A Hero, A Story of the American Revolution

They were sitting by the great blazing wood-fire. It was July, but there was an east wind and the night was chilly. Besides, Mrs. Heath had a piece of fresh pork to roast. Squire Blake had "killed" the day before—that was the term used to signify the slaughter of any domestic animal for food—and had distributed the "fresh" to various families in town, and Mrs. Heath wanted hers for the early breakfast. Meat was the only thing to be had in plenty—meat and berries. Wheat and corn, and vegetables even, were scarce. There had been a long winter, and then, too, every family had sent early in the season all they could possibly spare to the Continental army. As to sugar and tea and molasses, it was many a day since they had had even the taste of them.

The piece of pork was suspended from the ceiling by a stout string, and slowly revolved before the fire, Dorothy or Arthur giving it a fresh start when it showed signs of stopping. There was a settle at right angles with the fireplace, and here the little cooks sat, Dorothy in the corner nearest the fire, and Arthur curled up on the floor at her feet, where he could look up the chimney and see the moon, almost at the full, drifting through the sky. At the opposite corner sat Abram, the hired man and faithful keeper of the family in the absence of its head, at work on an axe helve, while Bathsheba, or "Basha," as she was briefly and affectionately called, was spinning in one corner of the room just within range of the firelight.

There was no other light—the firelight being sufficient for their needs—and it was necessary to economize in candles, for any day a raid from the royal army might take away both cattle and sheep, and then where would the tallow come from for the annual fall candle-making? There was a rumor—Abram had brought it home that very day—that the royal army were advancing, and red coats might make their appearance in Hartland at any time. Arthur and Dorothy were talking about it, as they turned the roasting fork.

"Wish I was a man," said Arthur, glancing towards his mother, who was sitting in a low splint chair knitting stockings for her boy's winter wear. "I'd like to shoot a red coat."

"O Arty!" exclaimed Dorothy reproachfully; "you're always thinking of shooting! Now I should like to nurse a sick soldier and wait upon him. Poor soldiers! it was dreadful what papa wrote to mamma about them."

"Would you nurse a red coat?" asked Arthur, indignantly.

"Yes," said Dorothy. "Though of course I should rather, a great deal rather, nurse one of our own soldiers. But, Arty," continued the little elder sister, "papa says if we must fight, why, we must fight bravely, but that we can be brave without fighting."

"Well, I mean to be a hero, and heroes always fight. King Arthur fought. Papa said so. He and his knights fought for the Sangreal, and liberty is our Sangreal. I'm glad my name is Arthur, anyhow, for Arthur means noble and high," he said, lifting his bright boyish face with its steadfast blue eyes, and glancing again towards his mother. She gave an answering smile.

"I hope my boy will always be noble and high in thought and deed. But, as papa said, to be a hero one does not need to fight, at least, not to fight men. We can fight bad tempers and bad thoughts and cowardly impulses. They who fight these things successfully are the truest heroes, my boy."

"Ah, but mamma, didn't I hear you tell grandmamma how you were proud of your hero. That's what you called papa when General Montgomery wrote to you, with his own hand, how he drove back the enemy at the head of his men, while the balls were flying and the cannons roaring and flashing; and when his horse was shot under him how he struggled out and cheered on his men, on foot, and the bullets whizzed and the men fell all around him, and he wasn't hurt and"—Here the boy stopped abruptly and sprang impulsively forward, for his mother's cheek had suddenly grown pale.

"True grit!" remarked Abram to Basha, in an undertone, as she paused in her walk to and fro by the spinning-wheel to join a broken thread. "But there never was a coward yet, man or woman, 'mong the Heaths, an' I've known 'em off an' on these seventy year. Now there was ole Gineral Heath," he continued, holding up the axe helve and viewing it critically with one eye shut, "he was a marster hand for fightin'. Fit the Injuns 's though he liked it. That gun up there was his'n."

"Tell us about the 'sassy one,'" said Arthur, turning at the word gun.

"Youngster, 'f I've told yer that story once, I've told yer fifty times," said Abram.

"Tell it again," said the boy eagerly. "And take down the gun, too."

Abram got up as briskly as his seventy years and his rheumatism would permit, and took down the gun from above the mantel-piece. It was a very large one.

"Not quite so tall as the old Gineral himself," said Abram, "but a purty near to it. This gun is 'bout seven feet, an' yer gran'ther was seven feet two—a powerful built man. Wall, the Injuns had been mighty obstreperous 'long 'bout that time, burnin' the Widder Brown's house and her an' her baby a-hidin' in a holler tree near by, an' carryin' off critters an' bosses, an' that day yer gran'ther was after 'em with a posse o' men, an' what did that pesky Injun do but git up on a rock a quarter o' a mile off an' jestickerlate in an outrigerous manner, like a sarcy boy, an' yer grand'ther, he took aim and fired, an' that impident Injun jest tumbel over with a yell; his last, mind ye, and good enough for him!"

"I like to hear about old gran'ther," said Arthur.

As Abram was restoring the gun to its place upon the hooks, a sound was heard at the side door—a sound as of a heavy body falling against it, which startled them all. The dog Cęsar rose, and going to the door which opened into the side entry, sniffed along the crack above the threshold. Apparently satisfied, he barked softly, and rising on his hind legs lifted the latch and sprang into the entry. Abram followed with Basha. As he lifted the latch of the outer door—the string had been drawn in early, as was the custom in those troublous time—and swung it back, the light from the fire fell upon the figure of a man lying across the doorstone.

"Sakes alive!" exclaimed Abram, drawing back. But at a word from the mistress, they lifted the man and brought him in and laid him down on the braided woollen mat before the fire. Then for a moment there was silence, for he wore the dress of a British soldier, and his right arm was bandaged. He had fainted from loss of blood, apparently—perhaps from hunger. Basha loosened his coat at the throat, and tried to force a drop or two of "spirits" into his mouth, while Mrs. Heath rubbed his hands.

"He ain't dead," said Basha, in a grim tone, "and mind you, we'll see trouble from this." Basha was an arrant rebel, and hated the very sight of a red coat. "What are you doing here," she continued, addressing him, "killin' honest folks, when you'd better 've staid cross seas in yer own country?"

"Basha!" said Mrs. Heath reprovingly, "he is helpless."

But Basha as she unwound the tight bandage from the shattered arm, kept muttering to herself like a rising tempest, until at length the man having come quite to himself, detected her feeling, and with great effort said, "I am not a British soldier."

"Then what to goodness have you got on their uniform for?" queried Basha.

Little by little the pitiful story was told. He was an American soldier who had been doing duty as a spy in the British camp. Up to the very last day of his stay he had not been suspected; but trying to get away he was suspected, challenged, and fired at. The shot passed through his arm. He was certain his pursuers had followed him till night, and they would be likely to continue the search the next day, and he begged Mrs. Heath to secrete him for a day or two, if possible.

"I wouldn't mind being shot, marm," he said, "but you know they'll hang me if they get me. Of course I risked it when I went into their camp, but it's none the pleasanter for all that."

Now in the old Heath house there was a secret chamber, built in the side of the chimney. Most of those old colonial houses had enormous chimneys, that took up, sometimes, a quarter of the ground occupied by the house, so it was not a difficult thing to enclose a small space with slight danger of its existence being detected. This chimney chamber in the Heath house was little more than a closet eight feet by four. It was entered from the north chamber, Abram's room, through a narrow sliding panel that looked exactly like the rest of the wall, which was of cedar boards. An inch-wide shaft running up the side of the chimney ventilated the closet, and it was lighted by a window consisting of three small panes of glass carefully concealed under the projecting roof. In a sunny day one could see to read there easily.

A small cot-bed was now carried into this room, and up there, after his wound had been dressed by Basha, who, like many old-time women, was skilful in dressing wounds and learned in the properties of herbs and roots, and he had been fed and bathed, the soldier was taken; and a very grateful man he was as he settled himself upon the comfortable bed and looked up with a smiling "thank you," into Basha's face, which was no longer grim and forbidding.

All this time no special notice had been taken of Dorothy and Arthur. They had followed about to watch the bathing, feeding and tending, and when Mrs. Heath turned to leave the secret chamber, she found them behind her, staring in with very wide-open eyes indeed; for, if you can believe it, they never before had even heard of, much less seen, this lovely little secret chamber. It was never deemed wise in colonial families to talk about these hiding-places, which sometimes served so good a purpose, and I doubt if many adults in the town of Hartland knew of this secret chamber in the Heath house.

The panel was closed, and Abram was left to care for the wounded soldier through the night. It was nine o'clock, the colonial hour for going to bed, and long past the children's hour, and Dotty and Arthur in their prayers by their mother's knee, put up a petition for the safety of the stranger.

"Would they hang him if they could get him, mamma?" asked Arty.

"Certainly," she replied. "It is one of the rules of warfare. A spy is always hung."

In the morning, from nine to eleven, Mrs. Heath always devoted to the children's lessons. Arthur, who was eleven, was a good Latin scholar. He was reading Cęsar's Commentaries, and he liked it—that is, he liked the story part. He found some of it pretty tough reading, and I need not tell you boys who have read Cęsar, what parts those were. They had English readings from the Spectator, and from Bishop Leighton's works, books which you know but little about. Dotty had a daily lesson in botany, and very pleasant hours those school hours were.

After dinner, at twelve, they had the afternoon for play. That afternoon, the day after the soldier came, they went berrying. They did this almost every day during berry time, so as to have what they liked better than anything for supper—berries and milk. Occasionally they had huckleberry "slap-jacks," also a favorite dish, for breakfast; not often, however, as flour was scarce.

They went for berries down the road known as South Lane, a lonely place, but where berries grew plentifully. Their mother had cautioned them not to talk about the occurrence of the night before, as some one might overhear, and so, though they talked about their play and their studies, about papa and his soldiers, they said nothing about the soldier.

(image)

"Tell Me, My Little Man," Said He, "Where You Saw the British Uniform."

They had nearly filled their baskets, when a growl from Cęsar startled them, and turning, they saw two horsemen who had stopped near by, one of whom was just springing from his horse. They were in British uniform, and the children at once were sure what they wanted.

"O Arty, Arty!" whispered Dorothy. "They've come, and we mustn't tell."

The man advanced with a smile meant to be pleasant, but which was in reality so sinister that the children shrank with a sensation of fear.

"How are you, my little man? Picking berries, eh? And where do you live?" he asked.

"With mamma," answered Arthur promptly.

"And who is mamma? What is her name?"

"Mrs. Heath," said Arty.

"And don't you live with papa too? Where is papa?" the man asked.

Arthur hesitated an instant, and then out it came, and proudly too. "In the Continental army, sir."

"Ho! ho! and so we are a little rebel, are we?" laughed the man. "And who am I? Do you know?"

"Yes, sir; a British soldier."

"How do you know that?"

"Because you wear their uniform, sir?"

"You cannot have seen many British soldiers here," said the man. "Did you ever see the British uniform before?"

"Yes, sir," replied Arty.

"And where did you see it?" he asked, glancing sharply at Arthur and then at Dorothy. Upon the face of the latter was a look of dismay, for she had foreseen the drift of the man's questions and the trap into which Arty had fallen. He, too, saw it, now he was in. The only British uniform he had ever seen was that worn by the American spy. For a brief moment he was tempted to tell a lie. Then he said firmly, "I cannot tell you, sir."

"Cannot! Does that mean will not?" said the man threateningly. Then he put his hand into his pocket and took out a bright gold sovereign, which he held before Arthur.

"Come, now, my little man, tell me where you saw the British soldier's uniform, and you shall have this gold piece."

But all the noble impulses of the boy's nature, inherited and strengthened by his mother's teachings, revolted at this attempt to bribe him. His eyes flashed. He looked the man full in the face. "I will not!" said he.

"Come, come!" cried out the man on horseback. "Don't palter any longer with the little rebel. We'll find a way to make him tell. Up with him!"

In an instant the man had swung Arthur into his saddle, and leaping up behind him, struck spurs to his horse and dashed away. Cęsar, who had been sniffing about, suspicious, but uncertain, attempted to leap upon the horseman in the rear, but he, drawing his pistol from his saddle, fired, and Cęsar dropped helpless.

The horsemen quickly vanished, and for a moment Dorothy stood pale and speechless. Then she knelt down by Cęsar, examined his wound—he was shot in the leg—and bound it up with her handkerchief, just as she saw Basha do the night before, and then putting her arms around his neck she kissed him. "Be patient, dear old Cęsar, and Abram shall come for you!"

Covered with dust, her frock stained with Cęsar's blood, a pitiful sight indeed was Dorothy as she burst into the kitchen where Basha was preparing supper.

"O mamma, they've carried off Arty and shot Cęsar, those dreadful, dreadful British!"

Between her sobs she told the whole fearful story to the two women—fearful, I say, for Mrs. Heath knew too well the reputed character of the British soldiery, not to fear the worst if her boy should persist in refusing to tell where he had seen the British soldier's uniform. But even in her distress she was conscious of a proud faith that he would not betray his trust.

As to Basha, who shall describe her horror and indignation? "The wretches! ain't they content to murder our men and burn our houses, that they must take our innercent little boys?" and she struck the spit into the chicken she was preparing for supper vindictively, as though thus she would like to treat the whole British army. "The dear little cretur! what'll he do to-night without his mamma, and him never away from her a night in his blessed life. 'Pears to me the Lord's forgot the Colonies. O dearie, dearie me!" utterly overcome she dropped into a chair, and throwing her homespun check apron over her head, she gave way to such a fit of weeping as astonished and perplexed Abram, one of whose principal articles of faith it was that Basha couldn't shed a tear, even if she tried, "more'n if she's made o' cast iron."

It indeed looked hopeless. Who was to follow after these men and rescue Arthur? There was hardly any one left in town but old men, women and children.

Mrs. Heath thought of this as she soothed Dorothy, coaxed her to eat a little supper, and then sat by her side until she fell asleep. She sat by the fire while the embers died out, or walked up and down the long, lonely kitchen, wrestling, like Jacob, in prayer, for her boy, until long after midnight.

And now let us follow Arthur's fortunes. The men galloped hard and long over hills, through valleys and woods, so far away it seemed to the little fellow he could never possibly see mamma or Dorothy again. At last they drew up at a large white house, evidently the headquarters of the officers, and Arthur was put at once into a dark closet and there left. He was tired and dreadfully hungry, so hungry that he could think of hardly anything else. He heard the rattling of china and glasses, and knew they were at supper. By and by a servant came and took him into the supper room. His eyes were so dazzled at first by the change from the dark closet to the well-lighted room, that he could scarcely see. But when the daze cleared he found himself standing near the head of the table, where sat a stout man with a red face, a fierce mustache, and an evil pair of eyes.

He looked at Arthur a moment. Then he poured out a glass of wine and pushed it towards him: "Drink!"

But Arthur did not touch the glass.

"Drink, I say," he repeated impatiently. "Do you hear?"

"I have promised mamma never to drink wine," was the low response.

It seemed to poor Arthur as though everything had combined against him. It was bad enough to have to say no to the question about the uniform, and now here was something else that would make the men still more angry with him. But the officer did not push his command; he simply thrust the glass one side and said, "Now, my boy, we're going to get that American spy and hang him. You know where he is and you've got to tell us, or it will be the worse for you. Do you want to see your mother again?"

Arthur did not answer. He could not have answered just then. A big bunch came into his throat. Cry? Not before these men. So he kept silence.

"Obstinate little pig! speak!" thundered the officer, bringing his great brawny fist down upon the table with a blow that set the glasses dancing. "Will you tell me where that spy is?"

"No, sir," came in very low, but very firm tones. I will not tell you the dreadful words of that officer, as he turned to his servant with the command, "Put him down cellar, and we'll see to him in the morning. They're all alike, men, women and children. Rebellion in the very blood. The only way to finish it is to spill it without mercy."

Now there was one thing that Arthur, brave as he was, feared, and that was—rats! Left on a heap of dry straw, he began to wonder if there were rats there. Presently he was sure he heard something move, but he was quickly reassured by the touch of soft, warm fur on his hand, and the sound of a melodious "pur-r." The friendly kitty, glad of a companion, curled herself by his side. What comfort she brought to the lonely little fellow! He lay down beside her, and saying his Our Father, and Now I Lay Me, was soon in a profound sleep, the purring little kitty nestling close.

The sounds of revelry in the rooms above did not disturb him. The boisterous songs and laughter, the stamping of many feet, continued far into the night. At last they ceased; and when everything had been for a long time silent, the door leading to the cellar was softly opened and a lady came down the stairway. I have often wished that I might paint her as she looked coming down those stairs. Arthur was afterwards my great-grandfather, you know, and he told me this story when I was a young girl in my teens. He told me how lovely this lady was.

Her gown was of some rich stuff that shimmered in the light of the candle she carried, and rustled musically as she walked. There was a flash of jewels at her throat and on her hands. She had wrapped a crimson mantle about her head and shoulders. Her eyes were like stars on a summer's night, sparkling with a veiled radiance, and as she stood and looked down upon the sleeping boy, a smile, sweet, but full of a profound sadness, played upon her lips. Then a determined look came into her bright eyes.

He stirred in his sleep, laughed out, said "mamma," and then opened his eyes. She stooped and touched his lips with her finger. "Hush! Speak only in a whisper. Eat this, and then I will take you to your mother."

After he had eaten, she wrapped a cloak about him, and together they stole up and out past the sleeping, drunken sentinel, to the stables. She lead out a white horse, her own horse, Arthur was sure, for the creature caressed her with his head, and as she saddled him she talked to him in low tones, sweet, musical words of some foreign tongue. The handsome horse seemed to understand the necessity of silence, for he did not even whinny to the touch of his mistress' hand, and trod daintily and noiselessly as she led him to the mounting block, his small ears pricking forward and backward, as though knowing the need of watchful listening.

Leaping to the saddle and stooping, she lifted Arthur in front of her, and with a word they were off. A slow walk at first, and then a rapid canter. Arthur never forgot that long night ride with the beautiful lady on the white horse, over the country flooded with the brilliancy of the full moon. Once or twice she asked him if he was cold, as she drew the cloak more closely about him, and sometimes she would murmur softly to herself words in that silvery, foreign tongue. As they drew near Hartland, she asked him to point out his father's house, and when they were quite near, only a little distance off, she stopped the horse.

"I leave you here, you brave, darling boy," she said. "Kiss me once, and then jump down. And don't forget me."

Arthur threw his arms around her neck and kissed her, first on one cheek and then on the other, and looking up into the beautiful face with its starry eyes, said:

"I will never, never forget you, for you are the loveliest lady I ever saw—except mamma."

She laughed a pleased laugh, like a child, then took a ring from her hand and put it on one of Arthur's fingers. Her hand was so slender it fitted his chubby little hand very well.

"Keep this," she said, "and by and by give it to some lady good and true, like mamma."

"Will you be punished?" he said, keeping her hand. She laughed again, with a proud, daring toss of her dainty head, and rode away.

Arthur watched her out of sight, and then turned towards home. Mrs. Heath was still keeping her lonely watch, when the latch of the outer door was softly lifted—nobody had the heart to take in the string with Arty outside—the inner door swung noiselessly back, and the blithe voice said, "Mamma! mamma! here I am, and I didn't tell."

All that day, and the next, and the next, the Heath household were in momentary expectation of the coming of the red coats to search for the spy. Dorothy and Arthur, and sometimes Abram, did picket duty to give seasonable warning of their approach. But they never came. In a few days news was brought that the British forces, on the very morning after Arthur's return, had made a rapid retreat before an advance of the Federal troops, and never again was a red coat seen in Hartland. The spy got well in great peace and comfort under Basha's nursing, and went back again to do service in the Continental army, and Dotty used to say, "You did learn, didn't you, Arty, how a person, even a little boy, can be a hero without fighting, just as mamma said?"