"I may not listen now. How should we hear
The ladies had retired, but it was not easy for Singleton and his uncle to resume the topic which had previously engaged them. There was a visible damp upon their spirits—the elastic nephew, the hesitating colonel, the rough, honest, and direct Humphries, all felt the passionate force of Emily's exhortation, though its argument necessarily failed upon them. There had been quite too much that was awing in her speech and manner—as if death were speaking through the lips of life. Their thoughts had been elevated by her language to a theme infinitely beyond the hourly and the earthly. The high-souled emphasis with which she had insisted upon the integrity of human life, as essential to the due preparation for the future immortality, had touched the sensibility of those whose vocation was at hostility with the doctrine which she taught; and though, from the very nature of things, they could not obey her exhortations, they yet could not fail to meditate upon, and to feel them.
Thus impressed, silent and unobserving, it was a relief to all, when Major Singleton, shaking off his sadness with an effort, reminded Humphries of the promise which he had presumed to make him, touching the old Madeira in his uncle's garret. He briefly told the latter of the circumstance alluded to, and the prompt orders of Colonel Walton soon brought the excellence of his wines to the impartial test to which Humphries proposed to subject them.
The lieutenant smacked his lips satisfactorily. It was not often that his fortune had indulged him with such a beverage. Corn whiskey, at best, had been his liquor in the swamps; and, even inhis father's tavern, the tastes were not sufficiently high, of those who patronized that establishment, to call for other than the cheapest qualities. A brief dialogue about the favourite wines—a sly reference on the part of Singleton to the drinking capacities of his British guests, and a hypocritical sort of condolence upon the privations to which his uncle must be subjected, in consequence of the proclamation, soon brought the latter back to the legitimate topic.
"But what news, Robert, do you bring us? What of the continentals—is it true that we are to have an army from Virginia, or is it mere rumour?—a thing to give us hope, only the more completely to depress and mortify? Speak out, man, and none of your inuendoes—you know well enough that I am with you, body and soul."
"I believe you will be, uncle, but you certainly are not yet. With the hope, however, to make you so more completely, I will give you news that shall cheer you up, if you have the heart to hope for a favourable change of things. It is no mere rumour, sir, touching the northern army. Congress has remembered us at last, and the continentals are actually under way, and by this time must be on the borders of North Carolina."
"Indeed! that is well," cried the colonel, chuckling, and rubbing his hands—"this is good news, indeed, Robert, and may help us somewhat out of our difficulties."
"Not so, Colonel Walton, if it please you. It will help you out of no difficulties, if you are not willing to lend a hand for that purpose. Congress cannot afford an army—it can only give us the nucleus for one; some fifteen hundred men at the utmost, and but half of these continentals. We have the Delaware and Maryland lines—brave troops, indeed—among the very bravest that Washington commands—but few, too few for our purpose, unless we ourselves turn out."
"Who commands them, Robert?"
"De Kalb while on the march; but, if we need men, and if our arms are few, the name of our commander is a host for us. The conqueror of Burgoyne at Saratoga has been ordered from Virginia to lead them."
"What, Gates! that is brave news, truly—brave news—and we shall do well to wish him success in another glass of Madeira. Come, Mr. Humphries come, sir—you see Proctor has left us some of the genuine stuff yet—enough for friends, at least."
"Ay, sir," said Humphries, drinking, "and this news of the continentals promises that we have enough also for our enemies."
"Bravo! I hope so; I think so. Nephew, drink; drink—and say, what has been the effect of this intelligence upon the people? How has it wrought upon the Santee?"
"Everywhere well, uncle, and as it should, unless it be immediately in your neighbourhood, where you breathe by sufferance only. Everywhere well, sir. The people are roused, inspirited, full of hope and animation. The country is alive with a new sentiment. Nor is its influence confined only to the hopes of friends: it has had its effect upon the fears of enemies. Rawdon already feels it, and has drawn in all his outposts. He keeps now those of Ninety-Six, Camden, and Augusta only. He is concentrating his force against the coming of Gates, whose first blow must be against his lordship. This concentration has given opportunity to our people, and opportunity gives them courage. The Santee and the Pedee countries are full of whigs, only wanting embodiment to prove effective. Colonel Sumter has returned from North Carolina, with a growing troop which threatens Ninety-Six itself."
"Aye, Marion—from him I bring you better news yet, when I tell you that I left him on Briton's Neck, where we stood upon the bodies of half of Gainey's tories, whom we had just defeated with bloody slaughter—Gainey himself wounded, and his troop for the time dispersed."
"Better and better, Robert; and I rejoice that you had a hand in the business. But what, in all this time, of that sanguinary rider, Tarleton? What keeps him quiet—what is he doing? Surely, with a taste like his, the very knowledge of these risings should be grateful."
"Doubtless they will be, when he gets wind of them; but he is now with the cavalry of the legion, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Rocky Mount, where Sumter is said to be looking after him.Thus, you see, we are all engaged or preparing—all but you, of the parishes. You either hug the knees of your invaders, or sleep on, to escape the sense of shame: all but your Washington, who, I am told, still contrives to keep his horse together, though sadly cut up while under White and Baylor."
"True, true,—our people here are but too much disposed to submission. They have given up in despair long since."
"I reckon that's a small mistake, colonel," said Humphries, interrupting—"I beg pardon, sir, but I rather think it's not exactly as you say. I don't think our people any more willing to submit than the people on Black River and Pedee, but it's all because we han't got leaders; that's the reason, colonel. I know, of my own knowledge, there's any number will turn out, if you'll only crook a finger, and show 'em the track; but it's not reasonable to expect poor men, who have never ruled before, to take the lead of great people in time of danger."
Humphries spoke up, and spoke justly for the honour of his neighbours. Singleton continued, when his lieutenant concluded—
"He speaks truly, Colonel Walton, as I can testify. What if I tell you that your people—here, under your own eye—are not only ready to take up arms, but that many of them are in arms!—more, sir,—that they have already done service in your own neighbourhood, and are ready to do more—that a promising squad, under my command, now lies upon your own river, and that, in a few days, I hope to join Colonel Marion with a troop of fifty men, gathered from among your own parishioners! These are the people who are so willing to submit, according to your account; pray you, uncle, never write their history."
"Robert, you surprise me."
"Pleasantly, I hope, mine uncle—it is the truth. The whole was planned by Colonel Marion, from whom I have this duty in charge. Disguised, he has been through your parish. Disguised, he sat at your board, in the character of a tory commissary, and your scornful treatment persuaded him to hope that you might be brought into action. Are you staggered now?"
The colonel was dumb when he heard this narrative; and Major Singleton then proceeded to give a brief account of the little eventsof recent occurrence in the neighbourhood, as we have already narrated them, subsequently to his assumption of command in the Cypress Swamp. The story, though it gave him pleasure, was a sad rebuke to Colonel Walton's patriotism. He scarcely heard him to the end.
"Now, Heaven help me, Robert, but I take shame to myself that you, almost a stranger upon the Ashley, should have thus taken the lead out of my own hand, as I may say, and among my own people."
"It is not too late, uncle, to amend the error. You may yet help greatly to finish what has been tolerably well begun."
"No—it is not too late. I can do much with Dorchester and Goose Creek. I have influence throughout St. Paul's, and great part of St. George's. Cane Acre will come out to a man."
Rapidly moving to and fro along the apartment, Colonel Walton enumerated to himself, in under tones, the various sections of country in his knowledge which he thought might be moved at his instigation. His nephew did not suffer the mood of his uncle to relax.
"Now is the time, uncle—now is the time, if ever. Your name will do everything in this quarter; and you may conjecture for yourself, what the shame must be, if others achieve the work which you touched not. You have now a glorious opportunity at this season; Tarleton, whom they so much dread, being absent; Wemyss in another direction, and your garrison so weak in Dorchester that they cannot easily spare a detachment. Besides, the approach of Gates promises sufficient employment to all the force which Rawdon and Cornwallis can bring up."
"The thing looks well," said Walton, musingly.
"Never better, if the heart be firm. Now is the time, if ever—beat up recruits—sound, stimulate your neighbours, and dash up with as smart a force as you can possibly muster to join with the army from Virginia. They will receive you joyfully, and your corps must increase with every mile in your progress."
"Would I were on the way; but the beginning is yet to be made, and on what plea shall I seek to persuade others, without authority myself and known as one having taken protection?"
"That latter difficulty is cured by the assumption of a new character. Destroy the one accursed instrument, and, in its place, I am proud to hand you a badge of honour and of confidence. Look on this paper and peruse this letter. The one is from his excellency, Governor Rutledge—the other from Colonel Marion. Read—read!"
Walton unfolded the envelope, and the commission of Governor Rutledge as colonel of state militia met his eye: the letter from Colonel Marion was an invitation to the service—a brief, manly, modest letter; such as could only come from Marion—so calm, so unassuming, yet so conclusive in its exhortations.
"You see, uncle," said the major, when he saw that the other had concluded the perusal of the documents—"you see, I come not unprovided. Both Rutledge and Marion hold your name of sufficient importance to our cause to desire its influence; and they would have you, on any terms, emancipate yourself from the villanous bondage—for it is no less—into which you have fallen. Here, now, you have an opportunity, by an honourable, and, let me add, an atoning transaction, of returning to the service of your country. Do not let it pass you. Let me not think, my dear uncle, that my word, pledged for you to Marion, when I undertook and craved this commission, was pledged in vain, and is now forfeited."
This warm appeal of Singleton, in the utterance of which he had discarded all that asperity which had kept pace with much of his share in the previous dialogue, was soothing to his uncle's spirit. He was moved; and slowly again, though unconsciously, he read over the letter of Marion. So high a compliment from the gallant partisan was flattering in the extreme; and the trust of Governor Rutledge, tendered at a moment when he was suffering from the smitings of conscience, was healing and grateful. For a few moments he spoke not; but at length approaching his nephew, he seized his hand, and at once avowed the pleasure it gave him, to avail himself of the privileges which the commission conferred upon him.
"I will be no longer wanting to my country, Robert. I will do my duty. This paper gives me power to enrol men, to form troops, and to act against the enemy, and find my sanction in thecommission of the executive. I will do so. I will pause no longer, and, spite of the sacrifice, will act as the occasion requires."
The countenance of Major Singleton, and that of Humphries, no less, glowed with an honest pleasure, as the former replied—
"Spoken as it should be, Colonel Walton—spoken as it should be. The decision comes late, but not too late. It is redeeming, and God grant that it be as prosperous to all as it is surely proper and praiseworthy."
"So I believe it, or I would not now adopt it: but, Robert, know you not that such a decision makes me a beggar? Sequestration—"
"Now, out upon it, uncle! why will you still ballast your good works with a weight which shall for ever keep them from heaven's sight? You are no niggard—you live profusely—care not for money: wherefore this reference to wealth in comparison with honour and honourable duty?"
"The wealth is nothing, Robert; but I have a strange love for these old groves—this family mansion, descended to me like a sacred trust through so many hands and ancestors. I would not that they should be lost."
The youth looked sternly at the speaker for a few moments in silence, but the fierce emotion at length found its way to his lips in tones of like indignation with that which sparkled from his eyes.
"Now, by heaven, uncle, had I known of this—had I dreamed that thou hadst weighed, for an instant, the fine sense of honour in the scales against thy love of this thy dwelling-place—my own hand should have applied the torch to its shingles. Dearly as I have loved this old mansion, I myself would have freely kindled the flame which should have burned it to the ground. I would have watched the fire as it swept through these old trees, scathing and scattering the branches under which I had a thousand times played—I would have beheld their ruin with a pleasurable emotion; and as they fell successively to the earth which they once sheltered, I would have shouted in triumph, that I saved you from the dishonourable bargain which you have made for their protection so long."
"But Kate, Kate, Robert; my sweet child—my only child!"
It was all that the father said, but it was enough, if not to convince, at least to silence, the indignant speaker. Her good was, indeed, a consideration; and when Singleton reflected upon the tender care which had kept her from privation and sorrow all her life hitherto, he could not help feeling how natural was such a consideration to the mind of such a father.
But the emotion had subsided—the more visible portions of it, at least; and Colonel Walton, his nephew, and Humphries, engaged in various conversation, chiefly devoted to the labours that lay before them. Having gained his object, however, Major Singleton was in no mood to remain much longer. His duties were various; his little squad required his attention, as he well knew how little subordination could be had from raw militia-men, unless in the continued and controlling presence of their commander. The hour was growing late, and some portion of his time was due to his sister and the ladies, who awaited his coming in the snug back or family parlour, into which none but the select few ever found admission.
Leaving Humphries in the charge of Colonel Walton, our hero approached the quiet sanctuary with peculiar emotions. There was a soft melancholy pervading the little circle. The moral influence of such a condition as that of Emily Singleton was touchingly felt by all around her. The high-spirited, the proud Katharine Walton grew meek and humble, when she gazed upon the sufferer, dying by a protracted and a painful death, in the midst of youth, rich in beauty, and with a superiority of mind which might well awaken admiration in the other, and envy in her own sex. Yet she was dying with the mind alive, but unexercised; a heart warm with a true affection, yet utterly unappropriated; sensibilities touching and charming, which had only lived, that memory might mourn the more over those sweets of character so well known to enjoyment, yet so little enjoying.
It was a thought to make the proud heart humble; and Kate looked upon her cousin with tearful eyes. She sat at her feet, saying no word, while the brother of the dying girl, taking a place beside her, lifted her head upon his bosom, where she seemedpleased that it should lie, while he pressed his lips fondly and frequently to her forehead. In murmured tones, unheard by the rest, she carried on with him a little dialogue, half playful, half tender, in which she pressed him on the subject of his love for her cousin. The mention of Kate's name, a little louder than she usually spoke, called for the latter's attention, who looked up, and a suffusion of her cheek seemed to show a something of consciousness in her mind of what was the subject between them. The eye of Emily caught the glance, and a smile of archness played over her lips for an instant, but soon made way for that earnest and settled melancholy of look which was now the habitual expression of her face. They continued to converse together, the others only now and then mingling in the dialogue, on those various little matters belonging to her old home and its associates, which a young and gentle nature like hers would be apt to remember. Sometimes, so feeble was her utterance that Robert was compelled to place his ear to her lips the better to take in what she said.
It was at one of these moments that a severe clap of thunder recalled the major to a sense of his duties. The sudden concussion startled the nervous maiden, and Kate came to her assistance, so that his hand was brought once more in contact with that of the woman he loved, in the performance of an office almost too sacredly stern to permit of the show of that other emotion which he yet felt—how strangely!—in his bosom. The blood tingled and glowed in his veins, and she, too—she withdrew her lingers the moment her service could well be dispensed with. Another roll of the thunder and a message from Humphries warned Singleton of the necessity of tearing himself from a scene only too painfully fascinating. He took an affectionate leave of his aunt, and pressing the lips of his sister fondly, her last words to him were comprised in a whisper—
"Spare life—save life, Robert, when you can: God bless you! and come back to me soon."
Kate encountered him in the passage-way. Her look was something troubled, and her visible emotion might have been grateful to the vanity of our hero, did he not see how unusually covered with gloom were the features of her face.
"Dear Kate—sweet cousin—I must leave you now."
"I know it. Robert—I know more: you have persuaded my father to break his parole."
"I have done my best towards it, Kate; but if he has resolved, the impulse was as much his own as from me. He could not well have avoided it in the end, situated as he was."
"Perhaps not, Robert; still, your persuasions have been the most immediately urgent; and though I dread the result, I cannot well blame you for what you have done. I now wish to know from you, what are the chances in favour of his successful action. I would at least console myself by their recapitulation when he is absent, and perhaps in danger."
Major Singleton gave a promising account of the prospects before them; such, indeed, as they appeared at that time to the sanguine Americans, and needing but little exaggeration to persuade. She seemed satisfied, and he then proceeded to entreat her upon a subject purely selfish.
"Speak not now—not now on such a matter. Have we not enough, Robert, to trouble us? Danger and death, grief and many apprehensions hang over us, and will not suffer such idle thoughts," was the reply.
"These are no idle thoughts, Kate, since they belong so closely to our happiness. Say to me, then, only say that you love me."
"I love you, indeed—to be sure I do, as a cousin and as friend; but really you ask too much when you crave for more. I have no time, no feeling, for other love in these moments."
"Nay, be serious, Kate, and say. We know not how soon our situation may change. I am hourly exposed in a hazardous service—I may perish; and I would, before such an event, be secure in the hope that I may look to you for that love which would make me happy while living, or—"
She stopped him with a cool, sarcastic speech, concluding the sentence for him in a manner most annoying—
"Drop a tear for me when I am dead."
She saw that he looked displeased, and immediately after, with an art peculiarly her own, she diverted his anger.
"Nay, dear cousin, forgive me; but you looked the conclusionand so pathetically, I thought it not improbable that its utterance would find you speechless. Be not so tragic, I pray you. I am serious enough as it is—soberly serious, not tragically so. Be reasonable for a while, and reflect that these very vicissitudes of your present mode of life should discourage you from pressing this matter. I do not know whether I love you or not, except as a relation. It requires time to make up one's mind on the subject, and trust me I shall think of it in season. But, just now, I cannot—and hear me, Robert, firmly and honestly I tell you, while these difficulties last, while my father's life is in danger, and while your sister lies in my arms helpless and dying, I not only cannot, but will not, attempt to answer you. Forbear the subject, then, I pray you, for a better season; and remember, when I speak to you thus, I speak to you as a woman, with some pretensions to good sense, who will try to think upon her affections as calmly as upon the most simple and domestic necessity of her life. Be satisfied, then, that you will have justice."
Another summons from Humphries below, and a sudden rush of wind along the casement, warned him of the necessity of concluding the interview. He had barely time to press her hand to his lips when she hurried him down to her father. A few brief words of parting, a solemn renewal of their pledges, and, in a few moments, the two partisans were on horse, speeding down the long avenue on the way to their encampment.