Robert Chambers.

The Little Red Foot



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CHAPTER I
SIR WILLIAM PASSES

The day Sir William died there died the greatest American of his day. Because, on that mid-summer evening, His Excellency was still only a Virginia gentleman not yet famous, and best known because of courage and sagacity displayed in that bloody business of Braddock.

Indeed, all Americans then living, and who since have become famous, were little celebrated, excepting locally, on the day Sir William Johnson died. Few were known outside a single province; scarcely one among them had been heard of abroad. But Sir William was a world figure; a great constructive genius; the greatest land-owner in North America; a wise magistrate, a victorious soldier, a builder of cities amid a wilderness; a redeemer of men.

He was a Baronet of the British Realm; His Majesty's Superintendent of Indian Affairs for all North America. He was the only living white man implicitly trusted by the savages of this continent, because he never broke his word to them. He was, perhaps, the only representative of royal authority in the Western Hemisphere utterly believed in by the dishonest, tyrannical, and stupid pack of Royal Governors, Magistrates and lesser vermin that afflicted the colonies with the British plague.

He was kind and great. All loved him. All mourned him. For he was a very perfect gentleman who practiced truth and honour and mercy; an unassuming and respectable man who loved laughter and gaiety and plain people.

He saw the conflict coming which must drench the land in blood and dry with fire the blackened cinders.

Torn betwixt loyalty to his King whom he had so tirelessly served, and loyalty to his country which he so passionately loved, it has been said that, rather than choose between King and Colony, he died by his own hand.

But those who knew him best know otherwise. Sir William died of a broken heart, in his great Hall at Johnstown, all alone.

His son, Sir John, killed a fine horse riding from Fort Johnson to the Hall. And arrived too late and all of a lather in the starlight.

And I have never ceased marvelling how such a man could have been the son of the great Sir William.

At the Hall the numerous household was all in a turmoil; and, besides Sir William's immediate family, there were a thousand guests – a thousand Iroquois Indians encamped around the Hall, with whom Sir William had been holding fire-council.

For he had determined to restrain his Mohawks, and to maintain tranquillity among all the fierce warriors of the Six Nations, and so pledge the entire Iroquois Confederacy to an absolute neutrality in the imminence of this war betwixt King and Colony, which now seemed to be coming so rapidly upon us that already its furnace breath was heating restless savages to a fever.

All that hot June day, though physically ill and mentally unhappy, – and under a vertical sun and with head uncovered, – Sir William had spoken to the Iroquois with belts.

The day's labour of that accursed council-fire ended at sunset; sachem and chief departed – tall spectres in the flaming west; there was a clash of steel at the guard-house as the guard presented arms; Mr.

Duncan saluted the Confederacy with lifted claymore.

Then an old man, bareheaded, alone, turned away from the covered council-fire; and an officer, seeing how feebly he moved, flung an arm about his shoulders.

So Sir William came slowly to his great Hall, and slowly entered. And laid him down in his library on a sofa.

And slowly died there while the sun was going down.

Then the first star came out where, in the ashes of the June sunset, a pale rose tint still lingered.

But Sir William lay dead in his great Hall, all alone.

CHAPTER II
TWO PEERS SANS PEERAGE

Sir John had arrived and I caught sight of his heavy, expressionless face, which seemed more colourless than ever in the candle light.

Consternation reigned in the Hall, – a vast tumult of whispering and guarded gabble among servants, checked by sobs, – and I saw officers come and go, and the tall forms of Mohawks still as pines on a summer night.

The entire household was there – all excepting only Michael Cardigan and Felicity Warren.

The two score farm slaves were there huddled along the wall in dusky clusters, and their great, dark eyes wet with tears.

I saw Sir William's lawyer, Lafferty, come in with Flood, the Baronet's Bouw-Meester.11
  Farm overseer.


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His blacksmith, his tailor, and his armourer were there; also his gardener; the German, Frank, his butler; Pontioch, his personal waiter; and those two uncanny and stunted servants, the Bartholomews, with their dead white faces and dwarfish dignity.

Also I saw poor Billy, Sir William's fiddler, gulping down the blubbers; and there was his personal physician, Doctor Daly, very grave; and the servile Wall, schoolmaster to Lady Molly's brood; and I saw Nicholas, his valet, and black Flora, his cook, both sobbing into the same bandanna.

The dark Lady Johnson was there, very quiet in her grief, slow-moving, still beautiful, having by the hands the two youngest girls and boy, while near her clustered the older children, fat Peter and Betsy and pretty Lana.

A great multitude of candles burned throughout the hall; Sir William's silver and mahogany sparkled everywhere; and so did the naked claymores of the Highlanders on guard where the dead man lay in his own chamber, done, at last, with all perplexity and grief.

In the morning came the quality in scores – all the landed gentry of Tryon County, Tory and Whig alike, to show their reverence: – old Colonel John Butler from his seat at Butlersbury near Caughnawaga, and his dark, graceful son Walter, – he of the melancholy golden eyes – an attorney then and sick of a wound which, some said, had been taken in a duel with Michael Cardigan near Fort Pitt.

Colonel Claus was there, too, son-in-law to Sir William, and battered much by frontier battles: and Guy Johnson, a cousin, and a son-in-law, too, had come from his fine seat at Guy Park to look upon a face as tranquil in death as a sleeping child's.

The McDonald, of damned memory, was there in his tartan and kilts and bonnet; and the Albany Patroon, very modest; and God knows how many others from far and near, all arrived to honour a man who had died very tired in the service of our Lord, who knows and pardons all.

The pretty lady of Sir John, who was Polly Watts of New York, came to me where I stood in the noon breeze near the lilacs; and I kissed her hand, and, straightening myself, retained it, looking into her woeful face of a child, all marred with tears.

"I had not thought to be mistress of the Hall for many years," said she, her lips a-tremble. "But yesterday, at this hour, he was living: and, today, in this hour, the heavy importunities of strange new duties are already crushing me… I count on you, Jack."

I made no answer.

"May we not count on you?" she said. "Sir John and I expect it."

As I stood silent there in the breezy sunshine by the porch, there came across the grass Billy Alexander, who is Lord Stirling, a man much older than I, but who seemed young enough; and made his reverence to Lady Johnson, kissing the hand which I very gently released.

"Oh, Billy," says she, the tears starting again, "why should death take him at such a time, when God's wrath darkens all the world?"

"God's convenience is not always ours," he replied, looking at me sideways, with a certain curiosity which I understood if Lady Johnson did not.

She turned and gazed out across the sunny grass where, beyond the hedge fence, the primeval forest loomed like a dark cloud along the sky, far as the eye could see.

"Well," says she, half to herself, "the storm is bound to break, now. And we women of County Tryon may need your swords, gentlemen, before snow flies."

Lord Stirling stole another look at me. He knew as well as I how loosely in their scabbards lay our two swords. He knew, also, as well as I, in which cause would flash the swords of the landed gentry of County Tryon. And he knew, too, that his blade as well as mine must, one day, be unsheathed against them and against the stupid King they served.

Something of this Lady Johnson had long since suspected, I think; but Billy Alexander, for all his years, was a childhood friend; and I, too, a friend, although more recent.

She looked at my Lord Stirling with that troubled sweetness I have seen so often in her face, alas! and she said in a low voice:

"It would be unthinkable that Lord Stirling's sword could lay a-rusting when the Boston rabble break clear out o' bounds."

She turned to me, touched my arm confidingly, child that she seemed and was, God help her.

"A Stormont," she said, "should never entertain any doubts. And so I count on you, Lord Stormont, as I count upon my Lord Stirling – "

"I am not Lord Stormont," said I, striving to force a smile at the old and tiresome contention. "Lord Stormont is the King's Ambassador in Paris – if it please you to recollect – "

"You are as surely Viscount Stormont as is Billy Alexander, here, Lord Stirling – and as I am Lady Johnson," she said earnestly. "What do you care if your titles be disputed by a doddering committee on privileges in the House of Lords? What difference does it make if usurpers wear your honours as long as you know these same stolen titles are your own?"

"A pair o' peers sans peerage," quoth Billy Alexander, with that boyish grin I loved to see.

"I care nothing," said I, still smiling, "but Billy Alexander does – pardon! – my Lord Stirling, I should say."

Said he: "Sure I am Lord Stirling and no one else; and shall wear my title however they dispute it who deny me my proper seat in their rotten House of Lords!"

"I think you are very surely the true Lord Stirling," said I, "but I, on the other hand, most certainly am not a Stormont Murray. My name is John Drogue; and if I be truly also Viscount Stormont, it troubles me not at all, for my ambition is to be only American and to let the Stormonts glitter as they please and where."

Lady Johnson came close to me and laid both hands upon my shoulders.

"Jack," she pleaded, "be true to us. Be true to your gentle blood. Be true to your proper caste. God knows the King will have a very instant need of his gentlemen in America before we three see another summer here in County Tryon."

I made no reply. What could I say to her? And, indeed, the matter of the Stormont Viscounty was distasteful, stale, and wearisome to me, and I cared absolutely nothing about it, though the landed gentry of Tryon were ever at pains to place me where I belonged, – if some were right, – and where I did not belong if others were righter still.

For Lady Johnson, like many of her caste, believed that the second Viscount Stormont died without issue, – which was true, – and that the third Viscount had a son, – which is debatable.

At any rate, David Murray became the fourth Viscount, and the claims of my remote ancestor went a-glimmering for so many years that, in 1705, we resumed our family name of the Northesks, which is Drogue; and in this natural manner it became my proper name. God knows I found it good enough to eat and sleep with, so that my Lord Stormont's capers in Paris never disturbed my dreams. Thank Heaven for that, too; and it was a sad day for my Lord Stormont when he tried to bully Benjamin Franklin; for the whole world is not yet done a-laughing at him.

No, I have no desire to claim a Viscounty which our witty Franklin has made ridiculous with a single shaft of satire from his bristling repertoire.

Thinking now of this, and reddening a little at the thought, – for no Stormont even of remotest kinship to the family can truly relish Mr. Franklin's sauce, though it dressed an undoubted goose, – I become far more than reconciled to the decision rendered in the House of Lords.

Two people who had come from the house, and who were advancing slowly toward us across the clipped grass, now engaged our full attention.

The one we perceived to be Sir John Johnson himself; the other his lady's school friend and intimate companion, Claudia Swift, the toast of the British Army and of all respectable young Tories; and the "Sacharissa" of those verses made by the new and lively Adjutant General, Major Andr?, who was then a captain.

For, though very young, our lovely Sacharissa had murdered many a gallant's peace of mind, leaving a trail of hearts bled white from New York to Boston, and from that afflicted city to Albany; where, it was whispered, her bright and merciless eyes had made the sad young Patroon much sadder, and his offered manor a more melancholy abode than usual.

She gave us, now, her dimpled hand to kiss. And, to Lady Johnson: "My dear," she said very tenderly, "how pale you seem! God sends us affliction as a precious gift and we must accept it with meekness," letting her eyes rest absently the while on Lord Stirling, and then on me.

Our Sacharissa might babble of meekness if she chose, but that virtue was not lodged within her, God knows, – nor many other virtues either.

Billy Alexander, old enough to be her parent, nevertheless had been her victim; and I also. It was our opinion that we had recovered. But, to be honest with myself, I could not avoid admitting that I had been very desperate sick o' love, and that even yet, at times – But no matter: others, stricken as deep as I, know well that Claudia Swift was not a maid that any man might easily forget, or, indeed, dismiss at will from his mind as long as she remained in his vicinity.

"Are you well, Billy, since we last met?" she asked Lord Stirling in that sweet, hesitating way of hers. And to me: "You have grown thin, Jack. Have you been in health?"

I said that I had been monstrous busy with my new glebe in the Sacandaga patent, and had swung an axe there with the best o' them until an express from Sir William summoned me to return to aid him with the Iroquois at the council-fire. At which explaining of my silence the jade smiled.

When I mentioned the Sacandaga patent and the glebe I had had of Sir William on too generous terms – he making all arrangements with Major Jelles Fonda through Mr. Lafferty – Sir John, who had been standing silent beside us, looked up at me in that cold and stealthy way of his.

"Do you mean your parcel at Fonda's Bush?" he inquired.

"Yes; I am clearing it."

"Why?"

"So that my land shall grow Indian corn, pardie!"

"Why clear it now?" he persisted in his deadened voice.

I could have answered very naturally that the land was of no value to anybody unless cleared of forest. But of course he knew this, too; so I did not evade the slyer intent of his question.

"I am clearing my land at Fonda's Bush," said I, "because, God willing, I mean to occupy it in proper person."

"And when, sir, is it your design to do this thing?"

"Do what, sir? Clear my glebe?"

"Remove thither – in proper person, Mr. Drogue?"

"As soon as may be, Sir John."

At that Lady Johnson gave me a quick look and Claudia said: "What! Would you bury yourself alive in that wilderness, Jack Drogue?"

I smiled. "But I must hew out for myself a career in the world some day, Sacharissa. So why not begin now?"

"Then in Heaven's name," she exclaimed impatiently, "go somewhere among men and not among the wild beasts of the forest! Why, a young man is like to perish of loneliness in such a spot; is he not, Sir John?"

Sir John's inscrutable gaze remained fixed on me.

"In such times as these," said he, "it is better that men like ourselves continue to live together… To await events… And master them… And afterward, each to his vocation and his own tastes… It is my desire that you remain at the Hall," he added, looking steadily at me.

"I must decline, Sir John."

"Why?"

"I have already told you why."

"If your present position is irksome to you," he said, "you have merely to name a deputy and feel entirely at liberty to pursue your pleasure. Or – you are at least the Laird of Northesk if you are nothing greater. There is a commission in my Highlanders – if you desire it… And your salary, of course, continues also."

He looked hard at me: "Augmented by – half," he added in his slow, cold voice. "And this, with your income, should properly maintain a young man of your age and quality."

I had been Brent-Meester to Sir William, for lack of other employment; and had been glad to take the important office, loving as I do the open air. Also the addition of a salary to my slender means had been acceptable. But it was one matter to serve Sir William as Brent-Meester, and another to serve Sir John in any capacity whatsoever. And as for the remainder of the family, – Guy Johnson and Colonel Claus – and their intimates the Butlers, I had now had more than enough of them, having endured these uncongenial people only because I had loved Sir William. Yet, for his father's sake, I now spoke to Sir John politely, using him most kindly because I both liked and pitied his lady, too.

Said I: "My desire is to become a Tryon County farmer, Sir John; and to that end I happily became possessed of the parcel at Fonda's Bush. For that reason I am clearing it. And so I must beg of you to accept my resignation as Brent-Meester at the Hall, for I mean to start as soon as convenient to occupy my glebe."

There was a silence; Sacharissa gazed at me in pity, astonishment, and unfeigned horror; Lady Johnson gave me an odd, unhappy look; and Billy Alexander a meaning one, half grin.

Then Sir John's slow and heavy voice invaded the momentary silence: "As my father's Brent-Meester, only an Indian or a Forest Runner knows the wilderness as do you. And we shall have great need of such forest knowledge as you possess, Mr. Drogue."

I think we all understood the Baronet's meaning.

I considered a moment, then replied very quietly that in time of stress no just cause would find me skulking to avoid duty.

I think my manner and tone, as well as what I said, combined to stop Sir John's mouth. For nobody could question such respectable sentiments unless, indeed, a quarrel was meant.

But Sir John Johnson, in his way, was as slow to mortal quarrel as was I in mine. And whatever suspicion of me he might nurse in his secret mind he now made no outward sign of it.

Also, other people were coming across the grass to join us; and presently grave greetings were exchanged in sober voices suitable to the occasion when a considerable company of ladies and gentlemen are gathered at a house of mourning.

Turning away, I noticed Mr. Duncan and the Highland officers at the magazine, all wearing their black badges of respect and a knot of crape on the basket-hilts of their claymores; and young Walter Butler, still stiff in his bandages, gazing up at the June sky out of melancholy eyes, like a damned man striving to see God.

Sir John had now given his arm to his lady. His left hand rested on his sword-hilt – the same left hand he had offered to poor Claire Putnam – and to which the child still clung, they said.

Claudia turned from Billy Alexander and came toward me. Her face was serious, but I saw the devil looking out of her blue eyes.

Nature had given this maid most lovely proportions – that charming slenderness which is plumply moulded – and she stood straight, and tall enough, too, to meet on a level the love-sick gaze of any stout young man she had bedevilled; and she wore a most bewitching countenance – short-nosed, red-lipped, a skin as white as a water-lily, and thick soft hair as black as night, which she wore unpowdered – the dangerous jade!

"Jack," says she in honeyed tones, "are you truly designing to become a hermit?"

"Oh, no," said I, smilingly, "only a farmer, Claudia."

"Why?"

"Because I am a poor man and must feed and clothe myself."

"There is a commission from Sir John in the Scotch regiment – "

"I'm Scotch enough without that," said I.

"Jack?"

"Yes, Madam?"

"Are you a little angry with me?"

"No," said I, feeling uncomfortable and concluding to beware of her, for she stood now close to me, and the scent of her warm breath troubled me.

"Why are you angry with me, Jack?" she asked sorrowfully. And took one step nearer.

"I am not," said I.

"Am – am I driving you into the wilderness?" she inquired.

"That, also, is absurd," I replied impatiently. "No woman could ever boast of driving me, though some may once have led me."

"Oh, I feared that I had sapped, perhaps, your faith in women, John."

I forced a laugh: "Why, Claudia? Because I lately – and vainly – was enamoured of you?"

"Lately?"

"Yes. I did love you, once."

"Did love?" she breathed. "Do you not love me any more, Jack?"

"I think not," said I, very cheerfully.

"And why? Sure I used you kindly, Jack. Did I not so?"

"You conducted as is the privilege of maid with man, Sacharissa," said I uneasily. "And that is all I have to say."

"How so did I conduct, Jack?"

"Sweetly – to my undoing."

"Try me again," she said, looking up at me, and the devil in her eyes.

But already I was becoming sensible of the ever-living enchantment of this young thing, so wise in stratagems and spoils of Love, and I chose to leave my scalp hang drying at her lodge door beside the scanter pol of Billy Alexander.



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