity's sake, do! If you loved me, you would. Oh, you would," she cried again. He took her by the shoulders and held her away from him, and looked long at her. There was something in his eyes which awed her so that she quite forgot her former terror. Then he dropped his hands to his side, and turned away as if he would leave her without another word. But half way to the door he turned again and said huskily:
"You know I love you now. You believe it, don't you?"
"Yes," she answered in a small, scared voice, and without another word he went out. As he went out, Mrs. Edwards, who had been standing in the open doorway of the store a silent spectator of the last scene, came forward, and at sight of her Desire started from the motionless attitude in which she had remained, and cried out, pressing her hands to her bosom:
"Oh, mother, mother, I wish he'd taken me. He feels so bad."
"Nonsense, child," said Mrs. Edwards, in a soothing, sensible voice. "That would have been a pretty piece of business indeed. You're all upset, and don't know what you're saying, and no wonder, either, with no breakfast and all this coil. There, there, mother's little girl," and she drew her daughter's head down on her shoulder and stroked her hair till the nervous trembling and sobbing ceased, and raising her head she asked:
"Where are father and Jonathan?"
"Hush! I gave one of the rebels my silver shoe-buckles, and he turned his back while Mrs. Bingham hid them in the closet behind the chimney at the tavern. They're safe."
The rebel column having only awaited the arrival of Perez and Abner, at once set off at quick step on the road to Great Barrington, the prisoners, thirty or forty in number, marching in the center. Perez rode behind, looking neither to the right hand or the left, and taking heed of nothing, and Abner seeing his condition, tacitly assumed command. Two or three fellows, too utterly drunk to walk, had been perforce left behind on the tavern floor, destined to be ignominiously dragged off to the lockup by the citizens before the rebel force was fairly out of sight. Two or three others nearly as drunk as those who were left behind, but more fortunate in having friends, by dint of leaning heavily upon a man on either side, were enabled to march. But the pace was rapid, and at the first or second steep hill these wretches had to be left behind unless their friends were to be sacrificed with them. There was no danger of their freezing to death by the wayside. The pursuing militia would come along soon enough to prevent that, never fear.
Nor were these poor chaps the only sort of burdens that were speedily rejected by their bearers. As the rebels marched out of Stockbridge, nearly every man was loaded with miscellaneous plunder. Some carried bags of flour, or flitches of bacon, some an armful of muskets, others bundles of cloth or clothing, hanks of yarn, a string of boots and shoes, a churn, an iron pot, a pair of bellows, a pair of brass andirons, while one even led a calf by a halter. Some, luckier than their fellows, carried bags from which was audible the clink of silverware. Squire Woodbridge, lagging a little, was poked in the back by his own gold-headed cane to remind him to mend his pace, while Dr. Sergeant, as a special favor from one of the rebels whose wife he had once attended, was permitted to take a drink out of his own demijohn of rum. In their eagerness to carry away all they could, the rebels had forgotten that loads which they could barely hold up when standing still, would prove quite too heavy to march under, and accordingly before the band had got out of the village the road began to be littered with the more bulky articles of property. At the foot of the first hill there was a big pile of them, and two miles out of Stockbridge the rebels were reduced once more to light marching order, and not much richer than when they entered the village an hour or two before. Besides the hostages, they had under their escort several sleighs containing old men, women and children, the families of members of the band, or of sympathizers with the rebellion, who were taking this opportunity to elude their creditors and escape out of bondage across the New York border. As the rebels crossed Muddy Brook, just before entering Great Barrington, Abner Rathbun came up to Perez and said: "I don' see yer father'n mother nowhar in the sleighs."
"My father and mother?" repeated Perez vacantly.
"Yes," rejoined Abner. "Ye know ye wuz a gonter bring em back ter York with ye, but I don' see em nowhar." Perez stared at Abner, and then glanced vaguely at the row of sleighs in the line.
"I must have forgotten about them," he finally said.
As the rebels entered Great Barrington, a company of militia was drawn up as if to defend the tavern-jail, but upon the approach of the rebels, who were decidedly more numerous, they retired rapidly on the road to Sheffield. Halting in front of the building, a guard was left with the prisoners, and then the rebels swarmed into the tavern, with the double purpose of emptying the jail of debtors, and filling themselves with Cephas Bement's rum, for the hard tramp from Stockbridge had sobered them and given them fresh thirst. Perez did not go in, but sat on his horse in the road. Presently Abner came out with a very sober face and slowly approached him. He looked around.
"What are we stopping here for, Abner?" he asked, a little peevishly.
"Wy, it's the caounty jail, ye know, an we're lettin aout the debtors. Reub's in here, ye know."
"So he is; I'd forgotten," replied Perez, and then after a pause, "Why don't he come out?"
"Cap'n," said Abner, taking off his cap and looking at it, as he fingered it. "I've got kinder tough news fer ye. Reub's dead. He died this mornin. I thort mebbe ye'd like ter see him."
"Is he in there?"
Perez got off his horse, and went in at the door, Abner leading the way. In the barroom of the tavern there was a crowd of drinking, carousing men, and among them a number of the white-faced debtors, already drunk with the bumpers their deliverers were pouring down their throats. Bement was not visible, but as Abner and Perez entered the jail, they saw Mrs. Bement in the corridor. She was not making any fuss or trouble at all over the breaking of the jail this time. With apparent complaisance she was promptly opening cells, or answering questions in response to the demands of Meshech Little and some companions. But there was a vicious glint in her pretty blue eyes, and she was softly singing the lugubrious hymn, beginning with the significant words,
Ye living men, come view the ground
Where ye shall shortly lie.
Abner pushed open the door of one of the cells that had been already opened, and went in, Perez following. He knelt by the body of his brother, and Abner turned his back. It was the same cell in which Perez had found Reuben and George Fennell, six months before. Several minutes passed, and neither moved. The drum began to beat without, summoning the men to resume their march.
"Cap'n," said Abner, "we'll hev ter go. We can't do the poor chap no good by stayin, an they can't do him no more harm."
Then Perez rose up, and leaned on Abner's shoulder, looking down on the patient face of the dead. The first tears gathered in his eyes, and trickled down, and he said: "I never was fair to Reub. I never allowed enough for his losin Jemima. I was harder on him than I should have been."
"Ye warn't noways hard on him, Perez. Ye wuz a good brother tew him. I never hearn o' no feller hevin a better brother nor he hed in yew," protested Abner, in much distress.
Perez shook his head.
"I was hard on him. I never allowed as I'd ought for his losin his girl. I'd a been kinder to him if I'd known. Ye must a thought I was hard an unfeelin, Reub, dear, often's the time, but I didn't know, I didn't know. We'll go now, if you want, Abner."
The rebels had not left Stockbridge a moment too soon. Captain Stoddard was rallying his company before they had got out of the village, and messengers had been sent to Lee, Lenox, Pittsfield, Great Barrington, Egremont and Sheffield, to rouse the people. Within an hour or two after the rebels had marched south, the Stockbridge and Lenox companies were in pursuit. Among the messengers to Great Barrington, was Peleg Bidwell. For Peleg, since he had bought his safety by such a shameful surrender, was embittered above all against those of his former comrades who had been too brave to yield. And having brought word to Great Barrington, he took his place in the ranks of the militia of that town, and though the men among whom he stood, eyed him askance, knowing his record, not one of them was really so eager to empty his gun into the bosom of the rebel band as Peleg Bidwell.
As previously stated, the Great Barrington company, in which Peleg carried a musket, had retired toward Sheffield, when the rebels entered the former town. At Sheffield they were joined by the large company of that populous settlement, and Colonel Ashley of the same village, taking command of the combined forces, ordered a march on Great Barrington, to meet the rebels. Now Great Barrington is but four or five miles from the New York border, while Sheffield is about six, and as many south of Great Barrington, the road between the two towns running nearly parallel to the state line. There was nothing to hinder the rebels, after they had gained their main objects, the capture of hostages and the release of the debtors, from turning west from Great Barrington, and placing themselves in an hour's march across the town of Egremont, beyond the reach of the militia, in neutral territory. Becoming apprehensive that this would be their course, Colonel Ashley, instead of keeping on the road from Sheffield to Great Barrington, presently left it and marched his men along a back road running northwest toward the state line in a direction that would intercept the rebels if they struck across Egremont to New York.
He adopted, however, the precaution of leaving a party at the junction of the main road with the road he took, so that if after all instead of retreating westward the rebels had boldly kept on the main road to Sheffield word might be sent after him. It so happened that this was just what the rebels had done. Not having the fear of the Sheffield company before their eyes, instead of trying to escape to New York by the shortest cut, they had kept on toward Sheffield, marching south by the main road. And not only this, but when they came to the junction of the main road with that which Colonel Ashley had taken, and learned by capturing the guard what plan the Colonel had devised, they became so enraged that instead of keeping on to Sheffield and leaving the militia to finish their wild goose chase, they turned into the back road after them, and so the hunters became the hunted. In this way it happened that while the militia were pressing on at full speed, breathlessly debating their chances of heading off the flying rebels, "bang," "bang," came a volley in their rear, and from the stragglers who had been fired upon arose a cry, "The Shayites are after us."
It is greatly to the credit of the militia officers that the result of this surprise was not a hopeless panic among their men. As it was, for several minutes utter confusion reigned. Then one of the companies took to the woods on the right, the other entering the woods on the left, and marching back they presently came in sight of their pursuers, still pushing on pell-mell in the road. The militia now had every advantage, and Colonel Ashley ordered them to open fire. But the men hesitated. There, intermingled with the rebels, their very lineaments plainly to be seen, were the prisoners, the first gentlemen of Stockbridge and of the county. To pour a volley in upon the rebels would endanger the lives of the prisoners as much as those of the enemy. Meanwhile the rebels themselves were rapidly deploying and opening fire. The militia were in danger of losing all their advantage, of being shot down defenseless, of perhaps losing the day, all owing to the presence of the prisoners in the enemy's ranks. Again Colonel Ashley gave the order to fire. Again not a man obeyed.
"We can't kill our friends," said an officer.
"God have mercy on their souls, but pour in your fire!" roared the commander, and the volley was given. The prisoners broke from the ranks of the enemy and ran; the firing became general. For five or ten minutes a brisk engagement was kept up, and then the rebels broke and fled in every direction. The Stockbridge and Lenox companies after having followed the rebels through Great Barrington and on toward Sheffield had also turned in after them on the back road, and coming up behind in the nick of time had attacked their rear and caused their panic.
Only two of the militia had been wounded, one mortally. One also of the prisoners had proved in need of Colonel Ashley's invocation. Solomon Gleason had fallen dead at the first volley from his friends. It was generally supposed that his death was the result of a chance shot, but Peleg Bidwell was never heard to express any opinion on the subject, and Peleg was a very good marksman.
As the smoke of the last shot floated up among the tops of the gloomy pines along the road, some thirty killed and wounded rebels lay on the trampled and blood-stained snow. Abner Rathbun, mortally wounded, writhed at the foot of a tree, and near by lay Perez Hamlin quite dead.
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