Read CHAPTER XVIII of Cudjo's Cave , free online book, by J. T. Trowbridge, on ReadCentral.com.

CONDEMNED TO DEATH.

Early the next morning Virginia Villars overheard the soldiers conversing on the piazza. The mention of a certain name arrested her attention. She listened: what they said terrified her. Penn Hapgood had been apprehended during the night, and his trial by drum-head court-martial was at that moment proceeding.

“Mr. Pepperill!” she called, in a scarcely audible whisper; and, looking around, Daniel saw her alarmed face at the window.

Daniel was one of the soldiers who had been detailed to guard the house. Strongly against his will, he had been compelled to enlist, in order to avoid the persécutions of his secession neighbors. Such was already becoming the fate of many whose hearts were not in the cause, whose sympathies were all with the government against which they were forced to rebel.

“What, marm?” said Pepperill, meekly.

“Is it true what that man is saying?”

“About the schoolmaster? I I’m afeard it ar true! They’ve cotched him, marm, and there’s men that’s swore the death of him, marm.”

Virginia flew to inform her father. The old man rose up instantly, forgetting his blindness, forgetting his own feebleness, and the danger into which he would have rushed, to go and plead Penn’s cause.

Fortunately, perhaps, for him, the guard crossed their muskets before him, refusing to let him pass. Their orders were, not only to defend the house, but also to prevent his leaving it.

“Then I will go alone!” said Carl, who was to have been his guide. And scarcely waiting to receive instructions from Virginia and her father, he ran out, slipping between the soldiers, who had no orders to detain any person but the minister, and ran to the Academy.

The mockery of a trial was over. The prisoner had been condemned. The penalty pronounced against him was death. Already the noose was dangling from a tree, and some soldiers were bringing from the school-house a table to serve as a scaffold. Silas Ropes, who had a feather stuck in his cap, and wore an old rusty scabbard at his side, and flourished a sword, enjoying the title of “lieutenant,” obtained for him through Bythewood’s influence; Lysander Sprowl, who had been honored with a captaincy from the same source, and who, though a forger, and late a fugitive from justice, now boldly defied the power of the civil authorities to arrest him, trusting to that atrocious policy of the confederate government which virtually proclaimed to the robber and murderer, “Become, now, a traitor to your country, and all other crimes shall be forgiven you;” these, and other persons of like character, appeared chiefly active in Penn’s case. That they had no right whatever to constitute themselves a court-martial, and bring him to trial, they knew perfectly well. They had not waited even for a shadow of authority from their commanding officer. What they were about to do was nothing more nor less than murder.

Penn, with his hands tied behind him, and surrounded by a violent rabble, some armed, and others unarmed, was already mounted upon the table, when Carl arrived, and attempted to force his way through the crowd.

“Feller-citizens and soldiers!” cried Lieutenant Ropes, standing on a chair beside the scaffold, “this here man has jest been proved to be a traitor and a spy, and he is about to expatiate his guilt on the gallus.”

Two men then mounted the table, passed the noose over Penn’s neck, drew it close, and leaped down again.

“Now,” said Ropes, “if you’ve got any confession to make ’fore the table is jerked out from under ye, you can ease your mind. Only ’ me suggest, if you don’t mean to confess, you’d better hold yer tongue.”

Penn, pale, but perfectly self-possessed, expecting no mercy, no reprieve, made answer in a clear, strong voice,

“I can’t confess, for I am not guilty. I die an innocent man. I appeal to Heaven, before whose bar we must all appear, for the justice you deny me.”

In his shirt sleeves, his head uncovered, his feet bare, his naked throat enclosed by the murderous cord, his hands bound behind him, he stood awaiting his fate. Carl in the mean time struggled in vain to break through the ring of soldiers that surrounded the extemporized scaffold, screamed in vain to obtain a hearing.

“Let him go, and you may hang me in his place!”

The soldiers answered with a brutal laugh, as if there would be any satisfaction in hanging him! But the offer of self-sacrifice on the part of the devoted Carl touched one heart, at least. Penn, who had maintained a firm demeanor up to this time, was almost unmanned by it.

“God bless you, dear Carl! Remember that I loved you. Be always honest and upright; then, if you die the victim of wrong, it will be your oppressors, not you, who will be most unhappy. Good by, dear Carl. Bear my farewell to those we love. Don’t stay and see me die, I entreat you!”

Yet Carl staid, sobbing with grief and rage.

“Why don’t you hurry up this business?” cried Lysander Sprowl, angrily, coming out of the school-house. “Somebody tie a handkerchief over his eyes, and get through some time to-day.”

“All right, cap’m,” said Ropes. “Make ready now, boys, and take away this table in a hurry, when I give the word.”

“Hold on, there! What’s going on?” cried an unexpected voice, and a recruiting officer from the village made his appearance, riding up on a white horse.

The summary proceedings were stayed, and the case explained. The man listened with an air of grim official importance, his coarse red countenance betraying not a gleam of sympathy with the prisoner. Yet being the superior in rank to any officer present (Silas called him “kunnel"), besides being the only one of them all who had been regularly commissioned by the confederate government, this man held Penn’s fate in his hands.

“Hanging’s too good for such scoundrels!” he said, frowning at the prisoner. “As for this particular case, there’s only one thing to be said: his life shall be spared on only one condition.”

Carl’s heart almost stood still, in his eagerness to listen. Even Penn felt a faint a very faint pulse of hope in his breast. The “kunnel” went on.

“Let him take his choice either to hang, or enlist. What do you say, youngster? Which do you prefer the death of a traitor, or the glorious career of a soldier in the confederate army?”

“It is impossible for me, sir,” said Penn, in a voice of deep feeling and unalterable conviction “it is impossible for me to bear arms against my country!”

“But the Confederate States shall be your country, and a country to be proud of!” said the man.

“I am a citizen of the United States; to the United States I owe allegiance,” said Penn. “So far from being a traitor, I am willing to die rather than appear one.”

“Then you won’t enlist?”

“No, sir.”

“Not even to save your life?”

“Not even to save my life!”

“Then,” growled the man, turning away, “if you will be such a fool, I’ve nothing more to say.”

So it only remained for Penn to submit quietly to his fate. The executioners laid hold of the table, and waited for the order to remove it.

But just then Carl, breaking through the crowd, threw himself before the officer’s horse.

“O, Colonel Derring! hear me von vord!”

“Von vord!” repeated the officer, with a coarse laugh, mocking him. “What’s that, you Dutchman?”

“You vill let him go, and I shall wolunteer in his place!” said Carl.

“You!” The officer regarded him critically. Carl, though so young, was very sturdy. “You offer yourself as a substitute, eh, if I will spare his life?”

“Carl!” cried Penn, “I forbid you! You shall not commit that sin for me! Better a thousand times that I should die than that you should be a rebel in arms against your country.”

“I have no country,” answered Carl, ingeniously excusing himself. “I am vot this man says, a Tuchman. I vill enlisht mit him, and he vill shpare your life.”

“Boy, it’s a bargain,” said Colonel Derring, whose passion for obtaining recruits overruled every other consideration. “Cut that fellow’s cords, lieutenant, and let him go. Come along with me, Dutchy.”

Ropes obeyed, and Penn, bewildered, almost stunned, by the sudden change in his destiny, saw himself released, and beheld, as in a dream, poor Carl marching off as his substitute to the recruiting station.

“Now let me give you one word of advice,” said Captain Sprowl in his ear. “Don’t let another night find you within twenty miles of that halter there, if you wouldn’t have your neck in it again.”

“Will you give me a safe conduct?” said Penn, who thought the advice excellent, and would have been only too glad to act upon it.

“I’ve no authority,” said Sprowl. “You must take care of yourself.”

Penn looked around upon the ferocious, disappointed faces watching him, and felt that he might about as well have been despatched in the first place, as to be let loose in the midst of such a pack of wolves thirsting for his blood. He did not despair, however, but, putting on his clothes, determined to make one final and desperate effort to escape.