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An Old House and It's Story by K. T. T.



It is pleasant, on a warm, sunny afternoon in the spring-time (or, indeed, at any season of the year, but I love the spring-time best), to take the broad, well-shaded avenue on the east bank of the Schuylkill at Fairmount Park, and, passing the pretty little club boat-houses already green with their thick overhanging vines, to saunter slowly along the narrow roadway on the water's edge to the great Girard Avenue Bridge, and so on through the cool dark tunnel, coming out on the steep railed path that winds up and away from the river to bury itself for a while in rich deep woodlands, only to bring you presently to the water-side again, where stands the fine old Mount Pleasant mansion, the country-seat of Benedict Arnold nearly a hundred years ago, and bestowed by him as a marriage-gift upon his new-made bride in April, 1779. A sweet, cool air blows up to you from the river, purple and white violets, buttercups and Quaker ladies are set thickly about your feet, the newly-arrived orioles are piping their pert little tunes nigh at hand, and you can spend a meditative hour or two sitting in the shifting specks of yellow sunshine filtered through the tender young leaves overhead, undisturbed by the shades of departed revelers that may be wandering behind the close shutters of the silent old house you have come so far to see. There is a curious and distinct flavor of antiquity about the place; for the woodwork around the doors and windows, which has so bravely withstood the corroding tooth of Time and the wearing rain-drip from the great tree-branches creaking above the roof, is of a quaint but excellent pattern, of which we see too little in these days of hideous sawed scrollery and gimcrack ornament—the masonry of such an honest solidity as may well cause the dweller in modern brick and sandy mortar to sigh enviously for the "good old times." Although the house appears to be extremely large, it contains very few rooms, and none of these are so spacious as might be reasonably expected from the outside. The staircases are singularly ill-contrived, the landings upon the upper floors occupying a space quite sufficient for goodly-sized chambers. The ceilings and a chimney-panel or two are set out bravely with the usual stucco imitation of wood-carving we almost invariably find (and sigh over) in old American houses—a piteous attempt on the part of our honest ancestors to reproduce in some sort the rare wood-sculpture of their own old English manor-houses: it is a satisfaction, too, to note what little progress we have contrived to make in this unworthy branch of decorative art in the lapse of a century.

In two of the rooms are queer corner fireplaces, where, doubtless, many pairs of dainty high-heeled slippers and great military jack-boots have been toasted at the huge hickory fires, long since extinguished. In one of the upper chambers is an odd sort of closet, the shelves of which are furnished with low railings, presumably a protection for the handsome and valuable china that women have always loved to store up—a check upon the ravages of careless housemaids. It is quite worth while to climb the breakneck garret-stairs, which must have bruised many a shin in their day, and the short flight leading to the roof, in order to get the glorious view of the Park stretching away down to the city of Philadelphia, and of the beautiful Schuylkill River winding in and out among the trees and flashing so silvery white in the afternoon sunshine.

In the cellarage, where we disturb many busy spiders and stealthy centipedes, is a large, solidly-floored apartment, where possibly the house-servants were used to congregate in the old slave days. There is no chimney-place in this room, nor, indeed, is there any convenience whatever for cooking purposes in the main building, which omission inclines me to the opinion that one of the detached wings was used for the kitchen offices, there being large fireplaces in both of them, very suitable for the getting up of good dinners. The grounds about the house have been much altered of late years—the gardens long since destroyed. A smug, close-shaven turf replaces the old-fashioned flower-beds and shrubbery, amid which I love to fancy sweet Peggy Arnold trailing her French brocades and flowered chintzes, her rosy ear attuned to the high-flown compliments of the men of fashion whom her beauty and her husband's lavish hospitality drew about her—her husband the traitor who a few months afterward was flying, a detected felon, from justice, leaving his fair young wife, with her babe in her arms, to face the awful wrath of Washington.

Doubtless, many a stately minuet and frolicsome country-dance has been trod in those now dark and empty rooms by the Philadelphia belles and beaux of 1780, when, the rich furniture all set back against the walls, the general's blacks were had up from the negro quarters with blaring horns and shrill fiddles to play for the quality. Alas! the horns and fiddles sound no more, the merry, grinning players are but a pinch of dust like their betters, their haughty master but a scorned memory where once he reigned so royally, while the modish guests who frisked it so gayly in satin and velvet have long, long ago shaken the powder out of their locks, tied up their jaws and packed themselves away in their scant winding-sheets, resigned to the mournful company of the worm.

Brief tenure held the fair châtelaine of this castle: a year and a half after the date inscribed upon her title-deeds the republic claimed the traitor's possessions, and pretty Peggy was driven forth by the Executive Council to find a home with strangers, but fourteen days being granted her in which to prepare for her doleful journey. Our excellent forefathers were made of stern stuff to suit the humor of those trying times, and doubtless they did but their duty in ridding their country of the "traitor's brood;" but for my part I can scarcely think, even at this late day, without a pang of indignant pity, of this innocent and forlorn young creature hounded forth from her father's peaceful home in Philadelphia, with her child in her arms—driven almost to the protection of the man whose crime she abhorred, and from whom in her first frenzied grief she was even willing to be for ever separated. There have not been wanting certain persons, headed by that noble patriot and veracious gentleman, Colonel Aaron Burr, who from time to time have busied themselves in putting stray hints together with the intent to make Arnold's wife an accomplice, if not the direct instigator, of his infamous design; but there is not in existence, so far as I have been able to learn, a particle of evidence sufficient to justify the casting of ever so small a stone at the memory of this most unfortunate lady, whose name is so pitilessly linked with that of the traitor.

She must have been extremely beautiful. I have had the good fortune to see her portrait, painted about 1795 at Bath, England, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, and now in the possession of her grand-niece, a lady to whom I am indebted for much that I have been able to gather of the character of Mrs. Arnold. The picture is taken in crayons, and the colors are wonderfully fresh and lovely after eighty years and a voyage across the sea, the delicate flesh-tints being especially well preserved. Besides real beauty of feature, there is an enchanting softness in the character of the face that seems to belong only to temperaments the most feminine and refined. A pale pink gown falls back from her gracious neck and shoulders, liberally and innocently displayed according to the fashion of the time, and is tied about her waist with a broad sky-blue ribbon: her hair, lightly dashed with powder and rolled away from her face, strays in rich curls about her throat. A child of two or three years leans upon her knee, and pulls at one of her ringlets with a roguish smile upon his chubby face.

The century that has nearly elapsed since Arnold's defection has not served to lighten in any degree the load of obloquy that rests upon his name. In the whole world no man has been found willing to undertake his defence; yet a believer in the dark old Calvinist doctrine might urge in the traitor's favor the thousand invisible influences which from the very birth of the wretched man seem to have goaded him on in the downward path that led to his final disgrace and ruin. His home-training, if such it might be called, was of the very worst. His mother an ignorant, uncultured woman, his father a defaulter in middle life, in his age a sot, the boy was left to follow the promptings of his own will, naturally strong and turbulent. His youth was stormy and insubordinate, his young manhood not without the reproach of dishonorable mercantile dealings, and even the splendor of his military achievements in the service of his country could scarcely blind the judgment of his warmest admirers to the suspicious stains upon his moral character. That the last link in the chain of influences might not be wanting, Arnold, while in command of Philadelphia in 1778, fell deeply in love with and married the youngest daughter of Mr. Edward Shippen (afterward chief-justice), a distinguished lawyer of well-known Tory proclivities, although he was entirely acquitted of any share in the treasonable design of his son-in-law. It does not appear that there was any very serious objection made in the Shippen household to the rebel general's suit for the hand of the lovely Peggy. Arnold was at this time about thirty-eight years of age, in the vigorous prime of a life whose declining years were destined to be passed in a sort of contemptuous tolerance among those with whom he had been at bargain and sale for the liberties of his country. Covered with well-earned glory from his brilliant feats of bravery at the battles of Bemis Heights and Stillwater, and slightly lame from a severe wound in the leg received at Quebec, he was at last accorded his full rank in the army, and entered upon the military command of Philadelphia with every conceivable circumstance in his favor. The stories of his courage and daring which had preceded him, aided by his handsome person and fine military bearing, combined to ensure his success in society, and he was at once given the entrée to the best city families, from one of which he soon singled out the lady who became his wife. Her father writes to Colonel Burd in January, 1779, that "General Arnold, a fine gentleman, lays close siege to Peggy," and goes on to hint that a wedding may soon be expected. If the traitor's tongue was only half as persuasive as his pen, small wonder that the damsel capitulated. "Dear Peggy," sighs the ardent lover upon paper, "suffer that heavenly bosom (which cannot know itself the cause of pain without a sympathetic pang) to expand with a sensation more soft, more tender than friendship.... I have presumed to write to your papa, and have requested his sanction to my addresses. Consult your own happiness, and, if incompatible, forget there is so unhappy a wretch. May I perish before I would give you one moment's inquietude to procure the greatest possible felicity to myself! Whatever my fate may be, my most ardent wish is for your happiness, and my latest breath will be to implore the blessing of Heaven on the idol and only wish of my soul." And yet the writer of these fine sentiments presently sells her peace and happiness and his own honor for a sum of money almost too pitifully small to be named! They were married in April, 1779. By this union with the daughter of a loyalist, however professing neutrality, Arnold must have been thrown much into the society of the enemies of his country's cause—men whose principles were entirely at variance with his own—and doubtless his defection may be indirectly laid to the subtle influence of Tory companionship: certainly, his reckless intimacy with well-known if not openly-avowed foes of American independence caused his military superiors to look askance at his movements, and more than justified the caution of a Congress jealous of the least shadow that menaced the struggling cause of liberty.

The newly-wedded pair set up their household in the old Penn mansion (long since torn down) on a scale of magnificence in no way warranted by Arnold's means. Their great coach-and-four was seen thundering back and forth through the streets of the quiet little town, and a motley throng of guests, Whig and Tory, were entertained at a table where nothing was thought too choice and costly for their delectation. Matters were carried with such extravagance that debt soon pressed upon the thoughtless pair, and prudent people began to inquire curiously into Arnold's administration of public affairs. Whispers soon grew into loud complaints, and a court-martial was presently convened to investigate certain charges brought against him by the Executive Council, comprising peculation, misappropriation of public funds, etc. During the tedious deliberation of this body of his fellow-officers, and in the almost certain event of the day going against him, Arnold laid his plan for the grand coup, which, if successful, would at once gratify his deep longing for revenge and place him, as he fondly hoped, at the very summit of his ambition—the equal of the proudest noble, the lauded servant of a grateful prince. It seems almost incredible that he should have persevered in his design after the very lenient decision of his judges, who acquitted him of all save the most trifling of the charges against him, and decreed that he should merely receive a reprimand from the commander-in-chief. Every one knows the encouraging and beautiful advice with which this slight censure was tempered, and must recognize the fine manly spirit that prompted it: it should have sunk deeply into the culprit's heart and made of him the grateful friend of Washington for ever. It did indeed sink deeply, but it was into a traitor's heart, and it rankled there.

It is very possible that here, in this lovely retreat on the banks of the Schuylkill, in the long summer days of 1780, was matured the slowly-ripening plot, which but for its timely discovery must have seriously imperiled, if not altogether lost to us, the glorious inheritance we have held these hundred years. One can fancy the martial figure of the brave, bad man pacing back and forth beneath these very trees perhaps, absorbed in bitter reflections on his real and fancied wrongs—the rapid promotion of men younger than himself both in years and services, whilst his own bold deeds had met with but tardy acknowledgment from a cold and cautious Congress; the long array of debts which arose like spectres to harass him even in this peaceful Eden; and, worst of all, the humiliating remembrance of Washington's rebuke. It cannot be denied that the temptation to free himself from the toils in which his own dishonest course had entangled him must have beset the unhappy man with almost resistless power. With his hopelessly impaired character, and weighed down by debts he had no means of discharging—for he could scarcely hope for an early settlement of his accounts from a Congress already impoverished by an expensive war—to remain in the army was, to a man of Arnold's proud, selfish nature, almost out of the question. By going over to the enemy he could at once shake off associations which were now become intolerable to him, gain perpetual immunity from his liabilities, and secure for himself a life of distinction and luxury. He grasped at the delusive vision and was lost for ever.

In August of this year he received the coveted appointment to the command of West Point, and Philadelphia saw him no more. He took up his residence in Beverley Robinson's lately-vacated house on the east bank of the Hudson and nearly opposite the entrenchments at West Point. The story of the discovered plot and Major André's detention is too well known to be more than glanced at here: everything was in readiness for the surrender of the post into the hands of Sir Henry Clinton when the unfortunate young adjutant was taken, and the papers criminating Arnold found upon his person. No one, I am sure, can read unmoved Dr. Thacher's eye-witness account of the execution of this officer, lost through Arnold's cowardly blundering. The gravity of his offence against a flag of truce need not prevent our admiration of his soldierly conduct after his arrest, the perfect truthfulness to which he adhered during his examination, and the noble resignation with which he met his dreadful fate. Arnold had here a fine opportunity to retrieve in some degree the bitter mischief of which he had been the occasion. Had he but come forth and suffered in André's place, the blackness of his crime would have almost disappeared in the brilliancy of his atonement; but he chose a living death instead, and his hapless victim went to his doom accompanied by the pity of every honest American heart. His manly figure affords a fine contrast to that of the traitor skulking down the lane (still shown as "Arnold's Path") at the back of the Robinson House in his flight to the British frigate moored out in the stream fifteen miles below the fort. A few hasty words had put his innocent wife in possession of the horrid story, and she had fallen, as if struck by his hand, in a swoon to the floor, where he left her unconscious of his frantic farewell. In her sad interview with Washington next day she manifested such frenzied grief and horror at her husband's guilt, such tender concern for the future of her helpless babe, that the stern commander was melted to the heart's core, and left her entirely convinced of her innocence. He gave orders that her comfort should be fully attended to, and offered her an escort to protect her from insult on the journey to her father's house in Philadelphia. Further, he sent her word in a day or two that, however sorely he must regret the escape of a traitor, he was glad to be able to assure her of her husband's safety with the British. Then came the mournful pilgrimage to the loving home in Philadelphia. She set out at the time when poor André was making his preparations for the still longer journey whence he was nevermore to return—the brilliant young officer with whom she had danced at the great fête, the "Mischianza," given by the British army to Sir William Howe only two years before in Philadelphia—the gay man of fashion who had written versicles in her honor, and whose graceful pen-portrait of the fair girl is still in the possession of the Shippen family—her thickly-powdered hair drawn up into a tower above her forehead and bedecked with ribbons and strings of pearls in the fashion then newly imported out of France, the last modish freak of Marie Antoinette before she laid her own stately head under the axe of the guillotine.

One can easily picture the terror and anguish she bore with her to her old home; the uncertainty regarding her own fate and that of her child; the haunting thought of young André's approaching doom, and, more piteous than all else, the ever—recurring temptation that sorely beset her to see no more the author of her undoing, the still beloved father of her babe. It is difficult to imagine a more awful situation, and one can almost forgive her first hasty sentence against the man who had wrought her such ill. She forgot for a while that she had taken upon her those sacred vows "for better, for worse:" the worst indeed had come, and for my part I own I am glad that she chose the nobler part. He was a traitor, but she, alas! was the traitor's wife. She accompanied him to England, where her dignity and sweetness helped to sustain her husband in the doubtful position he held in society. Her letters to her family bear witness to his unfailing love for her and anxious care of her welfare, but breathe a spirit of resignation incompatible with perfect happiness. Once only did she return to America. After peace was proclaimed she visited her beloved old home, but meeting with much unkindness from her former friends, soon left for England again. She died in 1804, surviving Arnold but three years.

A lady of this city, the granddaughter of our first republican governor, told me that two of Arnold's grandsons came to America some years ago, and to their great surprise found themselves unable to make any figure in Philadelphia society, where they were quietly but persistently ignored, so strong was the public prejudice against their name.

Arnold died in London in the winter of 1801. We shrink away almost appalled from the awful picture of that death-bed—the neglected, despised old man, with the gloom closing in about him and left to face it almost alone. The great people to whom he had sold his honor had long ago paid him his price, and, washing their hands of him, had passed over to the other side of the way with averted faces; the stout old king who had protected him from insult as long as he could was already in the clutch of the fatal malady which was soon to consign his intellect to eternal night; and it is said that but one creature stood beside the dying traitor in that supreme hour—the fond woman who had so lightened the burden of shame he had borne for twenty long years of splendor and misery, and whose own deliverance was so nigh at hand.

A singular story is told of Arnold's last moments, which if true (and pray God it may be!) should be linked with the memory of his crime for ever. It is said that he ordered to be brought from the garret of his house the old Continental uniform and sword he had worn for the last time on the memorable day of his escape from West Point. With trembling hands he unfolded the coat, and, drawing it painfully over his shoulders, sat lost in long and deep reflection: then, rousing himself with a sigh, he drew the sword from its scabbard, and clenching one hand upon the rich hilt, passed the other absently along the blade; then with a wild look of regret in his fast-glazing eyes he let the weapon drop from his grasp, his head sank upon his breast and he remained motionless until he died, drawing each breath longer and longer until all were spent. I love to think that he died with the Continental coat upon his shoulders, nor was it again dishonored by the contact: it even seems to have lent a ray of its own untarnished lustre to brighten the last dark, remorseful hours of a ruined life.