The Captives

YOUR long letter was most welcome, my dear Charles — you have no idea how eagerly we seize upon all news, in this exile. I must confess I read it, in parts, with a certain jealousy — you will not take that amiss. To have shared in the glorious victory of Minden! It must make our backwoods scufflings here seem of little account. Yet there are certain details of our late campaign against the Indians which you will not find in the newsletter — and it is for these I crave your attention. I fear they are not truly instructive — yet if, as you say, your young brother intends a voyage to the American colonies, it may be as well for him to know something of the life one must lead. Nor must you be surprised if you find him changed, on his return. I am, as you know, hard-headed and a Scot — yet it seems a long time to me since you and I last drank at the Cocoa Tree together. The year is but 1764 — I can read it, if I like, on the calendar. Yet, is it the same year that you have in England — and am I the same man that seconded you in the affair with Lord Henry? ‘Faith, I doubt it myself, at times — you had better judge.

I can look back now and see that it all began with the first landfall. After three months in the West Indies, my Highlanders and I were riddled with fever. We were glad enough to get our orders for Philadelphia — and glad enough, after that, to sight land again, for the voyage was none of the smoothest. And, after the bitter sun of the West Indies, the green, smiling country was pleasant to our eyes. Yet the name of it is Penn’s Woods — I should have remembered that. You smile a little — you have seen the forests of Germany. But here, on the western borders, it is not forest but wilderness. The treeboughs meet above, the underbrush has never known the axe. At night there is a darkness of darkness and small, crying sounds. I despair of showing you the difference, yet it exists, like a creature that has not been tamed. Nor are those who live in it easy to tame, as I was to find out later.

Well, well, I will not rehearse the events of the campaign. We had scarce five hundred men at best — and many of these still weak from fever. Yet we beat the savages soundly at a place called Bushy Run, relieved Fort Pitt and broke the back of the Indian conspiracy. That we did so is thanks to our commander, Colonel Henry Bouquet. A Swiss, a free sword of the old adventurous stripe and a most sagacious soldier — he is choice in his dress and elegant in his conversation. Yet he taught us to leap over logs and take shelter behind trees till we were a match for the savages themselves. Yes, I can imagine how the wits at the Cocoa Tree would have laughed at us. I know when he began his instructions I went to him in a fume of protest, speaking of the honor of one’s uniform and the arts of war. He heard me out very patiently, though he is a red-faced man.

‘Ensign,’ he said at last, though very calmly, ‘you have a fine coat — by the way, who’s your tailor? — and a good fighting name. If I tell you to dig a burrow in the earth like a rabbit, you will dig that burrow and hide in it. Do that well and I wilt mention you in despatches. But get yourself killed like a pighead and I will not even halt to bury you. I have served with some admirable pigheads in the Low Countries and there it did not matter greatly. But here, in the wilderness, it matters. I mean to recover Fort Pitt, and, after that, our captives.’ He chuckled a little. ‘And if Lord Jeffrey Amherst were with me, and did not hide behind trees, I would tell Lord Jeffrey what I thought of him,’ he said.

After that, I began to learn — yes, I think I may say so. At Bushy Run, I found myself cursing like a dragoon when a man wasted his fire. Yet my company did well enough — it was a very pretty ambushment we lay in, and a great surprise to the savages. But it was not until we began treating for the captives that the real spell was laid upon me.

That was the following year and we had pushed on to the Muskingum — it is a wide, flowing river. It was the season we call St. Martin’s summer — a part of autumn when, for a week or two, the warmth and the light of summer return, before the snow. They call it Indian summer here and it is a most beautiful time. More beautiful than in England, for the sky seems made of blue smoke and the trees turn bright red and gold. It is dauntingly lovely, yet there is something fey about it. You would not think that utter wilderness could look so fair and so peaceful. Yet the gold is fairy gold and might vanish at a touch.

It was there that I saw the girl whose face, I fear, will stay in my mind. I note that you raise your eyebrows and purse your lips — what should such a sobersided fellow as I be doing with a woman in the middle of a campaign? It was not that sort of affair — you must believe me. She came in with the other captives, as rudely dressed as they. Yet there was something about her that I have tried hard to forget and, trying, failed.

Let me paint you the picture if I can — the camp, and the wide, flowing river — my men in their tattered kilts, Bouquet in his best uniform that had come with the baggage-train, the Royal Americans in their scarlet. So far, you need not strain your vision — we might have been encamped in Flanders. Our fieldmusic played the same tunes that you play in the old regiment — it was odd to see painted chiefs come out of the forest and listen to that music of fife and drum. They have their own music, those chiefs — I have heard it throb in the night.

So far, so good — but there were the provincials also. That is what you call them in England and I must follow the style. I mean the Virginia and Pennsylvania riflemen who had joined us. Let me try to describe them to you. They wear linsey shirts and leather breeches; they are tall, strong men. They know nothing of what we call discipline, but I have seen them drive the head of a nail with a bullet at fifty yards. They are Germans, Irish, English — God knows what they are — and yet there is a likeness among them. You would know the likeness — you have seen our poor, proud clansmen in the Highlands. But these are not all of the same stock — and yet the likeness is there. They carry their rifles lightly and they walk with a long, springing step. Each man seems to be his own master, in a way that I cannot describe. Yes, they are uncouth enough, but one did not think of that, by the Muskingum. From the hills and valleys of the border they had come to recover their own.

That was an extraordinary business, for my Colonel kept his promise, and tribe after tribe brought in their captives to us. There were stolen girls who had grown to womanhood in the wild, there were men who had barely escaped the stake and the fire, there were children who had forgotten the sound of English speech. Now the savages brought them back, at Bouquet’s command. I helped to keep the muster roll — it was a moving affair. I have seen a woman dressed in skins give a wild, high cry and run to the rough, tall husband who had thought her lost forever. I have seen a woman from the pack-trains go endlessly up and down through the throng of captives, muttering, ‘A little boy named Jamie Wilson. Has anybody seen a little boy named Jamie Wilson? He wore a blue cap and is about ten years old.’ I have seen memory and recognition come back into a tanned child’s eyes when, at first, he strained away from the strange white faces and would have gone back to his savage foster-kin. And then there were those whom the spells of the wood had overcome — the women with red husbands and red children. One or two of those were brought in bound — not in cruelty, but because they would not come of their own will. And, indeed, before we reached Fort Pitt they had slipped away again and back to the forest. That will seem an ill thing to you, I know — a thing like our old wives’ tales of witchcraft and possession. It would have seemed so to me, once, yet now I wonder. I wonder very greatly, having seen and talked to one girl.

I forget what day it was — the third or fourth day, I think, for the whole matter took some time. She had come in with a group from the further villages of the Shawanoes, but, though with them, she was not of them — she stood a little apart. That is how I shall always think of her — a little apart from the rest. A gray-eyed girl, slight but strong, with hair that the sun had bleached to a silvery gold. She was dressed like the others, in the gear of the savage, and there was an old Indian woman with her who made much of her and howded when she was delivered over to us. I paused for a moment to question her and to see that all was in order — it was not such an easy business, keeping the tally. She was perfectly biddable and quiet, but none appeared to claim her from among our men and women. Well, there were others in like case and yet, somehow, she was different. There are wild legends of women turned into deer. I could believe them, looking at her face.

‘I am a King’s officer,’ I said, ‘and you are in safe hands, now.’ For, here and there, I had seen captives so dazed by the shock of release that they did not well know where they were. She smiled at me gravely and pleasantly and said, ‘Yes, I understand. This is a big village — very big. They told me there would be men in red coats and there are.’

‘That’s the Royal Americans,’ I said. ‘We Scots wear the tartan. But we’re all friends.’ I could see that my words made no impression whatever on her mind. It was like talking to a changeling. Yet, somehow, I knew that I must talk to her and get her to talk to me.

I could not do it then, for I had work to do. Yet I made one further effort.

‘See,’ I said, as if to a child, ‘they are bringing more captives in.’ She raised her eyes, with calm interest.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Delawares. They make long speeches. But our men are the men.’ It hurt me to hear her speak so and I did not answer. Yet I stood by her side, for a moment, watching the new arrivals. There was one big, blackheaded youth who grinned a little shyly as he went past. I saw a bearded Virginia rifleman step up to him and look him up and down.

‘Well, Tom,’ he said, finally, in a drawl, — the provincials slur their speech in a manner I cannot reproduce, — ‘you’ve kind of filled out in the brisket. But you’re looking peart at that.’

‘Thanks, Henry,’ said the blackhaired boy, in the same accent. ‘I reckoned if they sent a war-party you’d be with it. Obliged to you. Say, have you got any Christian tobacco? I been smoking willow-bark all winter. Wasn’t bad, except for that.’

Then the two brothers beat each other upon the back, whooping and swearing strange oaths that I did not comprehend. A tall painted savage watched them, it seemed to me scornfully. After a moment, the brother who had been a captive turned.

‘Oh, Henry,’ he said, indicating the savage, ‘this here’s Little Bear. He’s a friend of mine. His ma ‘dopted me. Guess if she hadn’t they’d have burned me — they seemed to be fixing to. But him and the old lady stood up for me something handsome. Treated me right. Like you two to be acquainted.’

‘That so?’ said the elder brother. He raised his hand and made a sign — it was odd to sec a white man do it with the slow dignity of a savage.

‘What’s their word for peace?’ he said.

The other brother gave it and he repeated it. Not a muscle seemed to change in the savage’s countenance, but now he too made a sign and began to speak.

‘He’s saying you’re my brother, so he’s your brother,’ said Tom. ‘But you ain’t to believe all he says — I helped him out in a pinch, once, but why wouldn’t I?’ His tone was precisely that of an anxious collegian, introducing some newfound friend, ‘Where’s that tobacco of yours? We’d better have a smoke on it.’

Without more ado, the three strolled off through the crowd — to squat on the ground somewhere, no doubt, and smoke ceremoniously before captor and captive parted. I turned to the girl to see how she had taken the little scene. She was staring with her lips half-parted. Then an orderly called me away and I did not see her again till the evening had fallen.

I would I had not seen her then, and yet I felt it to be my duty. She was younger than I had imagined — indeed she could not have been more than sixteen. She answered my questions pleasantly and with dignity, though there was little she could tell. She had been captured, as I gathered, somewhere in Western Pennsylvania and she knew her name to be Mary. But of what her last name had been she had no recollection, though, she assured me, she had often tried to recall it. The cabin had been beside a stream, but to each name of a river I mentioned she gravely shook her head. It was always called ‘the river,’ to her remembrance.

No, she could not remember neighbors, but her father had worn a beard and her mother had had a red apron. There had been a little brother — she remembered the look of him well. Then, one day, she had strayed into the wood, gotten lost, and fallen asleep. As she told it to me, gravely and sweetly, in her halting English, it was like one of our own old rude ballads of children stolen away to dwell in a green hill. For that was the last she saw of hearth and home. There were scalps at the belts of the raiding party that found her; she thought one to be her mother’s, by the color of the hair, but she was not sure. This she told me with the fearful matter-of-factness of a child. I gather, at the time, she must have been about six years old.

Why the Shawanoes had spared her instead of despatching her, I cannot tell. It is a thing that happens at times. Since then, she had lived with them, not unhappily. From time to time she had seen other captives — so kept her English. There had been, in particular, a woman named Margaret, a later captive and kind to her. She had tried to teach her something of white ways, though they did not always sound very comfortable. Now, after all of this, she was going back to a white world.

It may not seem logical, but I cannot tell you how forcible an impression her recital made upon me. It was not only the story but the circumstances — the girl’s clear, candid face in the red fight of the camp-fire — the great sky above us, with its stars. I wondered privately to myself why she, unlike so many others, had no Indian husband. Then, looking at her suddenly, I knew. There was a fey quality to her — an unawakened simplicity. I queried her.

‘Yes,’ she said, in her careful English, ‘they thought I helped with the corn. It is very important to have the corn good. They did not wish to give me a husband till they were sure the corn would like it. Perhaps they will take me back again, but I do not think so. You are very strong people, you English.’

‘I am Scots,’ I said, ‘not English. But you are English.’

‘Am I?’ she said. ‘Well, then, I suppose I am. But I do not know what I am,’ and she smiled at the fire.

‘And what do you think of us, now you have found us?’ I said, with a man’s blundering.

She looked me over gravely and candidly.

‘Why, I think you wear very pretty clothes,’ she said, touching my sleeve with a child’s inquisitiveness. ‘You must have wonderful animals to give you clothes like that.’

That was how we talked together, at first — and yet, how might I have done otherwise? I wish you would tell me. It was part of my duty to make out the rolls — part of my duty to assist the captives. The child could not remember ever having seen a wheeled vehicle before she came to our camp. Would you think I could play the school-teacher? I would not have thought so, myself. Yet I taught her the greater part of her letters, on our way to Fort Pitt and beyond it, and she proved an obedient scholar. You will say it is the Scotsman in me, yet you would have done the same. I could not bear to think of her as merely childish and a savage when she looked at me out of her grey eyes. The Bible, fortunately, she knew of — her father had been wont to read a chapter aloud in the evenings and that good woman, Margaret, had been a professing Christian. We used to read a chapter of it aloud, by the camp-fire, and I would expound it to her as best I might. Now and then the black-headed Virginian named Tom would listen also — and I fear that both of them liked the more warlike chapters the best. But also, once in a great while, I would hit on some verse that touched a chord of memory in her, and a puzzled, rapt expression would come upon her face.

You see it was my thought — God knows why — that if, by any means, I could make her remember her name and more of her past history than she could tell me, the spell of the wilderness might be shaken from her. I do not know why I thought so — and indeed, to you, it will seem a matter of little import. What matter if she lived and died, unlettered and savage? There are many such, in the wilderness. And yet, it mattered to me.

I knew how a man must feel whose bride has been, as we say, fairy-kist, and comes back to him out of the green hill, but not as she went away. Yet I did my best — you will laugh to hear what I did. By the time we had passed Fort Pitt, she could say the first half of her catechism very fairly. Yet, if I must be honest, it did not seem to me that she spoke with understanding. She would repeat her answers as well as any lass, but I could not feel that grace had penetrated her heart. Yet it was not a hard heart, nor a recalcitrant, as I should know.

The belief of the Indians is not easy to set down, yet, at the core, it is simple. They are not blind idolaters, like the pagans of old, and they worship a spirit or presence, though they name him differently. At least, that is what she told me. I should be glad to think that she told me truly. It is hideous to think of whole nations consigned from birth to the pit or the flame, though John Calvin makes no bones of it. Yet she must have been baptized a Christian, even if she could not remember it. I keep cleaving to that.

I remember one night when we were talking. The boy, Tom, had joined in our conversation for a while — now he lay rolled in his blanket, half-asleep, by the fire. She was telling me of the devils in tree and water that her savage friends believed in. At least they seemed like devils to me, though perhaps they were not. I could not bear to hear her and I groaned aloud.

‘Why, what is the matter? Are you sick?’ she said, with her candid stare at me and the light on her silver-gold hair.

‘No, not sick,’ I said.

‘If you are sick,’ she said, ‘why, that’s easy, for a man. You will go to the sweatlodge and feel better. But I forget — you English do not use the sweat-lodge.’

‘Child,’ I said, very gently, ‘will the time never come when you say “we English” instead?’

‘I try to say that,’ she said, ‘but I forget.’ It maddened me, for some reason, to hear her say so, without fear or shame.

‘Woman,’ I cried, like any dominie, ‘have you no fear of God’s judgments? Do you not see that every day you have spent in the wilderness has been a day without grace?’

There was a muffled sound at this from the boy named Tom. But I paid no attention — I was looking at her face.

‘I do not know what you mean,’ she said. ‘Sometimes the sun shines and sometimes the snow falls. In the winter we often go hungry, but in the spring the hunters kill game again. And even in winter there is much to do — the fire to be tended, the deerskins to be chewed and made soft.’

‘God gave you an immortal soul,’ I said. ‘Have you no feeling of it?’

She looked at me with her fey look, the look of a changeling, while the boy, Tom, rolled over in his blanket and also stared at her.

‘Now you talk like a medicine man,’ she said. She sighed. ‘They are very terrible and wonderful, of course. But a woman has other business.’

‘In God’s name, what?’ I said.

She opened her eyes wide.

‘Why,’ she said, ‘to know how to work the skins and cook the food — yes, and plant the corn and the beans. You think that is hard work — but the English women I have talked to, who come from the towns, have harder. They live shut up in their towns like corn shut up in a pouch, and they wear so many clothes the air never gets to their skin. They say it is a noble life, but I do not see how they bear it. We are often cold and hungry, but when there is food we share it, and there is always the sky above, and the earth beneath.’

‘But what is the end of it all?’ I said, for it seemed to me she talked like a pagan or a child.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘to go to a man’s lodge and lie by his side and bear his children. That is the end of it all.’

‘Would you have done that?’ I said.

‘Why, yes,’ she said. ‘Next year, perhaps. Not this year, for they were not sure of the corn.’ She flushed faintly. ‘He was a strong man, though older,’ she said. ‘He had plenty in his lodge and he had killed many enemies.’

The thought of it made me desperate. I rose and walked up and down in front of the fire.

‘ Why are you walking up and down?’ she said, in an interested voice. ‘Are you thinking of your own enemies? Be content — I am sure you will kill many of them. You are strong and quick.’

‘No, child,’ I said. ‘I am thinking of your soul and my soul and —’ I stopped and sat down beside her again.

‘There is an old song,’ I said. ‘It is sung in my country of a man who was led astray. I do not know why I wish to sing it to you, but I wish it.’

So, sitting beside her by the camp-fire, in the great woods, I sang her the rough old ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, or as much of it as I could remember — how he met the Queen of Elfland and she took him where man should not go.

‘Now, ye maun go wi’ me,’ she said;
‘True Thomas, ye maun go wi’ me;
And ye maun serve me seven years,
Through weal or woe as may chance to be.’

I sang, and wondered, as I sang, if it were indeed the Eildon Tree that we sat beneath — the tree that is on the border of another land than ours. But when I had reached the verse that says,

It was mirk, mirk night, there was nae starlight,
They waded through red blude to the knee,

she nodded her head, and when I had ended the song she nodded again.

‘That is a fine song,’ she said. ‘There is strong medicine in it.’

The boy, Tom, stirred restlessly and seemed about to speak. I could not speak, but sat watching her. There was an intent and puzzled look upon her face. It seemed to me that I saw her from a great distance.

‘There is something in the song,’ she said, ‘I cannot remember.’ She put her hand to her head and looked at both of us. ‘I cannot remember,’ she said, ‘but there was another tune. The Queen was not clad in green — she was clad in scarlet. Do you know of that?’

She looked at me pitifully and eagerly, while her brows knitted, but I did not know how to help her. She struck her hands together.

‘The Queen was clad in scarlet,
Her merry maids all in green,’

she sang. ‘Eh, feyther, I ken the tune — I’ll not fail you.’

I racked my brains for the ballad and the tune, but it would not come to me. Then I saw a shiver go through the body of the boy named Tom, as if he had been touched with a hot iron.

‘Ride hooly, hooly, you gentlemen all,’

he sang, in a strange, deep voice;

‘ Ride hooly now with me —

Is that the tune that you want, girl?’

She nodded, her face rapt and content. He took it up rudely, distorting tune and words, but there was no doubt in my mind when he came to the verse that all Scotland knows by heart.

‘Yestreve the Queen had four Marys,
Tonight she’ll have but three.
There was Mary Sitton and Mary Bitton
And Mary Carmichael and me.’

As he finished the verse, she gave a great loud cry. ‘ Carmichael — Mary Carmichael!’ she said. ‘Hide yourself in the cupboard by the door, Jamie — the Indians are coming and feyther’s head is all red!’ And, with the cry, her voice broke and she burst into a passion of tears. The boy, Tom, took her hand, very gently for so rough a fellow. It was the first time I had ever seen her weep. When she lifted her face again, there were memory and recollection in her eyes.

Well, that is the wilderness-tale that I have to tell you — a strange one enough, I think, though with no fit sequel. I have talked since with a medical man in Philadelphia of much experience — he deems it probable that the sound of the familiar words and the lilt of the tune touched some hidden spring in the girl’s mind and she knew, having long forgotten, that she was Mary Carmichael. It must have been a song that her father sang her oft. I would I had been the one to sing it, though I know the thought to be vanity. It was the boy, Tom, who had the lilt of the wilderness — and he also had been a captive.

From that night there was a certain change in her, though I did not perceive it till afterwards. For the next day I fell ill of my fever and they tell me I was skin and bones when they brought me in to Carlisle.

When I came to myself again — and that was not for more days than I care to count — she was sitting by my bedside. I could not account for the difference in her at first — then I saw she was decently dressed in Christian garb, no longer in the gear of the savage. I should have rejoiced to see that and yet I did not.

‘You were singing, but I cannot remember the tune,’ I said, for those were the first words that came into my head.

‘Hush,’ she said, and smoothed my coverlet with her hand, like any woman. ‘You have been very sick. You must rest.’

After I had grown stronger, I found from the woman in whose house I lay that she, Mary Carmichael, had come each day to nurse me. Also she had prepared certain draughts of leaves and herbs. I cannot remember drinking them, but I fear they have entered forever into my veins.

They were married in the church at Carlisle — she and the boy named Tom. They asked me to stand up with them, very courteously, and, though I was yet weak, I did so. The church, as it happened, was full, for the wedding of a captive caused great interest in the town. It is a plain, small church, but the minister was of the right persuasion.

Before that she thanked me, very sweetly and civilly, for teaching her her letters and for all I had done. It was hard to bear, to have her thank me, yet now I am glad she did, for I shall remember it. The man, Tom, thanked me also and wrung my hand with his big hand. It was odd — he was shyer than she, in the church, though friendly enough before that. He had his rifle, his axe, and a packhorse with some goods upon it. They were going to a place called the Forks of the Yadkin — it is many miles away in the rougher part of Virginia. From there, he thought, they might venture some day to the wilds of a new land called Ken-tuck-e — a land full of game and grass where few white men had ever trod. It was odd to stand beside that man and, though one day I shall be Auchairn, feel myself poor beside him. Yet it could not have been otherwise. They were of a likeness — those two — and I was not of their likeness. I should have known that from the first.

The minister — a good man — made them an excellent and searching discourse on Christian wedlock. She listened to it attentively, but I have certain fears that she would have listened quite as prettily to the heathenish ravings of a medicine man. Then they set off together, he and she. The last glimpse I had was of the silvery hair as they topped the rise and began to go down. It was a clear day, yet not cold. He had his rifle in the crook of his arm — she walked a little behind him, leading the packhorse. She did not walk like a lady, but swiftly, and you could not hear her steps though the ground was covered with blown leaves.

The adventure has left me confused — I thought it might help my confusion to write it down. You will say it is simple enough — that I fell in love with a rustic beauty for a few weeks, behaved like a gentleman and a Christian, and was glad to see her married off, in the end. That is true, perhaps, and yet there is something more. Even now, I cannot get the thought of those two people out of my head. By now, no doubt, they will have reached the Forks of the Yadkin, and he will be making his clearing — there, in the utter wilderness that to them is home. It is there that their children will be born — or in some even wilder land. Yet was she very much of a woman when she took me by the sleeve and said I wore pretty clothes.

They are not English or Scots — they are not German or Irish — it is a new nation they are making. We are deceived by the language, and even that, as you see, begins to change on their tongues. Oh yes, I have been graciously received in fine houses in Philadelphia, but that was an imitation, as Bath is a little London. It is different, in the wilderness — and our Lords in Council have not fathomed it. As for me, I have taken the King’s shilling and, some day, I shall be Auchairn. Yet, were it not so, I swear I should like to see what this stream called the Yadkin is like — I should like to see what children came of such a marriage. Aye, even did it mean the abandonment of all I have been.

You will think me daft to have such thoughts — it may be I am not yet wholly recovered of the fever. It may also be that I shall never recover. We hear that the Government intends to close the Western frontiers to settlement — no doubt for good reasons of policy. But these people are not to be stayed and I have seen them fight. Had they a Bouquet to lead them — well, all this is speculation. Yet I keep thinking of my changeling. I know what is due to Auchairn — and she had but the first glint of the catechism, even. And yet, she had nations in her eyes.