Lionel Lincoln; or, The Leaguer of Boston (1825)

Warren S. Walker (Texas Tech University)

Originally published in Warren S. Walker, Plots and Characters in the Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978), pp. 92-100.

Copyright © 1978 by Warren S. Walker.  Placed online with the kind permission of Warren S. Walker, and of Shoe String Press, Inc.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Chapter numbers [in square brackets] have been inserted by the webmaster at approximately the point where each chapter begins, to facilitate locating particular plot incidents in the text.

— Hugh C. MacDougall

Set in Boston in 1775, the action of this novel is played out on the first stage of the American Revolution. [1] Young Lionel Lincoln, a major in the British army, arrives from England for duty in the city of his birth and infancy. He lands with one of his shipboard acquaintances, a strange and moody old man toward whom he unaccountably feels some vague tie of affection. [2] On the waterfront Lionel rescues a simpleminded boy, Job Pray, from the abusive treatment of carousing soldiers, and then employs the unfortunate child to guide him to the Tremont Street home of Mrs. Priscilla Lechmere, the young officer’s great-aunt, who awaits his arrival. The major’s aged fellow passenger soon falls in with them as they walk along. Taking a circuitous route to Tremont Street, Job stops first at his own squalid quarters in an empty warehouse where his mother, Abigail Pray, is introduced. Mrs. Pray, a friend of Priscilla Lechmere, gazes at Lionel Lincoln and tells him that he has the smile of his mother and the terrible eyes of his father. She goes on to tell the surprised young man she had not only known his parents but also had attended his own birth. When Lionel’s aged traveling companion makes his presence known, it is Abigail’s turn to be surprised. She is so startled, in fact, that she collapses in a chair and for several minutes is unable to speak. From such circumstantial evidence and from innuendoes made by the old man, it can be inferred that there is some relationship among these four characters not yet clear either to the young man or to the reader. As Job prepares to take Lionel to his destination, the oldster declares that he will make his lodging right where he is, in the impoverished home of the Prays.

[3] At the residence of his great-aunt Lionel meets that lady’s granddaughter, Cecil Dynevor, his own cousin twice removed, and Agnes Danforth, Mrs. Lechmere’s great-niece. Agnes is an ardent and outspoken patriot who refuses tea in a gesture of defiance to British authority. The manner in which Cecil and her grandmother savor their bohea suggests their loyalistic inclination. Twice during his conversation with his American relatives Major Lincoln offers seemingly commonplace observations which upset Mrs. Lechmere to the point of fainting. One is a remark about the condition of his father, long confined in an English mental institution, and the other is his report that he has already encountered and talked with Abigail Pray and her retarded son. Lionel’s casual comments about Abigail Pray so unnerve his seventy-year-old great-aunt that she has to be helped from the room. What sensitive matter has he touched upon unwittingly?

[4-5] Just before sunrise the following morning Major Lincoln climbs Beacon Hill to view his native city. There he meets Job Pray and then his elderly shipboard acquaintance, who is now called Ralph. Job and Ralph will henceforth often be seen together, partly because they now live under the same roof, partly because they share a zeal for liberty and a love of country above king. Each takes every opportunity to point out the oppression and abuse under which the colonists live. When Lionel is hailed by Captain Peter Polwarth, a friend from his own regiment, Ralph and Job disappear. The two officers (schoolboy companions who had attended the same college at Oxford) talk briefly about the gathering storm of rebellion and then turn to happier and lighter subjects, personal and social.

[6] That evening after Lionel has excused himself from Mrs. Lechmere’s parlor to finish writing an important letter, he discovers Ralph in his bedroom reading this uncompleted epistle. Lionel is indignant at this impertinence until he sees that the startled old man is weeping profusely over what he is reading. Again Ralph intimates that there is some undefined affinity between them. Ralph then conducts the major, whose raincoat and cape conceal his uniform, to a patriot meeting from which the younger man returns more fully aware of the calm, intelligent kind of commitment that characterizes much of the revolutionary movement.

[7] A few days later Lionel Lincoln entertains two of his best friends, Captains Polwarth and M’Fuse, at dinner in the quarters he rents from one Seth Sage. (Although the major sleeps at the home of his doting aunt, he takes his meals and carries on his social commitments at this boardinghouse.) His guests are character types, M’Fuse being a professional soldier whose only interest is warfare, Polwarth being the good-natured, Falstaffian gourmet of the group. Their feasting and fellowship are suddenly interrupted by orders from the British headquarters for a night march into the New England countryside by two thousand troops, among them the companies commanded by Polwarth and M’Fuse. [8-10] Lionel secures permission to accompany the expedition as a volunteer, his real purpose being to observe for himself the temper of the time and the mood of the local citizenry. The objective of the large-scale troop movement, he discovers, is the capture of stores of arms and munitions being collected at Lexington and Concord by the minutemen of Massachusetts. What begins as a routine action by confident British forces turns into disaster for them as they are routed by angry farmers gathering along their twenty-mile retreat route to Boston. This is the historical Battle of Lexington.

In this episode, as in most others in the novel, Ralph and Job play active but mysterious roles. Before leaving Boston, Lionel calls upon Ralph and finds the old man abed, seemingly too ill to stir. Job he observes entering a small boat at the waterfront in order, he says, to catch fish for his mother. Lionel is therefore astonished when he encounters both of these individuals momentarily in the thick of the battle at Lexington. Although he is annoyed by their duplicity, his resentment is overcome by gratitude when the two save his life during the very height of the conflict. [11] The oldster and the simpleton are not his only Boston acquaintances who manage to participate in the engagements at Concord and Lexington, Lionel discovers when he returns to his quarters, for there he finds Seth Sage under arrest for treason. The landlord makes no attempt to deny his involvement. Lionel arrives at the boardinghouse just before Job appears with the message that Ralph wishes to speak to the major.

[12-13] When the young man enters the warehouse where Ralph and the Prays live, he overhears a strange conversation between Abigail Pray and (to his great surprise) Priscilla Lechmere. He observes his aunt give Abigail a handful of silver to relieve her poverty, apparently not the first such dole. From their remarks he infers that both women are guilt ridden for their involvement in some crime. Ralph appears and accuses Mrs. Lechmere of somehow causing the insanity of Sir Lionel Lincoln, the hero’s father. Later, when Lionel visits Ralph in his quarters in a loft of the warehouse, he asks the old man for some explanation of the conversation he has just heard. Ralph refuses to satisfy his curiosity, saying that the time is not appropriate for such a revelation.

[14] Back at the officers’ quarters, Lionel finds Seth Sage at liberty again but being forced by M’Fuse and Polwarth to sign an elaborate contract to supply victuals for their table. As Seth leaves the building, Lionel steps into the street to speak to him, but the landlord has moved away too swiftly. Vainly pursuing Seth, the major encounters in the dark the unidentified man he had heard speak at the patriot rally. Near Copp’s Hill Cemetery he meets Job Pray. As he and Job talk, Lionel hears muffled noises which the wise fool claims are the sounds of the dead moving about, as is their wont, at night. What he actually hears is the movement of patriot militiamen fortifying nearby Breed’s Hill, known in history as Bunker Hill.

[15] On the following day, Lionel, in the company of General Burgoyne and General Clinton, watches the first charge of British troops up the slopes of Bunker Hill thrown back with heavy losses. Although his company is involved in the attack, Major Lincoln has not been included in it, the high command wishing to use him instead in the more delicate work of liaison with the enemy. [16] When the British are repulsed a second time, however, the major cannot refrain, regardless of orders to the contrary, from rushing into the fray. In the third and successful onslaught Lionel is so seriously wounded that it is seven months before his life is out of danger.

[17] When, at last, he becomes fully conscious, he finds himself at the home of his great-aunt, where he is attended by Cecil Dynevor. He had sent Cecil a love letter, when the Battle of Bunker Hill seemed imminent; now, thankful that he has survived, the young lady avows the reciprocal love she feels for him. [18] A few minutes later his friend Polwarth comes to cheer the patient, and, typical of the gourmet, he has brought a choice steak to hasten his convalescence. Polwarth himself had lost a leg in the battle, and their mutual friend Dennis M’Fuse had been killed.

[19] During his recovery, Lionel discovers, the British position in Boston has grown increasingly precarious as thousands of colonial troops, regulars and guerrillas, surround the beleaguered city. Governor Gage has been replaced as commander-in-chief by General Howe, and the latter is contemplating the evacuation of all British forces from the city. [20] Lionel, anxious about the safety of Cecil in such an unpredictable situation, urges her to marry him as soon as possible. When the two consult Mrs. Lechmere about the propriety of such a move, they are surprised at her insistence that the marriage take place that very day. [21] Cecil’s only condition is that the ceremony be performed at a church rather than at home. Accordingly, Lionel hastens to the home of the Rev. Dr. Liturgy, Anglican rector of King’s Chapel, and arranges for the wedding that evening. Because the sexton has contracted smallpox and is unable to carry out his janitorial duties, it is necessary for Lionel to find someone else to light the furnace and warm the church on this cold, snowy day. He commissions Job Pray to perform this task, giving him money with which to buy candles and kindling. Unfortunately, the family from whom Job purchases these supplies is also afflicted with smallpox, and Lionel fears that this may have exposed the simpleton to the dread disease.

[22] The wedding itself is marked with awesome Gothic qualities. It takes place on a snowy, blustery night in an almost vacant church, the only witnesses being Captain Polwarth, Agnes Danforth, and Job Pray. When Dr. Liturgy requests a response from anyone who knows any reason why this man and woman should not be united, the huge shadow of a human being with outstretched arms moves across the ceiling; the silent shadow appears each of the three times that this request is made. Agnes and Polwarth are so shaken by this eerie experience that they neglect to congratulate the bride and bridegroom at the conclusion of the service. Even the rector is aghast and departs as quickly as he can do so without being rude. [23]Polwarth drives Agnes and the newlyweds to the Lechmere residence but remains only long enough to mumble the appropriate good wishes.

Lionel and Cecil go to Mrs. Lechmere’s sickroom and receive that lady’s congratulations. Cecil leaves the room after a few minutes so that her grandmother may speak in confidence with Lionel. As she begins to discuss the Lincoln family history, Mrs. Lechmere is interrupted by a sepulchral voice, and Ralph appears, seemingly from nowhere, with a note from her physician, who has been called away on another case. The missive contains bad news. Mrs. Lechmere’s illness has advanced more than the doctor had at first thought, and it is likely that she will die during the night. Shocked by this announcement of her impending death, Priscilla Lechmere vacillates between confessing her sins, preparatory for entering the next world, and maintaining her hold on her position in this world. As she intimates her involvement in some scandal within the Lincoln family, Ralph demands repeatedly and loudly that she reveal the whole truth about the matter, and Lionel, who has lived under a shadow all his life, pleads for more information on the subject. The woman dies, however, without making any helpful revelation.

[24] When Cecil returns to her grandmother’s room, she finds there only the ghastly corpse. Still troubled by the ominous shadows that had cast gloom over her wedding, the frightened girl rushes to the bridegroom’s room and finds it empty. The embers still burn in his fireplace, but Lionel Lincoln has vanished. Cecil screams and faints. Her cry is heard by Agnes, who comes to her assistance and then, baffled herself by what has happened, sends a servant to bring her suitor, Peter Polwarth.

[25] Hearing the accounts given by Cecil and Agnes, Captain Polwarth determines to find his old friend. He is given by Agnes an ornamental metal collar she had found on the grate of Lionel’s fireplace after he had disappeared. This gorget, which Polwarth at once identifies as that of the dead M’Fuse, has a bullet hole through it. [26] Remembering now Job’s remark about having shot the Irish grenadier officer — a remark he had not taken too seriously before — and remembering Job’s attachment to Lionel Lincoln, Polwarth goes to the simpleton’s rude quarters hoping that there he may learn something of the major’s whereabouts. At the warehouse he comes upon a wild and gruesome scene. A crowd of irate Irish grenadiers are about to lynch the helpless Job, already critically ill with smallpox. Beaten and bleeding, he lies on a pallet at the mercy of his tormentors. Polwarth forestalls the violence temporarily by conducting a simple trial of the accused killer of Captain M’Fuse. Job does confess that he was the patriot at Bunker Hill who had shot M’Fuse, and the enraged soldiers again clamor for his life. [27] This time they are prevented from taking their vengeance by the appearance of Cecil, who, as the lady of an officer, threatens them with punishment for their cruel and criminal behavior. Grumbling, the soldiers reluctantly depart. Cecil is accompanied by Lionel’s valet, Meriton, and a stocky, muscular stranger. After Cecil calms the fears of Job and his mother, the stocky stranger proceeds to question the stricken boy in a kind and quiet manner. He elicits from Job the information that Lionel Lincoln had left the city and gone into patriot territory with Ralph. Armed with this information, Cecil and her two male companions leave.

Polwarth, who remains with the Prays, now learns that Job has been employed by Seth Sage to go into the country and buy food for Major Lincoln’s table. To his horror, he discovers that Job and Abigail have not eaten for many hours even though they are protecting in the warehouse a large supply of Major Lincoln’s provisions. Moved to tears by this pitiable situation, Polwarth cooks mother and son a hearty meal with some of these provisions, breaking up his own wooden leg to provide the necessary fuel. Food is this gourmet’s cure for all ills, but in fact he may be hastening the death of Job by feeding him thus while he runs a high fever.

[28-29] Cecil, Meriton, and the stranger take a boat, manned by British sailors, and land across the bay near a road leading to Cambridge, where they hope to gain news of Lionel. Cecil ingenuously imagines that she may locate her lost husband by appealing for help from the American commander-in-chief. Because the siege of Boston is growing more intense, security measures are too severe to permit free movement of unidentified persons, and Cecil is arrested almost as soon as she arrives in patriot territory. [30] She and her companions are nevertheless transported by coach toward Washington’s headquarters. En route, however, they are intercepted by the seemingly ubiquitous Ralph, who takes Cecil to the jail cell on the Harvard campus where Lionel is being held. The old man is training troops for the patriot cause, and he moves freely about the American installations. [31] He secures the release of Meriton; then, disguising Lionel in the overcoat and large hat of the stocky stranger, he conducts Meriton, Lincoln, and Cecil to freedom. Ralph guides the trio to the grave of Lionel’s mother, and there he reveals part of the Lincoln family tragedy. When they return to Boston proper, the four go to the warehouse, where Job is dying and where the distraught Abigail discloses the remainder of the calamity that befell the Lincolns.

[32-33] Sir Lionel Lincoln, father of the titular hero, had wed a beautiful girl named Priscilla who was a ward of his aunt, Priscilla Lechmere. This greatly displeased Mrs. Lechmere, who, wishing to keep the title and wealth in the family, had hoped he would marry her own daughter, Cecil Dynevor’s mother; Mrs. Lechmere was equally displeased with her daughter for having wed Colonel Dynevor. Called to England on urgent business connected with his estate, Sir Lionel did not return to Boston for two years, during which time his wife had borne him a son, Lionel, and had shortly died. Mrs. Lechmere again hoped, perversely, to interest Sir Lionel, her nephew, in her daughter or even in herself as a mate; but he rejected such proposals. To take her vengeance against him, Mrs. Lechmere had then told Sir Lionel that the wife for whom he grieved had been unfaithful to him, that she had during his absence borne an illegitimate son as well as young Lionel. This he had not believed until Abigail Pray, his former mistress, swore under oath that Mrs. Lechmere’s account was true. They showed him the demented infant Job and told him that this was the bastard child of his dead wife. Job, however, older than Lionel, was the natural son of Abigail, a poor girl, and Sir Lionel, who had left his mistress when he had wed and knew nothing of her having a child by him. The shock sustained by the baronet upon being persuaded of his wife’s infidelity and dishonor had driven him temporarily insane. The vengeful aunt then took this occasion to have him committed to an English madhouse where he had been held for more than twenty years.

At the conclusion of Abigail’s story, Ralph seizes the woman to force her to swear upon a Bible to the accuracy of the account she has just given. When Lionel moves to quell Ralph, Cecil warns him against striking his own father. Major Lincoln is so stunned by this revelation that he stands speechless and dazed, unable to move. At this moment the door of the warehouse bursts open and the stocky stranger reappears, released from the patriot jail after he had shown his credentials as the keeper of the mad Sir Lionel, whom he has been pursuing since his escape from a lunatic asylum. Sir Lionel grapples with his keeper (whom he had deliberately left in jail at Harvard) and with maniacal strength throws the stranger and starts to strangle him; the baronet is not the aged person he had seemed but a man in his early fifties. When none of the petrified observers moves to aid the keeper, he pulls from his pocket a knife, stabs Sir Lionel in the breast three times, and flees. The dying baronet extends his arms in silent benediction over the benumbed major and his wife, and in this gesture they recognize the shape of the shadow they had seen on the ceiling of King’s Chapel during their wedding.

[34] In a double funeral ceremony Sir Lionel and his natural son, Job (Major Lincoln’s half brother), are buried in the family vault in King’s Chapel. Abigail Pray remains after the service, and is consoled by Major Lincoln and Captain Polwarth. The former leaves with the disconsolate mother a large purse of gold; but it is of no use to her, for, unbeknownst to the two men, she dies in the deserted chapel. Her body is not discovered for several days, for the entire area is in great turmoil as the British evacuate Boston and the American forces move into the city.

As Major Lincoln, Cecil, and Captain Polwarth are about to sail for England, they are bidden farewell by the vivacious Agnes Danforth. For the fiftieth time, Polwarth proposes to her, and for the fiftieth time she refuses his offer. She marries an American officer the following week.

Although they were both born in America, the new Sir Lionel and his wife remain in England and settle down on the Lincoln estate. In time the baronet becomes a peer and ultimately an earl. The leaguer (siege) of Boston and its dramatis personae have by then passed into history.

Allen, General [John] Burgoyne, Cato, Agnes Danforth, Sergeant Doyle, Cecil Dynevor, Admiral Graves, Hopper, Priscilla Lechmere, Lionel Lincoln, Sir Lionel Lincoln, Rev. Dr. Liturgy, Captain Dennis M’Fuse, Meriton, Major Pitcairn, Captain Peter Polwarth, Abigail Pray, Job Pray, [William] Prescott, Seth Sage, Shearflint, Terence, Tom.