This book is dedicated to
George Dudley Seymour 1859–1945
With special thanks to Susan, Pat and John.
(Copyright Circian. 1993-1996. All rights reserved.)
The authorized maxims and practices of war are the satires of human nature –Alexander Hamilton
September 21, 1776 British-Occupied Long Island
So this was fear, he thought. The reality, not the abstractions he’d read about in his classical Greek plays. It was physically nauseating, mind-numbing, too horrible to describe. Swallowing hard, he held his ragged breath, striving for silence; but his lungs demanded air and he inhaled noisily, or at least it seemed so to him as he bit his lip with tension. It was almost dark now and the cold mud permeated his shoes as he knelt in the bushes south of Flushing Bay, shivering in his civilian clothes.
He had led them a merry chase through the woods and was grateful for the football and wrestling that accounted for his conditioning. His athletic body was fresh and strong and he only had to get to the East River, two hundred yards away. A schooner would be there at sunset to take him back to York Island…to Haarlem Heights, where he would be safe.
He hesitated, straining his ears. Had he…yes, it was something. His chest ached as he held his breath. Fight or flight? Voices. Behind him. He turned and half-ran toward the river, crouched over and careful not to disturb the protecting vegetation. Suddenly, a musket shot shattered the silence and he dove for a clump of bushes, crawling inside the thick shrubbery. His head bent to the ground, he tried to still his breathing. Someone was barking orders. They were fanning out in all directions.
Nothing, nothing in his life had prepared him for this. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he was a college graduate, a scholar. Now, like so many his age, he had interrupted his career for war. He was proud to be a captain in his country’s new army but he had missed Bunker Hill and had not even fought in the Battle of Long Island. During the last year he’d drilled his men on the parade grounds, supervised guard duty, passed out supplies and kept his accounts. He’d written letters back home, but he’d never killed anyone…not yet; not close up with the bayonet where you could see their eyes.
At Yale he’d debated war with his fellow students–by soft, safe candlelight–fear and bravery, fight or flight, all kinds of battle theories. Secure in their brick dormitory, they’d analyzed the last war to its most minute detail and criticized all the generals. They’d shared expensive books and debated scholars’ lofty ideals, nobility and glory. But there was nothing noble here…or glorious; he was crawling on his hands and knees, crouched like a dog in the thick underbrush, fingernails in the mud.
Another breath forced itself on him as he moved ten feet closer to the water, praying for more darkness. Fight or flight? Bile welled up in his throat and he cringed his eyes involuntarily as he heard them come closer. His heart was beating so fast it felt like a continuous contraction. It hurt and sickened him, weighing him down like hot, burning coal. When the Quintumviri met again, he would have to tell them how fear really felt. Thinking of the future helped…yes, put things in perspective; he was going to make it. He just had to get to the river. Crouching lower, he grabbed the rushes for support, moving forward, ten feet closer, before another shot permeated the air. He dove for the ground again. He could make out their words now and the officer’s orders. The rangers’ accents were different than his New England dialect. Long Island Tories. They’re Americans too, he thought bitterly–unnatural monsters!–pleased to imbrue their hands in their country’s blood, pleased to fight with the enemy against their own people! He closed his eyes tightly, suddenly aware of the smell of gunpowder and the abrupt silence. He hesitated. Where were they? Which way? He swallowed hard.
Had it only been two weeks ago?
“It’s immoral!” William Hull, his friend and fellow captain in the 19th Connecticut regiment sat on his narrow bed in a small Dutch house where he was quartered in Haarlem. Nathan occupied the only chair, a prettily painted one, a few feet away.
Hull was becoming angrier by the minute. “No one can order you to spy behind enemy lines and with just reason; it is demeaning, scurrilous activity, unworthy of a gentleman! Forget this nonsense, my friend! Soon you’ll be engaged in honorable fighting, marching your men into battle, WEARING YOUR COUNTRY’S PROUD UNIFORM!!”
Hull had stood then, towering over him, his voice could be heard in the village below. “Spies are hung for God’s sake, Nathan, like the scum they are! Their bodies displayed on the highway, jeered at by schoolboys, then, half rotted, thrown into an unmarked hole! Is that what you want? Is that what your family expects? Would your father be proud of THAT?!”
“I am sensible of the penalty for spying,” he had said, staring miserably at his silver shoe buckles. “But I’ve served in the army for over a year now; taken a salary, yet contributed nothing. Ben Tallmadge fought on Long Island and he’s only been in the army two months! I quit schoolkeeping to be of service to my country! Well this is my chance, Will…to do something!”
“But something dishonorable? Who respects the character of a spy!–one who assumes the garb of friendship, only to betray? In future years, will you relate that task with pride? To your children? To your grandchildren? Or will you be justly ashamed. Besides, ” Hull spoke solicitously now, his eyes burning into Nathan’s. “Can you play the Tory with conviction, sir? I say no!–their beliefs are too foreign to your nature and your character too honest for such vile deceit.”
“There is no other way of obtaining the information.” He had sighed in frustration, looking away. “It is my duty…to be useful!”
“NO! Your country does not ask you to degrade yourself; if you do this, your short, bright career will close with an ignominious death. And then what use will you be?”
But his country–his two-month-old country–had asked him, General Washington had asked him. The commander-in-chief desperately needed intelligence. His entire army was on York Island now, ignominiously defeated and chased from Long Island by General Howe. Thirty-two thousand of the world’s best soldiers threatened them from Staten Island and now Long Island too; they were surrounded by ten thousand sailors and hundreds of British Naval vessels.
Everyone knew York Island would be invaded, but where, when, how many? Washington needed military information, fast, from someone he could trust–someone reliable, who knew what they were doing. But no one would volunteer to go behind enemy lines; it was a dirty, dishonorable job, unworthy of a soldier; besides, you could get hung. In desperation, Washington’s friend, the popular Colonel Knowlton had pleaded with his officers and after some thought and soulsearching, one of his captains had agreed to try. His Excellency, General Washington himself, had shaken Nathan’s hand and wished him Godspeed. How could he say no? Didn’t any service in the public good become honorable by being necessary? That’s what Nathan had finally told his friend, with a naive, uncompromising patriotism that, in the end, had silenced Captain Hull.
Nathan raised his head above the river rushes. His escape was cut off now as the rangers closed in along the shore, expertly surrounding their prey.
“This way! The dogs have the scent!”
They wouldn’t pull him out of the bushes like a coward, he would run. He was strong. He’d fight his way to the river, to Haarlem Heights where Washington waited. He had the drawings in his shoes, and troop deployments written out in Latin. His Excellency would be very pleased.
Nathan got to his feet, ready to spring, ready for anything, to break through their lines, now, it was his only chance. And then there was none. “Cease ye and halt! In the name of the king!” The order was accompanied by a flash of buckshot at his feet.
September 22, 1776 British-Occupied York Island
It was hot. The sky was clear and blue at 11:00 in the morning. A bird was singing from the forested area near the Artillery Park, near what would one day be the corner of Third Avenue and 66th Street. Far to the southwest, black, ugly smoke curled high into the air. Two days before, rebel sympathizers had set fire to New York City, destroying a quarter of the town in retaliation for the recent enemy invasion. British prospects for comfortable winter quarters were diminishing rapidly, and worse, they’d failed to split the rebel army. General Putnum had escaped along the North River, saving 3000 Continental regulars and militia. Washington’s forces were together again, solidly entrenched behind the bluffs at Haarlem Heights. General Howe was furious. No one was in a good mood.
In the distance, a tall, athletic young man with sunbleached hair and light blue eyes walked slowly down the road that passed by the Dove Tavern, across from the park. His hands were bound tightly behind him and he was surrounded by red-coated soldiers. He had attempted to shake out the mud from his tattered linen clothes, to make as good an impression as possible. He was, after all, an officer, a captain in his country’s army. And he had told them so. For there was no question of secrecy any more. He’d been caught with the papers and the drawings. He was out of uniform behind enemy lines. A spy. Last night, he’d been ferried across the East River and dragged up the banks of Turtle Bay; ironically, the same spot where his company had landed on York Island–ready for anything–almost six months before.
He soon found himself in the drawing room of the Beekman Mansion a few hundred yards away. His Excellency, General William Howe, the commander-in-chief of His Britannic Majesty’s Expeditionary Forces in America, sat behind his desk, backlit by a modest fire. The general looked up as the rangers dragged him in and Nathan was caught, for a moment, in eyes that were not unkind.
“What is it?”
“Your Excellency,” said Lt. Colonel Rogers. “We tried to search this man at the checkpoint on Long Island, sir; we being informed by our agent in the city that such as his description may be spying for the rebels. In any event, Your Excellency, he bolted. We chased him down and found this in the lining of his shoe.” He handed over several sheets of tightly folded papers. “And this, sir, in his pocket.” The colonel produced a larger sheet of paper with an ornate seal affixed to the upper left corner. The document was heavily engraved with large Gothic letters, beginning with:
Prafes et Socii
Novo Protu Connecticutentium
And ending with:
Annoq Salutis 1773
There were several signatures at the bottom.
“This is a diploma.”
“Yes, Your Excellency, that is what I thought.”
The general turned to the prisoner. “Is this your diploma, son?”
Nathan looked around the ornate drawing room with its elegant furniture and carved white mantlepiece. Everything was so clean and orderly. Peaceful. Yet he was standing in the middle of a nightmare, dripping mud on the oak flooring.
“Answer His Excellency!” Rogers prodded him with his musket..
“Yes, sir…Your Excellency.”
“So then, you must be…ah…let me see here…Nathan Hale, Yale College, 1773. What were you doing on Long Island?”
He took a deep breath, staring intently at the mantlepiece as if the right answer might lay somewhere deep in the elegant carvings. The graceful structure rose almost ten feet high, with the Beekman coat of arms festooned near the top and a small outcropping of a dog’s head carved near the center, sticking out at a 45 degree angle.
“Speak, man!!” Yelled Rogers, hitting him harder.
Nathan grabbed the general’s desk to keep from falling; he coughed a few times, procrastinating, thinking of what Rogers had just said. Someone had betrayed him! He needed time to think.
“He said he was a Dutch schoolmaster, Your Excellency, looking for work. The diploma is his credentials, but…sir, look at those other papers, if you would. None of us could read the writing.”
Nathan clenched his fists, suddenly flushing with the heat of the fire, or maybe it was something else. He took a deep breath. What was he going to do? “By God almighty!” It was the general, who had just adjusted his spectacles to focus on the Latin documents. A drawing of York Island showed the deployment of Lord Percy’s 2nd and 6th brigades near what would one day be 73rd Street and 3rd Avenue; General Clinton’s 3rd and 4th brigades were shown to the northward, near what would be 82nd and 90th Streets; and further to the westward, toward the North River, Lord Cornwallis and the Hessians were indicated above what would one day be 91st Street near Broadway. Howe’s eyes grew colder as he read each sheet, complete with shipping analyses for the East and North Rivers and additional troop deployments along the western coast of Long Island. Finally he looked up at Nathan. “Who are you?”
Nathan stood silently, staring at the papers in the general’s hands. One of them didn’t belong, it wasn’t his. How did it get…
Rogers twisted him around and slapped him viciously across the face with the back of his hand. “Answer His Excellency, you rebel bastard!!”
The American army captain shuddered with pain and humiliation. He rubbed his face. “Nathan Hale, sir,” he wispered, his eyes downcast. “A humble…schoolmaster, sir, loyal to my king and and your most obedient servant, Your Excellency. I…can explain the papers…I…I found the shoes, I mean, I stole them, sir, from a man who…I found…ah…dead, sir, you see, they…”
“Silence rebel! How dare you to lie to His Excellency!” Rogers reached out to hit him again but stopped when Howe spoke.
“That’s enough, colonel. Let us find out the truth before we judge this boy.” The general stared hard at the prisoner whose downcast eyes told him nothing. He sighed, glancing over the papers again before an idea suddenly struck him. “Send for Mr. Hale — right away!”
An aide standing by the open doorway scurried away as Howe resumed his study of the prisoner’s papers, holding them up to the flickering candlelight. Nathan’s legs almost buckled as he tried to maintain his composure. Hale? Suddenly, a thought began to form that was so terrible he started to tremble. It couldn’t be. Couldn’t be.
“Yes, Your Excellency?” A voice came from the doorway behind him. The general looked up. “Ah, Hale. Are you acquainted with this young man?” Samuel Hale of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was a Harvard graduate, a lawyer and a devout Loyalist who had spent the last several months with General Howe and company in Nova Scotia. The recently appointed deputy commissary of prisoners shuffled into the room, blinking back sleep. He was weary from processing the numberous rebels captured both on Long Island and after the successful Kip’s Bay invasion a few days before. As Samuel approached the general’s desk, his gait slowed and then stopped short as the young prisoner turned slowly to face him. Samuel inhaled so loudly that Colonel Rogers looked up.
“Well, speak up, man,” said General Howe. “Is this a kinsman or not?” Blue eyes locked to blue. The room became deathly quiet.
“Ah, sir…” The Tory looked at the general, backing up a step. “If it please Your Excellency…I…” He turned and stared at his cousin Nathan, who looked as miserable as he felt. He was in civilian clothes, which could only mean one thing.
The general walked around his desk and the soldiers backed off to let him stand between the prisoner and the Tory. He could see the family resemblance. “It is a simple request, Mr. Hale. Is this your kinsman?”
Samuel sighed, closing his eyes. “Yes, Your Excellency.”
“Nathan Hale? Is he from Connecticut?”
“Then he’s not a Dutch schoolmaster.”
The general turned on his heel and walked over to the fireplace. He leaned an arm against the white mantlepiece. “Then what, pray tell, is he.” Samuel Hale wanted the floor to receive him into its depths, he prayed the devil himself might appear and invite him to hell. No, this was hell. Right here. He looked at his cousin but Nathan had closed his eyes.
Samuel sighed loudly. “Your Excellency, my cousin is a captain in the rebel army.” Everyone gasped, including Colonel Rogers and the Queen’s Rangers. General Howe walked back to his desk and addressed his prisoner.
“Is this true?”
For some reason, Nathan felt curiously relieved. “Yes, Your Excellency!” He spoke firmly and came to attention, military style. “Yes, sir. I am proud to be a captain in the Continental Army of the United Colonies, I mean, the United STATES of America, serving under Lt. Colonel Thomas Knowlton…and His Excellency, General Washington, sir.”
The general sank into his chair with a thud. “May I be damned to hell. They’re using officers as spies now. What do you think of that, Colonel Rogers?”
“It has never been said that rebels were men of honor, Your Excellency.” The soldiers tried to control it but some laughter spilled out at their commander’s joke.
“You are dismissed,” said the general, irritably. “Good work, Colonel.”
“Yes, Your Excellency.”
“Bring me the deputy adjutant general!” Howe barked the order to one of his aides. Samuel Hale stood next to Nathan as if he was a prisoner too but neither man spoke. Finally, the adjutant arrived and General Howe motioned him into the next room, leaving the two of them alone with the guards at the door.
“I’m sorry.” The words sounded silly and monstrously inadequate. Nathan shrugged. “We were never in agreement on the subject of liberty, but had I knowledge of your presence here, I would not have taken the assignment.”
“You were spying for your Mr. Washington.”
“Obviously…and may I remind you that the proper address for a commander in chief is…
Samuel turned on him. “What a stupid thing to do! You are an idiot! In an idiot excuse for an army! And you call him a general, cousin? A general of rabble! What kind of commander lets his officers get disgraced like this?! Dishonored!”
Nathan took a deep breath. “Sam…”
“They are going to hang you, Nathan!”
Cold shivers ran down his spine as the reality hit like a brick wall. He swallowed hard. “I know,” he said softly.
General Howe and Colonel Kemble re-entered the room and the colonel addressed Nathan. “His Excellency and I are in agreement that we can make use of a young man in your position.” Kemble read from some hasty notes he had taken. “You will be compensated in pounds sterling for any information you have on Mr. Washington’s current deployment. We require regimental sizes, commanders and locations, artillery strength and positions and supply status. If you are willing to re-enter the rebel lines for more detailed intelligence, you will be suitably rewarded according to its value; in addition, once you return your proper allegiance to His Majesty, King George III, you will receive the king’s pardon and a commission in the British army at a rank equal to the one you now hold.”
“Nathan!” said Samuel excitedly.
“No,” said Nathan.
Lt. Colonel Stephen Kemble glared at the prisoner. “In that case, rebel…”
General Howe waved his hand for silence. The commander-in-chief took a step forward, frowning at Nathan, but his eyes remained soft and sad, betraying him somewhat. “How old are you, son?”
“Twenty-one, Your Excellency.”
Howe looked away, cursing quietly under his breath.
“The customs and usage of war are very clear, sir,” said Kemble impatiently.
“I don’t need you to explain to me the customs of war, colonel!”
The general sighed, rubbing his hand over his face; he managed a smile for Nathan. “My boy, you are a fine, accomplished young man, with your whole life in front of you. Put things in prospective. This rebellion will not last much longer, a few weeks at most; soon it will be ancient history and we can all go back to our lives. Your misguided loyalty is very admirable, in theory, but…”
Nathan’s eyes blazed with emotion as he started to answer but the general cut him off with eyes that were blazing just as hard.
“…BUT THIS IS NOT THEORETICAL!” Howe caught his breath and his voice softened again. “It is my desire that your decision be considered more carefully, Captain Hale. I will allot time for you to do so. I most certainly do not wish to…”
“NO, SIR!! No. I am not capable of what Your Excellency requires. It would be treason!”
“You have already committed treason, don’t you understand?!” shouted Samuel nervously. “You rebels started this miscreant war!”
“Not until we were occupied by foreign troops,” Nathan shouted back. “We are an independent country now, don’t you understand?! We will never lay down our arms until they are OFF OUR SOIL!”
The commander-in-chief glanced out the window, amused at the old, tired arguments. The New York City fire was imparting a deep red glow to the horizon, adding more trouble to an already frustrating day. Washington had escaped once more and he would probably have to fight him again. And he didn’t want to. He wanted peace and an end to this ridiculous uprising. They only needed to hang a few rabble rousers in Philadelphia and this whole civil war would evaporate, everyone could go back to their bloody farms. Meanwhile, he was stuck in a burning city with a hungry army and a town full of screaming Tories demanding revenge on their rebellious brethren. Only he was the one who was supposed to do it. The American Tories weren’t about to soil their lilly-white hands with rebel blood…or face their savage bayonets. Howe thought bitterly about Bunker Hill, the previous year. He had been in the heart of the bloody battle seeing every one of his aides viciously and mercilessly wounded. Some had even died…fine soldiers, his friends…dead for a vile rebellion, for nothing.
Howe looked out at the fire again as he poured himself a generous brandy from the decanter on his desk. This was no time for reverie, he had practical problems to worry about. Winter was coming. Where in hell was he going to quarter his army now? To say nothing of the homeless civilians who were going to be on his back. To say nothing of 16,000 bloodthirsty rebels up at Haarlem Heights. Howe sighed. Damn them all! What he really wanted right now was to be in bed with his delicious mistress, Elizabeth Loring, who was probably waiting impatiently. She could make him forget. “Bring me Cunningham!!” The commander-in-chief shouted to one of his aides.
Slowly sipping his liquor, the general stared at the prisoner hard, as if trying to understand something. Nathan Hale rubbed his sweating palms against his dirty breeches. The deputy adjutant general smiled to himself, knowing who was coming. And Samuel Hale stood next to his cousin, suddenly realizing just who was going to get blamed for this disaster back home in New England.
Provost Marshall William Cunningham entered with a few of his guards. He was unshaven and his gait unsteady due to the vast quantity of rum he routinely consumed. “Yes, Your…Excellency.”
Howe stood abruptly and started to straighten some papers on his desk.
“This is a spy, Provost Marshall, hang him. I am going to bed.” He looked up at Samuel. “I suggest you choose your relatives better in the future, Mr. Hale.”
Samuel Hale went up to the desk, wringing his hands. “Yes, sir, Your Excellency, I most exceedingly lament this, sir.”
Howe irritably tossed the rest of the papers in a heap and started across the room. “So do I, Mr. Hale.”
“Does Your Excellency desire the spy be hanged tomorrow, sir?” Inquired the provost marshall.
The general stifled a yawn as he passed through the doorway without looking back. “Yes, by all means, this matter is most distasteful. I’ll sign the warrant in the morning.”
Nathan’s eyes widened. Without a trial or a court martial? Without ceremony or formalities? Tomorrow?
The provost marshall grinned at Colonel Kemble as he shoved Nathan backwards into two soldiers who grabbed his arms. “Yes, sir, Your Excellency, as you say,” he answered Howe with proper military decorum. But the Commander-in-chief was halfway up the back stairs by then, hurridly on his way to Mrs. Loring’s bedroom.
A small crowd of civilians followed the bleak procession, with nothing better to do on a Sunday morning than watch an execution. Nathan stared at the dusty ground as he was hurried along by his captors. Your short, bright career will close with an ignominious death. Well, Hull was right. What he wouldn’t give to see him one more time.
Some hair blew into his eyes and he shook his head automatically, trying to dislodge it. In so doing, he caught the scene far ahead of him, in front of the park. Soldiers were placing a horse-drawn cart under a large, leafy tree. An elm, he thought. He shivered and clamped his teeth together, praying he would be brave, like the heroes in the Latin dialogs he’d acted out in college.
William Cunningham, the Irish provost marshall, walked unsteadily beside him, twirling the noose lightheartedly and humming to himself. He hated rebels. In fact, he hated just about everybody — especially the New York rebel Whigs who had constantly harassed and humiliated him — once making him kneel at a liberty pole. Now Willy would get his revenge, he would. Cunningham grinned at the young spy as he thought of all the American POWs squirming under his charge back at the New York city jail. “A fine death this is for a soldier, boy.” He grunted.
Nathan glared at the crude, drunken lout. “There is no death which would not be rendered noble in such a glorious cause.” The words sounded good…worthy of his debating days at Yale. He straightened up to his full six feet — he was a soldier, dying for his country. As he’d once told Dr. Munson: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Yes, this was a noble, glorious endeavor, worthy of…
“Silence, ye filthy, bastard traitor!” Cunningham grabbed a musket from one of the guards and shoved it into him, hard, in the kidney. Nathan cried out in pain. He lost his balance and fell against the front guard and then to the ground helplessly.
“On your feet, college man!” Cunningham laughed with the crowd as Nathan struggled awkwardly. “Been waitin’ a year ta git me hands on one a ye stinkin’ rebels.” The provost marshall grabbed his arm, pushing him forward at a faster pace. Nathan choked and almost doubled over again as his feelings of nobility evaporated.
College. Yale, with its noble traditions and camaraderie, the debates and student plays, the library he had helped start…and the secret literary fraternity, this honourable society: Linonia. He’d held every one of its offices, including chancellor. Four years of hard work, study and knowledge. What pleasure he had found in his books! He’d graduated with first honors at eighteen — his father, smiling with pride; what was it, three years ago? Nathan inhaled sharply. He must not think of the splendid education, now wasted, or the beautiful farm in Connecticut where he was born, or his loving family. His heart ached at the shame they would suffer…the dishonor.
He wouldn’t think of his many friends either, or the promising career that would never happen, or the wife and children he would never have. An insignificant death — all that was left to him — all he had worked for wiped away, unfulfilled and forgotten in an instant. He’d even failed in his mission, let down Colonel Knowlton and General Washington too. He yanked on the rope around his wrists in impotent fury, feeling it cut him. God had given him so much, yet what a waste his life had come to! No one would remember that Nathan Hale had ever lived!
He continued to walk at the faster pace demanded, staring at the road and the heels of the soldier in front. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t think about the previous summer in New York City, the boisterous times at Fraunces Tavern, old friends, like Tallmadge…and new ones. He wouldn’t think about it. Suddenly his mind focused full on the Beekman mansion’s greenhouse where he’d spent his last night on earth…and the person he’d spent it with. Despair was engulfing him and tears of anger threatened to demolish his last shred of dignity in front of the British. He fought it. His final moments should not be filled with self-pity; his father would not approve of that, yet he could think of nothing positive to…
They were stopping. The soldiers parted and he looked up and into the branches of the large tree that had seemed so far away a minute ago. It was an elm. He inhaled raggedly and choked a little on his breath. His hands felt like ice; tied behind his back, they started to tremble as the panic he had dreaded finally seized him. He looked around wildly, but there was no one familiar and no friendly faces; instead, his eyes linked with the cold, merciless gaze of the provost marshall.
“Get up on the fuckin’ cart, sweetie.” Cunningham grinned as he grabbed his arm and pulled him to the wagon. “We’ll soon be gittin’ ye off ta rebel hell.”
“Provost marshall!” A voice sounded from above them. Cunningham looked up toward the executioner who had climbed the tree to attach the rope.
“Won’t do, Provost Marshall. The branch is dead, ’twill never support the likes o’ him.” He glanced at Hale. “Most likely ta break, sir.” Cunningham cursed out his slave in Gaelic. “Dammit, Richmond, ye incompetent son of an ass!” The Irishman looked around quickly but there were no other large trees in sight and he didn’t feel like moving any further down the road. It was hot. “We’ll just build us a gallows, then, quick-like.” He turned to the corporal of the guard. “Look ’round back o’ the tavern, ye might find lumber an’ nails in the outbuildings. Do it, damn ye!! I haven’t got all day!”
The man jumped. “Yes, Provost Marshall, right away.”
Cunningham shoved the prisoner hard against the tree. “Stand there and don’t move, spawn of hell…rebel spy.” He spat out the last words like an expletive.
Nathan leaned heavily against the elm and lifted his head, pressing it against the soft bark. He looked out over a sea of hate. He had never seen anything like it.
A twelve-year-old boy threw a rock at him. “Traitor!”
“God save King George!” Yelled one of the Tories. Another rock sailed past him.
“Get on with the entertainment, Provost Marshall!”
Nathan grimaced and turned away but his eyes focused on the cart that would soon take him into eternity and the rope Richmond had carelessly tossed aside. It hung over the edge, with the noose dangling symbolically in the air. He swallowed hard. The soldiers returned with a pile of long boards and two of them started to put together an A-frame. Nathan shuddered helplessly as he watched them work but no one noticed. Why don’t they just shoot me and have done with it, he thought. This is unendurable.
The other soldiers stood around impatiently. One leaned on the cart and frowned; he pulled out his watch and examined it, cursing under his breath. “Get on with it, will ye,” he shouted in a Scottish accent. “There’s a lady a waitin’ fa me; ‘sides, it’s Sunday and it’s damn hot!”
“Shut your mouth, man, your lady’s an ‘ag.” Yelled a private with a hammer in his hand.
His helper laughed. “An’ she charges too much!”
Everyone laughed at that.
“We’re all sensible it’s ‘ot, Duncan,” said the private. “but there’s ale just a-waitin’ for us yonder. Got a good story ta tell ye.” The private gestured to the Sign of the Dove Tavern across the road. “Join me an’ Tom after ‘e swings.” The soldier looked up, catching Nathan’s eyes with a smirk as he shared a tobacco twist with his fellow carpenter.
Nathan closed his eyes tightly, overcome with a loneliness more intense than anything he had ever known. On the battlefield, one felt proud; death was honorable, among friends and comrades — not the lonely, degrading end of a criminal, surrounded by jeering enemies and indifferent soldiers, hated by children. He was a decent human being, once a respected teacher, he spoke Latin.
Nathan looked up. A red-coated officer was addressing Cunningham in a cultured, sophisticated voice. “If you have no objection, this man is welcome to the shelter of my tent while he’s…waiting.”
The provost marshall fidgeted a second. “Just as ye say, Capt’n.”
“Good.” The officer turned to the prisoner. “We are not barbarians, sir. You may come with me now…if you wish.”
Nathan stared at him, unable to answer.
The officer shook his head and turned to one of the soldiers. “Untie his hands!”
The private jumped. “Yes, sir.”
The two enemies walked silently across the parade ground to a large officer’s marquee pitched somewhat apart from the others. On Cunningham’s orders, two armed soldiers followed at a distance. Nathan preceded his benefactor inside. “I thank you, sir…for your courtesy.” At forty years old, the British officer was a tall, slim man with penetrating brown eyes. He smiled, holding out his hand and Nathan shook it automatically. “Captain John Montresor. I’m chief military engineer with His Excellency, General Howe, and also his aide-de-camp.” He stared at the enemy, why…he was hardly more than a boy.
There was an awkward silence during which Montresor motioned his guest to a chair near a large table, covered with papers. Nathan’s eyes fell on the military diagrams and strategic plans. He shrugged, rubbing his wrists. “I don’t suppose it matters if I look, does it.”
Montresor cleared his throat nervously and sat down. “No, I guess not. I saw your own drawings last night…of my inland fortifications and redoubts. They’re very good. So is your Latin.”
“I’m an educated man, Captain.”
“Of that, I am sensible. Yale College. We assumed the diploma was part of your disguise as a schoolmaster.”
“I am a schoolmaster…or I was…before I became a soldier.”
“And a spy. That is why I came out, to…get a look at you. None of us can understand it, sir. How could an educated man, someone like you…”
“I wanted to do something. I was tired of keeping accounts, writing receipts and drawing supplies. It was necessary. I volunteered. It’s simple.”
Montresor ran his fingers through his dark brown hair. “Simple?! There is nothing simple about this war, sir! It is insanity, wasting our youth and our resources. Are we not the same people, Captain?! Englishmen?! I’ve been in America for twenty-two years, have land in Dutchess County, 3000 acres near Lake Champlain and an island in the East River where I live with my family. My six children were born in New York! Now, suddenly, I don’t belong? I’m an oppressor? Because I’m loyal to my king?”
Nathan smiled wryly at the ground. “And I’m a rebel…because I’m loyal to my country.”
“It should be the same thing.”
Nathan looked up. “But we are both sensible, sir, that it is not.”
“Yes.” He sighed. “Perhaps you are right. But what kind of world have we now, Captain, where schoolmasters are hung from trees.”
Nathan drew a long breath and for a moment, Montresor thought he wasn’t going to answer. When he did, his voice was a whisper. “Do you know Addison’s Cato? In the play, Cato’s son, Marcus, has just died in battle and Cato speaks…”
“Yes, I remember.”
“‘How beautiful is death when earned by virtue. Who would not be that youth? What pity is it that we can die but once to serve our country.’ Act 4, Scene 4.”
Montresor said nothing.
“Do you believe he was right?”
“A pity we can die but once?” Montresor sighed again. “You are young, Captain, and idealistic. Youth worships abstractions. With age, one becomes pragmatic and life is more dear.”
Nathan stood suddenly, raising his voice. “Do you think I want to die?!”
“No…no,” said Montresor quietly.