THE NIGHT BEFORE WATERLOO
It took a Canadian sand bar and the Battle of Waterloo to bring Sylvia and her Johnny back as lovers to Lucifee Creek
Theodore Goodridge Roberts
THE NIGHT of June 17, 1815, was unseasonably hot and airless over inland areas of the Province of New Brunswick, including Godfrey Manor and Dragoon Ridge and the whole winding valley of Lucifee Creek. It failed, however, to diminish the zest with which the guests of the Godfreys pursued the pleasures of the dance. When the grand Godfreys entertained there was no skimping of anything, and all was of the best. The four fiddlers were the finest within 100 miles, and performed in pairs, two ot them horsehairing the catgut while the other two retuned their instruments and recruited their strength from a brown jug.
Mrs. Godfrey quit, but Major Godfrey kept the floor, sashaying and cutting pigeonwings like any white-water boy despite his 70 years and the wounds he had taken more than 30 years since. Mrs. Godfrey sat down and looked on. She had stepped the first number with her husband, (In' second with their only son, Gerhardus, and the third with Mr. Caleb Cram, who had been her husband’s squadron-sergeant-major when the world was younger. . Now her elaborate coiffure was tiptilted and her complexion was slipping and she had lost a yard of fine lace from a petticoat, but she was still the perfect lady. Quality, like murder, will out: and Mrs. Godfrey of Lucifee Creek had "been born a Ludlow of Long Island.
“1 fear Mrs. Gerhardus may lose a petticoat,” she said.
“She’ll not miss it a night like this, ma’m,” said the ex-squadron-sergeant-major gravely.
“I t hink they are all enjoying themselves.”
“Ye kin be sure of that, ma’m.”
“Sylvia Spence as much as anyone, I think.”
“Yes. ma’m. And Mister Johnny’s doing the same, I dassav, wherever he may be. They’re young, ma’m.”
“She’s 18. She was younger only 14.....when
my grandson went away. Fourteen and 17. Too young for vows of constancy, Í fear. Mr. Cram.”
“Under the sarcumstances, yes, ma’m. Four years is a long time of separation at that age, ma’m.”
“I fear so. mv friend. The dear child is a raving beauty now.”
“Yes, ma’m. An ye kin bet a dollar young Johnny Godfrey is as handsome an’ brave an’ dashing an
officer as any in His Majesty’s Army, ma’m, an’ a credit to his family an’ his friends.”
“Thank you, Caleb Cram. Now tell me what you know of Sylvia’s cavalier of this evening.”
“He’s a MacLaren from the Queen’s Rangers Grants on the main river up above the Nackawick stream, ma’m. Or so he sez—but he looks an’ sounds something like a furriner to me. An’ that’s all I know of him, ma’m.”
“And you don’t like him?”
“Ye said it, Mistress Godfrey. But don’t ask why, for 1 don’t know, ma’m.”
Major Godfrey joined them, remarking that he was not as young as he used to be. Both his wife and his ex-squadron-sergeant-major eyed him with fond and anxious enquiry.
“Is it the slug in yer nigh hip, sir, or the slash ye got at Benton’s Mill?” asked Mr. Cram.
“It’s neither, me lad nor the buckshot in me neck I picked up at Swampy Ford. It’s nothing like that. It’s mental. I can’t keep Johnny out of my head.” “I wish he was here instead of frittering away his time in English garrisons,” said the lady. ’
“But he’s maybe in the field by now, ma’m, with that thar Bonaparty loose again,” suggested Mr. Cram.
“Even so, Johnny’s duty is here on Dragoon Ridge,” said the lady. “General Bonaparte may need looking after, but so does Sylvia Spence.”
“I’ll look after Sylvia, dear heart,” said the major. He took his lady to the house and then hastened back to the dance, which was still swinging with undiminished vigor. He found Sylvia and the young man from the Queen’s Rangers Grants together, though not dancing at the moment. He bowed before them, and got a curtsy in return from the lovely girl, but only a stare from her companion. He smiled his tenderest at her and stared back at her partner.
“I used to know a Captain MacLaren of the Rangers, but it’s years since I saw him,” he said politely. “His name was Angus, if my memory serves, and he had red whiskers. It’s difficult keeping in touch with people in this wilderness.”
“Captain Angus MacLaren of the Queen’s Rangers an’ before that of Fox Hill Hall in Virginy was my grandfather, and whatever color his whiskers were was his own business,” said the young man.
Old Major Godfrey winced, blinked, cocked and uncocked his eyebrows, went
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white on either side of his high nose and then controlled himself with obvious effort.
“And quite rightly so, Mr. MacLaren,” he said, with a stiff little bow.
Then, all smiles again, he turned to Sylvia and requested the pleasure and honor of the next dance. But instead of dancing they strolled in the breathless dark, back and forth between the big barn and the house.
“He — ah — asserts himself, that young man,” said the major gently.
“Yes, sir, but—but I’m sure he did not mean to be rude,” murmured Sylvia.
“A gentleman’s only excuse for a rudeness is the intention, my dear,” said the old dragoon.
Sylvia puzzled over that in silence.
“The young man suggests something more than native Highland swagger and a backwoods upbringing to me,” he went on. “The suggestion is in his voice, his speech, as well as in his appearance and manner. Something foreign, I think.”
“Oh, yes, sir, he’s a sailor,” she whispered, eagerly. “He left his home 13 years ago and has been back only once before this time. And he talks Spanish and Portuguese and French. And he’s a captain now, in the West Indies trade—and his ship is armed like a sloop o’ war because of pirates and French privateers. You couldn’t expect him to be like—to be very modest, sir, could you? And he has a great house and a sugar plantation at Barbados. And he’s not just a boy, sir. He’s 30 years old.”
“Thirty years old!” exclaimed Major Godfrey. “D’ye tell me so, my pretty? Not a mere boy, like poor Johnny.”
“Oh, no, sir!” she exclaimed. “Poor dear Johnny! He’d never been anywhere, had he? But I don’t remember
him very clearly, no matter how hard I try—except when I’m asleep.”
“You dream of him, my dear?” queried the major.
“Oh, yes, sir, almost every night— but when I wake up I can’t remember what it was about, nor even what he looked like. I try and try to remember Johnny and my dreams—but they slip away too quick for me.”
The major halted and faced her in the sultry dark and took her moist hands in his dry ones.
“To try vainly to remember a dream—ah, yes, dear girl, that’s a pity,” he said. “But to try vainly to forget a reality? Pray God you may never know the necessity of that, my dear!”
CAPTAIN Angus MacLaren (named after his Queen’s Ranger grandfather) had a canoe on Lucifee Creek and a little sloop off the head of Haystack Island on the main river, and a brig awaiting him in the Bay of Fundy. After the Godfreys’ grand barn dance, by the level rays of the sunrise of June 18, 1815, he launched his canoe and slipped away downstream. The major and Mr. Gerhardus and others saw him depart.
“He will return at his peril,” murmured the major.
But only Sylvia Spence knew of his return 17 hours later. For three successive nights he came and went like a thief in the dark; and on the third he did not go away alone, but took what he wanted with him, silently, down the bank through sleepy alders and willows and downstream in the silent canoe.
It was past six when Mrs. Spence went to Sylvia’s room and found an empty bed and thought nothing more of it than that the energetic girl was having her morning swim. She did not begin to worry until after seven; and then a quick investigation disclosed the absence of most of Sylvia’s apparel, her best bonnet, a little horsehide trunk
and a fine bandbox. Then a commotion arose in and around the Spence homestead and spread over the settlement on expanding circles of excitement. The Godfreys of Godfrey Manor received the shock at 8.40, when only the major and his Loveday remained at the breakfast table; and Peter Godfrey leaped from his chair and swore hot and high. He had never quit his saddle with more alacrity in his days of dragooning.
“That demned pirate! Blast me for a blighted blind old fool! An’ right under my nose, dammit!”
He upset a cup of tea, hurled his napkin to the floor and shook both fists in the air; and then, of a sudden, he remembered his manners, bowed ceremoniously to his lady and changed his time.
“If you’ll excuse me, my dear—and my language an’ so on—I’ll be getting along on his trail, my sweet.”
He turned and dashed from the room without waiting for her answer.
Four canoes, well manned and armed, went surging down Lucifee Creek into the main river, and then eastward with that strong current, in no time at all— but just about 11 hours too late.
Sylvia and her bandbox and little trunk were transferred from canoe to sloop before dawn. The night’s dew on the teakwood rail of the sloop felt strangely cold on her hands as she went aboard.. It struck a chill to her heart, and she shivered. Angus put an arm around her, but she shivered again and began to weep quietly. Angus issued low, harsh words of command; and the light anchor came in and the big sail flapped up. The boom swung, and Angus dragged the girl down roughly to avoid it, and swore and kissed her roughly. He felt her tears on his lips and swore again.
“What the devil are you crying about?”
He scrambled aft to the tiller, pulling her with him, none too gently.
“There’s nothing to weep about, my pretty,” he soothed her, in a quick change of voice.
But his mind was on sheet and tiller and shadowy crew—on everything but his heart’s treasure, at the moment. Oaths and orders rasped and snarled from him. Four sweeps were shipped and the little sloop outraced the four-knot current.
When dawn lifted Sylvia saw that the four men at the oars had pistols and knives in their belts and sashes and rings in their ears. Three of them were elaborately tattooed on breast and arms. The fourth was a Negro.
A breeze fanned from the wesf at sunrise, the oars were laid inboard and the sail filled. The sky was blue and the sun shone warm, but the chill remained in the girl’s heart. She was afraid. The evil faces and furtive glances of the seamen frightened her. Her lover’s hard hand on her shoulder frightened her. Back on Lucifee Creek his hands had not felt hard . . .
Toward noon she told him that Sisson’s Ferry and old Parson Prime were just below the next bend. He pinched her shoulder and nodded and smiled. The sloop was going like a race horse. She boiled around the bend, lifting to her ballooning jib like a horse to a fence—and there, sure enough, were the ferryhouse and the parsonage and the little church behind the big Acadian willows. But the sloop raced onward.
Sylvia cried. “Here it is! Sisson’s Ferry. Stop! Stop!”
He smiled at her; and now his lips and eyes were as hard as his hands. He spoke, and his voice was strange and terrible.
“Pipe down, my pretty! There’re plenty of parsons at Saint John.”
She sprang to her feet, and her desperate eyes disclosed her intention to scream. Without releasing the tiller from his left hand he reached up and clapped his right on her mouth. His fingers and thumb clamped and crushed into her cheeks; and with that hold only he drew her down to his side again and held her there until Sisson’s Ferry was passed. When he released that cruel grip she slumped and hid her bruised face in her hands. She tasted blood from her cut lips, salty on her tongue.
But Angus was singing a different tune by then. He begged her forgiveness. Aye, and God Almighty’s too. But he was mad with fear and anxiety for her. He could cut off his right hand for hurting his precious, his adorable, his own incomparable sweeting—but his love and fear had made a momentary beast of him.
Fear of the pursuit. They might be only a few miles astern, hidden by bends in the river—her father and brothers, that old devil Peter Godfrey, who had been his enemy on sight, all those bitter old King’s Dragoons and their jealous sons and grandsons and every Indian on Lucifee Creek. He dared not stop a minute. Those canoes, with four paddles each, would make two knots to his one . . . She knew better than that; and she knew, without looking at him, that he knew better. Now she knew him for a liar, tongue and heart, body and soul.
Sylvia was still crouched with her face in her hands, and MacLaren was still trying to whisper and pat himself back into her good graces, when the racing sloop snubbed on a sand bar. They were hurled forward and flat from the stern sheets. The mast was snapped short off and flailed over the bows, and the great sail along with it and the crew under the sail.
The girl opened her eyes and found Angus beside her. He lay curiously sprawled with his head close to a fluke of the little anchor. There was blood on his head and on the iron too. She took his pistols from his belt and stepped over the low, shoreward rail into the shallow water.
After wading a few yards she turned her head and saw one of the sailors struggle clear of the enveloping sail and come splashing after her. She turned squarely and presented the long pistols. He checked and shouted. She pressed a trigger. The hammer fell and a spark fell—and that was all. The sailor hooted and came splashing onward.
He was within two plunges of her, his tattooed arms extended and his big hands wide-fingered to clutch her, when she pressed the trigger of the second pistol. She shut her eyes at the flash of it and loosed her hold at the recoil.
She opened her eyes in a moment. The sailor was on his hands and knees in the shallow water, almost at her feet, lurching and struggling feebly to raise himself. But he could not raise so much as his face clear of the water. She saw a red stain spreading. Then she turned, drew skirts and petticoats high in both hands and ran.
SYLVIA ran through tangles of water willow and alder. She scrambled up a bushy bank and ran among cedars and spruces and beneath great pines and hemlocks. When she fell she lay right there for minutes on the soft mat of pine needles. Then she took off her wet skirt and petticoats and slippers and stockings and rolled all into a tight bundle. Now she ran with the bundle under an arm and fragments of hateful visions flashing on her mind. She saw Angus reaching up to clamp bruising fingers on her face, and his smile that was a grin of derision;
and his body sprawled grotesquely and his bloody, unknowing head; and the pursuing sailor, splashing to seize her in his blue-stained arms and squeeze her to his blue and hairy breast; then lurching helplessly on hands and knees, in the bright and shallow water, face down, drowning at her feet and staining the river with his red life ...
She ran until she fell again. Presently, hearing nothing of pursuit, she slowed her desperate pace and peered out from the underbrush at the peaceful surface of the river. She lay beside an ice-cold spring a long time, laving bruised cheeks and cut lips. An illusion of love had blinded her and broken her heart, and now tears blinded her so that she made a misstep, turned an ankle and fell and gashed a knee. Then she wept with pain and fatigue and shame and thought it was all for love. It was a weary way to the next cold spring, where she bathed knee and ankle and bound each with a silk stocking.
Hours later the girl looked out through tears and spruce boughs and saw the canoes. They were coming downstream—four of them strung out over a half mile but all still at full speed. She wiped her eyes and put on her sodden petticoats and skirt. Now she felt more of shame than of grief, and fatigue and the pain in her ankle more than the void in her heart.
The leading canoe came abreast of her, with her father toiling furiously in the bow and Five-Blanket Sacobie, Malecite chief and champion, churning the water aft in championship style. She let it pass. The second canoe, paddled by her elder brothers, came abreast of her hiding place; and she let it pass also. The third, in which stout old Ex-Squadron-Sergeant-Major Cram and Chief Sacobie’s son Gabe plied urgent paddles, came boiling up; and it,, too, was allowed to pass unhailed.
The fourth and last canoe was manned by Major Godfrey and Mr. Gerhardus Godfrey; and the cause of its being last was so apparent to Sylvia that she forgot her shame and pains for a moment and smiled. The vain old major was in the stern, the place of weight and strength and responsibility, though he was lighter than his son by 40 lb. and of much less strength and of no more skill. When it came abreast of her, she disclosed herself and called out in a guarded voice:
“Major! Major Godfrey. It’s Sylvia. Here I am. Sylvia Spence. Here I am!”
Could the major be getting just a mite thick of ear? But not so Gerhardus, who heard and looked up and saw her at the top of the bank. He turned his head and spoke; and the canoe checked and jerked to the right and ran aground on mud.
Gerhardus was the first ashore, but his father led the way up the bushy bank. This was not because the major was the faster runner, but because Gerhardus had been well brought up. The major clasped her tenderly to his chest.
“What’s all this?” he puffed. “What happened, my dear? Bruises! Good Lord! And blood! What the devil?”
Weeping on his shoulder, she answered between sobs.
“I got away when the sloop hit a sand bar. I’d have escaped before— if I could. He’s a liar. And I shot a man who ran after me. A sailor. And I ran in the wqods, and fell down and hurt myself.”
“There, there, my sweet,” he soothed her. “Never mind that now. It’ll keep. You’re safe now. We’ll take you home now.”
He lifted her in his arms and held her like a baby— but for all his vanity and
stout heart he could not make it look quite effortless.
“Hadn’t I better carry her, sir?” suggested his son.
“No, you hadn’t!” retorted the major. “Don’t forget yourself, my boy. If you were Johnny now I might hand her over to you—but you ain’t, so I’m carrying her. Lead the way, my boy. Hold the bushes back so they won’t touch her foot.”
They descended the bank without accident and Sylvia was set down gently in the canoe.
“As you had the hard end coming down, sir, what about me taking it now that we’re not in such a hurry?” suggested 42-year-old Gerhardus.
The major agreed to that. They embarked. Gerhardus, standing astraddle the afterbar with a long pole in his hands now instead of a paddle, backed the canoe around and began sliding her upstream, close inshore. A good man, heart ánd head, was Gerhardus, though less lively and spectacular than the major. Now he felt deeply thankful for the rescue of Sylvia, but he was not quite easy in his mind concerning the other members of the pursuit.
“I wonder how far they’ll go before they know enough to turn back— and how they’ll ever know that?” he said.
The old man laughed at him and smiled at the girl.
“We’ve got what we came after, so why worry?, It’s not our fault that they worked so hard to pass us they couldn’t see or hear!”
Then the girl sat up and spoke brokenly.
“That was my fault. I let them pass on purpose. I knew my father would think the worst of me—and so will Mama and Dick’s wife. So I waited for you—because you two won’t think anything worse than that I’m a fool. I was a fool. But I came to my senses.”
NEWS reached Lucifee Creek late in July of the great battle and victory which had been fought and won at or near a place named Waterloo on the 18th and 19th days of June. Next, word came that John Ludlow Godfrey’s regiment had been in the battle. A letter from Johnny arrived along in August:
“Dear Mama and Grandmama: We were at the Battle which cooked Bonaparte's goose, of which you must have heard before now. We took a pounding but did not break. The Duke said,
‘Thank you, Gentlemen, there is worse to come.' I was wounded and promoted captain. I hope to start for home soon. Your loving Johnny."
Captain John Ludlow Godfrey arrived at Godfrey Manor on Lucifee Creek in the first week of October, with a limp and on half pay. He looked larger and older than when last seen in these parts—which he was, too, by three inches and 20 lb. and four years. He looked even older than his respectable age of 21, but in good health. Word of his return and his rank and his limp spread swiftly; and by the end of his first full day at home just about everyone on the Creek and the Ridge had called to shake his hand and admire him. Just about, but not quite, everyone. Not Sylvia, for instance—nor, for that matter, any member of the Spence family. Johnny fretted, but kept the questions and fears of an anxious heart and an uneasy conscience from his lips. It was right after supper, and the family was still at table, when he asked suddenly, but with a casual air and of nobody in particular, “Has anything happened to the Spences?”
The four of them, his parents and grandparents, exchanged curious and embarrassed glances. Then three
of them concentrated their glances on the head of the family. The old major squared his thin shoulders and glared at Johnny.
“No!” he barked. “But since you ask, I’ll tell you this, my boy. The Spences are fools! All of them except Sylvia ! One of her fingers is worth more than all the rest of them rolled together, the wrongheaded, wronghearted, psalm-singing—ah—fish! Ye’d think she’d disgraced them. Them! Bah! Every one of them’s a disgrace to her, and to our whole community. But I’ll tell you what happened.”
Johnny listened with growing excitement and a wild confusion of emotions; and at the conclusion of that story he spoke up fast and high and told one of his own.
“I was all set to elope too. There was a girl in Brussels—English girl— and she was beautiful and I couldn’t recall Sylvia very clearly by that time. And we met again at a ball given by the Duchess of Richmond. That was our third meeting. And we planned to run away and get married after the fourteenth dance. But we were all ordered back to our lines before that. It was marching orders. We marched
to Waterloo before dawn and fought that battle. And I never saw her again. Maybe she heard I was killed. And whenever I was delirious, which was often, before and after they took off my leg, I remembered Sylvia clearly. I knew then that Emily—that it wasn’t Emily, but only too much excitement and champagne at the Duchess’ grand ball. Not that she wasn’t beautiful, mark you! But—well, I was glad our orders had come before the fourteenth dance. And now I’m even gladder, now that I know Sylvia isn’t any better— or not much, anyway—than me. And if you will excuse me now, I’ll go and tell her all about it. Or nearly all.”
“And I’ll go with you, just in case some fool tries to keep you out,” said his grandfather.
“Me too, Johnny,” said his father.
The two Godfrey ladies were left to themselves. Mrs. Godfrey smiled tremulously and dabbed at her eyes with a scrap of lace.
“Just think of it, Mary,” she said, brightly. “Ours was not the only dance on the night before the Battle of Waterloo. The Duchess of Richmond had one too. What a small world it is, my dear; and one part very like another.”