Myths And Legends Of Our Own Land, Complete

Page: 63


Many are the tales of prophecy that have been preserved to us from war times. In the beginning of King Philip's war in Connecticut, in 1675, it was reported that the firing of the first gun was heard all over the State, while the drumbeats calling settlers to defence were audible eight miles away. Braddock's defeat and the salvation of Washington were foretold by a Miami chief at a council held in Fort Ponchartrain, on Detroit River, the ambush and the slaughter having been revealed to him in a dream. The victims of that battle, too, had been apprised, for one or two nights before the disaster a young lieutenant in Braddock's command saw his fellow-officers pass through his tent, bloody and torn, and when the first gun sounded he knew that it spoke the doom of nearly all his comrades. At Killingly, Connecticut, in the autumn before the outbreak of the Revolution, a distant roar of artillery was heard for a whole day and night in the direction of Boston, mingled with a rattle of musketry, and so strong was the belief that war had begun and the British were advancing, that the minute men mustered to await orders. It was afterward argued that these noises came from an explosion of meteors, a shower of these missiles being then in progress, invisible, of course, in the day-time. Just after the signing of the Declaration of Independence the royal arms on the spire of the Episcopal church at Hampton, Virginia, were struck off by lightning. Shortly before the surrender of Cornwallis a display of northern lights was seen in New England, the rays taking the form of cannon, facing southward. In Connecticut sixty-four of these guns were counted.

At the battle of Germantown the Americans were enraged by the killing of one of their men who had gone out with a flag of truce. He was shot from the windows of Judge Chew's house, which was crowded with British soldiers, and as he fell to the lawn, dyeing the peaceful emblem with his blood, at least one of the Continentals swore that his death should be well avenged. The British reinforcements, sixteen thousand strong, came hurrying through the street, their officers but half-dressed, so urgent had been the summons for their aid. Except for their steady tramp the place was silent; doors were locked and shutters bolted, and if people were within doors no sign of them was visible. General Agnew alone of all the troop seemed depressed and anxious. Turning to an aide as they passed the Mennonist graveyard, he said, "This field is the last I shall fight on."

An eerie face peered over the cemetery wall, a scarred, unshaven face framed in long hair and surmounting a body clothed in skins, with the question, "Is that the brave General Gray who beat the rebels at Paoli?" One of the soldiers, with a careless toss of the hand, seemed to indicate General Agnew. A moment later there was a report, a puff of smoke from the cemetery wall, and a bullet whizzed by the head of the general, who smiled wanly, to encourage his men. Summary execution would have been done upon the stranger had not a body of American cavalry dashed against the red-coats at that moment, and a fierce contest was begun. When the day was over, General Agnew, who had been separated from his command in the confusion of battle, came past the graves again. Tired and depressed, he drew rein for a moment to breathe the sweet air, so lately fouled with dust and smoke, and to watch the gorgeous light of sunset. Again, like a malignant genius of the place, the savage-looking stranger arose from behind the wall. A sharp report broke the quiet of evening and awoke clattering echoes from the distant houses. A horse plunged and General Agnew rolled from his saddle, dead: the last victim in the strife at Germantown.


The Tory Manheim sits brooding in his farmhouse near Valley Forge, and his daughter, with a hectic flush on her cheek, looks out into the twilight at the falling snow. She is worn and ill; she has brought on a fever by exposure incurred that very day in a secret journey to the American camp, made to warn her lover of another attempt on the life of Washington, who must pass her father's house on his return from a distant settlement. The Tory knows nothing of this; but he starts whenever the men in the next room rattle the dice or break into a ribald song, and a frown of apprehension crosses his face as the foragers crunch by, half-barefoot, through the snow. The hours go on, and the noise in the next room increases; but it hushes suddenly when a knock at the door is heard. The Tory opens it, and trembles as a tall, grave man, with the figure of an athlete, steps into the fire-light and calmly removes his gloves. "I have been riding far," said he. "Can you give me some food and the chance to sleep for an hour, until the storm clears up?"

Manheim says that he can, and shuffling into the next room, he whispers, "Washington!" The girl is sent out to get refreshments. It is in vain that she seeks to sign or speak to the man who sits there so calmly before the fire, for her father is never out of sight or hearing. After Washington has finished his modest repast he asks to be left to himself for a while, but the girl is told to conduct him to the room on the left of the landing on the next floor.

Her father holds the candle at the foot of the stairs until he sees his guest enter; then he bids his daughter go to her own bed, which is in the chamber on the right of the landing. There is busy whispering in the room below after that, and the dice box is shaken to see to whose lot it shall fall to steal up those stairs and stab Washington in his sleep. An hour passes and all in the house appear to be at rest, but the stairs creak slightly as Manheim creeps upon his prey. He blows his candle out and softly enters the chamber on the left. The men, who listen in the dark at the foot of the stair, hear a moan, and the Tory hurries back with a shout of gladness, for the rebel chief is no more and Howe's reward will enrich them for life.

Glasses are filled, and in the midst of the rejoicing a step is heard on the stair. Washington stands before them. In calm, deep tones he thanks the farmer for his shelter, and asks that his horse be brought to the door and his reckoning be made out. The Tory stares as one bereft. Then he rushes aloft, flings open the door of the room on the left, and gazes at the face that rests on the pillow,—a pillow that is dabbled with red. The face is that of his daughter. The name of father is one that he will never hear again in this world. The candle falls from his hand; he sinks to the floor; be his sin forgiven! Outside is heard the tramp of a horse. It is that of Washington, who rides away, ignorant of the peril he has passed and the sacrifice that averted it.


In his firelit parlor, in his little house at Valley Forge, old Michael Kuch sits talking with his daughter. But though it is Christmas eve the talk has little cheer in it. The hours drag on until the clock strikes twelve, and the old man is about to offer his evening prayer for the safety of his son, who is one of Washington's troopers, when hurried steps are heard in the snow, there is a fumbling at the latch, then the door flies open and admits a haggard, panting man who hastily closes it again, falls into a seat, and shakes from head to foot. The girl goes to him. "John!" she says. But he only averts his face. "What is wrong with thee, John Blake?" asks the farmer. But he has to ask again and again ere he gets an answer. Then, in a broken voice, the trembling man confesses that he has tried to shoot Washington, but the bullet struck and killed his only attendant, a dragoon. He has come for shelter, for men are on his track already. "Thou know'st I am neutral in this war, John Blake," answered the farmer,—"although I have a boy down yonder in the camp. It was a cowardly thing to do, and I hate you Tories that you do not fight like men; yet, since you ask me for a hiding-place, you shall have it, though, mind you, 'tis more on the girl's account than yours. The men are coming. Out—this way—to the spring-house. So!"

Before old Michael has time to return to his chair the door is again thrust open, this time by men in blue and buff. They demand the assassin, whose footsteps they have tracked there through the snow. Michael does not answer. They are about to use violence when, through the open door, comes Washington, who checks them with a word. The general bears a drooping form with a blood splash on its breast, and deposits it on the hearth as gently as a mother puts a babe into its cradle. As the firelight falls on the still face the farmer's eyes grow round and big; then he shrieks and drops upon his knees, for it is his son who is lying there. Beside him is a pistol; it was dropped by the Tory when he entered. Grasping it eagerly the farmer leaps to his feet. His years have fallen from him. With a tiger-like bound he gains the door, rushes to the spring-house where John Blake is crouching, his eyes sunk and shining, gnawing his fingers in a craze of dismay. But though hate is swift, love is swifter, and the girl is there as soon as he. She strikes his arm aside, and the bullet he has fired lodges in the wood. He draws out his knife, and the murderer, to whom has now come the calmness of despair, kneels and offers his breast to the blade. Before he can strike, the soldiers hasten up, and seizing Blake, they drag him to the house—the little room—where all had been so peaceful but a few minutes before.