Read CHAPTER IX of Alice of Old Vincennes, free online book, by Maurice Thompson, on ReadCentral.com.

THE HONORS OF WAR

Gaspard Roussillon was thoroughly acquainted with savage warfare, and he knew all the pacific means so successfully and so long used by French missionaries and traders to control savage character; but the emergency now upon him was startling. It confused him. The fact that he had taken a solemn oath of allegiance to the American government could have been pushed aside lightly enough upon pressing occasion, but he knew that certain confidential agents left in Vincennes by Governor Abbott had, upon the arrival of Helm, gone to Detroit, and of course they had carried thither a full report of all that happened in the church of St. Xavier, when Father Gibault called the people together, and at the fort, when the British flag was hauled down and la bannière d’Alice Roussillon run up in its place. His expansive imagination did full credit to itself in exaggerating the importance of his part in handing the post over to the rebels. And what would Hamilton think of this? Would he consider it treason? The question certainly bore a tragic suggestion.

M. Roussillon lacked everything of being a coward, and treachery had no rightful place in his nature. He was, however, so in the habit of fighting windmills and making mountains of molehills that he could not at first glance see any sudden presentment with a normal vision. He had no love for Englishmen and he did like Americans, but he naturally thought that Helm’s talk of fighting Hamilton was, as his own would have been in a like case, talk and nothing more. The fort could not hold out an hour, he well knew. Then what? Ah, he but too well realized the result.

Resistance would inflame the English soldiers and madden the Indians. There would be a massacre, and the belts of savages would sag with bloody scalps. He shrugged his shoulders and felt a chill creep up his back.

The first thing M. Roussillon did was to see Father Beret and take counsel of him; then he hurried home to dig a great pit under his kitchen floor in which he buried many bales of fur and all his most valuable things. He worked like a giant beaver all night long. Meantime Father Beret went about over the town quietly notifying the inhabitants to remain in their houses until after the fort should surrender, which he was sure would happen the next day.

“You will be perfectly safe, my children,” he said to them. “No harm can come to you if you follow my directions.”

Relying implicitly upon him, they scrupulously obeyed in every particular.

He did not think it necessary to call at Roussillon place, having already given M. Roussillon the best advice he could command.

Just at the earliest break of day, while yet the gloom of night scarcely felt the sun’s approach, a huge figure made haste along the narrow streets in the northern part of the town. If any person had been looking out through the little holes, called windows, in those silent and rayless huts, it would have been easy to recognize M. Roussillon by his stature and his gait, dimly outlined as he was. A thought, which seemed to him an inspiration of genius, had taken possession of him and was leading him, as if by the nose, straight away to Hamilton’s lines. He was freighted with eloquence for the ear of that commander, and as he strode along facing the crisp morning air he was rehearsing under his breath, emphasizing his periods in tragic whispers with sweeping gestures and liberal facial contortions. So absorbed was he in his oratorical soliloquy that he forgot due military precaution and ran plump into the face of a savage picket guard who, without respect for the great M. Roussillon’s dignity, sprang up before him, grunted cavernously, flourished a tomahawk and spoke in excellent and exceedingly guttural Indian:

“Wah, surrender!”

It is probable that no man ever complied with a modest request in a more docile spirit than did M. Roussillon upon that occasion. In fact his promptness must have been admirable, for the savage grunted approval and straightway conducted him to Hamilton’s headquarters on a batteau in the river.

The British commander, a hale man of sandy complexion and probably under middle age, was in no very pleasant humor. Some of his orders had been misunderstood by the chief of his Indian allies, so that a premature exposure of his approach had been made to the enemy.

“Well, sir, who are you?” he gruffly demanded, when M. Roussillon loomed before him.

“I am Gaspard Roussillon, the Mayor of Vincennes,” was the lofty reply. “I have come to announce to you officially that my people greet you loyally and that my town is freely at your command.” He felt as important as if his statements had been true.

“Humph, that’s it, is it? Well, Mr. Mayor, you have my congratulations, but I should prefer seeing the military commander and accepting his surrender. What account can you give me of the American forces, their numbers and condition?”

M. Roussillon winced, inwardly at least, under Hamilton’s very undeferential air and style of address. It piqued him cruelly to be treated as a person without the slightest claim to respect. He somehow forgot the rolling and rhythmical eloquence prepared for the occasion.

“The American commander naturally would not confide in me, Monsieur Gouverneur, not at all; we are not very friendly; he ousted me from office, he offended me ” he was coughing and stammering.

“Oh, the devil! what do I care? Answer my question, sir,” Hamilton gruffly interrupted. “Tell me the number of American troops at the fort, sir.”

“I don’t know exactly. I have not had admittance to the fort. I might be deceived as to numbers; but they’re strong, I believe, Monsieur Gouverneur, at least they make a great show and much noise.”

Hamilton eyed the huge bulk before him for a moment, then turning to a subaltern said:

“Place this fellow under guard and see that he doesn’t get away. Send word immediately to Captain Farnsworth that I wish to see him at once.”

The interview thereupon closed abruptly. Hamilton’s emissaries had given him a detailed account of M. Roussillon’s share in submitting Vincennes to rebel dominion, and he was not in the least inclined toward treating him graciously.

“I would suggest to you, Monsieur Gouverneur, that my official position demands ” M. Roussillon began; but he was fastened upon by two guards, who roughly hustled him aft and bound him so rigidly that he could scarcely move finger or toe.

Hamilton smiled coldly and turned to give some orders to a stalwart, ruddy young officer who in a canoe had just rowed alongside the batteau.

“Captain Farnsworth,” he said, acknowledging the military salute, “you will take fifty men and make everything ready for a reconnaissance in the direction of the fort. We will move down the river immediately and choose a place to land. Move lively, we have no time to lose.”

In the meantime Beverley slipped away from the fort and made a hurried call upon Alice at Roussillon place. There was not much they could say to each other during the few moments at command. Alice showed very little excitement; her past experience had fortified her against the alarms of frontier life; but she understood and perfectly appreciated the situation.

“What are you going to do?” Beverley demanded in sheer despair. He was not able to see any gleam of hope out of the blackness which had fallen around him and into his soul.

“What shall you do?” he repeated.

“Take the chances of war,” she said, smiling gravely. “It will all come out well, no doubt.”

“I hope so, but but I fear not.”

His face was gray with trouble. “Helm is determined to fight, and that means ”

“Good!” she interrupted with spirit. “I am so glad of that. I wish I could go to help him! If I were a man I’d love to fight! I think it’s just delightful.”

“But it is reckless bravado; it is worse than foolishness,” said Beverley, not feeling her mood. “What can two or three men do against an army?”

“Fight and die like men,” she replied, her whole countenance lighting up. “Be heroic!”

“We will do that, of course; we I do not fear death; but you you ” His voice choked him.

A gun shot rang out clear in the distance, and he did not finish speaking.

“That’s probably the beginning,” he added in a moment, extending both hands to her. “Good bye. I must hurry to the fort. Good bye.”

She drew a quick breath and turned so white that her look struck him like a sudden and hard blow. He stood for a second, his arms at full reach, then:

“My God, Alice, I cannot, cannot leave you!” he cried, his voice again breaking huskily.

She made a little movement, as if to take hold of his hands: but in an instant she stepped back a pace and said:

“Don’t fear about me. I can take care of myself. I’m all right. You’d better return to the fort as quickly as you can. It is your country, your flag, not me, that you must think of now.”

She folded her arms and stood boldly erect.

Never before, in all his life, had he felt such a rebuke. He gave her a straight, strong look in the eyes.

“You are right, Alice.” he cried, and rushed from the house to the fort.

She held her rigid attitude for a little while after she heard him shut the front gate of the yard so forcibly that it broke in pieces, then she flung her arms wide, as if to clasp something, and ran to the door; but Beverley was out of sight. She turned and dropped into a chair. Jean came to her out of the next room. His queer little face was pale and pinched; but his jaw was set with the expression of one who has known danger and can meet it somehow.

“Are they going to scalp us?” he half whispered presently, with a shuddering lift of his distorted shoulders.

Her face was buried in her hands and she did not answer. Childlike he turned from one question to another inconsequently.

“Where did Papa Roussillon go to?” he next inquired. “Is he going to fight?”

She shook her head.

“They’ll tear down the fort, won’t they?”

If she heard him she did not make any sign.

“They’ll kill the Captain and Lieutenant and get the fine flag that you set so high on the fort, won’t they, Alice?”

She lifted her head and gave the cowering hunchback such a stare that he shut his eyes and put up a hand, as if afraid of her. Then she impulsively took his little misshapen form in her arms and hugged it passionately. Her bright hair fell all over him, almost hiding him. Madame Roussillon was lying on a bed in an adjoining room moaning diligently, at intervals handling her rosary and repeating a prayer. The whole town was silent outside.

“Why don’t you go get the pretty flag down and hide it before they come?” Jean murmured from within the silken meshes of Alice’s hair.

In his small mind the gaudy banner was the most beautiful of all things. Every day since it was set up he had gone to gaze at it as it fluttered against the sky. The men had frequently said in his presence that the enemy would take it down if they captured the fort.

Alice heard his inquisitive voice; but it seemed to come from far off; his words were a part of the strange, wild swirl in her bosom. Beverley’s look, as he turned and left her, now shook every chord of her being. He had gone to his death at her command. How strong and true and brave he was! In her imagination she saw the flag above him, saw him die like a panther at bay, saw the gay rag snatched down and torn to shreds by savage hands. It was the tragedy of a single moment, enacted in a flashlight of anticipation.

She released Jean so suddenly that he fell to the floor. She remembered what she had said to Beverley on the night of the dance when they were standing under the flag.

“You made it and set it up,” he lightly remarked; “you must see that no enemy ever gets possession of it, especially the English.”

“I’ll take it down and hide it when there’s danger of that,” she said in the same spirit.

And now she stood there looking at Jean, without seeing him, and repeated the words under her breath.

“I’ll take it down and hide it. They shan’t have it.”

Madame Roussillon began to call from the other room in a loud, complaining voice; but Alice gave no heed to her querulous demands.

“Stay here, Jean, and take care of Mama Roussillon,” she presently said to the hunchback. “I am going out; I’ll be back soon; don’t you dare leave the house while I’m gone; do you hear?”

She did not wait for his answer; but snatching a hood-like fur cap from a peg on the wall, she put it on and hastily left the house.

Down at the fort Helm and Beverley were making ready to resist Hamilton’s attack, which they knew would not be long deferred. The two heavily charged cannon were planted so as to cover the space in front of the gate, and some loaded muskets were ranged near by ready for use.

“We’ll give them one hell of a blast,” growled the Captain, “before they overpower us.”

Beverley made no response in words; but he was preparing a bit of tinder on the end of a stick with which to fire the cannon. Not far away a little heap of logs was burning in the fort’s area.

The British officer, already mentioned as at the head of the line advancing diagonally from the river’s bank, halted his men at a distance of three hundred yards from the fort, and seemed to be taking a deliberately careful survey of what was before him.

“Let ’em come a little nearer, Lieutenant,” said Helm, his jaw setting itself like a lion’s. “When we shoot we want to hit.”

He stooped and squinted along his gun.

“When they get to that weedy spot out yonder,” he added, “just opposite the little rise in the river bank, we’ll turn loose on ’em.”

Beverley had arranged his primitive match to suit his fancy, and for probably the twentieth time looked critically to the powder in the beveled touch-hole of his old cannon. He and Helm were facing the enemy, with their backs to the main area of the stockade, when a well known voice attracted their attention to the rear.

“Any room for a feller o’ my size in this here crowded place?” it demanded in a cracked but cheerful tenor. “I’m kind o’ outen breath a runnin’ to git here.”

They turned about. It was Oncle Jazon with his long rifle on his shoulder and wearing a very important air. He spoke in English, using the backwoods lingo with the ease of long practice.

“As I’s a comin’ in f’om a huntin’ I tuck notice ‘at somepin’ was up. I see a lot o’ boats on the river an’ some fellers wi’ guns a scootin’ around, so I jes’ slipped by ’em all an’ come in the back way. They’s plenty of ’em, I tell you what! I can’t shoot much, but I tuck one chance at a buck Indian out yander and jes’ happened to hit ’im in the lef’ eye. He was one of the gang ’at scalped me down yander in Kaintuck.”

The greasy old sinner looked as if he had not been washed since he was born. He glanced about with furtive, shifty eyes, grimaced and winked, after the manner of an animal just waking from a lazy nap.

“Where’s the rest o’ the fighters?” he demanded quizzically, lolling out his tongue and peeping past Helm so as to get a glimpse of the English line. “Where’s yer garrison? Have they all gone to breakfas’?”

The last question set Helm off again cursing and swearing in the most melodramatic rage.

Oncle Jazon turned to Beverley and said in rapid French: “Surely the man’s not going to fight those fellows yonder?”

Beverley nodded rather gloomily.

“Well,” added the old man, fingering his rifle’s stock and taking another glance through the gate, “I can’t shoot wo’th a cent, bein’ sort o’ nervous like; but I’ll stan’ by ye awhile, jes’ for luck. I might accidentally hit one of ’em.”

When a man is truly brave himself there is nothing that touches him like an exhibition of absolutely unselfish gameness in another. A rush of admiration for Oncle Jazon made Beverley feel like hugging him.

Meantime the young British officer showed a flag of truce, and, with a file of men, separated himself from the line, now stationary, and approached the stockade. At a hundred yards he halted the file and came on alone, waving the white clout. He boldly advanced to within easy speaking distance and shouted:

“I demand the surrender of this fort.”

“Well, you’ll not get it, young man,” roared Helm, his profanity well mixed in with the words, “not while there’s a man of us left!”

“Ye’d better use sof’ soap on ’im, Cap’n,” said Oncle Jazon in English, “cussin’ won’t do no good.” While he spoke he rubbed the doughty Captain’s arm and then patted it gently.

Helm, who was not half as excited as he pretended to be, knew that Oncle Jazon’s remark was the very essence of wisdom; but he was not yet ready for the diplomatic language which the old trooper called “soft soap.”

“Are you the British commander?” he demanded.

“No,” said the officer, “but I speak for him.”

“Not to me by a damned sight, sir. Tell your commander that I will hear what he has to say from his own mouth. No understrapper will be recognized by me.”

That ended the conference. The young officer, evidently indignant, strode back to his line, and an hour later Hamilton himself demanded the unconditional surrender of the fort and garrison.

“Fight for it,” Helm stormed forth. “We are soldiers.”

Hamilton held a confab with his officers, while his forces, under cover of the town’s cabins, were deploying so as to form a half circle about the stockade. Some artillery appeared and was planted directly opposite the gate, not three hundred yards distant. One blast of that battery would, as Helm well knew, level a large part of the stockade.

“S’posin’ I hev’ a cannon, too, seein’ it’s the fashion,” said Oncle Jazon. “I can’t shoot much, but I might skeer ’em. This little one’ll do me.”

He set his rifle against the wall and with Beverley’s help rolled one of the swivels alongside the guns already in position.

In a few minutes Hamilton returned under the white flag and shouted:

“Upon what terms will you surrender?”

“All the honors of war,” Helm firmly replied. “It’s that or fight, and I don’t care a damn which!”

Hamilton half turned away, as if done with the parley, then facing the fort again, said:

“Very well, sir, haul down your flag.”

Helm was dumfounded at this prompt acceptance of his terms. Indeed the incident is unique in history.

As Hamilton spoke he very naturally glanced up to where la bannière d’Alice Roussillon waved brilliantly. Someone stood beside it on the dilapidated roof of the old blockhouse, and was already taking it from its place. His aid, Captain Farnsworth, saw this, and the vision made his heart draw in a strong, hot flood It was a girl in short skirts and moccasins, with a fur hood on her head, her face, thrillingly beautiful, set around with fluffs of wind-blown brown-gold hair. Farnsworth was too young to be critical and too old to let his eyes deceive him. Every detail of the fine sketch, with its steel-blue background of sky, flashed into his mind, sharp-cut as a cameo. Involuntarily he took off his hat.

Alice had come in by way of the postern. She mounted to the roof unobserved, and made her way to the flag, just at the moment when Helm, glad at heart to accept the easiest way out of a tight place, asked Oncle Jazon to lower it.

Beverley was thinking of Alice, and when he looked up he could scarcely realize that he saw her; but the whole situation was plain the instant she snatched the staff from its place; for he, too, recollected what she had said at the river house. The memory and the present scene blended perfectly during the fleeting instant that she was visible. He saw that Alice was smiling somewhat as in her most mischievous moods, and when she jerked the staff from its fastening she lifted it high and waved it once, twice, thrice defiantly toward the British lines, then fled down the ragged roof-slope with it and disappeared. The vision remained in Beverley’s eyes forever afterward. The English troops, thinking that the flag was taken down in token of surrender, broke into a wild tumult of shouting.

Oncle Jazon intuitively understood just what Alice was doing, for he knew her nature and could read her face. His blood effervesced in an instant.

“Vive Zhorzh Vasinton! Vive la bannière d’Alice Roussillon!” he screamed, waving his disreputable cap round his scalpless head. “Hurrah for George Washington! Hurrah for Alice Roussillon’s flag!”

It was all over soon. Helm surrendered himself and Beverley with full honors. As for Oncle Jazon, he disappeared at the critical moment. It was not just to his mind to be a prisoner of war, especially under existing conditions; for Hamilton’s Indian allies had some old warpath scores to settle with him dating back to the days when he and Simon Kenton were comrades in Kentucky.

When Alice snatched the banner and descended with it to the ground, she ran swiftly out through the postern, as she had once before done, and sped along under cover of the low bluff or swell, which, terrace-like, bounded the flat “bottom” lands southward of the stockade. She kept on until she reached a point opposite Father Beret’s hut, to which she then ran, the flag streaming bravely behind her in the wind, her heart beating time to her steps.

It was plainly a great surprise to Father Beret, who looked up from his prayer when she rushed in, making a startling clatter, the loose puncheons shaking together under her reckless feet.

“Oh, Father, here it is! Hide it, hide it, quick!”

She thrust the flag toward him.

“They shall not have it! They shall never have it!”

He opened wide his shrewd, kindly eyes; but did not fairly comprehend her meaning.

She was panting, half laughing, half crying. Her hair, wildly disheveled, hung in glorious masses over her shoulders. Her face beamed triumphantly.

“They are taking the fort,” she breathlessly added, again urging the flag upon him, “they’re going in, but I got this and ran away with it. Hide it, Father, hide it, quick, quick, before they come!”

The daring light in her eyes, the witching play of her dimples, the madcap air intensified by her attitude and the excitement of the violent exercise just ended something compounded of all these and more affected the good priest strangely. Involuntarily he crossed himself, as if against a dangerous charm.

“Mon Dieu, Father Beret,” she exclaimed with impatience, “haven’t you a grain of sense left? Take this flag and hide it, I tell you! Don’t stay there gazing and blinking. Here, quick! They saw me take it, they may be following me. Hurry, hide it somewhere!”

He comprehended now, rising from his knees with a queer smile broadening on his face. She put the banner into his hands and gave him a gentle push.

“Hide it, I tell you, hide it, you dear old goose!”

Without sneaking he turned the staff over and over in his hand, until the flag was closely wrapped around it, then stooping he lifted a puncheon and with it covered the gay roll from sight.

Alice caught him in her arms and kissed him vigorously on the cheek. Her warm lips made the spot tingle.

“Don’t you dare to let any person have it! It’s the flag of George Washington.”

She gave him a strong squeeze.

He pushed her from him with both hands and hastily crossed himself; but his eyes were laughing.

“You ought to have seen me; I waved the flag at them at the English and one young officer took off his hat to me! Oh, Father Beret, it was like what is in a novel. They’ll get the fort, but not the banner! Not the banner! I’ve saved it, I’ve saved it!”

Her enthusiasm gave a splendor to her countenance, heightening its riches of color and somehow adding to its natural girlish expression an audacious sweetness. The triumphant success of her undertaking lent the dignity of conscious power to her look, a dignity which always sits well upon a young and somewhat immaturely beautiful face.

Father Beret could not resist her fervid eloquence, and he could not run away from her or stop up his ears while she went on. So he had to laugh when she said:

“Oh, if you had seen it all you would have enjoyed it. There was Oncle Jazon squatting behind the little swivel, and there were Captain Helm and Lieutenant Beverley holding their burning sticks over the big cannon ready to shoot all of them so intent that they didn’t see me and yonder came the English officer and his army against the three. When they got close to the gate the officer called out: ‘Surrender!’ and then Captain Helm yelled back: ’Damned if I do! Come another step and I’ll blow you all to hell in a second!’ I was mightily in hopes that they’d come on; I wanted to see a cannon ball hit that English commander right in the face; he looked so arrogant.”

Father Beret shook his head and tried to look disapproving and solemn.

Meantime down at the fort Hamilton was demanding the flag. He had seen Alice take it down, and supposed that it was lowered officially and would be turned over to him. Now he wanted to handle it as the best token of his bloodless but important victory.

“I didn’t order the flag down until after I had accepted your terms,” said Helm, “and when my man started to obey, we saw a young lady snatch it and run away with it.”

“Who was the girl?”

“I do not inform on women,” said Helm.

Hamilton smiled grimly, with a vexed look in his eyes, then turned to Captain Farnsworth and ordered him to bring up M. Roussillon, who, when he appeared, still had his hands tied together.

“Tell me the name of the young woman who carried away the flag from the fort. You saw her, you know every soul in this town. Who was it, sir?”

It was a hard question for M. Roussillon to answer. Although his humiliating captivity had somewhat cowed him, still his love for Alice made it impossible for him to give the information demanded by Hamilton. He choked and stammered, but finally managed to say:

“I assure you that I don’t know I didn’t look I didn’t see It was too far off for me to I was some-what excited I ”

“Take him away. Keep him securely bound,” said Hamilton. “Confine him. We’ll see how long it will take to refresh his mind. We’ll puncture the big windbag.”

While this curt scene was passing, the flag of Great Britain rose over the fort to the lusty cheering of the victorious soldiers.

Hamilton treated Helm and Beverley with extreme courtesy. He was a soldier, gruff, unscrupulous and cruel to a degree; but he could not help admiring the daring behavior of these two officers who had wrung from him the best terms of surrender. He gave them full liberty, on parole of honor not to attempt escape or to aid in any way an enemy against him while they were prisoners.

Nor was it long before Helm’s genial and sociable disposition won the Englishman’s respect and confidence to such an extent that the two became almost inseparable companions, playing cards, brewing toddies, telling stories, and even shooting deer in the woods together, as if they had always been the best of friends.

Hamilton did not permit his savage allies to enter the town, and he immediately required the French inhabitants to swear allegiance to Great Britain, which they did with apparent heartiness, all save M. Roussillon, who was kept in close confinement and bound like a felon, chafing lugubriously and wearing the air of a martyr. His prison was a little log pen in one corner of the stockade, much open to the weather, its gaping cracks giving him a dreary view of the frozen landscape through which the Wabash flowed in a broad steel-gray current. Helm, who really liked him, tried in vain to procure his release; but Hamilton was inexorable on account of what he regarded as duplicity in M. Roussillon’s conduct.

“No, I’ll let him reflect,” he said; “there’s nothing like a little tyranny to break up a bad case of self-importance. He’ll soon find out that he has over-rated himself!”