Chapter XIII.


A few days after the tea-party, Colonel and Mrs. Davenport came to take tea at the parsonage. It was an engagement of long standing, and eagerly looked forward to by the children, who with one accord begged that they might be allowed to sit up and hear the Colonel's stories.

For, stories of the war it was known the Colonel could tell; the fame of them hovered in vague traditions on the hills and valleys of Poganuc, and whenever he was to be in the circle it was always in the programme of hope that he might be stimulated and drawn out to tell of some of the stirring scenes of his camp-life.

In a general way, too, the children were always glad to have company. The preparations had a festive and joyous air to their minds. Mrs. Cushing then took possession of the kitchen in person, and various appetizing and suggestive dainties and condiments stood about in startling profusion. Dolly and the boys stoned raisins, pounded cinnamon, grated nutmegs and beat eggs with enthusiasm, while Nabby heated the oven and performed the part of assistant priestess in high and solemn mysteries. Among her many virtues and graces, Mrs. Cushing had one recommendation for a country minister's wife which commanded universal respect: she could make cake. Yea, more, she could make such cake as nobody else could make—not even Colonel Davenport's Venus.

So the children had stoned raisins, without eating more than the natural tribute to be expected in such cases; they had been allowed in perquisites a stick of cinnamon apiece; and the pound-cake, the sponge-cake, the fruit-cake and the tea-rusks were each in their kind a perfect success.

During tea-time every word uttered by the Colonel was eagerly watched by attentive and much-desiring ears; but as yet no story came. The vivacity imparted by two or three cups of the best tea was all spent in denunciations of the Democrats, their schemes, designs and dangers to the country, when the Colonel and Dr. Cushing seemed to vie with each other in the vigor and intensity of their prognostications of evil.

But after tea there came the genial hour of the social sit-down in front of the andirons, when the candles were duly snuffed, and the big fore-stick had burned down to glowing coals, and the shadows played in uncertain flashes up and down the walls of the fire-lighted room; and then the Colonel's mind began traveling a road hopeful to his listening auditors.

From Democracy to Jefferson, from Jefferson to France and the French Revolution, the conversation led by easy gradations, and thence to the superior success of our own Revolution—from La Fayette to Washington.

Now, the feeling of the Doctor and of his whole family for General Washington was to the full as intense as that of the ancient Israelites for Moses. They were never tired of hearing the smallest particular about him—how he looked; how he walked; what he wore; the exact shade of his eyes; the least word that ever dropped from his lips.

"You have no doubt whatever that the General was a religious man?" said the Doctor, propounding what was ever his most anxious inquiry with regard to one who had entered on the Invisible Verities.

"Not a doubt, sir," was the Colonel's reply, in those ringing and decisive tones which were characteristic of him.

"I have always heard," pursued the Doctor, "that he was eminently a man of prayer."

"Eminently so," said the Colonel. "The General, sir, was a communicant in the Episcopal Church, a firm believer in Christianity, and I think he was sustained in all the trying emergencies of the war by his faith in his God. That, sir, I have not a doubt of."

"That has always been my belief," said the Doctor; "but I am glad to hear you say so."

"Yes, sir," added the Colonel with energy; "his influence in the army was openly and decidedly that of a Christian. You recollect his general order at one time, excusing soldiers and sailors from fatigue-duty on Sunday, that they might have time to attend religious service, and his remarks upon the custom of profane swearing in the army; how he reminded both officers and men that 'We could have but little hope of the blessing of Heaven upon our arms, if we insult it by impiety.'"

"Yes, I remember all that," said the Doctor. "Nothing could have been better worded. It must have had an immense influence. But does it not seem astonishing that a military man, going through the terrible scenes that he did, should never have been tempted to profanity? I declare," said the Doctor, musingly, "I would not answer for myself. There were times in that history when without preventing grace I am quite sure I could not have held myself in."

"Well, sir, since you speak on that subject," said the Colonel, "I am free to say that, on one occasion I saw our General carried beyond himself. I have often thought I would like to tell you the circumstances, Doctor."

There was a little edging towards the Colonel, both of the Doctor and Mrs. Cushing, as the Colonel, looking dreamily far into the hickory coals, said:

"Yes, sir; that was one of those critical times in our war, when it turned on the events of a few hours whether we had been the nation we are now, or trodden down under the British heel; whether Washington had been made President of the United States, or hanged for treason. It was at the time of the Long Island retreat."

"And you were there?" asked Dr. Cushing. The Doctor knew very well that the Colonel was there, and was eager to draw him out.

"There? Sir, indeed I was," answered the Colonel. "I shall never forget it to my dying day. We had been fighting all day at terrible odds, our men falling all around us like leaves, and the British pressing close upon us; so close, that when it grew dark we could hear every movement in their camp, every sound of pick, or shovel, or gun. Our men had got behind their intrenchments, and there the enemy stopped pursuing. What a night that was! We were deadly tired—dispirited as only fellows can be that have seen their friends shot down about them; no tents, no shelter, and the sentries of the victorious enemy only a quarter of a mile from our lines. Nearly two thousand, out of the five thousand men we had in the fight, were killed, wounded, or missing. Well, it was a terribly anxious night for Washington; for what had we to expect, next day? He went round at four o'clock in the morning to see to us and speak a word of cheer here and there. It was a cold, drizzling, gloomy, rainy morning, but we could see through the fog a large encampment; and they were intrenching themselves, though the rain drove them into their tents. The day advanced, continuing rainy and stormy, and they made no move to attack us. Our scouts, that were out watching the motions of the enemy down at Red Hook, got a peep at the shipping at Staten Island and saw at once that there was a movement and bustle there, as if there were something on foot; and they got the idea that the enemy were planning at turn of tide to come up behind us in the East River, and cut us off from the army in New York. Sir, that was just what they were meaning to do; and, if they had, we should have been caught there like rats in a trap, the war would have been ended, and Washington hanged. The party hurried back to tell the General. A council of war was held, and it was decided that we all must cross to New York that very night. There it was; nine thousand men, with all our baggage and artillery, to steal away in the night from that great army, and they so near that we could hear every dog that barked or man that whistled among them."

"How wide was the place to be crossed?" asked the Doctor.

"Full three-quarters of a mile, sir, and with a rapid tide sweeping through. As the Lord's providence would have it, Colonel Glover had just come in that day with his Marblehead regiment—thirteen hundred fishermen and sailors, such as the world cannot equal."

"Glorious!" exclaimed the Doctor. "God bless the Marblehead boys!"

"Yes, they saved us, under God and the General; we never could have crossed without them.

"Well, the General sent to the Quartermaster to impress all the boats and transports of every kind that could be got, and have them ready by evening. By eight o'clock they were all at Brooklyn, and under the management of the Marblehead regiment. Word was given out in the army to be prepared for a night attack, and the poor fellows, tired as they were, were all up and ready to move on order.

"Then Washington ordered Gen. Mifflin's brigade, including what remained of our regiment, to stay and keep the intrenchments with guards and patrols and sentinels posted, to make the enemy believe we were there, while the rest all moved down to the water and embarked.

"Now I tell you, sir, it was a good deal harder to stand there than to be moving just then. We were wide awake and we counted the minutes. It is always longer to those who wait than to those who work. The men were true as steel, but, poor fellows, there is a limit to human endurance, and they got pretty restive and nervous. So, between you and me, did we officers too. Standing still in such a danger is a thousand times worse than fighting.

"Finally the men began to growl and mutter; it was all we could do to hold them; they were sure the army had crossed—word must have been sent to them! So, finally, when Washington's aid misunderstood his order and came running to say that we were to move down, we started on the double-quick and got to the shore. There we found that the tide had turned, a strong north-east wind was blowing, the boats had been brought without oars enough to convey the troops, the sail-boats were unable to make head against wind and tide, and full half the army were still on Long Island shore!

"Washington stood there amid the confusion and perplexity—when, in the midst of his troubles, down we all came.

"Sir, I never saw a mortal being look as Gen. Washington looked at us. He ordered us back with a voice like thunder, and I never heard such a terrific volley of curses as he poured out upon us when the men hesitated. Sir, that man was so dreadful that we all turned and ran. We had rather face the judgment-day than face him. Upon my soul, I thought when I turned back that I was going straight into eternity, but I had rather face death than him."

"And he swore?"

"Indeed he did—but it was not profane swearing; it was not taking God's name in vain, for it sent us back as if we had been chased by lightning. It was an awful hour, and he saw it; it was life or death; country or no country."

"Sir," said Dr. Cushing, starting up and pacing the room, "it was the oath of the Lord! It would be profane to call it swearing."

"Yes, sir," said the Colonel, "you remember that one time Moses threw down both tables of the law and broke them, and the Lord did not reprove him."

"Exactly," answered the Doctor; "he saw his nation going to ruin and forgot all else to save them. The Lord knows how to distinguish."

"But, sir," said the Colonel, "I never tell this except to the initiated. No man who saw Washington then dared ever to allude to it afterward. He was habitually so calm, so collected, so self-contained, that this outburst was the more terrific. Whatever he felt about it was settled between him and his Maker. No man ever took account with him."

Then followed a few moments of silence, when Dolly emerged from a dark corner—her cheeks very much flushed, her eyes very wide and bright—and, pressing up to the Colonel's knee, said eagerly: "But, oh please, sir, what became of you and the men?"

The Colonel looked down and smiled as he lifted Dolly on his knee. "Why, my little girl, here I am, you see; I wasn't killed after all."

"But did you really go clear back?" asked Dolly.

"Yes, my dear, we all went back and staid two or three hours; and when it came morning we made believe to be the whole army. We made our fires and we got our breakfasts and we whistled and talked and made all the stir we could, but as the good Lord would have it there was such a thick fog that you could not see your hand before your face. You see that while the fog hung over the island and covered us, it was all clear down by the river."

"Why, that's just the way it was when they crossed the Red Sea," said Dolly, eagerly; "wasn't it, Papa?"

"Something so, my dear," said her father; but her mother made her a sign not to talk.

"How long did it take to do the whole thing?"

"Well, thanks to those Marblehead boys, by daybreak the greater part of the army were safe on the New York side. A little after daylight we marched off quietly and went down to the ferry. Washington was still there, and we begged him to go in the first boat; but no, he was immovable. He saw us all off, and went himself in the very last boat, after every man was in."

"What a glorious fellow!" said the Doctor.

"Please, sir," said Will, who, with distended eyes, had been listening, "what did the British say when they found out?"

The Colonel laid his head back and gave a hearty laugh.

"They had a message sent them, by a Tory woman down by the ferry, what was going on. She sent her black servant, and he got through our American lines but was stopped by the Hessians, who could not understand his gibberish, and so kept him till long after all was over. Then a British officer overhauled him and was pretty well amazed at his story. He gave the alarm, and General Howe's aid-de-camp, with a body of men, climbed over the intrenchments and found all deserted. They hurried down to the landing just in time to see the rear boats half way across the river."

"Well, that is almost like the crossing of the Red Sea," said the Doctor.

"Oh, weren't the British furious!" cried Bill.

"Yes, they did fire away at the boats, and one straggling boat they hit and forced the men to return; but it turned out only three vagabonds that had come to plunder."

It was after the nine o'clock bell had dismissed the Colonel and his lady that the Doctor noticed the wide and radiant eyes of little Dolly and his boys.

"My children," he said, "to use the name of the great God solemnly and earnestly for a great and noble purpose is not to 'swear.' Swearing is taking God's holy name in vain, in a trifling way, for a trivial purpose—a thing which our great and good general never did. But this story I would rather you would never repeat. It might not be understood."

"Certainly," said Bill, with proud gravity; "common boys wouldn't understand—and, Dolly, don't you tell."

"Of course I shouldn't," said Dolly. "I never shall tell even Nabby, nor Bessie, nor anybody."

And afterwards, in the family circle, when General Washington was spoken of, the children looked on one another with grave importance, as the trusted depositaries of a state secret.

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