previous next

Chapter 29:

  • A Virginia home.
  • -- unwelcome visitors. -- Mr. Harcourt arrested and released. -- Dan McCowan Makes forcible love to Mary Harcourt. -- the girl in peril. -- a timely rescue. -- the villain punished.

The important information brought to my notice by Operative Curtis, on his return from Richmond, concerning the character and working of the “Subterranean headquarters,” at once determined me on a plan of using the same body of men, or rather the information they carried, for the benefit of the Union forces, instead of allowing them to use it in the interests of the Confederates. To accomplish this, I detailed several members of my force, both at Washington and Baltimore, to co-operate with Curtis, whom I intended now should become an active agent of the rebels in carrying dispatches to and from Richmond. The plan was, in short, that all dispatches entrusted to him should be accurately copied, the copies to be delivered to his confederates, and the originals forwarded to their destination.

In war, as in game of chess, if you know the moves of your adversary in advance, it is then an easy matter to shape your own plans, and make your moves accordingly, and, of course, always to your [430] own decided advantage. So in this case, I concluded that if the information intended for the rebels could first be had by us, after that, they were welcome to all the benefit they might derive from them.

In a few days, then, having completed my arrangements, Curtis started to Richmond, by the way of Wilson's Landing and Glendale, he having decided that, provided as he was with his pass from the Secretary, it would be perfectly safe, and at the same time a much shorter route than by the way of Petersburgh.

Leaving him for the present, then, to make his way to Richmond as best he can, we will turn our attention to other persons and to other scenes. The interior of a comfortable farm-house, the place, and early evening the time.

The family are gathered around the tea-table, and are discussing earnestly the war, and the chances of the success of the Northern troops. The family consisted of five persons: the husband and wife, both traveling down the western slope of life, a young and beautiful daughter, apparently about twenty years of age, and two younger children, a boy and girl, aged, respectively, fourteen and twelve years.

These latter are listening attentively to the conversation going on about them, and anon interjecting some childish observation, or asking some question commensurate with the quaint views and ideas of childish years. [431]

“Well,” finally observed the old gentleman, “it is hard that one dare not speak their own sentiments in a country like this; my grandfather fought in the revolution, my father in the war of 1812, and I, myself, took a hand in the brush with Mexico; but I never dreamed of seeing the day when a man dared not speak his honest convictions, for fear of having his roof burnt from over his head, and, worse than all, endanger even his own life, and those dearest to him.”

“I have always told you, William,” replied his good wife, “that the day would come when this fearful curse of slavery would have to be wiped out in blood, and you all know now that I prophesied truly. And,” she added, “as for me, I have no fears for the result. Our only mistake has been in casting our lot and settling in the South, and in the very presence of an evil we could not avert.”

“True, mother,” rejoined her husband, “but you know I have ever been outspoken against slavery, and its attendant curses. I also flatter myself that I have had some influence in mitigating, at least, the condition of not a few of the black race. You remember Colonel Singleton liberated his slaves at the very outset of this war.”

“And was compelled to flee to the North to save his own life,” answered his wife; “and had we been wise, we would have gone to a country more congenial to our views, and while we could have done so [432] with safety. I am afraid,” she continued, “if it becomes known that our son has joined the Union army, serious trouble may befall us at the hands of men who have long desired an excuse for arresting you and confiscating your property; if, indeed, they would be content with sparing your life.”

“ If I were younger,” said the old gentleman, “I would defy them to do their worst; and, as it is, my only fears are for my family, not for myself. Still,” he added, “my neighbors are all friendly, and the majority of them, though thinking differently from me on these questions, are under obligations to me, so that I feel I have but little to fear at their hands. As to our boy, who has gone to fight for the old flag, I am proud of him; I fought for it, so did my fathers before me, and I would disown the child who would refuse, if necessary, to lay down his life in its defense.”

And here, fired with the sentiments he had just uttered, he arose from the table in an agitated manner and began to pace the floor.

“Ah,” he continued, “I love that old flag, and old as I am, would fight for it yet.”

Going to a case that stood in a corner of the room, he took from a shelf a beautiful silken banner, and holding it aloft, he exclaimed, with great earnestness, “There is the flag I fight under — the flag of the Union and of the country our fathers fought to save.”

“Father,” exclaimed his eldest daughter, “you [433] forget yourself in your enthusiasm; even now some one may be outside listening; you forget that Dan McCowan and his desperate gang may be in the vicinity and give us a call at any moment.”

Scarcely had the warning fell from her lips, when there came a loud knocking at the door, followed by a few vigorous and well-directed blows that threatened to take it from its hinges.

The whole family started up in alarm, and while one snatched the flag from the old gentleman and hastily deposited it in its hiding-place, another answered the summons from without.

The old man himself, while not frightened, was somewhat disconcerted by the noise, and remained standing in the center of the room, when the door was suddenly burst open, revealing a body of Confederate soldiers headed by a villainous-looking fellow, their leader, who now entered the room, and approaching him, said:

Mr. Harcourt, I have orders to place you under arrest, so you will prepare to accompany us to Glendale at once!

“ What crime have I committed?” demanded the old man, now perfectly calm, “that you dare enter my house in this manner!”

“You will know that soon enough,” replied the officer; “so hustle on your duds, as we must be going. Bill,” he commanded, turning to a fellow near him, “you will search the house and take possession [434] of anything contraband or treasonable that you can find.”

This order was exactly what his followers wanted, as it meant really an order to plunder the house and appropriate to their own use whatever articles of value they found and that pleased them to take.

As none of the family had offered the slightest resistance, the unwelcome intruders had conducted themselves, so far, very orderly. Mrs. Harcourt, a kind and matronly-looking woman, with a firmness and self-control, that under the circumstances was admirable, bustled about the room, getting together a small bundle of clothing for her husband to take with him on his enforced journey to Glendale; and anon, while doing this, spoke soothing words of comfort and encouragement to the younger children, who, white and speechless with terror, were crouching in the darkest corner of the room.

The eldest daughter, at a sign from her father, accompanied the two men detailed to search the premises, and proceeded with them from room to room, as they rummaged chests and drawers, appropriating various little articles to their own use, in spite of the indignant protest of the spirited girl at such barefaced robbery.

Finally, with much reluctance, she was compelled to admit them to her own room, and to witness their ruthless handling of the contents of a small trunk, in which were various little articles, trinkets and mementoes, [435] worthless to any one else, but, of course, priceless to her.

But what she most prized among them, and which caused her the most alarm should they be discovered, was a small packet of letters from her brother already mentioned as serving in the Union army, and a small locket containing his miniature. Judge of her dismay were one of the men picked up the letters, and with a laugh exclaimed: “These are from your feller, I suppose ;” and then, observing the locket, he opened it and with a leer on his face, said: “And this is his picture, I reckon, eh?”

“Yes,” said the girl eagerly uttering, or rather echoing, the falsehood. “Yes,” she repeated, “please don't take them, as they are of no account to any one but myself.”

“All right,” said the fellow, good-naturedly, “I guess you can have them;” as he handed them to her. She eagerly seized them, trembling at the narrow escape they had had from falling into the possession of those, who knowing their contents, would have given her poor old father much trouble indeed.

Having completed their search, and finding nothing that could be considered of a treasonable character, they returned to the room below, and reported to their Captain the result of their search. He then ordered his men to retire to the outside, where he followed them, and after consulting a short time, he returned to the house and brusquely informed Mr. [436] Harcourt that as he had found nothing to convict him of treason against the Confederate government, he might go this time, but to be d-d careful in the future, or he would get him yet. He then slammed the door behind him, rejoined his companions who mounted their horses and rode slowly away.

Satisfied that they had left, the family ventured to express their congratulations at the departure of their unwelcome visitors, and at once set to work rearranging the disordered room. They, however, felt that this was only the commencement of their prosecutions, and they well knew that another time, the chances were that they would not escape so easily; for should it become known that their son was in the Federal army, they could no longer hope to live in peace and safety. The men who had visited them on this occasion, were evidently strangers in the neighborhood, and were, no doubt, a scouting or foraging party, who had stopped more from a want of having anything else to do, than from a desire to do them any injury. They, however, knew, that from those in their own vicinity, there was much more to be feared; and of one person in particular, they stood in especial dread. That person was Dan McCowan, the man whose name was mentioned by Mary Harcourt, in her warning to her father, only a moment before the soldiers, had entered their dwelling. Dan McCowan was a man who for years had pursued the detestable calling of a negro-hunter. [437]

He was about thirty-five years of age, tall, of an ungainly form, and slightly stoop-shouldered; his hair and eyes were dark, and his complexion as swarthy as an Indian. His features, naturally coarse and repulsive, were rendered still more so, by being bronzed and hardened by long-continued exposure to the weather. His only associates and his most intimate friends appeared to be his blood-hounds, which he used in hunting and bringing back to their masters, the poor negroes who were seeking to escape from a life of continued toil and bondage. The following unique hand-bill, which he used to post up in various places over the country, will serve to show the nature of his business, and also the vast amount of intelligence necessary to carry it on.

No tis.

The undersind taiks this methed of makkin it none that he has got the best nigger hounds in the state, and is always redy to ketch runaway niggers at the best rates.

My hounds is well trained, and I heve hed 15 yeres experience. My rates is 10 dollurs per hed if ketched in the beate where the master lives; 15 dollurs in the coonty, and 50 dollurs out of the coonty.

N. B.

Planters should taik panes to let me know, while the niggers tracks is fresh, if they want quick work and a good job.


It is scarcely necessary to say that his services were frequently employed to catch and bring back the poor runaways, and more than once had the Harcourt family been awakened in the night by his hounds, as they made the woods echo with their baying. Often had they pictured to themselves the terror of the poor wretches, over whose trail, with unerring scent, swept the monsters, who would tear them limb from limb, and whose only choice was death at their hands or the old life of labor and the lash.

Mr. Harcourt was a strong anti-slavery man. Holding these views, he had ever spoken consistently against slavery. He was also a man of deeds, as well as words, for many a poor fugitive had been assisted by him on his long and perilous journey northward in search of friends and the freedom he craved.

Owing to these proclivities, and to the fact that he had never taken pains to conceal his views, a mutual antipathy had long existed between Mr. Harcourt and Dan McCowan, the nigger-hunter. While the latter had no direct proofs, yet he had long suspected Mr. Harcourt of being a friend to, and a sympathizer with the very runaways whom it was his business to catch and return to the bondage they were endeavoring to escape from. Notwithstanding his dislike for the father, however, the fellow had conceived a violent attachment for Mary Harcourt, his daughter, and for a year past had greatly annoyed [439] not only the poor girl herself, but the whole family, by his uncouth attentions.

Finally, Mr. Harcourt told him plainly that his attentions to his daughter were extremely distasteful to her, and added a polite, yet firm request, that he cease his troublesome visits.

Mary, who was a young lady of sweet and lovely disposition, possessing both intelligence and refinement, shrank from the fellow as she should from a viper in her path; while his odious attempts to lavish his unsought affections upon her so disgusted and frightened her that she always avoided his presence.

Dan McCowan, however, was just the man, when thwarted in his plans, to at once take steps for revenge. For some time he had kept a close espionage of the house and the movements of its inmates. He had somehow obtained possession of the knowledge that young Harcourt was in the Union army, and he determined to use this in his well-laid plans to persecute the poor girl, who had been so unfortunate as to have been the object of his passion.

On the day following the incidents just related, Mary, who had been spending the afternoon with a neighbor's family, towards evening was returning to her home, when she was suddenly and most unexpectedly confronted by Dan McCowan. So startled was she by this unlooked — for meeting, that she involuntarily gave a slight scream, as she recognized who it was that stood before her. [440]

“I see as how I have skeered you right smart now,” said the fellow, grinning in her face with a wicked leer. “Your father told me as how he would be much obliged to me if I would stop my visits to his house, which, beina a gentleman, I was bound to do, and as I had a little something to say to you, I thought this would be the time to say it.”

The girl, who had now somewhat recovered her composure, yet fully realizing the character of the man with whom she had to deal, stood quietly looking him full in the face, and said, in a tone that betrayed her contempt, “I suppose I must listen to you, sir, but be brief, as it is getting late, and my folks will be uneasy at my long absence.”

“Well, Miss Harcourt,” he replied, “I will come to the point at once. You have a brother, who has been away from home fur some time. Do you know where he is?”

Mary was silent, and he muttered, half to himself, “I thought so; the whole family are traitors. No more than is to be expected from these d-d abolitionists. I can tell you where he is,” he continued; “he is on the other side, and fighting against the South.”

“And what if he is in the Federal army? He is fighting for the government you and yours are seeking to destroy,” answered the spirited girl.

“ It don't matter much to me which side he fights on; but suppose I tell it around, that he is fighting [441] with the Yankees, do you think it would matter to you then?”

“My brother is his own man,” replied Mary, “and he alone is responsible for his acts; surely they would not harm my father and us for that; and surely you would not tell what you know, to injure us?”

“That depends on you, Miss Mary,” the fellow replied, now approaching closer, and attempting to take her hand.

“What do you mean, you scoundrel?” demanded the girl, drawing back, while the fire flashed from her eyes. “Don't offer to touch me, Dan McCowan, or I'll”

“ What would you do, now?” he exclaimed; and, before she was aware of his intentions, he had sprang quickly forward, seized her about the waist, and placed one hand over her mouth, but not until she had given one long and piercing call for help.

The fellow's base designs were evident, and that he would have been successful there is no doubt; but help, fortunately, was at hand. While he was yet struggling with the girl, he felt a violent clutch on his collar, from behind, and before he could see from whence it came he was thrown violently to the ground, and was writhing under the well-directed kicks, which were most lavishly bestowed upon him by the new comer, who was no less a personage than my operative George Curtis.

The girl had sank to the ground almost fainting [442] from fright, but so enraged was Curtis at the scene he had witnessed, that he continued to shower his kicks on the miserable wretch, who roared and begged for mercy, until the girl interposed, and begged him, for her sake, not to kill him, but to desist, and let him go.

At this my operative ceased, more, however, from mere lack of breath than from a feeling that the fellow had been sufficiently punished, and allowed him to regain his feet. “You contemptible, cowardly brute,” he exclaimed, as McCowan arose; “I have a mind to finish you, while I have my hand in. Miss,” he continued, turning to the girl, “I am happy to have arrived in time to be of service to you. I do not know anything about this difficulty, but from what I saw, I concluded that I had not time to make any inquiries.”

“ I am very grateful to you, sir, for what you have done in saving me from that villain. Look out!” she exclaimed, “he has a pistol.”

Curtis turned his head in time to see the fellow in the act of drawing a revolver. Quicker than a flash, his own weapon was in his hands, and covering the man, he said, coolly:

Drop your hands, you hell-hound, or I will blow you to atoms in a second.

The fellow saw that he was foiled, and dropped his hands at his sides.

Curtis advanced and disarmed him; then, stepping back a pace, he said: [443]

“Go now while I am in the humor to let you; another move like that, and I will shoot you as I would a dog,”

McCowan reluctantly obeyed, and slunk away muttering threats of vengeance.

My operative, however, paid no attention to him now, but turned to the young lady who proceeded to relate the circumstance of her meeting with McCowan, from which his timely interference had saved her, and ended by a cordial invitation, blushingly given, that he would accompany her home, and spend the night under her father's roof. As he was anxious to find a lodging-place for the night, at any rate, the detective, gratefully accepted the invitation, feeling such an interest in this really beautiful girl that he could not resist the desire to cultivate further the acquaintance, so strangely begun. He hastily brought his horse from where he had left him by the roadside, and leading him by the bridle, walked by the side of his companion until they reached the house. As they strolled along, Mary frankly told him the secret of McCowan's attack, and proceeded to explain the man's character, and the detestable nature of the business in which he was engaged.

By this time, they had reached her father's house, where they were met at the gate by the old gentleman himself, who was alarmed and anxious at his daughter's absence so far beyond her usual time for return. [444]

“ Father,” said the girl, “this is” --here she paused, visibly embarrassed, and gazed timidly into the face of the detective.

“ Pardon me,” said Curtis hastily, seeing the cause of her confusion; “my name is George Curtis; we have been so busy talking that I had not thought of names.”

She then introduced them, and briefly related to her father the cause of her detention, and her adventure with McCowan, not forgetting to mention the part my operative had played in her timely rescue from the villain's hands.

The old man thanked him again and again, and so profusely, that Curtis begged that he would not mention it, as he had done nothing more than any gentleman, under the same circumstances, would have done, gone to the lady's rescue at her call for help.

His horse was ordered to be taken to the barn, and he himself was soon seated in the house, receiving the tearful thanks of good Mrs. Harcourt, and the object of the admiring gaze of Mary's younger brother and sister, who regarded him as a hero, and a person who had no small claim on their affection and esteem.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)
hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Mary Harcourt (14)
Dan McCowan (13)
George Curtis (10)
Singleton (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1812 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: