Mrs. Pennell could now walk a little, and not until Thursday morning did Ruth have a single doubt in regard to going away from home. But as the time of her departure drew near she kept close beside her mother, and when Aunt Clara called that Farmer Withely was driving down the street Ruth was suddenly quite sure that she could not go and leave her mother behind.
"Oh, Mother! I don't wish to go," she exclaimed, her arms close about her mother's neck.
Mrs. Pennell held her close, telling her of the beautiful time she would have with Aunt Deborah. "And, who knows! You may see Lafayette himself," she added, knowing how great a hero the young Frenchman seemed to all American children, as well as to their elders.
"I shall come home soon," Ruth answered earnestly, and then Aunt Clara called that Farmer Withely was waiting, and with one more good-bye kiss Ruth ran down the steps, and in a few moments was seated beside the farmer, while the big horse trotted down the street.
Aunt Clara had put a box on the wagon seat beside Ruth. "Open it when you are half-way to your journey's end," she had said smilingly, and Farmer Withely had smiled also, and nodded approvingly, thinking to himself that he had no better customers than the Pennell family, and being quite sure of the appetizing contents of the box.
As they drove out of the town, past the stone house, and on to the river road Ruth pointed out the field, where the May-pole was still standing, and told the farmer all the May-day sports and songs.
"Perhaps you could remember some of those songs, Miss Ruth? Now, if you could, I should admire to hear them," said Farmer Withely.
"Yes, indeed! I remember every one," said Ruth, and when she began Mrs. Hastings' song, Farmer Withely found that it was one he too used to sing as a boy on far-off May-days, and so they sang it together, their voices falling pleasantly on the sweet spring air.
Then Ruth ventured to ask if Farmer Withely had ever seen General Washington, or, perhaps, young Lafayette?
"Indeed I have. My best gray horse has now the honor of belonging to General Washington, and many a cold journey have I taken to carry food to the soldiers at Valley Forge," responded Farmer Withely, and he went on to tell of the unfaltering courage of the American soldiers through the hardships at the camp.
He told of young Lafayette's recent return to Valley Forge from Albany, and of his devotion to the American cause. Ruth listened eagerly to all he had to tell her, and the miles slipped away behind them, and when Farmer Withely pointed toward the old church, which stood near the summit of Barren Hill, and said that they had nearly reached their journey's end, Ruth declared that it had been a very pleasant journey, and Farmer Withely said he would like just such a passenger every day.
Aunt Deborah Farleigh was at the gate to welcome her little niece, and then Ruth had to be taken and introduced to the bees, and to see two brown calves in the barnyard, and a flock of fine chickens. After that it was nearly dusk and supper was ready, and it was not until Ruth took her seat at the table that she remembered her real errand to Barren Hill.
"Aunt Deborah, the English have not captured Lafayette, have they?" she asked earnestly.
For once Aunt Deborah was startled from her usual calmness.
"For pity's sake, child! What dost thou mean?" she responded. "I have heard naught of such a thing."
Ruth gave a sigh of relief. "I just wanted to be sure," she replied.
The May sun streamed warmly into the big square chamber where Ruth slept, and she awoke to the song of birds, and the fragrance of blossoming lilacs.
For a few moments she lay quite still, looking wonderingly about the room. It seemed a "shining" room to Ruth, with its whitewashed walls, and its smooth polished floor, and only a chest of drawers, a light-stand and a rush-bottomed chair for furniture.
She got up and dressed slowly, wondering if her mother missed her very much, and if Hero would go scratching and whining to her door in search of his little mistress. Aunt Deborah's house was much larger than the little brick house which was Ruth's home in Philadelphia, and as Ruth came slowly down the wide stairs she thought what a fine house it would be for little girls to live in; there seemed so much room and so little furniture.
Aunt Deborah lived alone, but the Withely farm adjoined hers, and Farmer Withely took care of her farm and stock.
"Good-morning, Ruth," said Aunt Deborah with her sunny smile, as her little niece came into the big kitchen to find breakfast awaiting her. "I trust thy pleasure in being here is as great as mine in having thee. And I have great news for thee. Thy dear father came over from Valley Forge a week ago, and was sorry enough to find thee not here. And he had great tidings for me. He says that France has now joined with America in the war against England, and Washington hopes for great aid from so powerful an ally."
"Oh, Aunt Deborah! Won't my father come again?" responded Ruth. "May I not go to Valley Forge to see him?"
"It may be that he will come again," Aunt Deborah replied thoughtfully. "And who knows but he may come with Lafayette! For General Washington is sending scouting parties about the country to discover the plans of the English. So any day we may see the troops of either army come marching up the road."
Ruth was almost too excited to eat her breakfast after listening to Aunt Deborah's news, and even the sight of the pink lustre cup from which Lafayette had drunk seemed of little consequence. If English soldiers came marching that way Ruth knew well that their purpose would be to capture American scouting parties, and she became more eager than ever to go to Valley Forge, and again asked Aunt Deborah if she could not go. But Aunt Deborah promptly responded that such a visit was impossible.
"Tis a ride of over ten miles, and a ford to cross," she said. "Farmer Withely has no spare time at present to take thee; besides that, General Washington does not care for visitors."
Ruth looked so disappointed that Aunt Deborah added: "And who knows what day Lafayette may ride this way again? It may even be this very morning! Take thy doll and walk to the church; from there thou canst see both ways. If the English redcoats come along the river road thee must hasten back and tell me, so that we may start some one off at once to warn our American soldiers."
"Might I go?" asked Ruth.
"How could a small girl like thee cross the Schuylkill?" questioned Aunt Deborah. "'Tis most likely I should have to go myself."
Ruth now felt that she could really be of use if she kept watch from the top of Barren Hill, and she ran through the garden, and climbed up the rough slope to the little square church, from whose steps she could watch the quiet road which curved along by the woods to the riverside. She thought of Hero, and wished it had been possible to bring him with her. "Just for company," she whispered to herself, for she began to feel that she was a long way from home.
"Unless Father or Lafayette comes to-day I must go to Valley Forge to-morrow," she resolved.
But the day passed without a sign of any advancing troops, and at supper-time Ruth was so quiet and sober that Aunt Deborah began to fear that her little niece was homesick, and tried to amuse her by telling her of a tame squirrel who lived in the wood-shed and had made friends with a family of kittens. But the little girl did not seem interested; she wanted to know if the water was very deep at Matson's ford, and how long it would take to walk to Valley Forge; until Aunt Deborah wondered if Ruth really thought such a journey possible for a little girl. She recalled the visit Ruth had made to the English General in order to rescue Hero, and said to herself that she was sure Ruth would not again undertake any plan without asking permission.
"I'll wait until to-morrow," Ruth resolved, as she went to bed that night. "I mustn't wait any longer," and comforted by that resolution she was soon fast asleep.
She awoke before daylight, to find Aunt Deborah standing beside the bed.
"Get up, my dear child. Lose no time. General Lafayette is below, and I am preparing his breakfast," she said.
"Oh, Aunt Deborah!" exclaimed Ruth, sure that this was a dream from which she would soon awake.
"Hasten, child, if thou wouldst see him," and Aunt Deborah, candle in hand, disappeared from the shadowy room.
Ruth dressed more quickly than ever before, but she did not neglect to brush her hair neatly, but not until she opened the kitchen door did she realize that the strings to her stout leather shoes were unfastened.
It was broad daylight now, and the morning sunshine was all about the Marquis de Lafayette as he looked up with a smiling nod to the little girl who stood gazing at him from the doorway.
"If thee please, sir, this is my niece, Ruth Pennell, who has long cherished the hope of seeing thee," said Aunt Deborah.
The young Frenchman rose from his seat, and bowed as ceremoniously as if Lady Washington herself stood before him.
Ruth could think only of her thick shoes and the wandering strings, as she endeavored to make a proper curtsy.
Lafayette was in the uniform of an American officer, and two American soldiers were on guard at the open door. The little party had ridden over from Valley Forge under cover of the night to discover a camping-ground for a body of troops which Lafayette was soon to lead toward Philadelphia, for Washington had discovered that Sir Henry Clinton had orders to evacuate the city.
"Will you not share my breakfast, Mistress Ruth?" asked the young Frenchman, drawing one of the high-backed wooden chairs to the table beside his own.
"The child will indeed be honored," replied Aunt Deborah, and almost before Ruth could realize the great honor in store for her she found herself seated at the table. She looked up to find Lafayette smiling at her shy word of thanks.
What a wonderful breakfast for any little girl to have to remember. Ruth wished with all her heart that Winifred and Gilbert could see her.
"I have a small daughter of my own in France," said the kind young Frenchman, "and I hear that your father is at Valley Forge."
"Yes, sir," responded Ruth faintly, wondering to herself why she did not at once tell him what she had heard the English officers at Southwark say of General Howe's intention to capture him.
"Well, very soon he will be safe at home," continued Lafayette. And now Ruth resolved to speak.
"If you please, sir——" she began, but at that moment Lafayette sprang to his feet, and with a word of thanks to Aunt Deborah for her hospitality, and a smiling nod to Ruth, he started toward the door, saying:
"I have indeed lingered too long. I must lose no time in getting back to camp."
But now Ruth was out of her chair in a second; she was no longer in awe of the young Frenchman.
"I must tell you. I heard two Englishmen say you were to be captured and taken to England," she declared eagerly, running along by his side.
The young man smiled down at the eager, half frightened child.
"Ah, well, ma chere, they have been saying that for a long time," he responded lightly, "but thou art a kind little maid to warn me; and I assure thee I will remember it," and with a word of farewell he hurried across the garden, mounted his horse, and in a few moments had vanished behind the thick growing trees.
Aunt Deborah and Ruth stood on the garden path listening until they could no longer hear the sound of the horses' feet on the hard country road. Then Aunt Deborah smiled at Ruth.
"Thee should be a happy girl now, I am sure," she said, "and thee did right to tell him what his enemies threaten. Perhaps that was one reason thee was so anxious to visit Valley Forge?"
"Oh, yes, Aunt Deborah! If he had not come I should have had to run away so he might surely be warned," Ruth responded.
"I would have taken the message myself had need been," said Aunt Deborah; "but thee sees that he already knew of their wicked plan. He did but smile at such a threat."
A few days after this visit there was great excitement on Barren Hill. A troop of American soldiers, the very flower of Washington's army, commanded by Lafayette, were in camp on the hill. Farmers were bringing buckets of milk and freshly baked bread for the soldiers' breakfast, and Ruth could see and hear the bustle of the camps.
At first Mistress Farleigh and Ruth had hoped that Ruth's father might be one of the company, but as the day passed and he did not appear at the stone house they became sure that he was still at Valley Forge.
Mistress Farleigh had told Ruth not to go to the summit of the hill where the troops were camped.
"Thee may walk toward the river, or in the paths at the edge of the wood," Aunt Deborah had said, adding that she wished Hero were at Barren Hill. "Then thee could go wherever thee pleased."
But that day Ruth was content to play with Cecilia in the pleasant garden, hoping until long after sunset that her father might appear.
Neither Aunt Deborah nor Ruth slept well that night, and both were up very early in the morning. After their simple breakfast Aunt Deborah busied herself with bread making, that she might send hot corn bread to the American soldiers.
"And wilt thou not run over to Farmer Withely's and ask Mistress Withely for the loan of a covered basket of good size, Ruth," she suggested, and Ruth willingly obeyed. The Withely farmhouse was at the further side of a broad field, and hidden by a small grove of pine trees. It was a pleasant walk in the early morning, and as Ruth ran along she could see that the American troops were harnessing their horses, and that it was evident some movement was at hand.
"Oh! Perhaps I shall never see Lafayette again, and I did not help him after all," she thought.
And now another and more startling sound came to Ruth's ears. Along the Ridge road she could hear the sound of horses' feet and the rattle of musketry.
"Perhaps it is more American soldiers coming," thought the little girl. But she felt vaguely troubled, as she went slowly on. She had just entered the little woodland path which led to Farmer Withely's when she saw a glimmer of a red coat in the underbrush.
Ruth stopped, and crouched low behind a small tree. She heard low voices, and in a moment a laughing voice said:
"We have the fine Frenchman just where we want him. He is preparing his men to receive Howe's soldiers on the Ridge road, but he does not dream that General Grant with seven thousand troops is coming up in his rear. General Howe has invited a dinner party to meet Lafayette to-night in Philadelphia."
"'Tis a fine thing to get the Frenchman," came the low response; "we'd better move farther up the hill now."
For a moment Ruth hesitated, hardly realizing the importance of what she had overheard. Then she turned and ran toward the American encampment, where she could see troops of soldiers already moving forward toward the Ridge road.
"Oh I suppose I do not get there in time to tell him that there is an English army coming behind him," she thought.
Once she stumbled and fell over an unseen root; but at last breathless and tired she found herself facing a number of American soldiers, one of whom called out:
"Run home, child; you are in danger here."
"Lafayette! Lafayette!" she called wildly. "Tell him there are thousands of English soldiers coming up the road behind his army. The road from Swedes Ford," called Ruth.
Almost before Ruth finished speaking one of the soldiers had turned his horse and galloped away to find his commander, and tell him of this unexpected enemy. Ruth turned and hurried home. She had entirely forgotten about her errand to Farmer Withely's.
Lafayette had received the startling news and acted upon it without a question. He marched his men rapidly toward Matson's Ford, on the lower road, and when the British generals came up to Barren Hill they were astonished to find that they had only each other to fight. They decided not to cross the river, but returned to Philadelphia, much disappointed that the Marquis de Lafayette was not their prisoner.
Lafayette likewise marched back to Valley Forge, where he was received with great joy.
The soldier who had taken Ruth's message found an opportunity to tell Lafayette that the news that had saved his army had been brought by a little girl.
"She came running up the hill calling your name, sir. A little girl with yellow hair and blue eyes," said the soldier.
"Would you know her if you saw her again?" questioned the young Frenchman.
"I should indeed, sir," was the quick reply.
Aunt Deborah had not questioned Ruth when, flushed and tired, she came running back to the house on the morning when the Americans had so easily made their escape, thanks to Ruth's message, from the overwhelming armies of the English. For a number of days Ruth did not venture beyond the garden, and when, a week later, her father opened the gate and called "Ruth!" she ran to meet him, feeling sure that now everything was sure to come right, and that she and her father could soon return to Philadelphia.
But Mr. Pennell was not alone; there was a tall smiling soldier just behind him, and near the gate a graceful figure on horseback that Ruth recognized as Lafayette.
Aunt Deborah came hurrying to welcome Mr. Pennell; the soldier had turned back, and was standing beside the mounted officer, who soon dismounted and came slowly up the path.
"Lieutenant Pennell, I have to thank your little maid for a very great service," he said, as he took Ruth's hand, and smiled down on the little girl; and then he told first of Ruth's warning that his capture was planned by General Howe, and then of her warning of an advancing army against his troops.
"I came this morning that I might thank her for her loyal service to America and to me," he said, bending low to kiss the warm little hand that rested in his own.
It was indeed a wonderful day for Ruth Pennell.
After Lafayette rode away she told the story to her surprised and astonished father, while Aunt Deborah listened as if she could hardly believe her own ears.
Lieutenant Pennell had been given a week's furlough, and was quite sure that it would be possible for him to visit his home in Philadelphia, taking Ruth with him, for the English were leaving the city as rapidly as possible.
Later in the day Aunt Deborah told Ruth's father of his little daughter's visit to General Howe, and Ruth told of Gilbert's play, and of the boys' arrest by the English, of Betty's capture on account of the borrowed coat, and of her escape from the house by the river.
"The children of Philadelphia will indeed remember the year of 1778, and surely my little daughter can never forget it," responded her father.
Ruth was eager to start for home as soon as possible, especially as Aunt Deborah said that she must return in midsummer with her mother for a longer visit. "And thy friend Winifred must come also," she had added.
Winifred and Gilbert had heard the story of Ruth's warning to the American army, for Aunt Deborah had sent a letter to Mrs. Pennell at the first opportunity, and Gilbert had at once declared that he would "make up a play" about it.
"And we will have it the very day Ruth comes home," he said. "I will be Lafayette, and Ruth can be herself."
"And let's ask Betty and all the girls who went to the May party," suggested Winifred.
"And Ned, too, and Mother and Mrs. Pennell," agreed Gilbert. "I tell you, it is lucky Ruth went to Barren Hill, and I guess it's lucky you girls went to Southwark that day. You see, it put Ruth on the lookout to warn Lafayette," he added.
Gilbert's second play proved even a greater success than his first. The girls listened admiringly to Winifred's account of Lafayette's thanking Ruth, and when the guests had all gone the two little friends went to their favorite seat in Ruth's garden under the big maple tree. Hero kept very close to his little mistress, as if afraid that she might again suddenly disappear.
"Do you remember that day when we began the chair for Cecilia, Ruthie?" asked Winifred, "and when you said you wished you could do some great service for Lafayette because he had come to help America?"
Ruth nodded, not quite sure of the exact day, but very sure that she had always wanted to help the young Frenchman, and wondering what Winifred would say next.
"And now you have done him a great service," Winifred continued soberly. "And Betty and Annette, and all the girls say that you are a real heroine."
"I guess they don't know much about heroines," responded Ruth, but there was a pleased smile about her mouth. Of course any little girl whose hand had been kissed by Lafayette was a heroine, she thought happily.
The Stories in this Series are:
A LITTLE MAID OF PROVINCE TOWN A LITTLE MAID OF MASSACHUSETTS COLONY A LITTLE MAID OF NARRAGANSETT BAY A LITTLE MAID OF BUNKER HILL A LITTLE MAID OF TICONDEROGA A LITTLE MAID OF OLD CONNECTICUT A LITTLE MAID OF OLD PHILADELPHIA A LITTLE MAID OF OLD MAINE