Out of Nova Scotia's romantic past comes this story of the Colonel’s daughter; and the Colonel, who feared Napoleon less than he feared the smallpox
THOMAS H. RADDALL
IT BEGAN on a cold December day in the year 1800, when a stranger walked up the steep road to Larrabee House. He wore a brown fly coat, a pair of black broadcloth trousers, a red cravat, and a collar that reached his ears, and a tall beaver hat— the first beaver bat ever seen in our town. He carried a brown leather satchel. Flora Larrabee saw him coming and flew to the door, forestalling Black Philip, the manservant. She was still in disgrace for her sudden and romantic marriage, forbidden to use her new name and still hoping for word from that bitter young husband of hers, shipped off to the West Indies in one of her father’s privateers, to get rid of him.
“Colonel Larrabee is he at home?” asked the stranger, with a sweep of the hat. Flora’s eager look faded. “Come in, please.”
She walked before him along the hall, with the lithe straight-backed carriage of the Larrabee women, and ushered him into the presence.
Sumter Larrabee was in the long parlor, writing at his rosewood desk, a tall man in black smallclothes and stockings and a blue tail coat with brass buttons. There were a few threads of silver in his thick black hair, and a pair of spectacles sat mildly on his raptorial nose. He looked up and rose swiftly, tearing off the spectacles,which he hated and considered “womanish.” “Colonel Larrabee, 1 believe,” the stranger said. “Late,” Sumter declared from his full height, “of the British Legion, sometimes known as Tarleton’s Legion.” He said this always when strangers addressed him by the old rank: first, because they might be
Yankees, and he felt they should know he was a Loyalist and no bones about it; and second, because the provincial militia was full of colonels who had never smelled powder in action.
“A very fine corps, I’ve heard,” murmured the other politely. “My name’s Bartelo, sir, Phineas Bartelo. A physician and surgeon, seeking a place for the practice of my profession. At the wharf they told me I must see the chief magistrate. That’s you, I understand.”
“Urn,” grunted Sumter. He distrusted the quacks who wandered up and down the Nova Scotia settlements in coasting schooners. Still, there was no doctor in the town.
“As it happens you’ve come at a good time.”
“An outbreak of the small pock.”
“Three sick with it. Had ’em removed to a hut east o’ the town, and engaged a black man that’s had the disease to look after ’em.”
“Your promptness is commendable, sir.”
“As an old soldier be seated, man, be seated -I believe in prompt measures when danger’s abroad.”
“Have you — ah — taken any other measures, Colonel?”
“No,” Sumter said. “What others might we take, think you?”
“What about inoculation?”
“Urn!” Sumter regarded him with a beady black eye. Another quack-salver, begad! Hoping to drum up business with high-sounding words! “What d’you mean?” he said shrewdly.
“Inoculation? It’s been known for a century. But two years ago one Jenner published some remarkable discoveries about it. That’s what I have in mind.” He leaned forward earnestly. “You infect a well person with the kinepox . . .”
“Damme! Stuff from a sick cow?”
“The person so inoculated will suffer a mild form of the disease and is thereafter immune to the smallpox.”
“Damme, sir, I never heard anything so filthy in my life! Our people will submit to no such dangerous nonsense, and a very good day to you!”
Mr. Bartelo picked up the tall beaver hat. “I see. Have I your permission to engage in the—ah— ordinary practice of my profession in Oldport?”
“You have,” granted Sumter curtly. “But no humbug, you understand? Sell your pills and powders as you like, but damme, no humbug! Kinepock indeed!”
SO THE siege began, with the cold deepening, and the snow, and every man afraid of his neighbor, and the dreadful thing spreading . . . spreading . . . Early in January Major Blount, Sumter’s old comrade-in-arms, rode down from his house at the Falls with a grim face.
“Sumter, I want the inoculation for me and my family.”
“Not you, Blount! What? You’ve too much common sense.”
“I’m determined on it.”
“And if the magistrates say no?”
“They can say and be damned. Call it mutiny if ye like.”
Sumter sighed. “Well, old friend, if you persist in this folly—very well! But you’ll have to remove your family to the town pesthouse, or build one for yourself clear of the settlement.”
“I’ll do that,” Blount said, and rode off, a sturdy determined figure.
The pesthouse filled, and the overseers of the poor built another one, of logs like the first, far up the river bank. And that filled too. And the graveyard grew and grew, and the terror with it.
Late in January Catharine Larrabee, youngest of Sumter’s daughters, complained of pains in her head and back, and fits of shivering and fever, and a sinking in the stomach. Three days later the ominous spots appeared, and Sumter despatched Black Philip for Doctor Bartelo. That sardonic man confirmed all Sumter’s fears.
“And shall I remove her to the pesthouse, sir? A fine place, that, with jolly company, and the wind whistling “Down Among the Dead Men” through the logs . . .”
“Enough! I’ll declare this house a pestnouse. We’re secluded here above the town and in the edge of the woods.”
“And what about your family?”
Sumter swallowed his misgivings with his pride. “We’ll have the inoculation, sir.”
“And why can’t other citizens be inoculated in their homes?”
“They shall. I’ll make one regulation—every house infected, whether by inoculation or the disease itself, must hang out a white flag of some kind. Those who wish to avoid disease must have some way of knowing the—um—sheep from the goats.”
Bartelo nodded. There was no triumph in his sallow face but he thrust a finger at the tall flagstaff before Larrabee House. “You can make a beginning there, sir!”
Five minutes later a tablecloth fluttered from the staff, and Sumter regarded it sourly. It reminded him of Yorktown and the end of a world.
A few days later the whole family assembled in the long parlor: Sumter, 19-year-old Allan, the daughters, Priscilla and Flora, and three negro servants—Hagar, Black Philip and the houseboy Juba. They were all very tense, and the blacks were afraid. Doctor Bartelo laid his apparatus on the table: a small
gleaming stiletto, a bowl of water, a small heap of clean rags and— the object of all eyes a handkerchief in which the infected threads were wrapped. Sumter, as became the head of the house, stepped up first; and late that night, alone at his desk, he recorded the affair in his cherished diary:
“Feb. 3, 1801. Dr. Bartek) performed the inoculation this day. He made a Slitt in my left hand between the Fore Finger & Thum, not in the loose Skin but in the Hand, & then laid an Infected Thread about three eights of an inch in Length into the Slitt. This he covered with a square of Kagg doubled & then a bandage to keep the whole in Place. He then dipt the Knife in water and proceeded to my son Allan & the others. We are to drink Water with Cream of Tartar & keep Well Wrapped but we may Take the Air and Exercize each afternoon ahorseback on the road to Topsail Point. My poor girl Cathy is very sick. She has the Confluent kind, her dear face Terrible to See, and . . There was a sound in the doorway behind him.
“Your daughter Catherine . . .” Bartelo said.
“I’m sorry to say, sir, she is . . .”
“She died two minutes ago.”
ALLAN and Black Philip hammered together a coffin of pine boards in the big echoing barn, and on the following day, with the coffin resting on boards laid across the seats of the riding sleigh, they started for the burying ground. Black Philip drove slowly, the family walking in the snow behind, Sumter first, tall and alone in his old thrice-cocked hat and his blue cavalry cloak, then Allan with Flora on his arm, and finally Priscilla with the neighbor Mr. Handiside.
As they descended into the town, diseased faces, or faces merely pale and fearful, appeared at apertures rubbed in frosty window-panes. Some friends came out to join the little procession but Sumter waved them
oil'. In the burial ground the gravediggers had built great fires to thaw the ground. All about were new mounds, some already under snow, some still showing yellow earth in the queer sooty snow craters; and beyond they could see fresh stumps and littered branches where the sheriff’s men had been clearing new ground. There was something very dreadful about that.
The dignity of Catherine’s burial was marred by old Deborah Tupps, the witch, as the mourners turned away from the grave at last. She stood at the edge of the road in her soiled black skirts and her castoff army coat, with a shawl about her head, and malice in her sharp old eyes. “Ah,” cried Debby, “so the high-and-mighty Larrabees die just like common folks!”
Sumter and Allan passed on and ignored her, and Priscilla drew her skirts aside. But Flora spoke, “Just as you must some day, Debby, and God pity you.” They went on, and the wir.ch cried after them, “There goes Flora Larrabee, proud Flora, wedded but not bedded. ’Fell us! Tell us all, Flora Larrabee be you maid, wife or widow?” The cackle of her laughter rang in the silent street.
Colonel Larrabee dropped back and took Flora’s arm, and so they walked in silence through the peering town and up the west road to Larrabee House.
In the long parlor Sumter faced his daughter and laid his hands gently on her shoulders. “God forbid there be any more bitterness between you and me, my dear. Do you still love that adventurer I sent away?”
Flora nodded and the tears shone. He turned away, frowning. There had been no word from his privateers in the southern seas. When he sent Aquila Denby to the Indies he had hoped to learn that he had died of yellow fever or the bite of a cutlass.
Cathy’s death had shaken him. And the long and fearful monotony of that queer invisible siege had eaten his fierce old soul. Manlike he wanted action now, something sudden and violent, a riot, in the lower town, an earthquake, anything! He looked out of the north window. A man was running up the hill from the town. It was Joel Parks, a lazy man. The sun was getting warm in the clear noons now and the slush flew under Joel’s feet. Trouble! Some new wrangle about the inoculation probably. Or someone dying, with a last-minute will to be written.
Sumter walked toward the door. He was halfway down the hall when Joel burst in without the civility of a knock. The fat man’s eyes were popping. “A furrin ship, sir! Anchored in Ballast Cove! Fired a gun and put off a boat toward Tops’I Point!”
Colonel Larrabee sprang to the wall and took down the belt and the old sabre he had swung so heartily for his king in Carolina, at the same time roaring up the stair for Allan. “French !” Sumter snapped as they ran for the horses. “Bony’s up to something, depend on’t!” Since Napoleon acquired Louisiana the previous year Sumter had envisioned all sorts of dark French schemes for the recovery of the West Indies and Canada.
The meetinghouse bell was already ringing the alarm, and they found a knot of men and boys gathered in the lane beside the King’s Store that fateful shed where Parson Oliphant had married Flora Larrabee to Aquila Denby just four months before. Sumter unlocked the door in a great hurry, and he and Allan and Sheriff Mahon passed out the militia equipment muskets, bayonets, cartridge boxes, belts, flints. It was a sorry muster, thirty old men and boys. Major Blount came dashing up in a sleigh. “Heard the bell clear to the Falls. What’s up?”
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Blount whistled. “Begad, they’ve caught us nicely, sir—half the men away in the privateers and the rest sick o’ the pox.”
“We’ll give ’em a fight for it,” Sumter snapped. He ran his fierce old eyes over their faces. Not a few were just recovered from the disease, and the healing scabs on their lean pocked faces gave them a look of ferocity that pleased him.
He tramped at their head along the road to the battery, smiling grimly at the shuffle in the snow behind. They couldn’t march in step, and they looked like a walking charnel house, but they could shoot better than regulars, aye, and fight better, come to that, afloat or ashore. A rough school, this Nova Scotia.
They tramped swiftly through the town to the low point commanding the harbor bar. The battery was a low rampart of logs and earth, with embrasures for three long eighteens, which now stood naked and forlorn in the snow. Behind them rose the blockhouse, a small two-story thing of squared pine logs, with the white infection flag flying from the staff. The place was kept by an old Loyalist soldier and his wife. The townsfolk called him Mad Ben, for he had got a ball in the head at Catawba Ford, and when in drink he paraded the main street, singing the marching songs of Tarleton’s Legion and daring imaginary hosts of rebels to come out and fight.
Sumter went inside. Ben lay delirious on a cot, and his wife, a gaunt and gloomy woman, stood there like a ghost in petticoats. He was far gone with the smallpox. The Colonel and Blount climbed through the trap door into the upper chamber, a bleak place with the northwest wind thrusting through the loopholes. From one of these they surveyed the mysterious invader lying off the point.
“Ice along her larboard side,” Sumter muttered. “The wind’s offshore—she’s come from the south’ard then. Lateen rig. Urn. A Spanishlooking thing. Are we at war with Spain again? She flies no flag.”
“She’s armed,” Blount observed. “The sun glints on the cannon as she rolls. But I see no men about her deck.” “They’re hidden, depend on’t, Major. There’s some deep game afoot. ”
They tramped out to examine the guns in the drifted snow.
“Damme!” Sumter cried, dismayed. “Some rascals of boys have been playing here! See, the tampions are out!” Out they were, with snow in the barrels and a dribble of ice in their mouths. Barnabas Tolley, the old privateer gunner, thrust a sponge rod in and out. The snow came with it but the ice clung.
“As good as spiked, sir. Dassent fire ’em wi’ that ice inside. They’d bust. We got to thawr ’em out wi’ hot sponges fust.”
“Then,” roared Sumter, “heat your sponges at the woman’s fire, and quick about it! Who saw the boat put off from the ship? You, boy, there?”
“Aye, sir, they manned a boat,” declared the boy, 16 and full of importance. The militia musket stood as high as his head. “Half a dozen of ’em, wi’ guns and cutlasses. They landed yonder— ” he pointed to the far side of Ballast Cove, where the pine woods came down to the shore.
“Reconnoitring,” Blount said. “They will strike the Topsail road, likely.” They all looked at Sumter then, knowing well how Larrabee House stood lonely in the edge of the woods beside the Topsail road.
Sumter was torn. Duty urged him to hold his garrison together in the battery. His fighting instinct, leaping hot and eager as if the old war had been yesterday, urged him to take a few marksmen and ambush the foreigners somewhere in the woods. Blount read his mind. “You take a party, Colonel. Fll hold the battery with the rest. Yon fellow’s riding to his bower anchors; he’ll have to get springs on his cables before his guns’ll bear. By that time we’ll have the guns thawed.”
Sumter set off at once with Allan and half a dozen men of his choice, trotting back along the way they had come. The alarm bell was still ringing but the town looked peaceful enough in the cold sunshine with its flutter of white flags. At the town pump they met a quaint reinforcement—Major Blount’s wife, her wide skirts dabbling in the snow, a musket on her shoulder, a man’s hat on her grey head, and at her heels a dozen Indians from the Falls.
“James told me to roüse out the Micmacs,” she said calmly. “These are all I could find—the rest are off hunting. I sent a squaw after ’em.” “Good!” Sumter said. “Will these fight?”
“They want powder.”
“Ha! They always do! Well, we’ll get some at my house. Forward!”
AT LARRABEE HOUSE the motley L troop halted in the snow while Flora and Priscilla filled the Indians’ powder horns from the keg in the gun room. And while this was in progress a man came up the road from town, It was Doctor Bartelo, with his beaver hat, his satchel and his shrewd sardonic eyes.
“Well met!” cried Sumter with fierce pleasure. He had doffed 20 years, like an old hat. “There’ll be some patching to do, my friend, before this day’s work is done.”
“There’ll be some nursing afterward,” Bartelo said coolly, “if these poor savages aren’t to die of the pox, one and all. Why have you brought them out of the clean woods into all this infection?”
“A matter of necessity,” stiffly. “The defense of the town, no less.”
“Bah! All ye think about is powder and shot! That’s the worst of a military mind, Colonel Larrabee. Look!” He pointed down the hill to the straggling town with its flutter of white rags. “There’s your defense, sir! Cry ‘Smallpox!’ and ye’d frighten Bony himself. Begad, I’ll do it myself. Let me go up the road.”
Sumter checked a violent retort. Smallpox! This pill grinder had a notion there! And, by Jove, how simple!
“I’ve sent a few scouts up the road,” he began. But now came a shout from the woods, a challenge, and then a shot. One of the Indians came trotting into sight. He pointed where the road disappeared into the woods. “ AglaseaooV'
“English?” Mrs. Blount cried. “ Kul-oos-koo-ok-un!” (Whatnonsense!) “AglaseaooV’ the Indian insisted. There was an outburst of loud voices in the direction of the woods.
“Into the bushes, lads!” Sumter commanded. “Don’t fire, mind, till I give the word.”
Allan Larrabee appeared, walking easily, musket trailed, with half a dozen strangers in check shirts and duck trousers and a variety of jackets and mufflers. Two wore tarpaulin hats, the rest were in red flannel nightcaps of the sort worn by fishermen. Cutlasses dangled at their belts and they carried a musket each. Their hands were curiously covered against the cold with a pair of wool stockings, and holes cut for the thumb and trigger finger.
Sumter walked up the road toward
them, mystified, and as his little Army emerged from ambush the two groups halted and surveyed each other in mutual astonishment. From the group of seamen stepped a tall young man with a keen bronzed face.
“We meet again, Colonel Larrabee,” Aquila Denby said.
“What’s the meaning of this?” snapped Sumter furiously.
“Well, to begin with it means I’m prize master of the San Cristo del Graz, taken by your privateer Nymph in the Mona Passage two weeks back. I’ve anchored her in Ballast Cove.”
“So I’ve seen—and a devilish scare she’s given the town! Why didn’t you signal? What are you doing here, all armed like this, eh? Come, sir, let’s have it!”
Aquila Denby gave him a gaunt brown grin. “Faith, sir, we fired a gun and got no answer from the battery. We had to wait the tide to get over the bar. Then we noticed a white flag on the blockhouse. More than that we could see from the masthead white flags flying all over the town. That took us aback, I tell you! We’d spoken a Yankee schooner off the Virginia Capes and heard that Bony’s fleet had crossed the sea. So . . . well . . . we reckoned the town was taken.”
“And so,” Colonel Larrabee snorted, “you landed your paltry half dozen to take it back ! Denby, you’re a fool.” The brown young man thrust out his chin. “I’m no more fool than you, sir, if ye thought 1 was Bonaparte and reckoned to stand me off with those. What’s happened to their faces? They look like the beggars in Havana.”
Doctor Bartelo spoke. “We’ve had a siege right enough—a siege of smallpox. Each of those white rags means a house infected. Go back to your ship and stay there.”
“Not till I’ve seen my wife,” Aquila said, looking at Colonel Larrabee. “Besides I had the smallpox when 1 was a boy.”
FLORA came running down the snow path from the house, head bare and skirts flying.
“Aquila! Oh, my dear . . .” She checked herself just short of him, frightened. “The smallpox! Aquila! We’ve all had little threads put in our hands . . .. and it’s so infectious . . . and Cathy’s dead . . . oh, Aquila!” He dropped his musket in the snow and threw his arms about her. The seamen and Sumter’s Army stood about them, puzzled and embarrassed. Mrs. Blount had tears in her eyes, knowing the tale of that sudden marriage four months ago and the forced separation, and looking at Sumter’s stern face.
“Humph!” the Colonel uttered at last. “You’d best be getting your prize over the bar and up to my wharf, Denby. The tide must be making now. She’s a queer-looking thing.”
“Aye, sir, andas queer as she looks. A xebec or polacca, I don’t know which lateen-rigged on the fore and mizzen and square-rigged on the main. A very unhandy rig for these waters. She missed stays twice, tacking up the bay, and pretty nigh put us ashore. But she’s a stout thing, I tell you, built of some wood that grows on the Spanish Main, hard as iron. Sails like a witch—
reeling off the knots when there’s hardly breath enough to fill the canvas. Give her a decent rigging and she’ll make a fine privateer. And if you want a captain . . .”
“Umph! What’s she got?”
“Cocoa mostly. You’ll have to take it out pretty smart or it’ll spoil—got hot, somehow, on the way north. 1 went to look at it this morning and the fore scuttle smoked like a chimney.” “Anything else?”
“Some dyewood—not much—and 20 seroons of indigo and a thousand dollars Spanish silver. She’s fair prize, I reckon. The master claimed she was Spanish and neutral, and in these times you never know whether you’re fighting the Spanish or not; but she was bound for Martinico, which is French enough, and makes her contraband.” “Ah! But have ye got a davy-man, Denby? Vice-admiralty courts are deuced Strict. We must have a prisoner to go davy she was bound for Martinico.”
Aquila Denby stroked his wife’s soft hair. “I thought of all that, sir. I’ve got a Spaniard for davy-man—speaks a little English, enough to serve the turn. I put the others ashore on the coast of Hispaniola.” He jerked his thumb at a small dark man among his seamen, shivering in the unaccustomed cold. “That’s him.”
“What! With a musket in his hands?” Sumter roared.
“Why not? I told him he’d got to fight for us like seven devils if he ever wanted to see La Cuayra again. I’d only five of a crew. Had a brush with a French privateer off Cabo Engano and lost a man—young Medad Burney from the Falls, a good lad.”
“You’re thin,” Flora said, her voice muffled in his shoulder.
He laughed. “We’ve eaten nothing but salt beef and tortillas since we left the Nymph in Mona Passage, my dear.”
“And worked, I venture,” Sumter said grimly. *
“Aye, sir. Two thousand miles in a thing that luffed like a cheesebox, in the winter season, and six of a crew. I reefed and hauled wi’ the rest, an’ stood my trick at the tiller, and did the navigating besides. I’ve earned the command o’ her, if I may be so bold.” You’re bold enough, Sumter thought wryly. Well ... a tight jaw and a bold eye . . . and a stout heart . . . no mean things, those, in a master . . . or a son-in-law, say . . . He put a dour face on it. “Very well; captain . . . Captain Denby.”
Flora turned rapturously, and her arms flew about her father’s neck.
“Let me go, girl, ánd stop your nonsense!” uttered the Colonel testily. “Get into the house out of the cold, and make your chamber ready for your husband when he’s got his ship in.”
She kissed him, nonetheless, and then Aquila, and fled into the house.
“All this fiddle-faddle over nothing!” Sumter growled. His impatient eyes caught sight of the flagstaff. He strode to it fiercely, threw the halliards off the cleat, hauled down the tattered tablecloth and cast it on the snow.
“Allan,” he roared, “fetch you the flag of our country. I’ll have no more of this white rag over my house!”