"Heyward! Duncan!" exclaimed Alice, bending forward to read his half-averted countenance, until a lock of her golden hair rested on her flushed cheek, and nearly concealed the tear that had started to her eye; "did I think this idle tongue of mine had pained you, I would silence it forever. Cora can say, if Cora would, how justly we have prized your services, and how deep — I had almost said, how fervent — is our gratitude."
"And will Cora attest the truth of this?" cried Duncan, suffering the cloud to be chased from his countenance by a smile of open pleasure. "What says our graver sister? Will she find an excuse for the neglect of the knight in the duty of a soldier?"
Cora made no immediate answer, but turned her face toward the water, as if looking on the sheet of the Horican. When she did bend her dark eyes on the young man, they were yet filled with an expression of anguish that at once drove every thought but that of kind solicitude from his mind.
"You are not well, dearest Miss Munro!" he exclaimed; "we have trifled while you are in suffering!"
"'Tis nothing," she answered, refusing his support with feminine reserve. "That I cannot see the sunny side of the picture of life, like this artless but ardent enthusiast," she added, laying her hand lightly, but affectionately, on the arm of her sister, "is the penalty of experience, and, perhaps, the misfortune of my nature. See," she continued, as if determined to shake off infirmity, in a sense of duty; "look around you, Major Heyward, and tell me what a prospect is this for the daughter of a soldier whose greatest happiness is his honor and his military renown."
"Neither ought nor shall be tarnished by circumstances over which he has had no control," Duncan warmly replied. "But your words recall me to my own duty. I go now to your gallant father, to hear his determination in matters of the last moment to the defense. God bless you in every fortune, noble — Cora — I may and must call you." She frankly gave him her hand, though her lip quivered, and her cheeks gradually became of ashly paleness. "In every fortune, I know you will be an ornament and honor to your sex. Alice, adieu" — his voice changed from admiration to tenderness — "adieu, Alice; we shall soon meet again; as conquerors, I trust, and amid rejoicings!"
Without waiting for an answer from either, the young man threw himself down the grassy steps of the bastion, and moving rapidly across the parade, he was quickly in the presence of their father. Munro was pacing his narrow apartment with a disturbed air and gigantic strides as Duncan entered.
"You have anticipated my wishes, Major Heyward," he said; "I was about to request this favor."
"I am sorry to see, sir, that the messenger I so warmly recommended has returned in custody of the French! I hope there is no reason to distrust his fidelity?"
"The fidelity of 'The Long Rifle' is well known to me," returned Munro, "and is above suspicion; though his usual good fortune seems, at last, to have failed. Montcalm has got him, and with the accursed politeness of his nation, he has sent him in with a doleful tale, of 'knowing how I valued the fellow, he could not think of retaining him.' A Jesuitical way that, Major Duncan Heyward, of telling a man of his misfortunes!"
"But the general and his succor?"
"Did ye look to the south as ye entered, and could ye not see them?" said the old soldier, laughing bitterly.
"Hoot! hoot! you're an impatient boy, sir, and cannot give the gentlemen leisure for their march!"
"They are coming, then? The scout has said as much?"
"When? and by what path? for the dunce has omitted to tell me this. There is a letter, it would seem, too; and that is the only agreeable part of the matter. For the customary attentions of your Marquis of Montcalm — I warrant me, Duncan, that he of Lothian would buy a dozen such marquisates — but if the news of the letter were bad, the gentility of this French monsieur would certainly compel him to let us know it."
"He keeps the letter, then, while he releases the messenger?"
"Ay, that does he, and all for the sake of what you call your 'bonhommie' I would venture, if the truth was known, the fellow's grandfather taught the noble science of dancing."
"But what says the scout? he has eyes and ears, and a tongue. What verbal report does he make?"
"Oh! sir, he is not wanting in natural organs, and he is free to tell all that he has seen and heard. The whole amount is this; there is a fort of his majesty's on the banks of the Hudson, called Edward, in honor of his gracious highness of York, you'll know; and it is well filled with armed men, as such a work should be."
"But was there no movement, no signs of any intention to advance to our relief?"
"There were the morning and evening parades; and when one of the provincial loons — you'll know, Duncan, you're half a Scotsman yourself — when one of them dropped his powder over his porretch, if it touched the coals, it just burned!" Then, suddenly changing his bitter, ironical manner, to one more grave and thoughtful, he continued: "and yet there might, and must be, something in that letter which it would be well to know!"
"Our decision should be speedy," said Duncan, gladly availing himself of this change of humor, to press the more important objects of their interview; "I cannot conceal from you, sir, that the camp will not be much longer tenable; and I am sorry to add, that things appear no better in the fort; more than half the guns are bursted."
"And how should it be otherwise? Some were fished from the bottom of the lake; some have been rusting in woods since the discovery of the country; and some were never guns at all — mere privateersmen's playthings! Do you think, sir, you can have Woolwich Warren in the midst of a wilderness, three thousand miles from Great Britain?"
"The walls are crumbling about our ears, and provisions begin to fail us," continued Heyward, without regarding the new burst of indignation; "even the men show signs of discontent and alarm."
"Major Heyward," said Munro, turning to his youthful associate with the dignity of his years and superior rank; "I should have served his majesty for half a century, and earned these gray hairs in vain, were I ignorant of all you say, and of the pressing nature of our circumstances; still, there is everything due to the honor of the king's arms, and something to ourselves. While there is hope of succor, this fortress will I defend, though it be to be done with pebbles gathered on the lake shore. It is a sight of the letter, therefore, that we want, that we may know the intentions of the man the earl of Loudon has left among us as his substitute."
"And can I be of service in the matter?"
"Sir, you can; the marquis of Montcalm has, in addition to his other civilities, invited me to a personal interview between the works and his own camp; in order, as he says, to impart some additional information. Now, I think it would not be wise to show any undue solicitude to meet him, and I would employ you, an officer of rank, as my substitute; for it would but ill comport with the honor of Scotland to let it be said one of her gentlemen was outdone in civility by a native of any other country on earth."
Without assuming the supererogatory task of entering into a discussion of the comparative merits of national courtesy, Duncan cheerfully assented to supply the place of the veteran in the approaching interview. A long and confidential communication now succeeded, during which the young man received some additional insight into his duty, from the experience and native acuteness of his commander, and then the former took his leave.
As Duncan could only act as the representative of the commandant of the fort, the ceremonies which should have accompanied a meeting between the heads of the adverse forces were, of course, dispensed with. The truce still existed, and with a roll and beat of the drum, and covered by a little white flag, Duncan left the sally-port, within ten minutes after his instructions were ended. He was received by the French officer in advance with the usual formalities, and immediately accompanied to a distant marquee of the renowned soldier who led the forces of France.