Nathan never thought he would spend the last night of his life in a greenhouse.
Dead and dying plants cluttered the place, their mustiness heavy on the warm evening. Clanking muskets and the tread of boots sounded from the Redcoats outside. The sun was sinking in final farewell over Hudson’s River, but enough light remained to discern the cracked dirt in the earthenware pots. The farm boy in him mourned that drought was killing a fine crop. He would gladly water the wilted vines, but the British have issued him no drink, no food, not even a Bible.
It was just as well that he had no rations. The void within, born full-grown and monstrous when General Howe sentenced him to hang tomorrow, would not let him swallow anything.
Besides, he has twice seen a man hanged: once earlier today as New York burned, and the first time a few years ago, when he and his brother Enoch were riding home from college. They had passed a large oak, a gallows tree, with people bunched and spellbound. A thief balanced above the crowd atop an ox’s broad back. His arms were tied behind him, a noose clutched his neck, and he grimaced with such horror that those urgent, twisted features haunted the boys for months. They should not have watched. Nathan had implored Enoch to travel on, but his brother sat his horse, mesmerized. So he, too, bore witness, unable to turn his eyes.
Someone smacked the ox’s hindquarters, and the thief gave a scream that choked off with a gasp. His feet scrabbled for a toehold. His body jerked and heaved. Then the man wet himself, worst shame of all.
No, Nathan vowed, he would drink nothing, eat nothing this night, though he was parched as a cornfield in July.
The pacing outside stopped, and he heard a command to draw back the bolt. He ran a hand through his hair, struggling to compose himself.
General Howe’s aide-de-camp entered. He wasted no salute on a rebel, let alone a spy, nor sympathy either. “The General begs to inform you that you have only to let him know, should you reconsider and accept his terms,” the aide recited tonelessly, eyes straight ahead. Still, his manner implied that Howe was merciful beyond reason. “What answer shall I give?”
Nathan stood silent, trying to frame a reply as elegant as the aide’s spiel even if his voice squeaked with terror. At last he said, “Pray, um, present my compliments to him, but I—I…My answer’s the same as before.”
Those eyes shifted to stare at him, as fascinated as Enoch with the condemned thief.
“Well…” The aide coughed. “If you, ah, change your mind….”
When he was alone again, Nathan collapsed onto a bench, remembering his interrogation with General Howe an hour earlier. There had been no denying his espionage with his notes spread before the British commander. He had labored long over those pages, and he felt for them what his father did for new-ploughed land. They were his creation, won by his effort and ingenuity during his week with the enemy, invaluable to the Continentals. But this morning, as he was returning to hand them—and victory—to General Washington, the Redcoats had grabbed him, just steps from American lines.
Even Howe was impressed. He had looked up from the notes to say, “I could use a man like you. No sense letting the noose get you. You’ve made a mistake, son, a bad one, true, but we all do when we’re young. Tell me now, wouldn’t you rather fight for your king than against him? What do you want? Money? Promotion?”
Nathan had leapt to his feet, fists clenched. “I’d rather hang a thousand times than live a traitor to my country’s liberty!”
Brave, glorious words—and Howe would see that he had his wish. But it was one thing to utter such sentiment in the heat of the moment and another to sit in this suffocating greenhouse on York Island, with the earth spinning toward the morrow, thinking on his family and his sweetheart and how he could go home again after all, to know that the life he counted gone was his for the asking.
His mind seized on Ally. If only he might talk with her, draw courage from the clasp of her hand. It seemed impossible that they had been together this time yesterday. Her eyes had sparkled up at him as she lay beside him in his room….
And his father. He could almost see the Deacon: tall, stern, imposing. If the news of his son’s death didn’t kill him, the shame of it, of being strung up like a dog or a murderer, would. His father was as staunch a Patriot as any. Four of his boys served the Cause, two more clamored to join, and he’d forbidden the women at home from wearing their own wool that they might weave it for Continental uniforms. However much he grieved at a son’s loss in battle, quiet pride would comfort him. But to have his child hanged as a spy—
Night had fallen, though Nathan didn’t notice until shadows slithered through the door’s slats. Again the bolt slid back; again he feigned composure, expecting another emissary from General Howe.
A red-coated lieutenant stepped into the room. He carried a candle in one hand and a battered little book in the other. He was a short man, slight, with at least ten more years to his credit than his prisoner. Pistols bulged in both pockets of his uniform. Still, by the time he reached them….
Nathan could lay the officer out with just one blow, could jump him and run for it, leave all honor behind—
As if reading his mind, two soldiers appeared behind the lieutenant, bayonets fixed.
“Sir,” his visitor was saying, “I found a Bible for you, agreeable to your request, but if the provost marshal catches you with it, he’ll take a fit. And I’ll see about some paper and ink, so’s you can write your family.” He laid the Testament on the bench and handed the taper to Nathan. Its flame caught the sympathy in the eyes above the scarlet cloth. Were there tears as well? “Mr. Hale—”
“Please, sir, I’m a captain in the Continental Army.” Nathan has corrected the Redcoats so many times on this point; so many times they’ve retorted that the king and Parliament deem them rabble, not an army, with neither rank nor respect. The lieutenant surprised him, then, when he acquiesced. But he spoke softly lest the guards hear.
“Captain Hale, I—I’m sorry that the war—that you—I’m sorry, sir. If there’s anything else I can do….” He bowed, and Nathan reproached himself for thinking to overpower a man who came in friendship.
“Thank you, Lieutenant.”
“Certainly, Captain. You’re a gentleman of honor, sir, never mind what anyone says.” He bowed again, retreated to the door, and saluted.
Only when the lieutenant left did Nathan Hale slump to the bench, defeated, despairing….