“I thought the game up when my general refused the command and set out for Philadelphia,” remarked Wilkinson.
“Gates is too good a politician and too little of a fighter to like forlorn hopes,” sneered Brereton. “He leaves Washington to bear the risk, and, Lee being out of the way, sets off at once to make favour with Congress, hoping, I have little doubt, that another discomfiture or miscarriage will serve to put him in the saddle. If we are finally conquered, ’t will not be by defeat in the field, but by the dirty politics with which this nation is riddled, and which makes a man general because he comes from the right State, and knows how to wire-pull and intrigue. Faugh!”
A half-hour served to bring them to their destination, a rude wooden pier, employed to conduct teams to the ferry-boat. Now, however, the ice was drifted and wedged in layers and hummocks some feet beyond its end, and outside this rushed the river, black and silent, save for the dull crunch of the ice-floes as they ground against one another in their race down the stream. On the end of the dock stood a solitary figure watching a number of men, who, with pick and axe, were cutting away the lodged ice that blocked the pier, while already a motley variety of boats being filled with men could be seen at each point of the shore where the ground ice made embarkation possible. Along the banks groups of soldiers were clustered about fires of fence-rails wherever timber or wall offered the slightest shelter.
[Illustration: “Thou art my soldier.”]
Dismounting, the two aides walked to the dock and delivered their letters to the commander. Taking the papers, Washington gave a final exhortation to the sappers and miners: “Look alive there, men. Every minute now is worth an hour to-morrow,” and, followed by Brereton, walked to the ferry-house that he might find light with which to read the despatches. By the aid of the besmoked hall lantern, he glanced hastily through the two letters. “General Gates leaves to us all the honour to be gained to-night. Colonel Cadwallader declares it impossible to get his guns across,” he told his aide, without a trace of emotion in his voice, as he refolded the despatches and handed them to him. Then his eye flashed with a sudden exultation as he continued: “It seems there are some in our own force, as well as the enemy, who need a lesson in winter campaigning.”
“Then your Excellency intends to attempt a crossing?” deprecated Brereton.
“We shall attack Trenton before daybreak, Brereton; and as we are like to have a cold and wet march, stay you within doors and warm yourself after your ride. You are not needed, and there is a good fire in the kitchen.”
Brereton, with a disapproving shake of his head, stepped from the hallway into the kitchen. Only one man was in the room, and he, seated at the table, was occupied in rolling cartridges.
“Ho, parson, this is new work for you,” greeted Brereton, giving him a hearty slap on the shoulder. “You are putting your sulphur and brimstone in concrete form.”