After a due enjoyment of the tree’s beauty, the gifts were distributed; and then the company went to the dining-room, where the table sagged with the best that barnyard and pantry could be made to produce, plus a perfect forest of bottles,— tall, squat, and bulbous. The sight of such goodly plenty was irresistible, and the cheer and merriment grew apace. The girls, eagerly served and all the time surrounded by a host of such officers as could speak English, and in fact by some who, for want of that language, could only show their admiration by ardent glances, were vastly set up by the unaccustomed attentions; the squire felt a new warmth of loyalty creep through his blood with the draining of each glass; and even Miss Drinker’s sallow and belined spinster face took on a rosy hue and a cheerful smile as the evening advanced.
A crescendo of enjoyment secured by means of wine is apt to lack restraint and presently, as the fun grew, it began to verge on the riotous. The officers pressed about the girls until the two were separated, and Janice found herself in a corner surrounded by flushed-faced men who elbowed and almost wrestled with one another as to which should stand closest to her. Suddenly one man so far forgot himself as to catch her about the waist; and but for a prompt ducking of her head as she struggled to free herself, she would have been forcibly kissed. Her cries rose above the sounds of conviviality; but even before the first was uttered, Clowes, who had kept close to her the whole evening, struck the officer, and the whole room was instantly in a turmoil, the women screaming, the combatants locked, others struggling to separate them, and Rahl shouting half-drunken orders and curses. Just as the uproar was at its greatest came a loud thundering at the door; and when it was opened a becloaked dragoon, white with snow, entered and gave Rahl a despatch. Both the dispute and the conviviality ceased, as every one paused to learn what the despatch portended.
The commander was by this time so fuddled with drink that he could not so much as break the seal, much less read the contents; and the commissary, who for personal reasons had been drinking lightly, came to his assistance, and read aloud as follows:—
Dec. 25, 1776.
Sir,—By a spy just come in I have word that Mr. Washington, being informed of our troops having marched into winter quarters, and having been reinforced by the arrival of a column under the command of Sullivan, meditates an attack on some of our posts. I do not believe that in the present state of the river a crossing is possible, but be assured my information is undoubtedly true, and in case the ice clears, I advise you to be upon your guard against an unexpected attack at Trenton.
I am, sir, your most obed’t h’ble serv’t,
James Grant, Major-General.
“Nein, nein,” grunted Rahl, tipsily, “I mineself has vort dat Vashington’s mens hass neider shoes nor blankets, und die mit cold und hunger. Dey vill not cross to dis side, mooch ice or no ice, but if dey do, ye prisoners of dem make.”