“I make no doubt ’t was a well-hatched scheme from the start,” he asserted. “Lord Clowes and Erskine are but Tom Tickle and Tom Scratch.”
With the same thought in her own mind, Janice took the first opportunity to beg her father to seek further rather than accept the commissary’s hospitality.
“Nay, lass,” replied Mr. Meredith. “Beggars cannot be choosers, and that is what we are. Remember that I am without money, and have been so ever since those rascals hounded me from home. Had not Lord Clowes generously stepped forward as he has, we should be put to it to get through the winter without being frozen or starved. And your mother’s health is not such as could stand either, that ye know.”
“You are quite right, dadda,” assented the girl, as she stooped and kissed him. “I—I had a reason—which now I will not trouble you with—and selfishly forgot both mommy and our poverty.” Then flinging her arms about his neck, she hid her head against his shoulder and said: “I am promised —you have given Philemon your word, and you’ll not go back on it, will you, dadda?” almost as if she were making a prayer.
“Odds my life! what scatter-brains women are born with!” marvelled Mr. Meredith. “No wonder the adage runs that ‘a woman’s mind and a winter’s wind oft change’! In the name of evil, Jan, what started ye off on that tangent?”
“You will keep faith with him, dadda?” pleaded the daughter.
“Of course I will,” affirmed the squire. “And glad I am, lass, to find that ye’ve come to see that I knew not merely what was best for ye, but what would make ye happiest. If the poor lad is ever exchanged, ’t will be glad news for him.”
The removal to the commissary’s quarters might have been for a time postponed, for barely had the new arrangement been achieved when another manoeuvre wellnigh emptied the city of the British troops. Massing fourteen thousand soldiers, Howe sallied forth to attack the Continental army in its camp at Whitemarsh.
“We have word,” Lord Clowes explained, “that Gates is playing his own game, and, instead of bringing his army to Mr. Washington’s aid, he keeps tight hold of it, and has, after needless delay, sent him but a bare four thousand men. So, in place of waiting for an attack, Sir William intends to drive the rebels back into the hills, that we may obtain fresh provisions and forage as we need them.”
The movement proved but a march up a hill to march down again, and four days later saw the British troops back in Philadelphia with only a little skirmishing and some badly frosted toes and ears to show for the sally, the young officers tingling and raging with shame at not having been allowed to fight the inferior Continental army.
The commissary, however, took it philosophically. “Their position was too strong, and they shoot too straight,” he told his guests. “It will all turn for the best, since no army can keep the field in such weather, and Washington will be forced to go into winter quarters. He must then fall back on Lancaster and Reading, out of striking distance, leaving us free to forage on the country at will.”