(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Harvey Birch, a peddler, becomes a spy for the American side. Because of the extremely secret nature of Birch’s work, few Americans are aware of his true mission. As a matter of fact, they suspect that he is a British spy. At the time, Westchester County in New York is considered common ground for both the rebels and the Loyalists, and the inhabitants of the county pretend to possess a neutrality they do not feel. This is the case of Mr. Wharton, a British sympathizer, who at the outbreak of hostilities retires to his country estate with his two daughters, Sarah and Frances, and their aunt, Miss Jeanette Peyton.

One evening, as a storm approaches, a horseman rides up to the Wharton house, The Locusts. He is a tall man of powerful frame, military in his bearing but plain in his dress. After being let into the house by the Whartons’ servant, Caesar Thompson, the traveler introduces himself as Mr. Harper and asks for shelter from the storm. Mr. Wharton courteously grants the traveler’s request, and the two men are soon engaged in conversation concerning the progress of the war. Mr. Wharton expresses his views cautiously in order to determine Mr. Harper’s sentiments, but the stranger remains uncommunicative in his replies.

The conversation between the two men is interrupted by the arrival of Henry Wharton, Mr. Wharton’s son and a captain in the British army. The young man wears a disguise in order to cross the American lines safely, but Mr. Harper recognizes him. Later, Birch, the peddler believed by all to be a Loyalist spy, comes to the Wharton home, bringing supplies and news of the war. During Birch’s visit, Caesar remarks to his master that he heard voices in Mr. Harper’s room.

With the return of fair weather, Mr. Harper says good-bye to his host. Before he departs, he promises to help Henry, if he ever needs help, in return for Mr. Wharton’s hospitality. Shortly after Mr. Harper leaves, the Wharton home is surrounded by a troop of Virginia cavalry looking for a man answering Mr. Harper’s description. When the American soldiers enter Mr. Wharton’s house, they discover Henry. Captain Lawton, in command of the troop, sees through Henry’s disguise. The captain is certain that Henry is a spy because he knows that Birch recently visited the Whartons. Not certain what to do, Captain Lawton consults his superior, Major Peyton Dunwoodie, who is interested not only in Henry but also in Henry’s sister, Frances. She pleads with her lover for Henry’s release, but, when Henry is found to have a pass signed by General Washington, Major Dunwoodie thinks that the case warrants Henry’s arrest.

Further investigation into the matter by Major Dunwoodie is halted by a report that British troops are in the neighborhood. The major rushes to his command. In the confusion, Henry escapes. He reports to his superior, Colonel Wellmere, leader of the advancing British troops, who professes to be in love with Sarah Wharton. When Henry advises the colonel to be wary of Major Dunwoodie and his Americans, Wellmere scorns the advice and determines to force a fight with the rebels. In the brief engagement that follows, the British are routed, and Captain Lawton succeeds in recapturing Henry, who is returned under guard to his father’s home. Colonel Wellmere, also taken prisoner, is slightly wounded in the action.

Birch is watching Major Dunwoodie’s success from a distant hill when he is sighted by Captain Lawton. In the pursuit, Captain Lawton overtakes Birch, but he falls from his horse and finds himself at the peddler’s mercy. Birch, however, spares Captain Lawton’s life, and for that act of magnanimity, the captain will not allow his men to overtake the peddler.

A price is put on Birch’s head. One night, his house is...

(The entire section is 1570 words.)