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Back to the Army
By GERTRUDE LEWIS
ICE CAKES grated against the rocky beach. Each wave tumbling them over, sending forward its rush of foam, left behind an icy film. Slipping, stumbling, red-coated soldiers; somber-clad, hooded and muffled civilians, men, women and children, an eager, curious crowd, pressed to the water's edge, heedless of the foam crawling over the numbed feet and the cutting wind off the ice floes of Penobscot bay.
Bitter cold was February of the year 1780!
"Hurrah! Long live King George! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!" shouted the "red-coats," while the Tory rabble waved their arms and stamped their feet; working up both warmth and patriotism as a sloop cleared the ice drift at the harbor entrance
"Guess Peleg will catch it!" shrilled a small boy.
"You bet!" guffawed the crowd.
"Tut, child!" reproved an old man, cuffing the urchin into silence. "Speak not so of your betters. A smarter general never stepped on this peninsula."
"Look out, Uncle! Your smart general's goin' to find Castine hotter for him in February, than ever he found it last July!" blustered a voice from the crowd.
"Eh! But it was mighty near he came then to sending you all to where you'd never cool off!" muttered the old man, withdrawing to the edge of the crowd.
"Ah, well met, Thomas Wescott! These fools, these — "
''Softly, softly, Samuel Veasey."
"Speak not 'softly' to me! Oh, but it was a scurvy trick! Home on a three days' leave! They do say that he was sitting alone with his wife, drinking tea, when into the room marches Lieutenant Stockton an' his twenty-five 'red-jackets!' Twenty-five to one! British courage for you!"
"He had a guard, didn't he? Sleeping, were they?"
"Sleeping! No! As for a guard — well, three or four, may be. He should have been as safe in his own home as in Heaven, but for these cursed Tory spies! Maybe you are one, yourself? I'm past caring! Shot him down like a dog, before his wife!"
"You are beside yourself. The Lord's will — "
"Stop your prating, Thomas! There's more of the devil than of the Lord in this business, I'm thinking! Here they come!"
On the road, directly back of the beach, with a flourish and prodigious jingling of accoutrements, the mounted guard from Fort George drew up; while the rattle of the anchor chain was borne to the expectant ears of the crowd, as the sloop swung abreast the landing. Immediately a boat was lowered, four sailors taking station at the oars; several figures seemed to be helping or carrying another to the stern. With powerful strokes, the rowers made swift headway against the heavy swell.
"There's Stockton in the bow!"
"Where's the damned Yankee?"
"There he is! That's him!"
"Hurrah for Stockton! He's — "
Making an imperative gesture for silence, Lieutenant Stockton arose in the bow, as the boat beached; his non-committal British features were unmoved. Quickly the soldiers separated the crowd, forming themselves in a double line from boat to mounted guard. Somewhere a hiss started. With upraised arm, and by that quality of the officer which demands obedience, Lieutenant Stockton compelled silence as, turning with courtly gesture — offering the respect of one brave soldier to another — he assisted a man, wrapped in an army cape, over the boat's side, General Peleg Wadsworth, prisoner, who, but a few months since, had so nearly in battle won that fort to which he was now being taken captive.
Not so tall as the Lieutenant, but broader-shouldered, more rugged of feature — a presence and a face of command — a moment General Wadsworth stood steadying himself against the bow, oblivious to the curious stare of the watching throng, his face, tense with lines of pain, paled beneath its wind-reddened surface. He straightened, threw back his head, stepped forward, stumbling as he did so, on the ice-coated pebbles, and half fell. The military cape, slipping from his shoulders, revealed a bandaged arm and shoulder wet with fresh stains of blood. Recovering, at the side of Lieutenant Stockton, between the line of soldiers and through the silent crowd, he walked slowly but steadily, to the waiting escort.
* * *
Propped against his pillow, General Wadsworth, with one hand, clumsily adjusted loose sheets of paper on the table, placed at the side of the narrow cot; drew the ink nearer: "Now my quill, Barnabas?"
"Here it is, Sir!" said the waiting attendant, "anything else you would like, Sir?"
"No, no, Barnabas, you may go now," adding, with a wry smile, as the face of the guard looked in through the glass pane inserted in the upper half of the door, "yes, you may go, for I shan't be alone!" Barnabas hung the dipper on a nail over the water jug; straightened the one chair against the wall; gathered up the few dishes in which had been served the morning meal; lingered uncertainly by the table. "Nothin' more, Sir?"
"Why, no!" answered the General, looking up surprised, "go now!"
"Yes, General." Slowly Barnabas left the room, the guard bolting the door behind him.
My beloved Wife: (wrote the General slowly)
By the courtesy of General Campbell, Commandant, I am permitted to send you assurance of my well-being. On my arrival, I immediately applied for a flag of truce, that you might receive one letter from the garrison. I trusted — and not in vain — under the, to you, so distressing circumstances of my capture, that my confidence would not be misplaced.
Much courtesy has been extended to me by the officers, soldiers of the King first, but also British gentlemen!
Be not uneasy regarding my wound — Dr. Calef, regimental surgeon, seems a man well skilled.
General Campbell most kindly permits me, also, to send, under this same flag of truce, an open letter to the governor of Massachusetts. I doubt not but that an exchange may be made ere long!
Meantime, my dear wife, my heart misgives me, knowing that I can frame no words so skilful as to calm your anxious fears.
Stay not alone! Mayhap, our sad young friend, Mistress Fenno, will find her own best solace in comforting you? Oh, those two foolish lovers! Let our misfortunes teach them not to trifle with that "gift of the gods" — True Love — while it is yet theirs! Perchance she will be kinder to my good friend, Major Burton, if the fortunes of war again spare him to her!
Trusting God, that our misfortunes be but temporary,
* * *
Wearied, restless from the pain and fever in his wound, General Wadsworth pushed aside the papers. Sinking back on the pillow, he dozed but a few minutes, rose and unsteadily paced back and forth before the one window, heavily barred, his gaze absently traveling over the trodden snow of the enclosure (some 50 feet wide) beneath his window, to the 20 foot wall of the fort. On its top, the figure of the sentry, silhouetted against the gray sky above, the snow below, seemed to be suspended in mid air. The bolt slipped, admitting a dapper young Lieutenant of scarce 20 years. Saluting, "Lieutenant Moore — John Moore — at your service, Sir. General Campbell presents his compliments, and begs that you will dine with the officers' mess in the guard room."
Turning, General Wadsworth, with hot eyes, looked confusedly about the bare room — the barred window, the door with its square of glass — to the fresh-faced English lad. With quick comprehension, Lieutenant Moore drew the General toward the cot, "You're ill, Sir," he exclaimed.
Many restless nights and days, General Wadsworth tossed on the narrow bed, his mind sometimes clouded, sometimes clear, as the suppurating wound ran its fluctuating course, under the drastic treatment of Surgeon Calef. The doctor bled the patient, applied his leeches, while nature, sure ally of the powerful, clean-lived man, reinforced by the faithful Barnabas Cunningham, armed with his jug of fresh water, made persistent counter attacks. The third week they carried the outposts; by a night sortie, at the beginning of the fourth week, completely routed the enemy.
The General awoke with a wonderful sense of coolness, of rest, that delightful languor which follows cessation of pain and fever. He drew deep breaths of cold, moist air; faint, but unmistakable, came to his ears the first voice of spring, a distant cawing of crows; turning, he saw Barnabas Cunningham, birch-broom in hand, standing before the raised window. Curiously the General watched him, thin, stooping, narrow-chested, hair grizzled over hollow temples. Finally, "hello, there, Barnabas!" he called.
"Why — why, General," stammered Barnabas in excited pleasure, "but it's fine you're lookin' this mornin'!"
"You've been mighty good," said the General, frankly extending his hand, "and you — a servant of his Majesty!"
Smiling quizzically, "aren't you afraid King George will string you up, when he learns that, thanks to you, there's another 'damned rebel' to be reckoned with?"
Flushing, Barnabas, with a hasty glance toward the door, swept under the cot bed: "Wal, it's this way, you see, General," he began in an undertone, "General Campbell, he's right here — and General Washington, he's a long way off!"
"That does seem to be the situation at present!" smilingly interposed General Wadsworth.
"And my old woman, she says to me, 'Barnabas, don't be a fool! Ye ain't spry enough to kill a jack-rabbit!' An' one o' them redcoats come up to me when they wuz buildin' the fort, last year; an' he punched me in the stummick, kinder jokin' like, with the butt of his gun, 'Can you cook?' says he. 'Not so you'd notice it !' says I. 'None o' your sarce! Come along up to the officers' barracks says he, pokin' me agin. I came an' I been here ever since. But I ain't relished it!"
The Ruins of Fort George
The General gave a low whistle. "So," said he, with a keen glance straight into the old man's eyes, "so the wind blows fair, does it?"
"It does, Sir!"
"Ah, good morning, Dr. Calef," as the door opened, "and a fine
morning, too! Barnabas here, has been telling me that it's about to clear from the northwest!"
"Well, well," blustered the rubicund little man, "knew those leeches would fix you! Knew they would!" Laying a hand on the
cool wrist, "You're as fit as the morning, yourself! A bit shaky, may be, but you'll be up soon now."
"Up and out, I trust!" ejaculated General Wadsworth, "I applied for parole, some time ago."
"Better off where you are, Sir! Better off where you are! Heard something about your parole this morning — here's Captain Craig now," he added, as an officer's figure appeared behind the glass pane in the door. With an expression of relief, Dr. Calef stepped back as the regimental captain, accompanied by an orderly, entered.
Saluting, "General Campbell's compliments to you, Sir," said Capt. Craig. "He regrets to state that parole cannot be granted to an officer of your rank. A communication in regard to your case, Sir, has been sent to the commanding General at New York."
"My respects to General Campbell," replied General Wadsworth. "I await his orders."
The quadrangle, behind the officers' barracks, was soaked in the slush of melting snow and mud, till, whipped by the March gales, dry islands appeared here and there. A faint tinge of green warmed the base of the 20 foot wall. The sentry, pacing at the top, no longer beat numbed hands against his breast. Outside the General's door, even the two guards in the drafty entry, seemed to thaw out; were heard to talk occasionally to one another in cheerful undertones. As the days slowly lengthened, the "feel of the spring" sometimes penetrated the barred window. At such moments, the prisoner valiantly buoyed his sinking hopes for a speedy exchange.
General Wadsworth's frantic impatience to rejoin the army now shook his steady calm. Doubly guarded; an arm crippled; baffled in every suggestion for escape — the General's rapidly returning strength mocked his impotence.
At dawn, one morning late in April, an unwonted stir and hurry through the barracks, a joyful hallooing in the distance, betokened some unusual event. "The 'Packet,' General," announced Barnabas, coming in earlier than his custom, "stores from New York and mail.
Did ye hear 'em, Sir? Whoopin' up General Clinton, they wuz!
In an agony of impatience, doubt and hope, the slow hours dragged. At sundown, Lieutenant Moore entered, in his hand an opened letter. "Mail for you, Sir!"
With strong will mastering excitement, General Wadsworth extended steady fingers for the open letter. " 'Tis most welcome," said he quietly, recognizing the handwriting of his wife. He looked searchingly into the face of the young officer. "Is there no other? Did General Campbell send me no message?"
"This is all that he gave me. There is no message, Sir," answered the Lieutenant, his candid face flushing slightly under the keen eye of the General.
As Lieutenant Moore left the room, turning to the window in the fading light, General Wadsworth unfolded his wife's letter. "Castine!" he exclaimed, "Here!" Hurriedly he read on: "be not angry," the letter ran, "it comforts me to be near you, although I cannot see you — neither am I alone — Mistress Fenno accompanied me. Poor child, I sometimes think her sorrow is greater than mine; I at least know that you are yet living! We have had no word from Major Burton, these many weeks." Twice the General read the letter — a message of home and love — naught else could pass the censor at the fort.
Again the guard slipped the bolt. Barnabas entered, bearing the supper tray. Standing back to the door, placing dishes upon the table with fingers which shook, he spoke softly and rapidly: "Thar's ben a heap o' talk all day, Sir. I knowed them officers never had thar heads together for nothin'! I wuz moppin' the entry floor by the guard room, when the Colonel and Captain Craig come out, atalkin' busy — I drawed back s'quick they never seed me — 'Yes,' the Colonel wuz saying, 'General Clinton says by no means consider exchange of so distinguished and so able an officer.' Them wuz his very words, Sir! The rest I didn't catch, mebbe you will, Sir. Captain Craig wuz talkie' about somebody or somethin' goin' to England."
"Yes," said the General slowly, "I think I do understand — too well! Thank you, Barnabas. Go, now!" he added, as the face of the guard appeared before the door.
In the fast-gathering twilight, General Wadsworth stood long at the window, gazing out with unseeing eyes at the dim figure of the pacing sentry. His anxiety for wife, friend, the perilous future, merged in heavy oppression for his country's losses. The gathering gloom of manifold treacheries and disasters was deepening. The night of failure, in that dark hour, seemed close at hand.
Across the quadrangle, clouds of dust now eddied and swirled, at every passing breeze. The dandelions, whose shining buttons decorated the fort wall, gayer than the coat of an officer, had faded and gone when, one morning in late May, the tramp and jingle of heavy feet in spurred riding boots, came down the General's corridor. The door was flung open. "In here, Sir!" said an officer's voice.
A soldierly figure stepped forward wearing the uniform of a major in the Continental army, so worn and mud-stained that its insignia were barely recognizable. physique, scarce 30 years of age, brown hair and beard unkempt, darkly tanned, hollow-checked, there was yet an impression of abounding vigor about the man.
"Your fellow prisoner!" said the new-comer, extending his hand. "Major! Major Burton!" cried the General. "In God's name, how came you here?"
"As you did, Sir! 'Misfortunes of war;' a cavalry raid; separated from my command; an ambush; rode straight into it — and here I am!"
"Tell me," begged the General, gripping his hand, "tell me and tell me quick — the news! It's for the truth starving, fed on Tory lies! Washington?"
"Ready and waiting to strike a blow, I've faith to believe!" "Thank God for that!"
"Yes," assented Major Burton gravely.
"Georgia is overrun and Savannah still in British hands — d'Estaing, having instructions to aid Washington with his fleet (after Savannah), cowered and slunk back to France like a whipped dog! They all fail the General! Naught but fine promises have come from France since the year opened! In South Carolina, Lincoln is hard pressed — a brave man, but slow. Clinton, himself, with 8000 men, they say, is starting for Charleston — "
"Charleston will kill the 'fatted calf,'" ejaculated the General, "all of South Carolina is but another hot-bed of Toryism!"
"Never, in the history of the world," continued General Wadsworth slowly, low-toned and intense, "never has there been a war where every true man and patriot was needed, as every man is needed now — not one can be spared! While we," he added ironically, "we sit here!"
"Not like to sit here long," answered the Major — " 'tis an open secret with them now — I was sent to meet the privateer, due here in a few weeks. She takes you and me, prisoners, to New York or Halifax — thence straight to England and her gracious King!"
The General leaned across the table; face to face, tense, silent, each questioned the other.
"Take us — alive?" breathed the General.
"No — dead," steadily answered the Major, pledging his word with a firm grasp of the General's hand.
The steps of the sentry approaching the door, hastily Major Burton fumbled for his tobacco pouch, and laughingly handed it to General Wadsworth who, as the sentry looked in, smilingly continued in a low conversational tone, lighting his pipe, "if we make the break, there is a chance of one of us getting through. Better one Yankee back in the army — than two Yankees in an English prison!"
Major Burton gave a low chuckle, "if neither of us gets through, we can reckon on squaring up an account or two."
As the steps moved away from the door, "That fellow gone'?" asked the General without looking up. The Major nodded. "Just cast your eye on the ceiling, will you? — Well, what do you see?"
"A fine assortment of pine boards — selected sizes."
"If the middle one was taken out, a man could squeeze through the hole, couldn't he?"
"We could!" promptly replied the Major.
"Good!" agreed the General. "My idea is this: (and by the way, you will find no slouching in discipline — first class corps of officers — we can't reasonably count on any aid of that sort) Two guards at the door, out in the entry here, two at the outer door, extra sentinels, etc.; more of these details later — (to the main idea) — cut this board; drop it out at an auspicious moment; haul ourselves up; crawl to a third and unfinished entry, not usually guarded; drop through an opening in this ceiling (Barnabas tells me there is one) — "
"Can you trust this man, Barnabas?" quickly interrupted the Major.
"I believe so. Once in the third entry — make a dash!"
"I see," mocked the Major, but with kindling eyes. "We open the front door or the back, whichever comes handiest, knocking down any or all in our way; dash up that twenty-foot wall; pass neatly between the sentinels; plunge lightly down the other side! Let's see, there's a chevaux-de-frise at the bottom, isn't there?"
"There is, and well spiked!"
"A trifle!" grinned the Major. "Also the mile run to the shore!"
"You ought to know that ground," interrupted the General, half amused, half irritated. "You fought over it long enough last summer!"
"I said that was easy," returned the Major equably. "The isthmus well sentineled, I suppose?"
The General nodded. "Probably impossible to pass — swim the cove!"
"Just so, Sir," agreed the Major. "Swim the cove and on through the woods to the further shore. Wade the Penobscot!"
"I'm with you, General!"
In silence, absorbed in thought, they waited as Barnabas came in with the evening meal.
Presently, with change of tone, the Major asked, "Have you had any word from home, General?"
"By the Lord Harry, — forgive me for a selfish brute! A blind ass! A man needs his wife in these matters!" exclaimed the General, while he fumbled in his coat pocket, smiling into the astonished eyes of the Major. "Here, read these lines," he said, unfolding a letter and thrusting it close to the sputtering candle. As the Major took the paper in fingers which trembled slightly, with kindly tact General Wadsworth stepped toward the window.
There was a long silence in the room; till a shaking hand was laid on the General's shoulder. "General, I thank you," said the Major, steadying his voice, "you and your good wife. Mistress Fenno, here! And to have known that all is well between us, before we knock down the garrison!" he said, masking emotion with a jest, adding reverently, "'tis a miracle that passeth comprehension. It should be a good omen, General!"
With infinite caution, after their light was out, and the first change of sentries made, the General drew his pocket knife; mounted a chair; and plunged the rather dull blade into the wide center board. Hampered by his stiffened arm, unable to more than scratch the tough pine, the Major took his place, while the General stood guard by the door. Whenever the sentries passed, both General and Major lay asleep upon the cot!
All night Major Burton hacked and whittled; he also made little headway upon the stout three-inch plank. At the first gleam of dawn, they filled the crack with chewed bread, smearing it over with dust wiped from the floor. "Too slow!" commented the Major. "It will take us six months, at this rate, General."
* * *
"Barnabas," exclaimed Major Burton, as they were finishing breakfast, dropping a silver piece into his empty tea cup, "the General and I are getting bored! We lack occupation. What do you say to finding us a gimblet, to-day? It would furnish good amusement.
"'Tis an awful handy tool to have about, Sir," agreed Barnabas, quietly.
"You understand?" questioned the General sternly.
"I do, Sir!"
The old man's stooping shoulders straightened, unflinchingly the faded eyes met the General's keen gaze. "'Tis a better soldier I'm sending back to General Washington, than ever myself could been. That's how I understand, Sir!"
"Thank you, Barnabas," replied the General, his eyes softening.
"If we get through, we'll not forget."
Each night, hour after hour, Major Burton perforated the board with gimblet holes, while (as before) the General gave warning of a sentry's approach. In the dark, with fumbling fingers, they filled each hole with chewed bread; at the first ray of light smoothed over and grayed the surface with dirt; gathered up every grain of sawdust.
Steadily the work progressed, but slowly — so slowly that each day, more tense with anxiety, they awaited news of the coming of the privateer. At the close of the third week, a fishing schooner came into harbor, reporting an English ship, becalmed in the lower reaches of the bay.
Working feverishly through a hot night, dawn found the last hole bored. A knife could now sever quickly the slender partitions yet holding the heavy plank in place.
On that morning of the 18th of June, 1780, the sun rose red from a bank of murky haze. Steadily, throughout the day, the heat strengthened, grew more oppressive, the air more lifeless, while the haze slowly rose and overspread the sky. Toward evening distant thunder muttered and grew louder. Darkness fell early, lit by forked lightning from zenith to horizon. Swiftly the storm rolled up. The wooden barracks shook in mighty gusts of wind. Great drops of rain pelted upon windows and roof, then descended in a steady crash. Almost incessantly lightning flashed, while thunder pealed as though the granite hills themselves were splitting.
Rapidly Major Burton and the General worked, under cover of the storm. In less than an hour, the board dropped into their waiting hands. Instantly Major Burton swung himself up, making fast a blanket, by which the General, handicapped by his wounded arm, more slowly followed. One second's pause, while the General knotted the blanket about his shoulders; stooping under the eaves; crawling over beams; till a flash, from below, lit an opening over the third entry. Dropping down, they stood in darkness for a tense heart-beat of time; a second flash revealed a door. Without, a dash of wind and rain struck like a blow in the face! One moment's stumbling in a blackness, as of the Pit; then flash and fire of blinding blue light! Each ran forward, but failed to see the other!
Clinging, with bleeding fingers; digging his toes, here into loose rock, there into a bit of earth, by sheer force of will General Wadsworth worked his way up the twenty-foot wall; how, afterwards, he never knew.
Sentries were changing. Revealed by every flash of the lightning, pressed flat to the wall, he waited. Head down, slanting body against wind and rain, the sentry, in the fury of the storm, passed unseeing!
Springing up and over, knotting his blanket about a picket of the fraising, the General swung himself down, feeling with his feet for the iron-tipped spikes of the chevaux-de-frise. Dropping, he cleared the ugly entanglements, but pitched forward on hands and face. Up again and through the encircling ditch containing three or four feet of water, on he ran, in the blackness, down the rocky hillside. Headlong, through thick undergrowth, wet branches smiting head and face with stinging blows; stumbling in the hollows, on he plunged, with neither rest nor pause, toward the shore.
Distinct, above the clamor of the storm, shots from the fort rang out. To the right, at the head of the cove, lay the isthmus — its cordon of sentries now roused. Straight to the beach and into the water, the General headed. Too long a swim! But by the second blessing of Providence that night, the tide was low. A half mile across the flats he waded, in three to five feet of water, guided by the lightning, now abating. Up the bank and over the fields and pastures of a deserted farm, burnt by the British the year before; on through the woods to the further shore.
Afar off the thunder rumbled; overhead the clouds were breaking; a few stars shone out. By their dim light, the General slowly picked his way along the beach, pausing often in anxious fear, for sight or sound of the Major. It was about 2 o'clock, judging by the stars, and some seven miles from the fort; clambering over a ledge of rocks, he found himself face to face with Major Burton!
"I was looking for you, General!" cried the Major.
"Thank God!" he breathed, as they gripped hands. "I've found a canoe about half a mile beyond," he continued joyously, "Some good Indian's!"
Warned by the paling stars, they hurried on.
The river lay clear in the breaking dawn, as, launching the canoe, with swift, noiseless strokes they shot out from the shadows of the bank.
"Hark!" whispered the General — his paddle poised in air. Motionless they floated, breathless in suspense. Up the quiet water, came, unmistakably to their ears, the rhythmical dip of oars, the click of oar-locks. Below, bright in the eastern glow, lay an open reach of water; as they watched, into full view came the barge from the fort.
Back into the shadows slipped the canoe. With strokes, swift, powerful as an Indian's, bending with the strength and weight of their whole bodies upon the paddles, racing with the daylight — they shot the canoe up stream toward a rounded point where yet, beneath a low hill, the long shadows of the dawn all but met reflections from the opposite shore. Here, they swung across, sprang out as one man, swift as thought slid the canoe up the beach, and up the bank into the concealing bushes.
"Let us rest, one moment, Sir!" said the Major, turning in anxiety to the older man, from whose splendid strength, long months of prison life had taken toll.
Panting, pale, but undaunted, the General smiled. "One moment!" he assented.
Leaning against the trunk of a white birch, whose drooping branches lightly brushed the water, they watched the glory of the June dawn, in their hearts a paean of thanksgiving. Close by a thrush sang his full-throated melody. Behind the low hill, which concealed the town and fort, a golden glow leapt, lit the wide reaches of the river, sparkled upon every rain-wet leaf and blade.
Major Burton lifted his hand in salute — " To the army!" he cried, adding softly, with shining eyes, "and to Mistress Fenno!"
"Amen!" repeated the General reverently. He parted the branches. Together, they plunged into the wilderness.
Scattering a shower of drops, the dripping boughs swung back; hung motionless above the still water. The thrush sang on, while up the empty river rowed the British barge.