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On sworn testimony before God and duly appointed officers of the law, a case was established for murder. The facts as recorded were these. On the second day of March, 1780, one Jane Dearborn and one Lt. Colin Smith were found to be dead in a lower Hudson inn commonly known as the White Swan. The victims, unclothed and locked in a fatal embrace, were said to have been en route from New York City where the lieutenant had served with the King's Dragoons. Their intended destination was not determined nor the nature of their journey. The tragic discovery was made by a certain Thomas Finch, a servant indentured at the inn. Immediately following the discovery the youth was found hysterical beneath a staircase, and only after a restorative of rum was he able to tell this story ...
It had been a Sunday, a dour Sunday with rain and a woodland fog. Since the proprietor, one Samuel Vaughan, had retired to his chambers young Finch had been the first to mark the couple's arrival. A solitary youth of barely sixteen years, it was his habit to pass the afternoons on a window box with a book from his master's shelf. Given his position and the angle of his view, he saw the travelers from quite a long way off. They appeared to be riding in silence with their eyes fixed on the road. Their mounts were clearly exhausted. Their luggage consisted of a beaten portmanteau and a makeshift bundle.
Now given the season and prevailing rumors of the time, at first sight Finch took the travelers to be refugees fleeing from either a British advance or a rebel assault to the south. Then on noting the officer's uniform, he wondered if the pair were not possibly deserters looking for shelter in some neutral cove or inlet. Finally, though, he took them for two more lovers in search of a room to pass the night.
The lieutenant came in first: a tall man in British scarlet. His uniform was damp and soiled from the road. His hair had been bound in a simple knot. After hesitating briefly in the doorway he extended a hand from his cloak. A moment later the woman appeared, also in scarlet.
"Is your master about?" he asked, gray eyes shifting from staircase to doorway.
"About, sir, but indisposed."
"Then perhaps you might fill his station. We are in need of a room." Glancing back to the woman, "And something to eat."
There were three vacant chambers aloft and rather than disturb Mr. Vaughan, Finch led his guests to the far corner room above his own. It was a rude place with three candles on a pewter branch and only feeble light through mullioned windows. The furniture consisted of a narrow truckle bed, two unpadded chairs and a table.
"Should you be requiring a meal from the kitchen, sir, might I suggest—"
"A tray," the lieutenant told him. "A tray from the pantry will be fine."
The woman had still not spoken but her eyes kept meeting the lieutenant's, then falling back to something in the carriage yard below. Finally the lieutenant also went to the window.
"That chaise," he said. "Whom does it belong to?"
"The chaise, sir?"
Tapping a finger to the glass, "Down there."
"Oh, that would be the master Vaughan's, sir."
"And the roan?"
"Also the master's."
Apparently satisfied, he stepped away from the window and took out a coin from his tunic and his eyes seemed to soften. "What do they call you?"
"Thomas Finch, sir."
"Very well, Thomas Finch."
Before shutting the door, a smile may have crossed the woman's face. Her lieutenant, however, had drifted back to the window again.
An hour passed, another dreary Sunday hour. The master had rejoined the household but expressed only a perfunctory interest in the strangers. Like most of the inhabitants along this stretch of the Hudson, Samuel Vaughan had never formally committed himself to either camp in this war. His loyalties were mostly determined by financial considerations, and all that he required of his guests was that they pay in hard currency. As for the rest of the White Swan household, the stranger's presence was hardly even noticed.
It was dusk when Finch returned to the room with a beaten tray from the pantry. Entering, he found the couple seated at the table. A saber had been propped against the wainscot, a pistol laid on the sideboard. Two or three articles of the lady's clothing had been removed from the portmanteau, but the bulk of their luggage had not been touched.
Finch served them in silence: a pint of burnt claret, mutton and peas. Without her cloak and in the candlelight, the woman was more beautiful than the boy had earlier imagined. Her eyes were blue-green. Her hair was very fair. In contrast the lieutenant was a dark man with stony features. Although neither had formally acknowledged Finch's presence they were clearly not purposely ignoring him as was often the habit of passing gentry.
"There's also brandy," Finch said.
The lieutenant shook his head.
"And pudding, although I shouldn't recommend it."
Then suddenly lifting his gaze from the table: "Tell me, Thomas. Are we to be the only guests tonight?"
The woman had also lifted her eyes, waiting for an answer.
"To the best of my knowledge, sir."
"No one from the road?"
"What about the military patrols?"
"I shouldn't expect anyone on a Sunday, sir."
The evening remained contrary with a wind replacing the mist, driving the rain at a furious angle. Normally after retiring to his room Finch spent at least an hour with his books ... although a frugal master, Vaughan at least had never begrudged the boy candlelight. On this particular night, though, Finch could not seem to keep his eyes on the page, nor his mind from straying to the chamber above. Now and again he heard the lieutenant's voice, and envisioned the man in black relief against the gabled window. Then hearing the woman's soft response, he imagined her facing the fire with a shawl about her shoulders. He wondered if there were not some plausible excuse he might use to visit them again; to inquire if they wanted breakfast in the morning or assistance with their baggage. He wondered if there were not some practical way he might help; carry a message to friends or stand guard with the officer's saber. And he wondered what he should do if a third stranger appeared and knocked on their door. They seemed to have been concerned about other possible transients.
Perhaps if Finch had been sleeping soundly he might never have awakened at all ... so soft were the cries against the clattering rain. Then, too, exhausted travelers were often moaning in their sleep, particularly ladies with gentlemen. But after the third or fourth muffled cry he knew that something was amiss. What had previously sounded like the wind was now definitely someone's labored breath.
He climbed the steps slowly, feeling his way. Reaching the landing, he noticed that a window had been left unlatched—a beatable offense. There were also tracks to the doorway.
He hesitated at the door, leaning on the jamb. The only sound was the rain. He thought of retreating and summoning the master, but this was no longer the master's business. Still, he wouldn't have refused the master's flintlock and a firm load of bird shot.
He waited another full minute before knocking—all sound asleep. He knocked again with more conviction—still fast asleep. He tested the knob and watched it slowly turning in his hand. Rather than entering, he let the room draw him in.
The room was very cold. Another window had been left unlatched, and the curtains kept swelling with the breeze. It was also very dark, and at first he could only make out the vague shapes of chairs, bottles on the table and a chamber pot. Then as the curtains slowly parted, filling with the breeze again, he was able to see their faces ... and all the white limbs entangled on the bed.
He vomited twice on the landing, then again at the foot of the stairs. Unable to call out for assistance, he was later found beating on the walls with his fists.
According to the coroner's report, submitted by a Dr. Robert John, the victims had died on receiving a cut to the throat, severing the carotid arteries. Thereafter an incision was made to the abdomen, releasing the organs so that they were laid across the left shoulder. The fingers of the right hand were severed, as was the tongue. In spite of a quantity of arterial blood on the walls and ceiling there was no indication of a struggle. Rather it seemed that the murderer had attacked his victims before they were fully roused from sleep. Also of interest was the small quantity of sand and limestone found deposited in their mouths. Although no weapon was discovered, the wounds had apparently been inflicted with an unusually broad and triangular blade, like nothing to be found among local people.
To complement the coroner's report an artist was employed to produce a sketch of the room and adjoining passages. A party of constables was dispatched along the highway, and inquiries were made of local residents. Apart from Thomas Finch, however, no one of the household had anything of substance to say.
For the most part Finch kept to himself through the days that followed, often wandering for hours among the clustered elms that ringed the valley. On occasion hd was found farther afield, almost to the rebel lines. At first these solitary pursuits were seen as a healthy reaction to what he had witnessed, a purgative of sorts, and even Mr. Vaughan was obliged to allow the boy this time to himself. Yet given the depth of the boy's despair, particularly in response to a certain rumor from the south, it soon became clear that young Finch might never recover his senses from that room.
It seemed the rumor originated in New York, and did not reach the White Swan until late March. Up to this time the prevailing theory concerning those murders was that the officer and his lady had been victims of a cruel triangle, and the killer had probably been some jealous spouse or lover. Then simultaneously from several quarters a new and disturbing story began to circulate throughout the valley.
It held that Smith and Dearborn had been spies, rebel spies employed by General Washington. Their career, such as it was, had begun some three years earlier when the lady caught the lieutenant's eye in then British-held Philadelphia. After convincing the man to betray his natural loyalties and throw in his lot with the rebels, she accompanied him back to New York, where they proceeded to steal the British blind in the service of her cause. Although the story offered no particulars about how these spies were undone, the implication seemed clear enough. Smith and Dearborn had not been murdered—they had been executed at His Majesty's request.
Regardless of how others may have reacted to the tale, it seemed little Thomas Finch was never the same again. To begin with, his day-to-day habits changed. He tended to spend much time on solitary chores: mending fences and flagstones in the yard, chopping wood in the evenings. Then although he continued to ramble afield he now went nowhere without his master's squirrel gun. He also abandoned his books in favor of an old pamphlet on musketry.
Another two weeks passed before the proprietor decided that the boy could no longer be ignored. It was now the middle of April, a full month since the murders. That room at the top of the stairs had been stripped. The bedding had been burned. Although not necessarily a patient man, Vaughan had determined to handle the matter with some delicacy. He had even taken care to choose an appropriate time and location: twilight behind the carriage yard, where Finch was often found brooding after a day in the meadows.
Vaughan began casually, leaning beside the boy on a crumbling wall that ringed a potter's field. "My father was a hunter," he said, "although I never saw the point in it myself."
The boy kept on toying with some polished stone he had collected from the stream. It was an unusually clear day with a view above the dingles to those walnut groves and even beyond to the rebel hills.
"Still, I can't say that I don't enjoy the profit. If you get my meaning."
The boy shrugged. "Only got a hare today."
"A hare, Tommy? A common hare? And all the while I thought it was Redcoats you've been shooting, or Tories at the very least."
A moment passed, the boy appearing spellbound by these formidable hills.
"Listen to me, Tommy. You can't bring them back. What's dead is dead, and those two spies of yours are definitely dead. Best thing now is to put them out of your head. Put them out of your head and let them rest in peace. Do you understand me?"
"And the next time it'll be my birch that does the talking, eh?"
For a while, a day or two, it seemed to Vaughan that the boy was actually beginning to emerge from the shadows that had held him that spring. He gave up the hunt and set himself to regular chores. He also found his appetite again and in the evenings returned to those books he had always cherished.
Then, without warning, he was gone.
He left on a Sunday just after dawn with a makeshift bundle and a squirrel gun. Another hard rain covered his trail, and by the next Friday Vaughan had given up hope of retrieving him. For a time it was rumored that Finch had gone south, where the British were offering hard money to anyone joining His Majesty's ranks. But others maintained that Thomas could not possibly have joined the British, not after what they had done to his guests. No, they said. If little Tommy Finch was anywhere, then he was with General Washington ... either training for the summer campaigns or for some more immediate form of revenge.CHAPTER 2
A sense of evil had struck the general public, and so it became the job of government to see that evil exorcised ... such, anyway, was the popular sentiment concerning the White Swan murders. To a degree this feeling was inspired by a series of Philadelphia letters drafted in part by Tom Paine. Gossip, a staple of the city, was everywhere, building the case.
Among those establishments where Philadelphians tended to gather that spring was a lodging and alehouse popularly called the Dwarf. It lay on the edge of an untended commons and still retained a rustic air in spite of the city's encroachment. It was a modest place, served by a narrow court and a row of dormer windows. A garden in the rear had all but gone to ruin and there was almost always standing water in the yard. Still, the walls were of stout brick set with black headers and the rooms were reasonably clean with only the occasional rat.
The original proprietor had been a William Dunn, but on his death at Germantown the place had passed into the care of an uncle named Drapier. Dunn's fourteen-year-old daughter still lived there, as did the ghost of her mother (or so it was said). There were also a cook and boy to help with menial chores, while young Sarah Dunn served as chambermaid.
In the main, patrons of the Dwarf were local clerks and shopkeepers. Owing to the late Mr. Dunn's patriotic reputation, a number of military officers also drank here in the evenings. Consequently talk was usually of a political nature and generally considered reliable. When rumors of the White Swan murders, for example, began spreading throughout the city the Dwarf became one of the few relatively dependable sources of information.
At the outset talk of the murders centered on the more gruesome details. Following a public description of the bodies as discovered by young Finch, it seemed that everyone began to speculate on the nature of the weapon. There was also speculation about what sort of monster could have committed such a crime, and what form of British beast could have sanctioned it. Concurrently there was discussion about the victims, and a number of residents claimed to have known them from the summer of '78.
But the most talked-about subject of the season was Washington's expected reprisal. Although not said to have been a vindictive man, His Excellency could not let the deaths go unrevenged. After all, it was one thing to catch and hang spies, quite another to gut them like pigs.
For a while the consensus in the Dwarf and elsewhere was that Washington's retaliation would be swift and direct. The capture of two Tory spies seemed fitting, perhaps even an assassination. Keener minds held that the general would never rest until the specifically guilty party was found. Which meant there would be an investigation, a discreet investigation conducted by a gentleman with experience in these affairs.
Excerpted from The Traitor by Dan Sherman. Copyright © 1987 Dan Sherman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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