“God only knows the grinding anxiety, the sleepless nights, I have suffered, knowing how defenceless the army committed to my charge actually was! You have done our cause a service impossible to measure or reward.” He shook the man’s hand warmly.
“And I ask in payment, your Excellency, premission to volunteer.”
“In what capacity?”
“I have served in the British forces as an officer, but all I ask is leave to fight, without regard to rank.”
“Tell me the facts of your life.”
“As I said, my name is John Brereton. Nothing else about me will ever be known from me.”
Washington scrutinised the man with an intent surprise. “You cannot expect us to trust you on such information.”
“An hour ago it would have been possible for me to have sneaked by stealth into the British lines with this letter,” said the man, taking from his pocket a sheet of paper and handing it to the general. “What think you would Sir William Howe have given me for news, over the signature of General Washington, that the Continental Army had less than ten rounds of powder per man?”
Washington studied the face of the young fellow steadily for twenty seconds. “Are you good at penmanship?” he asked.
“I am a deft hand at all smouting work,” replied Brereton.
“Then, sir,” said Washington, smiling slightly, “as I wish to keep an eye on you until you have proved yourself, I shall for the present find employment for you in my own family.”
Thus a twelve-month passed without Philemon Hennion, John Evatt, Charles Fownes, Parson McClave, or any other lover so much as once darkening the doors of Greenwood.
“Janice,” remarked her mother at the end of the year, “dost realise that in less than a twelve-month thou ’lt be a girl of eighteen and without a lover, much less a husband? I was wed before I was seventeen, and so are all respectably behaved females. See what elopements come to. ’T is evident thou ’rt to die an old maid.”
If this year was bare of courtships, of affairs of interest it was far otherwise. Scarcely was 1776 ushered in than news came that the raw and ill-equipped force, which for nine months had held the British beleaguered in Boston, had at last obtained sufficient guns and powder to assume the offensive, and had, by seizing Dorchester Heights, compelled the evacuation of the city. Howe’s army and the fleet sailed away without molestation to Halifax, leaving behind them a rumour, however, that great reinforcements were coming from Great Britain, and that upon their arrival, New York would be reduced and held as a strategic base from which all the middle colonies would be overrun and reduced to submission.
This probability turned military operations southward. General Lee, who early in the new year had been given command of the district around Manhattan Island, set about a system of fortifications, even while he protested that the water approaches made the city impossible to hold against such a naval force as Britain was certain to employ. At the same time that this protection was begun against an outward enemy, a second was put in train against the inward one, and this involved the household of Meredith.