"Tell me the facts of your life."
"As I said, my name is John Brereton. Nothing else about me will ever be known from me."
Washington scrutinised the man with an intent surprise. "You cannot expect us to trust you on such information."
"An hour ago it would have been possible for me to have sneaked by stealth into the British lines with this letter," said the man, taking from his pocket a sheet of paper and handing it to the general. "What think you would Sir William Howe have given me for news, over the signature of General Washington, that the Continental Army had less than ten rounds of powder per man?"
Washington studied the face of the young fellow steadily for twenty seconds. "Are you good at penmanship?" he asked.
"I am a deft hand at all smouting work," replied Brereton.
"Then, sir," said Washington, smiling slightly, "as I wish to keep an eye on you until you have proved yourself, I shall for the present find employment for you in my own family."
Thus a twelve-month passed without Philemon Hennion, John Evatt, Charles Fownes, Parson McClave, or any other lover so much as once darkening the doors of Greenwood.
"Janice," remarked her mother at the end of the year, "dost realise that in less than a twelve-month thou 'lt be a girl of eighteen and without a lover, much less a husband? I was wed before I was seventeen, and so are all respectably behaved females. See what elopements come to. 'T is evident thou 'rt to die an old maid."
XXII THE OLIVE BRANCH
If this year was bare of courtships, of affairs of interest it was far otherwise. Scarcely was 1776 ushered in than news came that the raw and ill-equipped force, which for nine months had held the British beleaguered in Boston, had at last obtained sufficient guns and powder to assume the offensive, and had, by seizing Dorchester Heights, compelled the evacuation of the city. Howe's army and the fleet sailed away without molestation to Halifax, leaving behind them a rumour, however, that great reinforcements were coming from Great Britain, and that upon their arrival, New York would be reduced and held as a strategic base from which all the middle colonies would be overrun and reduced to submission.
This probability turned military operations southward. General Lee, who early in the new year had been given command of the district around Manhattan Island, set about a system of fortifications, even while he protested that the water approaches made the city impossible to hold against such a naval force as Britain was certain to employ. At the same time that this protection was begun against an outward enemy, a second was put in train against the inward one, and this involved the household of Meredith.
One morning, while the squire stood superintending two of his laborers, as they were seeding a field, a rider stopped his horse at the wall dividing it from the road and hailed him loudly. Mr. Meredith, in response to the call, walked toward the man; but the moment he was near enough to recognise Captain Bagby, he came to a halt, indecisive as to what course to pursue toward his enemy.
"Can't do no talking at this distance, squire," sang out Bagby, calmly; "and as I've got something important to say, and my nag prevents me from coming to you, I reckon you'll have to do the travelling."
After a moment's hesitation, the master of Greenwood came to the stone wall. But it was with a bottled-up manner which served to indicate his inward feelings that he demanded crustily, "What want ye with me?"
"It's this way," explained Joe. "If what's said is true, Howe is coming to York with a bigger army than we can raise, to fight us, if we fights, but with power to offer us all we wants, if we won't. Now there 's a big party in Congress as is mortal afraid that there'll be a reconciliation, and so they is battling tooth and nail to get independence declared before Howe can get here, so that there sha'n't be no possibility of making up."
"The vile Jesuits!" exclaimed the squire, wrathfully, "and but a three-month gone they were tricking their constituents with loud-voiced cries that the charge that they desired independence was one trumped up by the ministry to injure the American cause, and that they held the very thought in abhorrence."
"'T is n't possible to always think the same way in politics straight along," remarked the politician, "and that 's just what I come over to see you about. Now, if there 's going to be war, I guess I'll be of some consequence, and if there 's going to be a peace, like as not you'll be on top; and I'll be concerned if I can tell which it is like to be."
"I can tell ye," announced Mr. Meredith. "'T is—"
"Perhaps you can, squire," broke in Bagby, "but your opinions have n't proved right so far, so just let me finish what I have to say first. Have you heard that the Committee of Safety has arrested the Governor?"
"No. Though 't is quite of a piece with your other lawless proceedings."
"Some of his letters was intercepted, and they was so tory-ish that 't was decided he should be put under guard. And at the same time it was voted to take precautionary proceedings against all the other enemies of the country."
"Then why are n't ye under arrest?" snapped the squire.
"'Cause there 's too many of us, and too few of you," explained Bagby, equably. "Now the Committee has sent orders to each county committee to make out a list of those we think ought to be arrested, and a meeting 's to be held this afternoon to act on it. Old Hennion he came to me last night and said he wanted your name put on, and he'd vote to recommend that you be taken to Connecticut and held in prison there along with the Governor."
"Pox the old villain!" fumed Mr. Meredith. "For a six-months I've sat quiet, as ye know, and 't is merely his way of paying the debts he owes me. A fine state ye've brought the land to, when a man can settle private scores in such a manner."
"There is n't no denying that you 're no friend to the cause, and if any one 's to be took up hereabouts, it should be you. Still, I'm a fair-play fellow, and so I thought, before I let him have his way, I'd come over and have a talk with you, to see if we could n't fix things."
"If the king 's come to his senses and intends to deal fair with us," remarked Bagby, with a preliminary glance around and a precautionary dropping of his voice, "that 's all I ask, and so I don't see no reason for attacking his friends until we are more certain of what 's coming. At the same time, if Hennion wants to jail you, I think you'll own I have n't much reason to take your part. You've always been as stuck up and abusive to me as you well could be. So 't is only natural I should n't stand up for you."
The lord of Greenwood swallowed before he said, "Perhaps I've not been neighbourly, but what sort of revenge is it to force me from my home, and distress my wife and daughter?"
"That's it," assented the Committeeman. "And so I came over to see what could be done. We have n't been the best of friends down to now, but that is n't saying that we could n't have been, if you 'd been as far-seeing as me, and known who to side in with. It seemed to me that if I stood by you in this scrape we might fix it up to act together. I take it that my brains and your money could run Middlesex County about as we pleased, if we quit fighting, and work together. Squire Hennion would have to take a back seat in politics, I guess."
The squire could not wholly keep the pleasure the thought gave him from his face. "'T would be a god-send to the county," he cried. "Ye know that as well as I."
"As to that, I'll say nothing," answered Joe. "But of course, if I'm going to throw my influence with you, I expect something in return."
"And what 's that?" asked Mr. Meredith, still dwelling on his revenge.
"I need n't tell you, squire, that I'm a rising man, and I'm going to go on rising. 'T won't be long before I'm about what I please, especially if we make a deal. Now, though there has n't been much intercourse between us, yet I've had my eye on your daughter for a long spell, and if you'll give your consent to my keeping company with her, I'll be your friend through thick and thin."
For a moment Mr. Meredith stood with wide-open mouth, then he roared: "Damn your impudence! ye—ye—have my lass, ye—be off with ye—ye—" There all articulate speech ended, the speaker only sputtering in his wrath, but his two fists, shaken across the wall, spoke eloquently the words that choked him.
"I thought you 'd play the fool, as usual," retorted the suitor, as he pulled his horse's head around. "You'll live to regret this day, see if you don't." And with this vague threat he trotted away toward Brunswick.
Whether Bagby had purposely magnified the danger with the object of frightening the squire into yielding to his wishes, or whether he and Hennion were outvoted by Parson McClave and the other members of the Committee, Mr. Meredith never learned. Of what was resolved he was not left long in doubt, for the morning following, the whole Committee, with a contingent of the Invincibles, invaded the privacy of Greenwood, and required of him that he surrender to them such arms as he was possessed of, and sign a parol that he would in no way give aid or comfort to the invaders. To these two requirements the squire yielded, at heart not a little comforted that the proceedings against him were no worse, though vocally he protested at such "robbery and coercion."
"Ye lord it high-handedly now," he told the party, "but ye'll sing another song ere long."
"Yer've been predictin' thet fer some time," chuckled Hennion, aggravatingly.
"'T will come all the surer that it comes tardily. 'Slow and sure doth make secure,' as ye'll dearly learn. We'll soon see how debtors who won't pay either principal or interest like the law!"
Hennion chuckled again. "Yer see, squire," he said, "it don't seem ter me ter be my interest ter pay principal, nor my principle ter pay interest. Ef I wuz yer, I would n't het myself over them mogiges; I ain't sweatin'."
"I'll sweat ye yet, ye old rascal," predicted the creditor.
"When'll thet be?" asked Hennion.
"When we are no longer tyrannised over by a pack of debtors, scoundrels, and Scotch Presbyterians," with which remark the squire stamped away.
It must be confessed, however, that bad as the master of Greenwood deemed the political situation, he gave far more thought to his private affairs. Every day conditions were becoming more unsettled. His overseer had left his employ to enlist, throwing all care of the farm on the squire's shoulders; a second bondsman, emboldened by Charles' successful levanting, had done the same, making labourers short-handed; while those who remained were more eager to find excuses taking them to Brunswick, that they might hear the latest news, and talk it over, than they were to give their undivided attention to reaping and hoeing. Finally, more and more tenants failed to appear at Greenwood on rent day, and so the landlord was called upon to ride the county over, dunning, none too successfully, the delinquent.
Engrossing as all this might be, Mr. Meredith was still too much concerned in public events not to occasionally find an excuse for riding into Brunswick and learning of their progress; and one evening as he approached the village, his eyes and ears both informed him that something unusual was in hand, for muskets were being discharged, great fires were blazing on the green, and camped upon it was a regiment of troops.
Riding up to the tavern, where a rushing business was being done, the squire halted the publican as he was hurrying past with a handful of mugs, by asking, "What does all this mean?"
"Living jingo, but things is on the bounce," cried the landlord, excitedly. "Here 's news come that the British fleet of mor'n a hundred sail is arrived inside o' Sandy Hook, an' all the Jersey militia hez been ordered out, an' here 's a whole regiment o' Pennsylvania 'Sociators on theer way tew Amboy tew help us fight 'em, an' more comin'; an' as if everythin' was tew happen all tew once, here 's Congress gone an' took John Bull by the horns in real arnest." The cupbearer-to-man thrust a broadside, which he pulled from his pocket, into the squire's hand, and hastened away cellar-ward.
The squire unrumpled the sheet, which was headed in bold-faced type:—
In Congress, July 4, 1776, A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in General Congress assembled.
Ere he had more than seen the words, he was interrupted by Joe, who, glass in hand, left the bench and came to the rider, where, in a low voice, he said:—
"You see, squire, the independents has outsharped the other party, and got the thing passed before Howe got here. It was a durned smart trick, and don't leave either side nothing but to fight. I guess 't won't be long before you'll be sorry enough you did n't take up with my offer."
Mr. Meredith, who had divided his attention between what his interlocutor was saying and the sentence, "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another," concluded that human events could wait, and ceasing to read, he gave his attention to the speaker.
"If ye think to frighten or grieve me, ye are mightily out," he trumpeted loudly. "Hitherto Britain has dealt gently with ye, but now ye'll feel the full force of her wrath. A six weeks will serve to bring the whole pack of ye to your knees, whining for pardon."
The prediction was greeted with a chorus of gibes and protests, and on the instant the squire was the centre of a struggling mass of militiamen and villagers, who roughly pulled him from his horse. But before they could do more, the colonel of the troops and the parson interfered, loudly commanding the mob to desist from all violence; and with ill grace and with muttered threats and angry noddings of heads, the crowd, one by one, went back to their glasses. That the interference was none too prompt was shown by the condition of the squire, for his hat, peruke, and ruffles were all lying on the ground in tatters, his coat was ripped down the back, and one sleeve hung by a mere shred.
"You do wrong to anger the people unnecessarily, sir," said Mr. McClave, sternly. "Dost court ducking or other violence? Common prudence should teach you to be wiser."
The squire hastily climbed into the saddle. From that vantage point he replied, "Ye need not think Lambert Meredith is to be frightened into dumbness. But there are some who will talk smaller ere long." Then, acting more prudently than he spoke, he shook his reins and started Joggles homeward.
It was little grief, as can be imagined, that the events of the next few weeks brought to Greenwood; and the day the news came that Washington's force had been outflanked and successfully driven from its position on the hills of Brooklyn, with a loss of two of its best brigades, the squire was so jubilant that nothing would do but to have up a bottle of his best Madeira,— a wine hitherto never served except to guests of distinction.
"Give a knave rope enough and he'll hang himself" he said gloatingly. "Because the land favoured them at Boston, they got the idea they were invincible, and Congress would have it that New York must be defended, though a hundred thousand troops could not have done it against the fleet, let alone Howe's army. Ho! By this time the rogues have learned what fifteen thousand butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers can do 'gainst thirty thousand veterans. And they've had but the first mouthful of the dose they'll have to swallow."
The jubilation of the prophet was short-lived, for even as he spoke, and with decanter but half emptied, the tramp of feet sounded in the hallway, and the door was flung open to admit four men, armed with muskets.
"In the name of the Continental Congress, and by orders of General Washington, I arrests yer, Lambert Meredith," announced the spokesman.
"For what?" cried Janice.
XXIII HEADQUARTERS IN 1776
On September 15, a group of horsemen, occupying a slight eminence of ground on the island of Manhattan, were gazing eastward. Below and nearer the water were spread lines of' soldiers behind intrenchments, while from three men-of-war lying in the river came a heavy cannonade that swept the shore line and spread over the water a pall of smoke which, as it drifted to leeward, obscured the Long Island shore from view.
"'T is evidently a feint, your Excellency," presently asserted one of the observers, "to cover a genuine attack elsewhere —most likely above the Haarlem."
The person addressed—a man with an anxious, careworn face that made him look fifty at least—lowered his glass, but did not reply for some moments. "You may be right, sir," he remarked, "though to me it has the air of an intended attack. What think you, Reed?"
"I agree with Mifflin. The attack will be higher up. Hah! Look there!"
A rift had come in the smoke, and a column of boats, moving with well-timed oars, could for a moment be seen as it came forward.
"They intend a landing at Kip's Bay, as I surmised," exclaimed the general. "Gentlemen, we shall be needed below." He turned to Reed and gave him an order concerning reinforcements, then wheeled and, followed by the rest, trotted over the ploughed field. Once on the highway, he spurred his horse, putting him to a sharp canter.
"What troops hold the works on the bay, Muffin?" asked one of the riders.
"Fellows' and Parsons' brigades, Brereton."
"If they are as good at fighting as at thieving, they'll distinguish themselves."
"Ay," laughed Muffin. "If the red coats were but chickens or cattle, the New England militia would have had them all captured ere now."
"They'll be hearn from to-day," said a third officer. "They've earthworks to git behind, and they'll give the British anuther Bunker Hill."
"Then you ought to be quick, General Putnam," said Brereton, "for that 's the fighting you like."
The road lay in the hollow of the land, and not till the party reached a slight rise were they able once more to get a glimpse of the shores of the bay. Then it was to find the flotilla well in toward its intended landing-place, and the American troops retreating in great disorder from their breastworks.
Exclamations of surprise and dismay sprang from the lips of the riders, and their leader, turning his horse, jumped the fence and galloped across the fields to intercept the fugitives. Five minutes brought them up to the runaways, who, out of breath with the sharpness of their pace, had come to a halt, and were being formed by their officers into a little less disorder.
"General Fellows, what was the reason for this shameful retreat?" demanded the general, when within speaking distance.
"The men were seized with a panic on the approach of the boats, your Excellency, and could not be held in the lines."
Washington faced the regiments, his face blazing with scorn. "You ran before a shot had been fired! Before you lost a man, you deserted works that have taken weeks to build, and which could be held against any such force." He paused for a moment, and then, drawing his sword, he called with spirit: "Who's for recovering them?"
A faint cheer passed down the lines; but almost as it sounded, the red coats of fifty or sixty light infantry came into view on the road, a skirmishing party thrown forward from the landing to reconnoitre. Had they been Howe's whole army, however, they could not have proved more effective, for instantly the two brigades broke and dissolved once more into squads of flying men.
At such cowardice, Washington lost all control of himself, and, dashing in among the fugitives, he passionately struck right and left with the flat of his sword, thundering curses at them; while Putnam and Muffin, as well as the aides, followed his example. It was hopeless, however, to stay the rush; the men took the blows and the curses unheeding, while throwing away their guns and scattering in every direction.
Made frantic by such conduct, Washington wheeled his horse. "Charge!" he cried, and rode toward the enemy, waving his sword.
If the commander-in-chief had hoped to put some of his own courage into the troops by his example, he failed. Not a man of the runaways ceased fleeing. None the less, as if regardless of consequences in his desperation, Washington rode on, until one of the aides dashed his spurs into his horse and came up beside his general at a mad gallop.
"Your Excellency!" he cried, "'t is but hopeless and will but end in—" Then, as his superior did not heed him, he seized the left rein of his horse's bridle and, pulling on it, swung him about in a large circle, letting go his hold only when they were riding away from the enemy.
Washington offered no resistance, and rode the hundred yards to where the rest of his staff were standing, with bowed head. Nothing was said as he rejoined the group, and Blueskin, disappointed in the charge for which he had shown as much eagerness as his rider, let his mind recur to thoughts of oats; finding no control in the hand that held his bridle, he set out at an easy trot toward headquarters.
They had not ridden many yards ere Washington lifted his head, the expression of hopelessness, which had taken the place of that of animation, in turn succeeded by one of stern repose. He issued three orders to as many of the riders, showing that his mind had not been dwelling idly on the disaster, slipped his sword into its scabbard, and gathered up his reins again.
"There!" thought Blueskin, as a new direction was indicated by his bit, "I'm going to have another spell of it riding all ways of a Sunday, just as we did last night. And it 's coming on to rain."
Rain it did very quickly; but from post to post the horsemen passed, the sternly silent commander speaking only when giving the necessary orders to remedy so far as possible the disaster of the afternoon. Not till eleven, and then in a thoroughly drenched condition, did they reach the Morris House on Haarlem Heights. It was to no rest, however, that the general arrived; for, as he dismounted, Major Gibbs of his life guards informed him that the council of war he had called was gathered and only awaited his attendance.
"Get you some supper, gentlemen," he ordered, to such of his aides as were still of the party, "for 't is likely that you will have more riding when the council have deliberated."
"'T is advice he might take himself to proper advantage," said one of the juniors, while they were stripping off their wet coverings in a side room.
"Ay," asserted Brereton. "The general uses us hard, Tilghman, but he uses himself harder." Then aloud he called, "Billy!"
"Make a glass of rum punch and take it in to his Excellency."
"Foh de Lord, sah, I doan dar go in, an' yar know marse neber drink no spirits till de day's work dun."
"Make a dish of tea, then, you old coward, and I'll take it to him so soon as I get these slops off me. 'Fore George! How small-clothes stick when they 're wet!"
"You mean when a man 's so foppish that he will have them made tight enough to display the goodness of his thighs," rejoined Gibbs, who, being dry, was enjoying the plight of the rest. "Make yourselves smart, gentlemen, there are ladies at quarters to-night."
"You don't puff that take-in on us, sirrah," retorted Tilghman.
"'Pon honour. They arrived a six hours ago, and have been waiting to see the general."
"You may be bound they are old and plain," prophesied Brereton, "or Gibbs would be squiring them, 'stead of wasting time on us."
"There you 're cast," rejoined the major, "I caught but a glimpse, yet 't was enough to prove to me that all astronomers lie."
"In saying that but twice in a century is there a transit of Venus."
"Then why bide you here, man?"
"That's the disgustful rub. They were with a man under suspicion, and orders were that none should hold converse with him before the general examined into it. A plague on't!"
Discussion of Venus was here broken by the announcement of supper, and the make-shift meal was still unfinished when the general's body-servant appeared with the tea. Taking it, Brereton marched boldly to the council door, and, giving a knock, he went in without awaiting a reply.
The group of anxious-faced men about the table looked up, and Washington, with a frown, demanded, "For what do you interrupt us, sir?"
The young officer put the tea down on the map lying in front of the general. "Billy didn't dare take this to your Excellency, so I made bold to e'en bring it myself."
"This is no time for tea, Colonel Brereton."
"'T is no time for the army to lose their general," replied the aide. "I pray you drink it, sir, for our sake if you won't for your own."
A kindly look supplanted the sternness of the previous moment on the general's face. "I thank you for your thoughtfulness, Brereton," he said, raising the cup and pouring some of the steaming drink into the saucer. Then as the officer started to go, he added, "Hold!" Picking up a small bundle of papers which lay on the table, he continued: "Harrison tells me that there is a prisoner under guard for my examination. I shall scarce be able to attend to it this evening, and to-morrow is like to be a busy day. Take charge of the matter, and report to me the moment the council breaks up. Here are the papers."
Standing in the dim light of the hallway, the aide opened the papers and read them hastily. Either the strain on the eyes, or some emotion, put a frown on his face, and it was still there as he walked to the door before which stood a sentry, and passed into a badly lighted room.
"Powerful proud ter meet yer Excellency," was his greeting from a man in civilian shorts and a military coat, who held out his hand. "Captain Bagby desired his compliments ter yer, an' ter say that legislative dooties pervented his attindin' ter the matter hisself."
Paying no heed to either outstretched hand or words, the officer looked first at a man standing beside the fireplace and then at the two women, who had risen as he entered. He waited a moment, glancing from one to the other, as if expecting each of them to speak; but when they did not, he asked gruffly of the guard, though still with his eyes on the prisoners: "And for what were the ladies brought?"
"Becuz they wud n't be left behind on no accaount. Yer see, yer Excellency, things hez been kinder onsettled in Middlesex Caounty, an' it hain't been a joyful time to them as wuz Tories; so when orders cum ter bring old Meredith ter York Island, his wife an' gal wuz so scar't nothin' would do but they must come along."
"Ay," spoke up the man by the fireplace, bitterly. "A nice pass ye've brought things to, that women dare not tarry in their own homes for fear of insult."
"You may go," said the officer to the captor, pointing at the door.
"Ain't I ter hear the 'zamination, yer Excellency?" demanded the man, regretfully. "The hull caounty is sot on known' ther fac's." But as the hand still pointed to the entrance, the man passed reluctantly through it.
Taking a seat shadowed from the dim light of the solitary candle, the officer asked: "You are aware, Mr. Meredith, on what charge you are in military custody?"
"Not I," growled the master of Greenwood. "For more than a year gone I've taken no part in affairs, but 't is all of a piece with ye Whigs that—to trump up a charge against—"
"This is no trumpery accusation," interrupted the officer. "I hold here a letter to Sir William Howe, found after our army took possession of Boston, signed by one Clowes, and conveying vastly important information as to our lack of powder, which he states he obtained through you."
"Now a pox on the villain!" cried the squire. "Has he not tried to do me enough harm in other ways, but he must add this to it? Janice, see the evil ye've wrought."
"Oh, dadda," cried the girl, desperately, "I know I was— was a wicked creature, but I've been sorry, and suffered for it, and I don't think 't is fair to blame me for this. 'T was not I who brought him—"
"Silence, miss!" interrupted her mother. "Wouldst sauce thy father in his trouble?"
"I presume you obtained the knowledge Clowes transmitted from your daughter?" surmised the officer.
"My daughter? Not I! How could a chit of a girl know aught of such things? Clowes got it from young Hennion, and devil a thing had I really to do with it, write what he pleases."
"Pray take chairs, ladies," suggested the aide, with more politeness. "Now, sir, unravel this matter, so far as 't is known to you."
When the squire's brief tale of how the information was obtained and forwarded to Boston was told, the officer was silent for some moments. Then he asked: "Hast had word of Clowes since then?"
"Not sight or word since the night the—"
"Oh, dadda," moaned Janice, "please don't!"
"Since he attempted to steal my girl from me. And if e'er I meet him I trust I'll have my horsewhip handy."
"Is Hennion where we can lay hold upon him?"
"Not he. 'T was impossible for him to get out of Boston, try his best, and the last word we had of him—wrote to his rascally father—was that he'd 'listed in Ruggles' loyalists."
"Then the only man we can bring to heel is this bond-servant of thine."
"Not even he. The scamp took French leave, and if ye want him ye must search your own army.
"Canst aid us to find him?"
"I know naught of him, or his doings, save that last June I received the price I paid for his bond, through Parson McClave, who perhaps can give ye word of him."
The officer rose, saying: "Mr. Meredith, I shall report on your case to the general, so soon as he is free, and have small doubt that you will be acquitted of blame and released. I fear me you will find headquarters' hospitality somewhat wanting in comfort, for we're o'ercrowded, and you arrive in times of difficulty. But I'll try to see that the ladies get a room, and, whatever comes, 't will be better than the guard-house." He went to the hall door and called, "Grayson!"
"Well?" shouted back some one.
"There are two ladies to be lodged here for the night. May I offer them our room?"
"Ay. And my compliments to them, and say they may have my company along with it, if they be youngish."
"Tut, man," answered Brereton, reprovingly. "None of your Virginian freeness, for they can hear you." He turned and said: "You must be content with a deal feather-bed on the floor here, Mr. Meredith, but if the ladies will follow me I will see that they are bestowed in more comfortable quarters;" and he led the way upstairs, where, lighting a candle, he showed them to a small room, very much cluttered by military clothes and weapons, thrown about in every direction. "I apologise, ladies," he remarked; "but for days it 's been ride and fight, till when sleeping hours came 't was bad enough to get one's clothes off, let alone put them tidy."
"And indeed, sir, there is no need of apology," responded Mrs. Meredith, warmly, "save for us, for robbing you of the little comfort you possess."
"'T is a pleasure amid all the strife we live in to be able to do a service," replied the officer, gallantly, as he bowed low over Mrs. Meredith's hand and then kissed it. He turned to the girl and did the same. "May you rest well," he added, and left the room.
"Oh, mommy!" exclaimed Janice, "didst ever see a more distinguished or finer-shaped man? And his dress and manners are—"
"Janice Meredith! Wilt never give thy thoughts to something else than men?"
"Well, Brereton," asked Tilghman as the aide joined his fellow-soldiers, "how did his Excellency take your boldness?"
"As punishment he sent me to examine Gibbs' Venus."
"Devil take your luck!" swore Gibbs. "I'll be bound ye made it none too short. Gaze at the smug look on the dandy's face."
Brereton laughed gleefully as he stripped off his coat and rolled it up into a pillow. "I've just kissed mamma's hand," he remarked.
"I can't say much for thy taste!"
"In order," coolly went on Brereton, as he stretched himself flat on the floor, "that I might then kiss that of Venus— and over hers I did not hurry, lads. Therefore, gentlemen, my present taste is, despite Gibbs' slur, most excellent, and I expect sweet dreams till his Excellency wants me. Silence in the ranks."
XXIV THE VALUE OF A FRIEND
As the sun rose on the following morning, Brereton came cantering up to headquarters. "Is his Excellency gone?" he demanded of the sentry, and received reply that Washington had ridden away toward the south ten minutes before. Leaving his horse with the man, the aide ran into the house and returned in a moment with a great hunk of corn bread and two sausages in his hand. Springing into the saddle, he set off at a rapid trot, munching voraciously as he rode.
"Steady, dear lass," he remarked to the mare. "If you make me lose any of this cake, I'll never forgive you, Janice."
Fifteen minutes served to bring the officer to a group of horsemen busy with field-glasses. Riding into their midst, he saluted, and said: "The Maryland regiments are in position, your Excellency." Then falling a little back, he looked out over the plain stretched before them. Barely had he taken in the two Continental regiments lying "at ease" half-way down the heights on which he was, and the line of their pickets on the level ground, when three companies of red-coated light infantry debouched from the woods that covered the corresponding heights to the southward. As the skirmishers fell back on their supports, the British winded their bugles triumphantly, sounding, not a military order, but the fox-hunting "stole away,"—a blare intended to show their utter contempt for the Americans.
Washington's cheeks flushed as the derisive notes came floating up the hills, and he pressed his lips together in an attempt to hide the mortification the insult cost him. "They do not intend we shall forget yesterday," he said.
"We'll pay them dear for the insult yet," cried Brereton, hotly.
"'T is a point gained that they think us beneath contempt," muttered Grayson; "for that is half-way to beating them."
"Colonel Reed, order three battalions of Weedon's and Knowlton's rangers to move along under cover of the woods, and endeavour to get in the rear of their main party," directed the commander-in-chief after a moment's discussion with Generals Greene and Putnam. "As you know the ground, guide them yourself."
"Plague take his luck!" growled Brereton.
"Ha, ha!" laughed Tilghman, jeeringly. "Some of us have hands to kiss and some regiments to fight. Harkee, macaroni. The general thinks 't would be a pity to spot those modish buskins and gloves. So much for thy dandyism."
"Colonel Brereton," said the general, "order the two Maryland regiments to move up in support of Knowlton."
Brereton saluted, and, as he wheeled, touched his thumb to his nose at Tilghman. "You are dished," he whispered. "The general dresses too well himself to misjudge a man because he tries to keep neat and a la mode."
A quarter of an hour later, as battalions of Griffiths' and Richards' regiments advanced under guidance of Brereton, the sharpness of the volleys in their front showed that the fighting was begun; and in response to his order, they broke into double-quick time. Once out of the timber, it was to find the Connecticut rangers scattered in small groups wherever cover was to be had, but pouring in a hot fire at the enemy, who had been reinforced materially.
"Damn them!" cried Brereton. "Will they never fight except under cover?" Louder he shouted: "Forward! Charge them, boys!" The order given, he rode toward the rangers. "Where's your colonel?" he shouted.
"Dead," cried one, "and there 's no one to tell us what to do."
"Do?" roared the aide. "Get out from behind that cover, and be damned to you. Show that Connecticut does n't always skulk. Come on!"
A cheer broke out, and, without even stopping to form, the men went forward, driving the enemy into the woods for shelter, and then forcing them through it. The fire of the British slackened as they fell back, and when new Continental troops appeared on their right flank as well, the retreat became almost a rout.
"We'll drive them the length of the island," yelled Brereton, frantic with excitement, as the men went clambering up the rocks after the flying enemy.
"Colonel Brereton, his Excellency directs you to call in the regiments to their former position," shouted Grayson, cantering up.
Brereton swore forcibly before he galloped among the men, and even after they, in obedience to his orders, had fallen back slowly and taken up their original position, he growled to the aide as they began the ascent, "I'm sick of this over-caution, Grayson! What in—"
"The general was right," asserted Grayson. "Look there." He pointed over the treetops that they had now risen above to where columns of Royal Highlanders and Hessian Yagers were hastening forward at double-quick. "You would have had a sharp skimper-scamper hadst been allowed to go another half-mile."
"'T is too bad, though," sighed the young officer, "that when the men will fight they have to be checked."
"Be thankful you did your double-quick in the cool of the morning, and are done with it. Lord! it makes me sweat just to see the way they are hurrying those poor Yagers. 'T is evident we've given them a real scare."
Upon reaching the top of the height Brereton rode forward to where Washington still stood. "I tried to have the'stole away' sounded, your Excellency," he said exultingly, "but those who knew it were so out of breath chasing them that there was not a man to wind it."
Washington's eyes lighted up as he smiled at the enthusiasm of the young fellow. "At least you may be sure that they had less wind than you, for they ran farther. They've had the best reply to their insult we could give them."
"Thet there fox they wuz gwine tu hunt did a bit of huntin' hisself," chuckled Putnam.
"They are still falling back on their supports," remarked Greene. "Evidently there is to be no more fighting to-day."
"They've had their bellyful, I guess," surmised Putnam.
"Then they 're better off than I am," groaned Brereton. "I could eat an ox."
When the fact became obvious that the British had no intention of renewing their intended attack, a general move was made toward quarters, and as they rode Brereton pushed up beside Washington and talked with him for a moment.
The commander ended the interview by nodding his head. "Colonel Tilghman," he ordered, as Brereton dropped behind, "ride on to announce our coming; also present my compliments to Mr. Meredith and bespeak his company and that of his ladies to dinner."
Mrs. Meredith and Janice, not having gone to bed till after one the previous night, slept until they were wakened by the firing; and when they had dressed and descended it was to find headquarters practically deserted, save for the squire and a corporal 's guard. At the suggestion of the servant who gave them breakfast, they climbed to the cupola of the house, but all they could see of the skirmish were the little clouds of smoke that rose above the trees and the distant advance of the British reinforcements. Presently even these ceased or passed from view, and then succeeded what Janice thought a very "mopish" two hours, terminated at last by the arrival of the aide with his invitation, which sent her to her room for a little extra prinking.
"If I had only worn my lutestring," she sighed. Her toilet finished,—and the process had been lengthened by the trembling of her hands,—Janice descended falteringly to go through the hall to the veranda. In the doorway she paused, really taken aback by the number of men grouped about on the grass; and she stood there, with fifty eyes turned upon her, the picture of embarrassment, hesitating whether to run away and hide.
"Come hither, child," called her mother; and Janice, with a burning face and down-turned eyes, sped to her side. "This is my daughter Janice, your Excellency," she told the tall man with whom she had been speaking.
"Indeed, madam," said Washington, bowing politely over the girl 's hand, and then looking her in the face with pleasure. "My staff has had quite danger enough this morning without my subjecting them to this new menace. However, being lads of spirit, they will only blame me if I seek to spare them. Look at the eagerness of the blades for the engagement," he added with a laugh, as he turned to where the youngsters were idling about within call.
"Oh, your Excellency!" gasped Janice, "I—I—please may n't I talk to you?"
"Janice!" reproved her mother.
"Oh! I did n't mean that, of course," faltered the girl. "'T was monstrous bold, and I only wanted—"
"Nay, my child," corrected the general. "Let an old man think it was intended. Mrs. Meredith, if you'll forgive the pas, I'll glad General Greene with the privilege of your hand to the table, while the young lady honours me with hers. Never fear for me, Miss Janice," he added, smiling; "the young rascals will be in a killing mood, but they dare not challenge their commander. There, I'll spare your blushes by joking you no more. I hope you were not greatly discomforted in your accommodation?" he asked, as they took their seats at the long table under the tent on the lawn.
"No, indeed, your Excellency. One of thy staff—I know not his name, but the one who questioned dadda—was vastly polite, and gave his room to us."
"That was Colonel Brereton,—the beau of my family. Look at him there! Wouldst think the coxcomb was in the charge this morning?"
Janice, for the first time, found courage to raise her eyes and glance along what to her seemed a sea of men's faces, till they settled on the person Washington indicated. Then she gave so loud an exclamation of surprise that every one looked at her. Conscious of this, she was once more seized with stage fright, and longed to slip from her chair and hide herself under the table.
"What startled thee, my child?" asked the general.
"Oh—he—nothing—" she gasped. "Who—what didst thou say was his name?"
"Oh!" was all Janice replied, as she drew a long breath.
"'T will ne'er do to let him know you've honoured him by particular notice," remarked the commander; "for both at Boston and New York the ladies have pulled caps for him to such an extent that 't is like he'll grow so fat with vanity that he'll soon be unable to sit his horse."
"Is—is he a Virginian, your Excellency?"
"No. 'T is thought he's English."
Janice longed to ask more questions, but did not dare, and as the bottle passed, the conversation became general, permitting her to become a listener. When the moment came for the ladies to withdraw, she followed her mother.
"Oh, mommy!" she said the instant she could, "didst recognise Charles?"
"Charles! What Charles?"
"Charles Fownes—our bond-servant—Colonel Brereton."
"Nonsense, child! What maggot idea hast thee got now?"
"'T is he truly—and I never thought he could be handsome. But his being clean-shaven and wearing a wig—"
"No more of thy silly clack!" ordered her mother. "A runaway bond-servant on his Excellency's staff, quotha! Though he does head the rebels, General Washington is a man of breeding and would never allow that."
Before the men rose from the table the ladies were joined by Washington and Mr. Meredith.
"I have already expressed my regrets to your husband, Mrs. Meredith," said the general, "that a suspicion against him should have put you all to such material discomfort, and I desire to repeat them to you. Yet however greatly I mourn the error for your sake, for my own it is somewhat balanced by the pleasure you have afforded me by your company. Indeed, 't is with a certain regret that I received Colonel Brereton's report, which, by completely exonerating Mr. Meredith, is like to deprive us of your presence."
"Your Excellency is over-kind," replied Mrs. Meredith, with an ease that excited the envy of her daughter.
"The general has ordered his barge for us, my dear," said the squire, "and 't is best that we get across the river while there 's daylight, if we hope to be back at Greenwood by to-morrow evening."
Farewells were promptly made, and, under the escort of Major Gibbs, they set out for the river. Once in the boat, Janice launched into an ecstatic eulogium on the commander-in-chief.
"Ay," assented Mr. Meredith; "the general 's a fine man in bad company. 'T is a mortal shame to think he's like to come to the gallows."
"Yes. They put a bold face on 't, but after yesterday's defeat they can't hold the island another week; and when they lose it the rebellion is split, and that 's an end to 't. 'T will be all over in a month, mark me."
Janice pulled a very serious face for a moment, and then asked: "Didst notice Colonel Brereton, dadda?"
"Ay. And a polite man he is. He not merely had us released, but I have in my pocket a protection from the general he got for me."
"Didst not recognise him?"
"Recognise? Who? What?"
"Oh, nothing," replied Janice.
XXV FREEDOM IN RETROGRADE
The departure of the Merediths for headquarters under arrest had set Brunswick agog, and all sorts of surmises as to their probable guilt and fate had given the gossips much to talk of; their return, three days later, not merely unpunished, but with a protection from the commander-in-chief, set the village clacks still more industriously at work.
Events were moving so rapidly, however, that local affairs were quickly submerged. News of Washington's abandonment of the island of New York and retreat into Westchester, pursued by Howe's army, of the capture of Fort Washington and its garrison, of the evacuation of Fort Lee, of the steady dwindling of the Continental Army by the expiration of the terms of enlistment, and still more by wholesale desertions, reached the little community in various forms. But interesting though all this was for discussion at the tavern of an evening, or to fill in the vacant hour between the double service on a Sunday, it was still too distant to seem quite real, and so the stay-at-home farmers peacefully completed the getting in of their harvests, while the housewives baked and spun as of yore, both conscious of the conflict more through the gaps in the village society, caused by the absences of their more belligerently inclined neighbours, than from the actual clash of war.
The absent ones, it is needless to say, were the doughty warriors of the "Invincibles," who had been called into service along with the rest of the New Jersey militia when Howe's fleet had anchored in the bay of New York three months before, and who had since formed part of the troops defending the towns of Amboy and Elizabethport, but a few miles away, from the possible descent of the British forces lying on Staten Island. This arrangement not only spared them from all active service, thus saving the parents and wives of Brunswick from serious anxiety, but also permitted frequent home visits, with or without furlough, thus supplying the town with its chief means of news.
An end came, however, to this period of quiet. Early in November vague rumours, growing presently to specific statements, told the villagers that their day was approaching. The British troops on Staten Island were steadily reinforced; the small boats of the line-of-battle ships and frigates were gathered opposite Amboy and Paulus Hook; large supplies of forage and cattle were massed at various points. Everything betokened an intended descent of the royal army into New Jersey; that the new-made State was to be baptised with blood.
The successive defeats of the Continental army wonderfully cooled many of the townspeople who but a few months before had vigorously applauded and saluted the glowing lines of the Declaration of Independence, when it had been read aloud to them by the Rev. Mr. McClave. One of the first evidences of this alteration of outward manner, if not of inward faith, was shown in the sudden change adopted by the community toward the household of Greenwood. When the squire had departed in custody he apparently possessed not one friend in Brunswick, but within a month of his return the villagers, the parson excepted, were making bows to him, in the growing obsequiousness of which might be inferred the growing desperation of the Continental cause. Yet another indication was the appearance of certain of the," Invincibles," who came straggling sheepishly into town one by one—"Just ter see how all the folks wuz"—and who, for reasons they kept more private, failed to rejoin their company after having satisfied their curiosity. Most incriminating of all, however, was the return of Bagby from the session of the Legislature then being held in Princeton, and his failure to go to Amboy to take command of his once gloried-in company.
"'T would n't be right to take the ordering away from Zerubbabel just when there 's a chance for fighting, after he's done the work all summer," was the captain's explanation of his conduct; and though his townsmen may have suspected another motive, they were all too bent on staying at home themselves, and were too busy taking in sail on the possibility of having to go about on another tack, to question his reasons.
If the mountain would not go, Mahomet would come; and one evening late in November, while the wind whistled and the rain beat outside the "Continental Tavern," as it was now termed, the occupants of the public room suddenly ceased from the plying of glasses and pipes, upon the hurried entrance of a man.
"The British is comin'!" he bellowed, bringing every man to his feet by the words.
"How does yer know?" demanded Squire Hennion.
"I wuz down ter the river ter see if my boat wuz tied fast enuf ter stand the blow an' I hearn the tramp of snogers comin' across the bridge."
"The bridge!" shouted Bagby. "Then they must be— Swamp it! there is n't more than time enough to run."
Clearly he spoke truly, for even as he ended his sentence the still unclosed door was filled by armed men. A cry of terror broke from the tavern frequenters, but in another moment this was exchanged for others of relief and welcome, when man after man entered and proved himself to be none other than an invincible.
"How, now, Leftenant Buntling?" demanded Bagby, in an attempt to regain his dignity. "What is the meaning of this return without orders?"
"The British landed a swipe o' men at Amboy this mornin', makin' us fall back mighty quick ter Bonumtown, an' there, arter the orficers confabulated, it wuz decided thet as the bloody-backs wuz too strong ter fight, the militia and the flyin' camp thereabouts hed better go home an' look ter their families. An' so we uns come off with the rest."
"You mean to say," asked Joe, "that you did n't strike one blow for freedom; did n't fire one shot at the tools of the tyrant?"
"Oh, cut it, Joe," growled one of the privates. "Thet 'ere talk duz fer the tavern and fer election times, but 't ain't worth a darn when ye've marched twenty miles on an empty stomick. Set the drinks up fer us, or keep quiet."
"That I will for you all," responded Bagby, "and what 's more, the whole room shall tipple at my expense."
No more drinks were ordered, however; for a second time the occupants of the room were startled by the door being thrown open quickly to give entrance to a man wrapped in a riding cloak, but whose hat and boots both bespoke the officer.
"Put your house in readiness for General Washington and his staff, landlord," the new-comer ordered sharply. "They will be here shortly, and will want supper and lodgings." He turned in the doorway and called: "Get firewood from where you can, Colonel Hand, and kindle beacon fires at both ends of the bridge, to light the waggons and the rest of the forces; throw out patrols on the river road both to north and south, and quarter your regiment in the village barns." Then he added in a lower voice to a soldier who stood holding a horse at the door: "Put Janice in the church shed, Spalding; rub her down, and see to it that she gets a measure of oats and a bunch of fodder." He turned and strode to the fire, his boots squelching as he walked, as if in complaint at their besoaked condition. Hanging his hat upon the candle hook on one side of the chimney breast and his cloak on the other, he stood revealed a well-dressed officer, in the uniform of a Continental colonel.
It had taken the roomful a moment to recover their equipoise after the fright, but now Squire Hennion spoke up:
"So yer retreatin' some more, hey?"
The officer, who had been facing the fire in an evident attempt to dry and warm himself, faced about sharply: "Retreat!" he answered bitterly. "Can you do anything else with troops who won't fight; who in the most critical moment desert by fifties, by hundreds, ay, by whole regiments? Six thousand men have left us since we crossed into Jersey. A brigade of your own troops—of the State we had come to fight for—left us yesterday morning, when news came that Cornwallis was advancing upon our position at Newark. What can we do but retreat?"
"Well, may I be dummed!" ejaculated Bagby, "if it is n't Squire Meredith's runaway bondsman, and dressed as fine as a fivepence!"
The officer laughed scornfully. "Ay," he assented. "'T is the fashion of the land to run away, so 't is only a la mode that bondsmen and slaves should imitate their betters."
"Yer need n't mount us Americans so hard, seem' as yer took mortal good care ter git in the front ranks of them as wuz retreatin'," asserted an Invincible.
I undertook to guide the retreat, because I knew the roads of the region," retorted the officer, hotly, evidently stung by the remark; then he laughed savagely and continued: "And how comes it, gentlemen all, that you are not gloriously serving your country? Cornwallis, with nine thousand picked infantry, is but a twenty miles to the northward; Knyphausen and six thousand Hessians landed at Perth Amboy this morning, and would have got between us and Philadelphia but for our rapid retreat. Canst sit and booze yourself with flip and swizzle when there are such opportunities for valour? Hast forgotten the chorus you were for ever singing?" Brereton sang out with spirit:—
"'In Freedom we're born, and, like Sons of the Brave, We'll never surrender, But swear to defend her, And scorn to survive, if unable to save.'"
"'T ain't no good fighting when we hav n't a general," snarled Bagby.
"Now damn you for a pack of dirty, low-minded curs!" swore the officer, his face blazing with anger. "Here you've a general who is risking life, and fortune, and station; and then you blame him because he cannot with a handful of raw troops defeat thirty thousand regulars. There's not a general in Europe—not the great Frederick himself—who'd so much as have tried to make head against such odds, much less have done so much with so little. After a whole summer campaign what have the British to show? They've gained the territory within gunshot of their fleet; but at White Plains, though they were four to one, they dared not attack us, and valiantly turned tail about, preferring to overrun undefended country to assaulting our position. I tell you General Washington is the honestest, bravest, most unselfish man in the world, and you are a pack of—"
"Are my quarters ready, Colonel Brereton?" asked a tall man, standing in the doorway.
"This way, yer Excellency," obsequiously cried the landlord, catching up a candle and coming out from behind the bar. "I've set apart our settin'-room and our bestest room —thet 'ere with the tester bed—for yer honourable Excellency."
"Come with me, Colonel Brereton," ordered the general, as he followed the publican.
Motioning the tavern-keeper out of the room, Washington threw aside his wet cloak and hat, and taking from a pocket what looked like a piece of canvas, he unfolded and spread it out on the table, revealing a large folio map of New Jersey.
"You know the country," he said; "show me where the Raritan can be forded."
"Here, here, and here," replied Brereton, indicating with his finger the points. "But this rain to-night will probably so swell it that there'll be no crossing for come a two days."
"Then if we destroy the bridge Cornwallis cannot cross for the present?"
"No, your Excellency. But if 't is their policy to again try to outflank us, they'll send troops from Staten Island by boat to South Amboy; and by a forced march through Monmouth they can seize Princeton and Trenton, while Cornwallis holds us here."
"'T is evident, then, that we can make no stand except at the Delaware, should they seek to get in our rear. Orders must be sent to secure all the boats in that river, and to—"
A knock at the door interrupted him, and in reply to his "Come in," an officer entered, and, saluting, said hurriedly: "General Greene directs me to inform your Excellency that word has reached him that a brigade of the New Jersey militia have deserted and have seized and taken with them the larger part of the baggage train. The commissary reports that the stores saved will barely feed the forces one day more."
Washington stood silent for a moment. "I will send a message back to General Greene by you presently. In the meantime join my family, who are Supping, Major Williams." Then, when the officer had left the room, the commander sat down at the table and rested his head on his hand, as if weary. "Such want of spirit and fortitude, such disaffection and treachery, show the game to be pretty well up," he muttered to himself.
Brereton who had fallen back at the entrance of the aide, once more came to the table. "Your Excellency," he said, "we are but losing the fair-weather men, who are really no help, and what is left will be tried troops and true."
"Left to starve!"
"This is a region of plenty. But give me the word, and in one day I'll have beef and corn enough to keep the army for a three months."
"They refuse to sell for Continental money."
"It must come to that, I fear. Yet it will make the farmers enemies to the cause."
"No more than they are now, I wot," sneered the aide. "And if you leave them their crops 't will be but for them to sell to the British. 'T is a war necessity."
Washington rose, the moment's discouragement already conquered and his face set determinedly. "Give orders to Hazlett and Hand to despatch foraging parties at dawn, to seize all cattle, pigs, corn, wheat, or flour they may find, save enough for the necessities of the people, and to impress horses and wagons in which to transport them. Then join us at supper."
Brereton saluted, and turned, but as he did so Washington again spoke:—
"I overheard what you were saying in the public room, Brereton," he said. "Some of my own aides are traducing me in secret, and making favour with other generals by praising them and criticising me, against the possibility that I may be superseded. But I learned that I have one faithful man."
"Ah, your Excellency," impulsively cried the young officer, starting forward, "'t is a worthless life,—which brought disgrace to mother, to father, and to self; but what it is, is yours."
"Thank you, my boy," replied Washington, laying his hand affectionately on Brereton's shoulder. "As you say, 't is a time which winnows the chaff from the wheat. I thank God He has sent some wheat to me." And there were tears in the general's eyes as he spoke.
XXVI NECESSITY KNOWS NO LAWS
While the family of Greenwood were still at the breakfast-table on the following morning, they were startled by a shriek from the kitchen, and then by Peg and Sukey bursting into the room where they sat.
"Oh, marse," gasped the cook, "de British!"
Both the squire and Janice sprang to the windows, to see a file of soldiers, accompanied by a mounted officer, drawn up at the rear of the house. As they took this in, the line broke into squads, one of which marched toward the stable, a second toward the barn, while the third disappeared round the corner of the house. With an exclamation the squire hurried to the kitchen and intrenched himself in the door just as the party reached it.
"Who are ye, and by what right do ye trespass on my property?" he demanded.
"Git out of the way, ole man," ordered the sergeant. "We hev orders ter take a look at yer store-room and cellar, an' we ha'n't got no time to argify."
"Ye'll not get into my cellar, that I can tell—" began the squire; but his remark ended in a howl of pain, as the officer dropped the butt of his musket heavily on the squire's toes. The agony was sufficient to make the owner of Greenwood collapse into a sitting position on the upper step and fall to nursing the injured member.
Janice, who had followed her father into the kitchen, sprang forward with a cry of sympathy and fright, just as the mounted officer, who had heard the squire's yell, came trotting round the corner.
"No violence, sergeant!" he called sternly.
"Not a bit, sir," replied the aggressor. "One of the boys happened ter drop his muskit on the old gentleman's corns, an' I was apologisin' fer his carelessness."
"You dreadful liar!" cried Janice, hotly, turning from her attempted comforting of the squire. "He did it on—oh!" She abruptly ended her speech as the mounted officer uncovered and bowed to her, and the "Oh!" was spoken as she recognised him. "Charles—Colonel Brereton!" the girl exclaimed.
"Charles!" exclaimed Mrs. Meredith, coming to the door. "Hoighty toighty, if it is n't!"
"I am very sorry that we are compelled to impress food, Mrs. Meredith," said the aide; "but as it is useless to resist I trust you will not make the necessity needlessly unpleasant."
"Ye 're a pack of ruffians and thieves!" cried the squire.
"Nay, Mr. Meredith," answered the aide, quietly; "we pay for it."
"In paper money that won't be worth a penny in the pound, come a month."
"That remains to be seen," responded the officer.
"'T is quite of a piece that a runaway redemptioner should return with other thieves and rob his master!" fumed the owner of Greenwood.
Brereton grew red, and retorted: "I am not in command of this force, and rode out with them at some sacrifice to save you from possible violence or unnecessary discomfort. Since you choose to insult me, I will not remain. Do your duty, sergeant," was the officer's parting injunction as he wheeled his horse and started toward the road.
"Stick him with yer bagonet, Pelatiah," ordered the sergeant, motioning toward the squire, who, still sitting in the doorway, very effectually blocked the way. Pelatiah, duly obedient, pricked the well-developed calf of the master of Greenwood, bringing that individual to his feet with another howl, which drew sympathetic shrieks from Mrs. Meredith and Janice.
Evidently the cries made it impossible for Colonel Brereton to hold to his intention, for he once again turned his horse and came riding back. By the time he reached the door the squire had been shoved to one side, and the men could be heard ransacking the larder and cellar none too quietly.
"Though you slight my services," the aide explained, "I'll bide for the present."
Meanwhile the parties that had been detached to the other points could be seen harnessing oxen and horses to the hay cart, farm waggons, and even the big coach, and loading them from the corn-crib and barn. Presently the cortege started for the house, and here more stores of various kinds were loaded.
During the whole of this operation the squire kept busily expressing his opinions of the proceedings of the foragers, of the army to which they belonged, and of the Continental cause generally, which, but for the presence of the staff officer, would have probably led to his ducking in the horse trough, or to some other expression of the party's displeasure.
"I see ye take good care to steal all my horses, so that I shall not be able to ride to Brunswick and report ye to the commander," he railed, just as the last armful of hams and sides of bacon was thrown into the coach. "We heard tales of how ye robbed and plundered about York, unbeknownst to the general, and I've no doubt ye are thieving now without his knowledge."
"If you want to get to Brunswick you shall have a lift," offered the aide. "We'll drive you there, and I'll see to it that you have a horse to bring you back."
"Ay. And leave my wife and daughter to be outraged by you villainous Whigs."
Again Brereton lost his temper. "I challenge you to prove one case of our army insulting a woman," he cried. "And hast heard of the doings of the last few days? Of the conduct of British soldiers to the women of Hackensack and Elizabethtown, or of the brutality of the Hessians at Rahway? At this very moment Mr. Collins is printing for us broadsides of the affidavits of the poor miserable victims, in the hopes that we can rouse the country by them."
"'T is nothing but a big Whig clanker, I'll be bound!" snorted Mr. Meredith.
"I would for the sake of manhood they were!" said the officer. "I was once proud to be a British soldier—" he checked himself sharply, and then went on: "If you fear for Mrs. Meredith and Miss Janice, take them with you. I'll see to it that you all return in comfort."
Although the squire had no particular fear of the safety of his womankind, he did not choose to confess it after what he had said; and so, without more ado, his wife and daughter were ordered to don their calashes and cloaks. Then the odd-looking caravan, of five vehicles, nine cows, and four squealing pigs, started,—Mrs. Meredith and Janice and the squire seated on the box of the coach, while the driver bestrode one of the horses.
The excitement of the drive was delightful to Janice, and it was not lessened by what she heard. The aide rode beside the coach, and at first tried to engage her in conversation, but the girl was too shy and self-conscious to talk easily to him, and so it ended in chat between the officer and Mr. and Mrs. Meredith, in which he told of how he had secured his position on the staff of the general, and gave an outline history of the siege of Boston, the campaigning about New York, and the retreat to Brunswick.
"I knew the rake-hells 'ud never fight," asserted the squire, at one point.
"Like all green troops, they object to discipline, and have shown cowardice in the face of the enemy. But the British would not dare say as much as you say, after the lessons they've had. The fault is mainly with the officers, who, by the system of election or appointment, are chiefly politicians and popularity-seekers not fit to black boots, much less command companies and regiments. Here in this town, the life was sapped out of the 'Invincibles' by their own officers; but the parson went among the men this morning, and the best of them formed a new company under him and enlisted for the year. And those who helped me take the powder to Cambridge volunteered, and have proved good men. All they need are good officers to make them good soldiers."
"What did ye with that rogue Evatt?" demanded the squire, his mind recalled to the subject by the allusion to the powder; and Janice hastily caught hold of the fore-string of her calash to pull the headgear forward so that her face should be hidden from the aide. Yet she listened to the reply with an attentive if red face.
"Our kidnapping of him not being easy to justify, I did not choose to take him to Cambridge and so, when we spoke a brig outside Newport, bound for Madeira, I e'en bargained his passage on her. 'T is naturally the last I ever heard of him."
Then poor Janice had to hear her father and mother express their thanks to the officer and berate the runaway pair; and the painful subject was abandoned only when they drove into Brunswick, where its interest could not compete with that of the masses of soldiers camped on the green, the batteries of artillery planted along the river front, and the general hurly-burly everywhere.
"You had best sit where you are, ladies," the aide remarked, "for the inn is full of men;" and the two accepted his suggestion, and from their coign of vantage surveyed the scene, while the squire, tumbling off the waggon, demanded word with the commander-in-chief.
"I'll tell him you wish speech with him," said Brereton, dismounting and going into the tavern.
It is only human when one is in misery to take a certain satisfaction in finding that misfortune is not a personal monopoly. While the squire waited to pour out his complaint, he found farmer after farmer standing about with similar intent; and, greatly comforted by the grievances of his neighbors, he became almost joyous when Squire Hennion, following a long line of carts loaded with his year's harvest, added himself to the scene, and with oaths and wails sought in turn to express his anger and misery.
"Tew rob a genuine Son o' Liberty," he whined, "ez hez allus stood by the cause! The general shall hear o' 't. I'm ruined. I'll starve. I'll—"
"Ho, ho!" laughed Mr. Meredith, heartily. "So sitting on both sides don't pay, eh? And a good serve out it is to ye, ye old trimmer. What! object to paper dollars, when ye are so warm a Whig? What if they are only worth two shillings in the pound, specie? Liberty for ever! Ho, ho! This is worth the trip to Brunswick alone."
Colonel Brereton came out of the tavern with a paper in his hand, and called the squire aside.
"Mr. Meredith," he said in a low voice, his face eager, yet worn with anxiety, "I find that since I left camp this morning the rest of the New Jersey and all of the Maryland flying camps have refused to stay, and have left us, though Cornwallis's advance is at Piscataway, and as he is pushing forward by forced marches he will reach the Raritan within two hours."
"No doubt, no doubt," assented the squire, gleefully. "Another week will put him in Philadelphia, and then ye rebels will dance for it. No wonder ye look frighted, man."
"I am not scared on my own account," replied the officer, bitterly. "A dozen bullets, whether in battle or standing blindfold against a white wall, are all the same to me. I'll take the gallows itself, if it comes, and say good quittance."
"Ay," grunted Mr. Meredith, "go on. Tip us a good touch of the heroics."
The aide smiled, but then went on anxiously: "But what I do fear, and why I tell you what I do, is for—for—for Mrs. Meredith and—The loss of this force leaves us barely three thousand men to fight Cornwallis's and Knyphausen's fifteen thousand. We shall burn the bridge within the hour, but that will scarce check them, and so we must retreat to the Delaware."
"And how does this affect me?"
"Every hour brings us word of the horrible excesses of the British soldiery. No woman seems safe from—For God's sake, Mr. Meredith, don't remain here! But go with our army, and I'll pledge you my word you shall be safe and as comfortable as it is in my power to make you."
"Tush! British officers never—"
"'T is not the officers, but the common soldiers who straggle from the lines for plunder and—while the pigs of Hessians and Waldeckers, sold by their princes at so much per head, cannot be controlled, even by their own officers. See, here, is the broadside of which I spoke. I have seen every affidavit, and swear to you that they are genuine. Don't—you can't risk such a fate for Mrs. Meredith or—" Brereton stopped, unable to say more, and thrust the paper he held in his hand into that of the squire.
"I'll have none of your Whig lies puffed on me!" persisted the squire, obstinately.
The officer started to argue; but as he did so the gallop of a horse's feet was heard, and Colonel Laurens came dashing up. Throwing himself from the saddle, he flung into the tavern; and that he brought important news was so evident that Brereton hurriedly left Mr. Meredith and followed. Barely a moment passed when aide after aide issued from the inn, and, mounting, spurred away in various directions. The results were immediate. The carts were hurriedly put in train and started southward on the Princeton post-road, smoke began to rise from the bridge, the batteries limbered up, and the regiments on the green fell in and then stood at ease.
While these obvious preparations for a retreat were in progress a coloured man appeared, leading so handsome and powerful a horse that Janice, who had much of her father's taste, gave a cry of pleasure and, jumping from her perch, went forward to stroke the beast's nose.
"What a beauty!" she cried.
"Yes, miss, dat Blueskin," replied the darky, grinning proudly. "He de finest horse from de Mount Vernon stud, but he great villain, jus' de same. He so obstropolus when he hear de guns dat the gin'l kian't use him, an' has tu ride ole Nelson when dyars gwine tu be any fightin'."
Janice leaned forward and kissed the "great villain" on his soft nose, and then turned to find the general standing in the doorway watching her.
"I have not time to attend to your complaints, gentlemen," he announced to the two esquires and the group of farmers, all of whom started forward at his appearance. "File your statements and claims with the commissary-general, and in due time they'll receive attention." Then he came toward his horse, and as he recognised the not easily forgotten face he uncovered. "I trust Miss Janice remembers me!" he said, a smile succeeding the careworn look of the previous moment, and added: "Had ye been kind, ye'd have kept that caress for the master."
Janice coloured, but replied with a mixture of assurance and shyness: "Blueskin could not ask for it, but your Excellency—" Then she paused and coloured still more.
Washington laughed, and, stooping, kissed her hand. "Being a married man, must limit the amount of his yielding to temptation," he said, finishing the sentence for the girl. "I would I were to have the honour of your company at dinner once more, but your friends, the British, will not give us the time. So I must mount and say farewell."
Janice turned an eager face up to the general, as he swung himself into the saddle. "Oh, your Excellency," she exclaimed below her breath, "dadda would think it very wicked of me, but I hope you'll beat them!"
Washington's face lighted up, and, leaning over, he once more kissed her hand. "Thank you for the wish, my child," he said, and, giving Blueskin the spur, rode toward the river.
"If Philemon was only like his Excellency!" thought the girl.
XXVII A CHECK TO THE ENEMY
There followed a weary hour of waiting, while first the carts, then the artillery, and finally the few hundred ill-clad, weary men filed off on the post-road. Before the rear-guard had begun its march, British regiments could be discerned across the river, and presently a battery came trotting down to the opposite shore, and a moment later the guns were in position to protect a crossing. This accomplished, a squadron of light dragoons rode into the water and struck boldly across, a number of boats setting out at the same moment, each laden with redcoats. While they were yet in mid-stream the Continental bugles sounded the retreat, and the last American regiment marched across the green and disappeared from view.
Owing to the fact that the coach had not been parked with the waggons, but had been brought to the tavern door, the baggage-train had moved off without it,—a circumstance, needless to say, which did not sadden the squire. It so happened that the vehicle had stopped immediately under the composite portrait sign-board of the inn; and no sooner was the last American regiment lost to view than the publican appeared, equipped with a paint-pot and brush, and, muttering an apology to the owner of the coach, now seated beside his wife and daughter on the box, he climbed upon the roof and, by a few crude strokes, altered the lettering from "Gen. George the Good into "King George the Good." But he did not attempt to change the firm chin and the strong forehead the bondsman had added to the face.
Barely was the operation finished when the British light horse came wading out of the water and cantered up the river road to the green, the uniforms and helmets flashing brilliantly, the harness jingling, and the swords clanking merrily.
"There are troops worth talking about," cried the squire, enthusiastically.
He spoke too quickly, for the moment the "dismount" sounded, twenty men were about the coach.
"Too good horses for a damned American!" shouted one, and a dozen hands were unharnessing them on the instant. "A load of prog, boys!" gleefully shouted a second, and both doors were flung open, and the soldiers were quickly crowding each other in their endeavours to get a share. "Egad!" announced another, "but I'll have a tousel and a buss from yon lass on the box." "Well said!" cried a fourth, and both sprang on the wheel, as a first step to the attainment of their wishes.
Mr. Meredith, from the box, had been shrieking affirmations of his loyalty to King George without the slightest heed being paid to him; but there is a limit to passivity, and as the two men on the wheel struggled which should first gain the desired prize, the squire kicked out twice with his foot in rapid succession, sending both disputants back into the crowd of troopers. Howls of rage arose on all sides; and it would have fared badly with the master of Greenwood had not the noise brought an officer up.
"Here, here!" he cried sharply, "what 's all this pother about?"
"'T is a damned Whig, who is—"
"A lie!" roared the squire. "There is no better subject of King George living than Lambert Meredith."
The officer jeered. "That's what every rebel claims of late. Not one breathes in the land, if you'd but believe the words of you turncoats."
"'T is not a lie," spoke up Janice, her face blazing with temper and her fists clinched as if she intended to use them. "Dadda always—"
"Ho!" exclaimed the officer, "what a pretty wench! Art a rebel, too? for if so, I'll see to it that guard duty falls to me. Come, black eyes, one kiss, and I'll send the men to right about."
Janice caught the whip from its socket and raised it threateningly, just as another officer from a newly arrived company came spurring up and, without warning, began to strike right and left with the flat of his sword. "Off with you, you damned rapscallions!" he shouted. "Leftenant Bromhead, where are your manners?"
"And where are yours, Mr. Hennion, that ye dare speak so to your superior officer?" demanded the lieutenant.
There was no mistaking Philemon, changed though he was. He wore a fashionable wig, and his clothes fitted well a figure that, once shambling and loose-jointed, had now all the erectness of the soldier, but the face was unchanged.
"I'll not quarrel with you now," swaggered Philemon. "If you want ter fight later I'm your man, an' if you want ter go before Colonel Harcourt with a complaint I'll face you. But now I've other matters." He turned to the trio on the box, and exclaimed as he doffed his hat: "Well, squire, didst ever expect sight of me again? An' how do Mrs. Meredith and Janice? Strap my vitals, if I've seen such beauty since I left Brunswick," he added airily, and making Janice feel very much put out of countenance.
"Welcome, Philemon!" cried Mrs. Meredith, "and doubly welcome at such a moment."
"Ay," shouted the squire, heartily. "Ye arrived just in the nick o' time to save your bride, Phil." A remark which sent the whip rattling to the ground from the hands of Janice. "An' ye a king's officer!" he ended. "Bubble your story to us, lad."
"There ain't much ter tell as you don't know already. Sir William put no faith in the news I carried, thinkin' it but a Whig trick, and so they held me prisoner. But later, when 't was too late ter use it, they learned the word I brought them was true; so they set me free, and as there was no gettin' away from Boston, the general gave me a cornetcy, that I should not starve."
"I'll lay to it that there'll be no more starvation now that you 're back home," cried the squire, "though betwixt your cheating old sire, who'll pay no interest on his mortgages, and the merchants gone bankrupt in York, and now this loss of harvest and stock, 't is like Greenwood will show but a lean larder for a time. But mayhaps now that ye've gone up in the world, ye'd like to cry off from the bargain?"
"But let me finish the campaign by capturin' Philadelphia, and dispersin' Washington's pack of peddlers and jail-birds, which won't take mor'n a fortnight, and then you can't name a day too soon for me, an' I hope not for your daughter. You can't call me gawk any longer, I reckon, Janice?"
"Thou camst nigh to losing her, Phil," declared Mrs. Meredith.
"Ay," added the squire. "Hast heard of how that scoundrel Evatt schemed
"Oh, dadda!" moaned Janice, imploringly.
"No scoundrel is he, squire, nor farmer neither; he bein' Lord Clowes," asserted Phil. "He joined our army at New York, and is Sir William's commissary-general an' right-hand man."
A more effectual interruption than that of the girl's prevented Mr. Meredith from enlarging upon the theme, for the bugle sounded in quick succession the "assembly" and "boots and saddles."
"That calls me," announced Phil, with an air of importance. "We ain't goin' ter give the runaways no rest, you see."
"But Phil," cried the squire, "ye'll not leave us to be again—And they've stole Joggles and Jumper, and all my hams and sides. Ye must—"
"I can't bide now," called back the cornet, hurriedly taking his position just as the bugle called the marching order, and the squadron moved off after the retreating Continentals.
Helpless to move, the Merediths sat on their coach while an officer, accompanied by a file of soldiers and half a dozen drummers, took station at the Town Hall. First a broadside was posted on the bulletin-board, and the drums beat the "parley" long and loudly. Then the drummers and the file split into two parties, and marching down the village street in opposite directions, the non-commissioned officers, to the beat of drum, shouted summons to all the population to assemble at the hall to take the oath of allegiance to "King George the Third, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, and so forth."
The first man to step forward to take the oath, sign the submission, and receive his pardon was the Hon. Joseph Bagby, erstwhile member of the Assembly of New Jersey, but now loudly declaring his loyalty to the crown, and his joy that "things were to be put in order again." The second signer was the publican; the third was Esquire Hennion; and after him came all the townsmen, save those who had thrown in their lot along with the parson that morning by marching off with Washington.
Mr. Meredith descended from his seat and waited his turn to go through what was to him a form, and during this time the ladies watched the troops being ferried across the river. Presently an officer rode up the river road, issuing orders to the regiments, which promptly fell in, while the rider halted at the tavern, announced the soon-to-be-expected arrival of Generals Howe and Cornwallis, and bade the landlord prepare his best cheer. While he spoke a large barge landed its burden of men and horses on the shore, and a moment later a dozen officers came trotting up to the tavern between lines of men with their guns at "present arms."
"What ho! Well met, friend Meredith," cried one of the new-comers, as the group halted at the tavern. "I was but just telling Sir William that the king had one good friend in Brunswick town, and now here he is!" Evatt, or Clowes, swung out of the saddle and extended his hand.
Although the squire had just recovered the whip dropped by Janice, he did not keep to his intention of laying it across the shoulders of the would-be abductor, but instead grasped the hand offered.
"Well met, indeed," he assented cordially. "'T is a glad sight to us to see our good king's colours and troops."
"Sir William," called the baron, "thou must know Mr. Lambert Meredith, first, because he's the one friend our king has in this town, and next, because, as thy commissary, I forbid thee to dine at the tavern on the vile fried pork or bubble and squeak, and the stinking whiskey or rum thou'lt be served with, and, in Mr. Meredith's name, invite thee and his Lordship to eat a dinner at Greenwood, where thou'lt have the best of victuals, washed down with Madeira fit for Bacchus."
"Ay," cried Mr. Meredith, "the rebels have done their best to bring famine to Greenwood, but it shall spread its best to any of his Majesty's servants."
"Here 's loyalty indeed," said Sir William, heartily, as he leaned in his saddle to shake the squire's hand. "Damn your rebel submissions and oaths, not worth the paper they 're writ on; but good Madeira,—that smacks loyal and true on a parched tongue and cannot swear false. Lead the way, Mr. Meredith, and we'll do as much justice to your wine as later we'll do to Mr. Washington, if we can ever come up with him. Eh, Charles?"
The officer addressed, who was frowning, gave an impatient movement in the saddle that seemed to convey dissent. "Of what use was our forced march," he demanded, "if not to come up with the fox before he finds cover?"
"Nay, the rebels are so little hampered by baggage that they can outstrip all save our light horse. And because they have the legs of us is no reason for our starving ourselves; the further they run, the more exhausted they'll be."
"Well argued," chimed in Clowes. "And your Excellency will find more at Greenwood than mere meat and drink. Come, squire, name your dame and Miss Janice to Sir William. In playing quadrille to win, man, we never hold back the queens."
All the horsemen uncovered to the ladies, as they were introduced, and Howe uttered an admiring epithet as his eyes fixed on the girl. "The Queen of Hearts scores, and the game is won," he cried, bowing low to Janice. "Ho, Charles, art as hot for the rebels as thou wert a moment since?"
"I still think the light horse had best be pushed, and should be properly supported by the grenadiers."
"Nay, wait till Knyphausen comes up, and then we'll—"
"'T is no time to play a waiting game."
"Tush! Lord Cornwallis," replied Sir William, irritably. "The infantry have done their twenty miles to-day. I'll not jade my troops into the runaway state of the rebels. What use to kill our men, when the rebellion is collapsing of itself?" During all his argument the commander-in-chief kept his eyes fixed on Janice.
"I can't but think—" began the earl.
"Come, come, man," interjected Howe, "we must n't let the Whigs beat us by starvation. Must we, eh, Mr. Meredith?"
"'T would be a sad end to all our hopes," assented the squire. "And while we have to do with the rebels, let me point out to ye the two most malignant in this town. There stand the precious pair who have done more to foment disloyalty than any other two men in the county." It is needless to say that Mr. Meredith was pointing at Squire Hennion and Bagby, who, more curiously than wisely, had lingered at the tavern.
"He lies!" and "'T ain't so! shrieked Bagby and Hennion in unison, and each began protestations of loyalty, which were cut short by Sir William, who turned to Cornwallis and ordered the two under arrest, pending further information.
"Now we'll see justice," chuckled the master of Greenwood, gleefully. "If ye'll not pay interest on your debts, I'll pay interest on mine—ay, and with a hangman's cord belike."
"But I signed a submission and oath, and here 's my pardon," protested Bagby, producing the paper, an example that Hennion imitated.
"Damn Campbell's carelessness!" swore Howe. "He deals pardons as he would cards at piquet, by twos, without so much as a look at their faces. A glance at either would have shown both to be rapscallion Whigs. However, 't is done, and not to be undone. Release them, but keep eye on each, and if they give the slightest cause, to the guardhouse with them. Now, Mr. Meredith."
"I must ask your Excellency's assistance to horse my coach, and his Majesty owes me a pair not easy to match, stole by your troops this very morning."
"Make note of it, Mr. Commissary, and see to it that Mr. Meredith has the two returned, with proper compensation. And, Charles, if the theft can be fixed, let the men have a hundred stripes apiece. Unless a stop can be put to this plundering and raping, we'll have a second rebellion on our hands."
Cornwallis shrugged his shoulders and issued the necessary orders. Then horses being secured for the carriage, the squire and dames, accompanied by the generals, set out for Greenwood.
It was long past the customary dining hour when the house was reached, and though Mrs. Meredith and Janice joined Sukey and Peg in the hurried preparation of the meal, it was not till after three that it could be announced. As a consequence, before the men had tired of the Madeira, dark had come. One unfortunate of the staff was therefore despatched to order the regiments to bivouac for the night.
"Tell the commissaries to issue an extra ration of rum," directed Sir William, made generously minded by the generous use of the wine. "And now, friend Lambert, let 's have in the spirits, and if it but equal thy Madeira in quality we'll sing a Te Deum and make a night of it."
Janice, at a call from the host, brought in the squat decanters; and the general insisted, with a look which told his admiration, that his first glass should be mixed by the girl.
"Nay, nay," he cried, checking her as she reached for the loaf sugar." "Put it to thy lips, and 't will be sweeter than any sugar can make it. Take but a sip and give us a toast along with it." And the general caught at the girl's free hand and tried to put his other arm about her waist.
"Oh, fie, Sir William!" called Clowes, too flushed with wine to guard his tongue. "What will Mrs. Loring think of such talk?"
"Think! Let her think what she may," retorted the general, with a laugh. "Dost thou not know that woman is never sweeter than when she is doubtful of her empire?"
Janice, with heightened colour and angry eyes, eluded Howe's familiarities by a backward step, and, raising the glass, defiantly gave, "Success to Washington!" Then, scared at her own temerity, she darted from the room, in her fright carrying away the tumbler of spirits. But she need not have fled, for her toast only called forth an uproarious burst of laughter.
"I always said 't was a rebellion of petticoats," chuckled Sir William. "And small blame to them when they sought to tax their only drink. 'Fore George, I'd rebel myself if they went to taxing good spirits unfairly. Ah, gentlemen, after we have finished with Mr. Washington next week, what sweet work 't will be to bring the caps to a proper submission! No wonder Cornwallis is hot to push on and have done with the men."
The morrow found Sir William no less inclined to tarry than he had been the day before, and, using the plea that they would await the arrival of Knyphausen's force, he sent orders to the advance to remain bivouacked at Brunswick, much to the disgust of Cornwallis, who was little mollified by the consent he finally wrung from his superior to push forward the Light Horse on a reconnoissance,—a task on which he at once departed.
Thus rid of his disagreeable spur, the general settled down before the parlour fire to a game of piquet with Clowes, not a little to the scandalising of card-hating Mrs. Meredith. Worse still to the mother, nothing would do Sir William but for Janice to come and score for him, and it is to be confessed that his attention was more devoted to the black of her eyes and the red of her cheeks than it was to the same colours on the cards. Three times he unguarded a king in the minor hand, and twice he was capoted unnecessarily. As a result, the baron won easily; but the gain in purse did not seem to cheer him, for he looked discontented even as he pocketed his winnings. And as every gallant speech his commander made the girl had deepened this look, the cause for the feeling was not far to seek.
Dinner eaten, the general, without leaving the table, lapsed into gentle, if somewhat noisy, slumber; and his superior thus disposed of for the moment, Clowes sought Janice, only to find that two young fellows of the staff, having abandoned the bottle before him, had the longer been enjoying her society. He joined the group, but, as on the preceding evening, Janice chose to ignore his presence. What he did not know was something said before his entrance, which had much to do with the girl's determination to punish him.
"Who is this person who is so intimate with Sir William?" she had asked the staff secretary.
McKenzie gave his fellow-staffsman a quick glance which, manlike, he thought the girl would not perceive. "He 's commissary-general of the forces," he then replied.
Janice shrugged her shoulders. "Thank you for enlightening my ignorance," she said ironically. "Let me add in payment for the information that this is a spinet."
Again McKenzie exchanged a look with Balfour. The latter, however, after a glance at the door, said, in a low voice: "He 's no favourite with us; that you may be sure."
"He—Is he—Is Baron Clowes his true name?" Janice questioned.
"More true than most things about him," muttered McKenzie.
"Then he has another name?" persisted the girl.
"A half-dozen, no doubt," assented Balfour. "There are dirty things to be done in every kind of work, Miss Meredith, and there are always dirty men ready to do them. I'd not waste thought on him. Knaves go to make up a complete pack as much as kings, you know," he finished, as Lord Clowes entered the room.
Cornwallis returned at nightfall, with word of the junction of reinforcements; but, despite the news, it required all the urgence of himself and Clowes to induce the commander-in-chief to give the marching order for the next morning. Nor, when the hour of departure came, was Howe less reluctant, lingering over his adieux with his host and hostess, and especially with their daughter, to an extent which set the earl stamping with impatience and put a scowl on Clowes' face. Even when the general was in the saddle, nothing would do him but he must have a stirrup cup; and when this had been secured, he demanded another toast of the girl.
"You gave Mr. Washington your good wishes last time, Miss Janice, runaway though he was. Canst not give a toast for the troops that don't run?" he pleaded.
Janice, with a roguish look in her eyes that boded no good to the British, took the glass, and, touching it to her lips, said: "Here 's to the army which never runs away, and which never—" Then she paused, and caught her breath as if wanting courage.
"Out with it! Complete the toast!" cried the general, eagerly.
"And which never runs after!" ended Janice.
XXVIII THE EBB-TIDE
Clowes lingered behind for a brief moment after the departure of Howe, in pretended desire to advise Mr. Meredith concerning the British policy about provisions and forage, but in truth to say a word of warning which proved that he already regretted having secured for his commander-in-chief the entree of Greenwood.
"I heard Sir William say he'd bide with ye on his return from Philadelphia," the commissary told the squire in parting. "Have an eye to your girl, if he does. Though a married man, his Excellency is led off by every lacing-string that comes within reach."
The master of Greenwood privately thought that the precautionary advice as to his daughter might come with better grace from some other source; but both guest and host, for reasons best known to each, had tacitly agreed to ignore the past, and so the squire thanked his counsellor.
"Ye'll not forget to seek out my horses!" he added, when the commissary picked up his bridle.
"Assuredly not," promised Clowes. "How many didst say ye lost?"
"Two. All the Whig thieves left to me of the nine I had."
"Fudge, man! Say nothing of the Whig thieves, but lay them all to our account. We've plunderers in plenty in our own force, let alone the dirty pigs of Hessians, and King George shall pay for the whole nine."
"Nay, Lord Clowes, because I've been robbed, I'll not turn—" began the squire.
"What is more," went on the benevolently-inclined officer, "I will tell ye something that will be worth many a pound. 'T was decided betwixt Sir William and myself that we should seize all provisions and fodder throughout the province. But I need scarce say—"
"Surely, man, thou wilt do nothing as crazy as that," burst out Mr. Meredith. "Dost not see that it will make an enemy of every man, from one end—"
"Which they are already," interrupted the baron, in turn. "'T is our method of bringing punishment home to the scamps. We'll teach them what rebellion comes to ere we have finished with them. But, of course, such order does not extend to my personal friends, and if ye have any fodder or corn, or anything else ye can spare, I will see to it that his Majesty buys it at prices that will more than make good to ye what ye lost through the rebels."