The Partisan/XIII

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
The Partisan by William Gilmore Simms
Chapter XIII


"The time is come; thy chances of escape
 Grow narrow, and thou hast, to save thyself,
 But one resolve. Take oath with us and live."

Colonel Walton, upon the departure of his guests, retired to an inner apartment. His spirits, depressed enough before, were now considerably more so. Mingled feelings were at strife in his bosom—doubts and fears, hopes and misgivings—a sense of degradation—a more unpleasant consciousness of shame. The difficulties of his situation grew and gathered before his eyes the more he surveyed them; they called for deliberate thought, yet they also demanded early and seasonable determination. The time allowed him for decision by the ruling powers was brief, and the matter to be decided involved, in addition to the personal risks of life and liberty, the probable forfeiture of an immense estate, and the beggary, in consequence, of an only and beloved daughter. To save these, in part, from what he conceived otherwise to be inevitable ruin, he had originally laid aside his arms. He was now taught, in the most impressive manner, the error of which he had been guilty in yielding so readily to circumstances—placing himself so completely, not only in the power of his enemy, but in the wrong; in having foregone that fine sense of national, to say nothing of personal honour, without which the citizen merits not the name, and has no real claim upon the protection of his country. This sacrifice he had made without realizing, in its place, that very security of person and property, its pledged equivalent, which had been the price of its surrender. Bitterly, in that moment of self-examination, did he reproach himself with the unmanly error. Truly did he feel, by his present situation, that he who submits to tyranny arms it; and by not opposing it, weakens that power,—better principled, or with better courage than himself,—which battles with it to the last.

The exigency grew more and more involved the more he thought upon it. He could see but one alternative left him,—that which he had already hinted at to Major Proctor, of again lifting his sword; and, if compelled to use it, of doing so for the only cause which he could consider legitimate—that of his country. Yet, how hopeless, how rash and ill-advised, at that moment, seemed the adoption of such an alternative! The people of the colony had all submitted; so it seemed, at least, in the absence of all opposition to the advancing armies of the British. They scoured the country on every side. They planted posts, the better to overawe the disaffected, and confirm their conquests, in every conspicuous or populous region; and though tyrannizing everywhere with reckless rule and a rod of iron, the people seemed to prefer a lot so burdensome and wretched, rather than exchange it for a strife having not one solitary hope to recommend it. Such was the condition of things in Carolina at the time of which we write, just after the parting proclamation of Sir Henry Clinton, when, upon transferring the southern command to Lord Cornwallis, he adopted this mode of strengthening his successor by the employment of the native militia.

Colonel Walton was not a coward, but he deliberated carefully upon all adventure involving peril in its progress. The circumstances in which the colony stood at that period were too obvious not to force themselves upon his consideration; and desperate and degrading as were the requirements of the proclamation, he saw no mode of escape from them. What if he drew the sword? would he not draw it alone? Where should he find support? To what spot should he turn—where strike—where make head against the enemy?—where, except in the remoter colonies, where a doubtful struggle was still maintained—doubtful in its results, and only exposing its defenders there to the same fate he was now about to encounter in his native soil? The prospect grew brighter a short time after, when Sumter came plunging down from North Carolina with the fierce rapidity of flame; when Marion emerged from his swamps on the Peedee and Black River, with the subtle certainty which belongs to skill and caution mingled with determined and fearless valour: and when, like our hero, Major Singleton, a hundred brave young partisan leaders, starting suddenly up, with their little squads, on every side throughout the country, prepared to take terrible vengeance for the thousand wantonly inflicted sufferings which their friends and families had been made to bear at the hands of their enemies.

Leaving his companion, Humphries, comfortably cared for in the hall, along with Miss Barbara Walton, the maiden sister of the colonel, Major Singleton proceeded at once to the apartment where his uncle continued to chafe in his many bewilderments of situation. He found him pacing hurriedly along the room, his strides duly increasing in length with the increasing confusion of his thoughts. These occasionally found their way to his lips in soliloquizing speech, and now and then took on them a shape of passionate denunciation. Too much absorbed for the time to notice the appearance of his nephew, he continued to mutter over his discontents, and in this way conveyed to the major a knowledge of his precise feelings. The latter stood quietly at the entrance, for a few moments, surveying his uncle (himself unseen), and listening to the angry ejaculations, with which, from time to time, he broke the silence, to give expression to his words. He listened with real pleasure. Familiar as he was with his uncle's character, Major Singleton had properly estimated the effect upon him of Clinton's proclamation, and he now came forward seasonably to his assistance. The colonel turned as he drew nigh, and, for a moment, the pleasurable emotion with which he met the son of his sister, and one who had long been a very great favourite with himself, drove away many of the troublesome thoughts which had been busy with his mind.

"Ah, Robert!—my dear boy! when did you arrive, and how?"

"On horseback, sir. I reached Dorchester yesterday."

"Indeed? so long—and only now a visitor of 'The Oaks?' You surely mean to lodge with us, Robert?"

"Thank you, uncle; but that I dare not do. I should not feel myself altogether safe here."

"Not safe in my house! What mean you, nephew? Whence the danger—what have you to fear?"

"Nothing to fear, if I avoid the danger. You forget, sir, that I have not the security of British favour—I have not the talisman ofClinton's protection—and if suspected to be Major Singleton, I should risk the rope as a rebel."

"True, true—but how left you things at Santee? What are the prospects of a crop?"

"Such as the storm leaves us, good uncle. The tories have been sowing fire in my fields, and left it to ripen in lieu of corn and provender."

"God bless me, Robert!—how was that?"

"They suspected me, hearing that I was from home—made free with my plate, burnt the mansion, barn, and a few other of the buildings, drove the negroes into the swamp, and sent their horses first, and then the fire, into the cornfields. They have done some business there after their usual fashion."

The colonel strode over the floor, his hands upon his brows, speechless for a time, but looking his deep interest in the narrative he had heard, probably with more earnestness, as he darkly saw the destiny of his own fine dwelling and plantation in it. His nephew surveyed him with exemplary composure before he continued the dialogue.

"Yes; it was fortunate that poor Emily came away in season. A week later, and Heaven only knows what might have been her sufferings at the hands of the wretches."

"And where is this to end, Robert? What is to be done? Are we to have no relief from Congress?—will Washington do nothing for us?"

"Can you do nothing for Washington? Methinks, uncle, Hercules might give you some advice quite as fitting as that he gave to the wagoner.[1] There is no helping one's neighbour to freedom. Men must make themselves free—they must have the will for it. The laws and the strong arm, unless they grow out of their own will, never yet gave, and never will give, any people their liberty. Have you not thought of this before, good uncle?"

"Why, what would you have us do?—what can we do, hemmed in as we are, wanting arms and ammunition, and with a superior force watching us?"

"Do?—ay, you may well ask what can you do. What has anybody ever yet done, that set forth by asking such a question? But come, we will to supper first; there stands our summoner. Wewill try aunt Barbara's coffee, of which I have an old memory, and after that we will talk of what we can do in this matter. Coffee is a good stimulant, that wonderfully helps one's courage."

Following the black, who had thrice summoned them without receiving any attention, they descended to the supper-table, spread out after the southern fashion, with the hundred dainties of the region,—rice-waffles and johnny-cake, hominy, and those delicacies of the pantry in the shape of sweetmeats and preserves, which speak of a wholesome household economy, the fashion of which is not yet gone from the same neighbourhood. There, presiding in all the dignity of starched coif, ruff, and wimple, sat stiffly the antique person of Miss Barbara Walton, the maiden sister of the colonel; there, also, in his homespun coat, turned up at the sleeves, and with hands that were not idle, our old acquaintance, Humphries, listening patiently, all the while, to a bitter complaint of Miss Barbara about the diminished and daily diminishing number of her brother's best cows, the loss of which could only be ascribed to the tories. Beside him sat the fair Kate Walton, amused with the efforts which Humphries made, while equally desirous to do the supper justice, and to appear attentive to the ancient lady. And there, reclining on a sofa at some little distance from the table, lay the attenuated figure of Emily Singleton—pale as a white rose, and, as if her thoughts were fast claiming kindred with heaven, almost as silent as one. Major Singleton had a seat assigned him fronting his cousin; and the little chit-chat which followed his and his uncle's entrance was duly suspended with the progress of the repast. To travellers who had toiled so much during the day as Singleton and his lieutenant, the supper was an item of importance, and we need not say that it received full justice at their hands. It was only when roused into consciousness by the very absence of all speech around them, that the soldiers looked up, in a brief pause in their progress, and found that they alone had been busy. This fact offered no stop, however, to their continued industry—to that of Humphries, at least.

"Them are mighty nice waffles, now, major; they'd please you, I reckon."

Cuffee, one of the black waiters, with the proper instinct of a good house-servant, at once placed the dish before the speaker himselfand his plate received a new supply. Singleton kept him company, and the host trifled with his coffee, in order to do the same. Tea was anti-republican then, and only the tories drank it. Finding that a cessation had really taken place, Miss Barbara commenced her interrogatories, which, with sundry others put by his cousin Kate, Major Singleton soon answered. These matters, however, chiefly concerned old friends and acquaintances, little domestic anecdotes, and such other subjects as the ladies usually delight to engage in. More serious thoughts were in Colonel Walton's mind, and his questions had reference to the public and to the country—the war and its prospects.

"And now, Robert, your news, your news. You look as if you had much more in your budget of far more importance. Pray, out with it, and refresh us. We are only half alive here, good nephew."

"Do you live at all here, uncle, and how? How much breath is permitted you by your masters for your daily allowance? and, by-the-way, the next question naturally is—how go on the confiscations? You still keep 'The Oaks,' I see; but how long—how long?"

The nephew had touched the key to a harsh note; and bitter indeed was the tone and manner of Colonel Walton, as he replied—

"Ay, how long—how long, indeed, am I to keep the home of my fathers—the old barony, one of the very first in the colony? God only knows how soon the court of sequestration will find it better suited to a stranger rule; and I must prepare myself, I suppose, for some such change. I cannot hope to escape very long, when so many suffer confiscation around me."

"Fear not for 'The Oaks,' uncle, so long as you keep cool, submit, swear freely, and subscribe humbly. Send now and then a trim present of venison and turkey to the captain's quarters, and occasionally volunteer to hang a poor countryman, who loves war to the knife better than degradation in a foreign chain. There can no difficulty in keeping 'The Oaks,' uncle, if you only continue to keep your temper."

"Nay, Robert, sarcasm is unnecessary now, and with me: I need no reproaches of yours to make me feel in this matter."

"What, uncle, are you in that vein? Have your eyes been opened to the light at last?"

"Somewhat, Robert—but a truce to this for the present. Let us have your intelligence from Santee. They talk here of some risings in that quarter, but we have no particulars, and know nothing of the success of either party. There is also some story of approaching continentals. Has Congress really given us an army? and who is to command it? Speak, boy; out with your budget."

"Thank you, good mine uncle; but how know I that I unfold my budget to a friend, and not to an enemy ? What security do you give m that I talk not with a devout and loyal subject of his majesty—so very much a lover of the divine right of kings, that he would freely lend a hand to run up his own nephew to a swinging bough, the better to compel the same faith in others?"

"Pshaw! Robert, you speak idly: you mean not to suppose me a tory?"

The brow of Colonel Walton darkened awfully as he spoke.

"I have little faith in neutrals," was the calm reply; "I hold to the goodly whig proverb, 'He who is not for me, is against me.' Pardon me, therefore, uncle, if I prefer—I who am a whig—to speak to you, who are neither whig nor Englishman, after such a fashion as shall not make you the keeper of unnecessary secrets, and expose a good cause to overthrow, and its friends to injury."

The taunt thus uttered with a most provoking and biting dryness of phrase, operated strongly upon the mind of the colonel, already acted upon, in no small degree, by his own previous rebukings of conscience to the same effect. He exclaimed bitterly, as, rising from the supper-table, he strode away under the momentary impulse—

"Ay, by heaven! but your words are true. Who should esteem the neutral, when his country is in danger, and when her people are writhing under oppression? True, though bitter—more bitter, as it is too true. Robert Singleton, thou hast given me a keen stroke, boy, but I have deserved it. Thou hast spoken nothing but the truth."

"Now, indeed, uncle, I rejoice to see you, and in this humour. You have felt the stroke at last, but it is not my speech that hasdone it, uncle of mine. It is the proclamation of Sir Henry Clinton."

The youth fixed his eye keenly, as he spoke, upon the face of Colonel Walton, while his glance indicated a sort of triumphant joy, finely contrasted with the disquietude and vexing indignation strongly legible upon the face of his uncle.

"You are right there, too, Robert. I confess not to have thought so seriously upon this matter—not, certainly, so much to the point—as after hearing the contents of that dishonourable instrument of Sir Henry Clinton—God curse him for it!"

"God bless him for it, I say, if for nothing else that he has done," immediately rejoined the nephew. "My prayers have been heard in that; and this proclamation of the tyrant is the very best thing that he could have done for our cause and country, and the very thing that I have most prayed for."

"Indeed! Major Singleton, you surprise me. What should there be so very grateful to you—so worthy of your prayers and acknowledgment—in this proceeding of Sir Henry Clinton?" inquired the other, with something more of stiffness and hauteur in his manner.

"Much, Colonel Walton, very much. As a true patriot, and a lover of his country at every hazard, I prayed that the time might soon come, when the oppressor should put his foot, aye, and the foot of his menials, too—on the necks of those selfish or spiritless, those too little wise, or too little honourable, who have been so very ready to hug his knee, and yield up to a base love for security their manly character and honest independence. Verily, they meet with their reward. Let them feel the scourge and chain, until, beaten and degraded, the stern necessity shall stimulate them to the duties they have so neglected. I rejoice in their desperation—I rejoice when I hear them groan beneath the oppression—not only because they merit such reward but because it makes them stronger in our cause."

"How know you that?" quickly said the other.

"How know I that? Let me answer that question by another more direct. Will Colonel Walton be able any longer to keep the quiet security of his plantation, to hug his grounds, save his crops, and keep his negroes from the West Indies, without military service—active military service, and against his countrymen too—against his avowed principles?"

The colonel strode the room impatiently. The other continued—

"No, no, good uncle, you have no help. Earl Cornwallis compels you to your duty. You must buckle on the sword—you must take up arms for or against your people, and in either case at the expense of all that comfortable quiet for which you have already made quite too many sacrifices. I know you too well to suppose that you can fight against our people—your people; and I am glad therefore that you are forced into the field. How many thousands are in your condition! how many that look up to you, influenced by your example! Will these not be moved in like manner and by like necessities? You will see—we shall have an army of native citizens before many days."

"Perhaps so, Robert, and I am not too timid to wish that such may be its effect. But is it not a dishonourable deception that he has practised in this movement? Did not the protections promise us immunity in this particular?"

"No, sir—I think not. I see nothing that Clinton has done in this so very grievous. Your protection secured you, as a citizen, to conform to the duties of the citizen, and to protect you as such. One of the duties of the citizen is the performance of militia service."

"Granted, Robert—but commutable by fine. I am not unwilling to pay this fine; but Clinton's proclamation insists only on the duty."

"And I am glad of it. Uncle, uncle, do you not see the dishonourable character of such an argument? Your conscience forbids that you should serve against your country, but you avoid this actual service in your own person, by paying the money which buys a mercenary to do the same duty. You will not do murder with your own hand, but you pay another to perform the crime. Shame! shame, I say!"

"Not so, Robert; we know not, and I believe not, that the money is so appropriated. It becomes the spoil of the leaders, and simply helps them to fortune."

"Granted, and the sterner argument against you is yet to come.You are wealthy, and avail yourself of your good fortune to buy yourself out of a danger to which the poor man must submit. By what right would you escape from and evade your duties, when he, as a citizen, having the same, must submit to their performance! His conscience, like your own, teaches him that to fight for his country and against her invaders is his first duty. You evade your duty by the help of your better fortune, and leave him, as in the present instance, either to perish hopelessly in unequal contest—unequal through your defection—or to take up arms in a battle to which his principles are foreign. Such is the effect of this most unpatriotic reservation, which, on the score of your money, you have presumed to make. You sacrifice your country doubly, when you contribute to violate the conscience of its citizens. The duties of the rich man—the leading, influential man—are those chiefly of example. What is our safety, and where would be the safety of any nation—its freedom or its glory—if, when danger came, its rich citizens made terms with the invader which sacrificed the poor? Such is your case—such your proceeding exactly. There is now, thank Heaven, but one alternative that Clinton's proclamation has left you."

"That is the sword—I know it, I feel it, Robert."

"Touch it not, touch it not, dear uncle, I pray you. Forbear the sword—the bloody smiting sword. Submit rather to the oppression. Touch it not."

Such was the adjuration of the feeble girl who lay gasping on the

sofa. Her eyes were illuminated with a holy fire; her cheeks, pale, almost transparent, shone, white and glittering, with a spiritual glory, from the pillow on which her head was resting; while one of her long, taper fingers was stretched forward with an imploring earnestness. She had been a silent listener with the rest to the warm and deeply important dialogue which had been going on. The novelty of the difficulty—for they had not heard of the proclamation before—had kept them dumb until that moment, when Colonel Walton, as one having come to a settled conclusion, had referred to the sword as a last alternative. The gentle spirit of Emily Singleton, quick, sensitive, though frail and fleeting, then poured forth its feeble notes, in order to arrest the decision.

"Oh, touch not the sword, uncle, I pray you—the keen sword that cuts away the happy life, and murders the blessed, and the blessing, peace—the peace of the innocent, the peace of the young and good. Oh, Robert, wherefore have you come with these fierce words? Is there to be no end to strife—the bloody and the brutal strife—the slaying of men—the trampling of God's creatures in the dust?

"Why, sister—dear Emily—but how can we help it? We must fight our enemies, or they will trample on us the more."

"I see not that: better let them rob and plunder; but take not life, risk not life. Life is holy. None should take life but him who gives it, since to take life takes away from man, not only the privilege to breathe, but the privilege to repent of sins, to repair injustice, to make himself fit for immortality. When you slay your enemy, you send him not merely from one world—you send him into another—and which? Oh, brother, dear brother, wherefore would you engage in this horrid war? What blessing so great will it bring you, as to take from you the thought of the butchery you must go through to secure it? Oh, turn not away, Robert, but hear me! I would not vex you, nor would I now speak of things beyond my poor ability; but can you not avoid this fighting, this hewing down of man, this defacing of God's image, this defiling and death of the goodliest work of Heaven? I know, Robert, you have a true heart, and love not such an employment—say to me, and I will believe you can you not avoid it?"

She sank back nearly exhausted. Her breath flickered, and the glow which now overspread her cheek was, if possible, more threatening in its aspect than the death-like paleness which habitually rested there. Her prostration called for the quick attention of her cousin, and as Katharine Walton bent over her, and her brother knelt beside her, a momentary fear came upon them both, that the effort she had made had destroyed her. But a deep sigh indicated the returning consciousness, and the strange, spiritual light ascended once more into and rekindled her eyes. She saw who were immediately beside her; and there was something of a smile of joy, as she beheld the two, so closely associated in her love, whom, of all the world, she desired to see more immediately linkedtogether. Katharine understood the glance, and rising from her kneeling position, extricated her hand, which lay partly under that of Robert, on the back of the sofa. The movement recalled the thoughts of Emily from the new direction which they had taken, and she now recurred to the unfinished topic.

"I will trust your assurance, brother, as I know your gentleness of feeling. May you not escape this bloody employment? for my poor thought fails to perceive the good or the glory which can come of the distresses of humanity."

"It would be shame, Emily, deep shame and dishonour to avoid it; and, indeed, it may not be avoided. The persecutor pursues when you fly, and he tramples even more freely when you resist not. It is in the nature of injustice and wrong to grow insolent with impunity; and the dishonour must rest on him, who, being himself strong, looks unmoved on the sufferings of the weak, and withholds his succour. Believe me, dear Emily, I love not this strife; but defence of our country is war under God's own sanction, since it seeks to maintain free from blood and from injustice the home which he has given to the peaceful."

"You shall not persuade me of it, Robert," was the reply of the dying maiden. "You will have your arguments, I know, and they will seem wise on your lips, and I may not be able to answer them from mine. But shall I believe in any argument of man, however plausible, when the words of God are so positive? He has forbidden strife, forbidden life. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord."

"But self-defence and vengeance, dear Emily, are very different things."

"Yes, you are right there; and I did not use the right word, nor refer to the proper command. 'Thou shalt do no murder.'"

"But self-defence is not murder," was the answer to this.

"Ah! still I err! I am too poor in wit and wisdom to maintain this or any argument. But strife is forbidden, and war and violence; and smitten on one cheek, we are commanded to submit the other."

"Ah! Emily, you only prove how impossible it is, in the present state of the world, to be a Christian."

"Alas! for the world, that it should be so! Yet I fear that you are right. But I must cease. I can only pray for you, Robert.God prosper you, my brother, in your cause, and keep you from danger beneath the shelter of his holy arm. If you err, my brother, I know that you err humanly, and may Heaven be indulgent to all our errors."

She motioned to Katharine Walton, and pointed to the Bible upon the table. Katharine opened it, and prepared to read. The company was instantly hushed. A lesson from the Psalms formed the exercise for the night. Sweetly, softly, unaffectedly, yet very clearly, the tones of Katharine's voice rose, and filled the apartment, while she gave due effect to the earnest lyrics of the inspired psalmist. At the close, the brief sentence, so soft, so solemn—"Let us pray!"—from the same sweet speaker, brought the whole family in silence to their knees. And the humble prayer was offered up, from sweet lips and a gentle spirit, in behalf of the wild and erring.

Yielding a kiss to the fond pressure of her brother's lips, Emily Singleton was assisted to her chamber on the arms of her lovely cousin.

Notes

  1. cf. Hercules and the Wagoner, one of Aesop's Fables. (Wikisource contributor note)